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why don't we get together and call ourselves an institute

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“MISTER WARREN,” the speaker blares. “UH. MISTER WARREN?”

John presses one button, which beeps at him, then the other, which also beeps at him. “Yes?” he tries.

It seems to work, because then the speaker blares again: “MISTER WARREN THERE IS A MISTER WREN HERE TO SEE YOU? HE SAYS YOU WERE EXPECTING HIM?” There’s a pause. “YOU DIDN’T HAVE ME PUT ANYTHING ABOUT AN APPOINTMENT? IN YOUR CALENDAR? SO LIKE, WERE YOU EXPECTING HIM?”

It’s possible to take the verisimilitude of your cover identity too far, John knows, but he wonders if he can get away with firing Jackson. “Send him in.”

“RIGHT AWAY MISTER WARREN?”

The door opens; Jackson’s holding it for Harold, who’s got the world’s most peevish expression on his face. “Thank you,” Harold mutters, and stands staring at Jackson until he retreats, closing the door behind him. “Why haven’t you fired him yet?” he asks John, instead of “Good morning.”

“I wasn’t aware that I was—“ allowed, is what he’s going to say, but he looks down at the mysterious speakerphone and considers for a moment.

Harold sighs and puts down the box — he’s got a box, John feels bad about not noticing before — and reaches for the back of the speaker, yanking out a cable. “There,” he says. “Feeling less paranoid?”

“I wasn’t feeling paranoid,” John corrects. “Just, you know. This was your idea.”

Harold settles himself on one of John’s guest chairs; as far as John knows nobody’s ever sat in them before. “It’s perfectly logical. We’re bound to be caught at some point together, and as far as I can see there’s no downside to connecting Mr. Warren to Mr. Wren socially. We’ll have an easier time explaining ourselves being together if we’re observed being together, and since you’ve vetoed all of my suggestions for activities that you could take up—“

“I’m not joining a bowling league, Harold,” John says firmly. “Besides, you wouldn’t approve the activities I suggested, either.”

“A membership at the Westside Rifle Range is not a social life,” Harold sniffs. “If anything, it’s a clear indication that you need one.”

John glowers for a minute, but curiosity gets the better of him. “What’s in the box?” He’s expecting — he’s not sure what.

He’s definitely not expecting doughnuts. “I went by that shop on 72nd,” Harold says, looking pleased. “With the sprinkles that you seem so fond of.”

*

TO: hfrench-assist@pwassoc.com
FROM: jmeyer@pwassoc.com
SUBJECT: Dude

so im pretty sure i just met warrens like sugar daddy or something

TO: jackson_fine@gmail.com
FROM: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
SUBJECT: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

But dude, details. I thought that guy was straight?

TO: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
FROM: jackson_fine@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

fuck you

and dude no

like he was all surprised and shit when this guy turned up and he was like beaming or something when the guy came in

like the way you look at Seth when he just reamed you in Halo and hes calling your mom a hooker

TO: jackson_fine@gmail.com
FROM: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

Dude it’s not my problem Seth is super cute when he does it, okay. Besides man, that shit’s a turn-on.

Anyways so who’s the dude? B/c your boss doesn’t seem like the twink type.

TO: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
FROM: jackson_fine@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

i dont know! he didnt like give me his social or whatever

hes mr wren from like universe something insurance

but no hes like a total fugster

i mean like if he were a chick i couldnt even call him a butterface

its like tragic all the way around

TO: jackson_fine@gmail.com
FROM: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

…Dude UNIVERSAL HERITAGE INSURANCE, you’re a fucking moron.

OK just googled “Wren” at UHI, and he’s kind of… yeah. OK not what I was thinking Warren would go for but you know, like, love is weird. Why Stacey puts up with your face is a perennial mystery to us all.

TO: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
FROM: jackson_fine@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

fuck you my face is a work of art

TO: jackson_fine@gmail.com
FROM: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

Yeah like a picasso maybe. BOOOOOOYEAH ok I gotta go do some actual work bitch, find out who this dude is and if they’re like, wearing promise rings or whatever shit gay old dudes are into.

