Spoiler Alert: This scene is intended to be read after you read The Backup Boyfriend.
Usually Alec enjoyed movie night. Nothing amused him more than listening to Noah and Dylan debate the film and the choice of restaurants, with Tyler occasionally tossing his opinion into the mix. Tonight, however, the four men sat down at the sushi bar without a single cryptic remark from Dylan, even after watching the chef use a blow torch to crisp the skin of a serving of barracuda.
Seriously, a man wearing a chef hat had used a blow torch on raw fish, yet Dylan offered no smartass comment. With a worried frown, Alec picked up his wine glass. Where was his normally mouthy boyfriend?
"I miss the days of menus and discussing the specials with a live waitress." Noah gestured at the table's iPad that displayed the selections and served as the method of ordering. "By the time I get done pressing all the buttons and typing in my drink preferences, I need a second alcoholic beverage just to ease the ache in my fingers." Noah shot Dylan a look that Alec couldn't interpret. "Dylan, what's wrong with you?"
Sitting next to Alec, Dylan shifted in the booth, finally focusing on the conversation.
"What do you mean?" Dylan asked.
"You've been uncharacteristically quiet tonight," Noah said. "You must have some comment regarding the current trend forcing us to use technology during the complicated task of ordering."
"Complicated? Just plunk a bottle of beer down and I'm done," Dylan said with a shrug.
Alec took a sip of wine, the sense of unease growing stronger. His boyfriend had seemed preoccupied for a while. Not unhappy, just distracted. Four weeks into this change in behavior and Alec's curiosity was gaining momentum and turning into concern. Every time Alec had asked him about it, Dylan's answer remained vague. It's just a case of the post-holiday blues, he'd claimed.
But, Jesus, Valentine's Day was now two weeks away.
"Not all of us are as high maintenance as you, Noah," Dylan went on.
"Alcohol and men, handsome," Noah said, lifting his martini glass in a small toast. "Life's too short to settle for disappointing drinks and unsatisfying sexual encounters."
Sitting in the booth next to Noah, Tyler reached for his wine glass. "Have a few more of the first and the second will become less of a problem for you."
"Vodka martini, dirty, with olives. And shaken hard and fast. Is that too much to ask?" Noah took the first sip of his drink and then set his glass down with a sigh. "Apparently it is. And what's a night out on the town without a bitchy server to take your order while treating you like shit? That's part of the charm."
"So says the masochist in the group," Tyler said.
"Normally I'd disagree with you," Noah said. "But since I'm the one who chose tonight's film, I think you might be right. Action flicks serve a certain purpose, I supposeone being a venue to display Chris Hemsworth in all his delicious, muscle-bound glorybut I feel like I've just been doused in testosterone and lit on fire."
Tyler's lips quirked in humor. "Tonight's movie had more explosions than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."
"Let's not bring that topic up again," Noah said with a roll of his eyes, his gaze finally landing on Dylan.
Alec held his breath. Why was he hoping they'd begin that ridiculous debate all over again?
"What?" Dylan sent Noah his first teasing grin of the evening. "I picked Transformers for the clever plot and smart, snappy dialogue."
Alec silently cheered at the mutual pulling of pigtails between the two men, grateful for the signs of life from Dylan. "Noah, I never would have pegged you as a closeted action-flick fan."
"I am man of many secrets," Noah said.
"Yes," Tyler said dryly. "And most of them the world is better off not knowing."
When Noah spoke, his tone was surprisingly sincere. "True," he said, and then he carefully set down his martini before addressing Tyler with a small grin. "You do realize who performed that crazy stunt on screen tonight, don't you?"
An expectant lull descended over the table, and Alec eyed Tyler over his wine glass, trying not to laugh at his ex. Alec had guessed Noah's ulterior motive the moment his friend had announced his pick for tonight. Alec leaned toward romantic comedies, Dylan preferred action movies, and Tyler had a passion for documentariesthe smarter the better. Noah chose foreign films, claiming he liked to broaden his friends' horizons. Alec was convinced Noah chose them just to drive Dylan crazy.
"Come on, Dylan. Subtitles won't kill you."
"Seriously, Noah. Movies were invented specifically for those of us who don't want to read for entertainment."
"Remind me to buy you a pop-up book for your birthday."
Tyler sat back in his seat, steadily meeting Noah's gaze. "Yes," Tyler said. "I'm well aware that Memphis was the lead stuntman in the movie."
"Did you know that your ex is married?" Noah went on. "To a woman?"
A muscle in Tyler's jaw bunched, and Alec felt a twinge of sympathy.
