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Of Spyrites and Spirits

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It had been years since Jude started researching spyrites; a month since his lab finalized a method for production that could be scaled to serve the whole population; a week since they announced it to the public; and several hours since the celebration for close and personal friends (courtesy of Leia) began.

Jude was taking a break by the jukebox, watching his friends excitedly cheer on an arm-wrestling match, when he felt the weight of a familiar arm around his shoulders. "Come on, honors student, when are you going to start celebrating?"

"I'm celebrating, I'm celebrating," he protested, nudging Alvin with his shoulder.

"Really? Cause it looks to me like you've been talking shop for the past two hours."

"That shop is the reason we're celebrating! Besides, Mary had an idea how to—" He stopped suddenly at Alvin leaning closer towards him, at Alvin's callused finger against his lips.

"Stop, stop, I'll hear it all from you and again from Balan." The finger just as suddenly left his lips as Alvin reached for the drink in his other hand; Jude wondered, dazedly, what made people keep doing that to him. "It's what, the third time you've saved two worlds? Think you've earned the right to party for one night." Alvin took a long swig of his drink, arm solid against Jude's neck.

Jude couldn't help but grin, the giddy feeling in his chest rising up again—they'd done it, years and years of work finally paying off. "I'm not the partying type, Alvin."

Alvin took a sip, eyes on Jude’s. "Exactly why you should." He offered the glass to Jude, and when Jude started to shake his head, just touched it to Jude’s lips.

It wasn't like he'd never felt this...strange intensity from Alvin before. It wasn't like he'd never wondered about the way Alvin touched him, or what he'd do if Alvin just leaned in and...

But he was busy with research, and Alvin with his business, and every time they managed to meet up their other friends were there, too. Four people analyzing the cross-cultural impact of Bunnykins did not make for an intimate atmosphere.

Now, though…

Taking hold of the glass, fingers brushing Alvin's, Jude took a sip. "Just for tonight," he said, knowing Alvin couldn't miss the heat rising in his cheeks.

"That’s a start," Alvin said, voice low. "Sure you know how to relax?"

Jude swallowed, eyes still locked on Alvin's. But before he could say—something, a slender hand tapped another glass against his. "At least get him his own drink, Alfred. It's an open bar."

"Hi, Balan," said Jude, and well, he certainly wasn’t blushing any less with more company. Especially not Balan, slightly flushed and carrying a drink in each hand.

"Just giving him a sip," Alvin protested. "Wouldn’t be very festive to get him a drink he doesn’t like. So, more of the Moonlight—" he swirled the remnants of his glass— "or something else?"

Jude brightened. "Oh! Do they have—"

"Peach schnapps?" he and Balan finished at the same time.

Balan held out one of his drinks to Jude. "Right here—oh, don’t pout, Alfred, we’ve had a few late-night celebrations in the lab."

"I’m not pouting," Alvin pouted.

"We’d better find a seat," Jude intervened before they started bickering for another half hour. "There might be an empty table over in the other room—"

Balan took Jude by the arm. "Oh, we don't need that much room. If you're willing to get cozy, that is." He took a sip of his own drink, leaving a distracting shimmer over the curve of his smile.

"Yeah, s-sure." In an effort not to stare, Jude looked over to Alvin, who was watching them with an unreadable expression on his face.

An expression that smoothed into a casual grin so quickly Jude wondered if he imagined it. "Lead the way, cousin."

Balan looked between them, eyebrows raised, before tugging Jude over to a booth occupied by a texting Leia.

"No working," Balan said, cheerfully. "Doctor's orders."

"No they aren't," Jude said.

Leia only texted faster, not looking up. "I'm almost done—"

Alvin, meanwhile, slid into the booth across from Leia. "Do I have to confiscate your phone?"

Leia huffed. "Come on, this is the story of the century!"

"Wait. Didn't you send in your article already?" Jude asked, settling next to Alvin.

"That was the breaking news, Jude. This is the human interes—hey!" She snatched her phone away from Alvin's grasping hand.

"If you're working," Balan said, "you'll give the man of the hour an excuse to work. And we don't want that, do we?"

Leia considered. "Weeellll, if I'm not getting an interview out of either of you tonight…"

"Then it's settled." At the firm tap on his shoulder, Jude looked at the still-standing Balan. "Slide over, Jude."

Jude automatically glanced at the conspicuously empty seat next to Leia...and she was swinging her legs up on the seat. "Leg cramp," she said cheerfully.

