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The Needle And The Burning Body

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When they stare together up at the moon, up into the clear sky, Ian wants to hear Mickey breathing. He wants to hear the crickets and the wind and the buzz of the lantern and all the other tiny sounds of life that get shouted down by life in the middle of Chicago. He wants to look up at the moon and hear it say, Go on, kid. Make this stupid decision. Remember when you could imagine a life together? Remember when he was your family? When your stupid decisions weren't stupid because it was him? Remember?

He hears the rush of his own blood. The dry flick and crackle of Mickey lighting a cigarette. That needle inside him poking holes in every argument, the air whooshing out going, “Well... Well, I don't know.”

Mickey had said the word family like it disgusted him. Ian's never really existed without the extra appendage of “family.” The few times he fucked off and avoided them all, he'd been hurting, angry, manic. Like a dog crawling under the porch to lick its wounds.

He was so sure. Even when Mickey had not even a skeleton of a plan, he was so sure. Even when they had to steal a second car, even when Jesus broke their plan to pieces, he was sure. He thinks about it. Mickey smirking at him in the dugout. Mickey flipping him off outside a mansion. Mickey bloody but smiling outside the Alibi, the smell of snow and his sweat when Ian kissed the top of his head. Mickey curled around him at night when he couldn't get out of bed. Mickey on the couch in the slow warmth of spring, laughing and snorting and trying to cheat at Mortal Kombat. The vague, foggy memory of a hospital hallway and muffled sobs and Mickey's arms around him so tight he thought he'd have marks. Mickey's hands in his hair, Mickey's lips on his shoulder, on his neck, on the top of his head. Mickey's eyes, and the way he looked at Ian like nothing else in the world mattered. He thinks about Mickey, the way Mickey loves him. Because Mickey does love him. Then family busts in.

And that needle like a compass that has always been inside him, pointing him back to the tangle that he has never been able to leave behind for long.

Mickey rolls his empty bottle away and rolls over. Clears his throat through a hitch in his breath. Moves closer, curls up like a cat into Ian's side and kisses his shoulder. Ian can barely feel it through the layers of jackets he has on. Mickey has always been a walking furnace, radiating heat, breathing fire, burning up. Burning his way through the world. Branding his name on the things he knows are his. Like Ian.

“I missed you,” he says to Mickey. Because he did. He just didn't know it. The meds made him numb and then Caleb happened and then he was manic and then there was Trevor and through it all there was a tiny Mickey in the back of his head. Another, smaller needle pointing him in another, more distant direction, a direction he didn't want to listen to. Another needle pricking him, little reminders: here's Mandy, like the biggest fucking reminder you could possibly get, and another wedding you don't want to be at, and your fucking mother, and you rode this train with Mickey, and you walked these streets with Mickey, and none of these people you see will know you like Mickey. He spent so long trying to block it all out. But the little holes are where the regret tunnels in. Hides and pretends to be memory, pretends to be stale, fading love.

And memories of Mickey have been threaded through his every move since he was fifteen. Since he was seventeen and running. Adoration warped and twisted until he could believe it was something worse, or maybe something with a softer bite, but it was still there. It's still there.

He turns his head and Mickey kisses him and it feels like fire. Mickey's hands under his clothes are warm. The needle spins wildly. He pulls Mickey down on top of him. Forget the needle. For now, forget the needle.

Mickey's nose bumping against his. A burning hand sliding gentle, slow against his chest. The shaking exhale, the wildfire under his skin, the look of disbelief in Mickey's eyes. So far, they've fucked fast and rough, against the side of a boat, in the back of a cold van, in the cramped back seat of a car. Slow makes the needle swing round, remembering something long forgotten. Hands moving automatically. The strange sweetness of muscle memory. Mickey's breath against his neck. “Ian?” He comes back into focus. Kisses the side of Mickey's head, right up against his temple.

“C'mon.” Mickey's throaty whisper, pulling him back to his body. Nerves sparking. They've already pulled off their layers of clothes. Mickey's skin is against his. Mickey's tongue on his nipple. Mickey's hand sliding down his arm to curl their fingers together. Ian arches into the touch and groans. Slips his fingers against the throbbing pulse point, into dark hair. Mickey's breath stutters. “Ian. Please.”

Jesus. He doesn't think he's ever heard Mickey plead like that. Every protective layer pulled away. Raw and burning.

He pushes up onto his elbows and flips them both over. Presses Mickey's thighs open to sit between them. Digs in his jacket pocket for one of the packets of lube he liked to steal from the basket at Trevor's work. He's not thinking of Trevor. He's groaning low as Mickey kisses his chest, fingers raking against the backs of his thighs. He's thinking of Mickey, the sounds he's making, the sounds that tumble out soft and needy.

Slow. Go slow. Slow drag of skin on skin. Mickey lets out a long, slow breath when Ian pushes his fingers in. Like he's been holding it there for two years. The heat around his slick fingers is good, so good. He knows traces of this heat will stay in his fingertips for days. He pushes his forehead into Mickey's chest, presses lips against hot skin. Mickey's pulse throbs on his fingers, against his head. “Please,” it comes again. Keening, needy. Ian slides his free hand up Mickey's chest. Embers floating up into the air. Mickey finds his hand and brings it to his mouth, kisses the palm. Ian's breath and fingers stutter.

Now please now now, oh fuck please Ian. Did Mickey always sound like this? Raw? Scrabbling at his back with blunt fingernails? Ian pulls his fingers away and presses in slowly, slow and burning and breathing until he bottoms out. Mickey's legs shake a little against Ian's sides. He runs his hands across Mickey's thighs, watches Mickey shudder, watches him dig his fingers into his own eyes, watches his hands flying out to grip Ian's biceps.

“Oh jesus fuck,” when Ian starts moving, long slow movements to draw out the pressure, to draw out the fullness and the sounds that are so familiar and yet so new. And Mickey's hands are everywhere, remapping, worshipping, he's not sure which. The hollow of Ian's throat buzzes with things he cannot articulate. Mickey kisses that indent, Ian's neck stretched and moving under his lips. He can hear Mickey breathing, loud in his ear and around him. Mickey taut like a piano wire, taut like the cords in the backs of his thighs, gripping, pushing Ian deeper.

