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Disenthralled

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Prologue

“How's it coming?” the voice asked.

“Almost done,” John said as he shoveled more dirt out of the way. “Just a few more inches to go.” His movements had become mechanical. His chest was numb and dull. His eyes stung from the sediment that he was kicking up. He really should've been wearing full protective gear and not tattered rags.

“Good.”

John felt an icy finger on the back of his neck. He suppressed the shiver. He didn't want to be punished. Not again. It lingered, as if they were trying to be sweet. John felt like he was going to throw up.

“You're so strong,” they continued, their voice dripping with black tar. Their finger trailed over his shoulder, down his bicep. “Such a perfect specimen. Tell me, little doe, why did you run?”

John didn't answer. He couldn't.

“You know what happens to those who run.”

He continued to dig. Licked the dust off of his chapped and broken lips. “I'm sorry.” His voice was weak and gritty.

Jumper,” they hissed. John winced as if he'd been struck. They grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked it back. “Filthy, worthless nothing.”

The sky was dreary and a fog began to roll in, snuffing out the few stars that were visible. The moisture beaded on John's wrecked skin, mingling with his cold sweat. They looked strange on his jagged scars.

He finished digging and tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry.

“Look at me.”

John suppressed another shiver and turned slowly, meeting the eyes of his captor.

“You know what happens to Jumpers.” They stepped closer. They smelled of decay. John became rooted to the ground as they reached for his face with a withered hand. “We make sure they can never jump anything again.”

Then they shoved at John and he stumbled backwards into the hole.

His grave.

He tried to climb out but his captor brought the shovel down onto his hands, breaking them. John fell to the bottom of the hole and looked up at his captor as they began to shovel dirt onto him.

They were going to bury John alive.

He couldn't scream.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

John had no idea when exactly his sister had grown up.

He stared at Marty from the doorway for a moment longer before knocking softly on the frame and entering. She turned and smiled nervously, running a fidgety hand over the skirt of her dress. “What do you think?”

John willed himself not to cry. “You look beautiful,” he breathed, taking her hands. “You look...” He touched her cheek, running his thumb over her cheekbone. “You look just like Mama.”

Marty sniffled. “That's what Aunt Sarah said when she saw me earlier. I think I made her cry.”

“Well you're making me cry, so you're probably right.”

She stepped in front of the mirror and spun. “I never thought this day would come.” She reached up and delicately touched her hair.

“I always knew,” John said. “Just didn't like to think about it.”

Marty rolled her eyes. Her expression changed after a moment, however, and she glanced down. Her forehead creased. “I hope Dad doesn't hate me.”

“He doesn't. We talked.” John put his hands on her shoulders, careful not to wrinkle the dress. It really was pretty. And she was gorgeous. It gave him a bittersweet feeling. “He's a little frustrated, but he doesn't have any say. It's not his ceremony and he's not the one paying for it.”

“And you like David?” She turned away from the mirror to face him. “I know you've only met a handful of times. But he seems like a good guy to you?”

John frowned. “Are you having second thoughts?”

“No. God, no. I love him. I guess I'm just...” She sighed and sat down on the couch. “I think I'm a little scared. Not of him, or of bonding to him. Because I want to be with him. I want to become Mrs. Martha Ramsay.” Her eyes lit up at the name. “It has a great ring to it.”

“It does.”

“I think I'm scared of what comes after. We'll be going back to England tomorrow morning because we have school on Monday.” A laugh. “That sounds so ridiculous. We won't even be having our honeymoon until winter break.”

“You think you should've waited?”

“Yes and no.” She stared down at her feet. “I want this, Jack. I really do. And it's not like I'm a little kid anymore. Although I'll bet you'd disagree.”

“You'll always be my baby sister.”

“But we're already scheduling our lives around other things, if that makes any sense. Around school, around work. I just kind of hoped that maybe we'd have a little time to ourselves.” She smiled ruefully. “Probably should've waited until summer.”

“If you want to postpone, Mars, I don't think anyone will resent you for it.”

She shook her head. “I want to be with him. It's just a matter of making time for each other even if we're busy.”

John took her hands. She squeezed them and gave him a watery smile. “Probably best not to cry, hon,” he whispered. “You're wearing makeup.”

“It's waterproof,” she sniffled, standing and wrapping her arms around him. “I miss you every day.”

He hugged her back. He'd promised himself he wasn't going to cry. And he wasn't going to cry, even though his sister was getting bonded. Even though she was all grown up. Even though he was so damn proud of her. “I miss you, too. For the record, I think David's pretty great.”

She nodded, carefully wiping her eyes. “He really is.”

“Even though he wouldn't shut up about turtles the first time we met.”

Marty laughed. “I'd told him that they were your favorite animal. He wanted to impress you.”

“He went on for twenty minutes. I couldn't even get a word in.”

“He really was laying it on thick,” she chuckled. “It's because he knows that your opinion held the most weight. I wouldn't be bonding with him if you didn't like him.”

John didn't know how to feel about that. “I'm not really known for having the best judgment.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don't sell yourself short, Jack. When it comes to family, you're the expert. I trust you more than anyone else.”

Aunt Sarah knocked on the door frame before coming in. “Five minutes.” She stopped, taking in the sight. “God, Marty, you get more beautiful every time I see you.” She smiled at them and her eyes began to fill. “I still remember when I flew in from South Carolina the day you were born.” She crossed the room and took Marty's hands. “You had the sweetest smile. And now you're getting bonded.” She sniffled. “I'm so happy for you.”

“Thanks, Aunt Sarah.”

She turned to John. “And I remember when you were born, too. All of you were such happy babies. But you're not babies anymore.” She let out a sob. “You're all grown up and I'm so proud of all of you!” John reached out to hug her, but she shook her head. “I can't get your tux wet.”

So he got her the box of tissues instead. “If it makes you feel any better, none of us feel that old.” Most of the time.

“And Polly's still a baby,” Marty added.

John smirked at her. “Don't let her hear you say that.”

Aunt Sarah wiped her eyes and fixed her makeup. “Okay. Okay. I'm done crying for now.”

For now. John stifled a laugh. “You do this every time someone in the family gets bonded,” he teased.

“Remember when Esther Jane got bonded?” Marty said. Esther Jane was their cousin on Henry's side of the family. “You didn't even know her, and you still cried.”

“I just think these ceremonies are so romantic.” Aunt Sarah beamed. She loved love. “It's two people announcing their undying love for each other for all of the world to see, vowing that they'll be there for each other through thick and thin, that they'll be together forever.”

Marty glanced at John. “I thought it was just until death.”

Pssh, no way. Your ghosts are still going to be bonded.”

“In that case, I think I might actually get sick of my mate. He doesn't believe in ghosts. He'll probably spend all of eternity telling me how it's impossible that we're still around or something like that.” Marty grinned and nudged John. “If you die before me, promise that you'll haunt both of us.”

John shook his head. “I would, Mars, but unfortunately, I'm not allowed to die.”

Marty laughed again. “You're right, I'd forgotten.”

An usher from David's side of the family – Ralph, if John remembered correctly - poked his head in the door. “It's time.”

Most of the humor vanished from the room to be replaced with nervousness and excitement. Marty took a deep breath and looked at John. John took her hands. “You've got this,” he whispered.

“I'm going to trip.”

“You're wearing flats.”

“You underestimate my abilities.”

“You won't trip.” He met her eyes. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Marty looked at the door. “I've never been more sure of anything in my life.” She took John's proffered arm. “Let's do it.”

They walked out of the room and to the waiting area right in front of the doors to the nave. The wedding party made small noises of awe upon seeing Marty. Mary Eleanor stepped forward and hugged her. Frannie blinked several times so she wouldn't cry.

“You look great, sis,” Junior said.

“Yeah,” James agreed. “David's a lucky guy.”

“God, Marty,” Frannie said, stepping forward and taking her hands. “That dress looks even better than it did when we bought it.” She took a steadying breath. “How do people manage not to cry during these things?”

Aunt Sarah agreed wholeheartedly.

“In your defense,” John said, “you have known her all of her life.”

Frannie looked over at him and winked. “You look absolutely adorable in your tux. Burgundy suits you.”

“It's wine red,” James corrected. Frannie waved her hand dismissively, but shot him a smile.

Then it was time to get into position. Marty took John's arm again and leaned her head against it. “Thank you,” she whispered.

The music began and the doors opened. The ushers and bridesmaids went in first. “For what?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

Frannie went in next, followed by the flower girl, then the ring bearer.

“For everything.” She looked up at him. Their eyes locked for a moment. They heard the congregation standing. It was time.

They walked down the aisle, Marty with a tight grip on John's arm. John glanced up at the altar. David was staring at Marty like he'd never seen her before now, eyes wide and filled with adoration. She was looking at him the same way. John could feel some of the tension fading from her body.

When they reached the steps, Marty turned to face John. He smiled at her, cradling her face in his hands and leaned down, pressing his lips to her forehead. Was this the last time he'd be able to do this?

He pulled away to move to his seat, but Marty wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into a tight hug. “I love you, big brother.”

He hugged her back just as tightly, closing his eyes, committing the feel of her in his arms to his memory. “I love you too, Mars.”

Then he let go.

She ascended the steps to take David's hands, and John went to his seat.

The ceremony itself didn't last long. Marty and David exchanged vows and rings, the officiate pronounced them bonded, and they shared a kiss that was sweet but just a bit too long in John's opinion. Pictures were taken but that went by in a blur. Then he gave his speech at the beginning of the reception and only managed to get choked up once.

He finally got to take a breath as he watched Marty and David's first dance. He took a sip of the champagne, leaning back in his chair.

He felt hands on his shoulders and lips on the top of his head. He smiled as Alex sat down next to him with his own champagne. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Alex and John had sat next to each other during the ceremony, but this was the first time they'd actually been able to talk.

Alex nodded in the direction of the new couple. “He doesn't seem to be scared of you. Did you not give him the Talk?”

John shrugged. “I gave it to him. But he knows that he has nothing to fear as long as he doesn't hurt her.”

Alex made a hmm sound. “Can't believe they have to go right back to school after this. Makes me really glad you pushed for a summer ceremony.”

John scooted a little, so he was resting his knee against Alex's. “You'd been planning it since you were nine. I wanted us to have enough time to make sure it was perfect.”

“It already was perfect. I was bonding to you.”

John leaned forward and gave him a soft kiss. “You're a sap.”

“Yeah, but I'm high quality sap. Like one-hundred percent dark maple from Canada.”

John shook his head with a chuckle. “This is what I willingly bonded to.”

“You did say for better or for worse,” Frannie said, sliding into the chair across from them. “Although I'm not sure if his shitty sense of humor was what the officiate had in mind when he performed your ceremony.” She arched an eyebrow. “Is this making you nostalgic?”

“A little,” Alex said. “Almost makes me want to do it again.”

“I can draw up the divorce papers if you want to break up and then get rebonded.” Frannie smirked at John. “You up for that?”

John laughed. “Hell, no.” He glanced over at Marty, then at the other kids. Not kids anymore. “We're not getting divorced just so he can have another ceremony. That's what renewals are for.”

Frannie sighed, something flashing in her eyes. “Imagine being in a relationship long enough to warrant that.”

“Should we flag down Hercules?” Alex teased. “Tell him to propose?”

“Good God, no.” She made a face. “We're not even serious.”

“You have been together for a couple of years now.”

“But just casually! We're not even exclusive. And I like it that way. Besides, even if I did want him to, which I don't, I don't think Marty would forgive me if he proposed right now. This is her big day.” She looked over her shoulder at Marty as she spoke to David's parents, David right by her side. “She looks so happy.”

John sighed. “She really does.” Her eyes were alight with joy, her smile wide and radiant. She was going back to Cambridge tomorrow. With her new mate. And John had no idea when he'd see her again. Sure, there'd be phone calls and Skype, but he didn't know when he'd be able to hug her, to elbow her every time she made a bad joke, to let her lean against him when they cooked together. He knew that Marty was all grown up – hell, she was twenty-five – but this felt so final.

“You promised yourself you wouldn't cry,” Frannie warned. “She's still your little sister.”

“I know.” John blinked and tore his gaze away from her. “I just wish I could always be there to protect her.”

“I know how you feel,” Alex said. “Remember when Laf and Adri bonded? There hadn't even been a ceremony. It's like he suddenly became an adult and I didn't even get the chance to say goodbye.”

“You two.” Frannie rolled her eyes. “I can't wait to see how you are around your kids.”

“Ask us again in ten years,” John said. They both had their hands full enough as it was. Having a baby would only add to it, and not in a good way. He remembered juggling school and taking care of Mary Eleanor when she was little. Even with two people, the workload would be too much. Not to mention parental leave would be a bitch. John didn't have the time. He was far too busy to be worrying about pregnancy and then what came after.

“That's what you say every time anyone mentions children around you,” Frannie said with a smirk. “Hell, you'll probably still be saying that in your sixties, ask us again in ten years.”

“Of course not,” John laughed. “I wouldn't have any viable eggs in my sixties. I'll probably stop saying that around forty-five. Maybe forty-eight, if I want to piss someone off.”

“Are you saying that you're not willing to dedicate your entire being and then some to having as many children as you possibly can, like any good Omega should?”

John finished off his champagne. He kind of wanted another. “Hey, if that's what a good Omega's supposed to do, then I'm fine with being bad. And sinful. And whatever else they'll try to throw at me.” He’d already heard a few remarks, most of which were either, you won’t be this young forever, or, what does your Alpha say? Would you really deny him a child? As if John was depriving Alex of something by saying he wanted to wait. As if he alone wasn’t enough.

“For what it's worth,” Frannie said, leaning forward a little and interrupting his thoughts, “if you ever do decide to have any kids, they're going to have the best parents in the world. And the best aunt.” Her eyes flickered with an emotion as she said it, but it went by too quickly for John to read into.

“Of course,” Alex said. “Marty's going to be great.”

Frannie swatted at him playfully. “Okay, aunts.”

“You're right,” John agreed. “Can't forget Mimi.”

“Or Polly,” Alex added.

“I feel like I'm just walking into it now, aren't I?” Frannie sighed and shook her head once, then glanced over Marty and David one last time. “Wonder if they want kids.”

“Marty said they probably don't and if they did, it'd be quite a while.”

“Seems to run in the family,” Alex said. John looked over at him. “Your parents waited too, didn't they?”

That was only sort of correct, but John’s shoulders still relaxed and he nodded. “Knowing her, I think she'd want to adopt.” Not to mention that they were both Alphas. Marty had eggs – every female did, regardless of class. But Alpha females weren't built to carry children. That made natural conception nearly impossible, and carrying to term was almost unheard of. Most of the time, the pregnancy would end in miscarriage or, in worse cases, it would kill the carrier.

John prayed that if they did want biological children, they'd go through a surrogate.

“What about you, Frannie?” Alex said, breaking John from his thoughts. “You want kids?”

She smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. “I don't think so. Kids are a hassle.”

“And expensive,” John said. “Not to mention messy. And annoying. And kind of gross.”

“Spoken like a true older brother-slash-parent.”

John shrugged. “I'm not wrong, though. Kids are a pain. One second they're screaming that they'll hate you forever, the next they're curling up in your lap and asking for a bedtime story.”

“I was definitely that kid,” Frannie laughed. “Feel bad for Mom and Dad, come to think of it.” She sighed. “Part of me thinks that they’re just waiting for me to have a baby so I can go to them and tell them that they were right all along, that I’m sorry that I was such a nightmare and that now I know how it feels to be on the receiving end.”

“You weren’t a nightmare,” John said. “You were spoiled, if memory serves correctly, but never a nightmare.”

“You don’t get to say that. You didn’t live with her.” Alex gave Frannie a slightly irritated look, and she simply arched an eyebrow. “You were terrible. And you still are terrible. It hasn’t changed.”

She shrugged. “At least it’s consistent, baby bro.”

“And another thing - stop calling me your little brother. I’m taller than you!”

“Sure, but I’m older.”

“I can tell.”

John rolled his eyes at the two of them. It was just banter, he knew that, but it was still kind of difficult hearing two of his best friends bickering when he couldn’t take a side without ending up in hot water with one or the other.

“Shut the hell up,” Frannie said. “I’m still young.”

“Not for long, old maid.”

John left the table and went to the restroom. When he came out, he saw James sitting alone at a table, staring oddly at the centerpiece. He sat down next to him. “You okay?”

“Hmm?” James looked at him. “Yeah. Sorry. Just distracted.” A beat. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen flowers like this before. They’re really pretty.”

“I think they’re called Juliet roses, or something like that.” He traced one delicately with a finger, pulling away when James winced. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. Just distracted.”

“You said that.”

He looked down at the table. John’s gut clenched. Something was up. “Everyone’s getting bonded,” he said.

“You’ll find someone. You’re still only nineteen.”

James nodded slowly. “Marty won’t let me have a glass of champagne.”

“Like I said, you’re still only nineteen.”

He chuckled a little, and some of John’s worry dissipated. “I don’t know if I want to settle down any time soon.”

“Then don’t. No one’s going to force you.”

James looked at John solemnly. “When did you know that Alex was the one?”

John thought for a second. “I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact moment. I just... knew. Why? Do you have a special someone that you’re -”

“Nope, no way. No relationships for me, only my computer science homework and self-isolation.”

That didn’t sound healthy. “You sure you’re okay? I know college can be really stressful.”

“I’m fine, Jack.” He jerked his chin at something over John’s shoulder. “Alex is looking for you.”

He hesitated. His gut was telling him that something wasn’t right. But James didn’t look like he was about to confess anything any time soon, so he offered him a smile before getting up and walking over to his mate.

“You owe me a dance,” Alex said smoothly, pulling John into his arms.

“Do I?”

“You made me sit with Frannie all by myself.”

“Oh, please, you two were too busy roasting each other to even know that I was gone.”

“I’ll always notice when you’re gone.” Alex gave him a quick kiss. “Without fail.”

John smiled, but looked over at James. He was buried in his phone, face blank. “I’m worried about him,” he whispered.

“This type of event isn’t in everyone’s comfort zone. He’s an introvert.” The music changed and John let Alex guide him to the dancefloor. Alex was a much better dancer than he used to be, and he was comfortable leading now. John followed his steps a bit mindlessly, his thoughts drifting. “Try to relax a little, sweetheart. And have fun. It’s a happy day.”

John finally focused his full attention on Alex. “Yeah, I guess so. It’s not every day you get to walk someone down the aisle.”

“You think Polly’s gonna let you do it?”

“Who knows.” John saw her dancing with Junior. It warmed his heart. At least they were having a good time. “Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever be walking anyone down the aisle. And if this is the only time I do, I’m fine with that.”

Alex gave him a half smile. “You’re still distracted.”

John nodded. “Sorry, love. There’s just... a lot to be distracted about. A lot to worry about.”

“Stop worrying,” he pleaded with a rather pathetic-looking pout. It made John chuckle. “Baby, things are going so well with everything. Worrying’s only going to create problems that aren’t there.” He pulled him closer and kissed his temple. “And if you do it too much, people will stop asking about the obvious age gap between the two of us.”

“The what? That’s not a thing.”

“It is. Someone from David’s side of the family asked me if being older than you created problems in our relationship.”

“No, no, I’m sure you’re lying.”

“I’m not,” Alex laughed.

John made a face. “But you don’t look old.”

“I appreciate that. I think it’s more you than it is me. You’ve still got a bit of a baby face. And don’t look at me like that, you know it’s true. You still get carded all the time. You look like you’re nineteen years old.”

“Maybe I’ll just never age.”

Alex laughed darkly. “Which is a hundred percent guarantee you’ll leave me as soon as I actually get old.”

John didn’t like his self-deprecating humor, but Alex was trying to stop. Claimed it was a force of habit. “I could be nineteen while you’re one hundred and thirty, completely dependent on me for basic survival, and I still wouldn’t leave.”

The grin that broke out onto Alex’s face was contagious. “You’re just saying that. You’ll be gone as soon as I start graying.”

“Nope.” John leaned closer. “I didn’t let you bite me twice just to walk out on you.” They shared a long kiss and John moved his hands to cup Alex’s face, his palms itching at the feel of his stubble.

“Wanna sneak into the coat closet?” Alex teased when they broke apart.

“It’s not our ceremony, silly. And we almost got caught, remember?”

“That was your fault.”

“My fault? You’re the one who was too loud.”

“And whose fault was it that I was loud?”

John faltered. “Fair point.”

Alex smirked and John rolled his eyes at the smug look on his face. “I still can’t get over how good you looked in that tux. White looks tacky on a lot of people, but you... You pulled it off. And then I pulled it off as soon as we got back home.”

John remembered that. They hadn’t been able to keep their hands off of each other. They’d almost missed their flight. In his opinion, they probably could’ve skipped the honeymoon altogether. They only left the room once, and that was because they wanted a break from ordering in room service for dinner.

At least they hadn’t left the country.

“I know this is super cheesy.”

“Like everything else you say,” John said.

Alex swatted him. “I’m trying to be romantic, you jackass.”

John snorted a laugh. “Yeah, because nothing says romance like violence and name-calling.”

“Hey, I didn’t hear you complaining last week.”

That earned Alex a nudge. He took it with a chuckle. “I deserved that. All I’m trying to say is, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”

John smiled and kissed him again. “So would I.”

“Hey, lovebirds.” They broke apart to see Adrienne smirking at them. “This isn’t your ceremony. Break it up.”

Alex stuck his tongue out at her. “We’re adults, Adri. We can do what we want.” Alex had moved past his dislike for Adri a few years ago, when he realized that her love for his brother wasn’t just a phase.

“Be that as it may,” Lafayette said, coming up to them, glass of champagne in hand, “Frannie said that Marty was going to throw the bouquet soon. And I heard that there might be a fight between the bridesmaids.”

“There’s not going to be a fight,” John laughed. “The only unbonded bridesmaids are Frannie and Mary Eleanor.” The idea of Frannie and Mary Eleanor fighting over the bouquet was as hilarious as it was improbable.

“David’s family has a few unbonded guests.” They made their way to the sidelines and sat down at a table. John glanced around for James and saw him talking to Junior. It made him feel a little better.

The guests lined up a few minutes later, and John spotted Hercules winking at Frannie. Marty turned and tossed the bouquet over her shoulder.

It sailed right for Frannie.

She took a small step back.

Mary Eleanor caught it instead.

John clapped along with everyone else and the crowd dispersed. He watched Mary Eleanor bound up to Marty excitedly, grinning from ear to ear. It warmed his heart.

“Looks like Polly’s getting bonded before you,” Alex teased Frannie as she came into earshot.

She laughed it off, but her eyes betrayed her to John. “Guess so.”

The music started back up. John stood. “Come on, Frannie. Let’s dance.”

“What about me?” Alex asked, mock offended.

“We go out dancing all of the time.”

Twice doesn’t count as all the time.” But he waved his hand. “Fine. Betraying me with my own sister.” He smirked. “How very Shakesperian of you.”

John shrugged. “Figured it would be pleasing to your inner English geek.” He led Frannie onto the floor. “So what’s going on?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

He arched an eyebrow. “You missed the bouquet on purpose.”

“I thought I’d let Polly have it. It’s her sister’s ceremony. Besides, she’s going to be pumped up about this for weeks. You know how twelve year olds are.”

“You’re lying,” he whispered. “What’s wrong?”

She faltered for a moment, then her mouth hardened. “I’m fine. It’s nothing. At least, it is now.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s not something I’ll have to really deal with for a while, okay?”

He shook his head.

“I’m procrastinating,” she hissed. “I’m putting off my problems for as long as humanly possible. And as of right now, I’m estimating that I’ve got about two months before I have to face it. So can we please just pretend that nothing’s wrong and talk about something mundane?”

John still wanted to know what exactly she was putting off, but it was obvious that she wouldn’t tell him. “Okay. We can do that. Eliza posted a new pic of the twins in their three-month clothes.”

“I saw it. They’re so cute.” She looked at the ground. “Can we not talk about other people’s kids, though?”

He pulled her just a bit closer. “Okay. I’m going to ask you this, and then I’ll leave it alone. Are you in any kind of danger?”

“No.”

“Is Hercules treating you right?” The question felt like a betrayal to his friend and guilt settled in the pit of his stomach, but he had to know. Good people turned out to be bad all of the time. He'd learned that the hard way.

“Herc’s wonderful, John.” She met his eyes. “It’s nothing like that. Not at all.”

“Well, in that case, I heard that Dan’s met someone?”

“Yeah. Her name’s Ellie. She works with him in Scotland. He says she has the greatest accent.”

“He’s got one, too. I talked to him a few months ago.”

“He does.” Frannie smiled a little. “And according to him, they’re really making progress. They helped get the grid up and running in three different towns last month.”

“How much of it has flooded?”

“Well, it’s twenty-three percent underwater. But the rate at which the levels are rising has gone down considerably. They might be able to get some gates up in a year if it continues to slow.”

“That’s really good. Do we have any plans for Thanksgiving yet?”

“Figured we could get the collective fam together at my parents’ again. Unless you wanted to host this year?”

John snorted. “In our tiny apartment? There’s hardly enough room for two people in that thing, let alone ten.”

“Fifteen. Mr. and Mrs. Schuyler are going to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving.”

“So the sisters and Maria? Who's the fifth?”

“Angelica's not coming. The twins are the other two.”

“It’s definitely going to be at your place, then. Maybe if we ever get a house, we’ll host. Although I don’t know how everyone would feel about driving an hour and a half just to eat.”

“They’d endure an eighteen hour plane ride for your cooking. And you’re driving and hour and a half to eat.”

“And to see everyone. And to visit the kids.” Okay, kid. Mary Eleanor was the only one not in college yet. There was no rush for her to grow up.

“In just six years, you’ll be free from that part of your life. Unless, of course, something changes.” She winked.

There was really no rush for anything.

“Does she have any idea what she wants to be when she grows up, or is she still exploring?”

“Last time I checked, she wanted to be either an artist or a teacher. She couldn’t decide between the two.”

“What about an art teacher?”

“I suggested that, and she looked at me like I’d dropped down from the moon.” They shared a laugh.

“Mind if I cut in?”

Frannie and John turned to see Marty.

“Of course,” Frannie said. “I’m gonna grab Herc.”

“So...” Marty began when she was gone.

“So.”

“I’m bonded now.”

“You are. How’s it feel?”

“I’m glad I did it, if that says anything. Any advice on juggling both a mate and grad school?”

John thought for a second. “Just understand that you’re both going to be busy pretty often, so you won’t get a lot of alone time together. And learn to enjoy the moments when you do have a chance to be with each other, even if it’s something simple, like coffee in the morning or a very brief study break.”

“You and Alex have a lot of those?”

“Ten minute breaks became our new date night.”

She grimaced. “That already sounds like us.”

“Then you've already got a head start. Listen, hon, you've just gotta remember to make time for each other when you can.”

“And know that we won't always be this busy?”

John gave her a rueful look. “You'll always be busy with one thing or another.”

“At least we'll have winter breaks and summer to look forward to until we get real jobs.”

“That's the spirit.”

She smiled at him, then looked over at David. “I'm bonded,” she breathed. “Was this what it was like with Alex? Euphoric and dizzy?”

“Pretty much.” On the day of their ceremony, he'd spent the entire time feeling like he couldn't catch his breath, but in a good way. He still felt like that from time to time. Alex would give him a kiss just because or crack a shitty joke or even just come into the room, and John would be dumbstruck with the fact that Alex was with him. That they were bonded, that they were going to be spending the rest of their lives together. That despite all of the petty fights that lasted too long, despite the fact that they were both very busy with their jobs, they still managed to make things work so well.

John found himself meeting Alex's eyes from where he was seated next to Lafayette and Adri. His heart swelled and he wondered what he'd done to deserve someone like him.

“You're heart's showing,” Marty said.

John tore his gaze from his mate. “Well, it's not exactly a secret that I'm in love with him.”

“We ended up with the ones we were meant to be with.” Marty's eyes gleamed. “It's like a fairy tale ending.”

“No, this is only the first chapter.”

She snorted. “And you say Alex is the corny one.”

John just shrugged. “I have to keep it to a minimum so I don't accidentally encourage him.”

In truth, he'd always found Alex's bad jokes and general sappiness endearing. Not that John would ever tell him that. He had a feeling he already knew, anyway. Alex had a tendency to know what he was thinking. Being best friends for over twenty years would do that.

As if on cue, Alex met his eyes once again and flashed a grin that still, after all this time, made John's heart flip.

 

Chapter Text

“Home, sweet home,” Alex said when they walked into their apartment. John got the lights and removed his shoes. It was almost midnight and he was exhausted. “I'm glad they did it on a Friday.” Alex kicked off his own shoes and pulled John up, kissing his cheek. “It means you don't have to work tomorrow.”

“It means I don't have to work at my job tomorrow.” John went into the kitchen and reached for the bottle of whiskey, then thought better of it and got a glass of ice water instead. “I'm still volunteering in the morning.” He offered the glass to Alex, who took a drink.

“When was the last time you took a day off?”

“Pot, meet kettle. And I had a day off last week, remember? Last Saturday? I went to brunch with Mimi and then alternated between Netflix and sketching for the rest of the day. You, on the other hand, haven't relaxed since before college.”

Alex waved his hand dismissively. “I've been busy.”

“You'll work yourself to death if you're not careful.” He reached around and gently undid Alex's ponytail so he could run his fingers through his hair. “It worries me.”

“When I get settled, I'll take a break.”

“You keep saying that,” John chided gently. “You said you'd take it easy once you got into grad school, then once you got your master's, then once you got a job, then once you got your doctorate, and you're saying it now.” Alex looked away and John cupped his face with both hands, giving him a chaste kiss. “I don't want you to burn out or make yourself sick. I love you.”

Alex wrapped his arms around John and sighed. “I love you too, baby. And I promise that once I get settled, I'll take a day to relax.”

“Good.” Because I miss you. He was busy too, with working almost fifty hours a week and volunteering, but Alex never seemed to take a moment for himself, much less them. He couldn't remember the last time they went on a date, unless today counted.

They went into the bedroom and John made quick work of his suit, hanging it up on the door of the closet so he'd remember to return it tomorrow. He turned to grab his pajamas, only to see Alex staring at him from the doorway. “Can I help you?” John asked.

“Just admiring.” A smirk crept onto Alex's face and he crossed the room. “I don't know how to undo my tie.”

“You've been using that excuse since college.” But John was already untying it. “I'm beginning to think you're lying just to make me do all of the work.” Alex did, in fact, know how to remove a neck tie. Mr. Washington had made his family attend galas with him in the hopes that they'd gain some social networking skills. Alex learned how to dress formally in the fourth grade.

“Speaking of you doing all of the work, there's something we haven't done in a while.”

John spluttered a laugh. “Is that your attempt at seduction?”

Alex made a face and pulled him close. “No. I'm just saying.” He gave John a kiss.

“Is this something we'll be needing the handcuffs for?”

It was Alex's turn to laugh.

--

“I'd almost forgotten how good you are,” Alex teased thirty minutes later as he tried to catch his breath. His head was on John's chest, his arm draped carelessly over John's stomach. John rubbed his shoulder, closing his eyes for a few moments.

“Did Frannie seem different to you?” he asked.

“What?”

“Frannie. Something's wrong. Did you notice anything?”

“Could you ask me again later, when I haven't just gotten my brains fucked out?”

John chuckled despite the worry settling in his gut. “You're so vulgar, you know that?”

“Like you're any better.” He began trailing kisses over John's skin. “You've got a far dirtier mind than me.”

He wasn't wrong.

“But no, I haven't noticed anything strange.”

“She let Mary Eleanor catch the bouquet.”

“That was nice of her.”

“No, I don't think that's why she did it.”

Alex looked up at him with a frown. “You say that I'm incapable of taking a break. You never stop worrying.”

“I'm hard-wired to worry.”

“Well, reboot and cuddle with me.”

John rolled his eyes but pulled Alex close, tucking his face into his neck and inhaling their combined scents. Alex ran a hand through his hair, his chest rumbling. John sighed as the tension slowly began to leave his body.

“You need to learn to turn off your brain every once in a while,” Alex whispered.

“You're one to talk.”

“Sure I work a lot, but you're too anxious. And while it's nice to help you burn off the stress, it's stressing me out.”

“I stress about the stress that I don't have time to stress about,” John mused.

“I don't think that's how the meme goes.” A beat. “John, I really think you should get a psychiatrist. Not just the occasional counselor whenever things get too overwhelming.”

John sighed. This was a conversation they'd been having for a while now. “They gave me the all-clear to stop the meds four years ago. They said it themselves, I don't need them any more.”

The rumbling stopped. John hated it. “Maybe not,” Alex said slowly. “But it never hurts to get a second opinion. From a doctor that isn't Mimi.”

Those two still weren't getting along very well. It had stopped bothering John a while ago. “If it gets any worse, then I'll make the call, okay?”

“The idea is to get in before it gets to that point.”

John rolled over. “It's not going to get to that point. I'm fine.”

“John -”

“I promise, love. There's nothing wrong with me that we don't already know.” After a moment, he rolled back over and gave Alex a kiss. “I'm okay.”

Alex didn't look at all convinced, but John was done trying to persuade him. Instead he kissed him once more before getting out of bed to turn off the light.

“John,” Alex whispered when John was back under the covers.

“Yeah?”

“If you still want to use the handcuffs, we can do that tomorrow.”

John laughed. “Whose turn is it?”

“Yours, for sure.” Alex rubbed his shoulders. “Might be a good way to let off some steam.”

“Nah, you just want to re-establish dominance after tonight.” He smirked. “Don't think I've made you whimper like that in a while.”

Alex growled playfully, pulling John back against him and kissing his neck. “You're definitely getting cuffed tomorrow night.”

“Anything to make you feel better about yourself. Alpha.”

Alex bit down softly. “You're lucky I'm so tired from today, or I'd be getting out those handcuffs now.”

“Too tired? You know, I think I'm finally starting to get why people assume you're older than me.”

Alex rolled on top of John. “Maybe I'm not as tired as I thought.”

“Prove it, then.”

He proved it.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

John pulled into the VAMO headquarters early the next morning. “Morning, Lucky,” he said to the woman at the front desk as he walked through the doors.

“Morning, John.” She held out a box. “Nicolas brought donuts. Want one?”

“No, thank you. I already ate.” He went up to the daycare and smiled at Eliza. “How are you?”

Eliza shrugged. “Haven't slept in roughly three months, but what else is new.”

“No one would blame you for taking a day off from here.” John hung up his jacket and got a cup of coffee. “I could hold down the fort while you get some sleep.”

“Don't tempt me.” She looked down at her daughters, fast asleep in their carriers. “Mom's getting onto me about how bringing them here isn't good for any of us because my attention's divided between them and the other kids, and they're going to grow up insecure about how their moms feel about them.” A deep sigh. “But I don't want to get a babysitter or nanny.”

“Would she rather you stop volunteering altogether?”

“I think so, yeah. But if I stop, I'm going to get cabin fever.”

“When are you planning on going back to work?”

“Two months.”

John sat down in a chair, checking his watch. Ten minutes before parents would be dropping off their kids. He worked in the daycare on weekends and Wednesday nights, manned the desk and phones on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and helped with legal jargon on Mondays and Fridays. If they were really short staffed, he'd multitask. “Will they take you back?”

“They'd better. I've been working with the same flower company for, what, eleven years now?” She grimaced as she said it.

John didn't press. “You could always have Maria take them to work with her.”

Eliza snorted. “Yeah, that'd be a great idea. Have her help children with their speech impediments in between feedings and diaper changes.”

John shrugged. “Can't be that bad. I raised four kids in between essays and tests. You're raising the girls while you volunteer full-time. Maybe it's her turn. What if she had her patients practice their speech on the babies? The twins won't know the difference, and it'd be a good way for the patient to build confidence.”

“It's a wonder you aren't a billionaire yet, with all of those astounding ideas you come up with.”

He flashed her a grin. “It's my specialty.”

Susie whimpered from her carrier and Eliza picked her up quickly, shushing her. If one started crying, the other always joined in. “It's okay, sweetie,” she said softly. “Mommy's here.” She looked back up at John. “So what's new with you?”

“Not much.” He watched as Eliza rocked Susie. It warmed his heart, made him feel something. But he didn't want to think about those somethings yet, because there was no time to. Not in his life. “Anne's retiring.”

“What? When?”

“End of the period.” That meant early next month. John figured he was the last to know. He shouldn't have been surprised. “Turns out her son's taking over. She claims he's vowed to follow the same philosophy that she does regarding the firm, but who knows.”

Eliza made a face, glancing at Angie. She was still asleep in her carrier. “Is she going to promote you before she leaves?”

“Doubt it.”

“But she promised that you'd be an associate within a decade if you worked hard. If she leaves, then you may never get the chance.”

“You're telling me. To be honest, I might be out of a job soon. I have no idea who her son is, much less how he feels about Omegas.”

“That's the biggest load of bullshit I've ever heard.”

“You sound like Alex.”

The door opened and they both turned to see Jason bounding up to them on his chubby toddler legs.

“Sorry,” Todd, his father, said. “He's just a bit too fast for me this morning.”

“It's alright.” John scooped Jason up in his arms, earning a delighted shriek. “Look how big you've gotten! Someday you'll be as tall as me!”

Jason babbled happily to him – most of it was incomprehensible, but he was learning and that was the important thing – and John nodded along.

“I need to get going,” Todd said, taking Jason back and kissing his forehead. “I'll be back to pick you up at five, okay?” He wrapped Jason in his scarf and kissed him once more. Then he placed Jason on the ground and walked out the door.

“Daddy?”

“He'll be back, bud.”

Jason looked at the scarf, then at the door.

He burst into tears.

And so did Susie and Angie.

 


 

The rest of the day went pretty much like that. John and Eliza took care of the kids while their parents were at work or school, with the intermittent help of some extra volunteers.  It was exhausting but John was used to it by now.

Five o'clock finally rolled around, and the kids were retrieved one by one.

By five-thirty, Amelia Louise was the only one left. She clung to John as he tried to calm her down. “Mommy's gone!” she wailed.

“Sure, but she'll be back,” he said soothingly, rocking her a little. “She's just running a little late. That's all.” He exchanged a glance with Eliza. Bethany usually arrived at five after five, because she had to pick up her son from his soccer club on the way.

His mind whirred as he tried to recall everything about her. She was twenty-six, just a year younger than John, working toward her undergrad in health science. She went to the counseling that VAMO offered regularly – she went on Tuesdays. John always checked her in.

But she hadn't come last week.

Amelia Louise sniffled, burying her face in John's chest. He rubbed her back. “She'll be here,” he promised.

Five-thirty became six. Eliza finished cleaning up – John felt bad for letting her do all of the work, but Amelia Louise had yet to let go of him – and looked at both of them apologetically. “I need to -”

“Go ahead,” John said. “I'll stay here with her until Bethany shows up.”

“Okay.” Eliza frowned as she picked up her daughters. “We still doing dinner tomorrow night at Mimi's?”

“As far as I know.”

She nodded. “Alright. Well, have a good night, John. And bye bye Amy Lou!”

Amelia Louise didn't answer. When Eliza was gone, she looked up at John with red-rimmed eyes. “Where's Mommy?”

“I'll try to call her again.” John put her down and grabbed the phone, typing in her number. Third time was the charm, right?

It rang.

Amelia Louise hugged John's leg. He reached down and patted her head.

It was still ringing.

He kept his eyes locked on the door, just in case.

We're sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check -

He hung up. He'd give her another thirty minutes before he called the front desk.

John sat down in the rocking chair and Amelia Louise crawled into his lap. He hugged her and closed his eyes, trying not to think of what would happen to her if Bethany didn't show up.

“John?”

His eyes snapped open. Alex was standing in front of him, arms crossed, eyebrows raised in concern. “Hey,” John said, looking down at Amelia Louise, who had fallen asleep. “What time is it?”

“Quarter til seven. I tried to call you but you didn't answer.”

“My phone probably died.” He kept locked in the desk drawer. “Sorry. I should've told you that I'd be late.”

Alex nodded once at the three-year-old in his lap. “Her parents running late?”

John sighed. “No-show.”

Alex's lips pursed. “Oh.”

“I was hoping that she'd...” John ran a hand over his face. “I need to call the front desk.” He picked Amelia Louise up and walked over to the phone. He made the call, keeping his voice low as to not wake her.

Five minutes later, a security officer came into the room. “I can take her,” she said.

John hesitated for only a moment before handing Amelia Louise over. She stirred and blinked up at him blearily. “Mommy?” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes.

“We're gonna wait for her downstairs,” the officer told her. Her voice was light. “Come on, I've got stickers in my desk.”

“Bye bye, John.” Amelia Louise waved at him.

“Bye.” He waved back until she was out of sight, then gathered his stuff. “I really hope she's just running late.” He glanced at the clock. “Like, really late.”

“She might be.” Alex wrapped his arms around John from behind and kissed his shoulder. “Let's get you home. Have you even eaten dinner yet?”

“No.” His stomach rumbled. “I guess I'm a little hungry.”

“I'll make you something.”

“It was my turn to cook,” he realized. “Fuck, Alex, I'm sorry.”

Alex shrugged. “I get it. You've got a responsibility to these kids.”

They went home and John changed into his pajamas while Alex cooked. The food felt like it stuck in his throat, but he ate it anyway as his mind wandered to Amelia Louise. He really hoped that Bethany was just caught in traffic or lost in her homework, but he didn't think that either of those were the case.

John did the dishes, brushed his teeth, then curled up on the mattress.

“So I did manage to find these in our drawer,” Alex said, coming into the bedroom, holding a pair of handcuffs. “Because I was serious about that last night.”

Guilt pulled at John's stomach. “Alex, I don't really feel like it right now. Maybe tomorrow?”

The smirk fell from Alex's face. “Of course.” He sat down on the bed, putting the handcuffs on the nightstand. “You're really worked up about this, aren't you?”

“Victims of the Protocol have nervous breakdowns all of the time.” He rubbed his mouth. “Running away is common.”

“I don't see how anyone could just leave their children like that,” Alex said.

“I could.” John ignored the look of disgust on Alex's face. The last thing he wanted to do was get defensive. Not tonight. He was too worn out. “She didn't have a choice. None of them did. Bethany had a child that she didn't want at nineteen. She's completely on her own, juggling two kids along with her school and a job.”

“So you think she was right to run?”

John shook his head. “I don't think it's a matter of right or wrong anymore. Everything's just... a mess.”

“Her children are going to feel abandoned.”

“She's going to carry it with her for the rest of her life.”

Alex took off his jeans in favor of some boxer shorts. There was a stretch of silence. “Not a day goes by when I don't think about how much you were spared from.”

It was true. John was a Jumper. He'd evaded the Protocol through some kind of fraud. He was one in 640,000 who had somehow jumped the tracks. And although every Jumper had been granted an official pardon by Aquitaine three months after the revocation of the Emergency Breeding Protocol, they hadn't told anyone.

Jumpers were hated almost as much as Aquitaine.

Sometimes he felt like there was a giant target on his back, like everyone somehow knew, like he was a sitting duck.

Some days were better than others.

Alex brushed some of John's hair from his face. “Roll onto your stomach.”

John complied. He didn't know what exactly Alex had planned but he trusted him.

Alex straddled John's lower back. “Am I too heavy?”

John rolled his eyes. “Of course not.”

“Good.” Alex began to massage his shoulders. “If I could get you to relax for twenty, hell, just ten minutes, I'd be so fucking happy.”

John's heart seized a little. He was always stressed nowadays, and Alex looked out for him. He worried about him. “I love you so much,” John whispered.

“I love you too. And I was serious last night, when I said that I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. Because I would.”

“Me too.”

Alex began to purr. “And the ceremony really got me thinking.”

“What about?”

“Us. What we have. I want more.”

“More?” This was no longer relaxing. Alex had him pinned. He wouldn't be able to escape this conversation.

“Why so tense, baby boy?” Alex began to rub the back of his neck. His hands were warm. They didn't help. “I was just thinking that maybe we could do something special for out fifth anniversary. It is coming up pretty soon.”

“It's November.” They'd gotten bonded in July.

“Well, we'd need to plan this in advance.”

John swallowed.

“What if we renewed our vows?”

Some of the tension faded from his body. “Oh. Yeah, that sounds nice.”

“What were you expecting me to say?”

“No clue. I'm sorry, love, I'm just really -”

“Distracted. I know, baby. But everything will be fine. I promise.”

John nodded, closing his eyes.

When he went to the daycare the next day, Amelia Louise wasn't there.

 

Chapter Text

John walked into the office on Monday morning, carrying two cups of coffee and pretending that he hadn't had a horrible weekend.

“Morning, John,” Jimmy said from the front desk.

“Morning.” John walked to his desk and put the coffee down, shrugging off his coat and putting his bag on the chair. Then he grabbed one of the cups and walked to his boss's office, knocking once.

“Come in.”

“Good morning, Ms. Cleland.” John handed her the coffee. “How was your weekend?”

“Very good, thank you.” She took a sip as she read through some paperwork. “And yours?”

“It was nice. Went to my sister's bonding ceremony.”

“I'm sure that was fun.” She looked up and finally seemed to notice it was John. “I'm glad you're here. I need to discuss something with you.”

Oh God, I'm going to get fired. “Should I close the door?”

She shook her head. “As you know, I'm retiring soon and my son is taking over.” She paused. “We also have that business trip with Glinglon Plastics in two weeks.”

“And everything's been taken care of for it. I'm prepared to help Henderson run the office while you're away.”

“You won't be here.”

John's heart stopped. If I'm fired, I can get a job working on the east side of town at one of the restaurants. I'll make good tips if I let them flirt with me. I can use Mr. Washington as a reference. Maybe Mr. Condorcet. I have a glowing resume, maybe I can make sure I leave on good terms, make sure that I'm not blacklisted from every law firm in Richmond.

God, what if I can't find a job here? Alex is only an assistant professor and doesn't make enough money to support us. I'd have to commute because there's no way in hell he'd be able to relocate -

“You're coming on the trip with us.”

John's thoughts halted. “You mean, I'm coming with you to Sacramento?”

Anne nodded, lips pursing. “I meant to tell you sooner. You're too valuable to leave behind.”

John glowed from the compliment. Was this his chance? “Thank you, ma'am.”

“You'll be in charge of taking all of the notes, helping with organization. You'll get to know my son, get the chance to work with him.”

So he wasn't going as an associate. But he was still going, and he was valuable.

He wouldn't need that job on the east side, after all.

By the time he got back to his desk, he'd almost forgotten about his shitty weekend until he took a drink of his coffee. He almost spit it out all over his computer but checked himself at the last minute and swallowed. “What the hell?” he muttered, opening it and looking inside.

“Enjoying your coffee?”

He looked up to see Heidi, leaning against his filing cabinet.

“It's wonderful. What did you do to it?”

“It wasn't me. I've got too much riding on this internship to be fucking with the firm's most valued secretary. It was Henderson.”

“How mature of him.” John peered down into his cup again. “What did he do, exactly?”

“Salt.”

John made a face and put the lid back on, tossing it into the trash can. He didn't realize his mistake until his shoulder seized in protest and he winced.

“You good?”

“Yeah, I'm fine. Shoulder's just acting up again.” He rubbed it and reached into his desk, taking out the bottle of ibuprofen. “Was there something you needed from me, Heidi?”

“Oh. Yeah. Jimmy and I can't get the printer to work.”

He sighed and walked over to the front desk. “Alright. So what's wrong with it?” He opened the printer door and was immediately sprayed with toner. Heidi gasped and covered her face. Jimmy made a horrified squeak. John didn't say anything for several seconds. He took the tissue Jimmy handed him and wiped his neck. “I'm not going to look at my shirt. Just tell me one thing: how bad?”

“Do you have an extra shirt?”

“That bad?” He looked down. “Fuck. I'm going to rinse this off. And you two are not to touch this printer until I get back.”

John walked into the bathroom and took off his jacket and tie. The jacket was a dark color anyway, so he wasn't too worried about that. But his shirt was pale blue. He unbuttoned it and took it off, rinsing it in the sink.

The door opened and Fredrick Peterson strolled in. “Toner get you?”

“Yup.” Peterson didn't like John, and John didn't like Peterson. They acted civilly towards one another because they were adults, but sometimes John wanted to kick him in the shins.

Now, however, he just wanted to smack the smarmy look off of his face. But he'd get fired if he did that, so he focused on scrubbing at the fabric in vain.

“It's not coming off.”

“I can see that, thank you.”

Peterson hummed thoughtfully. “I've got a stain remover in my desk. You could use that.”

John didn't trust him. “I think I'll be fine, as long as I don't dry it.”

Peterson stood there. John could see him out of his peripherals. Neither of them said anything.

Finally, Peterson clicked his tongue. “I didn't know you had a tattoo.”

“I've got several, actually.” Okay, two. But he wanted to get more.

“Aren't tattoos considered unprofessional?”

“Only if they're visible while you're in uniform.” John gritted his teeth. “Is there something you need, Peterson, or are you just here to watch?”

Peterson shifted forward on his feet, then back. John really wanted to smack him. “Heard you're going to Sacramento with us.”

“I am.” John dared him to say something.

“Don't know why, unless Anne forgot what kind of coffee she likes.” He laughed as he said it, like it was a joke. “Maybe she'll promote you before she leaves, have you fetch bagels for everyone too.”

“Did you come up with that one all on your own, or did you need Henderson's help again?” A low blow. Peterson had made an error last quarter and Henderson had to dig him out of it. It had resulted in Peterson being passed over for a raise.

John hadn't received a raise since he'd started as a full-time employee. To be fair, Anne had started him off fairly high, to compensate for the fact that he'd been unpaid during his two years of interning while he was in law school.

Peterson’s face darkened. “You can just forget about using the stain stick.”

“I'm crushed.”

He walked out of the bathroom and John shook his head, wringing out his shirt and hissing when he moved his shoulder. Maybe he needed to see a doctor about it.

When he went back to his desk, there was a doughnut on a napkin sitting right next to his keyboard. John read the note as he took his spare button-up from the bottom drawer of his desk.

Sorry your shoulder hurts and that Henderson salted your coffee and that you got sprayed with toner. We finessed this from Gallagher's meeting for you.

Heidi and Jimmy

John smiled a little and took a bite, pulling on his shirt and going back to the front desk.

“We got it working again,” Jimmy said. “Larry from IT fixed it. And he said not to scrub at the stain because it'll push it into the fabric.”

John had gotten toner and ink on his clothes a few times before. He knew the procedure. He also knew that his blue shirt was going to be given to Hercules. He was always complaining about not having enough scrap fabric, anyway. “Anything else you're having problems with?”

“Nah, this will probably be the last malfunction of the day.”

It wasn't. The phone stopped working for some reason right before lunch, so John and Larry had to work together to try and figure out what was wrong with it. They examined the manual for almost an hour before they realized that the line had just been pulled from the wall. And John had to be the one to plug it back in because he could fit under the desk.

Getting up hurt like hell, though. He jostled his shoulder on the way up and almost cried.

He took more ibuprofen after lunch, briefly (very briefly) toying with the idea of asking Heidi to get him some codeine. He knew she knew a guy, but he chose to ignore it because she swore that she only bought weed from him and never smoked at work.

He wasn't one to tattle, anyway. He usually had a bottle of whiskey stashed in his desk for days that Peterson was really too much to handle.

There wasn't a zero-tolerance policy for drinking on the job, so much as it was getting drunk. And it took a lot to get John drunk anymore, so he wasn't worried about a splash or two in his coffee.

Not to mention he knew for a fact that Anne had a bottle of spiced rum in her bottom drawer. He wasn't worried.

When five o'clock finally rolled around, he tidied up and bid everyone a good night before heading over to the VAMO headquarters. He needed to get some work done there, too.

