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“Alexander, please tell me you’re not still in bed.”

 

“No, Mom. Of course I’m not,” Alex rolls his eyes and runs a hand through his messy hair. He presses the phone closer to his ear, “I’m actually on my way to meet up with Zack for lunch.”

 

“Oh good, then you can go by the Saporta’s and get fitted for your suit. You need that for tomorrow night, Alex-”

 

“Right, yeah, for the Black and White Party. I know. I’ll get over there as soon as I’m done with lunch and-”

 

“And you know that they’re not living in their place on 66th street – they’re in the New York Palace in the top suit while their place is being renovated. So go to the Palace and ask for them at the front desk. It would probably help if you mention me.”

 

“Okay-”

 

“Also, Alex…Happy Birthday.”

 

            Alex smiles, unable to fight it from spreading across his face. His mother might be a pain in his ass and make him go to all these stupid events, but at least she remembers his birthday. “Thanks. I should probably get off the phone before I get hit by a car. I’ll see you tomorrow-”

 

“Right, and remember Alex – the Palace. Mention me and –”

 

“Name drop, got it. Alright I’ll see you tomorrow night. Bye Mom.”

 

            Before she can even get another word in, Alex has hung up on her and tossed his phone to the other side of his bed. He knows that she knew he was lying when he said he wasn’t still in bed. But she knows better than to try and call him out on it. He’s officially twenty-two years old and not even living at home. There’s not much she can do. But she can remind him of all the events that are coming up where his attendance is mandatory. Him not showing up to this Black and White party would probably make his mother angrier than he’s ever seen her. Reputation is everything in their lifestyle.

 

            It’s nearing one in the afternoon and Alex knows he needs to get to the Palace by four at the latest, because knowing Mrs. Saporta, she’ll talk a mile a minute and take forever to fit the suit and Alex really doesn’t have any time for that. Tonight he’s got a birthday party at Angels and Kings to attend – his party, to be more specific. And he’d sort of like to have a little bit of time beforehand to get ready. Especially considering his friends have been known to throw parties that are a bit over the top.

 

            He showers in under ten minutes and gets changed into a pair of jeans and an Armani sweater that his mother sent him for his birthday yesterday, pulling on his new Marc Jacobs high tops in the kitchen. There’s no sign of life anywhere in the apartment, so his  roommate is either still asleep, or already out. Alex is going to go with still asleep. Zack has never been known to leave the house before two in the afternoon.

 

            It’s not that they don’t have anything better to do than sleep in and slack off and do nothing. It’s just…okay it is. But they don’t have to have anything better to do. And although their lives are definitely ones that some people would look down upon, Alex has never been able to bring himself to care very much. His family is extremely well off – his mother was a socialite (still thinks she is) – and his future has been pretty much paid for. He would be an idiot to try and change things. Especially after growing so used to this lifestyle.

 

            Alex takes the elevator from the twenty fifth floor down to the lobby, stepping out onto 77th street and into the harsh December weather. Any other month, and he’d totally walk the nearly thirty blocks to the Palace – he isn’t that much of a spoiled brat. But it’s December and it’s twenty degrees out and it’s his birthday so he figures he’s entitled to taking a taxi. Plus, he’d like to get there in a relatively decent amount of time. So a taxi is his best option.

 

Being a Friday afternoon, of course the city is pretty packed. The drive down Lexington takes twice as long as it should have and subsequently, twice the amount of money. But Alex just pays the driver and stands on Madison Avenue, right in front of the Palace. He’s been here plenty of times before – one of his best friend’s father owns the hotel and the whole family lives in one of the Penthouses that have three floors. So despite his mother’s suggestions that he name drop in order to get the room that the Saporta’s are staying in, he just walks inside and right up to the front desk. The young girl working spots him almost immediately, and she smiles flirtatiously as he gets closer. He has no idea what her name is, and he has no intention of finding out, but she thinks he’s interested so he’ll keep the game up

 

“Hi Alex,” She says, barely containing her smile. She shifts her weight from one foot to another, twirling a pen around between her fingers. “Haven’t seen you in a few days.”

 

“I know, I’ve been busy,” he says with a small smile. He rests his arms on the desk and leans forward, “You know how it is.”

 

            She shakes her head, “No, but I can imagine. I’m pretty sure that William went out a little over an hour ago and hasn’t come back yet, so if you want to wait for him-”

 

“I’m actually here to see the Saporta’s for a fitting. Is it okay if I go up?”

 

“Oh…well yeah, of course,” she nods, reaching into the desk drawer in front of her and pulling out a key card. She hands it over to him, “Last door at the end of the hall.”

 

            Alex winks at her, “Thanks babe,” and her blush almost makes him laugh, but he contains himself. He needs to stay in her good books. The Palace is not just any old hotel – it’s upper class and extremely extravagant and not just anybody can get in there, especially not to the suites on those upper floors. Luckily for Alex, the Beckett’s know him fairly well and once he gets up there, nobody questions him. But for times when William’s not around, Alex needs the girl at the front desk to give him the okay.

 

            The private elevators are in a separate hall from the regular elevators and Alex has to swipe the card when he steps inside in order to get up to the fifty third floor. This whole process is so similar to when he goes to visit his parents on Fifth Avenue, except he’s a lot more welcome there considering that’s where he grew up.

 

            Instead of turning right out of the elevators as he usually would to get to the Beckett’s, he goes left and walks all the way down the corridor until he reaches the very last door at the end. He knocks three times and waits only thirty seconds before a familiar face appears in the doorway.

 

“Alex!” Gabe exclaims, surprise written all over his face. “Hey! What are you doing here?” He grabs Alex’s upper arm and pulls him into the foyer, “Man, happy birthday! You’re in for it tonight.”

 

            Alex laughs, “Thanks, Gabe. Tonight should be fun. But I’m actually here to see your mom-”

 

“I always knew you and my mother had a thing,” Gabe teases and Alex resists the urge to throw up in his mouth a little. “I think she’s upstairs so I’ll go get her.”

 

            Alex waits in the living room. It has an awesome view of the Manhattan skyline, similar to the one that he has at his own apartment. He wonders to himself how the Saporta’s are going to give this view up once they have to move back into their penthouse on Fifth Avenue and Sixty-Sixth Street. But then he remembers that they’ve got a pretty great view of Central Park and he takes that thought back.

 

“Hola, Alexander!” Mrs. Saporta says when she walks into the room. Her accent always makes Alex smile. He can’t remember where the Saporta’s are originally from (he wants to say Argentina but he knows that’s definitely wrong) and he doesn’t really care that much but still. Her accent always makes him laugh. She stands in front of him with a garment bag in one hand and a huge smile on her face. “I finished up your suit just last night.”

 

“I really appreciate it; I know my mom had sent you my measurements, but she tends to think I’m shorter than I actually am,” Alex laughs as she hands him the bag.

 

“It’s no problem, sweetheart – you go put this on in the bathroom down the hall and then I’ll see if it needs any more adjustments. You’re wearing this tomorrow night, sí?”

 

“Yeah to my mom’s Black and White party.”

 

“Well if it needs more adjustments I can have it done by tomorrow morning.”

 

            The suit ends up fitting him perfectly, thankfully. Alex definitely did not want to have to come back this way early in the morning just to pick it back up. Especially considering his plans for tonight don’t include him remembering much tomorrow. So with his new ‘Saporta original’, he winds up back in his apartment at just half past three and a good five hours before he even needs to be ready to go out. So with that in mind, he drops the garment bag with his suit onto his bed and heads back into the living room to watch a movie or two and maybe order some pizza for lunch. Because he has nothing else to do and it’s his birthday, so why should he exert more energy than he needs to?

 

- - -

                       

"We have a really awesome surprise for you, man," Zack says, patting Alex on the back as they wait outside of their apartment building. He quickly shoves his hands back into his pockets to prevent the cold from getting the best of them as he continues, "I think you're gonna like it. It was all Gabe's idea-"

 

"Oh God," Alex bites his lip, feigning nervousness, "I don't know if I like the sound of that."

 

Zack smiles, knowing that most of the time, Gabe Saporta does not come up with good ideas. "I know, we were all a bit skeptical. But dude, you've been so stressed out lately, we figured this would be a good thing. You're twenty-two today, man. You deserve a night off to relax. Just forget all the shit with your dad and have fun, alright?”

 

With a laugh, Alex shrugs and looks down at his feet as they wait for the car that Zack called for. It's mid-December and it's getting close to below freezing in New York City. He's used to it, due to living here for his entire life, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. Cold birthdays aren't much fun.

 

However, he guesses he really shouldn't whine about the cold weather, considering they won't be out in it for too much longer. At least they don’t have to walk to Angels and Kings. That would probably suck. Or even worse – take the Subway.

 

"Do you think that Gabe will try and bet William to see how many guys he can make out with in an hour again?" Zack asks as the town car finally turns into the circle driveway of the building.

 

"I doubt it. Don't you remember how pissed he got when Will reached twenty?" Alex reminds him as the car stops and he reaches out to open the back door, letting Zack slide in first. “That game definitely won’t be happening again.”

 

“Yeah well, if it does, I definitely won’t be remembering it.”

 

            Alex shakes his head, “Please don’t go overboard, alright? I’d rather not wake up to you puking in the bathroom.”

 

“Fine, fine, whatever. I’ll probably end up back at Jack’s place anyway.”

 

            And Alex has to contain his smirk because really, of course Zack is going to end up at Jack’s. More specifically, in Jack’s bed. Because that’s just what Zack does. He hooks up with guys and goes back to their place and shows up back at the apartment the next morning looking wrecked and dirty and Alex really has no idea why he does it. But hey, it’s his life. He can sleep with whoever he wants to. Even if Alex isn’t particularly fond of them.

 

- - -

 

“Dude, I have no idea who invited Barakat, but he seriously just showed up and I couldn’t really turn him away,” Pete says, rolling his eyes. “But it looks like he’s too preoccupied to be a total asshole tonight anyway.”

 

            Alex nods and takes another sip of his drink. His eyes land on Jack Barakat, who’s currently sitting at the bar with Zack in his lap and Alex kind of wants to go over there and smack some sense into his best friend. But his best friend would ignore him and probably just laugh. Because in his eyes, Jack is wonderful and sweet and adorable and a great fuck so why would he stop hooking up with him?

 

“It’s not a big deal, man,” Alex assures him, “Barakat’s a part of this group, despite the fact that I’m not his biggest fan.”

 

“Yeah but it’s your birthday so-”

 

“It’s fine. Zack can keep him occupied. I probably won’t have to talk to him at all tonight. What are best friends for, hm?”

 

            Pete laughs, “The uh. Surprise that Gabe got you should be here soon. Then you won’t have to worry about anything-”

 

“I am seriously really nervous about this, man. So many of you have said that –”

 

“Shit – I think he’s here.”

 

            Alex almost chokes on his drink. “He?”

 

            He watches Pete head towards Gabe, who’s standing near the entrance to the club. He stands on his toes, trying to see who Pete could have been talking about, but he can’t get a good glimpse of whoever they’re talking to. All he can really see is Kyle and Caleb making out right in front of them and that’s not exactly something Alex ever wants to voluntarily watch so he decides to turn around and find someone else he knows to distract him.

 

            While he’s sitting in one of the booths with William, Alex finds himself getting slightly less nervous and a little more excited. So his surprise is a person. A guy, to be more specific. And this person could totally be anyone – it could even be a person that Alex already knows. But Alex is hoping that it’s someone he can have some fun with. Because if he’s honest with himself, it’s been at least a month since he’s hooked up with anyone.

 

“Hey, Alex,” William says, elbowing him in the ribs, “Gabe’s bringing your super sexy surprise over here.”

 

            Alex glances over to where William is pointing and his breath hitches in his throat. He definitely does not know the guy walking beside Gabe. And William wasn’t even exaggerating when he called him sexy. Because Alex is kind of having a hard time taking him all in – he can’t possibly be human. He’s too perfect.

 

“Alex! Alex, this is John!” Gabe shouts over the music, hand pushing the boy slightly forward. “He’s all yours.”

 

            And there’s a light blush painting John’s cheeks at that last statement, but he doesn’t say a single word. He smiles at Alex and Alex isn’t sure what to do first. Because this gorgeous guy is standing in front of him and is apparently ‘all his’ and fuck. He probably should have been expecting this.

 

            John is tall and lean with green eyes and brown hair. His face is long and thin and he keeps biting his lip, as if he’s nervous and Alex wants to tell him to quit that – because there isn’t anything to really be nervous about. Besides…Alex is fairly certain that Gabe hired him to be here. So he wouldn’t have come if he really didn’t want this, right? Right, Alex convinces himself as he nods and smiles at Gabe. “Cool.”

 

            And Alex has never hired a prostitute before, so he’s not even really sure what to do first. Gabe is quick to leave them there, going over to William and trying to get him out on the dance floor.

 

“They um – they told me how hot you were over the phone,” John says softly, smiling shyly as he takes Alex’s hand. “But you definitely exceeded expectations.”

 

            And that has Alex blushing – and he wants to kick himself because really? Alex Gaskarth isn’t one to blush at compliments. “Thanks. Come dance with me?”

 

            Alex knows that he can’t say no, really – he’s being paid. And that’s a fact that should sort of make Alex feel a bit weird, because his friends paid someone to be with him on his birthday. But at the same time, he doesn’t even care. Because he knows that if he really wanted to, he could have anybody he wanted. He just doesn’t bother, because despite how simple his life might look, he has enough on his mind without having to think about relationships.

 

- - -

 

            It’s after two in the morning when Alex ends up back at The Pavilion. When his night first started, he thought he’d be coming back here alone, with Zack on his way to Jack’s penthouse on Fifth Avenue. But as it turns out, he’s in the elevator, on his way up to the twenty fifth floor with another body pressed up right against him and he’s not even really that drunk.

 

“This is a nice elevator,” John says quietly, eyes wide as he takes in the brightly lit elevator. And if Alex knew better, he’d say that John is even more intoxicated than he is. But he was with him the entire night and he didn’t have a single thing to drink other than water so he knows that he’s sober. He’s just actually really amazed by the niceness of the elevator.

 

“It’s nice I guess,” Alex shrugs, not really sure how else to respond. Sure, it’s nicer than an average elevator but…it’s still just an elevator.

 

            John seems to snap out of his little daze, realizing that he was paying more attention to the elevator than to the person who’s sort of supposed to be his client. He smirks and wraps his arms around Alex’s waist, “You looked so good the entire night.” His lips press against Alex’s jaw, tracing all the way up to his ear. “Everyone was staring at us dancing.”

 

            And Alex has found that this tends to be typical of John – being pushed out of his comfort zone or not knowing what to do, and then snapping out of it and getting right back into the game. He’s not sure how much Gabe paid him, and if it weren’t for the fact that he’s really hot and really knows how to turn Alex on, then Alex would probably question the amount and deem if he’s worth it or not.

 

             They make out in the elevator until it reaches Alex’s floor and the bell dings, signaling the doors opening. Alex separates himself from John, pecking him on the lips one last time before taking his hand and pulling him out of the elevator and a short distance down the hall to the apartment he and Zack share. He fumbles with his key in his back pocket, thanking God that it didn’t fall out or anything while he was dancing with John because that would suck and totally ruin the mood if he had to call Zack and get him to come home to open the door. Not to mention, it would piss Zack off to the highest degree and yeah. Alex would like to avoid that scenario.

 

            He gets the door open and he pulls John along behind him, through the small foyer with art by artists that he can’t pronounce the names of, and into the large living room. He has John pressed up against the wall in seconds, fingers fumbling with the zipper of his jacket. He mumbles under his breath, cursing the cold for making his fingers so numb. But he finally manages to pull the zipper down and push the coat off of John’s thin shoulders, revealing the simple white v-neck that he was wearing in the club.

 

“Come on,” Alex mutters, hooking his fingers into the belt loops on his jeans, “Let’s go into my room.”

 

            But once again, John isn’t paying him the least bit of attention. He’s staring out the large windows across the room, at the Manhattan Skyline, and okay yes, it’s amazing and gorgeous but seriously? Alex knew he should have remembered to close the curtains before he left.

 

“John?” Alex says softly, reaching up and cupping his face in his hands, “What are you looking at?”

 

“S-sorry!” John manages, shaking his head, and breaking his staring contest with the skyline. “Just – nothing. Um. Your room?”

 

            And Alex keeps the lights off in his room – he doesn’t want to risk the chance of John being distracted by something once again. Because he’s half hard and really turned on right now and the last thing he needs is to be left here hanging because this guy can’t keep his attention on one thing at a time.

 

“Um,” John looks up from where he’s lying on the bed in his blue boxer briefs, eyes wary as he asks, “H-how do you want to um. You know-”

 

“I’m on top,” Alex says without letting him finish. He knew where he was going with that anyway.

 

“Right. Okay.”

 

            Alex leans over the side of the bed and rummages around in his bedside table, searching for lube and a condom. It’s been a while since he’s used either of them but he knows that he still has some of both. He would never let himself run out. His fingers finally find the small square foil he was searching for and right next to it is the lube, so he pulls them out and drops them onto the bed beside John.

 

            After Alex has poured what he thinks is a decent amount of lube into his hand, John is pulling him closer so that he’s hovering over him, “You can start with two,” he says, and then he’s kissing Alex hard on the lips and running his fingers through his hair and Alex feels like he’s just been thrown into a hurricane because fuck¸ John has nice hands and his fingers feel awesome running through his hair and he almost just wants to stay here and make out with him. But then he remembers he has lube coating three of his fingers and he’s so hard it’s almost painful and if he doesn’t do something about both of these things soon, he might explode.

 

            Despite what he said, two fingers don’t go in very easily. Sure, easier than someone who doesn’t have sex for a living but still. Alex expected there to not be much resistance. But he has to scissor his fingers quite a few times and twist them in order to get him to loosen up enough for a third without hurting him. John arches his back every time Alex pushes his fingers back in, his own hands trailing down Alex’s back and leaving scratch marks that will be red and angry tomorrow morning.

 

“I’m good,” he pants, pushing Alex away from him, “I’m ready.”

