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The Truth is Right Here

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If someone’d told 18-year-old Alex Manes that his life would fall out this way, he probably would’ve punched them in the face. Once he stopped laughing.

If they’d told him he’d end up married to Maria DeLuca, he would have accused them of being homophobic. If they’d told him he’d end up heading up an entire division of the FBI with said wife, and that that division would be just the two of them, hunting for UFOs, he would have seriously considered committing them.

“Hey babe.” Maria leaned down over the back of their sofa to kiss his hair, dropping a file on his stomach.

Alex jumped a bit. He’d been deep in a reddit hole, combing through stories about strange lights in a Virginia forest, trying to decide if it was a hoax, natural phenomenon, or something worth a trip out there. He rubbed his hands over his face, looked up at her with a soft smile.

Okay maybe this was not anything he expected his life to be, but god, he couldn’t complain.

“What’s this?” he asked, setting the laptop aside and shifting to sit up properly.

Maria folded her arms on the back of the sofa. “A person of interest.” 

“What?” Alex asked, raising an eyebrow at her. What did that even mean, person of interest? They weren’t exactly the crime-solving types.

“Look at the file.” Maria ruffled his hair lightly. “Chinese for dinner?”

“Yeah, sure.” He nodded. “Make mine--”

“Extra spicy, I know.” Maria laughed, stepping away. Alex smiled to himself. A decade of marriage and she knew him better than ever.

He flipped open the file, eyes landing on the prominent mugshot. Black and white and grainy but it didn’t hide that he was hot. Riotous curls, half-lidded eyes, and a gorgeous smirk that Alex couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to kiss away. “Maria, are you trying to hook your husband up with a criminal?” He called out despite the fact that she was on the phone, laughing and ducking as she threw a lime from the kitchen at him.

She covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Don’t think with your dick, Alex. Read it.”

Alex laughed and settled in to actually read.

The next thing he knew, Maria was nudging him with a box of takeout and a beer - sans lime.

He looked up at her, distractedly taking it. “This is...”

“I know, right?” She settled on the couch next to him, cross-legged, digging into her sweet and sour chicken with chopsticks. “Who makes a career of stealing from UFO museums and military storage facilities?”

Alex stole one of hers, popping it into his mouth over her protests. “I mean. It’s weird, for sure, but…” 

“But nothing. This guy? The stuff he’s grabbed? Look at that list. Line after line of highly classified materials. Most of this stuff we’re not even allowed to know about. It’s all affiliated with Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Blue Book. He’s gotten closer than we have in the last five years. And they never recovered it. Any of it.” 

Alex chewed on his lip. “Who says he still has any of it?”

Maria shrugged. “Who’s to say he doesn’t?”

Alex smiled, still looking over the file but leaning against her shoulder, digging into his own food, here and there stealing off Maria’s food too to contrast with the pleasing burn of his own, until she laughed and started threatening him with her chopsticks and elbowing him. 

“Stop it, you’re making mine spicy!”

He was lucky. So lucky that Maria had been okay with a quickie town hall wedding to her gay best friend when he enlisted, so that she could be his emergency contact instead of his asshole father -- and that somehow that arrangement had kept working for them both. Lucky that, when he had been digging for dirt on Jesse Manes and had found that his father was apparently obsessed with literal actual aliens, Maria had been all-in on trying to dig up evidence of the government’s (and by extension, Jesse Manes’) coverups and crimes. Lucky that she’d come up with the plan of enlisting in the National Guard to make it easier for them both to apply to the FBI together. And lucky that the FBI had let them take over this long-defunct department together. Alex was always sure that that luck wasn’t going to hold forever.

“Yeah,” Alex said, slowly. “But even if he does, he’s not going to have any incentive to just hand it over.”

Maria chewed on the end of a chopstick, thoughtful. “You know the FBI has a work release program for cons?”

Alex snorted. “Yeah, but what does that have to do with us?”

“His skill set and knowledge base is relevant?” Maria said slowly, slyly. “Freedom is pretty convincing.”

“Work release isn’t freedom.” Alex pointed out. “Even if we could get that approved -- and that’s a big if -- we’d be responsible for babysitting him.” 

“Ok, fine work isn’t freedom but not being in prison is the next best thing,” Maria said. “For an ankle bracelet and some information, he can have real food and sleep on a real bed. After two years on a five year term, that could sound pretty convincing.” 

Alex couldn’t argue with that. “I guess there’s no harm in talking to him,” he said, setting his food aside and wrapping an arm around her. “File the paperwork, just in case. 99% it’ll get shredded.” 

“Hey,” she said softly, snuggling against him. “We’ve had worse odds, before.”

Two days later, they were pulling up to the Penitentiary of New Mexico. 

“You know this place is supposed to be super haunted?” Maria asked, with a grin, as they got out of the car and she smoothed her suit - black, pricy, well-tailored to all her curves. A neckline that was definitely not standard FBI issue. No one seemed to mind though - Maria had style.  

“Oh, shut up.” He groaned. He probably shouldn’t be slightly ashamed of believing in ghosts, considering that they were alien hunters. And he didn’t actually believe in them. He was just the pragmatic sort, and on the off chance they did exist, he’d prefer not to piss them off. It made perfect sense.

Maria laughed, stopping him before they could walk in to straighten his tie, which Alex had tugged loose during the car ride. “I’ll protect you.”

“I don’t need protecting,” he grumbled a bit. 

Maria smiled and pecked his cheek. “Not even from Guerin’s bedroom eyes?” 

He gasped, swatted her hands. “Oh, stop it.” 

Maria chuckled and let him go. “Just keep your eyes on the prize, babe.” 

“I could say the same to you,” Alex protested, heading for the door. After all, the night they had decided to file the work release paperwork for Michael Guerin, they had a lengthy (and slightly drunken) conversation about how cons should not be that hot. The conversation then dissolved into speculating about all the things Guerin’s pretty mouth could do. 

She sputtered lightly. “Excuse me? I--”

“Have eyes, Maria. Keep them on the prize.” He turned it on her, and pulled the door open, holding it for her, so they could go check in and be escorted to the waiting room. 

“Hey. Guerin.” A guard knocked his baton against the bars of Michael’s cell, startling him out of yet another run-through of an escape plan. He should never have even gotten arrested or convicted. Should have cut and run. It wasn’t like the bars and locks could actually hold him. But they’d hustled him into a real prison awfully quickly, since they suspected him of breaking into a top-secret military contracting facility and the right moment never really presented itself. 

And maybe the locks couldn’t hold him, but the guns sure gave him pause.

Besides, now that he was in the system, he couldn’t exactly have a normal life if he just walked out of prison. And there were still a couple people who needed him.

The guard knocked again, louder. “Guerin, get your ass out here.” 

Michael sighed, opening his eyes and sitting up. “Officer Meyers, something wrong?”


Michael frowned at that. Visitors? Normally he was fine with the guards here not being the chatty sort, but Michael Guerin wasn’t exactly known for having visitors. He’d warned Izzy and Max off. And besides, it wasn’t even time for visitation. He got up and stepped out of the cell, deciding not to test Meyer’s patience today. “Yeah?”

“Feds, I guess.” Meyers shrugged. “Come on.”

Michael followed after, frowning more. Feds. He had to guess that they were trying to nail him for something else, lengthen his sentence. As if five years wasn’t enough, considering the fact that he was just reacquiring his family’s stolen property. 

Not that he could use that as a line of defense. Ah yes, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you see I can’t be convicted because I’m a literal alien and therefore the legal owner of the shit I stole.

Nope. Best-case scenario, that would have gotten him a straitjacket, worst-case? Alien autopsy.

Michael let Meyers cuff him to the table, raising an eyebrow but not protesting. It wasn’t worth it. Just another little humiliation. Par for the course, here. 

Michael closed his eyes, counted to ten. He could feel the lock in the cuffs. It would only take a tiny little nudge to get them to fall open. He breathed through the urge to do so, only opening his eyes when the door opened. 

He wasn’t sure what he was expecting when Meyers said Feds were here to see him. Suits, yes. But suits were normally cop-faced assholes. 

These two looked like… a generous TV interpretation of feds. Gorgeous, both of them. 

God, he’d been in jail far too damned long.  

“Agents,” he drawled as they both took seats on the other side of the table. 

They glanced at each other, briefly, as if deciding in the moment how to approach him. Good cop bad cop? Pride and ego?

Michael sat back, relaxed as much as the cuffs would allow. All he had to do was relax, breathe, and not give them anything. Easy.

“Mr. Guerin,” the woman started, no-nonsense, with a smile that was probably meant to disarm him, but it was one he recognized all too well. She was already trying to hustle him. If he weren’t cuffed to a table, he probably would have respected the effort. Might have even let her do it, considering the fact that she was wearing the hell out of that suit... don’t let your eyes wander, Guerin, he reminded himself, sternly, just in time to tune into her introductions. “It’s good to meet you. I’m Agent DeLuca. This is my partner Agent Manes.” 

“Can I help you?” God, just skip to the song already.

“Well, we’re certainly hoping so,” she said, smiling just a bit brighter. “We’ve been reviewing your file.  It’s quite interesting. We believe you have a... skillset that would be relevant. We’d like to offer you a job as a criminal consultant.” 

Michael blinked, honestly taken by surprise. “I’m sorry you want to… what, be my FBI pen pals?”

“Actually, no. We’re thinking of something a little more mutually beneficial.” Damnit Michael, don’t read into that … he tried to focus on anything other than the curve of her mouth, settled for the cuffs around his wrists. They were just a little too tight. He wasn’t sure if that was helping or not, honestly. “We’d like you to work with us. On the outside.”  

That took a moment to sink in, but once it did, he was even more confused. He didn’t know what angle he was expecting, but this definitely wasn’t it. “I’m sorry, you’re offering me… work release?” Michael just knew there was more to this. But it was hard to pin down what exactly. It wasn’t like he had been working for the mob or a drug cartel or anything that the FBI would consider useful, really.

“There’d be conditions, of course.” Manes finally spoke up. Michael tried to ignore that he had one of the sexiest goddamned voices he’d ever heard. That voice was going to haunt his dreams for months, along with Manes’ messy dark hair and intense dark eyes. He looked at Michael like he wanted to take him apart. Michael knew, logically, that it had nothing to do with sex but it would… in his dreams, it definitely would.  

“Oh of course,” Michael scoffed. 

Manes raised an eyebrow at him, it spoke volumes, and Michael visibly bristled. But Manes didn’t seem to care, shifting his gaze towards his partner. Their eyes met again, and if Michael didn’t know any better, he’d swear they were communicating psychically.

Something more than partners, then? His eyes fell to the wedding rings on their fingers. They looked like they matched.  

Great. He was never, ever getting that picture out of his head, was he?  

“Mr. Guerin,” DeLuca said, grabbing Michael’s attention. “We would urge you to take this proposal into consideration.” She pulled out a few pages from a folder and slid them over to him. “For the price of your expertise--”

“Yeah see that’s the part that doesn’t make any sense to me,” Michael said, leaning on his elbows and staring at them. He knew he was a genius. But these two had no reason to suspect that he was anything other than an (admittedly good) thief. Maybe they knew he got decent grades in school, maybe they even knew he tested high enough on a high school IQ test that he’d been accused of cheating and spent two weeks suspended while they tried to prove it. That was hardly a qualification for the FBI. “You two have an air of competence and you’ve read my record, so you know what I’m in here for.” 

“Oh, we’re well aware. Let’s see.” She pulled another paper out of the file. “They actually convicted you of the theft of the UFO museum down in Roswell -- pretty small time. But you’ve been implicated in at least a dozen other thefts, including top-secret military facilities.” DeLuca looked at him, a little challenge in her eyes. Trying to get him to brag, apparently.

“Allegedly.” Michael was tense and trying not to show it. Did they want a confession? Did they want him to lead them to his stash? Wasn’t gonna happen.

“Let’s just say your resume is impressive. We don’t often see people with this level of experience with…” she trailed off.

“The supernatural?” He filled in, sarcastically. 

“Unexplained phenomenon,” she corrected, “which happens to be our area of expertise.” 

Michael’s eyes widened. Shit. This wasn’t just about them scraping the bottom of the barrel, was it? To cover, he turned to look at the guard. “Did you guys check to make sure their credentials were legit?” 

Meyers, the asshole, was completely stone faced. As always. Didn’t even look at him. Michael turned back to the two agents. 

“So, you’re the Men in Black?” He continued and glanced at DeLuca. “Always thought the name was a little sexist by the way.”

“We’re the FBI, Guerin,” DeLuca said dryly. “Read over the documents. Our proposal is legitimate and I would urge you to consider it seriously. Unless you want to continue to waste that high IQ of yours--” oh, they did know about that “--on making license plates for another two and half years.” 

Michael clenched his jaw, looked down at the cuffs on his wrists. One tiny little nudge. They were getting up. 

“Fine,” he said, tightly. “I’m in.” He might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, but he was real fucking sick of the frying pan. At least they had beer on the outside.

It took a few weeks, almost a month before the paperwork went through. Time dragged through most of it, but all of a sudden he was out, his head practically spinning. 

DeLuca and Manes had set Michael up in some kind of group home that was way too much like one of his foster homes to be at all comfortable. When he’d complained, they’d told him that he had a criminally small housing stipend and that was the best they could do on that budget, and if he could find something within the 20 mile radius of the tracking anklet that was part of his deal, he should take it.

Not the answer he was looking for but at least they weren’t forcing him to stay at the home, which had actually been a surprise. He’d met some shit people in law enforcement. 

By the next day he’d found a trailer park that was right at the edge of the anklet's radius. The place wasn’t terrible. Plenty of trees, roomy lots. Enough room to build out a deck, string up some lights. He’d make it homey. Once Isobel got here with his actual home.

He leaned against the fence to the lot he rented, waiting. It was a good half hour before he heard a familiar rumble, saw his old, faded pickup, airstream in tow. Just the sight of it had him feeling misty eyed. It wasn’t a joke either. That was home. He wasn’t sure what this whole work release program had in store for him, but fuck was it nice to see home. 

And his sister.

“Iz.” Michael felt the knot in his stomach loosen as she slid out of the truck, flipping her hair back a bit. 

“Michael!” She was running, launching herself into him, squeezing him tightly, hand cupping the back of his head. Michael let himself melt into the hug, burying his face into her shoulder. Two and a half years. Sure, he’d gone longer between seeing her but not since they were kids. He swallowed the lump in his throat.

“Missed you,” he got out, softly. Let her hug him for several long minutes before they both drew back.  

“Are you okay?” She was smoothing his hair back. Normally he’d resent the fussing, but...

“Am now,” he said, smiling a bit. “Thanks for coming up.”

“You owe me so much,” she said, laughing. “That thing is a pain in the ass to tow.”

“Come on, it’s only three hours up from Roswell.” He grinned.  

“Three painful hours,” Isobel said. She was still touching him, smoothing her hands down his shoulders and arms, or cupping his face, stroking his hair. 

He smiled, letting her pet him -- uncharacteristic from him, granted, but he’d missed being touched so much (rough and desperate quickies in the more “secluded” places of the prison did not count), missed that simple warmth from the touch of a loved one. “Grabbed some beer. We could order pizza? Is Max still coming to pick you up?” 

The plan had been for Izzy to drive up with his truck and trailer. Max would come up the next day to spend the weekend with Michael, since he couldn’t get that Friday off, and drive Isobel back home. 

“Still coming up, yeah. He wants to see you.” Isobel hesitated, trailed off. It felt a little evasive, and Michael immediately knew something was up. 


She let out a breath. “I was thinking of staying up here in Albuquerque for a while. At least till you're settled in.”

“You’re not just here to keep an eye on me,” he said, suspiciously.

Isobel exhaled, pulled away. “Let’s get those beers first.”  

Michael frowned, mind running through all the possible issues. Gotta be something personal, he reasoned. Something not alien related. Worried and frustrated, he scrubbed a hand through his hair and went to grab the beer without pressing, letting Iz unlock the Airstream. 

“Smells in here,” she said, wrinkling her nose as they both climbed in.

“Yeah, well, no one emptied the fridge when I enrolled in con college.” Michael shrugged, grabbing a trash bag from under the sink and going to empty everything out of it. It did reek. 

“Ugh, I’m gonna puke,” Isobel said, exaggerated. Michael rolled his eyes, and used his powers to slide the windows open for her -- god, that felt good. It was like a really good stretch after sitting for a long time. So he used his abilities again, clearing out the spoiled and rotted contents of his fridge. Opening cabinets where a lump of mold that was once a loaf of bread floated into the trash. After so damn long pretending to be human, it felt good to be himself. 

A half hour later, and the spoiled food was cleaned up and the airstream was more-or-less sanitized and aired out. Izzy had stopped whining so much about it and had ordered pizza for them both. 

“My bunker?” He asked, once they’d demolished a pizza and a half between them.  

“Still under a pile of junkyard trash. Secrets are safe.” She reassured him, fingers sliding into his hair again. “That prison shampoo did you no favors, I’ll get you some new stuff.”

Michael shook his head a little, taking a swig of his beer. “My hair’s fine. Why are you thinking of staying here? Don’t you have the whole American Dream down in Roswell, picket fence and all?” 

She chewed her lip a little. “Not exactly.”  

Michael frowned, immediately on edge, protective. “What’s going on?” 

“Things got weird. With Noah.” Isobel tucked her hair back a bit, a little nervous tic.

Michael was immediately bristling. He had never cared for Noah. He was too old for one, seeming to have swooped in out of nowhere halfway through college like some kind of creepy vulture, and two… well there wasn’t really a two but there was just something wrong about Noah. Something that didn’t sit well with Max or Michael. 

They had both been privately dismayed when she accepted his proposal. 

“What happened?” He frowned, ready to give up his newfound almost-freedom by driving down to Roswell and kicking Noah’s ass if he so much as--

Izzy immediately reached to squeeze his arm, soothing him. “Nothing dramatic. I just decided that I wanted to spend a bit of time on my own. And with my favorite trailer trash.”  

Michael groaned, shoving her lightly, half-heartedly. But he didn’t believe her. Not by a long shot. He’d have to wait though. Pushing would make her turn right around, head back to Roswell and Noah’s arms. So he’d wait and hope that when Max showed up, he’d have more details. 

“Can I see the lojack?” Izzy asked, nodding at his leg.

Michael groaned, and shifted to tug his jeans up, showing her the tracking anklet. “Never gonna be able to wear boots with this thing.” 

She laughed. “You are so predictable.” 

“I don’t wanna buy new shoes!” He protested. “Do you know how much I made making license plates? It’s criminal. Legalized slavery.” 

Izzy rolled her eyes. “Surprised you haven’t picked it.”

Michael made a face. The prison locks had been basic. This thing? Not so much. “Can’t. Requires a digital key. The feds are pretty serious about me staying on leash.”

“So, what are they like?” she asked after a minute. “Your new handlers.”

Michael hummed. “Haven’t really gotten a good read on them. Weird, I guess.” He bit his tongue on the ‘smokin hot’ observation. 

“Weird?” Isobel asked.

“They head the FBI supernatural division.  The FBI has a division for the supernatural,” Michael explained.

“Yeah, so does the Air Force,” Isobel replied, frowning. “It’s why you have that fancy new piece of jewelry.” She pointed at the anklet peeking out from under Michael’s jeans. Isobel and Max had implored Michael, begged him even, to leave well enough alone. Not to fuck with the military. Leave the past in the past. Just try to live a normal life. 

As if Michael ever knew what the fuck that was. 

At least they didn’t say I told you so when he was arrested. Though they hadn’t gotten a chance to say much of anything, since Michael had warned them off, told them not to visit, on the off chance that they figured out what he was. That was the shit that kept him up at night, the thought that he might get sick or get himself stabbed and a prison doctor would stumble on the discovery of the century.

“Fair,” Michael said. “But it’s still weird you know? They’re clearly interested in what I might have taken from the Air Force. But I gotta wonder if the Air Force has done anything to get on the FBI’s radar.”

Isobel took a pull from her beer, nodding. “Be careful, Michael.” If Michael fell from the tightrope he was walking, he might take Isobel and Max with him this time. And of course, he knew that. 

“Hey, I’m always careful,” he protested. 

She snorted. “If that were true, we wouldn’t be in a city I still have trouble spelling, drinking to your indentured servitude to the FBI.”

“You’re such a ray of sunshine.”

“I am a delight,” she agreed, and got up to get them another round of beers.

Finding out Guerin had found a new place in the span of a day had been somewhere between amusing and annoying. On the one hand, the boy worked fast, and Maria, having a healthy appreciation for hustle, couldn’t fault him. On the other, they were gonna get a late start to their day because of him. Why did he have to move all the way across town?

“This the place?” Alex asked as they approached the RV park. 

“Yup.” Maria nodded, glancing at Guerin’s note. “Lot 58. Says to look for an airstream.” 

Soon enough they were pulling up in front of said trailer, sliding out of the car. Maria went to knock on the door. 

“He better not be asleep,” Alex said under his breath as they waited, taking a drink of his tumbler full of strong, black coffee. Even after all that military, Alex was decidedly not a morning person, which meant that he resented anyone who was able to sleep in past him.

A minute later, Guerin yanked the door open. His hair was in damp disarray, and he was only in a pair of practically painted-on, worn jeans that looked ridiculously soft. 