Mickey burns across him, lips and fingers pressed against every part of Ian he can reach. Runs his hands across Ian's stomach, reaches down to feel where they're joined together, a deep groan Ian can feel surrounding him. Sparks fly against the backs of his eyes. Mickey pulls his head down to him, kissing him and he forgets everything but the lips on his, everything but the need and the way Mickey clings to his skin like he doesn't ever want to let go, ever.

And they're both breathing so hard. How long has it been? Minutes? Hours? Of them moving together, of Mickey around him, hot and burning and keening. The slow drag of Ian pushing in, and in, and in, and kissing him, and their hands branding against skin, and Ian pulling out, and out, and out, and back in and Mickey's eyes wide underneath him, moaning, nails scratching, halfway between tears and ecstasy. The fingers of Mickey's right hand slide up his back, up into his hair, scratching, holding.

His fingers against Mickey's cock. Slick. Burning. Mickey gasps and arches up, can't seem to decide whether he wants to buck up into the hand around him or press down onto Ian inside him. Stutters. Cries out. Ian's fingers move slow and steady, pulling, pushing, thumb sliding. Mickey lets go of his hair to push his palms against his own eyes, gasping. Raw need in his throat. Reaches out, blindly, back around to cling to Ian's shoulders. “Jesus, Ian, jesus. Fuck. Ian, I—”

“I've got you,” Breathless, reassuring. Feeling his own climax pressed waiting against his pelvis, feeling that warm numb pleasure washing against his spine. “I've got you.”

And Mickey shudders, bows, pushes up and presses his lips burning against Ian's solar plexus. Shakes his spine back down onto the ground and bucks hips up, gasping, grasping, Ian pushing, pulling, the waves crashing over him, the heat boiling him. Mickey cries out, shaking. Tightens his fist in Ian's hair and curls into his orgasm, legs pressing like he can keep him inside. Presses his lips against Ian's sternum again and whispers something Ian can't hear but knows anyway, and then it's washing over him and he's falling, shaking, his own fingers in Mickey's hair, his mouth on Mickey's throat. Collapsing together, sticky, sweating, still trembling and burning and Mickey is pressing his lips to the side of Ian's neck, his fingers soft against Ian's biceps and the needle for now is pointing one single direction, glowing red hot and pointing.

 

Then it's morning and Ian really wants to punch whoever said that thing about mornings being clearer because maybe they are, but he doesn't know. This window's got about a thousand panes and not all of them are clear and he's not sure which ones he's supposed to be looking out of anyway. Even if he knew, that sun overhead is fucking blinding. This isn't the first time he's run away to somewhere warm in a stolen car with almost nothing in the backseat. He's getting further this time than he did before.

But they get in the car and eat gross gas station energy bars and drink gatorade and this time Mickey's smiling in the passenger seat and there isn't a screaming baby in the back and Ian feels awake at the wheel. Thinks maybe he's happy even if sometimes his thoughts drift back along that needle to his family. Whatever. Lip gave him a compass once as a present, along with an army-grade multitool. He kept them both in his pockets all the time. The weight a reminder of the big brother who had his back. He broke the compass two weeks later, a hard fall from the climbing wall he was training on. The multitool survived until Carl found it. Mickey had enough knives in his house to last out years. So by then it didn't matter.

And they drive and in the silence he can hear Mickey's breathing. The brush of Mickey's clothes. The thud of Mickey's heart that somehow always seemed like a fistful of gasoline, burning. A sacrifice. Ian's a jagged lodestone and Mickey is all iron. Always solid, always coming back. Mickey's looking at him in the car and smiling. Smiling at him so gentle and it's kind of stupid but Ian wants to lean over and kiss him. Wants to run away as fast as he can because this thing, this solid thing is so much. And he's already so much on his own.

Instead he grins back and Mickey slaps Ian's thigh and jerks his head.

“We gotta find a Walmart somewhere or something. I have an idea.”

They're sitting in the parking lot, and Mickey's plan isn't amazing, but it's something. And something is what they need. Fucking anything at this point. Mickey's grin and a half-hearted joke, “You always said I'd look good in a dress.” Ian rolls his eyes. He leans over the center console and kisses Mickey, quick and sweet. Gets out and flips Mickey off when he wolf-whistles grinning out the window.

It feels like Ian's rotating their entire history on its side. Ian charging in while Mickey waits outside in the car. Ian finding cash, finding a disguise, finding food. Putting something of a life together out of random scraps. A thing Mickey was always doing. Ian was better at finding whole things that weren't his and clinging to them. Mickey could make wholes from the smallest of pieces.

Groceries in the back seat. Stupid ugly dress full of flowers in the trunk. Mickey's driving now, one hand on the wheel. Radio playing some stupid shit neither of them know. Just to keep his mind off the fear only so many dozen miles ahead. To stop thinking about the future. About the what-ifs and maybes neither of them have ever been good at. Ian tried to be. Look where that got him.

Ian drinks his bottle of soda. Feels an ache when he moves and rolls up his sleeve to inspect. “Jesus, Mick.”

Light purple fingerprints along his bicep, little crescent moons indented in the back of his arm. He can feel partnering marks on his other side. Mickey glances and grins.

“It was fuckin' good last night, man. Real good.”

“Yeah,” Ian smiles back. “Yeah it was.”

It's true. He hasn't made love like that in years. He's fucked. He's had sex. He's given and received and he thinks maybe he's loved but he hasn't made love.

They already spent the day's drive from Jesus' house to that little bridge stop snipping out and remapping all the little fragments of the last two years of their lives. Little bits of history and self they used to know so easy when they lived in each others' pockets, when they could read every thought in a touch or the lift of an eyebrow. So they told each other stories and didn't admit that they both knew they were skipping over the big parts. The parts that might hurt.

And now they're quiet except for the shitty music on the radio. Mickey taps his fingers against the wheel and rubs his mouth but his eyes flicker across the road like he's waiting for something to jump out just so he can run it over. And Ian stares out the window and tries to figure out why the center of his chest feels like he left it back there somewhere on the road. He doesn't like feeling as though his ribs are being held up with little wooden skewers and the wind is whistling through. It should be the other way. He should be holding his heart against the dashboard, warm with the engine and the sun and the perpetually burning body that is Mickey Milkovich. Like he dreamed when he was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Like he dreamed.

