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Bring You Down (to Just One Knee)

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Aaron is in the student lounge trying to finish the remaining three hundred pages of reading he has for class tomorrow. Everyone said the second year of graduate school was the worst, but Aaron was finding year three of his political science PhD to be pretty competitively awful, especially in Doctor Hemming’s theory class. It's probably ten PM, and he's been on campus since eight in the morning, but he has no real desire to return to his apartment which he's lately discovered to have a cockroach problem. University housing has admitted that it's less Aaron's problem, and more the problem of the whole first floor of the building, but they've also said that nothing can be done until tomorrow. Of course Angelica, his closest friend in the program, is at a conference through the next day. So Aaron is here, avoiding the issue by studying in the lounge. Up until fifteen minutes ago it had seemed less pathetic because John Adams, a fellow first floor refugee, had been here as well, but Adams had finally left, declaring that he didn't even care if the cockroaches crawled on him while he slept, at least he'd be sleeping.

Aaron had not yet reached that point, and so was sitting there trying to read without falling asleep in his book. He had a system. For each twenty pages skimmed he ate one chocolate covered coffee bean. The result of this system was mostly that he felt both jittery and sleepy, with a steadily pulsing headache, but at least he was awake.

Into this totally functional scene burst Alexander. Alexander was a year below Aaron in the program, although you wouldn't know it from their publication records. When Alexander had first joined the program, Aaron's assessment of him mostly had to do with the way his thighs looked in his jeans, and the possibilities raised by his mobile mouth. But there's a reason you're not supposed to objectify people, and it turns out that it’s because they will turn out to be the most god forsakenly annoying people you have ever met.

Alexander, as it happened, had an opinion on everything, even research that was in no way related to his own. Worse yet, his opinions were nearly all insightful and informed, sometimes leading professors at the top of the field to reevaluate their own research. On top of that, Alexander had an amazing list of publications, starting with his undergraduate thesis, and somehow only two years into graduate school, followed by several articles and chapters. The final straw was when he won the national science foundation grant, guaranteeing him, along with his departmental money, a future where he would almost certainly not need to work as a teaching assistant. As Aaron was looking down the barrel of another finals week with over a hundred final papers to grade, that was a lot to take with grace.

As a result Aaron was not a huge fan of Alexander's, although Alexander further complicated the situation by actually being nice and funny when he wasn't trying to prove himself to be the smartest person in the room, although that was a pretty small percentage of the time. He liked to try to make Aaron laugh, and Aaron liked to maintain a frustratingly neutral expression in the face of his jokes. With this background, when Alexander arrived Aaron's first reaction (after working through caffeine induced startlement) was suspicion.

Due to the tiredness and still rapidly pulsing heartbeat, Aaron did not at first understand what Alexander was talking about. He nodded in what seemed to be the appropriate places, because sometimes Alexander would leave if you agreed with him. The strategy wasn't working tonight though, and Aaron, fortifying with another coffee bean, reluctantly tried to pick up the flow of Alexander's monologue. 

What he gathered after a minute of trying to locate key terms made him straighten out of his slumped position and give Alexander his full attention. Another few sentences strengthened his suspicions, and he raised a hand to halt the flow of words, “Alexander, are you-” He paused, he must be hallucinating, too little sleep...but he had to check, “Are you asking me to marry you?”

Alexander nodded, but did not elaborate, leaving it to Aaron to try to get to the bottom of this. Aaron cast around for the appropriate question, “When?” 

Alexander looks puzzled. Aaron suspects that was not the right question, but Alexander answers anyway, “Well, as soon as possible really.”

Aaron tries again, “I mean. Why?”

Alexander's answer is confusing, but seems to boil down to immigration issues. There's some problem with his student visa and the easiest way he's found out of the problem is marrying a citizen.

That answers why marriage, but, “Why not one of the people you are actually dating?”

Now Alexander looks pained, “As it turns out, as of earlier today, I'm not actually dating anyone.”

Aaron studies him. He's infamously dating both Eliza Schuyler (Angelica’s younger sister, in her last year of earning her Masters of Social Work), and John Laurens, from Alexander’s own cohort of polisci graduate students. “Okay, I'm guessing choice number two didn't like being choice number two, and that explains that.” The expression on Alexander's face suggests this is more right than wrong, “but what happened with the first one?”

It's a nosy question, and Alexander would be well within his rights to tell Aaron to fuck off, but he's also trying to get Aaron to marry him so instead he sighs. “We weren't on the same page about where we were headed. I thought marriage was in the future and- Well, apparently not.”

He's not meeting Aaron's eyes, instead feigning interest in something on the wall behind him, jaw tight. Aaron is struck by an unexpected wave of sympathy, remembering his breakup with his college girlfriend Theodosia. She had gotten pregnant their senior year and Aaron had thought they should get married and have the baby. She thought law school and an abortion made the most sense. They hadn't been together much past that.

So fine, he feels sorry for Alexander, and clearly Alexander's too smart to not be allowed to finish his degree, but that doesn't mean that it's Aaron's job to marry him.

Some of this must show up on Aaron's face, because Alexander is talking again, as if anxious to head off rejection, “It would probably only be until around graduation, after three years I can apply for citizenship. You could think of it like having someone around to do your laundry and grocery shopping, so you can focus on school.”

Aaron concedes that this is a good point. Everyone knows those lucky fuckers with partners get finished faster. They get domestic chores, regular sex, and- Aaron freezes, suddenly reevaluating.

Alexander seems to have sensed a vulnerability, and prompts, “Yes?”

Aaron considers him, “Where do you live?”

Alexander looks confused again, but willing to play along, “Uh, the Birchwood building.”

Aaron nods, the nicest single person building for grad housing, all that NSF money paying off, “But if we did this,” what is he even saying? “If we did this, we could apply for family housing.”

Alexander's eyes widen, and he hastens to agree.

Aaron shouldn't even be thinking about this, but family housing… It's so much nicer than the rest of the grad housing, it's ridiculous. The smallest apartment is a two bedroom, which sounds like a palace compared to the studio Aaron's in now. The buildings are relatively new, the landscaping is lovely with trees everywhere, and the apartments are nice, with thick walls, heating and air, washer and dryer, and decently sized rooms. On top of being nicer, the rent is actually cheaper, and Aaron can already imagine what he would spend the extra money on. Running shoes without holes would be at the top of the list. But to get into family housing you had to be either married, or the legal guardian of a child or other relative. Legal documents were a must.

Suddenly, from this perspective, it seems like a green card marriage could be advantageous to everyone. Sure, it would be a problem if Aaron met anyone, but three years of graduate school had given him an unfortunately realistic perspective on the likelihood of finding enough time for anything serious anytime soon. Not to mention that most people were not very attracted to the prospect of being asked to move to nowheresville in pursuit of a tenure track job.

It’s a terribly stupid idea, but at this moment it seems like it still might rank second behind Aaron's decision to come to graduate school in the first place. He studies Alexander again, weighing how annoying he might be as a roommate against the advantages. Alexander is frozen, apparently aware that decisions are being made, and scared to say the wrong thing. The room is still, both of them just watching one another in the flat fluorescent light. Aaron's headache pulses behind his eyes. Then between one breath and the next he's made his choice.

“Okay,” Aaron starts packing up his books.

Alexander seems stuck for a minute, “Okay?”

“Yes, but you have to let me crash with you tonight,” Aaron says, shoving everything into his bag.

Alexander still hasn't moved.

“The whole first floor of my building is infested with cockroaches, so.”

“R-right,” Alexander grabs Aaron's second bag, the one filled with response papers that need grading, and offers him a small smile, “That's probably best anyway.”

Aaron looks blank.

“For our story?”

Aaron is too tired to find it anything but funny as he realizes, “Oh my god, I'm the other woman.”

“I mean…” Alexander seems to be trying to find a way to confirm this without actually saying it.

Aaron will worry about how much Angelica is going to kill him later, “We’ll figure it out tomorrow, how do we get to your place?”

“Oh, right,” Alexander bursts into motion leading Aaron out of the lounge, “I drove.”

Alexander can afford a car? This is already paying off.

The car isn’t even that old, a small hatchback that Aaron regards with satisfaction. The back is filled with books and papers, but the passenger seat is clear, and Aaron slumps into it with relief. Alexander’s driving is mostly unobjectionable, and the roads are clear. The motion of the car has lulled Aaron into a doze, when Alexander breaks into the silence, “Are you sure about this? I mean, why?”

Aaron isn’t really clear on how to explain his decision in a way that doesn’t make him sound like Elizabeth Bennet seeing Pemberley for the first time, so he just says, “I’m sure.”

There’s another pause, and Aaron’s drifting off again when Alexander speaks once more, “Thank you.”

Aaron doesn’t say anything, just lets his eyes slide shut until they arrive at Alexander’s. 

The apartment seems nice enough, although Aaron’s attention is really just for the bed. He barely listens to Alexander offering him drinks, or use of the shower, instead just pulling off his shoes and jeans, and crawling into the side of the bed that Alexander indicates. There’s an extra iphone charger still there, probably Eliza’s or Laurens’s, and Aaron plugs in his phone, making sure his alarm is set. He’s already drifting off to sleep by the time the phone’s screen dims.

When he wakes up to his alarm in the morning, he’s confused for a second about where he is, and then rolls over to look for Alexander. Alexander’s side of the bed is rumpled as if he had slept there, but he himself doesn’t appear to be in the apartment. Instead, when Aaron makes his way to the other room (because of course Alexander has a one bedroom, with actual separate rooms and everything) there’s a towel, keys, and a note on the kitchen table. The note says that he should feel free to use the shower, the food in the kitchen, and to borrow clean clothes if he’d like. “What’s mine is yours,” Aaron mutters to himself, before availing himself of the shower, the food, and a clean sweater.

In the light of morning, and with some sleep, he wonders if this is the right thing to do. He should finish his reading before class, but instead he finds himself wandering around the apartment peering at Alexander’s books, the framed photo of what must be his mother, the desk covered in articles, books, and drafts of papers, with revisions in green ink. It’s the papers that ultimately decide him, although it’s hard to say what about them. Is it the evidence that Alexander has to revise as much as the next person before producing the undeniable genius of his published articles? Is it the sheer number of them, the idea that Aaron could singlehandedly keep this brilliant mind in a place where he can do his best work? Maybe it’s just the mental picture they produce of Alexander at the desk, scratching away. In any case, it settles something for Aaron and he spends the rest of the morning before he has to catch the bus at the kitchen table working on his reading.

In class Aaron manages to hold his own, despite speed skimming the last hundred pages or so of the reading. He catches Maria Reynolds looking at him strangely through the first half of class, but isn’t sure why. At the break she finds him where he’s having a snack outside, and they chat until she brings up what she’s really interested in, asking him where he got his shirt. He glances down, reminded that he’s wearing Alexander’s sweater. It’s pretty nice, a rich green, and memorable enough he supposes. He wonders if her interest means that the rumor that she and Alexander used to hook up is true. Probably. He mentally adds her to the list of people who are about to hate him, and coyly says he’s borrowing it. She doesn’t appear very satisfied with that answer, but lets it slide, offering him a compliment to explain her interest. During the second half of class her glances seem tight-lipped and displeased.

She’s probably even less happy when Alexander is waiting for Aaron outside the classroom at the end of the session. He looks tense, but smiles at Aaron, and Aaron, conscious of Maria’s eyes on him, smiles back as happily as he can manage. Aaron follows Alexander back to the car, as if he had known all along that Alexander would be picking him up, but once they’re in the car, away from any audience he turns to Alexander, “Where are we going?”

Alexander drums his fingers nervously on the wheel, “That depends on you.”

“On?”

Alexander’s gaze darts up to Aaron’s eyes, and then away, “Did you mean what you said last night?”

Aaron’s mind flashes to the stacks of paper covered in green ink, “Yes.” 

Alexander nods, still refusing to look directly at Aaron, “If you meant it, we should go to the courthouse.”

Aaron lets out a long breath, surprised, “Now?”

Alexander shrugs, uncomfortable, “Now is best, but if you need more time-” 

Aaron can’t stand how tense Alexander looks. He reaches over and clasps Alexander’s shoulder, “Hey.” Alexander looks at him, and his eyes are big and dark in the dim of the parking garage, “You know you don’t have to do this either, if you don’t want to. Maybe there’s something else we can do?” 

Alexander shakes his head, “There isn’t. This is my best option.” The words aren’t particularly uplifting, but he looks calmer. 

“Okay,” Aaron squeezes his shoulder a little, and then lets go. “Okay, let’s go get married then.”

Alexander watches him for a second longer, and then, seemingly decided, turns on the car.  

As they drive downtown, Aaron suggests they hash out their cover story. It’s complicated by the fact that Alexander was openly dating other people up until yesterday, but they decide that the story is that he was also dating Aaron, who wanted to keep their relationship quiet, until they got serious about one another, which caused the end of Alexander’s other relationships, and then, with the added pressure of the immigration deadline, lead to a quick marriage. It doesn’t sound remotely plausible to Aaron, but Alexander’s romantic exploits are a hot topic of gossip in the program, so it might fly just on sheer scandal.

At the courthouse they fill out forms and present their IDs. They only have a short wait before an officiant guides them to a small alcove and takes them through a brief ceremony, a bored security guard acting as the witness. Alexander has somehow procured rings since last night, just simple gold bands, and his hands are warm and steady as he slips Aaron’s on, and Aaron does the same for him. When the officiant says they may kiss, Alexander presses a quick closed mouth kiss to Aaron’s lips. It’s perfunctory, but Aaron feels his mouth tingling where they touched, all through the process of signing and filing the marriage certificate.

Outside the courthouse, Alexander stops and apologetically produces his phone, “I think, in the facebook age it’s not going to look real without a picture.”

Aaron hadn’t thought of that, but of course no facebook friend ever gets married without filling up his feed with happy photos. Alexander picks out the least ugly part of the building for their backdrop and they squeeze together for a wedding selfie, both of them trying to look thrilled. After a few shots they have something passable, and as they review the candidates, Aaron notices for the first time that Alexander has dressed nicely, in a dark blue button down and tie. Aaron is apparently going to be forever immortalized on his wedding day in Alexander’s sweater, but at least the photo doesn’t show that he’s wearing jeans.

Alexander is staring down at the photo of the two of them, his expression ambiguous. Aaron doesn’t want to know what’s behind it, so instead he says, “You know what you really need?”

Alexander looks up, “What?”

Instead of explaining Aaron just gestures him over, taking the phone in his right hand and using his left to pull Alexander’s under the lens of the camera. Alexander huffs a chuckle when he sees where this is going, and together they manage to get an appropriately cheesy photo of their hands intertwined, rings showing properly.

