One Minute It's Love

This is chapter two of the Battlefield series of fics. It is recommended that you read the chapters in order.

(There's also a bit of angst in this chapter, so be warned.)

Alex shows up uncharacteristically late for work on Monday, having forgotten to set his alarm after an amazing -- and unexpected -- weekend. John had indeed taken him out on Saturday, to a chain restaurant, of all places.

Alex had been surprised, and John had misunderstood and started to apologize before Alex had reassured him that the place was fine, and he actually preferred it that way.

I try to keep my tastes simple, John had said before changing the subject, only the first of many surprises that Alex had discovered over the two days. Including the fact that those beautifully soft shirts that John always wore -- overdressed for the office every day -- were from a large warehouse chain.

John hadn't stayed the night on Saturday -- regretfully saying he needed to tend to his cat and leaving Alex with an unexpectedly strong sense of longing after an evening of some of the best sex he'd ever had -- but they'd met up again on Sunday, and this time, spent more time talking and less time fucking.

Alex almost regrets how much he'd misjudged John, although he reminds himself that John hadn't exactly been approachable before.

"You have a secret admirer," his friend Patrick says, catching him as he walks in the door and toward his desk.

"I have a what?" Alex asks before it becomes obvious. Next to his computer sits a huge bouquet of red roses. He stands in front of them, stunned, before grabbing the attached card and turning it over. Even though it only includes a simple 'To: Alex', he has no doubt who they're from.

"What happened on Friday?" Patrick asks, leaning casually against the desk as Alex pulls off his messenger bag and tries to shift the flowers somewhere so they're not so in the way. "I saw you briefly at the party, and then when I went to find you, you were gone. Stephanie said you and John were yelling at each other."

John picks that exact moment to walk by their aisle, and the sheepish smile on his face in response to Alex's quizzative look confirms his suspicions about the flowers.

"I was there, and then left early," Alex says, his eyes following John as he rounds the corner toward the kitchen.

Patrick frowns at him before turning and following his gaze. Clearly seeing only the empty corner, he turns back at Alex with a concerned look. "What's with you this morning? You're never late to work."

"Decided to sleep in this morning," Alex says, already heading toward the kitchen. "Excuse me."

He knows Patrick well enough to expect a follow-up line of questioning later, but he knows Patrick won't follow him to the kitchen, and he's relieved when he finds John there alone, filling a mug with coffee from the machine.

"You... didn't have to do that," Alex says, blushing slightly at John's affectionate look.

John shrugs, then smirks. "Are you saying we have coffee boys here, so I don't have to fetch my own? I must've missed that bullet point in the company benefits package."


John's smile goes soft again as he finishes filling the cup and turns fully toward Alex. "I know. But I just felt like I needed to apologize. Properly. For the past few months."

"So this isn't about this weekend?" Alex asks, his heart beating quickly now for some reason. They hadn't discussed them over the weekend, instead having both been content to just learn more about each other instead, as if trying to catch up on what felt like should have been a several-month-long friendship.

John shrugs, but he seems unsure what to say for a bit. "Maybe some of that too," he manages, finally.

"Be my boyfriend?" Alex whispers, honestly afraid to ask. He's worried John will say no. He's worried that John will want to keep things strictly professional between them.

He doesn't know how he's fallen so hard for the man in only two days.

His worry evaporates when John smiles again, fully, and Alex thinks he'll never grow tired of seeing that smile.

"I'd like that," John says. "I think I should ask though... what are you comfortable with at work? In the office?"

Alex has to think for a second. It isn't that he's worried, necessarily, about what his coworkers would think. He'd be the subject of the gossip mill for a while, he knows, but more because everyone had been under the impression that he and John were mortal enemies, not because of his sexuality. Everyone already knew he was gay.

John, on the other hand, had been clocked as straight. They'd had that conversation over the weekend too -- John had explained that it was easier for him that way, but that he was bisexual, and that everyone that needed to know already knew, and left it at that. Alex wonders if that included John's family. He wonders if it means John wouldn't be comfortable with him at work, and with their coworkers knowing about them.

He's considering how to ask when a couple of chatty coworkers walk into the kitchen, and the opportunity is lost.

"I'll talk to you later," Alex says instead, trying his hardest to be stoic. It seemed easier than giving the gossip mill more material or, worse, outing John in a way he wasn't ready for or comfortable with.

John just nods, sipping from his coffee mug and heading out of the kitchen.

Alex leaves in the other direction.


"Lunch?" Patrick asks, poking his head over the wall next to Alex's desk.

Alex hears the implicit 'and spill', and contemplates making an excuse before deciding that it'd just be postponing the inevitable. "Sure," he says instead, grabbing his coat. "The usual?"

"Works for me," Patrick says, thankfully waiting until they're out of the building and walking on the sidewalk to start the interrogation. "So?"

"I know who the flowers are from," Alex says, hoping it'd draw the questioning away from the party and his weekend. "And I don't want to talk about him right now."

"Fair enough," Patrick says, and Alex thinks that Patrick's ability to leave things alone when asked is one of the reasons they're such good friends. "Then what happened at the party?"

Alex groans inwardly, and briefly considers asking Patrick to drop this, too, but he thinks he really could use some advice. "I was at the party," he starts, even as he thinks. "And then John and I got into an argument and I left."

"Man, what an asshole," Patrick mutters, and Alex nods automatically before realizing he didn't feel that way anymore. "It's the freaking holiday party. He had to needle you there, too?!"

"I met someone," Alex says, wanting to change the subject, even though he knows that he would've been more than happy to pile on just last week. "At the party. And we... spent a lot of the weekend together."

"Oh, hey. Congrats, man!" Patrick says with a grin, slapping Alex's back. "I'm assuming that explains the flowers? Sorry. You said you didn't want to talk about that."

"I don't want to talk about him right now, but uh... I don't know what to do," Alex says, stopping in front of their usual deli and stuffing his hands into his pockets. "He's a coworker..."

"I assumed," Patrick says. "Sorry. Continue."

"...and I don't know what he'd be comfortable with. And yeah, I should ask him, but I don't think I even know what I'd be comfortable with," Alex finishes, voicing the concern that had been stuck in the back of his mind since the morning.

Patrick seems to think for a moment. "Okay. I know that you know that everyone knows you're gay, and no one cares. So... what? You're uncomfortable with the... PDA?"

"I guess?" Alex thinks he isn't sure exactly how to voice his concerns. "I guess I just don't want people to talk. Or for him to get... the wrong idea about things. Because people are talking. I don't know."

"Huh." Patrick stares at him for a second, his gaze unusually piercing. "You don't have to answer this, but... you said you left the party, and you met someone there. I take it those things are related?"

Alex suddenly feels way too warm in his coat, and he knows his face is red. "We should get our food," he says, grabbing the door and pulling it open. "I have a lot of work to do this afternoon."

Patrick doesn't say anything else.


Alex isn't surprised when he gets a text from John that evening, as he's pulling into the parking space for his apartment.

Can we talk?

He tells himself there's absolutely no double meaning behind it, but a part of him worries anyway that John's having doubts now. That Alex's discomfort this morning had ruined things somehow.

sure, he writes back. just got home come over

I'll bring takeout. :) is the response, and the smiley face immediately puts Alex at ease. John isn't upset with him, at least.

