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Sympathy For The Devil

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“Please open up.”

Michael stared at the front door of his sister’s house. She and her husband had gone on vacation but allowed him to stay because he didn’t exactly have many options. And still, despite the fact he’d gone all the way from Denver to Roswell fucking New Mexico, the one person he’d been wanting to avoid the most was right outside that door despite the fact there was a massive storm.

“I know you’re there, your car’s out front. You know, unless you’re actually a stranger and you stole my husband’s car and didn’t change the plates,” that voice said like it didn’t belong to a liar, “Look, I know you don’t want to talk to me or see me, but… Michael, you deserve to get to know me. You deserve that at the very least. So, please, just open the door.”

Michael heaved a breath and rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes. They’d already been rubbed raw from spending the last two weeks crying and trying not to cry and failing. He looked rough. He felt rough. He really didn’t want to open that door.

But, fuck, he really kinda did.

“Michael,” he said, “Just give me this last night. Let me try to show you that we might be able to fix this. Let me try.” 

And wasn’t that just so convincing?

Slowly, Michael cracked open the door. The man on the other side looked like his husband, he smiled like his husband, he was standing like a flamingo in a shitty attempt to keep his prosthetic out of the rain puddles just like his husband, but he wasn’t his husband. His husband didn’t exist. Alex Whitman was nothing more than a character created by Captain Alexander Manes.

“Hi,” Alexander said with that stolen smile, “You look great.”

“You just can’t stop lying, can you?” Michael demanded. Alex, no, Alexander’s smile began to falter, but he put it back on because he was a liar. “How did you find me? No, why did you find me?”

“Because I refuse to let that be the way we end. I need to at least try. You deserve me to try and you deserve an explanation. You deserve everything, Michael,” Alexander insisted, “I know how we can save our marriage.”

Michael furrowed his eyebrows at that statement. Mostly because they literally weren’t legally married in the first place. Turns out you can’t file a marriage license when half of the couple doesn’t exist. But, admittedly, part of him was curious. A massive part was curious. He was desperate to know why he’d lied.

“So you stalked me?” 

“I didn’t stalk you!” Alexander said, bracing himself on the doorway as he continued to balance on his leg, “I just… Googled Isobel Evans-Valenti until I found an address while sitting in my car on the shoulder of I-25.”

“So you stalked my sister, cool,” Michael sighed, his eyes focusing on Alex’s leg. He knew that his Alex hated it when it rained and he had to be outside. It was bad for his prosthetic, but, more than that, it just made the liner and sleeve gross and sloshy in the socket. And here he was, standing in a storm, soaking wet and probably extra sloshy just for a chance.

“Michael,” Alexander said like he had the right, “Everything we need to save our marriage is in this envelope.” He fished out a surprisingly dry envelope from his backpack. Michael debated what to do for a moment. “After tonight, if you still don’t want to see me again, then I’ll go and leave you alone. Just let me try.” 

Michael decided that even if this was the pathological liar that ruined his life, he didn’t deserve a fucked-up metal leg. Of all the lies, he at least knew that was real.

“I want to know the truth,” Michael said, eyeing him as he slowly let the door open wider, “If I let you in, are you gonna tell me the truth?” Alexander nodded sincerely. Michael sighed as he opened the door wider, gesturing towards the inside.

Alexander smiled so bright that it felt like being stabbed.

Michael had watched his Alex take off his prosthetic leg countless times in the two years they’d been together. Hell, he’d seen him do it on their first date that had lasted five hours longer than anticipated with them both tipsy on wine and each other. It’d never bothered him, it was apart of Alex and he loved every bit of that man. However, at this moment, he couldn’t even look at him. It felt too intimate to watch a stranger do. Even if he had done on their first date.

Still, Michael got him a towel and allowed himself to watch as he dried off the leg as best he could to avoid any rust. Then he did his best to pat down the liner and the sleeve but didn’t put them back on as he stared at them with some type of worry. Michael knew he really had to wait until they dried or else some serious chaffing would happen which meant he was going to be here for a while. Michael sighed.

“Look, I’ll go get you some clothes to change into.”

“Wait,” Alexander called, “Open the envelope.”

Michael slowly did as he said and hooked his thumb under the flap. Alexander pulled out his phone, resting it on the side table and then turning to watch Michael. He paused.

“Are you recording this?” Michael asked and Alex smiled innocently, “Why?” He wasn’t sure why he asked that when he knew very well why his Alex audio recorded everything. He had given Michael a big spiel about how ‘you never know what you missed the first time around’ which had sounded charming the first time he’d heard it, but sounded like the biggest slap in the face when he had recorded their arguments. Even that wasn’t all bad. Alex had come to him a day after their first big one and said he listened to it and apologized profusely for the way he raised his voice. He said he didn’t want to be another person on the long list of people who had screamed at Micheal for unprecedented reasons.

“You never know what you might miss the first time around,” Alexander said like it was charming. Because he always said it like it was charming. Fuck, it was.

With a sigh, Michael opened the envelope and pulled out the paper. He felt a chill go down his spine as he read the title. The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.

“What is this?” he asked, his eyes flickering up to Alexander who was still trying so hard to look positive despite the fact his damp hair was matted to his forehead and he couldn’t walk and he had about 15 minutes before he started smelling like a wet dog.

“You know,” Alexander said, “Like our first date.”

“You mean my first date with Alex where every question had a made-up answer?” Michael questioned. Alex shook his head.

“Pretty much every answer was real. Who I was with you was the real me, I swear,” Alex said. Michael took a deep breath, closing his eyes as he clenched the paper in his hands. “It worked the first time, why can’t it work now?”