“Guerin.” She forced herself to shift her gaze, because Guerin’s bare chest and stomach were just… right there, and she wasn’t in the mood to be flustered right now. Her eyes fell on a woman, long blonde hair in a tousled braid, holding coffee. Thankfully fully dressed. Maria arched an eyebrow.

“Are we interrupting something?” She asked, dryly. Guerin worked very fast, apparently. 

“Gross,” he said, shaking his head slowly, as if ashamed of her for even suggesting it. “Gimme a minute to grab a shirt.” 

“Grab a bag of clothes, while you’re at it. We’re gonna be on the road for a couple days,” Maria called after him.

“Hi.” The woman was standing, going to shake Maria’s hand. “I’m Bella. Michael’s sister.” 

Well, that explained the disgust. Maria kept her expression politely neutral but her instincts told her something was off about this woman. She was… lying. 

“I don’t remember a sister in Guerin’s file,” Alex said between sips of coffee.

“We’re not blood related,” “Bella” said. This time honestly.

Maria hummed, suspicious, and Alex rolled his eyes. But neither of them really cared, as long as it was just sex. After all, sex wasn’t illegal as long as Bella here wasn’t a prostitute. Which if she was, Guerin definitely couldn’t afford her. Too well dressed, for one, and definitely too hot.  

But if she was a girlfriend, why lie? 

Guerin came out a moment later in a blue plaid button down that he couldn’t be bothered to button all the way up, a backpack and a black cowboy hat.

“Oh God, I thought you lost that,” Bella groaned.

“You wish,” Guerin replied, handing over the backpack when Maria motioned for it. He was frowning, not enjoying his privacy being violated. One would think he’d be used to it, Maria thought as she checked the contents--toiletries and a change of clothes. Good. 

“You know,” Guerin continued, taking back the pack once Maria was satisfied with the contents. “Not having this hat with me was the worst part of prison.”

“I think being in prison is the worst part of prison,” Alex said dryly. “Are you ready?” 

“Yeah.” Guerin nodded, taking a breath, looking at his so-called-sister. “Belle, you mind locking up?”

“I’ll head out, call a car. I need to get back to my hotel, anyway,” she said, grabbing a purse and heading out of the airstream with them. She turned to Guerin once more and poked him. “Call Max,” she said, with the tone of a threat.

Guerin groaned, waving at her a bit and going to climb into the car.  He seemed upset, maybe even regretful. Alex must have picked up on it because he asked, “Who’s Max?”

“My brother,” he replied and Maria couldn’t pick up a shred of dishonesty from him, which was odd. This whole thing was odd. Guerin wasn’t lying, but Bella was? And from all the files on him, Guerin had no siblings. No parents. No nothing before a long string of foster families. Like he had sprang out of the Earth one day.

“So, what exactly do you two do?” Guerin asked from the backseat. Maria glanced back, noting the way he was sitting in the middle of it, arms sprawled over the back of the seat. He was insufferable. “Is there a particular case we’re working on?” 

Since Maria was driving, Alex pulled out a folder from his briefcase and handed it back to Guerin. 

“Goblins?” Guerin said, incredulously.  

“Possible first contact,” Alex said. He didn’t sound hopeful but Maria knew he was. Hopeful for anything that could get him a step closer to nailing his father. “This area of Kentucky does have a history of unexplained sightings.” 

Guerin, however, just snorted. He was skimming through the file, Maria noted with a glance through the rearview mirror.

“So you’re dragging me to Kentucky,” Guerin paused. “I’m sorry, wait. Not just Kentucky but the cousin fucking boonies of Kentucky over the testimony of some drunk ass yokels?”

“I’m sorry,” Alex said. “Would you rather we take you back to the Penitentiary?”

“Alex,” Maria scolded. A glance through the mirror showed Guerin bristling. Not that she needed to see him to know. She could feel the wave of spiky irritation coming off him. And there was no need for that. “Guerin, the reports are from multiple people over a span of weeks. Yes, it’s in the boonies, as you call it, but it can’t all be chalked up to liquor.” 

“I’m just saying,” he started, relaxing just a little, “you’re telling me that a species that has the intelligence for interstellar travel is out in BFE and not at the Jim Beam distillery? I’m calling BS.”

“Why would they be there?”

“There is nothing else of interest on this godforsaken planet. If I were an alien, that’s where I’d be,” he said, with a smirk that felt like some kind of private joke. “Looks like whatever it is has caused some damage,” Guerin continued. “The cops don’t know what to make of it… not that they ever do.”

“Exactly,” Maria said, turning on to the highway that would lead them to the airport.

“Probably just some teenagers in costumes,” Guerin said after a moment.

Alex snorted, amused. “I didn’t peg you for a skeptic.” 

“You can’t possibly believe this stuff?”

“You don’t?” Alex asked, glancing back at Guerin. Maria had to admit, the skepticism surprised her too. It was odd that he seemed so against the idea of aliens considering his rap sheet. 

Guerin was quiet. From the rearview mirror he seemed thoughtful. Maria hoped he was going to spill the beans, the motive for his crimes. No one could ever get that out of him. 

But in the end he just shrugged. “Are aliens real? I think so,” he said, sounding careful and guarded in a way Maria couldn’t understand. “But did these people get visited by rambunctious little green men? Unlikely. Most unexplained phenomena’s perfectly explainable if you have two brain cells to rub together.”

With that said, Guerin slouched over his seat, ducking his head, his hat covering his face, while continuing to go over the file quietly, as if he were aware of Maria’s scrutiny in the rearview mirror. He probably was. 

Alex glanced at Maria, his expression curious and interested. Maria shrugged. But she felt it too. Guerin was hiding something.

Probably hubris to think that he’d be spilling any of his secrets the day he started to work with them, though. This was going to take some time.

Good thing they both liked a challenge.

Chapter Text

Guerin’s skepticism, though curious, had not made Alex feel any more confident in their decision to become consitters. Nor did Guerin’s attitude during their interview with the witnesses, once they finally got out to the scene. Guerin was leaned up against a wall, arms folded, head tilted down so he could only just see them from under the brim of that ridiculous black hat. He looked like an insolent cowboy, staring down a family which was already clearly rattled, bordering on hysterical. 

Alex tried to focus on them and ignore Guerin. “You said you saw a metal object falling from the sky. Did you ever find it in the forest?”

“No sir,” said Mrs. Andrews firmly. She was the matron of the family. A heavy set woman pushing forty. She had a hard face, but not unkind. Though currently, just like the rest of the family, she looked haggard, troubled. She kept glancing out the window, as if expecting a strange face to be there, staring back at her. 

“Even before what happened last night,” she continued. “We had no interest seeing what was out there.” 

A week ago, on the night of the very same day that Maria and Alex had watched Michael Guerin walk out of prison, in ratty old clothes that looked a little small on him, sun turning his curls into a halo, an unidentified flying object had crashed into the hills of Kentucky.

Or, at least, there had been a very loud sound, almost like an explosion or major crash, depending on who was telling the story. All over Christian County police departments were finding their phones ringing off the hook with reports of an earth shaking noise, of lights… and then by the next night, of strange creatures. 

Authorities had of course found nothing. 

“Jamie Boyd from down at the Miller farmer went looking and he found some metal near the road.” One of the Andrews children called down from the top of the staircase. They had all been sent to their rooms but had been clearly listening from the upstairs

“Billy that could have easily been from a car,” another small voice chided.

“Nuh-uh! Jamie said it was smoking and shone all funny. Like something from another planet!”

The kids devolved into a whisper fight among themselves.

“A crash?” Maria asked, trying to refocus the parents.

“Branch Road,” Mr. Andrews, the father, replied. “Only major road in the holler.” Alex remembered it well, since they’d taken it to get to this house. An old dirt road. Bumpy as hell. “But whatever came here last night had nothing to do with a car crash.”

Mr. Andrews’ round face looked haunted. He flexed his hands like there was still a rifle in them. Alex nodded, sympathetically. 

“Tell me what happened?” Alex instructed, gentle but firm. “Any details you remember.” He had a notepad out, and was recording on his phone, just in case.

Mrs. Andrews looked at her husband, squeezing his arm gently. Alex waited, calmly, while the couple gathered themselves. He glanced at Maria, who hadn’t said much. To the family, she just seemed to be listening, deferring to Alex. But Maria had the best interrogation skills of the two of them.

However, it wasn’t uncommon for Alex to lead the interviews while Maria hung back. It depended on the situation really. Sometimes it was just better for him to lead, to let her gain intel in another fashion. Her intuition, or empathy, or whatever it was, was an ace in the hole for them. Helped them suss out lies and half-truths. 

“These... things came out of the woods,” Mrs. Andrews began. “Around midnight, more or less. First thing we noticed were their eyes, glowing an unnatural red in the trees. But they didn’t stay there long. Half dozen, give or take, came right up to the house, trying to get in…”

Mr. Andrews nodded, picking up when she trailed off. “Size of a kid, maybe three feet tall?” He held out his hand, to approximate the height. “And they had strange skinny fingers, all long and spindly--”

“One longer than the other. I felt it, in my hair. Like a claw,” said one of the older boys. The children had started to creep down the stairs a bit, a half dozen faces peeking between the banister, staring at Alex, Maria, and Guerin.

“I saw it! It touched his hair!”

“Is that true?” Alex asked the parents but glanced at Maria. To them, Maria was calm and attentive, quietly taking notes. But Alex could read and understand even the most minute twitch of her mouth. 

“They were reaching through the broken windows. I shot at it,” Mr. Andrews admitted. He didn’t look even remotely comfortable with the interview. But to Alex it didn’t seem like the man was lying and Maria hadn’t contradicted anything he’d said yet so Andrews must be telling the truth. Alex immediately stamped down on the tendril of excitement that came from that thought. Just cause Andrews believed it, didn’t mean it was true. “Couldn’t take the tapping anymore. They just kept doing it, tapping and scratching at the glass and the walls…”

“Maybe it was an owl? You guys have the great horned ones?” Guerin piped up, looking up from scrolling through the phone they had issued him. “They mate during this time of year and they’re aggressive right?”

Mr. Andrews frowned, offended. “I’ve seen plenty of owls around here. None of them’s ever been bullet proof.”

Guerin, to his credit, did not snort, though he didn’t look convinced. And then he said what Alex was thinking but was smart enough not to say, “Can’t say I trust your skills with a gun. Especially if you were drunk?” He nodded over to a table that had more than a few empty beer bottles and a mostly-empty bottle of cheap whiskey. 

Andrews bristled. “I’ve been using guns since I was in my nappies--” 

“Mr. Andrews, my… associate may lack delicacy,” Maria said, shooting Guerin a sharp look. “But his concern is warranted. After a few drinks, I start seeing things too.”

Bullshit, but Maria was always good at lying. No, at making people feel at ease. Maria had the same vibe as a priest -- no, maybe a bartender. Someone you could open up too. 

“Was the entire holler having alcohol induced hallucinations all week?” Andrews argued, shooting Guerin a surly look. “I shot one and all it did was rattle like a tin can. And besides, owls don’t glow in the dark and they definitely don’t float!”

Maria nodded, understandingly. “We believe you, Mr. Andrews.” She smiled, reassuring and sincere, and immediately feathers unruffled. “You still don’t mind if we spend the night here? Do you have family to go to?” 

Andrews nodded. “We’ll pack up and get out of your hair,” he said, nodding to his wife. They both got up, and certainly wasted no time packing up. Obviously, they were eager to get the hell away from their farm.

“I’m gonna take a look around outside. See if there’s anything obvious,” Guerin said, pushing off the wall.

Alex and Maria got a few more details before seeing the family off. When they stepped outside, Guerin was crouched under one of the windows, looking at the dirt there. “You guys got a collection kit?” He looked up, sweeping his hat off. “Microscopes? Chemistry set?”

“You’re a chemist now?” Alex asked, dryly.

He laughed. “What skillset did you think you were hiring me for exactly?” He got up. “You got it?”

“We always bring a mobile lab,” Alex said, digging a sample kit out of his bag and tossing it to Michael. “It’s enough for the basics, but if you’re looking to do anything too complex, we might have to drive back into town.”

“Usually that’s my job but I’m perfectly ok with you handling it.” Maria winked at Guerin. “They said some of the creatures were on the roof, so I’m going to check up there for anything.” 

Guerin watched Maria leave and then looked at Alex. “How long have you two been working together?”

“What’s it to you?” Alex asked, going to the trunk of their rental to get the bag with the mobile lab.

“Just making conversation. Jeez, pull the stick out your ass, Manes.” Guerin knelt down in the dirt, scraping up some samples.

Ok, Alex thought, that was fair. He sighed. “Sorry, yeah, Maria and I have known each other since we were kids.”

“You’re married yeah?” Alex frowned, spinning the wedding ring on his finger a little. Guerin must have noticed them. Sharp eye on him. They didn’t advertise it, hell, Maria didn’t even take the Manes name. Though Alex couldn’t blame her -- had occasionally played with taking hers, instead. The Manes name didn’t have a lot of good associated with it.

“Yeah.” Alex frowned, setting the bag down next to him.

“Childhood sweethearts?”

“Something like that.” Alex didn’t know how to interpret Guerin’s tone.

“Cute,” Guerin said, dryly. “Was wondering if the FBI had a department staffed exclusively with models, but you being married makes more sense.”

“How does that make more sense?” 

“Hot people tend to marry hot people.” 

So Guerin thought he was hot. Cool. No big deal.

It didn’t take long for DeLuca to return, finding nothing more than prints and some scratch marks on the roof. 

Michael settled down with the equipment and his samples. Looking up at DeLuca and Manes, briefly, as they investigated prints, arguing about dermal ridges. 

Good. They were distracted. He let out a slow breath, starting to test the samples while they were working. They didn’t need to know what he was testing for, and if they asked, he could always claim it was meth. This was meth country, right? (Who was he kidding, the whole country was meth country).

Even if DeLuca wanted to see his process, it didn’t mean revealing anything, he reminded himself, breathing slowly. He knew exactly what he was looking for. Not many people could distinguish alien compounds from phenylacetone. In fact, he was pretty damn sure he was the only person on the planet who could.

He measured out some sodium hydroxide, iodine. He’d done this test so often that muscle memory could guide him through it. Still keeping a half eye on the Feds.

They were weird. He wasn’t sure what to make of them. In the prison, DeLuca did all the talking. But today, Manes had taken over while DeLuca watched the family, with this weird, slightly unfocused look in her eyes. 

He didn’t think she was uninterested, though. It was like she was listening, for something specific. For whatever reason he kept comparing it to trying to make out a song in a noisy supermarket. 

A few minutes later his test was done. And like he suspected - nothing properly alien here. He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed, if he was being honest. 

Michael spent a couple minutes just looking through the rest of DeLuca’s mobile lab. A pretty decent selection of gear, he had to admit, though he really missed his own lab. 

“We should check the surrounding area for blood,” Manes was saying. “And Branch Road for anything extraterrestrial in nature.” 

DeLuca nodded. “Drive back into town?”

Ugh. Max was gonna have to head back to Roswell way before they got a chance to see each other, with the glacial pace these Feds were likely to work at. And, loathe as he was to admit it, he really did want to see Max. Had missed the big idiot.

He needed to speed this along, but he couldn’t exactly tell them that the site tested negative for aliens.

“You wanna take a cast of those?” He called out to DeLuca and Manes. They had plaster. “We can take it to the game commission tomorrow if the little green men don’t show themselves tonight.” Put all this nonsense to bed. 

“Might as well.” Manes nodded.

Michael got down to business, going to find the best print -- none of them were great, but he found one that was serviceable. Filling it with plaster. They were odd prints. Maybe half the size of his hand, and just unusual looking. Michael wasn’t a zoologist or anything, but he couldn’t think of one common North American animal that could make prints like this, slim hand with long skinny digits, four digits. No five? Michael couldn’t tell if that one indentation was more than just an imperfection. 

DeLuca and Manes kept talking about the interview, blood splatter, and the prints. “The prints go out into the woods,” DeLuca was saying, looking at a map. “There’s caves out there.” 

Manes nodded. “Maybe one of those underground bases?” 

Michael looked at them sharply. Were they fucking serious? “Underground bases?”

“Never heard of that?” DeLuca laughed a little. “There’s a bunch of rumors dating back decades of aliens turning old defunct mines or caves into underground bases. Nothing confirmed, of course, but…”

“Can’t rule it out,” Manes filled in.

Michael half-laughed. “Why the hell would aliens want to live underground?”

“Maybe they’re light sensitive,” Manes said, shrugging. “Maybe they’re like any other living creature looking for a safe place to rest their heads. Caves are defensible.”

“Defensible?” Michael frowned. It always did come back to that with humans. He rolled his eyes. “For the incoming invasion?” 

Manes arched an eyebrow at him. Michael, realizing what he must sound like, turned his attention back to the plaster. “This is ready, I’m going to go take it inside.” He got up with mold and disappeared inside. 

“He is super weird,” Alex said under his breath, watching Guerin until he disappeared inside. Then he turned to Maria. “Got much of a read on him yet?” 

Maria shook her head. “Not really. It feels like he’s lying when he’s got no reason to and telling the truth when he’s obviously lying. It’s… confusing.” 

“Is your radar broke?” Alex asked, rapping his knuckles gently against Maria’s temple.

“Dear husband, if you don’t want your shooting hand broken you better stop that,” Maria said sweetly. Alex chuckled but withdrew his hand.

“The question still stands, dear wife,” Alex said, sliding his hands into the pockets of his trousers, dark cargo pants this time. Alex had no interest in traipsing through the forests of Kentucky in a suit and dress shoes.  

She let out a frustrated breath. “No. I don’t think so, anyway. Feels normal with everyone else -- the Andrews. Even his so-called sister, whoever she actually is. I just don’t get Guerin yet. But I will.”

“Is it the curls?” Alex couldn’t help but the tease. “Is that what’s causing this Guerin shaped blind spot?”

“You’re not funny,” Maria said, giving him a little shove. “What are we doing for dinner? It’s gonna be a long night.” A not-so subtle request for Alex to go pick something up.

“I was actually kind of thinking of searching the caves. There’s still some daylight.” A so-called goblin sighting had never been reported during the day, so it made sense to check the caves for them now.

“I’d rather not until tomorrow morning,” Maria said. “If we do anything else today, it’s take the plaster mold to the game commission, see if they can ID those tracks. And also, ask them if bears like to make homes in those caves.” Maria paused, pulling out her cell phone with its pitiful one bar. “Are bears even native to Kentucky?” 

“Yeah, black bears,” Alex replied. “Did some reading on the native fauna at the airport. Guerin’s not wrong to think these people have just misidentified some owls or something.”

Maria nodded. “He’s not. Gonna have to talk to him about his bedside manner, though. Can’t have two brusque interviewers. Ruins the balance.” 

Brusque was of course a nice way to put it, Alex acknowledged. “Maybe it’s good that we have a skeptic as an advisor.”

“An alien-obsessed skeptic,” Maria said dryly.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t weird.” Alex’s chuckled turned into a sigh. He raked his hand through his hair, frustrated. Maybe Guerin was right? Maybe they were wasting their time. 

Maria, likely picking up on his change in mood, squeezed Alex’s shoulder, rubbing gently. “Hey, I know we haven’t found much--”

“Anything. We haven’t found anything. It’s been years and dad’s still doing who knows what.”

“Alex, it hasn’t been a complete waste.”

“Yeah,” he acknowledged, despairingly. Sure they’ve found some things… but nothing that would make a good solid case, let alone clue them into what his dad was really up to.

“Hey,” Maria said, grabbing his arm and turning him towards her. She didn’t continue until she caught his eyes. “We’ve done good. That’s something. That serial killer who liked to pretend he was a ghost in the walls of his victims houses? We stopped him. That weird ass lady who was gassing those towns folk, stopped her too. People are safer. People are alive as a direct result of our work.” 

“You’re right. Of course you’re right.” He nodded, wrapping an arm around her, kissing her temple. He shouldn’t let his vendetta cloud him from all the good he’s done, they’ve done.

“We’ll get him though,” Maria said firmly. “He can’t keep ahead of us forever.”

And that was the worst part. Jesse knew that they were after him, he had an edge on them, and it was Alex’s own damned fault. Alex tried not to let his thoughts spiral into anger at his own stupidity. Years ago, Alex had finally managed to break into Jesse’s computer systems, download top-secret files on the ‘47 crash. And like an idiot, he’d printed those files out and marched into Jesse’s office, all stupid bravado, demanding to know what he was up to. It hadn’t seemed to fluster Jesse at all, but Alex had stupidly dropped his guard in his own self-assurance, and Jesse had knocked him out. When he came to, all the information he had was gone, his place had been ransacked and his computer taken. By the time he got back online, all the security flaws he’d exploited on his father’s computer were gone, as if they’d never been there.

There weren’t many mistakes Alex had made that he blamed himself for, but that one? That one kept him up at night. 

“You’re right,” he said, nodding. He knew, intellectually, that Jesse couldn’t outsmart him and Maria forever. It was just hard to believe sometimes.

They were distracted by the sudden smell of cooking. Frowning, Maria and Alex walked back into the house and found Guerin in the kitchen, an apron wrapped around his slim waist and a pot on the stove. He looked like a proper house husband.

“Guerin, what are you doing?” Alex demanded angrily.

“What does it look like? I’m making stew.” Guerin grinned at them.

“This isn’t your food!” Alex protested.

“Commandeered for FBI purposes,” Guerin said, shrugging unapologetically. “Agents gotta eat so they can protect the meth heads from the space goblins.”