“Evening,” Lucky said from her desk.

“Evening.” John walked to the main office, signing in and joining Terri, the other lawyer. “What're we dissecting tonight?” he asked them.

“Just reviewing some contracts that Condorcet's secretary drew up,” they replied, handing him a file. “Checking for mistakes, ambiguous wording, the usual. It's about the scholarship fund he's trying to kick into gear. I don't think it's going to take off.”

“I didn't think we'd be nationwide in less than five years,” Mr. Condorcet said, coming into the room. “And yet here we are, almost a decade later and one of the most successful nonprofits in the country.”

“Most modest, too,” Terri quipped.

Mr. Condorcet quirked a good-natured eyebrow at them, then turned to John. “How are you doing today?”

“I've been better, but I've also been worse.”

“I'd like to speak with you for a moment.”

“Sure.” Mr. Condorcet led John into his office. “Is everything okay?”

“Have a seat, John.”

John sat down, still holding the file awkwardly. He set it in his lap.

Mr. Condorcet sat down across from him. “Bethany Miller was found in Maryland this morning. She's given custody of her children to the state.”

John wilted. “Damn.”

“I just figured you'd want to know.”

“Thank you for telling me.”

Mr. Condorcet regarded him for a moment. “Both of them were placed in a foster home – the same one,” he added before John could ask. “I'll see to it that they're cared for.”

John wasn't surprised. Mr. Condorcet was that good of a man. One out of the handful that remained.

He went back to the desk and reviewed the contract. Mr. Condorcet's secretary was new, still learning the ins and outs of writing up contracts. It showed. He made sure to leave a sticky note with constructive criticism for her.

When John finally got home, he was exhausted and his ibuprofen had worn off.

Alex greeted him from the couch, where he was typing away at his laptop. Working on a paper, probably. Or another lesson plan. “Hey, baby.” His smile fell when he saw John's face. “Bad day?”

“Bethany ran.”

Alex sighed, closing his eyes. “I'd really hoped -”

“Me too.” John put his bag on the table – he'd move it later – and took off his jacket, trying not to wince.

“But was the rest of your day good?”

“I mean, between being sprayed with toner, having my coffee salted, and having to deal with Peterson, it was peachy.”

Alex walked up to John and hugged him from behind. “I'm sorry.”

“I mean, there's one good thing that happened today.”

“I'm listening.”

John turned and gave Alex a soft kiss. “I got to come home to you.”

Alex snorted. “Sap.” His brow furrowed and he cupped John's cheek. John leaned into Alex's hand, sighing. This was nice enough to make the ache in his shoulder seem more like an irritation.

“Anne wants me to go to Sacramento with her.”

The grin on Alex's face melted John's heart. “She does? That's great! When's the trip?”

“Two weeks. And I already did the math. We'll be cutting it close, but I'll be back in time.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“Five days.”

John could tell that Alex didn't like that. “That's cutting it really close.”

“Our cycle isn't due to start until two days after I get back.”

“But if it hits early for whatever reason -”

“I'll wear a scent blocker,” John promised. “I'll wear a scent blocker and catch a plane home.”

Alex wasn't convinced. “But what if some Alpha -?”

“I can fend for myself, love.” John kissed him. “It won't hit early. It never does.”

He sighed, closing his eyes. “I know. I know. And this is supposed to be really good news. They're finally understanding that you're a good fucking lawyer. But I'm still -”

“You worry too much,” John teased. He reached up to undo his tie and flinched.

“And you wonder why,” Alex deadpanned, making quick work of his tie and unbuttoning his shirt for him with expert hands. “It's your shoulder, isn't it? I thought your posture looked skewed.”

“I'm okay.”

“Scale of one to ten.”

“Four.”

Alex fixed him with a look and placed a hand on John's right shoulder, squeezing lightly. John ducked out of the way with a gasp. “That's not a four. That's like an eight.”

“No. If it was an eight I'd be crying.” John rolled his eyes, shrugging off his shirt. “It's like a six at most.”

John turned to go into the bedroom, but Alex wrapped his arms around his waist and pressed his mouth to his shoulder for a long moment. “Make an appointment with the chiropractor,” Alex whispered.

“I'll do it first thing in the morning. Weather's probably about to change. That's it.”

He hung onto John for another few seconds, then let go. “Alright. Take a hot bath, then we'll eat something and go to bed.”

“I believe we have other plans for tonight, too?”

“Not with your shoulder like that. The handcuffs can wait.”

“They've been waiting for so long.”

“Then one more night isn't going to hurt.” Alex kissed the back of John's neck. “I'll run a bath for you.”

“For us,” John suggested, following him to the bathroom. “It's been a while since we took a bath together.”

Alex smirked. “Because the last time we did that, we got water all over the floor.”

“And we've learned our lesson, haven't we? We just can't move around as much if we do anything.”

Alex shook his head. “We won't be doing anything. The whole point of this is to get you to relax and loosen up.” But he was already stripping out of his shirt.

John chalked it up to a victory. They got into the tub and he rested against Alex, letting his eyes close. Alex played with his hair and began to purr.

The stress from earlier melted away and John was finally able to stop worrying for just a moment.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

After a bath and dinner, John curled up under the blanket, watching Alex change into his pajamas with half-closed eyes.

They opened when he saw Alex glance at himself in their full-length mirror and make a slight face, a grimace so small that only John was able to tell.

He sat up and took off his shirt, then his boxers. “Hey,” he said, “Alex.”

“What are you doing?”

“Sleep naked with me.”

“Why?”

“Because it's fun.”

Alex didn't answer, just looked at his pajamas.

“We'll have skin-to-skin contact,” John continued. “Good for lowering stress levels. And I think we could both use that.”

Something flickered in Alex's eyes, but he got under the covers with John without putting on any clothes. “You saw me looking in the mirror, didn't you?”

“I have no idea what you're talking about.” John wrapped his arms around Alex and pulled him close. “Just wanna hold my sexy mate.” He nibbled lightly at Alex's shoulder. “And you can tell me about your day. Because I haven't asked you yet but I'd really like to hear about it.”

“Just a boring prep meeting with the dean of Arts and Letters.” Alex's insecurities took a backseat to his excitement and he couldn't seem to keep the smile out of his voice. “Went over my schedule for the next semester. Gave me the list of upcoming department meetings that I'll need to be attending now that I'm a professor.”

He was going to start teaching in January. John was so proud of him, and he said as much. “It seems like things are starting to settle down, huh?”

“I wouldn't go that far. Dean Adams is kind of a dick, and there's this other professor – Jefferson – that seems like a total asshole. I've gotta give it to him, though, it looks like he's really on top of everything. He's got tenure, even though he's only six years older than us. And, apparently, he has two Omegas.”

John arched an eyebrow and nudged him. “Don't start asking me if you can have another Omega. You can hardly keep up with me as it is.”

“First of all, ouch. Second of all, I don't want another Omega.” He gave John a soft kiss. “You're the only one I want. Forever and always.”

His eyes were so sincere that John could've cried. “Forever and always,” he echoed, lacing his fingers through Alex's. “Okay. So what else did you do?”

“Retrieved my shot records. Paid a couple of bills. Adult stuff. But, hey, I saw that they've got sheet sets on sale at Target and I know that we need some new ones. We should check it out.” He made a face as he said it. “God, Jack, when did we get so lame?”

“Welcome to adulthood. When it warms up, we should have a water gun fight. Invite the collective family. We won't even separate into teams, just have it be everyone for themselves.”

Alex laughed. “That wouldn't be even close to fair. Mimi would kill us all.” Her father had taught her how to shoot a gun when she was ten, and took her hunting frequently throughout her childhood.

“That's part of the fun of it.”

“I think you're just trying to see me in a swimsuit.”

“Specifically, a bikini,” John teased. Alex laughed. “Aw, come on, you'd look good in one. A red one would complement your skin tone.”

“You couldn't pay me enough.” Alex tugged John's hair playfully. “I will be needing your artistic expertise elsewhere, though.”

“We finally breaking out the body paints? I thought we were saving that for when we got the seven year itch.”

“Ha, ha.” Alex rolled his eyes. “You know, we've technically been together for about seven years now, if you think about it. We got together when you'd first turned twenty.”

John had turned twenty-seven a week and a half ago. He remembered when birthdays were a big deal. Now, they just meant that he was another year older.

Alex was right, he was lame.

“We didn't get together until Thanksgiving break though, remember? We spent the entirety of that week in bed?”

Alex smirked. “Oh, I remember. Anyway, your expertise.”

“Right.”

“I need to get some professional type clothes now that I'm actually teaching. I don't think I can get away with jeans until I've got tenure.”

“And you need my impeccable fashion sense that comes with being gay. Gotcha.”

Alex nudged John. “You're better at shopping than me, okay? I just need help with it. And yeah, you have a better taste in clothes when it comes to this. You've been in the professional track for much longer than I have. You know what works.” His voice was getting softer. He was clearly more tired than he'd been letting on. John pulled him closer. “I was thinking we could go tomorrow or Wednesday?”

“Tomorrow works,” John replied. He rubbed circles into Alex's back. “Why don't you get some sleep? We can talk more in the morning.”

“Sounds good to me.” Alex kissed John's jaw. “I love you.”

“Love you too.”

Alex fell asleep quickly. John had always been jealous of his ability to do that. He closed his eyes focused on how Alex felt in his arms. His heart swelled. Maybe they didn't get to go out to dinner as often, but they still had this. And this was so, so good. John kissed the top of Alex's head and tried to sleep.

For once, it didn't evade him.

 


 

John didn't necessarily like mornings, but Alex made them considerably more tolerable. His alarm went off and he groaned, dismissing it and sitting up. He rolled his shoulder experimentally. Not as sore. A good sign.

He'd had another nightmare. Those were common. He couldn't remember what it was, exactly, just that he'd had one. That was less common but he had the feeling that his mind was doing him a service in making him forget.

He looked over at Alex, who was still in the process of waking up. He blinked up at John blearily and gave a sleepy smile that melted his heart. John reached down and brushed a stray hair from his face. “Good morning,” he whispered.

“Morning, baby.” Alex sat up. “Shoulder?”

“Better.” John stood and grabbed his towels. “I'm gonna shower.”

“I'll join you.”

John laughed. “No chance in hell. I can't afford to be late to work.”

Alex stuck his tongue out at him. John showered alone and treated his hair, then started breakfast while Alex made the coffee. “So after we're done suit shopping, I thought we could grab dinner. Because we haven't been on a date in at least seventy-five years.”

“At least,” John agreed. He put toast in the toaster and felt arms slide around his waist. Lips on his shoulder. He closed his eyes for a moment. His days were filled with work, his nights were filled with stress (that usually had something to do with the work), but mornings? Mornings were quiet. Peaceful. In the mornings, he could think. He could relax.

He turned around and captured Alex's lips in a kiss, sliding his arms around his neck. They kissed softly for several long, blissful moments. When they broke apart, John whispered, “Maybe we can finally use those handcuffs tonight, too.”

Alex laughed, tugging gently on one of John's curls. “Maybe. Depends on how your shoulder feels.” He kissed his cheek. “Call the doctor today.”

“I'm feeling fine.”

“I mean it. Call the doctor.”

John's heart seized at the adamant look on Alex's face. He leaned up and kissed him again. “Okay.”

He finished breakfast and they ate together at the bar. It was a simple meal: eggs, bacon, toast, coffee. John still didn't like coffee very much, but he'd gotten used to the taste. It certainly didn't hurt that Alex knew how to make it sweeter and more palatable. John had no idea what exactly Alex put in it – he refused to tell him, joked that the day John figured it out would be the day he stopped needing him. As if John could ever stop needing him.

They cleaned up and Alex showered while John got dressed. He packed a spare shirt for his desk, in case the toner decided to attack him again.

“I will never get over how good-looking you are,” Alex said, coming back into the room. He dropped his towel and pulled out his clothes for the day.

“You're one to talk,” John purred, making a show of checking him out. He looked at the clock. “I need to get going.” He gave Alex a kiss. “I love you.”

“Love you too. Have a good day. And don't forget to call the doctor.”

“Will do.” John grabbed his bag and walked out of their apartment. He went to the elevator, running into the person he always rode the elevator with. He didn't know their name, just that they worked roughly the same hours that he did. It was weird, but he felt a slight bit of camaraderie towards them. Maybe it was just because he'd seen them almost every week day for upwards of four years.

He walked out to his car and glanced back at the building. He and Alex had been living there since grad school. It was small – one bedroom, one bath, a sorry excuse for a living room, and a kitchen barely big enough for two people. It was cozy most of the time, but some days it bordered on claustrophobic.

He drove to his office and noticed a couple of for lease signs. Maybe it was time for a change? The thought made him smile.

As soon as he walked into the office, the peace of the morning was shattered. Jimmy had two phones at the front desk. As soon as he picked one up, the other began to ring. All of the lines were blinking. He looked miserable.

“What's going on?” John walked around and answered one of the phones. “Cleland at Law, this is John.”

“This is Mark Flenderson with Burnham Paper. Is the firm really closing?”

“Closing?” He looked incredulously at Jimmy, but he was too frazzled to notice. “I don't think so.”

“It's in the papers. It says that the firm is closing down because Ms. Cleland is retiring.”

“She's retiring, yes, but the firm isn't closing.” John saw Ms. Cleland in her office with Toni Dallaer. Toni would know what was going on – she handled public relations, among other things. “I will find out for certain and call you back as soon as I know.” He hung up and walked into Ms. Cleland's office. “What's going on?”

Toni turned to him. She was one of the few who liked him, or at least pretended to. “I don't know how, but someone leaked that Anne's retiring and then it blew out of proportion.”

They weren't planning on announcing her retirement until her son had been introduced. After Sacramento.

“If Glinglon catches wind of this, we could be out a big client.” Ms. Cleland stood. “Dammit, how did this happen? You didn't tell anyone, did you?”

“Of course not,” John said. Anne didn't curse. This was bad. “How does someone get closing firm out of retirement?”

“I'm the owner and I don't have any partners. What do you want, Newman?”

“I've got Glinglon on the phone,” Jimmy said from the doorway. He looked like he was about to cry. John's heart went out to him. Jimmy had only been here for a few months. He wasn't equipped to deal with chaos like this.

“Goddammit.”

“Should I tell them you're out of the office?”

“No,” she snapped. “That'll make things worse.” John had never seen her like this. It was unnerving.

“I'll talk to them,” he heard himself offering. “I can explain.”

Ms. Cleland's nostrils flared. “Do it. Dallaer, you stay here. We need to write up an official statement.”

John looked at Jimmy. “Transfer them to my desk. I'll handle it.”

Jimmy scurried off. John went to his desk. Peterson was there.

“Man, have you fucked up.”

“I didn't do it,” John snapped. His phone began to ring.

“Well, someone did, and it wasn't -”

John held up a hand to silence him and answered the phone. “Cleland at Law, this is John.”

“You sound like a nerd,” Peterson scoffed.

“This is Andrew Petkova with Glinglon Plastics. We heard a disturbing rumor that the firm was closing down.”

“I can assure you that's not true. Ms. Cleland will be retiring shortly, but the firm will stay open. We'll be issuing an official statement later in the day.”

“So we're not the only ones who have heard of this?”

“Unfortunately not. The newspaper got wind of her retirement and did what newspapers seem to do best.” Alex would bite John's head off if he ever heard him say that. He'd written several articles for the papers. He was a freelance author and got paid per article. It was a good bit of money, but not exactly sustainable on its own.

Mr. Petkova chuckled. “So who will be taking over? Are you promoting internally?”

“Her son is going to be taking over.”

“Her son?” He heard the doubt in Mr. Petkova's voice. He understood. He didn't feel too great about that situation, either, but it was a problem for another day.

“He's been working with the firm for a little while,” he lied. A tiny fib wouldn't hurt anyone. “He's a good lawyer, and the transition will be relatively smooth. You don't have anything to worry about.”

Mr. Petkova was quiet for a moment. “Quite a way to start the day, huh?”

John glanced at the time. “I should say so, especially for you.” It was six-thirty over in California.

“Woke up to this, figured I'd call so I could have an answer before my boss killed me.”

It clicked. Mr. Petkova was the one who'd suggested that Glinglon employ the firm. He headed up their team of lawyers. “Probably a smart choice.”

“So if the newspapers have their hands on this, then I'm sure that you'll be handling calls like this one all day. So I'll let you get back to it. Could I get your name, though?”

He told him, thanked him, then hung up. He sighed and rubbed his temples.

“Who was that?” Peterson asked. He was still at his desk. Because his life just revolved around John.

“That was Glinglon Plastics.”

The smarm faded. “What?”

John stood without answering him and went back into Ms. Cleland's office. “I just got off the phone with Glinglon. They know what's going on. Everything's fine.”

Ms. Cleland sighed, her shoulders slumping for a brief moment. “Thank you, John.”

He went to the front desk. Poor Jimmy was on the verge of a breakdown. He got his attention. “Jimmy, take fifteen. I'll man the phones for a little while, okay?”

“Are you sure? Because -”

“Go.”

He all but ran to the break room.

John answered calls for the better part of an hour. Jimmy came back and helped him after his break. Between the two of them, it was almost manageable.

“Where's Heidi?” John asked as soon as he had a chance.

“No clue.” Jimmy rubbed his face. “She hasn't called or anything.”

John hoped she had the sense to stay home. On a day like this, skipping was better than coming in late.

Ms. Cleland called a meeting for everyone other than Jimmy, who was to continue answering the phones. John gave him a sympathetic look and silently vowed to buy him lunch.

“As you all know, the news of my retirement has been leaked,” she said. “We've found the original article. It printed this morning in the Richmond Star.”

John fought the groan. Of course it began in the tabloids. “Must've been one helluva slow day for them to target a medium-sized law firm,” he said. A few people around him snickered in agreement.

“Be that as it may, this has caused quite the upset. We've fallen behind because of this, which means we'll need to put in extra work to catch up.” She pursed her lips. “I want whoever is responsible to come forward.”

No one said anything for a deafening moment. Then Peterson spoke up. “John, doesn't your mate write for the paper?”

All eyes were suddenly on him. He could've strangled Peterson. Instead he just snorted. “Alex would sooner die than write for the Star. Besides, he's a columnist, not a headliner.”

Ms. Cleland eyed him for a moment longer, then looked at everyone else. “So no one wants to confess?”

Naturally, a lawyer would be smart enough to know to plead the fifth. No one talked.

“Fine. Back to work, all of you.”

Everyone got up and went back to their desks. John pulled out his notes and opened up a contract on his computer. He needed to get something done today, and he needed to do an exceptional job at it because he was a suspect.

If he lost his job over this, he was going to kill Peterson. He'd call Peggy. As a police officer, she'd know how to help him get away with it.

He looked up from his computer as Heidi strolled in, looking a little worse for wear. He looked around quickly, hoping that no one noticed. “Get out of here,” he hissed when she sat down. “Before they see you.”

“Good morning to you, too. I have a good reason, I promise.”

“Not good enough. If Cleland catches you here, she'll tear into you like a rabid wolf.”

“What's going on?” she asked.

“Miss Pisano,” a voice said. They both jumped as Ms. Cleland's voice called from across the room. “I presume you have a good reason for being so late on a day like this?”

Heidi was a deer in headlights. She went visibly pale. “Yes, ma'am. It was -”

“Get out.”

“I'm sorry?”

“I have zero tolerance for people who don't do their job. You've been late four times now.”

“But it's my -”

“Gather your things.” She turned and walked back into her office.

Heidi remained there, glued to the floor. Everyone was staring. It couldn't have been comfortable. John gave the nearest person – Herbert Bowen – a withering look. Then he stood and guided Heidi into the hallway, away from everyone else.

She burst into tears as soon as they were out the door. John rubbed her back.

“I-I have a good reason,” she sobbed. “My baby sister got sick again. I had to take care of her until Mom could come home.”

“I'll talk to her,” John said gently. “Just go back home today. I'll bring it up tomorrow and then let you know what she says.”

“I need this job. I can't get fired – I won't get my degree -”

“I know.”

She sniffled and John got her a tissue. She cleaned herself up, then went to the bathroom to calm down. John went back into the office proper and sat down at his desk. Luckily, Peterson wasn't there, so he could work in relative peace.

His morning with Alex seemed like a distant memory and it wasn't even noon.



 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

John got home from VAMO at six-thirty. He put his bag down and removed his jacket and tie.

“Hey,” Alex said from the couch. He frowned when he saw John's face. “Another bad day? Was it your shoulder again?”

“No. No, my shoulder's fine. It's everything else that's gone to shit.” John walked into the bedroom and changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt. That was better.

“What happened?”

John went back into the living room and began to unpack his files from his bag. He had so much work to do if he wanted to catch up. “Anne's retirement got out and the tabloids got a hold of it. They spun it and now people think that we're closing permanently. We told everyone that we're not, but it's still damaged our reputation.” He sighed. “We're losing two clients for sure. Maybe more.”

“Damn.”

“To make matters worse, I think half the firm thinks I'm the mole.”

“Why?”

“Because Peterson told everyone that you work for the newspaper.”

Alex spluttered. “You know I would never -”

“I know that.” John ran a hand through his hair and turned to him. “This whole thing is a mess. It's also made us fall a day behind.”

“Which is why your bag threw up all over the dinner table.”

“Yes.” He started to sit down, but stopped. He and Alex had plans. He looked at his papers. Shook his head. “I can worry about it later. We need to go shopping.”

“If you've got too much work -”

“No, I've put my work before you too much this week. I can do it later.”

“I don't want you to get into trouble.”

“I'm already in trouble. Besides, I can always go in on Saturday for a bit. Get some stuff done then. Just let me put some jeans on and I'll be ready.”

They got into John's car and he drove to the thrift shop. “So for a professional wardrobe, you'll want at least five button-ups, some ties, maybe two jackets, several pairs of pants. You can get more clothes as you get paid.” He guided Alex to the men's section. “Stick with basic, neutral colors. That way you can change it up without anything clashing.”

“Jefferson has a purple jacket,” Alex said.

“That's disgusting.”

Alex snickered. “I think he wears it every Friday. It's festive.” He grabbed John's hand and tugged him closer, kissing his cheek. “I'm sorry your day was horrible.”

“I'm sorry it's interfering with things.”

“That's what happens when you work at a thankless job for people that are too stupid to see your brilliance.”

John sighed. “It'll get better. I just have to be patient. Come on, tell me about your hopefully less horrible day.”

“It was less horrible.” Alex thumbed through the rack, picking out a few shirts. “Wrote another article. Which paper was it, by the way?”

“The Star.”

“And people believed it?” He shook his head. “And your coworkers think I actually work for that glorified gossip blog? I'm insulted.”

“I am, too. I would never lower my standards enough to sleep with some greasy paparazzi.”

Alex snorted. “Anyway. Had my first department meeting. Found out that I get my office next week. It's apparently vacant, which means I don't have to wait until the end of the semester to get set up.”

“That's great. Do you know what you're going to put in it?”

“Books. My framed doctorate.” His enthusiasm was contagious. “A few of my articles. Pictures of you and the rest of the family.”

“You'll put my picture in your office?”

“Of course.” He held up a light blue shirt. “Would this be okay?”

“Yeah. We should get you khakis, though. A couple of pairs, at least. Which pictures are you putting up?”

“Every single candid I've ever taken.”

John laughed. “I hope your students are cool with nudity.”

“Hey, I only have two naked pictures of you, and they're hidden in that folder on my laptop with the bucket list. I've got a really good one of you sleeping, though.”

“Creepy.” John grabbed a pale green shirt. Put it back. “You can put pictures of me in your office, but you have to run them by me first.”

“That's fair. You have pictures of me at your desk, right?”

“I have a few.” He had one of them on their bonding day and one from Alex's recent graduation. God, he was proud of him. “Got some of the kids, too.”

Alex looked down at his feet for a moment. John's heart fell to his stomach until Alex mumbled, “Should probably get some new shoes.”

“That's not a bad idea. Come on, let's get some pants.”

Alex tried everything on. “I look like I fetch coffee for a living.”

No, that's what I do. “If you let your hair down and wore your glasses, you'd look like a hipster.”

“That's a horrible thing to say.” He turned. “How long do I have to wear these before I can switch to jeans?”

“Until you get tenure.” John grabbed a tie and fastened it for him. “I think you look cute.” He stepped back. “But you definitely look out of your element.”

He tugged at the tie. “Do you ever get used to it?”

“Eventually.” John had to learn how to wear a tie for extended periods of time. It hadn't been easy for him – it felt like a collar. And if there was one thing he hated, it was the idea of wearing a collar. Back when Omegas weren't considered people – well, sometimes they still weren't – Alphas would put collars on them. Some of them were fancy, made of tasteful fabric and lace, while others were glorified dog collars. That was a lot less common now, but it was recent enough in history that everyone knew about it. People were trying to erase it, just like they did with everything that made supremacist American culture look bad.

One time, he'd gotten drunk with an Alpha and woken up with a piece of scrap fabric tied around his neck. His skin crawled as he thought about it.

“Hey.”

John blinked, coming back down to Earth. Alex was looking at him with a concerned frown.

Alex would never try to collar him. He knew better, knew that John wasn't someone to be owned. And after being with him for so long – after being treated right for so long – it seemed so crazy to think that there were actually still people out there who treated Omegas like property.

“Just thinking.” John straightened the collar of Alex's jacket. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

John was glad that Alex was his Alpha, not someone else.

They finished shopping and ate dinner at a nearby restaurant. “Heidi got fired today,” John said halfway through their meal.

“Why?”

“She came in late and Anne was already in a bad mood.”

“That's not a very good reason.”

“No,” John agreed. “I'm going to talk to her about it tomorrow morning.”

Alex made a face. “You sure you want to do that? I mean, it sucks, but I don't want you to get fired too.”

“She won't fire me. I'm too valuable.” John hoped he sounded convincing. “Total change of subject, here. How would you feel about moving?”

“Moving?” Alex frowned. “Like, away or...?”

“Like moving out of the apartment.” John shrugged. “I just feel like we've kind of outgrown it, you know? Maybe we could get a bigger place.”

“With multiple bedrooms?”

“I guess, sure. I just want a better kitchen. And an actual living room.”

Alex nodded, a grin forming on his face. He did that adorable bouncy thing he did when he was really excited and took John's hands. “Let's do it.”

John smiled back. “I didn't realize how much you hated living there.”

“I don't, but you're right. We've outgrown it. We need to move into a bigger place. With a backyard, too. And at least two bedrooms. And maybe another bathroom? And definitely a big living room.” His eyes had a faraway look to them. He was dreaming out loud. John's heart swelled. But it also sank a little.

They finished eating and went back home. When they were inside, Alex tugged John closer by his belt loops. “Let's start making calls now.”

John shook his head. “Let's get you settled in your new job first. We can start looking in a few months, after you've started teaching.”

Alex kissed him. “When do you want to move out? Because we won't be able to move in until there's a vacancy. And that can be up to six months from when we sign the lease.”

“Maybe over the summer.” John reached back, undoing Alex's ponytail and running his hands through his hair. “If you're really that eager, we can start looking when I get back from Sacramento. But tentatively. We won't sign anything yet. Now come on.”

“Where are we going?”

John went into the bedroom and found the handcuffs in the drawer. “I've got plenty of stress that I need to burn off.” He held them out for Alex. “Figured you could help me stop feeling so anxious.”

Alex beamed and took the handcuffs from John. “When I'm done with you, you won't be able to feel your legs, let alone any anxiety.” He tugged John's shirt off. “Your shoulder doesn't hurt today?”

“Nope.”

“Give me your color.”

“Green.” He smiled as Alex worked his jeans open. They hit the floor. “I just realized something.”

“What?”

“When you tried on clothes today, you took off your ties all by yourself. You have been faking it to make me do the work.”

Alex laughed. “Don't tell anyone.”

“Why? Who else has been undoing your ties for you?”

“No one. But I don't want people thinking I'm self-sufficient.” He nudged John back onto the bed and straddled his hips. He guided his arms over his head and cuffed his hands to the headboard.

“Who would want that?” John accepted Alex's kiss and let his eyes slide shut as he trailed his lips over his face, down his neck, his chest. His mind wandered briefly and he thought of his day. Then he thought about collars. That Alpha. The Protocol. He didn't want to think about any of it. “Make me forget my name,” he breathed.

“We'll need more than just handcuffs to get you that far, baby boy.”

“Whatever it takes.”

Alex gave him another kiss. “You're sure?”

John nodded. “I'm positive.”

 


 

“So what do we absolutely need the new apartment to have?” Alex asked the next morning, his pen at the ready. He loved making lists.

John took a thoughtful drink of his coffee. “Decent kitchen, spacious living room. It has to have a bedroom.”

“I was thinking it should have at least two.”

John nodded. “We could convert the extra bedroom into an office space.”

Alex clicked his pen a couple of times. “Actually, John, I was thinking -”

John's phone started to ring. They both looked over at it. John checked the caller ID. It was his boss. “It's Anne.” He tried not to look relieved. “I have to take it. Just, hold that thought, okay?” Or don't hold onto it. He stood, kissing the top of Alex's head, and walked into the bedroom, answering it. “Good morning.”

“I need you to come in a few minutes early. We need to talk about Sacramento.”

“Oh. Sure. Yeah, I can do that.”

“Good.” She hung up. Anne was never one to waste words.

“What was that about?” Alex asked as John came back out.

“She needs me to come in early.” John took note of the way Alex glanced down when he said it. Something inside of him began to ache. He checked the clock. “I have a few minutes. What were you saying, love?” He reached over and took Alex's hand. If this conversation really was going to happen, he wouldn't stop it.

Alex met his eyes. Shook his head once. “Don't worry about it. It was a stupid idea. We should make the extra bedroom an office, like you said. It'd be an environment conducive to work, so we could get stuff done without distractions. You should get going. You can talk to Anne about Heidi.”

“You sure?”

Alex nodded. John pulled him into a kiss, cupping his face. “You know I love you, right?”

“If last night was any indication,” Alex replied with a grin. “Have a better day than yesterday, okay?”

“No promises, but I'll try my best.” John kissed him again.

“And call the doctor.”

Right. John had forgotten to do that.

Alex loved him so much, and sometimes, even after seven years, John couldn't see why.

“I'll make the appointment at lunch.” John gave him a long look. He'd have given anything to escape a moment ago. But now, leaving was almost physically painful. Alex was too good for John, he really was. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” Alex nudged him. “Don't be late for being early. Get out of here.”

John kissed him again, then grabbed his bag and walked out the door.

He made it to the firm in one piece and got Ms. Cleland her coffee. He went to her office. Henderson was there, too, and nodded at John.

Henderson wasn't terrible. He could be childish at times, but the majority of his intentions weren't malicious, and he was a damn good lawyer. John had trained under him for a little while when he was interning.

“So, John, you're going to Sacramento with us,” Ms. Cleland said.

That was still so nice to hear.

“That means we're losing half of our management team.”

John would technically have been running the office with Henderson, but it was only because he had what could be considered administrative experience as a secretary – and since he'd been stuck in the same position for about six years, he had the most of it. Henderson had the most seniority out of all of the lawyers, so he and John would've worked together to manage the office while half the team was in Sacramento.

And by manage the office, Anne meant that Henderson would handle the being in charge part while John handled everything else. Because John had no authority and he never would. He was just an Omega.

“You need another secretary to fill in for me filling in for you?” John said. Had that come out sarcastic? He couldn't help it. He was irritated with his job, with his boss, with the lack of advancement. And dammit, he couldn't stop thinking about what Alex had said this morning. Or rather, what he didn't say. “I'd suggest Heidi – she was here for almost two and a half years, so that would have made her the most experienced legal secretary after myself – but you fired her yesterday.”

Ms. Cleland looked taken aback. John had never been short with her before. But if he lost his job today, so be it. He could work on the East side. He and Alex could rent a nice cardboard box with literally no room to debate what the space would be used for. “She was late,” Ms. Cleland said firmly.

“She had to take care of her little sister, who has special needs. When she gets sick, someone needs to be there. Her mother couldn't get off work immediately, so Heidi had to come in late. That's the only reason she's ever been late.”

Henderson shifted uncomfortably. “It's true,” he said. “She talks about Sylvia quite a bit.”

Ms. Cleland's expression changed from steel to less hard steel. “I didn't realize.” A beat. “Is it on her file?”

“Yes.”

“Her termination paperwork hasn't been filed yet. I'll call her later today and apologize.” Ms. Cleland sighed and shook her head. “This is why I'm retiring. I'm getting too old to keep up with everyone.”

John didn't say anything. Henderson looked at her sadly. He was nearing fifty, just fifteen years younger than her. He'd been with the firm since he got his license. For a moment, John got angry with Anne because she'd chosen to bring in her son – who no one even knew – instead of making Henderson her partner and then leaving the firm to him.

It made sense why she didn't, though. Henderson was a great lawyer with a great reputation and a lot of respect to his name. But he wasn't really a leader. He could convince a client to follow a regulation that they were dead set against in less than five minutes, but he couldn't make difficult decisions. The only reason he would be in charge while half the team was away was because half the team would be away. Not to say that he was totally incompetent, but the idea was that John would do the necessary paperwork and work behind the scenes while he acted as a figurehead and took all of the credit. Not Anne's actual words, of course.

“So you think Heidi would do a good job?”

“Not as good of a job as John, but I don't have any problems with working with her.”

It was flattering, but if Henderson spoke too greatly of John's value, Anne might just decide that he was needed here more than in Sacramento. And he couldn't let that happen.

“She knows what she's doing. And it's still fresh in her mind, since she's in school. It'll be over her break, so she won't have the distraction of her classes to hinder her.” John shrugged. “If her sister gets sick again, we'll still have Henderson here to handle things.” He turned to him. “I can walk you through all of the paperwork that needs to be done, if you need a refresher course.”

“Sounds good,” Henderson said.

And the student becomes the teacher.

Anne nodded. “Well, that was all I needed to talk about. Henderson, you're dismissed. John, stay here.”

Fuck.

“You've never spoken to me that way before,” she said once the door was closed.

“I'm sorry, ma'am, it's been a very stressful couple of days.”

“Hmm.” Her eyes were calculative. “Do you still volunteer at that charity?”

“VAMO? Yes, all of the time.”

“What do you do there?”

John blanched. “A little bit of everything. Reception, legal -”

“Have they ever put you in charge of a group of people? In any way that could be applied to a place like this?”

John had no idea where this was going, but he had a sliver of hope. His pulse raced. “I work at the preschool on the weekends. And being in charge of a room full of toddlers is a lot like managing an office.”

Anne laughed. Then she grabbed a pen and wrote something down. “You really took charge yesterday. You handled the call with Glinglon and helped Newman with the phones. No one told you to do any of that.”

“Doesn't mean it didn't need to be done.”

“And you maintain working relationships with everyone in the firm.”

“Well, when you know someone's coffee order by heart, learning the rest comes easily.”

Anne clicked on something on her computer. “I'm adding a few notes to your file for Frank to go over. I think he'll be very impressed with your abilities. Hopefully he'll be impressed enough to do something about it.”

John's heart skipped a beat. “Like make me an associate?”

“Maybe not right away. You still need experience with a client. Some of which you will be getting in Sacramento.” Anne looked over at him again. “The firm's got a lot riding on this trip, and so do you. Will you be able to handle it?”

“Yes.” John's voice was barely above a whisper.

“Then get back to work. You've got a lot to prepare for.”

John all but floated out of the room. His concerns from this morning were practically gone. He was moving up. Slowly, sure, but progress was progress.

His dream was that much closer. He couldn't wait to tell Alex.

After he called the doctor, of course.

 

Chapter Text

“You're sure you have everything you need?” Alex asked. He straightened the collar of John's coat. “Clothes, supplies, your scent blocker?”

“I'm sure. We went through the list together last night. Remember?”

Alex nodded. He was still fiddling with John's coat. John didn't even need a coat – he'd have a layover in Chicago, but he was going to be staying at the airport the entire time. But it made Alex feel better, so he wore one.

“I'm going to be fine,” John said. He took Alex's hands and kissed his knuckles. He had nervous hands, like John. “It's only five days. That's nothing.”

“It's almost a week.” Alex nibbled his bottom lip. “So much could happen in a week. There's so much that could go wrong, John. What if your plane gets struck by lightning? Or gets shot down?”

“Neither of those things are going to happen.” Alex hated flying. He and his mother had snuck onto an airplane when she was smuggling them into the states. The entire experience had been terrifying to a three year old who had just watched his home get destroyed by a hurricane, and it was something Alex had carried with him for almost twenty-five years. That was why he and John always drove whenever they traveled. “The plane is safe. Flying is safe.”

“Okay, but say you make it in and then get into a car accident?” His breath hitched and his hands trembled, but John shook his head.

“That's not going to happen. I'm not going to get into a car wreck.”

“But -”

Alex.” John pulled him into a hug. “Honey. I'm going to be okay. I promise.”

This was the first time they'd been separated for an extended amount of time. Well, Alex had a conference once, but it only lasted two days. It'd felt like ten years. And when he returned, Alex acted like it had been ten years and he needed to relearn what John's skin tasted like. John hadn't minded that part as much.

He was looking forward to the trip, but he didn't like the idea of being away from Alex. That being said, one of them needed to be strong.

They were a bit too dependent on each other. This trip would be a step in the right direction.

“I'm going to miss you,” Alex breathed.

“I'll miss you too.”

He pulled away and wiped his eyes. “I'm sorry. I know I'm being paranoid. It's just... You're going away, and if something happens to you I won't be able to get there as soon as I'd need to. I can't stop worrying about that.”

“I'll be fine.” John combed his fingers through his mate's hair. “I'm a big boy, love. I know how to board a plane and drive a car and everything. I can do it all by myself.

“If it happens again -”

“It won't.” John kissed his cheek. “It won't. I'll be careful. I swear.”

Alex hugged him. “You're not allowed to die.”

“I won't.” He breathed him in. His heart swelled. “Come on, love. This isn't forever. And besides, you know the old phrase. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“For the record, I also know out of sight, out of mind.”

John rolled his eyes. “You really think I could ever forget about you? You're the love of my life. And I'm never going to stop feeling that way, no matter how long we're apart.”

Alex tightened his grip. “I was just making a joke and now you've got me choked up, you asshole.”

“Sorry.” Alex had so many insecurities that John wanted to remind him of his love as often as possible. Because it didn't matter what challenges life brought for them, John would never stop loving him. He'd love him until his dying breath (which wouldn't ever happen, because he wasn't allowed to die) and he'd find a way to love him long after he was gone.

John's ghost would absolutely haunt Alex. He'd go all out, too, slamming cabinet doors and flickering the lights. Maybe he'd even write on the wall with blood, but they'd be stupid things like ducks like grapes or feed the cat (even through they didn't have any pets).

“It's okay. I love you too, more than anything.” Alex kissed John's jaw, his cheekbone, his nose.

“We'll have a lot of catching up to do when I come home,” John said. “We can spend some quality time together. And I probably won't smell very much like you by the time I get back.”

“I'll just have to fix that then, won't I?” Alex pressed his scent gland to John's briefly, like he was trying to get a head start on it. John glanced around to make sure no one saw. Full-on scenting in public was frowned upon. “Calm down, this is an airport. No one's going to get mad.”

Now boarding Flight 219 to Chicago.

“That's me.” John pulled away from Alex but then thought better of it and pulled him into a bone-crushing embrace. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too, baby. Call me when you get in.” Alex wiped his eyes and handed him his boarding pass. “You have the blanket?”

Alex had scented a throw for John to snuggle with, in case he got lonely. It was kind of sappy but John had a feeling he'd be using it. “It's in my suit case.”

Alex grabbed John's face and kissed him like the world was about to end. “Have a good time. And come home safely.”

“I will, love.” John turned and walked towards the plane, glancing over his shoulder. Alex waved at him.

Leaving shouldn't have been nearly as hard as it was. But here they were, almost in tears because John was going away for five days.

He got on the plane and checked his phone for any last-minute changes to the schedule. There weren't any, but Alex had sent him a text with every heart emoji known to man. John smiled and replied before turning it off and putting it in his pocket.

The flight itself was boring as hell – eight and a half hours of virtually nothing to do. John went through the file for Glinglon again, even though he'd already memorized it. He also drew the sleeping Beta next to him. It had been a while since he'd really drawn something. He missed having the time to make art, but there were more important things to do. There was always something more important to do, more people that needed his help.

His mind drifted to Amelia Louise and her brother. He hoped they were okay, hoped that someone had taken them in.

They were both so young. And there were so many others just like them, abandoned in the foster system and then picked through like a box of puppies. The cutest ones went first, the problematic ones were left to grow up bitter and alone. He knew the pattern. Frannie had told him the horror stories.

He wanted to make things better. He'd thought that environmental law would've taken him further by now. And yet here he was, flying Coach to Sacramento to essentially tell a company that they needed to follow the EPA's regulations and no, they would not budge on any of it.

He was acting as the company's common sense. He resented it.

But no, he couldn't let himself start thinking like that. He was just disgruntled because it was a long flight and the seats were uncomfortable. He was doing this to make the world a better place. He was doing this to protect the Earth, prevent more natural disasters from occurring and prevent another Emergency Breeding Protocol. Congress had yet to outlaw it.

He balanced things out. His work with VAMO was reactive, while his work with the firm was preventative. What he did mattered. He mattered. That was hard to see some days.

The flight landed and John rode to the hotel in a taxi.

“Business meeting?” the cab driver guessed.

“Yeah.”

“Well, The Shepstone is the perfect place for business. Where you from?”

“Virginia.”

“You sound like you're from Virginia, or at least that area. You got any family?”

“A mate.”

“Kids?”

“No.”

“Me neither. Too much work. Too expensive. Can't exactly afford one on a cab driver's salary, I mean.” He pulled up to the sidewalk. “Here we are. The Shepstone.”

“Thank you.” John paid him and got out. The bellhop took his bags and John checked in before going up to his room. It was nice, with a full-sized bed, a television, a mini fridge, and a wardrobe. He tipped the bellhop and checked the clock. He didn't have to be anywhere until the following morning. He called Alex as he unpacked.

“Hey, baby,” Alex answered. “You're in safe?”

His voice sounded so good. “I'm in my hotel room. One of the benefits of being an Omega among Alphas and Betas means that I don't have to share with anyone.” He tested the mattress. Not too bad. He lay back on it and stared at the ceiling. “It's pretty swanky. Anne must really want to impress Glinglon.”

“Or compensate for the fact that her son's a piece of shit.”

“Oh, come on. He can't be all bad if she's letting him take over. I'll get to judge for myself tomorrow, anyway.”

“What if he's a total douchebag?”

“Then he'll fit right in.”

Alex laughed. “Okay. But what will you do?”

“Suck it up and deal with it.” He'd gotten really good at tolerating bullshit over the years, thanks to Peterson. “I can handle whatever they throw at me.”

“I know you can. But if he's the absolute worst, you can always get another job.”

He didn't know anyone that would hire him but he kept his mouth shut.

“Have you eaten yet?”

“Not yet,” John said. “I'll get dinner in an hour, once I get settled. What about you? Is everything okay over there?”

“I'd say so. I mean, I've burned down the entire apartment and everything we had has been reduced to ash, but other than that? Everything's fine.”

John chuckled. “Good. Don't forget to take care of yourself while I'm here. I don't want to come back to see you wasting away.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I mean it.”

“I know.” Alex sounded mildly irritated. “You too. And don't overwork yourself. I know you've got a lot riding on this, but a promotion won't do you any good if you've completely worn yourself out.”

It was John's turn to get irritated, but he understood. He sometimes worked too hard and then had a high-speed come apart as soon as he had a moment of peace. Those usually involved crying in the shower and then having a few drinks, followed by curling up in bed and taking an alcohol-induced stress nap. He'd get up some time later and go work out until he was too exhausted to think, have another shower – sans the pathetic tears – and take yet another nap.

Alex hated it and usually got onto John the next day. He claimed his habits were self destructive and that John was handling his stress the wrong way. John argued that since his routine involved a trip to the gym, he was burning off the stress and therefore coping healthily. They would never see eye-to-eye on the subject.

“I won't. They've got a gym here, as far as I can tell -”

“John, no.”

“I was just going to say that I could work out in the evenings. Jeez.”

“But no frenzied six-hour visits?”

John rolled his eyes. “No.”

“Okay then. You have my blessing. Does the hotel have anything else?”

John looked at the pamphlet. “A pool. But we already knew that. A bar. Complementary breakfast, dinner buffet. Oh, live entertainment. That's pretty cool.” John shifted the phone and opened the fridge. Little bottles of vodka. How cute. “Let's go see something live when I get back, okay? We haven't done that in a while.”

“Sure. Hey, wanna have phone sex?”

John snorted. “That was random.”

“I've been wanting to ask since you called.”

“Thirsty hoe.”

Hey.”

“But yeah, that sounds fun.”

John got off the phone with Alex thirty minutes later and ordered takeout, then ate and went to bed. He curled up under the covers, holding Alex's blanket close.

He woke up early the next morning and got ready. He ordered room service for breakfast so he wouldn't risk being late to the meeting. When he got dressed, he decided to wear one of his nicer nice suits – he wanted to make a good first impression on the man who would be signing his paychecks. As he fastened his tie, it occurred to him that he'd never seen a picture of Anne's son. She didn't have any personal items on her desk, just a framed copy of her law degree on her wall. It didn't matter, he'd meet him soon enough.

He sent up a silent prayer that he wasn't racist, homophobic, or classist. He hoped that her son was a decent person, whoever he was.

When he finished getting ready, he realized that he still had two hours to kill. He ran a hand through his hair and checked himself in the mirror. He looked good. He sent a picture to Alex, although he was probably still asleep.

“You've got this,” he said to his reflection. “It's just a meeting. Don't be nervous.”

Having two hours free meant he had the time to worry. Not great. He occupied his mind by exploring the hotel lobby and dining area. It really was a nice place – he was glad that the firm was paying for it. There were ornate chandeliers that hung from the ceiling, a gold trim on the black granite countertops in the dining room, marble pillars and a bust of the owner, right in front of his portrait. (Mr. Shepstone was certainly humble.) The elevators had mirrors and plush carpet, complete with an attendant. He felt a little like a child seeing a toy store for the first time.

The longer he lingered, however, the more disenchanted he became. The bellhops in red bowties were all Omegas, and everyone knew it. Incoming guests would order them around like they were servants. The receptionist, although seemingly put together, was frazzled as she spoke with an irritated woman wearing a fur coat that John hoped to Godwas faux. A young man - maybe twenty - was polishing one of the marble pillars, and an older guest was staring him down like a hawk. John’s skin crawled. He’d been in that position just six years ago, when he was waiting tables. Older customers who were clearlystill in the closet would tease him about his freckles or toned physique, and he would have to nod politely or risk getting fired.

Male Omegas weren’t rare, per se, but they were certainly less common in the States. Due to that, they were often fetishized.

John went back up to his room.

The Omegas all seemed young - twenty-five at most. The owner of the hotel clearly preferred their lower staff to be fresh and youthful. John’s lip curled in distaste at the thought. There was still a chance that these Omegas had avoided the Protocol simply because they’d been too young at the time. He hoped that was the case, but he knew the haunted look in some of their eyes by heart. He’d seen it too many times in the Omegas that walked through the doors at the VAMO headquarters. He sometimes saw it in himself.

Regardless of whether or not they’d been subjected to it, there was no way they’d really avoided it. And those who had been -

He couldn’t do this right now. Not when there was work to do. He splashed cold water on his face and went down to the cafe, getting coffee for himself and Anne. Then he went into the conference room. Anne was already there, setting up the projector.

“You're early, John,” she said.

“Wanted to get a good seat,” he joked, handing her her coffee. “Need any help?”

“No.” She finished setting up and sat down in front of her laptop. John took the seat next to her, getting out his own computer and pulling up the rough draft of the contract that had been written for Glinglon to sign with them. He'd highlighted a part that contained ambiguous wording. He also pulled out his notebook and pen. He could take notes on his laptop, but he preferred to write by hand. He'd developed his own form of shorthand over the years that only he could manage to read. He used it for work purposes most of the time, but also wrote down sarcastic quips that he couldn't say aloud at the risk of sounding unprofessional.

People began to file in ten minutes later. Anne checked her watch and shook her head once. She booted up the powerpoint. “I suppose I'll get things started. Good morning, everyone. I'm glad to see you all made it on time. Well, most of you.”

Hurried footsteps.

“You're late.” Anne was using the same voice she used when one of her employees got out of line. “This isn't what I'd call a good first impression.”

Scolding her son in front of his future underlings seemed a little cruel, but this was Anne Cleland. She was the queen of punctuality. John didn't look over at his new boss, choosing to copy notes from the powerpoint and wonder silently how Anne's son ever managed to live with her.

Maybe she'd fire him like she fired Heidi, except permanently. And put John in charge of the firm.

It would never happen, but the thought made him smile a little.

“My apologies, everyone. I forgot my case notes in my room. But let's just say I was purposefully keeping you all in suspense.”

His voice set off an alarm bell in the back of John's mind. His gaze shot to the man who was making his way to the front of the room. He dropped his pen and his heart stopped. There was no way. No way in hell, no chance, it couldn't be -

“Anyway, I suppose introductions are in order. My name is Francis Kinloch.”

It was.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

John couldn't breathe. His ears were ringing. His hands were shaking. He was going to throw up.

He saw Francis's mouth moving as he spoke about, about something. Something that John needed to be paying attention to. He tore his eyes away and looked down at his notebook.

Monday 9:30 Meeting, it said.

He picked up his pen and tried to listen to what Francis was saying. The sound of his voice made him want to shut down. He sat rigidly in his seat, scribbling and trying not to scream.

He pushed it all away. He had a job to do. He was a lawyer, he was professional, he was good at tolerating -

He was good at -

He made everything snap into focus. Survive, his brain told him. That meant blending in. That meant keeping calm and waiting it out.

That meant enduring this meeting.

“...Glinglon Plastics, and they specialize in making pill bottles for pharmaceutical companies. They recently quit their old firm due to undisclosed conflicts and would like to hire us on. Their main building is here, but they have several smaller branches across the nation, one of which is in Richmond. We’ll be using that particular branch as a segue to their headquarters here, in Sacramento.” Francis switched to the next slide. “The current CEO is Foster Williams. We will be working closely with him as well as his and the company’s representatives. Our first meeting with him will be at one o’clock.”

John only glanced at the picture. He knew quite a bit about Mr. Williams. He’d searched him up on the web as soon as he got the chance, memorizing everything he could find. Mate, two children, one grandchild. Philanthropist, polyglot, advocate for animal and women’s rights. It didn’t quite match up with Glinglon’s rather shady history. They’d been in hot water fifteen years ago, when it was discovered that they’d switched to using cheaper plastic that wasn’t food grade in order to cut costs. It ended with over fifty people in the hospital due to the toxins from the plastic leaking into the medicine. Maybe Mr. Williams was trying to turn the company around.

Good. This was good. He was focusing. Focusing was good.

“I trust you’ve all read the files that were sent to you about the client. If you’d pull out the sample contract I wrote up, we can go over that.”

The contract. John had it right in front of him, on his laptop. A highlighted section was glaring at him.

“Did anyone see any problems with it?”

John had a problem with it. But he had more to worry about than a contract. He stared at the highlighted part. It seemed to be mocking him.

No one said anything.

“Nothing? Don't be shy, I'm only your new boss.”

Only his new boss. John could interact with a new boss. He couldn't interact with Francis. He made himself separate them into two separate entities. He knew how – he'd had to learn around Henry.

Disclosures,” he heard himself say. He made his voice sound stronger than he felt. “Paragraph D. The wording is ambiguous.” He didn't look away from the contract. If he had to look at him, it would all be over.

