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Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge

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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. 

“Michael!” 

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.  

“You came!”

“‘Course I came.  I promised, didn’t I?”

“We got you some stuff! Your apartment is gonna be way more fun colors now.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“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.

“No.”

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.”

“Wasn’ boring.”

“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.”

“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.

“Hey, Alex?”

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.”

“Me, too.”

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.”

“Me, too.”

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.  

“Please, Michael.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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.  

“Michael--”

“N-not d-doctors!” 

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.

“P-please, Ezra?”

“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.  

“S-sorry. Gross.”

“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.”

“Ok-kay.”

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.

“An interview?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“Yeah.” 

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

“Did you feel safe during your placement at the Manes Ranch?”

“Yeah.” 

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?”

“No.”

“Did anyone during your placement at the ranch prevent you from getting medical attention?”

“No.”

“Do you understand that ‘medical attention’ includes the services of case workers who offer psychological counseling?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re aware those services can be made available upon request?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“Not really.”

“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--”

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.”

“Surprising?”

“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.    





Chapter Text

Alex sits on the floor of the bunkhouse, paralyzed by the shock of the horror unfolding, until Michael’s muted screams of pain reach Alex all the way in the bunkhouse.  The sound jars Alex into action, and he rises to his feet.  He’s out the door in an instant, but he trips as he crosses the threshold and lands hard in the gritty earth.  As he hurries to regain his feet he realizes there isn’t anything he can do.  If he goes to help Michael, Dad will kill him.  A cry of desperate frustration escapes him, and he pounds both fists into the dirt.  At least the screaming has stopped now.  Maybe Dad backed off.  Maybe he’s done. Maybe…

But if he’s done, then Dad might be headed back out.  He can’t see Alex out here.  Alex gets to his feet again, dusting dirt off him as best he can and ignoring the sting of the scrapes on his palms from the fall.  He goes back to the bunkhouse, which seems like an altogether different place now that Dad and Flint have ruined the little haven he and Michael enjoyed together.  He sits at the table head in his hands, waiting for the next phase of Dad’s unyielding retribution.  It could be five minutes or five hours from the time he takes his seat until Flint comes back; Alex is losing track.  He looks up from the table when the door opens, and, to his horror, recognizes the disheveled blonde Flint pushes into the bunkhouse.

“Charlie?!” Alex gapes in horror as he takes in the nondescript grey-blue uniform she’s wearing with an Antaran Medical Research number emblazoned where a nametag would be if it were a work uniform.  He rises slowly to his feet as Flint shoves Charlie toward one of the bunks.  “Flint, what the hell is this?”

“It’s your right of passage, little brother.  You said you could be a Manes man.  Now you’re gonna prove it.”

“Fuck, no! Charlie is--”

“Let’s get one thing perfectly clear.  It is not human. It was never your friend.  It’s little act of being nice to you and pretending to like your stupid emo music while it worked here was just a ploy to manipulate you.  It is a deceitful piece of space trash just like that specimen Dad is teaching a lesson out in the barn.”

“Flint, please--”

“What’s it going to be, Alex? You gonna fuck it to prove the perversion is out of your system? Or should I tell Dad to bring your little cowboy toy up to the house for a more dramatic end to the evening? The choice is yours.”

It’s not a choice, not really.  Because he can’t have Michael’s blood on his hands, not if there's anything he can do to save him. And he can’t bear the thought of living in a world without Michael in it.  But God, this price is too much.  They’re asking too much.  He catches just a slight movement from behind Flint, Charlie bringing her head up fully for the first time.  She makes eye contact and smiles--a grim, resolved farce of a true smile, but a smile nonetheless. She mouths “it’s okay.” By the time Flint turns to see what Alex is looking at, she has a vacant expression carefully back in place. 

Alex’s entire body trembles as he manages the first step toward her, and then the next, and the next.  Flint moves to pull a chair out from the kitchen table, but he turns it so he’s facing the beds.  Alex swallows down bile.

“Well, I damn sure c-can’t fuck her--it--if you’re just gonna sit there and stare. Turn the hell back around. Better yet. Go outside.” When Flint doesn’t move he musters a little more courage to taunt, “Unless you get off on watching your little brother fuck? Cause I think Dad would probably have a few opinions on that level of perversion, too.”

Flint rises to his feet, taking the single step he needs to be close enough to punch Alex in the gut.  “Don’t fucking talk to me like that, you little faggot.” Alex doubles over, gasping, but when Flint returns to his seat at the table, he faces the chair away again.  Once Alex gets his breath back, he resumes his walk to where Charlie waits between the bunks. 

“It’s okay,” she mouths again.

She begins to calmly undress, as though there’s nothing unusual about it.  His hands shake as he fumbles with the drawstring on his sweatpants.  Her hands cover his, pushing them aside so that she can take over instead.  He grits his teeth and closes his eyes as his pants pool around his ankles on the floor, and he steps out of them.  

She steps back from him, and Alex opens his eyes, willing the tears welling up not to fall.  Crying won’t help anything.  They won’t save Michael from Dad or save Charlie from Flint or save Alex from whatever they have planned next now that they know he’s not really a Manes man.  Charlie’s eyes remain fixed on his face, scrutinizing and unreadable.  He doesn’t know what to do.  He knows what they expect of him, but he can’t bring himself to actually reach out and touch Charlie--to start this heinous “right of passage” gauntlet they’ve thrown down for him.  Charlie takes a step into his space, leaning in close to him so that her long, blonde hair falls over Alex’s shoulder as she brings her lips to his ear.

“I can save you from this, if you can play along and keep a secret. Make Flint think this happened without you needing to do anything.  Unless, of course, you want to?”

“I don’t want this.” His voice is barely a whisper, terrified Flint will hear. “I just--I don’t have a choice because--”

“You’re supposed to fuck it, Alex, not make friends!” Alex flinches at his brother’s harsh tone. “Stop talking and--”

Flint’s words cut off, and Alex looks back over his shoulder to see Flint staring into space as if daydreaming.  He looks back to Charlie who gives a small smile and shrugs. 

“You have powers?” 

“Not strong enough powers, obviously, or I would have managed to get away by now.”  

She falls back onto the bed, still naked.  Alex stares at Flint, still baffled.

“As far as he knows, he watched you bend me over the bed and fuck me.  Just play along with it.  You’re welcome.” 

She musses up her hair and rumples the bed a bit before rising again and beginning to dress herself.  Alex follows suit, finally finding his voice a few moments later. 

“Thank you.” It doesn’t seem like enough.  Not nearly enough.  “I want to help you.  How can I get you out? Away from them? You shouldn’t--”

“I can take care of myself. I don’t need you to save me.”  

She flinches in apparent pain, closing her eyes as she holds her head and sits back down on the bed.  In the next moment, Flint starts to move again, rising to come clap a hand on Alex’s shoulder. 

“I honestly, didn’t think you had it in you.  Not bad.”

“You’re psychotic, Flint.” 

He smacks Alex hard on the back of the head.  

“Shut the fuck up and keep your emotional bullshit to yourself.”  He reaches down for Charlie’s arm.  She doesn’t resist as he jerks her up to her feet and stays pliant and unaffected as he pulls her toward the door.  “I’ve got to get the labrat back to its cage.  Dad’ll want you down in the barn.”

Fuck. 

Alex swallows hard, gathering himself as best he can, and walks resolutely to the barn.  He calls out, but no one answers.  There are some smears of blood on the floor, so Alex follows them down the aisle to the tackroom.  He gags at the scent of iron in the air and the sight of the horrifying pool of blood that stains the concrete in the middle of the floor, smeared a bit from where something--or someone--landed in it or was dragged through it.  His eyes land on a bloodied hammer cast aside on the table, and the splatter marks that leave no doubt it was used repeatedly.  Alex can’t figure it all out exactly, but it’s enough to know that even if his father didn’t kill Michael it was probably a very near thing.   

The first sob bursts out as almost a wail, and Alex tries to stifle it, pressing his fist to his mouth.  Crying won’t solve anything.  It’s pointless.   It won’t undo whatever they’ve done to Michael.  It won’t bring Michael back to him. Michael is gone.  

Oh God, Michael is gone. 

Michael is gone.

Michael…

Michael…

Michael...

“Alex, wake up!” 

Charlie’s firm voice pierces the veil of Alex’s nightmare, and he sits bolt upright, nearly tumbling off the couch in his haste to untangle himself from the sheets.  She takes a step back once he’s awake.  

“Sorry if I woke you.”

She shrugs.  “I don’t sleep much anyway.  You want tea? I’m putting the kettle on.”

“Sure, yeah, thanks.”

The light of dawn is beginning to stream in through the windows, around the edges of the blinds he almost always keeps closed.  He may as well stay up at this point anyway.  Not to mention that Charlie’s offer to boil enough water for Alex to have tea as well is the most words she’s uttered to him at one time all week.  He had hoped if he was able to get Charlie away from Dad and Flint and whatever hellacious place they had her that maybe she would find some happiness.  So far he’s had to be content that she at least doesn’t seem completely miserable here, and, unless it’s just willful thinking on his part, the emotionless mask of an expression she constantly portrays seems to be softening ever so slightly. 

Alex excuses himself to shower.  By the time he’s done, Charlie is already tucked into the armchair she inhabits so much that Alex has started thinking of it as “her” chair. She’s tucked under a fleece blanket, legs drawn up close, sipping her cup of tea as she studies the copy of her GRACE file that Alex gave her.  She must have been through the entire thing a dozen times by now, but she still re-reads it, as if she’s trying to memorize it all.  Alex still hasn’t read it--despite Flint’s comment that “of course you’d pick the pet that isn’t even a real female” and the direction that he should read the file and “know what he was dealing with” since “it’s more hassle than the usual ones.”   

Although Charlie did include enough water in the kettle for Alex to use, there’s no other effort toward making tea for him.  He can feel her eyes on him as he fills a cup and drops the tea bag in, adding a small spoonful of sugar.  Sometimes he wonders whether she’s waiting for something to be the last straw before he rages at her like Dad or Flint.  But whenever he comments on her watching--or tries to reassure that she’s safe, she huffs and rolls her eyes as if he’s being a patronizing idiot. So he’s given up on saying it.  

“I’m gonna scramble some eggs? Do you want some, too?”

“Sure.”

He works in relative silence and splits the four eggs evenly between two plates once they’re cooked.  Charlie comes over to sit at the table with him; even though they don’t talk, it’s pleasant, companionable silence.  They’re falling into a rhythm, which is what Alex had hoped would happen with time.  Even if they can’t escape their demons entirely, maybe this arrangement can at least be a peaceful place for both of them to escape their respective hells for a little while.

Charlie speaks just as Alex finishes his last sip of tea.  

“Is Michael the name of the Antaran they had in the barn that night?”  

Her eyes meet Alex’s as he sets his cup down carefully on the table.  He doesn’t trust his voice, so he just nods.  He wonders where the question comes from--and why she’s asking him now--but her expression is as frustratingly neutral as ever. He waits to see if she plans to pursue the topic further.  She pauses for a few more seconds before going on.

“You say his name a lot when you dream.” A slight frown crosses her face as she adds, “And you scream it at the top of your lungs when you have nightmares, like the one you were having this morning.”  

He nods again, looking away as he tries to push back the familiar scenes still fresh in his mind.  He brings his eyes back to Charlie’s with effort, hoping she can’t tell just how intimidated he is by the intensity of her gaze as she stares at him.  He feels like he’s running a gauntlet for her, but he isn’t quite sure what she’s expecting to glean from this subject. Still, he doesn’t want to shut down the conversation with her, especially not a conversation she initiated. 

“Flint called him your ‘cowboy toy,’” she recalls.  

No !” 

The protest leaves Alex’s lips automatically, it sounds almost like a growl. Charlie’s eyes widen in surprise--and maybe a little alarm?--and he hastily tries to rein his emotions back in.  

“I mean, yes, you’re right, Flint called him that but--but--Michael wasn’t-- isn’t a toy.” Alex’s stomach turns just thinking of the phrase and how easily his family applies it to Antaran people . He takes a breath and continues, “It wasn’t--wasn’t some game to me. We were--he was--” Alex chokes on the words, unable to summon anything that describes just what Michael meant, but he’s not sure he’s ready to share that anyway. He clears his throat   “But, yeah, he was working as a cowboy at the ranch. He worked with the horses, mostly, and some of the other livestock, nothing up in the house except helping out our maid.” A small gasp escapes her at the words and Alex clarifies, “She’s human.  She has a small maid service, and Dad just told her she could have Michael help with mopping the main room and dusting the taller shelves and things.  He wasn’t ever there when Dad and Flint were home.  No antarans are assigned to the house for anything anymore, not after…”

Charlie’s lips purse into a grim, thin line.  “After what Flint did to me?” she finishes for him.

“Yeah.”

“Good.” 

She studies Alex for a moment or two more in silence.  He wishes he knew what she was hoping to see in him. 

“So you swooned over Michael the cowboy and you said it wasn’t just a game, so you two had something more than that. But they caught you with him that night?” 

Alex nods, looking away as he presses his eyes closed.  He hasn’t spoken to a single soul about that night--beyond the lies he spun to Dad and Flint and GRACE to keep Michael alive.  

“You loved him, didn’t you?” 

He pauses for just a moment, taking a shuddering breath and nodding as he looks at Charlie again. 

“We loved each other .”  Saying it out loud makes it all the more real and all the more terrible, and the ache in Alex’s chest threatens to overwhelm him.  “But my family couldn’t accept that, and...”

 She tilts her head, considering.  “Did they kill him, afterward? No, they wouldn’t have. He’s too useful as leverage--if you were going to attempt what they wanted you to do that night.  He’s the reason you’re still playing this little GRACE game.” Alex nods again. “You make much more sense, now.  I couldn’t quite work out the dichotomy of you, but something about the way you were screaming his name tonight in your nightmare it just...it finally clicked that the Michael you were calling for was important .”  She frowns again.  “You could have told me, instead of making me work it all out on my own.”

Alex shrugs.  “It’s nothing personal against you; I swear.  I just--I’ve never spoken about him to anyone.  And, even if I’d known what to say or how to talk about him, why would you take my word for it?”

Charlie had made her well-founded suspicion of Alex clear from the moment she’d arrived here, after all.

“You’re probably wondering what you’re doing here.”

“Oh, I stopped trying to understand Manes men a long time ago.  It’s a waste of time.”

“I think--I hope--we can help each other, but even if you don’t want to help me, I still want to try to help you. I know that I can’t fix everything, but I hope I could at least make it better.”

Her eyes narrow in suspicion.  “You don’t want to fuck me; that much was clear that night at the bunkhouse.  So what do you want from me?”

“My family wants me to be something I’m not, so I’ve got to play a part to survive them--and to protect people I care about.  I can play that part better if I’ve got someone else on my side.”

“So what? You want me to be the co-star of your closet?” she scoffs.  “Little Antaran beard to play house with?” 

He grimaces at the blunt phrasing and sighs.  “I know how it sounds, and I know you deserve a lot better than a life like that.  I am asking you a favor--to help me keep up appearances with my Dad and Flint, and that will help me deal with them more easily and maybe make other things easier too.  But I also hope it will make things better for you.  And I hope that we can be--I dunno if ‘friends’ is the right word because I don’t know if you can ever really trust me that much but at least roommates or--or, hell colleagues or something? And figure out how to make this work so we’re both comfortable, and you set the boundaries you need and stuff--write out a whole list if you want, down to things as specific as not drinking milk right out of the carton.  And we’ll add and clarify and tweak as we go and just--try to make this work for both of us?”     

“Where is he now?” Charlie wonders, bringing Alex back to the present moment.

“Back in Roswell, at camp.”

“So you made a deal with the devil to save him.” Alex nods.  “Does he know?” Alex nods again. “Was he worth it?”

“Absolutely.”

She smiles at the instantaneous answer. “Hmm, interesting.”

“Interesting?”

“Yep, interesting.”   She shrugs, pushing her chair away from the table.  

“What does that mean?”

“Just food for thought on what makes you tick, Xander.”

Alex smiles, both at the use of the old nickname and because it’s another sign of the progress they’ve made.  She rises to head for the sink and wash her dishes, placing them in the drying rack before returning to her chair.  Instead of picking up her file again, she turns on the television, flipping through channels until she finds a nature documentary, as if there was nothing extraordinary about their conversation at all even though it’s the first real conversation they’ve had in weeks. Alex follows her lead, going about his morning, as usual, getting ready for work and slipping out the door with his usual, “See you whenever I get off.  Call if you need me.”

 


 

It was jarring for Alex, at first, to catch glimpses of his reflection--in the mirror, in the windows of office windows, wearing the GRACE uniform, impeccably pressed and put together as expected of probationary GRACE officials.  Now, it feels like Alex’s own personal armor.  Because an unforeseen silver lining to his hellacious childhood is that it made all the basics of GRACE orientation an absolute breeze. The look on the face of all the bullying jocks when the “IT nerd” kicked all their asses on the physical training assessments was pretty priceless.  It also painted a target on his back and ostracized him a bit, but, honestly, Alex was fine with that.  There were much worse things than being labeled the nerdy, emotionless, workaholic, hardass.  

“Morning, Probie,” his supervisor, Captain Corvey, greets as Alex sits down in his cubicle and immediately begins to pull up the necessary programs on his computer.  

“Good morning, sir.”

“I know it’s the last day of your probationary period, but that doesn’t mean you can duck out early on me to go celebrate.”

“Come on, Cap, you know Radar doesn’t have a social life,” Parker says, peeking over the cubicle wall to stare down at Alex.  “He’s probably celebrating his work achievement with extra work.”

“Good, maybe he can pick up some of your slack,” Corvey retorts.  

Alex allows himself a small smile.  “I’ll be here until five, sir, rest assured.”

“I know you will.  Keep up the good work.”

He claps a hand on Alex’s shoulder, and Alex managed not to wince.  Parker is still peering down at him from over the cubicle wall.  

“You really should celebrate.  We should grab a brew or something.  My treat.  Maybe it’ll dislodge that stick up your ass.  Some of the guys really are starting to worry that you're an android the Powers That Be sent here to replace the whole damn department singlehandedly. ”

“It’s not really my thing.” 

Alex expects the intensity with which he’s staring at his work on the computer would convey that he wants the conversation to end, but Parker is nothing if not persistent.  It’s been his personal mission to get Alex to talk ever since they met, and he has yet to be dissuaded by Alex’s lukewarm response to all attempts at small talk. It’s not that Alex doesn’t appreciate the effort.  In a different world, he would be excited at the prospect of friendship.  Parker seems like a pretty likable guy.  

But Alex isn’t here to make friends.  He’s here to get the skills and access and power that he needs to discover all the unspeakable things his Father loves about this fucked up system.  Because, if it’s the last thing he does, Alex is going to find a way to dismantle it all, piece by piece.  He’d realized too late that what he needed to protect Michael was the ability to expose his family’s legacy of Antaran abuse. He’d underestimated just how soulless his father was, and it had nearly cost Michael his life--a miracle it hadn’t cost both of them their sanity.  He won’t make that mistake again.  He’s going to assemble irrefutable proof of the corruption until he has the kill shot he needs to end his father’s abominable reign in the GRACE system--and take as many other sadistic assholes down as collateral damage as he can.  

“Come on.  One drink.” Parker’s wheedling brings Alex back from his mental sidetrack of daydreaming his vendetta.  “Have you even cashed in on the beauty of the lower European drinking age yet? Unless you don’t drink? We can get you something else if you want. No judgment.”

“I appreciate the gesture, but it’s really not necessary.”

Parker sighs.  “Okay, look, I’ll level with you.” The hushed tone catches Alex’s interest, and he turns back to face Parker.  “I made a bet with Hansen that I could convince you to come out with us.”

“Hope you didn’t bet much, then, ‘cause you’re gonna lose this one.”

“Is it ‘cause I call you Radar? Cause that’s supposed to be all in good fun. Ya know? Like--”

“I know.  I get the reference. I don’t mind.”

“Okay, then what is the problem?!”

“There’s no problem; it’s just not my thing.”

“Leave Probie alone, Parker,” Hansen says.  “I told you hell would freeze over before he wanted to go out with us.”

“I just don’t get it, dude. What’s one drink going to hurt?”

Alex sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose in annoyance.  He admittedly likes Parker better than Hansen, maybe just because he’s had more interaction with Parker.  He’s been declining every offer to hang out after work for months now, and he seems to be the only one who always refuses.  Maybe it is time to give in just a little bit to build some comradery.  Hard work can get him a long way, but the right connections--being liked by the right people--can also be useful.  

“One drink,” he acquiesces.  “And you don’t bug me about it again for at least a month.”

“Deal! One hundred percent,” Parker says.  He turns to Hansen.  “You owe me 20 Euros.”

“I do not.  You had to annoy him into agreeing to it.”

“So what? He’s still coming.”

“It doesn’t count!”

Alex tunes out their good-natured bickering in favor of turning back to his work.  Corvey always compliments him on how fast he’s grasping everything.  He has no way of knowing Alex had a decent head start understanding GRACE technology and software interfaces before he ever arrived.  Now, he’s got to get enough understanding of the system’s big picture to learn where to dig for the information he needs.  

 I’m going to get us leverage...My hacking skills that I used for bullshit distractions...I’m going to find something--God knows there’s got to be plenty...I am going to find a way to set us free of them...

 


 

When Alex gets home from work, Charlie isn’t in her usual armchair.  

“Hey, Charlie, I’m home.”

It isn’t surprising that she doesn’t call back, but it is surprising that she doesn’t appear.  Usually, even if she’s not up for conversation, she takes a moment to assess him--like she’s wondering whether this is the day he comes back from GRACE with the same cruelty as Flint and Dad. It always takes at least five or ten minutes for her to relax again--or as close to relaxed as she ever is.

“Charlie?” 

The bathroom door is open, and she’s not there.  She’s not in her bed.  It’s a small, one-bedroom apartment; there’s no other obvious place she could be.  

“Charlie?!”

There’s no sign of struggle at all.  The door was still locked when Alex arrived home.  She isn’t stupid enough to try running away; she knows Dad implanted a GPS tracker before he arranged for her to accompany Alex--an unsettling, unforeseen, and haunting consequence of Alex’s half-baked semi-rescue of bringing her here with him. 

“Charlie?!”

The door or the wardrobe in the corner slowly creaks open. “Here.”

“Are you okay? Are you hurt? What the hell happened?” 

He hurries to the wardrobe to find her sitting on the bottom of it with her legs drawn up tightly to her chest, face pale, and eyes wild.  She’s clutching a steak knife in her right hand.  Alex freezes.

“Charlie?”

“You’re late.”

 Her voice is carefully measured, conveying none of the panic and tension visible in her body language.  

“Yeah, I had this quick thing after work.  I didn’t think it would worry you.  I’m so sorry. I should have called.”

Except you don’t usually seem to show all that much interest in what I’m up to, so I figured you wouldn’t care what time I got home.  Apparently I was very, very wrong.  

“It’s fine.  Just threw me off.”

“I’ll make sure to tell you next time.  Can I help you get up?” 

He extends his hand slowly.  She shakes her head.  “No.”

“Anything else I can do to help?” 

“Go away?”

“Okay. Sure, I’ll give you some space, but, if you need anything, just shout.”  He pauses before turning away. “Just--one thing though? Don’t hurt yourself with the knife?”

“It’s not for me.  It was for whoever opened the wardrobe if it wasn’t you.”

He represses a shudder at the steely tone, but nevertheless, it’s a relief to know she wasn’t planning on harming herself.   