#

They stop at Aaron's place so he can pack a bag of clothes and toiletries, and another with books he might need before they can come back for the rest. Alexander helps him carry the books out and politely doesn't mention the cockroach corpse in the hall.

On the drive back to Alexander's an awkward silence settles over them. Aaron can't help staring at the ring on his finger, twisting it back and forth. Finally he breaks the quiet, “Why me?”

“What?”

Aaron impatiently turns in his seat so he can watch Alexander's face, “I mean, why did you pick me out of everyone you know. There are people you know better.”

Alexander sneaks a glance at him out of the corner of his eyes, before focusing on the road again, “I needed someone single.”

Aaron nods, “But-”

“And obviously someone who would plausibly date a man.”

Aaron's eyes narrow, sure those requirements eliminate Lafayette and Hercules, Alexander’s closest friends, but, “You know, Maria Reynolds was very interested in where I got this sweater.”

Alexander groans, “And someone who wouldn't make this into something it's not.”

Aaron considers this, spinning the ring around once more, “Yeah.” Single, not straight, and not likely to fall in love with Alexander, that was a fair assessment, “Still, there must have been other options.”

Alexander is maintaining a close eye on the road, a bit unjustified as they are completely stopped in the post-work, rush hour traffic, “Not on campus at ten thirty on a Tuesday.”

Aaron laughs, torn between insulted and relieved, “Very flattering. You should have opened with that, I might have agreed twice as fast.”

Alexander shoots him a grin, and then traffic is finally moving, genuinely taking his attention.

When they get back to Alexander's, he orders take out and clears space for Aaron to keep his clothes, while Aaron grades. It's nice to have food appear without having to make it, and it's nice to have someone to talk to during dinner, pulling his mind away from the terrible response papers for a moment with stupid jokes, and familiar complaints about classes they've had in common. The warm domesticity of it all makes the situation seem more desirable than it has thus far, but then Alexander gets serious again to ask Aaron if there are people he needs to tell before they announce anything. Aaron thinks grimly of his family and of Angelica, and they agree that they'll take tonight to try to contact the most important people before checking in the next morning.

After that Aaron returns to grading, and Alexander closes the bedroom door on a couple of tense phone calls. Afterward he shuffles around the apartment, seemingly straightening up randomly. Aaron ignores him, thirty more response papers to go.

When Aaron finally finishes, standing up to stretch the stiffness out of his limbs, the apartment is quiet. He finds Alexander already asleep in what he supposes is now their bed. There's two boxes filled with random books, and clothes on the dresser, and, seeing the iPhone charger wrapped neatly on top of one of the piles, Aaron realizes that Alexander's earlier cleaning must have been gathering up Laurens and Eliza’s possessions. He can't help but feel another pang of sympathy for Alexander, who has a wrinkle of unhappiness between his eyebrows even in sleep. Aaron may have signed on to this plan for purely material reasons, but Alexander was forced to make this choice by the unfeeling grind of international bureaucracy, and lost people he cared about in the process. Seeing Alexander so quietly vulnerable in sleep makes Aaron feel like he has too much power here. It makes him sure that he has to be careful going forward, and he makes a promise to himself, to never put Alexander in a position where he feels obligated towards Aaron.

Unsettled Aaron goes back to the living room to figure out the issue of informing people. His family is going to be messy no matter what he does. He settles for sending an email to his grandmother telling her that he's gotten married, that his name is Alexander and he's brilliant, and that Aaron's very happy. He doesn't expect a reply. Trickier is the problem of how to tell Angelica. The rest of their program can learn from Facebook or Instagram, but he and Angelica have been close since the first long day of program orientation. Additionally, unlike his grandmother, she knows too much about his life to believe a simple lie. There is also the complication of the fact that their cover story requires him to confess to helping Alexander cheat on Angelica’s own sister. Not to mention that it wouldn't be smart to document the truth in a text or an email. In the end Aaron just sends her a text to ask her if she'll be on campus tomorrow to have lunch with him, something they do regularly anyway.

That accomplished, Aaron gets ready for bed and then slides in next to Alexander, trying not to wake him. Better rested than last night, it takes Aaron longer than he would like to relax, but eventually he falls asleep to the soft sound of Alexander's measured breathing.

#

In the morning when Aaron wakes up, Alexander is already in the kitchen brewing coffee. He's in soft looking pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt, and his hair is a mess. The worst part is either the sleepy smile he gives Aaron when Aaron stumbles into the kitchen, or the black framed glasses he's wearing. Aaron didn't know Alexander wore glasses . This information could have lead to a very different decision, but wedding ring already in place, Aaron manfully pretends not to have noticed.

Breakfast is slightly awkward, with Alexander a bit too solicitous as if he still needs to win Aaron over, with Aaron scheduled to meet with Angelica for lunch, they decide that Alexander can begin the social media announcement campaign.

Alexander doesn't have class that morning, but Aaron has a grueling day of teaching, starting with two morning sections so he takes the bus to campus. He's in a rush to get ready for class and get across campus to the biology building classroom that the university in all its wisdom has selected for his class, so he doesn't talk to anyone from the program. 

This means he's unprepared for what happens halfway through his second section. He's trying to help the students see the connections between Tuesday's lecture and the readings (tenuous in his opinion, but he’s not the professor), when the classroom door bursts open startling both him and the students. Thirty sets of wide eyes watch with varying levels of surprise and glee as Angelica storms in and grabs Aaron’s left hand. She yanks it up, inspecting the ring which causes a round of gasps as most of the students notice it for the first time. She shakes his arm once as if frustrated by what she sees, and then looks up at him and hisses, “What have you done?” More delighted gasps from the students and Aaron can only imagine what they think is happening. At least one of them is unsubtly filming on their phone. 

There's no salvaging this, but he smiles blandly over the room and says, “excuse me for a minute,” dragging Angelica out to the hall by their still connected hands and pulling the door shut behind them.

She glares at him and lifts Aaron’s hand towards him again, “Well?”

He's very conscious of the students probably listening through the door, “Well I got married.”

She looks incredulous, “Just like that? To Alexander?”

There's a definite murmur from inside the room and he can just picture this update being passed back to those with the misfortune of not being near the door. “Yes,” he whispers, “to Alexander.”

She just stares at him, angry and waiting.

He tries again, “It was a little bit of a surprise, but it seemed right.”

“And my sister? Eliza? Where does she fit in this surprise?”

He looks away, not sure what to say.

“Aaron,” he looks back, and is if anything more horrified to see that the expression on her face is transforming from anger to shrewd speculation, she's too smart and knows him too well. “You wouldn't do this, tell me what's happening.”

His gaze darts back to the door hiding the listening students, “I don't know what to say, I got married. I'll tell you all about it at lunch.”

Now she looks worried. She’s still gripping his hand near the ring, and her thumbnail is pressing into the vulnerable skin between his knuckles.

He doesn’t say anything else, and finally she says, “Okay.”

He tugs his hand away, “I’ll see you in a little bit.”

She’s still watching him as he opens the door, causing a small flurry as a few students jump back in their desks, and the rest unconvincingly look attentive.

He goes back to the podium, trying to remember where they left off, but is almost immediately derailed by one of the slackers in the back of the room, “So...congratulations, I guess?”

Aaron sighs, sensing that the rest of the class is going to be a disaster.

#

He makes it through the rest of the section, although he’s pretty sure that none of them learned anything, and finds his way to lunch with Angelica. He sets them down in the furthest corner of the loudest part of the cafeteria, and makes her promise that nothing he says goes any further than the two of them. She still looks worried, as if maybe Aaron is somehow in danger, but by the time he’s finished the story (which is surprisingly short), her expression has shifted into something more like pity, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” 

He shrugs, “Probably, yeah.”

She leans in confiding, “Are you sure there’s nothing else going on? Why would you do this?”

To fair she has every right to ask. She had been right there with him on Alexander’s fuckability when he first joined the program, and equally had shared a growing sense of annoyance at everything Alexander. The awkward fact that he was dating her sister had lead to the subject of Alexander’s hotness being tacitly dropped, and by mutual silent agreement never discussed again, but the annoyance was a perennially fresh topic between the two of them, with stories of terrible Alexander moments regularly shared. She had once timed every question that Alexander had asked at a conference panel, proving that he ended up talking longer than one of the presenters.

Since he hasn’t really been able to explain it himself he doesn’t know what to say. Finally he offers, “I couldn’t let him get deported.”

She leans back, studying him. She doesn’t appear to reach any conclusions, but turns to her lunch with the assessment, “This is going to end poorly.”

“But-”

She stops unwrapping her sandwich, “But what?”   

“But you won’t tell anyone that it’s not-” 

Her expression is definitely one of pity now, “I won’t tell anyone anything, but that you are making a hugely stupid decision.”

He glares at her.

She waves half a sandwich at him dismissively, “For love. You are making a fantastically stupid decision for love.”

It will have to do.

#

He figures the worst of it is out of the way and updates his facebook with the wedding selfie. Alexander has apparently gone with the cheesy ring photo, because of course. He spends the course lecture half trying to figure out what parts the students will need help unpacking (all of it), and half flipping through the various reactions from his facebook friends. The few family members he’s facebook friends with icily ignore it, except for one cousin who messages him to say he’s no doubt breaking their grandfather’s heart. His college friends respond in that vague happy way that people who haven’t thought about you in months respond to claims of good news. The reactions of his fellow graduate students, the ones that actually know him now, and especially the ones that know Alexander too, are heavy on shock. At least the picture is convincing. Aaron finds himself scrolling back up to it every time he checks the comments, looking at the way Alexander’s smile crinkles the corners of his eyes, and his hand on Aaron’s shoulder.

His last two sections of the day are slightly derailed by the fact that the students had not been listening in lecture, instead they appear to have been playing one giant game of telephone, topic: Aaron’s love life. He’s pretty sure before this moment most of these students didn’t even consider the fact that he might exist outside of the classroom, except to answer email, but now that they have considered it, they are all in on wanting to hear the dirt. He refuses to feed their curiosity, instead blandly offering that he got married recently, and spending the whole section trying to catch them up on what they failed to absorb while gossiping about him.

It’s after six by the time he gets away from the last student, and gathers his things to leave. He’s waiting at the bus stop when he realizes that one of the other people there is Maria Reynolds. She’s looking at the ring, and more than anything she looks sad. When she catches him watching her, her expression neutralizes, but she comes over. Aaron is sure that whatever she has to say, he’s not really interested, but there’s no way to stop it without making a scene.

She doesn’t even bother with a hello, “I see it’s true.”

“Yes.”

“I suppose congratulations are in order.”

“I suppose thanks are in order.”

She twists a wry smile at him, before falling serious again, eyes on the ring, “It’s just- If he was dating four of us, why do you think he’s going to be anymore loyal to you just because you have a ring?”

His bus is turning the corner, “That’s really between Alexander and myself.”

She nods, still looking unhappy, “I hope it works out the way you want.”

“Thanks,” he says again, slightly more sincere this time, before joining the line of people boarding the bus.

On the ride back to Alexander’s apartment he turns her words over in his mind. He supposes most people will see it that way, him the poor schmuck who was stupid enough to marry a man that can’t be loyal. As if he and Alexander couldn’t have an open relationship, or as if he couldn’t also be pulling on the side. His own indignant feelings at the perceptions of his fake relationship amuse him, but he does make a note to talk to Alexander about their boundaries for the next few years. He leans back in his bus seat, contemplating the fact that this is a conversation that should have happened before the marriage.

Over leftover thai they peaceably come to an agreement that anything casual is fine as long as it’s discreet, but that if either of them want to get serious about someone before this is over, a discussion will have to be had. Aaron feels satisfied with that.

Alexander also mentions that his friends want to have a congratulatory happy hour tomorrow. He looks vaguely apologetic about it, but it seems inevitable in retrospect that their friends and acquaintances from the program will want to congratulate and gawk, and maybe it will be better to get as many of these reactions over with sooner rather than later.

#

Aaron spends more time picking out his clothes for the happy hour than he did for the actual wedding, although since he didn’t know he would be getting married it’s not that much of a comparison. He settles on nice jeans and a button up, with a vest over that. Alexander has also put in the effort, and Aaron’s breath catches a little when he sees him, sweater and jeans clinging just so, showing off those thighs. At least he’s put in contacts so Aaron doesn’t have to deal with the glasses tonight.

Just before they leave, Alexander pauses, “You know we’ll have to be, you know uh, couple-y tonight.”

“Couple-y,” Aaron smirks.

Alexander flushes, “Yeah.”

“I think we can manage it,” Aaron says, hiding the way his stomach flips at the thought.

“Right,” Alexander smiles, a little unsure. “Right, no problem.”

“No problem,” Aaron repeats on their way out the door, trying not to think about what ‘couple-y’ might entail.

Since neither of them wants to be locked into driving home that night, they take the bus to the bar that Lafayette has selected for the event. It’s one that they’ve had graduate program events at before, nice-ish, but cheap enough for grad student budgets. They’re a little late, but that just means that a decent crowd has already gathered by the time they get there. Lafayette and Angelica have apparently teamed up to get the bar staff to allow the guests to throw birdseed when Alexander and Aaron arrive. Lafayette is laughing and snapping photos frantically, as Alexander and Aaron are unsuspectingly pelted.

The whole event is a bit awkward, but Aaron thinks that he and Alexander do a good job of selling it. The fact that everyone is happy to buy them drinks helps. They sit close, use the story of their supposed love that they’ve rehearsed, and laugh at each others jokes. People are clearly on the lookout for some gossip, but they have to content themselves with noticing Laurens’s obvious absence. Eliza shows up briefly, and kisses them both on the cheek, offering her congratulations. It’s all very smoothly done, and the crowd is left with nothing much to mull over, although they can’t hear the small “thank you” that Eliza whispers to Aaron.

Lafayette had apparently wanted to turn the whole thing into a belated bachelor party, but apparently Hercules and Angelica had talked him down, which is much appreciated. Instead there’s just drinking and congratulations. Eventually everyone has done their congratulating so the conversation mostly turns to the usual graduate school topics of complaining about teaching, complaining about research, and complaining about not having any money. Late in the evening, when everyone who’s been drinking is pleasantly sloshed, people start dancing on the small dance floor in the corner of the bar. Naturally the crowd decides it’s imperative that Aaron and Alexander dance.

It’s not so bad, it’s a bar not a wedding so the music is fast. It gets better when Aaron realizes that even with both Alexander and Aaron’s standards loosened by alcohol, Alexander is a terrible dancer. Aaron finds this hilarious, and goes along with it, whirling Alexander out by one hand for an amusingly awkward spin. Alexander is a good sport, laughing along, and Aaron pulls him back in, embracing him loosely from the back, laughing into his shoulder.