There were a million reasons that it couldn’t work now. The main, glaring one was the fact that Alex wasn’t a real person and they’d started out on a lie. Everything was a fucking lie. Even if he was desperate to know the truth, how was he supposed to trust him?

“I don’t trust you, Alexander, that’s why,” Michael said simply. 

“Don’t call me that, call me Alex.”

“No, my husband’s name was Alex and it wasn’t short for anything. How do I know you’re not just lying about what you’re called, Alexander?” Alexander took a deep, slow breath and nodded.

“Okay, I deserve that,” he said, nodding, “Fine I’ll be Alexander today.” That felt like a punch in the gut and he quickly realized his wrong choice of words. “That’s not what I meant, I just meant‒”

“I know,” Michael said. He couldn’t hide how resigned he was. He was tired and sad and part of him just wanted to go back to last month when he was sick and laying on his husband’s bare chest and listening to him recite The fucking Odyssey by heart. Or, loosely by heart. He added some more eccentric wording. Michael’s favorite had been: “There is the heat of love, the pulsing rush longing, the lover’s whisper, your face probably‒that shit can fuck up even the straightest man.”

“If you don’t want to, we can‒”

“If I do this with you, will you leave me alone forever?” Michael asked. Alexander stared at him for a moment before he nodded. “Then I’ll answer them. Let me go get you something dry to wear so you don’t get water all over my sister’s house.”

Michael turned and left to get him clothes before Alex could respond. He stepped into the guest bedroom that he’d made his home, having trashed it with his clothes and empty tubs of ice cream and candy wrappers. He took a moment to close his eyes and calm himself down. It was going to be okay. He could do this. It was just one night where he finally got the fucking truth and then he’d be gone forever. It’s not like the questions would actually work this time. Each and every answer would just be a reminder of how he had lied and ruined two Michael’s life. How he’d put him in a position where he would have to tell all his friends and coworkers and everyone that his husband actually had been lying to him for their entire relationship and be surrounded by a neverending stream of pity. He’d ruined him.

But he could do this. Just one more night.

He grabbed a pair of sweats and a baggy shirt for Alexander to wear, making sure they weren’t anything special before he gave them to him. The last thing he wanted him to do was ruin anything else. Once he was sure he could go on without the two articles of clothing, he brought them back out to Alexander.

“Here,” Michael sighed, handing him the clothes before turning around. Alex was sort of stuck in place because he didn’t have his crutches which annoyingly made Michael feel bad. He wondered how long it would take before he stopped giving extra thought towards everything to make sure it was disability-friendly. Hell, his first thought, when he took a shower at Isobel’s, was that Alex would need a bench, but Alex wasn’t even there.

“All done!” Alex said cheerfully because for some reason he was trying to pretend like this was normal. Nothing about this was normal.

Michael turned around and felt a sting in the back of his eyes. Alexander looked too much like Alex. Hair was haphazardly dried, sticking up every which way and making him look painfully young. Michael’s clothes were already big on him, so his bigger clothes dwarfed him in a way that made Micahel just wanna cuddle up to with him. But it wasn’t his sweet Alex‒this was manipulative Captain Alexander Manes who had managed to get a fake ID and fake passport and evaded his entire military background just so no one would find out that he wasn’t Alex Whitman.

“Okay,” Michael said, collapsing on the couch. Alexander lifted himself off the chair and awkwardly hopped towards the couch, flopping down on the other end with his phone in hand.

“Before we start the questions, I want you to know that Alex Whitman was apart of me. It… It feels weird to me too, to put him to rest like this,” Alexander said. Michael rolled his eyes, keeping his gaze away from the man and instead on literally anything else.

“We’re not putting him to rest. You’re the one who made him up, he isn’t fucking real,” Michael sighed, rubbing his eyes against, “Listen, I just want the same thing I wanted when those fucking army guys came to the house two weeks ago: the truth. Why did you lie to me? Why would you make up Alex Whitman in the first place?”

Alexander was silent for a moment and when Michael dared to look at him, he had a level of guilt on his face that Michael didn’t know he was capable of. But, then again, maybe that was fake too. He wouldn’t be surprised.

“When we met, I was… not in a good place. I just wanted some type of escape. So I gave you a fake name and then when you showed up for our date with those questions because you wanted to be cute and charming, it felt like an opportunity to be someone better. If I knew I was going to fall in love with you, I never would’ve lied. I just thought it was a one-time thing. I never wanted to hurt you,” Alex promised. Michael looked up as tears brimmed his eyes all over again. This felt so stupid. Why was he still crying? He’d had two weeks to get passed the crying stage. “Alex Whitman was a good escape, even if he was imaginary.”

“He was fucking real to me, Alexander,” Michael snapped, looking at him and forcing the tears away. Alexander nodded.

“I know. I loved him too, Michael, he’s who I wanted to be so badly,” he said and Michael scoffed, “Listen, I don’t expect you to completely understand why I did what I did or even forgive me for it. I just want to be honest.”

Michael closed his eyes for a moment. Honest. He says he wants to be honest. He promises that he wants to be honest. Michael can do that.

“Okay, then let’s get this over with,” Michael said, letting out a breath as he reached for the paper with all the questions. He never thought he’d be doing this twice. “Number one, given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?”

“Fantastic question, Mr. Guerin, do you remember my answer the first time?” Alexander said, giving that big smile. It was the one where his cheekbones seemed to be downright offensive and he wanted to go all middle-aged aunt and pinch them. He didn’t. 