“I’ll probably throw together some pasta for dinner.  I’ll make plenty, so come help yourself whenever you’re hungry.”

She pulls the door to the wardrobe shut again as Alex leaves.  He goes about making dinner, constantly second-guessing himself for leaving Charlie on her own to manage whatever fear and panic his actions caused this time.  But she asked Alex to give her space, and, from the research Alex has done, it’s important to respect that. 

Of course, there’s no handbook on how to assist in the recovery of a person who’s been the victim of his psychotic brother for years following the initial incident of assault.  He wonders for the millionth time whether he should just read Charlie’s file and know exactly what he’s up against as he tries to make things better for her.  But she’d been so clearly relieved when he said he hadn’t read her file--if there were things in there that she wanted to share, she’d have shared them.  Alex won’t be another Manes man invading her privacy and stripping her of autonomy. 

Charlie finally emerges from the bedroom long after Alex has finished eating.  She doesn’t speak, but she comes to take the plate Alex set aside on the kitchen counter, which he takes as a good sign.  He keeps his focus on the task at hand: scrubbing the layer of pasta that stuck to the bottom of the pot because he got lost in thought and forgot to stir often enough. When Alex finally finishes, he sets the pot to dry on a spare dish towel, drying his hands as he turns from the counter. Charlie’s fork falls to her plate with a clatter, and he startles at the sound.  

“Charlie? What’s wrong?”

She stares, transfixed, at the luminescent mark on Alex’s forearm.  

“Oh, I--um--that--”

“You idiot ! Cover that up!” She’s on her feet and pressing a dishtowel against his arm in an instant, as though the mark is a bleeding wound that needs pressure applied. “What the fuck is wrong with you?! You can’t ever let anyone see that; you understand me?! Ever .” She holds his arm so tightly Alex won’t be surprised if it bruises.

“Wait, Charlie, do you know what it is?! Do you know why it’s there?! Because I’ve been trying to figure out how to get answers, but--”

“No! Absolutely not.  Stop looking for answers.  You shouldn’t draw attention to yourself anyway.  It doesn’t matter what it is or why it’s on your arm.  You just--just make sure no one sees it, and everything will be fine.  That’s all you need to know .”

“I thought it was a bruise at first, but it’s not. It doesn’t hurt, and it hasn’t faded as a bruise would.  The way it glows, I know it’s something Antaran.  It means something. There’s a reason it’s there. I’ve been covering it up--all it takes is a little foundation--and I wear long sleeves too--because I wasn’t sure what it meant exactly, except maybe something to do with Michael.”

“Well, learn to do a better job covering it up.   You’d better shower in a fucking long-sleeved shirt from now on if that’s what it takes.” 

“So you do know what it means.”

“Maybe we could even find some other permanent way to cover it up--drastic times and drastic measures and all.  If you survived your family for eighteen years, you’re tough enough to--”

“You don’t just know what it means.   You know, and it terrifies you.”

She glares at him.  “You admitted yourself that you haven’t figured out how to hack this GPS unit they buried in my spine, so, if you get pulled into a research facility because you couldn’t manage to hide that mark, then I go back to your brother.” 

Her voice is even and calculated, and Alex wishes she would just yell at him--he deserves it.  He shouldn’t so much as sleep until he has an escape plan for her; he promised to keep her as safe as possible; he just didn’t realize how difficult his plan would be to carry out when Dad threw the GPS wrench into the works.

“Charlie, I’m so sorry. I’m working on it.  I swear. I’ve been on limited access with my probationary period, and honestly, hacking into information about your GPS unit is a lot more complex than I--”

“It’s fine.”

“I know that I promised--”

“I said it was fine , Alex.” Her tone of finality has him smothering his urge to keep apologizing.  She draws in a deep breath and closes her eyes. “The point I was trying to make is that life was already hell, and that was before Flint had any reason to think I might have information about this .”

The words sink in and Alex’s mouth runs away with him, curiosity driving the conversation instead of decorum.

“If you know about all this--that means they research it through GRACE--whatever it is? Is that what this mark is?  Did you see something or hear something when you were in the research facility? Do you know--”

“You don’t get to ask me questions about any of that!” She shouts, pointing an accusatory finger at him as her calm reaches its breaking point.  “We agreed , Alex, and you fucking promised not to pry as long as I promised to tell you if I needed something, so--so fuck you, Alex! I’m not your goddamn tutor in Antaran torture! It’s not my job to wade through those levels of hell again just to educate you.  I’m not--You can’t--I’m not--” 

“You’re right; you’re absolutely right. I’m sorry.”  

“Stop apologizing and just---just-- fuck! ”  

She turns away from him to sink heavily into her chair, resting her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.  Alex approaches her slowly, taking the few steps needed to abandon the kitchenette for a spot on the sofa, still close but not invading her space too much.  He almost puts up his hands in a show of goodwill as he sits, but realizes at the last moment it would mean putting the mark on his arm in full display again.  He pulls his sleeve down carefully, making sure the mark is hidden before he lays the dish towel aside.  

Alex swallows as fear starts to overshadow his curiosity.  Charlie never shouts; Charlie never loses her composure; she’s so stalwart that it’s downright unsettling sometimes; she may show fear and have involuntary responses to triggers Alex doesn’t always understand, but underneath is always a buffer of calm that seems to be unraveling for the first time.  

“Charlie, I don’t want to--to push you too hard.  I know that I promised never to ask you questions.  That’s why I never brought this up but, now, that you’ve seen this mark, if you can just--if there’s anything you can tell me.  You don’t have to say how or why you know anything.  I trust your word for any information you’ve got. I don’t want to make you relive bad memories, and I know it’s not fair to ask you to for this. But I can’t just go around covering this mark up my whole life and not even try to find out what it is-- especially if it’s something that’s really important to GRACE--I need to understand what I’m protecting us from, so I know how and why and when to take those drastic measures you mentioned? We can--we can talk about what might cover it up better--more permanently? A tattoo? Or--or even a scar maybe? or--whatever else you think would work.”

She stays silent, studying him with pursed lips. Alex waits with bated breath, hoping she’ll say something more, even if just the tiniest detail.

“I don’t know if a scar would even work,” she says finally.  “I don’t want you to hurt yourself for no reason. I just--” She pauses, taking in a measured breath.  “GRACE thinks it’s a symptom of a terminal interspecies disease. It’s one of the reasons they use to justify the rules to keep Antarans and humans from getting too close--and maybe the source of some of the darker rumors that go around about what happens to humans who fuck Antarans. The technical term for all the research is APIC--Antaran Phosphorescent-Induced Coma. The name was coined a long time ago, when the first cases were being recorded in the 40s and they thought the phosphorescent properties were contagious like a--I dunno, like how humans get rashes from poison ivy or something?  Anyway, it doesn’t matter because none of the humans call it that anyway.  They just purposefully mispronounce it as “A-Fuck” and call it the “Antaran Fucker Disease” but it’s not--they’re too blind to understand that it isn’t really about sex, but maybe that’s a good thing.  They’re stuck on the physicalities.”

  The bitterness and pain in her voice make Alex ache, and quiet fury burns in him at the endless atrocities Dad and Flint are certainly capable of in “researching” the physical effects of antaran-human intercourse. 

God, Charlie, how have you survived them all this time? How many people are still stuck there? How much dirt am I going to need to save all of them from my family, too?

“The humans who get the marks don’t always show symptoms right away, but, in every case that’s been brought in for research, the human patient eventually slips into a coma and withers away. They’re obsessed with figuring out the exact cause and how to cure it because they’re worried it’s our “secret weapon” against humanity.  That we’re going to turn into mythical sirens or something, luring in masses of humans with evil alien powers to be infected and then finally carry out the ‘uprising’ GRACE has been ‘suppressing’ all these years. It’s insane , but they’ll try anything they can pull out of your worst nightmares if they think it might help them to figure out the ‘cure.’”

Alex studies her face as she continues to stare at his arm, as though she could see the mark through the cotton of his sleeve.  She doesn’t look revolted or worried that Alex is doomed to die.  She looks a little awestruck, honestly, almost reverent; it’s easily the softest expression he’s seen on her face since she arrived in Berlin.

“But you don’t think it’s something that needs a cure, do you? It’s not really as malicious as they think it is?”

“No,” she confirms quietly, “at least, not if the stories I’ve heard are true.”

“What stories? Antaran stories?”  She nods but doesn’t offer more.  “Charlie, please, if you know the truth about--” 

“All you need to know is that GRACE is wrong.  It’s not a disease, and it won’t kill you. Don’t worry about what the APIC will do to you, that mark isn’t anything to be afraid of; just worry about what GRACE will do if they find out. They will ruin your life and the lives of everyone you care about--hell, everyone you know --anyone who’s so much as said “hello” to you---if anyone else ever sees that mark. You understand?”

“I understand how important it is to make sure no one finds out, but the stories--could you tell me what you’ve heard about--”

“No,” she says simply.  “You don’t really want to know, anyway, Alex, even though you think you do.  Knowing the full story won’t help you; it doesn’t matter; it just gives you more pain to bear and more secrets to keep. ”  She pauses and pinches the bridge of her nose like she’s starting to get a headache.  “Honestly, even telling you all this puts me a hell of a lot further out on a limb than I care to be with a human, even you; so just---trust me? You’re always telling me to trust you , so now it’s your turn to trust me when I say don’t worry;  don’t look for answers;  keep it hidden at all costs; and hopefully, gods willing, that’ll be enough to keep it from fucking up both our lives. Okay? Please?”

Alex wants to pursue his argument.  He wants all the information he can get.  But there’s no mistaking the earnestness in Charlie’s voice as she declares he’s better off not knowing.  And asking Alex to trust her on this is the biggest request she’s made in the months they’ve been rebuilding their friendship.  He can’t deny her this.  He’s asked too much of her already.

“Yeah, okay, Charlie.  I trust you.”

She offers him a slight smile and rubs absentmindedly at her temple. 

“Your day has been way too eventful,” Alex comments.  “Can I make you some tea or something?”

“Sure.”

It gives Alex a reason to give her some space.  She turns on the television and finds one of her go-to nature shows.  Alex has seen it at least four times now, so there’s no telling how many times Charlie has watched it.  He doesn’t mind, though, and he never comments on the repetition.  There are much worse stress relief options than watching fluffy woodland creatures for hours on end.

 


 

Every Friday, Alex uses the little brass key to check the mailbox in the lobby of the building.  Sometimes there’s nothing; sometimes there is mail addressed to the person who occupied the apartment before him; sometimes there are the utility bills waiting to be paid.  There’s never real mail.  

Except that today there is.  It’s a nondescript, white envelope with neat handwriting that Alex doesn’t recognize adorning the front.  The return address says it’s from someone named Gregory Deschene in Roswell, and the name stirs a memory of Mom smiling at him. “Gregory will be here soon. Go get your shoes on. He’s got an early birthday present for you.” 

Alex braces one hand on the cache of mailboxes, trying to ground himself and just breathe through the unexpected memories.  He berates himself for the tears that gather in his eyes, brushing them away.  He can handle the innumerable triggers from all Dad’s hellacious parenting with barely a blink.  Why should an unexpected memory of Mom be so unsettling?

And Gregory...who the hell is Gregory?

Alex retreats to familiar ground as soon as he regains his bearings enough.  His heart is hammering in his chest, and he forgets entirely to call and announce himself to Charlie.  Luckily, she’s seated in her usual armchair so it doesn’t matter anyway.  She rises to her feet in alarm though, so it must be pretty obvious that Alex is unsettled.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I don’t think; it’s dumb. I just--I got mail. I never get mail--not personal mail.  I just--I think it’s something to do with my mom and I--I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me.  I haven’t even opened the stupid thing.”

“Sit, Xander. Don’t forget to breathe, either.” 

Charlie points to the sofa, and Alex follows the directive gratefully.  He realizes that he’s clutching the letter so tightly that he’s crinkling it up so he lets it drop to the coffee table.  Charlie brings him a glass of water, taking a seat next to him on the couch.  She reaches slowly to put a hand on his shoulder. 

“What do you need?” 

“I don’t know. I guess I just need to read the stupid thing--I just--I don’t know why I’m freaking out. This is stupid.  I’m being stupid.  I--”

“You’re freaking out because you don’t have enough information.  Let’s open it.  Then you’ll know if it’s about your Mom or something else, and we’ll deal with it.”

“Right, you’re right.”

“Of course I am. I’m always right.” 

She grins, and Alex manages a strained smile in return. They’ve come leaps and bounds in their report ever since she saw the mark on his arm.  He still wishes he understood more about it, but, whatever else it might mean, it’s done more to convince Charlie to trust him than he could’ve imagined.  For now, he’ll count that as a win and bury his burning questions for as long as he can. 

He turns his attention back to the letter, reaching to take it in hand and carefully break the seal.  Inside is a piece of notebook paper folded into thirds and a card folded in half.  He opts for the letter first, opening to read the words scrawled out in blue. 

Dear Alex, 

First of all, I hope you had a happy birthday.  I know the sentiment is months too late, but it took me a little while to figure out your address at your GRACE duty station.  I’ve always heard Berlin is a cool place. I hope you’re enjoying it there.

Since Flint still says he doesn’t remember me, I’m not sure if you would either.  You haven’t seen me since you were about five or six, and I was twelve. I’m guessing that your dad didn’t really mention me much after our mom died, but I’m your half-brother, Greg.  Once Mom died, your Dad was determined there was no reason for me to be part of your life, or Flint’s.  I’ll spare you the particulars (but I’m happy to answer questions you might have as best as I can).  The main reason I’m writing is that, since you’re eighteen now, whether you want me in your life is your choice to make, not Jesse’s, and, for what it’s worth, I hope you choose to reach out.  

Write back. Give me a call. Come for a visit next time you’re stateside.  Whatever you’re comfortable with works for me.  I’m just hoping for a chance to get to know at least one of my little brothers better. 

 

Sincerely,

Greg

 

P.S. I thought you might not have a copy of this picture, and you should.  It’s one of my favorites of all of us. 

 

Alex realizes that what he’d dismissed as a folded card is actually a photo, folded to better fit in the envelope.  He opens it up slowly, and tears flood his vision as Mom’s smiling face stares back up at him from the photo.  She’s on the tailgate of Dad’s truck at the drive-in.  Alex recognizes himself as a child, sitting in her lap and grinning at the camera. Flint sits on her right, and a young boy with dark hair and kind eyes sits on her left.  

“Greg,” Alex recalls softly, brushing his fingers over the image.  

He doesn’t remember this picture, but he remembers the face, now.  Though the memories that accompany the connection are fuzzy, not one carries anything ominous. 

“Greg?” Charlie repeats, glancing down at the photo Alex is holding.  “Who…?”  He offers her the letter to read, which she does. “Oh, wow, this is…”

“It’s weird, right? Ridiculous? That I could just forget I had another brother? What kind of--” 

“Hey, memories from early childhood are fickle anyway, even if you didn’t live through your adolescence in the Manes house on top of that.  From the sound of that letter, if there’s anyone to blame that your memories of Greg faded, it’s your father.” Alex can feel her eyes on him as he continues to study the picture.  “But Greg is right. You’re eighteen now.  You could choose to know him, if you wanted to. You’re not stuck with just Flint and your dad for family.  That’s good news, isn’t it?”

Alex shakes his head.  “Everything my family touches turns to crap, Charlie.” 

“Don’t lump yourself in with your dad and Flint.  You’re--

“We both know Dad would probably go ballistic if he found out.  If he’s really spent over a decade hoping to keep Greg away from me, it might be safer for everyone if I just ignored the letter.” 

“It might be.”

He tears his eyes from the photo to look at Charlie.  “It sounds like there’s a second part to that observation?”

“Not to be pessimistic, but is there really any such thing as ‘safe’ where your dad and Flint are concerned? It’s just as likely that getting to know Greg could be a proactive protection for him, especially if you can warn him to some degree about just how insane your dad and Flint are so he doesn’t ever stumble blindly into something he shouldn’t.”

“I guess.”

“It’s your choice, obviously.  Just don’t martyr yourself where you don’t have to.  You deserve to have good people in your life--and Greg probably does, too.”

Charlie makes an irrefutable point about safety being an illusion where anything regarding Dad is involved.  There’s already a sort of yearning ache in Alex’s chest at the idea of having a family member out in the world who doesn’t hate him--who doesn’t talk about Mom like she left on purpose, or try to pretend she never existed--who isn’t caught up in shoving Alex into a mold so he can honor this twisted GRACE legacy he never asked for.

And, for what it’s worth, I hope you choose to reach out….Write back. Give me a call. Come for a visit next time you’re stateside.  Whatever you’re comfortable with works for me.  I’m just hoping for a chance to get to know at least one of my little brothers better…. 

Alex doesn’t know exactly how he’s going to manage it without Dad catching wind of it, but he’s going to find a way to respond to Greg’s letter.  Maybe an email he can cloak with enough security to prevent Dad from connecting it to him? Maybe a burner phone? It sounds paranoid and over-the-top, but it would be worth it to keep Dad’s wrath away from the situation. For the first time in more years than he cares to count, the thought of family stirs a smile and a sense of hope, and it’s not a gift Alex is going to take for granted.  

 


 

“Hey, sleepyhead.”

Michael’s breath tickles Alex’s ear as he speaks.  His soft lips meet Alex’s in a brief kiss, and he pulls away to give Alex space. Alex glances around as the version of the bunkhouse his good dreams manage to assemble comes into focus.  He’s forever grateful the dreams finally stopped conjuring nightmares of Michael broken and sobbing under his old bunk or huddled on the sofa.  They were a useful way for his subconscious to keep reminding him that he couldn’t trust Dad’s word that Michael was okay as long as Alex went off to GRACE like he was supposed to, but, thankfully, his subconscious seems relatively satisfied that the more specific deal he struck with Dad when he found Michael in that hellhole in Geneva is something he can rely on.  

Now his good dreams feature a rendition of Michael who looks truly happy, hair blowing just slightly in a non-existent breeze as the golden rays of sunset light make his golden curls shine.  He’s looking down at Alex, apparently trying to decide whether or not to join him on the bunk. 

“What’re you waiting for?” Alex wonders. “C’mere.”

It’s all the encouragement Michael needs, and Alex sighs contentedly as Michael climbs onto the mattress with him and puts most of his weight on Alex.  Nothing else in the world grounds him quite like this sensation.  

“You’re tense as hell; this is supposed to be a dream, Alex. Relax.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize; maybe it just means we start off with a dream massage?”

“Won’t that hurt your--”

“Dream physics, remember? It might look like hell, but it doesn’t ever hurt here.” Michael holds up his left hand, which bears the scars of the damage Dad inflicted That Night.  Alex can’t pull his eyes away until Michael lets it drop again, as he sits up from his lounging position.  “Speaking of dream physics, I wonder if the dream hiding spot has massage oil.”

“You don’t have to--”

“I want to,” Michael kisses him again, slow and sweet, lingering in Alex’s space afterward.  “Please? Unless you really don’t want to.”

“Of course I do--I just--You’re good?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

The dream hiding spot does indeed have massage oil, with a relaxing jasmine scent.  Alex lets Michael help him peel out of his clothes.  In his dreams, he still gets to wear the old band t-shirts and favorite jeans that went up in flames in the real world when Dad used everything in Alex’s room to fuel a bonfire before he shipped him off to GRACE training. Michael strips down to his boxers, before joining Alex on the bed again.  He starts by massaging the tense knot of muscle at the base of Alex’s neck, and works his way across each shoulder in turn, coaxing Alex’s body to release the stress it's holding and just relax.

“You wanna tell me about it? Whatever is stressing you out so much?”

Alex sighs.  “Charlie, mostly.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that you’re doing a good job? You overanalyze like hell trying to understand how to support her psychologically; you give her somewhere safe to--”

“But that’s the thing--she’s not safe. I can’t figure out how to hack that fucked up GPS unit Dad implanted, and I can’t control if--when--Dad pulls her back to whatever level of hell Flint had her in. I can’t afford to believe she’s safe enough.  I deluded myself into thinking you were ‘safe enough’ and wasted time I should have spent figuring out how to--”

“Okay, so maybe she’s not perfectly safe, but she’s respected and cared about and she’s got choices--real choices, and that’s a helluva lot. And what happened to me wasn’t your fault, Alex. You can’t control your family.”

“I’m not giving up on that either.  I’m still going to find a way to get you free of my dad.  I think the digging I do to help Charlie is actually going to overlap with that, so--”

“Alex, you’ve already done more than enough for me.  I’m okay; I’m happy being back at the Roswell Camp; I hate that you’ve already sacrificed as much as you have for me. Don’t keep bargaining away pieces of yourself just to--”

“It’s worth it to--”

“No, it’s not I--”

“Stop,” Alex requests. “Can we please not have this debate again? I hate it.”

“Yeah, well that makes two of us, so would you just go ahead and admit I’m right so we can move on? ‘Cause let’s face it, I’m always right.”

“Cocky,” Alex mutters though he smiles as he doles out the insult. 

“Oh, is that what the kids are calling it these days?” Michael rolls his hips against Alex so he can feel that Michael’s already getting hard.  “When did ‘well endowed’ go out of style?”

“Nope, cocky is most definitely the word I’m looking for. Or maybe macho cowboy swagger?”

Michael laughs at the old joke, and Alex turns his head to cran his neck just a bit, eager to see how Michael usually throws his head back to laugh and the way his eyes crinkle with mirth.  He hopes that someone in Roswell really is making Michael laugh like that--even if it makes Alex’s heart ache that it can’t be him...  

 


 

When Alex’s phone rings at three in the morning with Dad’s name on the caller ID, dread floods through him.  Alex has become used to the weekly check-in and listening to Dad review every detail of the work report he has Alex’s supervisors send so that he can micromanage Alex’s “promising” GRACE career.  Not once in all these months has Dad called unexpectedly, though Alex has no doubt his father has plenty of other ways of keeping an eye on him.  An unplanned call--especially in the middle of the night doesn’t bode well.

He has the fleeting thought that maybe Dad or Flint have been hurt in an accident, and hope and guilt flood his emotions in equal measure.  He takes a breath and answers the call.  

“Dad? What’s wrong?”

“We need to talk.”

“It’s 0300 here.  Can it wait?”

“I know how to tell time, son.”   The steely tone of his voice sends a shiver through Alex, and he flinches. Stupid, stupid, stupid, you never ask him to wait.  “Not everything is about your schedule.  I’m a busy man.” 

“Yes, sir.  I wasn’t thinking.  I’m sorry. What was it you needed?” 

The meek words feel sour in Alex’s mouth, like all the conversations with his father, but he’s getting better at stomaching the role of the obedient, respectful son.  The relative protection that five thousand miles of distance adds doesn’t hurt either. 

“Your little pet is making an annoyance of himself.” 

Alex’s chest constricts at the words as he tries and fails not to remember the shell of himself Michael had become by the time Alex found him and garnered this fragile deal to get him away from Dad.  Alex is out of bargaining chips; he doesn’t know how to protect Michael if Dad calls off the agreement. He closes his eyes, drawing in purposeful breaths to keep from reacting with too much emotion.  

“What’s he done? And how would you like me to handle it, sir?”

“Well, I’d like for you to put a bullet between his eyes and have done with it, but I know you’re too sentimental for that.”

  It’s a bluff.  He likes having Michael as leverage to control me. He wouldn’t really kill him--wouldn’t ask me to.  It’s a bluff. It’s a bluff. It’s a bluff.  Deep breaths.  Keep calm.  It’s just a bluff.