The next morning Lafayette has posted pictures of that moment on facebook. They look startling happy and intimate, the two of them all smiles, wrapped together.

#

The next few weeks are an adjustment. At first there isn’t much time to think about the change, the focus instead on moving the rest of Aaron’s everyday stuff from his apartment to Alexander’s, filing immigration paperwork, and applying for family housing. Once Aaron’s clothes and books are taking up space next to Alexander’s, and all the paperwork is making its slow way through the system, there’s more time for Aaron to contemplate his new life.

On a day to day level he’d have to say the results of his unexpected fake marriage are mixed. On the positive side, half the time he doesn’t have to cook his own dinner, or do his own laundry. Even doing those things for someone else isn’t bad the other half of the time, because there’s something companionable about having someone to eat with regularly. Neither of them is a particularly good cook, but both appreciate the effort, so there’s no real disagreement about the steady diet of simple dishes. Also on the positive side, is the fact that Alexander’s apartment is just plain nicer. Aaron enjoys not being able to hear every move the neighbors make, and of course the lack of cockroaches and strange plumbing problems.   

On the other side, there’s the fact of having Alexander as a roommate. He’s not a terrible roommate, although at first he tiptoes around Aaron in a way that makes Aaron always feel like he has to be on his best guest behavior. Eventually Alexander seems to grow accustomed to Aaron’s presence and goes back to just living his life. This is good because it suggests that they aren’t always going to be tense and polite around one another, which would be a difficult three years, but is bad for Aaron because...glasses. Alexander’s home attire seems to consist entirely of soft looking pajamas, worn looking sweats, and sweatshirts and sweaters with the necklines fraying. Maybe it should seem sloppy, but instead Alexander looks constantly cuddly and warm. He always wears his glasses at home, and never leaves without changing into contacts. Something about knowing that he’s the only person who gets to see Alexander in glasses makes them extra hot, although it must be said that Aaron has always had a thing for people in glasses. All of this cuddly hotness makes Aaron remember exactly how strong his initial attraction to Alexander had been, and makes the whole idea of a platonic marriage seem incredibly stupid.

Worst of all, as his nervousness around Aaron fades Alexander becomes more relaxed even in sleep, and it turns out that he’s a snuggler. They start each night on opposite sides of the bed, but sometime in the night they migrate into one another, Alexander wrapped around Aaron more often than not. Most of the time Alexander wakes before Aaron, and sneaks away, but when Aaron wakes first and has time to really absorb the sensation of Alexander wrapped around him, his leg heavy over Aaron’s, his cock hard against Aaron’s thigh, well, those mornings Aaron’s shower has to be a bit longer.

Alexander initially tries to bring up the nighttime cuddles, to apologize, and to volunteer to sleep on the couch. Aaron brushes this off, pointing out that it’s Alexander’s bed and if anyone should sleep on the couch it’s him. He tells Alexander he doesn’t mind, but if it bothers Alexander he will. Alexander blushes, but says it doesn’t bother him, and after that they just don’t mention it, a line drawn between their sleeping and waking selves.

Of course, the most predictable annoyance of living with Alexander is his constant barrage of opinions on research, both Aaron’s and everyone else in the field’s. It takes him less time to get comfortable enough to critique every aspect of Aaron’s research plan, than to stop offering to get Aaron a drink every time he enters the same room. Initially, the constant suggestions, methodological critiques, and what ifs easily remind Aaron why his primarily feeling toward Alexander had gone from attraction to irritation, but it’s impossible for Aaron not to engage with the ideas that Alexander is constantly pushing towards him. Of course, some of them are really good, and Aaron has to consider incorporating them into his research (those are the most annoying), and some he disagrees with. It’s the second group of ideas that actually stops this from becoming a real problem between them.

Aaron’s first strategy is just to let Alexander say his piece, nodding placidly, and sorting over the ideas on his own later. This is the process that most of the polisci grad students have adopted at this point. It makes classes and talks go a lot faster to just let Alexander give his opinion without any barriers, and then move on. However, this turns out to be a terrible strategy for someone who doesn’t get to leave at the end of the class or the talk. When Aaron doesn’t offer any real response to his ideas Alexander just looks frustrated and comes back later with another idea. Finally, Aaron can’t stand it anymore and pushes back on an idea that doesn’t take into the account the specificities of Aaron’s research. Alexander is widely read, but his research is on finance and Aaron’s is on the media, and goddammit Aaron knows this best. Aaron almost immediately regrets pushing back, and the sharp way he does it, but Alexander looks delighted. He volleys back, and then they’re off arguing, but at the end, when Alexander has to concede that Aaron’s right, it’s one of the best rushes Aaron has had in grad school.

Later Aaron can’t help but muse on the interaction, and he begins to suspect that half of Alexander’s annoying criticisms are actually akin to a puppy nipping at another dog to try to get it to play. Of course, there is a solid core of positions which Alexander is actually unswayable on, and there’s nothing playful in his defense of them, but as Aaron becomes more willing to engage in debate with Alexander, he’s able to figure out which are Alexander’s actual positions, and which are Alexander just wanting to have an intellectual tussle. On the first set of issues, the debate can turn bitter quickly, but on the second, Alexander is perfectly willing to be proven wrong, he seems to actually enjoy it. The first time Aaron starts a debate about Alexander’s own research approach Alexander seems thrilled. The debate is crackling and quick, and even though nothing is settled, somehow deeply satisfying. Afterward Aaron catches Alexander looking at him with an unreadable expression.

So Aaron finds himself inexplicably beginning to enjoy the very thing he found so annoying about Alexander for the last two years. It helps that just as he learns Alexander’s boundaries, Alexander begins to be able to tell when Aaron is in no mood to have holes poked in his ideas, and stops pushing. Eventually, Aaron notices, Alexander knows him well enough to know when when Aaron is receptive to a debate and generally waits for this mood. Because Aaron is a year ahead in the program they don’t have too many classes together, but at a departmental talk Aaron finds himself not following the  grad student operating procedure and pursuing an idea that Alexander raises in the question and answer session. Angelica gives him a confused stare, somewhere between betrayed and worried, but the discussion that builds from Alexander’s point and Aaron’s pursuit is engaging, pulling in many of the professors and students. Afterward Alexander keeps beaming at Aaron as if he’s done something spectacular, but Aaron isn’t really sure what since it was Alexander’s idea that got the conversation started.

A few weeks later, there’s another departmental event, a mini-conference with a few speakers from other departments and schools. They’re wrapping it up with a dinner over cheap wine. Aaron has managed to talk to quite a few of the visiting professors, good connections that might make them remember him positively later. As he gets ready to leave, shaking hands and promising to email one of the professors a question, Aaron can feel Alexander’s eyes on him from where Alexander is hovering by the door.

On the drive home Alexander seems unsettled, and finally he bursts out with, “I don’t know how you do that.”

Aaron is confused, “Do what?”

Alexander looks frustrated, “Connect with people. Important people.”

Aaron is at a loss for words, “I-”

Alexander barrels on, “I thought- I thought when I came to graduate school, that this would be a place where all I had to do was use my mind. But it’s not, it’s just like everywhere else, you have to have the right connections. You have to get people to like you.”

Aaron pauses. This is true, getting ahead in graduate school, getting articles published, getting invited to present, getting one of the extremely elusive jobs, all of this is down to connections nearly as much as smarts. It’s also true that it’s never been something that Aaron struggles with. He watched his own mother charm her way to a choice appointment in the extremely competitive and male dominated field of physics before her death, and his father had been an actual political campaign organizer. To say Aaron knew how to schmooze was putting it mildly, but he’d never thought that Alexander felt the lack. Aaron supposed he’d thought Alexander considered himself above such things, not that he felt incapable. 

Aaron chooses his words carefully, “It’s just a skill that can be learned. I learned a long time ago watching my parents, but,” Here he hesitates, “But, you could learn just as easily.”

Alexander snorts derisively.

“Oh come on Alexander, don’t make me tell you how smart you are. Besides, I’m an excellent teacher.”

Alexander smiles, “So you’re going to be my Yoda on how not to piss people off?”

Aaron groans, “Well when you put it like that, it does sound like a lot of work.”

Alexander doesn’t respond, tension returned, and Aaron realizes that he really is sensitive about this, “Yes. Trust me, I’ll have you networking like a pro long before the divorce.”

It’s a challenge. Alexander’s first instinct is always to debate someone’s ideas, and he is horrified at the idea of undeserved flattery, but they work with the principle of ‘if you can’t say something nice, change the topic,’ and expand out from there.

By the end of year reception Aaron has given Alexander enough guidance that he’s actually having a civil conversation with Doctor Jefferson. Doctor Jefferson and Alexander hate each other, so this is a pretty decent test of Alexander’s new skills. Aaron watches from across the room, monitoring for problems, but it all seems to be going well. Angelica comes to stand next to him, watching Jefferson and Alexander with him as she sips wine out of the cheap plastic cups the department has provided, “Did you make that happen?”

“Yep.” 

She inspects the seemingly congenial conversation a moment longer, “You’ve really made him unstoppable now. The rest of us might have been able to compete if he stayed an interactional trainwreck, but now he’s like the perfect academic.”

The thought has occurred to Aaron, but, “He was already unstoppable, now he just doesn’t have to run over everyone on his way.”

She looks at him, unconvinced, and then takes another sip of wine, “This isn’t some sort of long con to get a spousal appointment, is it?”

“Wow, nice to know what you think of me.” 

She shrugs.  

He turns away and watches Alexander smile at a joke from Jefferson. It hardly looks pained at all. 

#

The next week is finals week, and it’s a mess because Aaron and Alexander both have papers to turn in, and they’re supposed to be packing up for the big move to family housing. However, Aaron finishes his own papers early, bracing for the real challenge of grading the hundred and forty final papers that roll in from the class he’s TAing. The professor has very little mercy, and so the papers are ten to twelve pages each, which is a number of pages that Aaron refuses to calculate. The professor also insists on a strangely detailed grading rubric, so each paper takes twice as long to grade as it should, even though he doesn’t need to leave detailed comments since students rarely pick up final papers. 

He loses three days straight to the grading. The days pass in a blur of papers of widely ranging quality, all on the same topic, threatening to run together if he doesn’t pay close attention to each one. There’s something about grading papers that always makes him feel as if he’s been hitting his own brain with a brick after a few hours, and this is no exception, leaving him with both a mental and a physical pain.

Alexander quietly takes over the cooking, and at regular intervals breaks into the grading to offer Aaron meals, and snacks. He talks with Aaron during these breaks about light nonsense, allowing Aaron to think about something other than the distinction between a B and a B- for awhile. The second night, Aaron falls asleep in the middle of a particularly dull paper, and Alexander finds him there on the couch, the pen in his slack hand drawing a long line across a page full of nonsense. He gently shakes Aaron awake and makes him go to bed. Aaron is asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow, but he thinks as he’s drifting under he feels the covers being tugged up around him, and a light touch on his cheek.       

On the third day, Aaron finishes the last paper, and then spends another hour or so entering the final grades. When he’s finished he feels unreasonably happy, as if he’s just won a prize instead of merely finishing a terrible task. Alexander is working at his desk, hair up in a messy bun, and glasses slipping down his nose, and the sight of him makes Aaron remember all the snacks and meals over the last few days, sending a surge of fond gratitude through him. It’s almost dinner time and Aaron wonders if he can convince Alexander to go out. He’s suddenly overcome with the urge to be anywhere but here. He sneaks up behind Alexander and then uses his foot to spin the office chair around to face him, grinning at the surprise on Alexander’s face. Alexander is still holding one of his green pens, but his surprise melts into a smile when he sees Aaron, “Finished?”

“Yes. Thanks for helping out.”

Alexander shrugs, “I didn’t do much. You did the work.”

Aaron waves that away, “Still. Let me take you out for dinner.”

Alexander’s smile broadens, showing the smile lines around his eyes that Aaron loves to see, “I don’t know, I’m a married man. What will my husband think?”

Aaron laughs, “I think he’ll be very excited if you say yes.”

Alexander spins the chair back around, “Okay, just let me finish this. Twenty more minutes.”

Aaron agrees and goes to take a quick shower, but as he’s gathering his clothes he realizes something, and slowly walks back into the living room, and peeks into the kitchen, “Alexander?”

Alexander is still working, “Hm?”

“Did you pack up the apartment already?”  

Alexander turns back around, “Well not everything obviously, I didn’t want to bother you. But we are supposed to move in two days.”

Aaron slowly walks back through the living room, noting how much of the work is already done, stopping at Alexander’s desk, which he now sees is surrounded by boxes of books.

Alexander is watching him cautiously, but Aaron is charmed, “This is amazing, thank you.”

Alexander looks relieved, “It wasn’t a big deal, I just-”

Aaron stops him, leaning down to give him a brief hug, “Don’t be ridiculous, this was a lot of work.”

Alexander’s dark eyes are wide, as Aaron, now slightly embarrassed by his own reaction, takes a step back, “No problem.”

Aaron nods, but can still feel that surprised stare on his back as he retreats to the shower, calling over his shoulder, “Now I’m going to buy you dinner and a drink.”

#

For dinner they go to a near-by Mexican restaurant and stay late, drinking margaritas and eating too much. Aaron still feels loose and happy. He laughs at all of Alexander’s jokes, who responds by lighting up, telling more funny stories and laughing in turn at Aaron’s stories. A part of Aaron’s mind wonders if this is the charm that Alexander uses to attract all the smart, pretty people that want to date him, but mostly he feels uncomplicatedly happy to be done with classes, done with teaching, and to be here with Alexander.

Even with the huge amount of preparation that Alexander has already accomplished, the next two days are a flurry of packing, and one terrible day of loading everything into a u-haul, driving for less than twenty minutes, and unloading everything. That night they start to unpack, but don’t get much further than the bed, before collapsing with firm vows about the next day. They fulfill their vows by lunch, but come to the terrible revelation that in this bigger apartment even their combined possessions have gaps, and a trip to Ikea is going to be required. Aaron makes a detailed list, and they go right away before they lose the will. It’s a haul, and they don’t finish assembling they last complicated shelving unit until nearly one in the morning. However, when they finish, it’s as nice as Aaron had dreamed. They even have a spare bedroom, with Aaron’s old bed finally able to do something other than collect dust in his empty apartment as the lease ran out. The spare room also serves an office, meaning that they can both have a desk, Alexander’s in the living room still. Everything is neatly put away, and giddy with lack of sleep he stumbles into Alexander, giving him a hug, “It’s great.”