He heard the shuffling of papers.

“Yes,” Anne said. “I can see that.”

“You're right.” Francis was addressing him directly. He still didn't look at him. It was incredibly disrespectful of him, but he couldn't. He couldn't.

As soon as Francis dismissed everyone, John gathered his things with shaky hands. He had to get out. The walls closed in, shaking, and threatened to collapse on him. His nerves were live wires. They kept pushing him forward, giving him the energy to run when what he really wanted to do was collapse. He couldn't be here any longer. He grabbed his stuff and high-tailed it out of the room. He took note of everyone going in the same direction and went the opposite way. He could get to his room faster and pack his things.

He reached an elevator and pressed the up button over and over again.

The doors opened. No attendant was present. Just as well. He pressed the force close button.

“Hey, hold the doors!”

God, no. He held the button down. The doors slid closed.

A hand interrupted them. John's eyes snapped to the floor and he stared at his shoes. He had to stop himself from throwing up on them.

The doors slid closed. John was trapped. He stood, frozen in place.

“John.”

He closed his eyes and took a breath. He looked up. His eyes met slate gray ones. He swallowed. “Hello, Francis.” His voice was strained.

“Did I scare you? I didn't mean to. It's just that my room is closer to this elevator.” He was smiling. Oblivious to John's horror. Or he didn't care. Both were equally likely. “Wow. John. It's been a while.”

“It has.”

“Ten years? Give or take?”

“About.”

Francis was still smiling. His eyes were bright. John's hands twitched. If Alex was here, he'd take them in his own and press soft kisses to the tips of his fingers.

If Alex was here, he'd realize that something was very, very wrong and either drag John to some place safe or deck Francis.

John wanted to deck Francis. But he wanted to hide, too. He wanted to disappear.

“You look good.”

John's stomach turned. He looked at the floor counter. They were on the fourth floor. John's room was on the fifteenth. Francis's was on the twelfth.

“I mean really, I don't think you've aged a day since I last saw you.” John wasn't looking at him, but he knew Francis was smirking. Arrogant. “What about me? Do I look old yet?”

John nodded numbly.

“Are you okay?” The smile was gone from his voice. “You look like you've seen a ghost.”

Ironically, John felt like he'd just died.

“Come on, you knew this was going to happen, right?”

“What?” John finally looked up at him, tightening his grip on his case. No, no, nothing was going to happen.

“You knew I'd be taking over for my mother.”

“I didn't know she was your mother.”

Some of the light died from Francis's eyes. “You had no idea? She didn't even tell you about me?”

“She called you Frank.” Maybe she'd told the associates about him. Maybe he was the only one who didn't know.

He'd Googled Frank Cleland and hadn't come up with anything. He hadn't known why. Now he did.

“No wonder you seemed so shocked. Well hey, why don't we go out to lunch? We can catch up. And I'd like to go over your file with you. My mother left some notes for me on all of her employees, but you stand out.” A grin that John had probably found charming at one point. “Then again, you always do. What about the restaurant here at noon?”

“Lunch won't work.” That was all John could manage. He pressed himself closer to the wall.

Francis frowned. “Dinner, then. I'm buying.”

John would be gone long before then. “Sure.”

The doors opened and Francis moved to get off. “Hey, let's talk more after the meeting.”

John nodded mechanically. The doors closed. Opened on the fifteenth floor. John bolted to his room, pulling out his key. It took five tries for him to get it open. He dropped his bag inside and ran to the bathroom, emptying the contents of his stomach. He clutched his abdomen as he threw up so forcefully that by the time he was done, his entire body ached. He flushed and rinsed his mouth out, then splashed water on his face.

He walked over to the bed on shaky legs, his vision tunneling, and collapsed on it. He grabbed Alex's blanket and buried his face in it, even though he was hyperventilating. He needed Alex. He needed – he needed to go. He needed to run as far away from here as possible and never, ever come back.

He knew he needed to leave, but he curled up into a ball on the mattress, the throw pressed so close to his face that he could barely breathe. He could hear himself whimpering. He couldn't stop.

He pulled the other blankets over him, closing himself off from the rest of the world.

Fear coursed through his veins, his heart pounded in his ears, soft cries spilled past his lips. He muffled them with the throw. He didn't want anyone to check on him. He didn't want anyone near him.

He wanted his Alpha.

He wept into the blanket.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

To whom it may concern,

I have decided to terminate my employment with Cleland at Law for reasons I do not care to disclose, effective immediately. I have learned much in the past six years, and appreciate all of the opportunities that have been awarded to me.

I understand that I am leaving the firm at an inopportune time, and understand if you feel the need to bill me for the time I spent at The Shepstone.

If you have any questions, feel free to call me.

Thank you,

John Laurens-Hamilton

John emailed the letter to himself. He'd go down to the lobby to print it, and then slide it under Anne's door while she was at the meeting.

He stood, grabbing his room key. He'd already packed.

He headed down to the lobby. A man got in with him on the tenth floor. He kept looking at John. It was unnerving. Everything was unnerving. He didn't know this person. Why were they staring? What were they planning? John ignored him and stared at the counter.

“I'm sorry,” the man said. “I'm sorry, are you with Cleland at Law?”

John nodded hesitantly. Fuck, he's a stalker. He's a stalker who's going to kill me and leave me in a ditch.

At least then I won't have to deal with Francis.

“I thought you looked familiar!” The man stuck out his hand. His cheerful voice threw John for a loop. “Andrew Petkova. I'm with Glinglon Plastics.”

Oh thank God.

Not a stalker. John was just paranoid.

“How did you know that I'm with Cleland?” John asked, shaking his hand. “We're not supposed to meet you until one.” They weren't supposed to meet him. John was going home.

“We researched the entire firm. A bit of added security, after what happened last time. You're... John?”

“That's right.”

“I spoke to you on the phone. You dispelled that rumor about the firm closing down.” Mr. Petkova smiled. He had laugh lines. That was nice. Happy people didn't stalk and murder innocent Omegas.

John was far from innocent.

“I'm glad I'm getting the chance to personally thank you,” Mr. Petkova continued. “You might have saved me from being fired.”

“Happy to help.”

“I remember reading that you volunteer regularly, and that you... You fast-tracked through both college and law school?”

“I did.”

“That's amazing. Honestly, knowing that your firm is smart enough to employ people like you was what really sold us. You've got a good head on your shoulders.”

This guy had the charm of a really good car salesman. John hoped he wasn't blushing. “Thank you.”

“I believe Ulysses Gallagher and Tonya Dallaer were also quite impressive.”

John knew that Toni volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, and Gallagher worked with either children or animals.

The doors opened, and Mr. Petkova turned to him. “Anyway, I'm really looking forward to working with you, Mr. Laurens-Hamilton.”

John was slightly taken aback. People didn't usually call him by his last name, they just called him John. Peterson called him Jonathan on occasion, even though that wasn't his name. Even Ms. Cleland, who was notorious for referring to everyone by their last name, didn't use his. Admittedly, Laurens-Hamilton was a bit of a mouthful, but he always wondered if they called him by his first name because they didn't see him as on the same level as everyone else in the firm, since he was an Omega.

“Likewise,” John said, shaking his hand again. He walked to the computer and pulled up his email. He reread his resignation letter. Printed it. He went back up to his room and paced.

If he quit, where would he go? No one would hire an Omega lawyer with no law experience. And he didn't want to be a legal secretary forever. Most secretaries became associates after they graduated from law school.

He had the education of a lawyer and the experience of a glorified receptionist.

Potential employers would ask him why he left and what would he tell them? That he couldn't handle his new boss? That wasn't a very good reason. They'd only see a frightened little Omega who runs at the first sign of trouble.

He wouldn't be able to get a job at another firm. Maybe he wouldn't be able to get a job at all. And then he and Alex would get evicted from their apartment and Alex would resent him for it and everything would be John's fault.

He couldn't leave the firm. He had nowhere else to go.

And if he was really as good as Mr. Petkova seemed to think, then he owed it to the firm to stay. He owed it to himself to stay. He could deal with Francis. They'd just be working together. He'd survived worse, right?

His phone buzzed. It was a text from Alex.

The Mighty Meme King: helicopter duck golf taxi

John shook his head.

John: If you're going to keyboard smash, turn off autocorrect.

The Mighty Meme King: That wasn't a keyboard smash, pfft
The Mighty Meme King: That was a cryptic message that you need to decode. Your very life depends on it.
The Mighty Meme King: You got a few minutes to talk?

John looked at the clock. He did have some time, but he didn't know what hearing Alex's voice was going to do to him, whether he could talk without breaking down and telling him everything.

Alex had no idea who Francis was. If he knew, he'd demand that John quit his job. And John couldn't do that, no matter how tempting it was.

John: About to go to the meeting.
John: A couple of hours?

The Mighty Meme King: Okay. Love you! <3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3

John smiled and almost started crying again.

John: I love you too. So much.

He pocketed his phone and finished getting ready. He glanced at the pile of blankets. Grabbed the one Alex had scented for him and hugged it for strength. He'd be needing it.

He started to place his resignation letter on the dresser but decided against it. He crumpled it and threw it in the trash can on his way out.

He was the first one to the conference room. He began to get set up.

A few minutes later, a trio of men walked in. Mr. Petkova was with them. Peterson and Francis were close behind.

One of them glanced at John and held out a five dollar bill. “Coffee. Two cream, one sugar.”

Heat rushed to John's face – this was just what he needed – and he opened his mouth to protest. Mr. Petkova beat him to it.

“Does this man look like a waiter to you, Angelo? If you want coffee, get it yourself.”

Angelo looked as shocked as John felt. “I- I'm sorry, I just thought -”

“You thought wrong,” Mr. Petkova said icily. “Go get your coffee. And get mine too, while you're at it.” He looked at John. “Would you like anything, Mr. Laurens-Hamilton? Angelo's buying.”

As much as John would've loved to make an asshole pay for his coffee, he wasn't sure if it was a good idea to put anything in his already nervous stomach. “No, thank you.”

Angelo left the room and Mr. Petkova took a seat across from John. “I'm sorry about him.”

“Don't worry about it. Common misconception.” Because everyone looked at an Omega and thought, coffee courier. Or maybe it was just his firm.

“But one that shouldn't be happening nonetheless.” Mr. Petkova got out his notes. “Do you have any plans for tonight? I'd love to take you to dinner and talk about your volunteering.”

“Unfortunately, I already have the privilege of taking him out tonight,” Francis said - no, spoke for him. He used to do that all of the time. John couldn't say that he was happy to see that hadn't stopped.

“Tomorrow night works for me,” John said to avoid thinking about the fact that he had to eat dinner with Francis, since he was staying.

“Alright. Tomorrow night, then. Do you like Italian?”

“Of course.”

“I know this great place. How does seven sound for you?”

“Sure.”

“So popular,” Peterson said, unenthused. He sat down. “Better be careful, John. If you keep letting people take you out to eat you'll lose your figure.”

John chuckled. “I could gain two hundred pounds and you still wouldn't be able to keep up with me.”

Francis laughed, but covered it poorly with a cough.

Peterson huffed.

The meeting went well, even if it was a little redundant. Foster Williams came in and introduced himself, and made it a point to introduce himself to everyone in the room. At least he didn't skip a beat when he introduced himself to John.

John took notes as Mr. Williams talked about the company's new philosophy and their mission. They were planning on opening a few plants throughout the country and needed to be absolutely sure that they weren't violating any environmental laws.

Mr. Petkova spoke next and basically reiterated what Mr. Williams had said, with a few extra things about deadlines and methods of communication.

When the meeting was over, Francis approached John. John wished he carried mace on his person. His skin crawled.

“So dinner tonight. Where would you like to go?”

“The restaurant here is fine.” It was a public place. John could make an escape if he needed to, and his room was in the same building. He tried to think of a good reason to get out of this, other than that he didn't want to. Came up blank.

“Seven okay?”

“Sure.”

“I can come up to your room.”

No chance in hell. Francis was not going to learn where John slept by himself. “No, we can just meet in the lobby.”

“Okay. We'll meet in the lobby at seven. See you then.”

“See you.”

John went back to his room and took a breath. Then he texted Alex, asking if he wanted to Skype. He set up his laptop and opened the app. It began to ring a moment later, and John answered it. Alex's face appeared on his screen. He was in their bedroom. John's heart ached.

“I miss you so much,” he said.

“I miss you too.” Alex's brow furrowed. “John, what on Earth did you do to your bed?”

John looked over his shoulder at the pile of pillows and blankets. “I slept really restlessly last night,” he lied. “Woke up with that. Thanks for the blanket, by the way. It's really helped.”

“I can't wait to have you back home,” Alex sighed. “I almost miss being roasted alive.”

“And I almost miss feeling your cold feet in between my ankles.” John rested his head on his hand.

“I almost miss waking up with your hair in my face.”

“It's not my fault you like to spoon me. I almost miss waking up with a hard-on pressed against my ass.”

Alex laughed. “Remember our honeymoon, when you woke me up in the best way?”

“Yeah. I remember.” He thought about their honeymoon. “Remember how sore we were at the end of it?”

Alex snorted. “We both limped for the better part of a day. And you taught me how to use concealer.”

“It's a valuable skill to have when you're with someone as thirsty as I am.”

“You really are. It's why we go so well together, among other things.” Alex smirked as he said it. “So. Tell me about the meetings. You've met your new boss, right?”

John tried not to grimace. “Yeah. He was late to the first meeting. But he seems... I mean, he hasn't fired me yet.” He hoped he appeared nonchalant. “He said he wants to talk about my employee file later tonight. And I've got dinner tomorrow with Andrew Petkova. Apparently he likes that I volunteer and wants to talk about that.”

“So you've got two different men taking you to dinner for the next two days. Should I be concerned?”

John caught the teasing note in Alex's voice. “Absolutely. If you're not careful, Hamilton, I just might have to bring one of them home with me.”

“As long as you film it so I can watch.”

“We can Skype.”

“Even better.” Alex smiled and shook his head. “Just be careful. Don't get swept up in their charisma and their wealth. I don't intend on freezing to death at night any time soon.”

“Oh, please. You're the only one for me.” And he was. One hundred percent. John found so much solace in that. He thought for a moment and then went to the bed, grabbing Alex's blanket and wrapping it around himself. “Knowing that I'll be coming home to you is what gets me through the day.”

Alex's eyes softened. “I wish I could kiss you right now.”

“I wish you were here.” John's voice sounded small, even to him.

“Is everything okay over there?”

No, but I'm trying my best. “Things are fine. I just... I just really miss you.” To be fair, he did really miss Alex. And things would be easier if he was there. “I'd give anything to be with you right now.”

“So would I, baby.”

They weren't very good at this whole being apart thing, were they?

“Someone gave me their coffee order at the meeting.”

“Seriously? You didn't get it, did you?”

“No. Mr. Petkova – the one I'm having dinner with tomorrow – got onto him. And then he made him buy me coffee.”

“I like this guy already. Who is he?”

“He's in charge of all of the lawyers at Glinglon.”

“How was Peterson?”

“An asshole, as always. He came after me again, and I dragged him. The usual.”

“What'd he say?”

“He said that I'd get fat if I kept letting people buy me dinner.”

Alex made a face. “That's his weakest one yet.”

“I know, right? He needs to step it up or I'm just going to have to find someone else to have an office rivalry with.”

“Speaking of rivalries, I don't like Jefferson.”

“Making enemies already, Alex? Really?”

“In my defense, he's a real bastard. And a weirdo. He has this swivel chair in his office that he spins around in all of the time, and he has macaroni every day for lunch. And all he does is brag about how great he is, and how much money he has, and how happy his precious Omegas are.” Alex rolled his eyes. “It's like, we get it. You can handle having two Omegas at once.”

“If memory serves correctly, so can you.”

“Not without getting jealous, I can't.”

John chuckled. “It'd probably be different if you'd loved him as much as you love me.” He batted his eyes. “To be fair, it's hard to have anyone else when you've already had the best.”

“God, you're arrogant. What else happened today?”

I had a panic attack and almost resigned. I was trapped in an elevator with my ex. I cried into the blanket and drank two of the mini bottles of vodka. “Nothing really. But I've got some time to kill before dinner.”

“I've got an idea of what we can do,” Alex purred.

“Of course you do.” But John was grateful for the distraction.

“I packed a surprise for you in your bag.”

“Oh no.” John grabbed his suitcase. “Is it in the front pocket? Because I never looked in there.”

“It's in the front pocket.”

He unzipped it. “You dick.”

“It'd be great if I could see you put it to use.”

“You dick,” John repeated. “Fine. But I get to choose what you use tomorrow night.”

“Ooh, sounds terrifying. Hey, where'd you go?”

John had walked to the door and slipped the do not disturb sign on the outside doorknob. “I'm here,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt. “Too bad you're not here, because I think I've forgotten how to undo my tie.”

“Don't steal my shtick,” Alex fake whined.

“Don't be a brat,” John said. “I'm stripping for both you and the NSA agent watching this.” He winked at the camera. “Enjoy the show.”

Alex threw his head back with a laugh. John couldn't wait to hear it again in person. He couldn't wait to see him again. It wouldn't be long, just a few more days. But it felt like centuries from now, probably because dinner with Francis was standing between now and then.

His fingers froze over one of his buttons.

“You good, baby?” Alex asked.

John nodded, pushing Francis from his mind. He was with Alex. Well, not with him.

God, he missed him so much.

“You're fucking me as soon as I get home on Friday,” John said. “I mean it.”

“Hell yeah I am. We probably won't even make it to the room.”

“We won't even make it to the apartment. I'll make you pull onto one of those old roads that nobody drives on, drag you into the back seat, and absolutely ravish you within an inch of your life.”

Alex smiled wickedly. John pushed his shirt off and removed his undershirt. “I'd have your clothes off so fast they'll probably rip. Can't wait to taste your skin again. Can't wait to hear those sexy moans as I mark you all over, let everyone know that you're mine and only mine.”

Fuck, that sent blood down south. “I'll let you mark my neck and my jaw. Everyone will know that I'm your Omega. That I belong to you.”

“Just as I belong to you,” he said. Even when he was acting possessive, he made sure John knew that he didn't see him as an object. That their relationship was one between equals. “Why are you still wearing clothes?”

“Why are you?”

Alex removed his shirt. John moaned softly at the sight of his skin. He was so starved for touch, and it had only been one day. He wanted Alex to touch him. Just Alex, and no one else.

John unbuttoned his pants and kicked them off, along with his underwear. He sat on his towel so he wouldn't get cold.

“Wait, baby, I can't see you.”

John scooted back.

“Much better.” Alex grinned. “Someone's excited. Color?”

“Green. Take off the rest of your clothes.”

“Not yet. I want you to do something for me first.”

Alex was the only person in the world that John would submit to. He was the only one who made John feel like he could be that vulnerable without getting hurt. It took a while to get to that point with him, but once he did, he learned just how much power there was in surrender.

But only to Alex.

He'd rather die than submit to anyone else.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Francis was waiting for John in the lobby. John's stomach rolled as he turned the corner and saw him, staring at his phone, leaning against the wall. He hadn't seen John yet, so he took the opportunity to study him.

He looked older. That wasn't a shock, because he had to be, what, thirty-one now? And his hair was different, a little shorter. He'd gelled it, made it look fancier, like he was going for a professional yet young and hip vibe. John thought it made him look like even more of a fuckboy than he already was. Or had been. Ten years was a long time. John sure had changed a lot since then. Maybe Francis had, too.

He hoped he had. His job depended on it.

Francis bit the inside of his cheek, a sign that he was growing bored. John rolled his eyes. It was only 7:02.

“You're going to have to gain more patience if you expect to stand half a chance at running the firm,” John said.

Francis looked up and smiled. It made his eyes sparkle. John hated it. “If it was my mother you were going to dinner with, she would have chewed you out at seven on the dot.”

“If it was your mother, I would have been on time.” Oops. His hostility was showing.

Francis's expression changed for a moment, but he smiled again. “Shall we? We have a lot to catch up on.” He offered his arm, but John ignored it.

“Sure. Lead the way.”

Francis turned and walked down the hallway, to the restaurant. John followed at a respectable distance. Neither of them spoke until they were seated and had their menus in front of them.

“Order whatever you like,” Francis said, breaking the silence. “I'm paying.”

“No, you're not.” John looked over the menu. Nothing looked good. His stomach felt queasy. “I can buy my own dinner.”

“I know what you make. Let me pay.”

John's hands twitched. “If you really wanted to make me feel better about my financial situation, you'd give me a raise.”

“Done.” When John looked at him in surprise, Francis shrugged. “You were due for one anyway. You've been with the firm six years, you have an outstanding track record, and you've never received anything for it. I was going to give you one when we got back.”

The waiter came by. Francis ordered coffee and beef tenderloin. John ordered herbal tea and a salad.

“Going on a health kick?” Francis asked. “You don't need it. You look amazing.”

“If we're negotiating,” John said instead of answering him, “maybe we could talk about the fact that I've had my degree for almost four years and have yet to be promoted at all?”

“Yeah. About that.”

John arched an eyebrow.

“You lack any real experience in the field, so she didn't think it was fitting that you be promoted. But,” he added before John could get angry, “you're getting some of that here. And you'll probably be getting more of it, because Andrew Petkova seems to have taken a liking to you.” Francis paused for a moment. “You seem to be quite the important figure in the firm. Which doesn't surprise me in the slightest. For all the years that I've known you, you've never done anything halfway.” He flashed a grin that made John's skin crawl. “Not even once.”

Okay. Nope. “Here's an idea,” John said. “What if we stopped making references to something that happened a decade ago? Because I don't -”

A phone started ringing. John reached into his pocket to see if it was his. “It's me,” Francis said, glancing at the screen with an irritated frown. “I have to take this, I'm sorry.” He answered it, turning away. “Hey, I thought I said that... Did you read him a story?” He sighed, but seemed less agitated. “Okay. Yeah, put him on.” There was a pause, then Francis smiled in a way that John hadn't seen before. “Hey, buddy. It is so past your bedtime. Why are you still up?” The smile fell slightly. “No, Daddy's not going to be home tonight... I'll be home Friday night, I promise. And I'll read as many books as you like, okay?” The smile returned in full force. “I miss you too, buddy. Now go to bed... I love you too. Hand the phone back to Mommy.” John pretended to be absorbed in something on his phone as he tried to wrap his mind around the new development. “You're welcome. I'll see you Friday night. And I've made reservations for the two of us on Saturday... I'm not telling you. It's a surprise... I love you too, Kay. Have a good night.” Francis hung up. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Derek didn't want to go to bed without saying good night to me.”

“You have a son?” That was certainly not like the old Francis. “How old is he?”

“He'll be three in a few weeks. He's my pride and joy.” Francis nodded at John. “What about you?”

“Nope.” John reached up to run a hand through his hair, but it was pulled back. He awkwardly put his hand back in his lap. “Nope, no kids for me. I got the whole parenting thing out of the way early. My oldest sister just got bonded last month, actually.”

“They grow up so fast, huh?”

“They do. Mary Eleanor's twelve now.”

“But you're bonded, right? I mean, your last name has definitely gotten longer since the last time I saw you.”

John nodded. “Yeah. I'm bonded.”

“How long?”

“Five years in July.”

“What's his name? Do you have a picture?”

Could John show him any pictures, or would that be too weird? Francis seemed to be pretty different from when they were kids, but he didn't know.

He thought of the way Francis's eyes lit up when he'd spoken to his son.

“His name is Alex,” John said, searching his phone for a good picture. “This is him.”

Francis nodded at the picture. “He's good-looking. A Beta?”

“Alpha.”

“Really?” Francis looked surprised. John bit his tongue against the usual yes he's an Alpha and it shouldn't be a shock because not every Alpha has to fit the stereotypes of their dynamic speech he gave. “I never would've thought that you'd end up with an Alpha.”

“Why is that?”

“You're too independent.” Francis shrugged. “Just thought you'd end up with someone who'd be less... domineering by nature.”

“Alex isn't domineering,” John said. “He's my best friend. We've known each other since we were five.” And Alphas aren't domineering by nature, dumbass. That's another stereotype perpetuated by a combination of toxic expectations towards Alphas and the societal desire to suppress Omegas. Schooling his boss was a bad idea, no matter how tempting it was. “He's a good guy. He's attentive and loving and patient.” He thought of Alex. His heart ached. He'd give anything to have him here. What would he think of Francis?

“What does he do for a living?”

“He's a columnist for the Richmond Post and a college professor at the University of Richmond.”

“College professor? That's pretty cool. What does he teach?”

“English. He's going start teaching next semester. He just got the job.” God, John was proud of him. He'd never stop being proud of him.

“He's got his master's, then?”

“Doctorate.”

“Wow. That's pretty impressive. I guess I can't be surprised. You're a genius, so naturally you'd want to be with someone who's as stimulating as you are. Intellectually, of course.”

John's stomach rolled at the way he quirked his eyebrow as he said it. “Yeah. Alex is the smartest person I know.” He looked down at the table. “He's really great. What about you? You've got a mate, right?”

Francis nodded. “Her name's Kayce. An Omega. We've been bonded for about three years.” He smiled a little. “Derek was a bit of a surprise. We got engaged when we found out she was pregnant.”

That math didn't add up, unless they hadn't found out until her scent came in. “Do you have any pictures?”

“I've got some of Derek.” He picked up his phone and showed John a picture of a smiling little boy with messy dark hair and gray eyes. “Like I said, he's my pride and joy.”

“He looks almost exactly like you.”

“Yeah. Handsome devil, huh?”

“I was actually going to offer my condolences.”

Francis laughed. He had a loud laugh that made John wince, but he tried to hide it by clenching his teeth. If Alex were here, he'd reach over and rub John's jaw until he relaxed, then kissed his cheek. He thought about their earlier Skype conversation. Bit the inside of his lip to hide the smile.

The food arrived and they ate in relative silence before Francis started to tell John about his plans for Christmas, and how he was getting Derek a tricycle. Then he launched into somewhat of a rant about how hard it was to make time for his mate since they were both so busy with Derek, but it was worth it because Derek was great, but at the same time he missed her so they were trying, but it was so hard.

“That's why I want to wait until Alex and I are more settled, since we both have jobs.” Kayce was a stay-at-home parent. John felt kind of bad for her, but if it was what she wanted, then it wasn't right to judge.

He tried to imagine himself staying at home all day, every day, doing nothing but keeping the house clean and the kids alive. That's what his mother had done, and his grandmother. It's what he'd done the summer after Mama had died. The sheer insanity of managing a household, an alcoholic father, and three grieving children plus one infant had been what had driven him to seek a means to escape. Hence his promiscuous tendencies in high school.

He'd go absolutely mad if he had to do it again. And since they'd be living on a single income, Alex would work himself to death trying to provide for the family. Tensions would be high, they'd inevitably fight, their relationship would deteriorate. Maybe it'd even end in divorce.

Yeah, he wasn't ready for that. Not now, not ever. He'd prefer a double income and a quiet apartment.

“That's your thinking face,” Francis observed. “That hasn't changed a bit. You still crease your forehead and purse your lips.”

He knew he did that. Alex pointed it out all of the time, usually called it cute.

“What're you thinking about, John?”

“Kayce is some kind of superhero.”

Francis spluttered a laugh. “What?”

“Think about it. She's at home all day with Derek, with no job to escape to, and she hasn't lost her mind. That takes strength that not a lot of people have.”

“Why would she need to escape from our child?” Ooh, his voice had the edge to it. John recognized it.

“Don't get all uppity, Francis. Have you ever spent an extended period of time alone with him? Trying to juggle taking care of him and the house?”

“As a matter of fact, I have. I spent a week with him when he was eighteen months old. Kayce was at her parents' place for... a thing.” Francis took a drink of his coffee. “It was a little maddening, I guess, but it wasn't unbearable.”

“I guess you've got it too, then. I sure as hell don't.”

Francis shrugged. “It's just parental instinct. It develops once you have kids.”

John thought about his time in high school. He'd felt pretty parental towards his siblings. Still did, for the most part. Marty and Junior didn't like it. James hadn't noticed – he was busy with college. Transitioning from the role of a caretaker to that of just a big brother was hard, to say the least. But they were managing. And John enjoyed the peace of knowing that three of the four of his kids – because come on, they'd always be his kids – were out on their own. Marty was bonded, Junior had gotten his Bachelor's degree in marketing a year ago and was working in Norfolk, and James was in school for computer science. In just six short years, Mary Eleanor would be going to college too.

They were all growing up so fast.

“Maybe my parental instincts are exhausted,” he mused. It didn't matter either way.

They finished eating and John insisted on separate checks. He didn't want to owe Francis anything.

“So,” John said as they walked out of the restaurant, “what's so great about my file?”

Francis made a hmm sound. They got into the elevator. “My mother said that you're a self-starter and have some leadership experience. You're a hard worker. Oh, and one of the best damn legal assistants she's ever had. My words, not hers.”

“And that was what you'd wanted to discuss?”

“No, I could care less about what your file says. I knew all of that about you anyway.” His grin was almost predatory. “I just wanted you to go to dinner with me.”

John had been right to choose foods that were easy on his stomach. His hands twitched. He wanted to punch Francis, knock him to the floor and make sure that he didn't get up.

“Hey, don't get angry. We had fun, right? Caught up? That's all I wanted. Oh, and to see if I could buy you a drink later. Or maybe we could go to my room. I've got a mini bar -”

“No,” John said, finding his voice again. “Francis, you need to stop thinking that we'll ever -”

Francis held up his hands. “Hey, I wasn't thinking that at all. I just figured we could put the past behind us and move forward, get a head start on a working relationship, if friendship is out of the question.”

The elevator dinged and the doors opened. Twelfth floor. But Francis didn't get off. “John,” he said, lowering his voice, “it's been almost ten years, okay? I don't know what you're thinking, but I'm bonded now. We both are. Things have changed.” The doors slid closed. “And I'm sorry for the way I left things between us, but we can't change the past.”

John stared straight ahead. The doors opened again. Fifteenth floor.

“This is you, John.”

John nodded, stepping out of the elevator.

“I hope you'll let things be more normal between us, John.” Francis smiled. “And when we get back, why don't we go on a double date? I'd love for you to meet Kayce.”

John nodded again.

“Have a good night.”

The doors slid closed. John stared at them for a few moments, then turned and went to his room.

Francis had been making passes at him all night, right? He'd made jokes about their time together and asked if he could come back to his room. His room.

But maybe they had just been jokes, and Francis was just being friendly. Maybe he'd changed. And that was a good thing.

So why did John feel so shitty? Had he wanted Francis to still be into him, after ten years? That was ridiculous. It'd been ten years. No one harbored feelings for that long.

Well, no one except John and Alex. But they were both stubborn as hell.

Then again, so was Francis. He'd been stubborn enough to insist upon dinner.

No, it'd just been an invitation. An invitation that John had accepted. Just like that.

John sat down on his bed, removing his shirt. Francis didn't have a thing for John anymore. He should've felt relieved.

Instead he went to the mini fridge and grabbed another two of the miniature vodkas.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Two nips turned into three, and then John realized there weren't any more, so he called the front desk and asked how much it would cost for another few.

He'd forgotten how ridiculously expensive hotels were. He ended up deciding against the miniature vodkas.

He called a taxi instead and went to Walmart. He bought a bottle of whiskey, among other things.

When he was back in his room, he poured himself a cup and nursed it while he browsed Facebook. Eliza had posted a picture of the twins. They were so cute. He remembered the day they were born. He and Alex had driven to the hospital with gifts, and Eliza had berated them lightly for it because John had already painted the nursery for them. But then she started crying and gave them hugs in gratitude, followed by an apology for the tears.

He remembered holding Susie for the first time. She was so small and fragile, so precious. He'd looked over at Alex, who was holding Angie, and saw the way he looked down at her. The way he looked up at John, with that look in his eyes.

John refilled his glass to distract himself from the memories. He didn't want to remember. Not tonight. It was too exhausting.

He came to regret his drinking the following morning, when the pounding of his head woke him. He groaned and sat up, looking around the dimly lit room. He'd closed the blinds before he went to bed. He knew the routine, even drunk.

He showered. Washed his face. Drank some water. Took ibuprofen. Checked the time.

He was going to be late if he didn't hurry.

He drank some more water, then got one of the complementary to-go cups and filled it with Pedialyte. He double-checked his bag, realized he wasn't even dressed. Remedied that, grabbed his bag, walked out the door, cup in hand.

Forgot his room key. But that was problem for later.

He made it to the meeting with a few moments to spare and got set up. Anne looked over at him curiously, but didn't say anything. He'd never had this close of a call before.

Luckily, he wasn't the last one in. That honor went to Francis.

“Sorry. Second impressions aren't my forte either, so it would seem.” He moved to the front of the room, but not before he placed a cup of coffee in front of John. “Good morning, everyone. I hope you had a restful night, because we've got a big day ahead of us. We'll be working closely with Glinglon's law team today, negotiating our contract. It could run a little late, just to warn you. So be prepared for that.”

John scribbled in his notebook, but he grew bored halfway through Francis's lecture about respectful negotiation procedures. He began to draw caricatures of everyone, only paying enough attention to know when to nod or look up or answer on the off chance that he was called upon to speak.

“Mr. Laurens.”

Of course. He looked up from his exaggerated sketch of Paul DePinio. “Yes?” He refrained from correcting Francis. His head hurt too much. He took another sip of his Pedialyte disguised as coffee.

“What would you say is a good rule of thumb for negotiating a contract?”

What a good question. Well, it would have been, if this was an undergraduate pre-law class. “Treat the client respectfully,” he said. “Recognize that while they're intelligent human beings capable of rational thought, they may not know everything that you do.”

“Yes,” Francis said with a smile. “Good work.”

There were a couple of snickers around the table. Peterson mouthed teacher's pet at him from across the table. John tried not to roll his eyes. He'd be drawing him next. And maybe slipping it under his door later.

“What about compromise?” Francis continued. “This is for anyone to answer.” It grew quiet. “Okay, let me rephrase a bit. Do you think it's a good skill to have? The ability to compromise?”

No one said anything. None of the associates seemed to care for discussion-based meetings. Or maybe they just didn't like Francis.

For an instant, John felt bad. And that instant was enough to make him speak up. “It's a good skill to have, but only as a last resort. You shouldn't compromise.”

“Really?” Francis crossed his arms casually. “I disagree. Your priority is to keep the client. Make them happy.”

“Not in this field it isn't. In environmental law, our job is to keep our client from breaching any guidelines. If they don't like something, you need to convince them why it's important. Why it matters.”

“And what if you can't?”

John snorted. “Then you're in the wrong profession.”

Anne looked over at John. Her eyes told him that she was impressed, though the rest of her face was blank.

So was Francis. “Exactly. So, how do you convince them?”

“The hefty fine they'll be facing should they fail to comply seems pretty persuasive to me,” DePinio chimed in.

Chuckles all around.

“That's true.” Francis was getting a little flustered. John didn't know how he could tell – was it because he knew him so well, or was Francis simply that easy to read? If so, he was definitely in the wrong profession.

Hadn't he wanted to work in corporate law? John thought that had been what he'd said all those years ago. So what was he doing with this firm? He'd have to ask him later, along with why he'd gotten him coffee.

The meeting ended and John finished off his Pedialyte. Most of his headache was gone. He tried the coffee. It was black. Normally he wouldn't be able to handle it, but he choked some of it down because caffeine helped with his hangovers.

“Hey,” Francis said, coming around the table to him. “Sorry I singled you out. It's just that you're the only one that I figured might answer me.”

“Is that why you bought me the coffee?”

“Kind of. And because you didn't let me buy you dinner last night.” He nodded at the mug. “I didn't know how you liked it.”

“Usually a lot sweeter than this. But it's fine.” John finished packing up and threw his empty mug in the trash.

Francis looked at the doors. Everyone was gone, save for the two of them and Anne. “They hate me.”

“You're new. They'll get used to you. Just give it time. But hey, here's a tip – don't ask questions like that again. It's not a review session for a midterm. It's a debriefing.”

“He's right,” Anne said. “They won't respond to that. It's demeaning. Just tell them what to do any they'll get it done.” She nodded at John. “You've had a rough morning. You were nearly late.”

“Yeah. I missed my alarm this morning.”

“Well don't let it become a habit.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

She left, patting John's arm on the way out. He watched her, confused. Since when did she touch people?

“So you've been working with these people for a lot longer than I have,” Francis said, breaking him from his thoughts. “Any advice on how to handle them?”

“Just give it time,” he repeated. He checked his watch. “We've got ten minutes until we're supposed to meet with Glinglon. Let's get going.”

“Wanna get something to eat after?”

“No, I've got dinner with Petkova at seven. Need to save room for that.”

“You're gonna let him pay for you?”

“Normally I wouldn't, but I've got this craving for lobster.”

Francis snorted. “I'll buy you a lobster next time.”

There wouldn't be a next time. “Just this coffee's fine.” John took another drink. Made sure to keep his distance from Francis as they walked. He still didn't know how to feel about him.

They arrived in the other conference room, where Glinglon had been having their meeting. Mr. Petkova waved John over.

“So,” Mr. Petkova said, “shall we begin?”

“Sure,” Francis said as John got out his notebook. “We've written up a contract regarding the terms of our working together.” He pulled them out of his briefcase and passed out copies. Mr. Petkova took a seat next to John.

John pulled out his own copy of the contract. He'd gone over it the night before. It had looked better since Francis fixed his wording. Admittedly, John had been drunk when he'd reviewed it, but he trusted himself.

They went over it, page by page. John blanched when he saw his handwriting on the top of the third page. It was in his shorthand, which was a good thing because it said, Francis sucks ass, but not literally. That would have roused a bit of suspicion from Mr. Petkova, who was sitting right next to John, if he'd written it in normal English.

John shook his head at himself. Maybe he needed to make it a personal rule to not get drunk on business trips. Or at the very least, to not write all over his contracts.

He also found a few doodles of hearts and A+J in the margins of the following pages, which was cute. Well, it would have been if he hadn't noticed that Mr. Petkova was giving him the side-eye.

It took about three hours of negotiating, but Glinglon's team finally agreed to the terms, with a couple of adjustments. John took note of them and wrote them down. He'd rewrite the contract later, after he got back from dinner.

Everyone was dismissed and John went up to his room. When he got to his door, he remembered that he'd forgotten his room key and went back downstairs. He got a spare key from the front desk and went back to the room. When he got inside, he curled up on his bed. He set an alarm for five o'clock before he let his eyes close.

When his alarm sounded, he cracked his eyes open, reaching out to pull Alex back in and snuggle for a few more minutes. When he couldn't find him, he opened his eyes all of the way. Then he realized where he was and his heart sank.

He pulled up Alex's contact and hit dial. It rang. Then it went to voicemail. John tried not to feel insulted. They were both busy. And it was his own fault that he hadn't talked to him today. If he hadn't gotten drunk, he wouldn't have slept so late, and they could've talked earlier in the morning.

“Hey, hon, it's me,” he said after the tone. “John.” As if Alex would've forgotten him after one day of not talking. “I was just calling to talk. Call me back if you want. Love you.” He hung up. He'd never been good at leaving voicemails.

He got out of bed and started getting ready for dinner with Mr. Petkova. He put on a different jacket – one less business and more business casual.

God, he was lame.

His phone buzzed as he was fixing his hair. He checked it, but his smile fell when he saw it was just a text from Mr. Petkova. He'd be sending a cab for John at six-thirty.

By the time John had to leave, Alex hadn't so much as texted him. He dejectedly slid his phone into his pocket and grabbed both of his keys. He dropped one of them off at the desk and got into the cab that was waiting outside for him.

“Are you one of his callers?” the driver asked.

“His what?”

“You know, one of his escorts.”

“He has escorts?” John sighed and leaned his head back. “What am I talking about. Of course he does.” Because Mr. Petkova worked for a successful company and was very wealthy. So naturally he'd want to do something with it, and why not use it to buy the temporary affections of some pretty Omegas.

He remembered his suspicions upon meeting him for the first time. Maybe he'd taken an interest in John because he was also a pretty Omega.

“Oh, you didn't know? Sorry. Should've kept my mouth shut.”

He arrived at the restaurant, but hesitated to get out of the door. Was Petkova just pretending to be interested in John's volunteer work in order to get into his pants?

“Do you want me to take you back to the hotel?”

“No,” John said against his better judgment. “No, that's fine. It's just a business dinner.” He got out of the cab. Clenched his jaw. He turned to the driver. “Hey, just one quick question. You've driven others to meet him?”

“I have.”

“Am I anything like them?”

The driver looked reluctant to answer. “A lot of them have been Hispanic.”

“Fuck me,” John said, running a hand through his hair.

“That's the idea,” the driver joked. John gave him a look. “Sorry. You want me to take you back to the hotel?”

John shook his head. “No. No, it's fine. Thanks for the warning.” He walked into the restaurant. It was really nice. Pretty posh and expensive-looking. He saw Petkova sitting at a table and swallowed before walking over to him.

“Mr. Laurens-Hamilton,” Petkova said, standing and offering his hand. “Good to see you!”

They sat down. John looked over his menu. The cheapest thing was twenty dollars. This meal wasn't going to break him, but he'd have to reexamine his budget for the rest of the trip.

“I ordered us some wine. I hope you don't mind. It's from Napa Valley, which is west of here a little ways. As much as I love drinking some of the finer wines, nothing beats this stuff. I'll admit that I'm a little biased. I grew up there.”

John nodded. Wine. That was very... date-like. He continued to stare at the menu.

“And you can get whatever you like. I'm paying for you tonight.”

Oh my God. John set his menu down. “Mr. Petkova,” he began. “There aren't, by chance, any... stipulations to this agreement that I don't know about, right?”

Petkova waved his hand. “Let's not talk business. It's bad for digestion. I'd love to know more about you.”

“Right. But there aren't any? Stipulations, I mean?”

Petkova's brow furrowed. “No.”

It made sense why Petkova had learned so much about him. “Just, there's this issue that I'd kind of like you to put to bed – wait, not bed. Wrong choice of words. I -”

“Are you okay?”

“It's just that my driver said that you have a, uh, a history with people of a certain... a certain profession, and that I'm, um, I'm your – your type, so I was just trying to clear this up because I don't think -”

“Wait, who was the driver? Was it Monty?”

“I-I don't know. Older guy. Beta. Graying black hair.” His voice was a tad squeaky.

Petkova rubbed his face. “I thought I told them not to send him. I'm so sorry. This is not how I imagined tonight would go.”

“There are a lot of things I'd do for my firm, sir, but this isn't -”

“I'm not trying to sleep with you.”

John stopped. “You're not?” He closed his eyes. “Okay.” He wasn't letting his guard down any time soon but at least Petkova wasn't being nasty about it.

“Like I said, not how I imagined how tonight would go. But I don't think I can really stand to not explain myself at this point.” He folded his hands on the table. “I frequent an escort service. I'm not bonded and I don't intend to bond, and I don't much care for seduction, nor do I like romance. But I have desires that I like to indulge, so I employ an escort. I usually buy them dinner at a place of their choosing and have light conversation, then take them back to my place for a few hours, make sure all of their needs are met as well as my own, then call them a cab.” He shook his head. “I should've gone with a different taxi service for the night.”

“Probably would've been best.” John's fingers twitched. “So you, ah, don't intend on doing any of that with me.”

“No. Again, I apologize. I hope you don't think less of the company for this.”

“The bar was already pretty low, considering Glinglon's history. But no. I won't judge your company.”

“Mr. Williams is trying to turn it all around. And what I do is perfectly legal, and I ensure that everyone I take out knows that whatever they do with me is their choice. I want you to know that.”

“Okay.” John laughed a little uncomfortably. “Well, I can't really judge. Once, the summer before I went to college, I saw this man for one night and he gave me two hundred dollars afterwards. Needless to say, I was pretty insulted.” Ahh, he was oversharing. He sometimes did that when he was nervous.

Mr. Petkova laughed too. “I can see how you would get the wrong impression.” He gestured to the room they were in. “Nice restaurant in a somewhat closed-off location, I'm ordering you wine and offering to pay, and sending you a cab.” He shook his head. “I would never go after anyone that I was working with. Besides, I know you're bonded.”

“I'm just glad this wasn't some agreement my firm had made with you, you know? You sign the contract in exchange for me?”

“You really don't trust your firm, do you?”

John laughed nervously. He was laughing too much. “I do. But I can't say I'd be extremely surprised if it happened. Just a little shocked. I mean, why else would Ms. Cleland have made room for me on the trip?”

“Because you're a valuable asset to their firm?” Someone came out with a bottle and two glasses. They poured each of them a glass and left the bottle in its bucket. “As I said before, Mr. Laurens-Hamilton, you've got a good head on your shoulders.” Mr. Petkova took a sip of his wine.

“You can call me John. It doesn't take quite as long to say.”

“And you can call me Andrew. Tell me, is John short for anything?”

“No, but it's long for Joh.”

Andrew laughed. “Fair. So do you draw on your contracts often, or was this one special? And who is A?”

John felt the heat rise to his cheeks. “Yeah, I must've thought it was scratch paper last night. And A is Alex. My mate.”

“How did you think it was scratch paper?”

John's cheeks grew warm. Getting drunk on a business trip seemed pretty unprofessional and he didn't want Andrew to think less of John's character for it. Then again, considering what John had just learned, Andrew had absolutely no room to judge. “I, ah, had a bit too much to drink last night,” he admitted.

“So naturally you drew hearts with yours and your mate's initials all over your contract with us. That's actually really sweet.”

“I'm glad you think so.”

“I also saw some of the drawings in your notebook. Some of them were quite unflattering.”

John chuckled. “The new boss is still figuring out how to run a morning meeting. It grew redundant, so I drew everyone's caricatures.”

“That's funny. I used to do that, too, when I was still just an associate. Boss caught me one day and boy did I learn my lesson. Haven't drawn one since.” The waiter arrived and they ordered. “So you fast-tracked through both college and grad school?”

“I did.” John tasted the wine. He had to pace himself. He could handle most alcohol, but wine made him drowsy and affectionate. “Did it all in just over five years.”

“That is crazy. How did you do it?”

John smiled. “My mate. We were fast-tracking together, so we had each other's backs. Sometimes we made it into a game or competition.” He glanced down. “I never would've been able to do it without him.”

“How long have you been together?”

“We've been bonded for almost five years. We've been together for seven.”

Andrew's eyes grew warmer. “It's quite the rarity to see someone still so in love after seven years, given how terrible the world is.”

“We've had our issues,” John said. “Fights, traumatic events, redefining moments. We just have a standing agreement that whatever happens, we face it together.” He shrugged and took another drink of the wine. It was really good. “It's worked so far.”

“Do you go on many trips like these?”

“No, this is my first.” He grimaced. “And honestly, I'd be fine if it was my last. Because I miss him. It kind of feels like I don't have my left arm. Like, I can function without him, but it's not nearly as easy and I would really like to have my arm back where it belongs.”

“That's a good analogy.”

“Thanks. I think I read it in a book once.”

The waiter brought out their food, and they dug right in. Andrew questioned him about his time with VAMO. He'd said that he found John interesting in particular because he'd been there from the start of it.

“Well, not the start. It was founded pretty much as soon as the EBP was announced. I just found their website and jumped right in.”

“So you weren't -? No, I'm sorry, that's too personal of a question.”

“I wasn't subjected, if that's what you're wondering.” John took another drink of wine. He was going to get a bottle of this as soon as Francis gave him that raise. “Alex and I were already dating at that time, so it just kind of made sense that we, you know.”

“You bonded to avoid it.”

“Yeah. But we don't really count it because we hadn't been together for very long at that point. He was just a really good boyfriend helping me out.”

“That's the traumatic event you were referring to?”

“One of them, yeah.”

They finished eating and Andrew paid the tab, as promised. He called John a cab from another taxi service. John watched him as he made the call. He'd had a glass and a half of wine. And that meant he wanted a nap.

“All right,” Andrew said, hanging up. “They're on the way.” His eyes crinkled as he smiled. “So I guess the question is, your place or mine?”

John laughed. “Hilarious.”

“I think so.”

The cab arrived, and John shook Andrew's hand before getting in. “See you on Thursday.”

“See you then.”

John gave the driver the address, then leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes as they drove him back to the hotel.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

John flipped the light and kicked off his shoes, removing his jacket and shirt, then his pants. He fished his phone out and put it on the charger. He got into bed, pulling Alex's blanket close. He'd see him again in a few days.

His phone began to ring.

No,” he whined. “I'm trying to sleep.” He reached over to check the caller ID. Who had the audacity to call him this late?

His frustration vanished when he saw who it was. He answered it. “Hey, love.”

“Hi, baby. I'm sorry I missed your call. I didn't even hear it ringing.”

John looked at the clock. “What are you doing awake? It's like one in the morning over there. Go to bed.”

“Would you believe me if I said that I was getting ready for bed right now?”

“Not since you said it like that, no.”

“Well it's not like you're any better. It's almost ten o'clock over in Sacramento.”

“That's way better. Besides, I'm in bed right now.”

“Did I wake you?”

“No. No, I just got here.” He closed his eyes.

“Just got there? Oh, right, you had dinner. How'd that go?”

“Andrew Petkova has really good taste in wine.”

Alex chuckled. “So that's why you sound like that.”

“That's why, yeah.” John sighed and stretched out. “Your voice is so nice, Alex. I miss hearing it.”

“I know, baby. But only a few more days. What's on tap for you tomorrow?”

“Nothing. I have the day off. Well, I have to retype a contract, but that won't take me that long. Other than that, I don't have anything that I need to do. I might go swimming.”

“Eat breakfast first, okay? And get yourself some Advil now because you're going to have a headache in the morning.”

John complied, putting the bottle on his bedside table, along with a glass of water. “You're so good to me. You're just... You're so good to me. I love you so much.”

“I love you too. Since you're not doing anything tomorrow, maybe we can Skype? Have some fun?”

“Yeah.” John smiled. “Or we can do it now.”

“No, baby, not now. You need to sleep the wine off first.”

John hmmphed and turned, burying his face in the pillow.

“Jesus, John, I can hear you pouting. You know the rule.”

“I'm not drunk.” His voice was muffled.

“What?”

He removed his head from the pillow. “I'm not drunk.”

“Oh really? Would you feel safe driving?”

“...No.”

“Then you've definitely had too much for sex. Even phone sex. Besides, remember last time we had sex when you'd had a glass of wine?”

John grinned. “Of course I do.”

“Remember how much you needed to cuddle after? We can't really do that over the phone.”

That made sense. John hated it. “Tomorrow, then. When I'm completely sober.”

“Yes. Tomorrow.”

“So what're you doing?”

“Nothing.”

John rolled his eyes. “I can hear your keyboard.”

“Okay, you got me. I'm searching for porn.”

“No, you're not. You wouldn't be able to do that while you were talking to me. Reading smut, maybe, but not watching porn.”

“Then I'm looking for a round-trip ticket to Sacramento.”

“We don't have the money for that.”

“We have plenty of money, unless you've spent it all.”

“I haven't. What're you doing? I mean for real.”

“Well, I was writing an article, but then I got bored so I checked my phone, saw that you'd called, realized that I haven't come up with your homecoming present yet, and decided to look for one while I talked to you.”

“Don't get me a present. I don't need any gifts, so long as I get to come home to you.”

“I was going to buy you sunflowers.”

“But you don't like having flowers inside. And those would get too big, and we live on the eighth floor, so we don't have anywhere to plant them.”

“You're not an easy man to shop for, you know that? You hate grand gestures but I can't think of anything that you need. And I don't want to be that asshole who buys his mate socks as a homecoming gift.”

“What part of don't buy me anything did you not understand? You want to get me something I need? My implant's almost worn off. You can make an appointment for me to get it replaced.”

