You never really understood it as a kid. It just wasn't something you even knew you could do. 'What ifs' were never, ever going to be something good. And want had been pared down to the basics.
Food. Water and power running. For dad to not hit you. For your brothers to not hit you. For no one to look at you unless you wanted them to be looking at you.
You couldn't be bothered with wants that were even less definite than those.
It took sixteen years for you to learn how to hope and you crushed it down into the dirt when you met it. Something else in your way. Something else that might hurt you if you looked at it wrong.
You trick your way out of prison for yourself. Going back for him is just a byproduct. If you're going to get out of Chicago for the first time in your life, you'd rather do it with someone else, and your shithead cellmate doesn't count, even if his contacts got you here in the first place.
You had gotten used to having someone beside you, someone willing to have your back. The word “Yeah” and a shrug had ripped it all away from you. You've built things back up now, remembered what it's like to live life as a terrified, angry island, to live life thinking only of yourself.
Only you don't think only of yourself. You haven't, not for years. And habits are hard to break, even if you've kind of managed to revert back to even older ones.
So you lay low in some dude's basement and you chew on your fingernails and you listen to the Spanish filtering in from upstairs and you think about him.
It's easy to pay some random tweaker to stand down the block outside the Gallagher house until he sees a redhead leave, easy to have the guy slam a shoulder into him and drop a cell phone and walk the fuck away. It's easy to press 'send'. It's easy to hear the rings in your ear.
You say the words “Miss me?” like they're easy to get out.
“Mickey? Where are you?”
Hearing his voice makes your body feel electric.
“Meet me at the South Shore docks in an hour. Drop the phone in a sewer.” You hang up without waiting for a reply.
Don't. Don't do it.
Don't fucking hope.
You sit under the bleachers for twenty-five minutes, bouncing your leg, smoking, pretending you're not nervous. What if this doesn't work? What if he snitches on you? What if he doesn't even want to look at you? What if, what if. You never had what ifs like this before him.
The van squeals around the corner and crunches to a stop in front of you. He's yelling and fighting when they toss him out of the car and you are unfathomably happy to see that.
Beautiful and crazy and fucking ferocious. It made you fall in love in the first place.
He's angry and orange and fucking luminous standing there in the middle of the track and at the sight of him your heart does that happy thing it hasn't done in over two fucking years and you feel like something inside you is waking up.
And he touches you first and even though it's a shove it reminds you of years ago, when it was almost good and then when it was good and you shove him back but then you're both so close, too close. You know what you want to do. You don't do it. You back off when his hands shove at you again.
You listen to his voice without fully taking in his words. You can't stop fucking staring.
“I'm, uh, getting a new ID, some cash and heading to Mexico.” You look away. Don't fucking do it. Don't hope. You stand up, manage to at least look in his direction. “You should come.”
Don't hope. Don't hope.
He's laughing like you're joking. You're utterly serious. You touch him again, because you can't help yourself. You tell him the truth. “I thought a lot about you inside. You're under my skin, man, the fuck can I do?”
What can I do?
He wormed his way under your skin fucking years ago and you haven't been able to get him out, even when it hurt so much that he was there.
You don't say I love you. You just don't. Ian got it twice. He knows it. It didn't do shit back then, either. But it's why you're here now. It's not something you can use as leverage, it's just your own fucking gun he can turn back on you.
You walk away. If nothing else, you got to look at his face.
Damon looks at you funny in the back of the van. You realize suddenly that you're shaking. A whole year when you were thirteen spent getting most of your nutrition from booze, and still nothing fucks you up like he does.
In the basement you drink whiskey and try not to snap at Damon because you know you need to ask a favor.
You've spent your whole life just surviving. Just fucking holding on by the dirty tips of your fingers.
For three years your life was good, or something like it. For three years you could say the word 'happy' and mostly kind of mean it.
Now you're back to just surviving. So fuck it, you're gonna do something for yourself. You're gonna try and maybe feel good for five seconds before you get the fuck out and never see a familiar face again.
Still, you don't want to hope for too much.
The docks are fucking freezing but the random friends of Damon are for some fucking reason nice enough to lend you one of their shitty vans for the night, even though you have shit all to give them except a few bucks. The docks are fucking freezing but you're willing to wait. The docks are fucking freezing but, you know, love and all that. You text him twice. He doesn't respond.
You wait till midnight. Then you wait another ten minutes. You text him again.
He's not coming. He's not. But you're going to wait, because what the fuck else is there to do?
