It was pouring rain, but the priest didn't have an umbrella.

Alex watched from his small, dry alcove as the man made his way down the street, his hair black with the water, highlighting the white at his temples. The Father had been walking down the sidewalk for several blocks, the few other people passing by without giving him a second glance.

He stepped from his dry space, opening his umbrella as the priest approached, his eyes never wavering from the man, who never even glanced up. Only when the Father passed by and Alex fell into stride with him, holding the umbrella over his head, did the priest's steps falter to a stop, looking up to the person beside him.

"Hello Father."

The priest winced, looking down to the rosary in his hand, which was dripping onto the already wet pavement. Upon closer inspection, Alex could see that the man was crying.

"Perhaps I can walk you to where you're going?"

He shook his head and started walking again, "No thank you, Son. I'm not going anywhere."

Following beside him, keeping the already soaked man from getting wetter, Alex said nothing. They walked in silence for another mile, the priest periodically wiping his face with his free hand, the one holding the rosary going through his prayers, silent, his mouth moving sometimes. Then, having passed a dozen benches before it, he suddenly sat down on a soaked bench, eyes still trained on the rosary dangling between his fingers.

Alex grimaced, then sat, shuddering when the water soaked through his dry clothes to his skin. He didn't lean back, keeping the umbrella perched in his hand as he studied the priest's face. They were about the same age, late forties, early fifties, although they'd led very different lives. His eyes were deep wells of thought and knowledge, the lines on his face soft—having known laughter, tears, and contemplation. The wrinkles were folded for tears now, although he'd stopped weeping, still pained.

"Father, is there anything I can do for you?"

"Please, call me Patrick," his voice was gruff from wandering in the cold rain. "I'm no longer a priest."

Alex waited, knowing the other man needed time to say what weighed so heavily on his shoulders. Ironically, he probably would have made a good priest, willing to listen to other's troubles, offer advice when it was needed. Except the whole celibacy thing.

"I was never favored in the church; my ideas were too radical, my mind too open. It was only a matter of time until I said something inappropriate that would get me excommunicated. I suppose I should be surprised it took this long," he folded his hand closed, the rosary hidden inside.

"I don't mean to sound trite," Alex rested his hand over the fist, the skin cold beneath his warmth, "But I'm sure God has a plan for you."

Patrick shivered, once, long and hard, then began a constant tremble from the cold. He closed his eyes, "I know he does. Thank you for listening."

"You looked like you needed someone." He paused, drawing in a slow breath, "You also look like you need some dry clothes. Do you have somewhere to go?"

"Yes, I have the presbytery until the end of the week."

Patrick didn't stand, so Alex did, ignoring his wet pants plastered to his butt, "Do you mind if I walk you there?"

He looked surprised as he stood, "I don't wish to trouble you, you've already--"

"No trouble, I assure you," and he smiled with the warmth that made ladies melt.

They walked in silence under Alex's umbrella, the cars rushing by, splashing water everywhere, the rain pounding on the thin material that kept them relatively dry and onto already drenched earth.

"Are you religious?" Patrick asked, perhaps to break the silence and his own thoughts, perhaps out of curiosity.

"I don't look at things the same way as most. But I believe in God, he's gotten me through some things that I probably couldn't have otherwise."

They slowed beside a large church and Patrick lead them around the back, stepping under the porch awning as Alex stopped, staring up at the church, "This is your church?"

"Was," Patrick softly corrected, "Yes."

He couldn't look away from the familiar gray stone and the memories that were carved there. "How long have you been a priest here?"

"Going on thirty years, did you used to attend?"

Alex shook his head, slowly pulling his eyes away from the building, studying the face that he had followed here. Patrick still wore the lines of worry, but he was no longer lost in them. "Then we've met before, I think. I lived in the loft of this church for a while—I thought I was sneaking in until someone started leaving me food. And then, a young priest came and spoke with me."

Surprise bloomed on his face, "You?" His eyes scanned over Alex, probably compared his filled out, lean muscled body to the half-starved youth he'd first met. "You grew up."