Alexander laughs, hugging him back, “You are really easily pleased by housework.”

Aaron, chuckles tiredly, leaning back so he can see Alexander, “Sad, but true.”

Alexander’s smile broadens a little, and then for a moment too long they are just standing there, still holding one another, and smilingly stupidly into each other's eyes.

The moment is stretching on, and Alexander is so warm under Aaron’s hands, but no, he can’t put Alexander in this position. He pulls away, trying to act as if the moment never happened. Alexander is turning away too, picking up the spare bolts from the shelving unit, and finding a place for them in a kitchen drawer. They get ready for bed just as if it was any other night, and Aaron pushes the memory of Alexander’s inviting lips from his mind. 

#

Even though they don’t have to teach, and don’t have any classes, Aaron and Alexander are both busy preparing for their final comprehensive exams over the summer. Although Alexander entered the program a year after Aaron, his non-stop work and the freedom afforded to him by not having to teach, have allowed him to pull ahead so they’re at the same milestones. The tests will be the first week of the new semester, but they require a lot of reading and note taking in advance, so Alexander and Aaron both spend most of the summer surrounded by stacks of books and articles, working around the reduced summer hours of the campus libraries.

At the end of July, Aaron comes back from campus where he had been collecting more books to find Alexander not at his desk as usual, but on the couch like he’s waiting for Aaron. He looks tense, and Aaron is suddenly nervous. Alexander holds out a piece of mail, “They’ve scheduled our immigration interview.”

Aaron feels relieved, “Okay, that’s a good thing right?” 

Alexander nods, but he still looks tense, “I was doing a little research about it.”

Aaron waits.

“I’m worried we don’t know enough about one another.”

Suddenly Aaron understands, “Oh.”

Alexander meets his eyes, a wrinkle between his brows, “I didn’t even think about this when I asked you, but we’re going to need to know personal things about each other’s history.”

What does that mean, “Like?”

Alexander shrugs, “Like family stuff, probably a little about relationship history, where did you grow up, that kind of thing.”

Aaron feels a little queasy. Personal discussions are not his favorite, but Alexander doesn’t look any happier, which is...something. “When is the appointment?”

“Three weeks.”

“So we have some time.”

“Yeah.”

But over the next two weeks neither of them offers any information, and if anything they are more closed off than usual.

Finally, a week before the appointment, Alexander comes home on a Tuesday night with a bottle of tequila and a jug of orange juice. Aaron is laying on the couch, reading an article for the exam, but cautiously sits up when Alexander pointedly sets the bottle of tequila in front of him, and starts unpacking a take-out bag full of Chinese food.

He arranges everything to his satisfaction, and then looks up at where Aaron is watching him warily, “Look, if we have to do this, I say let’s do it drunk.”

Aaron, laughs, but can’t help but agree. He packs up his books, clearing the couch.

They start with the food, sitting at each of the couch, and silently eating. After he’s eaten a good amount of fried rice, Alexander pads off to the kitchen and returns with two glasses, silently mixing them both a drink with a hearty amount of tequila. He hands one to Aaron, and takes a large gulp of his own, before turning back to the food. Aaron follows suit, and by the time he’s full, the drink is gone and he’s starting to feel the effects.

Aaron mixes them another drink. They sit there in silence for a few more minutes, facing each other, but not making eye contact, backs pressed into opposite arms of the couch. Finally, glass half empty again, Alexander clears his throat, “So uh.”

Aaron takes another gulp, “So.”

Alexander looks a little desperate, but determined, “We should start.”

“With?" 

“Family,” says Alexander firm, but unhappy. 

Aaron waits.

Alexander laughs, throws back the rest of his drink, and leans forward to mix another, “Okay, fine. I never knew my father, and my mother died when I was fourteen. After that I was taken in by a family friend, who killed himself just before I turned eighteen. I don’t really have any family left.” He hides his face in his drink.

Jesus. It’s both not surprising, because when has Alexander ever mentioned family, and terrible. Well the least Aaron can do is reciprocate. He drains his own drink, and then studies the empty glass, “My parents were killed in a car crash when I was sixteen. My grandparents took me in, but it wasn’t- They hadn’t been close to my parents, and it was a difficult situation. My grandfather is a minister.” He leans over to fill the glass again, “Very conservative. We haven’t ever been close, but we haven’t talked at all since…”

Alexander is watching him as he pours the orange juice, “Since?”

Aaron darts a glance at him, apologetic, “Since I got married.”

Alexander looks horrified, “Aaron…”

Aaron shakes his head, “It’s not like that. I was out before. I think they just didn’t believe me, and now they are forced to admit that I wasn’t just trying to mess with them.”

“I’m sorry though.” 

“Don’t be. It’s better this way.”

Alexander doesn’t look convinced, but he nods.

They have another moment of silent drinking, before Alexander pulls in a long shaky breath, “Well, that went well.” Their eyes meet, and then they are both laughing, slightly hysterical, and slightly drunk.

After the laughter has died off, Aaron feels like it’s his turn, “In terms of former relationships I dated around a bit in college, but my only serious relationship was a woman named Theodosia.” He’s still not sure how to sum up Theodosia years later, “She was brilliant, driven, kind. We were together for two years. We were going to try to go to grad school in the same city, she wanted to go to law school.”

Alexander nods, watching him seriously.

Aaron takes another drink, “Anyway, senior year right before we heard back about graduate schools she got pregnant. I thought we should come up with a new plan, keep it, get married. She didn’t, after that it fell apart, and I came here and she went to Stanford.”

Alexander looks sympathetic, “Do you want kids?”

Aaron’s glass is empty again, “I don’t know. At the time it seemed like the right thing, but I don’t know. You?”

Alexander sets his glass next to Aaron’s for Aaron to refill, “I don’t know either. I think if I was with someone who did, but otherwise…” He shrugs, and takes his full drink.

Aaron nods, settling back into the couch again.

“I think you already know my relationships of note. I didn’t really date seriously until Eliza and John, and well...you know how that went down.”

Since Laurens still won’t make eye contact with him, Aaron feels like he knows enough about that topic, and just nods.

Aaron casts around for a subject that a spouse would be expected to know about, but isn’t going to be full of landmines, “Why did you come to graduate school?”

Alexander relaxes a little, “Oh, I think you probably know something about this. I thought graduate school would be a place where intellect would be valued over some skills I might lack.” He grins wryly at Aaron, who smiles back, “Also growing up, I really saw the ways in which money and politics could intertwine, and I wanted to be able to do something about that. It was either this or actually go into politics. You?”

Aaron takes a drink, considering, “Because of my parents really. My mother was a professor, physics. My father was a campaign manager for local politicians in our home state. I was never really a science genius like my mom, but I was always interested in politics, so political science.”

Alexander nods, and they both finish off their current drinks. Alexander pours them another. Aaron, at least, is feeling the alcohol at this point, four drinks in a pretty short amount of time taking its toll. Alexander is also looking a little blurry, but clearly doesn’t seem willing to stop, so Aaron waits patiently, sipping on his drink slowly. 

Finally Alexander says, shaky, “What would you say your greatest fear is?”

Aaron’s first reaction is that this isn’t anything that’s going to come up in an interview, but something stops him. Alexander looks determined and a little cornered, as if this is where he’s been going all night, so instead of balking Aaron considers the question seriously, grateful for the alcohol smoothing out the edges of his feelings. Finally he admits, “Disappointing my parents.”

He pulls his legs up ducking behind them, too drunk to care what that body language probably gives away, “I was sixteen when they died, and l don’t always know if I would be making them proud. About a lot of things, but- But, I never came out to them, and when I went to live with my grandparents, they were so clear on the fact that being anything other than straight meant damnation. I spent a lot of time trying to be someone who wouldn’t rock the boat, and wondering if my parents had felt that way, even though logically I knew part of the reason they were never close to my grandparents was because of how conservative my grandparents were.”

He took a gulp of the drink, “Anyway, in college I was away from them, and managed to work through some stuff. That’s why it’s probably just as well if they never talk to me again.” He doesn’t look at Alexander, for a minute.

When he does look up, Alexander looks sympathetic, but he’s also clearly still gearing up for whatever revelation scares him. Aaron just waits, the room swimming slightly as he watches Alexander try to steady his breath.

Finally, Alexander starts, “Okay, obviously I don’t like talking about this, but anyone I married would have to know this. I really, really hate hospitals.” He pauses as if waiting for a reaction, but Aaron just watches him steadily, letting him get this out. He takes a deep breath, “I said my mom died when I was fourteen, but that’s not really the whole story. It shouldn’t have happened, it was just a bug.”

He’s put down the glass and crosses his arms, defensive, “We both had it. We both got really sick. We ended up in the hospital. I was so sick I don’t even remember how, if she took us there, if it was ambulance, I don’t know. I remember being there, but by the time I was well enough to be really aware of what was happening, she was dead. Some stupid complication, that you would never expect.”  He’s motionless, arms still wrapped around himself, “I didn’t handle it well, and I still- I still would do just about anything to avoid being in a hospital, which my husband would obviously know.”

He looks up to Aaron, and he looks so wrecked by whatever he’s remembering, that Aaron can’t help it. He crawls over to Alexander’s end of the couch and pulls him into a drunk hug, “Okay. Okay, now I know.” Alexander lets out a long ragged breath, and hugs him back, clinging tightly.

After Alexander’s breath has stopped coming shaky fast, Aaron leans back, “So I don’t know about you, but I feel qualified to pass any stupid immigration interview now.”

Alexander nods, not meeting his eyes.

“Bed?”

Alexander nods again.

Aaron sends him off to get ready for bed, and cleans up the drinks and leftover food, before getting ready himself. When he slides into bed, Alexander is pretending to be asleep, but it’s obvious he’s not because he’s shaking. Aaron watches the curve of his shoulder in the dimness for a minute, trying to decide what to do, before bold with the booze he tugs on that shoulder, “Hey.”

Alexander doesn’t do anything for a second, and then turns over just enough to look at Aaron in the near blackness.

Aaron takes that for encouragement and tugs again, “Hey, come here.”

Alexander doesn’t move for a moment, but then slowly slides over to Aaron. Aaron pulls closer, wrapping himself around Alexander, and running a soothing hand over his back. Alexander is tense, but after a moment he relaxes, then buries his face in Aaron’s chest, where he stays until the shaking has stopped, and they’ve both drifted off to sleep.

In the morning they don’t discuss any of it.

#

The actual interview isn’t that bad. Alexander hands over the thick file of documents that prove their marriage and their life together, which the interviewer reviews. Then she smiles at them and asks them a series of questions, none particularly difficult. Although it’s strange to discuss which side of the bed they prefer with a stranger, it’s not necessarily painful. They barely have to dip into their drunken confessions, only the family background coming in necessary. The whole time Aaron is braced for a worst case scenario, for them to be separated and interviewed to trip them up, but while her eyes are sharp as she watches them, she never seems suspicious. In the end, she sends them on their way with bland assurances that their application will be making its way through the system.

Afterward they blink at each other, relieved but shocked somehow to have made it through without anyone spotting their lie. Aaron can’t help thinking about it for the rest of the day, and is awkwardly forced to concede within his own mind that there’s actually nothing to give them away in their day to day life. They don’t have sex, but otherwise his life as a married man is no different from any of the other married people he knows. He isn’t sure what to think about that, so he stops.

#

Their comprehensive exams arrive faster than either of them would like. The exams involve writing three essays in three days, based on prompts from the professors running the exam. For the three days of the exam they write nearly constantly, Alexander at his desk in the living room, and Aaron in the spare room. They only break to eat easy meals of sandwiches and microwavable food. Conversation is sparse during these meals, both of them mentally still with whatever point they’re working on in the current essay. At night they sleep restlessly, and Alexander in particular keeps waking up and wandering into the living room to write one more thing, leaving Aaron blinking fuzzily at his retreating back. When the deadline arrives, they email the documents to the exam committees, and then by silent exhausted agreement go to bed, even though it’s not even seven.

The next day is a Monday, and they are swept up in the start of the year, starting their last year of required classes, and Aaron working as a teaching assistant again. Angelica is back after spending the summer doing field research in DC, and she and Aaron start having lunch together again regularly. She seems to be assessing him when she asks about Alexander, but doesn’t say anything, just congratulating them on the seeming success of the immigration interview.

A couple weeks into the semester they receive word that they’ve passed their exams, and now they can focus steadily on writing their dissertation research proposals. But first, the yearly national political science association conference, this year in Chicago. Both Aaron and Alexander are presenting research, and it makes sense that they travel together and share a hotel room. It makes particular sense to Aaron when he finds out that Alexander’s NSF travel money will cover staying in the actual conference hotel. Usually Aaron only gets enough money from the department to cover registration and maybe the flight, so he’s used to staying in the cheapest hotel in plausible walking or public transportation distance.

Flying with Alexander isn’t as trying as Aaron thought it might be, he actually just falls asleep for most of the flight, and when they check into the room it’s possibly even nicer than Aaron thought it might be, although the best part is going to be not having an hour commute to get to the eight AM panels.

The conference itself is like all others, exhausting, too long, and full of presentations of mixed value. Alexander is in his element, with an insightful question for nearly everyone, and for once offending less people than he charms. Aaron presents the first day, and it goes well, he receives a good number of questions, and a couple of important people talk to him about it afterward.  Alexander’s presentation is on the second day, and is clearly the best presentation on the panel, and would have completely dominated the question and answer session if Alexander hadn’t generously managed to turn some of the questions so they connect to the other projects. It’s the kind of move that makes him seem like a good colleague, but it also shows how closely he was paying attention to the other presentations, and the insights he has are as incisive as usual. The whole performance is such a masterwork, exactly the kind of thing Aaron would have hated him for last year at this time, but now Aaron’s dominant feeling is one of pride.

That night there’s a happy hour for their research section, the sort of thing that’s equal parts a chance to catch up with friends from other schools, and an opportunity to make connections with important people. Aaron manages to meet a few people he should know, and is taking a break from schmoozing, standing in a corner scanning the room and sipping his free wine. He doesn’t have to look for Alexander, the whole conference it’s been like Aaron has a sixth sense for him. Without even trying Aaron seems to know where Alexander is at all times, and so right now he knows that Alexander is across the room, talking to a small group of people, animated, but also listening to what they have to say. Aaron observes this, to all appearances successful, interaction for a minute, before a graduate student from another school introduces herself to him.