“Okay. I can do that. But -”

“You don't need to do anything for me, Alex. I'm coming home Friday and seeing you after this long is going to be more than enough. I swear.”

“But -”

“If you really want to do something special, just give me a blowjob or something. I don't know.”

“How is that special? I give you blowjobs all the time.”

John couldn't help but chuckle. “Yeah, you do.” A blowjob sounded really good right about now. Dammit.

“And I feel like giving sexual favors in lieu of a present is kind of... arrogant? I don't know.”

“Only if you led them to believe it'd be anything other than sexual. Then that'd be an asshole move. But if you were like, hey John, I'm going to give you one free pass to do whatever the hell you want to me because I love you and I miss you, then that'd be totally different.”

There was a pause. “Hypothetically speaking. If I gave you a free pass, would whatever the hell you want be within the parameters of what we've discussed? You know, like within our respective comfort zones?”

“Of course.” John made a face. “I'd never force you out of your boundaries for the sake of my pleasure. I'm not -” He caught himself. “I'm not a dick. And, even if I was doing anything for the sake of my enjoyment and my enjoyment alone, hurting you like that wouldn't feel good to me.”

“I know, baby.” Alex sighed and the sound of typing stopped. “Hey, John.”

“Yeah?”

“I'm going to give you one free pass to do whatever the hell you want to me because I love you and I miss you.”

John laughed. They lapsed into comfortable silence. The silence was bearable when he knew that Alex was there, even if it was just over the phone.

But still, not having him right by his side hurt like hell.

His smile faded as he thought about dinner, and dinner the night before. “Alex? Do you think I have good judgment?”

“I think so, yeah. Why?”

“I misjudged two different situations and I kind of feel like an asshole.”

“Everyone makes mistakes, sweetheart. Did you want to talk about them?”

John wanted to tell Alex everything. But he had to keep it vague. “I thought my new boss was coming on to me. He wasn't. Turns out he was just being nice. And then tonight, I thought Andrew was buying me dinner just so he could sleep with me.” He hugged himself. “I mean, God. I need to be an object of desire at all times or the world just falls apart.” He had a thought. Grabbed Alex's blanket and held it tightly. He wished Alex was right there, right next to him. He'd pull John close and run his hands through his hair and whisper soft words of comfort and reassurance until the thoughts passed. “I'm a whore.”

No. John, listen to me. You are not a whore, okay?”

Intrusive thoughts were such a bitch. He could deal with them on his own, but it usually involved alcohol and a shower. He had access to both, but he preferred to stay where he was and listen to Alex's voice.

“I don't think you need to be an object of desire. I think you're under a lot of stress and that's making you misinterpret things. But you're not a whore.”

“No, I just thought someone thought I was.” He blinked hard. One of the downsides of wine – it made him more vulnerable. He wanted Alex so bad. “Andrew's actually a good guy. He volunteers, too. And my boss is planning on giving me a raise as soon as we get back.”

“Really? That's great, baby. How much?”

“Didn't say.” John sniffed. “Can we talk about something else? Tell me about your past two days.”

Alex told him about work, which mainly consisted of getting ready to move in to the office, and that they'd scheduled two different meetings for the next week. John listened to the lulling sound of his voice, let himself drift into that half-asleep state in which part of him believed that Alex really was there. And if he imagined it hard enough, he could almost feel Alex tracing his face with gentle fingers. Then, before he knew it, he was drifting off for real.


 

“Let me go!” John snarled. There was a metal collar fastened around his neck. A chain was attached to it. He clawed at it.

His captor yanked and John gasped out as it choked him. “This stays on,” they said firmly. “How else will everyone know you belong to me?”

John didn't belong to him. This wasn't his Alpha. His Alpha would never do anything like this to hurt him. “Stop,” he tried again. “Take it off.”

“You don't know what you're talking about, puppy. You're drunk.” They yanked at his collar again, rendering him unable to breathe properly. John fought it. He fought it with every fiber of his being. He clutched at the collar, trying to pull it off. It wouldn't budge. He strained against the chain, struggling to pull away, until spots danced in his vision.

“I don't want this!” he cried. “Let me go, let me go please!”

His captor laughed and pushed his head down, suffocating John with the couch cushions. John began to cry before he could stop himself.

“It's okay, puppy. Alpha's here. Alpha's here.”

“No,” John whimpered. “No, no, you're not my Alpha. You're not my -”


 

John shot up, hand going to his neck. There was nothing there. He was okay. It was just a dream. Just a bad dream. He had those all the time. Granted, they were usually about the Protocol, but they were sometimes about this too. It had just been a while.

“Alex,” he croaked, reaching over. He felt guilty for waking him, but he needed comfort. He needed Alex to reassure him that he was safe. He needed to wrap his arms around his Alpha – his actual Alpha – and bury his face in his chest and listen to his heartbeat. And he wanted to scent. That was usually something Alex needed after he had a nightmare, but John needed it tonight. He needed his Alpha.

His hand came into contact with a blanket. Just a blanket. John looked over, his eyes still adjusting and blurred with tears. Alex wasn't there. Maybe he was in the bathroom. He got the light.

He realized that he was still in the hotel room.

He started to cry harder, bringing his knees up to his chest and hugging them. He grabbed Alex's blanket and clutched it tightly. It didn't smell enough like him anymore.

But it was still Alex's.

John buried his face in it for a few minutes. Then he pulled himself together enough to stand. He grabbed one of the plastic cups.

He poured himself a drink.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

Beads of sweat trailed down John's face as he ran on the treadmill. It wasn't as good as an actual track but it was enough for the moment. He'd finish his run, then do a set on the weight bench. After that, he'd shower and go for a swim. He closed his eyes and listened to the music, let himself adjust his pace to run in time with it.

He had a lot of problems. And while running away from them wasn't healthy, running in general was a good way to deal with them.

He didn't tell Alex about his nightmare when they'd Skyped earlier. He was doing fine now. And besides, it had been John's turn to boss Alex around for the NSA's viewing pleasure. He couldn't do that very well if he was crying about a nightmare, right?

Alex had enough on his plate as it was anyway, with his new job and everything. Being apart was just as hard on him. He didn't need to worry any more about John than he already was.

John heard a voice and paused his music.

“... hear me?”

“I can now.”

Francis moved to the side of the treadmill. He was in workout attire. “I was saying that we seemed to have the same idea. You been here long?”

“Only about thirty minutes.” The treadmill beeped. “Make that exactly thirty minutes.” He checked the distance as he slowed down. “Damn. I'm out of shape.”

“How much did you run?”

“Only four miles.”

“Hey, that's still pretty good. Are you done, or...?”

John got off of the treadmill and wiped it down. “Yeah. Was just going to lift some weights.”

“I can spot you.”

“Yeah. Sure.” John put the weights on and got on the bench. Francis moved behind him and helped him guide the bar off of its rack. John took a deep breath and began. He needed to be gentler when he was lifting weights, because of his shoulder. “I remember when I used to be able to bench twice this.”

“You're benching eighty pounds.”

“Okay. Maybe one and two-thirds. I could bench one-fifty at one point. That was back in high school, though. Or maybe it was two hundred. I think I made it to two hundred with something.”

“Legs?”

“That's probably it, yeah.” He finished one set and started another, counting in his head. “Mimi and I need to hit the gym again when I get back. Things have just been so hectic lately that we haven't been able to.”

“Who's Mimi?”

“Good friend of mine. A doctor. Well, she started her residency earlier this year. We worked out together all through undergrad. I was never able to lift more than her, though.”

“To be fair, she's an Alpha, right?”

“No. She's an Omega like me. Why do you keep assuming that everyone strong is an Alpha? That's a little classist, don't you think?” John began another set.

“I guess I've got some preconceived ideas of what each class is supposed to be like.”

“Well ditch them. Because Mimi is probably stronger than you.”

“I doubt it.”

“She can pick me up. And her abs are like marble. You could break your hand just by looking at them.”

“You're not that heavy, John. Maybe like a hundred and eighty pounds. Maximum. And my abs are like that, too.” He heard the smile. “Wanna feel 'em?”

“I'm good.” He did another set, then decided to call it quits. He put the bar back and wiped it down. “All yours. Want me to spot?”

“Sure.” He took off his shirt. John stepped back before he could stop himself. He didn't really like it when people undressed around him with no warning but maybe that was just him. “You went to dinner with Petkova last night, right?”

“Yeah.” He watched Francis add more weights before getting on. “I had a pretty good time.”

“You let him pay?”

“It was a really nice restaurant and, well, you know what I make.” He guided the bar down. “He also has the best taste in wine. I've never had any from Napa Valley before. It's – it's really good.”

“You drank with him?” Francis lifted the bar, his muscles bulging slightly as he did so. John scooted back just a little bit. “So you let him pay and you let him buy you a drink. How does Alex feel about that?”

“He's fine with it. He knows it's just business.”

“Is it, though? I mean, it's great that you're making connections and networking and everything, but Petkova gives me this weird vibe, and...” He grew quiet, lifting a few more times. “You know, I'm not going to say anything. It's not my place.”

“Okay.” John didn't have a problem with Francis keeping things to himself. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Well, it's just that I caught him checking you out yesterday. Like a lot.”

“You mean at the meeting? He wasn't checking me out, Francis. I had these drawings in my notebook that he was looking at. It was actually kind of funny. We were talking about it over dinner -”

“You mean the expensive dinner that he paid for with his own money? No one shells out that much cash unless they're expecting something in return. And he gave you wine. He wanted to dull your senses so he could strike.”

“That's all fine and dandy, but nothing happened. He wasn't trying to seduce me and he doesn't strike.”

“He didn't flirt with you at all? Ask you about your personal life? You can usually tell someone's trying to get a feel for you when they limit the details about their own life.”

“He didn't limit any details. He told me about how he volunteers. And that he grew up in Napa Valley, which is why he loves their wine so much.”

“Does he have a mate? Kids?”

“No. Says he doesn't want any.”

“That's kind of strange. He doesn't want any kind of commitment? Isn't that a quality that psychopaths have?”

“Oh my God, Francis. You need to chill. He's fine. He's a good guy. He bought me dinner last night because he wanted to get to know me better. That's all.”

“But why did he want to get to know you better?” He grunted as he lifted the bar again.

“I don't know, because I'm pretty great?”

“Or just because you're pretty, period.”

John got the urge to shove the bar out of his hands and onto his chest. He wouldn't look so strong with all of his ribs broken. “Don't call me pretty,” he snapped. There was only one person in the world who was allowed to call him pretty, and even then, there were set conditions in which he could get away with it.

“Sorry. I forgot how much you hate that.” He put the bar back and wiped down the bench, then frowned at John. “I know I sound paranoid.”

“You really do.”

“But I just don't want anything to happen to you. I mean, I don't know if you consider us friends or not, but I do. And I'd rather not hear from the news that you've ended up dead in a ditch because you accepted a drink from the wrong person.”

John didn't know what to say that. “I'm a grown-ass man, Francis. I can take care of myself.”

“I know that. But I still worry about you.” He smiled. “I'm going to take a shower. Have a good rest of the day. I'll see you tomorrow. Or maybe tonight for dinner?”

“I don't think so, Francis.”

The smile didn't fade one bit. “Figured I'd try.”

John went back up to his room and showered. He didn't feel like swimming any more.

Francis was being stupid. Andrew was a good guy. They'd had dinner last night because Andrew wanted to thank John for saving his job, back when Anne's retirement had been leaked. That was all. And they'd really hit it off. Maybe they'd even become friends.

Even though John still found it a little strange, with the whole escort thing. But if Andrew really was being as respectful as he said he was, then John was cool with it.

Unless he'd been lying.

John shook his head sharply. No. He wasn't going to spend his time worrying about one dumb thing Francis had said. Because Francis didn't know what he was talking about.

When they had their final meeting to sign the contract, John smiled politely at Andrew, then sat far away from him.

--

Friday morning finally rolled around, and John grinned when his alarm went off. The smile faded soon, though. The bed had gotten really uncomfortable overnight. He got out of it and rearranged the blankets, grabbing an extra pillow from the closet, before testing it again. Much better.

He sighed, closing his eyes and nuzzling Alex's blanket. He'd be seeing his Alpha soon. But he had to get out of bed if he wanted to catch his flight.

Or he could convince Alex to come up to Sacramento for a few days.

His alarm went off again. He sighed and sat up, looking longingly at the bed. He wanted nothing more than to bury himself in it.

He packed Alex's blanket away in the suitcase. That was the only thing he had left to pack, aside from his phone, charger, and the pajamas he was wearing.

Fuck, he really wanted to get back into bed. He entertained ways to convince Alex to fly up.

His hands froze over his zipper. He looked over at the bed. The bed that he'd made a nest in.

“Fuck,” he said. He tore into his suitcase, finding his scent blocker. He threw on his clothes angrily and packed everything else up. “Just what I need. Just what I need.” He grabbed his wallet and the hotel key. He glanced around the room once more to make sure that he hadn't left anything. Looked at his nest. He couldn't bear to take it apart.

He left the room and went down to the lobby. He checked out and went to the front, pulling out his phone to call a cab.

“Hey, John.”

He looked over to see Francis. “Hi.”

“Are you going to the airport? Sacramento International?”

John nodded nervously.

“We can share a cab.”

“No, that's fine -”

“Nonsense.” A cab pulled up and Francis put his suitcase in the trunk. Then he grabbed John's before he could protest and put that in, too. “Come on. We're saving money and helping the Earth.”

John hesitantly got into the cab. He hated Alphas so much at the moment. He just wanted Alex. And not Francis.

He rolled his window down. Felt eyes on him and turned to see Francis staring at him. His pupils were slightly dilated, his lips only just parted. John looked down at his scent blocker, making sure it was on correctly.

“John,” Francis breathed.

“Stop looking at me like that,” John snapped. “Because I'm emotionally unstable right now and more than willing to get fired for smacking that look off your face.”

Francis's eyes darkened, but he blinked and laughed awkwardly. “I'm sorry. I don't know what that was. You just smell really good.”

John contemplated jumping out of the cab. If he waited until they were slowing down, he'd probably survive. He pressed himself closer to the door, away from Francis.

“Did you get a different cologne, or something?”

Cologne would've been a really good idea, actually. John didn't look at Francis, just flashed his scent blocker.

“What's – oh, you're getting your heat.”

John nodded jerkily. He didn't like the way Francis said it. “I'd really appreciate it if you, an Alpha, kept your distance.”

“Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt you. We're friends, remember?”

“Be that as it may, I still don't want you near me.”

They pulled up to the airport and Francis grabbed both his and John's bags. “Which flight are you?”

“I'll have a layover in Chicago. I'm the 1146.”

“Me too. We can board together.”

“No. No, that's not a good idea.”

“Look, John, I don't know if your scent blocker isn't working or what, but you still smell like your pre-heat. I don't want any unfamiliar Alphas coming near you.”

John wheeled on him. “That is not your job. You are not my protector, okay? You're not my fucking Alpha. So back off.”

Francis looked hurt. He handed John his bag. “Fine. I was just trying to look out for you.”

“I don't need it.” John took his suitcase and went to his plane. It was a little awkward, because Francis was behind him but he was keeping his distance. That was nice. He shot Alex a text that he was at the airport and would be boarding soon. He wanted to call him but Alex would be able to tell and he might freak out. John couldn't have that.

He checked his scent blocker again. It was on. He went through claims. He had to take the bracelet off for a moment, to go through the metal detector. He ignored the stares of, oh, just about everyone, as he did so.

He hurriedly put it back on. His hands were shaking.

Now boarding Flight 1146 to Chicago.

John grabbed his stuff and hurried to the plane. He put his carryon in the upper compartment, but not before grabbing Alex's blanket out of it and wrapping it around himself.

He saw Francis board but he went up to first class. Bastard.

John couldn't get his mind off of the way he'd looked at him. The way everyone had looked at him. Like he was some meal that they could devour. He wanted to cry. He hadn't even gotten a window seat.

It was going to be a long flight.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

John grabbed his suitcase from the luggage rack and took a breath. He was home. And Alex was waiting for him somewhere in the airport.

Don't tackle him, he thought to himself as he walked. Don't do a running leap into his arms, don't burst into tears, don't embarrass yourself. Have some decorum.

As he rode the escalator down, he saw him and all of his thoughts fled from his mind. Alex was standing near a bench, holding a small sign like he was a chauffeur. But instead of John's name, the sign said Dork in green glitter paint.

Their eyes met, and Alex erupted into a face-splitting grin and performed a little shoulder dance that stole John's heart all over again.

“You're a sap,” John called as soon as he was within hearing range. He bolted to him, dropping his bags when he was close enough and throwing his arms around him, effectively tackling him. Alex only swayed a little before clutching him tightly. John buried his face in Alex's shoulder and closed his eyes, breathing him in. He was here. He was really here. “I'm glad I didn't knock you over,” he said dumbly, still clinging to him. He wouldn't ever let go.

“I was prepared.”

John released his grip on him, but only to grab his face and pull him into a kiss. Their lips meeting for the first time in so long sent currents of electricity through John's veins, like he'd been struck by a bolt of delicious lightning. All he could hear was the sound of their mouths moving together and Alex's little sigh and their breathing and his heart thundering in his ears. He'd missed this. He'd missed this so much. He deepened the kiss, moving his arms so they were around Alex's neck. Alex moved one of his hands up so it was tangled in John's hair. John caught Alex's bottom lip between his own and sucked on it lightly before running his tongue over it. Alex let out a very soft moan that was music to John's ears.

Alex broke the kiss but John chased it greedily, craving the sparks that danced behind his eyelids when their lips brushed. Alex relented, kissing him again, but it didn't last nearly as long. “We should get home,” he breathed.

Right. Home. They could do so much more if they were home. John held on to him for a moment longer, trailing his lips over Alex's perfect face. He'd missed him so much. “I love you,” he said when he finally released him.

“I love you too, baby.” Alex reached down and took his hands. Gave him a chaste kiss.

John felt eyes on them. It would've made him uncomfortable in any other situation, but he was too happy to be bothered. “Take me home.” And then take me. He let go of his hands to grab his suitcase. Alex took his carryon and grabbed the sign. “The glitter was a nice touch.”

“Thanks. It was Marty's idea.”

John laughed, but it stopped short when he noticed that Francis was watching them. He didn't look pleased but he didn't look angry either. He looked... cold. Distant but present at the same time, like his mother. John reached over and took Alex's hand again.

Francis seemed to realize that John saw him, because he snapped out of whatever it was and smiled, giving a little wave before turning and walking away.

Francis. He was going to be John's boss. Panic welled up in his chest. He didn't know what he'd been expecting. He'd known about this since Monday. So why did it feel like such a shock? Had he somehow thought that he'd remain in Sacramento and run things from afar? Or that he'd die in a horrible accident before he could assume his position as the head of the firm?

“You okay?” Alex asked, squeezing John's hand.

John nodded, pushing Francis from his mind. He didn't want to think about that at the moment. He had other things to worry about. Other, much more pleasant things, such as how soon they could get back to the apartment, or whether Alex was wearing that one pair of underwear that made his ass look amazing.

Or whether he was going to get fired for snapping at Francis earlier.

Nope, not thinking about that now.

“You're on edge,” Alex said. They'd reached the car, and John put his suitcase in the trunk. The light of the setting sun caught his scent blocker and Alex finally seemed to notice it. “Hey, wait.” He took John's wrist and looked at it. “Did your heat hit?”

“It's just my pre-heat,” John said. “It hit this morning.”

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“I didn't have the time. I had to catch my flight.”

“John -”

“I'm okay, love. I just want to get home.”

Alex stared at him for a moment longer. His staring wasn't nearly as unpleasant as Francis's. John hated himself for comparing them but hid it by moving and getting into the car. Alex followed suit, starting it. “You should've told me,” he said.

“You just would've worried.”

“It's my job to worry about you. I'm your mate.”

That was true. He was John's mate. “I'm not going to apologize,” John said stubbornly. “I'm not sorry.”

Alex looked over at him when they hit a red light. “I'm too relieved to be irritated. But once that fades, we're going to talk.”

John reached over and patted his cheek. Then he frowned. “Tell me again why you shaved.”

Alex laughed a little. “Because November's over.”

“I'd gotten used to you with facial hair. You look weird without it.”

“I thought it tickled too much and you didn't like how it felt on your thighs.”

“I guess.” He looked out the window. “But it was a good look for you. Maybe not the full beard, though.”

“What if I kept just the mustache?”

John made a face, even though he was smiling. “No. No, I don't think so.”

“I think you're just jealous because I can grow a wicked beard in a week when you couldn't grow one in a year.”

“Oh, please. You'd barely grown a chinstrap in a week. All you were missing was a fedora.” John smirked at him. “M'lady.”

Alex reached over, not taking his eyes off the road, and jabbed him in the ribs. John laughed and squirmed away. He watched Alex drive, felt the burn in his gut. They'd be home in just a few minutes.

John was going to eat this man alive as soon as they were in the door.

They pulled into their complex and got out of the car. John grabbed his bags from the trunk, rolling his eyes good-naturedly when Alex took his suitcase. He only let him because he knew it was an act of kindness, and not because Alex didn't think he could handle it.

“So,” Alex said as he unlocked their door. “How about I make you some dinner while you build your nest, then -”

“I have another idea,” John said, dragging Alex into their apartment and shutting the door. He dropped his bag and pinned Alex to the wall, pressing himself against him and giving him a desperate, fevered kiss.

Alex moaned, wrapping his arms around John and pulling him closer. John cupped his face with both hands, Alex's skin smooth underneath his palms. He nibbled Alex's bottom lip before running his tongue over it to soothe it.

He moved one of his hands down to just underneath Alex's jaw, then broke the kiss so he could trail his mouth over his throat. He pulled away from him just enough to untuck his shirt and undo the buttons before shrugging it off.

“John,” Alex breathed.

John grabbed the hem of Alex's shirt, which was unfortunately still on him. He pulled it up just enough to snake his hands underneath it and explore his skin. He took Alex's moan as a good sign and stepped back, lifting Alex's shirt the rest of the way and pulling it off of him. He lowered his head, attacking his collarbone with hot, open-mouthed kisses.

“Baby, don't you want a nest?”

John shook his head. “Just you.” He grabbed Alex's hips and pulled him closer. He'd gotten so far away.

He'd been so far away. Never again.

“John. John, wait.” Alex pushed at John's shoulders.

John pulled away immediately. “What's wrong?”

“Are you okay?”

“I'm fine. I just missed you so much.” It had been too long since they'd last kissed. John remedied that.

“I missed you too. But are you sure you're okay with doing this? Don't you want to wait until tomorrow?”

“No.” John didn't want to talk. He didn't want to think. His trip was over, thank God, and he'd been waiting a week to have this and he didn't want to stop. “I need you. Are you okay with doing this? Because if you're not, then -”

“No, it's not that. I want this too. But it's just... You've never wanted to have sex in your pre-heat before. I just want to make sure you're really okay.” Alex reached behind John's head and pulled the rubber band out of his hair. “I love you so much.” His voice was honest and open. It made John's chest ache.

He thought about Sacramento. About Anne, about his heat, about Andrew. About Francis.

He ducked his head, his chin dropping to his chest.

“Hey,” Alex said. “Hey, hey, John, don't cry.” He pulled him into his arms and rubbed his back. “It's okay.”

John buried his face in Alex's hair. He was trembling.

“This can't be just because you missed me?”

John closed his eyes. He remembered his nightmare. Waking up and feeling so scared and so alone. But he wasn't alone anymore. Alex was here. He should've been happy.

Instead he was falling apart.

“I did miss you. So fucking much,” John said. He couldn't let his voice get any louder than a whisper. “But no, that's not everything. I met my boss and he's...” No. Alex couldn't know. If he knew, he'd overreact, demand that John quit his job and find another place to work. And John couldn't work anywhere else. No one would hire him. “He has no idea what he's doing.” That much was true. “And the entire thing was so stressful and I wish I could've brought you with me because things would have been so much better if you were there.”

“I'm sorry.” Alex's voice was soft. “But hey, I'm here now. And you're home, and you're safe. Whatever happens, we can handle it, okay? Because we're a team.”

John nodded, pulling away and wiping his eyes. “This is what happens when you want to talk,” he joked. Alex cracked a smile, but John could hardly see it in the dark. “Holy shit,” he realized. “We didn't even turn the lights on.” He reached over and flipped the switch.

“I was going to get them, but you distracted me.”

“Yeah.” John felt himself blushing. “I guess the moment's ruined, huh?”

“I wouldn't say ruined.” Alex leaned up and kissed his cheek. “Are you sure you want to do this? Because we don't have to. We really don't.”

“I know.” John smiled when Alex tugged at one of his curls. “Are you okay with doing this?”

“Yeah. But maybe we should move to the bedroom. Because the floor's not the best place to do this.”

“You didn't complain last time.”

“No, but you did. You said it hurt your back.”

John shrugged, dragging Alex to their bedroom. His heart swelled when he saw their bed. He'd missed it so much. He grabbed blankets and pillows out of the closet and began to arrange them on the mattress.

“You want me to do anything? Or just stand here and look pretty?”

John smirked at him. “You are quite the view right now. Although I think you're wearing too many clothes.”

Alex shook his head with a smile and started to unbutton his jeans. John saw him hesitate before he pulled down his zipper and frowned. He glanced down at the half-finished nest. He discarded the pillow he was holding and walked to Alex, tugging him close by his belt loops and kissing the side of his head a few times.

“You're too perceptive,” Alex groaned. “Come on, finish your nest.”

John didn't let go of him. “I wish there was a way I could tell you that your insecurities are completely unfounded without sounding like I'm invalidating your feelings.”

Unfounded?” Alex scoffed. “They're not unfounded.”

John thought they were. He thought it was stupid that Alex was insecure about his body because his body was perfect. So what if he was a little softer? That just made for better cuddling.

“I've gained fifty pounds since college.”

John rolled his eyes. “I'm going to destroy this once and for all.” He took Alex's hands and backed up, sitting down on the mattress. He pulled Alex down so that he was straddling his lap. “You started working freight in college. That builds muscle mass. Which adds weight.”

“Okay, so after college, then. We moved down here for grad school, I quit Walmart and started working as a TA. Lost all of the muscle I'd gained.”

“I wouldn't say you lost all of it.” John squeezed Alex's biceps playfully. Alex gave a shadow of a smile. “You've also grown like four inches since college. So the weight is distributed more evenly. Fifty pounds is nothing, honey.” He nuzzled Alex's neck. “It's nothing.”

“Sometimes I catch you staring at me when I'm getting undressed,” Alex said. “And I feel like you're disgusted. And sometimes I worry that I'm losing my touch. That I'm not very good in bed anymore.”

John pulled away. “Seriously? Alex, you're only twenty-six years old. You're in your sexual prime.”

“Rub it in, why don't you.”

“No. No, hon, that's not what I'm saying.” John brushed Alex's hair from his face. “I'm saying that's something people don't usually worry about until they're in their late forties. So why are you so concerned now?”

Alex's cheeks were pink. “I keep thinking about how people seem to think that I'm older than you.”

“That's because I have a baby face, remember? It's not that you look thirty-five, it's that I look eighteen. It has nothing to do with you. And so what if it did? Who cares what other people think? I sure as hell don't.” He mouthed at Alex's jaw. “If they wanna think that you're my sugar daddy or whatever they're thinking, let them.”

“I don't make enough money to be your sugar daddy. I'd be more like your Splenda daddy, I think.” A beat. “I worry that I can't keep up with you. I mean, you almost always want to have sex. And while I love it, sometimes I can't help but think that one day I'm not going to be able to keep you satisfied. And that you'll leave me.”

“I'm always down to fuck because I can't get enough of you. And I'll never be able to get enough of you, regardless of what you look like.” John met his eyes. “As long as you keep being yourself, you'll never have to worry about keeping me satisfied.”

Alex pulled him into a kiss. Then he looked at John's wrist. “Let's get this off of you,” he said, removing the scent blocker. He lifted John's wrist to his mouth and kissed the scent gland there.

John shivered. He tried to remember what he was talking about, because it was important. “And if you ever want to know what's on my mind, all you have to do is ask. For the record, though, when I watch you undress, nine times out of ten I'm wondering where I should put my mouth first.”

“And the other ten percent?”

“I'm thinking about how lucky I am to have you.” John kissed his cheek. “And another thing. You could be the size of the sun and I'd still want you.”

“If I were the size of the sun, I'd destroy the Earth and all of the debris would just orbit around me.”

“Well my life already revolves around you, so that's a start.”

“And you say I'm the sap.” Alex kissed John again. “I love you.”

“I love you too. Now get up so I can finish the nest and then you can pound me into it.”

Alex laughed and got off of John. He removed his pants and John smirked. He was wearing that one pair of underwear.

John put the finishing touches on his nest and tested it out. Perfect. “Come here, Alpha,” he purred, crooking his finger.


 

Alex walked over to the nest and got into it with John's permission. They shared a kiss that started out sweet, then grew hot and needy. John lay back, pulling Alex on top of him. Alex tugged John's undershirt off, then unbuttoned his slacks and slid them down his legs, along with his underwear. He spread John's legs and peppered his inner thighs with kisses.

“It feels strange without the beard now,” John said absentmindedly. Alex chuckled lowly, and it set John's blood on fire. “How the hell could you ever think I don't love this?” He leaned his head back. “You know just how to drive me crazy.”

“I guess I do, huh?” John felt Alex's hot, wet mouth surround the tip of his cock and he didn't fight the moan. Alex sucked on it, running his tongue up and down his slit. He pulled away too soon and John made a noise of protest. “Color?”

“Green,” John said. He craned his neck to watch what Alex was doing. It was quite the view, after all. “You're so fucking good to me.”

Alex pulled off of John's cock once more. “I try.” He spread John's legs further and probed his entrance with a cautious finger.

John wanted Alex so badly at the moment that he was tempted to tell him that he didn't give a damn about lube. He just needed Alex to fuck him so hard that he saw stars, and he didn't care if it hurt. He was good with pain.

Then Alex gave him a wicked grin and moved John's legs over his shoulders. John watched him with bated breath as he lowered his head again.

Fuck,” John moaned when he felt Alex's tongue circling his entrance. If there was one thing that Alex had learned from their time together, it was how to use his mouth. He lay back on the sheets, letting his eyes close as Alex ate him out.

He continued to circle John's entrance with his tongue for a few more moments, then pressed it against his hole more firmly. He slid the tip of it inside and John's eyes rolled back into his head. Alex fucked him with his tongue, then pulled his head away. John let out a whine but it turned into a moan as Alex licked his perineum. A hand wrapped around his cock and he looked down to see Alex rubbing it lightly. Their eyes locked and John bit his lip at the hungry look Alex was giving him. Alex moved upwards just enough to run his tongue along the underside of his cock, from base to tip. John was transfixed.

“You're getting wet,” Alex said. It almost sounded like a purr. He slid a finger inside and moved it in and out slowly. Then he went back to work.

It only took about three minutes after that for the coil in John's belly to wind impossibly tight. He arched his hips as Alex fucked him steadily with two fingers. He'd had to use a bit of lube to work him open but John didn't care anymore. He had to remind himself to breathe as he tried to thrust his hips in time with Alex's fingers, but Alex's free hand was holding them down firmly. It was maddening.

Alex stopped moving his fingers, which was even more maddening, but kept them inside of John. He slid the tip of his tongue in with them and let out a low moan. John stared down at Alex. He couldn't see more than the top of his head and his own hard cock, but God, he could feel what was happening. Alex lapped at his hole while he began to move his fingers again, more slowly. John leaned his head back. Alex wasn't going to let him come any time soon, was he?

John got an idea and reached down to jerk himself off.

“Don't you dare,” Alex said, pulling away enough to look up at him. John's hand froze. “I'm not done with you yet.”

John guiltily put his hand back on the mattress, feeling a lot like a kid who'd gotten caught stealing from the cookie jar.

Alex kept edging him, working him until he was just about to come before stopping, only to continue when John was no longer as close.

“You're driving me insane,” John groaned as he came back from the edge again.

“Don't be a brat,” Alex said. He pressed a kiss to his hip. “You get so wet when I do this to you. Color?”

“Green.”

Alex smiled at him and started moving his fingers again. John leaned his head back, arching into it. “You wanna come?”

“Please,” John breathed.

“Go ahead.”

This had to be a trick of some sort. “What's the catch?”

“No catch.” He moved his fingers faster. “Just want to make you feel good.” He lowered his voice. “Come for me, baby.”

John came undone with a moan. The tension faded from his body and he lay back against the pillows, watching as Alex cleaned him with his mouth. That was a sight he'd never get used to.

When Alex was finished, he moved up and pulled John close. John's eyes slid closed for a moment at the skin to skin contact he loved so much, but then he reached down and tugged at Alex's underwear.

“What're you doing?” Alex asked.

“What does it look like? I told you I wanted you to fuck me as soon as I got home.”

“And what I just did doesn't count?”

“Okay, fine, I want you to fuck me more.”

Alex rolled his eyes and took off his briefs. “You know what I'd said earlier about you always being thirsty? This is what I was talking about.”

“If you don't want to, we don't have to.”

“No, I want to.” He rolled on top of John and kissed his nose. John spread his legs. “Don't you want more lube?”

John shook his head. “I'm fine.” Alex lined himself up and pushed inside of John. “Fuck, yeah,” John sighed happily.

“I take it you've missed this,” Alex chuckled, falling into a rhythm. John met his thrusts, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and pulling him closer.

“Every fucking day.” John decided Alex wasn't going fast enough, so he reached down and grabbed Alex's hips, setting a new pace.

“You're such a power bottom.” It came out as a groan. “If you wanna take control, why don't you just ride me?”

“Good idea.” John flipped them and straddled Alex's hips, sinking back down onto his cock. Alex put his hands on his hips, steadying John as he rode him. “Color?”

“Green, of course.” Alex stared up at him. “You're so fucking sexy.”

John shifted just slightly and threw his head back. “You feel so good,” he breathed. “I can't believe I survived an entire week without you.”

Alex moaned in agreement. John rode him hard, ignoring the way his legs and thighs ached with exhaustion in favor of keeping a steady, albeit fast, pace. Alex was somehow able to tell, though, because he sat up so John could brace himself on his shoulders. Alex hooked his arm around John's hips, pulling him closer. John's eyes snapped closed and he gasped out. He felt a hand wrap around his cock and he bit his lip. Alex pumped him in time with their thrusts and soon John was coming undone with a whimper. He powered through his orgasm, continuing to move his hips until Alex was moaning as he came.

“Did you want my -?”

John shook his head, pulling off and feeling Alex slide out of him. He whined at the feeling and let his head drop to Alex's shoulder. Alex kissed the side of his head as he pinched his knot off. “Sorry,” John mumbled. “It'd feel wrong with my pre-heat.”

“Don't apologize.” Alex nuzzled him, wrapping his arms around his shaking form. “I can support your weight, you know.”


 

John let himself relax against Alex's chest. He moved his head a little and kissed his scent gland, smiling to himself when Alex shuddered. “I love you.”

“I love you too, baby.”

They held each other for several long moments before Alex eased John back into the nest, cleaning the drying come off of his stomach. John watched him tiredly. The day's events were finally catching up to him, and he was tired. It probably also had something to do with the fact that Omegas typically slept really deeply in the hours leading up to their heat, since they'd be needing their energy.

“Don't fall asleep yet. Let's get you something to eat first so you don't wake up hungry.” Alex sat next to him, giving him a light scalp massage. “Did you even eat anything today?”

John had gotten something quick when he was in Chicago but that had been it. He didn't tell Alex that, though. “I ate something.”

“Come on,” Alex said, tugging John's hair. “You need food.”

“I do.” John frowned. “Then again, this nest is so comfortable. I don't want to leave it.”

Alex crossed his arms, but John knew he wasn't irritated. “You're only doing this because you know I'm going to indulge you.”

John smiled, stretching out. “You got me.”

Alex kissed John's forehead. “Fine. But only because I missed you so much.” He got dressed and left the room. “Don't fall asleep,” he called a moment later from the kitchen.

John curled up in the nest, closing his eyes. He let his mind wander briefly to the business trip, but only to remind himself that it was over, and he wouldn't have to think about it anymore.

At least, not for the next few days.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

There were very few moments in which Alex and John didn't have something extra going on in the background – they were both working men, after all, with bills to pay and the world to save. John had learned to embrace the chaos of it, learned to appreciate the time he and Alex could share, even if it was brief.

That being said, he absolutely loved having Alex all to himself during their cycle. He didn't have to worry about Alex getting called into work or having to write for the paper. And he didn't have to worry about himself getting called into work either. It was required by federal law that Alphas and Omegas be given time off work or school to have their cycles. Betas were allowed that, too, but only if they were legally bonded to an Alpha or an Omega. There were a few reforms in the works that would change that, which John was glad for.

That wasn't currently on his mind, though. The only thing he was thinking about was how good it felt to be in his Alpha's arms. He snuggled closer, burying his face in Alex's neck, breathing him in. He smiled as he replayed the last few days in his mind.

“I love you,” he mumbled. His eyelids felt heavy. He was exhausted from the exertion.

“I love you too.” Alex was purring rather loudly. John felt him kiss the top of his head. “So much.”

As much as sleep called to John, he resisted it. He remained in Alex's embrace for a few minutes longer, letting his brain reset as the rest of his heat left him. Then he got out of the nest, tugging Alex up with him.

“But it's comfy,” Alex whined.

John pulled him into the bathroom and started the shower. Alex slid his arms around John's waist and kissed the side of his head. John leaned back into him. He could feel the rumbling of Alex's chest in his bones. It felt so good. He glanced at their reflections in the mirror and shook his head with good humor. His neck was covered with marks and hickeys. He had a rather large one on his scent gland. He didn't mind it.

They got into the shower and washed themselves. It wasn't necessarily romantic, but there was intimacy in the familiarity. John cherished it, giving Alex a quick kiss under the spray of the water.

“God, you're perfect,” Alex breathed, leaning in again. He kissed John deeply, backing him up against the wall. John kissed him back for a moment then turned his head. Alex trailed kisses over his face, along his jaw, down to his neck. John felt the scrape of teeth before Alex began to suck yet another mark into his neck.

“A-Alex,” John moaned. His Alpha's mouth on his skin felt like heaven, especially in the afterglow of his heat. Every touch bordered on overwhelming.

They'd never had sex immediately after a cycle before. Curiosity pricked at the back of John's skull. He'd handled sex before his heat pretty well. Maybe sex after would feel just as good.

Alex pulled away from John's neck and kissed him again, more fiercely. John wrapped his arms around Alex's neck, moaning when Alex pulled John closer, allowing John to feel every inch of his body.

“I need you,” Alex whispered. “I need you so badly, mon coeur.”

The nickname was nearly enough to shatter John's resolve. Nearly. “Alex, we can't.”

“Why not?” Alex nuzzled John's hair. “You won't let me please you? Drive you over the edge again and again, spoil you and give you the pleasure and the bliss that you deserve?”

John's toes curled. “Not in the shower,” he whispered. His eyes closed as Alex nibbled his earlobe sweetly. He didn't like having sex in the shower nearly as much as Alex seemed to. He was too worried that one of them would fall.

Alex turned off the water and got out, wrapping a towel around himself. John stepped out onto the mat, grabbing his own towel, but Alex took it from him, gingerly wrapping it part of the way around him, then using the ends to pull him closer. John laughed a little. Alex leaned down and licked away some of the water droplets that were cascading down John's chest. John sighed, letting his eyes fall closed.

Alex kissed John before grabbing the bottle of hair serum and treating John's hair. He pulled it teasingly as he did so, which made John bite the inside of his cheek. He had a thing for having his hair pulled, and Alex knew it.

“I need you,” Alex repeated, pulling John into his arms once again.

John suddenly needed him too, so he brushed his lips against Alex's. Alex cupped John's face, taking his bottom lip into his mouth and sucking on it.

“Let's go back to the bedroom,” Alex purred.

John smiled and shook his head. He'd gotten an idea. “Here.”

“Here?”

“On the counter.”

Alex's eyes darkened and he pulled John into another kiss.


 

John figured it had something to do with their prior separation. They really weren't used to being apart. That, and Alex's rut had hit a little later than John's heat, which meant that it ended a little later too. John was fine with it. He liked when Alex got needy for him and him alone, when his own mind wasn't too preoccupied with his heat to enjoy it.

He dissembled the nest after Alex's rut left him, discarding the blankets in the hamper to be washed later, and remade the bed with Alex's help. Then he got into it, sinking into the mattress. He needed to sleep.

Alex got in next to him, pulling him into his arms. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” Alex was purring again and John smiled, closing his eyes and finally letting himself drift off.

He woke up some time later. His eyes cracked open and he frowned. He was still tired, and it was still dark outside. So what had woken him?

His phone rang again and he sighed, taking it off his nightstand and checking to see who in the sweet hell had the sense to call at three in the morning.

“Shit,” he said. His heart began to race.

“What?” Alex groaned. “Turn it off, baby. I'm tryna sleep.”

John answered his phone. “What's wrong? Are you hurt?”

“No, I'm okay,” Mary Eleanor said on the other end of the line. “It's just that...”

“What's wrong?” John repeated, getting out of the bed. Alex sat up, fully awake by now.

“Dad hasn't come home yet.”

White hot fury seized John by the lungs. “Go over to the Washingtons'. You have their number?”

“Yeah. I'll call them.”

“I'm on my way. Stay safe.” He hung up and flipped the lightswitch, grabbing a pair of jeans and a shirt. He undressed angrily and yanked his pants on.

“What's going on?”

“Henry didn't come home,” John spat. He tossed Alex a pair of jeans. “Get dressed. We're going to Norfolk.”

“You gonna kill him?”

“I might.”

“Is Polly okay?”

“She's going over to your parents' place until we can get there.” This wasn't the first time this had happened, but it was going to be the last, one way or another. John looked over at Alex, who was watching him with that expression he wore when he was about to say something John didn't want to – oh for the love of God. “What?”

“This is going to sound horrible, and I don't know how to make it not sound horrible, but do we both have to go?”

John stared at him. “You're right, that does sound horrible.”

“John -”

“I'm going to need you to hold me back, okay? Because while you might have been joking about me killing him, I wasn't. Not to mention Mary Eleanor's your family too.”

“I know she is.” Alex finally got out of bed and got dressed. “But do we have to go at all?”

Yes,” John said firmly. “We do.”

Alex held up his hands. “Fine. You win. Let's go.”

John didn't feel like he was winning anything but he kept his mouth shut and grabbed his keys. They got into his car and pulled out of the complex.

The car was filled with an uneasy silence for the first half hour. John couldn't do anything about it. He was too busy trying not to speed too much.

“I'm sorry,” Alex finally said. “I didn't mean anything by it. And I know Polly's my family. That's not what I was thinking about. How long are we going to be there?”

“I don't know. Until I know she's going to be okay. And until I can rip Henry a new one.”

“Or in half.”

“Or in half,” John agreed. He took a steadying breath. “What were you thinking about, then?”

Alex didn't answer. John clenched his jaw. Now wasn't the time for secrecy. When John was angry like this, it was better to tell him upfront than to keep anything from him. Because John was the type of person who would absolutely imagine the worst case scenario.

Which was what he was currently doing.

He felt a hand on his cheek. Made himself unclench his jaw. His hands twitched. He relaxed his grip on the steering wheel.

“You're going to break your teeth one of these days,” Alex said gently. “Maybe I need to get you a mouth guard.”

John didn't answer. He wasn't going to say anything until Alex told him what was wrong.

Alex sighed. He knew John's game. “Alright,” he conceded. “I wanted to stay home because I have a department meeting this morning.”

“You have a what?” John changed his mind. Alex should've waited to tell him.

“Yeah. At nine.”

John gripped the steering wheel. He didn't trust himself to say anything.

They'd always stayed home on the day after their cycle to recover and spend time together. That was part of the reason John was so angry with the situation, although the overarching reason was of course that Henry had left Mary Eleanor alone. And he'd hoped that having Alex with him would keep him grounded because he wasn't exactly emotionally stable at the moment.

Except that Alex clearly didn't care about that.

“John, don't get mad.”

Oh, it was far too late for that.

“I just figured that it would be okay if I went, since your heat was over.”

That didn't sit well with John.

“I would've stayed home if we were still having our cycle.”

“I'm not turning around,” John said.

“I know.”

“You still gonna go?”

It was Alex's turn to get quiet, which was enough of an answer for John.

The rest of the ride over was agonizingly tense. They finally arrived and John jumped out of the car, jogging to the Washingtons' front door and knocking.

Mrs. Washington opened it. “Hello, John.”

“Where is she?”

“She's up in the guest room.”

John went up the stairs. The door was cracked and he nudged it open. The sight of Mary Eleanor asleep in the bed allowed him to relax. He quietly sat down on the mattress, smoothing her hair back. It was as wild as his.

She shifted and her eyes opened. “Jack,” she said softly.

“I didn't mean to wake you.”

She sat up and he pulled her into his arms. She hugged him back.

She was getting so big. John wished she'd stop growing for a moment, give him the chance to catch up.

“I'm sorry I called you.”

“No, don't be sorry.” John still hadn't let go of her. “I told you to call me if it ever happened again. When did he leave?”

“I don't know. Around five, I think. Before supper.”

“Did you get anything to eat? Are you hungry? I can fix you something -”

“I'm not hungry. Just worried. This is the longest he's been gone. What if something happened to him?”

Henry didn't deserve Mary Eleanor's compassion. He ran a hand through her hair. “I'm sure he's just lost track of the time.”

She nodded against his shoulder.

He closed his eyes for a moment. “Okay. I'm going to ask you something. And I need you to be completely honest with me.” He pulled away so he could look into her eyes. “Would you like to move in with Alex and me?”

“No,” she said immediately.

“Think about it a little,” John urged her.

“If I move in with you, who's going to look after Dad?”

Okay, John was going to kill Henry. “That's not your job,” he said firmly. “You shouldn't be taking care of him; he should be taking care of you.”

“He takes care of me.”

John shook his head. “Leaving you alone for an entire night -”

“He doesn't do it very often.”

“But he still does it.”

Mary Eleanor looked down at her lap. “I don't want to move to Richmond. I like it here. I have friends and I like my school. I don't want to leave.”

John brushed her hair from her face. “I just want to make sure you're safe.”

“I am. I've got Aunt and Uncle Washington in case anything happens.”

She wasn't their responsibility. She was John's.

“Don't make me move in with you,” she begged. “I don't want to leave.”

John nodded slowly. “Okay. But if it happens again, we might not have a choice.” He kissed her forehead. “Go back to sleep. I love you.”

“Love you too, Jacky.” She lay back down, pulling the covers up with her. John smoothed them out before standing and going downstairs.

Mrs. Washington was waiting for him at the landing. “Thank you,” he said.

She placed her hand on his bicep. “Happy to help. Always.”

“It shouldn't be your job.” He suddenly felt old and weary.

“But it's a job we gladly take on nonetheless.” She frowned and drew him into a hug. “You never have to worry about that.”

He hugged her back. “You know me. I'll never stop worrying. Is Alex still here?”

“Of course. He's in the dining room.” She let go of him. “Is everything okay between you two?”

John nodded with a thin smile. “Why don't you get some sleep?”

She regarded him for a moment before turning and going up the stairs.

John steeled himself, then walked into the dining room.

He and Alex needed to talk.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

Alex was sitting at the dining table, glumly nursing a cup of coffee. He glanced up at John then looked away, choosing to glower at his mug instead of him.

John crossed his arms. “So you're mad at me for getting mad at you?”

“No,” Alex said. “Although I do think it's pretty hypocritical of you. I mean, you're pissed that I'm going to work after your heat while you were perfectly willing to be clear across the country when it hit in the first place.”

“That's different.”

“No, it's really not. And if you're mad at me for not telling you, then let me point out that you didn't tell me when your pre-heat hit.” Alex's voice was calm and calculated. It made John angrier. He hated when Alex used logic against him. “So don't get mad at me for not communicating when you're just as bad about it as I am.”

John opened his mouth to shoot back a rebuttal, but Alex wasn't finished.

“And speaking of not communicating, I can't believe you asked Polly to move in with us without consulting me first!”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” John snapped. “I forgot that I need your permission for everything.”

“It just would've been nice if you asked me how I felt about it -”

“What did you think was going to happen?”

“- because I would've said no.”

John stopped. His blood boiled. “What?”

“I don't want her to live with us.”

“Are you kidding me? She doesn't have anywhere else to go!”

“Of course she does! She's more than welcome to stay here, you know that!”

“She belongs with her family, Alex!”

Alex scoffed. “So you don't consider George and Martha your family unless it's convenient for you, is that it?”

“No, that's not what I meant and you know it. But it would be better for her to live with us -”

“In our tiny apartment?”

John shook his head angrily. “We were going to move anyway.”

“You wanted to wait to move until summer.”

“We can move sooner than that if we need to.”

Alex's jaw worked. “Right. Because it works for you. Forget about me. Forget about how I feel about any of it. Because what I want never matters.”

That wasn't fair, even in the slightest. “In this instance, it doesn't. If Mary Eleanor needs -”

“Will you just admit that you need her more than she needs you? That you've got this ridiculous need to feel important all of the time and you stop caring about other people's feelings to bolster your self-righteous behavior?”

“You really think that?” John had to remember to keep his voice down. “You really think that little of me?”

“If you truly cared, you would have asked me. But no, it's all about John all of the time. It's the John Laurens-Hamilton Show guest starring the rest of the fucking world.”

“This isn't about me! It's about Mary Eleanor and what she needs! I have a responsibility to her, Alex! I'm her legal guardian!”

“Yes, another thing you decided to do without talking to me about it first.”

“My family comes first, Alex. You know that, you've always known that.” And if Alex wasn't being so stupid, he'd realize that he was also included in John's definition of family. He always had been.

“I just think it's funny how you're suddenly so willing to drop everything to, well,” he laughed in disgust, “become a parent.”

“Oh, for fuck's sake, we're not doing this again,” John groaned, running an agitated hand over his face. “This is completely different.”

“I don't think it is. You're all about family, John, until it comes to having a baby. Then you want nothing to do with it.”

“I told you that I'm not ready! What part of that do you not understand?”

“Maybe the part where you keep saying it!”

“If you stopped asking every five minutes, maybe I'd stop saying no!”

“So you're refusing just to spite me?”

“Of course not! I'm refusing because I'm not ready for a baby. And if you can't accept that, then that's your problem.”

My problem? And how would you suggest I solve that?”

“I don't know, learn to be fucking patient for once? Get it through your thick skull that this isn't a decision that I can just make?”

“You've had plenty of time to think.”

“And I've given you my answer. If you can't handle that, then maybe you should -” John's throat seized. He couldn't finish it. He glared at the ground, his vision blurred with furious tears.

“You know what? Maybe I -”

“Alex, for the love of God, shut your mouth.”

They both looked over towards the source of the voice. Frannie was standing in the doorway, hands on her hips.

“What're you doing here?” John asked. She was supposed to be in Chicago with Hercules.

“Should ask you two the same thing.”

“Henry didn't come home last night.”

Her mouth hardened. “Son of a bitch.”

Something beeped. Alex grabbed his phone off of the table. “It's six.” His voice was drained. “I need to get going if I'm going to make it.”

Because of course Alex was still going to the meeting. And he'd called John selfish.

“I'm going to unpack,” Frannie said. “Let you two talk.” She turned on her heel and left the room.

An uneasy silence thickened the atmosphere. John stared at the floor because he couldn't stand to look at Alex.

“I need to get going,” Alex repeated.

“Then go,” John said.

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

He heard Alex walk away. The front door opening, then closing.

