Alex gets out of bed at seven o'clock sharp every morning. He puts on his binder, puts on his socks, pads into the kitchen, and turns the coffee maker on.
Here's the things Alex does every morning: drinks a mug of coffee, takes the kitchen trash bag out, takes his meds, goes over his schedule for the day.
Here's the things Alex never does in the morning: takes a shower, does laundry, goes to the store, thinks about dying.
He doesn't need to do this whole routine thing, he knows – he works from home, has no real schedule, but there's some things he needs for the purpose of keeping himself as functioning as possible.
Here's the things Alex needs in his life: structure, routines, explicit boundaries.
Hercules doesn't wake up until later. He's got the kitchen to himself for at least three hours. It's Saturday and Hercules came home late last night, tumbled into his room after three, laughing into the phone. Alex knocked on the wall separating their rooms three times, hard, and Hercules said “sh, sh, Laurens – my roommate is trying to sleep” as if the other person was the one Alex could hear, but he'd stopped yelling and Alex had cracked his knuckles twice and gone back to sleep. He knows that Hercules had stayed up at least a few more hours, though – it's hard for Hercules to fall asleep. Alex knows this. He feels bad for him. They're the same in that sense – easy to wind up and hard to ease back down, but for Hercules it's bad enough to need medication. Alex knows he doesn't take his meds on nights he's been out. He probably didn't fall asleep until closer to six.
Mornings are Alex's quiet time. He's not used to silence, isn't used to not talking, not yet, but he's working towards it. It's not bad – it's calming, it's good, it's natural for him, but it's still weird. Like his ears aren't used to listening to the hum of the refrigerator, like his tongue isn't used to not forming words. He used to get anxiety over not talking, back in college, used to never stop talking, but after that he's fizzled down, gotten weary, gotten tired. Stopped trying so hard to fake being completely neurotypical. Hercules makes fun of him for it, says he's out-talked himself, or run out of things to say, and Alex scowls at him, locks himself in his room. It's not far from the truth, he guesses, but it's more complicated than that. Isn't it always? thinks Alex and lifts his knees up a little where he's standing, listens to them crack.
The coffee maker chirps. Alex climbs up onto the counter to get his mug, pours himself a serving, sits on the cool wood, criss cross applesauce. Applesauce. It's almost September. The blinds of the kitchen window are closed but Alex pictures the apple trees out in Hercules' garden. Thinks about the branches of them, thinks about the apples, thinks about the leaves, yellowing and slimy with rainwater. Thinks about how nice the fallen leaves, brown and crunchy, will feel under his shoes when he takes the trash out. Alex takes a sip of his coffee, pretends it doesn't taste awful. He doesn't need it, he's built a tolerance to it, should probably get it down a little, not drink it for a while, but this is another one of his routine things, another one of the basic structures that keep him upright.
The alarm for his meds goes off. Alex hops off the counter, stretches, and his joints go crack crack crack. He scowls. Slouches the whole way into the bathroom, which is not only bad for him but also sort of hard with the binder on. It's relatively new, a present from Hercules, and still a little too stiff, a little hard to move around in. He keeps having to take breaks, keeps having to take it off and lay down on his bed and breathe. It's like a too-tight hug around his ribs.
The bathroom rug is soft and the result of Alex bugging Hercules about it for weeks. There used to be no rug, just the cold tile, but it got really old really fast, fucked with Alex's sensory issues and made him slip more than a few times getting out of the shower. Hercules, of course, had no issues with it, even liked the coldness and how it would wake him up when he finally got out of bed at some ungodly hour, and it took Alex threatening to use his commission clothes as a rug for Hercules to agree to get one. It was worth it, Alex thinks – the rug they brought home from Home Goods is heather gray and the first time Alex stepped on it with his bare feet he started crying. It's a good rug and Alex likes soft things. Sue him.
The Cymbalta pills are ugly, he's decided, blue and yellow. Good colors. Bad together, especially these shades. Aquamarine and a softer, warmer yellow might work. Then again he isn't a designer, or an artist, just a depressed kid with more anxiety than he can fit in his body. Pills. Water. Alex ignores his own reflection in the mirror, walks out.