“Do you have any proof that they’re meth heads or are you just being an asshole?” Maria asked, dryly.

Guerin just waved a dismissive hand. So asshole it was. “Anyway, they can have leftovers, if there are any. I’m a good damn cook.” 

“Prison mess hall?” 

Guerin tensed a little, hesitating, eyes on the pot. “No. Learned before.” His tone clipped, but polite enough. 

“Shouldn’t have assumed,” Maria said apologetically. But Guerin just shrugged, his back to them. Maria tried again, from a different angle. “Do you need any help? I’m not so bad in the kitchen either.”

He hesitated for a minute but nodded. “Sure, if you don’t mind cutting onions.” 

Alex leaned against the doorframe, watching them. It was weirdly domestic. 

The distraction of dinner meant that they didn’t get a chance to take the mold down to the game commission but the rest of their evening had actually been nice and quiet. A chance to start to get to know each other. 

Alex looked for beer in the Andrews’ fridge -- they were already going to have to compensate them for the food anyway -- and found moonshine in the pantry, instead.  Oh well.  When in Kentucky, he supposed, pouring a modest bit for all three of them as they settled down to eat together. Guerin was a surprisingly good cook. He had an easy laugh, and he was just as smart as advertised, quick witted and funny. Enough to keep up with Maria and Alex’s snark. Though they were definitely better at it. But, earlier mishap aside, he took a ribbing pretty well, as long as they steered clear of the convict thing.  

A soft tapping broke through their conversation, and all three of them shifted to look at the windows. 

“Well, looks like the little green men are here for a visit,” Michael said, softly. Finishing off his moonshine with a deep drink and setting it down. 

“That’s our cue.” Maria said, getting up, moving quick and quiet to her bag, pulling out a camera and nodding to Alex, who turned off the lights. 

She stepped into the living room, where the tapping was louder. Alex and Michael behind her, and they could see weird, spindly fingers pressed against the glass. Maria took a few pictures, and quietly started creeping up closer, trying to get a better angle on it -- until she accidentally kicked an empty beer bottle, sending it clattering across the floor.

The shadowy figure froze for a moment, and then there was a flurry of movement as it, and a few other figures scattered, heading out back into the woods. 

“Damnit,” Maria said, softly. 

Alex groaned. “And of course they didn’t all go the same way, did they?” He was already grabbing a couple more cameras, and their green-light flashlights. “Come on. Let’s follow.”  

“This alien hunting thing is a lot like real hunting, isn’t it?” Guerin asked, holding a hand out for the equipment though. Alex hesitated for just a moment before handing it over. Even if he ran, that’s what the anklet was for, right?  

“Be careful,” he cautioned, instead of reminding him of the tracker. Guerin wasn’t an idiot. But if these were real aliens, they could be dangerous. 

“Always am,” Guerin said, just a little tightly, as he turned to head out into the night.

This was ridiculous. Whatever they were chasing clearly wasn’t aliens. So they were all out on this wild goose chase -- no, maybe not geese. Whatever had run off didn’t much look like birds. More like some kind of mammal. 

They got separated pretty quickly. Michael wasn’t going to pretend it wasn’t at least 50% deliberate. Because in the highly unlikely event that these things turned out to be aliens, Michael wasn’t going to be complicit in their capture and dissection. He had some goddamned standards.

Maybe the other 50% was just that he wanted to appreciate being out in all this green by himself. After growing up in the desert and spending years behind concrete walls, it felt like learning how to breathe all over again.

He was out there for at least a half an hour, creeping through the forest, carefully. He heard them first, that weird tapping sound, and occasional high-pitched cries. He followed his ears, slowing down, trying to move quieter, and eventually he could see them, like black holes jumping from tree to tree. But more than that, he could hear them tapping on the trunks of said trees, gnawing on the bark. Foraging for food?

They seemed to pay him no mind, until he got close enough for his footfalls to disturb them.  Then a dozen wide, bright eyes turned to him in unison.

“Heeeey, fellow aliens,” Michael said softly, looking at them. They were surprisingly big, maybe two, three feet? Too big for what he was pretty sure they were. They looked like monkeys or some other primate, though really ugly ones. Big puffy tails, big bat-like ears, large startled eyes. He remembered seeing something like them the one time one of his foster families had let him go on a zoo trip.

He hummed, pulling out the camera Manes had given him, taking a few pictures. One of them scampered over to him, climbing up his leg and starting to scrabble for a pocket. Clearly used to humans, they weren’t scared at all. 

“Don’t have any snacks,” he said, sympathetically. He was sure he still smelled like food. What did weird looking primates eat, anyway?

Surprisingly, it let him shift it up on his hip, like a large baby. It was light, more puffy tails and hair and gangly limbs than meat. Michael stared down at it, and took a few more pictures, before trying to shift it off of him. “Okay…”  It just clung to him, with its long spindly fingers. One much skinnier, longer than the others. That must have been what it was tapping with, the weird finger that creeped the kids out. Michael hummed under his breath. “Seriously, you’re better off staying here if food’s what you’re after.”  

It seemed disinclined to let him go, though, scrabbling at his pockets. Michael and it stared at each other for several minutes before he sighed. “Okay, let’s see if we got snacks back at the house.” Turning to head that way, kind of expecting it would protest or jump off of him as he did. 

It didn’t. Still digging in his pockets, or pulling at his shirt and sticking its weirdly wet nose against his skin. “Gross,” Michael chuckled, shifting it up higher, until it found its way to his shoulders. It stayed clinging to him even as Michael made his way back to the house. He could hear the trees rustling all around him as he walked, large round eyes caught the light of his flashlight, gleaming red in the dark. 

“Your friends aren’t as brave,” he commented dryly, as long fingers combed through his hair, curiously. “Rude. What are you trying to say?” He chuckled.

Back at the house, let himself in. He didn’t bother turning on the lights, using the flashlight to look for snacks. There was a bowl of fruit, so he set the flashlight down so that it illuminated them and part of the room, grabbed an apple and offered it over. 

It snatched it right up, hungrily. Michael watched for a minute, laughing softly. It was so damn ugly that it was almost cute, he thought. Shifting slowly, he pulled his newly-issued phone out, deciding to do some googling, while he waited for the dream team to find their way back.

“I can’t believe we lost Guerin,” Maria grumbled, standing in the clearing looking up at...well she wasn’t sure what they were but she was sure they weren’t extraterrestrial.

“I mean,” Alex said, pulling out his cellphone. Honestly, he’d be lucky to still have reception out here. It was a miracle they had reception in the house. “We can’t exactly lose someone wearing a tracking anklet.” 

“You know what I mean.” She squinted up into the trees. “Any guesses as to what we’re looking at?’ 

“Rodents of Unusual Size?” Alex suggested, dryly. 

Maria smiled fondly over at him. “Nerd.” Not that she didn’t love that movie too. “Those tails are not rodent-y. Genetically modified monkeys? Are there any testing labs nearby?” 

Alex shrugged helplessly, lifting up his phone. “Going to have to go back up to the house to check. Got nothing out here.”

One of the creatures scampered off the tree and headed right towards them. “Oh, I think I see an ear tag.” She tried to reach for it but it scampered out of the way. “Didn’t the Andrews mention a crash? Maybe they escaped.”

“Yeah but they also mentioned flashing lights,” Alex groaned. She could sense his annoyance. Another dead end. Just a bunch of, what seemed like, escaped lab animals. 

“Babe, as much as we want to find something, until we see the flashing lights, we’ve got to rely on what’s in front of us,” she said gently, reaching to rub his back soothingly. “I know it sucks.” 

Alex was quiet for a moment, watching the creature scamper back up a tree. “Still think we should check the caves for bases.” 

“Sure,” Maria agreed. No stone unturned, right? “We can go in the morning? We should find Guerin anyway,” Maria added. “There may not be any aliens out here but there’s still those bears.” 

Alex finally relaxed, a bit, chuckling. “I guess we can’t let him get eaten on his first day on the job.”

“Or at all,” Maria countered, laughing, and they started to make their way back toward the cabin. Guerin was smart, Maria didn’t think he’d wander further into the woods, risk getting lost. But even if he had, once Alex got reception again, they could track him, if need be.

Any fear of Guerin getting lost in the woods was alleviated by the faint green glow of a flashlight in the house. 

“Can’t decide if I’m mad at him for being lazy or relieved that he isn’t lost.” Alex said as they headed up to the porch. 

“You should be thankful that I am here to solve all your paranormal mysteries,” Guerin said, opening the door. Perched on his shoulder was one of those things, happily munching on an apple. 

“You caught one!” Maria exclaimed, hushed though. “How?”

“He asked me to take him to my leader and I told him that was me.” Guerin grinned.

Alex rolled his eyes so hard it was practically audible. “Do you recognize it?”  

“Pretty sure it’s an aye aye?” Guerin said, scrunching up his face a bit. Maria felt that was unnecessarily adorable. “Some kind of lemur. I’m not a zoologist.” 

“Oh, like in Madagascar!” Maria exclaimed. “I love that movie.” 

“Haven’t seen it,” Guerin said. He shrugged nonchalantly, but there was a thread of something. Sadness, anger. Something she wanted to pick out. It wasn’t the time though, and besides Guerin was stepping back into the house. “Anyway. It fits. Glowing eyes and everything. They’ve got that membrane that cats do, tapetum lucidum. More red though. Just trying to figure out how the hell they got all the way out here.”

Maria glanced at Alex briefly before following Guerin back into the house. 

“Probably a lab,” Alex said, while Maria flicked on the lights. The lemur protested, burying its face in Guerin’s curls, pulling hard enough that he winced. 

“Lights off, DeLuca,” Guerin said. “They’re sensitive.” 

“Sorry.” Maria turned off the light. “Anyway, I think I saw a tag on one of them. Couldn’t get a good look. Guess I’m not a lemur whisperer. They stayed back.”

Alex wasn’t even paying attention to them anymore, opening up his laptop and getting to work figuring out where the aye aye might have come from.

“Yeah, I think hunger over took this one’s good sense,” Guerin said, scratching behind the lemur’s big ears. It made a happy sound at the attention. It really was one of the weirdest looking animals Maria had ever seen but that little reaction immediately endeared it to her. 

“Well, that makes sense.” Alex piped up. “Being so far from their actual territory must make it harder to forage here.” Okay, maybe he was paying a little attention. 

Guerin made a soft noise of agreement. “So, does this mean case closed? Are we heading back to Albuquerque?” 

“We still need to figure out how they got here,” Maria said. “And figure out who’s going to be in charge of collecting them. They can’t live in the wilds of Kentucky,” she pointed out, walking over to the fruit bowl, grabbing it and heading back outside. 

“I donno they already kind of look like little methheads. They’ll fit right in. What are you doing?” Guerin asked, following her out. There was something in the way he did it, reminiscent of a sad, lost puppy. Or maybe, better said, a lost aye aye.

“Well if they’re hungry…” She shrugged. “It’s not their fault they’re stuck in some weird place with no food.” 

Guerin looked at her. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said softly. Gently untangling the aye aye from his shoulders and setting it down. 

Out in the tree line, now that she was aware, she could see little eyes peering back at her. Before they seemed so alien and creepy, now they seemed desperate and sad.

“All right guys,” Maria said, after getting about ten feet from the house. She set the bowl down on the ground but threw an apple towards the trees. “Dinner’s on the FBI.” 

Guerin chuckled softly, going back to sit on the porch steps, watching them. “This is pretty cool,” he admitted, quietly. “Never seen anything like this before.” 

“Yeah, right? I love this job,” Maria replied, smiling, walking backwards away from the bowl, back towards the house. A couple of little figures scampered towards the apple she threw but hurried back to the trees. One of them seemed injured and Maria remembered that the Andrews had shot at them.

“It clearly has its perks.” Guerin nodded, leaning back on his hands, and when she turned to look at him, he was looking up at her. Maria had to be grateful it was too dark to see the exact outline of the lazy grin on his face. Just hearing it in his voice was bad enough. 

Maria, in her infinite patience and forgiveness, decided it was best not to address that. Instead, she kicked his leg, not entirely gently, until he made room for her on the porch step. She sat down, eyes back towards the fruit bowl and beyond. The aye ayes were slowly making their way towards it, cautious but hungry. 

There was a blur of movement opposite Guerin. The one that had befriended him was moving towards the bowl with purpose. She chuckled.

“Guess he’s still hungry,” Guerin said, smiling. 

“Ok,” Alex said, walking out of the house, with refilled glasses of moonshine in hand. He handed one to Guerin and one to her. “There’s a research lab, Galloway’s, up over in North Carolina. They do a lot of animal testing. From what I can gather, it’s like we thought. They lost a transport on the way but kept a lid on it.”

“Why?” Guerin asked then he made a face. “Wait no. Is the magic word illegal?”

“Bingo,” Alex said. “Aye ayes are endangered.” 

Maria was bristling. She never liked the idea of animal testing in general, of course, but endangered creatures really helped push it over the top. “We’re not reporting to them, are we?”

Guerin was raising an eyebrow. “Won’t they know already if you just called it in?”

Alex and Maria paused, looking at each other, amused. 

“Mn. I got out of the military with some computer skills,” he said, modestly. “Good news, we’re not done with the investigation, so nothing to report yet. And there’s a rescue and breeding center in North Carolina too. Nothing stopping us from making a call there, right?”

“Nothing at all,” Maria agreed, reaching up to squeeze Alex’s hand. Alex squeezed back and didn’t let go. “Anonymous calls while we’re still investigating strange phenomena. We still haven’t checked out those caves, right?” 

“What? Are you serious?” Guerin groaned and took an over-large gulp of his drink. “C’mon.” 

“You got somewhere you need to be, Guerin?” Alex asked, dryly. “A different paying job perhaps?”

“No,” Guerin said, somewhat sourly.

“Great,” Alex said cheerfully, clearly enjoying Guerin’s displeasure. “We’ll head into town, ask about bears in the caves, pick up some more fruit and head towards the caves.”

“Bears?!” Guerin said alarmed. “I’m not getting mauled looking for underground alien bases in Kentucky. You’re insane.” 

“Oh, toughen up.” Maria laughed, elbowing him lightly. “We’ll protect you.” 

Guerin did not look convinced.

Chapter Text

No matter where they were coming from, the flight home always seemed so much longer than the one out to a job.

Guerin and Alex both obviously felt the same. Their auras were both clouded, dark and heavy with exhaustion and irritation. Long nights, a little jetlag, and a redeye never made for sunny dispositions. At least they’d be home soon, Maria thought to herself as they silently waited to collect their bags from the conveyor belt. She for one couldn’t wait to sink into a bath and then sleep in her own damned bed.

Not that she hated sharing a bed with Alex when they were on assignment, but she had gotten used to her space over the years. And Alex had a weirdly cold foot.

Guerin, having brought only the one bag, looked about to fall asleep standing up, and honestly Maria envied him, not having to pay attention to anything at the moment. 

“Michael!” The deep voice cut across the hum of conversation and the squeal of the conveyor belt.

Guerin blinked awake, looking toward the voice.

Before any of them could even think, a tall, skinny cowboy was bounding over, and wrapping him in a big, tight hug, knocking Guerin’s own hat askew a bit. Alex and Maria both tensed, hands on their sidearms. But Maria couldn’t sense any malice from this man or any fear from Guerin. On the contrary actually...

Guerin struggled to stay stoic for about half a second before he wrapped his arms tight around the other man, letting out a breath and hugging him back just as hard.

Maria looked over at Alex, with a raised eyebrow. “The elusive brother?” She muttered, under her breath. Not much of a family resemblance with this sibling either -- except for the hats, she supposed.

Alex shrugged. “They seem close,” he murmured back, and leaned down to grab a bag off the belt. Obviously a little too tired to make any cracks about how close they looked. They were still hugging, clinging really, Guerin’s face buried into the other man’s neck. 

“Okay, okay, deputy,” Guerin finally said, with a laugh, extricating himself, looking up a bit at him. “Thought you’d be heading back down to Roswell by now.” 

“Yeah, well. The sheriff let me take a couple personal days. I gotta leave tomorrow night, though.” 

Sheriff? Alex mouthed over at Maria, eyebrows all the way up. He was definitely awake now.

Maria just shrugged slightly, and grabbed their field kit, since Alex was clearly distracted. Maria did finally clear her throat when they wouldn’t stop staring into each other’s eyes. 

The cowboy started, and immediately looked guilty, his attention finally off Guerin and on them. “Sorry... I should introduce myself. Max Evans.” He offered his hand over.

Alex shook his hand, almost certainly on autopilot as he soaked up every detail of the interaction. “Alex Manes.” 

Maria offered her hand next, introducing herself, too. “You’re the brother we’ve heard almost nothing about?” 

“Yes ma’am,” he said, with a soft, charming smile. He had a deep voice, a little rough like he wasn’t used to talking too much. “You mind if I take Michael here out for breakfast?”

Guerin groaned. “I’m off the clock, I don’t need permission …” 

“Even so.” Evans looked both Maria and Alex in the eye. 

“Fine by us.” Maria nodded, a little nonplussed. And truth be told she was kind of relieved. Anything to get them home a little faster. Guerin’s trailer wasn’t exactly on their way.

“Thanks, ma’am,” Evans said, actually tipping his hat, like he was in some kind of movie, with a charming smile, ignoring Guerin’s sputtering as he pulled him away, his arm still around him. 

“Seems like Guerin’s real popular,” Alex said, shouldering his bags, watching them go. 

Oh, there was her husband’s signature dry wit. 

“Apparently,” Maria agreed. “...Did Guerin call him deputy?”

“The plot thickens,” Alex added. “And it can wait until after sleep.”


Isobel had, somehow, in the last couple days procured a firepit and three chairs that she had parked right outside the airstream. Michael shut the door of Max’s jeep, raising his eyebrow. “Making yourself right at home, I see?” he fake-complained. But it did. It felt like home now, with them there.

“Michael!” Isobel ran up to him, giving him a hug.

“Worried about me?” he asked, as he hugged her back. The hugs were definitely not getting old yet.

“How could I not? Trouble sticks to you like white on rice,” she said dryly before breaking into a big smile. “Tell me they won’t be stealing you again so soon.”

“Not stealing, Iz,” Max said. “He’s gotta do his job.” 

“Do my time you mean,” Michael said, dryly. Going to yank the door of the airstream open and toss his bag in. He and Max had picked up breakfast burritos on the way there, so he grabbed some beers, offering them around. Both Izzy and Max turned him down. Oh well, more for him.

“It’s eight am, Michael,” Isobel scolded.

“Making up for lost time,” Michael said, popping the cap off with his powers. “Besides, I haven’t slept in like 24 hours, so time has no meaning and society’s rules are fake.” He went to flop in one of the chairs, taking a burrito when Max offered it over.

“I have to admit, I missed your nonsense logic.” Iz shook her head, laughing. “So can you tell us how it went or is it top secret?” Isobel asked, taking a seat. There was a grate over the firepit and a percolator, which was starting to make the customary coffee making sounds. 

“No aliens other than me,” Michael said, smirking, kicking his feet up on the edge of the pit. “Escaped exotic animals. Super scary.” Especially when they were clinging to Manes’ back, tapping the top of his head like they were going to find grubs inside. Manes had actually laughed then, Michael had been surprised. He didn’t think the guy’s face muscles worked that way truth be told. Seemed like anything more than a smirk would have caused him to pull a muscle.

It was a nice smile though.

“Donno if I should be relieved or not,” Isobel said, taking the percolator off the fire and pouring out coffee. It seemed fancy. He took the cup she was going to give to Max. Hey, it had been a while since he’d had decent coffee. He took a drink of it and groaned, happily. Fuck it was good to be out of that fucking prison.

"Definitely relieved,” Max said after swallowing a bit of burrito. “Let’s not go borrowing any more trouble than Michael already did.” 

Isobel reached over to swat him, lightly. Though she wasn’t exactly arguing. And Michael swallowed the guilt with another drink of that scalding hot coffee. They’d both warned him, so many times, that things would catch up with him at some point. At least both of them had had the decency not to remind him of that fact, so far.

“You know the federal bureau of intimidation actually believes that aliens have secret underground bases?” Best he shifted the topic away from his past decisions. 

“What?” Max laughed. “Isn’t that like their thing? Area 51 and all.” 

“Ethnocentrism is a hell of a drug?” Isobel offered.

“Amen sister,” Michael drawled. “Spent an entire day wandering around defunct coal mines. Probably gonna have to get checked out for black lung.”

“Oh my god you are so stupid.” Isobel complained, lightly.  

“Sounds like they might be the stupid ones,” Max commented.

“They do believe in aliens,” Isobel agreed with a laugh.

“Aliens are real, Iz,” Michael said dryly. “They’re nice,” he added, without thinking, and quickly amended, “I mean, for feds.”

“You got a problem with law enforcement?” Max asked, dryly. 

“Yes.” Michael shot back. Honestly, what kind of answer did Max expect? Even before the prison-worthy offenses, he had always run afoul of law enforcement. Woke up plenty of mornings in the drunk tank with a split lip and a pounding hangover or been rounded up on suspicion of petty theft. Roswell PD had clearly pigeonholed him long before he got into actual felonies.

“Boys,” Isobel said, immediately trying to nip it in the bud. 

"We’re not all bad,” Max said over her.

“Please Max,” Michael said dismissively. “You’re not a cop, you're a poet in cop cosplay.” 