You're not hoping. Really, you're not. It's just there's not a lot for an escaped convict to do in the middle of the night in Chicago. He's not coming. You're not hoping. Just waiting.
“Knew you'd come,” you say when you see him.
You come together like magnets, easy. Your hand moves on its own to cup his face, to slide down against the bare skin of his chest and the beat of his heart.
He shoves you away, like it hurts to have you touching him so close. Like he doesn't want your hand in that familiar spot. Like he's pissed there's still something there.
Even though he was just kissing you like nothing had ever changed.
“Fuck! You think my life hasn't moved on since you've been locked up, Mickey?”
It's what Ian was always so good at. Moving on, running away, getting up and just fucking booking it when things got hard. You always lingered, you were always the one making sure to protect his back from the bullets as he ran away.
You just picked the shrapnel out of your own chest later, in the dark, so even you couldn't see the tears.
“I have my shit together, Mick!”
Good. It's what you always fucking wanted, for Ian to be okay, for Ian to have his shit together, for Ian to be healthy and smiling and not running the hell away. You wanted to be the one to help him get there. But he's there now. Good.
“And I have a fucking boyfriend!”
“Boyfriend?” You try not to sound surprised. You really shouldn't be. “Okay.”
It's not that you thought Ian would go back to you as soon as his eyes met yours, as soon as his skin touched yours.
It's just that you had no other option.
You scratch your face, feigning confidence. “Whatcha doing here, then?”
His face pinches again, like he's angry and doesn't want to be doing this, but he's doing this, and he's kissing you and he's pressing his body into you and he's walking you back, shoving you up against a boat, unbuckling his belt. You know he can leave a thousand times but he's shit at saying goodbye.
Fuck it. This might be goodbye. You just want to feel his skin on yours again.
The feeling of his lips against your neck, the hyper alert skin behind your ear, lava coursing through your veins and a buzzing in your head and you must be an addict.
You fuck against the boat and it's fast and rough like old times but his lips on your skin are so soft.
When you come you practically shake down to the ground but you're holding onto the boat and Ian's chest is against your back and something inside you feels as solid and stable as it does light and trembling.
He doesn't say anything as you both clean up and button up and straighten up. You surprise yourself only a little by jerking your head in the direction of the road. He surprises you by following you to the van, by getting inside, by wrapping his arms around you again and your lungs disappear and your hands ache for his skin and his tongue in your mouth has you begging for your whole body to be set on fire and burned right up.
You fuck again and he feels amazing inside you. It's been two motherfucking years since you felt this and you both have bruises and scratches but you just wish his fingers would sink inside of you and hold you down. Hold you up. Just hold you. Some feeling or something that's a soft hardness like everything about him. Solid and gentle and something like safe. Not the cold metal of a cell and solitary and the hateful looks of every other inmate. Not the cold look of the last time you saw him.
You fall asleep with him at your back and it's the happiest you've been in years.
It's the first time you've slept through the night since before his breakdown.
You dream it's summer back in your old house, you dream you're alone with him in the house. You dream the house is an island. You want to stay there. He burns like the sun. He is scalding you with his heat. You stand in the center of the living room, in the middle of the island, and he's there behind you, pressing against your back, pressing you forward, yanking you back into him, a violent motion like waves in the sea but you want to reach back behind you and cling to him, dig your fingers into his skin no matter how much it burns.
His touch startles you awake. Like always. He's used to it. No one else ever is. He hardly blinks.
“Can I see you again?” You ask, like a lovesick idiot. Like an addict. Which you kind of are, you guess. So you're a little surprised when his palm lands on your neck and his lips cover yours and he's kissing you, pressing a hand against your chest and you can taste on his tongue how it could be like it used to be.
It would be a fucking terrible idea to hope for it, but he's warm and solid above you so you do it anyway.
You cling to him, trying to hold him there. Trying to pull him into you. Because you're desperate and you want him and your body wants him as much as your heart does.
He sticks the cigarette in your mouth as a promise, but when he slams the door to the van you want to sob your goddamn eyes out. Or maybe punch something. His hands on your skin. His eyes following your movements. His voice saying your name. And he's beautiful. And you shouldn't be fucking hoping like this.
You know what they say about hope around here. It's bullshit. Just an extra layer of pain. It puts a target over your heart and guides every bullet straight fucking through.
You're not sure you can help it.
It used to kill you and keep you going all at once. You used to lie in your bunk at night and wonder what it was that made him stop loving you. Was it just the fucking bipolar? Was it because you went soft on him, told him you loved him? Even though he'd been asking for that for years? Even though it was the truth?
