CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT.
Part One.

The three of them stood in the room, one just as silent as the next, and one just as nervous as the other.

It was the middle of February and snow fell in fat flakes that were beginning to pile up on the ground, promising that winter was going to be a lot longer than what anyone wanted. It had been snowing since November and, to the dismay of much of the population of the city (with the exception of school children), it didn't appear to be stopping anytime soon. Not unless a sudden heat wave came out of nowhere.

Holding a small glass of brandy and staring out the window, unblinking and chewing on his thumb knuckle, Alfred watched the snow as it fell. Well, he wasn't watching it entirely. The flakes just happened to be in what appeared to be his line of vision; there was a difference between looking and seeing. Frankly it could be raining kittens and prostitutes, and he wouldn't even notice.

Chris, on the other hand, paced the room like an expectant father, nervously smoking a cigarette as the state attorney, Gupta Hassan, looked on with some mild amusement. The wiry Egyptian's eyes were crinkled at the corners as he tried his hardest to not smile.

"Gentlemen, relax," he chided. "There's no need for you two to be fretting the way you are. Everything has gone smoothly thus far, and Judge Kirkland has assured you that he will dish out the longest sentence he's permitted to by law. You two should be drinking that brandy as a means of congratulating one another on another successful case and not to be calming your nerves."

"As easy as that sounds, it's not. It really isn't," Alfred said with a sigh, swishing around the dark contents in his glass. The glass was crystal and reflected the light of the room rather oddly.

"Nope. It isn't," Chris babbled. He had set down his glass and was wringing his hands as he walked. "Not the easiest thing to do." He kept muttering to himself, shrugging and shaking his head as he had a kept a steady conversation with himself.

"Chris."

He stopped and looked up and over to Alfred.

"Shut the fuck up and sit down before you wear a trench in the carpet," Alfred said flatly, massaging his forehead as he contemplated downing this drink and pouring himself another. He didn't, but only because he didn't want to be pushing Hassan's hospitality. It was a very delicate thing, that hospitality of the state attorney's. One minute it was there, and the next moment he was snatching the rug out from under your feet and snapping at you for walking inside with your shoes on, you filthy New York prick.

Not that Alfred had ever had that said to him. Nope, not once.

(In recent memory.)

Surprisingly enough, Chris did as he was told, and without voicing a complaint about it. He picked his glass back up and, with it held tightly in his trembling hands, he nodded slowly. "Okay, yeah, sorry man."

Ruefully shaking his head, Alfred rolled his eyes and sighed. Chris' trepidation over the whole court case fiasco was understandable - this, being his first big case, was what was going to make or break him and determine whether or not he had a career outside of being a small-time lawyer.

As though reading his thoughts, Chris turned to his friend, looking worried. "Al, I don't wanna spend the rest of my life as a divorce lawyer or a real estate lawyer. I don't wanna. I've worked way too damn hard."

"Chillax, bro," Alfred said with a quiet chuckle, shaking his head. Even the state attorney laughed a little. "You're gonna do just fine with this, a'ight? Everyone's seen that you're capable of carrying a case, seeing it to the end and doing all of it without turning it into a shit show. You've successfully left out the questions of class, race and identity and all sorts of shit like that, that so many other lawyers try to bring up to score them brownie points and only end up making themselves look like bigoted douches. Which most of 'em are, trust me - when you rub elbows with the biggest collective of assholes in a big city, you figure this out pretty fast. I should know; I was one of those assholes for a little while. But you've shown that you're capable, so chill the fuck out man. Just. Chill."

Chris, licking his lips and looking positively bewildered, just nodded slowly and sank back further in the chair as his shoulders sagged a little. His head lolled back as he stared up at the ceiling. Gupta clapped his hands a little, wearing a small smile. He seemed to be impressed. About what, Alfred didn't know. The little man of great influence just smiled and seemed very pleased.

"Gentlemen, I have to say you have both run a very well-put together case," the state attorney said. Fingers laced together and his elbows placed upon the desk, he had his chin resting atop them and was smiling. His deep brown eyes were warm. "You with the proceedings and interrogations, Chris, and you, Alfred, for all the research and effort you've put into making the more intricate aspects of this case work. So I highly doubt that either of you have anything to worry about."

"I'll drink to that," Alfred stated, knocking back the rest of his drink with a grimace. He never was one for brandy; too strong-tasting, even if it was mixed with something.

"You know what? I think I will, too," Chris said, tossing his back as well.

"You could probably use a little bit of liquid courage at this rate," hummed Jones. "The verdict is being read in ten minutes."

Chris blanched. "Pass me the bottle, would you? I need to top myself off."

"Don't you mean your glass?" Gupta asked.

"No, no, I mean myself," Chris mumbled as he stood, setting the empty glass down and raking his hands through his curly black hair. "Having your drink in a glass is for pussies."

Alfred made a meowing sound, only to cower away when Chris shot him a murderous look. "Listen, I'm going to head back downstairs. I want to be down there before Judge Kirkland even gets back from his break and before the jury comes back in from their deliberation. Are you gonna watch?"

"From the wings," Alfred said. "Text me when it gets started."

Turning to the State Attorney and taking a seat, Alfred stretched his legs out in front of him and folded his arms over his chest with a sigh. "This sure is gonna be a long ten minutes, huh, Your Honour?"

"That it is, Jones." Hassan had already started to busy himself with sorting various papers. The man never stopped; he always had to be doing something. Idle hands, he would say, were the Devil's favourite plaything. "However, I must say, I cannot wait for you to return to the courtroom yourself, to start taking cases again."

Alfred looked up from fiddling with his phone; he may or may not have been forming a slight addiction to the Brick Breaker game on it. "O-Oh?"

He nodded slowly, placing the papers back down and smoothing them out - not that there were any visible wrinkles - and he made contemplative noise of sorts. "Yes," he said. Looking up, he tilted his head to the side a little, dark eyes searching the lawyer's face. "Aren't you?"

"Of course," spluttered Alfred. "Jesus. It's been over ten months since I've done any real work - I mean, yeah, I've been working on programs and have been visiting schools, talking with students and stuff about violence prevention and the dangers of drug use, I've been talking to different addictions groups and stuff about why it's good for them to be taking the steps they are, and I've been up on my volunteer work and then some, but I mean, I haven't been working and I miss it."

"Is that why you've been completing Chris' research for him and helping him contact witnesses for testimonies?"

He nodded. "Guilty as charged," sighed Alfred. "At least it's helping him with showing him the right way to go about gathering primary sources of information. I need work, though; I'm going crazy not doing anything with my time. And I can only harass Matthew so often in the run of a day before that starts to lose its ability to get some giggles."

Chuckles; Gupta smiled a little and tilted his head back. "Ah, before I forget to tell you," he said, suddenly sitting upright in his chair and whipping open one of the drawers in his desk. It was enough to frighten Alfred to the point of jumping. "You and Chris, along with several other attorneys from Texas, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Orelans, and possibly Washington, are going to be attending a conference in Europe, at the end of May."

Alfred's jaw dropped. "What! Really?"

The other nodded sagely. At the same moment, the phone in his jacket pocket vibrated - it was either Chris or Matthew. "Yes. It is some sort of skills-improvement conference."

