Only Naomi’s comment about Aleta coming to check on Michael if he didn’t stop by their stall at the market keeps Michael putting one foot in front of the other as he walks across camp. There’s a slight sense of deja vu, both from his brief stint in this camp after he first left the Evans’ and from the similarities between this camp and the others he’s seen. He feels the eyes of the Containment Officers on him--at least he thinks so, maybe he’s just being paranoid. The shakiness in his body as it ravenously demands the drugs usually coursing his system has him more than a little on edge. He feels like death warmed over, and the concerned look from a few of the antarans he passes confirm he must not look entirely well either. No one asks if he’s okay; they just give him a piteous gaze and a frown and keep walking, whispering as they go, though he can’t make out the words--or maybe that’s just the paranoia, too?
His head is pounding by the time he makes it to the southeast corner of camp that’s designated as the market. The camp’s commissary marks the beginning of the market corner, and, while it has the basic necessities and even a little cafeteria line for Antarans who don’t have units with kitchens--or who just don’t care to cook, it’s a purely utilitarian space. The cavernous, sterile feel of the commissary, lit only by the harsh glare of fluorescent lights can’t compare to the bright, open-air hubbub of the market stalls. This was always one of Michael’s favorite parts of the camps, even if he didn’t have anything to spend, just watching the people was entertainment enough. It always reminded him of a bee hive, abuzz with activity. Today though, the bright sun and chaotic din of people chattering only aggravates his pounding headache, robbing the place of its usual appeal.
Luke greets him with joyous gusto as he spots Michael wandering toward what must be Naomi’s stall. Michael manages a smile as the young boy runs over to meet him.
“‘Course I came. I promised, didn’t I?”
“We got you some stuff! Your apartment is gonna be way more fun colors now.”
“Uh-huh, come see!”
He looks to Aleta, who’s busy making a sale, waiting for her smile and nod of permission before following Luke around to the back. Namoi sits with a large loom, apparently working on a blanket by the look of it. It’s newly begun but already gorgeous, vibrant shades of blue and green in a striped pattern.
“Nana, look who’s here!”
“Glad to see you again, Michael. How’re you feeling today?”
He purses his lips and shrugs. “Hanging in there.” He holds his hand out for her to see the manageable tremor. “And really grateful for that peach cobbler y’all brought by.”
“It’s the best, huh?” Luke chimes in. “Sometimes we make it with real peaches instead of canned peaches.”
“They’re both “real” peaches, silly,” Naomi points out, “You mean that the cobbler for Michael was from canned peaches and sometimes we have fresh ones we can use instead.”
“Yeah, but I just meant the fresh ones taste realler.”
Michael laughs. “I get what you’re saying, but believe me it was delicious just the way you made it.”
“Good. Hey, Nana, can I give Michael his stuff?”
“Sure, honey, you know where it is.”
Luke goes in the direction Naomi nods, and motions for Michael to join him as he takes the lid off of the large cardboard box in the corner.
“We packed it up so Michael could take it home easily,” Naomi says.
“But I wanna show him all of it!” He grins up at Michael. “I helped pick it out of the extra stuff, so it’d be the coolest colors.”
“You can unpack it to show me if you want to; if that’s okay with your Nana and we’re not in her way.”
He glances at Naomi, who looks mildly exasperated, but her smile is still fond. “Oh, go ahead. Might as well.”
Luke pulls items out of the box with gusto as if he’s revealing wonderful prizes on a game show. There’s an small oval rug woven with colors that immediately call to mind the beauty of a desert sunset; a blanket displaying a gradient of blues and violets; another smaller throw that’s a burnt orange color adorned with crimson sun patterns; there’s a patterned grey pullover and a second just alike but with turquoise; and two jewel-toned placemats.
“And then I made these ones,” Luke informs. “Coasters and pot holders!”
When compared to the previous projects, Luke’s lack the refined, practiced skill, but they’re nevertheless impressive, especially from a kid his age. Michael smiles.
“They look great, buddy! Thank you! Definitely not ‘blah’ colors!”
“I thought you might like that! I picked the brightest extra colors Nana had!”
“You made them just for me?”
“Yep! I’m getting real quick! I’m gonna start working on bigger stuff soon, and learning how to add designs, and all kinds of stuff. I already help make the designs, but Nana and Mama have to put them in stuff for me, but not for long!”
“Gonna run the shop before you know it, huh?”
“Nah, I don’t wanna run the shop. Mama can do that and talk to people and stuff. I just like making things.”
“You’re a pretty smart kid, Luke. I like the way you think.”
“So you like all your stuff?”
“I love it!” Michael looks over to where Naomi is watching with a smile while she works. “You’re sure this isn’t too much?”
“We’re sure,” she says with a nod. “Just a little housewarming present.”
“It’s not ‘little.’ I really appreciate it.”
“Does that mean you’re gonna come for Sunday dinner?” Luke wonders.
“I’m gonna do my best.”
As much as he wants too, Michael still can’t quite bring himself to fully commit, waiting, as ever, for the other shoe to fall and reveal why he can’t possibly have something as easy and peaceful as a ready-made family to fit into. He makes small talk with Naomi and Luke a while longer before excusing himself with a yawn to start the walk back across camp with his newly acquired furnishings. The splashes of color really do wonders to liven up the apartment, but the visual reminders of kindness add just as much warmth as the rich hues.
Welcome home, Michael...
Michael tosses and turns for hours, shaking and sweating despite the bit of acetone he allowed himself before bed to try and combat the withdrawal symptoms. His mind races no matter how he tries to calm himself or just concentrate on his breathing. When he finally drops off to sleep, he’s jarred awake what seems like just moments later by a loud pounding on the door of his apartment and a concerned voice calling from the hallway.
“Hey! Open up! Is everything okay in there?” The pounding doesn’t relent. “I really don’t wanna call the building supervisor, but I’m also gonna feel shitty if I don’t call and you’re dying, so, just open up? Please?”
Michael scrambles to get out of bed, and his legs get tangled up in his sheets and blanket. He just barely manages to hop-jump across the room and free himself. When he finally makes it to the door and opens it, a young guy maybe a few years older than him stands on the doorstep with a worried expression.
“I’m not dying. All good.” Even as Michael says it, he can hear how out of breath he sounds. He’s covered in sweat, and his hair is plastered to his scalp and face. He brushes it back with his fingers, trying to put on an easygoing smile to assuage this guy’s worry. He takes in the sight of the guy’s boxers, white tank top, and sleep-mussed black hair sticking straight up. His bright blue eyes look just a bit sleep-clouded. It must be the middle of the night--or wee hours of the morning.
“Sorry if I woke you up, man.”
“I’m just glad no one seems to actually be murdering you.”
“Nope, all good.”
“Nightmare I’m guessing?” the guy asks, frowning, “I mean, you were screaming loud enough to wake the dead.”
Michael struggles to bury the mortification that rises in him with that information. Screaming in his sleep like some scared little kid isn’t really the first impression he’d choose to make on his neighbors.
“I don’t remember what I was dreaming so...no big deal or anything. But, sorry I woke you. Thanks for checking and stuff.”
Michael starts swinging the door shut, but the guy doesn’t move his hand, studying Michael a moment.
“Wait, you’re Michael Guerin, aren’t you?”
Michael frowns. “Look, I don’t know what you think you know about me, but--”
“Whether I’ve got the exact details of it or not, I still know enough to get the picture, and to know you’ve got nothing to apologize for if you’ve got nightmares from hell.”
Michael’s annoyance rushes in to combat his embarrassment at the pitying look from his neighbor. “Okay, fine, you’ve heard of me. So then who the hell are you ?”
“Ezra Johnson.” He offers a hand, which Michael shakes once to be cordial. “I’m in Unit 307 next door. Probably should have led with that a little sooner. Not the best way to meet. Brain’s not quite firing on all cylinders at 4am. And, look, I’m not saying I know anything about you, other than what comes through the rumor mill and all--just saying by all accounts you’ve had a shitty road to getting here, so just--no worries about the nightmares. Hope it gets better or whatever.”
“I’m really fine. But thanks.”
“Sure. What’re neighbors for, right?”
He offers a kind smile before turning to shuffle back down the hall in his sock feet, leaving Michael to shut the door and make his way back to the apartment, taking the last sip of acetone from the bottle Naomi gave him in hopes to staving of nightmares long enough to get an hour or two of decent sleep before dawn.