He tidies up the dining room table a bit -- still covered with plates and utensils from their time over the weekend -- setting out a clean set of dinnerware, and it isn't long before there's a knock on the door.

"Delivery for a Mr. Alexander Collins," John says, grinning with a bag of takeout hanging from each hand. "Where's my tip?"

Alex blushes, even as he's grinning back, and he hates how much he loves the feeling he gets from it. "You can have my tip later," he mutters, stepping aside so John can enter and shutting the door behind him.

"Promises, promises," John says, setting the bags down on the floor and turning to Alex. "Hi, boyfriend."

Alex moves, grabbing him and kissing him. It's gentle, more like their lazy weekend that the urgent and needy kisses that they'd shared that first night, and Alex idly thinks it's so different than his other boyfriends in the past.

"I... like that," he says when he can breathe again, eyes shut and his forehead against John's, hands still tangled in his hair. "Uh. Both the kissing and the 'boyfriend'."

John chuckles and kisses him again, quickly, before picking up the bags. "I got Chinese. Figured that was a safe bet. Fried rice, General Tso's, lo mein, eggrolls."

"That... that sounds good," Alex says, still recovering from the kiss. "I, uh... got some hard lemonade. I think you mentioned you liked it when we were talking about beer, and I didn't want to drink alone."

John, already pulling paper containers out of the bags and onto the table, turns toward Alex and smiles at him affectionately. "Alex. That's really thoughtful of you. Thank you."

"It's nothing," Alex mutters, his ears turning red as he fetches a lemonade and beer from the fridge for the two of them.

"Thanks," John says, taking the bottle from him as he sits down at the table. "So. I think we should continue our conversation from this morning, but it doesn't seem like an 'over dinner' kind of thing. Now, or after we eat?"

"Now," Alex says, feeling like he wouldn't be able to focus on another topic until this one's resolved. "Uh. I meant to ask you what you'd be comfortable with."

"Honestly?" John asks, breaking his chopsticks apart and reaching for an egg roll. "I'm not actually sure. This is new for me, for a number of reasons," he says, and Alex thinks about John's weekend confession that Alex was the first guy he'd been involved with. "You?"

"Would you be uncomfortable if people at the office knew?" Alex asks, instead of answering the question. He isn't sure how to answer the question.

"I don't think so," John says. "I know I'm already a topic of conversation around the office, so I don't think this would be any different. Even if it was a fairly large... thing."

"I hated you last week," Alex says, not sure why his brain is going this direction. "And now I really... don't. At all. It's been, uh... strange to get used to."

John chuckles even as he shifts uncomfortably, going with the change in topic. "As I said, I think that was maybe my intent. I'm just... sorry that I caused you so much grief." He seems to think for a moment. "They also say that the opposite of love isn't hate, but rather apathy, so maybe we've both just had strong feelings about each other for so long that this feels... natural."

"It does," Alex agrees, already feeling more at ease around John than he ever would have expected. "But uh, back on topic, I guess I'm just worried about people... talking."

"Let them talk," John says, taking a bite out of an eggroll. "Sorry. I guess I'm used to it. It's probably not so easy for you."

"I, uh," Alex starts, taking a deep breath, trying to remember his thoughts from the afternoon. "I mean more... that you're rich, I think. And I'm not."

John swallows the bite and stares at Alex, expression unreadable. "Can you expand on that statement?"

"You sent me flowers," Alex says, just deciding to voice things as they came to mind. "A lot of flowers. Everyone was fawning over them, and commenting on how rich my 'admirer' must be. And I... I don't want you to think I like you because of that."

"Ah," John says, smiling now. "Well, I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable or made things awkward. I guess I didn't think about that part. But I know you're not with me for that reason."

"But people will think I am," Alex says, breaking John's gaze and staring at his plate instead. "Like, we hated each other, and suddenly we're a thing? What if your... what if your family gets the wrong idea?"

"Alex," John says, reaching over the table for Alex's hand, which Alex gladly takes. "I told you how some of my exes were only with me for my money, or my family's influence, or whatever. I'm used to it. My family's used to it. They'll know you're different. That this is different."

"And not just because I'm a dude," Alex says, letting a smile break through.

John laughs, and Alex loves it. "Not just because of that," John says. "I promise. But forget my family. What are you comfortable with at work?"

"I... still don't know," Alex says, meeting John's gaze again, and feeling guilty that he can't put his thoughts together properly.

"That's fine," John says, not looking upset in any way. "Then, because our food is getting cold, let me propose this: We'll just be colleagues at work. Friendlier than we used to be maybe, but just colleagues. No kissing. No hand-holding. No confirmations that we're dating. And whenever you want, we can change that."

Alex thinks that the feeling of relief he gets means that it's the right decision, at least for now. "Okay," he says. "You're sure that's okay?"

John chuckles. "Honestly, it's a bit of a relief. Not that I didn't mean what I said! I really don't care if people talk about me, or about us. But having some more time to get used to the idea still sounds... nice."

"Okay," Alex repeats. "Yeah. I... feel the same."

"Then to dinner it is," John says, grabbing one of the boxes and spooning rice onto his plate. "I meant to ask this weekend... what kinds of TV shows do you watch?"

Alex likes how comfortable this feels already.


"So you and John, huh?" Patrick asks one day, a few weeks later and after the holiday break, as he walks up to Alex's desk.

"What?!" Alex starts, immediately assuming the worst. "Whataboutus?!"

"Whoa!" The slight smirk immediately falls off Patrick's face, replaced by surprise. "I just meant that project meeting today. You two actually proposed something together for once." He stares at Alex, now breathing heavily.

"Right," Alex manages, hestitating briefly before grabbing his coat. "Break time. Let's walk."

"Sure," Patrick says, his voice wary. "What's been happening with you two? You're freaking out right now."

Alex walks as quickly as he can toward the stairwell, his ears burning. The office suddenly feels stifling.

He doesn't respond until they're outside. "What... what are people saying?" he asks, voice shaking. "About us?"

Patrick frowns, clearly not expecting this question. "It's like I've been telling you. People have been surprised that you and John have been getting along recently. Wondering what happened after you almost came to blows at the holiday party." He pauses. "A topic that you have intentionally been avoiding whenever I bring it up," he adds.

"We didn't almost come to blows," Alex mutters, even as he thinks maybe they had, and he probably would have punched John's smug face if he hadn't kissed him instead. He crams his hands into his pockets, wishing he could disappear.

"Alex," Patrick says, his voice firm. "What's going on?"

"You can't tell anyone," Alex says, glancing around to make sure no one's in earshot. "No one, Patrick. Not even Ann."

Alex thinks he probably trusts Patrick's wife as much as he trusts Patrick himself, but he still isn't about to chance it.

"Cross my heart," Patrick says. "We've been friends for how long? Geez. Have some faith in me."

"John is my boyfriend," Alex says, forcing the words out before he can overthink it. His heart feels like it's in his chest, and even though he knows John had said he'd be fine with whatever Alex was comfortable with, it still feels like a betrayal, in some way.

Patrick is silent for a bit, but then he starts laughing, the sound startling to Alex's ears. "Okay, good one. Really, though. What's been happening with the two of you?"

"I'm serious," Alex says, looking up at Patrick, and Patrick's face goes through several expressions before seemingly settling on disbelief.

"No way," Patrick says, seemingly to himself. "What? Really?!"