Jude made a mental note for later as he slid over. He didn't know whether it was to yell at her or thank her, but it was there. Balan settled in, leg pressed close enough to Jude's that he could feel the spyrix digging into his ankle. It should have been uncomfortable—the bench was not made for three—but it was just, well, cozy. Alvin on one side, Balan on the other, close enough that he could catch a mix of their colognes and feel their arms flex as they gestured... He could get used to celebrating like this.

"So," Leia said, leaning in, "remember that person who let some rappigs lose in Trigleph Station?"

"Oh, right," Jude said, thinking back to a night of excited texts from Elize. "Wasn’t it a Fennmont student?"

Balan nodded. "Weren't they numbered one, two, and four?"

Alvin leaned in conspiratorially. "I heard one of them was a piggit."

"Oh, that isn’t the half of it." Leia took a gulp of water, holding up a finger. "This is completely off the record, understand? But one of Elle's classmates is a distant cousin of the guy who supplied them, and apparently…"

An inordinate amount of time and most of his glass later, Jude knew more about interior design contractors than he ever thought he would. Although he missed at least the last few minutes of scandal due to giggling helplessly at Alvin's impression of the mutton vendor. There was a steady hand on his back as he cradled his head in his arms, and he wasn't sure whose it was but he didn't want it to move.

The poke to his forehead, though, was definitely Leia. "You still can't take your alcohol, huh, Jude?"

"Still? I thought you didn't party," Alvin said, a hint of petulance in his tone.

"I don't," Jude protested. "That was one time and—"

"Back in Leronde," Leia said, gaining the unfortunately rapt attention of both Alvin and Balan, "we snuck some of the daily special from the inn."

Jude groaned. "You snuck some of the daily special."

"You helped drink it! And then you kept laughing at everything until you fell asleep."

"Of course I couldn't take my alcohol, we were twelve! And I'm not the one that threw up—"

"I'm not the one that rode—"

"Leia!" His head thumped against the table. But now there was a hand ruffling his hair along with the one on his back, and he felt so warm and content that she could tell whatever embarrassing stories as long as they didn't stop. He made a contented noise, the hand in his hair stilled, and he suddenly remembered this isn't the type of thing you do in public.

Jude lifted his head just enough to look at Leia. She was looking at them, all three ignoring what little personal space they had, and as she met Jude's eyes he telepathically pleaded with her not to include this particular detail in any articles.

Leia coughed, covering what was definitely a grin. "Oh! I hear Rowen calling for me. Have fun, you three!" She jumped up and headed toward Rowen, who was most definitely absorbed in conversation with Gaius.

Balan chuckled as she left. "Enjoying the party, Jude?" His was the hand on his back, Jude determined, and as it moved up to brush against his neck he held back a shiver.

"Yes," Jude said, sitting up slowly enough not to dislodge the hands on him. "What about you? Are you sure you want to spend so much of it with your coworker?"

"With my two favorite people? Of course." Balan clinked his glass against Jude's with a sly smile, and Jude hastily took a sip to hide his blush. He knew very well that Balan would spot any opportunity for teasing and if he thought that Jude—

That Jude what? Just because Balan was cute and funny and that earring looked really good on him, just because he kept flirting with Jude and he didn't mind that at all—

Oh. There wasn't any more drink to hide in.

"Need another?" Balan asked, glancing past Jude's shoulder before hoisting himself up. "My treat."

"Thanks," Jude said gratefully before he remembered. "Wait, it's an open bar."

"Then consider saving you the walk my treat," he said, heading over to the bar. Alvin's hand had left his hair, Jude noticed with faint disappointment, so he looked over to him.

Alvin was gazing into his glass, the same pensive expression he used to catch out of the corner of his eye when they were traveling together. Nowadays, Alvin usually seemed a lot happier...or maybe he'd just gotten better at hiding to keep from adding to Jude's stress.

He really missed him, when he stopped to think about it.

"Alvin?" he asked. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, kid." Alvin looked up with an easy smile. "Alcohol makes me a little maudlin sometimes. Nothing to worry about."

"Are you lying again?" He...hadn't meant that to come out so bluntly.

That startled a laugh out of Alvin. "Well, that answers how it affects you." He sighed, head tilting back against the seat, arm still warm against Jude's. "No, I'm not. Never thought we'd end up here, everything solved. Not that I doubted you." Putting an arm around Jude, Alvin squeezed his shoulders. Jude, to be honest, was finding sitting upright a little difficult so he might as well rest his head on Alvin's shoulder.

Alvin continued. "It's just...things never worked out well for me. Even when I didn't screw them up myself. And now you solved the energy crisis, and I got a nice legitimate business and I'm back home with—with everyone I care about."