 

            Wordlessly, Alex pulls his fingers out and pushes at John’s hips, telling him to turn over onto his hands and knees. John complies, biting his lip as he does it. Alex admires the new view of his body – his thin hips and perfect ass and his muscular back. He finds himself wondering how he’s so skinny, yet still has some defined muscle to him. But then he decides that he doesn’t actually care all that much, because this is just a onetime thing – a paid onetime thing and John doesn’t mean anything to him.

 

- - -

 

            When John wakes up, he doesn’t move. He breathes softly, so quietly that he can barely even hear himself, and tries to figure out if there’s another body in the bed that he’s in right now. The sun is shining in through the haphazardly drawn curtains across the window and from that, John can tell that it’s getting closer and closer to noon. Of course, his judgment could be totally off. He’s never woken up on the Upper East Side before.

 

            When he finally decides that there is definitely another body next to him, he figures it’s now or never. He might as well make an escape while he knows Alex is asleep. That’ll make everything a lot less awkward.

 

            He finds his boxer briefs and his jeans and his t-shirt right where he remembers throwing them the night before and he re-dresses quietly, eyes trained on the bed. Alex is sleeping on his stomach, wrapped up in his hundred dollar flannel sheets and John has decided that he probably doesn’t wake up until well after noon – every day. The life of an Upper East Side kid will never not amaze John. They live the life he wishes he had. And instead, he’s living in Brooklyn in a studio apartment, having sex with guys for money.

 

            He’s in the living room, zipping up his jacket when the front door opens on its own. John freezes, and so does the boy standing in the doorway. He looks familiar – he was definitely at the party last night.

 

“…Hi,” he says cautiously, “I’m going to assume that you’re the prostitute Gabe hired and you’re not robbing my apartment.”

 

            John frowns, the words ‘prostitute’ and ‘hired’ digging into his skin a little bit more than they should. “Gabe hired me, yeah,” he tells the boy, and he really has half a mind to ask if he’s a prostitute himself, because seriously – he looks like he was out all night having sex. His hair is a mess and his belt isn’t even around his waist – it’s in his hands, along with what looks like an undershirt. “I’m leaving now, sorry to bother you-”

 

“You’re not bothering me,” he says with a laugh, walking into his apartment and kicking his shoes off. “In fact, I’d rather you stay. I’d pay you for another night to sleep with Alex again. He seriously needs to get laid-”

 

“I have work tonight already, sorry,” John is quick to say. It’s a lie, but he shrugs apologetically and walks out the open front door, heading down in the direction of the elevators. While he waits for one to arrive, he starts to get that familiar tingling feeling right behind his eyes – the one signaling that he’s going to cry. And he feels like such a baby, crying in the middle of a hallway while waiting for an elevator. But the way that guy just spoke to him? It got under his skin. It always does. And he knows that he shouldn’t react this way. But it’s hard, not being treated with respect. Because he’s a human being and him having sex for money doesn’t make him any less of one.

 

            He takes a cab back home to Brooklyn. It takes a little more than a half an hour and watching as they leave Manhattan and travel into poorer neighborhoods is kind of depressing. John sits slouched in the back seat, counting the money that Gabe Saporta paid him the night before, right before he met Alex. It’s all fifties and hundreds, which is really fucking annoying, now that he really thinks about it. He’s never had a client who paid him in anything bigger than twenties. Now, if he wants to get a slice of pizza, he’s going to have to go to the bank and get change for a bunch of fifties and hundreds because there’s no way any pizza place is going to have change of a fifty. It must be nice to be able to hand out fifties and hundreds without a second thought.

 

            However, he really has no room to complain. Gabe paid him more than anyone ever has. Of course, this was sort of more than he’s ever done – he’s never had to actually go to a party and hang out with someone before having sex with him. Plus, it required him to travel all the way to the East Village. Gabe probably knew it was asking for a lot more than John was used to.

 

            Money is money, John decides as he pays the cab driver and gets out of the car. At least now, he can get his sister a decent sweet sixteen birthday gift. That’s a positive outlook, he figures as he walks up the steps of his apartment building. The paint is peeling off the walls in the hallway and it’s rather trashy looking. But it’s not like he can afford anything better anyway. A good majority of the money he makes by sleeping with strangers goes towards his rent. The rest is used up on groceries and other shit that he needs.

 

            When he opens his apartment door – the very last one at the end of the hallway on the fourth floor – it’s not empty, and he didn’t expect it to be.

 

“So? How’d it go?” Martin is sitting on his couch in front of the TV, on the edge of his seat anxiously awaiting the information he’s been dying to hear all morning. John knew that his best friend would be here. “I’ve been texting you all morning!”

 

“I didn’t bring my cell phone with me,” John explains as he heads into his small kitchen where he finds his cell phone sitting on the counter next to the toaster, plugged into its charger. “Didn’t want to lose it.” When he turns around, Martin is right there in front of him, glaring at him. “Don’t look so pissed off – no wonder nobody wants to date you.”

 

“Whatever. You still haven’t said how it went. Was it good? Was he hot? I told you he was hot-”

 

“I think it went pretty terribly, actually,” John admits, “That lifestyle is kind of hard to take in-”

 

“Please tell me you didn’t fuck up.”

 

“I didn’t ‘fuck up’. I’m just saying…I wasn’t exactly on my game, you know?”

 

            Martin rolls his eyes. “You just had one of the best opportunities of your entire career as a slut. You were paid to have sex with Alex Gaskarth. I don’t know what more you could ask for-”

 

“A normal job that gets me a bit more respect. How’s that sound?” John offers, opening his refrigerator and pulling out a can of Sprite. “You should have seen the building he lives in though, man. Like, I couldn’t stop looking around. The fucking elevator was a million times nicer than my own apartment.”

 

“Did you um. See Zack Merrick at all?” Martin asks, chewing on his lip as he awaits the answer.

 

“Ugh, I don’t know,” John shrugs, moving over to sit on his couch. It’s a studio apartment so everything’s kind of packed in close together. “Describe him.”

 

            By now, John really should know what Zack Merrick looks like. Martin talks about him any chance he gets and John should be a decent friend and actually pay attention. But there are only so many times you can hear about the amazing sex they have in one day. Seriously.

 

“He’s sort of tall – not as tall as you but um. And he’s got light brown hair and green-ish eyes-”

 

“Sounds familiar,” John mumbles.

 

“He’s Alex’s roommate –”

 

Him?” John interrupts, remembering his encounter with the boy in Alex’s apartment just a little over an hour ago. He glares at Martin, distaste evident, “No, you’re not allowed to see him anymore.”

 

“What?! Why?!”

 

“I don’t like him. Plus, if I remember correctly, he was literally all over this dumb looking kid with a big nose. And I really literally mean all over. Like, I thought they were having sex at the bar, that’s how ‘all over’ I mean-”

 

            John stops when he takes a second to look at Martin. He looks crushed – as if John’s words are seriously hurting him. And now that he thinks about it, they probably are. Martin has been pursuing Zack ever since they met by chance at the Metropolitan Museum about a year ago. They had sex in one of the bathrooms but that’s beside the point. Zack thinks Martin isn’t worth being seen in public with and Martin thinks it’s okay to be treated that way. John had never met the guy before this morning, and that was without even knowing it. He sort of wishes that he had known, just so he could have punched him in the face and given him a piece of his mind.

 

“That was probably Jack,” Martin says finally, smiling sadly, “His family’s really involved with politics – I don’t know details. I think his cousin is running for something. But he’s well-off and…Yeah. That was probably who he was with.”

 

“Well, Zack was a douche to me when I spoke to him briefly in Alex’s living room. I don’t want my best friend pathetically stalking a guy like that anyway,” John jokes, wrapping one arm around Martin’s shoulders. “He’s just a stupid Upper East Side kid who’s never had to work for anything, and therefore, doesn’t appreciate what he has. He doesn’t deserve you.”

 

“Do you really think that’s going to stop me from hooking up with him every chance I get?” Martin asks, laughing lightly. “Your kind words are appreciated, but it would probably take him asking me to stay away from him to actually do it.”

 

            John knows that Martin’s right, and he doesn’t say another word about it. Martin’s too head over heels for Zack to change his mind now. John just hopes that Zack can realize what he has right in front of him, and actually treat Martin like a person instead of just someone he can hook up with. “Anyway…I’m free tonight. Want to go catch a movie or something?”

 

“I have work,” Martin sighs, sinking back into the couch, “I’m catering some party on the East Side. I have to wear black and white. It’s going to suck. It’s from eight until like, one in the morning.”

 

“That does suck,” John agrees.

 

            Martin works for a catering company, and most of the time they’re serving parties thrown by the same people they can’t stand – the rich, upper class snobs on the East Side. Of course, it pays pretty well and Martin does get to meet quite a few famous people every so often, but still. It’s not exactly the most pleasant job. Still, if John were to compare, he’d say Martin has the better job out of the two of them.

 

“I can rent a movie from Redbox and come by after I get out of work?” Martin offers, “I’ll bring food too.”

 

“If you don’t bring food you’re not being let in,” John teases, but he doesn’t really mean it, and Martin knows that. “I have two appointments tomorrow night at seven and then at ten. But they’re both in Brooklyn so I don’t have to actually travel very far.”

 

            Martin sighs and stretches out on John’s couch, laying his legs across his lap. “I wish you would just get a job with me and quit the one you have-”

 

“I can’t support myself on the salary you make, Martin-”

 

“But you’re worth so much more than that, John.”

 

            Sure, he knows that Martin is right. He tells himself that every day – every night. But just because he’s worth more than what he does, doesn’t mean that he can just quit. It’s not that simple. He has a high school education. That’s not going to get him very far, if he’s being realistic. And if he gets a job with Martin, he’ll be making barely enough to cover his rent each month. And it’s not like he can go to his parents and ask them to spot him the money – they’re just as bad as he is. He would never be able to bring himself to ask for their help.

 

“Can you just shut up and let me watch TV in peace?” John snaps, glaring at Martin as if to tell him that’s the end of the conversation.

 

            Martin rolls his eyes, but doesn’t say anything more, and John is grateful for that. He doesn’t really feel like hearing about this right now.

 

- - -

 

            So far, Alex’s mother’s party has been going exactly as planned. He’s wearing his new suit that people keep complimenting him on and he knows that Mrs. Saporta is eavesdropping not too far away and she’s probably pleased to hear it. And, on the brightest side of things, he hasn’t been photographed once. So overall, it’s a great night and it’s not even close to being over yet.

 

            Alex doesn’t usually get followed by photographers or anything too extreme – he’s not interesting enough. They want the people who go out of control every night – they want Sierra Kusterbeck. She goes out every night and goes home at four am. She curses at photographers and doesn’t care what people think of her. They go crazy for her. Alex just thinks she’s weird. He hopes she doesn’t show up for a while. Chances are, she’ll show up at the very very end.

 

“Nice bow tie,” Zack says, appearing by Alex’s side. He reaches out and flicks the tie, smirking. “You look like-”

 

“Did I happen to ask?” Alex interrupts, reaching out and punching Zack’s shoulder. “You look like you’ve just got done with…God, I don’t even know.” He takes in Zack’s loose tie and un-tucked shirt and messed up hair. “Who was it this time?”

 

“That new British boy that Kennedy and Garrett hang around with.”

 

“Josh Franceschi?”

 

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

 

            Alex frowns. “That’s interesting. I thought he was seeing that girl-”

 

“He is,” Zack clarifies, “She’s not important. What is important though is the fact that one of your mom’s waiters is following me around and I’d appreciate it if he stopped.”

 

            Alex glances around, confused because his mom doesn’t have any waiters. “What are you talking about? She hired caterers-”

 

“Whatever, he’s part of the catering staff, minor details. Do you see him? He’s behind me by the bar.”

 

            Alex looks over Zack’s shoulder eyes landing on a rather bored looking guy carrying a tray with champagne glasses. “…That’s that Martin guy that you hook up with all the time.”

 

“Yeah, Martin from Brooklyn. He keeps trying to talk to me. I can’t be seen with him.”

 

            And Alex can see where he’s coming from. He doesn’t know much about Martin or the relationship that Zack has with him, but as far as Alex can tell, Zack doesn’t like him all that much aside from when they’re having sex. And Martin should probably take the hint. People like Zack don’t really belong with people like Martin.

 

“He’s coming over here,” Alex mumbles as Martin starts walking towards them, and he laughs at the irritated expression that Zack makes. But the second that Martin is standing beside him, he wipes the look off his face and replaces it with a small, shy smile.

 

“Hey baby,” he says, reaching out and lightly touching his arm, “I didn’t know you were here.”

 

            And Martin’s not as stupid as Zack probably likes to think he is. He rolls his eyes and holds his now empty tray close to him. “Right. I just-”

 

“Can you do me a huge favor and get me a strawberry margarita?”

 

            At first, it looks as if Martin’s going to say no and just walk away. But then he must think better of that, and just nods, clearly not very happy about the way his night is going. Zack laughs as he walks away, rolling his eyes as he watches him.

 

“You don’t drink margaritas,” Alex points out, “And yet I’m sure you’ve got something very creative to do with it.”

 

“You’ll see. And sooner rather than later because you know he’s going to make that drink as quickly as possible.”

 

            Alex sighs, not really sure if he wants to witness this. But he stays anyway, making light conversation with Zack to give the impression that they’re deeply involved in conversation and therefore, keeping other people away. Alex isn’t really in the mood to meet any Ivy League professors or highly rated television producers.

 

“Did you see William before? His mom has been trying to get him to transfer to Colombia because she thinks NYU isn’t the right school for him. He was basically attacked by like, four professors from Colombia trying to convince him to transfer. I’ve never seen him so flustered in all the years I’ve known him,” Alex says, reaching out and taking a glass of champagne off a passing waiter’s tray. “Well, other than that time in high school when he was caught cheating on Gabe.”

 

            Zack grins, “That’s my favorite William memory- Oh hey, Martin’s coming back.”

 

“Don’t go overboard,” Alex mumbles as a warning, just before Martin comes back into earshot.

 

            Zack just nods and gives Alex a sickeningly sweet smile, meaning that yes, of course he’s going overboard. Zack’s kind of a bitch. And a douche bag. And yet it doesn’t really faze Alex in the slightest.

 

“Listen,” Martin says as he hands the red colored drink over to Zack, “I’m just trying to talk to you so can you-”

 

            Martin’s words die in his throat as Zack simply takes the glass he was just handed and tips it just enough so that the drink sloshes over the side, red staining the white dress shirt that Martin is wearing.

 

“Sorry man,” Zack says with a shrug, handing the glass over to Alex. “You should probably try and clean that before it stains though.”

 

            Zack walks away towards the other side of the packed room eventually being cornered by someone who’s probably a friend of his mom’s, or someone equally irrelevant, and Alex stands there trying his best not to let out the laugh he’s holding back. “Um, I guess you take this,” He says, biting his lip as he hands the half-empty glass over to Martin, who really doesn’t look all that fazed. He looks as though he’s not very surprised that this just happened. “And you should probably change your shirt before my mom sees you and gets pissed.”

 

“Whatever,” Martin spits, taking the glass and sending a glare towards Alex before rolling his eyes one last time and heading off in the opposite direction that Zack just went in. And Alex should probably feel somewhat badly about that – because he knew what was going to happen and he didn’t stop it. And okay, admittedly he does. But Zack’s his best friend. He’s not going to say anything against him. Not without maybe talking to him about it first.

 

-

 

            A half an hour later, the party is still happening and his mother’s in the middle of making some speech. She’s going on about something to do with one of her charities she runs and how the money earned tonight would be going there but Alex isn’t paying attention so he can’t be sure. He’s hanging towards the back, closer to the doors and where security is checking names off the list. He hasn’t seen Martin or Zack since the little incident but he’s sure they’re around somewhere. Zack is probably flirting with a bartender to get another free drink and Martin’s probably serving someone a glass of wine, trying not to let the stain on his shirt be too noticeable.

 

            When he glances back towards the security and the doors, he kind of has to do a double take. Because that boy that’s standing in the doorway, clearly picking an argument with the man who looks about three times the size of him? That’s definitely John. The John from last night. The John he slept with and was gone in the morning. Not that that bothered Alex. Although the little flipping feeling his stomach gets when he looks at him probably begs to differ on that one.

 

“I just need to bring this to someone and then I promise I’ll come right back out!” John argues, holding up a plain white dress shirt and suddenly something clicks in Alex’s brain. “Believe me, the last place I want to be right now is here-”

 

“It’s okay,” Alex says loudly, catching the security guard’s attention. “He’s with me, he can come in.” And he’s not even sure why he just did that. Because his mom is going to be pissed if she finds out someone who’s not on the list got inside, all because of Alex. But he’ll deal with that later if it happens.

 

            John slips through the door easily, standing in front of Alex with a cautious expression. “So…hi.”

 

“I’m guessing that’s for Martin…” Alex trails off, biting his lip. He feels a million times worse now, because now he knows that John is friends with Martin and for some reason, it just matters more. “He’s around here somewhere-”

 

“Yeah it is, he said he’s in the bathroom. I sort of lied when I said I’d leave right after I give this to him, though,” John informs him, shrugging carelessly. “I have to find your roommate and either punch him in the face or kick him in the balls. Depends which is more important to him.”

 

“His dick is important, but his face takes first place,” Alex finds himself saying, and he really doesn’t know what’s happening to him and why all of a sudden he’s acting as though he’s known John for longer than just one night. One night full of meaningless sex, at that.

 

“Thanks for the help,” John nods, and then he’s walking across the room, and Alex finds himself following like a lost puppy. Which is ridiculous. Because Alex is completely in his element and John is the one that should be out of it.

 

            John’s just as attractive as Alex remembers – same smile, same nice eyes, and same perfect ass. And for whatever reason, Alex can’t stop himself from following him all the way into the bathroom, where they find Martin sitting on the counter top, clearly upset. At first, he looks happier to see his friend, but then he sees Alex.

 

“What the hell are you doing here?” He spits as he takes the clean shirt from John. “Want to laugh some more? I’m sure I can come up with something that’s amusing-”

 

“He just followed me,” John mutters, “Ignore him. You sure you’re okay?”