He checks up on himself. He's not manic. There's no crackle of directionless energy humming just under his skin. He's been taking his meds; the bottles are jangling a prescribed tune at the bottom of his backpack. He doesn't think about what might happen if he runs out of them in a strange country with a beautiful but utterly unfamiliar language and no real i.d. and a fugitive in his bed. He doesn't think about it. He's not falling out of love with Mickey. As if that was ever a question. The entire country of Mexico and all the surrounding water could swallow him up and he'd still love Mickey. He doesn't think about how that's always made him want to run away, even when he was begging for Mickey to turn around and show him something.

The needle clicks patiently over every option as Ian checks them off in his head. Sits clear and pointing and reliable and waits. Until every option has been crossed off and all that's left sitting there is the needle. Obvious and pointing.

Mickey is humming along to the radio and running his tongue over his teeth. Mickey has one hand on the wheel and one hand resting gently on Ian's thigh. The sky is big and blue with pieces of clouds torn up and scattered across it. Like every promise they've made and tried to keep. They both know who's broken more promises, but no one says anything about it. If you made a list it just wouldn't be worth it. Mickey probably wouldn't care, anyway.

Mickey is looking at the road and not at him but that's okay because Ian is looking out the window at the road behind them.

And Ian hates whatever bullshit genes gave him Monica's instinct to run. He hates whatever fucking nurture-over-nature compass Fiona somehow instilled in him that meant it's always one thing he's running back to.

It's never the thing he wants to want.

 

They're on the side of the road, next to the border. Warm, dusty. Mickey's in the car, putting on a dress, putting on makeup, putting on the pass to his new life. Hiding himself. Nervous, rambling. Ian's not listening, because the needle is thrumming loud against his blood. The urge to run. Not forward. Not south. Up. Back. Backwards maybe to easier times. Back to Mickey kissing him slow and easy in the kitchen. Backwards maybe to that warm spring before everything went so far to shit. Back to the sounds of too much life. Back to where things aren't so shit anymore, in Chicago, in the old bed he's always had and the streets he's always known. The life he left behind, like a door left open to catch an early bus. The pull of family, that tangled knot that he's forever tied to.

“Alright, you're driving.” Mickey's fingers graze his arm. Burning. “What's the matter with you? Let's go.”

“I can't.” He says it, even if it feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. He knows this is going to hurt. He's using his tongue to cut out Mickey's heart.

“You can. Get behind the wheel and drive the damn car. Ian, we're one step from the finish line.” Ian's outstretched hand, a peace offering, idiotic token of love, but it's not enough. It could never be enough. Mickey looks at the money in disgust, slapping it away like it'll bite. “The fuck is that? I don't want your fuckin' money! I want you to come with me.”

Ian turns away. The failed present on the dashboard. Pulling the promise from the front seat. The needle pointing north, back again to the cold and the tangle and the life he's sure he's always wanted to have.

Mickey's devastated face, crumpled, aching, raw. Like the bottom has just dropped out of his world. He looks like he almost expected this. Like he's been waiting for heartbreak to catch up to him. “Don't do this.”

“I love you.” This is the part where he's supposed to say Let's go. Let's do this, together. He doesn't.

Mickey standing there, limp, stabbed, just taking it. The begging no longer hidden in anger. Voice shaking like he's bleeding. The wound held out, ragged and hurting. “Then get in the fucking car.”

Somehow it's always been Mickey on his knees with his hands clasped together.

“It's not— This isn't me anymore.” He's not manic. His life isn't in shambles. He loves Mickey, but. But. He's got a real job, a boyfriend, family, all that. This—Mickey, the rush of running, the smell of the road, the aching thrill of his skin, the layers and layers of history, it isn't him anymore. At least, maybe it shouldn't be. He's supposed to stay stable. “I'm sorry.”

“That's it, huh?” A step back. Trying to hide a burned out building with a dirty rag. Thinking you can just apologize and put a hand to his face and he'll blink back the tears and they can pretend it's all okay. It's not okay.

Ian can't look. Doesn't deserve to look at the way Mickey loves him. At the shame of being this resolute about the needle. Mickey is burning an inferno in his chest and Ian has to look anyway. Faces the heartbreak. The aching, desperate stare that suddenly seems to say, oh my god, this is the end. That tries to memorize his face in a half-second blink. A resolute sigh like a ragged fingernail, like the broken whisper of a battle cry, like a strangled declaration, and Mickey is stepping forward, into his space, crowding him, breathing his breath, hands burning in the middle of his chest. Kissing him. Kissing him and meaning it. Shit, he's always meant it. Always. Ian's hand coming up automatically to cup the back of Mickey's neck. Like remember that time? And that one? And the time after that? And every time? Mickey kissing him like he knows he can't keep him there. Mickey bleeding into his mouth. Mickey breathing him in, lips pressed so hard, burning hands so soft on his neck. A desperate goodbye. Mickey saying I love you in every language he has. A code Ian has never quite been convinced is real. Kissing him like the entire world is crumbling down around them and maybe it is. Ian opens his eyes just a little and sees the pain in Mickey's face. No, it definitely is.

Mickey pulls away. Runs a finger slow across Ian's cheek. A look in his eyes that says if he doesn't look away, if he doesn't stop now, he's going to want to cling until they're both bruised and crumpled to their knees in the dust.

“Fuck you, Gallagher.” A soft hand trying to be hard against the side of his face, pushing him so reluctantly away. And the words that always meant something else, always meant their opposite. Blue eyes that try to be angry but just come out broken glass.

And Mickey isn't looking at him. Gets in the car and won't look at him. Shoves the wig on his head and won't look at him. Turns the car on and pulls out onto the road and won't look at him. Ian follows the long, slow line of cars on foot. Walks until the border check is in view. Walks until that line that he cannot cross looms in front of him. Waits. Watches. Scared, nervous, breath catching in his chest, knees watery, what if it doesn't work, what if they catch Mickey, what if they arrest him? Please, oh god, please let it work. Please. Let him make it. Let him be safe. He can see Mickey's eyes in the rearview mirror. Trying to be hard. Straight stare a steady track forward. Grip digging into the steering wheel like it dug into his skin. Bruises on the rubber. The hand saying stop. The mirror. The dog. The gate opens, and Mickey's eyes flicker up, one last fleeting look, and Ian is smiling because Mickey is free, but the eyes in the mirror are glinting and raw. The sun flashes in the glass. The car moves forward. The gate lowers.