Max sputtered softly, looking both annoyed and completely read. “Oh, shut up, Michael.” Max finished up his burrito before deciding it was time to change the subject. “Iz, Noah was asking me how long you’re planning on staying up here. Said you haven’t been returning his calls.” 

It was Isobel’s turn to look uncomfortable, tucking her hair behind her ears. “You can let him wonder.” 

“Iz?” Max frowned, immediately concerned. Michael was too but all he did was take a pull from his beer, hiding his frown with the bottle. 

“Look, I just... I need a break,” she said, after a pause, setting her food aside and picking up her coffee, wrapping her hands around it tightly. “He’s a big boy, he’ll survive without me there to order his takeout and pay the maid.” 

“Did he do something?” Max asked, gently, but there was a deep undercurrent of restrained anger. It almost never broke to the surface, but they all knew it was there, unspoken. “Hurt you?” 

“No, no, nothing like that,” Isobel said quickly, but there was a weird note of uncertainty in her voice.

“You’re not just saying that because you think me and Max are going to drive down there and kick his ass, are you?” Michael asked, keeping his tone light, like he’s joking. But they all knew he wasn’t. They would in fact be doing just that if they even got the slightest inkling that Noah had so much as mussed her hair in a non-consensual manner. 

Isobel smiled, tense. “Michael, I know damn well that if Noah laid hands on me, they’d never find his body.” She reached over to Max’s arm, rubbing it gently. He looked as tense as Michael felt. “I promise. He hasn’t done anything. Things are just different lately. Weird. I think it’s good for me to take some time. Clear my head.” 

“It would put our minds at ease if you gave us an idea of what’s changed Isobel,” Max replied, resting his hand over hers, clearly worried. But Michael didn’t see any anger in his eyes, so at least he believed that Isobel wasn’t lying about Noah hurting her. 

She inhaled, frowning, and let it out slowly. “You know how, before there’s a thunderstorm the air changes?” She asked. “It’s been feeling like that. It’s hard to put into words, and I don’t know if it’s him or if I’m just picking up on something that isn’t there.” 

“Have you slipped into his head?” Michael asked. “Would answer your questions. Whatever they are, as you are being vague as shit.” 

Isobel wrinkled her nose. “No. I’m not doing that to him. I’m not doing that to anyone anymore, thank you.” 

“Since when?” Michael asked, looking askance at her.

She let out a soft, frustrated breath. “A while now. My powers are dangerous.”

“You’ve never had a problem with your powers before...” Michael looked over at Max, who shook his head, clearly not knowing anything. 

“Look, it doesn’t matter,” she said, shaking her head. “It would be a violation of his privacy. Anyway, there’s no law against taking a vacation without one’s husband, this isn’t the 1600s. And you’re going to need someone to help you get back on your feet.” 

Of course, she was turning this into a help Michael case. Ignoring her own problems by being a busybody. Typical Isobel.

“Ok,” Max said. “I’ll tell him you’re helping Michael.” Max didn’t particularly sound thrilled. Michael couldn’t blame him. They both low-key hated Noah, truth be told. He never sat well with them. Maybe Isobel was just finally realizing that. Honeymoon period over. Hopefully.

“Thank you.” Izzy smiled, leaning over the arm of the chair so she could ruffle Max’s hair gently.  

“So, they’re nice,” Isobel said, after some silence.


“The feds. You said they were nice.” Isobel grinned at Michael. 

Michael tried not to groan, keeping a straight face. “I mean I’m not in shackles anymore and they gave me a phone.”

Max was immediately holding his hand out for the phone. “Gimme, I need your number.” 

Michael contemplated saying no, he really did. But he handed it over, with a modicum of grace even. 

“That’s just normal work stuff. You can’t chase aliens if you’re in shackles and I don’t think they want to see your naked chest next time they’re picking you up for work,” Isobel pointed out. “What makes them nice?

Michael glared at her. Really wanting to be an asshole and fall into objectifying them. After all, they both had asses to die for, and Maria’s tits? Utter perfection. But he didn’t want to scandalize Max’s Victorian maiden sensibilities. “I dunno. They liked my cooking and they called an animal rescue for the alien lemurs instead of calling the testing lab that lost them?” 

Max snorted, leaning back in his chair, looking at Michael with no small amusement. “You cooked for them?”

“We were hungry out in the backwoods of Kentucky. It was that or starve,” Michael said, defensively. 

Isobel’s eyes had gone soft though. “And they liked it?” 

“I’m a good cook, Iz, unlike some family members I could mention.”

She leaned down and grabbed a pebble that she tossed at him in response. 

“CO2 leak.” Michael announced to the office, after hanging up with a particularly helpful local gas company. “You owe me twenty bucks.”

Manes groaned, digging out his wallet and handing it over. They’d gotten into this habit, lately -- DeLuca had suggested it, to break up the (generally good natured) shouting matches that Michael and Manes had started getting into over the most ridiculous cases.

So far, Michael was batting a thousand. Of course. “You know, I’m gonna clean you out entirely if you keep hitching your wagon to this bullshit. I mean, demonic roommate? Really?” 

“No one likes a sore winner, Guerin,” DeLuca said, chucking a wadded up ball of paper at his head. 

“I am not in this game to be liked,” Michael retorted, smirking. “Man’s gotta pay his bar tab. And his sister’s bar tab. And his brother’s too, when he’s in town.”

“I thought he went back to Roswell?” 

Manes always had a peculiar sort of note in his voice when he said Roswell. Probably choking back the UFO crash conspiracies. It was weird, because you’d think that would be the one thing he would want to talk about. But Michael couldn’t deny that it was a relief.

He was starting to like Manes and DeLuca. He never really had friends before, but he was pretty sure this was what it felt like. Friends close and enemies closer and all, but he’d really rather not think of them as enemies.

“Yeah, but he’ll be back. He and Bella are super co-dependent.” Honestly, the fact that Iz had been here this long was really weird. She’d gotten an apartment a few miles away from Michael’s place and she was over basically every damn night. And even though he’d tried to get her to talk about it, she would just smile a little tightly and shift the subject.

Manes nodded, in understanding, letting the subject drop, and settling back into his ‘research,’ making notes on the file on his desk. Alex’s desk was neat. The kind of neat that would make someone think no one used that desk ‘cause even a temp would give it more of a personal feel. 

DeLuca’s desk abutted Manes and contrasted it entirely. Compared to Manes’ desk, hers was chaos, with files in little piles along the edges, a computer screen laden with sticky notes, and knickknacks from various trips--stuff you’d get at an airport or at a tourist shop. There was also a picture frame next to her computer of a pretty older woman with long curly hair, by the resemblance Michael assumed she was a family member. 

It wasn’t exactly an enormous office. The two desks, the filing cabinet and the white board were already pushing it to its limits. And that was before they forced in another desk for Michael to use, which was nice of them, he had to admit. But it made describing the office as cozy feel like an understatement.

The FBI may be entertaining this cockamamie outfit, but it was going to spend as little funding on it as possible. That made Michael feel better, honestly.

“Apparently there’s been a new mothman sighting,” Manes said, into the silence, leaning back in his chair. He took a pen from his desk and tapped it against his lower lip, thoughtfully, while looking at his computer screen. 

“Hasn’t been one of those in a while,” DeLuca replied.

He glanced up at Manes and Deluca from the file he’d been reading (where there were ridiculous reports of a jacked lizard man attacking drivers in the swamps of Florida), frowning at them. “You two cannot possibly be entertaining mothman,” Michael said, exasperated. It had been a few weeks since the Kentucky Goblin incident, but Michael was still having a hard time believing these two were for real. 

“The truth is out there, Guerin,” DeLuca replied, between sips of coffee. Her mug reminded Michael of a geode.

“Yeah, it is,” Michael replied and turned his computer screen towards them. “The truth is owls.” He made sure to google images of owls with red eyes. “Great Horned Owl. Common American bird. Big ass bird with big ass red eyes and it's’ even got these cute little tuffs on the top of its head, like moth antenna.”

“Mothman doesn’t look like an actual moth,” Manes huffed, arms crossed.

“Mothman doesn’t look like anything because--” Michael paused for effect. “He doesn’t exist.” And just to add salt to the wound, Michael pulled up another bird. “Sandhill Crane. Not as cute as owls. But they’re big, they have big ass wings and red spots that look like eyes. And those ridiculous jacked mothman cases? Methheads. Case closed. My coffee didn’t even get cold.”

Michael rolled his eyes and turned his computer screen back around. “Also,” he added, lifting up the file he was just reading. “Gators.”

“Not every answer is animals, Guerin,” Manes shot back annoyed.

“Kentucky Goblins were,” Michael said blandly, looking at his nails. “And it’s more likely than what? Interdimensional travelers? Missing links? Aliens?”

“Aliens are real,” Manes shot back, voice tight.  

Michael snorted. Honestly, he should get an academy award for that one. “Tell that to the Aye Aye.”

“They’re real Guerin!” Manes said, leaning over his desk, glaring at Michael.

“Yeah? You got one somewhere in this room then?” 

Manes went an interesting shade of red and DeLuca let out a sigh that definitely sounded like she knew where this was going.

Honestly, Michael should have brought popcorn. This was fun. If he'd known how fun fucking with feds could be, he might have done this years ago.

“There’s so much history.” Manes was getting up, digging in a file cabinet. “Let’s start with Project Sign. And before you tell me it’s all a conspiracy theory -- I’ve gotten plenty of first-hand accounts. No one wants to go on the fucking record, but--” And here he flipped to a specific page in the file. “The discs-like objects moved silently at extreme rates of climb--” Manes glanced at Michael to make sure he was listening. Satisfied he continued, quoting directly “--maneuverability (particularly in roll), and motion which must be considered evasive when sighted or contacted by friendly aircraft and radar.”

“The ‘47 crash,” Michael said and here he had to work hard to keep his expression bland. The worst day of his life. The beginning of his stay on this nightmare of a planet. Breathe, Guerin. “And considering what you’re sourcing, you’re perfectly aware that Project Grudge found it was all bogus. The sightings could be explained by--” he cleared his throat, he too could quote “--mundane origins like hoaxes or sun dogs or other meteorological phenomena.”

“And as you know, Guerin, 11,917 were proved as such,” Alex replied, surprising Michael by not bringing up how Vandenberg, Boggs and other high ranking Air Force and Pentagon personnel had a vendetta against the truth. Which was what most so-called Ufologists immediately pointed out in their crazy way, in the same breath as El Chupacabra. “There are still 701 that remain unexplained today.”  

“Ah yes, the odds of that 5.8% of them being actual aliens that have been able to hang around all these years while bugging humans for fun is super high,” Michael said, dryly, holding up his hand. “Look, I’m already on the record as believing that aliens exist. But you’re not going to find them running around the woods after owls.”

Manes let out a disgusted sigh, tossing the file on Michael’s desk. “I’m getting coffee,” he said, brusquely, grabbing his jacket. 

DeLuca shook her head a little. “He’s a little…”

“Touchy?” Michael filled in. 

“Passionate,” she corrected. “Family connection.” 

Michael frowned. “How do you mean?” 

“That file he was quoting?” She nodded over at it. “Take a look at who compiled the report.”

Weird. Michael picked it open, looking for a name. And yeah, there it was in the beginning. Harlan fucking Manes. Shit. He’d known that. He’d known it and he just… forgot? Wrote off the coincidence before it even registered?

Well fuck.  

“So are you gonna tell us about your new CI, or just let us keep making up stories?” Liz asked, breaking into Maria’s drifting thoughts.

She blinked, dragging herself back into the present. Tuning back into the warmth of the night air, the smell of barbecue, the murmur of Kyle and Alex talking by the grill. They met up like this, at least once a month, a habit ever since Kyle and Liz had become Maria and Alex’s go-to science team at the FBI. A nice little couples night, and a chance to connect with their best (some might say only) friends.

“Does he count as a CI if he’s not informing us about other criminals?”

Liz shrugged and poured Maria some more sangria. “He’s a criminal. He’s giving you information. I think it tracks.”

Maria chuckled softly. “Fine, fine. What do you want to know?”  

“Everything. Obviously.” 

Maria rolled her eyes. “I mean, you already read his file.” She pointed out. Liz was the one who’d passed it over, after all. Sometimes her natural nosiness was a real asset, Maria had to admit.

“There is more to Guerin than the file!” Liz protested. “Come on, spill.”

“There’s really not that much to spill,” Maria protested. “Guerin’s kind of a closed book. Only real personal details he’s mentioned is that he’s got a brother and sister that aren’t actually related to him in any discernible way and he lives in an airstream.” 

“Fancy.” Liz tilted her head a little. “That can’t be it. How’s he been on cases?” 

Maria smiled, sipping her sangria. “Believe it or not? He’s a skeptic. He makes you seem positively credulous.”

“I highly doubt that,” Liz murmured into her drink. And maybe Maria was exaggerating. She’d lost count of the times Liz and Alex had gotten into loud drunken debates over the paranormal and supernatural.

“You’d like him,” Maria said, instead of arguing the point. “He’s a science geek like you. Might even be as smart as you.”

Liz scoffed a little, clearly not buying it. “Science geek? Howso?” 

“Well, he’s already taken over as our field chemist. And from what I can tell he’s got more than a passing knowledge of biology, physics, and engineering. It’s been pretty convenient. He’s been able to pretty conclusively weed some cases out of our load without us even having to travel to the site. And he’s not a half bad cook.” 

Liz looked skeptical. “Just as long as he doesn’t try to steal my job…”

“Please.” Maria laughed and shifted to wrap her arm around Liz. “He’s way too annoying for that.”

“Sarcastic little shit?” Liz guessed. At Maria’s questioning look, she shrugged. “That mugshot made it pretty obvious.”

“I think the picture really undersells it,” Maria said dryly. “Some days, I do kind of want to shoot him.”

“My trigger happy best friend,” Liz laughed. “So, what about the weird siblings?”

“Weird as advertised. His sister, Bella - she’s pretty evasive. Seriously thought she was a call girl at first, honestly.” Maria shrugged. “But the brother’s apparently a deputy down in Roswell, and I think it’s more likely that Guerin’s the black sheep than the other way around.”

“A deputy?” Liz’s eyebrows shot up. “Have you googled him yet? What’s his name?” 

“No. No.” Oh she recognized that light in Liz’s eye. “Come on, it’s not relevant and there’s no reason to go snooping.” Who was she even kidding? This was Liz Ortecho.

Liz narrowed her eyes. “...Hey Alex! What’s Guerin’s brother’s name?” She called out, giving Maria a challenging look.

Alex, bless him, didn’t even think twice, cutting off mid-sentence with Kyle and calling back, “Max Evans? Why?

Maria groaned. “Alex!”

“Wha…” Alex blinked, realizing his mistake as Liz let out a triumphant whoop and grabbed her phone. 

“Seriously, Liz,” she sighed, shaking her head at her best friend. “I really don’t need to know.”

“Of course, you… damn.” Liz paused, staring at her phone. Guess she found Max. She whistled, which caught Kyle’s attention. “I mean, I know you said they weren’t genetically related, but apparently hotness runs in the family. Maybe I should check...”

“Don’t you dare,” Maria said, smacking her lightly as Kyle and Alex turned their full attention on them.

“His hair looks so soft. And I love the Superman curl,” Liz cooed, there was no other way to describe it.

“Liz,” Kyle said dryly.

“Yes, babe?” Liz grinned, tearing her eyes away from her phone to look at Kyle. “Dark haired men are hot.” 

Kyle rolled his eyes. 

“Is he tall?” Liz asked. “He looks tall... why does this man have no social media?”

“Cause he’s avoiding creepy scientists,” Alex said, throwing a pointed look her way. Liz shrugged, completely unrepentant. “But yeah, he’s tall.” 

“Do I have to worry about you running off with a tall, dark-haired small town deputy here?” Kyle asked, amused.

“Aw baby,” Liz laughed, getting up and throwing her arms around Kyle who huffed in mock annoyance. “He won’t keep me up at night arguing with me about medical ethics, will he?"

“Kyle does God’s work,” Maria said dryly. Liz was a brilliant scientist and a good person but she was also the type who believed firmly in working gray areas. Was never entirely against breaking a few rules if it got her the answers she was looking for. Kyle wasn’t exactly her conscience, because she definitely had one, but he was often the one to nudge it awake, so to speak. 

“And we all appreciate him very much,” Alex agreed. Shaking his head and pulling the meat off the grill, bringing the plate to the table that already had all the other taco fixings on it. “Now can we eat?”

“You’re so butch, babe.” Maria smiled up at him.  

“Fuck you,” he said, dropping a fond kiss on her cheek and dropping into a chair, reaching to refresh his own glass of sangria.

They ate quietly for a while.

“Actually Liz,” Alex said. “Didn’t you grow up in Roswell? Did you know Guerin or Evans?”

Liz shook her head. “It’s not as small a town as people like to think. We didn’t go to the same high school. Though it’s likely we crossed paths. A lot of kids love frequenting my dad’s diner.” 

“Yeah, I remember those pictures you showed me of you in that cute waitressing uniform with the antenna,” Maria said.

“Yeah, though I didn’t do as much waitressing as Rosa did….” She grew quiet, a little more somber after mentioning her sister. Gone now, for almost ten years. Kyle squeezed her hand. “I used to practically live at the library.”

Maria squeezed her arm too, sympathetically. 

“You know it’s weird,” Kyle said, trying to steer the subject away from Rosa. “All the aliens and cryptids and stuff you two chase, you’ve never been to Roswell, have you?”

Alex shook his head. “Tried following up on cases down there, but all we got was a lot of dead ends. The air force is good at keeping secrets. Sadly, Guerin’s our best lead yet.” 

“Had a feeling,” Liz said, smiling a little more. “You’re welcome. And you know, you’re always welcome to come on any family vacations back down to Roswell? Might not find aliens, but I can guarantee you plenty of alien kitsch.” 

“And some really fucking good tamales,” Kyle said. “Her dad is an amazing cook. Better than my mom,” he said, and then blanched. “Do not tell her I said that.” 

“I am still so full,” Maria grumbled, leaning against Alex as he looked for his keys. She wasn’t exactly drunk, barely tipsy, just in a good mood.

“You got greedy with that third slice of cake,” Alex chuckled, unlocking the door and pushing it open.

“It was so good...” Maria paused just at the threshold and Alex frowned. He looked in and saw the light on in the kitchen. Their kitchen didn’t face the front of the house so they had missed it on the drive up.

Before they could say anything, Flint walked out of the kitchen, lowball glass in hand. “Hey brother,” he said lightly. “Hope you don’t mind, I let myself in.” He looked at Maria, smiling insincerely as he greeted her. 

“I mind. And I’m armed,” Maria said, tightly. It wasn’t an idle threat, either. Maria almost never left the house without her gun and she had more than once confessed a deep need to shoot Flint somewhere painful.

“The fuck are you doing here?” Alex demanded, frowning and deciding right then and there that every lock in the house was going to be changed and the security system was going to get a massive upgrade.

Flint shrugged. “Guess I shouldn’t have poured out the extra drinks for you two. No hope for a civil family discussion.”

“I swear Flint if you don’t start getting to the point right this fucking instant…”

“Ok ok,” Flint said, in a tone that implied they were being out of line. He still finished his glass before continuing. “I came here to warn you. You need to quit it already. The endless investigations, antagonizing dad.”

“If dad has a problem with what I’m doing,” Alex began, angry, moving towards Flint, who didn’t move away. He stood there, nonchalant, one hand in the pocket of his trousers. He never did see Alex as a real credible threat, no matter how many times Alex had trounced him. “He can come here and talk to me himself. Doesn’t have to send his lapdog.”

Flint didn’t like that. “I’m not here for dad. I’m here for you. You’re messing with shit you know nothing about. Go back to chasing mothman sightings or looking for Nessie and put Guerin back where you found him.”

Maria glanced at Alex, briefly. “Why?” She asked, challenging. “What’s so important about Guerin?”

“Doesn’t matter. You two keep him around, you’re gonna attract the wrong sort of attention.” 

“I feel like we’re attracting the wrong sort of attention right now,” Alex said, pointedly. “That the whole message Flint, or do you have any more annoyingly vague nuggets to impart?” 

Flint was glaring at Alex now, displeased with him for not heeding his sage words. It was always that way with Flint, since they were little. Always telling Alex all the wrong ways to live, to handle dad, and getting pissed at him when Alex would eventually tell him to fuck off. 

“When you find yourselves well and truly fucked, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He set the glass down on the hallway table and started to move towards the door.

“Oh, Flint,” Maria said, dryly. Alex had to rest a hand on her shoulder. He wasn’t exactly sure she would refrain from taking out his kneecap as he walked by. “I don’t believe for one minute that you’ve ever been well and truly fucked.”

Flint turned a rather interesting shade of purple and flipped her off as he stepped out the front door.  

Maria turned to Alex. “Remind me why I still haven’t shot him?”

“Paperwork, babe,” he said tightly. Furious that Flint got in past his defense and that he didn’t notice until it was too late. Alex worried he was getting too comfortable. Letting his guard down with his family, let himself get too distracted with missions and success that had nothing to do with his goal. 

“Oh right.”  She half-laughed, though it sounded shaky. “Good news, love. We’re on the right track.” 

“Fucking finally,” Alex laughed, hugging her tight. “Maybe we owe Liz a bottle of some fancy tequila.” 

Maria just held him for a long, long minute. “... Wanna sleep in mine tonight?” 

“Am I protecting you, or are you protecting me?” Alex asked, with a little laugh. 