"A big ol' lawyer pow-wow, huh?" Alfred asked with a light laugh. "Sounds great, Your Honour. Where's it happening to?"

"In Paris, for the first week, and then in Berlin for the second week," said Gupta as he placed a set of reading glasses on the bridge of his nose.

The end of-

Alfred sank back against his seat, swallowing thickly and nodding. "So, uh, what are the dates, exactly?"

Gupta glanced up over the rims of his glasses and peered at him for a brief moment. The look in his eyes was indiscernible. Then he smiled a little. "It runs between May 21st and June 5th, so it's really fifteen days, but I think June 5th is the day you all leave Berlin. If I remember correctly, doesn't that coincide with your return to New York last year?"

He nodded. "Yeah, it does," he said glumly. "Is attendance mandatory?"

"Yes, it is, and sadly, you're not permitted to bring anyone along; you're going to be kept in seminars and meetings for up to thirteen hours a day, and with only four properly free evenings to go and explore the cities and do some shopping, or things of the like," sighed the attorney. "Otherwise, I would quite gladly tell you to bring along whoever you wanted; hotel rooms aren't being shared with anyone. You'll have your own suite and everything."

"What if I paid for him to come along with me?" Alfred asked quietly. "Could I do that?"

"I wish I could tell you yes, because it would make sense to be able to do that, but the event coordinators won't even allow that to be done, as it's been tried in the past," he said. "I really am sorry, Alfred. You know I'd let you take him with you if it was possible, if there were any strings I can pull. But this is well above my level of influence."

"Hey, it's totally fine. Matthew'll just hate me for the first two weeks when he finds out, but then he'll be over it," Alfred said with a weak chuckle, smile wan. That would've been an incredible opportunity - the time to take Matthew to Berlin and Paris, of all the places in the world - when they would be together for a year.

Alfred felt his stomach clench in a pleasant way and he tried to bite down on the stupid smile he was fighting back. In four months, they'd be together for a year. A whole goddamn year.

Kind of freaky, kind of fantastic all at the same time.

Well, if they had managed to get through the first few months of knowing each other, let alone being in a relationship, without Matthew setting Alfred's socks on fire (while he was wearing them), then there was no surprise, really.

"How about this," Gupta said suddenly. The same time he spoke there was another vibrating in his pocket, followed by a whole string of vibrations. Someone was goddamn excited about something or other. Then he remembered - the verdict was going to be given within any given moment. Chris was probably in the process of having a hernia. "When you get back, I'll arrange it so that you can take a month's holidays starting as of June … 9th, let's say, to give you a day or so to straighten things up and get de-lagged. It sort of makes up for the fact that you're going to be missing your one-year anniversary. Which is very important of course. Take the boy somewhere nice. Leave New York for the whole month."

"Maybe I'll take him to Alberta," Alfred said, half to himself and half to the other man. "Or somewhere down South. Like New Orleans. Fuck, I don't know. But I got four months to come up with and surprise him with it, so I guess that could work out well."

The two of them stood, Alfred straightening his suit jacket while Gupta draped his over his shoulder. Opening the door for the older man, Gupta gave him a look of approval, smile half-cocked. "I must say, you've become such a mild, well-mannered man, Alfred," he commented, causing the younger lawyer to splutter with embarrassment. "Matthew must have beaten them into you."

Alfred snorted, shutting the door behind him and almost having to jog to catch up to the smaller man's quick pace. "You could say that."

"It's true though," said Gupta, almost protesting. "You were such an asshole. Although, it might've been the cocaine that turned you into such an asshole…"

"You know something? You're not the first person to have suggested that," Alfred said in a flat voice. He wasn't too impressed. The last goddamn person he wanted to hear that from was his boss. "Which is fuckin' depressing as shit."

He was given a good, hard pat on the back. "Oh, do lighten up, buttercup," scoffed the lawyer as they ascended to the atrium. "At least not everyone knows that's the reasoning. Most people assume you were an asshole for the sake of being an asshole."

"If you're trying to make me feel better, then stop. Because you suck at it."

Gupta laughed and forced him to sit down in a cushiony arm chair, hand on his shoulder. "Tell me, Jones, how many people actually knew?"

"Well, besides you, Chris, Matthew, Arthur and my former secretary Audrey knew about it. No one else did, as far as I know," Alfred said.

"Such a shame that Audrey retired," sighed Hassan. "She was such a … pleasant woman."

"You say that as though you're lying through your teeth," commented Alfred with a wry smirk. "I thought she was awesome; very low bullshit-tolerance levels, that was for sure. I think that's why we got along so well, y'know?"

"I just think she didn't like anyone, really," Gupta said with a shrug as he gingerly lowered himself down into a chair. The man was a lot older than what he looked; his youthful appearance was only betrayed by the lines at the corners of his eyes and the fact that his bones positively creaked when he moved. He was like a rickety old mansion, groaning and whining its protests as it settled on a crumbly foundation. He just masked it well with his exuberant personality and his go-to personality. "I know for a fact that she despised me. I don't know why; I never gave her much of a reason to."

"Didn't you tell her that her curtains didn't match the other colour schemes of her little office downstairs?" Alfred asked. "And didn't you say they were a little too ratty-looking to be used in such a professional setting?"

He seemed to think this over, thoughtfully rubbing his chin as he considered the possibility. "There's a very good chance I did," he said finally. Neither of them were paying much attention as the members of the jury strolled into the courtroom, prepared to give their verdict. "Why? Would that have something to do with it?"

Alfred could have smacked the other man. And he would have, too, if it weren't for the fact that he was probably one of the most important people around within a two- or three-mile radius (this was New York, after all. Important people tended to spawn up out of nowhere, crawling out of the sewers with the rats. These thoughts were sounding frightfully Matthew-like. The little anarcho-socialist was beginning to get to him. Shit on a goddamn stick.). "All due respect, Your Honour, but that was fuckin' dumb to do, so it's not much of a surprise she hated you for that one reason. As long as you didn't comment on the curtains and her choice of interior decoration, you'd get along just swell with her. Our relationship is a prime example of that hypothesis."

"That's just foolish," huffed the other, arms folded across his chest. "That is not a valid reason to dislike someone."

"Well, when you insult something the foster kids she takes care of made for her, then there's a good chance that she might think it's a fantastic reason," Alfred pointed out smoothly. "People are a lot more than just silly quirks and nuances and things to pick and poke at; they're emotions, of all the goddamn things in the world. And emotions are fragile, tricky things that if you don't grasp 'em within the first few minutes of them surfacing, chances are you're gonna be either pissed all over or you'll have someone damn good and disappointed in you for not reading the atmosphere, whether you were aware of it or not. People are way too complex and - and just … wired to immediately pass judgement on someone they don't know much about - if anything at all - without a sound back-up knowledge of as to why they react to things the way they do, whether it's with abhorrence or nonchalance or just plain happiness or whatever. But you can't be so quick to judge, Your Honour. You really can't be, even if it's what we all do. Sometimes you just gotta tell that primal instinct to judge and form baseless opinions to fuck off so that you can try and figure out why this person reacted the way they did in the first place. Judging others is what's ruinin' society, and it doesn't matter who it stems from. It all ends up with the same sort of dilemma - creating barriers that prevent you from actually getting to know someone else."