He doesn't cry. Mickey made it. Mickey is going to make it. Mickey is gone forever and he doesn't cry. Instead, he uses the last cash in his wallet to catch a Greyhound from El Paso back to Chicago. The needle goes haywire, but he spends the entire sleepless nineteen-hour ride staring out the window, drowning the dizzy spinning with music loud enough that the woman next to him frowns.

He walks home from the station. He has no money for a train ticket or a cab. His phone is dead. There's snow on the ground, mostly slush, some of it ground to blocks of ice against the edges of curbs and buildings. After five minutes, he's shivering. Against his sternum is the memory of a furnace burning and sighing against his skin. He's so cold, and the bus station is on the complete opposite end of the city. When home is in sight, he wants to be happy. Something inside him ghosts excitement, but it feels half-hearted and old. No one notices when he opens the door, not until Kevin says something he barely hears, and it should be warm in the house, but he's freezing cold. It should be some sort of an occasion, all this, with Monica, but he's so cold and his limbs are full of needles. He spends the whole night running his hands through his hair like it might clear his head. It doesn't.

And after, sitting at the kitchen table in the half-light, bent in half over cups of coffee, half in shock at it all, he mumbles to Lip, “Got any cash I can borrow?”

“Thought you had a bank account now, Mister I-Finally-Have-A-Respectable-Job.”

“Cashed it out and closed it,” Ian shrugs. Thinks of the bundle of cash on Mickey's dashboard. Feels half numb.

“What? Why? Are you in trouble?” Lip leaning forward, frowning. Ian shakes his head. Keeps shaking his head. “Ian?”

He stops shaking his head. Shrugs. Feels the bruised fingerprints on his arms when he moves. The needle shivers. “No, I'm not. No. I gave it all to Mickey.”

“You seen him? Is that where you've been?”

“Yeah. Drove all the way down to Mexico,” he says, like it's so simple. “Mickey crossed the border. I didn't.”

“Shit. He make it across okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he made it across.”

The needle points north. Points south. Spins and spins and presses against his solar plexus, pushing in.

 


 

When he opens his eyes, a blue strip of early morning light splits his body in half and he can hear Mickey breathing. In prison dark is never full dark. Ian sits up and the light hitches. So does Mickey's breath. Little frustrated puffs of air like his lungs are trying to run his brain away from itself. So they're both awake, which means someone is going to have to look someone else in the morning-after face. Climb down from the cold bunk in the dim. Take a piss. Turn around and confront the anxious breathing, the angry, terrified frown of Mickey rethinking how faith is supposed to work. Rethinking the weird, washed-out prison joy of yesterday as the past comes slamming in.

Because the moon or some such thing told Mickey to make this stupid fucking decision and Ian knows why.

Because this time, the needle is pointing exactly where he wants it to.

But first he has to face the way he keeps cutting Mickey's heart out, only to hand it back to him and leave him dripping blood into the ground and staring at the orange back of his head. First there's that.

“They, uh...They're making me take my pills again,” Ian offers lamely. “Court-mandated.”

“Good.”

“Almost ran to Mexico, you know.” Rubs the ugly black. He'd wanted to be tough like Mickey. He'd wanted to put out the burning in his head. “Thought about trying to find you. I wanted to see you again.”

Mickey doesn't smile. Doesn't say oh fuck you, doesn't say you're a fucking hypocrite, doesn't say I wanted to see you too, doesn't say anything. Just looks. Just sits and breathes little scuffs of air. An old photograph of a burned-out building.

“I thought, maybe, if you made it safe, I could too. Didn't work out, though.” Ian leans back against the wall. Cold. Settles the last of the burning. He never could burn like Mickey did. Constant, easy. He always burned up or burned out, one of the two.

He moves closer and looks at Mickey through his lashes. Sitting. Breathing. Is he even listening? “Now I'm kind of glad it didn't. Wouldn't have gotten to see you again.”

Mickey's eyes flicker. The burned-out building pulling its skeleton together. Ian startles but doesn't jump when Mickey stands up, muscles moving forward all in a rush. For a second they're in the dark by the docks and Mickey is smiling and moving to kiss him tasting like cigarettes and damp soil. Then Mickey shoves him, hard, into the wall, and retreats to the other side of the cell. Rubs his eyes, breathing hard. Shoulders hunched, fists clenched into wrecking balls. Face distorted metal and crushed glass. Heartbreak with an angry twist.

“Next time, give me a ten minute warning before you fucking abandon me forever.”

“Mickey—”

“Did you really think you'd ever see me again when you left me at the border, huh?” Mouth open, trembling, like it did every time. The don't that never seemed to work. Never as strong as the needle or the genes. “Did you think somehow you'd try and find a fucking fugitive in a foreign country when you finally felt like you wanted to love me again?”

Ian shakes his head. Even back then he didn't really understand how the needle was supposed to work. “I couldn't leave my family. I had my shit together, stable, y'know? And I thought, if I ran out of meds, if I went crazy again, it might make it dangerous for you. It might make things worse.”

A buzzer. Wake up time. The lights flicker on and everything is under a fluorescent microscope, jagged, opened up.

Mickey stares at him, the harsh light pushing the hurt and anger forward through the disbelief. Tattooed hand running ragged through black hair. Sigh pushing ragged out of two lungs too full of the memory of someone else's breath.

“Jesus, Ian. I love you. Do I have to fucking spell it out for you? Fine.” He paces the cell, every footstep another piece of punctuation on a history that's tattooed on the soft underside of his tongue. “Want to know something? I don't know what you were thinking when that doctor told you how long you'd have to take your pills for. Know what I was thinking? It wasn't 'Oh shit, thirty years, gotta get the fuck out.' I was thinking I should go home and do some fucking research because I wanted to be there to understand and help thirty years down the goddamn line.”

It all comes out so fast, a confession he's been trying to hold in so long. He throws his hands in the air helplessly. Runs them down his face like they can cut through the emotion rolling off him in waves. “You're it for me, Ian. Fuckin' it. You could do anything to me. You could stab me and I'd still love you. You could leave me on the fucking border and I'd still fuckin' love you. Even if I never saw you again. You're all there is. Christ, it's fucked up. Scares the shit out of me.”