“You said Margaret Hamilton and I was convinced you only chose her to impress me because I’m an engineer,” Michael said. He remembered being shocked that some guy that looked that pretty and who was unemployed knew who Margaret Hamilton even was. “You told me it was because you liked people who could outsmart you.”

“Which is true, one of the reasons I love you, but I also met her once and she was super cool,” Alexander said. Michael looked to him genuinely bewildered. “I went to MIT and majored in software engineering. She used to be the director or something of that division, so she visited campus and I got to meet her. See? Honesty.”

“Okay, so, what, you’re some super-secret genius?” Michael asked. Alex smiled and shook his head.

“Nah, I didn’t graduate. Got bored,” he said simply. Michael couldn’t imagine giving up that chance of a lifetime simply because he got bored. But Alexander wasn’t him. Part of him wanted to know more about his time at MIT but he didn’t feel like dragging this on.

“Alright then. Question number two, would‒”

“Hey, wait, you didn’t answer,” Alexander prodded. Michael sighed.

“I didn’t realize I was answering.”

“Of course, that’s how this works.”

“Yeah, but I’m not the one who lied.”

“C’mon, Michael. You said you’d do this one thing with me,” he said. Michael clenched his jaw as he stared at the question. He knew what his answer was. He just didn’t want to fucking say it.

“I’ll answer this next one.”

“Michael, come on, you can’t blow off the first question, we’re being honest tonight,” Alexander said. Michael glared at the paper. “Mikey,” Alex sang.

“I would have dinner with Captian Alexander Manes, okay?!” he snapped, turning his glare to the man beside him, “Over anyone in the entire world, over even my fucking mother who I have never met, I would choose you. Because I want to know why the fuck you lied to my face for two years, fuck, Alexander, I want to know how. How can someone keep up a lie like that for two years?” 

Alex’s eyes were wide and his eyebrows were raised as if he was shocked by the answer. Michael didn’t believe he was. There was no way.

“Okay. I deserve that. Question two, would‒”

“You’re not gonna answer?”

They stared at each other for a moment. Long enough that Michael softened because Alex was beautiful and had eyes that he couldn’t fucking say no to. Cheeks he couldn’t say no to. Lips he couldn’t say no to. Michael slumped his shoulders. This was actually unfair.

“We need booze,” Alex decided after a moment, “This is kinda like a first date, right? And, for a first date, there’s a severe lacking of alcohol. I think it would take the edge off and make it a little easier.” Michael nodded. It sounded like the best idea he’d heard all week. At least wine would loosen him up a bit, make him less terrified.

“I’m sure Isobel has something,” he said. Alex held up his finger.

“No need.”

Alex got up on his knees, twisting over the back of the couch to shuffle through his bag which gave Michael a perfect view of his ass. The sweats hung low on his hips and the shirt slid up as he bent over and it was just a lot for Michael to deal with. He knew this was probably self-destructive. Spending time with the man with whom he had a bad track record of keeping his hands to himself around, recreating their first date, and struggling to not picture him naked and moaning whenever he bent over the couch like that all seemed like a really big recipe for disaster. To top it all off, he was adding alcohol. What could possibly go wrong?

When Alex flopped back down, Michael had no control over the way he let his eyes trail up his body to his face. Alexander had the decency not to tease him about it. Michael was an emotional mess, he was bound to do something stupid like yell at him and then immediately want to sleep with him. He focused on the bottle of wine.

“I stopped on the way because I figured it might come in handy,” he said. The name was something French and fancy that he couldn’t pronounce and, knowing Alex’s taste in wine, it was probably easily $50. Alexander pulled out his keys and flipped open his corkscrew keychain. 

They each took sips straight from the bottle.

Once Michael had loosened up a little bit, he allowed himself to face Alexander completely.

“Question two,” Alexander asked, “Would you like to be famous? In what way?”

Michael opened his mouth to reply but was rudely interrupted by a loud crack of thunder that shook the house. He jumped like he always did when he heard a super loud noise and Alexander quickly moved to comfort him, placing his hand on top of Michael’s. He snatched it away. 

Alex had been very aware of the abuse Michael suffered as a child. Loud noises were usually a warning before something much worse happened. That was just another reminder that Michael had given all his truths to a man who didn’t bother sharing his own.

“Yes. I want to publish a thesis on some invention I eventually come up with,” Michael said, shaking off the thoughts with a large gulp of wine, “You?”

“Nope, I like being no one.”

“Okay,” Michael said. It was the same answer as the first time. He didn’t know if that was comforting or not. “Before making a phone call, do you rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?” 

“No, if I rehearse and still mess up, then I feel like a  fuck-up, so it’s easier to not practice.”

“First time I said I did practice, but you said that and I tried it and I felt better, so no,” Michael answered. Alexander smiled with those stupid fucking lips.

“What would constitute a perfect day for you? Still a day with your family with no worries?” Alex asked and Michael nodded, unintentionally scooting closer as a loud clap of thunder shook the house again. “Mine is still that any day would be perfect as long as I was with you.” 

Michael shook his head, letting it fall into his hand after propping his elbow up on the back of the couch. He remembered blushing like crazy the first time he heard that answer. It felt like a pickup line, but had seemed so sincere and had been staring at him like he was the world. “Even today? When I’m so fucking mad at you and that the only reason I’m doing this is so I can figure out why you lied to me before I never want to see you again? This is perfect?”

Alexander chewed on his bottom lip. “Maybe not the most perfect, but still perfect. You’re breathing and that feels like a good day.” Michael shook his head again.

“I don’t believe that, Alexander,” he said. Alexander groaned, leaning forward to put the wine bottle down before looking Michael in the eye.