The next night, Ezra’s knocking wakes Michael again. He mutters curses under his breath as he heads for the door, outraged that his pathetic subconscious can’t at least be quiet about the apparent mental breakdown he’s having. Michael greets him with a wry smile as he opens the door.
“Not dying. Sorry, man.”
Ezra shrugs. “It’s not your fault. I’m a light sleeper anyway, and it’s not like you’re being an asshole and playing your music too loud or something.”
“Nah, just leaving the volume up too loud on my crazy.”
“Wanna talk about it?” Ezra grimaces, apparently just as adverse to the thought as Michael, and Michael laughs.
Ezra smirks and holds up a bottle of amber liquid. “Wanna drink about it?”
“Oh, hell yeah.” Michael swings the door wide open. “The place isn’t much, but, ya know, make yourself at home. I’ll grab some glasses.”
“No judgment from me. My place isn’t much either, and I’ve been in it six months longer than you’ve had yours.”
Michael takes two of the plastic cups from the cupboards. Ezra settles on one end of the futon couch so Michael takes the other. At first, he holds the cups out for Ezra to pour, but his hands are shaking. He opts for handing them to Ezra one at a time instead. Once they both hold a mostly full glass, Ezra raises his cup in Michael’s general direction and suggests a toast.
“To drowning demons?”
Michael nods, clicking his cup to Ezra's as delicately as he can manage. “To drowning demons.”
They talk about cars, mostly because Ezra is obsessed, and Michael actually understands enough to follow and be interested in the conversation. He mostly just appreciates a conversation that isn’t about anything very personal. Apparently Ezra used to be out on a placement working at a manufacturing facility, but now he’s here working pretty high up in the machine shop for the camp--officer vehicles, small engine things, that kind of stuff. He doesn’t seem to mind it, but his face isn’t as animated when he talks about his work here as it is when he talks about his job as part of the Antaran crew that manned the automotive plant back in Georgia. Something about the cadence of his voice reminds Michael of Max, and it’s a soothing sound that puts him at ease more quickly than strangers usually do.
Michael must’ve fallen asleep because he wakes when he realizes Ezra is draping a blanket over him.
“Shit, sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“Didn’t mean to fall asleep on you. I just--”
“That was half the point of liquoring you up and talking about boring shit.”
“Well, either way, it did the trick this time. Go back to sleep, all right? I gotta go. It’s almost dawn. They got you working yet?”
“Nah, not yet.”
“Okay, good. Get some sleep. I’ll catch ya later.”
Michael doesn’t rise to go get back in bed, just settles down onto the futon, tucking the blanket from Naomi around his shoulders and drifting back to sleep.
He finds himself in the familiar dreamscape of the bunkhouse. He’s curled up on the couch, instead of cowering someplace. He sits up sleepily, taking in the surroundings for the first time without the terror that accompanied this place when he escaped here during those months of hell with the warden. The scene is almost ethereal in the warm sunset light. He turns to take it all in and notices that he isn’t alone. Alex sits at the kitchen table with his head down on his arms. He’s facing away from Michael and snoring lightly. In all his other dreams like this, Alex came to Michael, but, apparently, now it’s Michael’s turn. He lays his hand gently on Alex’s shoulder.
Alex startles at the touch, jerking away. Michael takes a quick step back.
“Sorry, sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Alex is on his feet in an instant, pulling Michael into a tight embrace. He rests his head on Michael’s shoulder, and Michael just barely makes out the sound of a joyful huff of laughter.
“That’s okay, Michael. Don’t apologize.”
He pulls back just a little, studying Michael’s face with worried eyes as his hands coming up to rest on Michael’s shoulders. “Are you okay?”
“‘Course I’m okay. I’m here with you,” Michael replies, leaning in for a soft kiss, almost chaste. He breaks away to rest his forehead against Alex’s. “God, I miss you so bad, Alex.”
The words escape before he can filter them, but it’s just a dream; he doesn’t bother to take them back.
“I miss you, too.” Alex’s voice breaks. “I’m so sorry for what I said to you. I didn’t mean it. Of course, I loved you--I still love you, Michael. You have to know that.”
As much as Michael has longed to hear those words, they don’t really mean anything, not coming from an Alex conjured up by a lovesick dream.
“I just--I had to get you away from him. I had to protect you. I didn’t know what else to do. I just know I have to play Dad’s twisted games to keep you alive long enough to get us out from under his control.”
“I don’t want to talk about all that.” Michael kisses Alex again, sweeping his tongue into Alex’s mouth this time, pulling away for just a moment because even if this is just a dream it still feels wrong not to say, “I’m good, Alex. You good?”
“Yeah, I’m good, just--I just want to go slow and hold you. Please? I don’t even care if we fuck I just--I miss this. I miss being us.”
This may be a dream, which makes them safe, but Michael still doesn’t want to sit on the couch with Alex and invite in the bad memories of That Night. He tugs Alex toward his bunk instead, and Alex follows easily. They settle onto the bed together, with Alex in his favorite position, bearing the brunt of Michael’s weight on top of him, and sharing tender, reverent kisses.
Michael resists the urge to quicken the pace, relishing every moment he can get in this escape with Alex. He runs his hands underneath Alex’s shirt, annoyed that even in dreams his damaged hand persists, robbing him of some of the imagined sensations of the silky smooth warmth of Alex’s skin against him. Alex reaches down to pull his shirt up and off, giving Michael free reign. Michael follows suit, shuddering at the wonderful feel of Alex’s fingernails trailing lightly down his back and letting out a little moan.
“We don’t have to be quiet here,” Alex says, “I wanna hear you, Michael. Please?”
He makes the request as he reaches down to palm at Michael’s erection through his jeans, and Michael moans, grinding against Alex’s hand. He leans down to press his lips to Alex’s piercing, lapping at it for a moment before sucking it between his lips. Alex arches up into the touch with a moan of his own. Michael makes a point of his tongue and trails it along the line of Alex’s pecs, relishing the gasps and hums of pleasure as Alex begins to squirms beneath him in his eagerness. Michael kisses his way down to the waist of Alex’s jeans. Alex reaches down.
“Here, I can--”
“Let me try something?”
“Yeah, sure, whatever you want to. I’m good.”
It’s easier than Michael expected to take the material of Alex’s black denim jeans in his teeth and undo the button. Alex lets out a string of curses as he realizes Michael’s plan that confirms this is apparently as hot to him as it is for Michael. He takes the zipper in his teeth and looks up through his lashes to lock eyes with Alex as he slowly pulls the zipper down. Alex reaches behind him to grasp the headboard in what is apparently a desperate attempt to stay still. Michael smiles up at him before teasing Alex further with a sloppy wet kiss on the tip of his leaking cock, swirling his tongue so that the cotton of Alex’s boxers rubs against him.
“Oh, fuck, Michael, please, please.”
“Please what? Tell me what you want, Alex.”
“Anything, everything, just...please.”
Michael moves back up the bed, pressing his weight against Alex as he leans to murmur in his ear. “I wanna ride you.”
“Fuck, yes, yes, if you’re good to then, fuck yes.”
“I am so good, baby. Better than I’ve been in a long, long time.”
Michael retreats just long enough to shuck off his pants and boxers and take the lube from its usual hiding spot. Alex has apparently run out of patience and is eagerly kicking his pants off, too. He settles back onto the bed, and Michael joins him, kissing and licking his way down Alex’s chest again until he’s at the base of Alex’s cock. Alex shudders, letting out a whine as Michael trails his tongue slowly up the length of him, taking just the tip of Alex into his mouth and sucking lightly.
“So impatient,” Michael teases, and Alex just whines again.
God, he’s missed this so much, and, for a moment, he has the urge to just keep teasing Alex like this. That idea can wait; for now, Michael wants to feel this closeness he’s missed so desperately. He realizes that he’s going to have to be patient whether he wants to or not--if he wants riding Alex to feel good--and then he remembers he can be master of his own dreams, at least in theory.
He slicks up his fingers, reaching between his legs and letting out a groan to realize he’s ready for Alex. “God bless dream physics,” he murmurs with a grin, straddling Alex and lowering himself down slowly.
Michael drinks in the sight of Alex watching with pleasure-blown pupils and an awestruck smile as Michael takes him in inch by inch, trembling with the effort of keeping the pace slow. Michael lets out a groan of satisfaction once Alex is fully inside him, letting his head fall back as he rolls his hips.
“Fuck, you’re gorgeous; you know that?” Alex asks, hips jerking up though he’s obviously trying to keep still and let Michael set the pace.
Michael grins. “View from here isn’t bad either.”