Gupta stared at Alfred, expression clouding over briefly before he nodded and smiled - it was a different smile, and Jones felt himself warm all over, right from the tips of his toes to deep in his bones and belly and right up to the roots of his hair.

"You fascinate me, Alfred," he said quietly, hand propping his head up as he smiled at the younger lawyer. "In the best way possible, of course. I didn't know you were capable of such deep thoughts."

"Mariana's Trench deep, Your Honour. Maybe even deeper. Who knows, I might be down as far as Dante's … last circle of Hell. I don't know the number, but I know he has a few of 'em. Kind of like the original social networking, right?"

Gupta shook his head and chuckled. "That must be all those philosophy classes you took in university coming back to haunt you, am I correct?"

"More than likely," said the lawyer with a sigh. "It's kind of like bad Chinese food: It still comes back for the occasional visit even if you ate it a week ago."

If he were about to say anything, the words died on his tongue as the sound of the gavel pierced the silence that had gone entirely unnoticed by the two men. They had managed to miss the verdict being read but, from the looks of it, it had turned out to be in their favour. Below them the jury gathered their things as the members made to leave, individuals representing various medias were leaving the courtroom and congregating in the hall. Pavel was being lead from the room, cuffs around both of his wrists and his ankles. His lawyer was visibly smarting; Pavel seemed indifferent, almost as though he were at peace with the verdict. In fact it looked like he were smiling a little, although that might have been a trick of the light.

Chris, who was staring up at the ceiling (or maybe he was looking up to where they were; it was hard to tell) looked properly smug. Arthur stood beside him, watching the man being lead from the court and into the media frenzy. The look on his face was unreadable but Alfred knew well enough that he shared the same smug feeling as his colleague.

Things had definitely turned out in their favour.

Alfred sank back into his seat with relief, exhaling in a heavy whoosh of breath and running his hand down over his face, letting it fall to his lap while a stupid smile formed on his face. Gupta took in the reaction and gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder.

"See?" he said, sounding almost as smug as Chris looked. "I told you there was nothing to worry about; your brother wouldn't be letting that man leave that room unless he has at least ten years of prison time under his belt to serve before he had a bail option."

"I wonder if he's gonna file for an appeal," murmured Jones, hand masking his mouth as he stared across the small room. He had barely heard the other speak. "That could be bad."

"Any appeal he makes is going to be shut down the moment he tries for it," he said. "That's a guarantee. I'll see to it myself."

"R-Really?"

A singular nod. "The man is a genuine threat to public safety and, to another small extent, both your personal safety, evidently your partner's safety, and your career at large. Wouldn't you feel a little bit better if you knew he was behind bars with no chance for an appeal to go through successfully?"

He had a point. A really damn good one, at that.

"Honestly, I think if anyone files for an appeal, it'll be the lawyer representing him," Gupta continued. "The accused seems to have no interest in going against whatever verdict he's given."

"I swear, if they let him out on good behaviour, I'll kill the bastard and serve the rest of his sentence," Alfred growled.

"Woah, easy there tiger." The two men seated in the room looked up and over to the doorway, where Arthur and Chris stood. Arthur still wore his judge's cape and cravat and he chuckled a little at Chris' words. "Ain't no one going around and killing anyone anytime soon. Did you hear what the verdict was? The charges held against him?"

Gupta and Alfred glanced to one another before the younger man shrugged sheepishly. "Refresh me?"

"More like enlighten you, twit," Arthur scoffed, rolling his eyes. He shut the door and locked it behind them as the two newcomers took a seat across from the two men already occupying the room. "Guilty on all charges of assault, and all murder charges except for one - the one he kept adamantly denying. The jury acquitted him on the grounds that he was so damn insistent and how he had been more or less so compliant for the whole trial, and that the evidence piled against him was both insufficient and irrelevant in some places. All trafficking charges were kept, as were two or three of the eight fraud and blackmail charges. Again, insufficient evidence. The theft charges were dropped for the same reasons, as were the money laundering charges. I was even doubting of those myself."

"Jesus," Alfred said quietly, running his hand down over his face. Gupta seemed impressed.

"How many years?" asked the state attorney.

Arthur gestured to Chris, as if to say he could do the honours of telling them. "Twenty," DePaulo said. He was grinning from ear to ear and he looked giddy. "And it'll be seven years before he can go for his first real bail hearing, unless he gets an earlier one based on good behaviour."

"Congratulations, Chris," Gupta said. "You've done fantastic. I think you have a very good shot at earning a spot in the Brooklyn office, especially after this."

"Don't tell him that," Alfred scolded lightly, sending his friend a devious smirk. "You might make the poor bastard wet his pants, and he's not wearing his big-boy diapers right now."

"You. I'm going to hurt you one of these days," Chris promised. "And I'm going to enjoy every minute of it."

"Mm, sounds kinky. Don't know if I like it, though," Alfred said in a flat voice. "I'll get back to you later on that proposition."

"Ah, speaking of propositions, you got any plans for tonight?" Chris asked, straightening as the other two made to leave the room. Arthur patted his brother on the shoulder, giving him a small smile and telling him he'd give him a call later on the week.

Alfred gave Chris a wary look. "You're … propositioning me?" he asked. "I thought you had Vanessa for that…stuff."

"That came out so wrong," Chris groaned. "I mean, like, do you and Matthew have any plans this evening? Vanessa and I were considering going out to dinner, and she was thinking of asking you two to come along, too."

"You mean like a d-double date?" Alfred had a hard time getting those two words out, and he must've been a little blue in the face when he choked them out because Chris started to look worried. "That … could be good."

"Yeah, we're going to dinner and maybe we could all go to a movie afterwards, or like, hang out at our place or whatever. What do you think?"

Giving it a moment's thought, the lawyer nodded slowly, before grinning and clapping the other on the back. "I think it's a fantastic idea," he said. "Where are we going out to?"

"I'm thinking of taking her to Colicchio and Sons," he said, "there on Tenth. You know the place?"

"Oh, you mean the old Craft restaurant?" Alfred asked, standing when the other did. "Do you know if the chefs working there now are the same ones from before they changed the name or ownership or whatever?"

Chris nodded briefly. "I think they kept a lot of the same staff. Apparently they got some nicer digs there now, and I know that Matthew doesn't work there, so he probably wouldn't find it awkward or anything. Where does he work, anyway?"

"Beats me," Alfred said. They were going to head back to his office before leaving so he could grab a few of his text books. "I think he works at someplace called The Russian Tea Room? Either way, he has to wear some seriously fancy getup for going to work. And he hates it."

"The job or the fancy getup?"

Alfred hummed. "Well, he's not a big fan of waiting tables, that's for sure. But it's the formal wear. I remember we went to an art gallery back in September or something and I pretty much had to force him into a suit. And even then it wasn't much of a suit - just a fancy shirt, black jeans and dress shoes. But this job, he has to wear gloves, a white shirt, a black bowtie and his clothing has to be steamed and pressed. He doesn't complain though, especially given the fact that last night he came home with over two hundred bucks worth of tips. He had some party of like ten people or something."