John dug his fingernails into his palm.

He went outside, to the driveway. Alex was opening the door of the car. He stopped when he saw John. “Yeah?”

“I'm still pissed at you,” John said.

Alex shook his head with a derisive snort. “You came all the way outside to tell me that? You know, you can be such a -”

“No. No, I came outside to tell you...” John shuffled his feet. He hated fighting with Alex. It made things awkward and tense. “Just drive safe, okay?”

Alex's eyes softened. “I will. I'll text you when I get in.”

There was a moment that lasted an uncomfortable eternity, a silent look of uncertainty that they shared.

“Right,” Alex said. “Goodbye.” He got into the car.

“Bye.” John backed up and watched him drive away, then went back inside.

He needed a drink.


 

Frannie came back into the dining room and arched her eyebrows at John's glass of whiskey. “It's six-fifteen in the morning,” she said. “Way too early for that.”

John wiped his eyes. “It's also too early for you to be coming home. Weren't you in Chicago with Herc?”

“Plans changed.” She sat down next to him and pulled his glass away. “Seriously. It's too early.”

“What happened, Fran?”

She grew uncharacteristically quiet. John reached out and took her hand. Glanced at the glass, which was on her other side. Momentarily entertained ways of sneaking it back over.

“He told me that he wanted to get serious,” she said. John pulled his focus from the whiskey and looked at her. “That two years was plenty of time to know that he wanted to be with me for the rest of his life. That he was in love with me.” She looked down at their hands. “I told him I still didn't know. Then I took a red-eye flight and came home.” Her chin trembled. “I broke his heart.”

“I'm so sorry.” John scooted closer, taking her other hand. “If you need more time to figure it out, I'm sure he'll understand.”

She shook her head and looked at him, pursing her lips and blinking back tears. “It's not that. It's not that at all, John. I want to be with him, too. I think he's the one.” Her face crumpled and she began to cry. It was painful to watch. “That's what makes this so hard.”

John pulled her into a hug and she wept into his shoulder. “What is it, then?” he asked gently.

She held onto him for several long moments, then pulled away and wiped her eyes. “I know he wants kids, and so do I. We both want a big family. But I can't – I can't -.” She closed her eyes tightly, squeezing John's hands, as if physically holding it in would make it hurt less. She took a few steadying breaths. “I can't have kids,” she breathed.

John's heart broke for her. “Oh, Frannie.” He pulled her into another hug and she wrapped her arms around him. “I'm so sorry.”

“I-I found out a few months ago but it still hurts so much,” she sobbed. “I have bad eggs, so I can't get pregnant and even if I did, I wouldn't be able to carry to term because I have a deformed uterus. Nothing would implant.”

John rubbed her back. “And that's why you said you didn't know?”

She nodded. “I can't give him what he wants. What we want. And I just, I just don't want to hurt him.”

“I'm so sorry,” he repeated.

She sniffled and pulled away, grabbing a tissue and wiping her face. “Do you think he'll leave?”

“No. He loves you, Frannie. And as much as he may want a family, I think he wants you more.”

“It's gonna kill him.”

“He'll definitely be upset. But he won't blame you for it. And if he does, I'll go over to his apartment and kick his ass.”

She laughed wetly. “I need to tell him.”

“Yeah. You do. And I mean, there's always other options if you want to have kids.”

“I know. But I feel like there's something wrong with me.”

“There isn't.”

She nodded, wiping her eyes again. “So we've addressed my problems. Now it's your turn. Did you want to talk about what I walked in on?”

John sighed. “How much did you hear?”

“Just that you don't want to have a baby. And Alex isn't okay with it. I didn't know he even wanted one.”

John snorted. “He's made it pretty clear over the past three years. To me, anyway.”

“Three years?”

“Yup. And he doesn't seem to understand why I get frustrated when he asks. Because he asks any time anything is even remotely related to kids.” He looked down at the table. “I've just started avoiding conversations that I know are going to lead to it. And if I'm driving us anywhere, I've learned that I can't take Parkway because that street has a baby store and I know that if we go down there he'll nonchalantly bring it up again.”

Frannie didn't answer. He risked a glance to see her staring at him. “You've told him that you're not ready for a baby and he still keeps asking you?”

“I guess he's hoping that I'd changed my mind.”

“That's fucked up. If he can't accept it, then that's on him. Is that what the entire fight was about?”

“No.” John sighed and looked at his drink. Frannie noticed and moved it further away. “I asked Mary Eleanor if she'd feel safer living with us instead of Henry. Alex overheard and got mad at me for not asking him first.”

“That's also fucked up.”

“I know. I mean, he knows how I feel about her living with Henry -”

“No, John. I mean that's fucked up on your part.” She was giving him the Disappointed Mom look. “You should've asked him how he felt about it.”

“I didn't think he'd have any problems with her living with us.”

“But you still should've asked. You two are supposed to be a team, remember? Make all of your decisions together.”

John frowned. “I just don't understand how he could not be okay with her living with us.”

“If you'd talked to him about it beforehand, you'd probably have that answer.”

He gave her a look. “Really?”

“Yes, really. What kind of friend would I be if I didn't call you on your bullshit?” She smiled a little and nudged him. “But hey, enough about the negative things in life. Tell me about your business trip.”

Ah, yes. As if things weren't already bad enough for the day, John needed to be reminded of Sacramento. “It was alright. We accomplished what we needed to.”

“That bad?” She leaned back in her chair. “Is your new boss a total dick?”

“Possibly. I didn't get much time with him.” He thought about the trip. Remembered something else. “Okay, but I did go out to dinner with our client's head lawyer and let me tell you, that was weird.” It had been long enough since the incident that he found it funny and could laugh about it. “He had a taxi come pick me up, and the driver asks if I'm one of Petkova's escorts.”

What? You're making that up.”

“I'm really not.” John told her the entire story, not missing any details.

And in that moment, they could both set aside their issues and pretend that everything was okay. Even though the reality was that Frannie and John alike were holding back enough tears to flood the entire town.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

Mr. and Mrs. Washington came down a few minutes later.

“What're you doing home so early?” Mrs. Washington asked Frannie. “You weren't supposed to come back until Thursday.”

“I missed you too much,” Frannie said, standing and hugging them both. “Couldn't stay away.”

“Is that why you haven't moved out yet?” Mr. Washington cracked.

“Har har. You know you love having me around.”

“Is everything alright?” Mrs. Washington placed a hand on her arm. “Did you and Hercules have a fight?”

Frannie shook her head. “No, nothing like that. Plans changed, is all.”

Mr. and Mrs. Washington shared a look and Frannie rolled her eyes. John looked over at the glass of whiskey.

“I promise,” Frannie said. “Things are fine.” She grabbed John's glass and went into the kitchen. “I'm going to get some coffee.”

“Where's Alex?” Mr. Washington asked, sitting down at the table.

“He had a board meeting that he couldn't miss. He'll be back later today.”

“You should get some sleep, dear,” Mrs. Washington said. “You look exhausted.”

“I'll be fine. This isn't my first early morning.”

Frannie came back into the dining room with two mugs of coffee. She handed one to John. “If you're staying up, then I'll stay up with you. We could both use the company.”

“So something did happen,” Mr. Washington said. “Did you two break up?”

“No. I'm telling you, we're fine. We just need some time apart to think, is all. About the future.”

“What about it?”

It dawned on John that Frannie hadn't told them yet. And that this was what she'd said she was procrastinating at Marty's ceremony.

She'd been carrying this burden on her own for so long.

“Just, things. Don't you have to be at work soon? Both of you?”

The two shared another look. Then Mr. Washington took Frannie's hand. “If you want to talk, we're here.”

“I know.” She smiled at them and they left to get ready for work.

Frannie stared at the wall, then shook her head. John nudged her gently with his foot. “It'll be okay, Fran,” he whispered.

She buried her face in her hands. “I can't take living here anymore.”

John smiled in spite of the situation. “You kidding? You don't have to pay rent or utilities or anything. Not to mention both of your parents seem to be okay with having you here.”

“Shut up.” She wiped her eyes. “The only reason I've been here for as long as I have is because social work doesn't pay for shit. I've been saving up for five years and I couldn't even afford a cardboard box, much less an apartment. Real estate in Norfolk is outrageous.”

John rubbed her shoulder. “I know.”

Frannie leaned her head back. “Maybe I should move somewhere else, get a different job. What's it like in Richmond?”

“Better than here, that's for sure. We pay five-eighty for the one we have right now, but it's small.”

“I can handle small.” She looked down at the table. “I need to talk to him. When he gets back in.”

“Yeah. You do.”

“Jack?”

They both turned to see Mary Eleanor standing in the doorway. “What's wrong?” John asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”

“No. Could you take me to school?”

“You don't have to go today if you're too tired.”

She frowned, shaking her head. “It's fine. I've got a speaker in my science class that I wanted to see.”

“What time is your science class?”

“One-thirty.”

John relaxed a little. “Okay. Well, how about you go back to bed and I'll wake you up at noon?”

“You're not going to forget?”

“Of course not.” I'm not Henry. “Did you want me to tuck you back in?”

She scoffed, obviously offended. “I'm twelve. I can do it myself.” Then she turned on her heel, leaving John stunned.

“Remember when we were twelve and we thought we knew everything?” Frannie mused. “She's growing up, John.”

“I feel like I'm missing it,” he said. Between working, volunteering, and living an hour and a half away, he never got to see her anymore.

She squeezed his good shoulder. “She'll always need her big brother, doll. What she doesn't need is another father.”

“Another?” John gave her a look. “She doesn't even have one.”

Frannie pursed her lips and poked his nose. “But she's going to be okay. She's becoming independent, and she has Mom and Dad if she ever needs anything.”

“It shouldn't be up to them.”

She shrugged. “It shouldn't have been up to you. Trust me, they're happy with it. They like having someone to look after. Besides me. Although there's nothing I can do to convince you that she'll be okay without you, is there?”

“Of course not,” John said with half a grin. “She's my kid.”

“That's never going to change, huh?” Frannie smiled fondly. “She always has been.”

As if that was even news. He'd been her main caretaker for the first three and a half years of her life, then went on to become her legal guardian because Henry had fallen off the wagon again. He'd always feel responsible for her. It was his mother would've wanted. It was what she would've expected.

Thinking of his dead mother made him wish Frannie hadn't take his whiskey away from him. He could've used a drink at the moment. Hell, he could've used two.

Instead, he drank his black coffee and thought about how if Alex had made it, it would've gone down a lot easier.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

Okay,” John said, pulling up to the school doors. “Christ, it's been a while since I've been here. Do I need to check you in or anything like that?”

“No. Not since you called.” She hopped out of the car, grabbing her bag. “Thanks, Jack!”

“No problem, hon. Hey, I love you.”

“Yeah, you too!”

He watched her run into the building. His heart kind of hurt.

He drove back to the Washingtons' house and noticed that Henry's car was in his driveway. He felt his face heat in anger.

“Henry's home,” he said when he was back inside. Frannie looked up from the couch. He handed her the keys to her car. “I'm going to go over and talk to him.”

“Polly won't forgive you if you kill him. Remember that.”

John chuckled darkly. He left the house and made his way across the street and tried the front door. It was locked. He went around to the backyard and climbed over the fence, then opened the sliding door and walked in.

Henry looked up, visibly stunned, as John came into the dining room. “How the hell did you get in?” he asked.

“Where the fuck were you last night?” John demanded.

“Isn't that my personal business?”

“Not when Mary Eleanor is concerned it isn't. She was alone last night. What if something happened to her? She could've gotten hurt, and you wouldn't have been there for her.”

“Get out of my house, John,” he said in his warning tone. “We've already been through this. You're not welcome here.”

“I'll stop coming over when you start being her father.”

Henry slammed his mug on the dining table and shot up, face going red with anger. “I have had it with you telling me how to be a parent. You are not Mary Eleanor's father, you never will be, and you need to get out of my house!

“If you don't get your act together, I'm going to take her with me.”

He came around the table, attempting to be threatening. John was no longer scared of Henry. The thing about being mistreated so much as a kid was that he'd already dealt with the worst. This was nothing.

“You have no right,” Henry spat.

“I have every right. The court made me her legal guardian and if I wanted to petition for full custody, I would win. You no longer have the guise of senator to hide behind. You're nothing but a disgruntled, retired politician with a drinking problem. Whereas I have a well-paying job and my mate is a doctor.”

“A doctorate isn't shit if it's in a worthless field. Alexander is trash, John. He's just going to leave you the second he finds something better.”

It wouldn't have stung if he and Alex hadn't fought earlier. “You've been saying that for seven years and yet nothing's changed. And we know what that is really about. You can't handle the fact that I'm gay, so you're taking it out on Alex. Which isn't fair.”

“I don't give a fuck about your homosexuality.” He said it like it was a dirty word. “He's clawing his way up from the bottom. All he cares about is a legacy, and he doesn't care who he crushes during the climb.”

“Surprisingly good imagery for a drunk.” John stepped closer, getting in his face. “Listen to me. If this ever happens again, I will be taking Mary Eleanor with me. The only reason I haven't done it yet is because she wants to stay here and take care of you. Because she still has compassion for you.” He straightened up and turned to go. “She'll realize what kind of man you are soon enough. And then where will you be, once everyone has given up on you?”

“You're not my son.”

“So you've said.” John didn't stop walking.

“Your mother was having an affair while I was still with my law firm.”

John paused.

“I claimed you as my own because I didn't want you to be ostracized for something that wasn't your fault.”

John wheeled on him. “Something that wasn't my fault? You mean like being an Omega?”

“The Laurenses only have Alphas. I had to keep you out of the light so it didn't become known.”

“Bullshit. Bullshit. You're insecure and angry and so you're telling me this bullshit lie to get into my head.”

“You're lucky you look so much like Eleanor. Because if you looked like him, I wouldn't have been able to keep it hidden for so long.”

“What is wrong with you?” John snapped. “I am your biological son, but you know what? I really wish I wasn't!”

“Then today's your lucky day, you filthy aberrant.”

John saw red. He gritted his teeth, swallowing his rage enough to march out of the house without punching him. Because if he swung, he worried that he wouldn't stop.

He wiped his eyes angrily as he walked back to the Washingtons'. He noticed that his car was in the driveway. Alex had returned. Just what he needed.

He went inside and splashed cold water on his face, taking steadying breaths. He couldn't lose his temper. He had to keep it together.

When he was mostly calm, he searched Alex out. He found him with Frannie in her room. They were in her bed and she was speaking to him softly, sadly. Alex was rubbing her arm. She was telling him what she'd found out.

He turned to give them some privacy, but then Frannie said, “John.”

“Yeah, Fran?” he said, turning back around.

“Come over here and cuddle with us. I think we could all use the dopamine boost.”

John smiled a little, taking off his shoes and getting into the bed, next to Frannie. She turned and hugged him, shoulders relaxing. She was asleep within moments.

He looked down at her then closed his eyes. They opened when he felt a hand on his arm. He and Alex shared a glance, an unspoken message passing between them. Things would be okay.

John woke up a few hours later. Frannie and Alex were still fast asleep, but Alex had moved so that he was on John's other side, which put John in the middle instead of Frannie. He leaned back against Alex for a moment, biting the inside of his cheek so he wouldn't cry. He thought about everything his father had said.

There had been just a hint of truth in his words about Alex, and it scared him.

He didn't know where he'd be if Alex ever left him. He held such a presence in his life that he couldn't imagine much of one existing without him. It'd be empty and hollow, with nothing to look forward to besides work, which wasn't much of anything to be happy about since Francis was his boss.

God, he didn't even want to think about that.

He got out of the bed – easier said than done – and went to the kitchen, making himself a sandwich. He hadn't eaten yet. Hadn't been able to.

“Hey.”

He didn't look up. “You want one?”

“No. I got something on the way back.” There was a moment of awkward silence. John almost started crying again. “Look, John, I shouldn't have brought it up. And I shouldn't have called you self-righteous. But it's so frustrating to see you make all of these decisions without me. And when you do, it feels like I'm not really here, so much as I'm just along for the ride. Which isn't what I want.”

“I know.” John finally turned. “I should've asked you about Mary Eleanor first. I just got so worried and angry that nothing else mattered but her safety. Because I really do think she'd be safer with us.”

Alex nodded sadly. “I know you do.”

“She said no, by the way. I don't know if you heard that part.” John looked down at the floor. “But if this happens again, we might have to.”

“I know.”

He looked back up. “And you're okay with that?”

“She's family.”

John crossed the room and took Alex's hands, lacing his fingers through his. “You're family too. You always have been. You always will be.”

Alex pulled away from John, only to cup his face. “I know.” He frowned, smoothing John's brow. “What is it?”

“I talked to Henry. And he's getting... desperate, I guess. He told me that I wasn't his biological son, went on this tirade about how Mama had an affair and I was the result, and how he took pity on me because he didn't want me to be an outsider.”

“That's ridiculous.”

“Isn't it? I mean, he's only doing it because he knows I can't ask her about it, and the only way to know for sure would be a paternity test. But there's no way in hell I'm going to do that.” He clenched one of his fists. “He's just trying to get into my head, and I know that, but there's still this part of me – I mean, what if it's true?”

Alex gently uncurled John's fingers. “He's a politician, baby. Getting into people's heads is his specialty. Don't think on it too much, you're just giving him what he wants.”

John nodded. “No, you're right. He's just trying to hurt me, convince me to back off. I shouldn't let it affect me. But it is. It's bothering me so much right now because what if he is telling the truth and my real father is out there somewhere? There could be a chance that I'm not related to -”

“I love you.”

John stopped babbling. “What?”

Alex smiled awkwardly. “Sorry. I know you hate it when I interrupt you. But I couldn't stop thinking about you all day and then I realized just now that I haven't said it to you at all since last night, which is a really long time.” He brought John's hand to his lips. “I hate it when we fight. I hate it so much.”

“I hate it, too.”

“And today shouldn't have happened. We usually fight about petty things like whether peanut butter belongs in the fridge or why we always seem to run out of dish soap.”

“It doesn't belong in the fridge,” John said.

“It makes it last longer.” Alex shook his head once. “This isn't an argument I want to have right now. What happened today was because of a lack of communication and that makes me really uncomfortable because we tell each other everything.”

They did tell each other everything. With as close as they had always been, secrets weren't really something they kept because they didn't feel the need to hide anything.

John thought of Francis.

Well, they told each other almost everything.

“I'll stop pestering you about having a baby,” Alex said after a moment of tense, terrible silence. “Frannie read me the Riot Act.”

“I appreciate that. What'd she say?”

“Basically that it's really shitty to keep bringing it up after you'd already said no.” He bit his lip. Studied John's face. “I thought you didn't take Parkway because it had too many potholes.”

“I didn't know how you'd handle the real reason.”

Alex nodded. “Maybe if I – if I could understand why, it'd stop bothering me. Because you used to say that it was because I was still in school, that things would be too hectic for a baby. But I've graduated. And I have a paying job, so we don't have to worry about that. And you're still not up for it. And I don't get it.”

John pulled away and picked up his sandwich, taking a bite so he didn't have to talk about it. “That was the key reason,” he finally said.

Alex gave a teasing smirk. If things weren't so heavy, John would've found it sexy. “So I'm wearing you down,” he joked.

“No. I still have my reasons.”

“Then tell me.” Alex moved closer to John and touched his forearm pleadingly. “I want to understand.”

John huffed in defeat and shook his head, offering a wan smile. “It doesn't seem like the right time. We're always so busy, love. We wouldn't be able to have a kid without going insane in the process. Not to mention I need to work with my new boss a little bit before I have to request parental leave.” He looked at the floor. “I'm worried that they'll stop taking me seriously if I have a baby. They'll view me as an unreliable worker who has to take time off for his kids. I'll get left behind. And I can't afford that right now, especially because I don't know what my boss thinks of me.”

“I could be the one who takes off work when things happen,” Alex said. “I could take my work home with me, I could teach over the computer if push came to shove.”

“Not yet, you can't.” John's heart seized at the tone of Alex's voice. He couldn't meet his eyes, he worried that they'd break him. “You haven't even begun teaching yet. You need to build a reputation as a trustworthy member of the faculty before you start missing class.”

“So, not now.”

“Not now,” John agreed. Something like shame pricked at the back of his skull but he disregarded it. “We still need to move, anyway. Because I'm not raising a child in that tiny apartment.”

“That's fair.” Alex stepped even closer. “Do you still want to start looking now?”

“Probably not a bad idea.”

“We can do that when we get back.” Alex leaned in but John turned his head away, closing his eyes so he wouldn't see the way Alex's face fell. Things were still raw and sore. And if he let Alex kiss him, it would all melt away, his wounds would mend.

And he couldn't let that happen yet, no matter how much he wanted to.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

They headed out for home at around four. John wanted to make sure that Mary Eleanor got home safely before he left her alone.

He didn't want to leave her with Henry but he didn't have much of a choice. He had to work in the morning.

With Francis.

He shivered at the thought. He and Francis had their history, and while John was good at setting his emotions aside during business hours, he doubted he was that good.

“I'm sorry I went to the department meeting,” Alex said after thirty minutes of nothing but the sound of the road and the soft melody of the radio. “I shouldn't have.”

“No, you shouldn't have.” John continued to look out the window. He watched the trees pass. When he was younger and still unable to grasp the concept of a moving car, he'd wondered how the trees moved so quickly without feet. He'd been too small to see anything other than the branches from his carseat. When he asked his mother, she patiently explained that the trees weren't moving, the car was. It took a while to stick.

Then his mind wandered to the stars that seemed to follow him wherever he went.

He'd never seen the beauty in the night sky. He wasn't entranced like Marty or, to a lesser extent, Alex. He wasn't allowed to let himself be swept up in wonder. His feet needed to remain firmly on the ground.

But every so often, there'd be a moment when he'd look up and feel a flicker of something. The smallest hint that he was on the brink of a revelation, that he was within tasting distance of some kind of holy epiphany.

Moments like those never lasted long. That was why they were called flickers and not conflagrations.

He only felt conflagrations in anger anymore. He used to feel it in love, but that had been years ago. The fire that kindled his love for Alex had settled into something less eruptive. What used to be an all-consuming burn that seared into his veins and grew with Alex's presence as if he was the oxygen that gave it life had evolved into something steadier. Something that didn't threaten to engulf John in flames but rather warmed his blood and his heart. Alex fed it with every look, every smile, every brush of his fingers, but instead of giving John feelings of passion and desperation, it gave him a feeling that wasn't quite a feeling, so much as a deep-seated knowledge that this was it. That this was – that he was – home.

The stars would never provide that security. So he chose to look in front of him rather than up.

I've never been particularly enthralled by the stars in the sky because they don't even compare to the ones in your eyes.”

John smiled.

“You're thinking,” Alex observed.

“When I proposed to you,” John answered. “It seems like lifetimes ago.”

“Sometimes it does. But then there are days when I wake up and see you and think, Oh my God, this is going to be the rest of my life.”

John's brow furrowed. “Is that a good thing? Because it sounds like it could go either way.”

“Of course it's a good thing,” Alex said with a laugh. “I realized I wanted to be with you when I was eight years old, and nothing has changed since then.” He reached over and John took his hand. “I promise.”

John looked down at their hands. They always fit together so perfectly, and the sight of Alex's ring on his finger made his eyes water just a little.

“I love you too.” John kissed Alex's hand. “Promise.”

Things would be okay.

They got home and John offered to cook dinner. Alex insisted on helping.

“You're still a better cook than I am,” Alex said, watching John cut up chicken.

“I've also got more experience than you. You'll get there.”

Alex turned back to the stove, tending the sauce. “If I'm being honest, I think you're at least partially to blame for my weight gain. You keep me well-fed.” Even though John's back was turned, he knew that Alex was making a face. “Wait. That sounded wrong. I don't mean that it's like your job or anything -”

“You don't have to justify, hon. I know what you mean.”

“You just, when we first got together, and got the apartment, you insisted on either cooking everything or eating with me.”

“It's cheaper to cook things at home.”

“Still, I think you've spoiled me.” Arms started to slide around John's waist, but stopped. “Is this okay?”

John nodded. The arms encircled him and he felt lips on his shoulder. “If I'm being honest, I did it on purpose.”

“You wanted me to get fat?”

“I wanted you to eat,” John corrected. “Your eating habits worried me, namely because you didn't have any. So I got into the habit of making sure you ate well. And if you gained a little weight as a result of it, then it's probably for the best. I make it a point to stay body positive, but for a while there, you'd started to worry me.”

“When?”

“First year of college. You lived on Ramen, coffee, Red Bull, and determination. And it showed.”

“You made me eat with you during finals week,” Alex said.

“I'd realized that I could see your ribs.”

“You've always looked out for me, haven't you?”

“That's what you do when you love someone.” John smiled a little as Alex pressed his forehead against the back of John's head. “Go check the sauce. I don't want it to burn.”

“Yes, sir.” Alex went back to the stove and John watched him from the corner of his eye.

They finished and ate. “Tell me about your meeting,” John said halfway through the meal.

“It was boring. Run-of-the-mill. Discussion of budget cuts, reminders of conduct, stuff like that. We have another on Friday.” Alex pushed his chicken around his plate with his fork. “Jefferson's an asshole.”

“What did he do this time?”

“He took the only swivel chair in the room.”

John fake gasped, clutching his heart. “That fiend!”

Alex laughed. “Yeah, I know. But still. During the entire meeting he swiveled very slowly and made eye contact with me every time he turned.”

“You two going to have petty fights like schoolchildren?”

“Probably. I don't think he likes me. But whatever. I don't care.”

John gave him a knowing look. “You clearly do.”

Alex pouted. “Okay, fine. I want everyone in the department to like me, Jefferson included. I want to be the most widely-approved professor there is in the entire school.”

“Pretty steep ambition for someone who hasn't started teaching yet.”

“Maybe. But when have I ever had a small goal?”

John smiled ruefully. “Never in your life.”

Everything Alex did had to be big, had to be better. He would never settle for anything. And there was always something that had to be improved. That drive was what had gotten Alex his doctorate. It had kept him devoted to his work. Entirely.

When they finished eating, they did the dishes.

“I can't help it,” Alex said. “I want to be remembered, John. I want my name to be one that people recognize for hundreds of years from now. I want people to know that I was here, that I did something. That I made the world better.”

John nodded, looking down at the glass he was washing. He felt older than twenty-seven.

“I want to be known as the man who did it all.”

“All except the dishes,” John said pointedly.

Alex gave a sheepish grin and picked up the plate he'd discarded in the middle of his speech. “I know how it sounds, but sometimes I just, I just feel like I'm meant for something big, you know? Something grand. That I'm meant to leave a legacy that outlasts time itself.”

All he cares about is a legacy, and he doesn't care who he crushes during the climb.”

John almost dropped the glass. “You feel like you're made for more than this,” he said.

“Yes!” Alex beamed. “You do get it! I love this, I love this life, but -”

“It's not enough for you.”

“It's -” He seemed to finally catch the glum tone of John's voice and looked at him. “Wait, you're not looking at it right.”

“No, I think I am.” John washed the last dish and handed it to Alex to be rinsed. “You're unsatisfied with this. With the life we have.” With me.

“John,” Alex said, shaking his head. He took John's hands, but John pulled away. “I love you. I told you in the car, told you that I've wanted this since I was a kid.”

“You didn't want this.” John stepped back when Alex moved closer. “You wanted me.”

“I love this, John. John. John, look at me.”

“But it isn't enough to keep you happy.”

You make me happy.”

“Not as happy as you could be. Certainly not as happy as you want to be.” He looked away, saw the time. Saw an out. “I work in the morning. I'm going to bed.”

Alex grabbed his hand, pulling him back. “John, no. I don't want to leave things like this morning.”

“Goodnight, Alex.” John walked to the bedroom and shut the door.

He didn't know whether he was about to cry, scream, or throw up. He sat down on the bed and buried his face in his hands.

John was okay with their life. He liked how things were.

If he kept telling himself that, he'd believe it eventually.

He changed into his pajamas and got into bed, hugging himself. Things weren't ideal, but they weren't bad. Just, not great. And John was okay with the not great as long as he knew that things were getting better. And they'd really seemed to be.

He backtracked in his mind, tried to think of the last time they were on the right track.

It was before Sacramento.

Alex was getting settled into his new job, John was getting along in his. They spent time together, only bickered. This was their first big fight in probably a year, if not more.

He and Alex disagreed on things, sure, but they usually handled it and moved on. They didn't fight.

And John couldn't recall any fights that had made him feel like this.

He tossed and turned for a few hours, but sleep tended to evade him when he was nervous or scared. Tonight, he was both. It didn't help that Alex had apparently decided not to join him.

John stared at the ceiling, then resolved to make himself a drink. He'd sleep easier if he had depressants in his system.

He got out of bed and went out into the hallway, nearly tripping over Alex as he did so.

“What the fuck?” John hissed.

Alex scrambled up.

“I thought you were sleeping on the couch or something,” John said.

“I always wait outside when you want to be upset without me.”

“Yeah, but not overnight!”

“It's never happened overnight before.”

John grimaced. “Come on.” He pulled Alex back into the bedroom and sat him down on the bed. “Your neck is going to be killing you tomorrow.” He began to massage it.

“You know you mean everything to me, John.”

John's hands stilled for a moment. He made himself continue, even though he was shaking. “I know you love me.”

“Good. Because I do.”

“But do you love me, or do you love that I can help you achieve your legacy?”

Alex spluttered. “That's ridiculous.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“It just seems like having a mate who loves you unconditionally would count towards your goal of doing it all.”

“John, no.” He turned around. “This isn't some kind of arcade prize I'm trying to get tickets to win and then put on display. I want a lasting legacy because I want people to know that I was successful, but more than that, I want them to know that it was something I earned.”

“So I am the prize?” John snorted. “Gives a whole new meaning to the term trophy Omega.”

“No.” Alex's jaw worked. “I want people to look back and see me as the one who did it all because I did it all. Just like I want people to look back and see me as the one who loved his mate more than anything else in the world because I do. You're not some kind of instrument, and I'm not using you. I promise I would never do that to you. Wanting a legacy and wanting you aren't mutually exclusive.”

“But you're still not satisfied with this.”

“Maybe not, but that's why we're moving. Because if we're not happy, we need to take steps to get there.”

“No. I mean, you're not satisfied with me.”

“Bullshit. You're the goddamn world.”

John bit the inside of his cheek. “I don't feel like it. I don't feel like you think I'm the world.”

“But I do.”

“You're supposed to give the world at least a little priority.”

Alex opened his mouth. Closed it. “Wait,” he said. “Is this about the fact that I went to the department meeting? You're right, John, I shouldn't have gone. I should have stayed with you and been there for Polly.”

“Polly?” John scoffed. “No, Alex, you should've been there for me.”

“You?”

John's hands twitched and he clasped them together. He felt the slight press of his nails into his skin. “You have no idea why I'm angry, do you? Why I've been angry?”

“I thought I did, but clearly I don't.”

“God.” John moved to get up, but Alex didn't let him go.

“Tell me,” Alex said.

John was already too close to breaking down. He looked at the door longingly. Then he looked down at his lap, defeated. “You've been working hard for years to get your doctorate and I am so proud of you. But we don't get much time together because I work a lot too. I know I'm just as guilty about it as you are, but at least when I put work first, I make it up to you. I balance it out as much as I can.” He blinked hard. “I look forward to our cycle because we get to spend time together and work can't legally interfere. But it did today. You let it.”

“I made sure you were out of your heat before I agreed to go.”

“You don't get it,” John said sadly. Tears were rolling steadily down his face. “You see our cycle as just my heat and your rut. I see it as the whole five days. And that includes the extra day that we have always taken to recover and be together.”

Alex grew quiet. “John. I didn't realize you needed the extra day. I'd always viewed it as a day that we spend together, nothing more.”

“I didn't know that until today.”

Alex took John's hand, pressed his fingers to his pulse. “You didn't drop, did you?”

Dropping was a relatively normal occurrence during sex. It was caused by the elevated hormone levels going back to normal. If someone dropped, they usually just needed to be held and taken care of, maybe given a warm bath and some chocolate.

Dropping during a cycle, however, was something else entirely. The hormone levels were extremely high during that time, and dropping down from the high abruptly could be disastrous. Sometimes people went into shock. Others experienced extreme psychological distress and did something drastic.

John had never dropped from a cycle, but he supposed it felt a lot like his first Bonding Heat, which he'd spent alone.

“No, I didn't drop,” John said. “When I say that I need the day, I don't mean it as an Omega. I mean it as your mate. Because that's the only time we're guaranteed to get to have together. We're not preoccupied with our cycle and we only have to worry about ourselves, and nothing else.” He clenched his fists, his teeth, his stomach. He didn't want to cry anymore.

“I didn't even think,” Alex said. He smoothed out John's jaw, took his hands and uncurled his fingers. “I had no idea, John. I'm so sorry.”

John's chin trembled and a sob escaped. “I just, I miss you.” Then he was falling apart.

Alex cupped John's face, catching his tears and wiping them away. “I miss you too,” he said softly. “I had no idea.”

John cried pathetically for several long minutes before he could pull himself together.

“Did you want to take tomorrow off? We can spend it together.”

“I have to work,” John said. He wiped his eyes. “I can't miss it.”

Alex pressed a tender kiss to John's forehead. “From now on, I'll make sure everyone I work for knows that I need the full five days.” He brushed John's hair out of the way. “I promise.”

John nodded. His eyelids felt heavy.

“You should get some sleep,” Alex said gently, nudging John back into the bed. He tucked him in, then changed into his pajamas and got under the covers. John wrapped his arms around him, pulling him close. He wrapped a leg around Alex's and tucked his face into his shoulder. He needed him.

Alex rubbed his back and hummed softly.

John closed his eyes and searched out that fire he always felt with Alex.

He found it.

It flickered.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

John was walking down a dark, damp hallway. The moisture in the air combined with his own sweat made his hair stick to his skin. He kept walking, not sure where he was going or who was following him. He could hear the footsteps, hear their shallow, wheezy breaths. His ankles were shackled. The chains dragged behind him on the wet ground.

You know this is your fault,” they hissed. The words reverberated in his mind and shook his very spine.

He tried to run, but he couldn't do anything other than trudge towards the door that only seemed to be getting further away. He wondered what was behind it.

Hands shoved him, hard, and he tumbled to the ground. The air was knocked from his lungs and he gasped for breath. He looked up to see the door right in front of him. He struggled to his feet and reached for the knob. The metal felt cold and wet, the kind of unsettling combination that unnerved John and made him want to turn back.

He felt icy breath on his neck.

He turned the knob.

It was locked.


 

John woke up just before his alarm went off and frowned. He felt that pressure in his chest that he always had when he'd been crying hard the night before.

Alex was also draped across his chest, so he added to the weight. John didn't want to get out of bed. He wanted to stay in the warm sheets and watch Alex sleep forever.

He frowned when he realized that Alex's hair was still tied back, so he gently pulled it free from its rubber band.

“Wha-?” Alex muttered, shifting.

“Just me. Go back to sleep.”

“'Kay.” He snuggled closer, the movement of his head pushing John's shirt up slightly. John felt cold fingers on his stomach and closed his eyes again.

He longed for the bliss that mornings used to provide for him. Because this used to be a small blessing, to have a few quiet moments with Alex before they had to wake up and start the day. Now it added to the claustrophobia creeping just under his skin, weighing down his heart so much that he was surprised it could still function. He ran his fingers through Alex's hair, willing himself to go back to sleep. He didn't want reality at the moment. He wanted peace.

His alarm went off and he sighed, hitting the dismiss button.

Alex sat up, rubbing his face. John watched the sleep fade from his mind, watched the frown slide into place, watched his eyes grow tired, watched his form tense.

For a horrible moment, John thought that he understood why everyone assumed Alex was older than him.

“Morning,” Alex said. His voice was soft, as if he was afraid to shatter the already frail tension.

“Morning.” John got up, running a hand through his hair. “I'm going to shower.”

“Can I join you?”

“I guess.” John went into the bathroom and took off his clothes. He turned on the shower and got in, Alex right behind him. He didn't object when Alex pulled him close. He let him rub circles into his back, working some of the soreness out. John tucked his face into the crook of Alex's neck, but didn't protest when Alex nudged him back and grabbed the shampoo.

Alex worked the shampoo into John's hair. “Your posture is off,” he said. “Does your shoulder hurt?”

“Just a little.”

Alex moved one of his hands down to it, massaging it gently. Then he leaned down and pressed his lips to one of the more prevalent scars. John's heart lifted a little. “I'm sorry,” he breathed.

“Don't be. You haven't done anything wrong.”

He felt like he was doing everything wrong.

Alex washed him, then John washed Alex. They dried themselves and got dressed. John made breakfast while Alex made the coffee.

“First day with your new boss,” Alex said. “Must be exciting.”

“In a way.” John stared down at the bacon he was frying. “It's more terrifying than anything else.”

“Don't be scared. If he's got any sense at all, he's going to love you.”

That was what John was so worried about. He didn't say that, but the weight of the words settled in his gut.

“Besides, didn't he say that he was going to give you a raise?”

“He did.”

“So that's something to look forward to, right? More money?”

“Yeah.” John cooked up the eggs and they ate in silence. A heavy silence. John tried to think of something, anything to say. Came up blank.

“So we can start looking for the apartment tonight when you get home?” Alex said as they cleaned up the dishes.

“Yes,” John replied, grateful for the break from his own thoughts. “Let's do that. What do you have to do today?”

“Nothing really. Just write an article. Maybe revise a few things. I need to go over my syllabus again, make sure that everything makes sense, and that the assignments comply with the school's guidelines.” Alex went back into the kitchen while John finished getting ready. “I'm thinking I need to redo the final essay. The requirements are too specific. I don't want everyone handing in the same thing, you know?”

“I get that,” John said from the bedroom as he fastened his tie. He went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth before coming back out. “I've gotta get going.”

“I made you lunch.” Alex held up a cooler and a thermos. “And more coffee. In a tamper-proof container. No one can salt it anymore without doing a whole bunch of extra work.”

John wanted to cry. He wanted to say fuck it and stay home with Alex, spend the entire day working things out and talking because lord knew they needed to.

He settled for taking the items and kissing Alex's cheek. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome. Have a good day.”

John turned to go, but Alex grabbed his arm and pulled him back. He produced a hair tie from his wrist and handed it to John. “You forgot to put it up,” he said.

John took the hair tie. He wanted to kiss him, but he knew that if he did, he'd either cry or get carried away. He closed the distance and pulled Alex into his arms, pressing his scent gland to Alex's. Alex inhaled sharply in surprise, but hugged him back and kissed the side of his head.

When they broke apart, John offered a smile before turning and leaving, even though every fiber of his being was crying out for him not to.

He walked into the office after an uneventful drive and stopped in his tracks. The desks had been rearranged. He began the search for his.

“I read an article about how the setup of a work space can affect the employee's effectiveness,” a voice said. John spun around to see Francis. “We moved everything on Monday. You're over here.” He gestured to the desk he was closest to. It was also the closest one to his office. “How were your days off?”

“Fine.” John set his stuff down at the desk and turned on his computer. “What did I miss?”

“Not much. Just this, mostly. There are a few things for Glinglon that I want you to take a look at.”

“What is it?” He took a drink of his coffee and the sweet taste of it took off some of the edge that Francis's presence had conjured.

“They've got a few sites that they're looking at for a new plant. They want us to review their plans and see if they violate any laws.”

“Gotcha. Email it to me and I'll get on it.”

Francis didn't leave, choosing instead to loiter by John's desk. “You're here early.”

“Only a few minutes.”

“Still. Most people don't come in until it's absolutely necessary. Unless something's happening at home that you need to escape?”

John turned to him. “Is there anything else you need, Francis?”

“Just making conversation.”

“That's not making conversation. Didn't anyone ever tell you it was inappropriate to ask invasive questions?” John took another drink from his mug as he pulled up his work email. He had several new documents to review and a few that he needed to write.

“Sorry. But hey, if you ever do want to talk about anything, I'm here.” He started to go into his office, but stopped. “Did you want to talk about your raise?”

John hadn't been entirely certain that Francis had been serious about it.

“Come into my office.”

John stood, closing and locking his thermos, before following him into Anne's office. Where was she?

Francis gestured for John to sit down then shut the door. John's heartbeat picked up and he glanced around for potential weapons if he needed to defend himself.

The rational part of his brain caught up to him and he took a steadying breath.

“So,” Francis said, pulling out his file. “You're currently making forty-four five, which is below the median salary. And you've never received a raise, even though it's standard to give one after two years if the employee is doing well, which is an understatement in your case.” He skimmed through John's file briefly. “You don't have anything negative in here, although my mother did write that you got an attitude with her about a month ago.” He was smirking. “I'm surprised you were able to keep that in check for six years.”

“She was treating someone else unfairly,” John protested, although a part of his mind was elsewhere. He'd thought that he'd been getting paid fairly. Below median was... really shitty.

“I'm not criticizing you, John. I just think it's kind of funny, considering your blatant disregard for authority figures was one of the first things I noticed about you.”

“Things change.” Not to mention they'd met when John was going through his fuck everything phase in high school and projecting his hatred for his father onto every adult he saw.

“I guess they do. Anyway, I think it's high time you started receiving recognition for the work you do. So I'm prepared to offer you a ten percent raise.”

“Ten?” John looked at him in shock. “That's not – that's -”

“You're welcome.”

“No. Ten percent is going to piss a lot of people off.”

Francis quirked an eyebrow. “You're supposed to ask me for more, not less.”

“The last thing I need is for people to think I'm getting special treatment.”

“Why would you get special treatment? Ten point five.”

“No. Francis, no. Don't give me ten percent. Accounting's going to see it, then everyone else will know, and I'll get harassed, or people will assume that I did something to get it.”

“Like what? Ten seventy-five.”

“I don't know. That I slept with you.” Oh, that provided a series of very unpleasant mental images.

“Eleven. That's my final offer.”

John covered his face with one of his hands. “You're not listening to me.”

A beat. “John,” Francis said, “everyone's getting a raise.”

He looked up. “They are?”

“Yes. I'm giving six percent across the board as a congratulations for scoring Glinglon.”

John rolled his eyes. “No, you're bribing them. Buying their respect.”

“Call it what you will.”

“So why are you giving me more than that?” Maybe it was because Francis was smart enough to know that John's respect came at a much higher price, given their history. It was dirty money, and John would hate himself if he took it.

“Six percent, same as everyone else, plus one for every year you've been on payroll.”

“I've only been on payroll for about four years. You said eleven.”

“Okay, the extra one percent is because I need you to help me.”

“With what?”

Francis shrugged, moving around and leaning against his desk. “I don't know any of these people. Traditionally, the process of a takeover would take months and be gradual. My mother didn't do that, so no one knows who I am and no one trusts me.”

“Trust takes time.”

“Yes, but I was hoping you could help me speed up the process.”

“You're asking the wrong person. No one in this firm likes me very much.”

“Maybe not, but they all respect you, regardless of whether or not they admit it. If they see that you're okay with me being in charge, they're more likely to follow suit.”

John shook his head. “I'm not going to take your money to convince people that you're a good guy.”

“You're not going to be bragging about me or anything. Don't think of it as a bribe. Think of it as a thank-you for being the only person here who trusts my capabilities.”

“But I don't trust you.”

Francis's face fell. “Is this about what happened? John, that was a long time ago. Things change. I'm a different man now.”

“Trust takes time,” John repeated. “I'll take ten percent.”

Francis sighed and pulled the paper out of a file. “Is there anything I can do to convince you?”

“No.” John looked over the paper. “This says eleven.”

“That's what I'm giving you -”

“Francis -”

“- no strings attached.”

John eyed him suspiciously. “I don't believe you.” There were always strings attached.

“I swear. You deserve the money. You could consider the extra one percent a reward for overseeing the other secretaries so well.”

John picked up the pen, not taking his eyes off of Francis. “Fine. Eleven.” He signed it and stood. “I'm going to get some work done.”

“Okay.”

He hesitated by the door. “Francis.”

“Yes?”

“Where'd you get the money for this?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “We can afford it, I promise.”

John contemplated demanding an explanation, but he didn't want to be alone with Francis any longer. He went back to his desk and pulled up some files to work on.

He felt a hand on his shoulder some time later. He looked up to see Heidi. “The secretaries and paralegals are going to lunch,” she said. “Wanna come?”

“No thanks, Alex made me something.”

“That's so sweet.”

“Isn't it your job to make his lunch?” Peterson asked from his desk, which was way too close for John's liking.

“Classist much?” John snapped. “No wonder you're single.”

“I'm just saying. It's allegedly unhealthy for Omegas to be in charge of their Alphas. There's several studies on it. Alphas are dominant by nature and that hierarchy shouldn't be messed with.”

“Oh God, I didn't realize you were one of those people,” Heidi said. “You're such a creep. Go back to your cave, traditionalist.”

Peterson made a face to mock her, but turned back to his computer.

John shook his head and pulled out his cooler. He hadn't realized it was lunch time. “So where is Anne, anyway?” He had a bone to pick with her.

“She left.”

He looked up at Heidi sharply. “She wasn't supposed to retire for a few more weeks. She was supposed to let us get used to Francis first.”

“I guess she changed her mind.”

John shook his head. Anne had always seemed so dedicated to her firm. Maybe she no longer felt any loyalty to it because it wasn't hers anymore. But that didn't sound like her at all.

He opened his lunch pack and found a sticky note attached to the tupperware container.

Hope your day's going well! Love you! --Alex

John's heart softened.

“He left you a note? God, you two are perfect for one another,” Heidi said. “It's obvious how in love you are.”

For some reason, the word gilded sprung to John's mind. He ignored it and focused on unpacking his lunch so he could continue to work while he ate.

He was good at setting his emotions aside during business hours.

He realized halfway through the meal that he needed more practice.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

John walked into the apartment after a long day at work and a longer night at VAMO. The kids were in high spirits with the upcoming holidays, and those high spirits were expressed with seemingly boundless energy and the tendency to randomly burst into song.

If John heard one more holiday carol, his head was going to explode.

Alex looked up from the couch as John deposited his bag on the dining room table. “How was your day?” he asked.

John trudged to the couch and curled up on it, resting his head in Alex's lap. Alex made a soft noise and rubbed John's scalp. “Wanna talk about it?”

“Peterson's a jackass. I don't know what to do about Francis. Kids are a fucking nightmare.”

“Who's Francis?”

“New boss.” John closed his eyes. “I got the raise.”

“How much?”

“Eleven.”

Percent?

“Yes.”

Alex slid a book mark into his book and set it down on the end table, turning his full attention to John. “You're kidding.”

“Nope. Eleven percent, effective January first.”

“Why are you saying it like it's a bad thing?”

“Because I have no idea where he got the money. He's giving everyone raises, and Glinglon didn't fetch us that much. So that means there's something else going on in the background.”

Alex worked John's hair tie out and played with his curls. “You think he's up to something sketchy.”

“I don't know. I wouldn't put it past him.”

“Well you've only known him for about a week. And if you can't trust him, can you at least trust that Anne wouldn't have handed the firm over to someone she didn't have faith in?”

“I suppose.” He reached up, running his fingers lightly over Alex's forearm as he played with John's hair. “Eleven percent is great, don't get me wrong. But I'm just worried, is all.”

Alex smiled softly. “Always with the worrying.”

“Can you blame me? Every time things start to settle down, something else goes wrong. And I know that's life, but it seems like we can never really catch a break.”

“I know how you feel. How about we ignore our problems for a night, though? Just have one night where we don't have to think about everything that's going wrong?”

“What did you have in mind?” John asked. His body was starting to relax more and more with every strand of hair that Alex touched.

“We can get my laptop and start looking for an apartment.”

“Will I have to sit up?”

“Well I need to stand in order to get the laptop, so yes.”

John grumbled but sat, letting Alex get up. He watched him go over to the bar and unplug his computer. He was dressed down, wearing sweats and a t-shirt, his hair carelessly pulled back. He'd even traded his contacts for his glasses.

John wished he could work from home. That way he could work in sweats instead of slacks.

“So what're we looking for?” Alex asked, sitting back down. John scooted closer to him, resting his cheek on his shoulder. Alex leaned his head against John's and John placed a hand on Alex's thigh. The annoyed and anxious torrent swirling inside of his lungs faded and he was able to breathe again.

“Rental. Buying is too expensive. Two bedrooms, hardwood floors, separate dining room. As open-concept as possible. We should probably keep rent under one thousand. And it should be close to where we work.”

“Gotcha.” Alex typed into the search bar. He was an incredibly fast typist – he'd averaged 115 words per minute on a test a few years ago. John was fast too because his job required it, but he wasn't Alex fast. “Wow. A lot of people are leasing.”

“We'd want someone who owns several properties. Or a company.” He watched the screen change as Alex added the filter and selected the low to high option.

“What about this one?” Alex asked, clicking on a picture. “Two bed, one bath.”

“Off-street parking,” John pointed out. “No laundry facilities.”

“Right.”

They searched for the better part of an hour on various sites. None of them had everything on their list, which John thought was kind of ridiculous because their list wasn't exactly complicated.

“Okay,” Alex said, rubbing his face and swearing to himself when he hit his glasses. “So are there any that we wouldn't hate to live in?”

“How about that?” John asked, pointing at one of the listings. “Have we looked at that one yet?”

“I don't know.” Alex clicked it. “Seven sixty-nine for two bedrooms. Nine hundred twenty-five square feet.”

“It's in Northrop. That's not too far from your college. Take the 3D tour.”

“That's a big living room,” Alex said. He moved closer. “But no separate dining room. The kitchen's open, though. Not much counter space.”

“It's more than we've seen so far. And it's got a washing machine and dryer.”

“In the kitchen, though?” He clicked, moving to the hallway. “Bathroom isn't bad.”

“The tub's big enough for two.”

Alex smirked. “It is.” He went into one of the bedrooms. “What size is that bed?”

“Looks like a full.”

“That's a pretty decent bedroom, then. Especially considering it's not the master. We have a queen, right?”

John shook his head. “We have a full.”

“I thought we'd upgraded?”

“No. I'd wanted to, but you said that we wouldn't be as close if we did.”

“Oh.” Alex clicked on the master bedroom and whistled lowly. “That's really nice.”

“It is. Plenty of room for our dresser. Go over to the closet.” When he did, John hummed. “We could easily fit our stuff in there.”

“Even with the suit jackets that I'm going to be needing?”

“I think so, yeah. I like this one.”

“Me too. But it doesn't have the dining room.”

“There's so much space that I'm not worried. Not to mention that there isn't a single beige wall.” John hated beige.

Alex laughed. “No, there's not. So we can call them tomorrow, see if we can't get a tour?”

“Let's do it.” John hugged Alex's arm. “Scroll down to the amenities?”

Alex scrolled down. “Energy-efficient windows. Water, sewer, and trash are included. Ooh, it's got a pool. And a balcony.”

“We're definitely calling them tomorrow.”

Alex shut his laptop. “So we're doing this, then? We're really getting a new apartment?”

“Our lease is almost up, anyway.” One thing John didn't get was that the lease was only six months. They'd thought it was a good idea when they first rented it and thought it would only last them through grad school. It had become bothersome as time went on.

Alex grinned, putting his laptop on the end table next to his book. “We should start packing now.”

John laughed. “Maybe we should at least see the place first.” He nudged Alex. “I haven't thanked you for lunch yet. It was delicious.”

“You're welcome.”

“And the note made a horrible day a little less horrible.” He kissed the tip of his nose. “You have a way of doing that.”

“I'm glad you enjoyed it so much.”

John leaned in and brushed his lips against Alex's. It occurred to him that it had been over forty-eight hours since they'd last kissed. He wrapped his arms around his mate and pulled him closer, kissing him more firmly. Alex tangled his fingers in John's hair, returning it with a sigh.