Michael takes his time, drawing breathy curses and wanton moans from Alex as he rides him. Alex reaches between them, stroking Michael to the same pace. Michael lets his head fall back again, closing his eyes to focus on the intense, consuming pleasure of the moment. His climax crashes over him with almost overwhelming intensity; he clenches around Alex as he takes him in deep again, and Alex says his name like it’s the most precious word in the world as he comes.
Michael eases slowly off of Alex, admiring the wonder of dream physics again as the mess they’ve made disappears, leaving no need for Michael to leave the bed in search of something to help them clean up. He’s not even thirsty, just...satisfied in every sense of the word. He settles into their familiar position, curling into Alex, resting his head on Alex’s chest as Alex runs a soothing hand up and down Michael’s spine.
“I miss feeling safe like this,” Alex says. “Maybe we were idiots to think we could ever be that safe with my family around, but it was nice to believe we were.”
Michael hums his agreement at the sentiment. “Yeah, for a genius I was a real dumbass.” He shifts to look up at Alex, and as Michael expected, Alex looks back with guilt in his gaze. “But I don’t regret it. I’m never going to regret loving you, Alex.”
“I regret that I didn’t understand and appreciate sooner what the reality of the risk was, but I’m never going to regret loving you, either.” Alex’s expression hardens as he sets his jaw and adds, “And if it’s the only thing I ever manage to accomplish, I’m going to find a way to keep you safe from him, Michael.”
Michael wants to quip back all the reasons that Alex shouldn’t make promises like that, but he doesn’t want this to give up this peaceful dream of comfort in Alex’s arms.
“I don’t want to talk about all that.”
Silence grows between them for a few more moments, and then Alex starts singing quietly. Michael taps his fingers along Alex’s chest, imagining the strings on the guitar to accompany him. The dream starts fading long before Michael’s ready for it to end, giving way to a haze of colors that slowly turn to blackness.
Michael opens his eyes to the blank white ceiling of his apartment. He blinks back tears and forces himself to breathe as the cavernous ache of grief for Alex tightens his chest. His head is pounding, and he makes his way to the kitchen for a glass of water. Despite the melancholy at returning to reality, Michael feels more peace than he has in a long time. He wonders idly where Alex is now, and whether he’s managing any peace for himself.
He hopes so.
God, I miss you so bad, Alex...
Michael’s fourth night back at camp, Ezra wakes Michael for the third time. Michael barely manages to stumble to the door. He’s drenched in sweat and feels half out of his mind. Only the memory of Ezra’s threat from the first night--that he’d call the building supervisor if Michael didn’t open up--keeps Michael moving until he gets to the door and turns the lock with fumbling fingers. Once the lock clicks, Michael staggers backward as Ezra pushes the door in.
“Fuck, man. What the hell is going on with you?”
Ezra puts his hand against Michael’s forehead like he’s taking his temperature.
Michael shivers so hard his teeth are chattering, but he finally manages to answer. “‘M f-f-fine.” He feels like he’s freezing to death, even though he can’t possibly be. Every muscle in his body aches like he’s run a marathon. His heart is racing, and pounding so loudly he half expects Ezra can hear it.
“Dude, you’re wrecked. You need a doctor. Something is wrong .”
“NO!N-no d-doctor! G--go ‘way.”
He pushes feebly against Ezra to try and shove him away, even though it doesn’t have much effect.
I don’t know who’s on call. It’s just as likely to be someone who makes it worse as someone who makes it better. God, I hate that place. I don’t want to go back there, ever. Not for something I think I can probably just sweat out here. I didn’t mean to wake you up. I’m not dying. You can see that much at least, right? Just leave, and let me deal with this.
He continues to push Ezra’s hands away, growing more and more frantic at the thought of going to the clinic. If Ezra really decides to haul him down there--or call someone else to do it. Michael is in no shape to stop it.
“P-please, d-don’t. I’ve b-been w--worse and s-still b-been f-fine. J-just d-detox. P-please.”
He isn’t quite sure how much of the stutter is from the chills wracking his body and how much is the nerves threatening to overwhelm him, but either way he has to get his point across.
God, I sound pathetic. Hell, I am pathetic. I just don’t want to go back there. I’d rather just be miserable here in my own space, not strapped to a table and locked in like a lab rat and all the nurses hate me and if Fitz is on duty down there he’ll probably have a fucking field day with me just for kicks. I just need time is all.
“Okay, okay, it’s detox. You don’t want a doctor. I hear you.” Michael allows himself a sigh of relief at the words. “Let me get you on the couch at least?”
Michael lets Ezra lift him to his feet and take most of his weight as they make their way across the room. He more or less collapses on the thin cushions, and Ezra lets the futon down flat. The world seems to spin with the motion, and Michael retches. Thankfully there’s nothing actually left in his stomach to expel.
“Don’t apologize. We both know it’s not your fault you’re detoxing; somebody's just teaching you a lesson.”
How does he know that? Did I say something when I was drunk last night?
Ezra takes the orange blanket from Naomi that had fallen to the floor and tosses it over Michael. Michael clutches it around his shoulders. Objectively, he knows that he isn’t cold. He can feel the sweat that’s soaking through his clothes; he shouldn’t bundle up, but he can’t resist the urge.
“I’ll be right back okay? Just hang tight for a little bit, Michael.”
“D-don’t have t-to--b-bother w-with--”
“I’ll be right. back .”
Michael loses track of time, but Ezra does come back eventually. There’s someone else with him, an older man who Michael doesn’t recognize. Michael shies away from the unfamiliar touch. Ezra puts his hands on Michael’s shoulders firmly to draw his attention. Michael tries to focus on Ezra’s face, but the world keeps swimming in and out of focus.
“Hey, Michael, we’re here to help, okay? If you don’t want to go to the clinic, then you’ve got to let us help you. This is Ben; he works with me at the shop. He’s a good guy. He’s just helping out. It’s gonna be fine. I promise. We got you, Michael. Let us help.”
Michael stops resisting Ben’s touch. In all honesty, he doesn’t think he’d have the energy to do much else anyway, and he knows they really are trying to help. The only thing that it really bothers is his pride. He just wishes they’d leave him alone to suffer without an audience to witness his misery. Instead, he just squeezes his eyes shut, hoping it might help with the dizziness--or at least with the embarrassment.
“See Ben? It seems like what you see in movies when humans get fevers--but we don't get sick, right? He says he doesn’t need the clinic because it’s just detox, but I’ve never helped anybody detox before. Are these normal symptoms?”
“The symptoms can be just about anything really,” Ben says. His voice is gentle and quiet, and, absurdly, that makes Michael feel even more guilty for being a bother to him and Ezra in the middle of the night like this. “But whatever it is, we’ll manage it. Michael, do you know what you’re detoxing from?”
Michael keeps his eyes shut but reaches to shove up the arm of his left shirtsleeve to display the still-healing track marks. “B--bunch of d--different s-shit.”
“Those fuckers . You’re a child --or near enough--for the love of God! Of course you don’t want to go back to the clinic.” Michael recoils from the angry outburst, and Ben changes his tone mid-sentence. “Sorry. I’m sorry. That’s not helping you. I just--” He takes an audibly deep breath before continuing. “Every time I see one of us like this--I think I can’t be shocked anymore by what they’ll do, but they always seem to find something more heinous to do to us. And then they have the nerve to call us the monsters.”
Ben sounds tired, and Michael can commiserate with the feeling. Still, he’s not quite as shattered as he probably seems at the moment.
“‘M not b-broken.”
The assertion sounds more feeble than he’d like, but he manages it all the same. He keeps his eyes open and things stay in focus long enough for him to register the crooked smile on Ben’s face and Ezra rolling his eyes behind him.
“No, you’re not,” Ben agrees. “They jacked you up on God knows what, but you’ll come down soon enough. We got you in the meantime, and you and Ezra both will help with the next one back from a stint at AUI. It’s just how this world works. So welcome to your right of passage, boys.”
Michael loses track of all the people who come by to help. Honestly, he was never great with names as much as faces anyway, but half the time he’s got his eyes shut either trying to block out the harshness of the light; trying to keep the world from spinning; or trying to block out the embarrassment of puking in front of yet another stranger who’s trying to help him keep down some fluids. Through the haze of all of it, as he gradually improves, he realizes they’re taking shifts so nobody has to miss work. They all seem to be taking it in stride, and several assure him they’ve seen worse--which implies a pattern of helping people detox that Michael didn’t really expect and a realization that he really doesn’t know a fraction of what he thought he did about life in camp--not really.
