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When Michael gets back into his truck after a long day on the ranch, he sits there for several minutes, too exhausted to move. He’s no stranger to manual labor. Lord knows Sanders always found a multitude of odd jobs and projects for him growing up. But working on a ranch is something new. 

Every time he thinks his body has adjusted to the job, they are given a new task and he’s gotta learn a whole new skill. The older guys tell him that he’ll get used to it. That it takes about a year, long enough to experience every season, but he’ll get there. He tries to trust in that, but it’s hard. He’s been working as a ranch hand for 9 months — lucked into one of the handful of year round positions — but he still feels like he’s never going to get used to this. 

Today was repairing the damage to the fence line that happened over winter. It was brutal. His body aches in places he didn’t even know existed before, but that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it, without a doubt, is his hand. It’s been 10 months since the injury. His hand has recovered as much as it’s ever going to, a mess of scar tissue, nerve damage, and crooked bones. It no longer hurts every time he brushes up against something, but his range of motion is shot and it seizes up often, especially when he’s working. 

His stomach growls with hunger and so he sighs and turns on the car, ready to go home, eat something, and fall into bed. As he’s pulling onto the old dirt road that leads to the highway, the windows down and wind blowing against his overheated skin, he catches the melody playing softly from the speaker. He reaches over to turn the volume up and his heart clinches painfully when he realizes what’s playing: Hands Down by Dashboard Confessional. 

Fuck. 

Michael’s eyes drift to the empty passenger seat and his heart pulls painfully. It’s still all too easy to picture Alex in that seat, arm hanging out the window, head tilted towards the sun and singing loudly without a care in the world. He had the most beautiful voice, Michael remembers. He can still feel his breath against his ear as he would sing to Michael out in the desert while he held him. His brain had never been as quiet as in those moments. 

He bites down hard on his lower lip to stop it from trembling. 

He’s cried enough tears over Alex Manes. They’d both agreed that it was over. 

Or, rather, Michael had given Alex an ultimatum in his anger and Alex had pushed back against it, pushed him away. And that was it. The whole epic romance thing they’d been building hadn’t just fumbled, it had crashed and burned. Michael had tried to talk to Alex about it afterwards, and Alex had accepted his apology but told Michael that he was right. That he couldn’t be in the military and be with Michael, and he was choosing the military. 

So Michael did what he did best. He got upset and got himself arrested for stealing Kyle Valenti’s hubcaps so he didn’t have to say goodbye to his one perfect thing. A part of him had truly hoped that by not being at the bus station to say goodbye, Alex would realize his mistake. That he would change his mind and choose Michael. 

God. He’d been so pathetic. 

He should switch the stereo off. He should take the old mixtape of Alex’s out of the player and toss it. He was always more of a country fan anyway. He reaches over and turns the stereo up instead. 

As he listens to the lyrics, he allows his mind to wander. Remembers the feeling of his heart racing every time he was around Alex and couldn’t touch him. He remembers how Alex’s legs used to tangle with his own as they would lay out in the back of his truck and watch the stars at night. 

And yeah, he’s always loved country music for the truth and simplicity in the lyrics… But these Dashboard guys perhaps have it right on the money. No matter what Michael tells himself these days, his heart is still Alex’s to fill or burst, to break or bury. 

His mind replays their last conversation as he drives home. Goes over every line spoken with a fine tooth comb, trying to figure out what he could have said or done differently to make Alex stay. The truth is, he’s slowly realized over the last nine months, that there wasn’t anything he could have said or done. Because Michael was never going to be enough for Alex. He was always going to leave. If not for the military, then for something different. Something bigger and better than this small town ever had to offer a star like Alex. 

When he arrives at the trailer he’s been renting off of Sanders, he’s not surprised to see Isobel standing outside of his door looking impatient. He hasn’t invited her, but that has never stopped her before. The thing is, he’s not in the mood for whatever she has to say today, he knows it. It’s probably some weak attempt to get Michael to talk to Max and he is just not interested. 

He puts the truck in park and gets out, steeling himself for the onslaught. 

“You’re like really red,” Isobel says, walking over to him and reaching out to touch his face. He ducks out of her reach. 

“I work outside all day,” he explains and tries to move past her, but she steps into his path and holds up a letter addressed to her. 

“What am I looking at?” he asks. May as well get this over with so that she can say whatever she wants to say and then he can eat a quick dinner and go to bed. 

“It was addressed to me, but the envelope inside is for you.” 

Michael has no idea who would send him a letter through Isobel, but he’s curious. He goes to grab it from her, but she pulls it out of his reach. He rolls his eyes at her and holds out his hand, unamused. He’ll use his powers if he has to. 

“Why is somebody using me as a forwarding service?” she asks. 

Michael has no idea. He doesn’t even know anyone who would send him a letter. The only two people in the world who give a shit about him live in town and are capable of showing up on his doorstep if they want to talk, as is evidenced by Isobel standing here, uninvited. 

But if he says any of that to her, she’ll just be more curious about who the letter is from and he’s not sure he’s willing to share this with her. Not without knowing what it is first. 

“It’s not like I have a mailbox and an address of my own,” he argues. 

She rolls her eyes, but hands him the letter. He pulls the smaller envelope out of the bigger one. He doesn’t have time to be impressed that Isobel didn’t open the envelope and read whatever this letter is, because the moment he sees ‘M. Guerin’ on the envelope, it feels like he’s been kicked in the chest by one of the horses. 

He would know that handwriting anywhere: Alex. 

“Who’s it from?” Isobel asks, nosey as ever, but he’s sure as fuck not sharing this with her. Whatever this is. 

He’s paralyzed as his mind falls into chaos. There are about a million things this letter could say, but only one thing Michael wants to hear. Only one thing he’ll survive being told. His heart squeezes painfully with hope and he wants to scream against it. He’s been hopeful before, and it’s never paid off. He can’t afford to shatter. He’s only just getting his life on track after the mess things became last summer.

“Michael? Michael?” Isobel moves so that her face is in his line of sight and waves her hands in front of his face. “Michael!” 

He shakes his head and looks up at her, confused. 

“Who’s it from?” she asks, concerned. 

“Nobody,” he says, shoving the letter into his pocket, far enough away from her prying eyes. 

“No, that’s not gonna fly,” she says. “You look like you just saw a ghost. What is that?” 

“Thank you Isobel,” he says, grabbing her shoulders and turning her around, pushing her gently towards her car. “Goodbye Isobel.” 

“What? No, Michael,” she turns around, but he’s already reached the door to the trailer. “Michael!” 

He steps inside and closes the door in her face, using his powers to keep her from getting inside. The letter is burning a hole in his pocket. He wants to read it and he wants to light it on fire without ever opening it. It’s clearly some kind of joke, right? Why would Alex be contacting him after all these months of nothing? 