"Yes," Tyler said evenly. "I'm aware of that, too."
"I'm assuming that means you've kept up with the happenings in his life," Noah said.
Noah ran his finger around the rim of his martini glass, trying hard to appear innocenta state Alec was sure the man hadn't achieved since he'd first learned to talk as a toddler.
"Is that why you refuse to speak to him about donating his time to our worthy cause?" Noah asked. "Because you still carry a torch for Memphis Haines?"
"No," Tyler said.
"Somebody has to talk to him," Noah said. "So I guess that task will fall to me."
Tyler's expression remained bland, despite his response. "Hell, no."
"Then you'd better do it yourself, vegetarian man."
"I'd rather eat filet mignon wrapped in bacon and topped with giblet gravy."
"Well then, let's get Alec to do it," Dylan chimed in.
Alec turned to his boyfriend. "Why me?"
"Because you're the nicest one in our group. Noah comes on too strong and scares some people off, and I'm not much better," Dylan said with a grin at Alec. "But everyone loves you."
Alec chuckled. "Not everyone."
"Sure they do," Noah said, martini in hand.
"But just so we're clear"Dylan pointed his beer bottle at Noah"no one more than me."
The sentences shuffled around in Alec's brain for a moment before being linked together in any meaningful way.
Everyone loves you. No one more than me.
Alec's heart slowly expanded as his chest grew tight. He sat back in his seat, too stunned to respond. As the conversations of the restaurant patrons buzzed around them, several seconds passed before Alec realized the table had gone silent. Tyler had cocked his head and was now staring at Dylan as if amused. Or perhaps he was just grateful for the change in topic. Noah looked as if his martini olive had gotten stuck in his throat and he'd forgotten how to swallow it down. Dylan simply sipped his beer, his cheeks slightly flushed.
When Dylan wouldn't return his gaze, Alec finally realized the moment was real. A declaration of love delivered with an audience and in the most roundabout way possible, several sentences separating the implied subject, verb, and object pronoun of I love you. After waiting patiently for months, Alec wasn't sure how to react.
"Dylan," Noah said as he set his glass down, a slight frown on his face. "That was the least romantic confession of love I've ever witnessed. Is that why you were asking me about the best restaurants for a nice night out? Because you were planning a time to bring up the L word?"
"Give me a break, dude," Dylan said.
"Don't you think you should have waited until you had your boyfriend alone?" Noah said.
Dylan's cheeks grew pinker. "It just slipped out."
Noah slid out of the booth and stood. "Well how about you try that again? And this time, for chrissakes, look at Alec when you say the words. Come on, Tyler." Noah reached down and gripped Tyler's sleeve. "Let's go see if we can track down a real human being and get a decent martini."
Tyler still looked amused. "But the conversation is just getting interesting."
Noah ignored Tyler's protest, hauled him to his feet, and pulled him in the direction of the bar. Pulse pounding in anticipation, Alec turned to stare at Dylan, forcing himself not to tackle hug the man and get him to repeat the words. Dylan still refused to meet his gaze, and Alec's heart melted a little. His boyfriend had the unique ability to look grumpy and embarrassed and vulnerable all at the same time. That particular combination always made Alec's heart the mushiest. And right now Dylan looked completely lost.
"So, you were going to take me out for this special occasion?" Alec said, hoping to prompt him.
"Yeah, well " Dylan shrugged awkwardly and looked down at his beer, twisting the bottle on the table. "This sure wasn't the way I'd planned it."
Alec turned in his seat to face him. Dylan opened his mouth as if to say something more and then quickly shut it again. Alec suppressed the urge to fill the gap and ease the strained silence. He'd been waiting for months for Dylan to take this momentous step. A few more minutes wouldn't kill him.
"I do, you know." Dylan cleared his throat, concentrating hard on his thumb as he scraped the edge of the beer label. "Love you, that is."
Warmth swirled in Alec's chest, filling every nook and cranny, the spaces between every cell. Forcing back the sting behind his eyelids and the overwhelming need to shout for joy, Alec took pity on his boyfriend. The man still looked horribly nervous. He turned Dylan's chin to the side and pretended to inspect his neck.
"What are you doing?" Dylan asked.
"Checking for hives."
"What the hell for?"
"I'm looking for signs of an allergic reaction," Alec continued. "Are you feeling short of breath?"
Dylan's mouth twisted in humor. "Quit being such a wiseass," he said as he linked his fingers with Alec and pulled their hands onto his lap. "That's my job."