 

            Alex frowns. He doesn’t take very well to being ignored.

 

“I’m fine now that I have a clean shirt. Thanks.”

 

“Not like I was doing anything,” John says with a laugh, back turned to Alex, and Alex finds himself trying to force himself into the conversation. It isn’t working.

 

“Now that you’re in, you should just stay,” Martin says, “Although, you sort of stand out a bit…”

 

            Alex agrees, taking in his black jeans and the grey t-shirt and black jacket he’s wearing. He’s so close to sort of fitting in, but he’d be caught pretty quickly. His mother takes her dress codes seriously. “The security will probably be looking for you soon anyway,” Alex says, and finally, he isn’t just ignored. “I mean. For not wearing black and white, at least.”

 

“Yeah so I’m just gonna get out of here. If I see Merrick on my way out, he’s in for a wakeup call.”

 

“I’ll see you later,” Martin says quietly as he buttons up the new shirt.

 

            Alex takes it upon himself to escort John outside. He stands awkwardly in front of him in the cold, on the sidewalk outside of the building. He bounces lightly on his heels before shrugging and saying, “Sorry about Zack. He’s a bit-”

 

“Of a douche bag? Yeah,” John finishes, “He is. But I knew that. Doesn’t matter to Martin though so.”

 

“Um. Yeah well. Anyway, about last night-”

 

“I should probably apologize,” John interrupts, hands going into his pockets as his cheeks flush. “I wasn’t on my game. I’m usually a lot more focused than I was and I’m sorry if that sort of put a damper on things. I was a bit unprofessional, and I hope you don’t think that’s how I always am.”

 

            Alex gapes at him. “N-no, it didn’t – I don’t think that. I was just…I was gonna say it was great. Um.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yeah…”

 

            John bites his lip, “Well…then thanks? I guess?”

 

            Alex nods. “Yeah. You’re welcome.”

 

            And if that’s not the most awkward conversation he’ll ever have in his life, Alex doesn’t even want to know what could be worse. Because as John walks away, towards the subways, Alex finds himself wanting to kick himself in the ass, if that were at all possible. Because seriously. You’re welcome? What would he say that of all things? And why does he even care that much about it? John is nothing – he’ll probably never see him again. He shouldn’t see him again. People will start getting the wrong idea. And Alex isn’t going to let someone like John ruin the way people view him.

 

 - - -

 

            As simple as Alex’s life might seem, it’s really quite complicated. More so than he would like to admit. It’s the Thursday after his twenty-second birthday and he’s on his way to visit his father. It’s a decently long ride – a little over a half an hour depending on traffic – and Alex finds himself slouched in the back seat of the town car, staring out the window and trying to come up with excuses as to why he has to leave his father’s early.

 

            He might be able to get away with the whole ‘I’m supposed to be helping Sierra Kusterbeck plan a party for some charity’ thing that he used last week. His father probably won’t even think twice about it. Actually, he’ll encourage it. Because the Kusterbeck’s are ‘great and wonderful people who Alex really should get involved with’. So maybe he’ll just go with that. Easier than having to come up with new material.

 

            Alex sighs to himself as they go down Fifth Avenue and pass Central Park. It’s not that he doesn’t want to spend time with his dad. It’s just…Tom Gaskarth is a little dramatic and a lot forceful and just. It’s not easy spending time with him. Especially when all he really does is try to force Alex into convincing his mom to give up her percentage of the company. Which Alex does not want to do. It gets uncomfortable for him really fast.

 

            The car arrives outside of the Green building in Tribeca and the door is opened for him by the doorman standing outside the building. He greets Alex politely, informing him that his father just arrived back from a meeting about ten minutes earlier. Alex can’t help but feel disappointed at that. If only he’d showed up twenty minutes earlier. Then he could have just gone home and told his father he didn’t feel like waiting.

 

Luckily, nobody stops him as he makes his way into the building. Usually there’s always someone who stops him to try to interview him about taking over the company. But today thankfully he’s uninterrupted in his walk to the elevator, stepping inside and smiling at the man already in there.

 

“Good morning, Mr. Gaskarth,” he says with a light laugh, “You seem overjoyed.”

 

            Alex shrugs as the man pushes the button for the fortieth floor. “I’m not a morning person.”

 

And that’s not entirely a lie, because Alex isn’t very accustomed to waking up before one or two in the afternoon, and here he is, all the way in Tribeca before ten. He’s pretty certain that’s a good record for him.

 

“Well your father seemed to be in a good mood earlier,” the man informs him, giving him a knowing look. “I don’t think you need to be too concerned.”

 

            Alex refrains from telling him that really, he always needs to be concerned when it comes to his father and he just smiles and gives him a hopeful expression. It only takes a few more seconds to reach the right floor and Alex steps out, waving his hand slightly at the man to say goodbye. He’s glad that there’s no elevator guy at his apartment building. It’s always a bit awkward being the only two in there. Even if you’re used to seeing them and speaking to them. Or maybe it’s just Alex being weird and over thinking things. Anyway.

 

            At first, it seems as if the meeting with his father isn’t going to go anywhere near the subject of his mother. And that’s pretty awesome, because Alex can’t even remember the last time he met with his dad and his mom wasn’t brought up. They’ve been divorced for nearly five years now and Alex isn’t an idiot – he knows they never really loved each other, so it wasn’t all the surprising. And it’s even less surprising that his father doesn’t want his ex-wife owning any part of his company. And maybe that’s where Alex gets it from – the whole not being an idiot thing – because he knows she’ll never give it up. Unless she has a good reason.

 

            So they’ve been getting along pretty well and already an hour has passed. The conversation has stayed relatively close to being strictly about the business – Gaskarth Industries, a real estate company that his father built up on his own – and  how Alex feels about the ten percent that is his. Alex doesn’t tell his father that he doesn’t really care either way about the company. It isn’t something he’s interested in but he’ll take it if he has to. Telling him that would just make everything go downhill.

 

“And how is Zack doing? You two still friends?” his father asks, leaning against his kitchen counter, sloshing an amber colored liquid around in his glass.

 

“Yeah,” Alex informs him, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Seriously. That shouldn’t even be a question. First of all, they’ve been friends since diapers. Second, their picture’s on Page Six at least once a week. His father would know if they weren’t still friends.  “Still friends.”

 

Tom smiles, showing his obvious approval. Alex used to think he looked so young when he smiled. But now, he observes, he looks tired and worn. Must be the stress of trying to get full control of his company. “That’s great. I always knew you two would stick together. In this society, you need a friend like Zack to watch your back.”

 

Alex just nods. He’s not really in the mood for this at all. Zack is currently in Times Square doing some shopping for his own birthday that’s coming up and Alex wishes he were with him – he needs a new watch. But of course, he has to do his duty as a son and actually spend some time with his dad.

 

“And your mom? What’s she up to these days? Charity parties and other social gatherings, I assume?”

 

            If he didn’t sound so smug about it, and as if his mother was a terrible person for doing those things, Alex would just let it go and answer respectfully. But his words are laced with disrespect and the look on his face just says it all. He thinks Alex’s mother is an idiot. And sure, maybe she drives Alex nuts a majority of the time but she’s still his mom and she’s a good person. He doesn’t have the right to talk about her like that.

 

“She is, and she’s raising more money through those charity parties than anyone else on the board,” Alex snaps, standing up and grabbing his coat from the back of the couch. “The other night at her Black and White party, she raised a shit-ton of money for an arts school in Astoria. She actually has a brunch tomorrow morning that’s raising money and trying to find homes for the animals at the shelters in New York City.”

 

“Alex-”

 

“I have to go,” Alex says quickly, pulling his jacket on, “I’m meeting with Zack on Broadway and then later Sierra Kusterbeck and I are planning an event for something.”

 

“Alexander-”

 

“Bye.”

 

            And he doesn’t even care that he totally just pissed his dad off worse than he probably ever has before. He just walks out the door and hopes and prays that he doesn’t try to call up his mom and complain to her. Because then she’ll feel guilty like she always does when Alex is rude to his father and she’ll try and talk to him and tell him that despite the fact that they hate each other, Alex should get along with him. Alex feels like no matter what, he’ll really never be able to win.

 

            He doesn’t meet up with Zack like he had planned, though. He finds himself too frustrated to even think about dealing with Times Square and the tourists and the annoying business people. He’s not sure if he even thinks this plan all the way through, but he takes out his phone while he’s sitting in the back of the town car that drove him all the way here, scrolling through his long contact list until he finds Gabe’s name.

 

“Alex, baby!” Gabe shouts into the phone, and Alex is pretty sure he’s already slightly drunk. It isn’t even past noon yet. “What’s going on, senorita?”

 

“Gabe, I was wondering if I could get someone’s number from you.” Alex breathes in deep, pinches the bridge of his nose and continues, “You know the guy you set me up with on my birthday?”

 

“The whore?” And Gabe sounds genuinely confused now and it’s probably not just because of the alcohol.

 

“Yeah um. His name was John-”

 

“You know, I meant to call you and ask how he was! Now I know! He was good then, huh? Good enough for you to want him again?”

 

            Alex finds himself blushing, and he hides his face in his hands despite the fact that nobody can see him, unless the driver decided to turn around and stare at him or something. “Can I just get the number?”

 

            Gabe laughs on the other end and Alex can hear glasses clinking and papers being shuffled and he’s probably actually in William’s bed, being annoying while William tries to study for a test or something. “I’m pretty sure I saved it in my phone. Hold on while I check. He’s kinda pricey – he doesn’t really travel outside of Brooklyn for work unless you give him a good enough offer, you know?”

 

“Shit, how much did you fucking pay him that night, Gabe? Seriously, it probably-”

 

“Hey, it was worth it to see you actually relax for a night.

 

            And that voice doesn’t belong to Gabe – it’s William. And that just proves Alex’s theory right. Gabe must have him on speaker. Alex decides to just keep quiet while he waits for the number. His frustration is slowly slipping away as they get closer and closer to his apartment building, but he still wants this number. Now that he’s set his mind to it, it has to happen. Plus, he wants to see John again. He has no idea why, but he does.

 

- - -

 

“So guess who called me and woke me up this morning.”

 

“Jesus.”

 

“No,” John says, “Although I’m pretty sure you think he is. Alex Gaskarth.”

 

            Martin groans and slides down on John’s couch, “Why do you have all the luck? You don’t even have the slightest interest in Gaskarth and yet he’s calling you to have sex with him-”

 

“It’s my job.”

 

“-And here I am, practically stalking Zack Merrick and the most he’ll acknowledge me is a blow job in a restaurant bathroom.”

 

            John scrunches up his nose in disgust. “That’s not sanitary.”

 

“Coming from the guy who just fucked a fifty year old dude last night.”

 

            John raises his hands in surrender. “Point taken. Whatever. We’ve gotten off-topic. He wants me over at his apartment at nine. I’m making him pay for my cab.”

 

            Martin shrugs. “I would. Maybe Zack will be there. Maybe you can try and get him to actually talk to me in public.”

 

“He does talk to you in public,” John points out as he stands up from his couch and stretches, “He just insults you while doing it. I’m going to go shower and get ready…I should probably look my best, considering where I’m going.”

 

            If he’s honest with himself, John would have to say that when he heard Alex’s voice on the other end of the phone, his heart kind of did this weird flippy thing that definitely didn’t feel normal. Or at least, he assumes it was his heart. It was in the general area that hearts are supposed to be located so…he’s going to go with that. He only spent two years in college before dropping out due to insufficient funds. He’s not exactly a genius when it comes to science type things.

 

            While he’s waiting for the shower to heat up, he stands in front of the mirror in his boxers, frowning at the site. There are bruises all over his hips and thighs and upper arms. His client last night wasn’t exactly gentle – totally into the whole dom/sub shit and even though that’s not really John’s thing, he had to go along with it. He shivers suddenly, and he’s not so sure if it’s from the cold air in the bathroom or if it’s from the memories of last night. He’s going to go with a mix of both.

 

            He lowers the waistband of his boxers down, only to find more bruises that are much worse. God, he’s extra unappealing today.

 

- - - 

 

            John isn’t exactly comfortable in the Upper East Side. He knows that it’s somewhat ridiculous, because it isn’t as though he stands out too much. He’s wearing dark jeans with a white t-shirt and a black jacket and he looks like a normal everyday person. But he can’t help but feel like every person who glances his way just knows what he’s doing here. That he doesn’t belong here. It’s stupid and he realizes that he’s being totally irrational but he can’t help it. It comes with his lack of self-confidence.

 

            Alex’s apartment building is super modern and it’s decorated really nicely and there’s a fucking Starbucks in the lobby. It’s probably not a legit Starbucks, probably just one of those places that sell Starbucks coffee, but still. John’s not quite sure how he didn’t notice that last time. Maybe he was just too preoccupied by the marble floors and the high ceilings.

 

            Of course, he’s stopped at the front desk by a cautious looking older guy who must be the security for the building. “Are you looking for someone?” he asks, and John knows that what he really means is ‘Are you lost?’

 

“Alex Gaskarth? He um. He’s expecting me so…” John trails off, hands in the pockets of his jacket in a sad attempt to keep them warm. He hates that he gets so cold all the time. Yes it’s winter, but still. Normal people’s hands don’t turn to ice while standing outside for a mere two minutes to wait for a cab. Maybe if he could actually gain some weight and stop looking like a bean pole, this wouldn’t happen.

 

“I’ll call him and see if he’s in.”

 

            And that really means ‘I’m calling him to make sure you’re not just trying to sneak in’.

 

            John stands there, glancing around the lobby while the security guard calls up to Alex’s room. It must be nice having people down here looking out for your safety. Anybody could go up to John’s apartment if they wanted to. That’s just proven by the fact that Martin is always there.

 

“Okay,” The guard says after a few seconds on the phone, “He said you can go right up. He left the door unlocked. Twenty-fifth floor.”

 

“Got it, thanks,” John mumbles, nodding in thanks and then walking towards the hall with the elevators. The second he turns the corner, he sighs and pulls his hands out of his pockets, pressing the button. He flexes his hands in an attempt to get some warmth into them but it’s really pointless. Unless he sits in front of a heater for ten minutes, it’s going to take a while.

 

            The elevator to his right comes first, dinging loudly and opening up, revealing more marble and shiny and God, it’s like they just have so much money to spend on these places, so why not make the elevators like a palace? John rolls his eyes to himself as he steps inside and presses the ‘25’ button, watching it light up and the doors start to close.

 

            As the elevator goes up, he gets this sinking feeling and he’s not sure if it’s because of the elevator moving or if it’s because he’s really nervous. He thinks he’s nervous. He doesn’t usually accept clients who live so far because he really hates the amount of time it takes to get back home. But Alex offered good money. He can’t turn it down, especially with his sister’s birthday coming up so soon. He wants to buy her something nice. She’s turning sixteen and can’t afford one of those ‘sweet sixteen’ parties all her friends are having. His sister’s the most important person in his life and he would like to at least get her a decent gift.

 

            As the security guard said it would be, Alex’s door is unlocked and John takes a deep breath before twisting the knob and pushing it open. He steps into the familiar foyer from last time. The pieces of art on the walls are still there, clearly just selected by an interior decorator because John can’t really imagine Alex or Zack actually picking these things out. His footsteps are loud on the shiny wood floor, so he kicks his sneakers off and leaves them next to the wall. Easier to find them later.

 

            He finds Alex on the living room couch watching the TV, wearing a pair of sweatpants and a thin t-shirt and he looks nothing like he does when he’s out in public. His hair is messy and he’s drinking a beer and he looks so normal and laid back that John almost thinks it’s not him. The Alex he remembers wears designer brands and drinks fancy expensive things. He takes a quick look around the room making sure that Zack is nowhere in sight, before sitting himself down on the couch and alerting Alex to his presence.

 

            Alex doesn’t seem all that surprised to see him sitting there. “Glad you made it past Ben,” he says lightly, lips turned into a small smile.

 

“If you mean the guy sitting behind the front desk, then yeah. He thought I was trying to rob you or something.”

 

            The older boy smiles, wider this time, and clicks the TV off with the remote. “So um. I don’t know how much you ask for or anything but I um. It doesn’t matter; money’s not an issue I just. Um.”

 

            John can’t help but laugh softly, because obviously, Alex isn’t exactly very used to paying for sex and he has no idea how to go about this. “Depends. What exactly do you want from me? You were a bit vague over the phone.”

 

“You,” Alex says quickly, and seriously. Still pretty vague. “The whole night. I-I don’t really know if you do stuff like that but um. I promise you I can pay you well.”

 

            John wants to say no. He should say no. He doesn’t do overnights. That one time with Alex was the first and last time, he had promised himself. Because Gabe had paid him more than he would have asked for and he needed it and… He should just say no. But for some reason, he just nods and says okay. Something about Alex makes him say the opposite of what he really means.

 

- - -

 

            John wants to punch himself for thinking it, but Alex’s hands on his hips and his lips on the back of his neck feels so right and so perfect and he really never wants him to stop moving behind him like this. Sure he’s a bit drunk and he keeps slurring his words and his thrusts are a bit irregular but somehow it’s still perfect. And John hates his brain for thinking that.

 

            Alex keeps muttering things under his breath – the same things that John always hears and he tries his best to block them out because really, there are only so many times he can hear the phrases ‘you’re so fucking tight’ and ‘you’re so fucking hot’. They don’t exactly count as compliments anymore. They probably never really did.

 

            Alex’s lips press kisses all along his back – sloppy and wet but somehow still perfect. John’s breathing is just as irregular as Alex’s thrusts and his fingers tighten into the bed sheets as he hits his spot over and over. He wants to sit up and lean back into Alex – maybe kiss him or something and feel that much closer to him. But that wouldn’t be a good idea because that’s what couples do and John is just a prostitute and he’s just supposed to lay here and let Alex fuck him. And if he happens to get pleasure out of it then that’s cool too.

 

- - -

 

            Not leaving is weird. Especially since John isn’t even tired. And even if he was, he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Because suddenly all these thoughts are plaguing him and every single time he thinks he’s convinced himself that Alex means absolutely nothing to him, the thoughts just come right back and he’s doubting himself again. He actually had to leave Alex’s bedroom because he couldn’t take looking at him and trying to fight the stupid smile trying to take over. This is getting ridiculous.