Isobel pounds on the door several times and screams some choice words at him, but he ignores her. She’ll forgive him. Isobel’s anger always burns bright and dies fast.  

He takes several deep breaths and tries to steel his heart against whatever heartbreak he’s about to endure. He glances down to his hand and lets his eyes follow along the lines of his scars. It should be the worst pain he’s ever endured. A sign to himself that he is capable of surviving the impossible. But the honest truth is that his hand is hardly the worst pain he’s ever endured. 

That honor belongs to a different Manes. 

He pulls the letter out of his pocket and stares at his name, written in black ink across the front. He tries to gain some kind of meaning in the slight slant to the M in his name, the jagged point to the G. Like somehow it can give him a clue of what he’s going to find. 

It doesn’t. In the end, he just has to bite the bullet and read what’s inside. 

M-  

I know that we said we wouldn’t do this. There was a plan. When I enlisted, you were done. But that plan was stupid. And I was stupid for telling you that we needed to stick to it. I miss you so badly that sometimes it feels like I’m drowning. And I just don’t see how this is any less painful than long distance would be. 

So maybe this isn’t fair, but when the hell has life ever been fair for either of us? I miss you. I still want you. Please tell me you still want me. 

Yours, if you’ll have me, 

Alex 

PS- If you chose to write me back, and I really hope you do, don’t put your name on the envelope. DADT. I didn’t know if you wanted Isobel to know about us, so I didn’t sign the envelope. Here’s my return address: 

AMN Alexander Manes

Unit 336 Box 1291

APO AA 34042

Michael traces his finger over Alex’s name with shaky hands, as if the action can somehow bring Alex to him where he can touch him and see his face and reassure him that he’s still here. That he’s all in on this and has been all in since that damn first kiss.

He watches as a drop falls onto the x of Alex’s name and smears the postscript. Michael jumps for a tissue to try and blot it dry before it can smear his address beyond recognition. 

“Fuck!” he exclaims as his heart jumps out of his chest and images of Alex slipping permanently out of his life flash before his eyes. He holds the wet paper up to his face and blows on it frantically, trying to dry it so that he can see what’s there that’s salvageable. 

It would be just his luck if Alex finally reached out to him, and he had no way to reach back. 

When the paper dries, he is able to make out most of the address and he lets out a shaky breath of relief. Holds the paper far away from his body as tears fall freely down his cheeks. Alex misses him. Alex wants him again. 

He falls back into his bed, reaching under his pillow for the old Fall Out Boy sweatshirt he stole from Alex and buries his face in it. It’s long since stopped smelling like him, but it’s all Michael has. It takes several minutes to calm himself down, but when he stops crying and is sure his face is dry, he pulls the letter closer to inspect the full damage. He can read the unit and box number at least. The rest he’s sure he can figure out on his own with some research. 

“Fuck,” Michael whispers, letting out a weak laugh. He lays his head back against the pillows and holds the letter to his chest, allowing Alex’s words to truly sink in. 

Alex still wants him. If Michael will have him. 

Michael laughs at that and rolls his eyes. As if there is a universe in which Michael would not want Alex. 

****

Michael doesn’t typically frequent The Wild Pony. For starters, he’s not old enough to legally drink and Mimi DeLuca definitely knows it. Secondly, he’s usually too exhausted after work to do much of anything but heat up something quick to eat and fall into bed. But Alex had told Michael in his last letter that he calls the Pony every Thursday night to talk to Maria, and if Michael was around, they could perhaps talk. 

And, well, that’s not an offer that Michael is physically capable of turning down. 

He sits at the barstool with his soda, shifting awkwardly in his seat at the knowing look he keeps getting from Maria, who is washing dishes behind the bar. He tries not to squirm under her gaze, but it’s hard. He wishes he had something to occupy his mind while he waits for Alex’s call, but there’s nothing. He doesn’t know any of the people here. He’s not willing to stray away from the phone to play pool in case he misses the call. And he doesn’t have a cellphone or anything to fidget with like the girl on the other end of the bar clearly waiting for a date to show up. 

So he does what he does best- finds something to pick at. 

“You gonna keep staring at me, DeLuca, or are you gonna say whatever it is you clearly want to say?” he asks. 

Maria gives him a contemplative look for a solid minute as she finishes washing the glass in her hand. She then sets it down to dry and moves to stand in front of him on the other side of the bar. 

“So you’re Museum Guy,” she says, her eyes moving over him in a way that has him fighting every instinct to curl in on himself and hide. 

“So what if I am?” he says with all the bravado he can muster. 

It’s not that he cares about what Maria thinks of him. He’s long since given up on trying to impress anyone in this town. They made up their minds about him years ago. It’s just that he’s pretty sure that Alex cares about what Maria thinks of him, and Michael doesn’t want to do anything that could mess up this very tentative and new thing he’s started up again with Alex. 

Maria places her elbows on the bar and studies him. Really looks at him like she’s trying to see into his soul. There’s an odd energy to the air and a moment later she stands back and it’s gone. As is the critical look on her face.

“If you’re the guy that made my best friend hopeful for the first time in his life, then you’re okay with me Guerin,” she says with a warm smile that makes him feel like she actually sees him past all of the paint and grease stains. “Break his heart though, and I’ll break you.” 

She clearly says it as a joke given the way that she’s smiling at him and her body is loose and relaxed, not looking for a fight. He knows he should laugh, but he can’t make himself. 

“I think the greater danger is him breaking mine,” he says aloud, shocking himself with how vulnerable it sounds. He really doesn’t know Maria at all apart from the fact that she used to run around with Rosa, Liz and Alex. They never shared classes together in school and they didn’t have the same circle of friends. The only thing they have in common as far as Michael knows is Alex. So why he’s sitting here spilling his heart to her is anyone’s guess. 

“Alex can be guarded, you just can’t let him push you away,” Maria says with a gentle smile. 

Michael can see what Alex sees in her. He gets it. She’s pretty, sure, but more importantly, she’s kind. And that’s a hard thing to find in the world for people like them. He’s glad that Alex has some good friends he can still rely on. 

She moves away to help a customer, leaving Michael to his thoughts, which is always a dangerous thing. The longer he waits for the phone to ring, the more his mind starts filling with doubts. He can’t help but think of all the pain the last 10 months has brought to his life. The amount of tears he’s cried over Alex Manes could fill the great lakes. The only thing that keeps him in his chair instead of bolting for the door in an effort to steel his heart is the fact that Alex has promised him that they’ll make this work. And if there’s even a sliver of a chance they can, Michael has to try. 