“Both. Obviously.” She squeezed him.

“Fair enough. Yeah, I do.” Alex nodded, rubbing her back, glad she was safe. Glad they were both safe. Enough that he wasn’t even going to remind her to keep her damn pointy elbows to herself. “But first I’m going to sweep the house for bugs.”

“Yeah, I’ll help,” she said. “Let me just get this damn bra off first.”

Chapter Text

They were sitting at the airport again, waiting for their flight to taxi, disgorge its last passengers and clean up. Before meeting Manes and DeLuca, Michael had never even seen a plane close up, unless you counted the planes at that one military base he hit in the dead of the night. Now, it looked like he was going to get real familiar with them.

Unfortunately, they never went anywhere interesting. 

“Again with the woods?” Michael groaned, looking through the file DeLuca had handed to him. “You know, if I were an alien, you wouldn’t catch me that far from civilization.” 

“Weren’t you just complaining about how boring desk jobs are?” DeLuca teased, lightly. 

Unfair. 90% of their job was debating whether creepypastas were real or not (Michael was proud of himself for learning new internet lingo) and honestly there were only so many rehashed urban legends one could read while trapped behind a cold metal desk.

Manes rolled his eyes, and took a deep drink of his coffee. “That’s how I recall it, yes. Cheer up, Guerin. Oregon woods are different from Kentucky ones.”

“Great, new and different ticks to catch Lyme disease from.” 

Manes actually laughed, shaking his head. He had a nice laugh, and Michael wished he’d do it more often. “Should write down the bullshit that comes out of your mouth and send it to the tourism board.”

Michael rolled his eyes and continued to flip through the file. “I thought you were alien hunters, not Bigfoot hunters?”

“FBI, not alien hunters,” she reminded him. “And we have bosses who send us on assignment. Besides, we’re not technically looking for Bigfoot."

“So, what are we technically looking for?” He asked, with a raised eyebrow.

“In the last six months, four children have gone missing in this area,” DeLuca said. “All under the age of five. The latest to have gone missing is a three year old named Billy Foster.” 

Oh. Oh shit. There were kids involved? He sat up a little straighter, focused. “Think any of them might still be out there?” 

“Another three year old was lost under similar circumstances about a year ago. That time, she was found alive,” Manes said, neither of them giving him shit for not having got that far in the file yet. “She somehow ended up 12 miles from where her parents had last seen her. Up a cliff face.”  

Michael frowned. “Sounds… improbable.” 

“FBI is helping local law enforcement with the investigation,” DeLuca said, nodding. “And with the search and rescue. But we’ll be working independently from those teams.” 

“I do not know why the American government bankrolls this,” Michael said under his breath. Manes arched one of those unfairly perfect eyebrows before opening his mouth for an undoubtedly scathing retort. Michael didn’t let him get it out. “Not that I’m complaining. So, what’s our plan? Are we gonna wander around the woods looking for something weird?” 

DeLuca and Manes were sitting on either side of him. So, when she pulled out her tablet, bringing up a map of the Silver Falls State Park, both she and Manes leaned into him so they could all see. It was distracting. Michael forced himself to focus on the map. 

“The kids’ last known location?” Michael guessed, pointing at the little red Xs on the map. 

DeLuca nodded. “Billy was lost here.” Maria pointed to a spot within the circle of Xs. “Suspicious that the disappearances are so localized.” 

“Yeah…” Michael let his skepticism drench his voice. “I know that area looks small on the map but it’s still a lot of land to cover.”

“Indeed, but it’s better than having to look throughout the whole state park,” Manes said, his arm brushing against Michael’s as he tilted his coffee cup back for the last few drops. “This here is where the girl was found. Abuts the same area of the other disappearances,” Manes continued, pointing at the screen, completely unaware of how hot Michael was feeling all of a sudden.

Michael really, really needed to get laid. Unfortunately, between his siblings and these two and their wild goose chases, he really hadn’t had much time to wander down to a bar and try his luck.

“Whatever is going on, the answer is in this patch of land,” Manes said. “It’s like the fucking Bermuda Triangle for kids.”

“Dude.” Michael frowned. “Not cool.”    

Manes shrugged. “Not inaccurate, though.” 

DeLuca shook her head, with a fond smile at Manes. “Look, it could be Bigfoot, bears or--” 

“If I keep hanging out with you guys, I’m going to need bear mace,” Michael said under his breath. 

“--Either way,” DeLuca continued, raising her voice a little. “Kids are in danger and we need to put a stop to it.”  

“Yeah, I’m not arguing.” Michael always did have a soft spot for kids. Enough that he was going to ignore how ridiculous the “go out to the woods and wait” plan was.

They had landed in Portland fairly late and after an hour’s drive to their motel in Silverton, the three of them could do nothing more than crash. No guilt felt. No one was doing search and rescue in the dead of night anyway. Plus, they were meeting their local contacts ridiculously early in the morning. So early that the sun wasn’t even quite up when they filed out of their motel. The sky only just starting to lighten from black to gunmetal.

There was a cafe next to the motel, so before they headed out, they decided to fuel up. Alex and Maria waited by the counter for their coffee, “Guerin really likes plants,” Alex commented as he and Maria waited for their coffee in the cozy, warm little cafe with all the homey charm of any small-town establishment. This early it was quiet, and they were the only customers in, so Alex took the opportunity to sit at a table while they waited. 

He had a long day of hiking on a prosthetic ahead of him. He was prepared and more than capable, but it was going to be exhausting so he’d sit while he still could.

“Hmm?” Maria asked, lifting tired brown eyes away from her phone to look at Alex. He nodded towards Guerin who was looking at some kind of viny planet hanging by the window.

“Just something I’ve noticed,” Alex said quietly. “He watered all the plants at the Andrews’ before we left.” Honestly, if there were plants around, Guerin was usually more interested in them than the case they were working on. Alex had assumed it was just what happened when you brought along a bored skeptic on paranormal investigations, but he was starting to think that it was more than that.

Maria hummed softly, smiling speculatively at Alex. He bristled. “Don’t you start.”

“I wasn’t!” She laughed. She was lying but Alex didn’t bother pointing that out. “You’re right. He does seem to like them.” She was looking at Guerin, psychic face on. “Maybe we should get him something for his airstream.”

“You want to get him a gift?” Alex was definitely surprised by that.

“Why not?” Maria shrugged. “Work release gives him an opportunity to reintegrate into society before his sentence is up. It shouldn’t just be about using his skills or reducing his sentence because of good behavior. It should also be about reducing the chance for recidivism. Hobbies will help him succeed.” 

“Donno if any of that is listed in the work release documents,” Alex said dryly. But she was right, and he told her so. Guerin was a non-violent offender and, so far, he seemed to be a pretty decent guy. Alex liked him. Well, as much as he could like anyone he’d known just under two months. But either way, Maria was right. Guerin deserved a chance at a real honest life after all this was over. 

Alex watched Guerin touch one of the plant’s leaves, and he could almost swear that it looked greener, more robust at the touch. Alex frowned, rubbing his eyes. He must be still tired from the flight.

“Alex! Order up!” The barista dragged Alex’s attention away from Guerin. There were three large coffees and egg and cheese bagels waiting for them, and Alex went to grab them with Maria.

They didn’t have time to linger over breakfast, which was probably a good thing because the cafe was starting to fill up with a rather startling number of flannel-clad women, all laughing and joking with each other. Maybe a hiking group?

“Guerin, I don’t have extra hands,” Alex called out, tossing him his bagel and handing over the coffee too.  

Guerin didn’t even snark, taking them both and following Maria and Alex out to the car, taking a deep drink of the near-scalding coffee as they went.

They piled into the car, driving mostly in silence while they ate, up to the North Lodge Group Campground, where they were due to meet local law enforcement.

“Is that who I think it is?” Maria asked as she parked, looking over at Alex with a meddling sort of sparkle in her eyes.  

“... yup.” Alex groaned. Draining the dregs of his coffee. 

“Who?” Guerin asked, curiously. He’d been pretty quiet the whole drive up, just finishing his breakfast and going over the missing person’s report again (honestly, this was as serious as Alex had ever seen Guerin during a case). 

Standing with the locals was none other than Forrest Long. Alex had known this, he’d read the file, but had been surprised nonetheless to see him. Figured that Forrest would have cleared out when they were assigned to the case.

Not that he was mad about it. Not mad at all.

“Just an old friend,” Alex said, nonchalantly. No need to air all the details about his colleague-with-benefits, right?

Forrest broke out into a big smile as soon as the three of them approached, walking away from the local police to meet them out by their car.

“I was surprised when I heard you guys were coming,” Forrest said amiably, shaking Maria’s hand. When he shook Alex’s, he held on for a moment longer than necessary, eyes locking with his. It made Alex’s skin tingle where they were touching. “Figured I’d hang around and get the whole story.”

“Missing children are under the FBI purview,” Alex reminded him, composure ironclad.

“Sure, but no one saw any flying saucers, Al,” he laughed warmly. Alex didn’t even roll his eyes. 

“We were assigned,” Maria explained. “You know how it is, no one gets to pick all their own cases.”

“True enough,” Forrest said, with an easy smile. He finally peeled his eyes away from Alex to look over his shoulder at Guerin. “I heard you guys got a C.I.”

“Michael Guerin,” Maria introduced. “This is federal agent Forrest Long.” 

Guerin nodded, reaching to shake his hand, quietly. Not usually one for the pleasantries, anyway.

“So, got any updates on the case?” 

Forrest sighed, looking tired and frustrated. “We found a pair of children's shoes, just neatly set down by a tree. About six miles from where Billy was first reported missing.” He ran a hand through his hair. In the sun, Alex could see Forrest’s customary green highlights, subtle though they were. Alex had always been amazed that Forrest could get away with hair dye. Dress codes and all.

“Four days ago now.” Alex had to assume that hope of finding him alive was starting to dwindle. Before long this would switch from a rescue mission to a recovery one. They were running out of time. 

“Someone must have taken him but there is nothing to support that theory,” Forrest continued, sounding completely at a loss. “So, the rescue mission is still being treated as if the kid is lost. But fuck, it’s like the earth just opened up and swallowed him.”

“Really? No prints? Nothing?” Alex asked.

“Billy, like all the other kids that have gone missing these last couple of months--” Of course he was aware of that. Forrest was smart and thorough, always open to possibilities. “--was lost on a fairly well traveled hiking path. So, the only prints are of normal human feet.”

“Har har.” 

Forrest grinned at Alex, warm and a little playful and Alex couldn’t even be mad. “Where were the shoes found?”

Forrest motioned for them to follow, pulled out a map and showed him. “Search and rescue has moved to this area.” Northeast of where the boy was lost, Alex noted. Still within the Bermuda triangle of missing kids.

“They’re using dogs, right?”

“Yeah, but they keep going off in weird directions,” Forrest said with a frustrated roll of his shoulder. 

“They’re not searching this area to the west of where the shoes were found?” Guerin asked. 

“Nah, the trees are too dense and the terrain’s not great. Not to get you excited but the area gives off a creepy vibe, a kid that’s already scared and lost likely wouldn’t go that way.” Forrest shrugged again. 

“Let me guess,” Maria began, dryly. “This is the weird direction the dogs were going in?”

“Bingo,” Forrest replied. “The helicopter crew can’t see much because of the dense forest but I did check around that area myself. It slopes downward with a lot of big rocks to maneuver over and around. It really does seem improbable for a three year old to get very far going that way.”

Alex didn’t bother reminding him that Billy had already gotten way farther than he should have been able to. Alex glanced at Maria, who looked back at him. They didn’t have to exchange a word to know where they were going to start looking.  

“Guess we’re going to be camping,” Guerin interjected, standing behind them, peeking over Alex’s shoulder at the map. He didn’t sound super excited but also didn’t seem to be complaining, more like preparing for the inevitable unpleasantness. 

“There’s a cabin up there that the rangers sometimes use,” Forrest pointed it out. “But you’re not actually thinking of staying out there? It’s useless to search at night. And according to the locals, the place isn’t exactly welcoming,” Forrest added, carefully, as if worried Alex was going to run away with that. 

Alex probably didn't disappoint when he asked, "Not welcoming how?"

"I donno," Forrest said. Lied. He sighed when Alex arched an eyebrow. "There's reports of weird noises and strange vibes-- he made air quotes with his hands--"and look yeah, it's weird. Rangers aren't exactly the types to be easily scared. But forests are also creepy, especially at night. Probably just lizard brain antics."

“The lizard brain exists for a reason, Forrest--” Alex began, laughing. They’d debated this once or twice before.

“As much as I’m sure we’d love to figure out what’s giving everyone the heebie jeebies, Billy’s more important right now. And I’d prefer a real bed, thank you,” Maria interrupted him, her voice dry but her eyes sparkling with humor. Still, she marked the location down on her own map. “But it’s nice to know there’s something there in a pinch.” 

“Well regardless if you guys are considering heading off the beaten path,” Forrest began. “Make sure you're well prepared. We don’t want to add FBI agents to the list of the lost. Actually…” 

Forrest pinched Alex’s sleeve, giving it a light tug. Alex let himself be tugged away from Maria and Guerin, the latter of whom was looking between them and Maria in bewilderment. 

Forrest led Alex towards his SUV, opening up the hatch in the back and digging around for a bag. “I got a bug out bag here you can use. It’s got extra batteries, first aid kit and stuff. Emergency radio, too.”

“You’re acting like we’re going to get lost.”

“We’ve worked on cases together before, Al,” Forrest said fondly. “I know what you and Maria are like when caught up in a case. Last time I was like a nursemaid.”

“You’re exaggerating.” Alex chuckled but he took the bag, gratefully.

“I had to make you eat,” Forrest replied flatly, and Alex couldn’t exactly deny that. But it had been such a damn interesting case. Rarely had Alex had the opportunity to put his hacking training to the test once he got out of the Air Force. But that case had done that and then some. No one was going to convince him he hadn’t been dealing with some very sophisticated AI (maybe even one that had reached singularity). “I’m not saying a con is your best barometer of when to chill out and take a break, but Guerin’s got to be better at recognizing that than you and Maria, so maybe keep that in mind."

That comment dragged Alex back from his thoughts of technological marvels. He threw an incredibly unimpressed look at Forrest. “You say the nicest things to me.” 

“If you want to hear nice things,” Forrest said, smiling now, stepping further stepping in Alex’s space. “We should meet up before you guys leave town.”

Alex smiled, glancing back at Guerin and Maria who were looking at the map, talking. “If we have time. I’d like that.” 

Once they’d finished with Forrest and the locals, Maria, Alex, and Guerin jumped back in the rental, following Forrest’s directions to get them as close as possible on a road before they headed out the rest of the way on foot.

As they got out of the car and grabbed their gear, Alex nudged Maria, nodding down to one of the trails, where they could see the same group of women they’d run into back at the cafe. “Kid’s still missing and people are already back out on the trails.”

“The one we’re going on is closed, remember,” Maria pointed out, eyes lingering on the group for a minute. Alex glanced their way again, trying to see which one was piquing Maria’s interest. As if. Alex could never figure out her taste in women. 

“Still strange,” she conceded. “You’d think people would be spooked.”

“Nah,” Guerin said, shrugging. “That’s an awful lot of flannel to choke down, even for Bigfoot.”

Alex groaned and turned to lock the car. “Come on, let’s get moving.”

The hike out was spectacular. Lush green forest, creeks widening to rivers, slipping into falls. It was easy to get distracted by it all.

“Ok,” Guerin said after about twenty minutes of hiking. “This place is gorgeous.” He’d been so quiet during their hike that a few times Maria had turned around to make sure he was still behind them. She’d catch him touching a tree or staring intently at a mushroom or flower. He felt almost overwhelmed, like he was focusing on the details in order not to get lost in the sheer enormity of the forest, the seeming impossibility of their task. Alex got that feeling to him sometimes, when he was hacking or when he was working with code. 

“Yeah,” Alex agreed. “Totally different from the desert. First time you’ve been out this way?” 

“Yeah.” Even the way Guerin spoke was a little more hushed, almost reverent in a way. Maria thought back to Alex’s observation that morning and decided that she would definitely be getting Guerin some plants for his airstream. But for the moment, she took advantage of the pause to double check the map.

“This is where the boy’s sneakers were found,” Maria spoke up. 

Despite what Forrest had said about this area being well traveled, the shoes had been found quite far from the actual trail. Alex, picking up on that as well, started to look around for clues.

“You know,” Guerin said after a few minutes of silence, frowning. “Kids aren’t as dumb as people think they are and they’re pretty vocal about things they don’t like or are scared of. So whatever took Billy, he probably didn’t initially feel threatened by.” 

Guerin had quickly accepted the working theory that Billy was kidnapped. It was the most logical theory, even with the absence of evidence to support it. 

“Ok, true,” Maria said. “But the speed at which the children disappeared doesn’t square with the idea that the kids were lured away. That takes time, and none of the parents indicated that their kids were interested in anything strange or that someone weird was hanging around.” 

Guerin nodded though his aura darkened. “What if the parents were lying?”  

It was Alex who answered, voice hard. “Entirely possible. Who’s going to admit to not paying attention to their kid?”

They were both right. Maria regretted not having the time to interview the parents herself. 

Guerin pulled off his hat with one hand, dragged his other through his curls. “Yeah,” he said, tightly. “Either way we gotta find him.”

“We will,” Maria said. “Alex and I are actually quite good at finding missing people.” They had a 100% track record thanks to a combination of good detective work (or tracking skills if in wood areas) and Maria’s own intuition. The answer seemed to relax Guerin just a little, even if Maria didn’t think he entirely believed her. Or let himself anyway. 

“Then let’s get to it,” Guerin said, determined. No skepticism at all in the face of such a declaration. That was a first. “Where do we start?” 

“Well, we’re in one of the right places,” Alex said. “Forrest’s competent but he really should have forced them to let dogs keep going in this direction like they wanted. Keep your eyes peeled -- broken branches, footprints, clothing fibers, hair. Anything that doesn’t look natural, all right?” Smiling at Maria softly, Alex started heading down into the dense forest.

Guerin nodded. “Got it,” he said, and headed in behind him.

Forrest hadn’t been kidding about the difficulty of the terrain. Maria was suddenly very thankful for all the conditioning exercises Alex forced them both to do. But even so, she did keep one eye on Alex. He was being stubborn and self-conscious because of Guerin, not using his walking poles. 

It was dumb. But Alex knew his limits best. She wasn’t going to argue. 

Maria took a breath and exhaled slowly, letting her awareness spread out around her. She didn’t exactly have the words for her… intuition? Abilities? None of the words seemed to fit or if they did, they tended to sound a bit hokey, even for someone in her line of work. But there was no doubt that she could sense things--lies, truths, feelings. She could always sense people around her because of the latter. Even the mildest human feelings were clearly broadcasted, and she was like a radio passively picking up the signals. 

But it was difficult to pick up other people in a vast forest. She was honestly used to cities or towns, buzzing with human emotion. But out there it was just Guerin--his distress, worry, frustration, somehow he was too close to this case--and Alex--focused mostly except for the slight tinge of arousal. Forrest’s fault, no doubt.

They walked for a while. Guerin’s frustration was more and more distracting the longer they went without finding anything concrete. Eventually she had to stop, catching his arm while Alex moved on ahead. “Hey.” 

Impatience. Frustration. “Yeah?” 

“It’s okay. It might take some time, but we’re not giving up here.” Not for the first time, she wished she had the power to nudge emotions. Not a lot, just a little. Just to help ease his stress a little. But she couldn’t, so she had to do this the old fashioned way.

Guerin’s jaw flexed a little, tight. Fighting to relax. “I know.”

She squeezed his arm, trying to offer comfort or maybe even a little stability. “Getting frustrated won’t help Billy at all,” she added gently. “Gotta keep a clear head.”

“It’s hard when all we’re doing is wandering around!” Guerin said. “We didn’t even bring a dog with us or something.”

“I know it’s hard,” she said, squeezing his arm again, rubbing just a little. “But every little bit helps. And I promise, Alex and I, we’re good at this. You just have to stop tying yourself up in knots. It’s distracting.”

“You sound like... like Bella,” he said, a little dryly. Almost sounding like himself, starting to walk again.

“Oh yeah?” Maria asked, grinning.

“Yeah,” Guerin said, then paused as if weighing something in his mind. “She says I think too loudly.”

“She’s not wrong,” Maria laughed. “You’re like - broadcasting distress.”

Guerin paused to look at her, bemused, like he was trying to reconcile something about her, something that… seemed strange to him about her? Now she tilted her head at him, curious and confused, wanting to know exactly what he was thinking. 

Instead, he shook his head and frowned. “Adults just shouldn’t fail kids. It pisses me off.” 

Oh right. Foster kid. 

(God, she really misread him entirely right there. Again.)

Instead of responding, and maybe saying the wrong thing again, Maria just nodded, and gave his arm another reassuring squeeze.  

Just then they came across a stream. Alex made a sound of approval and moved towards the other side of the stream. “Bigfoot,” he said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Guerin definitely growled. All that calm Maria had brought about burning up almost instantly. “This kid is either lost or more likely has been stolen by some psychopath and you’re bring up fucking Bigfoot like some kind of nut job?”

Alex glared at him. “No asshole. BigFoot.” He pointed down at the ground. “That’s a big fucking foot print.” 

And it was. Bigger than Alex’s size 13s. 