"Thanks to you," Alex's voice softened as he stepped under the awning, "Thanks to you I had a chance. You saved my life."

Patrick smiled, bashfully turning to the door, focusing on unlocking it as he mumbled, "I was glad to help." He stepped into his home, holding open the door for Alex to follow, "Would you like to come in, have a cup of—something warm?"

Alex was thinking some whiskey would be nice to warm up, but nodded, closing and shaking out his umbrella before stepping in, "Thank you, that sounds pleasant."

The small house, barely more than three rooms, was instantly comforting. Of course it was filled with religious paraphernalia, but it also was welcoming. There was no television, but stacks of books surrounded the two old leather-bound couches. The living room immediately opened up to the kitchen, which barely had room for the two-seat table, and a narrow staircase led to the second floor.

Patrick threw Alex a towel, and headed upstairs to change from his wet clothes. Folding the towel and laying it on a seat, Alex settled onto the couch, listening to the water heating on the stove. Patrick came down in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt that hugged his body a little too much for Alex's comfort. But if he thought about it, he'd never seen a priest in anything other than their formal wear.

Sitting on the other side of the couch, Patrick looked relaxed, if not slightly stiff, probably from being out in the cold and wet for so long. His blue eyes looked cloudy, gray, and still filled with the wisdom and patience as when Alex had first seen them.

He was a troublemaker, that's what everyone knew when they saw him. His face was banged up, a mixture of old and fresh bruises and scabs, perfectly matching his knuckles. He gave out just as well as he took, after all. His clothes were stained with rust-colored splotches, blood that hadn't completely washed out.

The church had been open, it had been the first doors he'd come to that had been. He'd found his way to the upper loft, a storage space that never got used from the looks of it, and slept. He'd been there four days when the first plate arrived. He'd thought no one knew—he made sure not to leave any trace of his presence, but the food had come, and kept coming. Each time after eating he'd cleaned the plate and left it on the alter when the chapel was empty. The next day more food would arrive.

Then one day he'd woken to the sound of footsteps. He'd struggled to get out of his make-shift bed, but he was too sore and too tired from the night's escapades and there wasn't anywhere he could run. He at least had the sense to make sure the blanket was wrapped around his bare waist before the loft door opened and a young-faced priest stepped in. There was a plate in his hand, but their eyes had captured one another's, judging reactions, trying to anticipate movement.

He had black hair, cut short, and eyes so deep they didn't seem to end. They looked dark in the dim light of the attic, but the darkness was more than shadows, it was clear darkness. The priest had set down the plate by him, then sat against the farthest wall, dust instantly clinging to his black garb.

"So things worked out?"

Alex nodded, his fingers rubbing his knee as he tried not to think too much about back then, "Yes. I got a job, found some roommates and eventually built a life for myself."

"I'm glad to hear that. I always kept you in my prayers, hoping you were safe."

"They must have worked."

"You can't help me! You're a priest and I'm a faggot! I'm burning in hell!" Alex screamed because he wanted help, but knew that no one would give it to him.

The priest just watched with those patient eyes until he finished. "I can only offer my help, I cannot force you to take it."

He'd felt like a child then, compared to those mature words spoken in that understanding voice. He'd felt young and stupid, while that priest who wasn't much older than him seemed to know all the answers. It was admirable, his acceptance, his patience, his attitude. That holy man embodied everything Alex was not. Everything Alex wished he was.

"I don't know if I ever thanked you for—accepting what I am."

Patrick sighed, standing, moving into the kitchen to answer the call of the teakettle. Alex waited, watching as he poured the steaming water into each cup with absolute precision before returning the kettle to the stove. He set the tea cups on the coffee table, bowing his head in prayer while Alex reached for his cup.

"You were the first person who I'd met as a priest who'd needed more than just forgiveness. I don't think anything really prepares you for that. When I never saw you again, I was certain that I'd screwed something up." His laugh was soft and tame, the next words reflective, "I'm glad that I didn't. I think I saw much of myself in you and wanted to fix myself through you."