Her name is Tessa and she compliments his presentation, and he asks about her work. The conversation eventually turns casual, two people who have been working all day just chatting, and joking about the terrible food, and the awkward interactions happening around them. She’s very funny, and she seems to find his jokes equally funny. He’s just happy to have met someone he can take a break with, but it occurs to him as she leans into him a little to make another wryly funny observation that she’s been subtly flirting with him for the last ten minutes. She’s beautiful, long dark hair, full lips, full figure, but it hadn’t even occurred to him. He would have flirted back last year, but this year he just switches the hand he’s holding his drink in, ring on display. She’s sharp, noticing it almost right away, but not reacting in any obvious manner. She stays, but her jokes have lost the flirtatious undercurrent, and Aaron feels an inexplicable relief.

A few of her friends come over and he meets them, and then introduces her to a couple of people in turn. People drift in and out of their circle, but as the evening starts wind down it’s just the two of them again. Their conversation has gotten sillier as they’ve drunk more free wine, and started to get tired after a full day of conference activities. They’re leaning against the bar, surveying the people left in the room, gossiping, making up implausible stories about the ones for which no good gossip is to be had, and assessing everyone’s attractiveness. Alexander is now talking to a professor from Columbia who is smiling at something he has to say, and Aaron wonders if he’ll be ready to go soon, bed sounds nice at this point.

Tessa leans into him, “What about him? What’s his name, again?”

Aaron turns to see that she’s followed his gaze, “You mean Alexander?”

She arches an eyebrow at him, “Oh that’s right, you guys are at the same school, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

She nudges him with her shoulder, smiling up at him, “So give me the dirt. Is he single? Do I have a chance?”

“Uh,” he can’t tell if she’s serious, and he’s not sure how to respond. Of course Alexander is free to do what he wants, but his husband probably shouldn’t say that to a near stranger. He’s torn between trying to be fair to Alexander, maintaining their cover, and an ache in his chest that he doesn’t want to acknowledge at the thought of Alexander turning his bright smile on her.

Before he can work through this, Alexander himself is there, winding an arm around Aaron’s waist and dropping a light kiss on his temple, “Hey.”

Aaron is befuddled, they don’t really usually go in for casual public affection, for obvious reasons.

Tessa is less subtle about her realization this time, two more glasses of wine in, both her eyebrows are up now, and she chuckles into her cup, “Oops.”

Alexander turns to her, he’s smiling, but there’s something sharp under his smile that Aaron doesn’t understand, “Oops?”

She smiles back disarmingly, “We were just talking about you, I didn’t realize you were the husband. Great presentation today.”

Alexander, takes the hand she’s proffered, “Thank you. Are you presenting?” 

“Tomorrow.”

“I look forward to it,” and then he’s turned to Aaron, apparently done with her, “Do you think you’ll be ready to go soon?”

It walks right over the edge of rude, and Aaron is annoyed, but Tessa just drains her glass, and gathers her bag, “That’s my cue, see you guys tomorrow.”

Outside it’s muggy. It had been hot that day, a last gasp of summer, and the night air is still humid and warm. There’s a tension between them that Aaron isn’t really sure how to explain, but he’s too tired to sort it out. Halfway back to the hotel Alexander says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” 

“Interrupt me? With Tessa?”

Alexander’s expression tightens, but he just says, “Yes. With Tessa. You looked close with Tessa.”

Does Alexander think that... “We were just talking. She wanted to know if you were single.”

Alexander shoots him a surprised look, “Me?”

Aaron rolls his eyes, “Yes, I’m sure this is the first time it’s ever happened.”

Now Alexander just looks confused, “No I- No. I hope you told her I’m taken.”

Aaron is unsure how to respond to that, what’s the right thing to say to your fake husband about a conference hook-up, but before he can formulate an answer Lafayette and Hercules are turning the corner into them and inviting them out for drinks.

Aaron bows out, saying he’s too tired, but tells Alexander to go on ahead.

Alexander seems hesitant, “Just one.”

Aaron shakes his head, “It’s your hangover, have as many as you want.”

Alexander tells Lafayette and Hercules to go on ahead of them, and catches Aaron’s gaze seeming to want to reassure him of something, “Just one.”

Aaron nods, tired, and turns to go to the hotel, but Alexander is pulling him into a quick hug, before turning and jogging off to catch Lafayette and Hercules.

What was that? Aaron is too tired to worry about it, and once in bed he falls asleep almost immediately. He wakes up briefly when Alexander arrives, as promised only an hour or so later, and curls up against Aaron as he drifts back to sleep.

#

At the morning session Tessa’s presentation is interesting, and Alexander goes out of his way to ask a question that allows her to show off the best part of her project. In the afternoon there’s a lull, and Alexander suggests he and Aaron actually try to see some of the city. They walk through downtown, admire the bean, and end up down by shore of lake Michigan. The water is calm in a way that only a lake can be, and they sit on a bench and watch the people walking along the water. Alexander insists on a selfie of them with the beach in the background for facebook, and leans into Aaron to take it. For the rest of the trip Aaron finds himself pulling the photo up, studying the casual way they are leaning into one another, Alexander’s dark eyes, the tendril of hair that had blown across Alexander’s forehead, and Aaron’s own happy smile.

#

After they return from the conference, there’s an awkwardness between them that hasn’t been there in months. Aaron knows it’s his fault. His fault that he can’t stop thinking about what it would be like to have Alexander’s hands or mouth on him, what it would be like to kiss him in earnest, and if he would talk just as much during sex as he does everything else. The run in with Tessa had brought up all the thoughts that Aaron had been pushing away since that ring slipped on his finger. No doubt it is making him awkward around Alexander, causing a rift that shouldn’t be there, not when they have so much time left in this agreement. Possibly Aaron should go out, find someone to relieve some tension, but he can’t bring himself to even think seriously about the possibility.

A week later, the polisci grad students have their annual beginning of the year party. It’s not precisely the beginning of the year anymore, but it had long ago been decided that it was best to wait until after the conference. The party is an excuse for everyone to catch up with one another, for the new students to meet the more advanced students, and for everyone to get very drunk. A few of the more advanced students rent a house together and they’ve volunteered to host, resulting in a house full of increasingly intoxicated graduate students.

The awkwardness between himself and Alexander has been wearing on Aaron all week, and it’s a relief to talk to other people, and to lose himself in the warmth of alcohol. He’s several drinks in, the Alexander problem forgotten for the moment, talking to Angelica about her week. They’re out on the back patio, each in a decrepit lawn chair. It’s probably a little too cold to be outside, but they’d come out with a group of people who wanted to smoke, some cigarettes and some pot, and the alcohol is distracting them from the cold.

He doesn’t notice that Alexander is mingling with the group of smokers right away, but of course he catches Aaron’s attention eventually. Alexander’s not smoking, but he’s in a deep conversation with a couple of first years who are passing a joint back and forth. They’re probably too new to be anything but impressed by his willingness to talk theory and research, even at a party. One of them nods seriously at something he’s saying, her glossy black hair swaying. The other one is smoking, watching the conversation with a detached, stoned air. Alexander’s hands are in constant motion, explaining something. He’s not drinking tonight, he wants to work tomorrow and volunteered to drive, but his bright enthusiasm matches all the glittering inebriation around him.

“Aaron…” Angelica has noticed his distraction. He pulls his gaze back to her, and she’s looking at him, worried.

It looks like she’s going to say something, but Aaron just leans back in the chair, trying to see stars through the city bright, “Don’t.”

There’s a pause, and he can feel her studying him, but then she continues to tell him about her newest problem student, and he feels a rush of relief.

He manages to pretend that he hasn't noticed Alexander through one more beer, but then Alexander is dragging his first year contingent over to meet Aaron and Angelica. Aaron goes through the introductions, but instantly forgets their names. Angelica on the other hand shares an advisor with them and they fall into a long conversation about quirks to watch out for. Alexander is left hovering over Aaron. He’s got his arms wrapped himself, and he’s shivering. He’s always been bad with the cold, somehow still not used to it, and he doesn’t have the alcohol warming him up like the rest of them.

Aaron watches him shiver for a minute, and then reckless, reaches up, grabbing one of the hands that Alexander has wrapped around himself, and tugging him down. Alexander lets himself be pulled into the chair with Aaron, laughing. It’s too small, so he’s really half in Aaron’s lap, and Aaron wraps his arms around Alexander’s waist, half to steady him, and half to warm him.

Angelica has paused her conversation to glare judgmentally at them, but Aaron just leans back and glares in return until she turns back to her confused looking first years.

Aaron drifts in and out of the conversation, lost in the sensation of Alexander slowly relaxing more and more into Aaron, until he’s fully resting against Aaron’s chest. Aaron eventually notices that the rumble of Alexander’s voice has stopped, and when he looks around everyone else has gone back inside, probably seeking warmth.

Alexander hasn’t suggested they go in, and hasn’t gotten up from Aaron’s lap even though there are now open seats. Instead he’s just laying back against Aaron, studying the sky while Aaron absently traces a pattern along his side.

They might have stayed like that forever, but then on a loop of his idle pattern Aaron’s fingers slip under the edge of Alexander’s shirt, skimming along his bare skin. It’s hardly anything, but Alexander shivers, a full body reaction that of course Aaron feels with Alexander draped on top of him.

Aaron’s fingers still. Was that a good shiver, or a bad shiver? Brave with his drunkenness he experiments, this time more firmly and deliberately pushing his hand under Alexander’s shirt, over the soft skin of his stomach.

Alexander’s breath hitches, and then he’s placing his own hand over Aaron’s, pulling it off of his stomach.  Aaron’s heart sinks, but Alexander is turning, repositioning himself so he’s facing Aaron, kneeling in the chair, straddling his lap. He’s bracing himself on the back of the chair, so they’re barely touching, and his expression is opaque, but as he studies Aaron his eyes keep dropping to Aaron’s mouth, and Aaron decides to gamble again, leaning up for a kiss.

Alexander kisses back, without hesitation. He kisses like he argues, with intent, passion, and skill. Like he’s just trying to find someone who can keep up, and Aaron wants desperately to be that person. He’s not sure how long they’ve been kissing, either seconds or days, when the back door to the house slams open and someone stumbles out of, and then with an, “Oh. Um,” back into the house. Aaron had in no way seen who it was, but it sounded like a first year to him, and who cares what they think? He’s prepared to go on, but Alexander is pulling back.

His breath is a little fast, and for a moment he stares at Aaron, but then he’s untangling himself, standing up, “We should go.”

Aaron isn’t sure what that means, but he agrees.

The ride home is awkward. Aaron can’t tell what Alexander is feeling, if Aaron’s about to get to kiss him again, or if Aaron’s pushed a boundary that he shouldn’t have pushed.

He remains unclear, until Alexander refuses to follow him into the bedroom, hovering at the doorway apologetically, “Look, you’re drunk. We can figure out what we want in the morning, but I think for tonight I should sleep in the spare room.”

His breath gone, Aaron just nods. Alexander, nods back, and then slips away, leaving Aaron to contemplate how he’s broken the only real vow of this marriage, to never ask Alexander for something he might feel obligated to give.

#

Aaron sleeps fitfully, the alcohol and guilt working together to keep him from restful sleep. He has half-formed dreams of Alexander’s possible reactions, moving out, moving someone else in, or worst of all offering himself to Aaron grimly.

Aaron wakes up fully around ten. Alexander still isn’t there, and he has a text from Angelica, something you want to tell me?

His head is pounding, and he squints at the screen as he types back, what?

Then he slowly drags himself out of bed and manages to take a shower, hoping to feel more alive afterward. It has limited success, and when he returns to the bedroom he has another text, one of the first years saw you two making out like teenagers  

Shit, he had forgotten about that in his worry. He ignores the text, and instead goes out to find food, still in the hopes of recovery. He’s braced to run into Alexander, to apologize, to see his guarded, betrayed expression, but instead the living room and kitchen are empty. The door to the spare room is closed, and Alexander might still be in there. Aaron makes himself a sandwich, and eats it, without Alexander emerging. Neither the sandwich nor the water has helped, so, defeated, Aaron returns to the bedroom. He texts, I fucked up, and then pulls the covers over his aching head and escapes into a nap.

When he wakes up again it’s almost four, and he feels groggy, but his head has finally stopped aching. He brushes his teeth, and washes his face, almost feeling awake enough to face Alexander.

He cautiously peers into the living room, and there he is. Alexander is on the couch, reading. He’s wearing one of his worn out sweatshirts, and his glasses, hair loose. Aaron’s chest twists at the sight of him, and he pauses there on the threshold of the room, unwilling to confirm the loss of the happy balance they had formed.

But he has to face his mistakes, and so he walks into the room. Alexander starts when he sees him, actually dropping his book, “Aaron.”

Aaron nods cautiously. Normally he would sit on the couch with Alexander, but he doesn’t want to crowd him, so he sits on the stupid uncomfortable Ikea chair that neither of them ever uses.

Alexander watches this, face unreadable. After an uncomfortable second, he reaches down to pick up the book, smoothing out the pages.

Aaron feels like his heart must be running double time, but he’s opening up his mouth to apologize, when Alexander beats him to it, “I’m sorry.”

Alexander is watching him, sincere apology on his face, and Aaron doesn’t know why, “What?”

Alexander looks away, “I was sober, and you were drunk. I shouldn’t have kissed you. It wasn’t fair to you.”

Aaron’s racing heart seems to skip a beat, “I kissed you.”

Alexander is shaking his head, seeming about to raise a protest, but Aaron interrupts, “And you stopped it. If anyone should be apologizing it should be me, for putting you in that position.”

Alexander waves that away, “You were drunk.”

Aaron knows he has to be clear about this, “I know but, I don’t ever want you to feel- to feel trapped.”

Alexander’s expression is perfectly neutral, “Trapped?”

“I know you need,” Aaron waves his hand around the living room, encompassing their whole carefully crafted life together, “this. And I don’t want you to ever feel like I want- that I want an exchange. Trapped.”

Alexander’s expression remains neutral, in fact he seems to be holding himself perfectly still, “So what you’re saying is that you’re sorry you kissed me, because you’re worried I might feel coerced.”

It’s bluntly to the point, very Alexander, and it’s like a knock to the chest to hear it that way, but Aaron nods.

Alexander nods too, “And I’m saying that I’m sorry I kissed you, because I didn’t think it was something you would do sober, and I don’t want you to have regrets. But,” and now Alexander is moving, leaning forward, “are you sober now?”

Aaron, nods again, a hope starting to make itself felt.

Alexander is standing, “What if I said that I trust you, that I know you would never demand anything I wouldn’t give freely?”

He’s standing in front of Aaron now, and Aaron can only stare up at him dumbly, “Would you want to kiss me then?”