Giving a low whistle, he seemed impressed. "He must be a good waiter then," he said. "I know I waited tables at a Pizza Hut for a year, and I never made no big tips like that. Then again, it was a Pizza Hut, after all…"

"It's cause he has a good memory, and no matter how much he says he hates people, he can handle them wonderfully," said Alfred as they descended a flight of stone steps. Their steps echoed loudly, their voices even louder and the two men cringed at the sudden explosion of sound. "He can be such a two-faced little shit."

Chris laughed. "Yeah, that sounds like him, all right." stopping at the door Alfred was about to go through, he paused and then looked at his watch. "Listen, you go on ahead and get whatever it is you need; I'm going on ahead and picking up Vanessa from work, and then I'll give you a call around six or whatever, okay? That gives us about two hours to get ready."

Hand on the door, Alfred nodded. They parted, leaving him to head to his office alone, and to leave him alone with his thoughts, as the clichéd saying goes.

So, Pavel was going to jail, and would be there for quite some time before he had a shot at bail.

Funny, he thought, the way these things work out some times.

Alfred felt his body sag a little as he leant back against the closed door. He didn't know if it was with relief, or some other undetected emotion lurking beneath the surface. Surprise was there, definitely; he hadn't expected him to get picked up on so many of the charges. The assault ones and the trafficking ones, yes. Those were glaringly obvious and the several victim testimonies were enough to convict him. But the murders he was apparently to blame for, the evidence didn't seem to add up in the three instances and Alfred had a funny feeling about it. But he strangled the life out of those funny, gut-churning feelings and stuffed them in the back of the closet to await burial with the remaining, choked-out funny emotions from times before. Pavel admitted to two of three murders, so that was enough for him.

Sliding down along the door and sitting on the carpet, Alfred pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his suit jacket (Matthew had 'accidentally' sat on them, just like he had 'accidentally' thrown out the last full pack he had bought. Accident his ass).

For some reason, it just didn't add up, he decided as he placed a cigarette between his lips, idly chewing on the end of it as he contemplated lighting it. He didn't. Instead, he chewed on the end some more until it was properly mangled and then stuff it back in the package with a sigh. He'd smoke it later, when he was somewhere he wouldn't get in shit for it.

Arms up over his head, ignoring the vibrating phone in his pocket, Alfred shut his eyes. All that mattered was that Pavel was going to jail, that everything had gone without a hitch, and that there would be, more than likely, no appeal. And he still had a job and an untarnished reputation; one more skeleton to drag out of the closet and place in an unmarked grave.

Okay, so he did know what it was he was feeling. It was relief, whether or not he had been charged based on evidence that was shaky at the best. No more worrying over anyone's safety, whether it was his own or Matthew's.

Standing after some time of sitting there and brooding over the conviction, no matter how many times he returned to the same conclusion, Alfred decided that it would be best if he just stuffed the reading he needed into his laptop bag to be done with it. Going over all the trial's details from the past few months would do him no good; it would only give him a migraine.

Some twenty minutes later saw him back to Matthew's little apartment, where the younger man had a pile of textbooks and droves upon droves of notes and cue cards spread helter-skelter across his dining room table.

It was like an office supplies depot had exploded.

Quietly entering the apartment and setting his bag down on the floor by the door to Matthew's bedroom, he leaned against the wall, watching as his partner tried to make heads or tails of his own writing (chicken scratch at best) with some amusement. His nose was practically pressed up against one as he squinted at it. A look of frustration bloomed on his face for a brief moment before fading away as he sat back up, scribbled something down on a sheet of loose leaf and tossed the card into a blue paper recycling bin on the other side of his chair.

Watching Matthew work like this was something that, over the past month or so, Alfred had found to be a fascinating thing. One, he had never seen him slave over anything like this before. Up until now, the only time he had ever seen him put any real work into anything was when he painted, and that was a pure labour of love. So much thought and effort and consideration went into each piece he created, and paired with his skill and technique (something, he said, still needed a lot of work. Alfred just said he was being modest), it was a powerful thing. Art was his life, above anything and everything else, just the same way the law was for Alfred. It was an understanding they both had, and neither of them let the other get in the way of that passion.

This note-taking, however, was a labour of the mildly begrudging, the greatly displeased, and the sorely under slept.

"It's rude to lurk in doorways, Mr. Jones," Matthew said without looking up from his mess of notebooks and cue cards and loose papers. His voice was flat, lacking any possibility of being amused. Alfred jumped at the unexpected address.

"I'll be as rude as I damn well want," he snorted as he approached the younger man. Resting behind him, one arm keeping his weight stationary as he peered over his shoulder, he studied the mess of papers. Business notes. There were a few graded tests and papers there. The majority of them were good, but there was a few he had completely tanked.

He picked one up, and Matthew made a grab for it, cheeks reddening but Alfred pulled up and away faster than he could reach it. "A 37%?" he demanded, astounded. Matthew hung his head, looking away and viciously stuffing some papers into a binder. "What happened man?"

"I don't even remember," he muttered. "It was some paper for my macroeconomics class and I nuked it. Actually, I'm pretty much failing the class, or just about. I have maybe a really, really low sixty in it. Doing Business is a bad idea. I should've just stayed with art as my major and did some sort of artsy-fartsy minor. Like history, or sociology, or something."

Alfred grimaced. "I could help you with it a little, or Jeff could probably help you; he did Business in Harvard and did good with it. I mean, he did land a well-paying job within a few months after graduating. He'd help you if you just asked him."

Matthew sat in the chair, arms stubbornly folded over his chest, saying nothing. He was glaring at the mess in front of him. Alfred sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Listen, you want to do well in your classes, right?"

Begrudgingly, after a moment, he nodded and slumped a little in his chair. Smiling thinly, Alfred pressed a kiss to the back of his head, hands resting on his shoulders. "Then give Jeff a text or a call or something, and ask him to help you," he murmured. "Jeff won't mind, trust me. I don't wanna see you flunk out, Mattie. You've been waiting too long to go back to school for any of this bullshit."

Looking up at him, Matthew sighed. "Yeah, I've sunk too much into this and it's only my first semester." He ran his hands through his hair and shut his eyes, face upturned. He was frowning. Alfred took his face in his hands and pressed a short kiss to his mouth.

"C'mon, Pet, don't be so down on yourself," he said softly. "You're too young to have frown lines just yet. Anyway, you're just going to depress yourself and that's the goddamn last thing I want happening. Now cheer up, we're going out tonight."

Opening his eyes, Matthew stared blandly at the lawyer. "Really?" He almost sounded disappointed.

"Don't sound too excited," Alfred said in a flat voice. "I don't want you exploding or anything."

Laughter, and Alfred felt a small sense of relief at seeing his partner's smile; it had been too rare of an occurrence the past few weeks, and he had begun to miss it. Desperately. Missed its warm, but sarcastic edge. Missed the peculiarity of its curve that was reserved solely for him. It had returned, even if only for a brief moment. Alfred gave him another warm kiss; his way of thanking him.

"But, really?" Matt asked, straightening up and turning to face the lawyer. "Where are we going?"