TO: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
FROM: jackson_fine@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fucking dumbass stop emailing me from the company email

DUDE YOUR THE GAY ONE YOU SHOULD KNOW WHAT THERE INTO

*

Harold heads out about a half hour later; the doughnuts don’t last that long but Harold finishes his tea and John works on the shitty coffee that Jackson brought him earlier and they talk about the Thai restaurant they both liked that was closing up. Harold’s offer to buy the place hadn’t solved the problem, and Harold is still hilariously pissed about it. “They said they could no longer make a profit, so I thought that this would address that concern, but—“

“Not everybody has a price, Harold,” John points out, stretching his legs out and propping them up on the corner of his desk. Harold glares at him, and then at his legs; at the Library, Harold makes huffing noises at John until he takes his feet down. But John Warren just smiles and takes another sip of his coffee.

“Anyway, I have a meeting at — good gracious, ten o’clock, so I’ll be on my way.” He gets up and sees himself to the door; John’s having too much fun to move just yet. Harold rolls his eyes and opens the door. “You’ll come by next week?” he asks. “I’m not sure what our schedule’s going to be like, but—“ he glances at Jackson and clears his throat. “Anyway. It would be… nice.”

“Sure thing, Harold. Maybe I’ll bring you some danish.”

Harold mutters something that’s probably not very complimentary under his breath and leaves; John stays in place just long enough so that if Harold comes back for some reason, John will still be there, looking like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Sometimes the only productive thing you can do in a day is see if Harold’s vein right above his left temple starts throbbing.

“Uh, Mr. Warren?” Jackson taps on the open door, the way John had to teach him to do after the fourth time he came slamming into the room without knocking. John’s got his reflexes under control, and he knows he’d never kneecap the kid just for coming into a room unexpectedly, but it’s getting more and more tempting the more time he has to spend with the kid and this is just removing an excuse John can use later. He knows himself pretty well by now.

“Yes, Jackson,” John says, tries not to make it sound annoyed. He doesn’t try hard.

“There’s the, uh, meeting on Twelve in like fifteen minutes? Not sure if you wanted me to go over the projections with you?”

“Sure,” John says, and stares out the window, filing away the droning going on in his ear. Harold looked pleased with himself, when he left, even with the muttering and the powdered sugar on his tie that he’s going to get really annoyed about when he discovers it later. And John has to admit it’s a smart plan, linking Warren and Wren, giving just enough color to their friendship so that they don’t draw attention when they’re together.

“So, yeah,” Jackson says, finally. “It’ll be pretty straightforward, probably? Like, these meetings are mostly lame? I mean not lame, but, you know?” He hands over the folder. “Anyway, so your uh, buddy? He seems cool?”

“Harold?” John says. In his life he’d never use the word ‘cool’ to describe him. Mostly because it felt like such a small word. “Yeah.”

“You guys um. Seem close?”

John frowns. Jackson’s about as smart as a box of dead batteries, but there’s always the off chance that somebody else is fishing through him. “Yeah. He’s a good friend of mine.”

And Jackson — gives him finger guns. “Awesome. I mean, yeah? Okay, so you should probably get to Twelve? You want me to order you some lunch?”

“No,” John says, and makes his escape.

*

"Hello."

Alysha looks up from the computer, rows and rows of Excel spreadsheet dancing in front of her eyes, and tries to focus. It's easy to do -- the guy standing in front of her is a pleasure and a privilege to focus on, especially since he's holding two cups of coffee and what looks like a bag of pastries. "Is that for me?" she asks, then remembers she's at work and this incredibly hot piece probably didn't just hey, girl her.

But the guy just smiles and says, "Sorry. They're actually for Harold -- uh, Mr. Wren? Is he in right now?"

"I can check," she says, staying put. It's probably going to earn her a sigh and a look from Mr. Wren if he finds out she's been flirting with his client, but it's Friday and she doesn't have plans after work and this guy can work the suit-no-tie look like nobody's business.

“If you do, I can give you one of these," the guy says, lifting up the pastry bag.

"I like those terms," she says, and manages to get her heels on before standing up -- bless Gretchen down in Accounts for taking her to that place downtown that had cheap work pumps that didn't mutilate your feet, but no girl wears heels a minute longer than she has to. She knocks twice on Mr. Wren's door and peeks inside. "Sir? There's a--" and she realizes she didn't even ask the guy's name. "Gentleman," she lands on, "Here to see you?"

Mr. Wren looks up from the papers he's frowning at -- his computer's still unplugged, she can see from here, and it shouldn't be as adorable as it is that he hates that machine so much -- and blinks a couple times, fumbling for his glasses. "Let him in, Alysha, thank you."

"Sure thing," she says, and turns around but Mr. Tall Dark & Handsome is already right behind her, murmuring a "Thanks," as he steps through. He smells like coffee and pastries and Alysha might already be the littlest bit in love. When she gets back to the desk, there's a red velvet cupcake on her blotter.