You'd been soft on him for ages, anyway, since back when he was stuck in your bed in the dark and didn't know that every part of you wanted your skin to touch his skin and how you wanted to be gentle with him and how you wanted press your face against his hair. Since back at the beginning of that spring and summer before it all went to shit, when he kissed you and smiled at you and held you and it was just you and him and Svetlana and the kid and it was actually fucking good.
It would fuck you up at night, lying there, staring up at the darkness and listening to the pissed off loneliness echoing around the entire fucking complex. You'd get stuck thinking about his face and every expression you'd ever seen on him.
The thought of him was like some sort of stupid movie playing over every other thing. Over and over, from that first day to the last. It made you want to punch something. You wondered why he'd looked at you like there was nothing there, like you hadn't torn your heart out and given it to him and then tattooed his name right there too.
You hadn't cried in the back of the police car. Just stared out at nothing. His dead-eyed expression burned into your vision. The hunch of his shoulders. You didn't cry in prison, either. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't.
It used to kill you and keep you going, thinking about him. Maybe he just didn't love you anymore. Maybe you'd gone soft on him too fast. Maybe being with his mom finally made him realize what a piece of shit you are, like everyone's been saying for years and years. It made you want to fucking die.
Then you'd think that maybe there was one tiny fucking iota of a chance that he'd want you back. Or a chance that he might at least talk to you again, or touch you.
Some shitty, off brand, ghetto version of hope is all anyone could get in there.
Clinging to that made it all fucking worth it. Clinging to that was the only thing you had.
The target on your heart's been there for years. It got drawn on there the moment you clenched your fists and stood up in the Alibi. Hell, it was probably sitting there fucking long before that. The tattoo on your chest just makes it easier for everyone else to see.
But Ian's always had perfect fucking aim.
One of Damon's guys gives you a haircut. Because it matters again. You never gave a shit about your appearance, except when it came to Ian. That it might help you run is just a bonus.
You spend the rest of the day planning with Damon, packing some douchebag's Jeep someone jacked for you, and pretending you aren't thinking about Ian. Pretending you aren't imagining all the best and worst possible scenarios. Like what if he tells you to fuck off again. Like what if he decides to come with you.
You call him on the burner. He doesn't pick up.
You call him again. No answer.
In the morning you call the burner and call the burner and then you call his cell. He still has the same number and you still remember it. You leave a message because why the fuck not.
If he doesn't show up, he doesn't show up, you tell yourself. You're fucking lying.
You go alone to pick Ian up. It has to be this way. It fucking has to. Damon stays at the place. You'll either be coming back smiling or coming back with nothing.
You hate how much he's taught you to want.
Every street and corner is familiar, even if being out on the road is a danger to you. You'll risk it for Ian. Fuck it. You have to talk yourself down as you get closer to the meeting spot. Chill out. Fucking calm down. He has your heart in his palm and you're not sure he even knows it.
He's waiting there as you turn the corner and your heart blooms in your chest at the same time as it drops down to your toes. You have to tell yourself not to expect anything, not to hope. He has that strange, unreadable look on his face. Like before. You want to flinch. You want to look at him forever.
You hate this. That you can be so breathtakingly in love with him, that he has so much fucking power over you. That you'll give him all the tender parts of you piece by piece and still come back to offer him your hands when he throws it all away.
You look away. It's too fucking hard. You already looked that grief in the face once.
“This goodbye?” You can't look. You can't. He's silent, still, staring at you and you have to look.
God, you could look at him forever. Even if it killed you.
He stares at you. Like he knows something you don't or maybe like he has no idea what he's doing at all.
And when he throws his backpack in through the window you can't understand what's going on. Is he giving it to you? Like you don't have supplies in the back seat? He knows that's not what you're here for, right?
He knows. He's opening the door and getting in the car and you cannot stop staring.
Something blooms in your chest and you try to tamp it down but he smiles at you, really smiles and it's the first real smile you've seen in two and a half years. Not half-assed, not indulging, not manic, not drunk, just a smile like when you first fell in love with him.
“Let's ride,” he says, and you grin back at him and put your sunglasses on and try to tamp down the feeling like you're going to explode. Like your ribs are suddenly shaking and the top of your head is going to fly off.
You drive back to the place trying desperately not to go above the speed limit. Your heart is going wild, a sweet, shuddering pounding in your chest.
You tell yourself not to hope, like that's not exactly what you're doing right now.