The sun is rising above the apartment houses on the other side of the town, already a little late. For a minute the world is pink and golden, like fingers held against light.
Soft. Vulnerable. Easy to break.
They hit it off instantly.
John sleeps over because he's in town and Hercules invites him over and it's Hercules' house, isn't it? He can invite anyone he likes over. Not much Alex can do about it. Not that he wants to, necessarily. He can always lock himself in his room and pretend he's asleep.
What? It's not the morning, he's allowed to think about death.
It's six o'clock and John calls himself Jack when he introduces himself to Alex, who has not locked himself in his room, mostly because Hercules asked him not to, and Hercules only does that when he thinks Alex will like whoever he's bringing home.
“But your name is John, right,” asks Alex, because he remembers Hercules calling him John and Laurens and that dumb motherfucker but never Jack. John smiles, a little lopsided.
“No one really calls me that,” he says, and Alex says “oh,” but John goes “except for Hercules. It's cool if you want to call me that, I don't mind,” and Alex considers. Smiles back.
“You hungry?” asks Hercules and John makes a noncommittal noise. Alex shrugs. Hercules orders pizza, which arrives barely fifteen minutes later. John insists on paying for it. Alex watches from his spot on the floor as Hercules and John bicker briefly before John is shoving Hercules aside. Hercules insists on tipping the pizza guy twenty bucks and John scowls at him.
They put on a movie. Something quiet, Alex requests, so Hercules puts on the subtitles and turns the volume down low. John doesn't comment on it, just settles down on the couch. Squints a little. Hercules notices, makes the subtitles bigger.
“Thanks,” says John.
“Mhm,” says Hercules, because there's a dog onscreen and Hercules always gives his full attention to dogs. And Alex. Alex picks the pepperoni slices out of his pizza and puts them on Hercules' plate. The dog onscreen disappears and both John and Hercules make a soft sound at its departure.
John talks while he watches and Hercules joins him, turns the monologue into a conversation, and Alex listens, soaks up everything John says, because he likes him, he thinks. He's interesting. Has good opinions. Talks about things like he cares about them. The streetlights from the street behind the house illuminate the strands escaping his ponytail and Alex thinks he's very pretty.
Alex inches closer to John as the movie drags on.
“That means he likes you,” Hercules stage-whispers as soon as he notices and Alex resents him for it. He's not wrong at all, he knows how to read Alex, knows what his odd moves mean when translated to the language of normal people, but somehow Alex wishes he wouldn't do this, would just let him do his thing. He knows he does it out of love, but it's still annoying. Still patronizing. Alex blushes, inches away, but John doesn't pause, doesn't sound taken aback, says “oh, that's good, I like him too,” and Hercules smirks, too wide and too bright, and Alex has to look away from both of them.
Alex looks in John's general direction and he winks at him. Blows a kiss. Alex smiles back, a little hesitant, catches the kiss.
The next morning Alex wakes up at seven and walks into John in the hallway.
“Hey,” says John, “you're up early.”
“I always wake up at seven,” says Alex, and John says “fair enough.”
Then they're quiet for a little while until John says “hey” and Alex says “hey” back, and then they're laughing.
“Shut up,” says Hercules from his room, loudly. Alex giggles into his own hand, and John leads him to the kitchen by his wrist. Opens the blinds.
The apple trees are orange and yellow already. The sun is still on it's way up in the sky. Alex thinks about the crunch of dry leaves under his shoes and shivers.
John presses his hand against the glass. His fingers look pink and golden in the light.
Alex: “I'm autistic.”
John: “I'm borderline.”
Alex blinks at John. John blinks back.
“Okay,” they say at the same time, and then they're both laughing, and John is leaning on Alex's shoulder for support and Alex doesn't want to push him away, doesn't want him to take his hand off of him –
“Okay,” whispers Alex, and then he kisses John.