 

            So he’s sitting in Alex’s living room with the TV on and some movie playing off their DVR. The curtains are open and the entire city is lit up and it looks amazing – a sight that John would probably never grow tired of seeing. Sure, the view from Brooklyn of the city isn’t too bad but seriously. Nothing could ever beat this. If he lived here, he would probably never take advantage of it.

 

“What are you watching?”

 

            Alex’s voice interrupts his thoughts and John flinches. He probably shouldn’t have come out here. Alex definitely thinks he’s trying to rob him, or something. So he turns around on the couch and shrugs his shoulders, trying his best to look innocent. “Dunno. Just pressed play on whatever was already on.”

 

            Alex laughs, his voice rough from sleeping for a few hours. It’s a little bit past two in the morning and they went to sleep around eleven or so. John should be tired, especially with the amount of times they had sex but he isn’t.

 

“That could have been dangerous,” Alex tells him, sitting down right beside him and barely leaving any space between. “Zack could have left porn on, or something.”

 

“That doesn’t surprise me,” John mumbles, blushing as Alex laces their fingers together. This is weird.

 

“He said he had plans to meet up with your friend Martin. Don’t know where, but it’s probably somewhere like a club or something.”

 

            Martin had mentioned going out, John remembers, nodding in response. He’s not sure why Alex is sitting so close to him. Sure, he kind of owns John for the entire night but still. Isn’t he uncomfortable being this close?

 

“Come here,” Alex says softly, reaching out and resting both hands on John’s hips. He pulls him even closer and at first John is confused because seriously. There is nowhere for him to go, unless he wants him pretty much sitting in his lap and – Oh. That is what he wants. John wants to smack himself, but he refrains (because that would probably make him look crazy) and picks himself up and places himself in Alex’s lap and God. This is getting weirder.

 

“Are you hungry or anything?” Alex asks, fingers slipping underneath the t-shirt that John is wearing.

 

            John blinks. “What?”

 

“Do you ever eat? You’re so thin-”

 

“Oh. No I – yeah. Of course I eat,” John tells him, blushing harder and feeling more self-conscious than he ever was before. “It’s just-”

 

“You’re gorgeous” Alex interrupts, looking right at him and smiling. “Seriously.”

 

“T-thanks,” John manages, looking down. Nobody’s ever told him that before, unless Martin counts and even then, he was just joking around. But for some reason, John doesn’t even care if Alex is just lying to him to make him feel better or something. He’ll take it.

 

            Alex’s hands move out from under his shirt and John finds that disappointing. They move up to his face, tracing softly over his prominent jaw line. “You have nice eyes, you know?”

 

            And now John doesn’t even know how to respond anymore so he just stays silent, letting Alex hold him close. He wants to tell him to shut up – that he’s not any of those things but he’s sort of too selfish to do that. He likes hearing them. Just doesn’t know how to respond.

 

            But then Alex is kissing him soft and reassuring and it’s almost as if they actually know each other. Like, really know each other. Favorite color. Favorite book. Favorite song. Favorite season. As if this isn’t an arranged thing and John isn’t getting paid to sit here and let Alex have his way with him all night. As if he’s actually worth something and Alex cares.

 

--- - -

 

The next morning doesn't exactly start off very well. First, John wakes up on a couch. Alex's couch, to be specific. His arm is asleep from the way he was laying on it. Oh, and he's naked. That's cool, whatever. Not like anyone else other than Alex lives here who could just walk in and see him.

 

After a few seconds, he realizes exactly why he woke up. He hears Alex across the room, cursing under his breath and John is slightly curious as to why he seems so distressed, so he sits up and quickly finds his boxers on the floor a few feet away.

 

"What's going on?" He asks as he pulls them up his legs so that they're resting low on his hips. He finds his shirt not much further away and he pulls that on as well. "Is there something wrong?"

 

Alex freezes where he's standing in the kitchen across the room, a stack of plates in his hands. "Oh God I forgot about you."

 

"Oh." Seriously? How nice - it's not like he wasn't just sleeping on his couch with no clothes on. "Um. You seem a bit..."

 

"Don't talk - go into my room and get dressed and look decent and stay in there until I tell you to come out," Alex tells him, coming over and pushing him towards the hallway. "Zack just texted me and said he met my mom in the lobby and they're on their way up so you need to be out of sight for a bit."

 

"Right, right okay," John nods, heart pounding in his chest. He does not want to meet Alex's mother. God, no.

 

"If you want you can borrow something of mine but just try and look nice just in case."

 

"Got it," John mumbles just before Alex closes his bedroom door on him. He glances around the room, frowning at the state of it. The sheets are on the floor and there are two used condoms lying besides the garbage can, clearly not having made it in last night. Well. They certainly had fun.

 

His jeans are on the floor beside the bed so he picks them up and pulls them on quickly, just as he hears the front door open. God he hopes she's just here for a short visit. John just wants to get paid and get out.

 

- - -

 

"God, what did you do last night? Hire a bunch of prostitutes? It smells like a sex house-"

 

Alex groans and rests his head in his hands, ignoring the laughter coming from Zack from the living room. He's at his kitchen table and his mother is pouring herself a glass of wine, dressed in a white dress and her hair done in curls. Her brunch is in less than an hour and she is clearly unimpressed by how not ready Alex is.

 

"There's someone still here," she says quickly, placing her glass on the table. "Their sneakers are in the foyer."

 

Alex reminds himself to cut twenty bucks out of what he owes John. "Yeah well-"

 

"Tell them to come out from wherever they're hiding and to get ready to go to brunch."

 

"No-"

 

"Absolutely. No excuses. Get them out here - I'm assuming it's a boy, judging by the sneakers. Come on Alex we don't have all day."

 

Alex stares at her, eyes wide and expression one that should clearly tell her that he does not want to do this. But she's his mother and she's never been very good at picking up on these things so she just shoos him out of the kitchen and starts tormenting Zack about what he's going to wear.

 

Alex goes into his bedroom, closing the door and locking it and then leaning up against it, breathing in and then out deeply. His eyes land on John who's sitting in the middle of the bed in the same clothes he came over in yesterday. No, that's not going to work.

 

"Come over here and let's find something for you to wear," Alex mumbles, walking over to his walk in closet and pulling it open. He has no idea what he could possibly find that will fit John and not make him look like he's drowning. Not even something out of Zack's closet would fit very well.

 

"What's going on? Why do I-"

 

"You're going with me to brunch," Alex informs him, pushing all of the clothes in front to the side and reaching towards the back. He thinks he might have a nice Armani sweater that was too small on him.

 

"No, no I am not," John protests, "You're gonna pay me and then I'm gonna leave-"

 

"Listen," Alex says as he finds the sweater he was searching for out of the closet and holds it up in front of John. "Come with me so my mother doesn't torment me, and I'll double what I said I was going to pay you. Sound good?"

 

"Alex I don't belong-"

 

"Hey," Alex interrupts, pushing the sweater into his hands. "You'll be fine. Just stick near me and everything will be fine. As far as everyone knows, you're from California and your parents are involved with real estate there and you're visiting New York to see how different it is. Okay?"

 

John swallows and take the sweater from Alex. "This is hideous. Move over. I'll find something better."

 

Alex grins and grabs John's hips and pulls him closer, "Thanks," he says softly and then presses their lips together briefly. "I promise it'll be fun."

 

            He’s probably lying through his teeth, but there’s no way that Alex can know for sure. For all he knows, this brunch will be easy and calm and all they’ll have to do is sit there and look nice. On the other hand…they could be interrogated by everyone and Alex’s cover will be blown and well. Then everything he knows will basically be over. So John needs to be a decent actor, just for today.

 

- - -

 

            John really thought that this was going to be a total disaster. He thought for sure that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the lie that Alex fed everyone and he’d blow Alex’s cover. And he definitely assumed that the brunch would be boring and the food would be shitty. But he’s already been here for two hours and so far, everyone seems to be believing that he is from California and he’s looking to make New York his new home. Also, the food is fucking awesome and he kind of wishes that he was coming back here tomorrow. It’s been awhile since he’s had anything other than cereal for breakfast.

 

            Also, he’s been sitting next to Zack Merrick for the whole two hours and so far, the guy has been pleasant. When he and Alex first sat down, John got excited because seriously – finally he’s going to have the opportunity to beat the guy up. But Alex kept a tight hold on his kneecap which John took as a warning to not start anything here. Besides…it’s not as if Zack has said anything rude to him yet. Sure, he’s an asshole, but Martin’s kind of an idiot for letting him treat him the way he does. So, John will just not get involved.

 

“So how long have you been in the city for, John? Long enough to get some good experiences?”

 

            John shrugs his shoulders, making sure he’s sitting up as straight as he can. He glances at Alex, as if to make sure he approves. He doesn’t want to give himself away. He needs to look proper and shit. The reporter from Page Six is kneeling between their seats and it’s sort of uncomfortable and awkward but John responds anyway. “About three weeks now. Met Alex in Central Park. I was kind of lost and he helped me find my way back to my hotel.”

 

“And what hotel is that?”

 

            Okay, they didn’t go over that. John glances at Alex and he widens his eyes. John doesn’t know shit about hotels on this side of town or anything – so he just makes up a new lie; one that he’s sure is going to bite him in the ass.

 

“Well I’m not at the hotel anymore – Alex figured since I was with him so often, it’d be a waste to stay at a hotel so…”

 

“So you’re living with Alex, currently?”

 

“Y-yeah, that’s. Yeah,” John responds, his confidence suddenly disappearing. Alex doesn’t exactly look very happy about his answer so he figures it was definitely the wrong one.

 

“Right,” the reporter says, clicking her tongue in a way that makes John nervous. She stands up straight and closes her notepad. “This will probably show up in the paper tomorrow, if you want to look out for it. Thanks for the time, boys!”

 

            Once she’s well out of earshot, Alex sighs. “Well. I guess that wasn’t too bad…”

 

“I didn’t know what to say to that last question!” John says quickly, reaching out and subconsciously lacing their fingers together. “I don’t know shit about hotels.”

 

“It’s okay,” Alex laughs, looking down at their hands. “No big deal. They’re just going to think our relationship is a lot more serious than they originally thought. But whatever.”

 

            John bites his lip. He has a bad feeling that he just made all of this so much more complicated for them. But seriously, did he even want to be dragged into this situation? No. He just wanted to get paid and get the fuck home. To Brooklyn. Where he can go grab a slice of pizza down the block without anybody following him and asking him why he’s eating pizza. Now he’s rather stuck in this, he realizes. He’s stuck on the Upper East Side for a few weeks at the very least. And he’s not sure why he’s not completely pissed off about it.

 

- - -

 

“So who’s the skeleton you brought with you? He doesn’t seem like your usual type.”

 

            Alex shrugs. He’s standing near the bar over in the corner of the large party hall and Jack Barakat is standing beside him, ordering a drink. Alex didn’t hear what he ordered but he’s pretty sure it has alcohol. It might only be a bit past noon but that doesn’t mean that Jack isn’t going to drink.

 

“His name’s John. He’s from California. He’s visiting for a few months, trying to see if he’d like to move out here.”

 

“Right,” Jack nods, “Sure. He’s not very tan for a California boy.”

 

“I don’t think that’s a mandatory requirement to live in California, Jack,” Alex tells him, rolling his eyes. Jack Barakat is one of his least favorite people on the planet. Why he’s even standing here and talking to him, he has no idea. He should really be back at the table with John and Zack. “Well you enjoy that drink, Barakat,” Alex says, punching him lightly in the shoulder, “I’ll catch you later. Maybe.”

 

“I’ll see you tonight. I’m coming over to see Zack.”

 

“Oh, how exciting.”

 

            Alex walks away from him, rolling his eyes again once he’s out of his sight. But before he can even get back to his table and sit back down with John and Zack and Gabe and William, he’s cornered by Sierra Kusterbeck, who looks excessively excited to see him.

 

“I’ve been looking all over for you, Alex!” she exclaims, grabbing onto his arm and pulling him backwards towards the table filled with pastries and fruit. “I have to show you something!”

 

“Can you make this fast?” Alex asks, pulling his arm out of her grip, “I have to-”

 

“Get back to your new boy, yeah I know. By the way – he’s adorable. Good catch on that one. Anyway.” She glances around the room, eyes lingering over by the bar. “I saw you talking to Jack over there.” Her voice is suddenly a lot lower and she moves in a bit closer, “You know that I can’t stand the guy just as much as you can’t. I saw him last night at the bar... I don’t know what he’s up to, but he looked pissed off and he kept watching Zack and some guy the entire night. Just…he’s an asshole, we all know that. Keep an eye on him, okay?”

 

            Alex swallows hard, nodding and smiling appreciatively at her. He knows that this means that Jack probably saw Zack and Martin and tonight he’s going to interrogate Zack. Usually Jack doesn’t care who else Zack hooks up with but Jack knows that Martin’s not exactly in their social standings. This isn’t going to end well. It can’t.

 

            He’s thankful that Sierra is at least a decent enough person to let Alex know. They’re friends, but it’s not like they talk and gossip and hang out and help each other. But he figures it’s all because of Jack and their mutual hatred for the guy. Alex knew hating Jack would work out in his favor.

 

“Are you alright?” John asks when he sits back down at their table, “You look upset about something.”

 

            Alex nods and picks up his fork, “It’s fine. Just ran into Jack Barakat and that’s always an unpleasant thing.” He stabs a piece of French toast with the fork but he doesn’t eat it. He’s kind of too preoccupied to even think about eating. He catches Zack’s eye and the other boy gives him a questioning look, but Alex just ignores it. He can’t tell him about it here. He’ll have to tell him when they get back to the apartment.

 

            The rest of the brunch goes by uneventfully, with Alex’s mom constantly fluttering around him and John and making sure they’re okay and not being interrogated too much by anyone. Which they really aren’t, thankfully. They’ve been questioned a grand total of three times – once by Mrs. Kusterbeck, once by William and once by some guy from Page Six. Of course, that Page Six interview will probably be in the upcoming morning’s New York Post but that’s not too big of a deal. Nobody really takes that section of the paper too seriously.

 

            And, the best part is that John didn’t seem to be too miserable. He stuck to Alex’s side a majority of the time and he got along pretty well with William and Gabe and he actually seemed like he was kind of enjoying himself. And even though Alex is kind of dishing out a lot of money just to have him here and he should probably feel a little bit embarrassed and stupid about that, he doesn’t. John has grown on him. He likes John more than just ‘a little’ and he definitely thinks it’s been worth it.

 

“So um. I definitely expected myself to totally hate that but…it was actually sort of fun,” John says when they’re standing outside the building. “I actually kind of don’t mind hanging out with you, I guess,” he admits, cheeks turning a light shade of red as he looks down at his shoes.

 

            They’re actually Alex’s shoes. And the sweater and jacket he’s wearing are also Alex’s. The only item of clothing that Alex didn’t lend him was his jeans. “You can just give the sweater and jacket and stuff back whenever,” Alex tells him, “I don’t really need them right away so…”

 

“I’ll get them to you somehow.”

 

            Alex pulls his wallet out of his back pocket and takes the envelope out from inside of it. He made sure to get the money he owes John together before they left for the brunch so he wouldn’t have to do it later. The trickiest part of the whole thing is going to be making sure nobody sees the exchange, but Alex has looked around several times and they’re pretty well hidden by Alex’s car and Zack standing a few feet to the left. He hands the envelope quickly over to John with a small smile. “It’s all in there, I swear.”

 

            John pockets the envelope, looking down at his shoes for longer than necessary before looking back up. He looks a little less happy than he was as he says, “I trust you, man.”

 

“Right. Well. Um. They’re probably expecting you to come back to the apartment but I can make up an excuse and say you’re visiting someone or something.”

 

“We’re going to have to be together a lot over the next week or so won’t we?” John asks softly, and Alex is actually somewhat surprised, because he doesn’t look very irritated by the idea at all.

 

“Just…yeah. I’m really sorry I got you into this. I’ll pay you if-”

 

“I’ll call you tomorrow okay?” John interrupts, leaning in and pressing his lips to Alex’s quickly. It’s almost as if he didn’t do it at all, he pulls away so fast. But the feeling it leaves just reassures Alex that it definitely did happen, and it leaves him smiling to himself as he watches John walk away from him, into a crowd of people who are walking away from the subway and he sighs. He wishes he would just turn around and come home with him.

 

- - -

 

“It’s almost disgusting,” Zack lets him know once they’re back in the safety of their apartment. No reporters. No cameras. No eavesdroppers. “Like, you’re in love with a prostitute. You do know that you’re not the only one paying to sleep with him, right?”

 

“I’m not an idiot,” Alex shakes his head. Leaning up against the bar counter, he flicks his wrist and watches the liquid in his glass slosh around in circles. He’s not drunk enough to deal with his feelings right now. But Zack seems to have other plans.

 

“Like, he’s a cool guy, I’ll give you that. And sure he’s pretty good looking. But like…You’re not the only guy in his life. Not by a long shot. Plus, you’re paying him to be with you-”

 

“Dude, I’m not in love with the guy, alright? I’m just…I like him. A little bit. And maybe this whole ‘pretending to be dating’ thing we have to go through won’t be entirely too bad.”

 

“Are you going to keep paying him?”

 

            Alex shrugs. “I figure I sort of have to.”

 

“Yeah. Man, this is gonna put a nice dent in your bank accounts.”

 

“I’ll drink my way through my bank statements,” Alex jokes and puts the glass down on the table. He loosens his tie a bit more and pulls it over his head. He feels a bit too closed in right now – the day’s events sort of wore him down and now he just needs to go take a nap or something. “Is Jack coming over soon?”

 

“Yeah. He said he had to talk to me about something,” Zack mentions and Alex swallows.

 

“He saw you and Martin at the club last night.”

 

            Zack freezes, his hands in the process of opening up a DVD case. His wide eyes tell Alex more than he needs to know – this can only end badly. “How do you know that?”

 

“Sierra was there, and she told me she saw Jack watching you and Martin.”