Aaron rests his hand on Alexander’s hip, thumb slipping up under his worn sweatshirt, to touch the soft skin there again, “Yes.”

And then Alexander is clambering onto Aaron’s lap, kneeling over him in a repeat of last night, but so much better. The kiss is warm, slower than the night before, and the sensation is sharper without the alcohol blurring Aaron’s senses. 

The chair is really too small for this, and even with Aaron bracing Alexander with hands spread over his lower back they are constantly on the edge of toppling out. Finally Alexander leans back, into Aaron’s hands, and suggests, “Bedroom?”

“Yes,” Aaron agrees, letting Alexander push himself up on Aaron’s shoulders to maneuver out of the awkward position he’s been kneeling in.

They get briefly distracted when Aaron can’t help but lean in for another kiss, just standing there by the chair, but they make it to the bedroom eventually. Alexander sits on the edge of the bed, and Aaron stops between his legs, and tugs at the edge of his sweatshirt questioningly. Alexander nods, and Aaron helps him shrug out of it, reciprocating when Alexander points to his shirt. He’s leaning down to kiss Alexander again, when Alexander stops him, with a hand on his bare chest, “I just thought we should have a grown up person check in. My last screening was like a month ago, and it was clear, and I haven’t been with anyone since the wedding.” 

Something in Aaron’s chest tightens at the mention of the wedding, but he doesn’t stop to explore it, “My last screening was maybe three months ago, but I haven’t been with anyone since before the wedding.”

Alexander smiles, “So I guess what I’m really saying is, does that mean I can blow you without a condom?”

Aaron’s eyes drop to Alexander’s mouth, and his loose pajama pants feel suddenly too tight, “I think that can be arranged, especially if I can return the favor.”

Alexander sounds a bit breathless as he answers, “I think that sounds like a deal.” He pulls Aaron into their bed, and spreads himself on top of Aaron, not seeming particularly rushed to get to the blowjob.

Aaron has no problem with that, he’s nowhere near being tired of Alexander’s kisses, not sure it’s even possible. He twines a hand into Alexander’s thick hair, settling in for as long as Alexander wants.

Alexander suddenly shifts to kissing Aaron’s neck, and Aaron’s hand, still tangled in Alexander’s hair, tugs sharply. Aaron’s on the verge of apologizing, hand loosening, but Alexander is moaning into his neck, and Aaron stops trying to pull back, “Yeah?”

Alexander doesn’t say anything, just nods into Aaron’s neck. Aaron tugs again, experimentally, and Alexander hums his approval. Aaron can definitely work with this. 

They kiss, Alexander alternating between Aaron’s mouth, and finding the most sensitive spots on Aaron’s neck. Aaron appreciates both tactics, and through his own trial and error he finds the pattern of low pressure and sharper tugs to Alexander’s hair that he seems to find most arousing.

Then Alexander is sliding down Aaron’s body. He settles in, mouth so close to Aaron’s cock, and then asks, “Okay?”

Aaron can’t possibly get enough air to answer that, so he just nods, eyes fixed on Alexander.

Alexander reaches up and takes one of Aaron’s hands, placing it on his own head, “You can pull, but don’t push.” He doesn’t wait for a reply before bracing one forearm against Aaron’s hips, and using the other hand to take ahold of Aaron’s cock, and applying his mouth.

The sensation of his mouth on Aaron is overwhelming. Alexander is clearly in charge, forearm preventing Aaron’s hips from thrusting up, other hand at the base of Aaron’s cock, and strict orders on what Aaron can do with his hands, but it becomes apparent that Alexander is very skilled at this, and only a fool would protest him being in control. Aaron twists his fingers in Alexander’s hair, just tight enough to pull, and loses himself in Alexander’s skill, and the hot, wet of his mouth. 

When he feels himself on the edge, he gasps out a warning, squeezing Alexander’s shoulder for good measure. Alexander pulls off, and works Aaron through the end with his skilled hands. When Aaron tunes back in, Alexander is watching him hungrily, his gaze sweeping from Aaron’s face to the mess on his stomach, and back.

Aaron pulls him up, kissing him, and then gently rolling them so that Aaron is on top. He props himself up, and looks at Alexander pinned underneath him, eyes dark, hair spilling over the pillow. The sight makes Aaron’s chest feel tight again.

He ignores the sensation, instead leaning up to kiss that spot between Alexander’s eyebrows where a wrinkle always forms when he’s studying. Alexander’s eyes flutter shut, lashes dark against his cheeks, and Aaron can’t help dropping a soft kiss on each eyelid. Then he’s kissing Alexander briefly on the mouth, on the jaw, open mouthed kisses down his neck, across his chest, and down the line of hair on his stomach. Aaron keeps traveling down, skirting the place where Alexander must want his mouth most, to press kisses to the thighs that fascinated him the first time he saw Alexander. He stops at the knee, dropping a kiss on one knee cap, before sliding back up.

Alexander is watching him, his eyes intent, his breath fast, and his cock hard and leaking already. Aaron teases Alexander for just a moment longer, sucking a mark into Alexander’s hip, right where he imagines he first accidentally touched Alexander’s bare skin last night, setting off the chain of events that brought them here.

Then he’s grasping the shaft of Alexander’s cock, and sliding the head into his mouth. He’s never perfected the ability to go down very far, instead he focuses on the head, finding a rhythm of hands and mouth that makes Alexander moan and clutch at Aaron’s shoulder. Alexander is already pretty keyed up, and it doesn’t actually take long before he’s groaning out Aaron’s name, and pushing at his shoulder. Aaron slides off, and brings him to completion with a couple more quick strokes, watching Alexander’s face as he gasps his way through his orgasm.

Alexander smiles at him after, flushed and happy, and Aaron ignores the return of the tightness in his chest again, to slide up for another slow kiss. Alexander is drifting off, but Aaron goes to the bathroom and returns with a damp washcloth, cleaning himself and Alexander off. Alexander murmurs his thanks, already half asleep, and even though Aaron essentially just woke up, he curls next to him, drifting, if not actually sleeping. 

#

Alexander doesn’t sleep for that long, and when he wakes they are both hungry so he volunteers to make dinner. Aaron sits at the table, lazily watching Alexander pull together a simple meal of eggs and vegetables. He’s got his clothes and glasses back on, his hair pulled back, and Aaron is imagining undoing it all again, when Alexander, focused on the eggs says, “We should probably talk.”

Aaron pulls himself out of the mental images of Alexander naked, “Talk?”

Alexander prods the eggs, “Well, when we first got married we said no need to mention other casual relationships, only serious ones, but that was with the expectation that we weren’t going to be…” He waves one hand in a gesture that is apparently supposed to translate to “fucking.” 

“Right,” says Aaron cautious.

“So the questions is- Well I guess the first question is, do you want to do this again?” and Alexander is turning toward Aaron, suddenly concerned.

“I do, if you do.”

Alexander grins, relief clear, “That sounds familiar somehow. Okay, so the question is, do we want any of those ground rules to change.”

Does Aaron want what...Alexander to tell him if he casually hooks up? No, definitely not. In this case ignorance is bliss. He chooses his words cautiously, “I don’t see why. Maybe agree that if we do hook up with other people that we should use protection with them.”

He can’t see Alexander’s face, he’s pulling down some plates, but the set of his shoulders seems tense, “And it’s still fine with you to keep it open?”

‘No,’ part of Aaron’s mind whispers, but this is all going to be over in a few years, and he can’t stop Alexander from meeting people he would actually chose to spend his life with, “Yes, I think that’s best, given the circumstances.”

Alexander’s back is still to him, putting the food on the plates, but after the food is arranged he turns with a smile, “Sounds good.” He hands Aaron a plate, “Better keep your energy up.”

And that’s the end of their relationship talk.

After dinner, Aaron does the dishes, figuring he’d better accomplish one productive thing with his day. As he’s finishing, Alexander wraps him in a hug from behind, and kisses the back of his neck, “What do you think, round two?”

Aaron laughs, drying his hands before turning around in Alexander’s arms, “You have all the best ideas.”

Alexander beams at him, eyes crinkling up behind his glasses, and Aaron has to kiss him, grumbling, “You drive me crazy in those glasses.”

Alexander leans back to look at Aaron, “Really?” He’s clearly delighted.

“Don’t be smug,” says Aaron, trying to kiss away the smirk, and walking Alexander backwards to the bedroom. Stumbling, they make their way to the bed, and Aaron pins Alexander down into the mattress. The giddy mood quickly turns intent, slow deep kisses, and Alexander is hard against Aaron’s hip, reaching under Aaron’s clothes to cup his ass, and pull him even closer. Aaron flexes his hips, giving Alexander a little friction, but it’s not enough, and Aaron pulls back. Alexander’s hands slide up to Aaron’s waist, holding him in place as Aaron props himself up on one arm and gently removes Alexander’s glasses, leaning over to place them on the bedside table.

Alexander is watching him softly. Aaron dips in for another slow kiss, sliding his fingers into Alexander’s hair and carefully working out the band holding it back. When he has it out, he tosses it over by the glasses, and starts on Alexander’s shirt. Alexander helps, sitting up, and pulling it off, and then pulling Aaron’s shirt off as well.

Aaron nudges him back into the pillows, mouth returning to Alexander’s, as he gently scratches through the hair on his chest, and lower to ease Alexander’s pajamas down, and take ahold of his cock, setting up a slow rhythm that keeps Alexander just on the edge. Aaron keeps him there, slow kisses, slow strokes, until Alexander is barely contained restlessness underneath him, “Aaron, please.”

Aaron smiles into his mouth, and then gradually starts speeding up his hand, moving his kisses down to Alexander’s neck and enjoying the small noises of pleasure that Alexander makes as Aaron finds a sensitive spot under one ear. Alexander is holding onto Aaron’s hips, fingers tightening as he gets closer to the edge. Aaron’s hand is moving faster and faster, and then Alexander is tensing, groaning, and coming in between them.

Aaron props himself up to watch Alexander as he comes down, liking the sight of his chest rising and falling with his panting breath, and the way his loose hair is threatening to get stuck in the sweat on his face. Aaron reaches up and brushes it back, and Alexander grabs his hand, placing a kiss in the palm.

Then he’s urging Aaron out of his pants, and down onto the mattress. He presses himself into Aaron’s side, under his arm, one leg slung in between Aaron’s, and starts pulling Aaron off. Alexander drops absent kisses into Aaron’s shoulder as he watches his own hand work on Aaron. Aaron pulls him as close as he can, and loses himself in the feeling of Alexander’s skilled hand, until he’s coming for the second time that day. After he feels content, and strangely tired for someone who’s more or less spent the day in bed, and he snuggles closer to Alexander ready to slip off to sleep again. Alexander, wriggles around wiping them off with Aaron’s discarded t-shirt and pulling the covers over them, but then settles into Aaron’s side with a contented sigh.

#

After that things are different. Not just because they’re having sex, although they have a lot of sex, but because Alexander turns out to be a cuddler. Aaron supposes he’s been deprived until now, not able to ask Aaron for this sort of casual contact, but not able to form a real relationship that would allow for it. Now, when Aaron is sitting on the couch grading or reading, Alexander will more often than not have his feet pressed under Aaron’s thigh, or sit next to him, just touching. Sometimes Aaron will absently throw an arm over his shoulders, and Alexander will settle into Aaron’s side. At night there is no more pretense about the fact that they end up every morning wound together, instead they fall asleep already skin to skin. Aaron can’t complain, especially since Alexander seems to be able to tell when Aaron isn’t in the mood to have anyone in his space, and keeps to his end of the couch during those times.

However, Alexander’s casual affection spills out from their apartment to their life on campus, and that’s where Aaron starts to have trouble. First and foremost is Angelica, who was already worried after their post-party text exchange. No amount of follow-up texts had assured her, but on Monday he’d somewhat convinced her that he wasn’t making a huge mistake, or at least wasn’t making his mistakes significantly worse. She assures him that adding sex to the mix is a terrible idea, but seems willing to let it go. But then Alexander starts giving Aaron a soft squeeze on the shoulder in public when they part, and twice a quick peck on the corner of the mouth.

The second time this happens it’s in one of the dining halls, Alexander happened to see Aaron and Angelica there for one of the their regular lunches when he was picking up his own lunch, and stopped to say hello. He has a meeting so he doesn’t stay, but as he leaves he touches Aaron on the shoulder, causing Aaron to look up, and then Alexander drops a quick kiss at the corner of Aaron’s mouth. Angelica smiles her goodbye to Alexander, and then turns her gaze to Aaron. As Alexander disappears through the doors of the cafeteria her smile slips slowly and menacingly into an assessing glare. It’s terrifying, but Aaron tries to appear unaffected, continuing to eat his lunch.

“So,” she places her fork carefully on her tray, “what’s going on there.”

Aaron takes his time swallowing. He’s eating soup, it’s not very convincing. “Nothing you don’t already know.”

Her level of scrutiny is unchanged, “Are you in love with him?”

“What!” How stupid does she think he is, “That would be ridiculous, this will all be over by graduation, how dumb would I have to be to let that happen.”

She’s still stony-faced, “Is he in love with you?”

That question he had not expected, and he gapes at her for a minute as he tries to answer, “No. Come on.”

She’s just watching him, and his mind is racing, going over every interaction he’s had with Alexander to see if he’s missed some key thing that would make her ask this. Alexander is affectionate, but Aaron is just his only outlet for what Aaron assumes is a naturally affectionate nature. Aaron feels confident that Alexander likes having sex with Aaron, but Aaron feels equally confident that Alexander would like having sex with most of the people he casually flirts with, which, even with the wedding ring, is a not insignificant number of people. No, Aaron is sure that anything she’s seen can be chalked up to the absurd circumstances of their non-marriage. 

He shakes his head, “No.”

She studies his face, and then seems to concede, picking up her fork again, “Okay.”  

He can’t help himself, “Why would you ask that?”

She shrugs, “I don’t know, he just seems really gone on you.” She seems to be weighing something, and then adds in a rush, “Look, when you started this I was worried about you, but now- now I think you need to be careful with him too.” 

“I will be.” He’s oddly touched that she would look out for Alexander like this, even if he doesn’t believe that Alexander needs it.

She nods, and they finish their lunch in silence.

#

So Angelica’s reaction is one problem raised by Alexander’s newfound affection. Most people in the department don’t really seem to notice, or don’t really seem to care. The prevailing theory is that they were embarrassed for some reason before, but after getting caught making out by a first year there is no embarrassment left to be had. Angelica tells him it’s gotten a lot of people to change their bets from green card marriage, to real marriage (which is how he learns there’s a betting pool on his marriage), but other than that there’s no real effect.