Alex wanted to ask what was broken—if it was what he had begun to assume—but didn't ask. It was a personal thing, and it seemed wrong to ask a priest such a question.

"I'm glad at least I could help you, even if I didn't fix…" he trailed off.

"Maybe you didn't need to be fix?" Alex offered.

Patrick looked over, coming back from his thoughts, "If I didn't, I'd still be in good standing with the Church." For the first time, he sounded angry, regretful, rueful. "Some of us don't have your freedom."

Alex knew he didn't mean it as it was taken, but he had to look down anyway, thinking of his freedom and that he could have done better with a little less of it. Or perhaps that he'd taken advantage of his freedom, been unappreciative. Guilt formed in his throat and he swallowed, trying to redirect his thoughts from the depth that this random meeting had taken, "What are you planning on doing after this week ends?"

Letting the change happen, Patrick shrugged, "Find a place to live. Find a job, I guess." He was filled with uncertainty, it was apparent on his face. "I have a few skills I can apply to things outside the church."

"Do you have friends or family that could help you?"

"None that will, after this."

"I have a spare room," he blurted out, then clenched his jaw, "if you'd like, until you can get something of your own. To repay you for all those years ago."

Patrick laughed, harsh, and yet warm, "You'd invite a disgraced priest into your home?"

"You invited a gay street kid into your church to stay as long as he needed, and I looked a lot more shady than you do."

"Thank you for your offer, I will keep it in mind, but I think I'll try my other resources first."

"Of course," Alex's stomach clenched, wondering if Patrick, for all that he said, thought poorly of him and his life. "Thank you for the tea, but I should be going, I've imposed on you long enough, and it looks like the rain has stopped."

"Oh, certainly…wait, is there some way I can contact you, in case…" Patrick didn't finish the sentence, but Alex pulled a business card out of his wallet, jotting his home number on the back.

"Here, if you need it. Or if you just want to talk. Or whatever."

He took the card, reading it over as Alex pulled on his raincoat and gathered his still dripping umbrella. They said their good-byes and Alex began walking home, the air dry and cold against his face as he walked. He would probably never hear from Patrick again, even with his insistence of taking a number. Which was fine, really. He didn't need another person to clutter up his life. He didn't need an ex-priest who couldn't find a job to be mooching off of him. He shoved his hand into his pocket for warmth and his knuckles hit something hard.

The rosary was smooth against his hand as he scooped it, wrapping it in his fist, feeling the prayers that had been left there. He hadn't seen the priest slip it into his pocket, but he was certain it had been left for him. A gift of thanks? A token of gratitude? A reminder of the words spoken so many years ago? Alex didn't know, but the prayers his fingers wrapped around felt comforting.

Perhaps he would hear from Patrick again.

Alex rolled over in bed, struggling to reach the phone that seemed to be ringing just out of his reach. He was cranky and stiff, having been disturbed from a very enjoyable dream and feeling it was way too early in the morning for phone calls. Finally, his fingers pulled it off the base, shoving it on his free ear, his voice hoarse when he said, "Kil'lorne speaking."

"Uh, hello?" a soft male voice said on the other end, "this is Fa—Patrick."

Alex slid to his back, trying to figure out who Fapatrick was before, "Father Patrick!" And then, rubbing his face to clear his head, "Sorry, Patrick now, right?" He sat up, pooling his sheets around him.

"Yes. I was wondering, Alex," and it was the first time he'd said his name and it sounded strange coming from the former priest's mouth, "if I could take you up on your offer."

"Of course, sure, right." His brain struggled to wake up, to make sense, "So when do you need to move in?"

"I have two days left, but I don't really have much that needs moved or anything."

"Well feel free to come over before then, not much to get ready. All it has is a bed and some shelves, though."

"I'm grateful for what you provide me," Patrick said, his voice solemn and honest.