“He’s disruptive to the way I like to run my camp, and I want him out of sight and out of mind.  My first thought is a toss-up between sticking him to the invalid ward or the psych ward, but, if you can come up with a better plan, I’ll entertain it.  You’ve done a helluva job holding up your end of this deal, Alex.  Every report I get from your supervisors is better than the last.”

And loyalty is rewarded in this family…

“Thanks, Dad.”

“So think on it, and, if there’s somewhere you’d rather I put him, let me know in the next twenty-four hours.”

“Yes, sir; I’ll weigh the options.”

“How’s the other one? Any problems?”

“No, sir. No problems.”

“Well, if you get bored, just let me know, and I’ll push the paperwork to bring her back and get her out of your hair. Flint seems to think you’ve had plenty of time to practice with her and keeps whining about it.” 

Alex swallows the bile that rises in his throat.  The idea of Charlie back under Flint’s control is intolerable.  He can’t protest too vehemently, but he feels it would be a mistake not to push back at least a little. The bedroom door opens slowly, and Charlie stands silhouetted against the frame, listening in.

“I know I don’t have the clearance to know the full details, but I was under the impression he had plenty of other options to keep him busy without her?”

“Even so, your brother never was very good at sharing his toys or at being patient.  It has been nearly four months now.”

“Yes, sir, I know.  But it’s less about practicing with her at this point and more about just having an easy way to blow off steam that doesn’t interfere with my work.  I don’t want to change up an arrangement that works when I’m still just getting started over here, really; I mean, in the grand scheme and all. I don’t want to get derailed with unnecessary distractions; I just want to keep things simple and stay on the Manes path, Dad. ”

“You make an excellent point, and I’m glad to hear you always thinking of the big picture, son.  And you’re brother is a grown-ass man.  He’ll just have to remember that he isn’t the only son entitled to enjoy some GRACE resources while upholding the family legacy.” 

Loyalty is rewarded in this family…

Alex fights the urge to vomit.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I’ve got work to get back to.  We’ll talk soon.”

“Yes, sir.”

The line goes dead without a goodbye, as usual.  Charlie doesn’t speak, and it’s too dark for Alex to get a read on her expression.  

“Don’t worry; you’re still staying here. He just kind of mentioned it casually, not serious plans to try to move you soon or anything.”

“Making any progress on the GPS problem?” 

“Not as much as I’d hoped.  I found the schematics, but it just confirms what we assumed already--the lead that connects to your spine would definitely paralyze if not kill you outright.  There’s no room for error, and no just removing it without plenty of medical equipment and knowledge involved.  If I can figure out how to cloak it--sometime that could reroute the signal…”

“So nothing that you can manage anytime soon,” she surmises correctly.

“Not yet,” he admits.   “I’m--”

“Don’t apologize. It’s fine.”

She comes further into the room, arms crossed defensively across her chest and face completely blank.  Alex hates being unable to read her emotions, but he’d bet on there being plenty of anger, disappointment, and fear running rampant for Charlie right now. 

“Why did the warden call?”

Alex sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.  “He wants Michael out of the general population at the Roswell camp.  He’s giving me the chance to propose an alternative to just shutting him away someplace on a pretense.”

“Oh, so then, will you bring him here, too?”

“No, that’s part of the deal.  I don’t ever actually get to see him.  But he gets to stay in Roswell--where the rest of his family is.  That’s the important part. Now, Dad’s tired of it apparently, so he’s twisting the deal.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  I guess I just hoped we’d make it a little longer before he started trying to throw wrenches into things.”

He runs his fingers through his hair, already trying to sort out the options that might work on this short of notice.  He needs Michael safe, but it needs to have enough legitimacy behind it to have Dad buy into the plan.  Like most conversations with his father, Alex will have to find a way to navigate a figurative minefield where one misstep could decimate everything.    

“I’ll just--just have to call in some favors and figure something out before tomorrow I guess.” 

“Doesn’t sound like it’s a problem you’re going to be able to just sleep on,” Charlie comments.

“Definitely not, I don’t know what I’m going to work out, but I have to find something besides letting Dad lock him up in the psych ward for no good reason.  I can’t call out of work to deal with it or he’ll blow a gasket.”

“You should go take a shower to clear your head and wake yourself up.  I’ll make us some coffee.”

“Really?”

“I’m up anyway. I don’t mind.” She shrugs as if it’s no big deal. “If it helps you to talk through the problem, I can try to work through it with you.  The best bet is probably a work placement, right?” 

Relief floods through Alex at the statement.  He’d been too blinded by panic to start working on solutions, but Charlie’s thrown the lifeline he needed to start formulating plans.  Of course , that’s the answer. Alex just has to figure out a placement that will be safe and not miserable.

“Yeah, you’re exactly right.”

“I’ll look up AWP requests in Roswell while you’re showering.  That way, you can run through the ones he’ll hate the least and start calling as soon as you’re done.”

“You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“I know how important Michael is.  I want to help.”

“Thank you, Charlie, really.”

She smiles.  “I’ll even put reruns of Buffy on for background noise. How’s that sound?”

“Guess we are overdue for a rewatch, aren’t we?  Wasn’t sure if it was still your thing.” 

“It’s not perfect, but definitely forever a special place in my heart for the teen drama and angst of it all.  Might skip over the episodes with the fucked up research on non-humans, but otherwise, let’s watch a badass blonde kick some demonic ass.”

“Sounds good.”

As Alex steps into the shower, he can hear the opening theme of the musical episode carrying softly through the walls. It distracts him just enough to keep the panic at bay, and renews his overwhelming gratitude for the goodness that remains in Charlie despite the hell she’s been through.  He vows to reinvigorate his work to find an escape route for her, just as soon as he finds someplace to keep Michael a little farther from Dad’s crushing grasp.

Chapter Text

Sunday dinners at Naomi’s quickly became Michael’s favorite part of the week.  After some convincing, Ezra started to join him, and much more quickly than Michael expected Naomi’s place started to feel like home.  He lets himself pretend it’s a safe space, somehow buffered from whatever may be going on in the outside world, even though he knows deep down that it’s an illusion. 

“You’re so good with him,” Aleta says with a smile at Michael and a nod towards her son’s retreating form as Michael comes to help with the dishes from dinner.  

            “He’s a good kid,” Michael replies. “It’s not that hard.”

            “Ever think of settling in a little? Having a family of your own?” she wonders.  

            “Honestly?” Michael says, “I never really understood why anyone would want to bring a kid into this kind of life, but--” he glances toward the table where Luke is now happily setting up a battered game of “Candy Land” to play with his father and Naomi,  “Luke’s childhood looks a lot different than mine did.”

            Because while there were wonderful memories of his years with the Evans family, there was never the easy love and acceptance that encompasses Luke.  The Evans took it as their job--and technically it was their job--to teach their Antaran charges how to be more palatable to human society.  

            “And that’s why we decided to make a family here--why my mother decided to make a family here.”

            “Wait a second… You were born here? On Earth?” Michael blurts unabashedly.  “But-- you know so much about everything. You know a hell of a lot more than I ever did, and I lived almost a decade of my life on Antar.”

“My parents taught me,” she explains, “just like Evan and I are teaching Luke.   That’s how we keep Antar alive, Michael, instead of just letting our entire culture die away.  We build our families and make better lives for our children, and we bring our history--our community--into that better world.”  

She reaches slowly to take Michael’s left hand gently in her own, conveying the familial warmth and affection she has for Michael--her genuine happiness at having him here. 

“I know that we’re still getting to know you, and I don’t pretend to know what your life has been.  I hope that eventually, you’ll feel comfortable enough to share as much of your past with us as you want, too.  But even if I hadn’t heard stories and rumors for years about you, it isn’t difficult to see that you’ve been through some of the worst iterations of life on this planet as an Antaran.  I see the anger and the frustration in you; but then I see the kindness you have for me and my family, and it’s so clear that you have the kind of heart that could help make a real difference...for all of us.”

“I’m not--” Michael interjects.  “I’m just….me.   Max and Isobel are the ones who--”

“They do great work,” Aleta says, “but you could do great things, too, in your own way.”

“Is this about those linguistics classes Naomi wants me to teach?” Michael guesses, “because you don’t have to try so hard to sell me on it. I already--”

“It’s much more important than just trying to convince you to help out with something.  I’m saying it because--whether you want to help out with those classes Mom mentioned to you or not--we hope you understand that there’s a whole culture and community here for you to embrace--to support with your talents.  You always talk like you don’t have anything to offer, but, first of all, you aren’t earning the right to be Antaran.  You are Antaran.  This is your culture and your heritage, and it’s important that you contribute to the culture not because it will help us--which of course it will--but because I think it would help you start accepting that you do belong.”  

Michael doesn’t have the words for an answer, so he focuses instead on conveying his emotions in Antaran.  He still needs practice homing in on what he wants to share, but in this instance, it’s probably helpful to his point if he’s transmitting too many emotions at once. Aleta smiles at him, putting her other hand on his shoulder.

“I know you’ve had a lot to process--that you’re still processing.  Take your time with all of it--just know you’re not alone.”

Michael smiles and nods.  “Yeah, I know.”

He just still can’t quite believe it…. 

 


 

Even though he’s been in camp for nearly six months now, Michael still jumps every time someone knocks at the door of his apartment.  It seems silly to need the deep breath and silent reminder to himself that Warden Manes hasn’t shown any interest in him since he arrived.  The initial spike of panic is followed by the momentary ache of half-wishing he was back in a world where Alex was the only one who knocked; and then, guilt that he would ever wish for a world where he hadn’t been able to come here and make the connections he has and share knowledge that’s so clearly precious to his people.  Overall, it’s entirely too much of an emotional roller coaster to ride every time someone knocks at the damn door.  

            He opens the door to see a middle-aged woman he’s never met before standing in the hallway.  His first thought is that she’s a neighbor from somewhere in the building coming to borrow cooking supplies--which he was surprised to find out happens around here, and it’s not just some kitschy neighbor thing from human movies. Except she doesn’t look like a person here for a casual conversation about whether Michael has any sugar.  Her eyes are wide and bright, and she’s smiling, although a bit nervously.  

            “Hi, can I help you with something?”

            “I hope so.  My name is Creda Thomas.  Are you Michael?” He nods.  “A few of my friends said you might be able to help me with a project I’ve been working on for--” her eyes well with tears as her voice cracks just a little  “for my whole life really.” 

            “I--uh--hope I can help, too, then. Would you like to come in?” 

            “If it’s not too much trouble? You’re not busy? I heard you’ve joined in with the work that Naomi Cioban and her family were doing.  It sounds like the kind of thing that would keep you pretty busy?”

“I’ve got some time.” 

Michael opens the door fully, ushering Creda inside.  Eager to get a better understanding of the situation, Michael offers his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Creda.” 

She takes his hand, and he brings his other hand to the handshake, too, hoping she’s receptive to speaking their home language. Creda looks a little apologetic as she breaks the handshake without adding both her hands as well, silently declining his offer.  Michael still marvels at the number of Antarans who choose to forgo telepathic communication.

“I’m sorry.” She averts her eyes as she rubs at the back of her neck.  “It’s silly, especially when you hear what I’m going to ask, that I don’t want you to--and if--I guess it’s only fair.  If you prefer--” She reaches a tentative hand toward Michael, but Naomi has made a point of ingraining what an important personal choice it is; Michael doesn’t question Creda’s decision.  

“English is just fine.  Have a seat, if you want.  Can I get you a glass of water or something?”

“No, thank you.” 

She settles onto the futon and Michael takes a seat at the other end of it.  She puts down the tote bag she carried in and reaches in, coming back with a small, wooden jewelry box.  She sets it almost reverently between the two of them and opens it slowly.  Inside are what seem to be several letters.

“Your project?”

“Yes.” 

“How can I help?”

“They say that you know some of the written language. Is that really true?” 

“Yes, but with a general disclaimer.”

She smiles.  “Horus said you would say that.”

“Horus--oh, I remember.  I met him a few weeks ago, I think? When I was helping Naomi with one of her dinner groups.”

The dinner groups are the innocuous cover Naomi concocted for the small sessions where Michael tries to slowly spread literacy to Antarans who are interested.  It’s not against the rules for the language to be taught, but everyone has long-associated Antaran literacy with the risk of getting designated as AUI--and then disappearing to medical and psych wards. 

“The same disclaimer I give everyone is that I don’t remember learning the language.  It’s just kind of--always been? My siblings and I solidified it as we were learning to write English with our AFP.  I can’t promise you that what I know is accurate or--”

 “Michael, I have been trying to translate these for as long as I can remember.  Even after all these years, all I have are best guesses and speculation.  Even if what you know isn’t some perfect lexicon, it’s--it’s truly amazing.  Don’t you see that? I’ve never met anyone who knew more than twenty or thirty words.  You’re fluent.

He bites at his lower lip, averting his eyes from the adoration in her voice, and huffs a small laugh.  “I just feel like everyone should know there’s a chance that what I think is Antaran is just some weird cluster-language my siblings and I--”

“Horus was right; you don’t have any idea what a treasure you are for us.” She shakes her head. “I’ve heard you’ve had a lot of success these past few months.  They say you translate all sorts of things--books, documents, etchings in heirlooms? If you’d made it up on your own, words written by other Antarans wouldn’t make any sense, right?”

“That’s the general thought on it.  I just--like to be upfront about things.”  He gestures to the letters.  “You’re hoping I can translate them?”

Creda nods.  “They’re from my father.” The words catch in her throat and tears gather in her eyes again.  “Before he--they--” She wipes tears away with the sleeve of her shirt.  “Sorry, my blubbering doesn’t help anything.  This is why I didn’t come.  It’s just silly, emotional things.  Nothing important, not really, and not as important as some of the books and things they’ve probably shared with you, but, well, they’re important to me.”

“Emotional things are important, too,” Michael says, “and personal records of our people are just as important--if not more--than really boring books about Antaran agriculture, not that they don’t have some relevancy, too, just...there’s only so much a guy needs to know about fertilizer techniques.”  He offers what he hopes is an encouraging smile, “So these are letters from your father?” he prompts.  

  She nods. “I only have a few memories of him, and then a few stories I remember my mother telling me--that he was away at another camp helping to build things, but he loved us and missed us and would see us soon---that might have been her reading me these, but...I was only four or five when…”  

She takes a shuddering breath, apparently trying to calm herself. Michael braces himself for the sucker-punch feeling that usually accompanies stories like this. She closes her eyes.  

“We crashed in late 1961.  My father was an engineer on the ship, so they identified him right away as someone important to GRACE goals.  My mother and I went to the Australian camp, but I don’t know where he was--if he was there and just separated or somewhere else entirely.  They realized by the end of the year that my mother was valuable to them too, I guess? They called her to the administration building one day, and I never saw her again.  I never got any more letters--from either of them.”

Michael is fighting tears, too, by the time she finishes.  “I’ve put in inquiries through the system and things, but I never found anything definitive.  Records still get lost now, much less back in the 60s.”

“I’m so sorry. That’s--unimaginable.”

“No, that’s just life on earth for us,” Creda counters with a bitter laugh, eyes catching on Michael’s scarred hand for a while before bringing her tearful gaze back to his face. “Anyway, I would be so appreciative of anything you could translate from these.”

Michael nods, reaching for the letters.  He turns them over to see that they’re addressed in English “Marta Wilson, GRACE-Australia, Building 17, Unit 22.”    

“My mother.”

Michael shuffles through the six letters to examine the dates on the GRACE postal processing stamps and start in chronological order. He opens the oldest letter bearing a process date of March 7, 1962.  It’s just one page, front and back, written in blurred pencil and messy handwriting that looks a lot like Michael’s.  

“Ready?”

She nods, biting nervously at her fingernails. He points to the first symbols on the letter.  “You may already know, but this, up here, is her Antaran name--I’m not as good with names, but it seems like a juxtaposition of the characters for hope and beauty.”  He points to a second glyph farther along in the wording.  “I think this one is your Antaran name?”

“Yes, it’s--it means something like belief or faith?” Michael nods. “She taught me to write it before she was taken.” She gives Michael a watery smile.  “Please keep going?” 

Michael clears his throat, feeling, as always, the magnitude of this glimpse into the past he’s providing when he translates for anyone--but especially anything personal.  

“Yeah, of course.” He takes a breath. 

“Marta, my love, I pray to the gods you and Creda are safe and happy. They have promised us that once we provide all the information, they need we will be returned to our families. I hope to be with you very soon. Please do not worry about me. I am okay and my injuries from the crash have all been treated and healed. The work here is much like my work back home, and I pray it will help both our people and the people of this planet move forward together.  I have met other antarans who have been here longer and who help me with the adjustments.  I hope that you and Creda are also making friends and settling into this new place without too much fear.  Does she have supplies there to draw? I hope so. If she does, and, if you can write back to me, please tell her that Dad would love one of her pictures. I will hang it on my wall here and think of you both every time I see it.  I already think of you both so often and miss you so very much.  Join me in praying for the swift reunion of our family. Until then, please hold each other close and take good care of one another.  I love you.”

Michael makes his way through the letters, and the ache in his chest and churning of his stomach get progressively worse with each letter containing her father’s well-wishes and declarations of love and assurance and hope that they will all be back together soon.  They’re precious mementos, but knowing that GRACE permanently fragmented the family that Creda’s father so fervently dreamed of reuniting…

“Thank you,” Creda manages through her tears once Michael is done with the last letter.  “Thank you so much. I--” She leans in to embrace him tightly, and Michael has gotten this reaction so many times he’s prepared enough not to shy back.  “Thank you.”

 


 

            “Hey, Old Yeller! Get your ass over here; the Warden wants to see you, now!”

            Michael closes his eyes, biting back a retort to the unoriginal threat from the CO.  After months of this, his body has finally stopped reacting by freezing completely in panic, but the fear must still show in his expression or eyes because they still chuckle and find it amusing to keep up the “joke.”  He thinks he recognizes the voice as Pompeo--unofficially referred to as “CO Pompous”--and barely suppresses a groan of annoyance.  Not only does Pompous like the sound of his own voice too much, but he’s also not intelligent enough to manage witty insults--just cringeworthy, overused slurs that annoy more than wound.  

            Like a fucking gnat I can’t swat, Michael broods. He doesn’t turn to face Pompous and tries to keep his head down as he tosses the bag of garbage he’s collecting into the pushcart. Sometimes if they don’t get a rise out of him, they just go away.

            Far from leaving Michael in peace, Pompous jerks his arm, forcing Michael to turn and face him.  He’s just an inch or two taller than Michael, but enough that Michael has to look up slightly, adding to his seething annoyance,

  “Are you deaf, Guerin? Or just too stupid to pay attention to orders? I said the Warden wants to see you.”

            Michael glowers at him.  “Didn’t anybody ever tell you the story about the boy who cried wolf, CO Pompeo?” 

Michael takes great pride in the acquired skill of using the COs’ proper titles in a tone that makes them sound like an insult.  He smiles in mock, wide-eyed innocence as Pompous glares.  His grip on Michael’s arm tightens painfully. 

            “Joke’s on you, space trash.”  The sneer that follows the statement is accompanied by a malicious glint in his eye.  “The Warden did send for you. He’s waiting down at the clinic.”

            “N-no, that’s--I don’t--”

            “You don't get an opinion about the orders you’re given, Guerin.  You just get to decide whether we do this the easy way, or if I call for back-up and drive you over to the Warden doped up in a straight-jacket.” He smirks.  “Although honestly being doped up might make whatever the warden has planned easier on you.”

This isn’t real.  It’s just another layer of their sick joke.  He’s not serious.  The Warden hasn’t bothered me in months; why would he now?

But there’s never a point in trying to understand the motivation of the Warden. Pompeo takes the cuffs from his utility belt.  

“Hands out.”  

Michael does as he’s told, praying as the cuffs click closed that Pompeo is just taking his scare tactics to the next level.  Pompeo can’t possibly miss the fact that, despite Michael’s best efforts to just breathe and stay calm, his hands are shaking.

It’s okay if he notices.  If he can tell he scared me, maybe he’ll drop the prank. 

Denial is the only thing that helps Michael keep his composure as Pompeo steers him to the waiting truck and starts to drive toward the clinic.  He can’t accept this is real.  Because if the Warden wants him at the clinic, this is bad. For once, he wouldn’t mind so much being the butt of another of the CO’s jokes.

 Maybe it’s a big ruse because I wasn’t reacting enough to the threat anymore...Maybe there are a lot of them in on it...It’s probably a game.  That’s it...I bet they made bets for how long I could keep it together before I believed I was going to have to see the warden.  I just have to keep breathing and call the bluff; that’s all.  It’s a fucked up prank; I’m not really going to the warden.  It’s just a fucked up prank. 

Despite his desperate attempts to rationalize reasons this isn’t happening, Pompeo continues to drive toward the clinic.  He glances over at Michael every few minutes, and his smirk is bigger every time.  Michael uses it as a reason to further the faint hope that this is all some twisted game, but whether it’s a game or not, Pompeo clearly intends to take him in the clinic--and Michael isn’t sure his composure is up to that challenge.

They pull into a parking spot near the clinic door, and Pompeo comes around to pull Michael roughly out of the passenger side of the truck by his harm. Michael stumbles, caught only by Pompeo’s bruising grip.  He feels unsteady, shaky in the way that accompanies surges of adrenaline. His heart is pounding so loudly that he can hear his blood rushing in his ears, and his pulse just keeps getting faster and faster the closer they get to the front door. 

“You know, I would say you should calm down because it’s probably nothing to be afraid of...but....we both know that’d be a lie; don’t we, Guerin?”  

Please let this be a prank. Please let this be a prank. Please let this be a prank.

But Pompeo delivers him to the reception area, and, if the glare from the woman sitting behind the desk is any indication, she either remembers Michael from his stay at the clinic after the incident with Alex or, at a minimum, she knows his reputation.

“Delivering Guerin, as requested by the warden.”

Before she can respond, another orderly rises from a station behind her.  Michael definitely remembers her, and the absolute fury on her face as she blessed him out for what she’d been told he did to Alex.  

Fuck.  

“You can follow me, Officer.  Right this way.”  

Please let this be a prank. Please let this be a mistake. Please, oh, please. Fuck, fuck, fuck! Or did Alex’s bargaining for me finally run its course?  Is he tired of playing his father’s game? Is this an intake for the research ward? What else could it be? Why else would the Warden waste time on me?

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.  

Pompeo herds Michael down the hall to follow the orderly.  Honestly, he’s supporting at least half of Michael’s weight as he stumbles over his own feet. Pompeo shakes him hard.  

“Jesus, Guerin, pull yourself together and move, you idiot.”

“N-not on p-purpose.” 

Bile rises in his throat at the pathetic sound of his stammered excuse.  Pompeo rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t comment further, apparently satisfied enough for the response to forgo dragging Michael into the exam room.  

“I’ll let Dr. Fitz and the warden know he’s here once we’ve got him secured.  If you wouldn’t mind, Officer, could you assist while I get him under control?”

“N-no, you d-don’t have to--I w-won’t--”

“Oh, quit blubbering like a goddamn baby,” Pompeo orders. “You gonna cry like a baby, too? Have a shred or two of fucking dignity at least.”

He all but slams Michael down onto the table and Michael only barely suppresses the urge to fight against the hold as they secure the straps across his chest.  Chills of panic sweep over him as the orderly unlocks one of the cabinets to retrieve a vial and syringe.

“P--please d-don’t.”

The orderly purses her lips.  

“Good to see you’ve learned a little more of your lesson than last time we met, she comments, though she doesn’t slow in her task.  “But the warden was very clear in his instructions for how to control the situation and keep your rage disorder under control.” 