Dylan focused on their clasped hands, his grip tight. Alec sensed his boyfriend needed a second or two more to recover, so he scanned the bar for his friends. Noah was engaged in a serious conversation with the bartender while Tyler patiently looked on. But Alec's curiosity soon grew too great to ignore.
"How long have you been trying to deliver this one-of-a-kind declaration of love?" Alec asked.
"My goal was to tell you on New Year's Eve but I lost my nerve."
This past Christmas had been extraordinary in many ways. After an initial reluctance, claiming he didn't celebrate the holidays, Dylan had thrown himself into the activities like a little kid hyped up on concentrated high fructose corn syrup. The outside of their house had ended up with ninety-six strings of lights, three lawn ornaments, and a manger scene with two Josephs and a conspicuously absent Mary. When the day had finally come and gone, Dylan refused to take their Christmas tree down. Alec hadn't been able to convince him to move on until there were more spruce needles on their living room floor than on the branches. Alec's heart had ached as he watched Dylan reluctantly put away the decorations.
Keeping their fingers linked, Dylan raised his arm and slid it behind Alec's shoulders and down around his waist, their clasped hands now resting at Alec's side.
"I couldn't figure out where and how to tell you without sounding like a moron," Dylan said.
Amused, Alec hiked a skeptical brow. "So you asked Noah for advice?"
"Sadly, he was my most knowledgeable friend." Dylan let out a huff. "Which I've decided says more about me than I wanted to know."
"When did you realize how you felt?"
Dylan grew silent, staring across the restaurant. Alec was pretty sure his boyfriend wasn't admiring the establishment's polished wood and frosted glass partitions. Alec settled more comfortably against Dylan's side, enjoying the familiar wall of muscled heat while he waited.
"The day I took the Christmas decorations down," Dylan finally said, his voice low. "I was bummed the holidays were over and had decided that I wanted one of those inflatable lawn ornaments. And I was thinking how cool it would be to have the Abominable Snowman in our front yard next year." Dylan's thumb slowly circled one of Alec's knuckles. "That was when it hit me."
Dylan glanced at him, as if waiting for a sarcastic comment. But Alec remained silent, refusing to let the man rush past the moment. He'd already let his boyfriend bury his discomfort in a humorous comment once. The time for purely serious had arrived.
"And " Alec said.
Dylan's arm tightened around Alec, pulling him closer. "And that's when I noticed I was no longer focusing on just the here and now, but also on what lies ahead. I want that Abominable Snowman on our front lawn at Christmas ten years from now, too," he said, pausing before going on. "I'd never given the future much thought until I met you." Dylan's thumb stroked Alec's palm as he continued. "That's when I realized what the words I love you really mean."
The surge of emotion almost hurt, and Alec closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Dylan's neck, hoping to keep himself from coming unglued. Dylan's description was as elegant a definition of love as Alec had ever heard. Every step in this relationship had been hard-won, so Alec paused to enjoy Dylan's latest accomplishment. Alec breathed in the scent of soap and warm skin and, though probably imagined, the faint hint of motor oil.
Noah's voice interrupted Alec's thoughts.
"Dinner will be here soon, which means your moment is over, boys."
Alec lifted his head and watched Noah approach the table with a serving tray, four martinis perched on top.
"This momentous occasion, despite Dylan's questionable delivery, calls for a celebration." Noah began to place the drinks on the table. "And a perfectly prepared martini is the best way."
Dylan maintained his claim on Alec's hand as he reached for his glass. "Not my beverage of choice."
"I agree, Dylan. But I suggest you drink it anyway," Tyler said, sliding into the booth after Noah. "Noah charmed his way behind the bar and made the martinis himself, flirting with the bartender the entire time."
Noah grinned. "I think this evening is going to end on a high note."
Dylan let out a soft snort. "Is the bartender straight?"
"I don't know, but I intend to find out," Noah said. He raised his martini glass. "To excellent drinks and satisfying hook ups." His expression grew serious. "And, most importantly, to good friends."
A general murmur of agreement was followed by silence as they sipped their drinks. Alec enjoyed the dry, spicy taste. Noah briefly closed his eyes and let out a contented groan before addressing his friends again.
"And last but certainly not least " Noah lifted his glass a second time, the smile returning to his face. "To Tyler putting his big-girl panties on and asking Memphis Haines for help with the fundraiser."
"Jesus," Dylan said. "Give it a rest."
"That's not in my nature," Noah replied.
Still leaning against his boyfriend's chest, Alec bit back a smile, more content with his lot in life than ever before.
"Good point, Noah." Dylan turned to Tyler with a sympathetic look. "Dude, you are so totally screwed."