Alex smiled, shifting uncomfortably on his bed. He wasn't used to such sincerity. He gave the address, they scheduled a time to meet later in the day, and he hung up, glancing over to the clock on his nightstand. Nine AM came far too early when you were up til three the morning before. He slumped back into his pillows, closing his eyes and trying to find his way back into the dream that seemed too far away.

And then, he was asleep.

He was surprised to see a taxi pull up along the curb and the slender priest step out, wearing an unfashionable sweatshirt and well-fitting jeans. Alex cleared his throat, pushing the thought from his mind. He was a priest, after all. Of course, part of him stressed the was.

"Do you need a hand?" Alex asked as he approached the cab's truck where Patrick was pulling out two suitcases.

"Yes, if you take these, I'll grab the boxes of books on the seats."

Alex took one glance over the skinny man and shook his head, "I'll get the boxes on the seats, then I'll show you the way up." He opened the back door and carefully maneuvered the large and heavy box of books from the indent they were making on the cab seat. Hoisting it up, he paused to wonder if Patrick wasn't stronger than he looked. "You should have mentioned you needed a ride, I could have sent a truck over."

"It's no worry," Patrick paid the driver and then picked up the suitcases and headed toward the ally where Alex was standing with his armful. "You've already done so much."

"I may regret that," he joked, shifting his grip on the box, "after I've taken these up stairs. You sure own a lot of books."

"It is one of my weakness," Patrick admitted as he followed up the stairs that led from the side door in the ally. "You live over a restaurant?"

"Yes, I own it."

Patrick opened the door for Alex, who set the box on the floor of the hall way and grabbed a suitcase from Patrick while leading him in.

"You own the restaurant? You must be a good cook," again, the words were blatantly honest and truthful, no hint of sarcasm.

"No, I'm actually a terrible cook, but I'm very good with money. I bought the business when the owners were going under and built it back up, with the original chefs still in the kitchen. They make a mean grilled cheese and spinach sandwich."

"Oh," Patrick sounded a little embarrassed, but said nothing more as they stepped into the room.

The spare room was smaller than the master bedroom, but the queen-sized bed still left room for a dresser, if one were ever needed. Alex set the suitcase on the made bed and motioned to the shelves, "Well, here it is. Not much, sorry there's no place to put your clothes, I might be able to get something from Paco, actually."

"I don't know how to thank you for all of this," Patrick sat down beside the one suitcase on the bed, the other resting by his feet. "I know you say you're just repaying the favor, but," he paused, smiling, warmth radiating from his words, "you're a very good man."

Any of his normal quips to such a compliment would have been horribly inappropriate to say in front of a priest—even an ex-priest—so instead he just stammered his thanks and changed the topic to a tour of the flat: two bedrooms, one bath, a sizeable living room, a formal dining area, and a high-quality kitchen.

"Which doesn't get used often. I can make pancakes, eggs, and pasta, and anything that doesn't require heating, but I turn the stove on and bad things happen," he chuckled, shaking his head. "I mostly eat downstairs. But I can make sure there's some food up here for you."

"I could cook for you, if you want, unless you prefer eating downstairs," Patrick offered, in his shy manner.

"That sounds excellent, just tell me what I need to buy. Speaking of food, it's about time for lunch, want to grab something?"

"That's okay, I think I'll unpack. Thanks, again."

Alex waved his hand dismissively, "Enough with that. You focus on what you need to focus on, I'm glad to help."

Patrick smiled, heading back into his room while Alex watched. "A little too glad to help, aren't I?" He shook his head, grabbing his keys off the hook and heading down the steps to slip through the back door where the kitchen staff was settling down after their lunch shift, cleaning up.

"Jus' beginnin' to wonder where you were, Al," Joey, a busboy, joked. "Chef left a plate for you in the microwave to keep the rats off it."

"Thanks Joey," he pulled the dish out of the microwave, catching the strong scent of a reuben. "Thanks Ricky!" he called, knowing the chef would hear him, wherever he was. The food was good, of course, as he sat on his stool at the end of the counter, watching everyone keeping busy. "Oh, by the way guys," he paused as Pepe glared at him, "and gals," he grinned when she nodded her approval. "If an older man with black hair, graying temples, and a priestly look about him stops by, offer him a bite to eat."