The phone rings and Maria answers it. He can tell it’s Alex by the way her tone softens and her smile brightens. There’s a light in her eyes that wasn’t there before and it hits him like a punch in the gut when he realizes why. Maria’s one of the ones that got left behind, much like Michael. When Alex left for the military, Michael wasn’t the only one left alone, Maria was too. 

Guilt floods his veins at being the reason that she no longer has Rosa or Liz at her side and it’s the only thing that keeps him from snatching the phone away from her hands so that he can talk to Alex himself. 

Rather than allow his brain to go to the dark place where all memories of the Ortechos live, he forces himself to focus on Alex. His stomach flutters and his throat tightens as he realizes that he hasn’t practiced anything to say. What if they get on the phone and Michael doesn’t have anything interesting to say and Alex realizes that this isn’t going to work out between them? 

God, he’s an idiot. He had the whole car ride over and then the time he’d been sitting at the bar to think of something cool and witty to say and yet, nothing. 

Sooner than he’s prepared, Maria is calling his name and holding out the phone for him to take. He stands up and quickly moves around the bar so that he can reach the phone. 

“Hey,” he says as he turns his back to the bar for some semblance of privacy. He can feel Maria’s eyes on him, but he ignores them. 

“It’s so good to hear your voice,” Alex says, breathing a sigh of relief that Michael can deeply relate to. 

“Yeah, you too,” he says quietly so that he won’t be overheard. This is a quiet moment for just the two of them, and while there has to be hundreds of miles of distance, there doesn’t have to be anyone else involved in their relationship. “How are you?” 

“Well, you know…” Alex says, trailing off like Michael can fill in the blanks himself. But he can’t. He doesn’t know. He has no idea what military life is like for Alex. He hasn’t spoken to him in close to a year. 

“I honestly don’t,” he says awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck and shifting on his feet uncomfortably. 

“Right, uh… well… Basic was fine enough. Sucked but I was prepared for that thanks to the stupid Manes family bonding shit my dad used to make us do,” he says sarcastically. 

The mention of Jesse Manes has Michael curling his left hand into an attempt at a fist out of instinct. The bones don’t move like they should these days and he still gets random pulses of pain thanks to the nerve damage. But at the end of the day, Michael’s biggest regret isn’t what happened to his hand. It’s that he didn’t do more to protect Alex. If he had, maybe he wouldn’t have enlisted. 

“Tech wasn’t that much different from school with all the classes and stuff, so it wasn’t too bad,” he explains. 

“You hated school,” Michael reminds him and Alex laughs. 

“Yeah, I did,” he says. “Do you remember Mrs. Jefferson?” 

“The demon lady who always thought I was cheating because I never got a math problem wrong?” he asks. 

“One of my trainers here reminded me so much of her,” he says. “Always made me think of you.” 

“Everything makes me think of you,” Michael says in response and immediately winces, worrying that it’s too much. Being around Alex always turns him into an emotional sap, but things between them are different now, altered. He’s not yet sure if his cheesy lines will be well received anymore. 

Michael can hear Alex sigh through the line, but it’s not his annoyed sigh, which Michael takes as a win. 

“I don’t know when I’m going to get leave,” Alex explains. 

“Okay.” He’d figured as much. He hasn’t bothered doing much research into the terms of enlistment. There hadn’t been a point once Alex left with no plans of looking back. Why would Michael have tortured himself with such knowledge? But from everything he’s heard about the military, he knows that time off isn’t an easy thing to obtain. 

“I want to see you,” Alex says. 

The admission tugs at Michael’s heart and he has to bite back tears as a wave of emotion hits him. He misses Alex more than he thought was physically possible. When Alex left, it felt like part of his heart had been torn out of his chest and that pain has yet to repair itself. He wants to see Alex more than anything. He needs it. And he’s been pushing that need down from the moment he left. 

“Okay,” is all he manages to get out in response, trying his best to contain his emotion. It wouldn’t be fair to Alex to show him just how much Michael thinks this whole situation sucks. It’s not like Alex can undo the damage done. He’s enlisted now and has three years and three months left on his contract. 

Alex doesn’t say anything for a little bit and Michael can feel him building up to something, so he bites down on his tongue to keep from filling the silence. 

“I, uh,” Alex trips over his words, which isn’t at all like the man he knows and loves. “I know Georgia is a long drive for you.” 

Michael can’t stop the stupid smile that comes over his face. His heart swells with hope and an excited thrill moves through him.  

“Alex Manes, are you asking me to come see you?” he asks.

“I know, it’s not fair,” Alex says. “I’d be working during the day and they’ve got me on a 10pm curfew…” 

“Okay,” he agrees, already mentally thinking through how to make the trip work on the limited funds he has available. 

“I’m just—” Alex cuts himself off from saying something and that instantly stops Michael’s excited planning and he grows worried. 

“What?” 

“There’s a buzz going around that we’re about to get orders to deploy and I don’t want to leave without having seen you.” 

His entire chest squeezes painfully as he tries to swallow down the fear of Alex being sent overseas. He’d known this was a possibility the moment he’d enlisted. It’s part of the reason he’d been so against Alex joining the military. Michael’s fear of abandonment is very real and he’s been terrified that something is going to happen to Alex they can’t come back from. 

“I’ll be there,” he promises. Even if he has to pay a few bills late and go hungry for a few days, he’ll be there. 

“Are you sure? I know you have work...” Alex asks, sounding so self-conscious. Like he can’t believe that Michael would actually be willing to take the time to come and see him. Fuck that. Michael is going to make sure that Alex doesn’t leave without knowing how fully and completely he’s loved. 

“I’ll ask for time off,” he assures him. 

“Can you afford that?” 

No, Michael thinks. But he’s not going to let Alex know that and add another thing to worry about to his plate. Or worse, uninvite him. 

“Alex, I’ll take care of it, okay?” he says. Because the truth is, he will. He went most of senior year living off of next to nothing, he’s resourceful. He’ll figure it out. He can probably find repair work to do around the Crashdown again if he gets truly hungry. Arturo has always been good about trading food for labor. “I want to see you too,” he adds for good measure. 

“Okay,” Alex says. The smile Michael can hear in his voice makes it all worth it. 

“Okay.” 

****

Michael pulls into the parking lot of an old motel on the outskirts of town. It’s been a long drive from New Mexico to Georgia and he should be tired, but he’s too keyed up with energy. He’s excited to see Alex again for the first time, but also incredibly anxious. The entire drive his mind has been playing out potential conversations they could have, and his biggest fear is that they won’t have anything to talk about. That the easy camaraderie they’d shared over their summer together will be gone, that too much will have happened between them and they won’t work anymore. 