In the midst of it, Isobel presses into his consciousness, checking in on him, as always, and though he still shuts her out, he assures her he’s fine, dreading the confrontation to come when they inevitably find a way to access Michael again. He misses Sunday dinner at Naomi’s, and Aleta drops by to find out why. He’s pretty near the end of detox by then, and he manages to keep down the broth she brought with her. She makes smalltalk with Michael and Ezra, reminding Ezra that the invitation for Sunday dinner is still open to him, too, before wishing them a good night and leaving them to their game of cards.
The Containment Officer who comes for Michael--CO Bluth according to his nametag-- doesn’t offer any information regarding why he’s being called to the admin building, much less why he’s getting an escort there. Michael can’t quite work up the courage to ask, and he isn’t willing to risk sounding afraid. Instead he just clenches his teeth, jams his hands in his pockets, and follows the stocky, bald CO out to the pickup truck. Bluth hums along to the country song playing on the truck radio as they drive, he huffs out a laugh when he glances over at Michael.
“Relax, kid, I’m not taking you to the firing squad.”
Like a reflex, Michael’s mind responds by replaying Jesse Manes’ words that haunt so many of his nightmares. There are much, much worse things than death for space trash like you…
But Michael forces a smile and attempts a huff of laughter. Bluth sighs and tilts his head as he amends, “Then again, I guess you’ve got more to worry about that most. Don’t you, Guerin?”
Fuck, he knows exactly who I am--what they say that I did, not just my name because he was supposed to come get me. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Michael doesn’t know what that means exactly--not when it comes to the COs. He’s just been trying to go unnoticed. But down at the clinic it damn sure wasn’t a good thing for the humans to find out who he was, given the official story. Too many humans already enjoy the inherent power they have over Antarans, much less those inclined to teach “uppity” Antarans their place. Wyatt Long being an asshole at the high school is going to be a damn picnic if the COs at camp think Michael needs to be knocked down a few pegs. This could all too quickly transform into something more similar to his months at the warden’s mercy, helpless as the warden turned the other way while COs and other GRACE officials did whatever the hell they wanted with Michael.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Michael’s pulse is pounding in his ears by the time they park outside the nondescript gray concrete of the admin building. He shoves his hands in his pockets again because if he’s worked up enough to be shaking he’s rather no one be able to notice right away. Hell, he only just got over the detox. Is this something about that? About a job assignment? He thought Valenti had to clear him one more time before he could officially start work detail, so that should be a clinic trip, not admin, shouldn’t it?
What if Alex changed his mind about the deal? What if he decided playing this sick game for the warden wasn’t really worth it once he got to GRACE basic training? What if I’m getting assigned someplace else? What if I’m going back to the warden?
Oh, fuck; oh, fuck; oh, fuck.
He feels lost in a trance as he follows the CO into the building. They go down a corridor that smells vaguely of cleaning product fingering on old, dingy linoleum and up an elevator that’s dimly lit with ancient fluorescent lights and so slow that it barely feels like it’s moving at all. They get off on the fourth floor and walk down yet another whitewashed corridor to a nondescript gray door marked as “Interview 3” according to a standard plastic black plate with white lettering. There’s a narrow window in the door. Michael catches only a glimpse of people moving inside before the CO opens the door and pulls him inside by a firm grip on Michael’s forearm.
To his surprise, Max and Isobel await him in the small interview room. Their expressions are carefully neutral, and he’s honestly pretty impressed with just how far they’ve come with that skill since they were kids. They stand in front of a small table clearly meant to have two people on each side at the most, and two additional chairs have been crammed into the corners. There’s a small camera in one corner of the room, blinking a little red light every few seconds. It might be politely labeled “interview” room, but it’s an interrogation room, and no doubt about it. He realizes the sheriff and Noah are seated at the table, facing the door, both with solemn expressions.
What the hell is going on? What interrogation is this? Why are Max and Isobel here? What have I dragged them into? Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.
“Good morning, Sheriff,” Bluth says. “Turning Guerin over to your custody, as requested. Anything else we can help you with?”
“No, thank you. That should be all for now.”
Noah speaks up. “Actually, if we could get some water that would--”
“There’s a fountain down on the second floor in the common area outside the boardroom,” Bluth says curtly, leaving before Noah can say anything further.
Michael winces as the door shuts with a bang. Barely a moment later Isobel says his name in a choked sob and wraps him in a hug so tight he can’t breathe. Michael hugs back on reflex, though he’d really rather she didn’t touch him, to be honest. He looks over her shoulder to Max, trying to get a clue as to what’s happening, but Max isn’t meeting his gaze. Max clears his throat, and mutters Isobel’s name. It has no effect whatsoever. Noah follows suit and clears his throat more pointedly, making Michael jump.
“Miss Evans, I understand this is an unusual scenario; if you can’t maintain a professional demeanor for this observation, I understand, but I’ll need you to step outside to wait.”
“Of course,” Isobel says, pulling out of the hug immediately.
She wipes a tear from the corner of her eye under the guise of adjusting her hair, and, in the next instant, she is back to the image of composure.
“I apologize, everyone, just got a little carried away. I hope I didn’t make you feel uncomfortable, Michael.”
“Nah, of course not, Iz.”
“It’s okay if you would prefer her to go,” Noah says.
And Michael really doesn’t know the answer to that question. Because of course he doesn’t want Isobel to go. Unless letting her go gets her off the hook for something? Or keeps her from seeing a rough interrogation that’s about to happen? Why the hell are they all being so formal? It has to be because of what happened at the Manes ranch, right? But what about that? What do they want? Do they suspect something else? Did he give something away while he was drugged up with the warden? Did the warden just make something up?
“I don’t--I--I just--I--they--Isobel and Max didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t. I know I saw them the day before everything happened but that was just--just coincidence, and we’re from the same cluster, but they shouldn’t get wrapped up in trouble just because I--”
“That’s not what this is about, Michael,” Max interjects, finally meeting Michael’s gaze and transitioning into a bit more of what Michael’s come to recognize as his “cadet mode” after their encounters while Max is in his official capacity. “We’re not here as your siblings; we’re here for our jobs. Isobel isn’t in trouble. I’m not in trouble. That’s not what Mr. Bracken is asking you.” Max turns back toward the table. “If I understand correctly?”
“Yes, I only mean are you comfortable with Isobel observing your interview with Sheriff Valenti and Cadet Evans in her capacity as an intern with the Antaran Rights Campaign?” Noah rephrases.
“We just want to talk,” Sheriff Valenti says, businesslike, but not threatening. “Similar to the talk you had with Max at the hospital and the talk with both of us at the ranch. Because it’s a very high profile case, the ARC has petitioned to be present while you make your statement and be a part of the whole process, which is why Mr. Bracken and Isobel are here. Max, as you know, is our Antaran cadet.”
“Oh, yeah, okay, then I don’t mind if Isobel stays.”
“You can have a seat if you want,” Max tells him. “We’ll do it kind of like the set up at the ranch that day.”
Michael moves to sit in the chair, but he doesn’t slide it out from the table much, preferring to tuck his hands away under the table to rest them on his knees. He does turn his upper body more toward Max at least. Unlike that day at the farm, Max isn’t occupying a limbo between brother and cadet, he’s got walls up, and he’s hiding fully behind the professional face he’s projecting.
“I’m going to ask most of the questions, but they might ask some too; regardless of who asks the question you can talk to whoever you want to when you answer. You can answer however you want to. You can say anything. The important thing is to tell the truth. Understand?”
“The purpose of this interview is to take your statement regarding the events that took place during the last night of your placement at the Manes ranch. For the purposes of a clear record, as stated in the initial report, Michael Guerin was previously designated as an Antaran Under Investigation, designation AUI-20605, which,” Max pauses just slightly, pressing his eyes closed as he pushes through the remainder of the statement, “rendered all his rights granted under the Antaran Protection Convention void and negated the need to adhere to the usual protocol for the timely documentation of an Antaran’s account in all instances of Antaran-human adverse events. Now that investigation has concluded Michael Guerin does not possess atypical Antaran abilities, his rights have been reinstated, and his statement is being taken in accordance with protocols.” Max doesn’t look Michael in the eye as he asks. “Do you understand all of that?”
“You understand that Mr. Bracken is here on behalf of the ARC and represents the interests of all Antarans generally through the work done by that organization, but he is not your individual GRACE guardian?”