"A new boyfriend?" Joey asked as he dumped a pile of plates in the sink. "Your boys always get special treats," he winked, playfully, as Alex glared.

"No, he's just an old friend going through some tough times, so be nice."

Pepe giggled, "Right Al, your old friends are all old boyfriends. I say ten bucks that you'll be in his pants by the end of the weekend."

Ricky stepped out of his office, "I'll take your bet."

"Shit…" Pepe frowned, dunking her hands into the soapy water, "What don't I know?"

Alex laughed, stretching his legs as Ricky began checking their stock, "That my old friend is a priest—or was, until recently."

"That just means he's got years of sexual energy pent up, dun't he?" Joey patted Pepe's back, "We know Al can't resist a fine piece of ass."

"I appreciate your candor," Alex stood, stretching and patting his full stomach, "But he doesn't seem the type to have put his vows behind him so quickly. But I'll be sure to keep you all updated on who wins the bet."

He waved good bye as he left and headed back up to see how Patrick was getting on. Slipping the keys on the hook, he made a mental note to himself that he'd have to make a copy for Patrick. Heading down the hall, he pushed open the door just as Patrick was pulling off his bulky sweatshirt, his snug tee-shirt riding up so Alex saw an eyeful of the slender muscled back and the beginnings of—

Turning, he hurried down the hall, darting out the door and into the brisk air before he realized his keys were still inside. Sure, he'd run like some pitiful teenage girl, but the gang was right: He did tend to sleep with whoever came to visit him. And Patrick was a priest. Had been, but whatever. Still, a priest. And that little show of skin had been tempting. As if the purity made it all the better.

He pushed off from the wall he'd been leaning against and started walking. He needed to clear his head. And his hormones. He was too old to be going off half cocked liked this. Well, at least Pepe would appreciate it.

On his way back, he stopped by the restaurant, immediately heading into Rick's office and waiting while the chef took care of his business. It wasn't long—Alex knew better than to interrupt during the busy time, and Rick knew Alex didn't come by the office in the middle of the day.

"So what's troubling you?" He asked as he shut the door behind him.

"Just thought I'd see how things are going, if there's any problems, that sort of thing," Alex gave as his excuse. Rick wouldn't buy it, but he wouldn't push it either. He was possibly the most laid back chef Alex had ever met—and being in the business introduced you to a lot of chefs.

"We filled the grill position. He's not real experienced, but he's a good guy, and he looks like a hard worker. We gave him a quick test run and he passed, though he'll have to learn the pace of the kitchen," Rick gave a look, like this was vital information, and Alex raised a brow before cursing.

"I'd forgotten—shit—I should of had Patrick—"

Rick laughed, leaning back in his chair, "That's who I hired, as it happens. Seems he was going out to look for a job and saw our sign on the window. Was completely honest about the whole thing, not knowing a spit about professional cooking. But I figured he could use a break. He's actually pretty good. And after seeing him, I get the feeling I'm going to lose the bet."

"What makes you say that?" Alex asked, even though he was pretty sure he had a good idea. Hell, ten years ago anything on two legs would have made the grade. He'd settled down a little, okay, a lot, after he began running his business and taking on so much more responsibility, but he still had a reputation.

"I can't say for sure," he rubbed his chin, as if there would be a flour stain there, "I've never understood your taste in men. Hell, I don't get your thing for men, but I see him and his honest-to-goodness desire to do good and I see money vanishing from my pocket. He's everything your not, but you've got some strange…something…between you."

"Good to know," Alex said, but he'd already known. He'd known that day when a young-faced priest had handed him a plate of food and listened to his trouble, offering advice and help. He'd thought, all these years, that he'd just wanted to destroy something that was so perfect and pure, but now, he wanted to keep it that way. "I'll let you get back to work. Thanks for giving him the job."