“I cannot believe it,” Guerin breathed, looking down at the big print on the ground. He stared for a minute before he almost physically shook off the credulity. “Probably just some meth head out for a walk in the woods. A... really big meth head,” he admitted, grudgingly.

Maria rolled her eyes. “What is with you and meth heads?"

Guerin just shrugged, but his mood darkened a little; in memory, Maria guessed. She kept tripping over them, it seemed. 

“Well, you’re right about one thing,” Maria said, deciding it was best to move back to safer topics. “That’s a shoe print.”

“And it’s fresh,” Alex said, squatting down to take a better look at it. “This area is cordoned off right?”

“Yeah,” Maria agreed. “Though it is close-ish to that--”

A loud sharp whistle cut her off. All three of them jerked their heads up, looking towards the direction of the whistle came from. And there, by a tree….

“No way…” Guerin breathed.

It was hard to see but there was someone--something--peering out from around a tree. A tall someone. Even from this distance, she could tell they were at least a foot taller than Guerin. Maybe more. But she couldn’t make out a face, just a lot of hair and vaguely human looking eyes. She could see an impossibly large hand holding the trunk of the tree too, connected to a hairy looking arm.

“FBI!” Alex called out, making his way towards the figure which disappeared into the tree line. Fast. Something that big should not move so quickly.

They hurried towards the creature’s last known location, finding nothing but another impossibly large footprint.

“God damnit,” Alex said under his breath.

“So, like I don’t remember any of the stories saying anything about Bigfoot wearing shoes,” Michael said, poking at one of the imprints in the dirt.

“Shoes were invented forty thousand years ago, Guerin.” Alex ignored Guerin’s indignant scoff, as he was already looking for more tracks to follow--another foot print or a broken branch--when they heard another whistle. But this one came from their right.

“No way it could move that fast around us,” Alex said standing up.

A whistle. And then an answering one. Well, that answered that.

“See anything?” Maria asked. Both Alex and Guerin shook their heads. But Maria was starting to pick up a broadcast and she motioned for them to follow, moving slowly towards the thicker portions of the trees.

“Are you sure?” Guerin asked warily.

“Call it woman’s intuition,” Maria said quietly. “Now hush.”

They kept moving quietly. Maria ahead of them, walking a little faster. They didn’t hear any more whistles but the forest felt more dangerous than it had before. Every rustle of the leaves, the movement of shadow and light, it was all creepier now. A few times Maria thought she saw movement.

But that was a good thing. The closer they were, the easier they were for her to pick up. 

She started heading left, back across the stream towards an even denser patch of wood, trying to tune the frequency, so to speak. It was hard to pick up a presence. They weren’t that close, whoever they were, and the trees still blocked the signal. Guerin’s spike in worry added interference, like when two radio stations are picked up at the same time, causing static. She wasn’t used to him yet, it was hard to focus around him. But she focused through it, using Alex’s familiar mind to help her block Guerin. She walked--adjusting the antenna--until the broadcast started to get clearer.

They heard at least two more sharp whistles. Then there was a rustling in the trees again, maybe ten or fifteen yards away she guessed. She turned that way.  

There was a loud cracking sound behind her.


“Are you ok?” Manes demanded hurrying over to DeLuca who was sprawled on the ground, staring, stunned, at the large tree that had almost crushed her.

Michael exhaled loudly. Fuck. That was close. That was so close. The tree had been huge and falling fast. DeLuca had tried to get out of the way but hadn’t been fast enough. Michael just acted without thought, pushing the tree away from her. With too much force, he thought. It landed a little too far for the trajectory to be plausible. 

Michael’s heart was beating a mile a minute. Shit. Shit.  

“Yeah…” DeLuca breathed, letting Manes help her up. They immediately zeroed in on the tree.

“Something’s not right,” Manes said, squeezing DeLuca’s hand once more before pulling away to examine the tree. DeLuca in step. Michael would be impressed by how fearless and focused they were if he didn’t feel like he was going to throw up (and not from the use of power).

“Yeah, this wasn’t natural,” DeLuca agreed, and Michael considered running. “This tree was cut.” 

“Oh, thank fuck,” Michael breathed, relieved, causing both DeLuca and Manes to look at him, frowning. 

“What?” He said, quickly. “Cut means people, right? Not Bigfoot.” 

“I’m not sure that’s better, people usually mean guns,” Manes pointed out, and cut off as another whistle echoed through the trees. Going on high alert, his gun in his hand. 

Damnit, why didn’t Michael get a gun? Prejudice was gonna get him killed here.

“See anything?” DeLuca asked Manes, her own gun in her hand, too. The two of them scanning the forest like a well-oiled military machine, and Michael was fucking out of his depth.

“Nothing,” he murmured. “We’re on the right track though. We have to be.” 

“We go slow.” DeLuca nodded. 

Michael wanted to protest, but there was still a little kid out here and he’d be damned if any of them would abandon him.

They pressed on, and Michael could swear that the forest got darker, more oppressive as they did. 

There were still the occasional whistles but no more signs of the… attackers. But DeLuca and Manes, the absolute madmen, seemed to be moving inexplicably towards them, orienting themselves so that between the two of them, they could see 360 degrees around them. 

More trees fell. None as close as the first one. But Michael still would nudge them a little further out of the way, just to be sure. The stress of the situation and the effort to be so subtle and precise with his powers was starting to give him a headache. 

Eventually, DeLuca stopped, frowning. “We’re being herded.” 

“Seriously?” Michael breathed out. Well, that explained the fact that his hair had been standing on end for the better part of an hour.

“Trees fall every time we get close…” DeLuca sounded distracted, frowning into the tree line. Her behavior was odd, but Michael couldn’t quite put his finger on what. But it was just like when he watched her during interviews, like she was listening intently for something. Like how dogs could hear higher frequencies than humans. Like how Iz could just tell when he or Max were hurting.

“Shit,” Manes said softly. Not at all questioning her statement. Neither did Michael, even though he could not see how they were being herded. He could see no pattern in the whistling or the falling trees. “And it’s getting dark.”  

“Strategic retreat?” 

DeLuca pulled out the map while Michael and Manes kept their eyes on the tree line. Ready to act if anything moved or if there were any more whistles. 

“Car’s too far to get back to,” she said. “Cabin’s up ahead.” Her expression darkened, looking at Manes. And it took Michael an embarrassingly long moment to figure out why. Were they being herded there? Was that deliberate?

“Any port in a storm,” Manes finally grit out, nodding, but his hand tightened on the grip of his service weapon. 

“Hopefully whoever’s fucking with us will get tired,” Michael said, as dryly as he could manage. 

Thankfully, neither Manes or DeLuca commented on the stupidity of such a statement. They just grimly set out for the cabin, noting when they could even hear birds again. No more whistles. 

This was creepy as hell. Michael found himself strongly hoping that the cabin wasn’t a trap. He’d be glad for some cover overnight. Not that he expected to be able to sleep properly.

As Michael expected, the damn cabin was locked when they found it. But Michael dealt with that easily before the agents even reached the doorknob. They had hurried in, Michael following DeLuca inside while Manes stood guard by the entrance. Thankfully Long had included flashlights in the bag he gave them. Once they had confirmed that the cabin was empty and not covered in bloody hooks and human skin furniture, Manes stepped in and shut the door behind them.

The ranger’s cabin was barely that. Basically, a small room with a table and a bed that might fit two if they were familiar. There were propane lanterns and some canned foods and shelf-stable snacks in the cupboards. But it was dry, and mostly importantly for their situation: it had walls and had a fucking door and no damn windows.

With the propane lamps going, Manes investigated the room with the critical eye of a soldier, while Michael lamented the flimsy lock on the door, even as he slid the bolt back in place.  

“It’s defensible,” Manes said, looking at the windowless walls, expression still as grim as ever.

“But we’re blind,” DeLuca said, filling in the ‘but’ Manes left hanging in the air. Manes didn’t answer. Michael for once found he had nothing smart to say. 

That fucking whistling suddenly punctuated the silence, much louder than before, followed by a sharp thud against the door, the whole cabin shaking a little. 

Fuck.” Michael practically jumped out of his skin. Only mildly reassured by Manes and Deluca standing by, and a little in front of him, both of them with their guns drawn and ready. The door shuddered again, twisting on its hinges, and Michael clenched his teeth, shoring it up with his power as subtly as he could manage.

It didn’t let up. Whatever... Whoever was out there, was now pacing around the cabin, whistling. Tapping. And periodically the walls would shudder again. 

“Guerin wake up!” DeLuca was pushing him, gesturing to the bed. “Barricade the door.” Michael cursed under his breath, having to let go of the door so he could help her move the bed up against the it.

“Well. Now we’re fucking trapped,” he said, dryly. 

Stupid. They’ve been trapped. This whole situation was so fucking creepy it was making him stupid. 

Another hard slam against the door, and the bed scrapped against the floor, inward, just a little. Enough. 

Fuck. He pushed the bed back then wrapped his power around it, and held it in place, as firm as he possibly could. DeLuca and Manes were talking as they paced the cabin, like a couple of big cats in an enclosure. 

When the next thump came, Michael felt it almost like a physical blow. He was surprised his feet didn’t scrape across the ground from the force of it. Originally, he’d thought they were throwing their bodies against the door but this was more than that. What the fuck where they throwing? Were they using a fucking catapult?

“Maybe we should open the door during a lull,” Manes suggested. 

Tap. Tap. Tap.

He gritted his teeth. Angry. “Face them.” 

They could hear the scrape of nails across the wood of the cabin walls. Trying to find purchase in the slots. A weakness in the walls. Thankfully, the cabin was fairly well built as far as Michael could tell. But he was ready to reinforce whatever needed reinforcing. Ignoring the building headache. 

“The door looks like it’s holding,” DeLuca said, calmly. “We won’t know what we’ll find out there.” She glanced at her watch. “The sun’s likely down by now too. Whoever we’re up against knows the terrain. Dark’s got us at a disadvantage.” 

Manes grunted. Unhappy but conceding the point. There weren’t many good choices, particularly not at night.

“We could radio Forrest? Get some backup?” DeLuca asked.  

Manes rummaged in the bug-out bag, pulling out the radio, and switching it on. Michael could hear static. Then Manes’ voice as he tried several calls out.

Either no one was listening, or the message just didn’t get through.

That fucking tapping continued, interspersed by thunderous attempts to break down the door or the walls. 

It was absolutely the longest damn night Michael’d ever spent, and that included the night he’d spent when he was eight, back before he knew much at all about this world, hiding under a neighbor’s trailer from his drunk foster dad.

Neither time had been all night. They had just felt that way. Like an eternity. Back then, his foster dad had eventually slunk back into his trailer, angry and looking for someone else to take it out on. Michael had run away the second things had gotten quiet enough that he could. Only to be snatched up again and thrown back into the system.

Michael shook off the memories. His mind couldn’t wander, even if the thudding and tapping had stopped eventually, just like the rage had. It wasn’t safe. Not yet.

“I think it’s gone,” Manes said, softly. It’d been at least an hour since they’d heard anything. 

As if Manes’ statement gave him permission to relax, Michael felt his control over his powers slipping, unwrapping from the bedframe and the door. Almost the minute it did, he could feel bone-deep exhaustion settling over him, along with a wave of nausea rolling up from his toes and up out his mouth. Newton’s third law, an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, his stomach turning itself inside out and what felt like every nerve burning. He only barely managed to stumble to the corner of the cabin before losing it.

Fuck. It’d been so long since he’d pushed himself anywhere near that hard. He’d forgotten how bad it was. 

He distantly heard DeLuca and Manes talking, though he couldn’t tell (and didn’t care) if it was to each other or to him. He couldn’t do much but rest his forehead against the wall and try to breathe. 

“We should get sleep if we can. Before...” Alex broke off, both of them staring at Guerin, who’d gone pale, stumbled away a few steps and retched in the corner of the cabin like he was trying to bring up every meal from the last five years.  

Thankfully there wasn’t much to bring up, considering it’d been hours since they’d eaten, but still, not for the first time since getting to the cabin, Alex wished for a window. 

They both stared at him for a few moments, surprised. “Didn’t figure Guerin for a weak stomach,” Maria murmured. 

“Me neither,” Alex agreed, going to grab a bottle of water, while Maria checked on him.

“Guerin?” She asked quietly, rubbing his arm gently. No response. Guerin looked like shit. Pale, sweaty. 

“Panic attack?” Alex asked, frowning. 

Maria shook her head, a little helplessly. “Doesn’t feel like that. Not exactly,” she said softly. She let Guerin breathe for a couple more minutes, before tugging at him. “Come on Guerin,” she said softly. And when he didn’t move, she wrapped her arm around his waist, firmly pulling. He let himself be led, thankfully.

Alex, anticipating her, grabbed the blanket off the bed, so she could ease him down into it. Quietly, they got him to lay down, tucked him in. Guerin curled up onto his side, sweaty face pressed against the pillow. 

Maria hummed softly, rubbing Guerin’s arm as she sat on the edge of the bed with him. “Gue..” She stopped herself, shaking her head. “Hey Michael?”

Yeah. Maybe they were on a first-name footing now. 

Michael’s eyes fluttered open, looking at her from under those ridiculously long lashes, and Alex felt a tightness in his chest, that he hadn’t noticed before, loosen.

“We’re going to get some sleep, okay? Here with you?” She hesitated before sweeping the damp curls from his forehead, carding his hair back and out of his face. 

Michael made a soft noise of affirmation, nodding a little.

“That’s not a good idea...” Alex said, frowning. The bed was right up against the damn door. Honestly Guerin shouldn’t be there, either. But watching him lay there, looking small and vulnerable, breath too fast, too heavy, Alex couldn’t find it in him to press the issue. There was no way Alex was going to kick him out of bed in that state.

Maria looked up at him, shrugging a little. “We need sleep. Besides. The more bodies on the bed the harder it is to shift. And if they’re going through the walls, they can do that with any of them.”

It was hard to argue with that logic. “Bed’s kind of small,” Alex noted. Not that he was complaining. On the contrary, he climbed onto it, shoes on and gun in hand. He took the spot closest to the door, so that Maria could take the spot between him and Guerin. Just in case. At least this way, no one could somehow get the door open without them noticing.

Alex didn’t expect to do much sleeping tonight anyway. Too wired. This situation was like nothing he’d ever experienced before. And sure, the novelty was what he enjoyed about the job, but this situation still freaked him the fuck out to a level he did not care for.

“Watch your elbows.” He couldn’t help but tease Maria, who rolled her eyes and flipped him off before climbing into her spot and tucking the blanket around her and Guerin. It was a tight fit, all three of them pressed up against each other.

It was so quiet now. The only sound Guerin--Michael’s harsh breathing. He almost seemed in pain honestly and Alex wracked his brain for any instance in which he might have eaten a strange berry or drank water from a stream. But he hadn’t. So, it had to be the stress of the situation. 

Alex was suddenly hit with a flash of guilt. They’d been dragging Michael all over the place, without much concern for his feelings. Sure, he was a con, but he was a nonviolent one. He didn’t have Alex and Maria’s military training. As far as Alex and Maria could tell, short of the surprising knack for theft, Guerin was basically just a civilian. A decent guy.

Maybe bringing him along on these jobs wasn’t fair. 

Maria shifted slightly and Alex caught sight of her wrapping her arm around Michael's chest, holding him protectively. It did seem to help Michael relax a little, he wasn’t so tight and tense. But he still looked too pale, and Alex did not like that. He rested his back against the wall that abutted the door and reached over, carding his fingers through Michael’s sweaty curls, absently thinking that it might help soothe him a little more.

He felt like an ass for noting how soft and nice they were to the touch. Like he always knew they would be. 

He stayed up for a long time, his fingers gently petting Michael’s hair, listening to the forest. Quiet now. Well, not quiet, but normal. The crickets building up a symphony, the occasional hoot of an owl. Alex let another thirty minute pass before deciding to take a chance and switch out his gross and sweaty prosthetic liner for a fresh one, drying the stump as best he could before getting everything back in place. He wouldn’t go without it. Not tonight.   

Alex continued to stand watch after getting himself back together. But eventually, as the quiet hum of the forest continued unbroken, he found his body unwinding, the tension easing out of him. He slouched down on the bed more and more, leaning into the warmth of Maria’s body, wrapping his arm around her, fingers brushing over Guerin’s back, appreciating how warm he was, too.

He’d been in enough war zones to know what safe felt like, and they were safe enough, at least for now, for him to drift off to sleep, tucking both Maria and Michael close to him.

Chapter Text

Michael woke up, thankfully with only the mildest of headaches. Slowly realizing that DeLuca was pressed up against his back, and fuck but she felt good, all warm, soft curves and surprising muscle.

Manes’ arm was around him too, settled on his hip just a little too low for comfort given the situation. But even given the situation, Michael still had to talk himself out of turning to face them, curl up against DeLuca, tuck a hand into Manes’ silky-looking hair. 

Fuck. Michael seriously regretted the lack of a cold shower in this fucking cabin. 

This was gonna get real weird if he stayed in the bed, he decided, and wiggled out of their arms, as quietly as he could. 

Now that he was out of their embrace, the cabin felt annoyingly cold. But at least the cold kick-started his memory of last night. He shuddered, unsure what scared him more, whatever had been behind that door or getting caught using his powers. 

And fuck, they still had at least another day of this. No acetone in sight, either, not that he would probably ever feel comfortable trying to sneak it around these two.

He glanced at the two sleeping agents again. In his absence, DeLuca had curled into Manes and fuck if all he could think was that they were both absurdly gorgeous. 

Forcing his eyes away from them, he checked his phone, but the battery had drained at some point. From the light filtering in through the cracks in the cabin walls, it was mid-morning. Michael yawned, going to peek out one of them. All he could make out was the green of the forest. But everything seemed quiet. 

“Michael?” DeLuca murmured, and he turned to look at her. First name basis? He frowned a little, distantly remembering her calling him that last night, smoothing her hand over his hair, murmuring something else. It was so foggy. But he’d felt safe. Cared for. And again, part of him just wanted to crawl back into that bed, worm his way between them, and wrap himself back up in that feeling.

“Feeling better?”

“Yeah,” Michael said. “Good as new.”

“Are you sure?” DeLuca-- Maria rubbed her eyes, frowning, and sat up. Looks like they all fell asleep fully clothed. And she looked adorable in her rumpled clothes and messy hair. “You were really bad last night.”

“Probably just something I ate,” he said dismissively because the only other option was blaming it on fear and that was even less appealing than the truth. 

Maria hummed but thankfully let it go. “What time is it?”  

“Phone’s dead,” he replied. “I’d guess 9 or 10?”

“Best get moving.” Maria nudged Manes.

“Elbows,” he complained sleepily, shoving at her, but woke up with a groan. Honestly, Michael was a little surprised he wasn’t the first to wake up but also glad because a half asleep Manes was endearingly grumpy, frowning with his hair up in messy spikes. Michael’s heard Maria teasing Manes about not being a morning person but apparently she undersold it. He moved on automatic, eyes barely open like he was trying to sleep and function at the same time. 

“Don’t suppose there’s any coffee over there?” 

“No luck. But here’s a power bar,” Michael said. “I thought the military turned everyone into a morning person.”

Manes grunted in annoyance. “They tried their best.”

Michael shook his head fondly. “Well time to get moving though. Kids to save, mysteries to solve.” The day before had been fucking terrifying but now Michael felt himself galvanized by anger. Fear too, but more for that poor kid. Fear and sympathy and rage. 

“Ugh, do not tell me you’re a morning person.” Manes complained, running a hand through his hair, smoothing out the spikes which was a real shame. He walked towards his bag, movements careful and deliberate, Michael noticed. 

“I’m a whatever gets us out of here and back to civilization fastest person.”

Maria chuckled. “Fair. None of us are going to argue with that,” she said, and with Michael’s help they moved the bed out of the way. 

Quiet or not, they opened the door cautiously, Maria and Manes both had their guns in their hand.

The ground around the cabin, soft and muddy, was trodden up. Someone... something had been walking around the cabin, all night long. Michael had expected to see a number of enormous rocks around too. But there were only a couple strewn here and there close to the door. And they weren’t that big. 

“Anything usable?” Manes asked, frowning at the ground. 

“Too many prints on prints.” Michael determined, hardly even needing to look. “Besides, we don’t have time to go to fish and game.” 

“Fair enough,” Manes conceded. 

“Looks like two though.” Michael said, after a minute of scrutinizing what seemed like a couple sets of muddy footprints a little further away from the cabin. 

Manes grunted a little. “Yeah. That squares with what we experienced.”

“All right.” Maria pulled out her map, squinting at it a little in the sun. “Let’s analyze what happened yesterday. I was thinking they were herding us here, but now I think we were being herded away from something. So what?” 

“The creepy fucking forest,” Michael supplied, knowing damn well that it would be unhelpful. 

Maria sighed and glared at him, and he knew that if they were in the office, she’d be throwing something at him. It felt normal, easy. A relief, and Michael couldn’t help but smirk back at her. 

“You’re not wrong.” Manes said, nodding and pointing to an area on the map. “This is where we found the original print. I would have moved us this way if it weren’t for the sudden appearance of those things.” 

Maria made a thoughtful sound, tracing a line with her fingertip, which Michael recognized as roughly the area they traveled the night before. “The whistles seemed to get more frantic when I would draw closer to the one trailing us to the east.” Michael frowned. He had a lot of questions about her actions yesterday. The way she just seemed to know where they were, even when Michael could see or hear them, was weird. But they didn’t have time for that now and filed it all away for later. 