“Why are you so deadset on the fact that Alex Whitman and Alexander Manes are so different? We’re not. Literally, every answer has been the same so far. I’m not lying or being cruel when I say that I was 100% real when I was with you. I’m still super fucking gay, I’m still really bad at spelling, I’m still really good at trivia, I still love to recite Greek literature to you when you’re not feeling well, I still love to record everything, I still get super dizzy when I drink tequila, I still sleep on the right side of the bed, I still think your cooking is better than anything in the world, and I still am a million things you know about me. You know me better than anyone and that is still true,” Alexander said. He seemed honest. It felt real. All those things seemed like impossible things to fake. Michael was just tipsy enough to nod his head in agreement. “Okay? Okay, next question.” 

“When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?” Michael wondered, waiting for the answer. He was pretty sure he could guess it.

“I sang to myself on the way here and the last I sang to someone else was when you were too sick to follow The Odyssey or the Illiad,” Alex grinned. Michael smiled back. Knew it. “And you?”

“My first night here I got so drunk that I just laid on the floor and scream-sang REO Speedwagon,” he admitted and Alex easily slipped into a laugh that Michael could feel in his bones. God, that sound still felt like a gift.

“And to someone else?”

“Kyle came in to ask me to stop, so I tried to serenade him.” Alex laughed a little harder.

“You do have a killer Kevin Cronin voice,” he laughed, picking the wine bottle up again and taking a sip. He handed it to Michael who did the same. He could taste Alex on the bottle and it was hard to figure out which substance was more intoxicating. “Okay, okay, If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?”

“Mind,” Michael answered, “You said body last time.”

“And that’s still the same, so clearly we’re still a half sexy pair,” Alex teased and Michael couldn’t help but laugh. He blamed the wine.

“Do you have a secret hunch about how you’ll die?” Michael asked. He had half a bottle of wine in his system and Alexander felt a whole lot like Alex and Alex’s lips were looking absolutely inviting.

“I remember you saying you think your appendix would burst and you would just think you were exaggerating your pain and now that I’ve known you for two years and I’ve seen how much of a baby you get when you’re sick, I think that’s not gonna happen,” Alex chuckled, leaning forward even more. He was so fucking close. Michael nodded.

“I think it will,” he said, “You said you weren’t afraid of death.”

“Still not,” Alex hummed, tipping back the last of the bottle. He gave a sweet smile when he was done, flicking his tongue over the corner of his mouth. Maybe drinking was a bad idea. “Name three things you and your partner have in common. This is easy.”

Perfect, perfect. A perfect reminder that this isn’t Alex. Michael shook his head, fixing his wandering mind back on the anger he felt towards the man who had lied to him for two years. He faked a wedding license. “I don’t know anything about you.” 

Alexander rolled his eyes. “You know me better than anyone else, Michael.”

“I knew Alex . I have no idea who you are,” Michael insisted, though his voice wasn’t as certain as it was before. This felt like a night with Alex. God, it felt like Alex. He wanted Alex.

Alexander couldn’t be him.

“Fine, I’ll name some. I can do more than three. We both have an unhealthy obsession with Firefly and watch it on repeat, we both are obscenely stubborn and refuse to admit when we’re wrong, we both have horrific handwriting, we both feel the need to tip waiters like 50% even when service sucks, we both like the same music, we both like hot chocolate when it’s hot and ice cream when it’s cold, we have a lot in common, Michael. We’re perfect,” Alex said, grinning that easy grin.

Michael could feel his heart thudding in his chest as he stared at the man who was suddenly very close. It was hard. The lines between Alex Whitman and Captain Alexander Manes were blurring in a way he didn’t want them to. One was his fun-loving husband who found every excuse to dote on him and make him blush, and the other was a pathological liar who held a list of military credentials that matched a hardened old man. 

“None of my traits as Alex change when I’m Alexander. I’m still me.”

Michael would never forget how confused he was when those two guys stood on his doorstep, asking for Captain Alexander Manes. They’d been searching for him for two years, that he’d gone AWOL from his post two days earlier than he was supposed to and that they had feared something bad had happened. Michael didn’t get a chance to get any more details about that, he just remembered his head spinning and feeling sick and confused at the name he was being told. He was about to tell them that he didn’t even know anyone in the military, but he’d turned to find Alex behind him and looking like a deer caught in headlights.

“You know what my favorite thing that we have in common is?” Alexander asked, closer than he should be, “That we both fight for the right things.”

Alex had tried to explain that day, begging him to listen as Michael packed a small back and tried to get the hell out. He couldn’t spend the night in bed with a stranger. It had been hellish. He’d turned a 7-hour car drive into 10 and Isobel and Kyle still had to go get him from the border of Colorado and New Mexico he couldn’t see straight enough to drive. He had thrown his phone out the window somewhere in the desert after that, tired of seeing call after call from ’Achilles♥’. 

It was getting hard, though. He was trying to separate who he is to who he was, but it felt so impossible. They looked the same, they sounded the same. If he closed his eyes and let himself go, all he heard was Alex Whitman. He couldn’t figure out if he was in love with Alex Whitman or if he was actually in love with Captain Alexander Manes. What if the difference really only was their last name?

“For what in life are you most grateful?” Michael whispered, taking in his face. The little scar on his forehead that Alex had said came from crashing his bike when he was eight, was that the same story for Alexander?

“You.”

“I need more wine,” Michael said, scrambling to his feet before he did something stupid like kiss him. Alex nodded, holding out his phone. Michael suddenly remembered that he was being recorded and took it with hesitant hands before heading to go find Isobel’s wine.