 She injects the pale blue liquid into Michael’s bicep, and the too-familiar burning sensation of the drug trails down Michael’s arm. In his mind, he hears the Warden’s cold, calculated voice almost as clearly as if he were in the room.

It’s such a shame that your rage is so pervasive…If only you’d managed to calm yourself down...But with the way you’re remaining so frantic, mindlessly struggling...I have no choice but to make sure you don’t hurt yourself any further. After all, it’s my responsibility, really, as your guardian and as a GRACE official to save you from yourself...Step one of getting that mouth of yours under control….

Once the sedative has immobilized him completely, they leave Michael alone in the room, struggling to keep enough presence of mind to just breathe as his panicked thoughts continue to run rampant.

I may have acknowledged that you were too useful to kill, but there are much, much worse things than death for space trash like you…

Do not assume that the conversation you overheard between me and my son in any way negates my control over you...

Michael berates himself for being naive enough to start putting down roots here, but even as he curses himself, he doesn’t regret the connections he’s made with Naomi and her family and Ezra and Ben and all the other antarans who’ve helped make this place start to feel like home.  Whatever happens now, they won’t be able to take away these last few months and all he’s learned. The realization calms him just a bit until he realizes that he may have been selfish in pursuing those relationships so openly.  

Until now, Max and Isobel have been the only antarans at risk when Michael becomes the target of the warden’s wrath, and, while the warden could no doubt hurt them if he wanted, they at least have some protection from their status as icons for GRACE success and their personal and professional networks.  Michael’s found family at camp doesn’t have any of those protections--no one to notice if things go awry, no one to push for answers if the warden wants to use them to hurt Michael.   

You know how I operate by now, Guerin.  You know that I am absolutely unyielding in dolling out consequences when people get in my way--and you know that there is never, ever an option where I don’t get my way--It is only ever a question of how difficult you make things for yourself and the unfortunates who are associated with you….

Except for the life of him, Michael can’t figure out what the hell he may have done to get in the warden’s way and piss him off this much--not that the warden ever really needed an actual reason to vent his anger on Michael. Still, at least if Michael knew what he’d done he could gauge how much fury is about to rain down on him and the people he cares about. 

            “Hello, Guerin.”

            The sound of his name in that all-too-familiar tone sends a chill through Michael as if he’s been doused in ice water.  Only the paralytic in his system keeps him from physically recoiling because his muscles and memory desperately want Michael to go tuck himself into a corner of the room and curl into the fetal position in preparation for whatever comes next.  The warden comes into his field of vision, looming above Michael with a pleased smirk. 

The Warden takes a hold of his chin.  For just a minute, Michael wonders why the wiring on his jaw doesn’t grind painfully against his gums, and then he remembers that they’re gone--that months have passed.  Just as Michael pulls himself back to the present, the Warden turns Michael’s head to the side, so that he’s looking to the left.  Dr. Fitz sits on a stool beside the table, pulling out the table extension to rest Michael’s arm out straight. For a moment Michael’s mind jolts back to watching as the surgeon spent hours reconstructing his mangled hand. He whimpers, and the warden chuckles.  

            “What happened to the carefree Antaran who’s been strutting around camp without a care in the world? Not as brave and well-adjusted as you’d like them all to think?”

             I haven’t been strutting around! 

Michael manages an indignant grunt, but all it gets him is a smack to the face.  It stings, which confirms for Michael that he’s been given the paralytic but not the painkiller and adds another level of fear to this ordeal.  The warden turns Michael’s head back to face him, and the familiar cruelty in Warden Manes’ eyes reminds Michael that he can’t afford to make thoughtless outbursts with this monster.

“Haven’t you learned yet to mind your tongue, Guerin? Or do you need another lesson?” Michael’s breath catches at the threat.  Almost grateful for the paralysis that keeps him from cowering back from the suggestion.

“I asked you a question, boy.  You’d better at least try to answer me, or I’ll have to assume you need the lesson.” The warden smiles at him.  “Remember, it’s my duty to save you from yourself by helping you behave.”

For one moment, a rebellious urge keeps Michael silent.  He doesn’t want to give the warden a win, and his pride balks at consciously letting out the pathetic whimper the warden no doubt wants to hear.  But there is no one here to see his brokenness because there is no one here to save him.  Wherever Alex is, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care this is happening.  Michael’s pride has to defer to the interest of survival, and Michael isn’t sure he could survive another round like before in the warden’s care--even if he could survive it, he’s not sure that he’d want to.

Michael musters up a quiet whine, and the warden’s smile becomes a grin.  “That’s more like it.” He turns Michael’s head back toward his left side again, where Dr. Fitz still sits. Dr. Fitzgerald is going to give you a quick examination to clear you to work the off-campus AWP assignment I’ve arranged for you. If you’re able to manage your little do-gooder side projects, you should be able to manage a simple job that’s of some actual use.”

            AWP? Where? Why? If you arranged it, it can’t be anything good. Why can’t you just leave me alone? Isn’t it enough that I’m trying to blend in with the camp population? Why are you so pissed about that?

Wait “do-gooder”? Are you angry I’m helping out with the dinner groups and things with Naomi and Aleta? Why the hell do you care? I didn’t even think you’d know about that. But it’s harmless. It’s not anything. 

            Oh, fuck, please don’t hurt any of them just for knowing me. 

“Let’s see how my work has held up, shall we?” Fitz’s tone is casual and light as if this is a normal checkup and not an elaborate dance of psychological torture. Michael watches as he uses his pen to trace the lines of the scars on Michael’s hand.        

            Please let it just be psychological. Please don’t actually do anything.

“I don’t know, Warden,” Fitz says with a hum of apparent disapproval.  “The hand is so damaged--even after months of healing.  It still doesn’t seem all that useful.  Maybe amputation is the better path forward. ”

This time Michael doesn’t have to think about forcing a whimper; the pathetic cry just rips from him with painful force, fueled by unadulterated panic.  

No! No, please, no. Please don’t. Please. It works pretty well; all things considered.  It’s gotten a lot better the last couple of months.  I didn’t let the muscles atrophy.  I did all the exercises.  It’s not perfect, but it works.  It’s worth keeping. I could even prove it if you want! I could show you right now, except I can’t move because...

Oh...oh, right.  You’re on the warden’s team.  Neither of you cares how it’s healing.  That isn’t what this is about, is it? It’s just another level of this sick game with the warden? 

Please, please gods, deliver me from this. Let it be a sick game.  Please don’t make me watch while they take off my hand completely.  Please, please, please. 

“You know, I think we’ll just discuss Guerin’s options with him for now,” the warden says, turning Michael’s face once again so he’s staring up at the warden, squinting against the brightness of the overhead lights to see the steely gaze looking down at him. “Because, honestly, it would be a lot of trouble and paperwork to amputate that hand completely--just like it would be a lot of paperwork to muzzle you by wiring your jaw shut again--but don’t mistake that I will take those steps without hesitation if you cross me, boy.  

I know you’ve been making friends in camp.  That family that runs one of the textile stalls; a couple of the managers at the camp garage; the little ‘dinner groups’ all-around camp trying to play the part of happy families like you people are anything close to civilized. You just seem to make friends with everyone.”  He crossed his arms in front of his crest, still glowering down.  “My problem is, I can’t fathom just why the hell they would care about a worthless, broken piece of space trash like you.”

Because they’re my people--my friend--my family.  But you’re too psychotic to understand that kind of love.  Please don’t hurt them because of me.  I didn’t even do anything wrong. They don’t deserve to be hurt because of me. 

“Because the only thing of interest in your pathetic life that I can think of is your time with my family.”  

Michael makes what he hopes comes across as a noise of protest at the accusation hidden in the statement. He can’t let the warden think for a second that he’s been running his mouth about the warden’s business. 

“No?” the warden interprets correctly. “Good to hear that you haven’t lost your sense of discretion, then, Guerin.  Maybe I won’t have to dole out off-campus placements to break up all your little friends after all.  It’s another step that would lead to a lot of headaches and paperwork, but one which I will happily implement if I find out any of them have wormed their way into my family’s personal business.” 

I didn’t tell them anything.  They already knew AUI status and AWP at the ranch were bad.  I didn’t have to explain anything.  You don’t have to split them up. Please don’t let me be the thing that ruins the lives they’ve built here.  Please, please, please. 

The warden studies Michael a moment or two longer and then sighs.  “Well, regardless, I don’t care for you--being a known trouble-maker and violent offender and all--strutting around camp and being a bad influence on our unproblematic, reliable camp residents.  Dr. Fitzgerald will sign off on your medical evaluation for off-campus work placement.  Once that’s finished, they’ll drop you off at your placement this afternoon.”

            He bends down and grips hard at Michael’s chin even though Michael couldn’t turn away if he wanted to. Michael can feel the revolting sensation of the warden’s hot breath on his face as he continues. 

 “You’re headed to some family friends of ours who are the only thing standing between you and a decent back into medical research hell with me.  Ms. Deluca was a high school friend of mine, and she needs some budget-friendly help with a business she owns.   If you cause problems, I will hear about it.  So, you are going to follow every goddamn instruction she gives you to the letter; you are going to do impeccable work; you are going to keep your head down and remember your place; and, so help me God, Guerin, if I catch even a hint that you’re running that smart ass mouth of yours or making trouble of any kind, you will be right back here in an instant.  I will strap you back down to this table myself so that you can watch while Doc saws through your bones and then listen to the two of us debate whether to wire your tongue down again or just remove the damn thing altogether. And that’s not even touching on the plans I have for your little friends from camp if you step out of line, do I make myself perfectly clear?”

Michael’s terror outweighs his pride easily, and he manages a small, scared sound that the warden seems to accept as an indication of understanding.  He leans back out of Michael’s space and stands up straight, still grinning.

“Doc, unless there's something else you need from me, I’ll leave you to get all the paperwork in order and turn Guerin over to his work placement coordinator once everything’s settled?”

“Nothing else I need, I’ll get his treatment plan squared away as we discussed.”

Treatment plan? What does that mean?

As the door clicks shut behind the warden’s exit, Dr. Fitzgerald sets to work out of Michael’s view at the computer in the corner.  The sound of his slow typing competes with the clicks of the clock on the wall.  

If it’s something you and the warden cooked up together, then it’s a bullshit treatment plan.  But you’re not taking my hand; you’re not wiring my jaw shut; what else is there?  I don’t need you people getting fucking creative on me.  Weren’t the threats he just doled out enough? I fucking know he’s psychotic enough to follow through on it. I know what happens if I piss him off.  I don’t need more “treatment” to get the point across!

Dr. Fitzgerald leaves without another word to Michael.  Michael counts the ticking of the clock in a desperate attempt to distract himself from the rabbit hole of worry about whatever plans they have for him next.  He keeps losing count of the seconds that tick by, but he just restarts again.  It’s about the distraction, not the time itself.  Because if he lets himself think about how powerless he is, about all the things that the warden and Fitz could cook up for Michael’s “treatment” and his complete and total powerlessness, he’s going to lose it.  

He focuses hard on closing his eyes, trying and failing not to remember how desperately he’d wished he could while they operated on his hand all those months ago.  

I’m not gonna think about being here. Gotta imagine I’m someplace else. Someplace better.  I just need to breathe and picture somewhere else--anywhere else….  

I’m in the bunkhouse with Alex, he tells himself.  I’m at the bunkhouse with Alex.  

He can’t believe he manages to fall asleep despite the adrenaline coursing through his system--grateful that maybe the paralytic helped him somehow? Because instead of being strapped to the exam table, helpless in the clinic, he’s suddenly lying on a cot in the picturesque bunkhouse that serves as the backdrop for all his best dreams.

“Michael?”  Alex is sitting at the foot of the bed, taking Michael’s hand gently as he looks down at him with a frown of concern.  “What is it? What’s wrong?”

With effort, Michael manages to sit up, he’s not paralyzed here, but he’s not his usual self either, encumbered even in his subconscious by whatever concoction they administered. He reaches to wrap his arms around Alex, clinging to the soft fabric of his t-shirt and burying his face in Alex’s shoulder.  Alex holds Michael close, one hand coming up to the back of Michael’s neck to steady him and rub soothing circles.

“Hey, I’m here. I’ve got you. You’re okay. It’s gonna be okay.” Michael tries to find words, but there are none to convey the new levels of terror welling up inside him in the wake of the warden’s latest threats.  “You’re shaking, Michael.  Fuck, you haven’t been this scared since---in a long time.  What happened?”

“I should’ve known--wasn’t safe--from him,” Michael manages to get out. “Stupid to think…”

“I know; I know; he never stops, but it’s going to be okay.  There are hoops to jump through in the meantime, but if we can just keep our heads above water...”  He pulls away from Michael just a bit, enough to rest their foreheads together, and God, it’s impossible not to feel a surge of hopefulness when Alex swears, “one day, I’m going to figure out how to get you away from him--to make you really safe.  I promise.”

“All of us safe,” Michael corrects--it’s just a dream anyway, might as well wish for it all.  

“Yeah,” Alex agrees.  “You sound a little better--are you--do you want to talk or?”

“I had a place at Camp--I had people for the first time in--well the first time ever, really.  I should have known better than to let them see me being any kind of happy.  It just gives them more leverage.  Now...they’re talking about what they’ll do to the people I met if I don’t toe the line at this hellhole of a placement I’m headed to, and some bullshit new treatment plan...I just...fuck, I’m so fucking tired of being scared.”

“The placement will be okay.  You’ll be okay, Michael.  I swear. It’s--”

Michael is ripped from the comfort of Alex’s arms by the sharp pinch of a needle in his arm, waking him as an all-too-chipper male voice says, “Good afternoon, Guerin.” As Michael blinks through the residual emotions of the dream, trying to ground himself back in reality, someone hits the button to tilt the table upward so that Michael’s almost in a standing position.  

“I’m Mr. Johnson. I’ll be your placement coordinator. Don’t try to speak just yet. Nurse Chettly explained you were medicated for your exam this morning, and its effects are just wearing off.  She just administered a counteragent that should help expedite things.”  

Michael thinks he might recognize the nurse from his last stint at the clinic, but he really can’t be sure.  

“So, I’ll just give him a dose of his usual medication before you head out,” the nurse says to Mr. Johnson.  “Then everything they’ll need to know at his placement about administering the recurring doses is in the printout from Dr. Fitz.  Make sure to stress how important it is that it’s followed exactly.”  

Michael makes an inquiring hum, drawing the nurse’s attention.  She gives him an exaggerated smile, the kind that should be reserved for small children.  He knows before she keeps going that her voice is going to change to a “talking to a dumb Antaran” tone, and holds back a groan of annoyance.  

“Nothing for you to worry yourself about, Guerin. Your diagnosis and treatment plan has been explained to Mr. Johnson, and he’ll get everything to the humans at your placement.  As long as you comply, you shouldn’t have any problem.  You don’t have to worry about any of it.  They’ll manage your treatment plan for you.”

That’s exactly what I’m worried about...

 


 

            Compared to some of the stuff they dosed him with while he was designated AUI, the new drugs aren’t so terrible really.  He feels a little groggy, and it’s hard to focus on anything they drive by before it’s gone from view. 

            “Not feeling sick, are you? If you think you’re gonna be sick, don’t puke in the truck if you can help it,” Mr. Johnson says.

            “Um…” It takes Michael a few extra moments to process the words and get the reply out. “No, I don’t feel sick.”

            “Okay, good. Just let me know.”

            “…yeah, I will.”

            By the time they reason their destination, Michael has the unpleasant sensation that he’s interacting with the rest of the world through some thick glass filter.  Like everything is just an exhibit in a museum, safely separated and protected from Michael.

            Or maybe I’m the one in the museum?

            “What was that, Guerin?” Mr. Johnson asks as he turns off the engine. 

            Michael hadn’t meant to say anything out loud, but now that Mr. Johnson points out that he did, Michael tries to backtrack and find the memory. It should be right there; it just happened. But nothing quite comes into sharp enough focus to be sure. 

            “Guerin? Is something wrong?”

            “...No.”

            “Okay, let’s get going then.  Ms. Deluca is waiting on us.”

            He climbs out of the truck and starts to walk around to the passenger side.  Michael slowly unbuckles his seatbelt.  The ground feels just a little unsteady beneath his feet as he stands, absorbing the sight of the building in front of him.  There’s a giant neon sign declaring it “The Wild Pony.” 

A thin, graceful woman comes out. She’s wearing a flowy lavender top that compliments her tawny brown skin beautifully.  She walks with easy elegance and her smile is small but kind.  She emanates an air of peace, and Michael can’t quite wrap his mind around the concept of this woman being a good friend of the warden. She doesn’t look all that stern or unforgiving. Of course, neither did the Evans family, but when it came down to it…

Michael pushes the thought away and focuses on walking. 

 “Good afternoon, Mimi. I know we’re running a bit behind schedule. I hope it’s not any trouble.”

“Oh, you’re barely late at all, Heath, and we’re closed on Mondays anyhow, so it’s a minimal workday for me anyway. ” The woman--Mimi? Is she Ms. Deluca?--turns her attention to Michael, much to his surprise. “You must be Michael?” The use of his first name brings another layer of confusion.  “I’m Mimi Deluca.  It’s very nice to meet you.”

What game is this lady playing?

            Michael nods, regretting the choice instantly because it throws him off balance just a bit, and he stumbles in the gravel of the parking lot.  She reaches to catch Michael before he can fall, taking one arm as Mr. Johnson grabs the other to steady him.  Michael has the bizarre thought that he might sink down into the dust if they let go, like he’s mired down in quicksand.  He wouldn’t mind so much if that did happen; maybe the earth could just swallow him up, and he could be done with playing games. 

            “Are you okay, Michael?” She sounds genuinely concerned.

Mr. Johnson answers before Michael can process and respond himself.  “It’s some side effects from his medication.  That’s part of why we’re late, actually.  During his medical assessment before leaving camp, they realized there was a need for a new treatment plan, and it includes new medications.”

“I see.”

“They should get better as his system adjusts.  Everything you need to know about him is inputted into his chip; instructions for the medications are on the bottles.  It’s extremely important that you follow the directions that Dr. Fitzgerald included for administering everything, and call him if you have any questions.” 

“Oh, okay.” She looks a little daunted by the prospect. 

The bottles rattle inside the brown paper bag as he hands it to her.  It seems too large to hold just a bottle of the pills like they gave Michael at the clinic, but he doesn’t let his mind linger on what else might be in the bag.

Ms. Deluca’s smile is still present, but strained now.  “Well, let’s all get inside, and get you settled, then, okay, Michael?”

She says it like he’s here for a friendly visit, not like he’s the hired help.  But kind words are easy, Michael can’t let his guard down just yet. He breathes slowly, trying to ground himself and be present.  The first interactions are important. They set the tone of the AWP and help him figure out how to act here. He’s got to get his mind to focus if he’s going to absorb any worthwhile information.  But he barely manages one foot in front of the other without listing to one side as they walk into the building.  

It’s a restaurant and bar from the look of it--pool tables, darts, and a small stage, but also plenty of booths and tables for seating.  There’s a board behind the bar that lists “Out-of-this-world Nachos” as the special for the evening.  The only other person inside is a human who looks to be about his age, regarding him with mild curiosity from where she’s just finished writing the special on the board. 

“Michael, this is my daughter, Maria. I believe you met her briefly at the school once? At a theatre workday?”

Michael swallows hard, recognizing Maria now that her mother has provided him with some reference.  He wonders if Maria blames him for Alex’s suspension that day.  She saw firsthand what kind of trouble Michael can manage to drum up, and that’s before everything that they’re claiming Michael did on the Manes ranch.  

Wait, but she was Alex’s friend.  Alex wouldn’t be friends with her if she were terrible. Maybe she’s not so bad? Of course, that doesn’t mean anything as far as her mother goes.  If Alex can be Jesse Manes’ son, then Maria's mother could be just as terrible--and the warden said he was friends with the family…

Maria looks uncomfortable, and she makes no move to join them.  Instead, she just disappears into the back through a large swinging door.

Maybe she’s like Alex--trying to stay out of the way to get by?  Or, I guess if she believes all the things they say about me, she thinks I tried to hurt Alex? Oh, fuck, I bet she thinks I’m some crazy, rabid Antaran she needs to steer clear of...

“Let’s have a seat,” Ms. DeLuca says.  “I think there’s some paperwork for me to finish up. Is that right, Health?”

“Oh, nothing that extensive. I just need a quick signature on this custody transition form, and then I’ll be out of your way.” 

He holds out his clipboard for her, and she takes it with a confused look. Maybe she’s thrown by the fact that the final step in acquiring full control of Michael is just as simple as when humans sign for a package delivered to their doorstep.  Michael barely manages to contain a half-hysterical laugh.  

 “If you’ll just initial the boxes that indicate I gave you his medication and the printout of his treatment plan in the bag with the bottles---and the refills will come automatically by mail, by the way, so nothing for you to worry about there--- and initial here that you’ve got a chip reader if you need to access his detailed information for any reason; and here that you’ve been told how to contact GRACE if there are any issues with Guerin--which, speaking of, the warden wanted me to mention that you’re welcome to call his personal number if you have any problems. He’ll be happy to step in, as needed.”

Michael’s heart races a bit at the mere mention of Ms. Deluca calling the warden. He draws in a slow, careful breath, grateful for the first time that the medicine is numbing everything and hoping that his terror doesn’t show on his face.  

“I’m sure we’ll be fine.” She hands back the signed form and clipboard, which Mr. Johnson tucks under his arm.  

He touches the brim of his hat and tips his head toward her.  “Y’all have a good evening.” 

“Thanks, you, too.”

Mr. Johnson leaves without so much as a moment more of hesitation.  Ms. Deluca still seems to be a little shell-shocked.  Her brow is furrowed in what Michael hopes is just contemplation of how she wants to proceed and not annoyance that Michael isn’t what she expected.  He stands patiently with his hands in his pockets, waiting for a clue as to what she wants him to do now.

“Let’s sit.”  

Michael flinches as her hand flies toward him, realizing too late that she was just gesturing to the table.  She frowns at the reaction. 

“...sorry, Ms. Deluca, I’m just--just jumpy in new places.”

“No need to apologize,” she replies, replacing her frown with the kind smile from before.   “Now, I just assumed you’d prefer Michael, but I heard Heath refer to you as Guerin.  Which one would you like us to call you?”

“...Um...Humans usually just call me Guerin.” 

            “Do humans call you Guerin because you prefer that? Or because it’s just the typical practice?”

            He blinks, absorbing the question and trying to spot potential traps in it through the persistent fog in his mind.  “...no, I...um...I prefer Michael, but it’s not a big deal or anything.” 

“Of course it’s a big deal, Michael.  It’s your name. It’s a very big deal.”

He doesn’t know how to respond to that, so he just waits for Ms. DeLuca to break the silence. 

“So, tell me about yourself, Michael,” she prompts.  

That’s a blessedly easy prompt, and he rattles off the information almost without thought.  “Earth Name: Michael Guerin; Crash year: 1997; Human approximation age: 19--”

            “No, no, sweetie,” she interjects.  “Not your chip readout.  Tell me about you.

            “...What?” 

            “I’m familiar with your GRACE file.  I was hoping to hear more about you on a personal level--just anything that you’d like to share, especially if it’ll give me some guidance on how to help you settle in here.”  

            “...Well, I--I haven’t ever worked in a pub like this before, but I’ve done all kinds of stuff so I should be fine to settle in quickly.  I’ll handle whatever you want me to or figure out how to--”     

“I’m sure you’re more than capable, but we’re not talking about your work yet; you just got here.  I just want to have a little chat.”