Carrie comes by a little later to drop off more revenue instream reports, and says, "You've got something on your mouth," gesturing to her upper lip.

"I do? Fuck," Alysha wipes at her face. "Okay?"

"Yeah, but you also have crumbs in your cleavage, so I'm forced to conclude that you went and got some cupcakes and didn't get me one, so you're on my list." 

Carrie has a list about a mile long, and it includes pretty much everyone in the company and most people living in Queens who take her train home. Alysha's not worried, but it's the first time she's been on the list, so she says, "No, I didn't, I would've gotten you something I swear. This cutie-patootie client of Mr. Wren's gave it to me."

"What," Carrie says, leaning against the desk, "He came bearing cupcakes? Find out if he's single."

"No ring," Alysha remembers, but this is New York, so that's not conclusive.

"Well, you're going to have to interrupt anyway -- PR wants your little bird sitting in on the sales meeting in an hour, and he's going to have to read through at least enough of these to fake it."

"Mr. Wren," Alysha says heavily, because even though he's kind of weird and fussy and calls her like four times a day from wherever he's at when he’s not here to check in on her, she still adores his bug-eyed little face, "Will be able to read all these in about five minutes flat. Don't you worry."

Carrie rolls her eyes and gets her ass off her desk. "He'd better be. Meeting's on eighth floor, the Belterman Conference Room."

Alysha gets to work summarizing the reports -- Mr. Wren probably could read all of these in five minutes flat, but she's kind of reluctant to interrupt his conversation with whoever it is that brought him breakfast. She caught the expression on Mr. Wren's face when the guy came in; maybe he is a client, but Alysha hasn’t seen an actual smile from Mr. Wren in going on three years.

But by 10:50, there really isn't any getting out of it. She grabs the reports, prints out her summaries, and knocks on the door softly, opening the door as quietly as possible.

"You need to let it go, Harold," the guy is saying. "I'm sorry if I got the sugar count wrong on your tea, but I promise it's not out of any deep dark plot to give you a cavity." He’s tossed his coat over one other chair and is sprawled out in the other, relaxed, one arm over the back. The look on his face as he smiles at Mr. Wren goes way beyond hey, girl, and Alysha sighs -- usually you get to at least learn a guy's name before you have to put him in the “Married, Gay, or Otherwise Unavailable” pile. But Mr. Wren's got a pleased pink flush up his neck, even though he's trying to glare at the guy, and Alysha concentrates on not smiling at him the way you smile at puppies or people in love.

"I'd suspect you of anything, John," Harold says, and looks up at Alysha. "Oh, dear," he says, seeing the stack of reports.

"I'm sorry, sir," she says, putting them carefully on a clear part of his desk. “Carrie stopped by; apparently they want you to sit in on the sales meeting at eleven. I’ve summarized all the reports, though — here’s the highlights.” She hands him her summaries. “The meeting will be in Belterman.”

"The one conference room with inadequate air conditioning, naturally," Mr. Wren sighs. "Thank you, Alysha."

The guy -- John something, apparently -- takes a sip of his drink. "You could always loosen your tie, Harold. Or, you know, take off your jacket."

"This is an office of professionals, Mr. Warren, whatever may go on at Pebler, Wright & Associates," Mr. Wren sniffs. Alysha has to chomp on the insides of her cheeks to keep the grin off her face -- she's pretty sure this is as close to flirty as Mr. Wren can get. She scoots out of the office and about ten seconds later, Mr. John Warren follows her out.

"I see you enjoyed your present," he says, his coat draped over his arm. He looks like some kind of American James Bond and this is seriously unfair.

Still. No harm in getting a little of her hey, girl back. “Think of it more like a fee, Mr. Warren," she says, and enjoys the way his eyebrows go up at the fact that she remembered his name. "If you want to visit us again, be sure not to forget it."

"I'll do that, Miss Jeffries," he says.

It takes her twenty minutes to realize that she never told John Warren her name.

*

TO: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
FROM: jackson_fine@gmail.com
SUBJECT: weird old dude that warrens got the hots for is back

theres laughing coming from the room is there like gay sex that involves telling jokes os somethign

TO: jackson_fine@gmail.com
FROM: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
SUBJECT: Re: weird old dude that warrens got the hots for is back

Okay seriously, I remember that weekend junior year where you made me watch gay porn with you, so you know at least enough about gay sex to know that there's no, like, slapstick element, okay?