They kissed hotly for several long minutes. Alex leaned back, pulling John on top of him. One of his hands moved down John's back and pushed up his shirt just enough for him to run his cool fingers over his newly-exposed skin.

John broke the kiss and sat up. Alex followed suit, making quick work of the buttons on John's shirt and pushing it off, discarding it on the floor. Alex's shirt came next, then John's undershirt. Alex trailed his mouth over John's skin and John's eyes closed. It had been too long.

“I love you,” John breathed.

“I love you too,” Alex replied. He pulled John into another kiss and John's brain stuttered.

Alex had been right. Ignoring their problems for the night did wonders for John's mood.


 

“You'd think it'd been longer than a few days,” Alex said softly. They were huddled close on the couch, their bodies pressed tightly together, their limbs tangling due to the lack of space. John wasn't complaining in the slightest. “We should probably get something to eat.”

“Probably.” John kissed Alex again. Alex brushed John's hair from his face and John took his hand, turning his head so he could press his lips to the scent gland on Alex's wrist. “Or we could stay here.”

“Should we at least get a blanket? It gets drafty in here at night.”

John ducked his head and nibbled on Alex's shoulder. “I could keep you warm.”

“You're so thirsty.”

“Pot, meet kettle.” John mouthed at his jaw. “I'll bet those marks on your inner thighs have faded over the past two days. I can fix that.”

“Uh-uh.” Alex pulled John's hair, guiding his head away from his neck. “If anyone's going to be doing any marking tonight, it's going to be me.”

John grinned. “You sure you can handle something like that without losing your composure?”

“Why do you always get an attitude whenever I show so much as a sliver of dominance?”

“Because you make it so easy.”

“Maybe I should shut you up, huh?”

“I'd like to see you try.”

Alex stood and grabbed John's tie off of the table.

“What, you gonna tie my hands back?”

Alex went into the kitchen and came back with a clean washcloth.

John sat up. “Oh, no. You're not going to gag me.”

“I'm tired of your constant sassing. Open your mouth.”

John refused, looking away. He didn't like being gagged. He preferred to be able to egg Alex on as much as he liked.

“Oh, so you shut your mouth now?” Alex grabbed a fistful of John's hair. “You know,” he whispered. John could feel his breath on his ear. “I can always make you open your mouth. And that won't be very pleasant for you.”

John reluctantly opened his mouth and Alex put it in place. John glowered at him but he didn't seem to care.

“You know what you need to do if you need to stop?”

John nodded, humming the four-note tune to demonstrate.

“Good boy.”

John couldn't say a word, but he hoped his eyes said plenty. Alex simply smiled and pulled him into his lap so that John was straddling his thighs. Then he tilted John's head back and trailed open-mouthed kisses down his neck. John felt lips on his scent gland and closed his eyes. Alex sucked on it lightly for several long moments before continuing on his path down John's body.

As soon as his mouth was below John's collarbone, Alex lost any semblance of gentleness. he latched onto a spot and sucked on it mercilessly. John gasped, but the sound was muffled by the washcloth. He put a hand on the back of Alex's head and pulled him closer.

“Hands to yourself,” Alex said.

John complied with a noise of dissent.

“You're such a baby.” He sucked another mark into John's chest. “You don't like being told no. Maybe I spoil you too much. You're becoming a brat.”

Becoming? No, John had always been a brat.

“Always have to have it your way, always trying to be in charge, and I just give in because you're so fucking hot when you're acting selfish.” Alex pinched one of John's nipples, pulling it a little, and John whined. “You're so mean, Jacky.”

He was not.

“You're always so thirsty, too. Everything turns you on. And you can't take care of yourself, no, you need me to help you out.”

John squirmed, scooting closer.

“Oh, I'm sorry, am I not paying enough attention to you? I'm talking to you right now but it's not enough?” He grabbed John's chin and made him meet his eyes. “You're a spoiled Omega.”

John bit down on the washcloth as his cheeks flushed.

“Lay back on the couch.”

He did as he was told. Alex leaned over John and kissed his forehead. Then he moved down his body and gave John several more hickeys. John let his eyes slide closed and he gave in, letting Alex take full control. Defying was fun, but submitting had its perks too.

Although he did enjoy it when Alex talked dirty to him. There was something about Alex calling him spoiled that made his heart thrum pleasantly. Especially because there was a bit of truth to it. John was pretty spoiled when it came to the bedroom. Alex made sure of it. But John gave as good as he got. They indulged one another equally.

And for the record, Alex was a brat too. He wasn't usually as openly defiant as John was, but he whined when he didn't get his way.

“What if I marked your thighs?” Alex asked. “Sucked them so hard that you'd feel them when you walk?”

John wriggled his hips.

“That a yes, baby?”

He nodded.

Alex spread John's legs and leaned down, following through with his promise. John let out a soft moan. He wanted to bite Alex's thighs too, listen for that half-squeaking/half-moaning noise he always made whenever John did it. But all he could bite was the washcloth.

“I wish you could see yourself right now,” Alex said when he was done. “Your hair is wild around your head, your skin is so deliciously flushed, your eyes are half-lidded, you're covered in hickeys...” He smiled and kissed John's abdomen. “You're so fucking pretty.”

John squirmed again. He wanted to wrap his arms around Alex, but he didn't want to get into trouble. He settled for watching Alex suck even more marks into his thighs.

“You're going to feel these tomorrow,” he said, pulling away. He ran his fingers over John's sore skin. John shivered when Alex pressed down slightly and leaned into his touch. “That feel good?” When John nodded, Alex smirked. “Such a masochist.” He spread John's legs more and patted a few of the bruises just enough to make it sting. “I still can't get over how wet you get when I do stuff like this. You may hate it when I take charge, but you love giving in. Don't try to hide it.”

John's head was swimming. He looked down at his rock-hard cock.

“Oh, did you want to come?”

John nodded.

“If I let you come, will you let me fuck you?”

Another nod.

Alex lowered his head to John's cock and took it into his mouth. John whined, arching his hips. Alex pinned him back down onto the couch and began to move his head up and down. John quickly grew restless. He needed to do something, but he couldn't touch Alex. He reached up and played with one of his nipples, pinching and rolling it between his fingers.

“Look at you,” Alex purred. “Touching yourself like the spoiled little Omega that you are. Do you like making yourself feel good?”

John nodded.

“Maybe I should stop, then. Let you get yourself off and just enjoy the view.”

John shook his head, making a noise of protest.

“You want me to make you come when you're perfectly capable of doing it yourself?” When John nodded eagerly, Alex arched an eyebrow with a smile. “Like I said. So spoiled.” But he took John into his mouth once again. John closed his eyes and continued to touch himself. All too soon, he realized that it still wasn't enough, that he needed to be doing more. It was so frustrating. If he wasn't gagged, he'd have begged Alex to just fuck him already or to finish him off with his hand so they could make out. If he was really desperate, he'd suck on his fingers.

He sucked on the washcloth instead, face heating in embarrassment as he did so, even though Alex wouldn't be able to tell.

It only took a minute for John to come undone. He moaned, arching his hips and closing his eyes as he saw white. Alex didn't stop sucking John's cock and John moaned again. He teetered on the edge of overstimulation.

Alex pulled off and licked his lips, smiling at John. It was so fucking sexy and John's head was going to explode from it.

He moved up John's body and slid his arms around him, rolling them onto their sides. He pressed his lips to his forehead. “You're so fucking pretty,” he cooed.

John's face was red by now, he was sure of it.

“Do you need a minute, or are you ready for me?”

John nodded.

“You're ready?”

Another nod.

“Let's move to the bedroom then.” Alex took John's hand, leading him into their room. He nudged him back on the bed. John reached around to undo his gag, but Alex stopped him by taking his hands. “Not yet. I like the peace and quiet.”

John was so frustrated that he could've cried. He just wanted to be able to do something with his mouth. He wouldn't sass Alex too much.

Alex frowned and kissed John's hands. “Lay back. We'll take it off of you when we're done.”

John lay back on the mattress, humming contentedly and turning his head, inhaling the familiar scent of their sheets.

“Finger yourself,” Alex commanded, going to their bedside table. John slid two fingers inside and began moving them in and out, ignoring the slight pinch he felt. “Maybe I should just let you take care of yourself after all,” Alex mused.

John shook his head, even as he sighed in pleasure.

Alex smiled and poured lube into his hand, rubbing it onto his cock. Then he leaned over John, kissing his nose as he positioned himself at his entrance and pushed inside.

John leaned his head back with a moan.

“Fuck, you feel so good,” Alex said. He moved slowly and precisely for a few moments, eyes glinting when John groaned and squirmed. It felt good but it wasn't enough. He needed more. “What?” Alex purred. “You need me to go faster?”

John nodded.

“Want me to fuck you properly?”

He nodded harder.

“I won't be gentle,” he warned.

Good. Gentle was the last thing John wanted at the moment. He nodded again. Alex smirked and spread John's legs, pressing on one of the hickeys on his thigh. He pulled most of the way out then slammed his hips into John's. John saw stars. Alex did it again, but made sure to hit John's prostate this time.

“That feel good?” he asked as he continued to fuck him. “You like it when I get rough with you?”

John nodded. He couldn't keep his eyes open. It was all too overwhelming.

“Fuck,” Alex groaned. “You're so pretty.” He went a little faster and buried his face in John's neck.

John felt himself grow close to the edge of his headspace. He typically wasn't too fond of it outside of a cycle, but tonight, nothing was more intoxicating than the idea of being consumed with thoughts of his Alpha, just his Alpha, and nothing else.

“You're awfully noisy,” Alex teased. He pulled away from John's neck and his face grew serious. He began to slow down. “You're close to slipping.”

John would tell him not to stop, beg him to keep going because he wanted it so badly, but the damn gag was in the way. He whimpered and moved his hips in an attempt to chase the delicious friction he'd been feeling just moments ago. It evaded him.

“No, you need to slow down.”

John shook his head, letting out a whine of protest.

“What is it, baby? Did you... Did you want to slip?”

John nodded. It was getting further and further away and he was growing frustrated.

“Well alright, then.” Alex kissed John's cheek and went back to his original pace. John moaned, his arms shooting around Alex as a reflex, but he made himself let go of him because he didn't know if Alex still wanted him to keep his hands to himself and he didn't want to risk punishment.

“You can touch me,” Alex said.

John clung to him, eyes closing. He sucked unabashedly on the washcloth as he danced closer to the brink.

A phone started to ring. Alex and John both looked towards the door.

Alex didn't slow down. “Ignore it,” he said.

John nodded in agreement, putting it out of his mind. He focused on the feeling of Alex inside of him, making him feel so good -

The phone rang again.

“If it's important, they'll leave a message,” Alex muttered, peppering John's face with kisses. “I love fucking you like this,” he breathed. “Love it when you let yourself slip. I love getting you there, you're so perfect.”

John pulled him even closer. He needed as much contact as possible. He was so close. His senses were on fire, the flames were licking up his veins and fuck, it felt so good to give in.

---

The phone rang again.

Fuck,” Alex said. He stopped moving and John whimpered, wriggling his hips because he was so close and this wasn't fair in the slightest. “I'm sorry, John.” He pulled out and John damn near cried. “It might be an emergency.” He kissed John on the forehead and stroked his cheek before leaving the bedroom to find the phone.

John took a deep breath, getting his bearings. Alex would answer, deal with it, then they'd continue.

“It's your phone,” Alex said, coming back into the room. “But it's an unsaved number. Do you recognize it?” He showed John the screen. John shook his head. Alex sat down on the bed and pressed the answer button, tugging John's arm gently. John took the invitation and snuggled close, wrapping his arms around Alex's waist. “Hello?” Alex said.

John could only just hear the voice on the other end.

“John's a little... tied up at the moment.” He grinned when John swatted him. “May I ask who's calling?”

There was half a beat.

Then Alex said, “Francis Kinloch.”

John's eyes widened and he shook his head at Alex. His brain stuttered and he wondered how in the world Francis had his phone number. Then he realized how naked he was, how vulnerable he felt, and Francis wanted to talk to him.

He might as well have been in the room with them.

“I'll tell him you called,” Alex said. John sat back, distancing himself from the phone and the voice on the other end of the line that he could now recognize. He reached behind his head and undid the gag with shaky hands.

Francis was invading their intimacy. He was catching John when he was feeling most open, most – most – easily damaged and trying to squirrel his way in.

John wasn't wearing enough clothes. He wasn't safe. He didn't feel – he needed – he couldn't -

His brain short-circuited and he thought about Francis, remembered the last time Francis had touched him. He hated himself. He hated himself. He hated himself.

He finally had his tie undone and pulled the washcloth out of his mouth, taking a deep breath. He wished he could stop trembling. He wished he could stop thinking.

He wished he could stop.

“You too. Goodnight.” Alex hung up, shaking his head. “That was weird. What's so important that he has to call at ten o'clock?” He put John's phone on the table and turned to him, but whatever he was about to say died on his lips. “Hey. What's wrong?”

“Sorry,” John said. “I-I'm done for the night.”

“Okay.” Alex pulled John into his arms. “Sweetheart, you're shaking.” He smoothed John's hair back. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” John lied. “Just coming down.” He pressed himself closer. Bit the inside of his cheek.

“We should get you something to eat. Did you want to take a bath first?”

John shook his head. “I-I want to clean up, though. Alone.”

“I'll heat something up while you're doing that, then.” He kissed the top of John's head. “You're sure you're okay?”

“I'm fine.”

John went into the bathroom and shut the door. Then he started to cry. He buried his face in his hands, not letting himself make a sound.

He'd never get a break from Francis. That was how it had been when they were seeing each other. He found little ways to intrude on the rest of John's life so he'd stay at the forefront of his mind.

Francis had claimed that he was a different man, that time had changed him, but what if he was still the same person he'd always been? Would he try to sink his claws into John again?

John took a few steadying breaths. It didn't matter whether Francis was a different man, because John definitely was. He'd never let Francis get close to him again. That bridge had been obliterated years ago.

He cleaned up and washed his face, wiping away any traces of his tears. Then he went back to the bedroom to get dressed. His paranoia got the best of him and he pulled on briefs, boxers, and a pair of thick pajama pants. He tied the drawstring as tight as it would get. Then he put on a t-shirt and leafed through Alex's side of the closet for his biggest hoodie.

He walked to the kitchen and hugged Alex from behind, kissing the back of his head.

“Hey, baby.” Alex turned and frowned at his clothing choice. “You're wearing my hoodie. Now I'm worried.” He looked into John's eyes and his brow creased even more. “And you've been crying.”

“No I haven't.”

Alex gave him a look and brushed his hair back, kissing his cheek and pulling him into a hug. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. I should've muted that damn phone.”

“I shouldn't have answered it.”

“You were right to. It could've been an emergency. Mary Eleanor could've been in trouble.”

“Instead it was your boss.”

“Did he say what he wanted?”

“No. Just that he wanted to talk to you about something. You'd think he'd have been more demanding, considering he called three times.”

“He's such an asshole,” John said.

Alex pulled away and grabbed the glass that was on the counter, handing it to John. “Here.”

John took a drink of the juice. “Got any vodka to mix with it?” he joked.

Didn't sound like a bad idea, actually.

“Why does he make you so uncomfortable?” Alex asked.

John froze, his lips on the glass. “He doesn't,” he lied, ignoring the urge to look away because that would be the same as admitting the truth.

“Clearly he does.”

It'd have been easier to lie if Alex didn't know him so well.

Just tell him, dumbass.

And in that moment, John wanted to. He wanted to break down in tears and tell him everything, give him every single detail, tell him about how stupid he'd been then and how scared he was now.

It was so easy.

“It's not that he makes me uncomfortable, it's just that I don't like him. And I don't like thinking about him in bed.”

But then again, it really wasn't.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

Liar,” a voice hissed in the back of John's head.

John couldn't see, could only feel the darkness closing in on him, seeping into his veins. Taking over him.

You never stop lying.”

He couldn't move. He couldn't scream. He couldn't do anything other than let it happen. He was helpless.

Ice-cold talons wrapped around John's throat and sunk in. John couldn't breathe. He could only stare into the black void that crept closer and closer, until it would inevitably consume him.


 

John woke up before his alarm went off and grimaced. He'd slept on his right side. He rolled over, rubbing his shoulder, and looked at Alex. He was still asleep. John watched him, smiling a little at the hair that had fallen into his face and the morning stubble along his jaw and chin. His lips were parted just slightly, his breaths were deep and even. He looked so relaxed, so young, so innocent.

John leaned closer and kissed his cheek softly.

Alex made a noise and stirred, opening his eyes and blinking at John sleepily.

“Sorry,” John said. “I didn't mean to wake you.”

“S'okay, baby.” Alex shifted and stretched. “You feeling better?”

“Yeah, but I slept on my shoulder.”

“That wasn't very smart.”

John smiled and pulled Alex into a kiss. He got an idea and kissed him again, more deeply, sliding a hand up his shirt.

“What're you doing?” Alex asked with a smirk that told John that he knew exactly what he was up to.

They made love lazily in the early dawn, electing to hold onto each other and trade soft kisses until it was time to rise and greet the day.

John didn't want to greet anything. He just wanted to stay in bed with Alex forever.

Unfortunately, they had bills to pay and he especially needed to keep his job if they were going to be moving soon. So he got up and showered, pulling Alex in with him.

“You're quite affectionate today,” Alex observed when John hugged him from behind as he made the coffee. “Or are you just trying to steal my secret coffee formula?”

“Both.” John snorted. “Are you feeling it now, Mr. Krabs?”

“Oh my God, I knew you were going to make a Spongebob reference.” Alex turned around in John's arms. “You're such a dweeb.”

“Your point being?” John gave him a chaste kiss. “Are you ever going to tell me what you do to make it so good?”

“Never. I'll take the secret to my grave.” Alex tugged one of John's curls.

“But you're not allowed to die.”

“Then you'll definitely never find out. Now finish making breakfast.”

John turned back to the stove, smiling to himself. Their morning routine was settling back in. That was a good sign.

Things would be okay.

They ate breakfast quietly. It was the kind of quiet that existed not because no one could think of anything to say, but because neither felt the need to fill the air with words. John watched Alex eat out of the corner of his eye – he'd learned a long time ago that Alex hated it when John watched him directly. He munched on a piece of bacon as he scrolled through his phone, probably reading the news.

“Do you think we should invest in a bunker?” Alex asked.

“What for?”

“The end-times.”

John shrugged. “I guess it wouldn't hurt. What all would it protect against?”

“Everything, I think. There's apparently talk of building a series of underground cities in case the apocalypse happens. We'd get our own little apartment.”

“Which news site is this?”

“The New York Post.”

John snorted. “Oh.”

Alex fixed him with a look. “You've never read the Post. You're just judging it for what John Mulaney said about it.”

John held up his hands in surrender but his focus had shifted to other things. “Hey, would you be cool with scenting before I went to work?”

“Sure, why?”

Because I want my boss to know that I'm yours and not his. “Just want everyone to know that I'm yours.”

Alex arched an eyebrow quizzically. “That's not like you. Is this about last night?”

“Yes.” That, at least, was true.

That didn't stop the way John's stomach rolled when Alex's gaze grew soft and concerned. John didn't deserve that. He didn't deserve unconditional love and he sure as hell didn't deserve Alex. Not with the giant lie that he was telling, be it by omission or stating straight-up falsehoods.

He could tell himself that it was better, that Alex didn't need to know about Francis. That there was a reason John kept that from him, even before Francis sprouted up into his life like a recurring weed that was somehow stronger than every weedwhacker John tried to use against him.

He'd had countless opportunities to tell Alex about him. But he stayed quiet, let that one part of his life remain hidden. Alex didn't need to know. He'd only worry, only act out or do something rash.

Even if it was for the best, John still felt the guilt eating him alive.

After breakfast, John got dressed but neglected the tie for a moment and left some of his buttons undone. Alex came into the bedroom and sat down on the mattress, pulling John with him. He pressed their scent glands together, kissing John's hair as he did so. John tightened his grip on Alex and relaxed in his arms.

When they'd first gotten together, Alex had wanted to scent every single morning, to let everyone know that John was his Omega. John hadn't been okay with it at first – he didn't like being seen as a possession, but he'd kept it to himself for about six months before it came up in an argument.

He remembered the look on Alex's face when John admitted it. He'd looked so devastated. But he hadn't been angry with John. No, no, he'd been angry with himself for not realizing sooner.

Alex would only blame himself if John came forward. And he didn't deserve that kind of shame. He deserved the goddamn world. He deserved to get everything he ever wanted, but there were some things that John couldn't give him. Like the truth. Or a baby. Or a break.

“You're the love of my life,” John breathed.

“You're mine too,” Alex replied, running a hand through John's hair.

They broke apart and John kissed him, letting him button his shirt and fasten his tie. “I need to get going,” John said. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to see Francis. Or anyone, for that matter. In fact, he didn't even want to see Alex. He just wanted to be alone with his thoughts. Maybe he could find a way to dull the ache he felt in his chest.

“Don't forget a hair tie.” Alex held out his wrist and John smiled, pulling one of the rubber bands off. “I love you.”

“Love you too.” They shared a brief kiss. John took Alex's face in his hands and kissed the corner of his mouth, then pulled him into a hug. “So much.”

“I'm starting to get worried. Is something wrong?”

“No,” John lied. “Just... this past week has been hectic and crazy and I don't want you to forget how much you mean to me.”

“I won't.” Alex kissed the side of his head. “You need to go to work.”

“I know.” He held on for a moment longer, then let go. It was almost physically painful.

He gathered his stuff, smiling when Alex handed him his thermos. “Have a good day, baby.”

John drove to work, pushing the guilt from his mind. If he really wanted to make things better, he'd have to put an effort into it. He had to move on from the past. If he could do that, it would stop haunting him, and he wouldn't even feel a need to tell Alex.

Easier said than done, but he was going to try.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

Your Alpha didn't make you lunch today?” Peterson asked with a sneer when John sat down.

“Shut up, Peterson,” John said. “Why are you so hostile lately?”

“Mind your own business, Jonathan.”

John and Heidi shared a look. She rolled her eyes at Peterson and turned back to her computer. “Got any plans for the weekend?”

“Volunteering at the daycare. Might be able to convince Mimi to come to the gym with me.” He checked his email. “What about you?”

“Taking Sylvia to the zoo.”

“Sounds like fun. Have you had the chance to check our stock?”

“I'll do that now.” She stood and went to the supply cabinet.

“I'm visiting my grandfather's farm and helping out,” Peterson chimed in.

John didn't reply. He looked over the schedule. Henderson and Gallagher had a meeting with a client at two. Koniaris had a conference call at eleven. He scrolled down.

Francis had a call at ten, but it didn't say with whom. John checked to see who had added the entry.

Added by Francis Kinloch at 5:42 yesterday.

“Hey, Heidi,” John said as she came back to her desk. “Do you know anything about this?”

“What?” She looked over at John's computer. “No.”

“It's weird, though, right?”

“Not really. What's weird is how we always seem to run out of paper clips. Paper clips. It'd make more sense if someone was stealing sticky notes or pens or even thumbtacks. But paper clips?” She shook her head. “I don't get it.”

“They're probably jamming the ice maker with them,” Jimmy said, coming over to the desk. “Or melting them down and making a sword!”

“That'd be one weak-ass sword,” Peterson said.

“A bendy sword! For LARPing!”

“Of course you'd be into that kind of thing,” Heidi snickered.

“For the record, my date-mate thinks I make a sexy elf.”

“Just in time for Christmas,” John said.

“Oh my God, are you their elf on a shelf?” Heidi asked. “Do you watch and wait for them to be naughty so you can punish them?”

Jimmy grabbed an eraser from John's desk and tossed it at her. “Don't be crass. At least I have a date-mate.”

“Ooh, good one. I'll have you know that while you were busy with your romantic attraction, I was studying the blade.”

“So you stole the paper clips!”

“Guys,” John said, trying and failing not to laugh. “Could you let me get some work done?”

Heidi and Jimmy went back to their respective desks, and John turned back to his computer. He had a new email from Toni.

Come to annex.

He stood, taking his thermos, and walked through the doors. Toni was at her desk and Pareesa Saleem from accounting was there.

“What's up?”

“Well, boss isn't here yet and it's almost nine thirty,” Toni said. “We've got several messages from various clients who are upset about Anne's retirement and Frank's takeover. They're claiming that they don't know enough about Frank to decide whether or not they should stay.”

“And I've been going over the expense reports you drew up,” Pareesa said. “We can't afford to lose any clients, or we risk fucking up our turnover ratio.”

“Will we go under?”

“If we lose more than two clients, we could. We've got a nice bit of profit from Glinglon, but that would only help us stay afloat for another fiscal year. And I mean chin just barely above the water afloat.”

“I had no idea we were struggling so much. Who else have you told?”

“No one. We don't want to cause a panic. We were hoping that you could help us figure it out. I can reconfigure the budget a little and Toni can work with Frank once he gets here, but we need you to just... stay on top of it. If any clients call, convince them to stay.”

“Gotcha.” John turned to go, then stopped. “What if we got new clients? Would that help?”

“It wouldn't hurt. But we've already got a full schedule. The only open attorneys are Peterson and Pipkin, and Pipkin's going on his vacation at the end of the month.”

“Anne's retirement really made us look bad,” Toni said. “This would've been easier if that damn leak hadn't happened.”

“Or if she'd let her son come in gradually. We don't even know anything about him, other than that he's never here on time.”

“He's still our boss regardless,” John said. “Like it or not, he's the one in charge. I just hope he knows what he's doing.”

“Agreed.”

John went back to his desk and pulled up the schedule again, looking for any other free attorneys. Two of them were retiring at the end of the year – it was already the first week of December. That took them down to eighteen lawyers.

Which meant that there was an opportunity for John to advance, but he couldn't think about that at the moment. It didn't matter whether he got promoted if the firm went out of business.

His phone began to ring. He only glanced at it, answering it as he pulled up the client files, shooting Toni an email to send him the names of the ones who were considering dropping.

“Cleland at Law, this is John.”

“Hey John, this is Andrew Petkova.”

John smirked. “Hello, Mr. Petkova. How are you?” Entertained any dates lately?

“I'm fine, and you?”

“Fine as well. How can I help you?”

“I'm just calling to confirm our meeting two weeks from today, at ten o'clock?”

John pulled up the calendar. “Yes, that's what we have. Two Thursdays from today at ten.”

“Good to hear. Will you be attending?”

“Probably not. You'll be working with Gallagher, though. The man who works at the animal shelter. We spoke about him over dinner.”

“See if you can't get in on the meeting, why don't you? We'd love to get the chance to work with you more.”

John didn't know if this was some part of a convoluted scheme, but he figured that an opportunity was an opportunity. “Will do. See you then.”

“Have a good day.” They hung up and John turned back to his computer.

Francis strolled in at quarter to ten. He at least had the sense to look guilty. “Morning, everyone,” he said. “I'm sorry I'm so late. We had a family issue arise that needed attention.”

John rolled his eyes and took a long drink from his thermos.

“John.”

Jesus fuck.

“Yes, Mr. Kinloch?”

“Could I see you in my office for a moment?”

Peterson oohed and Heidi flicked him with an eraser. He threw it back at her.

John stood and followed Francis into his office. Francis shut the door and perched on the edge of his desk. “So. Tell me what I missed.”

John blinked. “You want me to take time from my busy day to fill you in on something you shouldn't have missed in the first place?”

Francis's eyes narrowed and John crossed his arms, fixing him with a look. “Could you please have at least an ounce of respect for your new boss?”

“Maybe you should start acting like one first.”

Francis stood. “Maybe you should stop talking about things that you know nothing about.”

“Maybe you should fill me in.” John leaned against the door. “Tell me why Anne introduced you the way she did and then ditched us as soon as it was convenient for her. And how you're getting the money for raises when I know for a fact that the firm's suffering. If you're up to something, I need to know.”

“Up to something?” Francis shook his head. “You need to stop. Seriously. I'm not the bad guy here, John. I never was. I'm sorry you feel so uncomfortable around me all of the time, but that's on you. It's been ten years.”

“It's been nine,” John corrected. “And you might not be the bad guy now, but you were. I wasn't the one who -” His throat constricted. He felt like he was going to throw up. “If you want me to stop treating you like a threat, then it's on you to convince me that you're not one.” He turned on his heel. “And another thing. Don't call me. Especially not at night.”

“I was just calling to see when you wanted to do that double date.”

“That's not going to happen. We need to keep things strictly professional.” John opened the door, but Francis closed it.

“If you want to keep things professional, then that's fine with me. But you do not get to talk to me like that. Do you understand?”

John's jaw worked and he looked up at Francis. He was almost a full head taller than him. And he hadn't changed one bit. “I understand perfectly.”

“Good. Then tell me what I missed.”


 

John reviewed his notes on the potential sites for Glinglon's new factories.

His phone rang. It was the security desk downstairs.

“Mr. Laurens-Hamilton, you have a visitor.”

He frowned. It was technically lunch time. No one was supposed to visit between noon and one. “Send them up, I guess.” He saved his work and shut his notebook. Hopefully whoever it was wouldn't stay too awfully long, and he'd be able to get back to work.

“Who moved all the desks?”

John looked up in surprise. Then he beamed. “What're you doing here?”

“I brought you lunch. Figured you'd be eating something from the vending machine, and I was right.” Alex crossed the room and leaned down, giving John a kiss hello. “I thought we could eat together, and you could take an actual break.”

John took the Taco Bell bag. “How'd you know that I needed this?”

“Lucky guess. And you also sent me that emoji with the steam coming out of its nose. That's pretty serious.” John moved, sitting on the desk and nudging Alex into the chair. “What's so bad about today?”

“The firm's losing its reputation. If things don't improve, we could shut down.”

“Shit. How long do you have?”

“A year, maybe two.” He sighed. “I'm going to start looking for another job. Just to keep my options open in case things do go south.”

“Whatever happens,” Alex said, taking his hands, “we're in it together, yeah?”

John nodded, leaning down and kissing Alex's knuckles.

“Hi, Alex!” Heidi said, coming into the office with a McDonald's bag. “I didn't know you were coming up for lunch.”

“It was a surprise.” Alex gave John a knowing look. “So what are you hiding from me, exactly?”

“What do you mean?”

“You're sitting on your desk. You're hiding something.”

“No, I'm not.”

“Then you'd have no problem with standing up.”

“Uh-uh.”

Alex arched and eyebrow. “Stand up, John.”

“No. You can't make me.”

He shook his head. “You forget that I used to work freight.”

“Yeah, like a hundred years ago. There's no way you'd be able to life me u-up!”

Alex had picked him up like he was nothing. “Wanna bet,” he whispered.

He was so fucking hot.

He put John down and snatched the picture frame before John could react. “You seriously have this picture on display? Why?”

“Because it's so good.” He took the frame back and smiled at the picture of Alex from his graduation.

“I look horrible.”

“No, you don't.”

“I'd been up for twenty-four consecutive hours when it was taken!”

“But look at that smile.” John brushed his fingers over it.

“It's too wide.”

“No, it's beautiful. You were so happy, so proud. The first person to get a PhD under the age of thirty in over fifty years.” He remembered that day. Alex had walked across the stage in his cap and gown. John had helped him pull his hair back a bit more nicely than usual, because it was a special day and the idiot hadn't slept the night before because he was researching for a paper.

Even though the audience had been asked to hold their applause until the end, no one in Alex's family could wait. They cheered the loudest out of everyone in that stadium. He could still hear how it echoed off of the walls, could see Alex break into a grin the size of Jupiter and he laughed, even as his face turned pink.

Alex pressed his lips to John's cheek, bringing him back from the memories. “You're going to be the best professor the University of Richmond has ever seen.”

“Only because I had you to help get me there.” They shared a long look. Alex broke it to see what other pictures John had on his desk. “And you have this one, too.” He picked up another picture frame. “That week we spent at the lakehouse.”

Hercules's family owned lakefront property in Smith Mountain Lake, and they'd let him borrow it for a week. He'd invited Alex, John, Lafayette, Adri, Frannie, Mimi, and Andy. That was the summer John and Alex had graduated from Columbia, and they'd been grateful for the chance to take a break before the horrors of grad school began.

“I'd forgotten what Andy looked like without a beard,” Alex said. “I think he looks better with one.” He smiled wistfully. “That was a good week.”

“What happened?” Heidi asked, leaning closer. She was such a kid sometimes.

“That was when John proposed to me.” His smile grew at the memory. “He got on one knee and everything. Which is more than I can say for myself when I'd proposed.”

“You proposed first?”

“Yeah.” Alex chuckled. “John shot me down.”

John rolled his eyes. “I still stand by my reasons.”

“I know you do. And it probably didn't help with how I phrased it.”

“How'd you phrase it?”

Alex laughed. It was real and genuine and John's heart melted. “I said, hypothetically speaking, if I proposed to you right now, what would you say? And John's brilliant response was -”

Don't even joke about that,” John finished for him. “It's funny now, but you weren't laughing at the time.”

“It's funny now because of how it turned out in the end.”

“I didn't even wait a full year to ask you,” John mused. He leaned his head against Alex's shoulder. “I always knew, by the way. That you're the one I want to be with. I just wasn't ready to go any further at the time.”

“I know.” Alex kissed the top of his head. His shoulders slumped. “I keep forgetting how many good things came from that summer. All I remember is...” He sighed.

“That's how it is, sometimes.” John squeezed him affectionately. “Come on. Let's eat before the food gets cold.”

They ate and joked around with Heidi until John's break was almost over. Heidi excused herself while Alex got ready to go.

“Tell me honestly,” John said. “Why did you come?”

“Because I wanted to see you.”

“And that's all?”

Alex smiled, taking John's hands. “I've been thinking about what you said. About how you miss me, how you feel like you're not a priority.”

“Alex -”

“And instead of just telling you that I love you more than anything, I've decided that I'm going to show you. Since you hate grand gestures, I thought I could start with lunch and work my way up from there.”

John swallowed, blinking hard. He pulled Alex into a kiss, sliding his arms around his neck. “I'm giving you a free pass to do whatever the hell you want to me because I love you,” he whispered when they broke apart.

“That wasn't my intention, but I'll take it.” He kissed him again. “If I'm being honest, I also wanted to check up on you, after last night and this morning, to make sure you're okay.”

“I'm okay.” John hugged him tighter. Closed his eyes. Just that I don't deserve you, but I'm going to try and work on that, to get to the point where I can truthfully say that I do because I love you so much and want nothing but the best for you, so I'm going to do everything in my power to give you the life you want to have. “You're the best damn thing that's ever happened to me.”

“You're the goddamn world.”

John pulled away so he could kiss him again. “You should probably get going.” He didn't want him to leave, but he couldn't stay.

“Who let the riff-raff in?”

Especially because that had just walked into the office.

Alex smiled a little. “Always a pleasure, Peterson.”

John got an idea and took Alex's hands, placing them around the back of his neck so the scent gland on his wrist was pressed against the one on John's neck. He wanted to smell like his Alpha.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Francis come in.

He pulled Alex into a quick kiss. “I'll see you at home, love.”

“Okay. Bye, baby. Have a good rest of your day.” Alex left, giving Francis a smile on the way out because he had no idea who he was.

“Who was that?” Francis asked after he was gone.

“My mate. He brought me lunch.”

“That was nice of him.”

John smiled at the door, wishing he could leave with him. “Yeah. It really was.”

“Well, time to get back to it.”

John sat down at his desk, looking at the pictures of Alex and processing the fact that he was going to actively try to make things work. No more waiting for things to just get better. They were going to fight for it.

The rest of his day was so much easier.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 24

John woke up on Friday the following week and groaned. “Winter's setting in,” he said.

“What makes you say that?” Alex mumbled against his shoulder.

“I nested in my sleep and my shoulder is killing me.”

“Sweetheart,” Alex whispered, kissing it.

“I appreciate the gesture, but that doesn't make me feel any better.” He closed his eyes again. “I had a nightmare last night.”

“'M sorry, baby boy.” Alex pulled him closer, tucking his face into the back of his neck. “What was it about?”

“No idea. Just that it sucked.” He sighed and pressed himself against Alex. “Want to stay in bed all day?”

“I wish. We both have to work today.” Alex finally sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Let's get you a hot shower, though. That might make your shoulder feel better.”

John let himself be guided into the bathroom. Alex had to help him undress, partially because of the shoulder and partially because he felt dead on his feet.

He leaned against Alex, eyes sliding closed as he felt the hot water on his skin. “I'm tired,” John mumbled.

“I can tell.” Alex rubbed circles into his back. “You went to bed early last night, too. Are you getting sick?”

“No. I can't afford to be sick.” He winced when Alex began to rub his shoulder. “No, that hurts.”

“We need to get you to loosen up.” Alex continued, scolding John when he tried to pull away. “This is what the doctor told us to do, remember?”

“The doctor was wrong,” John whined. “I feel like I'm going to throw up.” But he let Alex massage his shoulder under the spray of the water because he knew it'd feel a bit better afterward.

“There,” Alex said soothingly when he was done. “Did you need me to wash your hair for you?”

John tested his right arm out. Pain shot through his entire body. He wanted to cry. “Yeah,” he said through gritted teeth.

Alex frowned as he shampooed John's mass of curls. “Maybe you should stay home today.”

“I can't. I've got too much to do.” He insisted on washing his body so Alex could clean himself. “Besides, we both know that if I do that you'll either stay home and hover over me like an overly-concerned bee or go to work and destroy yourself with worry.”

They got out of the shower and John dried himself the best he could.

“Scale of one to ten.”

John didn't answer, electing to go into the bedroom and get dressed instead.

John.”

“Like a seven,” he mumbled, his eyes snapping shut as he tried to button his shirt. “Fuck it,” he grumbled to himself. “It's December. I'm wearing a sweater.”

“Baby, you can't be serious.” Alex came into the room. “Don't go in today.”

“I'll be okay.” John grabbed one of his cozier red sweaters and searched for a tie that would go with it. “Just help me get ready.”

Alex sighed in defeat, walking over to John and buttoning his shirt for him. He glanced at the tie rack. “You don't have one that would go with the red.”

“I know. Maybe I should wear a different sweater. Like the blue one?”

“No. You can just use one of mine.” Alex grabbed a couple of ties from his side of the closet and held them to John's sweater. “I'm thinking this one,” he said, indicating the darker gray. He turned back to John and popped his collar, sliding the tie around his neck. John leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss. Alex smiled and fastened the tie for him. “There.”

“You tie ties weird,” John observed fondly.

“There's more than one way to tie a tie, John,” Alex said. “This is called a Kelvin knot. It's easy to do, but it's one of the more uncommon knots, so you can stand out a little without breaking your back.”

“Or your shoulder,” John joked.

Alex rolled his eyes and helped John put the sweater on. “Could you at least wear the sling?”

“Then how am I supposed to drive? I'll try not to jostle it.” He went into the kitchen and turned on the burner, getting out the eggs and bacon. He could at least do something without Alex's help this morning.

“Oh, no.” Alex shooed John out of the kitchen. “I'll make breakfast today. And don't give me that look. Are you still nauseous?”

John nodded slowly.

“Then I'm going to make you something that's easy on your stomach. And some tea. Just sit at the bar and relax.”

John trudged to the bar and sat down on one of the stools, watching Alex get to work. He felt bad. “I can help,” he offered.

“No, I don't want you to risk getting hurt anymore. Do you think the nausea has something to do with your shoulder, or something else?” He put something in the microwave. John couldn't see what it was.

He thought for a moment. “I guess I've been pretty anxious lately. It's been a rough couple of weeks.”

Alex turned around, wrapping the heating pack in a towel and handing it to John. “You have seemed more on edge lately. Irritable, fatigued, you said your lower back ached the other day. Maybe you should go to a psychiatrist.”

“No, I'm fine.” John placed the heating pack on his shoulder. “It's just been a little rough, that's all. I'll get over it.”

Alex's nostrils flared slightly. “Look, I love you, but you're being an idiot.”

“Alex -”

“Remember when you ignored it the last time? You stopped sleeping almost completely and then had a mental breakdown at two in the morning when I asked you what was wrong.”

“And then I took medicine for it and now I'm better,” John said.

“That's not how mental illness works, John. It's not like a scraped knee or the flu. You can't just fix it with a band-aid or Z-pack. It's something you have to watch for constantly because when it gets bad again, it gets bad.” He took John's free hand. “I'm worried about you.”

“The doctor gave me the all-clear.”

“That doesn't mean you never have to take it again. If you won't go to a psychiatrist, at least go to a counselor. And stay home today.”

“I can't afford to miss work. I need to talk to my boss and convince him that I need to be at this meeting next Thursday.”

“Can't you do it on Monday?”

“No. I've put it off long enough. And it might take a while to convince him because he's upset with me.”

“Why is he upset with you?”

“Because I went off on him.”

“Why in the world would you do that?”

“Because, as we've already established, I'm a fucking idiot.” John took a deep breath. “I'll be okay. I just have to survive this week and then things will be back to normal.”

Alex shook his head sadly. “You know it's not normal to be constantly worrying about everything, right? To lose sleep over it, to have frequent nightmares, to come apart over little things? Like the idea of missing one day of work?”

“I know.” John kissed his hand. “But I have to work with what I've got.”

“No, you don't. Why are you so opposed to going back on the medicine, John? It made you feel better.”

“And I've been off it for four years. And those four years have been good.”

“That doesn't mean that it can't get bad again.” He rubbed his face. “Jesus Christ, we're talking in circles.” He walked over to the coffee pot and poured himself a mug, then started on breakfast.

John's lower lip trembled, but he bit it so it wouldn't show. “I'll call a counselor,” he conceded, “if you think it's that important. But things aren't that bleak. You can have a few bad days now and then. It doesn't have to mean anything.”

“I just don't want your bad days to turn into bad weeks or months. Or years.” Alex handed John a mug of tea. “This should help with the nausea.”

Good thing too, because John definitely felt like he was going to throw up all over the counter. And then Alex would make him stay home. “The thing is, Alex, I don't feel anxious. I'm worried, yeah, but it's not like anxiety worried. It's normal worried. And I'm worried about normal things, like whether I'm going to be able to convince Frank to let me in on the meeting, or if we're going to like the apartment when we tour it next week.”

“I still worry about you, especially since you're showing all of the physical signs of your anxiety.”

John did indeed have anxiety-induced nausea. And he honestly wasn't surprised to be feeling it this morning – he'd felt nauseous since Wednesday. He chalked it up to having to see his boss every day. He'd taken steps to distance himself from him and move on from the past. One of which was to refer to him as Frank. Another was to only speak to him when necessary.

Unfortunately, Francis – Frank – deemed it necessary every single day. Multiple times. John hated it but he had to grin and bear it because he was, after all, his boss.

He couldn't fess up to Alex, though.

“I guess the nausea could be related to the shoulder pain.” It certainly wasn't helping, that was for sure.

Alex frowned, sliding a plate with toast, a banana, and yogurt across the bar to John. “I still want you to call a counselor.”

“I will, love.” He ate while Alex made breakfast for himself. He thought about his day. Decided to soothe Alex at least a little bit more. “I won't volunteer tonight. I can take the night off and come straight home. Maybe we could do something.”

“Like what?”

“I don't know. We could stay in and watch TV. We haven't done that in a while. Or maybe we could go out and get the rest of the holiday shopping done. We're still going down to Norfolk for Christmas, right?”

“As far as I know.” Alex sat down next to John with his own plate. “It wouldn't hurt to finish shopping now. We could get dinner on the way back. If you're feeling up to it, that is.”

“I'm sure I will be.” John finished eating and took his plate to the sink. He noticed the time and finished getting ready, taking ibuprofen and grabbing his bag. “I need to get going.”

Alex stood, wrapping his arms around him and giving him a soft kiss. “Have a good day. Be careful.” He stepped back but didn't let go. He bit his lip and reached up John's sweater, running his wrists over his shirt.

“What're you doing?”

“Scenting you.”

John didn't protest. He liked smelling like Alex around Franc – Frank.

“Did you want me to stop?”

“No, I'm into it.”

Alex gave John another kiss and scented his sweater before he let him leave.

He drove to the office and went inside. It was quiet. A nice change from how hectic it had been. Everyone was scrambling nowadays to keep the clients happy. John was beginning to wonder what exactly was driving them away. A retirement wasn't enough to ruin a reputation, and Frank hadn't been there long enough to fuck it up.

Was he out of the loop again?

“Morning, John,” Heidi said. “It's starting to feel like winter out.”

“I know.” He removed his bag and coat with caution.

“No coffee this morning?”

“My stomach's bothering me,” John said. He sat down and turned on his computer. “Frank in yet?”

“Yeah. He got in a few minutes ago.”

“Good.” He'd finally started to show up on time.

Heidi continued to stare at him. He looked over at her. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“You look different with your hair down.”

Fuck, he'd forgotten to pull it back. He had spare hair ties in his desk, but he wouldn't be able to do it with his shoulder the way it was.

“Is that a good thing?”

“Well, you look younger.”

“So that's a no.”

“John.”

He turned to see Francis standing in the doorway. “Yeah, boss?”

Francis's – dammit, Frank's – lips twitched. “Can you come in here for a moment?”

John stood and walked into the office. Frank shut the door and leaned against it. John wouldn't be able to escape, unless he jumped through the window. “What did you need?”

“Let me ask you something. As an Omega, what makes you feel appreciated?”

John gave him a look. “I don't know what you're asking.” His skin crawled.

“What does Alan do for you that makes you feel good?”

“You mean Alex?”

“Yeah. Alex, right. What does he do for you?”

“A lot of things. I don't know what you're getting at but it's making me uncomfortable so I think I'm just going to get back to work.” John moved towards the door, but Francis stayed put. “Frank, let me through. Please.”

“Kayce and I are having issues.”

John sighed. “I'm sorry to hear that.”

“I want to make her feel more secure in our relationship. That's why I'm asking you.”

“Doesn't she have any friends you could ask instead?”

“They'd take her side.”

John closed his eyes and shook his head once. “Okay. Yes, Alex makes me feel appreciated. It's the little things. He brought me lunch last week for no other reason than that he wanted to see me. When I told him my back was sore a few days ago, he gave me a massage. Just find ways to let her know that you love her because that's probably what's in doubt.”

“How could I not love her? She's the mother of my child.”

“I would drop that if I were you.” Frank wasn't budging, so John sat down on the couch. “Because it probably makes her feel like that's all she is to you. And she's more than that, right?”

Francis blanched. John felt a spark of anger on Kayce's behalf. “You're hopeless,” he snapped. “Your mate is supposed to be your companion and your best friend. It's no wonder you're having problems, if you only view her as a mother.”

“I took her to dinner a while ago. It was a nice place, too. And I got her a necklace.”

“Okay, but when was the last time you helped out around the house?” When Frank didn't answer, John rolled his eyes. “If you have to stop and think about it, it's probably been too long. Look, I'm sure she likes being taken out and given gifts, but if you really want to show her how you feel, you should treat her like she's the best thing that's ever happened to you and that you're terrified to lose her.”

“I am terrified to lose her.”

“Well, have you two talked about why you're having problems? Start with that. Now can I please go back to work?”

Frank moved out of the way. “Thank you, John. You're a good guy. Always have been.” He gave a little smile. “I like your hair down, by the way. It's a good look for you.”

John didn't answer When he got back to his desk, he grabbed a hair tie, wincing and tearing up when he tried to move his shoulder.

“Guess I'm doing this with one hand,” he muttered. He moved the hair tie to his left hand and tried to gather his hair. It was easier said than done.

“What are you doing?” Peterson asked.

“Putting my hair up,” John said, glowering at his keyboard.

“Why don't you use both hands? Is it your shoulder?”

“How do you know I have a bad shoulder?”

“We've worked together for almost six years.” Peterson watched him struggle for another minute before he shook his head. “I can't watch you do that.” He stood walked over to John's desk.

John shrunk away. “What're you going to do to me?”

“Look, I don't like you but I'm not heartless. Here.” He took the hair tie and pulled John's hair back for him. Then he went back to his own desk and sat down.

John stared at him, shocked. “Thank you.”

“Don't mention it.” He smirked. “Anything for the boss's new pet.”

Just like that, things were back to normal.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 25

John walked in the door and put his bag down on the table. “Honey, you'll never guess what happened today.”

“What?” Alex asked from the kitchen.

“Peterson was nice to me.” John walked into the kitchen and frowned. “What're you doing?”

“Making cookies.”

“Why?”

“Why not?” Alex turned around and flicked flour at John. “Has hell frozen over?”

“Probably. He tied my hair back for me.”

The smile faltered for an instant and jealousy flickered in his eyes. “He did?”

“Oh, stop. He saw me struggling and said it was painful to watch. So he helped.” John gave him a kiss. “And then we decided to elope together.”

“Sorry. Blame the Alpha brain.” Alex added chocolate chips to the dough and mixed them in. “Want to lick the spoon?”

“No. That's bad for you.”

“Then live a little.” He turned and kissed John again. “How's your shoulder?”

“Better since I'm hopped up on painkillers.”

“Oh, you mean ibuprofen? Such a bad boy. And your stomach? Are you still nauseous?”

“A little. But it's fine. Probably just something I ate.”

Alex spooned the cookies onto a sheet and slid them into the oven. “You wanna lay down for a little bit? I can come get you when the cookies are done and we can have some before we go out tonight.”

John didn't object. He went into the living room and grabbed a few blankets from the closet, arranging them carefully on the couch before curling up on it and closing his eyes. It was definitely winter. Omegas' nesting instincts were a bit stronger in the colder season. They liked being warm and cozy. John was no exception, and he'd finally accepted that a few years ago. “Alex,” he said, “come cuddle with me.”

Alex chuckled and came into the living room. “You're still wearing your work clothes.”

“We're going out soon anyway. Get in here. I don't smell enough like you.”

Alex complied, pulling John into his arms. “You're right, you don't smell enough like me. You smell like Peterson, though.”

John laughed. “No I don't. If it bothers you that much, you can take my hair tie out.”

Alex reached behind John's head and undid the hair tie. “There,” he said, running his fingers through John's hair. “Perfect.”

John rolled his eyes and tucked his head under Alex's chin. Alex's chest rumbled as he rubbed John's back. “You're such an Alpha sometimes.”

They cuddled until the timer for the cookies went off, and Alex had to go get them out of the oven. “Hey, John, how exactly does your implant work?”

“For my birth control?” John sat up. “They put it in my arm. It lasts for three years, then they take it out and replace it.” The process stung a little and left his arm tender for a few days afterward, but it certainly beat having to remember to take a pill every day. “Why do you ask?”

“When it wears off, does it wear off gradually or does it just stop working the day it expires?”

John opened his mouth to answer, but realized that he didn't know. “I just know that you're supposed to get it replaced before it expires, which is on the thirtieth for me.” He had the appointment on Tuesday to get it done.

Speaking of, there was something he needed to do. He pulled up his phone and had the consent form printed. He grabbed it from the printer and signed Alexander Laurens-Hamilton on the dotted line.

Omegas needed their Alphas' consent to receive medical treatment of any kind in a non-emergency situation. It was something that neither Alex nor John were fans of, so Alex had taught John to forge his signature. It didn't solve the problem entirely, but it gave him more agency.

“Why the sudden interest in my birth control?” John asked, folding the paper and putting it in his wallet.

Alex looked uncomfortable. “Well, you've been nauseous and irritable and fatigued lately.”

“Yeah, so?”

“I just, do you think there's a possibility that you're, you know...?”

John arched an eyebrow. “What? Pregnant?” He laughed a little, shaking his head. “No. Not a chance.”

“I'm just saying. Maybe you should take a test. Just to be sure.”