Jude could feel the sigh in Alvin's shoulders, the way he leaned his head a little more against his. "Almost everyone," Jude said, softly.

"Yeah," Alvin replied, voice low. "But even without...without Mom, and Ludger, and Milla...I'm okay." Hand rubbing circles on Jude's shoulder, he swallowed. "Really, I am."

Jude nodded against him. "I believe you."

"Hey," Alvin said, shoulder nudging Jude's cheek. "Cheer up, I didn't mean to make you a mopey drunk too."

"I'm not," Jude protested, snuggling closer. "You're just comfortable."

Alvin's huffed laugh ruffled Jude's hair. "Payback for using you as an armrest, huh?"

"Mmhmm." And considering how many times Alvin had done that, it was perfectly fine to stay there for a while and...

"Oh?" Jude started at the sound of Balan's voice. "Should I finish this myself?" From the slosh of liquid, Balan was waving a glass in front of his nose.

"No, I'll take it." He'd just open his eyes and...all right, they were a little heavier than usual, he'd just take the glass and open his eyes later. But he'd have to move off Alvin's shoulder to drink from it...hmm. "Hold on. I'm thinking."

Alvin laughed, squeezing his shoulders. "All right, honors student, let's get you home. Where's your keys?"

Eyes still closed, Jude patted his pockets. And patted them again. "That's strange. I keep them right in my lab coat…"

"Ah," Balan said. "The lab coat that you left in the lab this afternoon?"

Now why would he do that, when he hadn't even been drinking yet? Oh, right. "The spyrite liked it! She just curled up under it and I couldn't move her. She reminded me of Rollo, a little. But less round. And not a cat. Not actually like Rollo when I think about it. Is Rollo still here?"

"Nah," Alvin said, "he got kicked out for disorderly conduct after sticking his face in Muzet's drink."

Speaking of, something sounded suspiciously like Balan helping himself to Jude's drink. "Seeing as I've kept track of my coat, I'd be happy for you to stay the night."

Jude could feel Alvin stiffen under him. "Balan—"

"I don't mind," Jude said, placating. "He has a couch now, remember?"

Balan laughed. "You're welcome too, Alfred. If you'd like to keep an eye on us?"

"Someone has to," he muttered.

Balan gently took hold of Jude's arm, tugging him away from the booth. "Good. At least one of us will be steady." Between the three of them (well, mostly Balan and Alvin), they managed to get Jude upright with minimal injury. With Alvin's arm around his shoulders and Balan's around his waist, Jude made it all the way to the train. Luckily, it was late enough to get a row to themselves, leaving him safely sandwiched between the two.

"Is this the Mokosh? I've been wanting to ride that one," Jude mumbled before breaking into a yawn.

Balan looked vaguely around the cabin. "I have no idea. On the bright side, I doubt you'll fully appreciate it at the moment."

"Don't worry," Alvin said as he put an arm around him, "We'll wake you up at our stop."

As his head dropped on Alvin's shoulder, he felt a hand carding through his hair. "It was just put into service this month," he murmured before drifting off to sleep.

"Wake up, sleepyhead." Jude blinked awake at Alvin’s voice after what seemed like only a minute. The three of them made it to Balan’s apartment without any further mishaps, Jude telling them about the new train all the while.

"Home sweet home," Balan announced, unlocking the door.

Alvin whistled as they stepped in. "The new place looks good."

"Doesn't it? Almost two rooms, even."

It was still small enough that Jude quickly noticed they were steering him to the bed, not the couch. "Wait, I can't take your bed—"

Balan tsked, gently pushing him towards the bed. "I wouldn't dream of having an honored guest take the couch."

"And me?" asked Alvin.

"Honored, Alfred."

Normally, Jude would've protested. Especially since that couch definitely couldn't sleep two and the bed definitely could. But...it could wait for the morning. Well, no it couldn't, but the bed was very soft and he'd just rest his eyes for a moment before he brought that up.

Jude woke up to a low murmur of voices; for a moment, he racked his brain to remember what hotel they were in and what errand they were working on this time. But one, it had been a few years since his last adventure, and two, he'd never dealt with a vicious hangover back then. He'd just...lay here for a moment, and ignore the professional part of his mind suggesting hydration. And figure out—oh. He was in Balan's bed—alone in Balan’s bedand those voices were him and Alvin. Jude opened his eyes—he could handle a squint, at least—to see the silhouettes at the window, faintly illuminated by the moon and the city lights.

"And when do you plan on bringing up the elephant in the room?" Balan asked, pleasantly.

Alvin didn't answer for a long moment. "Look, Balan...we both know you can land as many guys as you want."

"That's very sweet of you."