"Really really," Alex says, even though he thinks it's a stupid response, but he isn't sure he can formulate a better one at the moment. "And that's why you can't tell anyone, Patrick."

Patrick seems momentarily lost for words, his mouth opening and closing a couple times as Alex watches. "I wont," he manages, finally. "You can trust me, Alex. But... what?! How long?"

"Since the party," Alex says, starting to walk down the sidewalk, feeling relief wash over him now. "We... had an argument. We probably would have gotten into a fight. Instead I... kissed him. And things just kind of went from there."

"Huh," Patrick says from somewhere behind him. "I'll admit that's not one of the options I had considered, at least seriously. Everyone's been assuming John was straight. He's dated women in the past, right?"

"That's why you can't tell anyone," Alex says, feeling a bit guilty about using that as an excuse but remembering how John had mentioned he didn't like discussing his sexuality. In any case, it was easier than voicing his own concerns.

"I won't," Patrick repeats. "And I won't press if you don't want to keep talking about this, but I... I guess I'm still in disbelief."

"Me too, sometimes," Alex says, turning back toward Patrick with a slight smile. "I guess there is such a thing as a hate fuck, and they're right when they say it's the best sex of your life."

"I didn't need to know that," Patrick says, making a face. "Also, if you want to keep talking, can I run back and grab my coat?"

Alex notices for the first time that Patrick has his arms wrapped around himself, and is shivering slightly in his t-shirt. "Right. Yeah. Sorry. We can... head back. That was... all I really wanted to say, anyway."

They walk in silence back to the building, but Patrick stops at the front door and gently grabs Alex's arm.

"Hey," he says to Alex, with a smile. "Thanks for telling me. I'm sorry if I was pushing you too much."

"You weren't," Alex says, pulling the door open. "Thanks."

Patrick smiles and pats his shoulder before walking through the door.


"I told Patrick about us today," Alex calls out from his position in front of the stove as his front door opens, feeling a momentary feeling of joy at the fact that John had let himself in.

He'd given John a key over the weekend, mumbling something about how John was over here like half of the evenings anyway ever since they'd both gotten back from their respective holidays, and John had taken it, smiled at him, and then proceeded to kiss the hell out of him.

The memory still makes him blush.

"Okay," John says, popping around the corner and kissing Alex's cheek before setting a bottle of wine on the counter. "Thanks for letting me know."

"Is that okay?" Alex asks, even though he knows John had already said so. "I didn't mean to, but I freaked out at an innocent question, and it was... easier to tell him."

"Of course it's okay," John says, standing behind Alex and wrapping his arms around him, and Alex closes his eyes and shivers at how perfectly domestic it feels.

"I know we said we'd talk about it," Alex says, not sure why he's still on this topic. "But I... trust Patrick."

"Patrick's a good guy," John agrees. "And he's been a lot nicer to me lately too, now that you and I are getting along at work. He clearly cares a lot about you, so I'm glad you felt like you were able to tell him."

"It was... a relief," Alex says, opening his eyes and stirring the sauce again. "I think the food's done."

"I told my parents about us," John says, and it's such a casual statement that Alex has to run the sentence back in his head before he really gets it.

"You... did?"

John steps back, and Alex wonders for a second if he's done something wrong before realizing John's giving him room to deal with the pots.

"I did," John says. "They were surprised it was you. I guess my dad had heard something about our previous... conflicts. They were less surprised about the other parts."

"I'm glad," Alex says as he grabs the pot of pasta and dumps it through the colander in the sink, feeling relieved that the convesation seemed to have gone well. "You... didn't have to do that for me."

John shrugs and grabs Alex's apartment key out of his pocket. "You gave me a key," he says. "That felt like a pretty big step, and I'm pretty sure you thought so too, even though you were making excuses for it."

"Maybe," Alex says, blushing now as he grabs two bowls. "But still."

"Do you want to come by my place sometime?"

Alex looks at John with surprise. "I thought you said your cat hates visitors."

John shrugs. "She does. But you're my boyfriend, and I'm not about to try and keep you away from my apartment forever. She'll just have to get used to you. Besides, it's not fair that we're always imposing on your space."

"I really don't mind," Alex says, blushing again as he spoons out the pasta. "It's... nice to have you here."

"I like being here with you," John says, fishing something out of his pocket and setting it on the counter, and Alex has to stare at it for a second before he realizes what it is.

"Is that... a key?"

John nods. "Yeah. It's an electronic fob for the doors. I'll give you a code for the actual door. We'll have to get you set up with receiption, and we should probably enter together anyway the first few times because of my cat, but I didn't want you to feel like you weren't welcome, so..."

"You have a receiptionist?" Alex asks, not sure why that's the part his brain's focusing on.

John bites his lip. "It's... a nice building," he says, simply.

Alex stares at the cheap jarred sauce and discounted grocery store sausage in the pan on the stove and swallows the sudden feelings of inadequacy he feels.

"Can you grab the parmesean in the fridge?" he asks instead.

"Can do," John says, seemingly as glad as Alex is to have a distraction from the current conversation.

"And, uh... thank you. For the key," Alex says as he grabs the pan with the sauce. "I'd... like to see your place."

He thinks he almost believes the words.


It had taken almost a month, mostly because Alex had kept trying to find excuses to avoid visiting. But at some point, he'd run out of ideas, and given in. Besides, part of him was curious what John's 'nice' apartment building looked like.

'Nice' was an understatement, Alex thinks, as his phone announces that he's approaching his destination. He'd walked through this part of downtown before, but never imagined he'd ever see inside any of the buildings there. He squints upward at the nearest one, checking the address and map on his phone. Surely John hadn't meant to send him to a hotel.

He grabs his phone and checks the address again, ignoring the honking behind him. Still unconvinced, he brings up his contacts and hits John's number.

"Hey," John answers after a couple of rings. "Are you having trouble finding it?"

"I'm at... a hotel?" Alex says craning his neck, staring up at the building through his windshield. It seems to stretch upward forever.

"Yeah. That's right," John says, sounding slightly exasperated. "Pull up to the valet and give him your name. He's expecting you. I'll meet you out front."

"Uh." Alex doesn't know what to say, but dutifully does as he's told, cringing at the sign that he passes: Valet Parking: $65 overnight. "Okay."

John seems to have hung up, and Alex rolls down his window as a uniformed man approaches his car. He's already feeling embarrassed by his used vehicle, clearly out of place in this area of downtown.

"Welcome, sir," the man says. "Are you lost? Do you need directions?"

"I'm, uh," Alex starts, before his brain can really understand the implication. "Alex.... ander. Collins."

"Of course," the valet says, recovering quickly and having the sense to look embarrassed at least, although Alex isn't sure which of them is more uncomfortable, now. "Mr. Kensington is expecting you."

Alex mumbles some thanks as the valet opens the door, and he starts to panic as he frantically searches his pockets for the car keys before realizing the car is still running.

"Hey," says a familiar voice, and Alex looks up to see John walking toward them. "Thanks for taking care of him, Peter."

"Always a pleasure," the valet says, taking something from John's outstretched hand that Alex suddenly realizes is a tip before climbing into the vehicle. "Thank you, sir."

"This way," John says, starting off in a direction, and Alex follows him for a bit before realizing they're not heading toward the entrance.