Don't get him wrong – Adrienne is amazing. Beautiful. Smart. Smells good, like vanilla. But they haven't gotten to know each other very well yet and it's exhausting, and he hates it, hates that it's exhausting, hates that he can't handle her presence in the house for more than a few hours at a time.
John thinks Adrienne is amazing. John thinks Gil is even more amazing, and they talk and Alex curls himself under John's arm, presses into his side until he's a tight vibrating ball of stress.
“So,” says Gil, “Alex.”
Alex curls up a little tighter.
“I don't think he's here,” says John, completely serious.
“Ah,” says Gil, in his understanding voice, “of course. My mistake.”
John lets him hide behind him for the rest of the day, absent-mindedly offers him pizza slices with the pepperoni slices already picked off. Alex leans against John and feels exhausted. John leans back into him until they're keeping each other upright.
“Teamwork,” whispers John into his ear, all casual, and Alex giggles.
After Gil and Adrienne leave and Hercules turns on the sports channel on the TV John lays Alex down on his bed, pushes his binder up until he can rake his teeth over the bottom of his ribcage, and calls him perfect until he's trembling.
“I love you,” he says, the skin over Alex's hip bone between his teeth.
“I love you too,” says Alex, caught off guard but sincere.
“I gotta sell my apartment and I need a new one. Move in with me.”
“I can't pay rent in the city.”
“Then we'll get one that's not in the city. I'm serious, please move in with me?”
“Okay, fine. But you're telling Hercules.”
“No,” says Alex, very firmly.
He's surprised he gets the word out of his mouth. He doesn't feel like fighting but he will if necessary. John's called him that before, mostly in bed, and he's okay with it sometimes, likes it even, but right now he's – he's not in the mood to consciously dissociate the pet name from his gender identity. He's tired today, a fuzzy kind of tired with a touch of headache. His wrists have been aching all week and it's spreading to his head, he guesses. He should probably do something about it but he's just very tired.
John comes into the doorway.
“Okay,” he says, “baby boy?”
Alex shrugs as well as he can underneath all of his blankets. That's fine. Gendered, still, but at least it's the right gender.
“Okay,” says John again, “I just wanted to ask if you wanted popcorn. I was thinking about making some.”
Alex responds by putting the pillow on top of his head.
“I'm having a bad sensory day,” says Alex from beneath the pillow and the blankets. This is something Hercules taught him ages ago because Hercules loves communication, loves talking. The words still come a little mechanical to him because Alex isn't a natural communicator, isn't a natural explainer. Alex finds himself trying to match Hercules' tone and pitch and the sentence sounds weird coming out of his mouth. John doesn't comment on it, just makes an “aww” sound, seemingly understanding the sensory issues with popcorn even though Alex knows he doesn't. He makes a noncommittal sound in his throat. He needs to cut his hair. It's starting to touch his ears.
“Can I touch you?” asks John, and he sounds very unsure, concerned. “Lie down on top of me,” says Alex before he can stop himself.
John blinks. “What?”
“Lie down on top of me.”
“Like – on top of the covers?”
Alex makes a resigned noise, pulls the covers back. He feels odd lying there, wearing just his boxers. He's lying on his stomach but somehow he still feels exposed. He longs for his binder, longs for a shirt. Then he remembers how much he hates the feeling of fabric on his skin and shudders. John puts a hand on his back, and Alex makes a sound in protest.
“No small touches, please, just. Get on me.” John snickers but he climbs onto the bed, sits down on the dip of Alex's back.
“Do I just lie down?” he asks, and Alex goes “mhm,” already melting into the bed a little.
John's good pressure. He's solid, warm but not too hot, and Alex says “mmm” and wiggles a little, takes a deep breath, and he can't quite get his lungs full because John is pressing him down, and it's so good he feels almost like crying.
“Is this ok?”
Alex makes a purring noise in his chest. John laughs, a gentle rumbling sound that makes his body shake.
“Shh,” says Alex with some difficulty, “I'm trying to sleep.” John makes a cooing sound but doesn't say anything else, doesn't say “it's five in the evening, Alex,” doesn't say “you need to eat dinner.” Alex loves him for it. Tries to communicate it to him with his energy alone.