 

“That’s probably what he’s coming over to talk about then,” Zack sighs, sitting down on the edge of the couch. He puts the DVD case on the coffee table and rubs his hands over his face, clearly not exactly sure where he needs to go from here. “Should I tell him I have other plans and he can’t come over?”

 

“I don’t know…you know what Jack is capable of, Zack,” Alex reminds him, sitting down beside him. “He could release information to the press and they’ll be all over it. Your whole family…you guys would be talked about for months.”

 

“I guess I need to find out what he has to say. I can’t not let him come over.”

 

            Alex frowns, not really having any other advice to give his best friend. He’s stuck in a bad situation and Alex isn’t so sure that there’s a way out of it. If the news about Zack and Martin gets out, people will talk, there’s no doubt about that. So Zack will probably have to agree to whatever Jack will want. But at the same time, Alex doesn’t think his friend should let himself be pushed around. His life has suddenly become so much more complicated, all because of a guy who’s not in their social standings. Alex should probably take a lesson from this one. He shouldn’t get involved with John more than he needs to.

 

- - -

 

            The day that follows the brunch is Saturday, and John has a day off. It’s a self-declared day off, but a day off all the same. It’s his little sister’s sixteenth birthday and he’s heading over to his parents apartment to celebrate with them. Martin was going to come to, considering he’s pretty much a part of the O’Callaghan family as it is. But he wasn’t answering John’s phone calls earlier that morning and John’s going to assume it’s because of something to do with Zack and he’s not going to bother trying to force Martin out of the house.

 

            So he stands at the front door of the apartment he grew up in, the small wrapped gift box in his hands and his keys in his hoodie pocket. He didn’t exactly get dressed nicely or anything – it’s a laid back kind of day, he’s decided, so he’s just in jeans and a plain shirt and his favorite sweatshirt. Hopefully his family won’t mind all that much. It takes a minute, but eventually he hears movement coming from inside the apartment and he smiles, excited to see his family after months of being a lazy asshole who avoids his relatives.

 

"You're here!" Danielle exclaims when she opens the door, grinning from ear to ear. She looks the same as she did two months ago, which John guesses is to be expected. Her brown hair is straight and pushed back with a headband and she’s dressed fashionably as usual. She stands on her toes, throws her arms around John as best as she can with her small frame and lack of height. It's always been a bit of a mystery as to how she ended up so short while John and both of their parents are fairly tall.

 

John laughs, "Of course I'm here." He hugs her tightly before pulling back and smiling at her. He lifts up the small gift in his hands and tosses it to her. "Got you something."

 

He can tell she's trying hard not to look too excited - trying to pretend as if she's annoyed that he bought her something. But he can see the faint smile as she rolls her eyes and shakes her head.

 

"You really didn't need to get me anything."

 

"It's your sixteenth birthday, Danielle. Of course I did."

 

She doesn't say another word on the subject and that's when his parents enter the living room, both of them looking more than excited to see their son. And that makes John feel terrible. He needs to make a better effort to see them. Or at the very least consider a once a week phone call.

 

- - -                                                  

 

Their mom makes dinner that night and it's the first real home cooked meal that John has had in over a month. The conversations stay mostly on Danielle, which John is grateful for because he doesn't really want to talk about his sad excuse for a life and pretend everything is going well. However, once they start on desert and the coffee comes out, that's when he's cornered by Danielle herself.

 

"So are you going to tell us why your picture is frequenting Page Six with Alex Gaskarth?"

 

With all eyes on him and the picture in question right there in the middle of the table, John shifts in his seat. He should have prepared an excuse. But he didn't think this far ahead.

 

"It's...well. The caption explains it I guess," he says finally, faking a laugh and trying to make a joke of all this.

 

Danielle blinks. "So you're shacking up with a Gaskarth. Alex Gaskarth."

 

"Yep, that would be accurate. Hey are you gonna open your gift or what?"

 

"Well when are we going to meet this boy?" His mother interrupts, barely containing her smile. "I'll cook dinner and-"

 

"I don't...um. You know, it might be too early-"

 

His father laughs and with a roll of his eyes he states, "If you're sleeping with him I doubt it's too early."

 

"Enough about me," John ends the conversation, pushing the small wrapped box even closer to his sister. "Open it. I picked it out all on my own. Well...for the most part. The sales lady pushed me in the right direction."

 

"You went shopping?" Their father asks, clearly not buying it. "Somehow I don't believe it."

 

"I'm actually a very competent shopper, Dad," John says, watching as Danielle tears open the light blue wrapping paper and her eyes grow wide as she reads the words on the box.

 

"You went to Tiffany's? Are you kidding me right now?" She asks, staring at him, "You can't afford-"

 

"Don't tell me what I can and can't afford, you brat. Open it up and tell me how great I am at picking things out."

 

She rolls her eyes and opens up the small box. "Oh my God, this is gorgeous, John!"

 

She pulls out a thin silver bracelet, small diamonds going around it and her smile is bigger than John has seen in a pretty long time. They've never been able to afford nice things. Birthdays and Christmas were never elaborate - sometimes they were lucky they got anything at all. So being able to get her something like this for the first time is definitely a proud moment for John.

 

"How did you possibly afford this?!" She questions and she gently slips it on her wrist. "This had to be-"

 

"It's not your business how much it was, Danielle," their mother scolds, but John can tell that she's actually pretty curious as well.

 

But he can never really tell them, he knows. They would never look at him the same way if they knew just how he got his money every night - how he can afford to spend five hundred dollars on a bracelet. It's a secret he'll have to always keep to himself.

 

- - -

 

“So Mom and Dad didn’t read the article that went along with the picture of you and Alex,” Danielle informs him later on that night. They're sitting in the living room watching TV while their parents clean everything up from dinner and dessert. Danielle insisted they watch ‘Breakfast at Tiffany's’ because really, why not? John didn't have the heart to try to argue it. “They don’t know about the fact that you’re lying and pretending to be from California and that you’re actually a millionaire.”

 

            John blinks. “And what part of that is a lie?”

 

            Danielle rolls her eyes and reaches out to punch him in the shoulder. “You’re an idiot if you honestly thing that they’re not going to find out who you really are. Does Alex even know who you are? I watch Gossip Girl, you know. They always get caught. You’re like Dan Humphrey-”

 

“I don’t know what a Humphrey is, but seriously. Yes, Alex knows. Shut up and mind your business and watch your movie that you’re forcing me to suffer through.”

 

            She stays silent for a few glorious moments, where John finds himself actually paying attention to the movie on the screen. But then she’s talking again and John wants to throw himself out the window. But he really should be a bit nice – it’s her birthday, after all and besides. He’s the one who got himself into this whole thing.

 

"So. Do you really like Alex?” She asks, “Or is it just...you know..."

 

John shrugs in response to his sister's question. "I don't understand what you're asking me."

 

"This is gonna sound mean but I'm your sister and I'm only looking out for you. Are you and Alex a serious thing or are you using him for the money?"

           

John kind of figured she'd jump to that conclusion. After all, he has always sort of bashed the lifestyles of those who live as Alex does and Danielle is no stranger to hearing it. He contemplates telling her the truth, because he's always been pretty honest with her and there's no real reason to hide this - well, minus the tiny detail about being paid to do it. So he just lies.

 

"I do like him."

 

Okay. So maybe that's not a lie at all.

 

- - -

 

            And John starts to think that it’s quite possible that Alex likes him too. As in, likes him as more than just the fake act they’re putting on for the public eye. It’s been a full two weeks since John agreed to this entire thing and although it’s not exactly been the easiest thing, it’s been manageable. John hasn’t slept with more than three strangers over this time span and he finds himself feeling much better about himself than he ever has before. Which is weird. Because it’s not as if he’s doing anything different – he’s still being paid to be with someone. Alex has paid him twice since this started, and not a small sum of money either. But still. John isn’t being forced to have sex with anyone and he guesses that might be the real difference.

 

            They’ve only slept together twice since that last time Alex called him over, and it was a mutual thing where they both clearly wanted it and John’s pretty sure Alex didn’t pay him for that. Of course, it’d be a bit difficult to tell, considering how much money he’s actually being paid but whatever. John will just pretend he’s not.

 

“So we actually have nowhere to be tonight,” Alex tells him as they walk through Central Park. It’s a little bit past one in the afternoon and they had just been to breakfast with Alex’s mother. Alex’s mom isn’t all that bad. She talks a lot and is a bit stuck up but who isn’t like that in this part of the city?

 

“So no parties? Or clubs?”

 

            Alex laughs and shakes his head, “Nah. We’re staying in tonight. So if you want, you can actually go home to your place. I could think of a good cover as to why you’re in Brooklyn, I’m sure.”

 

            John shrugs. “I guess I could. I haven’t heard from Martin in almost a week now. I should probably find out what happened between him and Zack. Because we all know that’s going to be the issue.”

 

“Zack has been acting weirder than usual lately,” Alex agrees. “It probably has something to do with Jack, too.”

 

“Well maybe I can just go see Martin now and come back and hang out with you later tonight?” John asks, glancing over shyly at Alex. He’s not sure what Alex’s response will be but he really hopes it’s a positive one.

 

“Yeah? You wouldn’t want to go back to your own place?” Alex asks, his face turning a light pink color and John takes that as a good sign.

 

“I dunno…I like hanging out with you, I guess. I mean. I like you.”

 

“As in…you have a crush on me,” Alex states, and it’s not much of a question at all. “As in, you’d want to actually really date me instead of this whole pretending thing?”

 

“Y-yeah,” John stumbles, barely containing his smile. “I mean. If you wanted to, too.”

 

            Alex pauses, lancing around the park, as if double checking that nobody is paying them any attention. It wouldn’t be that unusual if there was a photographer trying to be discrete a short distance away. “I think I would be down for that,” He finally says, looking at John. He smiles softly and tangles their fingers together even more, if possible. “So hey. You wanna be my real boyfriend?”

 

“Yes – but this means you have to stop paying me. Okay?”

 

            Alex grins. “No problem.”

 

- - -

 

“I’m going absolutely crazy over this.”

 

            Alex sighs. He’s been listening to Zack whine and complain about how much of an asshole Jack Barakat is for the past half an hour. Alex already knows this. He’s known this since elementary school. But of course, Zack’s only aware if it now, now that Jack is actually kind of blackmailing him.

 

“I can’t believe I ever slightly liked him,” Zack says as he drops down onto the couch beside Alex. “Like. I considered making him a regular fuck.”

 

“He already was a regular fuck,” Alex reminds him. “Pretty positive you brought him back here at least three times a week. And God only knows how many times you went back to his. The only person that could come close to being as regular as Jack was is Martin. And you see how well that one played out for you.”

 

“Martin’s….He’s different. You know how I always make fun of him and do terrible things to him while I’m not fucking him? I actually…I like him. I think. I’m not really sure what if feels like to actually like somebody, but I think he’s the closest I’ve ever gotten.”

 

            Alex rolls his eyes. “Not surprising in the slightest. Too bad you’re never allowed to see him again.”

 

            Honestly, Alex doesn’t want to hear any of this right now. He’s anxiously awaiting John to come back to the apartment so they can cuddle and do actual couple things. They’re finally not just ‘pretending’ and Alex feels like he’s just won a marathon. Well, he can only assume that’s what he feels like. He’s never run more than ten feet at a time.

 

“Yeah, thanks to Jack being a fucking dick,” Zack grumbles. “Why should I have to listen to him? Just because he saw me and Martin doesn’t mean he has the right to hold it against me.”

 

“He can do whatever he wants as long as you don’t want the press finding out who you associate yourself with,” Alex reminds him. “I mean, you don’t have to go along with it. You can let him say whatever he wants. But you’re not going to like what the press is going to say in response. Not just about you – about your whole family as well.”

 

            Zack doesn’t respond, so Alex will take that as him admitting that there’s nothing he can do about it. And it sucks – Alex can totally agree with him on that. It sucks that he can’t see who he wants all because of the power of the press and paparazzi. But Zack knew the risks when he started hooking up with Martin.

 

            And really, Alex should be learning a lesson from this. He shouldn’t be really seeing John. He shouldn’t have admitted his feelings. But he couldn’t help himself. He likes John – a lot. More than he ever thought he might. Because John is smart and sweet and adorable and great in bed and seriously. What’s not to like about him? But if this thing gets out – if their lie gets out? He’s screwed. Worse than Zack is. Because while it’s not exactly ideal that Zack was seeing Martin, at least Martin isn’t and never was a prostitute. John is.

 

- - -

 

            Of course, now that they’re totally officially together and not faking it at all, they don’t do anything past cuddling and falling asleep on each other. It’s nice though, Alex won’t deny that at all. They’ve never really done this before, despite the fact that they’ve had sex multiple times. This just feels nice and safe and perfect. John’s body is warm and fits perfectly on top of Alex’s and honestly? He can see himself in this same position a year from now. And that’s kind of a scary thing, considering he’s never been one to just settle down and have a steady relationship. But with John, he’s pretty sure he’d be able to do that. He wants to do that.

 

            It’s early when Alex wakes up again. It’s still dark outside, and he realizes this when he takes one glance at the large window not too far from him and sees that he forgot to shut the curtains before they fell asleep. He shifts underneath John and sighs. It’s too early for him to be awake, and he’s not even sure what woke him up in the first place. But now he feels John’s breath on his neck and his arm around his waist and Alex finds himself smiling widely. They’re nice feelings.

 

            A part of Alex knows that this can’t exactly last, despite his desire to settle down and be with John for the long run. They’re still living a lie. Everyone believes that John is just some rich kid from the west coast who’s living off his dad’s money and is going to have to go home at some point. But John’s real home is in Brooklyn. His real job is sleeping with other men for money. His life is far less glamorous than everyone thinks it is. Alex isn’t sure what’s going to happen but he does know that it can’t exactly end very well for either of them.

 

            A few more minutes pass – possibly ten, if Alex has to guess. And he figures since they really have nowhere to be later until well after three in the afternoon, they might as well just sleep in. He manages to slip out from underneath John without waking him (he’s come to learn that he’s a pretty heavy sleeper) and runs a hand through his hair before bending down and gently slipping one arm underneath his knees and the other around his back. John’s not heavy in the slightest and it’s easy for Alex to lift him up and hold him steadily as he walks down the hallway to the bedroom. Zack’s door is shut, but Alex knows he’s not even home.

 

            John doesn’t wake up when Alex puts him down on the bed. All he does is roll over and reach out for Alex, finding a pillow instead and seemingly being satisfied with that. Alex smiles to himself and pulls the covers up over the both of them, making sure that John isn’t too close to the edge of the bed. He doesn’t need him somehow falling out in the middle of the night. To ensure his safety even more, Alex wraps one arm around the younger boy’s waist and pulls him in as close as he can.

 

- - -

 

            John is gone when Alex wakes up again at noon. The only thing that keeps Alex from being concerned is the fact that his clothes from the day before are still on the chair in the corner of the room and his sneakers are on the floor right beside it. So Alex takes a second and stares at his ceiling, breathing in deep. He knows that John is still here but the thought of him not being here is annoyingly upsetting.

 

“John?” he calls out, rolling over onto his side and reaching for his phone on the bedside table, “You better not be setting my kitchen on fire!”

 

“I’m not!”

 

            Alex laughs, shakes his head as he scrolls through all of his messages he’s received today. There’s one from Zack that’s from eight o’clock that morning telling him he slept at Martin’s and he’d be back much later. Alex takes ‘much later’ to mean ‘possibly never’ and deletes it and moves on to the read the rest. The others are mostly from his mother, pestering him about the dinner they’re going to tonight and reminding him that they need to look ‘extra sharp’ because they’re going to be discussing the future of the company. Alex rolls his eyes and deletes all of those messages too. He really doesn’t give a shit about the future of the company.

 

            By the time he makes his way into his kitchen, John has clearly been awake for over an hour now. By the looks of his wet hair and new clothes, he’s already showered and searched through Alex’s closet. He’s standing at the stove, frowning at whatever he’s got in the frying pan.

 

“That look doesn’t seem promising,” Alex says aloud, causing John to jump slightly and look his way. “What are you doing?”

 

“Well I’m making pancakes but…they’re taking longer than I thought they would to cook.”

 

Alex laughs and walks up behind him, wrapping his arms around his waist. “A boy who makes me breakfast? Never had one of those before.”

 

“Well as long as you’re my boyfriend, I’ll make you breakfast every morning.”

 

“Sounds alright to me.”

 

- - -

 

            Sure, being in an official relationship with Alex is nice. But, it isn’t exactly something that John can really truly depend on. Yes, he likes Alex a lot. Yes, he loves being with him and hanging out with him and maybe he doesn’t really mind the attention they get from the press. But still, there is no guarantee that they’ll last and John is not going to risk it. So as much as he didn’t want to, he has to keep up with his clients and keep them interested. Or else he’ll lose them and he really can’t have that.

 

            And it sucks, he acknowledges. Because he’s going out every couple of nights and meeting up with these sleazy guys and having sex with them and then going home to Alex after they’ve paid him. Alex knows, yeah, but it still isn’t something that John likes. He hates it. He’s essentially cheating on his boyfriend. He feels dirty and gross and that’s never going to be something that will sit well with him. He’s lucky that none of the guys he sleeps with really care about him. They don’t even recognize him from the papers, and if they do, they don’t say anything. John figures none of them even read the regular news in the paper, let alone Page Six. So he’s pretty safe in that aspect.

 

            It’s been two weeks since he and Alex have been officially dating – a little over a month if you’re going by what the press says. And in those two weeks, John has had more fun than he ever has in his life. Alex takes him to all these elaborate dinner parties and clubs and charities and even though John was never interested in them before, now he kind of knows what he’s been missing. They’re not as bad as everyone makes them out to be, and neither are the people. Zack is kind of proof of that. John used to think that Zack was just an asshole who used his best friend. But now he’s starting to realize that he’s actually not that bad – in fact, John will actually go as far as to consider them friends.