He’s early. It’s 4pm in Georgia and Alex won’t be off work until 5. So he parks his truck and nervously goes to the front desk to get himself checked in for the weekend. He’s never booked a hotel room before and he’s not sure how it all works. Alex had gotten the reservation set up for him, he hadn’t even known how to do that, nor had he had a credit card to hold the room. He’d promised Alex he would pay him back in cash when he saw him. 

Michael walks inside and up to the front desk. His nerves aren’t helped when the girl working the desk doesn’t even look up from the game of Solitaire she’s playing as she says, “Yeah?” 

“I, um, have a reservation?” Michael tells her. 

She rolls her eyes and looks very put out as she closes her game to pull up their system. “Name?” 

“Guerin.” 

“Two nights, one guest?” she asks. 

He nods, but she doesn’t look up so he adds, “yeah.” 

She takes his ID and informs him that the room is pre-paid before waving him off without even explaining how to get to the room. He should be offended, but the level of customer service reminds him a lot of Sanders and it helps him feel a bit more at home. 

He goes back out to the truck to grab his bag and finds the room easy enough. He unlocks the door and heads inside. It’s not much. A king size bed, a desk with an old TV on the top, and a bathroom. But it’s roomier than the airstream he’s been living in, so he’s happy. He throws his stuff on the bed and takes a seat, pulling a textbook on astrophysics out of his backpack to pass the time. He had to pass up UNM in order to stay behind and look after Isobel, but that doesn’t mean his love for learning has disappeared. He’s been trying to read as many textbooks as he can get through the library, and thanks to the interlibrary loan that he’s learned about, his entire world has opened up. This week it’s astrophysics, but last week it was chemical engineering. 

Before he knows it, he’s deep into the theory of vanishing dimensions when there’s a knock at his door. Michael closes the book and stands up quickly, hands moving over his hair, willing it to lie flatter on his head so that he looks a little more put together. He checks his breath really quick, though if it smelled, it would honestly be too late for him to do anything about it now. 

A second knock on the door propels him into action and he moves quickly to open it. 

The sight of Alex takes his breath away for a moment. He looks different. His hair is shorter, his eyeliner and piercings gone. He’s wearing a plain short sleeve button up that is a far cry from the band T’s and Hot Topic sweaters he used to sport, but he still looks like the answer to every question Michael has ever asked. 

“Hey,” Michael says, lamely, pushing down the urge to reach out and kiss him. Though it’s worked for him in the past, this time feels different. With so much time passed between them, Michael feels like he needs to wait for Alex to make the first move here. 

“Hey,” Alex says, with a warm smile before glancing over his shoulder nervously. Michael looks behind him and sees a car still running with a man and a woman in the front, watching them. Michael turns back to see that Alex is giving him an apologetic look. 

“So I know we were supposed to have dinner together, just the two of us, but one of the wives is throwing us a farewell barbecue and when I tried to get out of it, it didn’t go over well,” he explains. 

Michael crosses his arms and tries to look casual as it feels like his heart might actually fall out of his chest. 

“Oh, yeah, of course,” he says, hoping it doesn’t sound like his hopes and dreams for the weekend are crashing and burning. “You should go with them. We can hang out afterwards. I’m sure there’s somewhere I can eat around here.” 

“Guerin, no, that’s not… I want you to come with me,” he explains, shuffling on his feet. 

“Is that a smart idea?” Michael asks, eyes going back to the man in the car, mindful of the fact that they’ve got eyes on them. 

“I told them you’re just a friend from high school who came out to see me off.” Alex shrugs. 

“Just a friend from high school,” he repeats the words, his heart breaking even more. 

“Hey,” Alex whispers, softly, looking over his shoulder nervously before turning back to give him a significant look. “You’re obviously more than that, but I can’t tell them that. Okay? Just… come with me. Make this party a bit more bearable, then they’ll leave me alone and we can have the weekend together.” 

“Or, at least the times you don’t have to be on base,” Michael points out. 

“I have Sunday off and I don’t have to be back to base until 10 each night. That’s still plenty of time for us to be together, right?” Alex asks, and Michael can see the doubt in his eyes. The regret that he can’t offer more and who is Michael to make him feel even worse about the situation they are in when Alex is about to go to war in a few days. 

“Well, friend, let’s go,” he says, grabbing the room key and his wallet off of the desk and stepping out onto the sidewalk. Alex sends him a grateful look as they head towards the car. 

****

Michael sits on the curb peeling at the label on his beer. He’d stepped away from the party for some space from it all. He’s trying not to let his thoughts spiral. It’s not like Alex is purposefully ignoring him, they’ve spent plenty of time together tonight. It just feels different when they can’t touch and Michael has to control every word and glance in his direction. He can’t say this to Alex while he’s about to be sent off to war, but he doesn’t understand how Alex could have joined a system that is willing to see him die in battle but unwilling to let him love openly. 

Being around so many happy couples is just hard. He’s jealous and can admit it to himself. He wants this. He’s always wanted this. He wants the home with the doberman and white picket fence and kids running around the backyard with sparklers. He wants the barbecues and the easy laughter that only comes with a life full of comfort and security. He wants something stable and real, and he knows that’s possible with Alex, but not while they still have to hide who they are to each other. It just… It sucks. 

“Now, see, you’ve gone and stolen my hiding spot,” a woman, Sara he thinks her name is, comes down the drive and moves to sit beside him. Her playful glare helps ease the lump in his throat that he’s somehow done something wrong. 

“Well, I was here first,” he says teasingly, testing the waters to see how it lands. When she laughs, he feels himself relax completely. 

“So blacktop rules it is then,” she says. “I’ll concede. But you’re sharing that beer.” 

He looks down at the full beer in his hands that he hasn’t even touched. He hasn’t felt much like drinking tonight. He’d just grabbed it to have something to occupy his hands so he wouldn’t reach out and grab Alex’s. He hands it to her. 

“I imagine it’s hard,” she says after taking a sip. She attempts to hand it back but he waves her off. She can have it.

“What is?” he asks. 

“Not being able to tell anyone.” 

Michael’s head snaps in her direction, eyeing her critically. She cannot possibly know. They’ve been so careful. 

“The rest of us have each other. We’ve got support groups and have gone to the family debriefs. We know there are protocols in place to keep us informed if anything goes wrong. But you don’t have that,” she says, kicking at some loose gravel. “I’m just saying, I imagine that’s hard.” 

His heart squeezes painfully as she basically spells out his biggest fear with Alex getting deployed. Not that he can say that. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, playing dumb, trying to come up with a way to talk himself out of this. He’s a grade A bullshitter. He’s learned to talk himself out of a lot of tricky situations. And yet, nothing is coming to him. 

Maybe because you don’t actually want to be Alex’s dirty little secret, he thinks to himself, bitterly. 

