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lullaby for ripe lightning

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The moment he hits send he knows it was a mistake.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. It’ll likely be Monday before he gets a response. He has a full twenty-four hours, at the least, to think about it, to stew on what’ll happen. All he can think about is another trial, another year of papers whose headlines are all about him, this time with his name, with his photo.

Alex throws his iPad onto the bed, wanting to forget that it exists, actually wanting to forget that email exists. He walks stiffly out to the kitchen, eyes straight ahead. He tries to make soup in the microwave but the can of Campbell’s slips through his hands and onto the floor as soon as he gets it out of the cupboard, so he decides not to trust himself with an object as sharp as the can opener and munches on a mandarine, making a mess of the peel as he works it off. He bites his nails when he’s done, and when that doesn’t get the yellow stains off the nailbeds he scrubs his hands at the sink for a good five minutes, till the scalding water starts to prune his skin.

He turns, surveys the kitchen. John’s not back from his residency yet. Other people sometimes jack off to relax, he knows. This concept is so abstract to Alex that he only vaguely registers it as fact. Sex is a crapshoot no matter what the circumstances - he does not have it casually, because it requires The Explanation beforehand, the warning to his partner, Hey, I might freak out, just so you know. I might get violent flashbacks of very bad experiences and lock myself in the bathroom for the rest of the night. There’s no telling what will set this off, and there’s no way to calm me down once it’s happened. You just kinda have to wait it out. Cool? And masturbation starts out fine, his hands feel pretty good, but the few times he’s tried it his thoughts have turned against him midway through, leaving him feeling - not as panicky as with a partner, but exhausted and miserable. Because by the time he realizes he’s crying he’s turned on and he has to pick apart the reasons he’s turned on, separate them painstakingly from the reasons he’s crying, and settle the score with himself before he can finally turn over and go to sleep.

So no go there. He paces, imagines the sections of the orange dropping into his stomach. Then he’s pacing so fast that his own footsteps on the hardwood are distracting him, burrowing into his head like threats, so he pulls on a pair of shorts and throws a Columbia hoodie over his head and goes out for a run, without his phone for music. He sprints around the block, again and again until he’s exhausted, and he does another two laps after that, and by the time he unlocks their building’s front door he can’t climb the stairs so he takes the elevator, leaning against the outdated wood paneling and closing his eyes against the lightheadedness the dip when it reaches their floor causes. His heart is pounding, his head throbbing. John is sitting in their living room when he unlocks the door, and the cat sits in front of him, flicking its tail, as if to gatekeep his progress into the apartment.

“Your cat is judging me,” he tells John, trying to ignore how small his voice sounds.

“Me too,” John says, eyeing him curiously, but he makes a clicking noise with his tongue and shoos Chopper, who scurries off toward the water dish. “You went for a run in the rain?”

Alex hadn’t even thought about the fact that it had definitely been raining when he’d left - which was unusual, since he has Stuff about storms, but the jackhammer noises in his head had apparently drowned out the thunder that now rolls in clearly and shakes the apartment. “Shit,” he says, slapping a hand to his wet face. “I need pills,” he says, and John jerks, looks at him. “Don’t even think about it, Alex,” he says warningly. “I’m thinking of a place to hide your phone as we speak.”

“I mean Advil, John.” He collapses next to his friend on the couch, drawing his sore legs up under him and curling in on himself. John makes a face like This sofa is leather, Alexander, but he puts his laptop down and rises, rifles around in his work bag for his Flexeril. He gets two tall glasses of cool water and hands one to Alexander along with the little orange pills. He’s giving him two because of the way he’s rubbing his temples.

John coaxes him out of his hoodie and damp basketball shorts and drapes the big heated blanket from the armchair over him, then he plops down next to Alex and starts stroking his hair, gentle because he’s not sure of his headspace. But Alex hums and nudges back into his touch, and the massive cat comes over and hops up to lay across both of their laps when John adjusts the blanket to cover him as well. He leans into Alexander, quiet for a moment before he says, “So what’d I miss?” Singsong. Not too serious, in case there’s nothing and it had just been a bad day and Alex doesn’t want to talk about it.

The room is dark; the stormclouds are covering their city block, and it’s early evening so John hadn’t had any lights on. Some shadow is thrown over them, casting Alex’s profile pretty impressively. His large nose looks sharp as he flares his nostrils in a huff of breath. “I sent an email,” he says at length, leaning back into John to avoid having to look at him.

“To whom?” John prompts, working at a steady pace in Alex’s hair to keep him calm.

Alex sighs. “To the COO of the law firm Washington works for,” he admits, and John feels his hand still for the briefest moment before he catches himself. “Oh,” he says quietly.

“Yeah.” Alex sniffs, rests his head back on John’s shoulder. They sit like that for a while, Alex focusing on his breathing, John watching him settle and trying to remember every psychology class he’s ever taken all at once.

“You didn’t commit to anything, ok?” he says finally, and Alex kind of starts - he may have been half-asleep. “Nothing is permanent. You don’t have to be dragged into anything that happens now - you’re in control. Think about it. You did this to maintain control, right?”

Alex nods slowly. He does seem receptive, so John keeps going. “You are in control. You remember all the work you’ve put in to get here.” He states it; he doesn’t ask. “One email is not going to make everything spiral. You call the shots. You have for years.”

The reminder seems to help. Alex sighs deeply. His hair is drying on John’s T-shirt. “I don't want another media circus, you know? I don’t want to be a name on the nightly news. I want to live my goddamn life, I want people to stop taking that away from me.”

His anger is justifiable. John nods, understanding. “You’ve had a lot stolen from you,” he agrees. “But you’re so much better-equipped now. You have resources. You have us, you have friends. You have your education - don’t you ever forget how hard you fought for your education. You have street smarts and skill sets and you’re ready, Alex, you can take whatever gets thrown at you. I've seen you take it.” He puts his nose in Alex’s hair. “This is your home, and you’re right to make the man who ripped it out from under you give it back to you.”

“I think they’ll quietly fire him, anyway,” he continues. “Think about it: would you want the papers to know your company failed that spectacularly at a background check?”

Alex scoffs. “See, that’s the thing. I had that thought, too, and of course that’s what’s going to happen, but this - bullshit - it convinces you that everything is out to get you. I’m saying this to you now but even as I do my brain is going No, you idiot, you troll, fucking grow up, everyone is gonna know and they’re gonna say you were a teenage slut or they’re gonna pity you, and everyone will know who you are and you’ll have to move away, you’re gonna be run out of town and also your friends hate your stupid guts.” He tilts his head back, smiles up at John. “Like, I know, but it’s a surprisingly convincing con.”

John nods. He changes the subject, because he doesn’t want Alex to dwell too much. “Think about the severance package he’s going to get for keeping it quiet,” he says, sounding awed, because he’s pretty sure he’s never going to see that amount of money in his life.

Alex laughs, and John calls that a victory. “Holy shit,” he says, whistling. John smiles into his hair.

“You just have to wait and see what happens. I’m here for you every step of the way, Alexander.”

“You sap,” Alex says, cuddling into him. Thunder claps loud just outside, and John’s fingers tighten reflexively on Hamilton’s shoulder as the smaller man flinches at the noise. They’re going to weather this storm, and the next, John decides; they don’t have a choice.