Once he was out of earshot, he held the phone to his mouth.

“I will not sleep with him, I will not sleep with him, I will not. I will not. I will not,” he repeated, raking a tough hand through his hair. He took a deep breath and focused on that moment when Alex had admitted that wasn’t his name. That had hurt so bad. “You know, I don’t understand why I even let him in here. I know him. I know how stupidly charming he is and I know how well it works on me and he gives me those sweet little ‘fuck me’ eyes and I just want… I don’t know what I want. I want to clear my head.”

Michael searched through the cabinets and eventually found a cheap-ish already opened bottle of wine that he planned to reimburse the Evans-Valentis for. He pulled the cork out haphazardly and threw back some more. He didn’t know why he kept drinking. He knew it was probably going to make him want to sleep with Alexander even more.

Maybe that’s what he wanted to happen.

“No, no, I don’t want to sleep with him. I want this night to be over so I can move on. He’s a pathological liar. I can’t trust everything he says,” Michael said, sighing harshly.

Before he could think any harder, a harsh clap of thunder sounded, shaking the house and taking away the electricity. Panic surged through Michael like it always fucking did in these stupid situations and he froze, looking down at the phone and unlocking it to give him a little bit of light. It was on 46%. Somehow, that made him more panicky.

“Michael?” Alexander called, “Are you alright? I can’t come to you, I don’t have my crutches, just follow my voice!” He yelled because he knew Michael and knew he was probably feeling uneasy and that wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t he be different? This was too hard. “Follow my voice, baby.” 

“Don’t call me baby, Alexander,” Michael grumbled as he used the phone to lead himself to the couch again. He sat far away from Alexander again, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Michael kept a hold on the phone and Alexander let him. He hated how thankful he felt for that. “Next question.”

“If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?” Alex asked, ignoring the fact that it was super dark. Michael cradled the wine bottle to his chest, finding Alex’s eyes the best he could.

“I could change the fact that I raised myself,” he admitted easily. It was a big one, but it’s what he said the first time. Maybe then he wouldn’t have been so stupid to trust the first super hot guy who was into him. Isobel had told him it was sketchy that Alex had no friends or family, but Alex had also just moved to Denver and it just felt right and Michael barely had any friends or family. He should’ve looked into it more. “What about you?”

Alexander didn’t answer.

“Alexander?” he asked. He didn’t feel the couch move, but he couldn’t really see him and the sudden silence was making him anxious. Then he heard him gulp, so he calmed down just a bit. “What would you change?”

“Everything.”

“Too vague.”

“Well, it’s the truth.”

“Is it? I don’t really know anything about your childhood at all. All I know is that your parents died when you were…” Michael trailed off once he realized that he didn’t know that. “Wait, are your parents even dead?”

 Silence.

“Oh my God!” So much for letting himself think they might be the same.

“They’re basically dead, they haven’t spoken to me in‒”

“No, that’s not basically! You told me your parents were dead! That’s a huge thing to lie about!” Michael scoffed, sitting up straight, “The next thing you’re gonna tell me is that you didn’t actually lose a leg in a motorcycle accident.” 

Silence. Again.

“Oh my God. Oh my God, what is wrong with you?” Michael said, but he couldn’t bring himself to move away. He didn’t want to be alone in the darkness, even if that meant he was alone with a cruel liar. “You can’t just not answer me this time, Alexander, this is, like, a serious issue. You lied about how you lost your leg and about your parents being dead.”

“Just let me think,” he answered, but Michael didn’t like that.

“No, so you can come up with another lie? Tell me the fucking truth.”

“When I was 8 years old, my mother left,” Alexander said, taking a slow breath, “And a few days after that, my father hit me for the first time because he realized I was gay. He knew before I did. He thought he could beat it out of me. So that’s what I’d change. The fact that he beat me.” 

“I’m sorry,” Michael sighed, “But that doesn’t explain why you lied about everything.” Michael had been abused his whole life too. He didn’t lie about it. 

“I was taught from a young age that what I wanted was wrong, that who I was was wrong. So I spent my entire life trying to pretend. I did what my dad wanted and I lied to cover up the bruises for thirteen years of my life because it was easier than dealing with him.”

“Thirteen?” Michael parroted, “You said it started when you were eight, that would’ve made you twenty-one before… Oh.”

“Yeah,” Alexander sighed, “Oh is right. I joined the Air Force because he wanted me to, but I figured out that he wanted me to because he wanted to watch me. So, I made sure I went to school so I could become an officer. I eventually got put in a special task force and I got away from him, but he was still there, you know? Just in my head. He was always in my head. I was 26 before I had my first kiss because even though I was alone with six other people most of my time and three of them were openly queer, I couldn’t bring myself to accept it. Every time I considered it, I could feel my dad hurting me to stop. Even when he couldn’t be there, he was there through letters telling me to make sure I was being a Manes Man. Manes Men do this, Manes Men don’t do that. It was hell. He controlled me in every little facet well past my childhood, so I finally cut him out of my life when I was 27. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired of being in the mold he forced me into.”

“I wish you would’ve told me about that,” Michael said, trying not to be too offended when Alex had just admitted to suffering to almost 20 years of constant abuse.

“I didn’t want to admit that I was 28 years old and just coming to terms with my sexuality.”

“But I told you about all the shit that happened to me,” Michael argued, “Why didn’t you trust me with your feelings?”

“That’s not why I didn’t tell you, Michael, I didn’t want to bring it up.”