“Of course not,” she says, her grin can’t be anything but conspiratorial. “You know, Alex and my husband, Diego, have been together since basic training. They were roommates during tech school.” 

“Okay?” 

The woman looks honest enough with her warm brown eyes and innocent looking dimples, but he doesn’t trust easily and he’s been burned before. 

“So, I’ve known Alex for some time now, and I know .” 

The way she says it, Michael can’t even convince himself that she’s talking about anything else. 

“He told you?” 

It’s not like it would be a huge shock. Alex was out in high school to his friends even if he didn’t announce it to the entire school. But it would surprise Michael if Alex was telling people in his unit. 

Not that a dishonorable discharge would be the worst thing in the world to happen, he thinks selfishly. At least it would keep Alex from having to go to war. 

She shakes her head and takes another drink. “Don’t ask, don’t tell. I wouldn’t ask him to disclose something like that to me. I know what a risk it is. But, I know.” 

Michael gulps, his right hand instinctively running over the scarring on his left. 

“My sister is in the Navy. She’s gay. I know what it’s like and I would never tell anyone,” she explains with a kind smile that puts him at ease a bit in a way that few people can. She seems genuine enough. Perhaps the sky doesn’t have to fall today. It’s just hard for Michael to believe that good things and good people are real. 

“I’m just saying,” she continues. “I’m here if you need to talk. This deployment is going to be hard on everyone, but you shouldn’t have to go through it alone.” 

She pulls out a pen from her pocket and grabs onto his hand, writing an email address and a phone number on the back of it. 

“What’s this for?” he asks once she’s done. 

“For when you need somebody to talk to about all the things you don’t want to burden him with while he’s away,” she says. 

Michael’s not going to lie, it does sound nice to have somebody to talk to who also has a loved one overseas. Not that he’s ever been great about talking about his feelings. 

“Alex and I are just friends,” he says, trying one last time, even though it’s pointless. He’s certain she can hear the way his voice can barely form the word friend. 

“Of course,” she says with a sweet giggle and this time he’s positive that it’s conspiratorial. “Well, you two make very cute friends . I’m glad that he has somebody. He was pretty miserable there for awhile.” 

She doesn’t wait for a response, instead she stands up, dusts off her pants and finishes her beer before taking a deep breath like she’s mentally preparing herself to go back into the party. She pats his shoulder one more time, then walks towards the gate that leads to the backyard. 

He sits there in stunned silence trying to figure out what the hell just happened and if he can trust it. He’s pretty sure that he just made a friend, but Michael doesn’t make friends. He has siblings and Alex. He has a weird acquaintance thing going with Maria based on their mutual appreciation of Alex and that’s about it. 

A few minutes later, Alex steps out of the back gate. When he eyes him, he smiles brighter than the sun, looking relieved. It goes a long way to calm any doubts in his mind seeing the way Alex lights up at the sight of him. 

“There you are! I’ve been looking for you,” Alex says. “Sara finally told me where to find you.” 

“I just needed a minute,” he explains, hoping Alex isn’t annoyed at him for ditching the party. 

“I’m sorry I dragged you into this,” he apologizes, moving to sit beside him. “I know you probably hated it.” 

Michael looks at the number and email on the back of his hand and shrugs. “It wasn’t so bad I guess.” 

Alex glances down at his hand and Michael moves to cover it up, to explain before Alex can get any crazy ideas, but Alex just shakes his head. 

“The Mendozas are good people,” Alex says, his eyes all too knowing. 

“So you know that Sara knows then?” he asks, trying to figure out how Alex feels about that. Alex has always been the one who’s pushed the idea of their relationship remaining a secret, even before he’d enlisted. 

“Pretty sure Diego does too, but they’ve never said anything and they won’t,” Alex says. 

Michael watches him carefully, trying to decide if his easy going response is truly that or if it’s an act. 

Alex knocks shoulders with him and catches his eye, giving him a look that says it’s fine. Michael breathes a sigh of relief. “I think you and Sara will really get along. She’s a big science nerd too.” 

“Yeah?” They hadn’t talked about anything beyond Alex, but perhaps he’ll actually use the number on the back of his hand. If Alex is okay with it, it could be nice. 

“Yeah.” Alex nods. “You ready to get out of here? I still have an hour before I have to be back on base.” 

The look Alex gives him is practically sinful. 

“I have been known to be very creative given a time constraint,” he teases, giving his best flirtatious look, the one that he knows Alex loves. They stand up and walk towards his truck. They don’t hold hands, they can’t, but if they occasionally allow the backs of their fingertips to brush against each other, well, nobody has to know. 

****

Michael lays in bed with Alex in his motel room. The comforter underneath them itches, the TV signal keeps going in and out, and they can hear a couple next door arguing, but to Michael, it’s perfect. Laying here in Alex’s arms, nails gently scratching his back and listening as Alex hums an unfamiliar tune, Michael feels his entire body settle. The electricity that typically moves through is veins amping him up and creating chaos inside of him calms and settles in his hands. His mind is blank for the first time in a long while. And it’s perfect. 

“I don’t want to go,” Alex whispers, as if speaking any louder will disturb the peaceful moment they’ve found. 

Michael’s been here since Friday afternoon, but their time together has been limited. First there was the barbecue they’d been roped into attending. Then Alex had had to work on Saturday and his shift had run late, meaning they’d only had a few hours together yesterday before Alex had to report back to base. But today has been theirs and theirs alone. Alex showed up early this morning with breakfast from the diner and bags of snacks to ensure they wouldn’t have to leave the room again until it was time for Alex to report back for curfew. 

“So don’t,” Michael whispers back. 

“I can’t miss curfew, I’ll lose even more privileges.” 

“What do you mean even more?” Michael asks, tilting his head up so that he can see Alex’s face, but not moving his head from his chest. He’s too content listening to the sound of Alex’s heart beating. 

“Well, I already lost my overnight privileges.” 

Michael hadn’t even been aware that overnights were possible. When Alex told him he had curfew, he’d just assumed all of the guys did. 

“What? How?” he asks, trying not to be hurt by the idea that Alex should have been able to stay the night but can’t. 

“Honestly? It’s stupid,” Alex says. “I’m pretty sure it was my dad’s doing.” 

At the mention of Jesse Manes, Michael’s hands instinctively fist and a flash of pain moves up his left arm at the pull of muscles and tendons that no longer work that way. 

“How’s that?” he asks, willing himself not to sound judgmental or combative.

“My CO is friends with my dad. I think that he told him to keep a close eye on me or something. He’s always harsher on me than everyone else and making sly comments about how he’s going to train me to be a real Manes and stuff.” 

“Fuck him,” Michael says, already mentally planning ways to get back at Alex’s CO. It’s not like anyone would be able to trace it back to him if he slashed his tires. Telekinesis has that benefit. 