“I don't need to, Alex.” John sat back down on the couch. “I'm not pregnant.”

“Okay, but what if you are?” Alex rocked on his feet a little. “Just, take a pregnancy test. Please. It'll make me feel better.”

“Look, Alex, even if I was, it'd be way too early to be exhibiting any symptoms like that. I'd be, what, two weeks along at most? If even that?” Omegas didn't have their heats when they were pregnant. There was no need for one, since the biological goal of having a cycle was to procreate.

“You also nested in your sleep last night.”

“Because it's December.”

“Or maybe it's because your pregnancy instincts are kicking in.” Alex sighed. “Look, I've been thinking about this all day, so if you could just take a test it would make me feel so much better.”

John gritted his teeth. “Fine. We can pick one up when we go out tonight.”

“I already have one.” Alex went into the hallway and came back into the living room with a box.

John stared at him for an indeterminable amount of time, his eyes narrowed and his jaw working. Then he wordlessly stood, took the box, and headed for the bathroom.

Alex followed him.

John turned around when he got to the bathroom. “What're you doing?”

Alex's face flushed. “I-I was going to -”

“No.” John shut the door and sighed. He read over the instructions and unzipped his pants.

A knock on the door. “Everything okay?”

“It has only been ten seconds. Go away.”

John took the test and washed his hands, glancing at the stick. He opened the door and rolled his eyes at Alex, who was right where John had left him.

“So,” Alex said, “are you pregnant?”

“It takes two minutes. And I don't know about you, but I'm going to eat a cookie while they're still warm. So if you'll excuse me.” John walked into the kitchen, Alex on his heels. “Are you going to be following me around all night?”

“Sorry.” Alex took a step back. “I'm just nervous.”

“There's nothing to be nervous about.” John picked up a cookie and took a bite. His eyes fell closed. “You make good fucking cookies.”

“So you're not even the slightest bit uncertain?”

“Nope.” John looked at the clock on the oven. “So we still need to get a gift for Mimi. I was thinking some art supplies or new yarn.”

“That could work, yeah.” Alex was bouncing on the balls of his feet, eyes darting to the clock and back every two seconds.

He wasn't even paying attention, was he? “Maybe we could buy her a first class plane ticket to Mars. And we could get Andy a ticket to the Sun. It's gonna have to be coach, though. Or maybe he can ride with the luggage.”

“Yeah, baby, whatever you think is best.”

John stared at him. “I slept with my boss.”

Alex nodded, then seemed to process what John said and rolled his eyes. “No you didn't. You hate him.”

At least John could say that he'd told a partial truth.

“It's been two minutes,” Alex said.

John stepped in front of him before he could make a run for the bathroom. “No. I'll be the one to look at it. You'll get overexcited and drop it.”

“Fine.”

John shook his head, going to the bathroom and taking the test off of the sink. “You're making something out of nothing,” he said, looking down at it. “I'm not -”

Two lines?

“No,” he mumbled. “Where's the box?”

“John?” Alex appeared. “What does it say?”

John looked at the back of the box, then at the test. Two solid lines meant positive. One line meant negative.

But, he realized, the lines weren't solid. One was, but the other was faint.

He was going to faint.

“John? Are you pregnant?”

“I don't know,” he said numbly. “I – I – it's not clear.”

“Let me see it?”

John handed Alex the stick.

“John,” Alex said, “that's two lines.” Then the fucker smiled.

“No,” he snapped. “It's not. Compare the two. The second one is weaker. It's not clear.”

The smile faded as Alex looked back down at it. “So what does this mean?”

It means I could be pregnant. “It means we're going to the health clinic. Now.” He walked into the living room, grabbing his wallet and keys. Then he shook his head. “Alex, you drive.”

“Will do.” Alex walked by, dropping a quick kiss to John's shoulder. “We'll find out, don't worry.”

John got into the passenger side of the car and stared out the window while Alex started it.

He might be -

He could actually be -

God, he felt sick to his stomach.

He took a steadying breath and closed his eyes. Squeezed them shut tighter. Tighter. Tighter. Until it was almost painful.

A hand on his. Alex.

John pulled away.

They arrived at the clinic and John got out, all business. He slid his mask into place. No one could know how terrified he was. No one could know how close he was to breaking down and screaming and tearing at his hair.

He was so close to breaking down and screaming and tearing at his hair.

He thought about it, thought about collapsing on the pavement and refusing to get up.

He walked through the doors and up to the front desk.

“What can I help you with today?” the lady asked.

“I might be pregnant,” John said. His voice sounded distant.

“Fill these forms out and we'll get you in as soon as we can.” She handed him a clipboard and gestured to a cluster of chairs.

John sat down. Stared at the paper. Clenched his teeth.

A hand on his cheek. He barely registered it, but the small part of his brain that was still present responded and he relaxed his jaw.

The clipboard was removed from his lap. He continued to stare as if it hadn't been. Alex's voice, saying words that he didn't process until several long seconds later.

“I can fill it out, sweetheart. Just try to relax.”

That was a joke.

Time passed. John could feel himself growing older and older with each second that went by.

“John Laurens-Hamilton?”

Everything snapped into focus. He was in the health clinic. The chairs were uncomfortable. And the nurse was ready for him.

He stood, and Alex did too.

Of course he'd be joining him.

The nurse checked normal things, like his height, weight, blood pressure, and pulse. His blood pressure and pulse were a little high. It made sense to him. He had a lot to be stressed about, after all.

Standard questions. When his last heat was, if he'd been sexually active since then, what his symptoms were.

He was given a cup and a glass of water. He went to the bathroom. Saw the bucket of free condoms at the sink. Grabbed a few. Force of habit.

Alex smiled at him as he came back into the room. Tried to strike up a conversation. John ignored him. He ignored everything and let his mind drift again.

He didn't want to think about what was happening, but he couldn't stop thinking about it.

Someone different came in. A doctor with a smile plastered onto her face.

John's stomach dropped. No, he thought. Please, no.

“Well,” she said, “I'm afraid it's inconclusive.”

“What does that mean?” Alex asked.

“It means we can't tell, either.”

John's ears began to ring and he stared at the doctor. He'd thought that being told he was pregnant would summon the apocalypse, that the news would cause hellfire to rain down and end all life.

Not knowing was much, much worse.

He only caught snippets of what she was saying, things like, early and last heat and forty-eight hours.

Then the doctor left. And Alex was in front of him, taking his hands, talking to him about something. He didn't know what.

“John.”

Suddenly they were in the car. Alex was driving.

“You're being really quiet. Are you okay?”

Okay was the absolute last thing John was.

“I know it's going to be a long weekend, but we shouldn't let ourselves worry about it too much. Easier said than done, I know. I mean, you could be pregnant.” He beamed as he said it. “I think, for simplicity's sake, we should act like you are pregnant. Just so we don't do anything that could be risky.”

Because if he was pregnant, they were going to keep it. Just like that. He hugged his stomach and closed his eyes.

“You feeling sick again? Need me to pull over?”

John shook his head, even though his insides were swarming like angry hornets.

Alex pulled into their parking lot and got out. John stayed in the car for a few seconds, gathering the strength to move.

When he finally did, Alex wrapped an arm around his shoulders and guided him into the building. “It's a lot to digest, huh?” he said.

John nodded slowly. They got into the elevator and rode up in silence.

“So,” Alex said as he unlocked their apartment, “what do you want to do? Are you still up for shopping?”

“I think I'm going to shower.” His first words in eons. “Doctors' offices make me feel gross.”

“Did you want me to join you?”

“No.” He went into the bathroom and locked the door. Turned on the water and undressed.

He saw the pregnancy test on the counter. He picked it up and looked at it. Panic and anger seized him and he hurled it in the trash but it missed and crashed to the floor. His chin trembled and he threw it away, along with the box.

He stepped into the tub. Felt the spray of water on his face.

Let himself fall apart.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 26

John curled deeper into his nest, closing his eyes and taking a shuddering breath. He'd run out tears an hour ago, in the shower. He was exhausted. But he wouldn't be able to sleep.

He hugged Alex's hoodie closer. He wanted nothing to do with the real Alex. The real Alex was out in the living room, probably searching for baby names or cribs. Oblivious. So fucking oblivious.

A few tears leaked out.

He had some left, after all.

Alex came into the bedroom two hours later. “You nested,” he observed. “Can I get in?”

“No,” John said.

“Oh?” Clearly not the answer he was expecting. “Okay. Can I sleep in the bed at all?”

“As long as you don't get under my comforter.”

“Did you want to eat something?”

“No.”

“You're sure? Did you eat anything for lunch?”

John pulled one of his blankets over his head.

“John, you should eat something.”

“Go away,” he said.

“Baby, what is it?”

Baby.

He started to cry again. He pulled Alex's hoodie close to his face to muffle his sobs.

“Hey,” Alex said. He put a hand on John's shoulder. “Hey, hey, sweetheart, it's going to be okay.”

John shied away from his touch. Alex wasn't allowed to touch him, because this was all Alex's fault.

“Whatever happens, we're a team, remember?” The mattress shifted as he sat down. “Look, John, I don't understand why you're self-isolating or why you're crying but I'm here for you no matter what.”

Here but not present. Because if you were, you'd know exactly why.

John moved further from his touch.

Morning came and John woke up to his alarm. He shut it off, dread filling his stomach as he remembered yesterday's events.

Alex opened his eyes from his side of the bed. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said softly. “You feeling better?”

John didn't answer. But then he got an idea. “Come volunteer with me today,” he said. “We'd be in the daycare and you might possibly be needing the practice sooner than expected.”

Alex would work with the kids, see how much of a hassle they were, and then maybe he'd have second thoughts about having one.

John should've thought of that sooner.

“Good idea.” Alex got out of bed, stretching. “Is your shoulder feeling any better?”

“Yeah, it's fine.” John got dressed and went into the kitchen for some breakfast and coffee. He'd be needing it.

Alex came out into the kitchen and made a noise when he saw John drinking from a mug. “Coffee? John, you could be pregnant.”

“So?”

So, you're not supposed to have caffeine.”

Alex looked so horrified that John wondered how much more his eyes would bulge if he ever told him that he didn't want it. He took another drink of the coffee, pouring a mug for Alex and handing it to him. He didn't take it.

“Oh my God, Alex. It's fine. One cup a day is fine. I'm allowed to have caffeine, as long as it's less than two hundred milligrams. That's about twelve ounces of coffee. This mug is only eight.”

Alex slowly took the proffered mug. “You did your research?”

John shrugged. “Common knowledge.”

“You brewed a lot of coffee,” Alex said, nodding at the machine. “Who's going to drink all that?”

“You are. Kids are exhausting and you'll be needing your energy.”

They finished getting ready and John drove them to the VAMO headquarters. He went up to the daycare, Alex close behind, and flipped the switches.

“So what do we do? Are there any activities or anything we're supposed to engage them in?”

“Nope. We just make sure they don't hurt themselves or each other. But we do have snack times at nine and four, lunch at noon, and nap time at three.”

“So no lesson plans or anything?”

“We only teach them during the week. Most of the parents who drop their kids off on the weekends just need someone to watch them because they're working two jobs or have picked up an extra shift. They don't expect anything fancy.”

Eliza walked in with her stroller. “Alex, hi! I didn't know you'd be helping out today!”

“It was a spur of the moment decision on John's part. Are those the twins? They've gotten so big!”

“Yeah, almost four months.”

“I thought Maria had them today,” John said.

Eliza smiled thinly. “Plans changed.”

“Is everything okay?”

She didn't answer. John got the message and glanced over at Alex, who was too busy being captivated by the girls to overhear.

“But there is something that you should know.” She pulled him a little ways away from Alex. “We've got an infant coming in today.”

“How old?”

“Six weeks. Parent called yesterday. Their job won't give them any more time off.”

Another thing to fight for – more parental leave. “Is this their first time being separated?”

“Probably.” She looked over at the twins. “I'm worried that they'll get nervous with them here. Because three babies is a lot.”

It was. John was glad he'd decided to bring Alex along. “When are they coming?”

“In like five minutes.”

He had an idea. “Alex,” he said, “could you take the twins for a walk around the building and don't come back until seven twenty?”

Alex made a face. “Okay?”

“Thanks.”

“Where should I go?”

“Fourth floor should be good.”

“Alright, see you in fifteen, I guess.” He took the stroller and pushed it out the doors. “Did you hear that?” he said to the twins. “We're going out!”

John shook his head at his retreating form and went into the nursery to make sure that it was clean for the baby.

“What's going on with you and Alex?” Eliza asked from the doorway.

“What's going on with you and Maria?” John countered.

“Touche.” Eliza looked down. “I told Maria how I felt. About being with the same flower shop for eleven years. About having nothing to look forward to but her and the girls. And I love them, don't get me wrong. I love them so much, John, all of them.”

“I know you do.”

“I told her that I was unhappy and now she thinks that I'm unhappy with being a mother. Which isn't true at all. I just don't want it to be all I am.” She closed her eyes, holding back tears. “We argued about it all night, but she doesn't understand.”

“I get it,” John said. “Do you want to go to college?”

She nodded. “I was thinking about teaching. Elementary or preschool, because I love working with kids.”

“You'd be great at it. And if you wanted to go to the University of Richmond, I know this great professor.”

Eliza laughed a little. “I know we'll figure it out. She'll understand in time and then we'll go on a picnic like we always do after a fight. But it sucks right now, you know?”

“So why do you have the twins?”

“She went over to Peggy's last night to cool off.”

“Are you worried?”

“No. We needed some time apart. She'll come home some time today and then we'll talk when I get back.” She glanced at the clock. “We have a few more minutes. What's up with you and Alex?”

John debated whether or not to tell her. It would be so nice to tell at least one person, and he loved Eliza. “I might be pregnant.”

She inhaled sharply. “Does Alex know?”

John nodded. “And he's excited about it.”

“Oh. Oh, no.”

“Exactly. That's why I brought him here today. I'm hoping it scares him.”

“John,” Eliza scolded, pursing her lips, “that's not a good way to handle it. You need to tell him the truth.”

“How? How am I supposed to tell him -”

The doors opened and a nervous-looking Omega came in with three bags and a baby carrier.

Eliza and John plastered their customer service smiles on. “Hi,” they said in unison. Creepy.

“Am I in the right place?” the Omega asked, eyes darting around the room.

“You sure are,” Eliza said. “I can help you with your bags.”

“I didn't know what all I should bring,” he said, handing her two of the bags. “So I brought everything except the crib and the playpen. Did you need me to go home and get that?”

“No, we have those. They're in the nursery. We can show you.” John led him into the nursery. “We have everything a baby could possibly need.”

“Good, you have a fridge.” The Omega put the other bag down. “Tyler's still nursing, so I brought a few bags of breast milk.” He looked down at the baby. Blinked hard. “I wasn't planning on leaving him so soon.”

“You don't have to worry about a thing,” John said. “We'll take great care of him.”

“Tyler likes Beyonce, so if he gets fussy you can play that. He really likes Love on Top.”

“It's a good song.”

“I fed and changed him before we came. I also brought diapers and bottles and clothes in case he makes a mess. He's hungry pretty often and likes to be fed every two hours or so. And he really likes to look at bright colors. I brought his mobile, but I'm now realizing that I might have packed too much.” His chin trembled, but he swallowed hard. “I-I need to get going while I still can.” He looked around the room. “How many other kids are there going to be?”

“Probably around fifteen. But there are three of us that will be here all day, and a few people that will be coming in to help out.”

“And you're all qualified?”

“Yes.” Eliza smiled brightly. “I have twin four-month-olds.”

“And I raised my four younger siblings,” John said. “You have nothing to worry about.”

“Okay. Okay. Thanks.” The Omega picked Tyler up and hugged him close for a moment. “Daddy loves you.” He kissed him on the head, then handed him to John. “Here. I've gotta go. I'll be back for him at five.”

“Have a good day. And you can always call us if you want to check in.”

The Omega nodded and walked out of the room briskly.

“He handled that a lot better than I thought he would,” Eliza said. She opened one of the bags and stored the breast milk in the fridge.

Tyler looked up at John. He seemed to realize that he wasn't his dad and began to cry.

“It's okay, bud.” John bounced him a little. “He'll be back. He'll be back.” He looked at Eliza. “Did he pack anything scented?”

She was already searching. A few moments later, she produced a beige blanket. “This.”

“It's hideous,” John said. He put Tyler down on the changing table and took the blanket, swaddling him in it. Tyler sniffled, but the tears stopped. “There you go. Not so bad, see?” He picked Tyler up and bounced him lightly. “It'll be okay.”

“Alex is back,” Eliza whispered.

John nodded once. He finished putting things away while Eliza went out to greet him.

“So why did you need me to leave? Were you two talking about me?” John heard the smile in his voice.

“We needed the girls to be out of the room. Didn't want Tyler's dad to get overwhelmed.”

“Who's Tyler?”

“This is Tyler,” John said, coming out of the nursery with the baby.

Alex's eyes became the size of saucers and he let out a soft, “Oh,” in complete awe. “Oh, he's so little.”

“Six weeks,” John said. “It's the first time he's been separated from his parents.” Alex held out his arms and John hesitantly handed him over.

Alex cradled Tyler close. “That's gotta be tough, huh, buddy? Don't worry, he'll be back. But we can still have fun while he's gone.”

Angie whimpered and Eliza shushed her, smoothing her hair back. “Don't cry, honey.” She placed her in a play pen. Susie went into the one next to her. “We need to make sure they get their thirty minutes of tummy time today.”

“How're they doing on solid foods?”

“They hate it. They still prefer breastmilk. But we'll get there eventually.” She handed Susie a rattle. “Angie's learning to smile back at people.”

“Really?” John smiled at Angie. She looked at him for a moment, then grinned back. It melted his heart.

I could have a child like this in a year. One with dark brown eyes and a mess of dark hair, just like Angie. One that smiles at people.

The thought wasn't exciting. It just made John want to throw up.

A few more kids came in one by one, and their presence was a mixed blessing. Their boundless energy distracted John from his worries. At the same time, they reminded him of what could be growing inside of his stomach.

“John?” a small voice said. He looked down at Benaiah, who was peering up at him. “Me and Carsten and Izora wanna make a nest. Can you help us?”

“Sure.” He went to the cabinet, Benaiah on his heels. “How many blankets do you want to use?”

“A thousand!”

“A thousand? That's a little much. How about we start with five, and then we can add more as we go.”

Benaiah nodded eagerly. John gave him a couple of pillows to carry and let him lead the way.

“Benna!” Izora cried excitedly, jumping up and down.

“Inside voice, Izora,” Carsten said. “Benna, Benna, we got the stuffies.”

John looked at the pile of stuffed animals they'd gathered. “I think you should put some of these back.”

“But we need them for our nest,” Izora protested.

“What about the other kids? They won't have any for their nests if you use them all, will they?”

“No,” Izora mumbled, looking down at the ground.

“How about you each pick one out, and we'll put the rest back?”

They went through the pile and, after some careful deliberation, made their decisions. Then they constructed their nest with John's occasional assistance. At their age, it was best to let them try out different methods and see what they liked the most.

“Thanks John!” Benaiah said once the three were huddled up together in the heap of blankets. Izora and Carsten thanked him too.

“No problem.” John sat down at one of the tables, next to Emalia. She was six and kept to herself for the most part. “Hey,” he said, nodding at her drawing of an animal of some sort, “that's really good.”

“It's Mrs. Esther,” she said. “Mommy said I couldn't bring her here so I drew her.”

“Are you excited for the holidays?”

She shrugged. Not the response he was really expecting. “Why just meh?” he asked.

“Mommy said Santa won't bring me much this year. But it's okay because I know.”

“What do you know?”

Emalia looked around the room before whispering, “That he's not real.”

“What? Of course he is!”

“Nuh-uh. Aunt Janey told me when I asked how come Billy got a new puppy from Santa and all I got was new shoes and a book. I said it wasn't fair cause I was really good and Billy pulls girls' hair on the playground. And so I asked and Aunt Janey said it's cause Santa's not real. But I won't tell.”

John frowned. “Well, it sounds like Billy deserves a lump of coal. Have you told the teachers?”

“They said it's cause he likes us and Alphas do that when they like someone.”

John swallowed the urge to square up with some teachers he'd never met. “That's not true. If someone likes you, they're nice to you and do nice things, like invite you to play. They don't pull your hair. And it's not okay that Billy does it. Next time he does, ask him how he'd feel if you pulled his hair.”

Emalia nodded. John probably sounded preachy to her, but he didn't care when it came to this particular subject. He had half a mind to tell her to hit Billy if he ever touched her, but he knew that she'd be the one to get into trouble and he didn't have the authority to fight the school on her behalf. If she was his kid, he'd do it in a heartbeat.

Fuck.

“I think I'm gonna draw some more,” she said, getting another piece of paper.

“Okay. Snack time will be in fifteen minutes.” He stood and checked on the twins. Susie peered up at him angrily. “What's wrong?” He noticed the rattle outside of the playpen. “How'd that get out there?” He wiped it off and handed it to her. She immediately put it into her mouth.

Angie was also happily mouthing at her toy. “You two,” he said with a smile. “Is there anything you won't put into your mouths?”

“Solid foods,” Eliza said from behind him. He turned and she handed him a mug of tea. “How's everything going?”

“Pretty well. We've got three nesting in the corner.”

Eliza followed his gaze and laughed. “They built it themselves?”

“They did.”

A phone started ringing and Eliza reached into her pocket. “Oh, it's Maria.” She answered it. “Hi.” She frowned, brow furrowing for an instant, then she shook her head. “No, don't worry, they're with me. I wouldn't leave them at home alone... Yeah, that would be okay... I know, dearest. I know... See you in a few. I love you.” She hung up. “She didn't realize that I'd brought the girls here with me,” she explained. “She's coming to get them. And to talk to me.”

“Everything gonna be okay?”

“I'm sure of it.” She looked at John. “And things are going to be okay for you, too. I promise.”

He smiled.

“Hey, baby?”

John looked up at Alex, who was holding Tyler. He hadn't left him alone yet today. “What's up?”

“Can you do that thing you did earlier this morning with the blanket?”

“You mean swaddle him? Yeah.” He followed Alex into the nursery.

“I changed his diaper but I can't figure out what it was that you did and now he's getting fussy.”

Tyler grumbled a little, as if to prove Alex's point. And then he started to cry.

Alex looked absolutely horrified. “What did I do?”

“Nothing, probably.” John watched Alex awkwardly bounce Tyler in an attempt to soothe him. It wasn't working. “Have you fed him yet?”

“No.”

“He might be hungry. Get him a bottle.”

It was wrong on many different levels, but John was fully prepared to let Alex figure it out for himself. But then he saw the panicked look in Alex's eyes and he set aside his petty desire to scare him. He was clearly already terrified. It was time for John to step in.

“Tyler's only six weeks old, so he's still nursing.”

“So we get him to Eliza.”

“No. That is not correct.” John opened the fridge. “His dad brought milk.”

“How?”

“I'll explain once he's quieted down.” John grabbed a bag of milk and a bottle from one of the bags. “To prepare breast milk, you need to run it under warm water. So it's not cold when you give it to Tyler.” He worked as he spoke. “Then you need to test the milk on your wrist to make sure it's not too warm.” He tested it. “Give me your wrist.” He squirted just a bit onto Alex. “That's the temperature it needs to be at.” He handed him the bottle.

Alex took it like it was some kind of foreign object. Then he cautiously held it to Tyler's mouth. His shoulders sagged when Tyler latched onto the nipple. “He's eating.” He looked up at John with a grin. “We did it.”

John almost smiled back, but caught himself just in time. “Let me get you a burp cloth. Do you know how to burp him?”

“Yes. I think.”

John draped the cloth over Alex's shoulder. “Make sure to support the head when you do. He hasn't developed those muscles yet.”

“Right. I read about that. I read about everything, but it's so much different in practice.”

“When did you do that?” He knew for a fact that Alex slept last night because he hadn't slept last night. Not very much, anyway.

“I've read a lot over the past three years.”

Of course. John's stomach turned. “Burp Tyler.” When he did it without issue, John said, “You seem to have it under control, so I'm going to help set up for snack time.”

“Oh. Okay.” Alex sounded disappointed.

John didn't know what he wanted from him. Except to have his child. Hell, maybe that was all he'd ever wanted. Didn't mean he'd get it. After all, people didn't always get what they wanted, did they?

No one knew that better than John.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 27

While the kids happily munched on their animal crackers and juice, John brooded at the desk. Eliza noticed and gave him a knowing look, followed by a head jerk in the direction of the nursery. John looked away.

Tyler started to cry again fifteen minutes later. John closed his eyes and tuned it out.

“John?”

“Yes, Alex.”

“He's crying again.”

“I can tell, but thank you for letting me know.”

“I don't know what's wrong. I looked up how to swaddle him, but he's still crying.”

“Babies cry, Alex. You're gonna have to get used to that.”

“John, please. I don't know what I'm doing and I might've done something wrong and Eliza's busy and I need your help.”

John sighed and finally turned to Alex. “Alright, give him here.” He took Tyler into his arms and inspected him. “The blanket's too tight around him.” He set him down on a clear space and redid it. “It was probably making him feel claustrophobic.” Tyler was still crying, though. John frowned and cradled him close to his chest.

“So what else is wrong? He's still crying.”

“Like I said, babies cry. Sometimes there's nothing you can really do about it. You just have to let them.” John took him back to the nursery and grabbed a stuffed giraffe, holding it close to Tyler's face. “Look, honey, bright colors.”

Tyler quieted down slightly and stared at the giraffe, mesmerized.

“So it's not always something that needs attention?”

“Not always, no. It's hard being a baby.” John sat down in the rocking chair and set the giraffe aside, stroking Tyler's cheek. “Everything's so new.” He rocked him until he'd stopped crying entirely. “We should let him sleep.” He placed him in the crib.

“Shouldn't we unwrap him first?”

“No, he'll be fine. He can't roll over yet. Let's help clean up.”

“I can stay here and watch Tyler,” Alex said.

“No,” John said, shaking his head. “You don't have to stand guard twenty-four seven. We've got baby monitors in case he needs anything.”

Alex looked at the crib. “But, he's so small.”

“He is a baby.”

“Is it normal to be that small?”

“Yes. He's very healthy. You don't have to worry.”

Alex continued to stare at Tyler. “Shouldn't someone be here, though? Just in case?”

“No. Come on.” He took Alex's arm and guided him out of the nursery. “He'll be okay. I promise.”

Another volunteer arrived, and they made quick work of the plates from snacktime.

Maria walked in a few minutes later. She smiled at John and Alex, then took Eliza's hands, pulling her outside. Alex looked at John, questioning, but John just shrugged.

They came back inside a few minutes later and Maria gathered the twins. Eliza sat down next to John and gave him a small nod, barely containing her grin.

At least things were working out well for one of them.

The rest of the day went about the same. John busied himself with helping the kids make nests, build towers, read books, and so forth.

If he was working, he didn't have time to think about his inner turmoil. He'd adopted that habit before, to the dismay of Frannie and Alex. But Frannie had her own problems and Alex would be too absorbed with the baby to notice.

He could keep himself busy for eighteen years, right?

He took a drink of his tea and watched Alex read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to the kids. He was doing a different voice for Santa. The kids seemed to love that.

A tug on his jeans. He looked down to see Azaria. She reached for him, indicating that she wanted him to pick her up. He pulled her into his lap and she cuddled up to him, sucking on her pacifier.

She hadn't slept during nap time, so she was probably crashing. He rocked her gently as she fell asleep. He remembered doing this with Mary Eleanor during high school. She'd been an angry toddler, and he didn't blame her. Her mother had died too soon after she was born. Her primary caretaker was a teenage boy who had no idea what he was doing. Her father was an absentee alcoholic. And no matter how hard John tried, something always went wrong in the house, be it a forgotten bill resulting in the power getting shut off or Marty going into a fit of rage and destroying their mother's China.

Henry hadn't been happy in either instance, and he blamed John for it. Also a common occurrence.

But Mary Eleanor had been worth it all. In those quiet moments when she was calm and half asleep in his arms, he could smile despite the fact that his life was going to shit, despite the fact that he hated himself and didn't see a future beyond high school. Because she was real and she was his. Biology be damned.

He tried to imagine having that again, with another baby. With Alex's baby.

He blinked hard and pushed it from his mind. He wouldn't be able to make peace with the idea.

Most of the children were gone by five o'clock. The only three remaining were twin toddlers Rhiannon and Caireen and, of course, Tyler. Alex had managed to leave him alone for a whopping hour and a half. He might've lasted longer if Tyler hadn't begun crying or if John had gotten to him first.

The twins' three dads came in, apologizing profusely for being late, and covered their girls with tons of kisses as they left.

“I think I'm going to head home,” Eliza said. “Maria and I still need to talk about some things.”

“Have a good night,” John said as he filled out the remaining paperwork for the day.

“You should talk to him.” She leaned closer. “I'm serious. He's self-absorbed but if he knew -”

“I've made it very clear that I wanted to wait.” John shook his head slightly. “I don't know what I'd even tell him.”

Eliza sighed. “Just, don't not say anything, okay?”

“Okay.” He reached over and took her hand. “Thank you.”

She left and John finished the paperwork. All that was left to do was wait for Tyler's dad and try not to watch Alex play with Tyler.

He'd been hoping Alex would realize that he didn't have a knack for parenting. Instead, John was giving in and watching the way Alex spoke to Tyler as he bounced and tickled him. The way his eyes lit up and the way he smiled.

Do you really want to deny your Alpha a child?”

He slowly reached down and placed his hand on his stomach.

“Sorry I'm so late! My boss kept me.” Tyler's dad rushed through the doors and to the nursery. “How is he? Is he okay? Did anything happen?”

“Tyler's fine,” Alex said. “He's so precious.”

Tyler's dad held out his arms and for a moment, Alex looked so sad. But then he handed him over and John wished it made him feel better. “Daddy missed you so much,” Tyler's dad said to the baby, who was gurgling happily now that he and his dad were reunited. “I swear I didn't want to leave.” He kissed him on the head a few times.

“I packed up all of your stuff for you. I can help you out if you want.”

“That'd be great. Thank you so much.”

“Don't worry about it.” Alex hefted the three bags while Tyler's dad got Tyler situated in his car seat. “I'll be back up in a few,” Alex told John as they walked out of the doors.

“Okay.” They left and John huffed, leaning up against the desk and burying his face in his arms. His shoulders began to shake and a few tears escaped and then that was it. He cried hard but kept quiet. He was so good at keeping quiet. And he was so tired of crying all of the fucking time.

He pulled himself together and wiped his face with a tissue. A few moments later, Alex strolled through the doors.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” John lied. “I'm fine. Just... really tired.”

Alex took John's hands and kissed them. “Let's go home. I'll make dinner.”

He led John from the building. They got into the car and neither said anything until they were well on their way home.

“So,” John said so he wouldn't be alone with his thoughts, “what did you think of today?”

“It was nice. A bit tiring but rewarding overall. Even if I had no idea what I was doing.”

“You did great,” John admitted. “Better than I thought you would.”

“What, was this some kind of evaluation?”

No, it was a failed scare tactic. “No. Just wanted to get you some practice.” He glanced out the window. “Could you imagine doing that every day? Taking care of a baby like that, I mean?”

“Easily.”

“No, I mean really think about it.”

“I have, John. I haven't stopped thinking about it. Yeah, kids are messy and loud and expensive but it'd be our loud, expensive mess. And the fact that you could be pregnant with our child is... It's so crazy and definitely a surprise but how could I not love the thought of having a baby with you?”

John swallowed thickly.

Do you really want to deny your Alpha a child?”

He slid his arm around his stomach. He was nauseous again, big shock there. “You'd be a great father.” Because he would, God dammit, he'd be the best dad in the world.

And John was keeping him from that.

“Today got me thinking, though,” Alex said. “I think I want a boy. Don't get me wrong, I will love this baby regardless, but if I got to choose, I'd want a boy.”

“Boys are horrible.” John contemplated throwing himself out of the car. “They're too wild and rambunctious.”

“So you want a girl, then?”

John didn't want anything. “I don't care.”

“Just ten fingers and ten toes?”

He nodded mechanically. He wanted a drink. And since it was possible that he wouldn't be able to have any alcohol for the next year or so, he really wanted a drink.

Fuck. Alcohol.

“I've had alcohol since my heat,” he said.

“A little shouldn't hurt.”

“More than a little.”

Alex glanced at him. “How much?”

John thought. “I had a drink and a half last Tuesday after you left. Then I had nightmares on Tuesday, Friday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday.”

“What do your nightmares have to do with it?”

“When they're bad enough to wake me up, I usually need a little something to get back to sleep.”

“Why is this the first time I'm hearing about that?”

“I don't know, because you could sleep through the apocalypse?”

Alex shook his head. “There are better ways to deal with bad dreams than drinking, John. You know that. And if it's really that bad, then you should go back on your medication.”

“I can't if I'm pregnant.”

They got to their apartment. Alex didn't say anything on the way up.

“We'll tell the doctor when we go in. I'm sure you're not the first to drink before you knew you were pregnant.”

Alex was speaking as if the test had come back positive. “You know there's a chance that I'm not pregnant, right?”

“Right. I know. But we agreed to act like you were this weekend, just in case. Remember?”

John hadn't agreed to that. He hadn't agreed to any of this.

He kept quiet.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 28

John: Mimi can I come over?
John: I'm losing my mind.

Alex had stopped talking about the potential cell cluster in John's womb, but only because he was wrapped up in the movie they were watching. John couldn't pay attention. He wasn't a big fan of Marvel, anyway. He remained faithful to DC, even though their movies had become far-reaching and predictable.

He did like seeing Robert Downey Jr, though. There was something about dark-haired geniuses with good hearts and troubled pasts that drew him in.

He also liked Hugh Jackman, but it was only because it was fun to turn the Wolverine movies into musicals. It was what Hugh would've wanted.

This didn't have either of them. And even if it did, John wouldn't have been able to concentrate.

“What do you think about the name Anthony? He could go by Tony.”

Alex had gone almost an entire hour without mentioning it.

“No,” John said. He didn't want to talk about baby names because he didn't want to talk about a baby.

“Scott?”

“No.”

“Luis?”

“No.”

“Do you have any ideas, then?”

John sighed. “If you really want to talk about this now.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It's custom for the Laurenses to name their children after family.”

“Who're you named after?”

“Long story short? My grandfather, Jean.”

“Wait, you're French?”

“On my father's side. You know, if I'm actually his son.”

Alex frowned and tugged one of John's curls. “I'm sure he was just being a prick.”

“I guess.”

“Does it have to be your side of the family?”

“No. We don't even have to follow that tradition. It's old.”

“But it could be fun. We could name him Gilbert.”

“Gilbert? What, do you want them to grow up to hate us?”

“Gilbert's a good name!”

“Sure, for a cat. They would get picked on so much.” And dammit, Alex had gotten him to talk about it.

John's phone buzzed.

Mimi: Sure. Is this a whiskey situation or a tequila situation?

John: Neither. I'll explain when I get there.

“That's a fair point. But I think we should name him after my brother. So if there are any variations of Gilbert you're cool with? Or we could go with Joseph? That's a part of his full name.”

John tried to think of an excuse to leave without being a total dick. “Maybe we could table talking about names until later. Like, much later.”

Or at least until they knew if John was even pregnant at all.

“Probably a good idea. But I mean, a good name is so important. He'll be carrying it around his entire life.”

John: Could you do me a huge favor?
John: Call me and pretend that we'd made plans that I'd forgotten about.

Mimi: Are you in danger?

John: Only my sanity. Wait a few minutes so it doesn't look suspicious.

He put his phone down and pretended to watch the movie.

His phone began to ring.

“Let me guess,” Alex said, “your boss wants to talk about something vague yet important.”

“Ha, ha.” John looked at the caller ID. “It's Mimi.”

“Even worse.”

John answered it. “What's up?”

“I'm supposed to tell you that we have plans for something. I'm gonna say dinner because it's late? Have you eaten yet? Because if you have maybe I could say that I need a model for a painting I'm doing. Or a test dummy to jab needles into.”

“Oh, shit, I completely forgot about that,” John said.

“Yeah, and for some reason it's one of those things that's going to absolutely ruin our friendship if you fall through. So come over right now, young man.”

“Everything okay?” Alex asked when John hung up and stood. “Where are you going?”

“Over to Mimi's. I forgot that we'd made plans to do this thing.”

“What kind of thing?”

“It's a... A holiday thing. She needs help with her presents and I'm really good at shopping for people I don't actually know.”

John could tell that Alex saw right through it. “Fine. Don't tell me. Have a good time.”

“Will do.” John grabbed his jacket, wallet, and keys.

“Love y -”

John shut the door and all but ran to his car. The seven-minute drive over to Mimi's felt more like seven hours.

Her door swung open before he had the chance to knock. “Care to explain?” she said, stepping aside and letting him in.

“Alex was driving me up the wall.”

Mimi frowned and shook her head slightly. “Escaping from your mate? That doesn't sound like you.”

“Well I didn't know what else to do.” He sat down on the couch with a heavy sigh. “I don't know what to do.”

“What's going on?” She sat down next to him.

“I might be pregnant and Alex is thrilled at the aspect of having a baby.”

Mimi grew quiet. He risked a look over at her and saw that her face was completely blank. That meant she was pissed.

“So you want me to call my father? He could put a hit on Alex for you, no questions asked.”

“No, don't do that.” He leaned his head back. “I don't want a baby, Mimi.”

“Then don't have it.”

He laughed. “It's not that simple.”

“Sure it is.”

“What, you think I should just sneak off and have an abortion? Pretend that I'd lost it some time later?” He shook his head. “I would never.”

“No, you wouldn't.” She watched him with an even yet concerned expression. “But why?”

“Because that would be a horrible thing to do?”

“Why would it be so horrible? If you think it's necessary, then -”

“It's not -” His breath caught and he understood what she was getting at. “I don't want it,” he repeated sadly. “But Alex does. He's wanted one for three years, Mimi. Three years. And now he thinks he might finally get it but I can't – I can't – I don't even know what I could do. I brought him to VAMO with me today and yesterday, to help out at the daycare, and he's so good with kids and with babies. There was an infant that we had yesterday, and Alex was almost perfect with him. He was doting and he's got these parental instincts and seeing your Alpha with a baby is supposed to feel right, but it didn't.” His chin trembled. “It made me feel horrible. And so guilty.”

“You shouldn't feel guilty, John. Not for something like this.”

“Shouldn't I, though? He wants to be a dad and that's something that I can't make myself give to him. But if the test comes back positive, then he's going to become one and I'm just going to be... I don't even know.”

Mimi scooted closer and took one of his hands. “He should know better than to expect this from you. But he's nothing if not self-absorbed. You need to tell him.”

“I can't.” John swallowed thickly. “I can't do that to him. It'll break his heart.”

“What's worse, John? Causing him a little pain now or having a child before you're ready?” Her voice softened. “I know it's hard. But you have to talk to him about this.”

“I can't get rid of it. If I'm pregnant I can't get rid of it. He'd never forgive me.”

Mimi squeezed his hand. “He would.”

John shook his head. “I'd be killing our child. He'd never go for that. And I can't do it alone without telling him because that's -”

“That's not who you are.”

“It'd be so fucked up.”

They sat in silence for several long moments. “So what're you going to do?” Mimi asked.

“I don't know.”

John heard footsteps and turned to see Andy coming into the living room. He looked up and offered a smile that made John's stomach turn. “John, I didn't know you were coming. How is Alex?”

“He's good.” John gave Mimi a how could you not tell me that my mortal enemy was here look and she rolled her eyes, even as she patted his hand apologetically.

“Tell him I said hello. I need to get going if I'm to make it to work on time.”

“Your shift doesn't start for another hour,” Mimi said.

“I've got to talk to my boss.”

“Anyone try to rob the museum yet?” John asked.

“No. Fortunately for me, no one's crazy enough to steal taxidermied animals.” Andy was a night guard at the Richmond Museum of Taxidermy. It made sense to John. An unsettling job for an unsettling guy.

Besides, not every English major could be as successful as Alex, now could they?

“I'll be back early tomorrow morning,” he continued, coming to the couch and kissing Mimi on the cheek. She turned her head, catching his jaw with her middle and index finger, and gave him a quick peck on the lips. He grinned. “Goodbye, dearest.”

“Goodbye, darling,” she replied smoothly.

John made a face. “Now I'm really feeling nauseous,” he said when Andy had left. “Why didn't you tell me he was here? Do you think he heard anything?”

“Doubt it. And even if he did, he's not going to spread it or anything. He's not a bad guy, you know. And that's coming from someone with impossible standards.”

“You two do seem to be getting more... romantic?”

“If you're asking if I'm starting to consider him as more of a romantic partner than a queer-platonic one, then the answer is yes. We've been heading that way for about a year and a half, actually.”

“That long?”

She nodded. “We had too much to drink one night and ended up in bed together. We discussed it the next morning and he said that he'd be open to seeing if it could work and I thought, what the hell? So I guess we're dating? I don't know, but it seems to be going well.”

“What is it with you and drinking?”

“It wasn't like we'd never had sex before then. It just felt different.”

“You never told me that!”

Mimi shrugged. “Didn't think you'd care to hear about it, considering you hate him. And there are far worse-looking humans that I could have gone with. I mean, I may be ace, but I still have a sex drive and I can definitely appreciate aesthetics.”

John smiled a little. “Right. Well, I'm glad things are working.”

“And I'm sure things will work out for you two, as well. Eventually.”

Mimi's Siamese, Loaf, sauntered into the room and hopped into her lap, nuzzling her chin before turning to glower at John.

“Good to see you, too,” he said to her.

Loaf turned away from him. He didn't take it personally. Loaf only liked Mimi. Anyone else could go to hell.

“Be nice,” Mimi said to her. “She's just in a bad mood tonight because I had to throw away her favorite mouse toy. She'd disemboweled it.” She looked over at John. “Look, John, if things turn south with Alex, you always have a place with me.”

He was tempted to bite out a retort at the thought of living in the same house as Andy, but he resisted it. “You gonna make Andy stop smoking?”

She shrugged. “I told him that it would be bad for a doctor to be with a smoker, so he has until the end of my residency to quit or I walk.”

“An ultimatum? Pretty harsh.”

“He's been smoking since he was sixteen. He needs harsh, or he's going to die of lung cancer. And he's down to two cigarettes a day, so I'd say it's working pretty well. Besides, he likes it when I'm bossy.”

John snorted. “What is it about dominant Omegas that turns people on?”

“I don't know. Probably some stupid medieval instinct to tame us.”

Loaf curled up in Mimi's lap, purring loudly. She'd been a gift from her father when she'd begun her residency last June. The first time they'd met, she'd acted warily towards John. She'd hissed at and scratched Alex.

John wasn't surprised she got along with Mimi so well.

“Alex may be a genius, but he can be downright stupid at times. Especially concerning things that he doesn't necessarily want to hear. You need to tell him and tell him again, until he either gets it or you grow tired of the game.”

“What happens when I get tired?”

Loaf turned and looked at him, her blue eyes narrowed in what John thought looked a lot like exasperation.

“Like I said.” Mimi reached over and patted his hand. “You always have a place with me.”


 

John got home after eleven. He and Mimi had played cards for a few hours to distract him from thinking about the baby.

Alex was sitting on the couch. “You're home late,” he said. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” He looked over at Alex and frowned. “You look like you've been crying.”

“How's the demon?” he asked instead of replying.

“Andy's fine. Still rocking the beard. Still works at the place with the creepy dead things.”

“I meant Loaf.”

“Oh, the other demon? She's okay too. Told me that she misses her favorite scratching post, so I promised I'd bring you along next time.”

Alex scowled and looked away. “You're being really mean, Jack.”

Mean?” John laughed. “You gonna tattle to the playground monitor, or what?”

To his horror, Alex's shoulders began to shake. John stared, dumbstruck and very much alarmed. Then he snapped out of it and sat down on the couch, pulling him into his arms.

Watching Alex cry was painful. Knowing that he was the cause was agony.

“I'm sorry,” he breathed against the top of Alex's head. “I didn't know I was hurting you.”

“You've been dismissive and you've been taking cheap shots all weekend.” John could feel Alex's hot tears soaking through his shirt. He held him tighter and squashed down the self loathing. He could hate himself later. Now, he needed to be there for his mate. “And I get that you're frustrated and you're scared but you can't take it out on me. I'm not your punching bag.”

“I know.” John kissed his hair. “I'm so sorry, love. It's not fair to you.”

Alex pulled away and wiped his eyes. “I'm sorry too.”

“For what?”

“That this has been so rough on you. Not knowing sucks ass.”

“It really does.” He pushed Alex's hair from his face and kissed his forehead. “It's late. We should get some sleep.”

“We'll find out for certain in the morning,” Alex agreed, standing. “And no matter what happens, we're a team, yeah?”

John took Alex's hands and pressed his lips to his knuckles. “Always.”

They changed into their pajamas and John gave Alex a tired smile as they got under the covers. John slid an arm around Alex's waist and Alex tucked his cold feet in between John's ankles. John almost complained, but he figured that he deserved it for being such a dick.

He deserved far, far worse. But Alex wasn't the type to exact vengeance. Not on his mate, anyway.

John combed his fingers through Alex's hair and stared at the wall, wishing that just this once, sleep wouldn't evade him.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 29

“Good morning, love,” John said, coming out into the dining room the next morning. Alex didn't answer. He simply gave John a long look and turned back to his coffee. “I'll start breakfast.”

“How long?”

John looked over his shoulder with an easy smile as he walked into the kitchen. “How long what?”

“How long have you been sleeping with your boss?”

His blood ran cold. “What? I-I haven't -”

“Cut the bullshit and just tell me, John. I already know it's happening.”

“No, no, it's -”

“He called me last night.” Alex stood, slamming his newspaper down onto the table. “And he gave me a very detailed description of your body. If you're not sleeping together, then how does he know what your dick looks like?”

That explained why he'd been crying so much the night before. John spluttered. “We didn't – not – we – it was years ago.”

“Years, huh? Then how does he know about the tattoo on your ribs? You got that last February.”

“He must've seen it when we were working out, back in Sacramento. Alex, please, you have to listen to me -”

“I'm done, John.”

“Alex, Alex, please -”

Alex met his eyes. His gaze was cold and hard, the polar opposite to John's. John shook his head, tears rolling down his face. “What, John?”

“We – we met the summer after Mama died. We slept together almost all throughout high school. But the last time we had sex was just after I'd graduated, I swear. He's nothing to me now.”

“If he really was, then you would've told me.” Alex's lip curled in disgust. “You're pathetic. Can't even let go of something that happened, what, nine years ago?”

You don't know what it was like, Alex -”

“No, I don't. But it must have really been something, if you're so willing to ruin our bond for it.”

“Ruin our -?” When Alex walked towards the front door, John ran after him, grabbing his wrist. “No, no, Alex, please don't. I'm sorry I didn't tell you! I didn't know how to. I didn't want you to be angry with me or make me quit my job.”

“Let go of me, John.”

John sobbed, falling to his knees and refusing to relinquish his grip. Alex yanked his arm away and John howled as if his own arm had been ripped off. “Please don't leave me.” He tilted his head, baring his neck in complete submission. “Alex, Alex, I can't do this without you! I can't do any of this without you!”

“How could I stay? I don't even know if that baby's mine.”

“It is. It is, I swear.”

“You've been making a lot of promises today. Too bad I can no longer trust your word.” Alex opened the door and grabbed the beige suitcase that was up against the wall. “Goodbye, John.”

NO!” John wailed as the door slammed shut. He ran to it and threw it open, but Alex was already gone.

Gone.

Without Alex -

Without him -

John couldn't – he couldn't -

“Alex,” he whimpered, “Alex, Alex, please come back.” He buried his face in his hands and curled up next to the door. “Don't leave me, Alpha.”

He made himself get up some time later. Alex wasn't there, and John's anguish was slowly turning into rage.

He was going to kill him.

Everyone looked up in shock when John stormed in and marched right to Francis's office, opening the door with enough force to rattle the building.

Francis didn't look surprised. “John.”

John lunged at him, launching himself over the desk and wrapping his hands around Francis's neck and squeezing as hard as he could.

Let's see how you feel about being choked.

But Francis simply smiled and pulled John's hands away like he was nothing. “Easy there, mio. You could've really hurt me.”

“How could you?” John spat. “You're a filthy fucking liar!” He swung, but Francis caught his fist and shook his head once.

“Ah-ah. Hitting is bad. And bad boys get punished, remember?”

FUCK YOU!” John roared. “You cost me everything! I lost my mate because you told him – you told him -”

“I merely told him the truth, mio.” Francis sat, pulling John up by the arms. “You're not letting go of me. No one leaves me.” He hugged John around the waist and pulled him flush against his body. John fought, but Francis was ultimately too strong. “Now we can be together, like we're supposed to.”

“I'd rather die.”

“Don't say that.” He grabbed John's chin and tilted his head. “I should wait to bite you until after our baby's born, huh? Won't be that long, though.” He gave a smile that was all teeth.

“No. No, stop.” He struggled against Francis's vice grip. When that didn't work, he tried to call for help. He was met with silence. “Francis, no.”

“Shh, it's okay. Let's have some Jager to celebrate, huh?”

John let out a sob. He was powerless. He was always powerless.

“Don't cry, puppy.” Francis leaned down for a kiss.

John shot up in bed, gasping for breath. He fumbled for the light and looked to his right as soon as it was on.

Alex was fast asleep next to him, oblivious.

John let out a sob of sheer relief, but he couldn't stop crying once he thought of his nightmare. It was easily the worst one he'd ever had and fuck, it was the most realistic.

“John?”

John wiped his face, trying to pull himself together. He'd woken Alex. He was such an asshole. He didn't deserve him, he didn't deserve him, he didn't -

“Alpha,” he whimpered.

He was pulled into Alex's arms in an instant. “Shh, shh, baby boy, it's okay. It was just a bad dream. It's not real.”

“It could be,” he cried into Alex's chest.

“What was it?”

“You left.”

“No. No, sweetheart, no. That's the most unrealistic dream you could possibly have. I'd never leave you, you know that.”

John didn't answer. He just clung to Alex and pressed himself against him entirely. He needed to feel every inch of Alex's body against his or he was going to die.

“Why did I leave?”

“B-Because I did something bad.” He didn't want to explain it. He didn't want to think of the rest of his dream. He didn't want to do anything but listen to the sound of his Alpha's heartbeat.

Alex pressed a kiss to the scent glands on each of John's wrists, then the one on his neck. John bared it without hesitation, remembering how it didn't work in the dream. How submitting wasn't enough to make him stay.

He whimpered again.

Alex scented him, reaching up the back of John's shirt and running soothing hands over his sweaty skin. “Sweetheart,” he breathed. “Sweetheart, it's okay. I've got you. And I'm not going anywhere.”

“Alpha,” John whined pathetically, not letting go of him.

Alex began to purr and John closed his eyes, feeling it against his chest. Alex lay back on mattress, pulling John with him, and tucked them in. “Let's get you some sleep, okay baby? We can talk about this more in the morning if you need.” He reached over and got the lamp.

“You'll be here when I wake up, right?”

“Of course, mon coeur.” He smoothed John's hair back and began to trace his face gently. John's eyes slid shut and his heart finally began to calm.

He woke up again about an hour later and had to stare at the ceiling until he could gather his bearings.

Sometimes, when he was in extreme distress, he'd slip into his headspace as a means of coping. It was a subconscious decision on his part, and had only happened four times before this. Two of which were due to nightmares. One was because of something Henry said that John would never forgive him for. The other one was because of a heavy front settling in that really bothered his still-healing shoulder.