“And you understand that it’s entirely your choice whether you want him and Isobel to be here for your interview?”
“Yeah, I don’t mind if they’re here.”
“Okay, let’s get started then.”
Max has the same style of well-worn, small blue notepad with him that he’s had at the last two interviews. Michael wishes his brother had the same relatively easy-going air as the last two interviews, too, but the tension in the room is palpable. He can tell Max has his jaw clenched, and Michael half expects the pen in Max’s hand to snap under the strain of the death grip he’s got on it.
Why would you come, Max? Why put yourself through this?
Michael knows the answer. Max is here because he’s a good brother--an amazing brother. Isobel is here for the same reasons. They’re supporting Michael. They’ve been worrying about Michael for months now. This was the first way to get back in contact with him, and they took it.
“Just--ah--for a clear record,” Michael says, parroting the disclaimer they all keep giving. “I don’t mind talking to the sheriff if this stresses you out, Max. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable either, little brother.”
He knows Max won’t leave, but he wants to offer the option anyway. He’s hoping, too, that the comment will convey more to his siblings than he can express in words right now.
I’m okay, guys. Things might be fucked. I know I was gone, and I shut you out. But I’m generally okay.
The words have their desired effect, and a ghost of a smile flickers on Max’s face. He exhales, and some of tension leaves him--there’s still plenty left behind, but Michael counts it as a win on the whole.
“I’m not uncomfortable. It’s my job, remember?”
He’s managing a congenial, professional tone that’s much less robotic, which sets Michael further at ease.
“Right, yeah, of course. You help with all the Antaran interviews if you can.”
“Exactly.” Max clicks his pen and poises it, ready to write. “If you could think back to that last night at the Manes ranch, I know it’s been a while now, but to the best of your recollection, can you tell me in your own words what happened?”
“I don’t remember any of it, Max. I really don’t,” Michael lies. “The last thing I remember is falling asleep in the bunkhouse after a normal day working. Nothing out of the ordinary, definitely no plan to hurt anybody.”
“What’s your next memory after that--you were asleep in the bunkhouse, and then what?”
“The next solid memory was being in the clinic.”
“How would you compare what happened that night to what happened with Alex Manes a few days before? The incident with his shoulder?”
“I’d say that it’s the same as far as I definitely didn’t mean to hurt him, but that was just kind of a quick thing, ya know? This was more like--”
Michael hesitates, voice faltering as he second guesses the spilt-second decision of his subconscious to convey this message. He averts his eyes from Max, rubbing nervously at the back of his neck with his right hand. Maybe he shouldn’t try this; maybe he should keep Max and Isobel in the dark; maybe they’re safer that way. Except, here they are, interjecting themselves into the middle of things to be part of Michael’s life. What if they push into the wrong places because they’re running blind? What if they go too far because they don’t understand what they’re up against? They need to be warned that this is just as big and bad as they’re worried it is, and Michael has no idea when he’ll see them again, much less when they can safely have a real conversation.
“Take all the time you need, Michael. You can say anything you want to. We’re just here to get the truth.”
Max’s voice is gentle and kind, and it makes Michael’s decision for him. The same way he’s been trying to protect them by shutting them out of the worst of things by restricting their telepathic access to him; now, he can protect them by giving the information to understand the gravity of the situation.
Michael takes a breath, bringing his head back up so that he locks eyes with Max again. He sees the twinge in Max’s jaw as his brother grits his teeth in preparation to keep a neutral face for whatever Michael is about to say.
“This was more like what used to happen when we were kids--and--ya know--how everything went to hell at the Evans’.”
Max’s eyes widen at the words. Michael hears a tiny gasp from the corner behind him where Isobel sits. The mere mention of their parents would have put them on edge, but in this context, it’s got them immediately at high alert.
“Oh, I see.” Max closes his eyes for just a moment, but otherwise his composure remains intact, outwardly, but Michael can read the pain in Max’s eyes. “But, for a clear record--and for the sheriff and Mr. Bracken--we need to be more specific in explaining. Would you like to do that? Or would you like me to give it a go? I don’t mind.”
“If you don’t mind,” Michael says, breaking Max’s gaze to look away.
He could push through it if he needed to, but Max is always looking for ways to help anyway. He’s probably got more practice at this story than Michael anyway. Max turns toward the sheriff and Noah, clearing his throat and laying down his pen momentarily.
“When we were younger, Michael had fairly frequent instances of sleepwalking. Generally, they were benign episodes, but, sometimes, he would sleepwalk while having a nightmare. In those instances, he didn’t have control, didn’t plan any of it, but he could be pretty destructive. He never had any memory of doing it until later when he was awake. There were smashed dishes, broken furniture, that kind of thing.”
Max pauses in his explanation, taking a breath before going on. Michael has his eyes down so he doesn’t have to look at anyone, which is the only reason he notices Max’s left hand balled into a fist under the table.
“After one episode like that when we were twelve, it was decided that three Antarans placed with two humans was too much to manage if one had behavioral issues. Michael’s placement was terminated, and he was placed with another family instead, so that he could get more individual attention.”
Max’s hand begins to shake just slightly, so Michael moves his hand the few inches it takes to cover Max’s hand with his own. Max doesn’t look down, but he does turn to look at Michael.
“Would you say that summarizes it okay?”
“Yeah.” Michael squeezes Max’s hand for just a moment before moving his hand back to his own knee. “Thanks.”
“Happy to help,” Max says. “It’s what I’m here for.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So, Michael, not to be redundant, I just want to make sure that your account is being documented accurately and that we understand,” the sheriff says earnestly. “You’re saying that your last night at the Manes ranch doesn’t really remind you of the quick, reactionary, incident of Alex Manes startling you awake, which you categorized as self-defense, even though you weren’t sure who you were defending against. You think it was perhaps a behavioral issue? It reminds you more of what happened that last night you were at the Evans’ home? And the reason that your placement there was terminated? Is that correct?”
Max’s eyes are fixed on Michael with heart-wrenching intensity, awaiting an answer he clearly dreads. Once again, Michael debates whether this was the right choice, but he’s started down this path, now. It’s better they know what they’re up against. Michael draws a deep breath and nods, taking advantage of the earlier permission to answer questions to Max no matter who asks them.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
He holds Max’s piercing gaze through the affirmation, trying to be sure the message gets through. Because the real reason Michael left the Evans’ is not the reason that is listed in the paperwork. The real events of his last night there are not the ones in the story told to the GRACE officials. The truth of it is known only to the ones who were there. And they never, ever talk about what happened that night.
You understand what I’m trying to say here, Max? Michael wonders. The real reason I left the Manes ranch isn’t whatever reason they put in the paperwork. The real story isn’t whatever story the warden made Alex tell GRACE. I can’t share the truth with you because terrible things would happen to people I love, including you and Isobel. I need you to understand, Max. Please. Because I need you guys to be careful. I need you to be safe.
Michael watches the heartbreak that erupts in Max’s eyes as the weight of the words sinks in, and he knows the message has been received, at least at its basic level, when Max closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Sorry, just a second.”
“Yeah no, me too,” Michael says, clearing his throat and looking up at the ceiling instead of watching Max try to ground himself.
“Do we need to take a break?” Noah asks.
“I’m okay,” Michael replies, “it’s just--not our favorite memories, ya know?”
“Completely understandable. Separation can be very difficult for a cluster,” Noah says.
“I’m okay talking to you and the sheriff if Max and Iz want to step out. I don’t mind them staying, but--”
“I’m okay,” Isobel says firmly, and Michael turns to glance at her. She looks a bit shaken, and she’s gripping the arms of the chair she’s in so tightly that her knuckles are white. But her mouth is set in a determined line, and Michael knows that she’s made up her mind to be here.
“Yeah, same here,” Max agrees, slipping back into his composed cadet mode. “Let’s keep going if you’re ready?”
“Since you don’t remember the details, we’ll move on to a few more standard, general questions, to make sure we have the whole picture. Again, nothing to worry about, just be honest in your answers.”
“Did you feel safe during your placement at the Manes Ranch?”
It’s worse somehow, lying to Max now that Max knows Michael is lying--at least about something to do with the placement--and probably already assumes that Michael has been lying all this time.
“Did anyone during your placement at the ranch ever make any unwanted physical contact of any kind while you were at the placement? Even something like a shove that didn’t leave a mark or even if there was a hug you weren’t comfortable with?”
“No.” Then, Michael realizes they know that isn’t true anymore. “Well, I mean--except for what happened that last night, but I don’t remember that.”