She says the phrase without any malice, but it’s the first time Michael’s ever heard it that way.  Every other human who suggested they wanted “a little chat” with Michael just meant they were going to let their smacks and kicks do the talking. 

“...I don’t think I understand w-what you want me to say.”

 “It’s not a test, Michael; there are no wrong answers.  I’d just like to get more of an understanding of your personality--your likes, your dislikes, that kind of thing. It’s our first time working with the AWP, and I want to get things right.”

 He would be annoyed with this farse of caring if her eyes didn’t seem so damn earnest. It does make a little more sense if this is their first time around with AWP. Maybe Ms. Deluca thinks that the welfare checks are frequent; the standards for working conditions are as high as the paperwork says they should be, and that Michael actually has a voice if he doesn’t like something here.  She’ll figure it out soon enough, but in the meantime, maybe this place won’t be so bad.  Then again, maybe she’s just trying to get his guard down so she can be a shrewder puppet master--get Michael to admit likes and dislikes so she can tailor consequences and rewards?

“Like--let’s see--how about your favorite color?” 

“...Blue, I guess? Like turquoise blue--but--any blue in general.”  

Her face breaks into a smile.  “Well, that’s a lucky coincidence then.  The room we’ve fixed up for you is mostly blue--it’s more of a sky blue, though, just to keep things bright. But not overwhelming.” When Michael doesn’t offer up anything more, still not quite sure what she expects, she goes on. “How about...Favorite movies? Favorite music? Favorite food? Sports? Hobbies?”

“I...um,” he answers with a shrug.  “I like all kinds of movies really...and, uh, Johnny Cash, and--and I guess milkshakes from the Crashdown.  I don’t like sports much--unless rodeo counts--like barrel racing? And...sorry what was the last one?”

“Hobbies.”

“Right, hobbies, I…” play guitar, his mind supplies, but he manages to stop the words in time.  His gaze falls as if he could see his scarred hand where it rests on his knee beneath the tabletop.  “Don’t really have any.”

“Well, maybe you can explore some potential options in your spare time.” She comments lightly, but a nagging voice in the back of Michael’s mind suggests there’s a test in the statement.

“I understand this is AWP and not AFP, Ms. Deluca. I don’t--I’m not worried about hobbies.”

I’m just worried about what happens when Warden Manes contacts you for check-in. I need you to tell him I’m the fucking model of a perfect AWP arrangement, not that I’m spending time on hobbies. You need to tell him I know my damn place so he doesn’t decide that he should teach me another lesson.  

He shudders at the thought. She regards him with pity in her gaze, and he looks away from her. “I’m not worried about your work ethic, Michael. I just want you to be happy in this placement; that’s all.  I think everyone can benefit from having hobbies that are just for the sake of enjoying the activity--instead of nothing but work. Having a worker burnout because they don’t have a chance to decompress from their work isn’t a practical way to operate.”

He nods, unsure how else to respond.  She nods toward the back and the swinging doors Maria disappeared through. “Would you like to see your space?”

“Sure.”

It’s a small space off the kitchen that strikes Michael as a large storage room that's undergone a very recent renovation to meet AWP requirements. The long window near the ceiling on the far wall lets sunlight in to illuminate the walls, which are a nice shade of sky blue.  For just a moment he thinks the sunset-colored quilt adorning the twin bed in the corner is one of Naomi’s, before realizing it can’t be.  He wonders briefly what they’ll do with his things now that he’s been placed outside of camp.  They’re supposed to be packed up and sent to him if he isn’t given a chance to do it himself, but he isn’t holding out much hope for that. 

“Something wrong?”

“No! No, it’s great, just- taking it all in, that’s all.”

“Well, it’s pretty bare-bones right now, and, of course, it’s quite small, but as you settle in we can find some ways to make it feel more like home.” 

“Oh, that’s--that’s okay. This is plenty.”

It is a great little space and more “homey” than anything Michael’s had since he started AWP placements. Even though it’s tiny, there are plenty of finishing touches in the space that they could have forgone, knowing an Antaran would live in here, but instead it’s committed to being something that looks more like the images he’s seen of college dorm rooms for humans than a utilitarian AWP space. The bathroom is minimal but enclosed with a door that shuts off the shower stall, toilet, and pedestal sink from the rest of the room.  The twin bed in the corner is made up with a colorful quilt and several fluffy pillows.  There’s a small dresser at the end of the bed with a small, box television on top.  Tucked under the bed are a mini-fridge and a microwave.  

 “You’ll have full access to the kitchen for anything you need to cook, of course, and a designated area in the refrigerator for anything you’d like to keep out there.  We just thought it might be nice to have something of your own in here so you don’t always have to venture out there if you want something.”

“That’s...awesome, thank you.”

He continues to take in the room as he struggles to process what the care given to this room means.  Is it all for show? Having an AWP suite probably increases the property value, too, so maybe that explains it. Michael can’t afford to accept at face value that they really just wanted him--or whatever Antaran occupies the space--to feel “at home.” There must be an ulterior motive; he just hasn’t figured it out yet. He smiles when his eyes land on the simple bookshelf by the door with several little cacti in little painted clay pots.  It takes longer than he should to realize there are books on the shelf, too: the entire Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and a collection of other well-worn titles. Ms. Deluca notices where his gaze has settled.

“They’re mostly a variety from the library’s fundraiser sale.  I wasn’t sure what might interest you, or what reading level you’re comfortable with--you didn’t mention reading as a hobby, earlier, but it was my understanding that you’re literate?”

Michael nods.  

“Did you not mention it because you don’t care for reading? Or because you didn’t think we’d want you reading?”

He swallows, trying to gauge what answer she wants. Ultimately, he decides it’s a small truth to share, especially if she already knows he’s literate.  “I like reading--just didn’t think about it earlier.”

“Well, we’ll work on building up the collection, then. Let me know what you like--or maybe you can come with me to the next library sale and pick out some on your own.”

“These are--this is all great, Ms. Deluca. More than enough.  I don’t need anything else.”  

Michael is starting to get more and more unsettled with this too-easy generosity.  If he could see the catch, then he wouldn’t mind so much, but, so far, she’s given no indication of just how difficult a gauntlet she’s planning to throw to justify this kind of effort.  His confusion only mounts as they return back to the front of the pub.  She mentions that he can use the phone in her office to call his siblings if he wants, once he’s settled in after a week or so.  She tells him to help himself to any of the food in the kitchen and to let her know if he wants anything special.  She offers to get him some personal clothes for his “off-time” when she realizes he wasn’t given a chance to bring anything of his own with him.

What job am I really doing here? She doesn’t seem like she’d want a punching bag like the warden did, so what does she want from me?

Michael barely manages to repress a shudder as his musings give rise to fragmented, blurry memories of strange hands all over his skin and people holding and pulling and moving him where they wanted to take whatever they wanted from him and--

“You seem very nervous, Michael.” He startles back at Ms. Deluca’s words, shying away from her as he struggles to tamp down the unwanted memories and the nauseated feeling that accompanies them.  She’s frowning, and he silently curses himself for not hiding his emotions better.   “Is something that I’m doing that puts you on edge? I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

She shut him down earlier when he tried to mention work and that he could manage whatever she needed, so he doesn’t push the subject a second time.  “Sorry, Ms. Deluca. I--just--jumpy in new places.” He realizes he’s repeating himself in his excuses, but he doesn’t have a better explanation. There’s no point in trying to backtrack.

“No need to apologize.  I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything I was doing to make things worse for you.” 

She studies him for another moment or two, and he does his best not to show just how much he hates being under her further scrutiny.  

What is she expecting to see? I’m just here to do a job.  Why go through all these motions? Please let it just be a simple job? 

“We really do just want you to feel at home here, Michael.”

He nods, unsure how else to respond.  “Thanks,” he adds as an afterthought.  

“But I get the feeling that you’d prefer if I were more upfront about what the expectations for this placement are.” She doesn’t phrase it like a question; she seems to already assume she’s correct, which she is.  “I didn’t want to overwhelm you on your first day, but let’s go ahead and discuss things now, and then you’ll get started tomorrow, okay?”

It settles Michael a little to have Ms. Deluca outlines his job duties--preparing the pub for opening, helping out with unloading and shelving deliveries, working in the kitchen, bussing tables, cleaning up after closing, odd jobs around the facility to help keep it up--it all seems to be a fairly standard assignment.  

But the job at the Manes ranch sounded straightforward too…

 


 

            After a dinner with the Delucas filled with awkward silences and stilted conversations, Michael is more than happy to retreat to his room when Ms. Deluca offers to let him call it an early night. He showers and gets ready for bed, changing into the spare camp uniform they tucked into the giant bag of meds they handed Ms. Deluca.  She went on and on about how they’d get him his things from camp or go shopping for him soon, no matter how many times Michael insisted he was fine and didn’t want to be any trouble.  Years of lessons learned the hard way build his anxiety that the more Ms. Deluca gives him, the more she plans to expect in return.  With the gauntlet that the Warden threw down, expecting nothing short of perfection apparently, the pressure is worse than ever to manage everything his new guardian throws at him.  There’s never much room for error in AWP placements, but he can’t make any with the Warden’s threats still ringing in his ears. 

            You’re headed to some family friends of ours who are the only thing standing between you and a decent back into medical research hell with me... If you cause problems, I will hear about it.  So, you are going to follow every goddamn instruction she gives you to the letter; you are going to do impeccable work; so help me God, Guerin, if I catch even a hint that you’re running that smart ass mouth of yours or making trouble of any kind, you will be right back here in an instant. I will strap you back down to this table myself so that you can watch while Doc saws through your bones … do I make myself perfectly clear?

            He settles down into the soft bed even though he doesn’t expect to get much sleep, really; he hardly ever gets any rest his first night in a new place.  But it seems the day’s unexpected adrenaline roller coaster and the persistent mental haze from the medicine left him more exhausted than he thought, and he’s able to at least drift into a light doze.

            Michael blinks against the harsh glare of the clinic’s fluorescent lights.  He moves immediately to get to his feet, wanting to be away and out and any-fucking-where but here, but he can’t sit up.  He’s strapped to the table so tightly he can barely breathe, with his arms stretched out on either side.  

Amidst the panic, he recognizes the sound of the click from the pilot light and the whoosh of a gas burner igniting--This isn’t the clinic; it’s the kitchen of the Wild Pony.  

Ms. Deluca stands to the side of the stove with her arms crossed and her lips pursed.  She stares down at him with a cold gaze and wonders, “This won’t take long, will it, Jesse? The lunch rush will start soon, and I’ll need him back on his feet in time to help out.” 

Michael stops breathing as he realizes the warden stands beside her. He turns his body just enough to smile over at Michael with a sadistic gleam in his eye, and Michael’s blood runs cold to see that the warden is sterilizing the blade of a meat cleaver in the flame of the stove burner.

“Shouldn’t take too long--the blade’s a bit dull, but it should still do the trick without too much trouble.”

“No,” Michael pleads as the Warden approaches, struggling to break free from his restraints.  “No, no, no, please, no!”

A harsh jolt wakes Michael from his nightmare, and he realizes that he must have rolled off the bed as he tried to escape his dreamed-up restraints.  

“Michael, we’re coming in!” Ms. Deluca’s voice calls just a moment before the door swings open.  His half-awake mind expects the warden to be at her side as she comes in; he tries to scramble farther from the door, but he’s tangled in the sheets from the bed.  “Oh, honey, are you okay? Here, let’s get you untangled.”

“Mom,” Maria says sharply, catching Ms. Deluca’s arm as she moves toward Michael, and Michael flinches at the harsh tone. “The kit, first, right? That’s what you said.” She nods to the small black pouch in her mother’s hand, biting at her lip in what seems to be...worry? fear? 

“Right, yes, better to be safe.” She purses her lips.  “It’s just some supplemental medication for you, Michael; nothing to worry about, okay?”

Easy for you to say...

 As she moves to set the small bag on the dresser at the end of the bed, Michael slowly untangles himself from the sheets; it’s easy enough now that he’s not consumed with the terror of his nightmare.  He rises slowly to his feet as Ms. Deluca unzips the pouch to lay flat, and Michael recognizes it as an insulin kit--like the one a human kid in his third-grade class carried everywhere. 

Except Antarans don’t get diabetes...there’s no reason to give me insulin.  So then what--

He recognizes the pale blue liquid in the vile instantly when Ms. Deluca lifts it from the case.  

“No!” 

The protest feels ripped from his core, without thought, fueled only by the terrible memories that accompany this sedative.  Nothing good comes after a dose of this--just hours of lying there powerless and hopeless and terrified.  Both women startle back from his outburst, and Michael tries desperately to backtrack and rein himself in. 

“S-sorry I d-didn’t mean t-to sh-shout just--just--I d-don’t need that. I sw-swear, M-Ms. Deluca. I d-don’t.”

Maria looks at her mother in distress, apparently warring with her emotions as her mother hesitates.  “Maybe, we don’t have to... if…” she says quietly, glancing from Ms. Deluca to Michael.  “He’s not frantic really--not once he woke up.”

“J-just a n-nightmare,” Michael adds.  “I d-don’t need it.”

Michael can already tell from Ms. Deluca’s expression that she’s made up her mind. 

“I’m sorry, Michael, but I don’t have a choice.  It’s my responsibility as your guardian.”  

She keeps talking, something about protocols and very clear paperwork, but the words are background noise to the memory of the Warden’s cool, collected speech, surfacing from all those months ago. It’s such a shame that your rage is so pervasive…with the way you’re remaining so frantic...I have no choice ... After all, it’s my responsibility, really, as your guardian ....to save you from yourself…

“Michael, I need you to focus,” Ms. Deluca says firmly, pulling his attention back.

“S-sorry, I’m sorry. I--”

“It’s okay.  I asked if you could please lie back down on your bed?” 

There’s no real choice except to cooperate, but Michael still trembles as he does what she asks.  Some distant part of him is embarrassed that he hasn’t mustered a shred of pride, but the memories replaying on a loop in his mind leaves him too distracted by fear to care much about how pathetic he seems.  He at least manages to hold in a whimper as she administers the injection and the burning sensation of the sedative spreads through his arm.  To his surprise, she moves to gather the top sheet and duvet from the floor and tucks Michael in gently like he’s a tired toddler. 

“There now, is that okay?” she wonders, hovering over him.  

She doesn’t know I can’t talk. She’s going to think I’m just being a petulant asshole. Fuck. But I can’t just whine like the Warden wants, she’ll think I’m complaining, or something is wrong or...fuck...

Something of his concern must show in his gaze because her own eyes widen.  “You can’t even speak?” 

Michael manages a stilted hum sound that he hopes comes across as a ‘yes.’  He can’t quite discern the look Ms. Deluca is giving him--but she doesn’t seem angry, which means he’s at least in a better situation than usual when enduring this level of incapacitation.  

“I don’t like to think of just leaving you in here with no way to communicate,” Ms. Deluca says, “but I don’t think you’ll be able to relax or rest much if I just hover.”

What do you care about any of this? Why are you so worried about this? Do you honestly buy all the bullshit diagnoses Fitz and the Warden cooked up for my file? Or is this a fucked up game? What is your angle?

“I’ll check in every hour or so,” she decides, “just peek in the door.  That way if you’re awake and you need me, I’ll see, but if you can sleep off your medicine and get some rest, I won’t bother you.”  She leaves Michael’s bedside and field of vision, heading toward the door. “I know it’s all new,” she adds as she goes, “but maybe a calm rest of the night will help ease some of your nerves for tomorrow.”  

Or maybe the nightmares just stay, and the panic keeps me from resting at all, but what’s it to you so long as you don’t have to listen to me scream about it….

Not like I can do a damn thing about it either way...

 


 

            By the next morning, the side effects of these pills haven’t gotten any better.  Nausea he could deal with, but the persisting sluggishness is frustrating as hell.  There’s no way Ms. Deluca isn’t seeing him as a clumsy, absent-minded moron as he tries to make it through his first day on the job without making a fool of himself.  He knows, logically, that his nerves are just making the situation even worse, but with every fuck-up his mind replays the warden’s chilling threat from yesterday. 

You are going to follow every goddamn instruction she gives you to the letter; you are going to do impeccable work; so help me God, Guerin, if I catch even a hint that you’re running that smart ass mouth of yours or making trouble of any kind, you will be right back here in an instant.

While Ms. Deluca and Maria are patient and kind as they teach him his way around the business and how to prepare the limited menu they offer to supplement the bar, Michael keeps failing at every step it seems.  By the time the lunch rush--which isn’t all that much of a rush honestly--is over, he’s already overcooked not one but two batches of chips; spilled soda syrup all over when he tried to refill the dispenser; slipped, fell, and knocked over the mop bucket which soaked the entire kitchen floor; and knocked an entire stack of dishes off a table he was bussing which led to a lengthy, clumsy clean-up of about a million shards. So when Ms. Deluca calls for Michael to come into her office, he’s not surprised, but panic does start tightening like a vise around his chest and by the time he crosses the threshold into her tiny but tidy office, it’s all Michael can do to manage tiny breaths.  

 “Could you shut the door behind you, please?” 

He does as he’s told, even as the icy feeling of dread pours through him.  

...the only thing standing between you and a decent back into medical research hell with me... you are going to do impeccable work; so help me God, Guerin...even a hint...you will be right back here in an instant. 

Panic overshadows his pride, and he starts apologizing the moment the door clicks shut behind him, keeping his gaze down as he turns to face her.

“M-Ms. Deluca--I know I k-keep m-messing everything up today but--but I swear it’s n-not on p-purpose--and--and I’ll get b-better with all of it--especially once--once I get used to this m-medicine--j-just p-please if I c-could have a little m-more time to--”

“Oh, Michael, no, please don’t worry about that.  I didn’t mean to upset you by calling you in here.  You’re not in any kind of trouble at all.  I just needed to speak with you, and it’s a bit personal so I didn’t want to do it out in the kitchen; that’s all.”

The reassurance is enough for the vise of anxiety to allow Michael to take a full, shaky breath, and, as the terror abates slightly, the shame of groveling starts to spread instead.  He shoves the self-consciousness to the back of his mind; his fear of Jesse Manes is well-founded, after all. 

“You’re doing your best; I know that.  You’re absolutely right to say that things will hopefully improve as you adjust to the medicine, but, even if they don’t, all I can ask you to do is your best.”

            “Thanks.” 

Michael rubs nervously at the back of his neck, unsure now, what to expect if she didn’t call him here to highlight the morning’s failures. She offers him a small, strained smile; she seems sad--and Michael doesn’t know how to interpret that either. Disappointed she got stuck with a shit AWP for her first round, maybe? Expected more out of an Antaran who could keep up with Warden Manes’ demands for a year? 

“You’re welcome to sit if you’d like, but standing is fine, too.”

“Oh, uh--thanks.” He takes a seat in the chair in front of her desk.  

“I wanted to let you know that Max and Isobel have already reached out about visiting you, which is off the table for the first week you’re here, just from my understanding of the protocol GRACE provided.” Michael nods, trying to adjust and keep up with the unexpected topic. “There were some case-specific instructions, too, that you aren’t even allowed to have any communication with them for the first week--to limit the distractions and variables as you settle in with us. Both Max and Isobel seemed upset to hear that, so I promised to let you know their silence is because of the GRACE instructions, not because they aren’t trying.”

Michael nods again.  “Thanks.”

“And, of course, once that week is up, I assume you’d like to see them?” 

He pauses a moment but then nods; if she’s talked to his siblings, then she’s probably already guessed they’re important to him--and that’s assuming the warden hasn’t already told Ms. Deluca outright that she should use Max and Iz as a method of controlling Michael’s behavior. 

“Warden Manes, he--he’d let us visit every other week...as long as it didn’t interfere with work stuff for any of us.” 

Ms. Deluca doesn’t need to know that Michael had to keep his mouth shut about getting beaten within an inch of his life to “earn” visits that frequently.  Maybe he’ll catch a break and get to start with regular visits if he suggests it now, and she can confirm with Noah and the sheriff.

“Oh, I don’t think we need to space them that far apart unless you’d prefer it that way? Which is fine, I can be a buffer if you’d like.”

“No, that’s--that’s okay. I don’t need a buffer from them.”

“There are some fairly stringent limits on you leaving the property, but Max and Isobel are welcome to drop by anytime you’re okay with it.  You know how supervision rules work?”

“Yes, ma’am; I always have to be within earshot of the approved supervisor, and the supervisor decides when a visit starts, how it happens, and when it’s over.”

“Right, so most of the time either Maria or I, or both of us, will be here and within earshot, which should make it easy enough. But Noah Bracken has also offered to supervise as much as he can if I’m not available.  As long as we can work out the supervision part of things, they could stop by every day as far as I’m concerned.” 

She smiles at him and shrugs as if it isn’t any big deal, but Michael’s jaw drops at how casually she makes the momentous offer--especially after the shit show of a morning Michael has had for his first day.  

“Really?” he wonders before he can rein in his surprise.

“Really.” Her smile widens a bit, but she’s giving him a pitying gaze now that makes his stomach turn.  “I’ll just let them know we talked, then, and let them know to plan on being here as soon as the 7 days are done? It’ll be another Monday, which means less work that day anyway.  I’m sure you three have a lot to catch up on.”

 Maybe there’s some catch she’ll reveal later--maybe permission gets rescinded if he doesn’t stop doing such a terrible job? For now, Michael will take the win for face value and just hope it’s not part of a bigger game he can’t see.  He nods.

“Thank you, Ms. Deluca.”

“It’s no problem at all, Michael.  I’ll let you get to your lunch break.”

 


           

            Michael reports dutifully to Ms. Deluca’s office the fifth morning of his placement, debating still the request he’s about to make, wondering if it’s going to rock the boat too much and be the thing that ruins the peace he’s settling into here.  In the end, he doesn’t decide so much as react, words escaping him as Ms. Deluca takes the cap off the pill bottles.  

            “Please don’t make me take them,” he requests, words more supplicating than his pride would like, but this fog is suffocating.  

Things keep getting worse instead of better, and he can’t even think half the time. He’s always known the drugs weren’t part of a legitimate medical plan, but he’d hoped that they would at least fade to maybe a half-pleasant buzzed feeling, not turn every moment of the day into a struggle--like he’s being devoured by quicksand no matter how hard he tries to keep walking forward.

            Ms. Deluca purses her lips and regards him with the piteous look he’s coming to hate seeing on her face.  “You need your medicine, sweetie.” 

            “...Even just--can I just skip this one? Just for this morning...and I’ll--I’ll take the ones tonight on schedule. Please.

            “I know the side effects are frustrating, but it’s very important that you stay on your care plan.” Her tone is firm, leaving no room for further discussion, and Michael’s heart sinks.  “It will get better with some more time.  All I can ask you to do is your best.  I won’t be angry with you if the side effects mean we need to adjust your tasks at work; that’s okay.  Remember when we talked about that the other day?”

            “...um, yes ma’am.”

Her smile seems forced, as she offers him the pills.  “We just want you to be well, Michael.” 

            No, you all want me to be compliant, Michael thinks bitterly.  

“Let’s give it a little more time--it can take up to a month for these to reach full clinical potency. If it’s still a problem, we’ll talk to the clinic about changing things up, okay?

Michael manages to hold in an exasperated sigh as he nods his general acquiescence.  Ms. Deluca says it all with the same kind-but-placating tone that the nurse at the clinic used when they told him about the meds in the first place.  