Alex wakes up half an hour later with John still on top of him. He makes a gargled sound in his throat because he wasn't expecting it and because he's tired and his tongue feels heavy and dry in his mouth, and John makes a sleepy sound into his shoulder, nuzzles into the skin there. “Sh, baby, go to sleep, I got you.”
John's got him. Alex believes him, drifts.
John tries to stop Alex from leaving the bed one morning, pulls him close, says “baby, stay for a little bit,” sleep-scratchy and warm, and Alex says “it's seven” like it's an explanation.
“So?” says John.
“I always get up at seven.”
John takes it as a personal attack. Alex gets anxious because it's four past seven and he really needs to go sit in the kitchen now.
The fight escalates and escalates until Alex is on the verge of a panic attack and John looks like he's trying very hard not to throw up. Alex knows John is right, objectively, knows his routines are too rigid, too specific, but he can't just change them, why doesn't John understand. John backtracks, apologizes, and when Alex, exhausted and scared, bursts into tears he tries to hug him. Alex pushes him back because he's overwhelmed, because he feels disgusting, because all he wants to do is lie down on the floor and preferably rock back and forth a little until he calms down, and John's entire face gets white. Like an egg, he thinks hysterically. He's dating an egg.
John turns around, walks out of the apartment. Alex sits down on the floor and has the worst meltdown he's had in years.
He calls Eliza and Eliza comes over because she knows how to talk to him when he's like this, knows how to touch him, knows how to get him back on his tracks as painlessly as possible. Eliza runs him a bath and Alex climbs in and lets Eliza play with his hair, lets her tell him about her girlfriend, lets her talk until it's just white noise and Alex is lolling in the water, boneless, calm again. He gets dressed and they sit down on the couch, put on a movie. Eliza curls around Alex's body like they used to do when they still dated. She's warm and soft, not the right body type to squish him but good.
“You're shaped like a friend,” says Alex. He remembers reading that from somewhere. Eliza giggles and kisses his forehead.
He's missed Eliza. After they dated for years they drifted apart in college for natural reasons, hung out a few times after, but mostly they went on their separate paths. Eliza's happy – she's found her place in the world. Her and Maria, her girlfriend, moved in together a year ago and Eliza's thinking about proposing. Alex wonders what his life would be like if they were still together, sometimes. They broke up mostly because of his insecurities, because he wasn't in a place where he could handle a relationship. He's not always sure if it was the right decision. He loves Eliza and knows that Eliza loves him too. Their relationship is like this – effortless, soft.
Night falls. Eliza leaves. Alex promises to call more often. Eliza tells him that he needs to meet Maria. Alex texts John and asks him to come back home. John doesn't answer. Alex puts himself to bed and goes to sleep.
John comes back home the next morning with a black eye and what seems to be a broken nose. He stops in the doorway of their bedroom like he's not sure if he's allowed in, and Alex rolls over in the bed, opens his arms. John takes off his shoes, sinks down into Alex. He's still wearing his coat and he smells like blood and cigarettes but Alex doesn't comment on it, just hugs him tight.
“We need to talk,” whispers Alex into John's hair. John freezes.
“Don't leave me?” he asks, and his voice breaks mid-sentence. His nose is still dripping blood, Alex notices. He should probably do something about that.
“Never,” says Alex.
“Okay,” says John. He rubs his face into Alex's neck. Gets blood everywhere.
“Baby?” asks John, concerned, and Alex makes a furious sound at the back of his throat because this isn't how it's supposed to go. He's supposed to back off and respect his boundaries. He's not supposed to – he's not supposed to do this.
“I'm sorry,” he says. His body doesn't feel real. “It's fine, I'm fine, you safeworded, sorry,” he says, but his voice is coming out shaky. John approaches him, arms awkwardly half-open, and Alex closes the bedroom door.
“It was a yellow,” calls John after twenty minutes have passed and Alex has stopped shaking. “Just a yellow. I just couldn't talk about it right now. We can definitely talk about it some other time but I really don't have the spoons to talk about it without having a total breakdown right now.”