“Did anyone during your placement at the ranch ever threaten that kind of unwanted physical contact? As a punishment or for any other reason?”
“Did anyone during your placement at the ranch prevent you from getting medical attention?”
“Do you understand that ‘medical attention’ includes the services of case workers who offer psychological counseling?”
“And you’re aware those services can be made available upon request?”
“We’ve talked before about some issues at other placements you’ve had, you mentioned bullying. I think you used the phrase “boys will be boys” to describe it? Do you remember that?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Would you like to offer any further details for that? Anything that might be helpful in understanding?”
“I need a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ for that. If it’s something you aren’t comfortable discussing with us, you can speak with someone else and--”
“No, that’s not it. I just--I guess the answer is no, because I don’t want to get into the details of any of it. I don’t see where it helps or matters in the grand scheme of anything. As far as trying to understand why I have these nightmares, I mean, we crash-landed on an alien planet when we were seven; I got separated from my cluster when we were twelve; yeah, sure, there were assholes along the way, and I’m guessing switching placements so often didn’t help much with any of it. Maybe I was having a nightmare about something to do with bad memories, but I just don’t know, ‘cause I don’t remember any of it. All I know is that I didn’t plan to hurt Alex Manes. I would never have done it on purpose. I wouldn’t ever attack a human on purpose. Whatever happened, it wasn’t a choice .”
His voice catches on the last word, and Michael closes his eyes against the memories the phrase conjurs to the surface. Max waits a few moments before he goes on.
“Okay, last question is a familiar one, unless you need another second?”
Michael opens his eyes again. “No, I’m good.”
“You understand that our role here, as law enforcement, is to help you, and that help comes in a lot of forms? We can help you find ways to talk to us or Mr. Bracken or a case worker or whomever you want to talk to about anything that occurred during this placement--or any other placement--that made--or continues to make--you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any way, no matter how small.”
“Yeah, I understand that, but there’s nothing else I want to say.”
He manages what is probably a feeble smile, which Max returns. Max turns to Noah and the sheriff. “Anything we haven’t covered that y’all need us to talk about?”
“I believe we’ve met the protocols and then some,” the sheriff says. “Mr. Bracken?”
“I believe so, too, and I think we can agree the interview was without incident?”
Noah looks around the room as if seeking confirmation. Max, Isobel, and the sheriff are all nodding their heads in agreement with Noah.
Without incident? What does that mean?
“Michael, before we came for the interview, Max and Isobel requested an opportunity to visit with you. Generally, that would not be permitted at this stage in your reassignment and assimilation back into camp population. You’re no longer AUI, but you also haven’t been cleared for work detail just yet; there’s still some administrative steps--like this interview--being handled. Overall, this is just a very unusual case for several reasons. With that in mind, and given that Max and Isobel were both going to already be here in their official capacities, the warden, the sheriff, and I conferred and decided that if the interview went without incident, the three of you would have the option of a short visit afterwards. That’s assuming you want to?”
“Yeah, definitely. I definitely want to.”
Noah smiles, and though it looks a little melancholy, Michael is instantly reminded of his willingness to help facilitate so many of their sibling events over the months. He’d bet Noah and Sheriff Valenti both advocated hard for this meeting--that they knew what it would mean to all three of them. Of course, the warden knows how much they matter to one another, too. Michael fights the urge to shudder at the mere thought of the man.
“Do we have to stay in here?” he asks, glancing up to the camera in the corner.
“Yes, that’s one of the conditions,” Noah confirms, “but the sheriff and I will step out to give you some room.”
The camera means they won’t be alone, but it’s still an illusion of privacy. In the end, it’s time with Max and Isobel. Michael will take what he can get. The sheriff looks down at her watch.
“You have a little less than half an hour before they’ll need the room. If you need anything, let us know; we’ll be right outside.”
“Thanks,” all three reply in unison.
As soon as the door shuts behind them, Michael is immediately sandwiched between Max and Isobel. He’s unprepared for the crushing bear hug as they cling desperately.
“We tried to find a way to come see you sooner, but--”
“It’s fine, Iz. Just--let a guy breathe, though, would y’all?”
They release him as soon as he asks. Max clears his throat, rubbing self-consciously at the back of his neck. “Sorry, just, ya know, Isobel was worried.”
“Right, Isobel ,” Michael replies with a grin as she rolls her eyes at Max.
She goes to pick up her purse from the floor and starts rummaging through it. “I thought after the whole interview and everything you might not be in much of a mood to talk, so I made a playlist like I used to for lunches sometimes.”
She pulls out her iPod, which has been adorned with a pink case and a few rhinestones since Michael last saw it. Michael smiles at the brilliance of her plan, though part of him remains terrified at the thought of her using her powers right under GRACE’s nose.
“Yeah, that sounds a lot better than talking actually.”
“And, I know it’s silly and kind of childish, but I’ve kind of been an emotional wreck. Since it’s just us, could we do protection protocol?”
Michael pushes aside the jolt of nostalgia and pain that comes with the words, which he hasn’t heard or thought about for years now, honestly. He focuses instead on reading between the lines. Her words are rushed and rambling. Tears gather in her eyes and she blinks rapidly as she flips her hair over her shoulder with her manicured nails. She is the perfect imitation of a near-hysterics teenage girl, which, Michael assumes, is precisely what she wants the camera to see. But Michael knows his sister much better than that, and he’s fairly certain the brief outburst at the first moment of seeing him after all this worry was the only outburst she’ll allow herself; hell, maybe that was planned, too, now that he thinks about it. The emotions on display now are controlled and calculated and every bit as predetermined as her line offering him the option of just listening to the playlist.
Michael crosses his arms, wary of following her plan too easily. “Isobel, we’re eighteen not eight .”
Max sighs and nudges him. “Oh, come on. Don’t be a dick, Michael. It won’t kill you. She’s been worried sick this whole time.”
Michael rolls his eyes. “Fine.”
“Protection Protocol” was Michael’s devising actually. They didn’t come up with that name for it until several months later, when they had to explain it in English. But it started sometime in those first nights on Earth, surrounded by the chaos of the field hospital and GRACE facilities that followed, Michael couldn’t trust the cots the humans kept trying to tuck them into. They were too exposed and isolating, so night after night he dragged Isobel and Max to a corner or alcove of whatever room or tent or poorly disguised cage they were in, and they hunkered together, usually putting Iz into the corner because she was smallest and taking their positions in front of her. With time, they transitioned to less extreme defensive positions, and eventually they even started sleeping in their own rooms at the Evans’ house. But after bad days, or on stormy nights, or sometimes for reasons they didn’t have words for, they returned to their protected formation.
Isobel moves the chair from the corner where she’d been sitting during the interview, and sits with her back to the wall, bringing her knees up close. Max lowers himself down too, leaning his back against the wall on Isobel’s left side, and Michael follows suit on her right, crossing his arms as he pulls his knees to his chest. They don’t pack in as tightly as they used to when they were really afraid, which Michael is grateful for; maybe because they’re old enough now to know this can’t actually keep them safe from anything.
Isobel has an adapter for her iPod that lets her plug in three sets of headphones at once. She gives her brothers each a pair before donning her own hot pink set and hitting play on a playlist Michael sees is titled “Sh*t Michael Might Not Totally Hate.” As the music begins to play--something more pop than Michael usually cares for, but that Michael, admittedly, does not hate---he leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes, opening his mind up to a real conversation with Isobel for the first time in months.
“Please tell us what really happened?” she implores. “We know you, Michael. Even if you hadn’t said what you did--bringing up what happened when they split us up--we know that you wouldn’t hurt someone like that, not unless you didn’t have a choice.”
“The details don’t matter. I’m back, and I’m fine.”
“Not if half of what they’re saying is true,” Isobel counters.
“Don’t get all worked up over a bunch of gossip.”
“It’s not just gossip. We’ve seen the official paperwork,” Max points out.
“Then you know enough.”
“I just want to know if any of it’s true that--”
“ No, I didn’t attack Alex. ”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Of course you didn’t just blindly attack Alex!” Max agrees, and Michael has to admit he’s heartened by the unwavering conviction in the words . “I meant I was to know if it’s true that he come at you in the barn with a fucking shoeing hammer?”
“I’m fine, Max.”
“So that’s a yes?” Isobel wonders.