Damon gets the back seat because you don't want to have to take your eyes off of Ian. Almost two years is too fucking long not to look at him or be near him or touch him.
You want to touch him. To put your hand on his leg or the back of his neck. To put your skin on his, and not for sex, just to feel him alive and well and with you.
But you don't know how to say that, you've never known how to say that. The closest you can get is the admission that the thought of him kept you going. But behind that there's all the rest of it. That you dreamed about the feeling of his arms around you at night, of his shoulder pressed against yours, of his hair under your palms, of his lips against your cheek. That you dreamed of making a life with him, a real one.
You don't dare say that part out loud.
But there's an overwhelming need to touch him, to have him touch you. So you pull off into the dirt and you tell Damon to fuck off and you pull Ian to you. In the backseat with his chest pressed against your spine it feels like home. Like all the broken bits that got taped back together have finally found that missing piece. Only for a moment, when he says “I bottom now, too,” you think Who is this man? Then he's pressing two fingers inside of you and you forget everything but his touch.
Ian heaves a massive, lung emptying breath when he comes, clutches at you like he's trying to hang on to you. You wonder if he's been missing this. You've been missing it, too.
You want to stay like this, pressed together, forever. Just you and him and the big open sky in the middle of nowhere. Just you and him and the big open sky and the way your entire body thuds painfully with your heart when you look at him.
But you've barely put your clothes back on and Damon's knocking on the window and you gotta get going. You wish you could ditch the fucker. Now that Ian's here he's just a hanger-on.
Things go south fast. Because things always seem to go south fucking fast for you.
You ditch Damon because he's going to get one or the both of you killed and you just got Ian back and you really, really don't want that.
So you drive away with Ian and you leave Damon on the side of the road and then it's just you and him and the open sky and the road and the hope you told yourself not to have when you were back there in Chicago but you're letting yourself have it now. You don't think you could stop it if you tried.
All the way from that shitty rest stop to Jesus' house you can feel that balloon of hope growing in your chest. The road is making you crazy and even though Ian's still looking at you from the side of his eye like you're some stranger he can't get out of his head, you still just want to fucking hold his hand. You want to feel his skin on yours. You just want something in your life to be good, for once.
Maybe this can be it.
Maybe this can be it, like that summer way back fucking when, like that dream you had the other night. He's here, he's coming with you, and you're so close to freedom. Clinging to the only thing that ever made you feel good, the only thing that made you happy in your life even when it made you feel like shit. So maybe this time you're going somewhere warm and it will be good. You fucking hope it can be good because that's all you want right now, to be free and with him.
Except your life never works out. There's a reason you never wanted to bother with hope. One of the reasons is sitting in that chair now, staring you down, shooting you down, and you storm away from the party with Ian's hands at your back.
Like he's gonna have your back. Always. Like he always did, even back then. Right?
“Fuck!” You punch the dashboard, hard, fast, one two three when you get in the passenger seat.
“Mick,” Ian goes, voice all weird and tight. “Mickey, c'mon.”
You suck in a snarling breath and sit back against the seat. It takes three tries to get the engine to turn over and then Ian's pulling onto the road and you're staring out the window in frustration because you have to get over the border. It's not even hoping anymore. You just have to.
There's no going back now.
And you'll do anything get there with him. Anything at all. Bust out of prison, swim the fucking ocean even if you'll drown, rob a bank, attempt fucking murder. Anything, but the more desperate the plan the less likely it is to work.
In the end you've got a wad of hope wrapped up in paper bag courtesy of Ian and you think maybe you'll make it across together if you just find a disguise. Really you have no idea. Your brain feels desperate, like fingernails scrabbling at the dirt. You're terrified, honestly. You're good at hiding it, and Ian is great at looking the other way so he doesn't ever see.
So you lie on your back in the dark asking questions that won't ever see the sun.
So you lie on your back in the dark and tell him you fucking missed him like it's not the most obvious thing in the world. Like it's not the only thing that kept you going.
You lie on your back in the dark and think about what you're leaving behind. About what you have. And how you have no idea where this road is going to take you, or how you're going to survive except the only way you knew how, by the skin of your knuckles and the gnawing of your stomach and the coal burning in the backs of your teeth.
You've spent this whole time pretending like you're the one in control. Really you're just scrambling for fucking anything at all. Anything to keep you surviving. Anything that isn't your life, fucked over by one thing or another over and over.
You're not in any control at all.
Maybe Ian knows that. You have no idea what he knows, anymore.