 

            As far as Martin is concerned? Well, he’s been totally MIA for the past week and half. He doesn’t answer John’s texts or phone calls or emails. He’s never at John’s apartment when Johns stops by to pay rent or check up on things. He’s just sort of missing. And John would be worried about him if it weren’t for the fact that Zack has been acting the same way. It’s obvious that they’re off somewhere together and while that’s great for them and everything, it’s only going to blow up in their faces. There’s only a matter of time before the press figures it all out. They’ve noticed Zack’s absence just as much as John has.

 

            It’s just a bit past midnight when John gets back to Alex’s apartment. There’s a benefit dinner near Central Park thrown by the Kusterbeck’s tonight, and John’s thankful because that means the paparazzi will be over there and not hovering near him. As much as he doesn’t mind showing up on Page Six with Alex every day, it gets a bit old when they’re just trying to figure out exactly who he is and what he’s all about. He’s not stupid – someone’s going to reveal who he really is sooner or later. But he figures he’ll just let it play out for now.

 

            He finds Alex asleep on the couch, with the TV on and the lights out and the curtains closed over the windows. For a second, John contemplates skipping the shower and just curling up with Alex and going to sleep. But he can’t – he feels too gross and knows that only a shower will make him feel any better about being close to Alex. So he kicks his shoes off and leaves them by the couch and goes straight for the bathroom, not bothering to wake Alex and tell him he’s back.

 

            The shower’s heat is on full blast and it burns his skin when he steps under the spray, but he doesn’t care. He scrubs at the bruises on his hips and his thighs and hopes when he’s done that they’ll be gone. He knows they won’t be but it’s nice to just pretend for a few minutes. At the very least, at least he knows he’s ridding himself of their touch. That’s something to be cheerful about, at least.

 

            He spends a half an hour in the shower, standing under the hot water and avoiding going back out and having to face Alex. He has no idea why he’s feeling so guilty tonight. Maybe it’s because he slept with two clients instead of the usual one per night. Or maybe it’s just because it’s all starting to hit him at once - what a terrible boyfriend he is and how he’s just going to end up screwed over when this is all done. There’s only one way this thing can end – with John and Alex breaking up. Either the press is going to find out about the lie, or they’ll have to fake a break up and John will have to pretend to go back to California. Either way, it’s not very promising. John will end up back in his apartment in Brooklyn, avoiding press and Alex’s life won’t change at all.

 

“You were in there a while. You okay?”

 

            John freezes in the bathroom doorway, white towel wrapped around his waist. He figured Alex would be awake by now but he didn’t exactly expect him to be standing in the hallway waiting for him.

 

“Yeah, I’m okay,” John assures him with a half-hearted smile. “Just. Thinking, I guess.”

 

            Alex nods, not seeming to be very convinced. But he does drop it, which John is thankful about. “Come to bed, then?”

 

“Yeah, okay.”

 

- - -

 

            John’s assumption about Martin’s unusual behavior having something to do with Zack Merrick couldn’t have been more accurate. The New York Post comes to Alex’s apartment every morning, right to his front door. Before John was around, it would usually go right from the front door and into the recycling bin. His mother informs him of any news he needs to know. But John actually likes reading the paper, so he grabs it from the hallway every morning and sits down in the living room to read it. And usually, the front page never shows a single hint about what’s on Page Six, the gossip section. This morning though, that’s not quite the case.

 

“Oh fuck,” John mumbles to himself as he flips through the thin pages of the newspaper. Alex is in the shower, getting ready to go to Tribeca and meet with his dad. John’s pretty sure he’s not going to be in the mood to do that anymore once he reads this article.

 

            The article is small in comparison to articles written in other sections, but it’s big compared to the ones usually featured on Page Six. It features the same picture they show in the top right corner of the front page – one of Zack from a charity dinner the other night in Tribeca – only a lot bigger and a pretty harsh article about his family right beside it. John’s not going to pretend like he didn’t expect this to happen, but it still sucks for everyone involved.

 

            He doesn’t bother reading the entire thing – he gets the basics of it just by skimming. Martin’s name pops out at him multiple times and so does the word ‘Brooklyn’. The Merrick’s reputation is officially being compromised now, thanks to Zack and Martin and their little ‘relationship’, if you can even call it that. Zack’s probably flipping out on Martin right now. Maybe John should call him. Maybe-

 

“Anything interesting going on in the world?” Alex interrupts his thoughts, walking from the hallway and into the living room. He’s smiling and running a towel over his wet hair, looking at John expectantly. “You don’t seem very happy.”

 

“Read this,” John shoves the paper into his chest and Alex drops the towel and only barely manages to catch the paper.

 

            He rolls his eyes at John, clearly not realizing the seriousness of the entire thing. “Did your favorite politician fall behind in the race?”

 

“Can you just read and stop being an asshole?”

 

“Fine.”

 

            It’s obvious when Alex figures it out when he sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as he reads along.

 

“Why do you think Jack told on them? Do you think there’s a way to get out of it? Maybe they can just say Jack’s lying-”

 

“Well they could do that,” Alex agrees, but he shakes his head sets the paper back down on the table. “The problem with that plan is that Jack’s not even the one who released the information.”

 

            John frowns, “What? Then who did?”

 

“Did you even read the article, mister ‘I read every single article in the paper’? Apparently Zack said it himself in an interview he had this afternoon.”

 

“Why would he do that though? When he knew what would happen?”

 

“Dude, I don’t know,” Alex sighs, collapsing onto his couch and throwing his arm over his eyes dramatically. “Who knows why Zack does any of the things he does.”

 

“Things are going to be rough for him now,” John mumbles, pushing the paper farther away from them and snuggling into Alex’s side. “But I think maybe it’s better this way, instead of Jack being the one to sell them out. You know?”

 

            Alex just nods and John can tell he’s not exactly in the mood to talk about this. He understands, considering he kind of does consider Zack as more than just an acquaintance and he doesn’t want to see him, and especially not Martin, getting hurt over this.

 

            A few months ago, John wouldn’t even be aware of this scandal. It’s not a scandal to anybody outside of this social group, really. He would have just flipped right by Page Six just like everyone else in his neighborhood, and he definitely wouldn’t have seen it on E! News either. And if he did, he wouldn’t have even thought it worthy of a second thought. But now that he’s involved with these people, been involved in their lives and seeing what they’re really like? He cares about them more than he thought he might. Alex and Zack – even Gabe and William and all of Alex’s other friends – are important to him now. And he knows that this thing with Zack and Martin isn’t going to turn out very well, and that if something similar happens to John and Alex…nothing will be the same after that.

 

- - -

 

            A month later and Alex tells John that he loves him.

 

            It wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for how he tells him.

 

“I just would rather you stop. That’s all. I’m not telling you that you have to or anything. I’m just saying that it would be nice.”

 

“I can’t just stop. If you’ve forgotten, I don’t have anything that I can just fall back on. I have a job and I can’t just quit-”

 

“I know that!” Alex shouts, his tone and volume indicating that he’s starting to get frustrated with this conversation and the way that it’s turning out. John’s pretty sure he didn’t expect it to go this way. “I’m just – it’s just a little bit upsetting being alone in your bed some nights because your boyfriend is out fucking another guy in fucking Brooklyn!”

 

            It hurts a little bit more than he’d like to admit. And he does feel badly – his ‘career’ isn’t exactly ideal and it definitely isn’t fair to Alex. But what can he do? It’s not like he and Alex are going to be ‘together forever’. “I know it sucks,” John stresses, running one hand through his hair, watching Alex anxiously. “But I have to. It pays my rent and everything else. I know I’m staying here now and I really haven’t needed money for much but when this is done? When we break up, I’m going to have to go back to my place in Brooklyn and live like I was before.”

 

“Why do we have to break up? Why are you always saying that like it’s inevitable?”

 

            John can’t help himself – he rolls his eyes and sits down on the edge of the couch, looking up at Alex. “You can’t honestly say to me that this whole thing is going to last. If you don’t remember – we’re lying to everyone. The only people who don’t know who I really am is Zack and Martin. The press thinks I’m some rich kid from California and what do you think is going to happen when they can’t dig up any information on me? You think they’re going to just let it go?”

 

“No, but-”

 

“Once they figure out I’m not who I claim to be, they’re going to do whatever they can to figure out who I actually am. So you tell me – do you want them to find out and blow my cover and your reputation will be torn apart? Or would you rather us break up before they can do that and they’ll all forget about me. What sounds easier to you, Alex? Because honestly, those are the only two ways this thing can go.”

 

            Alex frowns, “I don’t like either of them. I don’t want to break up with you. I want you to move in with me and just… fuck. I love you, alright? I love you.”

 

            An overwhelming feeling of panic descends on John and suddenly this room is too small – he needs more air. Alex is staring at him, eyes wide with apprehension and clearly anticipating an answer. But John’s not even sure what to say first. Love? Is that what this thing is? He’s never seen himself falling in love. Not with the job he has. But Alex…Does he love Alex? How do you know if you love someone? Is there a signal that he missed? Is-

 

“You don’t have to say it back if you don’t know.” And suddenly Alex is right there next to him on the couch, one hand on his knee and his head resting on his shoulder. “I just wanted to tell you. I know this whole thing is hard but I promise, they’re not going to find out. They’re not going to care that much. We’re going to fade into the background of the Upper East Side soon enough. I’m sure Sierra Kusterbeck has some sort of scandal ready to be thrown into the spotlight soon enough.”

 

            John doesn’t believe him for a second. They’re not going to be forgotten. But if Alex wants to think that way, then John will humor him for a little while. But he knows he’s going to have to really talk about this and figure out how they’re going to play everything out. His time with Alex is running out, he knows it. And maybe that’s the real reason why he can’t say ‘I love you’ back.

 

- - -

 

            Jack Barakat is a dick. And a douchebag. And an asshole. And every other word that gets the point across that he’s a piece of shit. Because what normal person has the amount of time and energy that Jack has to spend on ruining someone’s life? John is convinced that Jack is actually the devil. Because while he’s standing in front of John at the bar, John feels like his skin is crawling and he suddenly feels the need to go to church.

 

“I haven’t been able to pinpoint it yet,” Jack tells John, his voice raised enough so that it’s heard over the volume of the music. “But seriously, something is weird about your relationship with Alex.”

 

“I don’t really see how my relationship with Alex is anyone’s business but mine,” John says, tries to push past Jack and make his way towards the back of the bar but Jack doesn’t let him move.

 

“I’m not the only one who thinks something’s up. Nobody’s been able to dig up any info about you. I think it’s about time they started looking somewhere else. Don’t you think?”

 

            John is about to open his mouth to respond again, to tell Jack to back off and leave him alone and find someone better to torment, but before he can do any of those things, there’s an arm wrapping around his waist protectively and he’s being pulled backwards and he can only assume that it’s Alex. There’s nobody else it really could be.

 

“Back the fuck off, Barakat, and go stalk someone else’s life. How’s that sound?”

 

            Alex’s mouth is right next to John’s ear and he cringes at the volume, knowing that he’s able to hear him loud and clear, but Jack probably didn’t. But the other boy just shrugs his shoulders and smirks at them both, and John finds himself leaning back into Alex in search of some sort of comfort.

 

“Zack might have been able to ruin my plans of outing him to the media, but trust me – I’m going to be much more efficient this time and-”

 

“That’s very nice, Jack,” Alex tells him, reaching out and patting him on the shoulder, as if Jack is just a child rambling about his plans for the day. John doesn’t understand how he can be taking this so lightly. “While you do that, John and I are leaving. See you hopefully never.”

 

            And John finds himself being pulled out of the bar, hand held tightly by Alex’s as the weave through the crowds of people. John recognizes some of them – some of them from dinners and events that he went to with Alex. But most of them are just unfamiliar faces, and John thinks he likes them best. He doesn’t know them and they don’t seem to know him. And, if they do, they’re not even giving him the time of day. John misses that. He misses being able to go places without being watched or anything like what happens now when he goes out with Alex.

 

“He’s such a dick,” Alex huffs once they end up on the sidewalk outside of the bar. He doesn’t let go of John’s hand and he doesn’t slow his pace, not until he manages to flag down a taxi. “He needs to find a new hobby.”

 

            John keeps quiet. He sits next to Alex in the back of the taxi, free hand tracing mindless patterns on his kneecap and the other hand still in Alex’s hold. He’s thinking – really thinking, for once. Jack’s words are under his skin, digging in and making themselves at home. He’s not going to be able to ignore this. Jack is going to do whatever it takes to find out who John really is.

 

            He’s not sure how long it takes to get back to the apartment, but the trip isn’t long enough. All too soon, Alex is paying the driver and slipping out of the cab, holding his hand out for John to take. And John follows him, follows him up the path which is thankfully devoid of any paparazzi. He’s sure his lack of a smile and the concern in his eyes would be enough to make them question.

 

            Alex catches on to John’s concern once they get into the elevator, and the doors have closed and it’s already moving upwards. He presses John gently up against the back wall and gives him a warm smile. “Relax. He’s not going to do anything.”

 

“You don’t honestly believe that, do you?”

 

            There’s no opportunity for Alex to give a response, because the elevator doors are sliding open and there are people on the other side waiting to get in. They’re all young, all dressed up as if they’re just leaving to go out to the bars and clubs. It is only eleven. It makes sense. John and Alex would have been out a lot later if it weren’t for Jack.

 

            By the time they get back into the apartment, Alex has apparently forgotten about John’s question in the elevator. He kicks off his shoes after he locks his door and then starts pulling off his clothes, dropping them on the floor as he heads for his bedroom, not seeming to care that Zack and Martin are sitting right there in the living room watching a movie.

 

“Well you guys are back early,” Zack says loudly over the sound of Iron Man playing through the surround sound. He doesn’t sound very thrilled to see them. “Weren’t expecting you back until well after two. What happened?”

 

            John, in the process of pouring himself a glass of water in the kitchen, rolls his eyes. He hates how easy it is for Zack and Martin. It shouldn’t be this easy. They shouldn’t be as happy as they are. Zack’s a trust fund brat and Martin is a Brooklyn resident with a catering job. They should have been torn apart by the press, should have broken up already. And as badly as John feels about thinking these things, he can’t bring himself to take them back.

 

“Jack Barakat happened.”

 

“Sucks,” Zack acknowledges. “Did he threaten you? Hit on you? Try to buy your soul? All three at the same time?”

 

“Not quite,” John says with a sigh, collapsing down into the armchair that sits in front of the large window. Normally, he’d  face the window, look out at the Manhattan skyline. But he can’t right now. The idea of it makes him sick. “He told me he’s going to find out what me and Alex are hiding.”

 

“Hiding?” Zack scrunches up his nose, confusion written all over his face. “What?”

 

            Martin rolls his eyes from beside his boyfriend but he doesn’t say anything. He knows as well as John does.

 

“Yeah. You know, the whole ‘hey I’m a rich kid from California’ thing? Not exactly a truth-based statement. At all.”

 

“Oh. I forgot about that…” Zack offers him an apologetic glance and wraps one arm around Martin’s shoulders. “I mean, it’s easy to forget. Just by watching you guys together would convince anyone you’re in love and have nothing to hide. Minor details, really.”

 

“Minor details that are going to screw Alex and his family over.”

 

“Not necessarily,” Zack says quickly, “The media finding out that I’m with Martin didn’t hurt my family all that much. My parents are still very well respected. Sure, I’m not exactly at the top of the list for parties and shit anymore and I get bashed by people in the gossip section all the time, but I don’t actually care about that, do I?”

 

“No, but-”

 

“You and Alex should just do what I did. Tell the press on your own and see what happens. It won’t be that bad – trust me. It turned out fine for me and Martin. Now I can actually be with him in public and go to Brooklyn and hang out with his family and at his place. By lying, you’re limiting yourself to the Upper East Side.”

 

            Martin is quick to agree, “When was the last time you even went home, John? And saw your family?”

 

“I talk to them on the phone,” John tells them quietly, “I can’t go home. That’d be a bit suspicious-”

 

“That’s what I mean. If you just came clean about it, you could go home. Whenever you’d want.”

 

            The slamming of a bedroom door from the hallway signals Alex coming back out and John suddenly feels a rush of confidence. Why can’t they be like Zack and Martin? Why can’t they take a risk and see what happens? It really wouldn’t be so bad – much better than the press finding out on their own. And then John could actually go home and hang out with his sister and be in his apartment. He smiles at Alex as he stands beside the couch, hands running through his hair.

 

“What movie can we watch next?” he asks, unaware of the conversation that was just occurring. “Can we watch the next Iron Man?”

 

“Sure,” Zack says, “But I think John wants to say something.”

 

            As soon as Alex zeroes in on him, the sudden rush of confidence decreases just as quickly as it came. John swallows and shrugs, trying to think of a good way to start this thing. “I was just thinking about what Jack said to us at the bar,” he explains slowly, trying not to piss Alex off before he can even get to his point. “About the whole ‘secret’ thing?”

 

“Right,” Alex nods, sitting down in the space beside Zack. “He’s an idiot. You shouldn’t worry much about him.”

 

“But the thing is, he’s kind of a serious threat,” John protests, “You can’t honestly say that you think he’s not going to try and hurt us. I think that…that maybe we should try and do what Zack did. Tell the press about us before Jack can. Or before they find out on their own.”

 

“Yeah,” Alex snorts, amusement dancing across his features, “Cause that’s a great idea. They’ll totally love that story.”

 

            John’s heart sinks at Alex’s obvious doubt. “Well, it’s either tell them the truth and deal with the consequences and stay together, or break up before they can. I don’t…I guess it’s up to you, then.”

 

“I’d rather we just keep going as we have been and stay together. I don’t see why that’s not an option.”

 

“It’s unrealistic-”

 

“No you know what’s unrealistic?” Alex counters, eyes colder than John has ever seen them. “Thinking that when they find out who you really are, that they’ll just forget about it and move on. That it’s going to go the same way as Zack and Martin did. It’s almost as if you just tend to forget the minor little detail that you’re a fucking prostitute John. Martin’s not a prostitute. He doesn’t sleep around for money. He never did. That’s why their situation was accepted the way it was.”

 

            His words hurt more than they probably should. Alex is right, John is what he is. There’s no denying that. And John’s not going to. But hearing it come out of Alex’s mouth like that? It’s as if every single word is sharp and it pierces his skin, digging their way underneath and making themselves at home. Hearing it from someone who claims to love you is not the easiest thing in the world. He was stupid to think that something good could happen to him.