"Out to dinner with Chris and Vanessa," said Alfred. "Then we're going back to their place to probably watch some movies and have a few drinks or whatever."

The other nodded before pushing away from the table. "I like the sound of that," Matthew said, a small, reserved smile returning to his face. "Where are we going out to?"

"Collichio and Sons," the lawyer said. He stepped back as Matthew stood, wrapping an arm around his waist and tugging him close. Matt smiled lazily and placed his chin on his shoulder. "And the dress code is semi-formal, so I hope you're alright with that."

A groan left the Canadian, as did a curse or two, but he hung his head and nodded at the same time. "Yeah, yeah, I can deal with it," he grumbled, shoving his book bag out of the way and under the kitchen table. As he moved around, gradually making his way to his bedroom, Alfred made it a point to keep himself plastered to the other's back, chin resting on his shoulder.

Being latched on the way he was made for awkward walking, but that was what made it all the more fun. He kind of got a cheap kick out of waddling behind the Canadian and trying to find a proper way (see: safe and wouldn't land him either on his ass or with an elbow in the throat) to move behind him, all while annoying the ever-loving shit out of the poor guy.

Jones was decidedly good at annoying Matthew.

(And even though he knew he was annoying the younger man into another dimension, that didn't stop the giddy, silly smile that was forming on his face and that was how Alfred knew everything was okay. That Matthew was perfectly fine, even if things were beginning to get him down.)

(Even though it was hard for him to actually articulate it, Alfred was kind of proud, in a way. Proud of how far Matthew had come, emotionally, in the past year he had known him. He seemed to bounce back from depression within a matter of days now, without any major amount of medication, instead of the weeks or months that involved heavy pill-ingestion and copious amounts of sleep and isolation he put himself through.)

"Matthew, I think you just stuck your elbow in my spleen..."

"It's your spleen's fault for getting in the way of my elbow. So shut it."

(Now, he just sort of sulked around, popped one of his pills a few hours earlier than usual and slept it off for a few hours. It'd be a day or three before he'd come around, but he would. He always did these days. He'd talk about it without being prompted instead of holing up - 'It's not healthy,' he had whispered to the older man one night, unusually quiet and sombre after they had watched a few movies together. 'It's not healthy and I-I guess I shouldn't be doing it to myself. Not anymore. Not when I know better; not when I have you.')

(When he said that, Alfred didn't reply and that was what the Canadian had wanted because he smiled a smile that told Alfred everything - a small, soft little smile that Alfred would walk over burning coals to see, even for just a second, because nothing in his life had ever been more valuable to him. Nothing material or immaterial. It was incredible, the way it made him feel.)

"Ow, Jesus! Matthew, you're a fucking bull in a china shop, and the goddamn china shop happens to be my insides!"

"Well it's your own problem for not having a 'No Bulls Are Allowed' sign plastered to your back or something."

(Yeah, he was goddamn good and proud of Matthew, and maybe - just maybe - one of these days he would tell him.)

Throwing his weight so that he dragged Matthew along with him, Alfred managed to land them on the bed, squishing the artist beneath him. Clambering atop him, he pinned him to the mattress with a wicked grin.

Matthew shook his head and squirmed, trying to dislodge the grip that he was in. "I can't get changed if you're leeching onto me, Al," he scolded. He could barely keep a straight face as he spoke.

"Well, if it persists and becomes a problem, I'll take your clothes off for you," Alfred purred.

"Then get started. Sitting on me and talking about it isn't getting me naked any faster," he said in a flat voice. "When are we leaving?"

Pulling back and giving an astonished look about him as the Canadian spoke, Alfred sat back on his hips as he seemed positively bewildered, stammering a bit before he could actually speak like a normal person. "U-Uh, well…" he cleared his throat when Matthew gave him an expectant look of sorts. Floundering for a moment, he hauled the Canadian's shirt off and up over his head before chucking it to the floor, he grinned sheepishly. "Chris is gonna be here in about a half hour for us, how does that sound?"

"Sounds good," Matthew agreed. "And you're slacking, Princess. You've had me naked quicker than this. You must be losing your touch or something."

Alfred turned red and ducked his head.

"Oh, trust me," he murmured, hand sliding down over his side - he smirked when Matthew sucked in a sharp breath - and his gaze roaming along his chest and up to his face. "I'm far from being out of practice, and if it weren't for the fact that Chris'll be here soon, I'd say let me prove it to you."

"W-We have half an hour, right?" Matthew asked.

Alfred chuckled lowly and shook his head. "Mm, yeah, but it'll take longer than half an hour for me to prove it to you."

"I hate you so much. Why would you even tease me like that? Like, what the fuck is wrong with you?" he demanded. "There are so many things wrong with you, that's what. You're a sadist. A big, fat sadist with love handles."

Jaw dropping, Alfred got up and threw a pillow at his face before throwing the clothing that had made its way to the floor back on top of him. "Take that back, you bitch!" he yelled. "I do not have love handles! I have a chiselled body that statue-makers would've used as a fantastic reference of pure, unadulterated beauty!"

"Love handles, love handles, Alfred Jones has love handles!" Matthew sang out, throwing the things on top of him back at the lawyer. He sat up and, to add insult to injury, grabbed at the man's hips and took, from either side of his body, a measure of the extra bit of fat that was sitting there. "See? Love handles. They've returned with a vengeance, Princess. I think they might be here to stay. You're gonna be thirty in, like, two or three years, so it's gonna be hard to sweat 'em off."

Matthew fell silent when he realized Alfred looked as though he were on the verge of tears, and he bit his lower lip. His eyes were watery and he looked away, Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed thickly.

Oh, my God.

He almost made his boyfriend cry.

I am a horrible human being oh my fuck I don't deserve to live someone just take me now and throw me overboard or something.

"Shit, Al, don't do that," said the Canadian weakly as he tried to stifle his laughter. "Just because you have love handles - and they're not even that noticeable or big, honestly - it doesn't mean it's a bad thing."

"But it means I'm fat," Alfred replied unhappily, voice cracking when he spoke. The sound almost made Matthew tear up. "And that's a bad thing. Nobody likes a fat lawyer. The next thing I know, I'll be bald and then I'll have a huge Santa Clause belly and I'll be living in the worst trailer park in America 'cos I'll be after squandering away my money on toupees and weight loss programs and then subsequently beer and hamburgers to drown my sorrows and-"

A groan left Matthew. What he had done? What sort of monster had he created? It might've very well been Judgement Day for all he knew. "No, no, Al, that's not gonna happen," said Matthew, pinching a cheek - 'See," Alfred whined, 'I even have cheek fat for you to pinch!' - and then biting back an exasperated growl. "You keep yourself in exceptional shape for that to happen. You have probably the nicest, most-toned stomach I've seen a guy sporting in a long time."

Sniffles. "You sure?" he asked. "You're not just saying that to make me feel better?"

No, it was more like he was saying it to make himself feel less guilty. Matthew tweaked his nose. "No, I'm not just saying it to make you feel better," he murmured in a way that he hoped sounded reassuring. "I wouldn't lie to you. Your body is fantastic just the way it is, and so are you. Especially you. Don't change. Ever. No matter what anyone says - I'll be pissed if you do."