"Isn't... isn't the desk up there?" he asks, glancing back toward the pull-around and catching a brief glimpse of his car before it disappears back onto the street.

"Apartment entrances are this way," John says, before stopping and smiling back at Alex. "Sorry. I don't know why I assumed you knew. The first few dozen floors are the hotel, but there are some apartments on the upper floors. The entrance for them is this way."

"Oh," Alex says, feeling ashamed somehow at his lack of knowledge, even though he thinks there's no reason he could have known that.

They walk in silence the rest of the way, through a secluded glass door and down a hallway that opens up into a decently sized room with a desk in it.

"Welcome home, Mr. Kensington," the woman at the desk says.

"Good evening, Maddie," John says, smiling at the woman and leaning against the desk. "This is my boyfriend, Alex."

Maddie doesn't seem to react, instead continuing to smile at them as she nods, and Alex idly wonders if John had told her about him already, or if it was just her professionalism that left her unphased.

"Of course," she says. "We can get him registered for you. May I please have a photo ID?"

Alex fumbles for his wallet, ears red as he pulls out his ID and hands it over. He isn't sure whether grabbing John's hand would be appropriate, and instead stuffs his hands into his pockets and stares at a spot on the floor.

The marble floor, that he was probably messing up with his dirty single pair of shoes. The marble floor of a huge steel-and-glass tower by the water with hotel rooms that probably cost more per night than his monthly rent.

Alex wishes he could just disappear into the marble floor.

"Thank you, Mr. Collins," Maddie says after a bit, and Alex looks up to see her gently holding his ID out back toward him. "Gabriella is still upstairs, if you would like to sit at the bar for a bit as she finishes up."

It takes Alex a second to realize she's talking to John now, who just nods. "Thank you, but I think we'll just go up. I had a message for her anyway."

"Of course," Maddie says, moving her hand again, and Alex realizes she's still holding his ID. He grabs it and mumbles some apology as he follows John toward the elevators. "Have a nice evening, sirs."

"Are you okay?" John asks once they're in the elevator, which seems to have arrived instantly, and presses his keyfob to a censor before pushing a floor number that seemed obscenely high. Alex looks over at him to find him looking at him with concern.

"I'm... overwhelmed," Alex says, figuring it was an appropriate enough description. He didn't want to start bringing his feelings of inadequacy into it.

John doesn't say anything, instead pulling Alex into a hug, and it helps. He can feel his ears pop as the elevator quickly ascends before slowing and dinging at their destination.

"On the right," John says as he releases Alex and walks out of the elevator. Alex takes a deep breath before following, the doors almost closing on him thanks to the delay.

How many signs do I need that I don't belong here?

He follows John to the right down the hallway, and is about to ask him which apartment it is before realizing there's only one door.

"I'll get you a code later, if that's okay," John says as he pushes some buttons on a keypad by the door, and it beeps before Alex hears the locking mechanism slide open.

"That's... okay," Alex says, watching John pull the door open and following him into the space.

His first thought is that it's huge, the space opening up immediately into what looks like a spacious sitting area in front of a large table set with a large number of chairs. Both rooms feature paintings and pieces of art that Alex would bet are each worth more than his parents' house. Behind the table -- in what must be the dining room -- Alex sees some lights that he suddenly realizes are from across the water.

John's living... dining... whatever room overlooks the water. His apartment is at the top of a hotel, next to the water.

He isn't sure why that's the part that gets him the most.

"I'm home, Gabriella," John calls out, sitting on a bench next to the door and untying his shoes. "Oh, shoes off please, Alex."

Alex nods, jumping as the door gently clicks shut behind him. It feels like the sound echoes through the space, even though he's sure it's all in his head. He slips off his shoes and picks them up, looking around for a place to put them.

"In here," John says, smiling gently -- even though Alex is sure he's well annoyed at this point -- as he opens a door in the wall to reveal a closet with a large shoe rack on the floor.

Alex finds a spot for his shoes, looking up just as a grinning woman with dark graying hair, carrying a bucket and tote bag, appears in front of him.

"I was hoping to finish up before you got back," she says, accepting the hug that John offers her. "Got a late start today. I got held up at the Hendersons'. Don't you ever dare apologize to me again about the state of your place, mister. You're a breeze."

John chuckles. "Duty noted. I wanted to introduce you to my boyfriend, Alex. Alex, Gabriella."

"A pleasure!" she says, setting the items down and holding her arms open, wrapping Alex up in a tight hug when he moves in. "You have good taste in men, Cal."

Alex looks over at John, confused, but John just blushes and shakes his head. "I'm... glad you approve," he says.

"I hope you're more than just a pretty face," she says as she and Alex part, and even though she's smiling, her expression is stern, as if she's daring Alex to disagree.

"Uh," Alex says, glancing over at John. "I..."

"I also wanted to let you know that the painters are supposed to be here next Friday," John says to Gabriella. "So you should take the day off. I'll try and have things cleaned up a bit before you come on..."

"You will do no such thing, mister," she says, poking John's chest for good measure. "Let me know if the date changes, but if not, I'll plan on coming by Saturday morning to take care of whatever they manage to destroy this time. Gilipollas!"

"You're too good to me, Gabriella," John says, moving and kissing her cheek. "Thank you."

"Roberta's in the bedroom," Gabriella says, grabbing the bucket and bag off the floor and moving toward the door. She turns and grins at the two of them. "I hope you two have a very nice time tonight."

Alex's face feels like it's burning as she leaves and the door gently clicks shut behind her. "Gabriella is your... maid?"

"Cleaner," John says, shrugging, and looking uncomfortable now. "Three times a week. She's been working for my family since before I moved into this place."

Alex wants to ask for more information, but instead looks around the space awkwardly. He's pretty sure coming here was a mistake. "Right."

"Would you like some whiskey?" John asks, seemingly trying to change the subject. "I have a Macallan."

Alex starts to say yes, but then he thinks it's just another thing that he and John don't have in common. John doesn't drink whiskey. John lives in a palatial apartment. John has a maid -- cleaner -- to pick up after him, and a valet to park his car, and a receptionist to greet him when he comes home.

John would realize, eventually, how horribly mismatched the two of them were. And, once the newness of their relationship wore off, John would leave him.

"Can we meet your cat?" Alex asks, instead of giving voice to the thoughts screaming in his head. "Roberta?"

John seems to relax somehow at the suggestion, and nods. "Yeah. This... this way."

John hadn't been lying about Roberta not liking visitors. She refuses to move from her position on the bed, her eyes tracking Alex warily as he walks around the room.

Around the bedroom, which Alex is pretty sure is larger than his entire apartment combined.

"She likes you," John comments, sitting on the bed -- perfectly made and topped with a fluffy quilt that Alex imagines is filled with down -- and starting to pet her.

"She... does?" Alex asks, moving closer, only for Roberta to jump up and off the bed, disappearing through a doorway.

John shrugs. "She didn't hiss at you. She jumped immediately to her 'wary' stage instead of her usual 'aggressive' one."

Alex isn't sure he'd call that 'friendly', but doesn't argue the point. "So. Uh..."

"Do you want a tour of the place?" John asks, seemingly searching for an activity in the same way Alex had been.

Alex really, really doesn't. He doesn't want to find out how big it is, or how many bedrooms it has, or what kind of outrageously fancy furniture fills the rooms. He doesn't want to stare down at the water from this vantage point. He doesn't want any of this.