“But you should’ve! For two years, I felt like the fucked up one in this relationship and that you had to cater to me! If you would’ve just told me that you fucking understood, then everything could be different!” Michael spat out, “You ruined everything! And I still feel like a dick for getting mad at you for not recounting abuse! How fucked is that?!” 

“Michael, please,” Alexander tried. Michael huffed a huge breath and took another sip of wine. He needed to calm down. He really did. But who the fuck lies about all that?

“The next question is tell me your life story in four minutes. Take longer than four if you need to, I need more than that. I need the fucking truth,” Michael insisted. He heard Alexander gulp. “I’ll calm down when you fucking tell me.”

Then he waited.

“Okay, okay, so… Like I said, I was 8 when my mom left. My dad and my older brothers went out of their way to make sure I was just like them. We all had the same haircut, had the same clothes, everything. We were miniatures of my dad, which… really fucked me up. Even when I went to college to get some semblance of freedom, I didn’t know how to be someone other than my father. And that’s hard. It’s super hard to see someone as a monster, but then you can’t bring yourself to be anyone other than exactly like them. And then I was wearing his uniform and I would look in the mirror and it was a constant battle to figure out who I was. Was I Alex, or was I Master Sergeant Jesse Manes?

“I dealt with that for years. Every time I looked at a boy who was attractive, I would have to immediately shut myself down. I wouldn’t let myself and I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I convinced myself that I was straight, that I could be. But that didn’t work because I didn’t even want a girl to hold my hand without feeling awkward, so I just resigned myself to a life of celibacy. It was more than that, though, because I hated myself so much. I was hardly a person, I was just a carbon copy and I was suicidal as hell. But on some level, it must’ve been good for me because it made me ballsy.

“I didn’t allow myself pleasures or anything, so I became really good at combat and coding which you know. That’s how I even got in a special task force when I was that young. I did a year at MIT, wasn’t the biggest fan, and they put me in the task force. And, you know, like I said three of them were openly queer. It was so weird for me to be around people that were open and honest with themselves and, it took a while, but eventually, I started to see that maybe I could be too. I had my first kiss with Lieutenant Cameron Adler. He was, like, 6’7” and biceps bigger than my head, literally could’ve crushed me, but he didn’t. And when I freaked out because I liked the kiss, he was just there to help me through it. He was my first everything, my first love and all. I think that was the first time I thought I might be okay.

“Then, obviously, a few months later it went to shit. My team got bombed. No one fucking made it. Except for me, which is bullshit, right? I was so fucked in the head and had spent years of my life hating myself and who I was, and all these people who were happy and good died. I wasn’t conscious, but I was told that I was found with Cam’s body on top of me, like he was shielding me with his, like, 275lbs of muscle. They thought I was dead and, legally, I was for a few minutes, but they were able to bring me back and all I lost was a leg. I hated when they told me that. ‘Look, you made it and all you lost was your leg’ because that wasn’t all I lost. I literally lost the only family I’d ever known and now I was back under my father and I just kept sinking lower. I had so much therapy, physical and mental, and nothing really helped. Yeah, I could walk again, but my mental state was so fucked. I spent all day just thinking of ways to end my life and how I wish someone would do it for me or how I wish they just had found me later so that they wouldn’t have been able to bring me back. And I was going to do it too. I had it all planned out. I was going to take a bath and overdose and let myself just go away forever. That’s why I left my post. I had two days left before I was officially honorably discharged, but I just drove to Denver and got a hotel and planned to kill myself there.

“And then I met you.” 

Michael looked at him with tears in his eyes. Fuck. “You can’t say that. You can’t say that like you’re only alive because of me. That’s basically a threat.” 

“I’m not, I’m sorry,” Alexander sighed, “I’m not going to kill myself if you don’t take me back, it’s not like that. I just meant that you reminded me that I could be okay again. I’d had so many therapists insist that it gets better, but you were the first thing that showed me that, okay, maybe it does.”

“I didn’t do anything, I just bought you coffee,” Michael sniffled. He didn’t like thinking about his Alex being in that state. His Alex was always cheery and charming and beautiful.

“Yeah, I know. Look, I planned to off myself that night and I wanted to just get myself my favorite drink beforehand so at least I went out with something good. And then I forgot my wallet and that just felt like proof that I needed to end it. Like, of course, I wanted one last good thing and I managed to fuck that up.” Michael remembered the way Alex had been frantically searching for his wallet and was almost in tears when he couldn’t find it. That was the only reason he paid for him. He didn’t want to see someone cry. Then he'd gotten closer and realized the guy was hot as hell. "Then you paid for me and asked my name. I couldn't give a fake one because I already gave the barista my first name, but I could give you a fake last name so I did. I wanted one goddamn night where I wasn't a Manes Man. I didn't know that coffee would lead to talking for 6 hours straight and spending the night with you because it shouldn't have gone that way. We just fucking connected like something…" 

"Cosmic?"

Alex let out a soft laugh. "Cosmic. And, by that point, it was too late to go back. So I just went with it."

"So you just let us go two years in a lie?" 

Alexander moved closer, close enough that he could see his eyes. He felt more at peace than he had in awhile which really pissed off the logical section of his brain.

"I was more myself as Alex Whitman than I was ever as Alexander Manes because I was with you and you pushed me to be myself. I would give the world to you, but you already gave it to me first," Alex insisted.

Gravity did that fucky thing it did when Alex got too close and Michael tipped his head forward to meet Alex's. He wanted it to be real. He really did. 

But he didn't trust him.

"You'd really give me anything?" Michael whispered. Alexander nodded.