Patting him on the cheek and giving the unhappy, not-quite-convinced lawyer and soft kiss on the other cheek, Matthew bumped their hips together before heading over to his closet.

"I guess I don't mind having to dress up too much," he said with a sigh as he faced the clothing hung up in the small space. "I mean, it's not too often we go anywhere overly formal, so it's kind of nice for a change, right?"

Standing the way he was, back to his boyfriend, he completely missed the wicked smile the older man wore. A very conceited, wicked smile.

Perfect the way he was? Fantastic body? Never change?

The smile grew, turning into a Grinch-like smirk of pure, unadulterated evilness.

Matthew was never going to live this down, and simply because Alfred wasn't going to let him live it down.

Ever.

And even when they arrived at the restaurant, Alfred was still gloating about it. On the inside. Really, really deep down on the inside. Matthew knew nothing of this inner self-congratulatory monologue that consisted of various things that ranged from: 'You have that boy whipped, Jones, fuckin' whipped you have tamed the untameable' to 'damn fuckin' straight you have a bitchin' body. You don't go to the gym two or three times a week and work out at home for no reason'.

Matthew had his suspicions given the fog of smugness that seemed to be emanating from him each time he opened his mouth to say something, or even each time he exhaled.

Back to polluting the environment with his banality. Matthew thought he had weaned Alfred out of that bad habit of his, but apparently he still needed a bit of potty training. It was hard to refrain from smacking the back of his head, but given that they were in a high-end restaurant, he willed himself to behave.

At least one of them needed to set a proper example as to how to behave while in the public eye. It was just really sad that it was going to be him who did so.

The group had already placed their orders and sat in silence as the waiter brought them two bottles of wine and began to fill their glasses before once more slipping discreetly away.

"It must be nice to be the one being served for a change, huh?" asked Vanessa with a smile directed towards Matthew.

Nodding as he studied the glass of wine before him, Matthew ran his finger along the rim before settling back, arms folded across his chest. "It definitely is." He smirked a little. "I kind of want to be one of those customers from hell who isn't satisfied with anything they're given, but Karma likes to use me as it's punching bag, which means the next time I work, I'll get all the customers from hell on the same night."

Tuning the three out as they started discussing something - a couple had walked past the table, catching the trio's combined attention - that had happened when they had all been in university, apparently involving the couple who had walked by. Matthew watched the two as they continued to wind their way around table. He hoped he wasn't gawking, but more than likely he was.

Beneath the surface of the table, a warm hand enveloped his and Matthew started, gaze being torn from the normal-seeming couple who were apparently inept at following the directions of a waiter (who had pointed to the direction of a very noticeably vacant table in amongst of sea of taken ones and was now guiding them towards said vacant table with a perceptible annoyance. They had somehow managed to end up on the completely wrong side of the restaurant).

Looking down, he saw Alfred's hand holding his and when he looked back up and over to Alfred, there was no look on his face betraying what it was he was doing. Well, there seemed to be a bit of a twitch in the corner of his mouth and his cheeks had reddened a bit. Either he was coming down with something or he was even worse than he had initially assumed when it came to subtlety. However, glancing discreetly to the couple across from them, his partner's attempt at tact had gone completely awry as they exchanged smiles with one another before they continued to prattle on.

Matthew said nothing; he just sat back and laced his fingers through the lawyer's, content to settle in and just soak in everything. And he was pleased that Alfred didn't try to coerce him into taking part in the conversation, either; that he didn't seem to mind the younger man's idle, almost listless, behaviour. Not that Matthew felt listless or anything, just sort of sleepy and not in the mood to talk.

Thinking about that caused his stomach to turn a little and he looked down at the lace table cloth, fighting against the urge to pick at it as his mood sank once more. His emotions were all over the place lately, and it was starting to drive him crazy. One minute he was up, and then the next he was down. The only part was, it was getting harder to get back up every time he went down.

Some things (or people, that was what he really meant to say, but just didn't want to make himself feel as though he were becoming or had already become dependant on anyone) managed to keep it from getting too bad.

He sipped his wine, not feeling as dignified as what it usually made most people look. Drinking wine made him feel like a bit of a phony, actually; he wasn't classy. And it was classy people who drank wine. He had no business consuming it for that reason, and the reason that he had only taken one of his pills three hours ago. Bringing the glass back to his lips he took another rather inelegant mouthful of the drink. At least it wasn't bitter.

The phone in his pocket vibrated and he pulled it from his pocket, glancing inconspicuously at the screen and feeling his face warm pleasantly.

love you grumpy bones. do
me a favor and put a smile on?

Cheeks warming pleasantly and unable to help but do as he was asked, Matthew ducked his head again and nudged the lawyer's ankle with the toe of his sneaker. Alfred laughed a little and leant across the small space between them, kissed the spot behind his ear and then gave his head a little shove away.

Pulling his phone back out, he quickly composed a reply as they returned to their idle discussion:

love you too, love
handles and all (:

A moment later, when Alfred read the message he received, he looked up and over to the Canadian and shook his head.

"Damn your eyes, Williams," he said, with little to no conviction but a dead serious expression. "I'm going to kick your sorry, scrawny ass all over the place."

Matthew burst out laughing, clamping a hand over his mouth when the lawyer hit him on the shoulder.

Hauling his phone back own, the grin on his face wicked, he composed another short message and sent it to the lawyer seated next to him, watching him for his reaction.

My ass may be scrawny
but you sure do seem to
like it quite a bit, huh Jones?

Alfred turned as red as Chris' shirt and looked away, but placed his finger on his nose and slowly shook his head.

Score one for the Canucks.

Not that he was really keeping track anymore; his score had gotten pretty far up the chart compared to where it used to be.

Their food arrived within a half hour of ordering it, which was fairly impressive. It looked wickedy enticing. Matthew swallowed thickly, feeling his stomach growl angrily as he tenderly prodded at the crust-coated lamb chops he had on his plate, atop steamed, garlic butter-slathered asparagus and some interesting-looking pasta.

Beside him, Alfred had ordered some sort of soup as an appetizer and was still finishing it as the waiter laid down the other plates. It looked like Chris was having a steak as Vanessa had some sort of seafood platter. Then, as Alfred exchanged the empty soup bowl for a plate that had a rack of ribs or something of that nature, the two looked at each other and nodded, impressed.

At least the servings weren't meant for people who rarely ate; he was pretty sure that what was on Jones' plate could feed at least another two people.

Matthew's stomach growled again, and loudly at that. He wanted to eat everything at the table, or at least try some of it. Instead of being a glutton, he instead chose to slowly pick at his food while avoiding looking at (and doing his best to avoid smelling) the other meals at their table.

He just hoped dessert was an option as well.

Starting in on his meal, pushing away the sounds of Alfred and Chris' conversation which was a promise of a not-so-quiet dinner, he failed to notice how Vanessa was edging her chair closer. Physically, at that; it made low scraping noises as it crossed the floor and then thumps when she set it down heavily, pausing only to push her plate along as well. The discussion between the lawyers slowed to a stop for a brief moment just so they could stare questioningly at her, and her sole reaction was to give them a dirty look before returning to her mostly failing endeavour of subtlety.