 

            And that’s how John finds himself on the subway, on his way back to Brooklyn. To his apartment. To his old life. He doesn’t know if anybody saw him get on, but he finds himself not caring. A part of him actually hopes that tomorrow when he picks up the newspaper and flips over to the gossip section, he’ll see a harsh article about Alex and his family and about how all respect has been lost.

 

- - -

 

            Three days later and John is still miserable. His heart aches and he hasn’t showered, moved from the couch, or opened a window since he came home that night. His phone has been ringing what feels like non-stop and he knows that it’s probably just Martin, calling to try to figure out what’s going through his head. It’s only a matter of time before his best friend just gives up calling and stops by in person. That’s how they’ve always been – give the other enough time to cool down and if they’re still being an idiot after a few days, it’s time for serious intervention. John hopes Martin gives him at least two more.

 

            It doesn’t take a genius to figure out exactly why John is so upset over this whole thing. Sure, he’s pissed off at what Alex said and his refusal to publicly own up to this relationship. But he’s also really fucking pissed off at himself – because he proved that what Alex said was accurate. The first thing he did on his first night alone was go seek out one of his clients. And for some reason, sleeping with him this time actually felt like he was cheating on Alex. Before it was just a job. But this time he did it out of spite. And John can’t even look at himself in the mirror. That’s the main reason he hasn’t bothered with showering. He’s also just too lazy and miserable.

 

            Maybe he was too quick to react, he thinks to himself, flicking through his TV channels. He pauses briefly on the E! Network, watching as they talk about Lindsay Lohan and he contemplates leaving it on, just to see if maybe they mention Alex. But then he scoffs to himself and carries on with trying to find a decent movie. He runs through that night with Alex again, thinking about what he could have said differently, how he could have approached it in a better, calmer way. He should have reasoned and talked it out with his boyfriend instead of just running away. Then again, his boyfriend called him a prostitute. That’s not something anyone wants to hear, even if it’s the truth.

 

“I should call him,” John says aloud to himself, hugging his knees to his chest. He eyes his cell phone on the coffee table but he makes no move to grab it. “He loves me,” he continues, “We’re just fighting. We can’t…we’re not done yet. I mean…one fight…”

 

            And that’s the first time John starts to realize that he’s going crazy.

 

*

 

            Later in the afternoon, after John has dialed and hung up before Alex could answer more times than he can count, there’s a knock on his front door. His heart leaps at the thought that it’s Alex, coming over to apologize. But then he’s quick to remind himself that Alex doesn’t know where he lives and John feels like an idiot. It’s going to be Martin, coming by with cake and some chick flick to try to make him feel better. John won’t lie and say that it’s not going to help at all.

 

            Turns out, John’s wrong again. It’s not Alex and it definitely isn’t Martin. Unless Martin turned into a woman overnight. A highly successful, smartly dressed forty-five year old woman. To be more specific, Alex’s mother.

 

“Hello John,” she greets, her voice sharp and cool and John knows she’s not here to check in on her son’s relationship problems. “Can I come in?”

 

            She doesn’t exactly look too thrilled to be in John’s apartment, let alone in Brooklyn, but clearly she came here on a mission and as soon as John steps aside, she heads straight for his living room couch. She sits herself down on the edge of it, as if doing her best not to touch anything in the apartment more than necessary. She stares up at John, not blinking and barely smiling and John knows he’s screwed.

 

“So. You’re not exactly who everyone thinks you are, apparently,” she says smoothly, glancing around. Her eyes linger on John’s beat up sneakers near the door. “You and Alex have been lying.”

 

“I’m sorry,” John shrugs, not sure what else to say. “I didn’t think it would go this far. I thought it would be a onetime thing and…and then I actually fell for Alex and-”

 

“Of course you did. But you have to know – there’s no way you two can be together anymore. I’m sure you know Jack Barakat by now.”

 

            John’s heart sinks. “I do. Unfortunately.”

 

“Well then I’m sure you know how he works. He came to me yesterday, telling me all about the ‘dirt’ he dug up about you and told me that if I didn’t pay him a substantial amount of money, he’d go straight to the press with it.”

 

“Y-you’re being blackmailed? Over mine and Alex’s relationship?”

 

“Of course I’m not,” Mrs. Gaskarth says, looking at John as if he’s an idiot. “Jack Barakat’s mother is deeply involved in the charity events I run – and I know enough about his family that would do much more damage than him running to the Post about my son’s lie-based relationship. So no. I’m not being blackmailed.”

 

“Then I don’t exactly understand what you’re here for,” John admits. He shifts on his feet uncomfortably, unsure of where to look. “If you’re not here to blame me for something then-”

 

“Don’t get me wrong – just because I can keep Barakat from spilling his info doesn’t mean that I don’t want your relationship with my son to end. Alex has potential – potential to have the same untainted reputation that his father used to have. And with you being…” She pauses, eyes trailing across John’s body and he feels ten times more uncomfortable then he did thirty seconds ago. “Well. What you are…I don’t think it would be wise for him to stick to this false relationship.”

 

“But…What about Alex? Shouldn’t he be able to have a say in-”

 

“How does San Diego sound to you, John?”

 

            Frowning, John shrugs. He’s not quite sure where she’s going with this but he’ll play along. “I uh. I guess it sounds nice?”

 

            She nods, considers his answer, and then asks, “What about Los Angeles? Or maybe San Francisco?”

 

            And that’s when he catches on. He blinks a few times more than necessary, tries to wrap his brain around this whole thing. “I don’t…Are you trying to bribe me into leaving? Into moving out of New York?”

 

“I thought you’d caught on earlier,” She laughs, but she doesn’t sound very amused. “Yes. I’m offering to move you out to California. I can pay you well. It’ll be just like the little lie you and Alex created. We can tell Page Six the truth for once – Alex and John broke up. John went to California.”

 

“I don’t exactly feel comfortable with you paying me to move away from –”

 

“Oh, John,” She shakes her head and stands up from his couch. She stares sadly at him, as if she pities him. She probably does. “So you’re comfortable with men paying you for sex, but not with someone paying you to move and have a better life?”

 

            So maybe she does sort of have a point.

 

- - -

 

“I feel miserable. Is this what being depressed feels like?”

 

            Zack rolls his eyes and shakes his head at the same time, and Alex almost laughs at that sight. But instead he just continues moping and sinks back into the couch cushions, arms crossing over his chest. Maybe he’s being a little bit dramatic, but he’s fighting with his boyfriend. He thinks he’s allowed to be for a little bit.

 

“I get that you’re sad that John is pissed off at you but seriously, dude. I don’t think you should go as far as saying you’re depressed. John will call you in a day or two and you’ll be fine. I mean, hey, Martin’s on his way to see him now. Maybe he’ll be able to knock some sense into him and make him come back with him.”

 

“It’s been a week,” Alex grumbles, “If he hasn’t called already, he’s not calling now. And he’s definitely not going to come back with Martin. He’s too stubborn.”

 

“So…you’re not going to do anything about it?”

 

            Alex shrugs, “Like what? If I get back with him and Jack blows our cover, I’m screwed. You head my mom last night. She’s not going to support me if I continue dating John. She would disown me, basically. I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. I can’t…I can’t just throw everything away-”

 

“For someone you love?”

 

            His sigh and lack of eye contact is enough to give Zack the answer he was looking for.

 

“Seriously, Alex. I know I’m not one to talk – I used to be an asshole to Martin and I led him on and I said and did horrible things to him. But I guess when I really thought about it, he just made sense. You know?   Like…I always felt the best when I was with him. And I chose him over my family. Over my reputation. And it turned out alright-”

 

“In case you haven’t noticed, your parents didn’t threaten to disown you and cut you off from their company. Mine did.”

 

            And it’s not that Alex thinks that John isn’t worth it. That’s far from the problem here and he’ll at least admit that. John was everything Alex would have looked for in a boyfriend. Even more, really. Sure his job wasn’t exactly ideal but that didn’t make him a bad person or anything like that. It was just something that got in the way. Because Alex has absolutely nothing to fall back on. His future in the family company would be compromised and he knows his parents would cut him off completely. He would only have John.

 

            But isn’t John enough?

 

            His head is telling him he’s not, but his heart says otherwise. And they say you’re supposed to follow your heart, aren’t you? Is he supposed to just risk everything and hope for the best? And if it all goes to shit, he’ll have John and that will be enough?

 

“I think you should talk to John before you make any sort of decision,” Zack says, breaking him from his thoughts. “You should head over there. See what he has to say.”

 

            Zack is probably right – rational, even. Alex should talk things out with his boyfriend before they make any decisions. And he’s got his shoes on and is in the process of pulling on his jacket when he hears their front door slam open. He freezes, arm halfway through the sleeve and stares at Zack with wide eyes. That has to be Martin. And by the sound of the door slam, he can’t be in a good mood.

 

“Shit,” Zack groans and tosses the remote for the TV to the side. He gets up from the couch just in time for Martin to storm into the living room, fists clenched by his side and eyes filled with what Alex can only assume is anger. “What the hell happened?” Zack questions, quick to move by his side. “You’re shaking-”

 

“He’s gone.”

 

            Martin’s statement makes no sense to Alex. “Who? What are you talking about?”

 

            Martin sends an angry glare in Alex’s direction but there doesn’t seem to be much meaning behind it. “John. His apartment was empty when I got there. It’s like he just up and moved without telling any of us. He’s gone.”

 

- six months; mid-September –

 

            As gorgeous as New York City is in the fall, Alex can’t quite bring himself to appreciate it as much as he used to. Sure, the trees look somewhat cool – they’re starting to change and the orange and reds make the streets look a bit friendlier. There is a significant drop in tourists and even though tourism is probably good for the economy, Alex can only take so many individuals stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take a picture of the M&M store. Another plus side to the fall season? The heat is quickly starting to disappear.

 

            Alex walks down Broadway with a thin jacket on, hands in his pockets and eyes focused on the ground. He just got out of a meeting with his father and one of his father’s most recent clients. They discussed something to do with an apartment on Fifth Avenue but Alex really doesn’t remember. He was barely involved in the conversation. He’s rarely ever involved in anything these days. He just doesn’t care anymore. Zack tells him he’s depressed. But Alex thinks he should probably be more concerned about Martin.

 

            Of course it wasn’t an easy thing, going from having John and having something so great with him one day, to not having him and not even knowing where he is the next. Alex has so many regrets about the whole thing. He hates himself for not trying to talk to John right after their fight. Maybe if he hadn’t waited so long, he could have fixed things. He’d probably still be with him. But now he’ll never know, because as far as the media knows, he and John broke up and John went home to California. And just as expected, he’s pretty much been forgotten about.

 

            It’s not just Alex that’s been hurting over this. Martin has as well, and it’s probably a lot worse for him. He was John’s best friend, the one who knew him best and could talk to about anything. He’s heard Martin crying to Zack some nights about how pissed off he is with John for not saying goodbye. He’s heard him complain about not knowing where he is. John’s parents are the only ones who know. And they don’t seem very willing to reveal that information. Sure, Alex could probably hire someone to find John for him – it would probably cost him a fortune – but he figures that he should just leave it be. John doesn’t want anyone looking for him. If he really wants to, he’ll contact them on his own.

 

            For the time being, Alex just has to get through it all. Day by day. And hopefully everything will start to make sense again soon.

 

 

            It’s almost four in the afternoon when Alex gets back to his apartment. Just Martin is there, meaning Zack is still out to lunch with his parents. Alex knows they were discussing something to do with his cousin’s political campaign and how the whole family needs to keep up a decent reputation. Alex is pretty sure that Zack will be the center of that discussion but he knows that his best friend isn’t going to let himself be pushed around too much.

 

“Finally!” Martin exclaims once he realizes that Alex is back in the apartment. He hops up from his spot on the couch and approaches Alex in the kitchen, watching him pour himself a glass of water. “I got a phone call from John’s sister while you were gone.”

 

            Alex’s heart leaps at the words but he doesn’t let Martin know that. “Oh yeah? About what?”

 

“Well, apparently she wasn’t supposed to tell me. But she feels bad for me. So, now I know where John is.”

 

“So…she felt bad for your pathetic-ness and decided to throw you a bone and tell you where to find him?”

 

“Pretty much…”

 

“Hm. Well, then where is he?”

 

“California. San Diego, specifically. Near Mission Bay.”

 

            Alex snorts. “Figures.”

 

            How did he not think of that? How did he not consider the possibility that John would go where everyone was expecting him to go? But how did he get there. That’s the only issue Alex is finding with this information. “How the hell did he get there?”

 

“She didn’t say,” Martin mumbles, hands covering his face as he lets out a tired sigh. “But dude…Now we know where to go.”

 

            Alex frowns. “Where to go? What are you talking about?”

 

            Martin groans, clearly frustrated with Alex’s failure to pick up on what he’s trying to say. “We can go find him! You can’t seriously tell me that you’ve never thought of it. That if you knew where to go when you first found out he’d left, you’d have gone.”

 

“Martin, I don’t know. It’s been six months since he left. I doubt he’d want to see me at all now. I’m sure he’s over me-”

 

“You won’t know unless you go, man. I’m going. I’m buying a ticket to California. I…I have to go find my best friend. I’m not going to waste this opportunity. And you shouldn’t either.”

 

“I can’t go,” Alex protests quickly, “My family would never-”

 

“Oh my God, Alex,” Martin snaps, eyes narrowed and arms crossed over his chest, “When the fuck are you going to man up?! When are you going to do something for yourself?! Fuck your family! Do something that you want to do!”

 

            Martin storms out of the apartment after a series of door slams and mumbles curses. He’s probably on his way to the library or something – that’s where he tends to go when he’s pissed off or bored. And Alex just lets him go, his words wrapping around his brain, refusing to just go away. He knows Martin is right. Going after John is definitely what he wants to do. But it’s probably not what he should do, if he takes his family and reputation into account.

 

            But why should he do that? He’s twenty two years old. He has his own life. He doesn’t want a single part of his father’s company. So why should he put off doing what he wants just so he can maintain a reputation that he doesn’t care about?

 

- - -

 

“It’s nice being able to walk out of a building without being stalked by Joe,” Martin rejoices as he drags his bad through the living room of the house they’re renting. “And nobody cares if I wear sweatpants outside!”

 

            Zack glances over at Alex, who’s collapsed into an armchair in front of the TV. “Who the fuck is Joe?” he questions, perplexed as to who Martin could even be talking about. “Is there someone I should know about?”

 

“That asshole photographer who always hung out outside your apartment building…” Martin tells him, scoffing at the fact that neither of them knew his name. “He like, harassed me on a daily basis. His backpack had his name on it.”

 

“That douche wad?” Zack snorts, shaking his head. “Only you would bother to acknowledge the name of a paparazzi asshole.”

 

            Martin rolls his eyes and continues to drag his luggage down the long hallway to the bedrooms and Alex just lets Zack go after him and continue to make fun of him. They got to San Diego a few hours ago and managed to somehow find a cab to take them to the beach house they were able to rent. There’s a nice view through the back doors of a path leading to the beach, but the September weather doesn’t exactly make great beach weather, so Alex doubts they’ll be down there very often. Their goal is to find John. That’s the priority. At least, it’s Alex’s priority.

 

            It didn’t exactly go over very well with his parents. Three days ago, he told them he was going out to California for a change for a change of scenery, for some fun. His father, at first, was all for it and didn’t really give it a second thought. His mother on the other hand was not quite as agreeable. Her reasoning at first was that Alex was needed in New York – that he was needed to help make decisions with the company and try and start to learn the ins and outs of it. But then suddenly it turned into a discussion about keeping his reputation clean and the press at bay and that’s when Alex caught on. She knew why he really wanted to go. And that meant that she knew John was in California this whole time.

 

            He’s not sure why he was so surprised to hear that she paid his boyfriend to move to another state. And it shouldn’t have been so surprising that John accepted. But it was, and Alex felt so dejected and dismayed over it that he actually went home and cried for two hours. Alex has never cried over anybody before, so not even Zack knew what to do. But it didn’t take long for it to sink in that Alex had to go find John. And that’s kind of how they all ended up here in San Diego, in a beachfront rental and nothing but time on their hands.

 

“We should go down to the water!” Martin calls out from one of the bedrooms, bringing Alex back from his thoughts. “Considering we have no idea where to even start looking for John!”

 

“It’s fucking seventy degrees out!” Alex counters, “You’ll freeze in that water!”

 

“I will not!”

 

            Alex rolls his eyes. This was a terrible idea. They’re like an old married couple. It’s almost painful just being around them sometimes. He gets up from his chair and follows their voices down the hall to the very last room on the right – one of the two bedrooms in the entire house. Zack is sitting on the bed, watching Martin unpack their things.

 

“How about we do that tomorrow? I’m exhausted,” he suggests, eyes landing on Alex’s form in the doorway. “Maybe tomorrow we can go get breakfast in town and try and figure out where to start looking for our missing person.”

 

“We should put up fliers,” Martin suggests as he folds a pair of jeans. “That might be helpful.”

 

“I don’t think John would react very well to finding a bunch of ‘missing person’ signs around the town he’s been living in for six months. Don’t you think?”

 

“Right…that would probably be a bit weird.”                                                         

 

            Alex laughs and turns back around to go check out the bedroom he’ll be staying in for the next few days. Maybe even weeks. He’s not sure how quickly they’ll be able to find John and he’s even more uncertain about what’s going to happen after they find him. But he’ll keep a positive outlook and think that he might just have to end up living in this little part of San Diego.

 

- - -

 

            It takes three days in San Diego for Alex to find John. And when he does, it’s not even on purpose.

 

            He’s standing in line in a smoothie shop in downtown San Diego. His eyes are on his cell phone, watching the time and waiting for Zack and Martin to call him. They went to the grocery store with the intentions of buying the food they’ll need for the next week or so. But apparently, Martin got sidetracked by the pet store across the street from it and absolutely had to go inside and look around. Leave it to Zack to find a boyfriend who’s so easily distracted by cute animals.