"Anything. You're my life, Michael. If I could take back the lies, I would, but I wouldn't take back finally feeling free because of you," Alexander promised, slowly moving his hand up to cup his cheek. It was slow, it was on purpose. They met for a kiss in the middle.

Their first kiss as Michael Guerin and Alexander Manes.

Michael kept it short, though a kiss after two weeks without felt like remembering to breathe. Alex didn't push it.

"Then can you give me time?" Michael asked, "I need… I need space before I can even try to trust you again."

"Then I'll give it to you. All the time in the world if you need it," Alex said, sincerity in his voice in a way that felt strange. It felt good. "You know how to find me when… if you want to see me again.” 

Michael waited with a bouncing knee as Alexander skillfully lifted himself to the chair he’d originally sat in, putting on his dry liner and sleeve before the prosthetic. Michael didn’t know how long he’d been here, but clearly, it’d been long enough for that to dry. So, at least three or four hours. God, why did time never make sense when Alex was around?

When he was done, he stood and pressed a kiss to the top of Michael’s head.

“I love you,” he said because they never parted ways without saying that, even if for a moment. You never know when would be the last time you’d see someone. The only time they hadn’t was when Michael had left him. “I promise that there won’t be any more secrets between us. Ever. I’ll tell you whatever whenever.”

Michael thought about asking if he wanted to stay until the rain stopped or until the lights came back on, but the words never made it to his mouth. He thought about saying he loved him back, but that didn’t feel right either. He did love him back, but he still wasn’t sure if he only loved Alex Whitman or if he loved them both. So Alexander left without any argument.

It was cold and lonely when he was gone and Michael curled up, his head thudding as he tried not to stress too much by the darkness. It was only then that he realized he still had Alex’s phone. He quickly raced to the door, ripping it open and silently hoping that he’d still be there.

“You forgot your‒” he yelled as soon as he opened, but the driveway was empty and the rain was still coming down hard. He hoped that Alexander would make it home okay.

Michael locked the door and went straight to the guest bedroom, locking the door to that as well as he curled up in bed. He always locked his bedroom door too, it made him feel safer. Alex had assured him that it wasn’t weird at all and had even picked up the habit himself. They’d both picked up habits from each other over time.

He ended the recording on the phone after getting under the covers, staring at it. The recording was five hours long and it sparked curiosity in him even if the phone was dwindling dangerously close to 20%. He started it from the beginning.

“Okay, so I’m on the interstate right now because apparently, that’s a good idea. I was getting too antsy at home, everything still smells and looks like Michael just felt for a couple hours and that’s just too much, so left. I don’t really know where I’m going. I mean, where should I go? It’s been two weeks since my husband left me because he found out I was a big fat liar, there’s not really a fun place for people like that except for hell, right? But I’m not going to hell, I still have some life left in me and I’m working on figuring out where exactly to target that life.” 

Alex’s voice rambled on and eventually, as usual, he started reciting Homer because he just did that when he couldn’t think. Michael had thought it was cute if not a little weird at first, but it had quickly become something that was comforting and hearing it, even through a recording, seemed to calm him. 

“Patroclus’ death is what pushed Achilles to fight, you know? It gave him a reason. I keep thinking about Michael. I always think about Michael. Finding out I was… finding out I wasn’t exactly who he thought must’ve felt like a death. But it was Alex Whitman’s death, so my burden to bear and Michael was the victim. I’m the one who has to avenge, who has to fight. I need to find him.”

Michael dozed off the sound of him rambling his affections.

The next morning, Michael didn’t even get out of bed. The first thing he did was hook up Alex’s phone to a charger and started to look for older recordings. He had a Google Drive that seemed to hold all of them, each and every recording he’d ever made labeled with the date and it went all the way back to the day they met. Michael clicked on that one, the very first.

”I don’t know what I’m doing,” Alex’s voice was quicker than normal, anxiety clear in his tone even despite the fact he could hear the smile, “I mean, I really don’t and I don’t have anyone to talk to and it’d be pathetic to talk to myself, so I’m going to record it to make sure it’s not a fucking dream. I woke up this morning thinking that would be the last time I ever woke up and now I’m literally driving to some guy’s house to have sex. Me! Hooking up with some random guy! I don’t know what I’m even doing. He just came up to me and bought me coffee and we sat in that damn Starbucks until it closed and I’m so sure those baristas hate us, but I didn’t want it to end and I don’t think he did either because he asked me over and I’m doing it. I don’t know what happened, he just asked to sit and have his coffee with me and I had a moment where I was like ‘okay, my last memory could be either this coffee or this coffee and this cute guy and I haven’t even talked to a guy since Cam and that’s been over a year now. God, I’m so anxious, what if I’m shit in bed?

“I did do something stupid though. I gave him a fake name, but it felt good. I think that was the first time in my life that I’ve introduced myself and I haven’t been saluted or assumptions hadn’t immediately been made about me. This guy‒Michael, his name’s Michael‒looked at me like I was just Alex . I’m not a Manes Man. That’s never happened before. I like it. I can pass for an Alex Whitman, right?”

Michael would’ve scolded himself for smiling at the memories it brought back, but he was too sleep-heavy to care. He remembered that night really well. He’d been jittery with nerves too and had hoped his house wasn’t too messy when he let Alex inside. It had been his first few months as a professor at CU Denver and his house was a fucking wreck, but Alex didn’t seem to care. They sat on the floor of the living room, sipping on wine and talking for way too long. That’s when the 36 questions had come up and Michael had jokingly suggested they go through them. Alex went along and they had gotten through them without touch each other too much until question 36 required them to ask advice on any problem. Alex’s drunken problem was that he really wanted to sleep with this guy he just met but didn’t know how to approach it without seeming either really creepy or overwhelming. Michael had all but pinned him to the floor and stripped him bare. It was too good for a first night together. They fit and moved too well. 