(It was only a seventy percent failure given the fact that Matthew remained blissfully unaware of what was going on. He was fairly taken with the range of flavours on his terrifyingly delicate bone china plate that looked like it could have belonged to his late, great grandmother. Or like it might have been as fragile as his late, great grandmother; the china might have had a little more durability than her.)

"Psst, Matt."

Jerking out of the comfortable realm of his thoughts and turning to the suddenly much-closer-than-before Vanessa, he haphazardly wondered when that had happened before replying in kind.

"You should be my shopping buddy the next weekend you don't have to work."

Fork in his mouth, he stopped chewing and levelled his gaze on her. He peered over the rims of his glasses. "Don't you have Chris to carry your bags?"

(Chris snorted; he resented that.)

"Obviously," she scoffed as though it were something everyone should have already been aware of. It kind of was. "But I'm in need of a-"

Oh, no. God no. Matthew hung his head. She was just as bad as Jade - with whom he had gone shopping with the weekend before, actually. Greg said it was a fantastic idea for the simple fact that it got him out of shopping with her.

But there was no goddamn way she could be another Jade; she was too nice, and not nearly as brash, right? There was no goddamn way.

"-gay best friend to help me pick out some new outfits when I go out with the girls!"

Okay, so she was another Jade.

Fucking. Perfect.

"Vanessa, how can I be your gay best friend when I'm not all the way gay?" he groaned. He was hoping they weren't being too loud so that everyone in the restaurant and their mother down the road or in the next county could hear them.

"Okay, well, how gay are you?" she demanded. "I need to know these things."

He shifted awkwardly, feeling the eyes of the people at the nearby tables settling on him. It was like putting a magnifying glass over an anthill on a scorching hot day in the dead of July. "I mean, I've only ever been in serious relationships with guys, but I've dated a handful of girls. And it's not like I find women repulsive or the concept of, um, doing stuff with them repulsive, either. Because I don't, and I have. Guys are just … more my type? T-This isn't appropriate dinner conversation," he spluttered in a shrill voice.

"Sure it is," crowed Alfred. "I know I'm finding this absolutely fascinating."

Leaning over to Alfred's plate and blocking the man's fork with a chunk of meat, he jammed it in Jones' mouth, effectively shutting the lawyer up before turning back to Vanessa with a polite smile. The smile showed zero malice as compared to what he felt. Sorry for interrupting our conversation, but I just thought temporarily muting the village idiot would make things easier, do continue, would you?

Into his hand, Chris coughed the word 'bipolar'. Alfred seemed to be outright choking.

"I'd say you're about eighty-three percent gay," Vanessa summarized, unfazed by the men's behaviour. "Which qualifies as just-as-gay-as-necessary in my books. So you're my gay best shopping friend. The end."

Chris leaned his weight on the table. "I wouldn't even try to argue," he advised. His wife's smile was both smug and jubilant. "You'll never win, even if you argue until your face turns blue or something. Trust me - I know these things first hand."

Once Alfred finally choked down what had been so brutally stuffed in his mouth - almost to the point of it being stuffed down his throat - he nodded. "He's right, Mattie. I've tried. And I've lost. I've watched Jeff and Allan try, and they've lost. I've watched Chris try, and frankly, I think he just gives up the moment it starts, y'fuckin' defeatist, just because they've been married two or three years or whatever."

"That's actually more of a reason for him to lose, really," said Matthew as he tentatively sliced some of the meat on his plate. It was tender to the point that the knife he used slid clean through it. He nearly moaned. That was how meat was supposed to be cooked. It was supposed to be tender enough to the point that it could just be peeled apart, or at least slid clean off the bone, not to the point that a chunk of rock flying through the earth's atmosphere would have more flavour and wouldn't be nearly as burnt or hard to bite into.

Turning to face the woman, Matthew opened his mouth, fully prepared to argue about it until the next decade if he had to. Instead of doing that, he pulled back and pressed his lips together in a tight, grim line. Vanessa was watching him expectantly; she was just waiting for his argument. So, choosing not to give her what she wanted (and simultaneously admitting defeat), he let out a growled 'this food is so fucking fantastic, I can't get enough of it' before jamming some more into his mouth.

This was not the definite end of this - there was no goddamn way he was admitting defeat to anyone, no matter who they thought they were.

What this was, it was the beginning of a war. It just so happened that the first battle hadn't played out to meet his expectations.

Nothing major; he had fought plenty of battles in his short, twenty-two-years of scum-sucking existence. This was just a different battle - a battle of intellect.

A kind of battle he was good at.

A battle he had every intention of winning.

Sipping his glass of wine, Matthew sank back a little in his chair and narrowed his gaze as he watched the smug-looking pharmacist before him. She gave him a sly wink that made him fume internally, but he had enough gall to shoot one right back at her. This was definitely one he intended on winning. And the basking in that victory that would follow would be immense.

Alfred and Chris cackled quietly amongst themselves, the former saying, "We better look out; he's on the war path now and there ain't no stopping him until he wins."

"But he won't," protested Chris. "It's common knowledge and law of the jungle."

"Okay, so then we have another Middle Eastern conflict on our hands?" the other demanded. "If that's what's brewing, that could be bad."

"It usually is," grunted Matthew, deciding it would be best to let half-asleep dogs lie, even if it was just for now.

It might lie in the days ahead, or in the weeks ahead, but there would be a battle.

And he would be the one to emerge victorious.

"So? Will you be my gay shopping buddy?" asked Vanessa excitedly. "Please? I mean, Chris is so boring and suggests clothing all in the same colour, Jeff's too busy and when he does go shopping with me all he ever does is point out things he wants to get. Like, that just defeats the purpose. And Alfred spends too much time complaining about wanting to go and do other things."

Chris turned to Alfred, cutting Matthew off when the Canadian was about to reply: "You've gone shopping with my wife? What? When?"

"Only two or three times," admitted the DA. The he turned to Chris' wife. "And honey, for the record, I don't do power shopping. I take three to four hours to go through a few small stores, and heaven forbid you bring me to Target or Macy's. I might not even leave. So seven or eight stores in two hours or less? That's straight up abuse."

"You're just not man enough to handle it," she sniffed in a disdain-filled voice. The tips of Alfred's ears turned pink. "Matthew on the other hand might be a little more capable of doing so. So what's the verdict?"

"While I think selling my soul for some hockey cards I already have might come of more value and future benefit, I would love to join you in your shopping endeavours for the simple fact that I love and revel in every chance I am given to prove that I'm better at something than Alfred, even if that 'something' happens to be power shopping." Matthew was smiling like a little asshole; not that he had to try. He had been born an asshole in his partner's opinion.

Alfred, on the other hand, looked like someone who had just sold their last shred of dignity to a baby prostitute.

Well played, Mr. Williams, well played.

"I do believe if I had any dignity remaining up until this point, that it just got up and threw itself over a balcony after stepping on a legion of legos," Alfred said as he topped off his glass of wine. His expression was grim.

"Let's just hope that dignity of yours wasn't wearing a noose or anything, because if it was, it ain't ever coming back, man," said Chris. He was gesturing with his fork as he spoke. "And you will never have another shred of dignity for as long as you live."