Nothing for you to worry yourself about, Guerin.  Your diagnosis and treatment plan has been explained to Mr. Johnson, and he’ll get everything to the humans at your placement.  As long as you comply, you shouldn’t have any problem….

            Michael debates for just a moment refusing to take the medicine, wondering what it would accomplish.  Probably nothing--maybe she’d just take it upon herself to force it down Michael’s throat--maybe she’d even have Maria come and help her.  He doesn’t want that--however thin of an illusion it is that they’re kind and they like him, the delusion is better than the reality.  Worse, maybe she’d decide she didn’t want an Antaran who doesn’t do as he’s told and tell the warden she’s having behavioral issues with Michael, in which case…

            You will be right back here in an instant.  I will strap you back down to this table myself so that you can watch while Doc saws through your bones … do I make myself perfectly clear?

The memory alone sends a shudder through Michael, so he takes the pills from Ms. Deluca, downing them and then opening his mouth for her to confirm he swallowed them. 

This is still tolerable. I’m fine, he reasons as he leaves Ms. Deluca’s office to start the drudgery of the day.  I’m fine. It could be a lot worse.  Michael hates that he can hear the warden’s impact even in his own feeble attempt at a mantra…There are much, much worse things than death for space trash like you…

As he helps get the pub ready for opening, he lets himself pretend he’s helping set up for a Sunday dinner, wishing that this is all just a bad dream that’ll dissipate with Ezra knocking on his door.  Yeah, I’m okay. And it could be a lot worse….

But gods, what I wouldn’t give to be able to just go back home…  

 

 

Chapter Text

Six days after Alex enacted his crazy, paranoid plan to get in touch with Greg, the burner phone that’s been tucked away on the bookshelf starts to ring.  Both Charlie and Alex jump at the sudden noise.  He heads for the phone half expecting it to be a wrong number call.

“Hello?”

“Alex? Is that you?” the voice on the other end of the line doesn’t really sound familiar.  

“Greg?”

“Guess this means you got my letter, huh? I’m glad you reached out. Really glad.”

“I know I probably seem nuts, sending a burner phone like we’re living in a spy movie or something, but I thought this might be the safest option given....everything. Ya know?”

“Hey, you don’t have to convince me that staying off of Jesse’s radar is a good idea.  He’s got an unsettling reach and a lot of power behind it.  We spent years trying to fight him in court and out of court, and never managed to gain any real ground for me to get guaranteed time with you and Flint after mom died.”

Alex laughs a little at the odd feeling of relief at having someone so instantly understand the need for extreme caution with his father. It’s an unusual occurrence, but it does wonders to further the rapport he’s already feeling with Greg.

“I’m glad you wrote to me, even though Flint was an ass about it.  It--uh--it brought back a few really great memories.”

“Good, that’s great! I wondered if you’d remember me at all honestly.  I’ve got other pictures and some old VHS tapes of home videos and stuff, if you’re interested next time you’re stateside--or I could make copies maybe, send them to the PO Box you listed as the return address on the package you sent?”

“Oh, wow, yeah--um--that would be awesome, if it’s not--not too much trouble.”

Alex is quickly running out of smalltalk, unsure exactly how he’s supposed to plunge into a brotherly relationship when he barely remembers Greg and his sibling relationship with Flint is damn sure the farthest thing from the model he wants to follow with this brother.

“I know there’s only so many minutes on this phone,” Greg says, “and I can add more, if you’re okay with us keeping this line of communication as an option, but your letter mentioned a favor you needed from me.  Whatever it is, I want to help however I can.  Let’s cut right to it, yeah?”

“Yeah, okay.”  Alex takes a breath, trying to ensure he sounds as casual as possible.  

“Are you safe over there?” Greg wonders.  “Is it something to do with the job you took with GRACE?” 

“I’m safe,” Alex replies, “well, safe enough, anyway.  It’s not about me exactly; it’s about somebody back home, in Roswell.  I just--I need to know that they’re okay, but I can’t contact them directly.  I thought maybe you could make a trip when you had some time? Just--just to ease my mind maybe?”

Alex closes his eyes, remembering all too well the details of the vivid dream that led him to pursue this plan in the first place--the heart-wrenching feeling of finding Michael distraught in their bunkhouse.  

I had a place at Camp-- I had people for the first time in-- well the first time ever, really.  I should have known better than to let them see me being any kind of happy.  It just gives them more leverage.  Now… they’re talking about what they’ll do to the people I met if I don’t toe the line at this hellhole of a placement I’m headed to, and some bullshit new treatment plan… I just… fuck, I’m so fucking tired of being scared.

And the dream's jarring, sudden end before Alex could reassure him that the placement wouldn’t be bad.  Maybe it was all really just a dream, but Alex can’t shake the feeling that there’s some meaning to the bunkhouse dreams--all those weeks of finding Michael there terrified, and then finding him in that hellhole Dad had him confined to; then six months of sporadic wonderful dreams, some of the best dreams Alex has ever experienced; only to transition back to a panicked Michael worrying about a new placement just after Alex made the arrangements to get him to the DeLucas.  He can’t help but give credence to the message in the dream, especially given the antaran connection that remains vibrant as ever on his forearm-- taunting him that he doesn’t know whatever weighty explanation the antarans have for why it appears.  

“Alex?” Greg says, bringing him back out of his memories.  “You still there?”

“Yeah, sorry, just got distracted for a minute.”

“Who is it you need me to see?” Greg asks.  “I’ll make time for the trip.”

“Really?”

“Sure, I’m glad to.”

“Why?” Alex wonders, the question out before he can think better of it.

Greg sighs on the other end of the phone, “Kid, I have spent the better part of a decade trying to be your big brother again, and now you’re giving me the chance?  Of course I’m gonna take it.”

Alex smiles.  “‘Kid,’” he repeats. “Hey, I remember that.”  

Come on, kid, hurry up… Hey, kid, think fast!... I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, kid; don’t worry...

“I know it bugged you when I called you that sometimes, but that was half the fun back then.  I can let it go if--”

“No, don’t.  It’s-- it’s good.”  

“So who am I spying on for you?  The suspense is killing me.”

“Do you know a place in Roswell called The Wild Pony? It’s a restaurant, and bar with pool tables and--”

“Yeah, and karaoke on the second Friday every month,” Greg says, “not that I have ever participated in that against my better judgment after some liquid courage.  You want me to check on somebody there?”

“Yeah, they just got their first antaran placed through AWP, and he--”

“The Guerin kid who used to work at the ranch?” 

Alex’s entire body clenches in sudden alarm. “How do you know about him?”

“I saw the press conference, like everybody else.  Jesse said he attacked you.”

“Right, I forgot about the press conference.”  Alex sighs, trying to navigate his words carefully.  “I swear he’s not as dangerous as it sounded from that statement Dad gave and all those news reports and stuff.”

“Did he even attack you?” Greg wonders.

Alex can’t bring himself to lie, but he can’t quite bring himself to admit the truth either.

“God, Jesse is such a bastard ,” Greg seethes, apparently taking Alex’s silence as a ‘no.’  He takes a deep breath.  “Okay, okay, so he’s working at the Wild Pony.  What do you want to know about it?”

Everything

Is he okay? Did Dad do anything insane before he got transferred? Did it really rip him away from the friends he’d been making in camp? Does he get to see Max and Isobel? Is his hand healing up okay? Is Maria or Mimi or somebody getting him acetone? Or something at least? 

Does he know I didn’t mean what I said to get him away from Dad?

Does he know I love him?

Does he know I’m not gonna give up, so he can’t either?

“Do you think, could you maybe just get him this phone? It’d be easier to tell him myself than explain.”

“Sure, kid. I can get him the phone.  When?”

“I’m not sure how much trouble it is for you to get up to Roswell, so, ya know just-- whenever you’re headed that way.”

“I don’t mind making a special trip if it’s worrying you.  They’re closed on Mondays, so today is out, but I could go tomorrow night.”

“Really?”

“Who doesn’t love an excuse for Taco and Tequila Tuesday?” Greg replies.  “Everybody knows Mimi Deluca makes the best damn margaritas in the state anyway.  Speaking of, I hope you’re making good use of that lower drinking age over there.  Things going okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.  I don’t really drink much, but I did grab a beer with some guys from work the other day.”

“Good, just-- ya know-- make as much time for yourself as you can outside of whatever Jesse’s got you doing.  Let me know if you need help or--someone to talk to or whatever, okay? “Anything I can do, Alex, seriously.” ”

“Thanks, Greg. That-- I don’t know what else to say, just I-- I really appreciate that.”

“No problem, kid.  I’ll give you a call if anything changes, but otherwise assume I’ll get the phone to Guerin tomorrow afternoon sometime, okay?”

“Perfect, and-- uh-- I can send you another phone, if you wanna keep talking sometimes? The time difference is kind of a bitch, but...”

“That’d be awesome.  I can just pick up a new phone though.  Just call you at this number?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.  We’ll talk soon, then, okay?”

“Yeah,” Alex says with a smile, already looking forward to it, “Talk soon.”

 


 

Michael isn’t quite sure what to expect at the reunion with his siblings.  It’s been a long six months since he shared some of the truth about just how dangerous Warden Manes can be.  

He’s spoken with them a handful of times since that overwhelming interview.  They made an arrangement for visits every six weeks, but they always walked on eggshells, even in the relative privacy of Michael’s apartment at camp. He’d rather them be too cautious than overly naive, so Michael hadn’t pushed much.  

When Max enters the Wild Pony promptly at noon, there’s no doubt from his smile that he’s thrilled to see Michael, but there’s still the added layer of uncertainty in their interaction.  He keeps his jubilation calm and controlled, but Michael’s honestly a bit glad of it. Maybe it will call less attention to how dulled his own reactions are through the haze of his medicine.  Max hugs Michael tightly in greeting, and Michael manages to return the hug in kind.  

“...Hey, little brother,” he says with the best smile he can muster.

Max ignores Michael’s teasing without comment.  “It’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you got placed with the Delucas.  You’re going to love this place, Michael, really.”

Michael nods in agreement, shutting his eyes for just a moment to get the wave of nausea that accompanies the motion under control. 

 “They’re good people--she even asked me and Iz to come and take a look at the AWP suite to make sure it was okay--it looked pretty great, and she said you were going to get to add your own stuff and--” He pauses in his rambling, studying Michael.  “Are you okay?”

“...uh, yeah, of course…”

“Good, good,” Max says with a smile that Michael registers as fake.  “Isobel will be here any second, and I think she’s got another one of her playlists she wants you to hear. Let’s--you wanna just sit until she gets here?”

“...sure.”  Michael sits down across from Max at the booth nearest the door.  “...I...um...I don’t need Isobel to make me a playlist.  I swear, Max.”

“It’s okay; she doesn’t mind.”

“...I know, but...uh...really, I don’t.  This is an awesome placement.”

“Michael, are you feeling okay?”

“...yeah, I’m fine.”

“Did you--have you hit your head, maybe? Or--”

Michael laughs, realizing Max’s assumption.  “...I’m not concussed , Max. Don’t worry.”

“It’s just a side effect of his medicine,” Maria calls from three booths away where she’s rolling silverware, and Michael winces at the unexpected sound.  Max’s frown deepens at that reaction.  “He’s only been on it a week, but it’s supposed to get better with time. Mom’s keeping an eye on it,” Maria adds. 

“Medicine? A prescription from GRACE?” 

Max moves to get up, clearly headed to talk to Maria more about this. Michael grabs at his wrist to tug him back down. 

“...Don’t, Max. It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay if you’re being drugged .”

“Mom is not drugging him! She’s been insanely meticulous with the instructions for all the medicine they sent!” Maria retorts.  “She could probably recite the treatment plan verbatim because she read it like a thousand times, and had me read it too, just to make sure--”

“...no! he’s not saying that…”

“I know she wouldn’t drug him on purpose,” Max assures.  “But there’s been some--miscommunications--in the past when it comes to Michael’s medical care.”

“Miscommunications?” Maria repeats.

“...Max, don’t worry about it. Ms. Deluca knows what she’s doing, like Maria said.” 

“Which doctor prescribed you the meds?” Max asks.  

“Um...it was Dr. Fitzgerald.” 

Michael gives the information in hopes that it will assuage Max--after all, Isobel had such high praise for him all those months ago when Michael was in the clinic--but Max’s face darkens at the words.  Somewhere along the way, Max has apparently figured out that Dr. Fitz doesn’t offer Michael the same quality of care as his siblings. 

“I think we should get a second opinion.”

“No!”

“Michael…”

“...It won’t help anything, Max. It’ll just cause trouble. Besides, you know I don’t like the clinic. I’m fine .”

“You’re not , and you know it.”

“...I’ve been a lot worse,” Michael amends.  

“What about Liz? You trust her, right, Max?” Maria says, rising to stand at the end of their table and join the conversation properly.  “I could ask her to swing by; she wouldn’t mind.” She’s got a frown on her face to match Max’s, but she doesn’t look pissed off, just… worried maybe? A little eager to pursue what Max is suggesting?

Is she just eager to prove him wrong? Or to meddle in general? Or is she hoping this gets me sent back so that she doesn’t have to avoid me anymore? What is Liz going to do, anyway? She’s a waitress, isn’t she?

“... I thought… doesn’t Liz work at the Crashdown?” Michael wonders.

“Now it’s only when her dad needs help.  She wants to be a scientist-- is a scientist.  She got accepted to the Extraterrestrial Medicine Program at UNM-Roswell, but she’s interning with GRACE in the meantime.” Michael’s apprehension must show on his face because Max has his best wide, earnest puppy-dog brown eyes when he pleads, “You trust me, right?” Michael nods. “And I trust her, I really do.”

“For whatever it’s worth, so do I,” Maria says.  “Liz is a good person; the whole reason she wanted to work for GRACE was to help people.”

Michael nods again.  “... just… as long as it’s not any trouble. I don’t wanna--”

“It’s not; I’m surprised she hasn’t been by already this week.  I’ll go give her a call.  You two go ahead and grab some food from the back if you want while you wait for Isobel.”

“Thanks, Maria.”

“... Thanks.”

Michael and Max go back into the kitchen.  Max seems more than comfortable, but Michael half expects Ms. Deluca to return from errands at any minute and demand what the hell they think they’re doing treating her kitchen like it’s their own. He wonders if Max making a scene today will end up being the event that finally shines through this bizarre first week; all he can hope is that it’s just going to mean some consequences and a reality check on what happens when the Delucas lose patience with him and it’s not so much of a nuisance that they send him packing.

Even as he works to quell his worries, Michael keeps catching Max watching him with concern out of the corner of his eye and they put together some club sandwiches, including one for Iz and two extra for Liz and Maria, to be polite.

“Max, I can practically hear your brain humming with concerned mom energy; would you knock it off?”

Max glances around before answering quietly.  “Do you know what’s wrong, and you just can’t say? Did you get hurt or--or someone hurt you or--”

“They’ve been great so far. I swear. The whole medicine thing isn’t all that horrifying.”

Max’s face darkens.  “Well, I remember the last time you told me something didn’t horrify you, which made it pretty clear we have different definitions of that word. I don’t want to be in the dark when it comes to you--neither does Isobel; no bullshit about protecting us, okay? You have to tell us the truth, so we can figure stuff out together and--”

“No.”

“No what ?” 

“No, sir,” Michael answers on autopilot, spurred by the authoritarian tone of annoyance in Max’s voice.  Max’s face freezes in horror; Michael makes an exaggerated show of rolling his eyes to try and play the conditioned reaction off as a joke.  

“Come on-- you talk to me like a drill sergeant, I’m gonna give you shit for it.  Don’t look at me like that.”

Max frowns, unconvinced by Michael’s excuse.  “I said if you told me and Iz the truth, we could all figure it out together, and you said ‘no’. I can’t just drop that topic.  Are you saying you won’t tell us the truth? Or that you don’t want us to help you figure it out?”

Michael turns back to the task of cutting the sandwich in half and setting it on a plate so he doesn’t have to look at Max while he replies.

“I… I meant that… the whole point of telling y’all as much as I did was to keep you out of the warden’s crosshairs.  If it’s something y’all can help with, I’ll tell you, but otherwise--”

“Otherwise you’re just gonna let them drug you like it’s no big deal? As if we wouldn’t notice ? What do you expect us to do? Just stand by and do nothing while they do whatever they want with you?” 

“There are much worse things than these pills, Max.”  He shoves his shirtsleeve up his left arm, and turns toward Max, holding his arm out to display the scarring that has remained as a constant reminder of his time in hell with the Warden.  Max’s mouth gapes open and his eyes go wide as he takes in the point Michael’s making.

Fuck, Michael, what did they do?”

“You understand what I’m saying, now? There are much. worse. things. than. these. pills. I can handle this.  It isn’t worth stirring up trouble.”

“But you--”

Maria calls from up front, announcing Isobel’s arrival and saving Michael from this conversation-- for now.  He knows it’s only a matter of time before he faces an encore with Isobel.  For now, he enjoys the warm hug she gives in greeting, and thanks her when she says she’s come prepared with a playlist for him.  As they eat, Max calmly shares the information that Michael’s being medicated and Liz is on the way for a second opinion. Isobel already looks like she could set the building on fire with the fury in her eyes, but agrees to settle for small talk until Liz gets there and they have more information.

Isobel shares details about a fundraising gala for the ARC she’s helping to plan.  When light streams in through the opening door, Max looks up past Michael with a bright smile “Hey, Liz, thanks for coming.”

Michael turns to greet her, too, and then--

Look at me, Michael, not her,” Max commands, “Put down the knife.  Right now. ” 

Instead of dropping the steak knife clutched in his good hand, Michael tightens his grip on it, terrified of whatever happened in the seconds-- minutes?-- he’s lost, when he grabbed a steak knife from somewhere, pointed it at-- 

Her. 

“You! You were there ,” Michael says, understanding now the blind panic that stole the past few minutes.  “You--you--you knew, and you still--”

He trembles as the memories are ripped to the surface of his consciousness.  His eyes have to stay open? ... are-- are you sure he’s sedated enough? No offense, just-- he’s-- he’s crying, is that normal?

“Michael, it’s just Liz.  You met her when we were kids at the Crashdown-- you met her again at the workday with Alex and Maria, right?” Max says.  “You don’t have anything to worry about with her, so if you could just put the knife down and stop acting like a lunatic--”

“I’m not crazy, Max.  She was there ,” Michael persists.

She was. She was there. She watched. She saw that something was wrong, but she didn’t say anything.  She took notes and asked questions and held the tools when they told her to. She helped them.  Fitz is her mentor? That means she’s on the warden’s team, too.  She-- she-- oh, God, and Max trusts her.  No, no, no, this can’t be right, it can’t.  This is-- it’s I’m just so drugged that I’m hallucinating.  I’m dreaming. This is a nightmare. Please let this be a nightmare. 

But Michael isn’t waking up, and the tension in the room is palpable. 

“Michael, what the hell are you talking about?” Max says. “We told you before, Liz works to help antarans. She--” 

“N-no, Max. You d-don’t understand. She-- she--”

“He’s right,” Liz says.  Her voice sounds anguished, thick with emotion.  “I was there-- when-- when they operated on his hand.” She grimaces, closing her eyes.  “They told me you wouldn’t remember, Michael.  I guess I was hoping that was true, but I was really just being naive.  I should have told Max so he could warn you. I’m so sorry. It was unforgivable what they did, and I should have spoken up or done something more.  I just-- I didn’t realize yet that there aren’t many people in GRACE that I can actually trust.”

“Liz, you work at GRACE to help,” Maria says, moving to wrap a comforting arm around Liz’s shoulders.  “You would never do anything to hurt--”

“No, I wouldn’t, but-- it was my first week there-- I didn’t-- I still don’t-- have the pull to make big calls like that,” Liz explains.  “Not that anyone but Warden Manes gets to make calls for any case he has a specific interest in.” 

Warden Manes. Oh, God, Warden Manes. She works with him. She knows him.  She’s going to tell him. Tell him I drew attention to what happened with my hand.  Tell him I pulled the knife. Tell him I threatened a human. It’s always worse if I fight back. I should’ve just sat there and kept my damn mouth shut-- oh fuck, she’s going to tell him and he’s going to--

The knife clatters to the ground as Michael gives in to the compulsion to clutch his scarred hand to his chest, for all the good it’ll do him.  If the warden wants to take Michael’s hand or rip out his tongue to muzzle him for good, he’ll damn well do it; there isn’t anything Michael can do to stop it.  

He’s going to be so pissed-- so angry at me.  He won’t care that I didn’t mean to.  He’ll think I did it on purpose to cause trouble.  I completely lost it in front of all these people and now they’ll all ask questions, and maybe if Liz works with the warden they all know him-- even Max and Isobel.  Maybe he’s convinced all of them that I’m crazy and rabid.  Oh, gods, maybe I really am crazy.  Maybe that’s what’s been wrong all along and that’s why so many people believe the warden’s stories about what happened and that’s why Alex really left and--- and---

He can’t catch his breath, can’t draw a single molecule of air into his lungs.  His vision starts to go black at the edges, and it registers distantly that Max is shouting at him, but the words don’t process.  He staggers back from all of them, retreating toward his room even though he can’t really hide from this.  

He tries to shut all of them out, but Max and Isobel push their way into his room alongside him. Instead of letting the humans in, too, they slam the door shut just as Michael had been trying to do, and Max starts pushing the dresser in front of it while Isobel herds Michael toward the empty corner opposite the bed. 

She frames his face with her hands, and he flinches even though the touch is gentle.  “Come on, Michael, protection protocol. We’ve got you; come on. Sit with me.”

He lets her guide him to the floor, and he curls into a ball as he backs into the corner.  Isobel does the same beside him, pressing against him.  “Is this too close? Is it okay if I touch you?”

He nods because he doesn’t have the breath to spare for an audible response.  Once the dresser is in front of the door, Max pulls the blanket off Michael’s bed.  “This okay, too?” he asks, and Michael nods his acquiescence to the familiar finishing touch of draping the blanket over the three of them where they huddle in the corner.     

“Just breathe, Michael; we’ll figure the rest in a minute. For now, just breathe,” Isobel says.  “Take your time.  We’re here.  Just breathe.”

  It seems to take an eternity before he can manage anything close to a normal rhythm.  His pulse is still pounding in his ears.  As the events that led them here start to slot into place and he processes what happened, new waves of panic blossom.

“Oh, fuck ! What were you two thinking?! You shouldn’t have helped me run and hide in here-- it doesn’t-- it doesn’t matter. I fucked it up already; there’s no reason for you two to get in trouble, too.” 

He closes his eyes to try and think his way through it all, ignoring his siblings’ naive assurances that everything will be fine.

 “Once-- once I can keep it together-- I just-- just need a couple more minutes and then-- then we’ll-- we’ll all go out together and you-- you two just keep a good hold on me like you made me come out.  You-- you just tell them you only did it to help get me under control for them and--”

“Absolutely not,” Isobel interrupts.

“Michael, no one is going to hurt you,” Max adds.  “We’ll figure it out, but no one is going to--”

“Of course I’m gonna get hurt, Max! I pulled a knife on a human who works for GRACE ! He’s going to take my damn hand off for this!”

“Over our dead bodies!” Isobel asserts.

“Don’t you understand?! He would do it over your dead bodies, and be thrilled about it!” 

Michael gives in to his miserable lamentations because, honestly, he doesn’t have the capacity or the energy to try to shield Isobel and Max anymore; he certainly doesn’t have the fortitude left to pretend that he is anything other than petrified of his inescapable situation.   