“So, whatever we’re looking for should be around here,” Michael offered, pointing to a place on the map. Yesterday the pattern had been impossible to see but now it was clear as day.

“Well, let’s go check it out.” 

“I don’t suppose anyone has an extra gun?” Michael couldn’t help but ask. 

Maria and Manes looked at each other in the way that they often did. Almost as if they were communicating psychically. He supposed that was what happened when you were married? Michael had to push aside something that felt almost like jealousy. Longing. It was stupid. The whole getting married thing wasn’t going to be in the cards for him, and you’d think by now he would’ve accepted that.

“Sorry,” Maria said, and it did actually sound apologetic. “If it helps, I don’t think they’re actually violent?”

Michael raised an eyebrow and looked back at the cabin. There were a few deep gouges where small boulders had been thrown at the walls, the door. “Uh-huh.”

“Anything that could do that could have ripped the door off its hinges,” Manes said, following his line of sight. “Maria’s right. They wanted us scared, not hurt us.” He used a tone that was probably meant to provide comfort by appealing to Michael’s sense of logic but didn’t at all.

Michael knew exactly what had been holding that door closed, and anyone’s moral compass or the laws of physics.

Instead of countering the point, he just grunted. If he got out of these woods alive and not sedated and on his way to Area 51, it would be a goddamned miracle. “Let’s go then.”

Hours of tramping through the woods, and all of them were getting tired of this shit. But at least they weren’t hungry, having raided the cabin’s food supplies. 

Michael noticed that Manes had started limping a little, in that stiff sort of way that indicated he was trying to hide it, barely perceptible to anyone who hadn’t also learned how to hide pain and injury. How to walk through the hurt. He wondered if Manes had fucked something up on their frantic hike towards the cabin.

Maria wasn’t walking so far ahead of them this time. Staying close (both she and Manes had been staying closer to him today, weirdly protective). Eyes straying occasionally over to Manes. Frowning like she was considering saying something that she knew he wouldn’t like before turning her attention back to the woods. 

They found their way back to where the trees had fallen and started working their way towards the spot they believed they were being led away from. The trees were taller and denser here, the woods cast into shadow with the occasional beams of light peeking through the treetops. 

Michael swatted at an opportunistic mosquito, grimacing. Sure, the trees and ferns were amazing, and the weather was refreshingly crisp, but he could do without the bugs.

“Stop,” Maria said and Manes’ arm was up, blocking Michael’s path all of a sudden. “Listen.” Both Maria and Manes were suddenly on alert and Michael had no idea why.

“Don’t hear anything?”

“Exactly,” Manes murmured while Maria frowned at the trees, “Never a good sign.” 

Go away,” a loud voice shouted from behind them, and they all whirled to find the source of it.

A figure stood, not more than a stone’s throw away, and how the fuck did he get so close to them without the two highly-trained ex-military government agents noticing? He was big. Not just big. Like Michael was used to tall people. Max was tall. Plenty of guys in jail were tall. This guy towered over him though, and unlike Max, he had broad shoulders and a barrel-like chest that his hair and beard flowed down over.

Okay, so Michael could see the resemblance to a sasquatch, he had to admit, grudgingly. 

“Leave.” The man’s voice was deep like the bass of a drum. Michael could feel it in his chest. 

“Can’t do that,” Manes began, using the hand that wasn’t holding his sidearm to pull out his ID. “FBI. Special agents--”

“Don’t care,” the man boomed.

“Sir...” Maria began and there was more to that word than perfunctory politeness. Her voice was softer than Michael expected it to be given the situation. Her head tilted slightly as she looked at the man. Reading him. That was the only way to describe it. She was reading him in that Isobel-way. 

“Leave!” He boomed, angry and desperate (was that what Maria was picking up?) and started forward, big hands clenched. 

“Not one step closer,” Manes warned. They both had their guns on him.

And it just… was wrong. Wrong. He wasn’t a threat. Michael wasn’t exactly sure how he knew that, he just knew, and he stepped forward, ignoring Manes’ hissed warning to stay back.

“Go back.” It was almost a plea now. His eyes shifted to a large, heavy-looking log lying in dirt. He could easily pick it up. But he didn’t. 

“It’s okay,” Michael said, his hand up to the agents. “You were right.” He glanced briefly at Maria, smiling, before turning back towards the enormous man. “You don’t want to hurt us, do you, big guy? We’re looking for--” 

"I know who you’re looking for.” He frowned unhappily. 

And it just all sort of clicked. But it was Maria who said, “You’re protecting him. Billy.” That unhappy frown deepened but the man nodded.

“It’s okay,” Michael said, softly. “We don’t want to hurt him.”

“We just want to make sure he’s okay,” Manes said, taking their lead.

“You want to take him back to his parents.” This from a new voice. A girl, almost a teenager, emerged from the trees behind the large man. She walked right up to him, took his hand. His hand seemed to swallow hers but he held hers so gently, looking so worried. “That’s not ok. He’s safe. Safe with us,” she continued, glaring at them.  

“Jenny. Jenny Burke?” Manes started, and her eyes got a little harder, her jaw set more. Yeah, now that Manes said her name, Michael realized he recognized her face from the file they’d given him. She had gone missing five years ago. 

“Not anymore.” 

Fuck. Michael swallowed, against a throat that was too tight. Glancing at Manes and DeLuca for a minute, seeing recognition, understanding in their eyes. 

“His parents were hurting him?” Michael asked, quietly. Feeling sick all over again and hating this. They shouldn’t be here. They should have just let this guy save these kids in peace. Billy didn’t deserve to go into the fucking system. Neither did Jenny, or any other kids that might have found a safe place here. God knows he’d have killed for this. He couldn’t take this away from them.

“Do you really care?” Jenny demanded bitterly. 

“His safety-- your safety--is our only priority,” Maria said, not overly gentle or patronizing. Just as honestly as she could. Jenny didn’t seem to buy it either way. Michael wouldn’t have either. He glanced back at the two agents with a growing sense of dread and uncertainty. 

The big man sighed. “Come,” he rumbled.

“Wait no.” Jenny seemed scared now. He put one of his giant hands on her head, stroking her hair gently.

“Come on,” he said again, firmer this time. Looking at Michael, Maria and Manes.

Jenny let out a frustrated noise, stamped her foot. But she was backing down. She turned back to glare at the three of them, particularly the agents. “At least put your guns away,” Jenny said, angry. “You won’t need ‘em.”

Alex’s leg was killing him, so he was less than pleased when he realized the giant man’s come actually meant going through two miles of rough terrain. The forest just got denser and denser, like it, too, didn’t want them there (Alex sympathized, he didn’t want them there either). The ground would start sloping down suddenly only for them to find themselves hiking upwards again, maneuvering around unwieldy rocks, both big and small.   

“You okay?” Guerin asked Alex when they paused to drink some water, giving him a concerned once over.

Before he could answer, Jenny Burke walked over to them, holding a long, sturdy-looking stick, still scowling. She hated them. It was clear. And he couldn’t blame her honestly. 

“He says this will help,” she said curtly, extending the walking stick to Alex. “Keep pressure off your leg.” 

“Ah… thanks,” Alex said awkwardly, taking the stick. Maria clearly approved, by the look on her face. But she’d been not-so-subtly giving him the take-out-your-walking-poles-you-stubborn-asshole face all morning. 

“Ankle doesn’t seem twisted or anything,” Jenny continued, looking at his leg with a critical eye. Still willing to help it seemed, despite her clear disdain.

“No that’s not it,” Alex assured her. She didn’t seem like she was going to drop it so, he rolled up his pant leg, exposing the metal of the prosthetic. “Just tired. That’s all.” 

Guerin inhaled softly, looking startled when Alex glanced up at him, and he realized that they’d never actually discussed it. Guerin might not even have realized he was missing a quarter of his leg. Frowning, Alex started to stand. He did not need this to become a thing.

“How’d it happen?” Jenny, like most kids, didn’t have an adult’s sense of self-inflicted embarrassment around a disabled person. 

“In a war,” Alex explained. “Across the sea.” 

“Should you have been there?” She asked, coolly. Alex liked this kid.

He chuckled. “Probably not.”

“My dad was a soldier,” she continued after a moment. “He wasn’t very nice.”

“Neither was mine.”

This was getting a little personal. Honestly it was all already too fucking personal. How many times had Alex and his brothers been in the woods with his father, suffering some paranoid test of self-sufficiency. His sons were going to be ready, Jesse Manes would scream, usually while slamming the family disappointment against a tree trunk or into the ground.

What they were supposed to be preparing for was never made clear. 

If a large hand had reached for him from of the tree line, Alex wondered if he would have taken it. Let himself be swept away from his father’s oppressive shadow and into the safety of the forest. Maybe he could have saved Greg too. Clay and Flint wouldn’t have wanted to leave, would have probably alerted their father. But Alex knows he would have tried to save them anyway. 

Maybe it was for the best that they never came to this forest then.  

“We should keep moving,” he said to Jenny. 

“If you’re tired, I can take your pack?” Michael offered, gazing at the pack by Alex’s feet. Oh great. It was becoming a thing.

“No,” Alex said, firmly, grabbing it. “I can manage just fine.” He ignored Maria’s eye roll, because they’d had this argument plenty, and it usually ended up with her calling him a stubborn asshole and throwing her hands up.

And she was right, he could admit to himself. Yeah, he was in pain but with her, with Kyle and Liz, even with Forrest he had nothing to prove. It was just hard for him to lean on people, even ones he knew well, cared about. Alex barely knew Guerin, couldn’t let his guard down. Even if he was starting really like Michael’s company. 

Guerin looked about to argue, but Alex kept glaring at him, and after a moment, he looked away. Dropping it. 

They kept moving and Alex had reluctantly decided that yeah it was smarter to use the fucking walking stick. He could move faster and the pain was at least not currently of the shooting variety. Alex was also pleased that Guerin hadn’t started hovering around him, like he was worried that Alex was going to collapse at any moment. He just quietly walked alongside Maria. 

Finally, the ground started to even out and before long they found a clearing with a medium sized house in the middle. It felt incongruous, after so much wilderness, but it was a welcome sight. It looked warm and inviting, smoke curling up out of the chimney and the smell of food in the air.

Inside, the house was neat, warm, and comfortable. There were several sets of eyes on them as they stepped in, kids of various ages peering around doorways or looking up, startled from where they’d been playing on the floor -- Alex counted six kids, including Jenny, most of whom he recognized from his case files. He let his pack slip from his shoulders, setting it down where she indicated, taking a moment to shoot Maria a quizzical look. What did she feel? Was it anything like the Manes family home?

“It’s nice here,” she observed, to Jenny, but Alex knew the message was more for him. She couldn’t feel any funny business going on. 

“I’m not leaving,” Jenny shot back, glaring at them, and going to scoop up a kid that Alex recognized as Billy. He had a fading bruise on his cheek, and Alex felt his stomach twist. “None of us are.”

“Sit,” their host insisted, not arguing with Jenny. “Food.”

Guerin didn’t need to be told twice, grabbing a seat and taking a bowl of the food when it was offered to him, digging right into it before either Alex or Maria could protest.

When in Rome, he decided, and let himself sink into a chair, gratefully taking the weight off his leg.

“All of them are here,” Maria murmured to Alex, rubbing his shoulder gently, knowing just where he would be keeping his tension.

Alex nodded, reaching up to squeeze her hand. Trying to figure out what the fuck to do, right now. 

Their host -- who went by Big -- was a man of remarkably few words. But between him and Jenny, they were able to stitch together a story. His family had come out here, decades ago, driven by poverty and paranoia. Sure, the house wasn’t legal but no one bothered them, and they were able to live out their lives with their sons comfortably, peacefully. 

Yeah, sons. The other brother, John, also of immense proportions (they had to be suffering from some form of gigantism, right?) had shown up about thirty minutes later, led in by one of the smaller kids. He’d been hiding as much as a giant could, ready to come crashing in if they had tried any funny business. Alex was glad they trusted them this much at least. 

The story continued while John settled in with some of the other kids in a corner, reading a book to them. 

It was only after their parents died that they started helping kids. They only took the ones who were hurt, and if the kid wanted to go back, they made sure they were left somewhere they’d be found quickly (which probably explained some of the stories he heard from rescued kids about bears or other strange animals protecting them in the woods). While they were here, the brothers did their best to make sure the kids learned, that they didn’t miss out on school by being there. 

Most never wanted to leave. 

As the story progressed, other kids had crept out, but they kept close to the brothers, looking warily at the three intruders. 

Alex couldn’t blame them. Not one bit.

“Should probably apologize for last night,” John said once they were up to date on the brothers’ history.

“Nope,” Guerin said firmly. “You were trying to scare us away. I get it. I woulda done the same.”

He nodded. “Usually works,” John said, still sounding a little apologetically. “We don’t want trouble and we don’t want to hurt people who are just trying to find missing kids. Bigfoot thing was my brother’s idea. We saw it in a book and felt we could fake it.” He smiled wryly.  

Guerin nodded a little. “Bigfoot might not be real, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful fiction.” He didn’t waste the chance to smile smugly at Alex who rolled his eyes hard. 

Guerin was going to be insufferable after this, wasn’t he?

Eventually, after the food had been eaten and she and Michael had helped with the washing up, Maria nudged Alex, nodding outside. They should talk. Figure out their next steps. 

Alex nodded, getting to his feet with a wince, and Maria felt immediately guilty that he had to walk on that damn leg. Stubborn ass needed to use his walking poles though. At least they had plenty of Epsom salt back to the hotel, once they got there, for him to soak in a bath.

Maria caught Michael’s sleeve, tugging him to follow Alex out onto the porch. The shadows were already getting long, surprisingly.

They’d barely gotten out the door before Michael burst out “We can’t take them back,” immediately. Broadcasting his distress so loudly, that she was honestly surprised Alex didn’t feel it. Maria had to breathe through it. 

“Guerin,” Alex started, holding his hands up. “Hey. No one’s saying we’re giving them back to their parents.”

“They’re happy here.” Michael wasn’t satisfied, obviously. “They’re happy and they’re safe.”

“Hey, Michael,” Maria started, reaching to squeeze his arm. But he didn’t let her, moving out of reach.

“They shouldn’t have to go into the fucking system when this place exists,” he continued. He looked back at the house, almost wistfully. Oh Michael.

“Breathe,” she said, refraining from trying to touch him again. Though she wanted to. He responded to the comfort of touch, and she wanted to provide that. “We know. We’re not planning on taking them anywhere.”

Michael blinked, looking confused. Suspicious. His shoulders hunched as though he was waiting for a fight, metaphorical arms up. But like a good fighter he was blocking his soft bits as much as he was ready to swing back. 

“We’ve just got to figure out how to sell it. So, no one gets curious. Goes looking for them,” Maria said, trying to soothe him. He felt like Alex did whenever he thought too much about his family. She hated it.

Michael still looked skeptical. His eyes searching both of their faces, as if he could find the lies if only he looked hard enough. But his eyes didn’t stay as long on Alex as they did on Maria, and she wondered if that had anything to do with Alex’s earlier conversation with Jenny. Kindred spirits, and all that. 

Alex nodded. “We’ll take a ripped shirt or shoe or two down. Bear got him. Such a tragedy.” He leaned against the wall.

“We absolutely hate unsolved cases,” Maria agreed, with a smile and a voice dripping with sarcasm. 

Guerin was breathing again. Still on edge but calming down. He nodded, slowly. “As long as they get to stay here.”

“We’re not the kind of people who’d take kids away from a happy home,” Alex said, firmly. And honestly, you’d think after the lemurs Guerin would know that. Apparently, he wasn’t the kind of person who trusted easily.

Luckily, she had a lot of experience with that personality type. 

“Even if it fucks up your perfect record?” Michael asked, tightly. 

“There are things that are more important.” Maria leaned over to bump her shoulder against his, gently. He let her. Good sign. 

“C’mon,” Alex said, pushing himself off the wall. “Let’s get the brothers’ help faking some evidence.” 

That had made Michael laugh, the last of his tension unwinding. 

Once that chore was completed, the brothers--and Jenny since she seemed to be in charge too--got a stern talking to about being more careful. Though it was Michael who helped them work out a better plan for snatching up kids in danger. Surprisingly detailed plans. Maria supposed that she couldn’t expect any less from Guerin, considering he’d pretty successfully evaded several local police departments for a good half decade.

“Is he using our X-files as a foundation for blowing smoke up local PD’s ass?” Alex grumbled.

“It’s best not to listen,” Maria laughed. “Plausible deniability.” Though honestly, she was weirdly proud of Michael. Sure, this skirted (if not outright crossed) the line of legality, but his heart was in the right place. And they were all on the same page -- at least this time, they were. She worried about the day they weren’t on the same page though. And told herself that it was best not to borrow trouble. They were dealing with enough already.

“That ship has sailed, dear wife,” Alex said dryly. She took his hand.

“Fair point,” Maria said. “I am trying to figure out the best way to send them more books. The history book they’re using is like from the 70s I think.”

Alex chuckled. “I’m pretty sure they must go into town for supplies sometimes. The beans at lunch were definitely not the home grown variety.”

“That’s dangerous though,” Maria sighed.

“Mhmm. But inevitable when you have this many mouths to feed, I suppose,” Alex said, grimacing as he stretched out his leg. “We’ll figure it out. Leave them in a safer position than we found them.” 

Nodding, she leaned back against her seat. “Man, I can’t wait to take a long hot shower. Let’s order junk food and pass out.”

“I promised Forrest I’d have a drink with him.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Oh sure, best sex is after you’re sore from two days of nonstop hiking and fearing for your life.” 

“How do you know I’m not going to ask for a massage,” Alex protested, but he was grinning.

Maria rolled her eyes. “You’re gonna ask him to massage something, I’m sure.”  

Now Alex rolled his eyes. But she was right, and they both knew it. And just then she noticed Michael’s eyes on them, curious, and she cleared her throat, self-consciously. Not that their relationship was anything to hide or be ashamed of, but it felt… weird.

Alex looked like he really wished he had a beer. But it was likely that only she could tell that.

“Ready to leave?” Maria asked. “Done making a mockery of our life’s work?”

“I beg to differ. For once this shit is actually worth something.” Both Alex and Maria flipped him off simultaneously, completely unprofessional in a way only Guerin seemed to be able to get out of them.

The little shit had the nerve to grin in response, completely pleased with having pissed them off. 

“Big’s offered to let us stay another night,” Michael said after a moment, pointedly looking at Maria instead of Alex. Maria almost laughed. Poor guy.

“No, as much as I’d like to kick off my shoes, we should head back into town before Forrest sends out a search party for us too.”  

“Actually, a little surprised he hasn’t.” Alex said, nodding. 

Maria smirked at him but refrained from outright teasing him. Not with Michael here. Just because they weren’t hiding their status didn’t mean he needed an all-access pass to their lives. 

“Probably only because he knows we’ll be offended,” she said instead, standing up.

Big actually showed them a quicker way back to the main path. Well not so much quicker honestly, but less bumpy and hilly. Even so they didn’t get back to the trailhead until early evening, exhausted, dirty and hungry. But Michael was positively fucking chipper. It was enough that Maria briefly thought about drowning him in one of the rivers they passed. 

They had to stop off at the sheriff’s office and debrief, of course, but that went blessedly fast once they presented their ‘evidence’. They were free to go after that.

Alex had disappeared with an overnight bag, most likely to go sleep in Forrest’s bed. She did not believe for one second he had the energy to do more than that, and she honestly wished she’d insisted he rest first. But least he took his crutches with him. Hopefully once in the privacy of Forrest’s room, Alex would shed the prosthetic and stop irritating his stump. 

Maria was also exhausted, sure, but after the night and the day they just had, she could use a beer and a little touch of home. And she always felt at home in a small town bar.

There was one not far from their motel, so after a quick shower and a change of clothes she walked over, really only intending on having one, soaking up the crappy jukebox music and sure-to-be tacky decor. Maybe the women’s hiking group would even be out there? Surely in a crowd of that much flannel, she’d be able to find someone worth flirting with.

She needed to unwind. 

Apparently, she wasn’t the only one with that idea. Michael Guerin stood, leaning against a pool table, with a sort of ease she rarely saw on him. She watched him for a while, the way he moved. He was a surprisingly subtle and precise player. Good at playing up his losses and down his wins. And within a couple games he was pocketing a tidy wad of cash. 

Sitting at the bar, Maria waited for him to notice her. When he did, he looked immediately vaguely guilty. Probably well aware that he was walking a real thin line as far as his work release went. Not that she gave a shit. They’d just fucking covered up a kidnapping for fuck’s sake. 

“DeLuca, what’re you doing here?” He asked, running a nervous hand through his hair before putting his hat back on, brim a little low on the eyes. 

“Hm. Couldn’t sleep. Are you… hustling pool?” Maria asked him, feeling a smile tug at her lips. She didn’t know why it was endearing. Maybe it reminded her of growing up with her mom and running her own scams. 

“What, no, I would never,” Michael responded with fake innocence and a crooked smile, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops. “What you saw there was a perfectly honest game.”  

“Please.” Maria shook her head, with a grin. She leaned in a little conspiratorially. “You know, the best hustle requires two people,” she said, holding up two fingers. 

Michael blinked, obviously completely taken aback. “Wh… DeLuca are you suggesting we hustle pool together?