Alex gets up to unlock the door. John watches as he wipes his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt.
“I don't know why I did that,” Alex mumbles, and falls forward into John who wraps his arms around his body easily, effortlessly.
“Because you got scared,” mumbles John into his skin, “because you thought you'd hurt me.” Alex's breath comes out in a shudder.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”
John kisses his cheeks, first one and then the other.
“Sorry,” says Alex, “I overreacted.”
John holds him a little tighter, snorts. “Hey, you're talking to me. I think a little overreaction is fine. But honestly? I don't think you overreacted. That's a natural response, I think, to me going straight to the safeword system instead of just saying let's do this later, you know. It's fine.”
Alex thinks about it. Says hmm. John pushes him back a little, gently, tilts his face up. He's a little shorter than John, barely enough to notice, really, but enough that he has to look up to meet John's eyes, which he doesn't usually do anyway.
John tilts his face up. Alex looks at his face and his eyes are green. Beautiful green-brown.
“Can I kiss you?” asks John.
“Yeah,” says Alex, and John does.
It's eight in the morning. Alex stares at him like he's grown another head.
“What?” says John, “I'm not that unattractive. Check out my muscles,” he says, and then he flexes his biceps.
Alex ignores him. “It's the morning.”
“Yeah?” says John, “I didn't notice. Cool. Thanks for letting me know, baby. Let's shower now.”
“I never shower in the morning,” says Alex, weakly, and John grins at him, but he lowers his voice into a whisper, as if he's slipping out of a role, “if you really don't want to do this tell me,” and Alex takes his hand. Lets him lead him into the bathroom.
They undress in silence. Alex folds his clothes neatly before putting them in the hamper. John leaves his on the floor. They climb into the tub, Alex in front of John.
“I don't need to be fixed,” says Alex when John turns the water on.
“I know, says John, and lets Alex get his hair wet before putting his own head below the stream. “I'm not trying to fix you. There's nothing to be fixed.”
Alex considers this. John takes Alex's shampoo bottle and squeezes some on his hand, massages it into Alex's head.
“Good,” says Alex, “because I really do need structure. Routine. Stability. I don't like having my routine changed.”
John hums. “Lean forward, baby,” he says, and Alex does, rinses his hair. “I'm not,” he repeats, “nothing to be fixed. I love you. Just wanted to shower with you.” Alex leans backward. John has his hands in his own hair but he leans forward a little. Back to chest. Alex closes his eyes. Feels safe.
“Good,” says Alex, “because I love you too.”
Alex presses his face against the glass, gets on his tiptoes. Nope. Nothing. Just the concrete of the other apartment buildings around them, the parking lot in between. If he looks really far into the horizon he can see the skyline of New York City. No trees, no bushes. Alex wonders what the point of big windows is if all he can see out of them is concrete.
The apartment is perfect – hardwood floors, new kitchen, a lot of open space. The building has an elevator. Alex wants to lie down on the floor and take a nap, wants to lie down on the floor and make John lie down on top of him. His body is itching to find out how good the hardwood will feel against his ribcage and his hips, his shoulders when he's forced down into it with John's weight.
But. No trees. He's had trees outside his home all his life – first in the Caribbean, the palm trees, the green grass – and then in the suburbs of New York, apple trees in Hercules' garden.
John comes behind him, wraps his arms around his waist, puts his head on Alex's shoulder.
“Whatcha doing?” he mumbles into his neck. His breath is warm against Alex's skin, his hands big over his belly. Alex squirms in his grip, leans back into his arms. John slips one hand under Alex's t-shirt. His hands are cold.
“Trying to find even a single tree,” says Alex.
John looks up, cranes his neck. “I can't see any.”
Alex lifts one hand to the glass. The sun is on its way down. No trees. No leaves.
“Is that a problem, baby?” asks John, kisses his neck.
His lips against his skin feel pink and golden, feel like early mornings, feel like apple trees.
“No,” says Alex slowly, “I love the windows.”
“Good,” says John, nuzzles into his neck, “I love them too.”