The warden hates me, and he can control everything . He can get away with whatever he wants .  He told me that this placement was the last thing between me and going to medical research, and I’ve already fucked it up. I know what happens to me next, and-- and that’s why I lost it for a minute, but there’s no fixing that.  Now, it’s just-- just a matter of whether we can figure something out so that he only hurts me.  I don’t want to bring you two down with me; I can’t live with that.  So we have to--”

“You say you know what happens next,” Max interjects, “Then, let us help you figure out what to do.  Tell us what he--”

“I can’t; I don’t want to. You can’t change it anyway.”

There are much worse things than death for space trash like you...

 I will strap you back down to this table myself so that you can watch while Doc saws through your bones and then listen to the two of us debate whether to wire your tongue down again or just remove the damn thing altogether. And that’s not even touching on the plans I have for your little friends from camp if you step out of line, do I make myself perfectly clear?

“You know we can keep secrets, Michael; please, just tell us?” Isobel pleads.  Michael shakes his head again.  She reaches slowly to cover his right hand where he’s using it to hold his left to his chest.  “You said ‘he’s gonna take my hand off for this?’” Her voice is strained and scared, and Michael wishes so badly that he could reassure her that she's wrong.  But they have to understand just how big of a storm Michael’s trapped in.  “Did he-- the warden, he told you that’s what would happen if you messed up this placement?” He knows he can’t lie convincingly to them right now, so he doesn’t answer.  “Can I-- can I go ask you these questions in my mindscape?” she wonders. 

She could just jump into his mind and find out-- Michael’s too terrified and too medicated to keep her out anymore, because, in all honesty, he doesn’t want to.  He wants to tell them; wants them to prepare for what’s about to happen; needs them to understand how important it’s going to be to distance themselves.  He nods, giving his permission for her to get the information he can’t quite share aloud. 

“Max, do you want to come?” she asks.  “If it’s okay with Michael?” 

Michael nods again, and Max offers his hand to Isobel to make the journey easier for her.  Michael realizes for the first time that Isobel’s abilities must be an advanced form of their language--something she can manipulate and convey even without the touch that’s normally needed.  Isobel gathering information through her mindscape is different than their telepathic conversations; Michael never remembers mindscape conversations--not the particulars anyway, just a little bit of an ache in his head and a moment of disorientation when Isobel relinquishes her grip on his mind. 

“Oh, my God, Michael.” Isobel lets out a little sob, and Michael reaches to put his arm around her, letting her lean in against him.  “I just-- just barely scratched the surface I think but-- but-- how-- how do you even function after any of that much less--” She shudders.  “I only asked about what he said this time; I didn’t dig for what happened all those months you were gone, but I can try again if--”

“No, just-- it’s better if you don’t go too deep.  Just-- you see what I mean? He’s got too much power; he’s too dangerous.”

“Maybe he is depraved and dangerous, but we’re not totally helpless; not every human in this town is on his team.  I really think there’s a resolution to this that doesn’t end in you going back to him-- honestly, I doubt you’re even in trouble really.  I think he purposefully gave you the wrong impression of the Delucas. They’re active with the ARC; they serve antarans at the restaurant; Maria was always great as a classmate when we were still going to school with her.”

“The warden said the Delucas were family friends--that he knows Ms. Deluca and--”

“It’s a small town; he knows a lot of people.  That doesn’t mean he’s liked by a lot of people.”

“I pulled a knife and--”

“You didn’t hurt anybody,” Max points out.  “You just got startled, and you reacted to protect yourself.  I can’t imagine Liz would blame you, even if you’d come at her with the knife, but it was obvious you just wanted to defend yourself; you were backing away the whole time.  S he was apologizing to you for upsetting you. She wasn’t angry at all.”

It can’t be this easy-- this simple. They can’t just forgive all this. They can’t just sweep it all under the rug like nothing happened.

Can they?

“Let me go talk to Ms. Deluca and Liz?” Max asks. “Figure out for sure where we stand instead of you just sitting here worrying?” 

“I’ll stay here,” Isobel says.  “And keep a read on your mind and if it goes south out there-- not that I think it will, but if it does, we’ll go out the window and wait for you to come to us when you can.”

“Out the window? We can’t just run away, Isobel!” Michael replies. 

“It’s not some half-baked idea.  We’ve worked on it for months now; there’s a viable, but very drastic, plan.  I’ll fill you in later, and I don’t think we’ll need it today, anyway.”

“Worked on it for months?”

“Since the day we took your official statement,” Max supplies.  

“We decided they weren’t taking you from us again, not if we could help it.  It’s not a plan we want to use lightly, but-- we wanted options for you-- for all three of us.” Isobel says it like they packed Michael a change of clothes-- not like they’ve been hatching a quiet rebellion back-up plan that would implode everything they’ve been building for the last decade. 

“You guys shouldn’t have done that; you have lives; you have--”

“You’re our brother .”

“And like Isobel said, I really don’t think we’re going to need it today-- it was more to give you some extra peace of mind-- so you’ll agree that I can go talk to Ms. Deluca?”

Michael hesitates.  “It’s not like I can stay in here forever anyway.  If you think it’ll do any good-- just don’t martyr yourself, okay? Tell them whatever they need to hear if they’re pissed; don’t try to play hero and redirect to yourself.”

“Hang you out to dry?” Max says with an exaggerated smirk.  “Whatever you say, little brother.” Michael rolls his eyes, but the comment makes him want to smile, which is a far cry from the abject terror consuming him five minutes ago, so he’ll take it. 

“It-- uh-- it’ll probably be more comfortable to sit on the bed,” Michael says to Isobel.

“Whatever makes you feel more comfortable.”

“My legs are falling asleep, and I’m actually noticing now that I’m not totally out of my mind, so…”

They relocate to the bed as Max makes his way to the bedroom door.  There’s no sound coming from outside-- no attempt has been made to get in here.  Michael prays to whatever gods might be listening that Max isn’t just being a naive idiot.  Isobel doesn’t let go of Michael’s hand, running her thumb back and forth across his skin in a soothing gesture.  She leans her head onto his shoulder.  For just a moment, Micheal feels like he’s ten years old again and freaking out over a “nightmare” that wrecked half the house.  

“You guys really started on an escape plan? Even though they’ll probably just detonate our chips and blow our arms off or--”

“We might not have the extent of firsthand knowledge that you do of just how fucked up the system can be, but we’ve learned a lot this past year about checking our privilege that comes with being AFP.  We had a lot more growing up to do than we realized, and probably still a lot more to learn, but we’re working on it.”  She squeezes his hand.  “Maybe we can’t fix it, but we can at least work together to find better ways to survive it.”

“Now, that’s the kind of pessimistic optimism I think I can get behind.” 

They sit in silence, and Michael keeps waiting for some sign that Max’s naive plan to talk it out is going sideways---shouting or pounding at the door or the sound of GRACE vehicles pulling up in the gravel lot outside--but no sound carries.  

“You’re keeping a check on him, right?” Michael asks.

“Mmmhmm, he’s fine. Calm even.”

“Huh.” Maybe I’m not as fucked as I thought…

A few minutes later there are footsteps at the door.  Michael tenses and Isobel squeezes his hand again.  Max’s muffled voice comes through the door.

“It’s me.  I’m not gonna open the door yet, ‘cause Ms. Deluca is with me; she didn’t want you thinking anybody plans to shove their way in, and she didn’t want to just start talking and startle you.”

“Michael, I’m so sorry for all this confusion. I want to explain all of it when you’re ready to speak with us. First, though, I just want to be very, very clear that I have absolutely no intention of communicating with Jesse Manes about what happened.  I promise you that your reaction to Liz was completely understandable, and everyone knows you couldn’t control what happened. The last thing we’d want is for you to leave this placement; we worked hard to get you here, and we want you to stay for as long as we can manage it.”

“You-- um-- think you’d be okay for all of us to talk?” Max adds. “I think once everything gets explained you’ll feel like you’ve got your feet under you again.”

Michael doesn’t respond immediately, swallowing nervously as all his past experiences remind him that things never end this smoothly. Isobel is watching him for a reaction and keeps her grip firm in his hand.

 “You don’t have to go out there yet.  You can take some more time,” she says.  “In fact, say the word, and we can still go out the window.  I don’t think we should spend that option on this, but if you want to--”

“No,” Michael says.  “Just… just give me a second to think.”

“I can try to get in her mind to check whether--”

“No! Don’t risk that!”

She closes her eyes, and Michael realizes with a jolt of panic that she’s ignoring his warning and trying to invade Ms. Deluca’s mind. 

“Isobel, stop it!” he hisses, jerking her hand. “No!”

“Michael?” Max’s voice calls.  “I’m not rushing, okay? We’re gonna be in Ms. Deluca’s office if you decide you’re okay to come talk.”

“I can’t get a full read on her,” Isobel says, “but it’s nothing hostile. She seems-- confused… sad… upset, but not at anyone here; it’s more… universal…” She opens her eyes.  “I really think she means well.  Could we go hear her out? When you’re ready?”

 


 

“I want to just emphasize again, Michael, that despite whatever impression Jesse Manes gave you, we are not friends. Other than the communication required to arrange this placement, I hadn’t spoken to him in years.  We are family friends in the sense that he and I went to high school together; that Alex and Maria were friends in school together; and before Alex’s mother passed away she and I were friends-- though never close.” 

Michael absorbs the information, trying to find any reason she’d be lying about this.  Even though no reason occurs to him, he still can’t shake the impulse to take the Warden at his word.  

“I remember now, Heath’s comment to you that first day-- that I had Jesse’s contact information and could contact him directly with problems.  That’s true-- I know how to get in touch with him-- but I don’t plan to ever use that route.  I won’t be talking to him-- or anyone else at GRACE about what just happened.  We all understand that your reaction to Liz was a trauma response; nothing to be ashamed of or punished for.”

“Th-- thank you,” Michael manages after a moment, still trying to find the trick in her earnest declaration. His gaze flits between Ms. Deluca and Maria and Liz as he tries in vain to get a better read on the room.  The tension is palpable, but no one seems pissed off, which is just… an unusual dynamic in his experience. 

“But I-- I just got startled this time-- I wouldn’t do that to you again,” Michael says, hedging his bets with an apologetic assurance.

He settles his gaze on Liz.  He isn’t sure what expression he expected, exactly, but it wasn’t the pained look of guilt she’s giving him.  

“Michael, even if you had that reaction every time I walked into the room for the next decade, I wouldn’t blame you,” she says.  “And from here on out, I’ll make sure to do a better job of not catching you off guard.  It’s the least I can do after… being complicit in…” 

She closes her eyes, like maybe the memory of that day haunts her, too.  

“That.” 

Michael struggles with how to respond.  It can’t be this easy. It can’t be. There must be something I’m not seeing. They’re setting me up for the fall? But what fall do they want me to take, exactly? Why? How?

“I’d like to start by apologizing,” Ms. Deluca says first, with a strained smile.  

“... that’s not-- I don’t-- you didn’t-- it’s-- it’s okay, I overreacted is all,” Michael says, 

“We thought we were being kind, by not having a conversation about the events that led up to your placement here,” she goes on.  

“I only had a little interaction with you from the workday at school,” Maria adds, “and Alex had talked about you, and we had some limited updated information from him, but--”

Unbidden, Michael’s entire body tenses at the sound of Alex’s name, ready to deny anything, fighting through the mental fog to be ready to give the right answers to anything that comes, but they don’t dwell on Alex; they just keep going through this remorseful explanation they don’t even owe Michael.

“I thought that you had been through quite enough without having to add the stress of explaining yourself,” Ms. Deluca says.  “I relied on the information from GRACE to understand what had happened and what you would need from us moving forward, but, after talking to Liz and Max just now, I realize it wasn’t a kindness to assume the file was accurate without asking you. All I did was rob you of your voice, which is the last thing we’d want.”

They can’t mean all this.  They can’t just all be on my side from the start.

Can they?

Humans aren’t ever on my side… not without an ulterior motive. 

Unbidden, Alex’s words rise to the forefront of his mind: Some people are just nice, Guerin.    

“... You said that Alex gave you… an update?” Michael asks Maria. 

She nods. “We haven’t talked to him much since he left for Berlin and training and all that. He sent a couple of postcards; I made him promise that he would before he left. Those were months ago, but he called and...  He said that they needed a placement for you because things weren’t working out at the camp, but it would be hard to place you to work anywhere after...” 

“After my-- uh-- episode at the ranch-- and attacking him,” Michael finishes for her, forcing himself to keep to the story.  “Yeah, I was kinda surprised anybody would sign up to have me as AWP after that.”

But things were just fine at camp. I was happy.  I had friends-- family. I guess that was the problem, though, as far as the warden was concerned.  He seemed pretty pissed at the clinic that I’d been assimilating and finding a place… interrogating me about whether I’d gotten up the nerve to start telling people the truth. Did he really think I’d be dumb enough to do that? No, he’s probably just this determined to keep me miserable...

“Alex told us that the case file is classified now-- protocol for high profile GRACE incidents, to protect everyone involved.” 

Liz lets out a tired sigh at that, and Ms. Deluca looks like she’s at least starting to understand what a bullshit line that was.  

“He just assured me that you weren’t dangerous, and asked if I would consider giving you a trial placement here.”

“Why?”

“He didn’t offer much explanation beyond saying you needed a placement, and it would be hard to find one.  Honestly, I said we would try it because Alex has never been one to ask for much of anything at all, so I knew if he was asking for a favor this big that it was important to him, even if he didn’t-- or maybe he couldn’t?-- explain why.”

Michael swallows hard, setting his jaw and pushing back the wave of emotions that are welling up as he takes in that Alex has gone out on a limb again to try and keep him away from the warden’s wrath. It’s made all the harder with this medicated fog, but he finally manages to craft a response with enough truth that it sells itself.  Some response to her assumption that Michael is important to Alex-- but it isn’t safe for any of them to know the truth, or even a hint of it really.  He needs to deflect.

“I think he-- uh-- he felt bad about what happened, when-- uh--” Michael raises his scarred hand in what he hopes is an all-encompassing gesture for that night. “He shouldn’t . It wasn’t his fault, but-- he felt bad about it anyway.”

He fucking sold his soul to the devil to keep me alive and get me out of that hell his father had me in.  It wasn’t worth it.  I tried to stop him. Now, he’s… in Berlin? Stuck in God knows what GRACE assignment, at the warden’s beck and call and can’t even speak freely enough to give you some half-decent story for why he’d ask you to bring me here.  Not even safe to tell you we were friends or something? 

Not that he’s ever gonna be safe in a world with Jesse Manes in it, but still...

“What happened that night wasn’t your fault, either,” Isobel says, squeezing Michael’s right hand, which is still held tightly in her own.  

“Have you had any other episodes since then?” Liz wonders, “any outbursts at all?”

Michael shakes his head.  “No, not anything like that. Things were-- I thought they were going okay at camp, but-- uh-- maybe-- I mean I guess they weren’t.”

“I think things were going well at camp and that was the problem the warden had.  He still hasn’t moved past everything that happened when your placement with him ended,” Isobel says. 

 “You’re much more isolated here-- easier to control. Like that pointless restriction on me and Max calling your first week, probably so we couldn’t reassure you that--”

“Iz, stop,” Michael pleads.  “It doesn’t matter why he-- they-- GRACE has a system for placements and it-- I’m just glad y’all thought I could help out around here,” Michael says, with a smile to Ms. Deluca. 

He hates that he can’t really get a read on her expression-- or on what she wants to get out of this conversation. Every instinct is screaming to get this talk over with before he-- or his naive siblings-- say something that goes too far.

“I think it does matter why he decided to take you out of camp,” Liz counters.  “The warden isn’t making the choices that are the best for you--or even the most practical.  He wants to scare you and control you, and misapplied medications are a perfect way to accomplish that under the guise of helping you.” 

 She glances down at the medicine bottles on Ms. Deluca’s desk, which they apparently took out for her inspection. 

“These prescriptions are new, from the day you were assigned here.  Were you taking medicine before this?” 

“Just--uh--they had me taking some stuff when I was designated AUI...”  He realizes too late that he’s rubbing at the crook of his arm as he says it, and freezes the motion. “Nothing at camp though.”

Except for acetone and booze...

“So you’d been unmedicated for months with no issues of uncontrolled aggression?”

“Yeah, no medicine but no episodes either.”

“Any other mood or medical issues?” Liz asks like she’s checking off a list in her mind. “Depression? Seizures? Migraines? Anything?”

“... No.”

“Some of these are just for sedation,” she says, “especially the injection kit, which is way too potent to be administered anywhere but the clinic.  One of the most common side effects is difficulty breathing if the paralysis is too effective, so it’s not meant to be given just anywhere.  That alone tells me the rest of this is likely bullshit, even if you hadn’t confirmed the lack of symptoms.”  

She picks up another bottle.  

“These are a derivative of medication used in humans, for seizures and severe migraines that can also help with some mood disorders-- I think it’s the main source of the cognitive delay you seem to be experiencing-- the pause between when you know what you want to say and when you’re able to actually start speaking.”  

She frowns as she places the bottle back with the others.  

“Cognitive delay like this would usually be a reason for lowering your dose or trying an alternative; it’s a common side effect at any dose, but they started you out at four times the normal starting dose.  I think we can all agree they were hoping you’d have that side effect.”

Michael isn’t quite sure how he’s supposed to respond to that.  Isobel looks on the verge of tears; Max looks like he wants to puke.  Ms. Deluca looks quietly furious, but not with Michael, glaring at the bottles before her.  

“So obviously we’ll be stopping all of these,” Ms. Deluca says matter-of-factly.  Michael can’t quite believe the statement-- like defying Jesse Manes is the simplest answer in the world.  “Assuming that’s safe? Do we need to wean down?” she asks Liz.

“No, it would be fine to just stop cold turkey.  Maybe some mild withdrawal symptoms, but I’m going to venture a guess that Michael has had a lot worse than anything this might cause.”  She turns her gaze to Michael, and he worries she’s about to ask about past detox experiences, but she just smiles reassuringly.  

“It won’t be anything bad enough to require more than a few sips of acetone for the next day or two to alleviate any discomfort.  Do you have some?”

He shakes his head, “... No, but I’ll be fine to manage without--”

“I think I’ve got some over at the house,” Maria interjects, “and I can pick up some more when I go to town tonight to meet Rosa; no big deal.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Michael,” Ms. Deluca says before Michael can protest further. 

 They talk like it’s all settled, but Michael trembles at the thought of a surprise visit from an AWP coordinator-- or gods forbid the Warden himself-- maybe even an unexpected “check-up” at the clinic- -and the warden realizing that Michael is thwarting his plan. 

“What is it?” Max prompts quietly, glancing down to where Michael is gripping his knee to try and manage the tremble starting in his hand.  “Are we missing something?” 

He can feel all their eyes on him, but he can’t manage to meet anyone’s gaze as he says, “If-- if the warden went to all this trouble and-- and wants me to take them-- I can’t-- if he found out that I wasn’t he’d...” Michael shudders and begins to wring his hands together, unable to control the impulse even once he realizes he’s acting on his distress.  

“I can’t just stop doing what he set up and risk-- it’s-- it’s not so bad.” He can tell his pathetic attempt at a lie isn’t fooling any of them.  “I can take the meds.  I’ll keep taking them.  It’s okay.  Really.  I’ve managed a lot worse than this.  It’s no big deal.  We can just not use the injections maybe? but--but the others I’ll--”

“Michael, you can’t just keep doping yourself up every day,” Isobel says.  “That can’t be good for you.” She looks to Liz who nods affirmation.  “Between the toll on your system over time and your day-to-day quality of life….”

“Iz, you know what he’ll do if he finds out,” Michael reminds, swallowing against the sick feeling that wells in his stomach at the thought of it. As badly as he wants the medicated fog to go away, the fear of the consequences is even greater.  “If he’s not seeing the results he wants, then he’s gonna up the ante again, and that’s--if I have to pick between the two, I’d rather be doped up than go another round or two with Fitz.”

“I can see your concern,” Ms. Deluca says.

Her lips are set in a hard, thin line, and her brow is furrowed in apparent determination.  It seems like she isn’t willing to give in to Michael’s decision just yet.  He doesn’t want to argue with her; he isn’t sure how to convince her of the gravity of the situation without spilling his whole sob story-- or at least some of it-- more than he’d ever want to admit to a near-stranger.  A part of his mind is still convinced this is all an elaborate test. 

“Now that you’ve dealt with the side effects for a little while, do you think you could just fake it?” Isobel wonders.  

“...yeah, probably.” Michael’s had much tougher things to act through, after all. She’s kind enough not to point out that he lied successfully to her and Max about the situation at the ranch for a year.  “But if they ever dug any deeper…”

“We’ll dispose of the pills day-by-day instead of all at once,” Ms. Deluca suggests.  “That way if they ask to see them during an inspection, it won’t be apparent.”

“And you can keep an emergency dose on you at all times, just in case,” Liz adds, eyes alighting with the idea.  She grabs a pen from Ms. Deluca’s desk and starts scribbling on the back of a flyer.  

 “They wouldn’t do a blood test here at the Pony, so it buys you some time.” She explains as she jots down rows of numbers and consults the bottles again. 

“If they call you in to the clinic for something--or if you need treatment or anything--with the travel time to camp and the approximate absorption rate of these, you would need to take….” She finishes up her math with a triumphant smile.  

“Approximately 72 milligrams of this one and 325 milligrams of this one, ideally crush them or chew them up if you can do it without being noticed.  Even if it wouldn’t be perfect bloodwork, it would get a notable amount in your system--without any lasting adverse effects.” She bites on the end of her pen as she thinks aloud, “I’m guessing it probably won’t be fun to get hit with the meds in those doses and that fast….it’s still better than the alternative, right? And hopefully, it’s just a contingency plan anyway. What do you think?”  

Michael stares from Liz’s smile to the complex calculations she scribbled on some junk mail like it was nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael can see Max staring, too--open-mouthed in amazement, like the absolute dork that he is, and Michael makes a mental note to tease him later. He checks Isobel’s reaction, too, and she’s grinning like the plan is the most badass thing she’s ever heard. 

“That’s-- totally brilliant,” Michael answers finally.  

 She shrugs and huffs a little bit of a laugh, “Kyle says my genius increases when I’m pissed off-- which at work is pretty much always , so he’s got plenty of anecdotal proof to back it up.” She looks to Michael. “He’s supposed to be your regular doctor, right? Kyle Valenti?”

“That’s what he said, and he’s treated me before for stuff. But it was Dr. Fitz this time.”

“Well, hopefully, that was just for the grand show of bullshit the warden had planned.  If they check in on you, and it goes to Kyle, you’ll be fine. I can give him the update on things, make sure he takes a look at your file.” 

Liz is clearly still running through plans in her head, and Michael feels a sudden surge of gratitude to meet another human willing to get on the inside of antaran medicine to ensure some actual quality care happens.  He’s glad to know neither one of them is fighting the Powers That Be in the Roswell Clinic on their own.  

“Kyle might even be able to get proactive about it,” Liz contemplates, “You know, maybe offer to do a follow up on you, like he did to get assigned for your hand after…”
Michael quirks his eyebrow.  “That was on purpose?”

She nods.  “I knew after what I saw that day-- what I heard them saying after, and the-- the kinds of things they’ll laugh about-- I realized what kind of healthcare system GRACE really offered, and I was pretty messed up.”

“And Kyle Valenti is the one who helped you through it?” Maria asks.  “But Kyle is--”

“He was a real piece of work when we were growing up,” Liz allows, “but I think his first week or so on the job with GRACE really got to him-- like mine did for me I guess.”

“Well, I guess miracles do happen, once in a while,” Maria supposes.  