“God, Mick,” Ian mumbles, stomach dropped out, the needle stabbing him painfully, you knew this already, you stupid thing. “Jesus fucking christ.”

Mickey half-sits, half-collapses onto his bunk. Rubs red eyes, tired mouth. Laughs, throat clogged with tears and too much truth. “Nah, man, that's all you. I don't do that god shit."

Silence. Then, “I was manic then.”

“No shit. Look, Gallagher, you can't be that in here. You're not Jesus, you're not a liberator, you're not some fucking queer kingpin.”

“You heard about—”

“Yes, I fucking heard about it. 'Course I did. It can't be like that in here. You don't run this joint. You're just you, a person who fucked up, and now you gotta live with it.” Mickey clears the knots from his throat, sighs and reaches for his shoes. “If you try that shit here, it's probably gonna get you killed. And I kinda want you to stick around.”

“Okay. Yeah.” Ian stares at the floor. Fiona once said Mickey would put a match to Ian's delicately balanced life of cards. So why is it that he only ever feels like his ship has leveled out when he's near the burning lighthouse that is Mickey?

Head count. The awkward, horrible first shower. The breakfast where Mickey sticks to his side but won't look at him. The health services window where he swallows his pills and they look into his mouth like they're looking for stolen jewels. The crappy, bland food that for a moment side-swipes him back into the fogged-up hospital and the restless scrape of his knuckles sliding against the wall in the middle of the night. The familiar smell of cleaning fluids and plastic and wet metal on his first day of prison janitorial work. Thoughts of Mickey somewhere else, punching out license plates. Thoughts of himself and Mickey somewhere else, years ago, across some great sea of their own history, morning, a tiny bed in a crowded house, their skin each other's skin, and Mickey is gentle and soft, and there are sacrifices sitting on both of their tongues, but it hasn't come to that yet. Mickey's hands are warm in his hair and Ian's hands are at his hips and they are learning each other's language still but they both know what it means when they kiss and the important part is that now Ian knows they were happy, even for that infinite microsecond of a morning in bed in the Gallagher house, that they had that potential in the feeling of each other's fingerprints, that they painted little marks of happiness on each other's skin, invisible but for the warmth, lingering just barely between sacrifices that always hurt but always pulled them right back together.

Mickey is waiting for him in the cell when he gets back, looking tired and a little annoyed, but he grins when Ian gets inside and Ian feels his blood flutter, feels every bone in his body lined with velvet the way he always does when Mickey smiles at him.

“How was your first day?”

“Familiar,” Ian grumbles. “They got me cleaning bathrooms and shit.”

“'Least you've done it before.” Mickey shrugs, shoulders twitching. “Prison bathrooms can't be much worse than college ones.”

Ian snorts. “Not wrong.”

Silence fills the space between them, drops some huge invisible container down between them full of their lives together and there could be so much to talk about, there used to be so much to talk about. Mickey stares at the floor. Ian looks into that invisible box and tries to dig around but comes up only clutching things he doesn't know how to talk about. Apologies that never made it into the world and sit stale and unmentioned. Things he didn't understand until years later.

Mickey pats the space beside him on the bunk, jerks his head. Come over here. Come here. Ian sits.

“Listen,” Mickey says, and Ian's not sure what to do with the sad shake in his voice, the clenched jaw. Maybe he's looked into the box too. “Listen, you can do whatever the fuck you want. I mean in here, when you get out, whatever. Anything. Your choice. Your life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You always do exactly whatever the fuck you want. Don't know why Fiona ever thought she could control you.” Mickey's mouth twitches. He's glancing around the room, everywhere but his eyes, everywhere. Like he's afraid he'll look and it'll be the barrel of a gun. Gaze landing bed wall door wall shoe hand bed lap wall toilet bed knee. Doesn't even look when he reaches out and pulls Ian's left hand into his lap. Just starts messing with his fingers gently. Running his fingertips along Ian's palm, up to move each knuckle back and forth. Warm, feverish touch. When did Mickey start wanting to touch his hands?

“Mick?”

“Just, promise me something, Gallagher?” Still won't look at him. Stares at their hands. “You do whatever the fuck you want. Whenever, whoever, all that shit. Just take your meds. Take them.”

It means we take care of each other drifts through the dull, depressive haze of memory. Punches him guilty in the gut. The one-two punch, he remembers I love you. He closes his fingers around Mickey's hand, grips the promise.

“I will, Mick.”

Mickey deflates, drops his chin to his chest and stays that way, breathing.

So they sit there, silent, breathing together. Their shared box of memories sitting huge and unmentioned in the middle of the room. All the little bits of history inside and maybe in a few years they'll be able to look through it and talk and go, “oh, that's why you did this, and this, and this.” Instead they are silent, breathing, and Mickey's hand is still scalding Ian's fingers but they're silent until the bell rings for dinner. Shuffling walk to the canteen. Chow time and Mickey won't look at him again. Health window, pills, searching for ransom in his mouth.

“Gotta go to class after this,” Mickey mutters to him when he sits back down and chugs the last of his juice. He shrugs when Ian frowns questioningly at him, shrugs his own words away like they're bits of dust. “Lawyer said it'd increase my chances of getting out early if I took classes, so that's what I'm doing.”

“Thought you already got your GED last time you were in the joint?”

“I did. This is 'post-secondary schooling,'” And Ian can hear the sarcastic emphasis loud and clear. “Y'know, I figured I'd want to stick with five years or something, since you only got two.”

“Jesus, five—” he cuts himself off, shakes his head free of the anxiety. Five years. Just five. Last time it was fifteen. Last time it was huge and looming, a lead wall that wouldn't let him think about doing anything other than running far, far away from the hurt and the helplessness and the anger that sat muffled under the thick blanket of medication. Running from Mickey's drawn, desperate expression on the other side of the glass. Following the needle somewhere, anywhere else.

The buzzer goes. Everyone stands, moves to dump their trays. Mickey gives him that halfhearted scowl in place of a smile. “See you later, Red.”

 

There is a moment where he thinks about climbing onto his bunk and staring out the small strip of window. A moment where a thin rectangle of sky almost represents everything he could ever want. A moment where he almost forgets that Fiona has set up a magnet gimmick in his chest and Carl is living the old dream he used to have and his other siblings don't have the same sort of compass that he does and his mother is dead.