Except. Laurens has gone from not making eye contact with Aaron to glaring at him in the halls. He’s pretty stealthy about it. As far as Aaron can tell, he’s never done it where anyone else could catch it, especially Alexander. As such, it doesn’t really mean much to Aaron. What does he really care if Laurens doesn’t like him? Laurens had actually never liked him. Laurens was in graduate school as a path to activism, and he didn’t like anyone like Aaron who focused on pure research, so it wasn’t as if they had lost a friendship over Aaron’s fake marriage to Laurens’s real ex.  

Therefore Aaron is mostly able to ignore these random moments of hostility, until he finds out that for the winter semester they’ve been assigned to TA the big undergraduate theory class together. He tries to come to some sort of peace with Laurens before the break, but Laurens refuses to be caught for a conversation in person, and won’t answer any emails that the professor isn’t cc’d on.

Aaron manages not to worry about it over the winter break, which he and Alexander spend together. Spending break with Alexander is actually a huge improvement over awkward family time, and whatever sting Aaron feels when he realizes that absolutely none of his family tried to contact him about Christmas, is soothed by hours spent curled up on the couch with Alexander working on their dissertation proposals and arguing about methods, not to mention some really excellent sex. 

Aaron and Laurens actually have to meet with the professor for the course in January, but Laurens is still only willing to interact with Aaron only as much as the job absolutely requires. He’s willing to talk grading rubrics, but whereas most of the time the TAs sit together in lecture, and might talk about strategies for section, Laurens is having none of it. 

The professor never seems to notice, or at least she doesn’t think whatever is happening is causing enough of a problem to warrant her interference, but of course the eagle-eyed students notice.

One of them catches Aaron off guard in section, asking with a carefully crafted expression of boredom that doesn’t quite conceal her interest, “Is it true that Mr. Laurens doesn’t like you, because you stole his boyfriend, and now you’re married to the boyfriend?”

Aaron is distracted by the malfunctioning projector, and he blurts out before he can think better of it, “Did he say that?”

The boredom disappears, and suddenly he has the interest of every student in the room. One of them says with a mixture of admiration and approbation, “Oh my god, you’re a homewrecker.”

Needless to say when this gets back to Laurens’s students, and then inevitably to Laurens, his glares only intensify.

Aaron puts up with this for half a semester, but then after the midterm review he finally manages to corner Laurens, “Look, I know this an awkward situation, but can’t we agree that it shouldn’t be getting back to our students?”

Laurens is packing up his notes and computer with a distinctly angry flair, “I don’t know why you should get to decide anything.”

Aaron’s patience with this situation is long gone, “ You’re the one that said no.”

Laurens stops packing to just glare, “I was hurt. You didn’t give me time. I would’ve-” He cuts himself off suddenly, and focuses on winding up his laptop power cord.

Aaron’s body feels numb, but his brain is whirring, examining what Laurens said and isn’t saying from every angle and coming again and again to the same conclusion, “You would have said yes. You were going to marry him.”   

Laurens freezes, the only thing moving is the muscle jumping in his jaw. Finally he grits out, “It doesn’t matter now.”

Maybe Aaron should leave it there, enjoy his next three years of not doing all the cooking, having regular sex, and being challenged intellectually, but he can’t do that to Alexander if- “Does he know?”

Laurens shakes his head, “By the time- No.”

Aaron forces himself to say, “Then you have to tell him. If you still- You should tell him.”

Laurens looks surprised, then wary, “Why?”

Aaron picks up his bag, ready to be gone, “Because he should be happy.”

Laurens expression shifts to considering, but he shakes his head, “It’s too late now.”

“For you?”

“For him.”

Aaron just turns to go, “I don’t believe that. You two need to talk.”

Laurens doesn’t respond for a moment, but Aaron waits at the door until he finally says thickly, “If I thought he wanted to, I would, but I don’t think he does.”

Aaron doesn’t have an answer for that, so he just leaves, but the whole bus ride home he turns it over in his mind. Laurens might be too scared to talk to Alexander, but Aaron can’t hide this information from Alexander. The timing is ridiculous, they just received a letter from immigration approving the green card. If they stay married, Alexander can be a citizen in just a few years. But, even so.

It’s late by the time he gets home, but Alexander is still at his desk. He spins his chair around when he hears Aaron open the door, a welcoming smile on his face, “I left dinner in the- What’s wrong?”

Aaron turns away, hanging up his coat, “Nothing’s wrong.”

Alexander is out of his chair, not coming close enough to touch Aaron, but radiating worry, “Bullshit.”

Aaron sighs, “I just wanted to talk to you about something.”

Alexander goes still, face neutral, “Okay?”

Aaron sits on the couch, and Alexander carefully sits on the other end, watching Aaron cautiously. Aaron feels sickly nervous, but he says, “You know Laurens and I have been working together this semester?” 

Alexander nods, still wary, “I heard it was...tense. Did he say something?”

Aaron shakes his head, “No. Well, yes.”

Alexander starts, “I don’t know what he said to you, but-”

Aaron interrupts him, “It wasn’t about me. We were talking today, and he- he said that when you needed to get married he had rethought, and he was going to say yes.”

Alexander doesn’t say anything, he looks like he’s going back through his memories.

Aaron plunges on, “But you know, it was too late at that point. And I- I just don’t want this to stand in the way of you having a real relationship. A real marriage. It seemed to me that he still cares about you very much, and if you care about him, then we need to figure out what to do.” 

“Figure out what to do?” Alexander is pale, and his voice is expressionless. 

Aaron swallows, “I don’t know what your best option would be legally, but if you wanted to consider a divorce, or if that doesn’t work we could rearrange living situations.”

“And that wouldn’t bother you? Being married to someone living with another person?”

Aaron isn’t sure what he’s asking, “The whole point of this was just to give you legal options. Not to get in the way of your actual relationships.”

Alexander nods, shaky, still too pale, but brisk, “Well. That’s a lot to think about. I’ll have to talk to Laurens.” Aaron wishes he could make it better somehow, but how can he fix Alexander finding out how much time he’s lost with someone he cares about? 

Alexander disappears into the bedroom. Aaron mechanically eats the meal Alexander left for him, and tries to read for awhile before giving up and getting ready for bed. When he slides into bed, Alexander is curled in a tight ball on his side of the bed, and for once they don’t end up twisted together.  

The next day is the midterm, and Laurens is fifteen minutes late. He glares at Aaron after he makes his apologies to the professor. Later, as they watch the last handful of students obsessively review their answers, he whispers that he was late because Alexander wanted to talk.

Aaron’s heart stops for a beat, but all he says is, “Oh?” 

Laurens won’t look at him, pretending to watch the six remaining students for signs of cheating, “Don’t worry, your marriage is safe. I told you it was too late.”

Now Aaron’s heart is beating too fast, but he can’t think of anything to say other than, “I’m sorry.” 

Laurens just laughs bitterly, but after that he seems to soften slightly towards Aaron, just about achieving civil in their regular interactions.

When Aaron asks Alexander about it he simply says the same, that it’s too late. However, he seems sad in a way he hasn’t been in months, and sometimes Aaron catches a fleeting longing expression on his face, as if he’s thinking about what he could have had.

#

Aside from the lingering sadness from Alexander that Aaron can’t fix, they are both working more than usual getting their dissertation proposals written and ready for the oral defense. Alexander has thrown himself fully into it, in a way that is either Alexander being Alexander, or compensation for the Laurens situation. He’s working absurdly long hours on the proposal, and more nights than he’d prefer, Aaron finds himself going to bed by himself.

That’s why when Aaron comes home one Thursday before dinner, three weeks before the proposal is due, and Alexander is not at his desk Aaron is slightly concerned. The apartment seems too still, and Aaron’s concern grows when he finds Alexander asleep. Alexander never naps, he claims it only makes him feel worse, but here he is sprawled in the bed at five. He must have been exhausted, because he’s still wearing his glasses. He doesn’t look comfortable, a wrinkle between his eyebrows. Aaron gently removes the glasses, but as his fingers brush Alexander’s face, he feels much too warm. Aaron leans over, smoothing a hand across Alexander’s forehead. That’s definitely a fever. Alexander doesn’t wake at the touch, but the wrinkle between his eyebrows deepens.

Aaron isn’t immediately sure what to do, he’s never had responsibility for another person in this situation, but in sickness and health and all that. Besides, if he knows Alexander, he probably just pretended he felt fine until he collapsed in bed, so who knows how sick he is. With this in mind, Aaron goes to collect a thermometer. His hypothesis on Alexander’s attitude towards illness gains support when his search of their combined medical supplies only turns up the thermometer that belongs to Aaron.

He takes it back to the bedroom, and sits on the edge of the bed next to Alexander, who still doesn’t stir. Aaron doesn’t want to startle Alexander, so he starts by saying his name softly, and when that doesn’t have any effect, gently rubs along his chest (too warm, even through the sweatshirt). Alexander stays asleep just long enough that Aaron is starting to get worried, but finally begins to stir, his face screwing up in an unhappy expression, until he opens his eyes and blearily squints at Aaron.

Aaron brushes the hair out of his eyes, “Hey.”

Alexander’s response is just a small unhappy noise.

Aaron pats his shoulder sympathetically, “Not feeling so great?”

Alexander doesn’t respond, just turns on his side curling around Aaron, head coming to rest by Aaron’s hip.

Aaron continues rubbing his shoulder, “Okay, but let’s just get your temperature.”

Alexander complies with Aaron as he has him hold the thermometer under his tongue until it beeps. It’s high, but not emergency high, and Aaron breaths a sigh of relief. When he felt the heat of Alexander’s skin, he couldn’t help but think about Alexander’s terrible fear of hospitals, and he had no desire to bring any of that up.

“Not bad,” he assures Alexander who doesn’t seem awake enough to have been worried, instead just burrowing close to Aaron now that the business with the thermometer is over. “Did you eat lunch?” 

Alexander shakes his head minutely against Aaron.

“Breakfast?”

Another no.

This raises a new worry, “When was the last time you had something to drink?”

A shrug.

“Okay, you need to have something.”

No response from Alexander, but Aaron untangles himself and goes to the kitchen, returning in a few minutes with some plain toast, and water. He’s guessing that Alexander’s stomach must be upset if he hasn’t eaten, Alexander isn’t normally one for skipping meals.

Alexander’s expression when faced with the food seems to support this, even though Alexander is still strangely quiet. Aaron doesn’t really push the food, satisfied when Alexander eats half a slice of toast, but encourages Alexander to slowly drink as much of the water as he can. If he gets dehydrated he’s only going to feel worse.

Alexander hasn’t seemed really awake for most of this, and when he’s finished about three quarters of the glass he starts to drift off fully. Aaron takes the glass from where it’s about to spill in Alexander’s relaxing grip, and encourages him to get comfortable. Alexander is asleep almost right away, and Aaron goes to figure out his own dinner.

He’s on the couch answering student email an hour later when he hears Alexander up. His too quick footsteps give away what’s about to happen even before Aaron hears the retching. Aaron’s stomach twists in sympathy, but as awful as it is to hear it must be worse for Alexander to feel. Aaron gathers a glass and a clean washcloth from the hall cupboard, before slipping in the bathroom, where Alexander is still bent over the toilet. He doesn’t try to hold back Alexander’s hair or anything, he personally would hate to be touched in that moment. Instead, he fills the glass and dampens the washcloth, and when Alexander spits one last time and flushes the toilet, he offers the glass of water for Alexander to rinse his mouth out with.

Alexander pulls himself back to lean against the bathroom wall opposite the toilet. His chest is still heaving, and he looks more awake than earlier, but miserable. Aaron sits on the floor next to him, and offers him the damp cloth, for his face. 

Alexander takes it, but says, “You don’t have to be here for this.”

Aaron dismisses this, “In sickness and health I think I said.”

A corner of Alexander’s mouth twitches in an attempt at a smile, “We didn’t even use those vows.” 

Alexander halfheartedly wipes his face, and hands back the cloth, but afterward he just sits with his back pressed into the wall, breathing deeply, eyes closed. Aaron watches him for a minute, “Do you want to go back to bed?” 

Alexander barely shakes his head, his mouth pressed shut. He’s still breathing too fast, clearly fighting to control his nausea, but a few minutes later he loses the battle. Aaron rinses out the washcloth and gets a fresh glass of water, trying not to pay too much attention, but it’s worse than last time, because Alexander doesn’t really have anything left to bring up, and the helpless dry heaves sound particularly painful.

When Alexander finishes this time, he looks exhausted, and his hand shakes as he holds the glass Aaron offers. He slides back to the wall, but slouches so he’s tilting into Aaron. Aaron lets him, and he takes that as an invitation to slip further down so he’s laying on the floor using Aaron’s thigh as a pillow.

Aaron doesn’t comment, just uses the damp cloth to gently wipe Alexander’s face for him. When Alexander’s breath has evened out, Aaron asks if Alexander can make it to the bedroom, and then helps him up when he agrees.

When Aaron has Alexander safely tucked into bed and fast asleep again, he considers their situation. They don’t really have anything that Aaron would want if he was sick, so he heads to the corner convenience store, leaving a note on the bedside table in case Alexander wakes up.

At the store he picks up instant chicken noodle soup, jello, saltines, and some powerades. One of their family housing neighbors is in the checkout line behind him, and she clucks sympathetically at the contents of the basket. Her wife is a hard science student and neither of them know any of the gossip about Aaron and Alexander’s relationship, so she just sends her sympathy to Alexander.

Aaron makes some jello, and tries to get some reading done, despite his mind wandering back to Alexander every few seconds. Around ten Alexander wakes up, his fever is up a little and he seems groggy and out of it. Despite this he manages to have some soup and saltines, a couple of pills for the fever, and half a bottle of powerade before slipping back asleep. Aaron gingerly slips into bed next to him and falls into a restless sleep.

He wakes up a little after one with a sinking heart to the sound of Alexander being sick again, and drags himself to the bathroom. Alexander looks terrible, pale and shaking, and when he’s done he doesn’t seem to have the energy to pull himself up, just laying on the seat of the toilet, shivering. Aaron gently pulls him up, and leans him against the wall, carefully wiping the sweat off his face with a fresh damp cloth. Alexander lets himself be manhandled, which makes Aaron nervous.

Aaron asks him if he wants to go back to the bedroom, and he shakes his head no. Aaron watches him up against the wall, shivering, line etched between his eyebrows, but apparently too sick to leave. Aaron tells him to wait a minute, and returns with a pillow and the comforter from the spare room. Alexander looks surprised to see him, as if he hadn’t actually expected Aaron to return, but Aaron ignores that, and sits down next to Alexander, pillow in his lap and urges Alexander to lay down. He does, and Aaron covers him with the comforter.

