I thought Mateo was going to chicken out, but he didn't. The disappointment settled in my chest. It was a familiar feeling. I thought when he chickened out and I could use that to convince Alex to break up with him. But that hadn't happened.
Most of the people in the room moved up to shake hands with Alex and welcome him, but I noticed a few people with scowls on their faces who kept to themselves in a corner of the room whispering to each other. No doubt talking about how disgusting Alex and Mateo were. Hot anger replaced the disappointment. Alex didn't deserve their judgements, even though I knew if someone asked me I would say it was disgusting too. The difference was I wouldn't mean it and Alex would know that. Who cared what Mateo thought of me?
"Hi. I don't know you. I'm Chet." And the shorty with the caramel skin and shiny black hair held out a hand in my direction clearly expecting me to shake it. His voice had been way too bubbly and carefree and it immediately made me dislike him. He was slightly taller than Mateo and his skin was beautiful and there was a spark to his brown eyes that...I didn't know what. I decided to ignore it. And him.
I turned my attention back to Alex and Mateo who were now openly holding hands. They both had smiles on their lips as they greeted everyone that came up to them.
"Are you one of Alex's friends?" the kid next to me asked. "Are you a Chemistry major too? Did you go to North High? How long have you known Alex? I think he's great and so supportive. Always at the soccer practices and games."
He paused as if he expected me to answer him. I didn't.
"I'm going to take a guess as to who you are," he said.
I visibly rolled my eyes, but he continued on anyway.
"I'm going to guess you are Vincent."
I stiffened. I didn't do it on purpose, it just happened. How did he know who I was? Did Mateo talk about me when Alex wasn't around? Tell all his friends how horrible a person I was? Well, I didn't care.
"So why don't you approve of them?" Chet asked and shocked me again. "They are so adorable. No matter how much I think about it, I just can't understand why you don't approve."
"It's really none of your business," I said.
"I guess not," he said, "except I think it hurts Mateo that you don't like him and he's my friend and Alex is my friend now too so I guess that it is my business. You're Alex's friend, why don't you support him?"
"It's not your business," I said more sternly, "but I do support Alex. That's the whole point. Mateo is only after him for his money. I have to protect my friend."
Chet bristled at this. "Mateo would never do that. Never. He is dating Alex because his feelings are genuine. He is genuine. He would never use him. If you knew him like I do you'd know that. You should give him a chance. You'll like him."
Because the only reason I was here in the first place was because of Alex, I glanced over at him from across the room. His smile was gone as he stared at me and Chet. He no longer paid any attention to his boyfriend or to those who were trying to start a conversation with him. I could see it in his eyes, imploring me not to be a jerk, but also knowing - as I knew - that I was going to be a jerk. He stepped away from Mateo and started to make his way through the crowd towards us.
"He is disgusting," I said as I turned my attention back to the young man in front of me.
"What?" he was clearly angry with me now. "I told you Mateo is not that type of person."
"And why should I believe you? I don't know you. You could be pretending to be Alex's friend just for his money too."
"Who are you to judge us like that? Without even knowing us. Mateo isn't like that and I'm definitely not like that. Money means nothing. I'd rather be as I am, have my friends and family around me than have all the money in the world. Money is meaningless. Family and friends are everything. I feel sorry for you if you think relationships are based on wealth."
This struck something inside me that I had tried to close off for so many years. I could usually ignore ignorant people and their rantings and insults, but his words were dangerously close to destroying my sanity and reality. If I let him keep talking I would fall apart in front of everyone and I wasn't going to allow that.
I stepped closer to him and lowered my voice so that Alex - who was closer but still pushing his way politely through the crowd - wouldn't hear. "Your friend is disgusting because he is gay."
Chet's dark brown eyes stared up at me in shock. "But your friend is too. There is nothing wrong with them being gay. It isn't disgusting."
I ignored the comment about my friend. "Can you imagine kissing a guy and having his stubble rub against you? Disgusting." I pretended to shutter as I repeated the words of my brother. But even as I said the words, I looked at Chet's jawline and thought he had a nice jaw.
Chet shoved me hard and I stumbled a few steps back.
"Chet!" Someone I didn't recognize - which was pretty much everyone at this party - held Chet from behind as Chet tried to lunge at me.
Alex was suddenly there between us. He gave me a stern, disappointed look before turning to Chet. "I'm sorry," Alex said.
"Don't apologize for him," Chet said angrily. He pulled away roughly from the man's grasp behind him. "It's not your fault he's a jerk."
"Don't apologize for me," I said.
Alex ignored me. "Whatever he said to you, he didn't mean it."
That made Chet pause as he considered. His eyes looked beyond Alex to me as if trying to determine if what Alex said was true.
"Yes I di..."
"No you didn't!" And I couldn't finish with my lie because Alex rarely, extremely rarely, raised his voice and the look he shot me broke through all my defenses. He knew me too well and my soul was splayed out bare before him and I couldn't lie in front of that.
Alex turned his green eyes from me back to Chet.
"What did he say to you?" the guy behind Chet whispered to him, but Chet didn't reply. The anger had left him and now he only looked at me with confusion.