There is a moment where he almost wants the needle. But he is sitting on Mickey's bed, his hands on the scent of Mickey's blankets, staring at the box of memories that sits there in their cell, waiting. With a pull of its own. Not ready to burn.

Ian always lived on the same streets as Mickey, the same south side, the same years, but he never lived in the same world as Mickey. Never had that same fear of no one coming to yank off the monsters in the middle of the night, never had the same terror of such complete and utter aloneness facing blood or bullets or fathers or cops or the bruising scramble for survival. Mickey kept knives under his anxious skin so he could always lash out first, could always threaten the threats. Ian learned how to use a knife but always waited for someone else to shield him first before he got it out. Ian had a needle pointing him always towards the tangled knot that tried to stitch his jagged edges together with all the scraps they could find. Mickey burned himself a fire to keep warm, to find some place to come back to, sacrificed his hands and all the soft and lovely things he could find inside to keep safe on his own in the house of horrors.

And Mickey always had more at stake. Always escaped one threat to find himself glancing over his shoulder towards another. Always stepped out further over the ledge for him, with nothing but a ragged parachute made of a shambolic patchwork of anxiety, loyalty, instinct. Ian would jump because he always had someone to catch him at the bottom. His brother, his sisters, a lover, even his mother sometimes slowed him as she passed. Mickey only had Ian, who never stayed to catch, too busy running to the top of the next cliff to try and figure out if this was the right leap forward. So Mickey had to land on his own two feet, patch himself whole when he broke at the bottom. And he was always good at making wholes from next to nothing, always good at following Ian up to the top of the next cliff to jump after. Leaping with his fingers outstretched to try and catch Ian on the way down. To try and get to the bottom first and cushion the fall. Never making it in time. And yet he'd hobble up after Ian's desperate climb, trying to turn the air into the sea so he could burn himself a lighthouse instead of a smoke signal.

No wonder he could never catch Ian on the way down. They had the same touch, the same language, the same climb, the same cliff, but the reason for the jump was never the same.

He thinks about the second to last conversation they had, on his childhood steps, the fence between them. The diagnosis between them. Monica between them. His own screaming brain between them. He'd wanted to rearrange everything so he'd push first instead of falling. So he was the one landing by himself on his own two feet. Tired of everyone reaching out to catch him, wanting them to reach out his way. It had all felt so far away when he'd asked, foggy and dull, ready to push. You gonna want to be with me even if I don't? Everything far away. Watching everyone for betrayal the way Monica taught him. So Mickey's sigh had no written all over it, and that no meant reading all the other signs wrong.

But when you think you've lost everything except an identity you never wanted to have in the first place, you're bound to misread things.

Really, the sigh was the same Mickey always seemed to breathe into his mouth. The same way he'd mutter jesus fucking christ like he was so annoyed even though he wasn't, and then he'd hold on and jump after him. The same breath with the smoke signal that meant, you're it for me and I'm gonna stand here and wait. You could do anything and I'll be here to try and catch you. The smoke signal Ian was always falling too fast to see.

So it's obvious that he's opened the box and rifled through. And when Mickey steps through the doorway, Ian is half-hunched on the bunk, and the only thing he can do is blurt out, “I'm sorry.”

And Mickey says, “Okay,” and sits down beside him. Acknowledges the history between them. Finally looks at him.

“I'm sorry,” he repeats himself. Like when he was a kid and he used to say things over and over again and hope that by the end of the chant they'd work themselves out.

That's not how it works. He knows this. More than anything the burning body beside him knows this.

“I fucked up, Mick,” he mumbles to his own cold hands. “I'm an asshole. You've been standing there waiting for me since that night at the Alibi and all I ever did was fuck it up. Christ, Mickey, it's like as soon as you decided to come out all you ever did was try and keep me safe and all I ever did was run away.”

“No fuckin' shit,” Mickey agrees, but it's so gentle, and his eyes are so soft.

“I think I, uh, I think I lost myself when I pretended to be Lip to join the army. I mean the bipolar, yeah. But I think I got rid of something else too, I dunno.” He picks at the cuticles already dried out from chemicals after a day. Picks across the past. Peels back the skin to the layer underneath that's going to hurt. “I just spent every minute of every day when I got back either running away from myself or trying to find me. It never fucking worked and then everything went to shit and I'm so fucking sorry about all that. I know I never really—I never really apologized for everything. The movie, Yevgeny, all the shit I did when I was manic. And Monica. And breaking up with you. It feels like fucking shit, Mick.”

“Hey, c'mon,” Mickey's voice the way it always is when he gets worked up, trying to sooth motion into stillness, moving to encircle his wrist. Ian shakes him off, his cold hands turning into anxious birds, flying away from themselves, not ready, trying to explain.

“I guess even after everything you did for me, all the things you said, all the shit you went through for me, I couldn't make myself realize that this is what I meant when I said I wanted you.” And here is the cliff, that edge dropping sharply off into unknown. The leap he always wanted to make, just to see if he could land somewhere better. And Mickey jumping after him. “You stopped denying it and then you were always just so fucking stable.”

Mickey moves his hands back to his own lap. Clenching, unclenching. “I thought that's what you wanted. Sure as fuck felt like it at the time.”

He's a Gallagher. It's complicated. Always is with them.

“I did. I mean, I thought I did. I thought it would change things. And it's not an excuse, but I grew up with Fiona the fucking serial relationship expert as a role model. I, uh, I guess I didn't know how to not be like Fiona and also not be like Frank and Monica at the same time.” The burning in his head is back. But this time it's like every time he strikes a match it peters out. I did this to you, and this, and this. I can't blame anyone but myself. “I wanted you to love me and that wish came true. And then I put you through all this bullshit because it didn't fix everything like I thought it would.”