Alex headed out, ignoring the raised brows and playful jibes with a wave of his hand. And once again he was going through his front door, locking it behind him and heading down the hall, until he heard the shuffle of pans in the kitchen. He peeked his head in, where Patrick was whisking something with his right hand while watching chicken fry on the stove.

"Practicing for work?"

He spun around, bowl still gripped in his left hand, whisk frozen mid-stir. "Sorry for taking over your kitchen, I just wanted to show how thankful I was. And yes, it's been a while since I had to cook something complicated. The chef let me have some ingredients and a recipe to test out. So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised you know?"

"No, I stopped by the office earlier, but I'm glad they hired you. I let that sort of decision-making up to Rick, so I'd completely forgotten that we were hiring. So what's for dinner?"

"Umm," he glanced at the recipe tacked on the wall, "Glory Chicken in Mushroom Sauce. Do you like that?"

Alex couldn't believe that Rick was sabotaging his own chances at winning the bet so thoroughly, "Yes, it's one of my favorites, actually."

"Oh good. It should be ready in…" he spun around, checking the chicken, "ten minutes."

"Nice," he said, pulling his eyes from Patrick's concealed ass. "I'll be back then, with an appetite."

Heading into the living room, he sat at his desk, shuffling the bills and marketing ideas he'd been looking at the day before. He took a deep breath, focused his attention, and went back to work, letting everything else slip from his mind.

"Alex," a warm hand touched his shoulder and he sat up, needles stinging down his back from the sudden movement.

"Uhg..." he rubbed his face, instantly awake from his light slumber, aware of the hand slowly drawing away from him. He glanced over his shoulder and immediately wished he hadn't.

In the glow of the setting sun, Patrick's face made his heart weep. So instead of following his very primal instincts, he turned to his desk, shuffling some papers, "Reading those item requests always puts me to sleep, is the food ready?"

"Yes," Patrick's voice was low and gravelly, and backing out of the room.

He was fucked. Or he wasn't being fucked, which is what was fucking him. He gave himself a good thump on his forehead to refocus. Maybe he could go out later and find someone for the night. He'd have to go to their place, because he sure as hell wasn't bringing them here.

The savory scent of Glory Chicken hit his nose. He'd have to make it through dinner first. But he was a grown man, he wasn't some hormonal teenager. After one heavy huff, he left the living room, finding Patrick setting out two glasses of white wine.

"The chef said you always drank wine at dinner--I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all," he pulled out a chair, the mingling aromas nearly sending a shiver through his body. It was perfectly cooked, he could smell it already. And there was something else, a slight hint of vanilla? Sitting, he inhaled appreciatively. "I think you're going to be just fine in your new job."

"Thank you," Patrick bowed his head, saying his prayers silently. Alex waited until the other man was done before he began slicing the tender meat drizzled with the sauce. His mouth was watering before he even put the first piece in his mouth.

He was not a food-focused guy. The way to his heart (or bed) was not through his stomach. But his one weakness was the Glory Chicken from the Classic Cafe. After tasting it, he'd been determined to keep the place open--with the chef who'd created it--just so he'd get to keep eating it. He'd half-jokingly proposed marriage to Ricky because he loved it so much. Ricky, of course, declined.

Patrick was downing his wine faster than Alex would have expected. He'd also only taken a few bites of his dish. And he was refilling his glass.

Alex rose a brow, "Thirsty?"

Caught mid-drink, Patrick lowered the glass to the table, but didn't answer, his eyes dropping to his plate where his hands began cutting his chicken.

"Do you always drink so much?" He didn't want to pry, but he'd had some rather nasty experiences with heavy drinkers, and he knew Ricky didn't like that type of problem in his kitchen. Patrick didn't seem the type, but not taking people for face value was something Alex had learned long ago.

"No." He took a bite of the chicken, chewing thoroughly, "I never drank outside of the ceremonial wine."