“It’s fine. He won’t be my CO for much longer. We are getting a new one in Iraq,” He shrugs it off like it’s not a big deal, but Michael can see that it weighs on him. 

“I hate your dad.” 

Alex reaches out to take Michael’s left hand in his own and traces the scars. 

“What?” Micheal asks. He can tell Alex wants to say something. 

“I’m sorry,” he says softly. So softly Michael nearly doesn’t hear him. 

He pushes off of Alex’s chest and rests on his elbows so he can see Alex properly. 

“Don’t apologize for your dad. You aren’t responsible for his sins,” he says. It’s a phrase he’d heard once from one of his case workers. They’d said it to him when his foster parents were getting arrested for making meth. It had sounded like a load of shit back then, but he hopes that Alex is able to take it to heart because it’s true. Michael doesn’t blame Alex for what happened with Jesse that day in the shed. 

When Alex doesn’t look convinced, he holds up his hand and says, “I don’t blame you for this.” 

“But you blame me for enlisting.” 

The truth of his words hangs heavy in the air between them. Michael doesn’t want to fight. Not when they only have a handful of hours left together before Alex has to go and Michael won’t see him again before he deploys. But he looks into Alex’s eyes and all he can see is pain and confusion and he realizes that avoiding this conversation isn’t going to do them any favors. 

“I just don’t understand why you would want to join the Air Force,” he says. 

They’ve never talked about it. When Alex had told him he’d enlisted it wasn’t a conversation. There was yelling and a lot of blaming and pain. Afterwards, once they’d made up, they’d both been in denial and refused to talk about it until the next thing Michael knew, it was time to say goodbye and he just couldn’t. 

In all of that, he’d never been giving a single explanation as to why Alex would be interested in following in his father’s footsteps, right into a system that hates Alex for who he is at his core. It’s never made any sense to him. 

“I didn’t have a choice,” Alex says. 

Michael nearly snorts at that, but something in Alex’s face stops him. 

“What do you mean?” he asks, nervously. 

Michael had seen the look on Jesse Manes’ face that day. It haunts his nightmares on the days when his mind isn’t haunted by memories of Rosa Ortecho. The man would have killed Alex that day if Michael hadn’t intervened, he’s sure of it. And the look on Alex’s face tells him that Jesse’s solution to not being able to kill Alex that day in the shed was to ship him off to die in war. 

“Alex, what do you mean?” he asks again, when Alex doesn’t respond. 

“Do you really think I wanted this?” Alex asks, his voice bitter and just a little bit broken. Michael holds back the swell of anger he gets at the confirmation that Jesse forced Alex to enlist. He bites back the pain that their happily ever after was ripped right out from under them by a homophobic asshole who doesn’t deserve the title of father. Instead, he pulls Alex into his arms and holds him close. 

He doesn’t say anything. Any reassurance he could come up with sound hollow in the face of what Alex is about to face overseas. Instead, he holds him. He reassures Alex with his body. He lets his fingers remind Alex that he’s wanted. He lets his tongue heal the emotional scars of a lonely and terrified childhood. He places open mouth kisses on his body, allowing them to remind Alex that he’s got a home in Michael that he had better come back to when all of this is done. 

Where words fail him, his body takes over. 

Eventually, time betrays them and they have to say goodbye. And this time, Michael can’t hide from it by getting arrested. Nor does he want to. As much as it breaks his heart, he needs to say goodbye to Alex. He needs Alex to know that he’s waiting for him back home and that Alex has something to fight for. 

As Alex is kissing him farewell, Michael’s hands itch to reach out and rest against Alex’s heart. They practically burn for it. But before Michael’s instincts can take over, Alex is stepping out of his reach and giving him one last smile. 

“I love you,” Alex says before walking away. Says it like it’s not a big deal. Like it isn’t the first time he’s ever said those words. 

There’s a moment where Michael realizes that he’s saying it because it could be the last and it nearly paralyzes him with fear. He nearly reaches out with his powers to physically stop Alex from leaving. But that’s not what Alex needs right now, even if it might be what Michael needs. Instead, he says the words that Alex most needs to hear and the ones most likely to bring Alex home. 

“I love you, too.” 

****

Michael sits on the fence during his lunch break, eating the soup that Mrs. Foster made for them. Ever since the temperature dropped and working outside grew miserable, she’s been a constant source of hot coffee and warm meals. The other guys tease her for her mothering, but Michael truly adores her. He tries to relax and make the most of his thirty minute break. It’s been a hell of a day and it’s not even halfway over yet. 

They’ve still got to move the manure further away from the barn and move all of the bales of hay. And, if they are lucky, the troughs won’t freeze up again in the meantime. It’s the coldest day of the year though and Michael doesn’t have high hopes that it isn’t going to create a shit ton of more work for them. 

It’s alright. He’s agreed to the overtime so that he can hopefully save up for a decent Christmas gift for Alex. There’s three weeks ‘til the day, but if he wants to guarantee Alex gets it on time, he needs to put something in the mail by Friday. Not that he’s figured out what that something is yet. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a gift that would be useful to Alex in Iraq, doesn’t give away the nature of their relationship, and still shows how much he loves him. He’ll come up with something. He just wishes he could tell Isobel about Alex, because he’s sure she’d be able to help him out. 

He sits up straighter and tries to stretch his aching back out. He doesn’t mind the long hours, even if his muscles protest. He’d rather spend the holidays working himself to exhaustion than sitting alone in his trailer missing Alex. Plus, his schedule allows him the perfect excuse to avoid all of Isobel’s not so subtle attempts to bring Max and him together for the holidays. 

He looks up from his meal at the sound of a car coming up the gravel road. He’d recognize that classic red Chevy anywhere and his heart speeds up with excitement. There’s only one reason Maria ever comes to visit him, and it’s to deliver a letter from Alex. 

He sets down his soup and jumps off the fence, moving towards the truck. He is at her side and opens her door the moment she stops, before she can even put the thing in park. She laughs at him as she steps out, reaching back into the truck to pull out a black cowboy hat and a letter. He takes the letter from her without a word. 

She scoffs, “Well hello to you, too.” 

He is in the middle of tearing the letter open when she says it and he pauses, looking at her sincerely. “Thank you.”

She looks taken back for a moment before nodding. “Yeah, of course,” she says. “Anything for Alex.” 

Unable to wait any longer, Michael turns back to the letter and pulls it out of the envelope, unfolding it with much more care than he’s treated the envelope. Ever since smearing the first letter from Alex with his tears, he’s been careful not to ruin another letter. 