"Can we... get some food?" Alex asks.

"Sure," John says, pulling out his phone. "Do you want me to order some stuff up from the restaurant?"

The restaurant. In the hotel. That they were at the top of. Where a single entree probably cost more than he made in a day -- maybe more than he made in a week.

Alex doesn't want to eat that food.

"That's... fine," he says instead, turning away in shame as John taps on his phone. It's the easier answer.

Alex wouldn't say, in retrospect, that it was a bad evening. They'd gotten some food -- a steak, some seafood, and a few assorted sides and pastries -- and eaten it together on that huge table set for ten, curling up together afterward on a couch to watch a streaming TV show on the largest TV that Alex had ever seen.

Alex had made an excuse and left afterward, not wanting to risk John asking him to spend the night. He doesn't know what he'd do if he had to spend the night there.

'Bitterly uncomfortable' might be more appropriate than 'bad', he thinks. John was obviously at home among all the opulence in a way Alex thinks he could never be. And every time he thinks about it, all of his fears and concerns come flooding back.

He doesn't want to lose John. But he doesn't know how to broach the topic with him. What kind of person would he be if he told his boyfriend that his damn apartment made him uncomfortable?

He answers the knock on the door with a bit more anxiety than usual. He and John had texted, of course, about mundane topics, but they hadn't really spoken since he'd left. He wasn't even sure if he'd see John this weekend until John asked if he had plans today, and he didn't want to try and think of a reason to say no.

"Hi," John says when Alex gets the door. He looks unusually nervous. "I actually... got you some flowers, but I realized afterward that they might be inappropriate. But they're in the car, so I can..."

"Why?" Alex asks. "What... are the flowers for?"

John bites his lip. "An apology."

Alex isn't expecting that. "For what?"

John shakes his head, seemingly hesitating for a bit before walking through the door and sitting on Alex's couch.

Alex's old, used, Craiglist couch that John probably finds disgusting.

Alex shuts the door and sits next to him. John seems to be lost in thought, and Alex forces himself to give him time to think, instead of pressing the matter.

"I'm sorry," John says, finally, sighing. "About Friday."

"It was a nice evening," Alex lies, and he isn't sure why. Maybe he's worried about what'll happen if he doesn't.

John looks over at him, a slight smile on his face. "You're a lousy liar, you know that?"

"I... didn't..." Alex stammers, turning red now. "Sorry. I didn't mean to..."

"Don't apologize," John says, tentatively sliding toward Alex, and relaxing into the embrace as Alex wraps his arms around him. "I... knew you were uncomfortable, and I just... kept ignoring it. And I realized I'd done that to you before, at work, or at the holiday party. I ignore your feelings because it's easier, or because it gets me what I want."

"It's... not your fault I was uncomfortable," Alex says, even as he works the words over in his head. He isn't sure he'd made that connection before, but it sparks something inside him -- anger? -- as he does.

"I guess I just didn't know what to do," John says, placing his hand in Alex's. "I didn't know how to make it better, and you seemed so... determined, to push on, so I just ignored it. It wasn't until you left that I really realized what an ass I'd been. Again."

"It's... still not your fault," Alex repeats, not sure what else to say.

John turns his head so he's looking at Alex. "It's not yours either," he says. "And I'm... worried that you think it is, somehow."

"I just feel... inadequate," Alex manages as he looks away, his guilt over John feeling bad winning over his worry about everything.

"Hey," John says, sternly. "Alexander. You are absolutely not inadequate, and shit... I'm sorry for ever making you feel that way."

"It's like work all over again," Alex mutters, John's earlier words circling around in his head now. John didn't care about his feelings. It was easier for him not to. "Like I couldn't do my job properly. Now I can't do this... relationship thing properly."

"Alex..." John starts, but Alex suddenly doesn't want to hear it.

He pushes John away, squeezing his eyes shut against the tears that are threatening to break through. "Leave. Please."

"Alex. Can we just..."

"Leave!" Alex practically yells.

John doesn't say anything else, and Alex listens as he stands, puts something small down on a surface, and walks to the door, closing it behind him. When he glances back, a glint of metal from the coffee table catches his eye.

His apartment key. That he'd given John.

The tears come, then.

It turns out to be surprisingly easy to avoid John at work. Despite their friendlier working relationship now, they're still usually in charge of different projects, and in the few meetings they do have together, he can focus on the work.

Patrick, Alex knows, senses the new tension between the two of them, and asks increasingly pointed questions when they go to lunch or have a coffee break together.

Alex isn't sure whether he should be happy or sad that Patrick isn't outright asking about what had happened between him and John.

"What are you doing this weekend?" he asks Patrick on Friday as he stops by his desk, sick of this game they're playing.

"Sorry, what?" Patrick responds, tapping a couple keys on his keyboard before looking up at Alex. "Say that again?"

"What are you doing this weekend?" Alex repeats. "Do you want to... hang out? Maybe watch some football or something?"

"The football season's over," Patrick says, looking at Alex with a raised eyebrow. "The super bowl was over a month ago."

"Right." Alex doesn't know why he hadn't immediately remembered that. "We could... grab some food or something."

"Not that I ever mind hanging out with you, of course, but you're not spending time with your boyfriend?" Patrick asks.

"I want to talk to you. About that," Alex says, turning away from Patrick's piercing stare.

"Sunday?" Patrick asks, and Alex feels more than a little relieved at that. "I'll bring over a DVD and some chips."

"I'll get the guac and salsa," Alex says. "Afternoon? 2?"

"See you then."

If Alex had thought his evenings were lonely now, Saturday is even worse. He doesn't know how he'd gotten so used to John's presence so quickly, and hates himself for it.

Maybe he hates John for it too. Just a little. More than a little. Maybe a lot. Maybe a little.

Regardless, it's a relief when Sunday rolls around, and he finds himself constantly glancing up at the clock, fiddling with the containers of dip on the coffee table, and constantly moving bottles of beer as he tries to decide between having them cold in the fridge or out and ready for Patrick's arrival.

As much as he isn't looking forward to the conversation, he's looking forward more to the company.

Patrick shows up right at 2 PM, dependable as always, and immediately makes himself at home on the couch as Alex looks over the DVD options he brought.

"Organic guac," Patrick says. "You sprang for the expensive stuff for me. Your boy is rubbing off on you."

"It was on sale," Alex mutters, picking a disc and popping it into the player and looking around for the remote. "It wasn't that much more than the store brand."

"Looking for this?" Patrick asks, holding up the remote for the DVD player and wiggling it around in the air.

"Thanks," Alex says, reaching for it, but Patrick quickly tucks it behind him and sits on it.

"Not until you tell me what's happening with you and John," he says. "That's why you asked me here, right?"

"You know that I can play the disc from the machine itself," Alex says, his attempt at a joke falling flat as Patrick glares at him.

"You wouldn't dare."

Alex sighs and sits on the couch, putting his head in his hands. He won't let himself cry about this, again.

"I... don't know if we broke up," he says, finally. It seems like a place to start, at least.

"The hell you mean, you don't know if you broke up?! That's a pretty clear cut thing, Alex!"