 

            The smoothie shop isn’t crowded, but there’s enough of a crowd to make the line a little bit unbearable. The tables around the store are filled with college students, Alex will assume, typing on their macbooks and reading from text books. He knew that this was a pretty popular area for college students but he kind of tends to forget that when it matters most.

 

            He spots him at the front of the line. He’s smiling at the girl behind the counter, hands resting on the granite top and leaning his weight on them. He looks exactly the way he did when he left New York, Alex thinks, heart pounding against his ribcage. Maybe a little bit tanner. Happier, though. Definitely happier.

 

            When John receives his change and heads over to the other side of the counter so he and wait for his order, it takes thirty seconds for Alex to realize that he’s actually leaving the line and walking towards him. His palms are sweaty, so he consciously wipes them on his jeans and he runs a hand through his hair, making sure it’s just the perfect amount of slightly messy and slightly styled. He’s been waiting for this moment for months now – and now that it’s here, he has no idea what he’s even going to say.

 

            However, despite his lack of plans and insecurities, he ends up tapping John on the shoulder the second he reaches him and when the younger boy turns around and faces him, it’s almost as if his heart is trying to leap out of his chest and commit suicide. Because although confused at first, John is quick to recognize him and he doesn’t exactly look thrilled to see Alex.

 

“Alex? What the hell are you doing here?” He hisses, reaching out and grabbing Alex’s arm.

 

            Alex is thrilled with even the slightest amount of contact but he needs more than this. “I-I found out where you were and I had to-”

 

“Who told you? Was it Danielle? I’m going to kill her,” He mumbles to himself, reaching up and pushing his hair out of his eyes.

 

            He looks so great – so perfect and happy and healthy - that Alex quickly feels like this was a mistake. He shouldn’t have come here. John is clearly just fine without him or Martin or Zack or anyone from back home. He’s doing well for himself, and he’s made that clear just within the first thirty seconds of their reunion.

 

“How long have you been here?” John questions, eyes boring into Alex. “If I had known…”

 

“A few days,” Alex says softly, his desire to reach out and grab John’s hand only increasing as the seconds pass. “Martin and Zack are here too. They’re just-”

 

            At the mention of his best friend, John smiles. “Martin’s here?”

 

            Alex can’t help but feel slightly crushed. But of course John would be happy to hear that his best friend is in town. They’re friends. Alex is just an ex-boyfriend. He doesn’t really mean much to John, it seems.

 

“Yeah…Yeah he’s the one who got the information out of your sister. He’s been really, really torn up since you left. He’s going to be thrilled to hear that I found you.”

 

John looks torn between smiling and rolling his eyes. “Martin’s always been a little too sensitive,” he eventually says with a laugh. “Um. So. Maybe I’ll see you around-”

 

“I was hoping we could talk,” Alex blurts out, interrupting John’s sentence. He knew where he was going with that, knew that he was trying to get rid of Alex and make a run for it but he can’t let that happen. Not yet. Not after all this effort just to get here.

 

“Talk? About what?”

 

“Everything?”

 

            For a second, Alex thinks he’s going to be shot down and that coming here was a waste of his time. John looks torn between saying yes and no, eyes wary. But then he sighs and his shoulders drop, clearly admitting defeat. “Fine. Twenty minutes.”

 

- - -

 

            Alex knew that Martin would be pissed off once he found out that Alex met up with John. Because really, Martin is the ‘best friend since diapers’ and he totally deserves to talk to John before anyone else. And yeah okay, Alex will agree with that. But it’s not as his meet up with John was a planned thing. It was accidental. Awesomely accidental, but still. Not planned.

 

“Didn’t it occur to you that maybe you should, I don’t know, text me?!” Martin shouts from across the living room. He’s been yelling for the past ten minutes and by now, Alex has just sort of gotten used to the volume. “I could have met up with you! I could have gotten there before he had to go to class! Fuck you, Alex!”

 

“Baby,” Zack interrupts, gripping tightly to Martin’s shoulders to prevent him from advancing on Alex any more. “Alex probably wasn’t thinking straight. He was excited to see John and forgot about everything else. You know he wouldn’t push you out like that on purpose-”

 

“I don’t care! I haven’t seen my best friend in over six months and –”

 

            Alex pulls one of the couch pillows over his head, blocking out Martin’s angry voice and Zack’s reasonable one. He’s only been back from his little meeting with John for ten minutes and already he’s kind of regretting it. But he can’t bring himself to regret it entirely. Because now that he’s talked to John and had a bit of closure, he feels better. He feels like he sort of knows what went wrong and that it wasn’t entirely his fault that John ran away from him. Sort of being the key word.

 

            He always knew that his mom had something to do with it but he also didn’t really want to believe it. Because he always wanted to think the best of his mom – that she cared about him and what he wanted. But there was always a part of him that knew he was stupid for thinking that way. And finding out that she’s the one who made John leave only verified that for him. He should probably feel worse than he does, but it’s done now. John is happier here, anyway. He made that perfectly clear.

 

            He’s attending college again, this time at the University of San Diego and Alex’s mom is the one paying for it. He had been living in a small apartment over the summer and is now dorming at the university, rooming with a friend named Matt he made at the job he has at a boat rental shop down by Mission Beach. He works three days out of the week and spends the rest of his time dedicated to his English major. He’s happy, and it’s more than obvious just by the way he spoke about his new life. And Alex knows now that while coming to San Diego was not initially a mistake, he’s starting to overstay his welcome. He came and saw John and found out he’s fine. That’s all he needed to do.

 

“Are you even listening to me? He’s not even listening to me! What the hell is his problem!?”

 

            Alex groans as Martin’s voice still reaches his ears. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a small slip of paper and waves it around, turning his head to say, “How about instead of flipping out on me, you call him? He gave me his number. He told me he’d want to see you before we go back home.”

 

            The paper is out of his hands before he’s even finished the sentence, and the next thing Alex hears is the slamming of the bathroom door and Zack’s laughter from the other side of the room.

 

“Dude. You’re the only one who can put him in PMS mode so fast. I swear to God, if he’s still like that tonight, you’re the one who can share a bed with him.”

 

            Alex feels Zack sit down beside him on the couch, so he rolls over and stares back at him, “He would probably kill me in my sleep, and you know it. Besides, he’ll be fine once he talks to John. They can make plans to meet up before we go home and everyone will be happy.”

 

“You really think we’re going home any time soon?” Zack asks quietly, staring down at his hands. “Dude…We paid rent for the entire month. We made all this effort to be here. And … I don’t know…I kind of like it already. I can see myself actually living here-”

 

“We live in New York, Zack.”

 

“We did. Sure, that’s our home but it’s not home, you know? Alex, you can’t go back to the city and expect everything to be the way it was. Nothing will be the same. You’re not going to be treated the same. You went after John when your mom told you to leave everything alone. You can’t go back.”

 

“Zack, we can’t just-”

 

“My home’s wherever Martin is. I know that that’s kind of hard to believe, considering I was kind of the biggest jerk to him for the better part of a year, but Alex? I’m not the same person anymore and I know that you aren’t either. What Martin is to me is what John is to you. You’re my best friend, man. I know these things. And these six months have been hell for you. So please, can you just do yourself a favor and not give up on something that makes you happy?”

 

            Alex feels like Zack just punched him in the stomach. He’s finding it harder than usual just to breathe and the lights are too bright and his head is swimming with all these words that he can’t put together. Zack just told him everything he’s already sort of known, he just didn’t want to acknowledge it. “You say that like it’s the easiest thing in the world. You already have your home. Mine doesn’t even want me anymore-”

 

“You’re not going to know until you actually talk to him about it. Which I’m guessing you didn’t do when you saw him this afternoon.”

 

            And they didn’t. They didn’t talk about their relationship at all. Alex had wanted to, sure, but he felt like John didn’t want to go anywhere near that topic so he avoided it. They stuck to safe conversations and Alex felt like that was the right thing to do at the time. But maybe Zack is right. He should have addressed the real issue – the ‘I-still-love-you-do-you-love-me-too’ issue.

 

            Zack smirks at the guilty expression. “That’s what I figured. So tomorrow, you need to seriously talk with John and tell him everything. That you love him and you want to make sweet love to him every single night for the rest of your-”

 

“Okay I don’t think I’ll tell him all that, but thank you for your wise words of advice, Zack.”

 

“I find that the truth is the best option, my friend.”

 

- - -

 

“So. Ex-boyfriend shows up out of the blue. And you stay up half the night listening to emo music and whining about the weather. For some reason, I’m going to just jump to conclusions here and say that you’re still in love with him.”

 

            John rolls his eyes and turns his back on his roommate. He has a paper due in half an hour and he’s still not done. He doesn’t have time for Matt’s annoying comments right now. “Of course I’m still in love with him, douche. Can you just leave me alone while I –”

 

“Called it,” Matt states, leaning back in his computer chair. “I haven’t seen you so frazzled since I met you outside school looking like you were about to pee yourself.”

 

“Who even uses the word ‘frazzled’ anyway,” John mumbles, continuing with his paper. He only has another two paragraphs to go and then he has to email it to his professor. And then. Then he has to head downtown and meet up with Alex for lunch. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t excited.

 

            Finding Alex in San Diego is exactly what John has been dreaming about since he got here. He wasn’t expecting it to happen – totally thought he was out of his mind for even dreaming it. But there he was in that smoothie shop in the middle of September and John almost kissed him right there. But he didn’t. Because that would have been stupid of him. Who knows what Alex is here for?

 

“Well, whatever, dude. Just do me a favor and put a sign on the door if you don’t want to be disturbed. Actually…maybe I’ll just go sleep at Butcher’s. I don’t need to be exposed –”

 

“Yeah, maybe you should,” John agrees, “Because I’m seconds away from just punching you in the face.”

 

“Okay, okay. I’ll shut up. But seriously. I don’t understand what you’re so afraid of. The guy left New York to come find you. If that doesn’t tell you he still has feelings for you, then I don’t really know what will.”

 

“I don’t know why he came here. He just said that Martin and Zack needed a change and he tagged along. We barely even talked about our relationship. It’s… I don’t know. I’m just going to see how it goes. Alright?”

 

            And after that, Matt finally leaves him alone to finish up his paper. He leaves the dorm room to go check out the computer lab because there’s a girl who’s usually always there at this time and John has to force himself not to call out his creepiness. He manages to finish up his paper with ten minutes to spare and emails it to his professor, crossing his fingers that it’s decent enough to get at least a B. It’s been a while since John has been in school and it’s kind of taken him a little bit of time to adjust. He’s not used to writing papers and waking up before noon to get to class. But he’s not complaining. This is a million times better than his life in New York. Well…minus Alex.

 

            When John said goodbye to Alex yesterday, he didn’t have any plans to see him again. He had given Alex his number, sure, but that was just to be polite and for him to give it to Martin. Because John misses Martin. It was hard leaving his best friend behind the way he did, even if John did think it was necessary. And the three hour long phone call he had with Martin later that night made him miss the guy even more. He grew up with him, went through everything with him – he feels terrible that he left him behind.

 

            But here they are now, meeting up for lunch with the promise that they’ll talk about their relationship. Or, the relationship they had, at least. Which could go one of two ways, John realizes. And he really hopes it goes the way he wants it to.

 

            They agreed to meet at this small Italian restaurant not too far from John’s campus. John feels a little bit weird about the way he’s dressed, if he’s honest. He finds himself standing in front of the restaurant, looking at his reflection in the front windows. If this was New York, and he was meeting up with Alex for lunch, he’d be wearing those stupid black DKNY jeans that Alex gave him and some shirt from Armani. But here he’s just wearing jeans from American Eagle and a cheap white t-shirt from Marshalls. Not exactly ‘upper east side’ material. But Alex won’t really care what he looks like, he figures, reaching up and messing with his hair one last time before he goes inside. Alex never really cared.

 

            He finds the other boy at a table towards the back of the restaurant. He’s swirling his straw around in his glass of water, looking anxious and unsure. John tells the hostess at the front that he’s meeting someone and takes it upon himself to walk over to Alex, sitting down in the empty chair across from him without making his presence known first.

 

“Did you order yet?” John asks, causing Alex to jump up in surprise, nearly knocking over his water glass. John smiles gently at him, reaching out and moving the glass a little bit farther from the edge. “They have really good pasta here. And their pizza isn’t bad either.”

 

“No…I was waiting for you,” Alex responds, giving him a funny look.

 

            Duh, John thinks. Of course he’s waiting. “Right. Well here I am. Um. How long have you been here?”

 

“Five minutes,” Alex tells him, shrugging his shoulders. “I was kind of nervous you weren’t going to show up, to be honest.”

 

            John frowns. “Why would you think that?”

 

“Well…when we spoke yesterday, you didn’t exactly seem very happy to see me. So I thought that maybe you were just telling me you’d meet up with me just to get me off the phone and to leave you alone… I don’t know…”

 

            John hates how sad Alex sounds, hates that he doesn’t even trust him to keep his word anymore. Why would he, though? John did just up and leave him all those months ago. He didn’t leave a number, or a reason, or anything. Alex would be crazy to think that he could just trust him so easily. “I wouldn’t do that, Alex-”

 

“I didn’t just come to California to tag along with my best friend and his current love interest,” Alex interrupts. He looks uncomfortable, tugging at the sleeves of his hoodie and avoiding eye contact. “That’s probably obvious…I mean, when Martin told me you were here and said that he was going to travel out here and find you, I didn’t hesitate to say that I was going with him. Because I just…I miss you, okay? I can’t even lie about it anymore. Zack told me I had to be honest and I know he’s right so. So yeah. I um, still have feelings for you. Kind of still…love you, actually.”

 

“Wait, really?” John leans forward, eyes wide with disbelief. “That’s…you’re serious?”

 

            Alex slumps in his seat and his cheeks turn a light red color in his embarrassment. “I know I sound nuts – after six months of being apart you’d think I’d have moved on by now but seriously? How could I have done that when we didn’t even really have any sort of closure? You just…left, you know? And like, I was – am – in love with you. I wasn’t lying when I told you that before you left. And I’m not lying now.”

 

            As badly as John wants to tell Alex that it’s fine – that he feels the same and that everything can go back to the way it was – he really can’t do that. “Alex…I know you’re not lying. And I really want to tell you what you want to hear but…it’s not that easy-”

 

“I know, I was a dick to you. I should have just sucked it up and done what you wanted to and not tried to hide our real relationship. But-”

 

“Exactly. And as crazy as it sounds, I um. Still have feelings for you too. But how do I know that you’re not going to pull the whole ‘I don’t want to be honest about our relationship’ thing again? Like, you’re not going to want to go back to New York and make me play the role of perfect, rich boyfriend again?”

 

            And now that it’s out there, John kind of can’t stop talking.

 

“I left that behind, Alex. I’ve been living on my own, on the opposite coast, making a new life and making my own friends and making something of myself. I’m not going to leave this behind if you ask me to. Yes, I would want to try being with you again but not if you’re not willing to move your life all the way across America.”

 

“Would it help if I said that I promised Zack I’d pay next month’s rent?”

 

“Well…that guarantees that you’ll be around next month. But what about the month after that? Or next year?”

 

            Alex sighs, the blush only deepening as he asks, “You promise you’ll still be here a year from now? Cause if you’re here, then so am I.” He quickly realizes how lame that sounds and adds, “I mean. In a totally non-cheesy, non-stalkerish sort of way.”

            But that’s enough for John to smile and reach out and take his hand, “Well then I guess we’re trying this again.”

 

- - -

 

            So it’s probably not the best idea to have sex a half hour after you get back together with someone. That’s definitely on the ‘don’t do this’ list that someone wrote up at some point. But it just sort of … happened, and John’s not going to feel guilty for it. He’s not at his dorm room, so he doesn’t have to feel bad about keeping Matt out all night. He doesn’t have class tomorrow, so there’s no reason for him to worry about waking up in the morning. And, Alex is really, really good at sex so there’s not even a reason for him to really regret it.

 

“Just a warning – Martin and Zack will probably be home soon,” Alex mumbles, his fingers tightening around John’s wrist and pulling him even closer.

 

            John sighs and closes his eyes, “Why is that a bad thing?”

 

“Because Martin will know you’re here pretty much right away, and he’ll scream like a little girl and flip out because he hasn’t seen you in six months. Just a guess.”

 

“Mhm, you’re right, I should probably make myself look presentable. Because I don’t think Zack or Martin want to see me naked. Even if they haven’t seen me at all in six months.”

 

            Alex groans, but he sits up anyway, reaching over the side of the bed and grabbing the boxers he had left there only a short time earlier. “Fine. You get dressed and presentable. You can shower if you want to. I’ll go find something to make for lunch because I think I burned all that pizza off just by having sex with you.”

 

            John showers quickly in the adjoining bathroom, making sure not to take too long because he kind of doesn’t like being away from Alex this long. And he realizes that sort of makes him sound really, really pathetic but he can’t help himself. Six months of being away from him and not even know if he missed him at all and then suddenly finding him again? John really can’t understand his luck sometimes.

 

            He finds Alex in the kitchen about fifteen minutes later, cooking something in a frying pan and watching the weather channel on the TV. John walks up behind him, wraps his arms around his waist and rests his head on his shoulder. “Are you cooking pancakes? You do realize that it’s three in the afternoon, right?”

 

“Who says you can’t eat pancakes at three in the afternoon? Stick around and I’ll make pancakes for you at any time of the day.” He turns around, face to face with John and grips his hips tightly. “You know what the best part of this whole thing is?”

 

“Uh…the great sex?”

 

“Well, that’s nice, yeah. But no. The best part is the fact that finally, I don’t have to share you with anyone anymore.”

 

“And I don’t have to pretend to be a rich kid from California?”

 

“Pretty much.”

 

            John grins and kisses him hard, reaching behind him to lower the flame on the burner. He hears the front door open, hears Martin scream something about the dangers of making out near an open flame but he can’t really comprehend it because suddenly there’s another pair of arms around him. And everything is suddenly sinking into place. He left this all behind, knowing that he had to start over and forget about Brooklyn and the bad things from the Upper East Side. But the good things have followed him out here and have promised that they’re here to stay. John suddenly has everything he never thought he would.