M- 

If everything goes according to plan, this letter should be reaching you before Christmas. I hope you’re enjoying the holiday some and not working yourself to the bone. You sounded tired the last time that we talked and I worry about you when I’m not there to take care of you. I wish I could be there with you to celebrate the season together. I’ve always hated Christmas and the break from school. I never wanted to be home for an extended period of time. But somehow, with you, I think I’d see the magic of Christmas time. 

I wish we could walk down Main Street together and look at the lights. I wish we could decorate a tree together. Something small but ours. We could drink hot chocolate and watch the snow fall at night, huddling together to stay warm. I always loved watching the snow paint everything white. Snow always felt full of hope and possibility. Like it had the power to wash away all the ugliness and make things clean. It’s stupid… but it wouldn’t feel stupid with you at my side. 

I’m getting pulled onto an op that will put me out of contact for a while. Possibly a long while, depending on how long it takes. I won’t be able to make our weekly phone calls and they don’t know if letters will be able to reach us or not. I wish I could tell you more, but that’s all we’re allowed to say. 

I’ve given Maria permission to give you your Christmas gift from me early. I’m hoping that it will help ease some of the sting of not being able to talk. Please don’t spend Christmas alone. One of us should be able to celebrate. 

I love you. 

Yours, 

Alex 

Michael can’t help the way his stomach drops at the news that Alex is going to be out of contact for a while or the way his heart seizes up in fear. He looks up at Maria who is giving him a sad look, like she already knows what the letter says, which makes sense. Alex would have given her the same news when passing this letter through her. 

She reaches out and places her hand in his broken and scarred one, holding it softly and without flinching the way that only Alex ever has. 

“He’s going to be okay,” she reassures him. 

He nods his head because he needs it to be true. He tells himself that Alex will be fine repeatedly, but it does nothing to slow his racing heart. 

“This is for you.” She hands him the black hat in her hands and he takes it with shaky hands. “Alex ordered it for you weeks ago as a Christmas gift.” 

Michael shakes his head as his mouth falls open. It’s a genuine Stetson. The premium kind that Mr. Foster and some of the more senior ranch hands wear. They are incredibly nice, but they are also incredibly expensive. It’s something Michael would never have felt comfortable spending on himself even if he had the spare cash lying around. 

“Alex got this for me?” he asks, waiting for her to clarify that it’s some kind of joke. There’s just no way that he’s deserving of something this nice. 

Maria rolls her eyes and takes the old baseball hat from Max he’s been wearing to keep the sun out of his eyes off of his head and replaces it with the cowboy hat. 

“I may or may not have told him that you looked ridiculous in this thing,” she says, holding up the baseball hat before tossing it into the trunk. “And he’s always going on about how he’s worried about you getting skin cancer out here or stuck riding in the rain or whatever other cheesy, overprotective thing he’s on about.”

Michael didn’t realize that Alex put that much thought into his work beyond asking how his day has gone and reminding him not to work too hard. His eyes well up with how cared for it all makes him feel. He doesn’t know that he’s ever had somebody put this much thought into a gift for him. Nor has he ever received anything this nice. It makes him feel loved and that’s not a feeling he entirely knows what to do with. 

“It looks good on you Guerin,” Maria tells him, punching him playfully on the arm and pulling him out of his thoughts before they have a chance to get too loud and chaotic. 

“Yeah?” he asks, trying to look at himself in her side mirror. He feels like he probably looks: like an imposter. The fancy fur felt has to look ridiculous against his Goodwill coat and stained old jeans. 

“I mean, I’m not really interested in the cowboy thing, but yeah,” she assures him. “Alex is going to love it.” 

Michael smiles before his face drops in realization that Alex may never see it. He pulls the letter in his hand up to his chest, resting it over his heart. 

“No,” Maria says sharply, giving him a serious look like she knows exactly how his brain is torturing him right now with images of a casket draped in an American flag. “We aren’t thinking like that. He’s going to be fine.” 

“Yeah.” He nods, though he doesn’t quite believe it. He’s not allowed to have nice things, never has been. Nice things aren’t meant for kids like him. It’s hard not to think that the price of all this happiness that Alex has brought into his life is going to be a steep one. 

“He will be,” she says, leaving no room for argument. 

He pulls the letter away to read it again, letting his eyes linger over the word ‘always,’ worrying how long always really is going to be. 

“I’ve gotta get to work,” she says, glancing down at her watch. It’s new, he notices, and wonders if it’s her own gift from Alex. “Come by the Pony when your shift is done. You shouldn’t be alone.” 

Michael snorts at the offer. She’s never offered to spend time with him willingly before. They are acquaintances through Alex, but hardly friends. They could be, maybe. One day. If Michael can ever get over his shit and all the guilt he has over Rosa, he’d probably enjoy spending time with her. 

“Did Alex ask you to babysit me?” 

“Maybe,” she says with a smile that says Alex most definitely asked her to look after him. It should annoy him, but it doesn’t. Probably because Alex asked him to do the same for Maria. “But I’d have offered anyway.” 

“Why?” 

“Because you look like a sad lost puppy,” she teases. 

“And that’s your thing?” 

Maria rolls her eyes. “Shut up.” 

Michael chuckles, unable to bring himself to fully laugh with the bomb Alex dropped on him. But it’s something. “I’ll be there.” 

****

Michael stands behind the bar of the Pony washing dishes. He’d practically pushed Maria and Mimi out the door, insisting that neither of them come back until they’ve had a solid Christmas dinner together. It’s early still and the holiday rush hasn’t hit, which is probably the only reason that either lady had agreed. Apart from two booths in the corner, there is nobody here. Though Michael is sure it’s only a matter of time before this place is filled with people looking for a drink after a long day with the family. 

He finishes drying the glasses and putting them away, then moves onto wiping down the bar top. The place is already pretty clean, but he figures a little extra holiday shine couldn’t hurt. It keeps his hands busy and gives him something to focus on. The holidays have never been hard for him. He’s never celebrated them so he’s never had something to miss before. To him, Christmas has always been another day. But this year feels different. This year, he has a boyfriend. This year he has a boyfriend who is halfway around the world and incommunicado and it’s hard. Every Christmas song, every brightly lit storefront decoration, every warm holiday wish feels like a stab to the chest. 

The side door opens and lets in a burst of cool air, sending a shiver down his spine. The thin sweater he’d found at Goodwill only goes so far protecting against the cold. He looks over to greet whatever customer is about to walk in and freezes. He’s positive that he’s imagining things, that he’s lost his mind and has started hallucinating, because standing in the doorway is Alex Manes with the biggest grin on his face. 

The longer Michael stares, the more he realizes that this isn’t a dream. Alex is really here, standing at the doorway, still carrying his military duffle bag and wearing his fatigues like he’s fresh off the plane. Michael’s heart feels like it might explode outside of his chest and he’s sure that he looks like an idiot the way that he’s smiling, but he doesn’t care. Alex is here. After three weeks of worrying over him, he’s standing right here. Alive and well. 