I mean, slapping sure, but I'm guessing you're not hearing anything like that right?

TO: tenetnosce@yahoo.com
FROM: jackson_fine@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: weird old dude that warrens got the hots for is back

OH MY GOD NO

YOUR SUCH A FUCKING DICKSTICK

*

Harold is contemplating how long he can leave it before he can start pretending to learn how his computer works — this luddite cover story does, he’ll admit, have its downsides — when his office door opens. “What the hell?”

He cranes his neck as far as it will go; John’s standing in the doorway, looking baffled. “Yes, very helpful observation,” he says.

He has to admit it looks bad; there are stacks of paper on the desk, all over the floor, on the two chairs opposite Harold’s. Harold himself is currently on his hands and knees, half-hidden by the fichus in the corner.

“Do I want to ask,” John says, coming in and closing the door behind him, “Or is this one of those things that’s not going to make sense no matter how much you explain?”

“What do you know about reduced-expectancy apportation?”

“I can probably spell it.”

“Then the latter.” Harold struggled to his feet. “I forgot that you were coming today.”

“How long have you been working on this?” John says, staring at the paperwork.

Harold tries to think. “Since midnight? Or so?”

“Okay,” John says, stepping around the drifts of paper and grabbing Harold’s coat from the coatrack, “Let’s go. We’re getting you some breakfast.”

“I’m fine, John,” Harold protests. “Believe it or not, this job really isn’t that demanding — a couple of all-nighters a month is a small price to pay for—“

“You’ve been doing this a couple times a month?” On anyone else, Harold would call his tone outraged. On John, it reads more like all-encompassing wrath. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Harold finds himself bullied into his coat and out the door; Alysha looks up from her work and smiles. “Going somewhere, sir?” she chirps.

“Alysha, were you planning on announcing my visitor before or after he abducted me?” he asks her severely.

But she shrugs, and holds up a cupcake. “I’m sorry sir, but apparently I have a price.”

“Noted,” Harold sighs, and gets herded down the hallway toward the elevator.

*

alyyysha: omg
mr wren’s boyfriend just totally kidnapped him!
IDK how he found out he was here all night
but he just like dragged him out of his office
i think they’re going to go get breakfast
SO CUTE
portmanatee: maybe a blowie in the bathroom
alyyysha: ugh
no
gretchen
you are the worst
portmanatee: false I am the best
so has he dished on any deets
alyyysha: yeah thats gonna happen
i can be all, hey here are the reports you asked for 2007, btw how long have you been hooking up with that silver fox
portmanatee: ahahahah DO IT
alyyysha: i wonder if he’ll bring him to the christmas party
then you can meet him!
portmanatee: i’ll be like
HOW COULD YOU TOY WITH ALYSHA’S AFFECTIONS
THROUGH PASTRISE
YOU MONSTER
alyyysha: omg gretchen if you do I will murder you
portmanatee: worth it
SO WORTH IT

*

“I’m just saying,” John repeats, feeling his jaw clenching, “That if you wanted to come, you could come. It’s not a big deal.”

Harold flicks his glance from John to the invitation in his hand and back again. “But — it’s on the sixteenth. I told you, three weeks ago, that our Christmas party was on the same date.”

“Yeah, at Nobu 57,” John says. “Which you hate.”

“That’s not the point. Besides,” Harold adds, placing the invitation back on John’s desk, “Slate is hardly a more appealing choice.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

Harold makes a face, the one John privately catalogues as his ‘I’m too much of a lady to say something rude right now’ face. It’s not one he sees that often; Harold’s not afraid to be rude, as a general rule. “Nothing.”

“So — fine. You’ll go to your party, I’ll go to mine.”

“Unless a number comes up.” Harold looks a little hopeful at that.

“Fingers crossed.”

They sit there for a moment, then Harold gets up. “I’m — afraid I’ve remembered some other business. So, I’ll see you later?”

John nods. They just finished a hell of a week, and he was looking forward to spending a morning talking it through over those crullers Harold had found somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen. But he gives Harold a tight smile as he leaves and, the minute he’s shut the door, dumps the pastry box into the trash.

There’s a knock on the door, and Jackson peers in. “Hey boss,” he says. “So uh, plus one for the party? I’m just, you know, we’ve gotta put in our guests pretty soon? I was wondering if, you know?”

“No, Jackson,” John says. “Just me.”