"How unfortunate," Alfred said. "That could probably suck a little."

"I didn't realize you had any dignity to begin with," quipped Matthew, "I mean, I always thought that was reserved for important people."

"So you're sleeping on the sofa tonight, fantastic," declared the lawyer with a clap of his hands. "I get the whole bed to myself tonight! Damn, this is going to be awesome!"

Vanessa looked up from her phone. "Honey, I'd give you about an hour before you started to whine about being lonely. Maybe even less than that, given the fact that you're a gigantic baby."

"What have I done to deserve being surrounded by verbally abusive, cynical, unusually cruel people?" He sounded disbelieving of his situation. Matthew just thought he was being whiney and needy and various things all rolled up and dumped in a cesspit of bratty emotions. Because Alfred was the Biggest Brat in the Big Apple. "I mean, I don't remember breaking any mirrors or selling anything on the black market, so why me?"

"It's what happens when there are people who love you who express their love for their friends in questionable ways," said Vanessa.

Alfred sipped his wine before settling back in his chair, placing his knife and fork on his empty plate. He was the last to finish, surprisingly. "Questionable methods usually cite questionable morals."

"Oh, don't spout that shit; it won't work with me, darling," she scoffed, waving off his backhanded insult with ease. "Everyone has questionable morals, especially when you work in the criminal justice system."

"She has a point," commented Matthew.

"Stuff it, Bacon," Alfred snapped.

Silence. Matthew looked bewildered.

"That's … a new one," he said slowly. "Why?"

"Because Canadians and bacon go hand-in-hand? I thought it made sense."

Running his hands down over his face, 'Bacon' shook his head slowly before he turned to the other couple. The lawyer was cherry red from trying to keep himself from bursting out laughing. Vanessa had given up and seemed to be on the verge of tears.

"Can we go back to your place now? Please?" Matthew asked weakly, looking to Chris from behind his fingers. His face had turned stop sign red. "I don't think my dignity can handle being out in public anymore."

"Oh, honey, you're still so young and naïve," Vanessa crooned. She ran a hand soothingly along Matthew's curls. "When you're with us, you immediately surrender your dignity. It's almost like selling yourself into prostitution."

Matthew blanched despite his laughter, shaking his head. "Lovely comparison," he groaned. "At least you're kind of creative?"

Vanessa snorted. "I pride myself on it."

A moment later, Matthew's phone vibrated. He glanced at the screen, read the message and decided to ignore it. It was only a short one from Alfred, asking if everything was okay.

Things were fine, even if sometimes they managed to cut a little too close to home.

"Matthew's right," said Chris, standing and taking his jacket from the back of the chair and hauling it on. As Vanessa stood, he draped her jacket over her shoulders. "I think we've overstayed our welcome; did you see the dirty look the maître d' gave us? I think he was contemplating how much news coverage would happen if the four of us suddenly went missing without a trace."

"Well, unlike the rest of you, there's all of five people who would notice if I went poof," said Matthew. "But now if Hamburger here-"

"Oh my God, we have matching nicknames now! This is so cute!"

"-went missing, then holy shit look out they'd have the SEALS out for him," finished Matthew, ignoring the other's excited outburst. Alfred had his hand on the artist's jacket and then, unsure about what to do with it, he handed it over instead of putting it on him. A little act that Matthew appreciated; it kind of felt like he had a small portion of his masculinity preserved.

Unsure as to who was footing the bill, it seeming that Alfred and Chris were debating about whether or not they were going to split it, Matthew wandered outside the restaurant. He would have no involvement in their shenanigans.

The cold was a shock and it woke up him a bit, the warm atmosphere of the restaurant having lulled him into a cozy state that left him feeling doped up. The shock was a welcome one. It made his skin prickle, and the breeze that lifted his hair off the back of his neck was icy and made him shiver. He looked upwards, along the high-rises which consisted of primarily hotels and other fancy cookhouses, and found himself searching for stars or maybe even sight of the moon. Even after nearly ten years of living in the city, he was still foolish enough to try and catch sight of something that was far beyond his capabilities of mortal understanding. He was an idiot. Matthew sighed, lowering his head once more and watching where he walked when his feet nearly slipped out from beneath him.

If he could have it his way, he'd just go back to his place and sleep for the rest of the night. Maybe get Alfred to come back with him, watch a movie or two and drink some wine or lime soda (depending on the dwindling contents of his refrigerator; it had been almost a month since the last time he set foot in a grocery store), then curl up with him in bed and just sleep. Wake up the next morning and stay in bed until dinner, something they did more often than not, but it was because they both loved just being in bed and shamelessly cuddling as well as the fact that they were both comfort-seeking monsters. And if they stayed in bed all day, maybe they could watch some more movies or maybe they could read some books together, chat about the recent events in the news. Talk about the price of tea in China or the causes behind the extinction of the Dodo bird. Or maybe why cats were so attracted to balls of yarn. Anything would go, really.

No, though. He'd be a good little boyfriend and friend, and he'd go along with them and spend the evening with Chris and Vanessa, too. Even if the thought of proper social interaction, something he had been lacking for the past several weeks, made him want to jump ship with a nice, firm rope around-

"You ready to go, Space Cadet?" Alfred asked, practically enveloping him from the view of the others. Matthew started then nodded, looking back over his shoulder and giving the lawyer a half-cocked smile. Alfred was invitingly warm, a much better alternative than the bitter night and Matthew pressed back against him, sliding a hand along the lower part of his chest and burying into his body. He smelt spicy. Or, at least his jacket did. The scent of spices and a little bit like cigarette smoke lingered in the leather and lambskin material of the coat. A little part of Matthew hated how he made smoking attractive but, hey, some people just did. It was a sick sort of gift that the cigarette companies usually paid out royalties for.

"I guess," sighed Matthew. "There aren't any other alternatives, are there?"

Alfred pursed his lips. "Not a one." He reached into his jacket and removed a cigarette, and a flick of his wrist later, it was lit.

"Knew it."

Cigarette poised between his fingertips and the end nothing more than a red-hot glowing ember in the dark, Alfred kissed his temple, breath smoky. "Don't worry, it won't kill you," he teased, voice low as Chris and Vanessa joined them, the former hailing a cab at the curbside.

"Are you sure?" demanded his partner. "Like, completely?"

"Absitively posolutely, kid," said Alfred, running his hand through his hair. Matthew briefly wondered if a lit cigarette could catch the ends on fire. Call him cruel, but he thought it would've been hilarious.

Matthew gave a resigned sigh and cracked his neck, tipping his head to the side and rolling his shoulders. Well, maybe it wouldn't be too bad. This was Chris and Vanessa, after all. Everything that involved the two of them was generally a painless experience, as long as they were out of the scope of the public eye.

He'd contemplate jumping ship later on, but this time around he'd leave the rope home.


Hey guys, sorry for the ... delayed chapter. Like I said in the explanation on my profile, I lost some of the chapter, then had to rewrite it. But between the time I posted that explanation and posting this chapter, I've been insanely busy and sitting down and focusing on tying up loose ends was a little bit difficult for a tired mind. But I hope you all enjoy this late chapter, and Merry Christmas/Happy New Year/Happy Holidays/etc to you all.