"He didn't mean it," Alex said gently to Chet. Then to everyone else he said, "I'm sorry for the interruption. Enjoy yourselves." Then quieter to Mateo who just walked up to us he said, "I'll be right back." He grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me out of the room and out into the hallway. There were people milling about in the hallway who looked at us curiously, but Alex led me away until we were in an empty, quiet hallway.
"You're a coward when you should be brave and brave when you should be a coward," he said to me as he dropped my wrist and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Mateo is just using you," I said. "It's obvious." I leaned back against the wall. Alex sighed and leaned back against the wall next to me.
"He's really not, Vincent. He's not Jason or my dad or your mom. My mom is genuine. Your grandma is genuine."
"They are both already rich," I said, "and even if they are the only genuine ones, that's two out of your father, my parents, my brother, Jason all of my past girlfriends, most of our friends in high school. I'm sorry, Alex, but the math doesn't lie. The chances that he is the one genuine person out of all the fake ones isn't likely."
"I'll take that chance," he said.
"Why?" I pulled away from the wall and turned so I stood directly in front of him. "Don't you remember the pain after Jason? Because I do. I don't want you to live through that again. I don't want to see you like that ever again."
"Pain is part of life," he said quietly, "you can't protect me from it."
I groaned in frustration that he just wasn't getting my point.
"And what can Mateo do for you if Jason contacts you again? He can't..." Alex's shoulders stiffened.
"He contacted you?"
He didn't answer, but he bit his bottom lip.
"When? What did he say? Why didn't you tell me? Give me his contact info."
Alex sighed and tilted his head so he was looking at the ceiling. His blond hair scrunched up against the wall with the movement. "If I let you handle it - or Mateo as he wanted - Jason will just keep contacting me in the future. I need to figure out how to resolve it on my own."
I leaned back against the wall next to him again. I didn't say anything because I knew he was correct. I thought I had handled Jason in high school, but obviously he didn't care about my threats anymore. I could threaten him again, but then in a year or two he would contact Alex again.
"Does your mom know?"
Alex shook his head. "I didn't want either of you to worry about me."
"So only Mateo knew?"
Alex nodded. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I wanted to distrust Mateo. I wanted to believe he would turn out like everyone else, but his actions confused me.
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," Alex said. "I think I might have to just let him release the video."
A heaviness pressed on my chest. "Then it will be out there," I said, "for future employers to see, future friends, future lovers. People will judge you. People will know. There has to be another way."
Alex shrugged. "If I don't, if I pay him off or threaten him or report him to the police, the threat of the video being released will always be there. It's not like you can just delete it. Not in this day in age. There will always be a copy of it somewhere just waiting to get out. People will judge me. Future jobs might be affected, but at least I won't have to live with his threat over my head forever. Maybe we're overthinking it. Maybe the world won't see it as a big deal or judge me. I mean, people have sex all the time."
"It's not usually recorded in secret by their so-called-loved one let alone have their so-called loved one immediately threaten to release the video to the world if they don't pay up," I said. "People are mean. You will be judged. And you are you. If it is released, the pain you felt in high school will be relived over and over again."
Tears sprang to Alex's green eyes causing them to sparkle. I knew that look all too well and his pain cut me to my very core. I grabbed him into a hug and he hid his tears in my shoulder.
"Who would have thought my first love would have ended with such betrayal," he said into my shoulder. "The memories of a first love are supposed to be fresh and youthful and lovely. Not this pain, not this ultimate betrayal. How did I ever love him? How could I have been so fooled? How could I have allowed such betrayal that not only hurt me but those around me? I am such a fool."
"You're not a fool," I said quietly. "You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't know he was recording. You didn't agree to it. And then he blackmailed you on top of it. He is the ultimate bastard and it's just bad luck that he chose to target you."
"Even though we aren't related," Alex said quietly, "I'm glad you are my brother."
And I immediately remembered when we were ten, standing in my backyard with a knife. He cut the palm of his hand first, I cut mine when he handed me the knife. We both pretended it didn't hurt, but it did. We clasped our hands together swearing we were blood brothers forever. My mom caught us in that exact moment and freaked out saying we could catch diseases by doing that, but neither of us had a disease to spread to the other so that was silly.
"You should tell your mother he has contacted you," I said. "If you decide to just let him release the recording, it will affect her too."
Alex nodded and broke away from my hug. There weren't any traces of the tears he had cried moments before. "I hope there is something else I can figure out. I just don't know what could stop him from contacting me in the future except letting him release it so he can't continue to blackmail me with it."
"If you think of another way, let me know and I will help," I said. He nodded. "And if you can't think of another way, I'm here for you. Always."
He smiled. "We should get back to the party."
He started back, but I stayed where I was.
"I think I'll just go home," I said.
"But this is supposed to be the chance for Mateo to prove himself."
"He's not going to be able to prove himself so easily," I said. "There are too many strangers in there and I don't think I made a good impression."
Alex paused as he decided whether or not he should force me to go the party.
"Just go," I said. "I'll call you tomorrow."
Alex slowly nodded, waved and left me standing in the empty hallway. I didn't regard my experience at the party as a failure. If anything, it only strengthened my resolve. Alex was deeply scarred - maybe forever scarred - by Jason. Tonight proved that. I couldn't let him get hurt like that again.