“Aw, bummer man.” Jackson comes all the way in, hands in his pockets. “Are you guys like… everything okay?”

“It’s fine, Jackson.” He’s not sure why it’s bothering him; probably the idea of sitting by himself, surrounded by friendly strangers, drinking expensive wine for an entire night. He wonders if he can get away with keeping his mic open, talking to Harold even if they aren’t in the same room. He knows Harold will be sitting by himself, too, probably reading a book and ignoring everybody who tries to start a conversation.

“For what it’s worth,” Jackson says, “I think he’s uh. You know. A good guy? He seems like he’s like, good for you?”

John blinks, refocuses on Jackson. “Good... for me,” he repeats.

“Sorry!” Jackson holds up his hands, palms out. “Sorry, like, I’m not saying anything about your, you know, relationship? But like. I mean, my best friend’s gay? Not that. I mean? Yeah. So, I hope you two are okay?”

“Thanks, Jackson,” John says, and doesn’t notice when Jackson leaves. He’s got something else to think about.

*

“Oh my god you look amazing,” Alysha squeals. Gretchen laughs and strikes a pose. “Almost makes up for the fact that you’re two hours late.”

“Please, party don’t start ’til I walk in, okay? And I love your dress, you look like a little princess.”

“Complete with tiara,” Alysha agrees. “So come on, they’ve got those shrimp rolls from last year, plus, you will not believe, Mr. Wren’s boyfriend showed up!”

“What,” Gretchen says flatly. “Okay, fuck the shrimp rolls, where is this guy.”

“Over there,” Alysha points, where her boss and Mr. Warren are sitting side-by-side on one of the couches near the windows, talking to each other, ignoring everyone else. Mr. Warren has his arm stretched along the back of the couch, not touching Mr. Wren’s shoulders, and it’s so cute Alysha’s had to physically restrain herself from asking for a picture. Mr. Wren doesn’t even seem to notice the arm, and is talking about something that has him gesturing with the book he’d brought.

“Oh my god, he has that slice of beefcake and he still brought a book this year?” Gretchen whispers, snagging a flute of champagne from a passing waiter.

“He spent the first half of the party by himself, Mr. Warren didn’t show up until like half an hour ago,” Alysha says. “Apparently he went to his party alone but he said he was ‘tired of talking to nobody important.’”

Gretchen makes the same aww noise that Alysha does, but follows it up with, “Wait, you were eavesdropping? Alysha Jeffries I am ashamed to know you.”

“Whatever, I was just sitting right over…here,” Alysha says, dragging her to an empty table near the couches, “And I don’t know, there’s some like, echo thing, so you can hear what they’re saying.”

“So can they hear—“ Alysha clamps her hand over Gretchen’s mouth before she can say another word.

YES, she mouths, PROBABLY. SO SHUT UP.

Gretchen licks her palm.

“What is that?” Mr. Wren says after a minute or two; Gretchen’s head snaps up from where she was playing Bejeweled on her phone, and Alysha risks a quick look over Gretchen’s shoulder.

OMG, she texts Gretchen, HES GOT MISTLETOE IN HIS HAND EEEEEEEEEE

Gretchen texts back AW YEAH BLOWIES IN THE BATHROOM

Alysha slaps Gretchen’s arm. Gretchen puts a hand over her mouth, her shoulders still shaking.

“I brought it from my party,” Mr. Warren says. “They had it taped up strategically all over the place.”

“Indeed,” Mr. Wren says. He sounds a little panicked. Alysha bites her lip, peeks over Gretchen’s shoulder again: Mr. Warren’s spinning the mistletoe between his finger and thumb, leaning toward Mr. Wren with a predatory smile. Mr. Wren’s hunched as far back into the couch as he can be, looking — pretty much looking like prey. Poor Mr. Wren. “And what’s the strategic value here, if I might ask?”

“Harold,” Mr. Warren says, almost too quiet for Alysha to hear, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you, it’s that you always think of something.”

SO DID HE KISS HIM OR WHAT Gretchen texts her furiously. I CAN’T LOOK I AM TOO EMOTIONALLY INVESTED

OMG YES

Gretchen puts her hand up for a high five; Alysha indulges her, but then Gretchen ruins it by texting back BLOWIES FOR EVERYONE!!! Alysha hits her again, and this time her laugh is loud enough to ring across the whole room, bright and loud and happy.

“Merry Christmas, Harold,” Alysha hears, and she rolls her eyes at Gretchen and goes to find them some shrimp rolls.