Michael opens his mouth to say something, but Alex holds his finger up to his lips, signaling to Michael that he should be quiet. He then gestures to the porch before stepping away. The door closing behind him makes it easier to breathe. He takes several deep breaths to calm his overexcited nerves.

He takes another look around the bar to make sure that he’s good to slip away for a few minutes. He’s just recently gotten new beers for the two patrons and they should be set for a while. If anyone new comes, Michael should hear them from the patio. He double checks that the cash register is locked and takes a moment to look at himself in the mirror hanging on the back wall. 

He looks tired, but his hair is actually behaving today under the hat and he likes the way this sweater fits him. Not wanting to make Alex wait a second longer and chance missing him, he throws the towel in his hand on the bartop and hurries outside. 

Michael practically runs into Alex’s arms, knocking his hat off his head in the process. His arms go around his shoulders and hold on for dear life, worried that he’ll disappear at any second. It doesn’t even register to Michael that he’s been picked up and spun right away. Rather his entire focus is on the feeling of strong arms around his waist, warm lips against his neck, the scent of Calvin Klein that he’s come to love hidden just underneath a layer of grime. It’s the feeling of being loved and it’s overwhelming. 

With the snow falling down, Michael is sure they look like a scene out of one of those overly cheesy Hallmark movies that Isobel makes him watch. He’s never understood the overly dramatic greetings or the heartfelt declarations before. But now that it’s his moment with the man he loves, he gets it. God does he get it, because these feelings inside of him are too big to be contained or measured. They deserve desperate hands and spinning hugs and relieved laughter mixed with tears. 

“What are you doing here?” Michael asks, the question muffled by Alex’s shoulder since they both refuse to let go. 

“Our op wrapped up earlier than expected and we were all granted a surprised leave. I literally just got into town and Maria told me where to find you.” 

Alex squeezes him tight one more time before loosening his grip and lowering Michael back to the ground. They pull away from each other, but only far enough that Michael can grab Alex and kiss him like his life depends on it. He puts all of the fear and anxiety of the last three weeks into that kiss. All of the loneliness and heartache into the kiss. But he also puts all of his love, gratitude, and relief into it. 

No matter how many times Maria told him that Alex would be alright, he couldn’t get himself to truly believe it. Having Alex right here in front of him feels like one of those Christmas miracles he’s heard so much about. 

When they pull apart, Alex has a dopey smile on his face that honestly makes Michael wonder if he’s been drugged. But he’s just happy. Michael makes him happy. That’s going to take him a while to get used to. The idea that he’s capable of making anyone that happy just by being. 

Michael stares in awe, watching the snowflakes get caught in Alex’s eyelashes, looking like a dream. He can’t even bring himself to be bothered that Alex is still in his fatigues because he’s just so relieved that he’s standing here at all and not lying dead in the middle of some godforsaken country that he had no business being in the first place. 

“I’ve missed you so much,” Alex says and Michael gives a shaky laugh, trying not to feel embarrassed when Alex reaches out to wipe his tears away. He’s not even sure when he started crying. 

“You have no idea.” 

Alex reaches down to grab Michael’s hat off the ground, dusts the snow off of it, and puts it on Michael’s head, smiling at him once he does. 

“Maria was right, you look incredibly hot in that,” he says. 

Michael saves that tidbit of information away to torture DeLuca with later. 

“You didn’t have to get me this. It’s too much,” he says, not mentioning what he really wants to say. Which is that it’s far more than anything that Michael could ever get Alex. 

Alex gives him a look like he wants to argue, but it passes quickly, replaced with a sexy smirk that has all of the heat in Michael’s body going straight to his dick. God, he’s missed that look. 

“Oh, it’s not just a gift for you, it’s also a gift for me,” Alex says running a hand up Michael’s arm. “I’ve always kind of had a thing for cowboys.” 

Michael laughs, surprised and it makes Alex duck his head to hide a blush. But Michael puts his finger under his chin to get him to look back at him. He’s spent enough time not looking at Alex over the last year and a half. He wants to soak in every moment he can.

“Emo Alex Manes? Cowboys? I never would have guessed,” he teases. He’s about to make an awful pun just to see how red he can get Alex to turn but his words are caught in a kiss. When Alex pulls away, Michael’s mind is deliciously quiet in a way that it hasn’t been since Georgia. 

“I want to walk into that bar holding hands…” Alex trails off, looking at the door, clearly frustrated. And he doesn’t have to explain, because Michael gets it. 

“But Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he finishes for him. Alex nods, reaching out to play with hem of Micheal’s sweater. 

Michael places his hands on Alex’s hips and pulls him in close, breathing him in. One of Alex’s hands finds their way to his cheek and Michael can’t help but nuzzle into it. 

“So we walk in there not holding hands,” he whispers and Alex practically whines but Michael squeezes his side so that he can finish. “You hang out with me and tell me as much or as little as you want to about what you’ve been up to while we wait for the DeLuca’s to get back. Then you let me bring you back to my place and we can do all kinds of things that the military wouldn’t approve of.” 

“Sounds perfect,” Alex says in a tone that Michael actually believes it’s everything Alex wants. 

Michael learned a while ago how it’s possible for his heart to live outside of his body and in another person. He’s known that since the first time he kissed Alex and felt his entire trajectory shift. What he won’t ever get used to is the knowledge that Alex has placed his heart in Michael’s hands. That he’s trusted him with such a gift. 

“How long do I have you for?” he asks. He doesn’t want to start a countdown, not yet, but he knows it would be naive not to ask. 

“I have to be back on base in 48 hours,” Alex asks before looking down at his watch. “Well, 45 hours at this point.” 

45 hours, he’ll take it. The truth is, he’ll take anything that Alex gives him. Happily. Forever. 

“I’m so glad you’re home,” he says. 

Alex drops his hand from his cheek to rest it against his heart. A low hum moves through his body and he lets out a content sigh. Usually his powers are a sharp, harsh thing within him, but this is different. This is smooth and gentle. Comfortable. He squeezes his hands into fists as they burn with all of the love and emotion he feels for Alex and every instinct in him is calling for him to rest his hand against Alex’s heart the way he’s doing to Michael. He pushes it down though. He’s ready to share a lot with Alex, but that’s still one secret he needs to keep for himself. 

Maybe one day… 

“Merry Christmas Guerin,” Alex says with all of the affection of an ‘I love you’ and Michael’s hands burn even hotter. 

“Merry Christmas, Alex.”

And it turns out to be a very merry Christmas indeed. The best Christmas that Michael has ever had.