“Pulling us back to the immediate question,” Ms. Deluca says, “with the additional suggestions from Liz, are you more comfortable with the plan, Michael?” Ms. Deluca asks.  

“Is there anything else we’re missing or we could address to help with the situation? I know we’re asking for a lot of trust from you that we haven’t earned yet, but I very much meant what I said about working hard to get you here and wanting you to stay.”

Michael wishes that he could take her reassurances at face value.  She seems so earnest in her eagerness to set him at ease.  But at least she’s wise enough to know that, even if he wanted to, Michael couldn’t cast aside years of mistrust and maltreatment after just a week in the placement and one conversation. He can’t help but attempt to hedge his bets as he answers.

“... I-- I think-- it sounds-- sounds like a good plan,” Michael replies. “It really does. But, ya know, if you change your mind, or think I should keep taking them or-- I mean-- that’s-- I can do-- whatever you think is the best, Ms. Deluca.” 

She smiles, and it seems a little sad.  “I’d like you to stop taking the medicine for a while, and go along with the plan with Liz’s additions,” she tells him, graciously offering him a directive to follow instead of forcing him into a rebellious assertion. “And we’ll see where things go?  You can talk to me anytime about any of it if you want.  Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”  He manages a smile and hopes that his face is displaying more relief than trepidation.  She’s right; he doesn’t trust them yet.  Still, everything suggests that they’re on his side- -that Alex is the one who really wanted him with the Delucas, not the warden.  Maybe, just maybe, he’s not going to have as much misery to endure as he feared.

 


 

Michael sits bolt upright at the knock on the door, scrambling to find clothes as he rolls out of bed, cursing his trembling hands as he tries to get his pants on.  His heart races, pounding in his ears, and he loses his balance, stumbling back against the bed.

“Sorry, Ms. DeLuca,” he calls, though the words ring too loudly in his ears.  “I’m coming I just—”

“Oh, no, sweetie, you don’t have to get up. I was just checking on you,” Ms. DeLuca says from the other side of the door.  “Can I come in, please?”

“I-- uh-- sure,” Michael replies, hitching his jeans up the rest of the way.  She comes in slowly, leaving the door open behind her.  “I set the alarm; I swear,” he says, even though she doesn’t look angry. “I don’t know what happened-- but I can work late if—”

“Please don’t worry about working right now,” she says with an earnest smile. “That’s not why I’m here.  We talked about you taking a few days because you’re probably going to have some withdrawal symptoms, remember?  You didn’t sleep through your alarm. I told you not to bother setting one.”

“Oh,” Michael replies, conjuring up the memories from yesterday.  “Right, yeah.  I remember now, just-- it’s all still a little… hazy.”

“I can only imagine; that’s why I came to check on you.  You’ve got the day off, but Liz said to be sure to stay hydrated, and try to eat at least a couple of meals today, even if you feel a bit nauseated.”

“Yes, ma’am. I can-- I can work though.  I’m okay to--”

“I know you could manage,” she says, “but I’d rather you not push yourself.  Will you at least agree to take the morning, and we’ll reevaluate in the afternoon? 

Michael nods, but winces at the way it makes his head throb.  

“Remember you’ve got plenty of acetone to ease the symptoms,” she says, moving to pick up one of the two bottles sitting on the dresser.  She comes to stand in front of Michael and offers him the bottle expectantly.  “But Liz suggested not more than a quarter bottle a day, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

 He reaches slowly for the acetone-- still struggling to believe the unprecedented support the Delucas are offering.  She gives him an approving smile as he takes a sip right from the bottle, making sure not to indulge too much while she’s watching, no matter how badly he’d like to drain the whole thing. 

She seems to be debating whether to keep the conversation going.  Michael feels a little unsteady on his feet, so he sits back on the edge of the bed.  There’s no mistaking the pity on her face as she looks at Michael, and he looks away rather than face it.  He catches movement from his peripheral and can guess what’s coming. 

Please don’t touch me. It’s not comforting me; it’s just comforting for you.  Please, don’t touch me.

He focuses on his breathing and manages not to react when she lays a hand gently on his shoulder.  

“I don’t want to push you into any conversations, especially not while you’re getting the medication out of your system, but, after the conversation yesterday, I realize that there may be other things in your file that I shouldn't have taken at face value.  I’m hoping that I can learn enough to be a more active ally-- like Liz and Kyle seem to be-- now that I have a more accurate understanding of things.” 

Michael brings his gaze back to her face, trying to get a read on whether the words are sincere; they certainly sound like it.  

“Please let me know how I can support you.  I just want to be very clear that I would be happy to have your side of the story for anything in your file--or anything outside your file that you’d like to share, okay?”

He nods. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

The sound of the phone ringing out in the kitchen draws her attention.  She offers Michael a parting smile.  “I’d better get that.  Have some water, and get plenty of rest.  I’ll check in with you later, but in the meantime, let us know if you need anything.”

Once the door shuts behind her, Michael slumps fully back onto the bed.  He can hear his pulse in his ears, and the pressure of the headache reminds him of the cartoonish giant heads of the humans in allergy commercials.  He crosses the room to turn off the light, wishing there were curtains over the high windows along the back wall.  

As he settles back on the bed, he reaches for the bottle of acetone again, taking a longer drink now that he’s alone. He realizes too late that his gulps have already gotten him to the fourth of a bottle limit Liz suggested, but he reasons that if he needs to take a little more later, he can add a little water back in with no one the wiser.  The light buzz of the acetone makes it a little easier to ignore the foreboding thoughts in his mind that this is all some fucked up test that he’s probably failing horribly.  He lays back on the bed, pulls the blankets up over his eyes to block out the sun, and drifts back to sleep.

In the next moment, there are fingers gently pushing Michael’s messy curls back from his forehead as another hand trails feather-light touches across his chest.  Ice cold panic rushes over him, leaving him just as paralyzed as the injections do. He curses himself for letting his guard down.   

I knew this job couldn’t be as simple as it sounded…. what’s she really expecting to get from me?

He forces himself to stay still, but his breath catches in his throat as he tenses from head to toe.

“It’s okay, Michael; it’s me,” Alex soothes softly, pulling back his hands.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Michael opens his eyes as relief floods through him.  He sits up so he can wrap his arms tightly around Alex, and Alex clings back just as tightly.

“You seem better,” Alex says, voice thick with emotion, cradling the back of Michael’s head as Michael drops his head down to rest his forehead on Alex’s shoulder.  “I was so worried after last time, but you’re okay? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.  It’s gonna be a good placement I think.  You set me up with good people, Alex.”  He pulls away from the hug and takes Alex’s hand in his, meeting Alex’s gaze as he wonders, “But what did it cost you to get me a good placement like this? You’ve given up too much already to--”

“It wasn’t like that, exactly.  My dad just didn’t want you at camp anymore--and I think giving me the option to put you someplace else was a test to see whether I still cared enough about you for him to keep using you as a pawn in all his sick games.”  Alex bites at his lip and looks away as he confesses, “I thought about trying to pretend I don’t care anymore, but, I don’t think I could pretend that I don’t care--even though it means he’ll keep fucking with you to control me.” 

“It also means he’ll need to keep me alive,” Michael points out, “so don’t look away like you did something wrong.”  He reaches to caress Alex’s face, coaxing him to look back at Michael.  When he does Michael flashes a smile.  “I miss seeing your face too much to waste time looking away.”

Alex returns the smile.  “I miss you, too.  Sometimes I think these dreams are the only thing keeping me sane.” He leans in slowly for a kiss, sweet and chaste, and Michael chases him for more as he breaks away.  “Are you sure you’re good?” Alex asks, worried.  “The way you tensed before… You know you can tell me anything, right? If something happened-- even if you don’t wanna talk we-- we don’t have to do anything you--”

“Nothing happened-- nothing new, anyway.  Just old demons coming back to the surface.  I’m good. I swear.”  He caresses Alex’s cheek with his thumb, wondering, “What about you? You know you can tell me anything, too.”

“Nothing new with me either,” Alex replies, weariness in the tone of his voice that makes Michael’s heart ache.  “But playing the part of fitting in with all the authoritarian assholes at work-- just-- it gets exhausting.”

“I hate that you’re stuck there.”

“It’s okay-- it’ll be worth it when I get enough intel to keep us all safe.”

“In the meantime…” Michael trails his fingers down the front of Alex’s chest until he reaches the hem of his band t-shirt and slides his hand underneath, relishing the way Alex’s breath catches at the contact when Michael brings his hand up to tease at his nipple piercing. “Let’s distract ourselves for a while?”

“If you’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” Michael replies, “I know I’m safe with you, Alex.  I’m so fucking good to go right now, but you can ask or say whatever you want if you need to. I don’t mind.”

Alex’s gaze is searching for a moment, “You don’t owe me anything; I’m just as happy to just spend time with you, you know? Whatever you’re in the mood for--or not--whatever you want to do is

“I know,” Michael assures, “but I really do just want to be with you and forget the rest of the world for a while.” The smile Alex gives at that response is bright and hopeful and leaves Michael already a little breathless.  He kisses Alex again, bringing his hand up to wrap around Alex’s neck as he deepens the kiss, sweeping his tongue into Alex’s mouth and earning a small, needy whine from Alex. He smiles again as their lips part.  “How’s that sound?”

“Amazing.” Alex moves to pull his shirt off, discarding it carelessly as Michael unbuttons his own, letting Alex push it down off his arms.  Alex lays down on the bunk, pulling Michael on top of him, letting out a happy hum as Michael settles his weight on him. For a moment Michael just admires the sight of Alex beneath him, looking up with wide eyes in eager anticipation.  The adoration in Alex’s eyes is almost overwhelming, and before Michael can get too lost in the gaze, he shifts his attention and starts to leave a line of hickeys down Alex’s throat and along his collarbone.  Alex lets out a string of curses--interspersed with Michael’s name like a fervent prayer.  Michael can feel Alex’s erection pressing against his thigh, and it isn’t long before Alex is grinding their hips together, seeking more friction.

“I want to feel you,” Alex says, breathless, “Please, Michael? Fuck me?”

The needy, impatient plea is music to Michael’s ears. “Well, hell yeah, especially if you’re gonna ask so nicely,” he teases.  He groans as Alex’s hips buck up and grind against him once more.  

Michael backs off to stand up and more efficiently shuck off his jeans and boxers.  Alex watches with an unmistakable, smouldering hunger that would probably make Michael blush if he didn’t have the same fierce desire keeping his mind otherwise occupied. Without taking his eyes off Michael, Alex unzips his jeans as well, but Michael moves to take over, slowly sliding off Alex’s jeans despite Alex’s efforts to speed him along. Michael refrains from teasing Alex aloud, but it’s clear from the way he closes his eyes and forces a deep breath that Alex is as impatient as ever to reach the next level of euphoria with Michael.   

Michael strokes Alex’s rock-hard length through the cotton of his boxers, drawing a moan from Alex as his hips buck up from the mattress.  Michael continues a few moments more, knowing Alex’s attempt at quiet patience won’t last much longer.  Sure enough, Alex reaches to start pushing his boxers down himself when Michael makes no move to do it for him.  Michael chuckles. 

Alex’s eyes narrow, and his lips turn down in something between a pout and a frown. “I will start without you, Cowboy,” he declares, with no real heat in the threat, as a slightly bashful smile takes over in the next instant.

“Oh, you would, would you?” Michael asks, reaching to grab the bottle of lube and then leaning his body back over Alex’s. He kisses Alex again, slow and deep, and Alex pulls at Michael’s bottom lip with his teeth as Michael pulls away.  As he presses the bottle of lube into Alex’s hand, Michael leans close to Alex’s ear to say, “Prove it. Show me.”

Alex shudders at the words, and Michael moves back.  Alex is biting at his lip, blush spreading farther over his skin with every passing moment.  Michael realizes that maybe Alex isn’t really into giving a show tonight.  He’s about to withdraw his words when Alex finds his confidence, voice low and sultry as he locks his eyes on Michael and instructs, “End of the bed then, front row seat.”

Michael’s heart races for a moment with the thrill of the thought, and he moves as requested, drinking in the sight of Alex spread out on the bed, flushed and breathless as he begins to work himself open slowly.  For all his teasing about Alex being impatient, Michael isn’t much better.  By the time Alex has worked his way up to three fingers-- biting at his lip but still letting gasps and whines of pleasure escape him-- Michael is squeezing around the bottom of his cock to bring himself back from the edge.  

“Fuck, you are unfairly gorgeous, you know that?” he says, repositioning to lean back over Alex, bringing their erections together and stroking down the length of them both with one hand.  

Alex looks up at him through those sinfully long eyelashes of his.  “Bet I’m even more gorgeous when you’re fucking me.”  He brings his lips to Michael’s in an urgent kiss.  “I wanna be as close to you as I possibly can, Michael. I wanna feel you inside me.”

Michael doesn’t need any further encouragement.  He knows Alex took his time-- and he’d hope that dream physics make it impossible for him to hurt Alex-- but Michael still reaches to tease at Alex’s hole, toying with him for just a moment before he lines up his cock and presses slowly into the tight heat of Alex.  

The sounds escaping Alex are downright divine, and as Michael bottoms out Alex moans, “God, I missed this-- feeling so full-- feeling you.  Move, Michael.  Fuck me.”  

He rolls his hips a bit in encouragement, and Michael sets a tender but relentless pace, wanting to draw things out as long as possible.  The bed shifts with the force of each thrust, and Alex is holding onto the bedposts above him to steady himself and push back as Michael fucks him, taking Michael in as deep as he can.  Michael quickens the pace as his orgasm continues to build, and Alex’s moans of pleasure are broken only by intermittent litanies of “fuck, yes, fuck, yes, fuck yes!”

Alex lets go of the best posts with one hand, bringing it down to pump his cock in time with Michael’s thrusts as he chases his climax.  “I’m close, fuck, I’m so close.” 

Michael locks his eyes on Alex, hoping his own face displays the same unbridled ecstasy he can see in Alex’s because fuck how did he get lucky enough to have this gorgeous man wanting him?  “Oh?” Michael says aloud, breathless. “Come for me, then, Alex. Let me see.” 

The request gets a wanton groan from Alex, and Michael smiles at the sound. After a few more thrusts, Alex comes with a strangled shout of Michael’s name, throwing his head back, exuding the absolute image of euphoria. Michael comes right after, pushed over the edge by the overwhelming feeling of Alex clenching around him. 

As the blissful post-coital haze wanes just a bit, Michael eases out of Alex and lays down next to him.  He leans his weight over onto Alex, resting his head on Alex’s chest, and Alex lets out a contented hum.  Michael basks in the peacefulness of the moment, relishing the feel of Alex playing gently with his hair.  After a few more moments of silence, Alex starts idly humming a song, and it takes a little while for Michael to realize Alex is humming ‘Walk the Line.’ 

“Is that-- Johnny Cash? Since when do you listen to Johnny Cash? Oh, I guess you would since it’s my dream, huh?”

“I listened to Johnny Cash before-- with you as a matter of fact.” At the words, the radio on the kitchen counter starts to play the song, picking up in the middle as if the dream is giving Alex credit for the two verses he hummed already.

 

As sure as night is dark and day is light

I keep you on my mind both day and night

And happiness I've known proves that it's right

Because you're mine, I walk the line

 

You've got a way to keep me on your side

You give me cause for love that I can't hide

For you, I know I'd even try to turn the tide

Because you're mine, I walk the line

 

As the last few cords of the song play out, Michael stokes his fingers across Alex’s chest in light touches, enjoying the little stutter in Alex’s humming.  

“Making the most of the dream-world recovery rate?” Alex wonders and Michael doesn’t even have to look up at him to know Alex is smirking as he asks the now-familiar question.  

And Michael gives his familiar answer, “Always making the most of time with you...” 

 


 

When Michael wakes from the best sleep he’s had in weeks, his head is pounding with such force he immediately reaches for the acetone to take the edge off.  Just as he screws the lid back on, there’s a knock at the door.  He panics for a moment, wondering if he should try to hide how much of the bottle he’s consumed-- it’s too late to add water.  Ms. Deluca would probably hear through the door.  Instead, he tucks the bottle away under the bed and hopes she won’t notice or ask.

“Come in.”

With an unpleasant jolt, he realizes that the man entering his room is a complete stranger.  He closes the door behind him, clearly hoping his entry wasn’t noticed by anyone outside.  Michael focuses on breathing as he tries to stave off the panic of feeling so trapped.  

“Sorry to bust in on you like this,” the man says, and his tone is genuine enough that it takes Michael’s panic down just a notch.  

“Who are you?”

“Greg Deschene-- you don’t know me, but Alex asked me to stop by and check-in with you, so..”

“Alex who?” Michael asks, feigning innocence.

“Alex Manes, he’s-- we’re brothers-- half anyway-- our mom was married to my dad for a while before Jesse.”

The information sparks about a dozen follow-up questions, but Michael focuses on the need to keep up appearances.  “Why would Alex Manes send you to check on some rabid antaran in the middle of nowhere?  Wouldn’t he just call Ms. Deluca-- they’re family friends, right?”

“Ms. Deluca is great, as far as I know, but Alex was just worried, I guess.  That’s why I kind of snuck back here.  He wanted me to give you this.”

He pulls a small flip phone out of his pocket.  For a moment Michael thinks it’s the same one he used to keep hidden in the bunkhouse, but another moment or so he realizes it’s a different model. When Michael doesn’t make a move to take the phone from Greg’s hand, Greg places it on the bookshelf instead.     

“It’s a phone, not a bomb,” Greg says, but it’s a lighthearted tease. “You don’t have to keep it.  I know you haven’t got any reason to trust me.  I can remind Alex of that when I write to him next time-- he just seemed pretty worried when he asked me to come by here-- I think he just wants to know you’re doing okay after… whatever went down with the warden.”

Michael narrows his eyes. “Nothing went down with the warden. I lost it and went crazy on them and Alex just acted in self-defense.”

“And Alex did that?” Greg asks, with a nod toward Michael’s scarred hand. “With a hammer?” 

Michael nods, crossing his arms defensively and tucking his hands away. “I guess he feels bad about it, but he shouldn’t. He was just--”

“I appreciate the plausible deniability that comes with a cover story as much as the next guy,” Greg interjects, “but there’s no way Alex took a hammer to your hand. The kid used to catch and take bugs outside to safety instead of squashing them in the house. Of the three Manes men at that ranch, we both know he’s the last one who would’ve--” Greg cuts off the sentence himself, sighing, “Look, I get it. Jesse’s a fucking terrifying monster of a man; no doubt about it. You’re smart to stick to the story. You don’t have to tell me what really happened that night, but you don’t have to lie to me about it either. We’ll just let it be, deal?”

Michael doesn’t reply, still trying to get a read on what game Greg is playing with him. Greg pulls something else out of his pocket-- a cord-- and lays it on the shelf beside the phone.  

“I brought a charger for it, too.  Alex wants you to keep the phone-- and I think he’s planning to manage the minutes.”  Michael maintains his silence, still looking for some sign that Greg is trying to feed him some bullshit at the warden’s behest.  

“Okay, I’m gonna get out of your space,” he turns around, but hesitates with his hand on the doorknob and turns to look at Michael over his shoulder. “Just-- at least think about calling Alex? Or send him a text or something? He really is worried about you, and I’m guessing he’s got enough other things on his plate to worry about these days.”

Michael nods, unwilling to give any more agreement than that, frowning over at the phone, and already fighting the urge to grab the phone and call immediately if there’s even the slightest chance of talking to Alex again-- but much more likely it’s all some sick game. 

“And look, it seems like a pretty okay set up with the Delucas here, but, if it’s not what it seems and you need help with--”

“I’m fine.  It’s a good placement.  I don’t need help.” Even though the words are true, Michael hears the echo in his mind of every time he’s lied using the same assertions.  He pushes away the unpleasant memories.

“Glad to hear that,” Greg says.  “Sorry again for showing up unannounced and all.  Have a good rest of your night, okay?”

“Thanks, uh, you, too,” Michael replies automatically.

Greg shuts the door softly behind him when he leaves.  Michael feels rooted to the spot, staring at the phone on the shelf as he tries to figure out what traps the warden is trying to lay for him now. Or maybe something Mrs. Deluca came up with? After several more steadying breaths, he slowly crosses the room to stand in front of the shelf.

What if it’s not a trick?

What if Greg was telling the truth?

Michael reaches his right hand slowly toward the phone, more like he’s trying to get ahold of a bull snake than just deciding whether to pick up an inanimate hunk of plastic.   His fingers close slowly around it, lifting to examine it more closely.  He half expects someone to rush into the room with a triumphant yell at having duped Michael into taking this bait, but that doesn’t happen.  Michael flips open the phone, pushing back the sense of deja vu from studying the phone Alex gave him back at the ranch-- in a whole other life, it feels like.

The only contact saved on the phone is “A.M.” The call history only has one call-- just 22 minutes long, yesterday afternoon.  There aren’t any text messages. Michael’s thumb hovers over the send button, and he can’t quite seem to catch his breath.

Is the sound of Alex’s voice-- his real voice, not a memory conjured in Michael’s dreams-- just a phone call away?  Could he make this call with some carefully worded conversation and get answers to all the questions that have been constantly buzzing in the back of his mind all these months? 

Is he okay over there-- working for GRACE, having to play the part the Warden wants?

What did it cost him to get Michael into a good placement like this?

Is he tired of having to make sacrifices for Michael?

Does he wish he’d just let the Warden end Michael that night?  

Did he mean what he said to the Warden back in the hellhole of a cell? 

Was I just a distraction for him? Or was what we had real?

Does it even matter anymore? Isn’t it all over, regardless?

Michael closes his eyes against the barrage of worries. The wariness that this might be a trap is waning, but new uncertainty is rushing in.  Thus far, he’s mostly let himself imagine that the Alex who exists in his dreams is a reflection of reality.  He allows the hope that Alex is mostly okay in his new role with GRACE; that he’s enjoying the potential of a new place and the distance from his father; that he’s not lonely; that he doesn’t resent Michael for all the sacrifices it’s taken to keep him alive; that what they had was real… and maybe even that Alex really is still working on a way for them to be together again.  

But one phone call might shatter all those hopes and illusions that Michael has been holding on to.  He can’t bear the thought of hearing a dejected, miserable tone in Alex’s voice again.  The nightmares from That Night are bad enough. Anything you want…. I’ll-- I’ll get on the right path, the Manes path. I’ll work for GRACE as soon as I graduate… Let me prove it to you… What-- what do you need to know I can follow the Manes path? I can prove myself… Please.”  Even just the same quiet resolve of Alex’s second arrangement with the warden to keep Michael alive... I know what I’m doing, and it’s my choice to make.  I’m good … would be gut-wrenching.

 But Michael’s greatest fear is that Alex’s voice will be nothing but a flat tone of indifference on the other end of the line.  Michael knows it would wreck him beyond repair if he calls only to have Alex give a curt, impersonal check-in just to make sure Michael plans to behave himself with Delucas and to emphasize that Michael is a pathetic, naive, lovesick, idiot if he’s still carrying a torch for Alex after the frank dismissal Alex gave him. Maybe Alex just wants to reassert his position.  

Just need to set the record straight… I lied to you… I don’t love you, Guerin. I just told you what you wanted to hear… It’s time for you to forget about all this, just go home…

He snaps the phone shut, forcing himself to breathe deeply through the maelstrom of emotions.  He puts it back on the shelf, abandoning the complications that come with any thought of calling and opting instead to drain almost all the remaining acetone and retreat back into the reprieve of sleep.