It was unheard of.

Michael scrolled down, trying to see any other date that stood out to him. He landed on the one that was from their wedding day, six months before their disaster ending, and pressed it without too much hesitation. He wanted to know.

”I keep looking at him and he looks so happy and I feel like an asshole. He deserves the world and the truth with it, and I can’t bring myself to tell him. I want to marry him today, even if we are just eloping in Vegas with a guy dressed as the priest from the Princess Bride performing the ceremony. I want to marry him more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. He is the love of my life, I’ve never been more sure. God… I love him.” Alex laughed and it felt like the world got a bit brighter. “I want to scream it from the rooftops that I love him just so maybe it’ll stop feeling so overwhelming.” 

He did scream it from the rooftop of their hotel. Michael remembered feeling higher than life.

“I need to tell him the truth. He needs to know who he’s marrying. I’m going to do it.” 

Michael didn’t have to listen to more to know that he absolutely didn’t do it. Though, he did want to know why. The issue was that it wasn’t ever answered. It was probably fear. Fear that that overwhelming love would end. And somehow it really fucking didn’t end.

He still loved him. Alex, Alexander, whoever.

Michael went to the first one again. He didn’t really know why he did it, but starting that day he began listening to all the details that Captain Alexander Manes had recorded over the years. It was really him, the recordings being something so raw that he didn’t need to lie to. He heard the two of them giggling and kissing and being ridiculously in love for two years. He heard it all over the course of 60 hours of audio.

For the next six months straight, that’s all Michael did. He just listened to Alex over and over and over until he could recite the recordings as well as Alex could recite The Odyssey. He could laugh with them, smile with them, love them. He was falling in love all over again with the man in the recordings. He loved hearing his excitement, his love, his laugh, his rambles. He hated hearing him crying on bad days or just feeling defeated and forcing himself to push through. He listened to recordings of therapy sessions he didn’t know Alex attended, hearing him talk through his still lingering depression and PTSD. Michael had known that Alex had some problems, even if they were only shown in the dead of night when he woke up screaming, but he’d never known how bad until he listened. 

And he listened and listened and listened and listened.

“I can’t believe you’re still listening to him,” Isobel said one morning, shaking her head as Michael smiled into his cup of coffee. He always smiled at this one. It was just a random April morning, but Alex had recorded himself waking Michael up to breakfast in bed and he could hear the sheets rustle and the smack of kisses that he could still feel on his chest. It made his stomach knot up.

“Why?”

“He lied to you about who he was, Michael, and you’re just letting him manipulate you from afar all over again,” she sighed. He knew she meant well and she’d had a controlling boyfriend in the past that colored her opinion on Alex’s choices. The problem was that, aside from a few sketchy things about Alex, she’d liked him. They were a lot alike and Michael loved it. “It’s been six months, it’s time to move on.” 

He thought about that for a moment. It was time to move on. He was sleeping in his sister’s guest bedroom and he was doing the same thing day in and day out. He needed to do something different. Even if it wasn’t exactly what she meant.

“Yeah,” he nodded, placing the mug down. It had been six months. Six months that he spent every day listening to Alex talking and learning about him and memorizing all the aspects of Captain Alexander Manes that he didn’t know before. Every little detail.

He wanted more.

Michael went back into the guest room and pulled out his laptop. He went to his E-Mail and opened a blank new message. He pulled Alex’s E-Mail into the To bar. He put 25 Questions To Fall Back In Love With You. Everything else came easy.

’I’ve been listening to every single recording over the last few months and I’ve been getting to know Alex Manes better and better and I’m at a point where I’m eager to know more. I want to trust him. I want to trust you because I love you.

But we’re still strangers, right? Technically, I mean. And we still have 25 questions left so here’s all my answers. If you love me still, give me your answers. Truthfully. As truthful as you can.’

He answered all his questions within the next half hour and sent it without reading over it. If he proofread it then he would risk second guessing sending it in the first place. He didn’t want that. He just wanted to see Alex again and see if it felt the same. They were cosmic before, they had to be cosmic again.

Alex answered by the end of the night.

‘Not gonna lie, I thought I was hallucinating when I saw this in my inbox. I miss you. Here’s my answers.’

Michael poured over them instead of sleeping that night. Most of them were the same and expected, but a few changed. The ones that changed had Michael feeling even more eager to go home. They matched the man in the recordings. 

His greatest accomplishment was hacking into Russian intelligence while getting a blowjob. His most treasured memory was their wedding day. He shared that, if they were going to continue, it was important that Michael knew that he was stubborn and would fight to the death if he knew he had the chance to keep him(the first time it’d been that he’d lost his leg). Question 36, the infamous ‘problem in need of advice’, was now a lot less dirty.

’The man I’m in love with seems to be eager to try to save our fucked marriage. I’m super excited, but we have a lot of hours between us. What do you think I should do? Should I go to him or let him come to me or should we talk via E-Mail until we’re ready to see each other face to face again?’

Michael was feeling not too unlike he’d felt when Alex had shouted his love from the rooftops or when Alex had cradled him and recited The Odyssey like it was a fairytale. It made him feel like he was melting and Alex was the mold. This shouldn’t be a thing. He shouldn’t be this happy over an E-Mail from someone who’d lied.

But he was. And he was willing to try again and fight for what felt like the right thing because that’s what Achilles did for Patroclus.

’I’ll be home by tomorrow night. I call the bed.’