Ignoring the interjection, Alvin continued. "Just...why him?"

"If you’re not going to make a move, Alfred," and Jude's stomach dropped in a way that had nothing to do with the alcohol, "I don’t see why you expect him to remain off-limits to anyone else."

"It’s not like that—" Jude could just make out Alvin running a hand through his hair. "The kid’s still torn up over Milla, you know?"

"And if he is, he’ll rebuff me, and the awkwardness will wear off by the next free donut day at the lab.”

"He doesn't just want a fling—"

"Oh? And how do you know he hasn't been having them?"

Alvin scoffed. "Because he doesn't look like a tomato whenever someone asks him about his love life? He hasn't changed that much."

Balan chuckled. "All right, he hasn't been. But it’s a moot point—I’m quite fond of him, and I know better than to break a coworker's heart. Or hurt someone my dear cousin cares about so much."

Alvin's voice was so low Jude had to strain to hear it. "You think he...you think you’re his type?"

"Alfred," Balan said, fond and exasperated. "All this time, and you haven't noticed how he looks at you?"

"He—that's not what I asked."

"He blushes so prettily when I lean over his shoulder."

"Balan—"

"And when you hang all over him, of course."

"Balan."

"I'm not pursuing him to be cruel," Balan said, voice gentler than Jude had ever heard it. "And frankly, I don't think we're at cross-purposes at all."

Alvin rubbed a hand over his face. "You mean…he doesn't have to choose between us."

"Exactly! No downsides I can think of, if he’s open to the idea. So—" Balan suddenly turned towards Jude, who quickly shut his eyes. "We might as well just ask him. I'll bet you he's awake right now."

Oh, crap.

Those were definitely footsteps moving towards the bed. "Are you, Jude?"

He...never was any good at lying. "Yeah," Jude said, sheepishly propping himself up on his elbow. The moonlight shone over them both, over Balan crouching by the bed and Alvin leaning against the wall, their eyes locked on him.

"So, Jude," Balan said, "you've got two handsome men at your beck and call. Well, one handsome man and Alfred."

"Alvin's handsome," Jude blurted out.

"You too," Alvin said, his eyes widening in a way that made Jude wish he'd been saying it for years. "Jude, seriously, you don't have to—"

"I want to," he said, voice firm. "I...want you." And he was definitely tomato-colored now, but he forced himself to look each of them in the eye. "Both of you." Balan was smiling, genuine (if a little smug), and Alvin was just staring back at him in wonder. "But, uh, I really need some bed rest before…" He trailed off, waving his hand to indicate a whole lot of things he'd honestly been thinking about for years.

"Mind if we join you?" Alvin asked, trying for casual and failing completely.

"I'd like that," Jude said, softly.

Balan straightened up. "Ah, good. I wasn't looking forward to taking the floor."

"Wait, can we all fit in this bed?" It was bigger than Balan' old one, but not that big.

"Oh, yes," Balan replied immediately, and Jude could somehow feel himself getting redder.

"You know from experience, don't you?"

Alvin rolled his eyes. "Yep," he said in the tone of someone who knew way more details than he wanted to.

"We'll have to get cozy." With that, Balan sat on the edge of the bed, swinging his legs up to lie down beside Jude. Alvin, though, still hesitated.

"Alvin?" Jude asked, softly.

Alvin swallowed. "I'm coming." He climbed onto the other side of the bed, and Jude turned to face him. Balan tugged Jude closer, lean body pressed against his back, and Alvin carefully settled down facing them. He was tense, still, barely letting his body touch Jude's.

"Alvin," Jude said, and reached out to stroke his hair. "I'm celebrating." His hand drifted down to Alvin's shoulder, Alvin finally melting into his touch as he pulled him closer and pressed their lips together. He didn't care that Alvin tasted of stale booze and his own breath must taste just as bad. He only cared about the man before him, warm and solid and wanting for so long.

"Now, don't hog him."

Heh. And the man behind him, too.

Alvin pulled away from him to stare over Jude's shoulder in disbelief. "I just got here!"

Jude laughed, wincing slightly when his head protested. "Okay, okay." He twisted around just enough to kiss Balan too—Balan, with his clever mouth and soft lips, who'd had the presence of mind to brush his teeth. "Okay," he said, pulling away with a slightly strangled laugh as Balan's teeth scraped against his lip. "Seriously, we need some sleep."

"Better listen to him," Alvin said, pressing a kiss to Jude's hair. "Doctor's orders."

"Doctor's orders," Balan agreed, squeezing Jude's hip.

And with his research successful at long last, nestled between two of his favorite people, Jude slept better than he had for a long time.