He rolled over, kissing Alex's head. He used to hate going into his headspace at all because he hated the vulnerability that came with it. When he was in that state of mind, the only thing he wanted was his Alpha, and it was hard for him to let himself depend on someone so much.

John used to think vulnerability and weakness were one in the same. He was still learning better, and Alex was always there to help.

His stomach turned as he thought of his nightmare. Alex would never leave him. If they had a problem, they both knew to talk it out like adults.

But he still didn't like to think about it. He didn't want to think about what Alex would do when John inevitably told him about Francis. Because he would tell him. Eventually.

Just not now. Not when so much else was going on. Not when he could be pregnant.

His heart stopped when he realized that it had been well over the forty-eight hour waiting period. The doctor had advised them to give it a few days and then take another test. Because if he was pregnant, it was very early.

He'd been planning on taking the test in the morning, but he could do it now. He could do it now and know sooner.

He could do it now without Alex dancing outside the door. He could do it, he could find out, he could react in his own time without having to worry about anyone else.

He got out of bed carefully and went to the bathroom, pulling the boxes from the cabinet. They'd gotten two this time, just to be sure.

John took the tests and set them down on the counter. He didn't know whether to stare at them until the results made themselves clear or sit down in the hallway and hyperventilate.

He elected to sit down in the hallway and rest his head against his knees.

If he was pregnant, things would still be okay, right?

He'd have to tell Alex everything and wait for the fallout. But after that? Would Alex accept it and step back to let John do what he needed to, or would he demand that John have the baby?

He thought about how much of a strain a baby put on a relationship in normal circumstances.

He didn't want to lose Alex. But if he didn't have the baby, he might. And if he did, he might.

There was no winning. Every solution he came up with in his head was impossible.

But maybe he could learn to be okay with becoming a parent? He already knew he'd love the baby – as if he could ever hate something that he and Alex had created together, regardless of whether or not it was intentional. He wondered if he could attend some therapy sessions, a parenting class or two, see if he couldn't love it out of more than just obligation. If he couldn't love it the way it deserved to be loved.

He began to cry a little. That was one of the things he was most worried about. If he ended up having the baby, would he resent it? And if he did, that would make him unfit to even be a parent. Hell, his own father was a prime example of that.

He didn't want to be a shitty parent like Henry. He didn't want to be a parent, period, and the fact of the matter was that if this was going to happen it'd be more than just John who got hurt. He'd hurt the baby.

John felt a deep longing for something, felt it stirring in his bones as if it was reawakening after a long period of rest. He lifted his head and stared into space miserably, trying to identify what exactly it was that he wanted. He couldn't.

But the feeling was still there.

He sighed and stood, going into the bathroom, resigned to his fate. He placed a hand on his abdomen, maybe because he was feeling sick or maybe as a vow to himself that he'd figure this out. He looked down at the tests, eyes not quite focusing due to his nerves. He picked one up with a shaky hand.

One line.

He didn't let himself feel relieved quite yet. Not until he saw the other test. Because pregnancy tests weren't always entirely accurate. That was why he had two.

He picked up the other one.

One line.

“I'm not,” he breathed. He finally allowed himself to feel that rush of relief and a few tears slid down his face. He smiled to himself even though it probably looked like a grimace with his tears.

He wasn't pregnant.

He wasn't pregnant.

He threw the tests away and went into the kitchen, pouring himself a drink.

And dammit if the familiar burn of the whiskey down his throat wasn't the sweetest thing he'd ever tasted.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 30

John groaned when his alarm went off the next morning. He shut it off and pulled the covers back over his head. In his momentary high, he'd drank just a little too much and now his head hurt.

Not to mention the absolute roller coaster of emotion he'd ridden the night before.

His alarm went off again five minutes later and he turned it off properly. He wasn't going into work today. His nightmare was still fresh in his mind, and the thought of seeing Francis so soon after made his skin crawl.

“Baby, what are you doing?” Alex asked as he sat up. “You need to work today.”

“No,” John mumbled, turning and burying his face in his pillow. “I'm staying home.”

“You're sure?”

“Mm-hmm.” He pulled the comforter tighter around his body. “Too tired.”

“You did have a rough night.” He felt Alex's hand in his hair. “When you wake up for real, though, we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“About the baby.”

Oh, the baby. He sat up, no longer tired. “Yeah, we need to talk about that. Alex, I'm -”

“You shouldn't have it.”

John's words failed him for a long moment. “What?” he finally managed to squeak out.

“The baby. I don't think you should have it.” He was averting his eyes.

“Alex -”

“I need to say this, okay?” He reached over and took John's hands. “I get why you've been so short with me. I've been a jackass this entire weekend. I didn't even think about how you felt about this, how you would feel about this if the test came back positive. But then Andy came over yesterday and told me about what you said to Mimi -”

“He did what?”

“Look, he was right. I've been self-absorbed and that's not okay. And it's not even that I didn't see how unhappy you were, I just turned a blind eye, which is unbelievably horrible and not okay in the slightest. I guess I'd just thought that if you were pregnant, you'd want it, you know? That you'd change your mind if it was actually happening.” Alex grimaced. “And that's not okay, either, because when I let myself believe that, I made you feel like you couldn't be honest with me. I made you self-isolate and cry at the daycare and sneak off to Mimi's because you couldn't trust me. And that's my fault.”

“Alex, I'm -”

“I'm just saying, John, that this is your decision. And whatever you choose to do, I'll support you one hundred percent. Because if you're not ready, then we're not ready. Okay?”

“I'm not pregnant.”

Alex faltered. “What?”

“I'm not pregnant. I took the tests earlier this morning.”

He stared at John for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “Well. Okay then. This is... How do you feel?”

“Honest answer? I feel relieved.”

Another slow nod. “Okay. Good. That's one less thing we have to worry about, then.”

John cradled Alex's face in his hands and kissed him softly. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For telling me.”

“Don't thank me for that,” Alex sighed. “Don't thank me for meeting the basic standard. Belatedly, I might add.”

John pulled Alex back down onto the bed with him. “I'm still glad.” He blinked hard. “But I'm also still kind of mad at you for it.”

“That's perfectly reasonable.”

“I mean, I told you so many times that I don't want a baby yet and you let yourself forget all of that as soon as the opportunity presents itself? Do you have any idea how alone I felt? How scared I was that you'd hate me if I told you that I didn't want it?”

“I know. I know, John, I'm so sorry.”

“And none of this would've even happened if you hadn't brought it up in the first place. The symptoms were just my anxiety acting up, and I told you that Friday morning but you still -” His breath caught and he shook his head. “You still insisted that it was something else.”

Alex looked down.

“But that didn't give me the right to be an asshole, either. I shouldn't have been petty with you. I should've been upfront about it.” He sighed. “We're both still kids, Alex. We're not mature enough to have a baby.”

“John, we're both pushing thirty.”

“No we're not! Pushing thirty is like twenty-eight. We still have a whole 'nother year before that.”

Alex held up his hands with a shadow of a smile. “Right. Sorry.” He reached out and tugged one of John's curls. “I'll let you get some more sleep.”

He moved to get up, but John held on to him. “You're not going anywhere.”

“I thought you were mad at me?”

“I am. But I've spent too much time being mad on my own this weekend.”

Alex hummed and slid his arms around John's waist. “You know I love you, right?”

“I do.” John tucked his head under his chin. “I love you too.”

Things would be okay.

He called the office and told them he was sick before snuggling with Alex and going back to sleep. When he woke up from his nap, Alex was gone.

John got up and went into the living room. He saw Alex cooking in the kitchen and smiled. “Hey, I thought you were going to stay in bed with me?”

“Sorry,” Alex said. “I've got a peace offering. Well, I will have one in about thirty seconds.”

John saw the waffle iron and his heart soared. “You're making me waffles?”

“I've also got strawberry preserves in the fridge.”

“You're so sweet.” He kissed his cheek and rested his head against his shoulder. “Are you upset?”

“With what?”

“That I'm not pregnant?”

Alex sighed. The waffle iron beeped and he turned it off, opening it and pulling the waffles out. “A little. But not with you. I guess I'm upset with the whole situation. And things worked out for the best. I know that. Because we really aren't ready for a baby. No matter how good it felt to take care of Tyler on Saturday.”

“You were really good with him.”

“Are you kidding? I had no clue what I was doing.”

“No one ever does.”

“I do want to start a family with you. I really do. But it doesn't have to be now.”

John nodded, finding solace in the words.

But then he thought, does it have to be ever?

Do you really want to deny your Alpha a child?”

He didn't. He didn't want to deny Alex anything. He deserved to be a father. He deserved the goddamn world.

But John couldn't give him either of those things. He felt like he couldn't give him anything that mattered. Like all he had to offer was unimportant or insignificant.

“So,” Alex said after breakfast, “your nightmare.”

John shook his head. “I don't want to talk about it.”

“You went into your headspace, John. That's pretty serious. I just want to make sure you're okay.” Alex pulled John to the couch and sat down, tugging him into his lap.

John looked away. “Just promise me that you're in this for the long run. That you're not going to wake up one day and realize that you've fallen out of love with me.”

“I'll always love you, sweetheart. And this,” he said, holding up his left hand and showing John his ring, “and this -” he tilted his neck to display the bite on his scent gland - “mean forever. Okay? I've always been in this for the long run. I can't imagine being with anyone else.”

“Even when you're mad? Or when I disappoint you? Or when I can't give you what you want?”

“You don't disappoint me. And what do you even mean -?” Realization dawned on his face and John could see the way his heart broke. “John, is that what the nightmare was about?”

John didn't answer because he didn't know. He just clenched his jaw and fought the tears that were threatening to spill.

Alex held him tightly. “I'm not mad at you, John, I promise. I'm so sorry for the way I acted over the weekend. It was stupid and immature and I didn't mean to scare you. If you're not ready, then you're not ready. It's as simple as that.”

John closed his eyes against the horrible thought that tore through his mind.

But what if I never am?

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 31

The rest of the week went by much better. They saw the apartment on Tuesday and signed the lease on Wednesday. John was able to get into that meeting with Andrew Petkova on Thursday and it went very well.

Things were beginning to settle down again.

John should've known it was just the calm before the storm.

“So our move-in date is January first,” Alex said as he placed an ornament on their tree. It was a cheap two-foot one from the dollar store because they weren't having company over and while they wanted to be festive, they didn't really care enough to put any real effort into it.

Except for the Christmas cookies. Those were in the oven.

“I know.” They'd packed most of their stuff, save for the things that they used every day. “Pretty soon.”

It was the day before Christmas Eve. They'd be driving down to Norfolk in the morning. Everyone was going to be there, including Frannie, who had yet to tell him whether she'd told Hercules the truth about why she'd left him in Chicago.

“I have an idea.”

“Oh, no.” John scrolled through the list of things they still needed to pack for the trip. “What is it?”

“We should christen every single room.”

John smiled and laughed a little. “Every room? You mean all four of them?”

“Five. The kitchen counts as its own room. And that's a pretty big step up from three.”

“That's still pretty tame for us.”

Alex stuck his tongue out at him and John simply shrugged, turning back to his phone. He felt arms slide around him and lips on the back of his neck. “Did you want to up the ante a little, then? We christen each room three times?”

John snorted. “Like you could handle that.” He turned around and kissed Alex. “I'm in.”

Alex's eyes glinted. “We still have a little while until we need to go to bed. And I know exactly where our box of fun things is.”

“You're wearing a condom if we do,” John said. His implant had been replaced on Tuesday, but it took five days to start working. John had gotten condoms with spermicide and they'd be using them for quite a while because the pregnancy scare had made him a little more cautious.

“Or,” Alex whispered, “you could fuck me.”

John smirked. “You definitely couldn't handle that.”

“Come on, it's been so long since we've done it.”

“You mean last Wednesday? Yeah, it's been forever.”

He gave an over-exaggerated pout and pressed himself up against John. John tried not to laugh. He leaned in and gave him another kiss. Alex deepened it, pulling him closer.

“How far do you want it to go?” John breathed when they broke apart.

“As far as you want to take me.” Alex hugged John around the neck. “The box is in our bedroom, next to the closet.”

John chuckled and kissed him again.

They headed to Norfolk at seven the next morning. Alex drove and John sat in the passenger seat, a hand on Alex's thigh.

“You know that's borderline torture, right?” Alex asked. “And distracting to the driver?”

“I'd never distract you,” John cooed. But he moved his hand away.

“So here's a question for you. Will you ever not victimize my inner thighs?”

“Not as long as they're as sensitive as they are. Why, do they hurt?” He had some healing cream in his bag.

“I mean, they're covered in hickeys. So yes. But it's not an unbearable type of pain. I'm used to it after seven years.”

“Now you know how I feel every time you use your teeth on my hips and chest.” Since John had very small fat to muscle ratio, it was a bit difficult to find places to bite down on. But Alex had found a way.

“I don't do it all of the time, though. Only on special occasions.”

“You do it enough.”

“What can I say? You're pretty when you make that face at me.”

“Sadist,” John teased. Alex, in fact, did have those tendencies, but they took the backseat to his overwhelming desire to make John feel good. He was such a service top sometimes.

Luckily for the both of them, John apparently had a thing for pain.

“You can get back at me when we get back home. Think of it as my Christmas present to you.”

Alex laughed. “Is that your way of telling me that you didn't get me anything?”

“No.” He'd gotten Alex a few things. Some of them could even go under the tree.

They reached Norfolk and pulled into the Washingtons' driveway. John wasn't allowed at Henry's house, but everyone would be over for dinner. Even Marty and her mate had come in from England.

He'd missed her so much.

The door opened and a shortish man with dark hair and an impressive build came outside. John could hardly believe his eyes.

Dan?” Alex gasped. He ran forward and hugged him. Dan beamed and hugged him back just as tightly.

“You look good, baby brother. It's been a few years.” He looked over at John. “And you're gorgeous as always.”

John rolled his eyes and hugged him too. He hadn't seen Dan since he and Alex had gotten bonded. They'd Skyped a few times since then, but it had been few and far between. They all kept busy. “You sound even more Scottish than the last time we heard from you.”

“What can I say? I've lived there for almost a decade. But to everyone over there, I still sound ridiculously American. Ellie says that's what drew her to me in the first place.”

“And will we ever get to meet her?”

“Maybe some time soon, if things continue to go well.”

They got their bags from the car and went inside, putting everything into Alex's old room. “Now your parents definitely can't make me sleep in the guest room,” John joked.

“They could still make you sleep with Dan.”

“I should be so lucky.”

Alex nudged John and John kissed him. “You have a thing for my brother?”

“I thought he was cute at one point. But now I don't even have time to think of anyone else because you're always on my mind.”

Alex kissed him again. “Good. Although holy shit, he's ripped.”

“I know, right? He almost killed me with that hug.”

“He squeezed me so tightly that I'm down a shirt size.”

John snickered.

“Hey, you two,” Mrs. Washington said from the doorway. “How was the trip?”

“It was fine,” Alex replied, hugging her in greeting but making a face when she kissed his cheek. “A little busy, but nothing we couldn't handle.”

She left them alone to unpack after giving John a kiss, which he accepted more gracefully. Then he pulled out his phone and texted his siblings that he had arrived.

The doorbell rang not even five minutes later. He answered the door and was immediately embraced by Marty. He hugged her back, picking her up and spinning her, which earned laughter from everyone in the room. “How have you been? How's England? How's bonded life? How's -”

“Breathe, big brother,” she said. He put her down and she hugged Alex. “We've been really good.”

“Are you going to pick me up like that too?” David teased. John rolled his eyes and shook his hand.

He hugged Junior and Mary Eleanor, then looked around. “Where's James?”

“He'll probably be here soon.”

“Probably? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. I texted him earlier. He just said that he'd gotten a late start, is all.”

He'd elected to live in the dorm during winter break. John didn't blame him.

They all settled in on the couch. Dan introduced himself to David and said hi to Mary Eleanor, though John figured she hardly remembered him. John curled up next to Alex and listened to Dan talk about Scotland. Mary Eleanor paid attention for a while, but seemed to grow bored and played on her phone. John remembered being twelve, but he felt like it was longer ago than just fifteen years.

Junior was halfway through a story about an unfortunate incident with a stapler and the coffee machine that had happened at work when his phone buzzed. So did Marty's and Mary Eleanor's. At the same time, John's started to ring.

Something's wrong.

His first thought as he answered was that Henry had suffered from a stroke or a heart attack.

“Is this Mr. Laurens-Hamilton?”

“Yes.”

Marty's face went white as she stared at her phone.

“I'm calling on behalf of your younger brother, James Laurens. There's been an accident.”

The calm was officially over.

And the hellfire was raining down upon them.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 32

John paced in the waiting room. Marty watched him wearily. Junior was on the phone with someone. Mary Eleanor was sitting next to Henry. John was doing his best to ignore him.

“I still don't understand how this could have happened,” he said. “People don't just fall out of windows. Especially not in the dead of winter.”

“Witnesses say he jumped.” Marty stood and tugged his arm. “You're not doing him any good by wearing yourself out.”

“But why would he jump?”

John should've been there for him. He should've noticed that something was wrong. He was his guardian. It didn't matter that James was legally an adult. John had promised Mama that he'd look after everyone. That he'd look after James.

Alex came in with a couple of trays of coffee. “Okay, we've got two creams, one sugar for Marty. Vanilla soy for Junior. Green tea with mint for David. Hot chocolate with extra whipped cream for Polly. And here.” He handed a cup to Henry. “I didn't know what you liked, so I just got you black.”

Henry took it with a gruff, “Thanks.”

That was the friendliest they'd ever been towards each other.

“And I got you your favorite.” Alex handed a cup to John.

“Please tell me you sedated it, too,” Junior quipped. “He's exhausting to watch.”

John didn't reply. He looked back towards the operating room.

“Have you heard anything?” Alex asked.

“No. He's still in surgery.” John couldn't do this. He couldn't freak out, not when the rest of his family needed him too. He sat down in one of the chairs and Alex sat next to him, taking his free hand and kissing the side of his head.

“Will he be okay?” Mary Eleanor asked.

“I don't know.” John took a drink of the coffee. Looked over at Alex. “How?”

“It's a simple enough recipe. You just haven't figured it out.” He regarded John for a long moment. His eyes swept over his form. The way his knee bounced and his index finger tapped against Alex's hand repeatedly. “It's going to be okay.”

John swallowed hard. He needed to be there for everyone else, so he let himself believe it.

The doctor came out some time later. “James Laurens?”

Everyone stood.

“The surgery went well and he's resting. He sustained a fracture to his femur and several scratches from the impact. No concussion from what we can tell. You got lucky.”

John sighed, squeezing Alex's hand.

“However. There is still the issue of why he jumped out of the window in the first place. Does your family have a history of mental illness?”

There was a stunned moment of silence, even though John felt that they should've expected this type of question. “Alcoholism,” he finally said. “And I have an anxiety disorder and SAD.”

“Anything else you can think of? Anything at all?”

“Our mother suffered from postpartum depression every time she had a baby,” Marty spoke up. “Like, really bad postpartum depression.”

“I'm asking because we want to perform a psychological evaluation when he wakes up and we'd like to know of anything that could've caused this, direct or otherwise.”

“His mother died when he was seven,” Henry said. “Last time we spoke on the phone, he'd said that he was having a hard time adjusting to college.”

“He's always had a hard time adjusting to new environments,” John added. He tried to think back to when he'd seen him last. He'd stayed in his dorm over Thanksgiving, claiming he had work that needed to get done. But he'd been at Marty's bonding ceremony.

His breath caught. “Marty's bonding ceremony. He'd seemed... off. Kind of disconnected.”

“I picked up on that, too,” Junior said. “That was about a month and a half ago.”

“Well, we'll do an evaluation when he wakes up and is coherent again.”

“When can we see him?”

“About an hour, hour and a half. He's still waking up.”

“But he's going to be okay, right?” Mary Eleanor asked. Henry put a hand on her shoulder.

“Physically, he should make a full recovery.”

Physically.

The doctor left and John sat back down as the room seemed to spin. The room was quiet.

“What do you think it is?” Marty asked.

“Could be anything,” Junior said. “One incident isn't enough for a diagnosis. That's why they're giving him the evaluation. But, the good thing is that he's going to recover from the fall itself, and they have the resources here to ensure that he's taken care of. Let's just all focus on that.”

John nodded hollowly. Alex put a hand on his thigh.

John couldn't fall apart. He was needed here.

An hour later, a nurse came out. “James is awake,” she said. “But he's very disturbed about something. It could be an unexpected side effect of the sedatives or the pain medication. He's not well enough to see -”

John was quick to stand up. “I'm his legal guardian.”

“I'm his father,” Henry snapped.

The nurse frowned. “We don't want to risk upsetting him further. I suggest you all go home and get some rest. You should be able to see him in the morning.”

“I will not leave this hospital until I get to see -”

Everyone turned and gave Henry a look. “That's not helping,” Junior snapped. He bore a striking resemblance to his father in that moment. “Thank you,” he said, turning back to the nurse. “Just take good care of him, okay?”

“What do you mean by disturbed?” John asked.

The nurse seemed hesitant to respond. “He's visibly on edge and has mentioned that he jumped because he didn't have a choice. He's reluctant to stay in bed and lashed out at one of the other nurses in his confusion.”

That didn't seem at all like James. John made a strangled noise in the back of his throat but otherwise kept it together. Alex reached up and placed a hand on John's jaw. He made himself relax it.

When the nurse left, no one knew what to do. They all stared at each other, at a complete loss for words. John sat back down. Alex joined him. It was pointless. They'd be leaving soon. But John didn't trust his legs.

“We should get home,” Marty said. “She's right. We need to rest up for tomorrow.”

Like John would be able to sleep at all.

“Right.” Henry threw his cup away. “Let's go home and get something to eat.” He headed for the exit. “Come along, you four.”

John watched as Junior, Mary Eleanor, David, and Marty left. Marty looked over her shoulder at him. Her eyes were sad and scared. He offered a weak smile and waved. “I'll see you tomorrow, then,” he said.

“John.” Alex took John's hands and kissed them. “It's going to be okay.”

John nodded. He didn't look at him. Just at Marty's retreating form. “Merry Christmas,” he mumbled. The kids disappeared from his view and it felt like everything was slipping from his grasp. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly and fought the way his stomach turned. He couldn't do this here. Not in full view of the staff. Because then they'd be too busy worrying about him to worry about James.

God, James.

He should've been there. He should've known. He shouldn't have dismissed James's behavior at the ceremony. He should've talked to him more, should've had regular contact. If he had, maybe he'd have been there, maybe he'd have been able to stop it.

“Hey,” Alex said, turning John's face so he'd have to meet his eyes. “Do you want to get out of here? Go somewhere else?”

John nodded again. Tried to think of a place that would distract him from this. “Do you remember that park we used to hang out at all of the time?”

“The one close to our parents' houses? Yeah, we can go there.” He stood and pulled John up, kissing his cheek. “I'll drive.”

Twenty minutes later, they were at the park. John took Alex's hand, lacing his fingers through his. “We haven't been here in years,” he said.

“I know. But hey, our hill's still here.”

John pulled him onto it and flopped down onto the grass. He remembered being here as a kid. He remembered being young and stupid, without a care in the world. He, Alex, and Laf would come here when they were little and chase each other with sticks or wrestle or play pretend.

He no longer felt young and he had a lot of cares. But he was still stupid. That much hadn't changed.

Alex lay down next to him. “I fell in love with you here, you know.”

“You said you fell in love with me at school.”

“I fell in love with you many times. I thought you knew that.”

“When was the first time?” John needed a distraction and Alex was providing one. He adored him for it.

“Honestly, I have no idea. I got a crush on you when I was eight because I liked how you always tried to include me.”

“You were one of my best friends. Why wouldn't I include you?”

Alex smiled. “I didn't have many friends when I was in the system. One of the homes I was in had three other kids, and we always had to fight each other for everything. Affection, food, the good toys. I was the youngest, so I usually lost. Stuff like that was hard to unlearn. But when Laf and I got adopted, you were always there from the start. You actually wanted to be my friend, and that meant sharing your things and not making fun of me when I got scared. You put effort into spending time with m-”

John kissed him, pulling him into his arms. They kissed for several long moments. “Of course I put effort into it,” he said. “I liked being around you.”

“It wasn't something I was used to.” He kissed him again. “But thanks to you, I'm completely used to it and I might even go as far as to say that I'm a little spoiled.”

“Good.”

“I didn't even realize I wanted to be your boyfriend until I was thirteen, when the school talked about it in that lecture they had after the faculty discovered those eighth graders kissing behind the vending machines.”

The principal had gathered the entire school into the gymnasium and given a two-hour speech about abstinence and how middle schoolers were much too young to be dating. It had been agony, especially because John had gone home and asked his father what abstinence meant and he said that it was what 'good kids did.'

It had led to a Google search, followed by several more Google searches as John grew more confused and slightly disgusted. To make matters worse, his mother walked into the room as John was getting bombarded with explicit pop-up ads.

John!” his mother gasped, running over and shutting off the computer. “What the hell are you doing?”

It was one of the only times he'd ever heard Mama curse. He looked at her with tears running down his face and cried, “I just wanted to know what abstinence was!”

It was funny now, but it had scarred him at the time. He'd gotten a talk that night and learned what puberty was, along with several other things. And much like puberty, those concepts evaded him for almost two years afterwards.

“What're you laughing about?”

“The evening after that assembly. When I got the talk.”

Alex snorted. John had told him about it the very next day, and Alex, who'd been an early bloomer, laughed like the asshole he was and said, “You seriously didn't know about that?”

“It's really sweet that you had feelings for me even while I was going through puberty.”

“I thought it was adorable when your voice cracked for the first time. Your face got all red and you went completely silent.” Alex kissed his cheek. “Middle school was a warzone.”

“High school wasn't much better.”

“No,” he agreed. He tugged one of John's curls. “Do you ever look back on some of the things you did when you were younger and wish you just hadn't?”

“All of the time.” He wondered how much different things would've been if he'd never met Francis. If he'd never gone home with him.

But he couldn't change the past. So he had to deal with things as they were now.

He just wished it wasn't so hard.

“Then again,” Alex said, “if things had gone any differently, we might have never gotten together. If a few mistakes in my youth was the price I paid for ending up with you, it's one that I'd gladly pay again and again.”

John pulled him close and kissed him until he was nearly drunk off of the taste of his lips. “Sap,” he whispered affectionately. “But I'd do it too.”

And he would. He could handle Francis and work and whatever life wanted to throw at him, as long as Alex was by his side.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 33

John was in the waiting room again. Alex was there, along with his siblings, David, and Henry.

It was Christmas morning. They should've all been at home. Instead they were here, waiting for the doctor to come out and tell them the results of James's psych evaluation and whether or not they could see him.

John took a sip of his coffee. His knee was bouncing nervously, and Alex put a soothing hand on top of it.

The doctor came into the waiting room. “James Laurens?”

Everyone stood.

“We only need to see the father and the legal guardian.”

“We're all coming,” Marty said. “He's our brother.”

“As long as it's okay with you three?”

“Three?”

The doctor nodded at John. “You're bonded, correct? This concerns your mate. So they'd need to be present as well.”

“Everyone can come in,” John said. He glanced at Mary Eleanor. “Unless you'd like to stay out here? It's okay if you do.”

“No way,” she huffed. “He's my brother, too.”

“Okay, then.” John turned back to the doctor. “All of us are coming.”

“Alright. This way.” The doctor led them into her office and sat down at the desk, pulling out a file. “Like I said yesterday, James's leg is expected to make a complete recovery, albeit a slow one. That's normal, though. The femur is the strongest bone in the body, so it takes longer to heal.”

“That's good,” Junior said.

“Yes, it is. It's a miracle he didn't sever his femoral artery. It's one of the cleanest femoral fractures I've seen in my twenty years here. He's very lucky in that regard.” She looked at them sadly. “We did the psychological evaluation and have diagnosed him with schizophrenia.”

Marty took a shuddering breath. Junior had to sit down. John stared at the doctor. “Schizophrenia?” he echoed dumbly.

“Yes. It's a mental illness that's most commonly characterized by hallucinations and delusions. James told us last night that he'd jumped out of the window because he needed to escape from the monster. He also believes that the monster will find him here, which is why he's been reluctant to accept any form of help.”

“So what can we do?” John barely recognized his own voice.

“Right now, we'll need you to sign some paperwork. That would authorize us to continue treatment and transfer him to an inpatient facility.”

“What're you going to do there?”

“There will be doctors on-site and psychiatrists who are trained for these kinds of situations. We'll get him started on some anti-psychotics that should help with the symptoms. Once that's done, we can go from there.” The doctor opened the file on the desk and slid some forms over.

“When can we see him?” Marty asked.

“Not until he's settled down more, I'm afraid. We have him sedated and restrained in order to keep him from harming himself or others.”

“He's that much of a risk?” David said.

The doctor nodded solemnly. John looked up from the forms. “James has never hurt a soul,” he said, his voice cracking. He could only imagine how scared he must've been. How alone he must've felt. “I have to see him. Someone has to see him. Someone familiar. We could – we could comfort him or help -”

“I'm afraid I can't allow that. I'm sorry. I know how hard this must be for you.”

John shook his head.

“If you really want to help, sign the forms.”

He took the clipboard and skimmed it, forcing himself to focus enough to translate the legalese. It was a standard release form. No malicious addendum or subtext. He picked up the pen and signed his name, then handed it to Henry, who signed it as well.

“Thank you. We'll call you as soon as it's okay to see him.” The doctor escorted them back to the waiting room. “We're going to do everything we can to ensure that he gets the care he needs. He's in good hands, don't worry about that.”

John felt a hand slide into his own. He looked over to see Alex.

“Let's go home,” Henry said. “We've done everything we can.”

“What about Jack?” Mary Eleanor asked.

“Don't worry about me, hon,” he said. “I'll be fine. I've got Alex.”

“You should have us too.” She looked over at Henry. “Dad, can't he come home with us?”

“Not right now. Come on, we should get going.”

She began to protest, but he cut her off with a look, so she trudged after him. Marty looped her arm through hers, and Junior took her other side. John watched them leave mournfully. Marty would give Henry hell later, but for now they just needed to let him have his way. Let it all sink in before they challenged his authority.

“Sweetheart,” Alex said.

“I'm okay. We should get home, too.”

Alex turned John around, putting his hands on his shoulders. “You don't have to be brave for me. You know that.”

“I'm fine,” he said, pulling away and walking towards the door. He made it about three steps before everything caught up to him. He took a shaky breath and had to catch himself on the wall. Alex was at his side at an instant and John shook his head. “Alex. Alex, he's only nineteen. He's – he's just a kid. This isn't fair.”

“I know.” Alex pulled him into his arms. “I know, shh.

John clung to him. “He's all alone in there and I can't – how could they -” He let out a sob and buried his face in the collar of Alex's jacket. “He's gotta be so scared. I should be in there with him. I need to be in there, Alex.”

Alex ran a hand through his hair. “You can't. You have to trust the doctors to do their job. You've done your part.”

“No.” He could barely get his voice above a whisper. “No, no, I haven't. I should've been there, Alex. I should've -”

“You couldn't have known. You couldn't have known that this was going to happen.” Alex held him closer, squeezed him tighter. “This isn't your fault.”

John wailed and Alex rocked him a little. “I wasn't there for him. I promised, Alex. I promised I'd take care of him. And now he's got a broken femur and he's schizophrenic and -”

“It's not your fault. This isn't something that you can prevent. And he's getting the care he needs right now, which is what's important.” Alex kissed his head. “It's not your fault.”

John sniffled, struggling to pull himself together. “Take me home,” he said. “Take me home before I lose my self control and break into his room.”

“Okay.” Alex didn't let go of him for several long moments, and when he did, he took his hand. “Let's go home.”


 

John sat on the back porch, staring at nothing. He had a bottle of whiskey in his hand, half empty even though he swore he'd just opened it a few minutes ago.

“There you are. I looked all over the house for you.” Alex took the chair next to his and frowned at the bottle. “Where'd you get that?”

“The store.”

“No one near here is licensed to sell liquor on Christmas.”

“I drove into town to get it.” He took another drink from it and made a face. “Not my preferred brand, but I'll take what I can get.”

“Maybe you should give that to me.”

John scowled and shook his head. “Get your own.”

“John. Give me the bottle.”

“What's your problem? You don't care when I'm drunk.”

“I know you're upset, but there are better ways to deal with this.”

Better ways? Bullshit. “I need this, okay? If you're not going to support me, then just leave me to drink in peace.”

“Don't make me take it from you.”

John snorted. “I'd like to see you try.”

Alex's face darkened and he stood. John scrambled to his feet and stepped back, taking a long drink from the bottle. If he finished it before Alex could catch him, then he wouldn't be able to take it from him.

Alex made a swipe for the bottle, but John danced back again. “Dammit, John, give it here.”

“Why?” he demanded.

“Because this isn't healthy! If you drink every time something upsets you, you'll develop a problem.”

“The only problem I have right now is that you're trying to take my whiskey!” He backed up, then his back hit something. He looked over his shoulder to see the fence. The gate was a mere ten feet away.

He made a dash for it.

Alex was faster. He caught John by the waist and pulled him back, holding him securely with one hand and reaching for the bottle with the other.

“No!” John snapped, struggling against his grip. “Let me go!”

“Give me the fucking bottle!”

“No!”

Alex grabbed it and yanked it out of John's hands. Then he turned it upside-down, pouring it out onto the grass. John watched, dumbfounded, for a moment, before reaching for it. Alex simply stepped back.

Once it was all gone, Alex set the bottle on the table and took John's arm. “Come on. Let's get you some water and a shower, then a nap.”

“Why'd you do that?” John asked, looking back at the bottle. “I paid for that.”

“It's bad for you. Too much of it'll kill you, you know.”

“Then let it,” John snapped.

Alex froze, his hand almost to the doorknob. He turned around slowly and stared at John. “You'd really rather die than be sober?”

“Today, I'd rather die than be anything.” He pushed past him and went inside, ignoring the looks of Frannie and Mr. Washington. He went upstairs and took a shower, angrily scrubbing at his skin. Alex didn't understand. Everything was too much to handle, so he had a bit to drink. There was nothing wrong with that, and it certainly wasn't becoming a problem.

The door opened and John shrunk back against the wall, looking for something he could use to defend himself.

The curtain opened and Alex peered in. “Look, John – hey, why are you cowering?”

John swallowed thickly and straightened up. “I didn't know who you were.”

“Are you almost done?”

John nodded.

“I'll wait out here, then. We need to talk.”

He hated that when Alex said shit like that. But he finished washing himself and turned off the water. Alex wrapped a towel around him and pulled him out of the tub. John didn't fight. It was Alex. He wouldn't do anything.

“You can't solve your problems with alcohol. You know that, right?”

“But I can't seem to solve them without, either. I'm always going to have problems, Alex. This is just how I'm dealing with it today.”

“Not just today. You do this whenever you have nightmares, right?”

“No.”

“But you told me last weekend -”

“I have a drink. Maybe two, if it was really bad. But I don't get drunk.”

“Still. I worry that you're developing a dependence on it.” Alex treated John's hair for him. “Alcoholism runs in your family. You need to tread carefully.”

John pulled away. “So does being an Alpha, but I've avoided that pretty well, don't you think?”

“John -”

“Look, I'm pissed off right now, okay? My little brother just got diagnosed with schizophrenia after throwing himself out of a window and breaking his femur, I can't see him or any of my siblings, and I don't know if or when I'll be able to. So yeah, I'm drinking. I think those are perfectly valid reasons to drink.” He pushed past Alex and went into the bedroom, getting dressed and crawling into bed. He pulled the covers up over his face and closed his eyes.

The door opened and John grumbled to himself, rolling over onto his right side and realizing his mistake immediately. He switched positions.

“I brought you a glass of water,” Alex said. “Try to drink some before you go to sleep.”

Then he left. John sat up and looked at the glass on the night stand. He felt incredibly guilty, but he couldn't quite grasp why. He curled up on his side and tried to sleep.

When he woke up a few hours later, he was less drunk and more ashamed. He thought about what Alex had said.

He'd always looked out for John, hadn't he?

He sought him out and found him in the living room, talking to Frannie. “Hey,” he said softly.

Alex looked up. “Hi.”

“We should talk.”

Alex and Frannie shared a look that made John uncomfortable. Alex stood and followed John back to their bedroom.

“Is your head killing you?” Alex asked as John shut the door.

“Not too badly. The water helped.” He sat down on the bed and held his hands out for Alex to take. “Do you think I drink too much? Be honest.”

“I'm starting to.”

John lowered his head and closed his eyes. “It's been a really rough month.”

“I know it has.” Alex sat down next to him. “It feels like some malicious entity's targeted us for whatever reason. But things will always be rough. That doesn't mean you should drink every time something goes wrong.”

“I know.”

“And if things are really that stressful, then -”

“I should go back on my meds.” John sighed and lay back. “You've told me this.”

“And I'll say it again. Is it because you can't drink as much when you're on them?”

“No. At least, not entirely.” He sighed again. “I know that the medication makes me feel calmer and more in control, but I feel bad for taking it. I feel like it's wrong, in some way, that I need to take chemicals to alter my brain so that I stop having nightmares or getting nauseous every time something goes haywire.”

“Is it wrong that I need contact lenses to see properly?”

“No, but it's different. There's no stigma around contacts.”

“Maybe not, but it isn't different.” Alex didn't say anything for a long moment. “James will have to be on medication. Would you fault him for it?”

“Of course not. He needs them.”

“And so do you.”

“I have less of a sex drive when I'm on them.”

Alex frowned. “You know that doesn't bother me.” He reached down and played with John's hair. “That's another thing. When things get bad, you become insecure even though you have nothing to be insecure about. You second-guess yourself and worry about everything you do.”

John needed to scrutinize himself, though, because he'd fuck up if he didn't.

“And no matter what, you always worry about us. You get it into your head that you bother me or that you're not good enough for me, neither of which are true. You're the goddamn world, and it's hard to watch you think otherwise.”

He wasn't good enough for Alex. He couldn't give him what he wanted, and that wasn't unfounded in the slightest.

Alex lay down next to him and kissed his forehead. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” He tucked his head under Alex's chin.

“Maybe it's not about shame, though?” Alex said. “Maybe that's just an excuse you're using.”

“I don't know what you mean.”

He sighed and drew him closer. “Maybe some part of you believes that you deserve this. That you deserve to suffer. That everything that's going wrong is your fault and your anxiety is some kind of punishment.” He began to rub his back. “It's not.”

John's chin trembled. Then he started to cry.

Alex held him. “You have such a guilty conscience, mon coeur. You hold yourself responsible for everything. There are so many things you blame yourself for that aren't your fault. And then when things turn south you drink. You've done this before.”

He had.

“You shouldn't deny yourself treatment. It's self-harm.”

John disagreed. “I just don't think this is something I need medication for. Things will get better eventually. I mean, it did for you.”

Alex frowned at him. “First of all, no it didn't. I went to therapy every week for three years straight. Second of all, you can't compare us like that. Everyone is different. Everyone's mental illnesses are different. That's why there's not one universal treatment.”

John didn't know what to say to that. He looked away, wiping his eyes.

“John, I love you more than anything. I'm sure you know that after seven years. And I want to help you through this but you have to help yourself too. You've gotta meet me halfway this time.”

John thought about everything that had happened this past month. The shit had really hit the fan and he'd always thought that if he could survive the rest of the year, then he'd be fine.

But maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he'd need a little help.

Help that wasn't whiskey.

“You think Henry's drinking right now?” John asked.

“If he is, Marty and Junior will handle it.”

John closed his eyes. “I should be over there with them.”

“I know.” Alex held him tighter. “It's not fair to you.”

“It's not fair to anyone.” He took a shuddering breath. “James is schizophrenic, Alex. I don't know the first thing about that. All I know is that it's not something that I can fix for him, and it's killing me. I can't even see him. I just want to go over to the hospital and hold him and tell him that I'm here, that I'll always be here, but I can't.”

Alex kissed the top of his head. “Why don't you look it up? If you don't know anything about it, maybe the best way you can help him is to become more informed on the subject.”

John hadn't even thought to do that. “You're a genius.” He pulled away and gave Alex a kiss, then grabbed his laptop.

The more he read, though, the worse he felt.

He shook his head at the screen after reading yet another article. “Basically, nobody knows much of anything,” he said. “Not how it develops, not how to prevent it. Why wouldn't they -”

“Probably because it's so rare,” Alex said. He was researching it too. “But James could still live pretty normally if he responds to the treatment.”

It depended on how normal was defined. “He's going to be on the medication for the rest of his life. And seeing psychiatrists.”

“Better than the alternative.”

“He must be terrified right now.”

A knock on the door. Marty poked her head in. “Want some company?”

“Sure,” John said. He watched as Marty, David, Junior, and Mary Eleanor filed into the room. “What're you all doing here?”

“Family shouldn't be alone on Christmas,” Mary Eleanor said.

But James was alone.

And as much as John loved them all for coming, their presence reminded him of who wasn't here. The gaping void that James's absence created was even more strong than it had been before.

He just hoped he was stronger.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 34

John was on edge the following Monday as he went into the office. He had his reasons – he hadn't been able to see James before he left, Alex had found a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous and signed him up, and he had an appointment with the psychiatrist after work to discuss anxiety medication. And because of all of the stress, his shoulder hurt.

But at least their morning had been relatively normal.

Unfortunately, the normalcy didn't distract him from his brother. He kept thinking about Marty's ceremony. James had been laconic and withdrawn. He'd said that he didn't have any relationships and was constantly distracted.

Those were all signs. John had been so stupid to ignore his gut feeling that something was wrong.

If he hadn't, maybe he could've talked James into seeing a counselor or someone else who could help, and he wouldn't have jumped out of a window.

“Good morning, John.”

John jumped and looked up from his computer to see Francis. “Morning,” he said, going back to his work.

“Did I scare you?”

“Startled me a bit.” He checked his email. Nothing of consequence.

“Did you have a good Christmas?”

“Yeah.”

“That doesn't sound very convincing.”

John sighed. “I'm trying to work, Frank. Is there something you need?”

“I got you a present.” He put a small gift bag on his desk. “You know, for the holidays.”

John glanced around. No one was paying attention to them, thank goodness. “I don't think that's very appropriate,” he whispered. “I can't accept this.”

“Sure you can. It's nothing big. Go on, open it.”

John hesitated, but Francis nodded at him expectantly. He wouldn't go away until he got what he wanted. John undid the bow on the gift bag and pulled out a Visa gift card and a box of hot chocolate mix.

“I remember you used to tell me that you always made hot chocolate during this season. I thought you might be running low. And I know you usually make it homemade but I didn't know what ingredients to buy and I figured you could use this in a pinch.”

James always liked his homemade hot chocolate. John had promised that he'd make it for him when he came down. He hadn't gotten the chance.

John bit the inside of his cheek. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I'm fine.” He stood. “I need to use the restroom.”

He went into the bathroom, made sure that no one else was in there, and then let himself cry a little. He hugged himself, ignoring the protest from his shoulder.

The door opened and he pulled himself together as Francis came in. “What's wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“Last I checked, people don't run to the bathroom to cry over nothing. Was it the hot chocolate? I've still got the receipt if it's the wrong -”

“It's not the hot chocolate,” John snapped. “I'm not going to cry over hot chocolate.”

“But you are crying.”

He looked down. “My brother threw himself out of a window on Christmas Eve,” he admitted.

A surprised intake of breath from Francis. “Jesus. Is he okay?”

“Broke his femur. But that's the least of his issues, I think. He's been diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

Francis sighed. “I'm sorry.”

John hugged himself again, clenching his jaw.

“But schizophrenia isn't a death sentence. It's shitty, for sure, but it isn't terminal.”

“He jumped out of a window. Who's to say that it won't happen again?” And I still won't be there to protect him.

“He's getting the care he needs now, right? That's a pretty good indicator. He'll be okay. I promise. And this isn't your fault.”

John looked up sharply.

“I know how you feel about him. You've certainly told me enough. He's like your kid. They all are. Which one is it?”

“James.”

Francis smiled a little. “Isn't that the one you special-ordered that ridiculous dinosaur shirt for? For solidarity?”

“He thought he was too old to like dinosaurs.”

“You're a great brother, John. Don't blame yourself for this. It'll be okay.” He placed a hand on John's shoulder and John winced, pulling away. “Sorry, I didn't think you minded being touched.”

“It's not that,” John said. “Although yes, I do mind.” He rubbed the aching joint. “I've just got arthritis in this shoulder and it's acting up today.”

“Arthritis? You're too young for that.”

“It's from trauma. I was in a really bad car wreck. The windshield went through it.” He still didn't like to think about it, even after all this time. Alex hadn't left his side for almost two months after the accident and even after he was convinced that John wouldn't drop dead the second he left, it took another four months for him to be able to see John's shoulder without crying.

What? When was this?”

“About six years ago? Something like that.” And yet he still needed to go to the chiropractor for it when the pain got bad. It wasn't fair.

Francis looked concerned. “Are you okay now?”

Well I've got a bum shoulder and sometimes I still have nightmares about the crash and Alex doesn't like it when I drive in the rain anymore. “Clearly I am, or I wouldn't be standing here.” John wiped his face with a wet paper towel and headed for the door. “I need to get back to work.”

“Of course. If you need anything, you can come to me. Okay?”

“Okay.” He offered Francis a tiny smile. “Thank you.”

Francis beamed back. “Yeah, no problem. It's what friends are for.”

John stopped in his tracks for a second before shrugging. “I guess so.”

If Francis wasn't going to be a total bastard all of the time, John figured there was no harm in calling himself his friend.

He went back to his desk and found Peterson, Gallagher, Toni, and Pareesa there. “What's going on?” he asked.

“The firm just got a big fat sum of money deposited into its main account,” Pareesa said. “We need answers.”

“I don't have any.”

“So your best friend hasn't told you anything?”

John's first thought was, what does Alex have to do with this? Then he realized they were talking about his boss. “He's not my best friend.”

“He got you a Christmas present. What's going on between you two and is it something you can exploit?”

“Jesus, Peterson, nothing's going on between us. I'm bonded. Happily.” John looked at Pareesa. “But I'm wondering if the deposit has anything to do with our raises.”

“I'm sure it does. The money came from a company called Restandard. I looked them up, but all I could find is that it's new and the owner's a trust fund baby. Could be a cover for something shady.”

“What's shady?” Francis asked, coming out of the bathroom. “The fact that there's a small group of you huddled around a single desk instead of working?”

“Who's Restandard?” Gallagher asked.

Francis paled. “How do you know that name?”

“They transferred money into our account,” Pareesa said. “Look, Frank, if we're playing with dirty money -”

“How much was it?”

“Half a million.”

Everyone looked at Pareesa in shock. “That's a lot of money,” John said stupidly. He turned to Francis. “Who's it coming from?”

Restandard.” He rubbed his face. “I need to call a meeting. Everyone into the conference room, please.”

Once everyone was settled, Francis clasped his hands together. “Okay. So you may have heard some things about a company called Restandard giving us money. It's not illegal, I assure you. It's part of our contract with them.”

“We have a contract with them?” John said. “Why didn't we know this sooner?”

“I wanted to wait until everything was finalized to tell you.” Francis took a breath. “Restandard has bought the firm.”

The room immediately erupted into a cacophony of angry voices. At least three people stood up and yelled at Francis. Gallagher shook his head and left the room. Francis watched him leave, clearly scared. He looked to John, as if asking him to help.

John shook his head at him, not saying a word. He'd need to revisit the classifieds very soon.

Francis's eyes hardened and he turned back to the group. “Alright, alright, enough!”

John winced at Francis's sharp tone. He'd heard him use it before and wasn't a fan.

When everyone grew mostly quiet, Francis ran a hand through his hair. “I understand this isn't ideal. But nothing is going to change. You all still have your jobs. The only thing that will change for you is that the firm has a corporate level now.”

“What the hell does that mean?” someone demanded.

“It means exactly what I said. Restandard is a company that's trying to standardize the legal industry and ultimately make it easier for the clients. Their idea is that it's cheaper to run several small firms as one large business than as separate entities.”

“So they're creating chain law firms?” John spat. “What, are we going to start selling McContracts now and offer to supersize their environmental regulations?”

“Of course not.”

“We gonna have to wear headsets and set up a drive-thru?”

John.”

He grew quiet, but still fumed.

“I know this is out of left field, but it's a good deal. They're going to give us half a million dollars every year for the next three fiscal years, and the only thing that changes is our name.”

“So we have to reprint our business cards?”

“They'll reimburse us for that. It'll be good for the firm, I promise. The takeover will give us a bit of a fresh start, which will help us gain back some of our clients that we've lost since we got all of that bad publicity.”

“Or they could see us as wishy-washy and unstable,” Toni snapped. “Maybe you should consult the person who actually handles public relations before you make a decision like that.”

“Or just told us at all,” Peterson snapped. “If they're taking over, does that mean you're stepping down?”

“No.”

“Too bad,” someone snarled.

“A team from corporate will be here next Monday to meet everyone and help us set up. But no one is leaving.”

“You wanna bet?” Toni snapped. She stood. “Consider this my resignation, effective immediately.” Then she walked out of the room.

A few other people walked out as well, leaving Francis visibly shaken.

“I guess that those of you who are staying can -” his voice cracked - “can get back to work. That's all I have.”

John went back to his desk and pulled up Google. He typed legal secretary positions near me and hit the enter key.

Even if he was just an Omega, he had the experience. He could get another job.

Except all of the links he clicked on were temporary internships.

He searched for legal associate positions. They all required one or more years of experience as a lawyer.

Bosses were allowed to make executive decisions on behalf of the company they were in charge of. But making such a big one – selling the firm – without telling anyone? Especially when the boss hadn't been around long enough to gain the trust of anyone and the former boss had up and left the second it became convenient for her? This was bad. The employees here were adults and Francis had yet to treat them like anything other than schoolchildren that needed to be reigned in.

He stood and went into Francis's office. “You've fucked everyone over,” he snapped, shutting the door. He stopped, taking in the sight in front of him. Francis was sitting at his desk, his head buried in his hands.

He'd never seen him like that before.

“I know,” Francis said.

“Why did you sell?”

“Because I can't run the firm on my own.”

“If you can't run a firm, then why the hell did you take over?”

“She wanted me to. She wanted me to so I could do this.”

“Do what?”

“Sell.”

John blanched at that. “Anne told you to sell?”

He nodded. “She said that I wouldn't be able to do it but she was done running a firm, so she handed it off to me after starting the negotiations with Restandard. She said that if I let them run things from a corporate level, it would be easier.”

“She wouldn't do that. She wouldn't screw us over like that.”

Francis chuckled darkly. “This is the same woman who weaponized me during hers and my father's divorce.” He finally looked up. There were tears in his eyes. “You have no idea what she's capable of.”

“You still should've told us as soon as we got back from Sacramento.”

“I know.” He sighed. “I just wanted you guys to like me first.”

“You're our boss. It's not your job to be liked. It's your job to make decisions on behalf of the firm. And to keep us informed of them.” He walked out of his office, grabbing the hot chocolate mix, and went into the kitchenette.

He came back into Francis's office ten minutes later and set a mug of hot chocolate down in front of him. “Usually makes me feel a little bit better,” John explained.

Francis smiled a little and took the mug. “Thank you.” He closed his eyes. “Look, I get it if you want to leave, but I'd rather you not.”

“I can't leave,” John said. “I have nowhere else to go.”

Francis nodded. “When corporate comes in next week, I'll make sure they learn your name.”

“I appreciate that.” John walked back out and looked mournfully at the newly emptied desks. He envied that they could just get up and leave for another job while John was always stuck in one place, like an old statue fixed to cement.

He cleared his search history and wished someone would come by with a jackhammer and free him.