"I, uh... we did an activity last Friday that turned out to be really awkward," Alex says, fumbling for an explanation. "And afterward, when we talked, he said he realized he wasn't being conscientious of my feelings. And it made me realize that he'd done the same thing, before, at work. Back when we used to... fight a lot. And then I... kicked him out."

"Okay?" Patrick says when Alex doesn't continue. "So you two had a fight. That doesn't mean you broke up."

"He left my key," Alex says, a tear rolling down his cheek despite his best efforts. "That I gave him. That means we're done, right?"

Patrick's quiet for a bit. "I take it you haven't talked to him since then?"

"I haven't," Alex says, shaking his head.

"Mmm," Patrick says, poking Alex's arm. "Give me your phone."

"What...?" Alex wipes his eyes and looks over at him.

Patrick huffs impatiently. "Give me your phone. And unlock it, so I can call him."

Alex wants to protest, but he doesn't dare refuse, given the way Patrick's glaring at him. He pulls the phone out of his pocket, puts his finger on the fingerprint reader, and hands it over.

He listens to the muffled ringing sound in silence, and after what feels like an eternity -- definitely longer than usual based on their previous calls -- John seems to pick up. Alex can barely make out his name, muffled against Patrick's face.

"John. It's Patrick," Patrick says, his face betraying no emotion. "You're both idiots, so get your ass over here right now and work this shit out. One way or another."

Alex can't make out the response, but Patrick seems satisfied by it, hanging up and tossing the phone back to him. "Is he..."

"He'll be here in half an hour," Patrick says, pulling the remote out from behind him and handing it to Alex before grabbing the guac and a couple chips. "Hope you picked something with a good stopping point then."

It takes John about forty minutes to show up, and Alex would be lying if he said he hadn't been filled with an increasing sense of dread as the minutes passed.

Patrick grabs the guac and bag of chips, and leaves Alex to stare at the frozen image on the TV screen as he grabs the door.

"Someone's overdressed," Alex can hear Patrick say before the door shuts, but as the seconds tick by, John seems to make no effort to move.

When he thinks he can't take it anymore, Alex forces himself to look over. John's standing there, looking at him with an expression filled with regret, and wearing a damn tuxedo.

"Maybe I should... go," John says, his voice deafening in the relative silence despite the fact that he was almost whispering. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..."

"Sit," Alex says, scooting over against his side of the couch even though there was plenty of room. "We should... talk."

John does, with Alex trying his hardest to avoid eye contact, and they sit in silence for another while.

"Did we pull you from something important?" Alex asks, trying not to think about how handsome John looked in a tux. He's pretty sure he hasn't seen anyone wearing one before, outside of shows or things on TV.

"Just some fundraiser thing with my dad," John says. "It's fine. You were more important."

Alex allows himself to feel a brief glimmer of hope at that, but tells himself that it didn't mean anything. That John just wanted the formality -- the finality -- of knowing they were done. "I... didn't realize your parents were in town."

John shrugs. "Just my dad, and just for the fundraiser. He's leaving tonight."

"I'm... sorry I pulled you away from time with him," Alex offers. Anything to keep the conversation away from them.

"Honestly, you didn't. It's not like I see him very much during these things anyway. It's just a lot of socializing with people so they'll be willing to..." John stops, and sighs. "We're both avoiding the subject, Alex. Can we just talk about it?"

"I don't want to break up," Alex blurts out, hating how much he wants to grab John and kiss him right now, and hating how lonely he'd been over the past week.

John seems momentarily surprised, but then his lips slowly turn upward into a smile. "I don't want that either."

Alex nods, feeling like his heart is pounding out of his chest. "But you... left the key."

John's smile disappears, and he bites his lip. "I didn't want you to feel like I was... pressuring you to talk to me, and I guess somehow I thought it'd be a good idea to leave it with you. As assurance, I guess, that I couldn't just show up here. I regretted it almost immediately, but I didn't... know what to do about it."

"Okay," Alex says, wondering if it was just an excuse but finding that he doesn't care. "That... okay."

"Look. Alex. I was such an idiot," John says.

"We both were," Alex says, managing half a smile. "Patrick was right about that."

John's lips twitch upward before he grows serious again. "I just... I'm just going to talk, okay?"

"Okay," Alex says, staring back the floor. It was easier, anyway, than talking himself.

"I'm... used to separating my life into two halves, I guess," John says. "There's the person who everyone expects to me to be, who goes to galas and fundraising events and dresses up like this and lives in a pretentious riverside apartment filled with things that I have no attachment to. It's the part that I play because I love my parents, and my siblings, and my family, and I don't want to disappoint them. And then there's the half -- the person -- that I want to be. Where people won't judge me... judge me as much, maybe, for my family and instead judge me for me. Where I get to feel like I'm accomplishing something because of me and my abilities, and where I can feel comfortable being myself. Maybe let my guard down a little, because it doesn't feel like everyone's only sticking around because they want something from me. It's... it's the person I am with you, Alex, and when I'm at work, or when I'm here. I like the person I am with you."

John stops speaking and Alex digests the words for a moment. For some reason, his brain keeps focusing on the fact that John had called his own apartment 'pretentious'.

"You... like who you are with me," Alex repeats, not sure he believes it, but forcing his brain out of its loop. "With me?!"

John nods. "This is... this is me being an asshole again, but I think I liked that you felt awkward and out of place in my apartment. The people in... I guess it would be that 'half' of my life... wouldn't think twice about the valet or the cleaner or the receptionist. Or whatever else about the place was clearly bothering you. You're real, Alex. In a way that no one that I've ever been close to before has been. I... I wouldn't say I was testing you, because that sure as hell wasn't my intention, but the entire mess just made me fall in love with you even more."

It takes a second for Alex to process the words, but when he does, John is staring at him, wide eyed, as if he can't believe what he'd just said.

John loves him.

"You ignored my discomfort... because you liked what it meant?" Alex asks, giving John an out. Besides, he doesn't want to touch that part at the moment himself, anyway.

"I guess," John says, looking a bit relieved at the question. "It was absolutely a terrible thing for me to do, and then I screwed up the explanation even worse afterward. I guess I just wanted to... try and excuse it because I'd been such an ass in the past to you, even though I should have known how that'd come across. And just make me look even worse."

Alex doesn't say anything, instead reaching into his pocket and grabbing the key there. He'd been carrying it around all week, hoping maybe that he'd work up the courage to talk to John at work, and that maybe things would be okay.

Better late than never.

John's face seems to light up as Alex tosses the key at him, and he grabs it, staring at it like it's the most precious thing in the world.

"You should be over here a lot anyway," Alex mumbles. "Especially if you're comfortable here. So you should... have it. It's easier."

"Can I kiss you?" John asks, his hand wrapping tightly around the key as if he's worried he'll lose it, and clearly feeling the same need that Alex does, now.

Alex makes it there first, practically smashing their faces together, but somehow it's perfect anyway.

"Well, I should be going," Patrick says, standing and stretching as the credits start rolling. "I'm glad you two lovebirds are back together, though."

"Thank you," Alex says, ignoring the urge to correct the 'back together' part, and blushing at 'lovebirds'. "For forcing us to chat."

"Yeah, well. Apparently you're both idiots in the same way, and I have a lot of experience dealing with that particularly brand of idiocy, so it was nothing." He grabs the disc from the player and snaps it back into the case. "I'll leave the chips. See both of you at work tomorrow!"