"And you suddenly decided to explore this new found freedom?" Alex winced at his own glibness, further embarrassed when Patrick stood up, fingers clenching the edge of the table.

"No." And before Alex could apologize for his comment, Patrick had crossed the short space between them and his wine-wet lips were mashed to Alex's in a tame, inexperienced kiss.

Alex was certain there was some misunderstanding here. His loins, however, seemed to be getting the message. A little too quickly.

He pulled away, his hands gently pushing at Patrick's shoulders, aware of the muscles tensing painfully beneath his fingers. "What are you doing?"

"Aren't you--don't you want this?" Patrick's face had that yearn-to-please look.

Alex's stomach sank, hardening into an unpleasant mass. It was obvious now that the priest was doing this based on some twisted idea that it would be payment for his kindness. He pushed back a little harder, until Patrick was forced to step away and Alex could stand. "Just because I'm a fag, doesn't mean I want to fuck everything." He grabbed his plate, leaving the kitchen for the safety and solitude of his bedroom.

He left the plate on his nightstand, flopping onto the bed and staring at the ceiling. He should have just gone with it, gotten a lay out of it, and been done. He wouldn't have even felt guilty about it being practically equivalent to prostitution. Hadn't he always wanted to dirty up that perfect priest?

What annoyed him, irritated him, made him walk away, was that he didn't want to walk away. He had wanted Patrick, and Patrick had just thought he was some fag who wanted to fuck any ass that came along. Well, considering how he'd been when they first met, it wasn't a completely illogical assumption to make. But he wasn't now. And he sure as hell didn't want some ex-priest thinking he was.

Anger rose in his chest and he felt sick. That prick. Why couldn't he see that he cared for him. Fuck. He pressed his palms against his eyes, rejecting the tears that were already slipping out. When the hell had that happened?

Even going to bed ridiculously early, Alex slept late. He didn't wake up until Rick called him, asking what had happened. He didn't give details. He didn't want to talk about it. He said "nothing" and hung up.

He peeked his head out the door before heading to the shower, but Patrick was gone--either gone gone or gone to work. Alex didn't think about it, he just cleaned and got ready for the day like it was any other. Except it was Saturday, so at some point before five he'd have to go down to have the weekly meeting with Ricky.

Ignoring the dishes in the drain rack, Alex threw his dirty plate in the sink and grabbed a granola bar for breakfast, or lunch, or whatever meal it would count for at one in the afternoon. He took a stab at working on numbers and some promotional ideas, but he just couldn't focus.

And what he'd normally do when he was irritated about something--go down to the kitchen and talk with the staff--he couldn't do, because the source of his irritation was probably down there. He wasn't a kid avoiding confrontation, either. He was a grown adult who was avoiding confrontation so that he wouldn't say something so profoundly stupid that he'd regret it later.

At five the phone rang.

"Hi Rick," he answered, not bothering to wait for introductions.

"What the fuck happened? You're avoiding him? You don't avoid people Alex. I've seen you punch people, put them in submissive holds, talk your way out of and around trouble, and outsmart people who make their money outsmarting people, and you're fucking avoiding him?"

"Can we just go over things on the phone? I don't have the energy to--"

"No, get your ass down here, boss. This needs to be done in person." And then he hung up.

Alex put the phone down, shoved his feet into shoes, made sure he looked cool, calm and put together, before heading down stairs and slipping into the kitchen.

It wasn't busy, yet. It was still a mess of bodies shuffling around like a ballet recital, but it wasn't the finale. People nodded and waved in greeting, but most could see by the careful chill on his face that he was not in a joking mood. Patrick was too focused on his cooking to even notice as Alex passed through the back of the kitchen. He went into the office without knocking and was immediately greeted by a glaring Ricky.

He dropped into the seat. "I'm here."

"You're an idiot."

"You have no idea--"

"No, you have no idea. Do you walk around with your head up your ass sometimes? He's trying and you treat him like shit? Do you have any idea how hard it was for him?"