She reaches for Michael’s left arm, pulling gently at his bicep to coax him into uncrossing his arms to show them his hand. They must have caught glimpses already, especially if they knew what to look for, and they’ll have to see it eventually. He sighs and lets Isobel pull his arm into her lap, holding his hand like it’s delicate glass that could shatter. The anguished looks on both their faces hit Michael like a punch in the gut. Max reaches to touch the scarred flesh, but stops at the last moment, fingers hovering before making contact.
“Michael, I’m so sorry I couldn’t get to you before--”
“It’s okay, Max. Look, it’s all healed up and fine and everything. I’m even gonna get cleared for work around camp. Put a little bit of a damper on my rock ‘n’ roll career; that’s all.”
“That is not ‘all.’ This is--heinous, Michael!” Isobel insists. “Will it hurt if I hold it? Keeping this communication is easier if we’re holding hands.”
“No, it won’t hurt.”
She takes his hand carefully into hers, and Michael sees her reach for Max’s on the other side.
“Don’t strain yourself, Iz. Not when we’re on camera.”
“I’m okay for a little while longer; I know my limits.”
Michael leans his head back against the wall behind him, closing his eyes because it makes it easier to be sure he isn’t visibly reacting to any of this conversation. They mastered the art of undetected telepathy long ago, but the camera in the corner still sets Michael on edge.
“Alex Manes really did that to you?” Max asks.
“ No!” Michael replies, maybe a little too vehemently.
“Then who? Flint? Warden Manes?” When Michael doesn’t reply Max continues, “If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have tried to warn us by letting us know the official story isn’t the real one. You’re worried about someone and what they could do to you--to all of us. Who is it?”
“Warden Manes is a powerful person,” Michael answers finally, “and Flint is following right in his footsteps.”
“So they--and then this whole time, when you were in so much pain but you were shutting us out, you’ve--you’ve been--stuck with him after he--after he--”
“Max! I’m fine now. I’m back here at camp. It’s okay.”
“You weren’t the one who dislocated Alex’s shoulder,” Max realizes.
“And you didn’t get trampled by a horse,” Isobel realizes. “ When you were hurt, and--and he brought you to the clinic, you said it was a horse, but...”
He can feel the turmoil in Max and Isobel as they wrestle with the magnitude of the truth. Guilt makes his stomach clench and threatens to consume him, like it always does; maybe he should have just lied to them; maybe he shouldn’t have pulled back the curtain on all this. Except it's so damned exhausting, having to put on a brave face so that they don’t completely fall apart, and he’s not sure he can lie about this to them for the rest of his life.
“How many more that we didn’t know about?” Isobel wonders. “Michael, you were there for more than a year and--you never said anything to us about--”
“Because I pulled strings to get you there,” Max supposes, “I convinced them to put you there, and you thought you--when you asked how far out on a limb I went to get you there, I never--nothing with my stupid cadet program was worth--”
“Hey, no, this is not your fault. Stop, stop it. I asked you that before anything ever happened with the warden. I wasn’t testing the waters to see if I could get out, okay? It’s just--it was fucked up, but I could handle it. It really wasn’t so bad--until things went to hell that last night.”
“ Wasn’t so bad ?!” Isobel fumes. “They could have killed you! They nearly did! They--”
“How many SOS messages did you get while I was there?” Michael demands, apparently at the end of his capacity for patience with their naivety. “Two!” he answers when they don’t. “One really was a horse--the other one--well, you saw the state I was in.”
“ Exactly, you could have died from--”
“How many SOS messages did you get after Mom and Dad gave me up, huh? How many over the years before Max got me back here? Can you count? Because I sure as hell can’t. This wasn’t anything new, and, if they didn’t listen to me when it was all those other placement families and work assignments, they damn sure wouldn’t have listened when it was a goddamn GRACE warden.
At least at the Manes ranch I was close enough that you could do something if I needed it, like healing me and random things like lunches and drive-ins and getting to pretend we were normal for a little while. At least I had mostly good days, and--and a job that was actually kind of great and I had Alex.”
Michael realizes too late he went too far with the thought. “So at least there was one Manes who didn’t totally hate me and wasn’t terrible to me,” he adds hastily. “ And I get it. It horrifies you. Honestly, it should horrify you. It should horrify a lot more people than it does, but just--it doesn’t horrify me. It’s just another chapter of my reality--the reality for the antarans who fall through the cracks, and--so it’s not okay, but I’m back now, and I’m fine. It healed up, and it’s not like it will even keep me from working. There are bigger things to worry about and work on than something we can’t change.”
“We’ll find someone who’ll believe you,” Max persists . “We’ll--”
“It’ll lose you both your work placements--your credibility. It won’t get me my hand back, and it’ll probably get me on high security lockdown someplace. Hell, it’ll probably get us all killed or locked up in medical research; it took a fucking miracle to get me out of there the first time. That’s the only reason I wanted you guys to know any part of the truth. You gotta understand that the system is fucked, and there are powers that can crush the hell out of us. He will use you guys to get to me--he already has. You have to be careful. You can’t go digging or taking up causes or poking the bear. It won’t change what’s already done.”
Michael opens his eyes again, turning his head toward his siblings. They look back with wrecked expressions.
“Come on, would you stop worrying so much, Mom? Please?”
He hopes the exasperated taunt will annoy Max and lighten the mood, but it does little to soften the concern in their eyes.
Out loud Michael says, “No offense, Isobel, but this playlist is depressing as fuck.”
He really has no idea; he hasn’t absorbed a single note or lyric since the first few seconds, but it makes for a half decent cover if anyone’s paying them any attention. She laughs, at the insult, bumping her shoulder against his, and finally managing some of the levity Michael was hoping for.
“It’s not ‘depressing’! I think the words you’re looking for are beautiful and emotional and cathartic. It’s good for the soul, Michael.”
He rolls his eyes in exaggerated response.
“You can tell us anything. You know that, don’t you?” Isobel says.
“You can talk to us--about any of it, any time,” Max adds. “Even if we don’t file reports or anything just--you’re not alone, Michael.”
“I know I’m not alone.”
Actually, I’m with my people… he thinks to himself. But that’s too big a conversation for today, so instead Michael just tries to focus on the music and relax in the time they have left. Max and Isobel follow his lead until Noah and the sheriff come in to announce it’s time to go.
Once Michael finally makes it to Sunday dinner at Naomi’s and Luke answers the door with his usual exuberant greeting, Michael knows instantly that he’ll probably be back every week. Even if he’s still got to figure out how the hell he can repay her for all this kindness, the sense of warmth and welcome the moment he walks through the door is almost intoxicating--too wonderful to resist. The furnishings are modest, but cozy, accented with vibrant colors and thriving houseplants. The aromas coming from the kitchen have Michael’s mouth watering instantly. Luke takes Michael’s arm to lead him through the housing unit. With a place this big, the whole family must share it, but that still doesn’t account for the multitude that’s gathered.
There’s a hustle and bustle to things, as people come in and out; some bring in food dishes to add to the meal; others make plates and leave to disperse them at Naomi’s behest. Michael had envisioned something more akin to Mrs. Evans’ dinner parties, but this is almost a free-for-all. People seem to help themselves to food and find a seat somewhere at the large table or on the sofa or wherever else there’s room. Some are nearly done eating; some are just a few bites in. Naomi is pulling a tray of toasted bread out of the oven as they come into the kitchen
It’s all chaos. Wonderful, wonderful, chaos.
“Nana look who came!” Luke calls.
Naomi’s face lights up with a smile as her eyes land on Michael. “Michael, honey, so glad you came. Come in, come in, grab a plate!”
He does as she asks, and lets himself be swept up in the general hullabaloo. Normally this isn’t his preferred energy for a room, but it provides more of a cloak than he’d expected tonight. Michael had been ready for too much unwanted attention and uncomfortable questions or comments about his hand and all the rumors about the events that led to his reassignment to camp. Instead he gets to blend into the background and just people watch. When he’s done eating, he offers to help clean up in the kitchen, which has become relatively quiet as people finish eating and begin to disseminate a bit. Naomi’s family and a few neighbors are the only ones left. All the kids have retreated outside to play in the last bit of time before curfew. It’s tempered the feel of the place from chaotic hubbub to a more settled peaceful murmur of conversation.
“I never say no to a little extra help,” Naomi says, “but, if your hand isn’t quite up to it, the company is help enough.”
“It’s okay. If it starts cramping up I’ll stop so I don’t break anything.”
He picks up a towel to start drying dishes as she finishes rinsing. She rolls her eyes at him.
“Boy, I’m not worried about you breaking dishes ; I don’t want you breaking yourself .”