The needle spinning. The needle jabbing him. The needle lying. Just confused desperation looking for something with a strong enough pull. His family is one thing. Mickey has lived inside his body for years. How long have they been doing this? Since before the back room at the Kash And Grab, since before the tire iron in the bedroom, since before, when they eyed each other, scared, angry, pulling, across the hallway at school. The needle stopped pointing one way and pointed the other. Yanked him scared and brave and stupid into a house, into a room, into a bed. Found him something he actually wanted. Something a little rough but good, like fingernails scratching the surface of skin, something a little scared and a little scary to chase. Secret, something semi-sweet that hid in their back pockets. Warm skin, warm smile, eyes and voice thawed to tidal pools that uncovered when the waves moved back. And then the violent, tragic interlude. The needle ricocheting violently between the pull of family, the urge to run, the warmth of Mickey's hands. It's been years and he still doesn't know who won that battle. Mickey under his ribs, burning. Shoving his own hands against Mickey's chest, pushing, and Mickey pushed back, and wasn't that what he'd wanted? The warmth of Mickey's hands in their bed. The heat of his gaze. Too warm, too much. Not enough. Skin sparking, brain singed. Burning. Burning up. Mickey had two burning torches for hands but he knew what to do with them. Ian's head was on fire and all he knew was how to run and keep running.

Mickey is digging a fingernail into his kneecap. Like if he concentrates hard enough on the dent it makes, maybe he won't have to look up. This time it's Ian who can't pin his eyes down. Who keeps looking everywhere but where he should. Wall knee wall bed door bench wall bed knee hand shoulder lips wall door wall. His leg wants to shake but he won't let it. His head wants to burn but he won't let it.

“I mean, I was sick. I know. I was real messed up and I didn't know it.” He flaps his hand towards the box of history in front of them, the memories scattered on the floor. “And if I'd gotten help earlier and taken my meds, fuck, I dunno, maybe I wouldn't have done all the things I did. But I got the wish that sixteen year old me was desperate for, y'know? And then I fucked it up because I wanted you to love me in the way seventeen year old you did, not the you now.”

“So, what, you punched me in the face? Broke up with me?” Mickey looks like his head has been kicked in by the past. Shoulders rounded, breathing little scuffs of air. A good beating when you've already been roughed up and run over too many times to count.

“Fuck, Mickey, I was an asshole. I just wanted to feel something. Everything felt wrong and everything made me want to run away and you loving me, even when I fucked up so bad, even when I was numb, it just felt like you were waiting to love the old me, or trying to control me, or didn't get that I was all messed up or—or I don't know. Everyone else thought I was Monica. Everyone else wanted to fix me. I thought you did too.”

He shrugs, angry at himself for believing that bullshit. Sure, she was his mother, but that never meant she was a good person, or someone whose advice wasn't just trying to write a selfish fairytale. Mickey was never trying to change him; he was just trying to get him to stay. Trying to catch him at the bottom of the cliff and hold him steady. Monica had convinced herself she could only land on her own two feet if she was free to crack her head open at the bottom. Ian had Mickey waiting for him, burning a lighthouse in the air and smoke signals in his hands and trying to let him jump but be there to catch him when he stumbled at the land.

Ian shakes his head, lets his cold hands thump against the side of his leg, the side of the bunk, beat out the rhythm of the throbbing migraine of his fucked up genetics.

“I'm just so fucking stupid because if you thought I was Monica you would have added to the shit Fiona and Lip and Debbie told the MP officer. If you thought I was Monica you wouldn't have come fucking running to see me. You would have made me go home and eat fucking vitamins or whatever instead of kissing me in the dugout. And all I ever did was break up with you. I'm an asshole. You loved me and I just couldn't see it anymore because it felt like everyone was betraying me. Everyone else was treating me like a-a child or like I was too crazy to handle and you're the only one who just fucking treated me like you loved me. I'm so goddamn sorry.”

Mickey covers Ian's cold hands with his own burning ones. “Okay.”

And they stare down together at their tangled fingers. At the two lives so wrapped together. Ian exhales a wet stutter. Mickey breathes in, sharp, shoulders hunched. The sounds of men talking and footsteps clanging on the walkways echo outside the door. Echo in like all the other interruptions they learned to block out over the years. The way they used to sit with minutes like hours between them, savoring the waiting for silence. Ian feels very tired and very awake. Mickey's thumb catches against the inside of his wrist when he finally breathes out.

“Y'know, sometimes I think if Sammi hadn't come back from the fucking dead when she did, I could have made you figure it out. I mean, maybe things could have been okay.”

“I know. I think about it too.”

Here they are, two burned out fucking buildings sitting next to each other in the cold. Only Mickey's building is charred and gutted while Ian is nothing but dangerous, twisted metal and half-collapsed floors. Here they are, directionless and burning. Here they are, iron and lodestone, pressed shoulder to shoulder and maybe it doesn't matter that it's always the iron that moves. Maybe what matters is the staying.

Here is the truth: he's fucking crazy. That's life. Just the shitty fucking hand he was dealt, just like Mickey was dealt a psychopath for a father and a scarred temple for a son. And here's the fucking truth: he feels less crazy when he can feel Mickey's warmth against his skin, a replacement for the impenetrable buzz of mania or the skinless numb of depression. And one more truth, small and hiding in the basement of a church, in the stillness and quiet between delusion and painful reality. Ian frowns and inches his fingers across the back of Mickey's hand like he's praying a rosary.

“Okay, I know it's not the only reason, but I think I, uh, went a little crazy after driving with you to Mexico. I mean, you were gone and then Monica died and there was this whole thing with the meth she left us and Fiona and I got into it and the Gay Jesus thing. I missed my mom and no one else did and that felt so fucked up. And I missed you.”

He shrugs, shakes his head, leans back and breathes like it'll do anything to stop his eyes from watering.

“I made myself forget you when you were in the joint, you know. Convinced myself that you didn't matter as much to me. That you got yourself into that shit and it wasn't because you were doing it for me. And it wasn't hard because everything was so foggy and numb and I just felt nothing every day.” He can feel the tension in Mickey's hands, the shallow breathing, like that part of the past is still right there, so close. An ugly line they crossed and Ian still doesn't know what happened on the other side. “But when I saw you again, and when I went back home, it was like I was suddenly able to really miss you, for real this time. And then I just— I dunno, when I was inside, before Fi bailed me out, I was so manic, almost like before. I was so obsessed with everyone being treated right.”

Mickey grimaces. “That always did get you going, oppression stuff. Bullshit like that.”

“I just wanted everyone to communicate, and I think maybe I was feeling guilty for never really letting us talk about shit. Stupid. I just made decisions and assumed the worst and jumped into action.” He shakes his head, and something hard and guilty is pressed up against his ribs. “Jesus, Mick, I know you love me but I'm surprised you kept coming back. I've been such a dick.”