Alex growled, "You think it's okay what he did?" He snorted, leaning back, narrowing his eyes and crossing his legs, "Aren't you crossing the lines a bit, for an employee?"

"I'm not saying this as your employee, you jackass. I'm saying this as a friend who's known you for too many years. You might not have wanted to get into his pants, but you liked him. You got that stupid 'in love' look you get when you meet your latest dreamy boyfriend, except this time it wasn't because you got laid the night before. And he tries to tell you how he feels and you tell him you're not interested? What the fuck were you thinking?"

"It's none of your fu--wait, what?" Alex tripped over his words, "What did he say to you?"

"Oh, are you listening now, you giant jackass?"

He didn't even hear the insult, he just frowned--frowned deeper. "What did he tell you, Richard?"

Ricky sighed, relaxing slightly back into his seat. "Not much. I found him asleep in the corner of the kitchen when I got in this morning. He tried to play it off as not wanting to be late for his first day, but he looked pretty screwed up. So I sat him down and we had a chat."

"And I came up?" it wasn't so much a question as trying to get Ricky to the point of the story.

"Yeah. It seems all the steps he'd taken to try to soften you up backfired last night. I didn't think you could ever resist after a few bites of Glory Chicken, but it seems you can. All he said was he tried to tell you how he felt and you said no. I'd almost think he screwed up the recipe except--"

"Rick, focus," Alex reminded him, before the chef went off on some babble about cooking. "He was trying to soften me up?"

"Yeah, and I think he spent a fair chunk of his savings on a bottle of wine so he'd have the nerve to tell you. At which point I'd like to say I have to go to work in the kitchen, and you are, once more, a jackass." Rick stood, waited a moment for a response that never came, and left.

Alex was staring at the bookshelf behind Rick's desk. Aside from some shifts on the seat, he didn't move for three hours.

He was thinking. He wasn't just thinking about his conversation with Rick or the night before. He was reliving the past thirty years. He was recalling when that stupid priest had hugged him, whispering in his ear that if he had faith in God, then he could have faith in himself and his own accomplishments. And then, that stupid, handsome, understanding priest had added, "And if you have faith in nothing else, have faith that you will be something great one day, because I have faith that you will."

Those words had been enough. Enough that someone had shown the slightest bit of care. It motivated him to clean up, get a job, get his life together. Oddly enough, he did it because he had faith in that priest, who had faith in him. And that led to faith in himself. And then faith in God.

He didn't live a pure life, by any means. But he tried to pass on the gift that Patrick had given him, by having faith in others. And every time he helped someone, he thought of him, the priest that had no name then. He thought of the hug, the whispered words, the strength.

At eight, when Rick came back in and ordered him home, Alex obeyed because he couldn't think of anything else. He was exhausted, although he'd done nothing all day to warrant it, except think, and he stumbled down the hall toward his bedroom. He would have made it too, except Patrick was in his way.

He'd stepped out of the spare room, still in his work clothes, smelling of fried foods and spices. There were no lights on, except the dim bulb by the front door, and there wasn't that much space between them--Patrick had cut his entrance short and Alex hadn't had the energy to step back in surprise.

"I wanted to apologize for last night, I didn't mean, I mean, I'm sorry that I assumed. I should not have done that without your permission, and I hope that there won't be any bad feelings--"

Alex tangled his fingers in Patrick's hair as they kissed, long and hard, trying to make up for too many years. And when they finally separated, Alex's fingers releasing their hold, slipping around neck, he didn't want to fuck Patrick. "Are you tired?"

"Exhausted," Patrick whispered, brushing their lips together in an almost kiss.

"Then let's go to bed. We can talk in the morning."

Alex half dragged Patrick into his bedroom, meeting only minor resistance as he stripped Patrick to his underwear, and then himself, and then pulled him into his bed. He burrowed his body into the soft mattress, keeping one arm securely attached to Patrick.

"You want me here?" Patrick asked, although the tether Alex had formed with his own body seemed to be answer enough.

"Yes," he said, not mentioning that he'd wanted him there since the beginning.