He's the only thing you've ever wanted to live for, instead of just surviving. You hope to god he knows that, at least.
Fucking Ian is like kissing him, like there's been no time in between and nothing has changed. But you're surprised when afterward he curls around you and presses his nose to the back of your neck like he used to. You thought maybe that wouldn't be the same anymore.
You thought maybe you'd forgotten how to actually sleep together.
And in the morning you wake up to the sound of him pissing into the dried up riverbed below and watch the back of his head as his shoulders twitch and he buttons back up and then he stretches his arms to the sky. He catches you looking and grins, that crooked smile he's been giving you ever since you got on the road.
You get a good morning kiss and it's the first time he's touched you first since you got out to find him and you kind of want to cry or something. It's exhausting to broadcast want all the time, even if you can't help it.
It's hard to love Ian because you love him so fucking easily and he doesn't make it fucking easy, does he?
It doesn't matter, though, because you can untangle all of this when you get to Mexico. You'll find some shitty apartment together in some shitty ghetto and you'll get some shitty job doing under the table work or who knows what and you'll lie on the beach together on the weekends and it'll be the two of you against the world and maybe you'll be able to fucking figure all of this out.
The first part is easy. You already know it. You love him. And he's running away with you because he loves you too.
You hope that's enough.
There's energy bars and gatorade for breakfast and you watch Ian sneak his meds and pretend you don't see. It feels good to know he's got his shit together but you still feel like shit you didn't get to help him get there. But you talk and laugh and make jokes as you drive down even if Ian gets quieter the closer you get to the border.
And you're nervous as you change into the stupid disguise but you've got no other choice. Desperation got you this far and you have to keep going because want has been pared right back down to the basics. Food. A place to sleep. Money. For Ian to be beside you. Survival.
Ian's backlit by the sun, his hair turning into fire, but his body is one long curve of doubt.
You knew this was coming.
You dreamed that the house was your own island, just for the two of you. Hope will do that to a man. Turn him into someone who dreams stupid shit and then thinks it'll come true. You hate the tears that spring to your eyes and the way Ian has hit that target with such devastating aim again.
That house of cards you built up in your head is trampled in the dust at your feet with two fucking words. "I can't." Sharpshooter.
“I want you to come with me—” You cut yourself off, but not in time. Not fast enough to keep from feeling your heart puncture itself on the shards of the hope you pretended you didn't have. You shouldn't have done that. You can't fucking breathe.
You watch him toss the cash on the dashboard and you want to drop to your knees in the dirt.
He tells you he loves you. He's trying to give you money, like that's the important part of this running away.
You wanted something good, for once.
You wanted to have a life that wasn't fucked over again and again. A life with him. That's what you imagined every night in that fucking cell. It kept you going and now what.
“I'm sorry,” he says. Like it's enough. Like it's anything. Like it'll help you survive.
You don't know whether this hurts more than the shrug. It certainly hurts more than a bullet. At least in prison you could imagine someday seeing him again. At least in prison you could hope he'd visit.
You should have fucking known not to hope.
It doesn't fucking matter. It hurts, that's what you know. In the pit of your stomach and the center of your chest and he's telling you he loves you. He's reaching out to touch you.
You jerk away from his hand because that's what you do whenever anyone else gets near you and this isn't fair because Ian wasn't supposed to be like everybody else. And he looks at you and you know he means it. All of it.
You weren't supposed to hope.
But there's no going back.
This is goodbye and you know it. He's got too much to lose back home while all you've got to lose is him. There's no hope here, not that he'll change his mind, not that he'll come find you in a year or two, not that you'll ever see or speak to him again. So you kiss him and hope he can taste it on you, all the things you want to say. All the things you wanted with him. You kiss him and taste sorry on his tongue and I love you. The taste of all the years between you, the fights and laughter and tears and all the times it was you and him against the world. You pull away first. It used to always be like that, until the end when you stopped wanting to pull away. Now you fucking have to or you'll fall apart.
You say, “Fuck you, Gallagher” like the words are easy to get out.
You don't tell him you love him. He knows it. But you can't say it. You've said it twice already. You've done all this. Giving that to him would be giving him everything. You've already given him too much.
Maybe it'll be easier to survive with your heart on the wrong side of the border. Who knows. You wish you could do nothing but kiss him.
Instead you walk away.
When the gate lifts, you look back at Ian in the rearview mirror. The sun is fucking blinding you and Ian is smiling.
You decide it's time to remember how not to hope.