“Fuck, man, I'm surprised sometimes too.” Mickey pauses, gives him that scowl that he's developed in place of a smile. “But, fuck, if we can survive you running out on me with my kid and me going to prison and being a fugitive and all your stupid shit, I guess we can survive anything.”

The sound of boots hitting the floor outside and they jump apart just as a guard passes by for checks. Mickey with his jaw clenched and scared like when they were teenagers, trapped someplace between the fear of losing and the fear of being found out. The iron softens when Ian touches his knee, the pull towards something soft, a warm body in the cold cage of prison. He catches the way Mickey's body leans blindly towards his and the needle jabs into his heart, hard.

“Fuck, Mickey, the last time I told you I loved you was at the border. That isn't fucking fair.”

“The only.”

“What?”

“The only time you told me you loved me.” Mickey's shrugging like, it's no big deal, but he's biting his lips and his eyes have that wounded, half-angry look like if he tries to breathe he might cry. “Like, straight to my face, at least.”

“Shit, Mickey.” He almost gives in to the Monica-like urge to paw at his shoulder, throw his arms around him in a bear hug. “I'll say it right now. I love you. I don't deserve the way you put up with my shit and always have my back but I love you. I love you and I'm so fucking sorry.”

“Okay, you're sorry. I love you, too.” Mickey rolling his eyes. Knocking their shoulders together. “You can't be apologizing every ten seconds, Gallagher, it doesn't fucking suit you. Once is enough.”

“Okay. Yeah, alright.”

Ian walks his hand back across the bed, back onto Mickey's landscape, back between Mickey's tattooed fingers. Holds on. Thinks back along the smell of the road and the burn of Mickey's skin, thinks back along all the ways they've held onto each other. Thinks about all the cliffs he's managed to climb and Mickey leaping after him. The way he's been doing that for years. And here Ian thought stability was someone who'd stand back and let him jump while their back is turned. Look where that got him. At least when he jumped too high that first time, Mickey was there to wrap his arms around him and hold on and cry for the both of them. The man who could make wholes from next to nothing. Ian should have let him. At least he tried.

Ian cuts his eyes sideways. Pushes their shoulders together and relishes in the burning. In the way the needle feels like it's right there, pointing right there, finally, pointing the right direction this time.

“Want to know something? Trevor tried to talk to me when I was Gay Jesus and I wouldn't listen. He tried to convince me to stop because it would hurt his organization but I felt good, I felt alive, y'know, I felt manic.” He remembers the buzz under his skin, the tiny panic in the very back of his brain, almost silent in the stillness of the church. “But I think—I think I wanted someone to stop me. I mean, really stop me, not like Trevor tried to or like Fi or Lip would have done, where they would have compared me to my mom. I guess I wanted someone I could run back to, who wouldn't make me feel sick or stupid for pulling shit. Someone who would tell me to stop because they cared about me. Someone who would tell me off like I was a person who could fucking take it. Someone who would smack some sense into me and then stay to help me pick up the pieces after. I think I wanted you but I didn't know it.”

Ian's hand in Mickey's, squeezing hard. Crush crush crush. Idiotic token of love. They are breathing together, so loud.

Mickey looks stricken. “Jesus, Ian. I can—I can do that. But I don't want to. So take your fucking meds. I'll take you any fucking way but I prefer you when you aren't nuts. You're you, like actually you. You know?” Ian opens his mouth to reply. Mickey sighs sharp and regretful and grips his hand tighter. “But it was never about you being crazy. I can fucking handle crazy. I grew up with crazy. It's that you always left. Next time, stick around. Even if you're crazy. I can handle it.”

“Shit. Okay.” Heart thudding heavy in his stomach. “I won't go anywhere. Five years, right? If we can get through all of that, and through these five years, we can get through anything.”

“Sure, man. I mean, there's still shit we gotta work through, but yeah. Yeah. We can do it.” He scowls and runs his fingers through Ian's hair. “Starting with cutting off all this black bullshit. I hate it.”

Ian laces his fingers with Mickey's on top of his head, pulls their hands down into his lap. “I hate it, too.”

“Go find the barber tomorrow and set something up.” He grins, playing. “You'll look like you did when you were sixteen and wanted to join the army.”

“Alright, alright.” Ian cuffs Mickey's shoulder gently. Remembers the nervous glow of being sixteen and in fucking love for the first time. Feels like it's spring again. Thawing. Semi-sweet.

Mickey's thumb sweeps across his knuckles. Half a mumbled sigh gone soft and tender with that weirdly joyful disbelief. "Fucking hell, Gallagher."

The buzzer sounds for lights-out. The loud, resounding clunk as every cell plunges into semi-darkness. Mickey's warm fingers find the back of his neck before their eyes have even adjusted. His mouth covers Ian's automatically. Lodestone and iron. Mickey's hands branding I've got you, I've got you, I've got you across his jaw, down his neck, pressed there against the middle of his chest.

Ian fumbles for Mickey's uniform, for his shirt. A blue strip of light on the floor. Not the moon, just an ugly searchlight gone soft, going Make this decision. It's not stupid after all. Make it. The rush of blood in his ears. The sound of Mickey's heartbeat, pounding fist of gasoline.

Sliding together under the thin blanket. Slow. Go slow. Mickey's burning body pliant and strong underneath him. The smell of their past, all the blood and sweat and smoke and every scattered memory in their tensing and expanding muscles. Ian tucks his head against Mickey's shoulder, bites down, marking. Mickey's fingers sliding into his hair, scratching, holding. The needle glows red hot, red, red hot.

Ian tangles their arms and legs together. Doesn't say I love you, or I'm sorry, because they already know that. Just kisses him. Pulls him closer, like he could melt inside. Kissing him so hard, breathing him in, breathing each other in. Sparks between their ribs. Ian is taking the leap, and Mickey is there, wrapped around him, falling together. Here is the truth: it isn't about panic anymore. It isn't about the jump. They're already falling. Now it's about the land. They are holding on with their entire bodies. Warm skin, pressing, flushed, curling fingers. They kiss and keep on kissing. The entire world could crumble down around them and they wouldn't care, wouldn't ever want to stop.

Mickey's lips press gentle and open against his solar plexus. Branding his name in the center of Ian's chest. The needle bends. The needle snaps. The needle drops away.