Alexander lays very still for a few moments, hand clutching Aaron’s leg. Then he turns his face further into the pillow as if he’s hiding, and rasps, “No hospital.”

Aaron’s heart sinks, how badly must Alexander feel to specify that? What memories must this be stirring? However, all he says is, “No hospital.” Alexander is sick, but they haven’t quite reached that point yet, and hopefully they won’t. 

Alexander relaxes minutely, and Aaron doesn’t say anything else, just reaches down to gently smooth back Alexander’s hair. This seems to relax Alexander further, so Aaron keeps up a slow soothing pattern as they rest there. 

They sit there for a long time. Alexander doesn’t sleep, clearly feeling too sick, but fighting it. Sometimes he seems almost on the edge of calm, and sometimes his grip on Aaron’s leg becomes painfully tight, but he never seems willing to go to bed, so they stay. 

Aaron is fighting his own internal battle. It’s ridiculous and terribly unromantic, but here on their bathroom floor he’s realized that he’s stupidly, irrevocably in love with Alexander. It’s a terrible place to have the revelation, two AM on a cold bathroom floor, with Alexander so sick, but it’s also so clear in this moment. So clear when he would give anything to take this discomfort, these terrible memories away from Alexander. So clear when Aaron would switch places with him in a heartbeat to spare Alexander this.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in this moment, it won’t matter later, and it absolutely won’t matter when they graduate and divorce all at once, and so Aaron tries to push it away, to just focus on the steady movement of his fingers through Alexander’s hair, soothing him as much as Alexander.  

They’ve been there for maybe two hours when Alexander can’t fight the nausea anymore. He has nothing to lose, but his stomach rebels anyway. It seems painful, and afterward he turns away from Aaron, breath fast and irregular. At first Aaron isn’t sure why Alexander feels the need to hide from him at this point, but then he realizes that Alexander is on the edge of tears. And why not? He’s feverish, in pain, tired, and he’s probably remembering the things he most wants to forget. Aaron slides closer to him, and pulls him into a hug, murmuring meaningless soothing words.

At first Alexander is stiff in Aaron’s arms, clearly trying to pull himself together, but his resources are low, and eventually he just collapses into Aaron, muffling his hitching breath into Aaron’s chest. Aaron just keeps the soothing nonsense flowing, running one hand up and down Alexander’s back slowly until his breath evens out.

After, Alexander is willing to be persuaded back to bed, and even to try some careful, small bites of saltines and sips of powerade. He falls asleep before he’s managed to sip more than a quarter of a bottle, but Aaron counts it a win, and crawls exhausted into bed next to Alexander.

He’s even happier when he wakes up late the next morning and Alexander is still sleeping peacefully. All day Alexander is feverish and confused when he’s awake, clearly still feeling poorly, but he manages to keep down the small amounts of food and liquid that Aaron can convince him to take.

On Saturday Alexander is almost back to himself. He insists on not spending any time in bed, although he’s worn out enough after a shower to allow himself to be convinced to watch a movie on the couch with Aaron, instead of going back to work on his dissertation. He falls asleep halfway through, but by dinner he seems pretty much himself, which allows Aaron to get a good start on the grading he’s been neglecting.

Of course on Sunday Aaron is the one who wakes up feeling vaguely achy and queasy, with a slight fever. Alexander is all concern and solicitude, but honestly Aaron isn’t nearly as sick as he was, and insists on finishing up his grading, which needs to be turned back the next day. Aaron doesn’t feel that bad, but as he grades a headache builds, and when he reaches the end, he decides to just rest his eyes before entering the grades. This plan backfires when he drifts off to sleep, but when he wakes up an hour later Alexander is just finishing up entering the grades for him. Aaron blinks sleepily at him, “You didn’t have to do that. 

Alexander starts, and then leans in to place a hand on Aaron’s forehead, “Just like you didn’t have to take care of me either.”

Aaron’s defenses are too low, and afraid he might ask to take care of Alexander forever, he doesn’t say anything, just leans into the warmth of Alexander’s hand. 

Aaron is recovered by the next day, and things in theory go back to normal between them. Except that now Aaron’s chest twists whenever Alexander smiles at him, and aches whenever he thinks about that inevitable future day when the best he can hope for is colleagues who run into each other only at conferences. 

Angelica is too sharp not to notice. He’s almost convinced her that he’s just really focused on his dissertation proposal, when Alexander runs into them at lunch again. Aaron doesn’t know what gives him away, if he smiles to much at Alexander in their brief encounter, if it’s the way his eyes want to track Alexander out of the room, but something does. She doesn’t even glare at him this time, instead she looks sympathetic, “You really did it this time, didn’t you?” 

There’s a lump in his throat, and he doesn’t want to meet her eyes, but he can’t pretend anymore, so he doesn’t deny it.

She reaches out and covers one of his hands with her own, “What are you going to do?”

“There’s nothing to do.”  

She grips his hand a little, “That’s not true. You could tell him.”

Now he stares at her incredulously, “Tell him? He picked me because he thought I would be able to avoid exactly this. I’m not going to make him uncomfortable, just because I couldn’t keep up my end of the bargain.”

She seems unsure, “But maybe he feels the same way, he’s obviously fond of you.”

“Fond? All that means is he’s going to feel guilty. I don’t want him to feel like I can’t do this. I’m not going to get him deported because I can’t deal with feelings.”

She’s quiet for a minute, “Obviously you know him best, but I think he really cares about you.”

He shakes his head, “It’s not happening. I can’t put him in that position.”

She gives his hand a final squeeze, “Let me know if you need to crash, or vent. I’ll try desperately not to say I told you so.”

He laughs bitterly, and that is that.

They have their dissertation proposal defenses just about one week apart. Alexander goes first, and Aaron has to force himself to stay away, not to hover as Alexander waits anxiously outside the room for the verdict from within. However, when it should be over Aaron can’t help walking past the room where it’s happening, and his heart leaps to see Alexander smiling and being congratulated by his committee. Alexander catches sight of him, and leaps out into the hall to wrap him in a hug, “I passed,” he says, low in Aaron’s ear, as if it were a secret between the two of them and not obvious to everyone present. 

Aaron hugs him back, tight as he can, “I knew you would.”

Aaron’s defense is a week later, and it’s a flurry of questions, but Aaron knows this project, he knows the research, and if he can withstand Alexander’s casual dinner time methodological assaults he can withstand any challenges. It goes well, and he can tell his committee chair, Doctor Washington, is proud of how he’s impressed the other committee members. Alexander is waiting outside when the committee begins to leave, and he wraps Aaron in another fierce hug, not waiting for Aaron’s assessment, “Congratulations.”

Aaron holds on for maybe a second too long, trying to imprint the feeling of Alexander into his memory, so that when this is over he’ll always have this moment.

#

Alexander and Aaron actually have a couple of overlapping committee members, most notably Alexander’s committee chair is Doctor Dandridge, who is also on Aaron’s committee, and also married to Doctor Washington, Aaron’s chair, and a member of Alexander’s committee. After both Aaron and Alexander have defended, Martha and George invite them to dinner to celebrate. This is something they are known to do for all the PhD students whose committees they chair, but usually not as a couple. But then most of their students aren’t married to one another.   

The dinner is nice, but a little awkward in the way it always is when you are out with essentially your boss. Martha and George are one of those academic power couples who met early in their careers and despite all the odds have managed to stay together, end up at the same school, and both be on top of their respective specialities. At school and conferences they’re always very professional with one another, but here, especially as the dinner goes on, it’s plain to see that they love each other very much.

The playful teasing stories they tell about one another, and the warm smiles they exchange make it so clear. Aaron tries not to imagine himself and Alexander in the same place, twenty years from now, still making each other work intellectually, but with a well worn intimacy earned from years of history.

Aaron tries not to imagine it, but on the way home it’s all he can think about, and it makes his heart ache. They have sex that night, and there’s something desperate about it, as if each kiss might be the last, and afterward they fall asleep entwined tightly around one another as if neither of them wants to let go.

Somehow it seems like the beginning of the end to Aaron. Things had been awkward between them ever since the Laurens situation, but now there’s a sense of finality that seems to hang over everything. It’s ridiculous because for Alexander to get citizenship they need to stick this out for another two years minimum, but that deadline seems as if it’s just around the corner, as if Aaron will wake up one day and it will be done.

So when Aaron arrives home one day near the end of the semester, after a long day of teaching to find Alexander clearly waiting for him, it strikes him with a sense of inevitability, not surprise. Alexander was sitting on the couch, but when Aaron opens the door he stands, awkward but determined. He’s not wearing his home uniform of worn sleepwear, instead he’s got on jeans, shoes, and a shirt with buttons. His hair is up, and his contacts are in, he’s clearly planning on going somewhere. He could just have a meeting he didn’t mention to Aaron, or he could be going out with his friends, but something about his stance tells Aaron that’s not the case. Aaron asks anyway, “Going out?”

Alexander nods, “No. Yes. I mean, I want to talk to you about something.”

Aaron nods back, trying not to let his face show the swirl of emotions he’s feeling. He supposes Alexander must have noticed his awkward pining, or perhaps Alexander has decided that it wasn’t too late for him and Laurens after all.

Alexander seems to be waiting for some sort of signal from Aaron, so Aaron takes a seat on the couch. Alexander goes to sit as well, but pops back up immediately, going to lean against his desk. Aaron carefully doesn’t react to this.

Alexander seems to to struggle for a minute longer, and then finally starts, “Do you remember right after the wedding ceremony you asked me why I picked you?”

Numb, Aaron nods again. Of course he remembers, it was because he was a safe bet that wouldn’t get confused emotionally, and now he’s failed in that.

Alexander studies him for a minute, then looks at the floor as he says his next piece, “I said I picked you because it was logical, and because you were there, but that’s not exactly true.” 

Aaron waits.

“I picked you, because after Eliza and John, you were the only other person I could imagine a future with, and I thought, if I can imagine it, then other people will be able to as well.”

Aaron doesn’t react, plausibility, that’s smart like everything Alexander does when he takes a moment to think it though.

Alexander goes on, “That was my mistake though, because I should have picked someone that I could never see myself with. Because I didn’t live up to our agreement, I fell in love with you.”

Aaron feels cold, then hot, then cold again, what? He opens his mouth, to say god knows what, but Alexander holds up a hand, “Let me finish. You can say whatever you want, but I just need to finish.” 

Aaron manages one tight nod, but who knows what’s on his face right now.

Alexander swallows and then continues, “When you came to me about Laurens, and you were so determined that I have my chance with him, that I be happy, I knew then that I was in love with you, but it was also clear that you weren’t in love with me. You didn’t have any problem with me going back to him, and I knew I was in trouble.”

Aaron wants to speak, but Alexander told him to wait, and he will. 

“I thought I could handle it, get over it. But, at dinner with Martha and George,” he looks up, and Aaron can see that there are tears in his eyes, although he hasn’t let any escape, “I knew I couldn’t. I just wanted what they had so badly, and I know it’s stupid, and god knows what will happen with immigration, but I can’t stay here knowing that I almost have you, but can’t.”

He takes a long shuddering breath, trying to get himself under control, “So I think for now it would be best if I stay with Lafayette. He’s going to let me crash until we figure out what we want to do.”

And he’s moving towards the door, his piece said, and Aaron can’t let that happen. He stands and reaches for Alexander, he doesn’t want to grab him, to restrain him, but he catches the fabric of his sleeve. Aaron’s got his fingers twisted in the shirt by Alexander’s elbow, easy for Alexander to break away if he wants, but Alexander stops, and Aaron says, “Don’t.”

Alexander looks toward the door, “Aaron…”

Aaron swallows, struggling to find the words he needs, “I didn’t want you to go back to Laurens, but I did want you to be happy. I wanted you to be happy because I love you.” 

Alexander whips around, his eyes wide.

“I’m so in love with you, Alexander.”

“Aaron…” Alexander breathes again, his voice completely different this time. 

“Please don’t go, all I want is a future with you.”

And then Alexander is turning, wrapping himself around Aaron, and Aaron can only cling back, shaking and breathing in Alexander’s comforting, familiar scent.

After a long while, Alexander leans back, “You’re sure? I mean, you want forever?”

Aaron laughs, how can Alexander be in doubt still, but he says, “Yes.”

Alexander smiles, and then reaches down to lift Aaron’s left hand up, so he can rub a thumb along the ring there. “Okay, let’s do this again. Aaron, do you promise to have me in sickness and in health, for richer, but probably for poorer, in tenure or adjuncting, publish or perish?”

Aaron laughs again, and says, “I do,” and Alexander smiles at him and drops a kiss on the ring.

Aaron takes Alexander’s left hand, “And you Alexander, do you promise to stay with me through revise and resubmits, and grant proposals, and tenure negotiations?”

“I do.”

“And if I give it all up, and go work for real money?”

Alexander smiles and says, “Then too.”

“Well then.” Aaron smiles back, and drops a kiss on Alexander’s ring.

Alexander bounces on his toes once, “You may now kiss me.”

Aaron doesn’t have to be told twice. 

#

Later as they lay together in their bed, sweaty, gross, and completely happy, Alexander twines their hands together so the rings touch, admiring the view. It’s the same image as the picture they took on their wedding day, but that had been false, for an audience, and here the only people who can see are the two of them. What had seemed saccharine before now seems meaningful. Aaron watches the light glint off the rings, and feels a deep contentment. 

Alexander, turns a little, “You know I was thinking. The second chapter of your dissertation, and my third chapter are so related, if we just branched off a little bit, I bet we could do a co-authored piece on-”

Aaron is laughing, as he cuts Alexander off with a kiss, “That sounds interesting, but maybe we can discuss it later?”

Alexander looks confused for a moment, but then Aaron rolls on top of him, creating some interesting friction, and Alexander’s breath catches, “Mm, yes. Later.” And he reaches up for another kiss. 

#

Later still, it’s after they’ve had the discussion of the possible co-authored article (which turns out to be a very interesting idea, although Aaron spends at least an hour over dinner convincing Alexander, to his obvious delight, that his theoretical approach won’t work in this case), and Alexander has fallen asleep, pressed along Aaron’s side.

Aaron is sleepy himself, but stays awake long enough to text Angelica, you should change your bet in the green card marriage pool.

She texts back right away, cheating! And then anyway, I did that a month ago, and then congratulations, and then I told you so.  

He smiles and texts back, right as always before tossing the phone on the beside table, and curling up next to Alexander for the first of many nights together as a sincerely married couple.