“I’m really fine. I promise.”
He holds up his left hand and wiggles the fingers as best he can without wincing to prove the point. He regrets trying to make his case that way when she purses her lips at the sight of the scarring and fixes him with a sad gaze. She doesn’t comment further though, just rinses the next dish and hands it off to him. He’s grateful for the task; they work in companionable silence until she passes Michael a glazed stoneware platter adorned in the center with the antaran glyph for family. The glyphs on the decorated rim of the platter are nonsensical though: cultivator, inferno, escape, scholar, blockade, love, healer, danger, laborer, consecrated, sustenance, warrior. Michael runs his fingers over them, trying to find the pattern. After a few minutes, he gives up trying to decipher it himself.
“I don’t get it. What’s it supposed to mean? Or are they part of names?”
Naomi places another platter she was washing back into the sink and dries her hands on her apron so that she can point to the glyphs as she talks.
“Well, this is family.” She points to the center symbol and then moves to the edges. “That one I’m pretty sure is something like ‘go’ or ‘exit.’ This one is either ‘school’ or ‘learn.’ One of them is warmth, but I forget which one. This one maybe?”
She points to the symbol for danger. Michael studies the platter again, searching for warmth before indicating the nearest option.
“Well, this one is inferno, if that’s what you mean?”
She touches the glyph Michael indicates almost reverently, fingers brushing over the lines as she looks up at him with wide, surprised eyes.
“You know the language?” she asks. “I thought you didn’t remember anything from Antar?”
“I don’t have memories, but, yeah, of course, I know the language. How could I forget that?”
“It’s much more a means of communication than anything ever memorialized into writing by typical antarans. The scholars all knew, of course, but there wasn’t much need otherwise--at least, no one thought there was. The written language died out almost entirely when we landed here. The people who knew enough of it either died on Antar; died on impact; or were quickly identified as too important to the humans’ investigations to be left in the general population. I knew a few symbols--people knew symbols from signs or family names--there are shards of the language here and there. Maybe other camps have fared better than here, but not that I’ve heard of. Our written word has almost entirely died out.”
The information sinks in like a lead weight dropped into Michael’s stomach. He, Max, and Isobel had always known--assumed it was yet another cultural aspect they were expected to smother as “lucky” AFP kids trying to assimilate. They had English and their telepathy fueled through Isobel. It never seemed to matter that they passed off any antaran writing as doodles.
“Ya know, suddenly it makes a lot more sense why nobody seems to get up in arms about the antaran literacy thing,” Michael comments. “If we don’t even really know how to read and write our own language, if it wasn’t commonplace to teach everyone...”
She sighs. “A lot of things seemed less important when we were fleeing total destruction--and then we were here and transitioning to this planet and, well… before you know it, even the bits and pieces we all remembered were difficult to get down and preserve. If you remember all this…”
She speaks almost as if it would be too good to be true, that Michael could know all these symbols--as if it’s a gift she never would have known to hope for. Michael yearns to fuel that spark of excitement for her.
“Oh, I remember a lot more than this! So much more than this. I just can’t speak it.” He manages to verbalize a hope of his own. “Could you--could you maybe teach me to speak it? I don’t think I’ve ever even heard anybody say a single antaran word. I’ve always wondered, but everybody I ever asked said they couldn’t remember. I quit asking after a while, but if you can read some of the language can you speak it, too?”
“Oh, honey, I should have mentioned it sooner. I should have thought about the fact that they’d isolated your whole cluster at such a young age. By the time you were old enough to be taught you were in isolating placements, not families, and then on your own at the ranch…”
“So you do know how to speak it? The spoken language isn’t dead?”
“It is a complicated part of our heritage. It’s one of our last great secrets, that we still have the language and that it remains such an effective form of communicating. There is absolutely no question that the humans would be threatened if they understood what the language means to us. Some people feel it’s safer not to know the details. Not everyone wants to shoulder such a big thing, and you shoulder a lot already.”
“I want to know,” Michael assures her, “as much as you’ll tell me or teach me or--or anything. I want to know it all.”
She smiles fondly. “Okay then. Come with me.” Michael raises an eyebrow and glances to the sink, which is still half full of dishes. Naomi takes his forearm and guides him toward the small bistro table along the side wall. “The dishes can wait for a few more minutes. You’ve waited long enough.”
She takes a seat in one of the chairs at the table, and Michael sits across from her. She takes one of his hands in hers, and he has the odd thought that she’s about to read his palm. Excitement and anticipation overshadow his confusion. Michael feels as though his heart might just beat out of his chest, as he realizes just how badly he’d been silently wishing for this additional piece of his cultural past.
“It can be a bit--surprising, which is why I wanted us to take a moment and have a seat.”
“Well, Michael, you see, the thing is, you don’t speak antaran to another antaran. You simply share it.”
“I don’t understand what that means.”
“Telepathic is the closest English word I know of.”
And Michael just knows so much in the next moment. That there isn’t really a good way to describe the communication in English; that Naomi is glad to have the opportunity to be the one who shares this part of their culture with Michael; that she’s thrilled to have someone who may be able to teach them to write again; that this could start a whole new chapter in preserving their history; that she’s truly happy to have Michael here with them, not just for his utility with the written language but because he belongs with his people; that she considers him family and hopes he finds a sense of home and peace here; that he deserves good things.
By the time she releases his hand, placing it gently back on the cool surface of the table, Michael’s eyes are wet with tears. He’s breathless with the sheer delight of this newfound knowledge.
“It seems to be very intense for most antarans the first time,” she tells him, reaching over to brush at the tears on Michael’s cheeks. “But it will come more naturally, if you practice--assuming that you want to. Like I said, not everyone does.”
“No, I do. I definitely do. I just--wow--so--so that’s--you do that all the time? Like it’s nothing? And they don’t--no one notices? The humans haven’t put it together? They think we’ve just forgotten our language when really it’s so much more complex and amazing than they could probably imagine. They’re just clueless? How is that possible ?”
Naomi purses her lips and meets Michael’s gaze with somber eyes.
“It is our greatest secret. We have all taken great care--and some have made great sacrifices--to keep it. And you’ll be another one helping us now. You’ll practice in safe spaces until it comes naturally to communicate the antaran way; and then you’ll practice until it comes just as naturally to hide it.” A small, worried frown crosses her face. “But this won’t be the first big secret you’ve kept in your life, will it?”
“No, but it’s one of the very few good secrets.” Michael pauses, considering. “Wait, are you saying that because--did you--could you read my big secrets when you communicated?”
Did you see Alex? Max and Isobel? What do you know now?
“No, no, that was just an educated guess from an old woman who’s seen a bit too much suffering for her liking,” she assures him. “There are some who try to abuse the power, but it’s very difficult to impose into another antaran’s mind. Your secrets will be safe for as long as you want them to be.”
He nods, breathing a sigh of relief. “Good--that’s--that’s good.”
“ But , when you are ready to share them with someone--me or Aleta or whomever it is you trust with them--I hope this will make it a bit easier. For all it’s wonderful words, English never is quite enough to convey the biggest parts of ourselves.” She shrugs. “Of course, that’s just one old antaran’s biased opinion.”
“Can I?” Michael reaches for her hand across the table. She smiles and takes it.
Thank you for this, for everything, for making me feel at home, for treating me like family. I’d forgotten what it was like to believe things could really get better.
Only when he opens his eyes does Michael realize he’d shut them in concentration, trying to communicate his message.
“Did that come across? Did it work? I’m not sure if I--”
She grins. “I think you could use some practice,” she admits, “it’s a little less structured than English, not so much about the words individually and more about the story as a whole coming at once--like painting a picture instead of writing letters out--so you’ll need practice to get the flow of things-- how and when to convey specific things versus broad feelings, and how to interpret what others convey to you--but, yes, I very much got the general idea of what you wanted to say, I think.”
Michael barely suppresses a giggle of delight at hearing he was successful in his attempt. Naomi pats his hand gently. “You’re very welcome, Michael--welcome for the linguistics lesson and very welcome in the family.” Naomi rises from the table, brushing some stray curls out of Michael’s face as she passes him to talk back toward the sink. “It’s good to see that light in your eyes. I’m sorry I didn’t think to have this conversation sooner.”
“Don’t apologize. Better late than never. This is awesome!”
Michael’s face breaks into a grin to match hers, excitement thrumming through him to have discovered at least the tip of this iceberg. He has a language; he has a heritage; he has something amazing to help craft and decipher and preserve.
This is going to be amazing.