"Thank you again," John says, and Alex watches as Patrick gathers up the rest of his things and leaves.

"So..." Alex begins at the same time as John.

"Do..." John starts, then stops, a slight smile on his face. "You first."

"I just... was going to ask what you were doing tonight," Alex says, hoping that John was free for dinner, or at least was interested in makeup sex. "You?"

"Do you want to meet my dad?" John asks, his expression even now.

"Do I... what?!" Alex definitely hadn't been expecting that question.

"We were going to try and have dinner together tonight, before he left, but I also don't really want to... leave you right now, as stupid as that might sound," John says, biting his lip. "I understand if you don't want to, but..."

"We can," Alex interrupts before he can second-guess himself. "If you're sure that's what you want."

"It'll probably be some stupidly pretentious place," John says, and Alex tells himself that John is trying to be considerate of him rather than trying to find an excuse to rescind the invitation.

"I'll... manage," Alex says, hating how he makes it sound like he's doing John a favor by being treated to a free fancy meal. "Is it... I don't know if I have something appropriate to wear."

"No one will care what you wear," John says, reassuringly. "One of the benefits of my family's wealth, I guess. But if you're worried, show me your closet, and I'll pick out something that feels standard. Worst case, we can stop somewhere. I have to head home and change first, anyway."

"Okay," Alex says, blushing for some reason at the thought of John sorting through his clothing. Even though he feels like it should be embarrassing, instead it feels intimate.

He hopes he makes a good impression in front of John's father.

A while later, they pull up in front of a restaurant that looks maybe less 'fancy' than Alex would have expected, but still obviously significantly nicer than anything he would have ever gone to himself.

The trip there had actually been surprisingly unstressful, but he'd been surprised -- although he thinks maybe he shouldn't have been -- that the valet at John's hotel/apartment building -- who Alex is sure isn't Peter and he's sure he'd never met before -- knew Alex's name.

It had been surprising, but maybe also given him a taste of what to expect, and helped him prepare himself for this.

Oh yeah, and that'd been true of John's car, too. Something expensive that Alex didn't recognize, that John said he'd driven because it was the expected thing for him to be seen in. It was a far cry from the usual car that Alex knows John drives to work.

Alex thinks he's starting to understand John's point of view, now.

"Mr. Kensington," the restaurant valet says as John rolls down his window. "And...?"

"Mr. Collins," John says as the valet opens his door for him, shaking his head at Alex before climbing out. "Thank you."

Alex pauses for a moment, trying to understand the head shake, before he reaches for the door handle, and is startled when the door suddenly opens. A different valet seems to have gotten the door for him.

"Thanks," he murmurs as he stands and smooths out his suit jacket, remembering to fasten the button only when John looks at him and makes a buttoning motion with his hands.

Alex already feels like an impostor, in his old suit that doesn't fit his body nearly as well as John's fits his, and they've barely left the car.

But then John smiles at him, and holds out his arm, and Alex hesitates only for a moment before taking it, and that helps.

He can feel eyes on him from every direction as they enter the restaurant and are guided by the hostess toward the back, past tables set with white tableclothes and red candles covered in large white china plates with colorful tidbits artfully splayed across them.

He's never felt self-conscious like this before, the burning of his ears and cheeks creeping lower as they walk, and he releases John's arm. He wonders if that had been a mistake. Surely people here would recognize John. Surely he's started some gossip in elite circles that he wasn't aware even existed, if not because he was a he, then because he was clearly a commoner.

John doesn't seem to mind, glancing over at him with a quick smile as they walk, and then they're being shown into a small room with a table and three chairs, one of which looks to have been haphazardly added at the last minute, and one of which contains...

"Mr. Kensington," Alex says, holding his hand out and hoping this was proper etiquette.

"Dad, this is Alex," John says. "Alex, this is my father."

"You finally made it, Cal," he says, his voice full of reproach as he stands from the table, and Alex starts worrying before he realizes the man isn't talking to him. "And it's a pleasure to meet you, son," he says, taking Alex's hand and shaking it firmly.

"It's... nice to meet you as well, sir," Alex says watching as the man sits back down and jumping as a waiter appears behind him and pulls out his chair.

The man waves his hand. "That's 'Bernard' to you, son. None of this 'sir' malarkey. This isn't business."

"Sorry for the delay," John says as he sits next to Alex, and Alex almost falls forward into the table as the waiter unexpectedly pushes his chair in under him.

Smooth, Alex.

"Just don't make a habit of it," Bernard grumbles before turning back to Alex. "Alex, Cal says the two of you work together."

"Yes si... yes. We do." Alex makes a mental note to ask John about 'Cal' later, when he isn't already second-guessing everything he's saying or doing. John's father seems friendly enough, but it feels underpinned with a formality that makes Alex nervous. Beyond just the usual butterflies he gets when he's met his boyfriends' parents in the past.

He also knows that Bernard already knows all about his and John's work history, and wonders if all of this is a test.

Fortunately, John jumps in at that point and drives the conversation for him, and Alex is able to relax, as much as he thinks he can, answering questions about his schooling and career, and enjoying the food that turns out to be utterly delicious.

He hopes he's making a good impression.

"Can I ask you something?" Alex asks when John's parked the car in front of Alex's apartment building.

"Of course," John says, putting his hand on Alex's and smiling. "What is it?"

"'Cal'?" Alex asks, and John immediately grimaces.

"Sorry," John says. "It's not you. It's just... um... Calhoun Bernard Jonathan Sinclair Kensington, Jr."

Alex stares at him for a second. "That's your name?!"

John bites his lip. "Yeah. I never liked 'Calhoun', and my dad's Bernard, as you know, and I guess 'Jonathan' was too plebian for my mom to want to use. So 'Cal' it was."

"I only have one middle name," Alex says, understanding why John went by 'John'. "It's 'Kevin'."

"Alexander Kevin Collins," John says, smiling, and Alex loves the way it sounds when John says it, even though he's never felt any particular attachment to his name before. "Feels fitting for you."

"Did tonight go well?" Alex asks, not wanting to keep John, but needing to ask the other question that had been in his head all evening. "Did your dad, uh... hate me?"

John laughs at that. "He definitely did not hate you. He's always wary of people I'm dating, and maybe especially so with you because he knows we used to butt heads. And he was disappointed that I left the fundraiser today, but I told him it was a work emergency, so he can't blame you for that anyway. But yeah, I think it went well."

"I'm glad," Alex says, feeling a lot of the tension he hadn't realized he'd been holding all night dissipate. "Thank you."

"Thank you for letting me drag you along last minute like this," John says.

Alex nods, leaning over and giving John a kiss that seems to end way too soon. "Thank you for dinner. And I'm, uh... glad that you're my boyfriend." He's still amused, somewhere in his mind, that they'd gone from 'maybe broken up' to 'meeting the parent(s) for the first time' in just a few hours.

"Me too," John says, looking for a moment like he's going to say something else before he sits back fully upright in his seat instead. "Good night. I'll see you at work tomorrow."

"I look forward to it," Alex says, sneaking another quick kiss before he opens the door.

He really likes the way John is looking at him.

The second visit to John's apartment feels significantly less intimidating, and not just because it had been Alex's idea -- John had almost seemed relieved when Alex asked about it, which had immediately quelled Alex's thought that he was doing something wrong by asking. And it wasn't even the fact that he was expecting the routine this time, of the valet who already knew his name and expected him, or the receptionist who greeted the two of them warmly, or the elevator to what turned out to be three floors from the top, or the enormity of the apartment's entryway that echoed with his footsteps as he entered.

It was mostly because this time he notices how John seemed slightly on edge the whole time in a way he never was at Alex's place, even though John maneuvers through everything with the ease that only years -- maybe more like a lifetime -- of practice could bring. Alex wonders if it was because John was worried again, about bringing him back, but he asks and John says it's more that he's been trained to behave a certain way in 'this' crowd -- something about being friendly but detatched and in-control -- that eases his concerns.

Communicating with your partner. What a novel concept.

Maybe for both of them.

It helps too, when John offers a tour, and Alex accepts this time, and John pulls out his phone and apologizes for having to look things up since he hasn't had to do this in a while, and then they're both laughing at the absurdity of having to have a guide to your own damn living space.

"It's not really a guide to the space," John objects, still chuckling. "I could do that on my own. But a lot of the point is the art, and I don't quite remember all of the artists or years or mediums."

"You should put up signs next to everything, like they have in museums," Alex tries, and John laughs again at that.

"You know, that could work. My mom would probably have a heart attack right in the middle of the foyer, and if not her, then my interior designer. But that could work."

"You have an interior designer?" Alex asks. "Also, uh... not that I don't want to hear about all of the art, but I kind of just want to see the place. If that's... easier."

"My family has a design firm we use," John says, slipping his phone back into his pocket. "After my dad bought the place, we brought them in to design and fill in everything. I did what I could to try and keep it less 'showy', but it's still full of all sorts of things that are only here because they have to be. I insisted on 'functional' furniture, too. You should see some of the choices they made for my mom's, uh... for one of her places."

Alex doesn't want to dwell on 'bought the place' or 'one of her places'. He thinks maybe John's as uncomfortable with those concepts as he is.

"I was worried the first time that this place was... you," Alex says, telling himself to voice his thoughts out loud again. "That this was who you were, and you were just... putting on a front for me. And it just felt like I didn't know you at all, and also that I didn't fit in here, so maybe I didn't fit in your life."

"You don't fit in here," John starts, before cringing. "Sorry. That was, um... not the right way to start. But you know me, Alex. You know me. Honestly, I think you know me -- the real me -- better than anyone else in my life. I don't feel like I have to pretend with you, and maybe... maybe that's why I put my foot in my mouth so often with you. You absolutely fit in my life, Alex. Please don't ever doubt that."

Alex nods, moving in and kissing John forcefully, and he idly realizes that it's the first time they've kissed here -- and not just in this apartment, but in what he's started thinking of as this 'half' of John's life.

John looks at him with affection when they break, and looks like he's about to say something when a motion in the corner of Alex's eye catches his attention.

"Hi Roberta," Alex tries, and the cat just stares at him from the hallway. He kneels, and while she doesn't move any closer, he takes it as a good sign that she doesn't run away, at least.

"You'll grow on her," John says, following Alex's gaze. "She really is a difficult, picky bastard."

"You never really struck me as a cat person," Alex says, watching as Roberta takes a tentative step in their direction before deciding otherwise and disappearing around a corner.

John shrugs. "I wanted some kind of pet, just so I wasn't alone in here. Dogs are more effort, even though the hotel has dog walking services, and... sorry, I mean that most dogs love everyone, you know? And most cats don't. You have to work to earn their respect and affection." He shakes his head. "This one in particular."

Alex thinks he's starting to understand now. "You like that she's a difficult cat?" he asks.

John nods. "I guess I do. Everything with her feels earned, you know? She loves me because she wants to, not because she has to. There's more than enough space here for her to avoid me all the time, if she wanted."

And then John looks back at him, and their eyes meet, and Alex sees how relaxed John looks now, and how John had been looking at Roberta with the same affection Alex sees in the way he looks at Alex, and he realizes...

Alex realizes that he and Roberta were two things -- maybe the only two things -- in this ridiculous, ostentatious, unnecessarily extravagant place that John actually cared about. That John loved.

And he's pretty sure he loves John, too.

He kisses John again.

Alex pops a fry into his mouth, and for some reason, the absurdity of the situation hits him at that moment and he starts laughing, almost choking in the process.

John gently rubs his back until the coughing subsides as Alex stammers apologies.

"Hey, no dying on my watch," John says, a slight smile on his face but his voice serious.

Alex takes a gulp of water. "Sorry. I was just... thinking that this was absurd. We're sitting naked in the middle of your bed in this giant bedroom in this tower, surrounded by art that you have to look up in your phone... and we're eating McDonald's."

John chuckles. "I guess it is a fairly unusual situation. But I wouldn't trade anything for this moment, right now. With you."

"Me neither," Alex says, leaning in and giving John a quick kiss before returning to his burger. "I, uh... like your bed though."

John chuckles again. "It's probably the thing I demanded the most input into. I was going to sleep on it every night, after all. It'd better be comfortable."

Alex takes the opportunity to truly look around the room, having been distracted earlier in their haste to strip each other as quickly as possible. For such a large space, it's fairly empty, although the walls are adorned with a few paintings that Alex actually thinks he likes, and there's a desk at the corner that, together, make the room look more lived in than anything he'd seen elsewhere in the apartment.

"This room feels... comfortable," Alex says. "Which, uh... again seems a little absurd for me to say, but it feels comfortable compared to... everything else."

John just nods. "It should. I spend most of my time here. I almost never cook, although the kitchen gets a lot of use by the chef who... um... comes by sometimes. I just watch shows on my laptop, usually here on the bed, with Roberta, so the media room doesn't get much use. Everything else is really mostly for show. Or hosting, which was the point of the place, but that doesn't happen much."

Alex can't imagine living in a place like this, and not just because of the obvious cost. It feels so impersonal in a way he realizes his living spaces never have been. But as he looks around the room again, he can spot little things that strike him as very John objects: A small plastic marketing trinkey from work sitting on a thin table by the door, or a patent plaque hanging on the wall, or an fitness wristband sitting on the end table by the bed, or...

"Is that... a glass bottle on your desk?" he asks, not sure exactly why it'd caught his attention. Maybe because it was so out of place in a room that -- other than their clothes strewn haphazardly across the floor -- looked completely ordered and organized and free of clutter.

John blushes. "Yeah. Um. I'm sure Gabriella is super annoyed by it. I keep thinking I should find a better place for it, but I don't want more art in here, and it's not really art anyway, so it's just... there."

"Why would you..." Alex starts, squinting so he can see it better. "Is that a... hard lemonade bottle?"

John is turning redder now. "It is," he mumbles as he stuffs some fries into his mouth.

"John..." Alex doesn't think he's ever been so touched in his life, and how absurd is it too that a stupid bottle is what's making him teary-eyed.

"It was... the first really kind thing you did for me," John says, looking away, but his hand finding Alex's and lacing their fingers together. "The first of so many."

"I... didn't..." Alex stammers, not really sure how to respond to that. "It was... it was nothing."

John shakes his head, looking back at Alex, his expression all affection. "It definitely wasn't nothing. You listened to me, Alex. Really listened. And thought of me."

"I always want to do that," Alex says, blushing himself now. "Because I... I love you."

John's expression grows soft, and his smile grows larger. "I love you too."