“This weekend has been fucking stressful, I want to do something fun.” She shrugged, took a pull from her beer. “Grab the next round and then we’ll see if we can earn you a couple hundred bucks before I call it a night.” 

Michael looked at her a little appraisingly. She could almost see all the slots shifting in his mind, rearranging his view of her again. At least it wasn’t just her reading Michael wrong all the time.  

Maybe this was a good chance to get to know each other a little better then. 

“What’s your poison?” He asked, raising his hand to the bartender.

“Tequila, neat.” 

“You know what they say about beer before liquor,” Michael said, raising an eyebrow at the bottle in her hand.

“Shut up, I was practically raised in a bar. And get yourself something hard. Whiskey?” Taking a guess at his preferences. 

Now Michael was leaning forward, a slow grin spread across his handsome features. He leaned an arm against the bar, regarding her. “Are you trying to get me drunk, DeLuca?” 

Maria grinned right back, and she knew it had an edge to it. Guerin was the dangerous type, whether he knew it or not. “Trying to make you appear drunk. If you want to drink and do this, you should get two.”

Michael hummed and she glanced briefly at the pool tables before catching his eyes again. She could see the instant that he caught on, the impression of her continuing to shift, and he must have really liked what he was seeing with the way he smiled. Settling comfortably in the stool next to hers, foot at the base of her stool so their legs touched. 

Or maybe he was still just flirting.  

Michael raised his glass to her, once they’d gotten them, and she lightly bumped them together before taking a drink. Not the worst tequila she’d ever had. Not the best either, though. Probably the best she could expect, considering the state they were in.

Michael took a couple drinks. He was still hard to read, not that Maria was trying all that hard, too tired to try and get anything clear. But he was buzzing with a combination of nerves and anticipation as he grabbed the spare glass, deliberately spilling it, drenching his own arm, making a show of cursing about it. Just in case anyone was watching. She appreciated the effort - and the little hint of a tattoo on his arm, that came through the damp shirt. Wasn’t in his booking records, maybe he got it done in prison?

“Let’s pick our mark while you finish your drink?” Maria suggested, twisting in the stool a little, and maybe that pressed their legs together a bit more. 

“The Hell’s Angel wannabe has friends,” Michael said, catching as her eyes drifted towards a bearded man in a band t-shirt and too much leather. He looked pretty intoxicated already. “Table to the left, near the window. All his friends.” He leaned back against the counter, somewhat curled into her, somewhat facing forward, indicating the friends’ location briefly with his glass. 

He’d already checked out the marks. Maria couldn’t help being pleased with his attention to detail.

“When did you start?” She asked, tilting her head curiously. 

Michael looked surprised to be asked. Pausing for a minute before shrugging. “When I was a kid. Some kids have jobs, I hustled pool.”

Maria got the feeling there was more to that than Michael was spilling; she could feel his quiet discomfort, prickling under his skin. She didn’t want to pry, but she also was tired of tripping over his pain. If she could just map it... “You had a tough time of it.”

Michael let out a sharp noise that was probably some approximation of a laugh. A bitter little thing.  

“Yeah, you could say that.”

“Bad foster parents,” she said quietly, and he shot her a look, a tight, defensive thing, looking for all the world like a caged animal for a moment. 

Maria sighed softly. “Sorry. Your file,” she said, by way of explanation. Expecting him to clam right back up.

To her surprise, he didn’t. Michael hummed thoughtfully. “... I was sixteen or seventeen. You?”

Maria nodded, sensing it was delicate territory, but also that Michael was relaxing, slowly. “Me too.”

“Yeah? I started as soon as I was old enough to get into a bar. I, uh--” He looked at her. “Since you read my file, I guess you know that I was emancipated at fifteen. So, I was living out of my truck and pool hustling could be more lucrative than most odd jobs I could find. You?” 

Honestly those were more words than she’d ever heard him string together, at least in anything other than a series of sarcastic jabs about their work anyway. And it was a truth. A deep one, one that felt vulnerable. She wanted to offer him the same, show him that he was safe.

“My mom owns a bar,” Maria offered. “When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time there, doing my homework or helping out sometimes. I learned a lot of things you wouldn’t learn from school there, from mom or the rest of the service staff. How to serve the perfect martini, how to talk to assholes, but especially how to cheat at cards and pool.” She grinned. 

“Your mom was ok with that? Really?” Michael’s voice bordered on incredulous. 

Maria nodded. “Mom has never believed in good or bad skills. Just skills. And you should collect as many as you can. So, she insisted on straight A’s in school and in hustling.” Michael laughed, softly and Maria smiled, a little wistful. She missed her mom. “World’s not easy, she’d say. It doesn’t always play fair. You have to be able to play on their level when needed. And also sometimes beating an asshole at cards was the best vengeance.” 

“Your mom sounds really cool,” Michael said.

Maria smiled. “She is.”

Michael shook his head, smiling and taking a drink before shifting back to the task at hand. “Baldy seems like a good bet.”


“Yeah, he’s beat two other guys already. So, he’s over confident and flush with cash.” 

“But he’s likely very good,” Maria said.

“No matter how good he is, I’m better.” Michael shrugged, unconcerned. She’d say over-confident, but that wasn’t what she was picking up from him. He was secure. As matter of fact as the sun rising tomorrow. 

She found herself believing him. “Ok… here’s the play,” Maria began, and Michael leaned in closer. Close enough that she could smell a hint of a chemical, sharp and unpleasant. But it was mostly overwhelmed by the scent of what she assumed must be aftershave (aftershave? Did Michael even shave? He always seemed in a state of perpetual stubble. So probably lotion or his shampoo). It smelled like water, like a river. Not overpowering or cloying. Good.

It was easy to get the mark to accept a game with Michael, who she had to admit, was pretty good at playing up drunk, smug, jackass cowboy. All intoxicated swagger and annoying tips of his hats. He lost twice. Just get to the mark comfortable, building up the image of dumb and angry, powerless and nonthreatening.

“Double or nothing,” Michael said, slurring just a little.

The mark smiled at him, smug. “I think you’ve lost enough for one night, friend.”

Michael’s voice turned wheedling. “C’mon, partner, you gotta let me win my pride back.” 

That was Maria’s cue. “Hey! No,” Maria began before the man could respond. 

Maria,” Michael said, with just the right amount of exasperation. He took a drink of his whiskey.

Maria rolled her eyes at him, playing up her frustration and turning her attention on to the mark. Looking at him now pleadingly. “You’ve gotten enough, don’t you think? Nearly five hundred.” The mark’s eyes shined at the reminder of how much he’d taken already. “You’re going to clean him out."

“Your man wants to play, sweetheart,” the mark shrugged, blowing off her concern and started racking the balls. Greedy bastard. This was on his head, then.

“He’s drunk,” she continued, again.

“I’m not,” Michael snapped at her then looked at the mark. Tottered just a little (and damn she was getting impressed. A first for her), putting an arm around her. And while she pretended to fumble under the weight of him, he kissed her cheek. He had asked earlier, and she had agreed. Not realizing how soft his mouth would be, how nice the burn of his stubble against her cheek would feel.

“Promise babe. I’ll buy you something nice with the winnings.” Here he looked at the mark. “We playing?”

Maria let Michael push her back, making a show of her exasperation, and then just leaned back while Michael… cleaned the floor with him. It was truly impressive. It was less like he was playing and more like the billiards just wanted to make Michael happy, obliged his every direction. And they had some sort of vendetta against the mark.

Maria would have sworn he was cheating but there was literally no possible way. 

“Fuck!” The mark cursed, as Michael sunk the 8 ball, ending the game.

“Lady Luck’s on my side.” Michael winked at Maria for effect and for a moment she thought he’d kiss her again. But instead, he made his way over to the mark. Still selling the drunk act, though. Probably for the best, since she really didn’t come here for a brawl.

Thankfully the exchange of money passed with little more than some cursing and grumbling and then the man was leaving. Maria and Michael were both careful not to add any insult to injury. 

“Buy you another drink?” Michael offered. 

Hell, Maria was tempted. Guerin was a hell of a lot of fun to flirt and scheme with. “Mn. I think I’m gonna call it a night.”

“Absolutely not,” Michael laughed, nudging her towards the bar. “One drink to celebrate my first time pool hustling with a federal agent.” 

She rolled her eyes. “Okay. One.” Letting him lead her back to the bar. 

One more tequila for her and one whiskey for Michael. This time from the top shelf. She didn’t blame him, he’d won at least a thousand dollars from that guy. Half of which Michael was presenting her with, discreetly of course.

“Absolutely not,” Maria said.

“What? No. You helped,” he protested, immediately wary, confused.

“I was just playing around. The drink’s enough compensation.”

They sort of glared at each other for a moment. “Ok. No. One more thing to make it equal,” Michael said, and Maria was already on the defensive. Flirting was fine but...

“Tell me your trick for reading people so well,” he asked.

Maria chuckled, relaxing. She took a sip of her fresh drink. Better, but still not as good as in New Mexico. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” 

Michael cocked his head to the side, curiously. “Yeah?”

“I guess you could say I'm psychic,” Maria said, waggling her eyebrows, for effect.

Predictably, Michael snorted, not believing her for a moment. “Do you really have to be so predictable?” He asked dryly.

She hadn’t expected him to believe her, and truth be told she was a little relieved that he didn’t, somehow. Guerin was still Guerin, despite the last 48 hours. “Well. That’s what mom called it.” She shrugged. “It’s a family trait. We’re all just good at reading people. It’s an instinct, not a trick I can teach you. Sorry.” 

Michael hummed, taking a drink. “An instinct cultivated by a lot of books on psychology and FBI training maybe?”

Maria rolled her eyes. “I told you my mom was the same way.”

“People who work in the service industry have to be good at reading others.” He moved on, waving his hand a little dismissively.

It irritated the shit out of her, even if she completely understood it. “Yeah, but it’s more than that,” Maria continued. “It’s not just picking up on the quirk of your condescending smile, for instance, or the disrespectful lilt in your voice.”

That took him aback for a moment, and he sobered. “Sorry,” Michael said, honestly. “I’m being an asshole.”

Maria shrugged. She wasn’t exactly mad. “It is your modus operandi.” Michael chuckled and Maria added, unsure why, “it’s how you deal with the world. Not just with us. Like a cactus -- all prickly. So, I’m not offended, even if I don’t like it.” 

“I guess I can’t be surprised to be getting read when talking to a psychic,” Michael said dryly. At least he didn’t deny it. 

“I honestly don’t even love that term,” Maria said. She probably shouldn’t have even led with it, but most people understood it readily enough.


“I hate psychics. They’re all a bunch of frauds. Crystal balls and tarot cards, all just to distract from the fact that they’re full of shit.”

“True.” Michael chuckled. “Kinda thought you’d respect the hustle though.”

“Not when the hustle involves taking advantage of people who are grieving or sick or anxious about their futures,” Maria said emphatically, shaking her head.

“So, what do you prefer, then?” 

She was actually a tiny bit surprised that he asked. “...Let’s go with sensitive.”

“Huh,” Michael nodded. Digesting that, letting the silence settle for a minute. “So… is that why you’re into all this?”

That was a can of worms she definitely wasn’t ready to open with him. She smiled, shaking her head. “Mn. Something like that.” 

Michael seemed to tell that she didn’t want to get into it. “So, I’m assuming you’ve used your sensitivity--” Bless him he didn’t even stumble with the word “--to hustle.”

Maria laughed. “Oh man all the time. I even had a crystal ball myself that I would use to entice bored rich white ladies. They can’t resist a magical negro.” 

Michael laughed so hard he almost choked.

“But doesn’t that make you at least a little like the charlatans?” He was grinning still though. No judgement. Just curious to see how she justified herself, it seemed.

Maria shrugged. “No. I never preyed on their fears or their grief.” That was a hard line for her.

They ended up sharing one more drink. Exchanging stories of their best scores. It was nice. Michael was easy to talk to, funny and a good listener. Surprisingly sweet once you got past all the sarcasm.

She was just happy he was letting his guard down enough to show it.

Chapter Text

Another day, another fucking crop circle.

By Michael’s count, this was the fifth. Though he had to admit this was one of the better ones he’d seen so far. It was pretty massive and there were no obvious entry points for a car, no irregular pattern of broken hay, no boot or machinery tracks. And something felt weirdly familiar about the lines of it that he could see. 

Maria and Manes were excited about this one, taking all sorts of readings. Electromagnetic, triboelectric, infrared. Michael kept way back while they worked, shaking his head a little over it. Though honestly, Michael was just happy that he wasn’t currently on a plane to any place that had more deer ticks than people.

Lately they’d just been chasing crop circles. Others had been out of state -- this one was actually local. The rest of their time was spent reviewing any military or civilian law enforcement documentation regarding extraterrestrials. Manes’ had dug up some interesting information, some of which linked back to things that Michael had found years ago and therein lay the problem. Useful information meant that Michael was drawing closer to the answers he was seeking but so were Manes and DeLuca. Closer than Michael would like, even if they were still on the wrong side of the field so to speak. They may be a little nutty, but they weren’t stupid and, to be fair, they were right about the aliens. 

But worst of all, they expected their informant, who they knew had stolen some top secret air force documentation, to cooperate. Playing dumb and playing the skeptic could only take him so far. 

So, Michael either was outed and sent to Area 51 or he’d end up back in jail. Neither prospect was terribly appealing, truth be told. 

“Hey get the drone up already,” Manes called back to him. 

“Gimme a sec.”

Since they always wanted pictures, they had a sweet little drone for aerial shots. All Michael really wanted to do was take it apart and see how it ticked. Maybe even soup it up a bit. But being able to fly it around was the next best thing. They had quickly given him the job because it distracted him from constantly making jokes about crop circles and anal probes 

Ok, that was the downside to not wanting to be carted off and experimented on: he could only use half of the probing double entendre he’d worked out. And he was sure both Manes and Maria would love the other half of them.

When the crop circle came on the screen of the controller, and he could see the scope of the curves and straight lines, he very nearly dropped the damn thing.  

He’d seen that pattern before. That was why it felt so fucking familiar. It wasn’t a damn happy face or an elegantly scrawled ‘fuck off.” It was the symbol Max had on his back. The one Michael’d gotten inked onto his forearm when he was in prison, to hold onto his siblings any way he could in that cold, lonely place.

The symbol was distinctly, actually alien. Not that he’d known that -- for years it had just been Max’s weird tattoo. Michael’d only made the connection on that last big job of his, the one that the government would love to nail him on. A cache of pictures, notes from the ‘47 crash. They were all in his bunker and he hadn't gotten to go through more than a fraction of it. For the first time he really felt like throwing caution to the wind, cutting the damn anklet off, and running.

Maria was looking at him, a little quizzical, so he grinned and waved at her before focusing back on the drone, taking the pictures. What else could he do? Once he got the drone back down, he turned it off, letting out a shaky breath. Why the hell was this popping up here? Why now? For one ridiculous moment, Michael glanced up at the sky but, as expected there was nothing up there. Just endless blue sky with the occasional fluffy cloud passing lazily by the sun. 

“Hey look! It’s a UFO!” He called out. Mostly to be a dick, pointing up at one of said fluffy white clouds.

Maria and Manes looked up immediately, then glared back at him.

Michael flashed them an unrepentant grin. “Do I really need to be here? It’s not like we ever actually find anything. And even if we did, it’s not like the little green men are hanging around. I’d be long gone, if I were them.” 

Manes shook his head, digging in the bag he had on, and throwing him a collection kit. “Soil samples, maybe some of the wheat too?”

Michael sighed. “On it.” Manes was a relentless taskmaster. Honestly, ever since their return from Oregon he’d been more relentless than usual. Michael had to wonder what was up with that.

Thankfully crop circles were one of their more boring types of jobs. Even if they were actually alien, it’s not like Manes and Maria could tell a real crop circle from a fake one. At the end of the day, it was just a bunch of broken down plants, or at least that’s what he told himself.

Once the samples were collected, Michael was on his way home in relatively short order.

Maybe he’d finally hit a bar on his own tonight, he thought. Or maybe he’d think about building out a deck for the airstream, sketch out some plans. Since he was gonna be here for at least a couple years. Could be nice to get up out of the dust.

All his potential plans went by the wayside, though, as he pulled up to his lot and saw Isobel already waiting for him. It was damned early for her to show, especially without a text.

“Iz?” Michael slid out of his truck, frowning. His sister was sitting by the fire, looking a little pale, distant. 

He couldn’t think of any time that he’d seen her quite like this, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Not responding to him.

“Hey. Iz,” he said again, immediately worried, and even more on edge than he’d been at the damn crop circle. “Earth to Isobel?”

She started, taking a breath and looking up at him. “Michael. Hey.” 

“Hey,” he reached to grip her shoulder, rubbing it gently. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, plastering on a smile. It was one of her faker smiles, and god, he hated seeing it. “Of course, I am. Just here for pizza night.”

“It’s not Friday,” he pointed out, but tried to keep the concern out of his voice. Isobel never took well to being babied.

“No?” She shook her head. “Well, are you going to complain about free pizza?”

“Never,” Michael conceded the issue. Whatever was bugging Izzy, she didn’t seem to want to talk about it.

The list of things Isobel didn’t want to talk about was getting longer by the day and Michael wasn’t sure how much longer he could go without pressing her. He was so damn worried about her. He was going to have to text Max. Maybe they could figure out a plan of attack together. 

“Well call in the order, then. And grab me a beer?” She asked, playing at normal. Unconvincingly. 

He sighed, and nodded, pulling out his phone and dialing the pizza place while he headed into the airstream and rummaged in the fridge.

A few minutes later he was handing her a cold beer. 

“How was your day? Get to play with any more endangered animals?” She asked, lightly. Quite obviously shifting the focus onto him. There was some color back in her cheeks, so clearly she was feeling better, at least. “Oh! You never did tell me what you found in Oregon.”

“Yeah, I did,” Michael responded. “Bigfoot.”

Isobel rolled her eyes. “Come on.” 

“Not my problem if you don’t believe.” Michael shrugged and Isobel rolled her eyes even harder the second time. “Anyway, we just spent the day looking at crop circles at a local farm.”

“Yeah?” Isobel asked, frowning. “People still believe in those?”

Michael snorted. “Trust me. It’s the stupidest thing. Every time we go it’s so obviously a prank.” He hesitated. “Except this time.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, frowning even more. 

“The pattern was… familiar,” he said, pushing up his sleeve to show her the tattoo on the inside of his forearm.

Isobel shook her head, eyebrows raising. “... okay, several questions. Mostly... why did you get Max’s tattoo, and what does that have to do with crop circles in rural New Mexico?”

“It’s alien,” Michael said, ignoring the first question. He tugged his shirt sleeve back down, self-conscious. Definitely not in the mood to feel his feelings right now. “Found reference to it in the ‘47 crash documentation.”

Her eyes widened, staring at him. She took a minute before saying anything. “You think an alien made it?” She asked finally, her voice strangely strangled.

“Probably shouldn’t get our hopes up.” Michael shook his head. “Max ever tell you why he chose this?”

Isobel shook her head. “Only the same thing he told you on our 21st birthday.

Michael remembered it well. Max was drunk, leaning happily against Michael, holding Isobel’s hand. 

“There has to be three.” 

At the time, Michael had just thought Max was being sappy and happy. Happy that even though they had had a dumb fight earlier that day, Michael had still showed up to celebrate their fake birthday. 

But now, Michael thought, rubbing the spot where the tattoo lay underneath his shirt sleeve, he wasn’t so sure. What was it that was written in those files? For days after the ‘47 crash, the symbol had been frequently reported by locals. Crop circles, of course, but also in the condensation on the windshield of a car, in the sand near some mines….

He never did get a chance to check that out before the cops caught up with him. 

“Max could at least take a look,” Isobel said, drawing Michael out of his thoughts. 

“Why?” Michael demanded, frustration edging his tone.

Isobel frowned at him. He took a pull from his beer, drinking until he calmed down a bit. 

“We can’t get involved,” he finally said. "Not while the feds are breathing down my neck constantly. Max’s got a good life. I don’t want him going and raising suspicions.”

Isobel snorts. “He’s got a life?”

“Look, I also hate that he’s a cop and that he seems stuck. But I’m not going to deny that it’s not a bad life to get stuck in. Respected with a nice house and all the books a nerd could want.” 

“Bored, miserable, and ignoring all the things he actually wanted to do with himself, but okay.” Isobel countered. “He’s got a nice library, I will give you that.”

Michael couldn’t argue with her. “Why doesn’t he quit? It’s not like him being a deputy kept me out of the pen.”

“I dunno.” Isobel shook her head. “Maybe he doesn’t want to let mom and dad down at this point.” 

“I guess.” Michael wouldn’t ever understand something like that so he didn’t bother arguing. “I wish he’d find someone nice. Settle down. Stop meddling.”

“Look who’s talking,” Isobel said, reaching over to ruffle his hair. 

Michael groaned, swatting her hand away. “Hey, my plan was to go out tonight, but someone decided to have an impromptu pizza night.” 

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I cramping your style?” she laughed. “You know, we could both go out on the prowl.”

“Gross.” Michael elbowed her lightly. “Also, aren’t you married?

“Yeah, you’re right. At least for now.” She shook her head, sighing, and Michael wanted to ask if she was really thinking of making this split from Noah permanent, but she shifted the topic again so quickly it almost gave him whiplash. “Well, in the meantime, why don’t you help me figure out what color to paint my living room?” She asked, reaching for her purse and pulling out a handful of paint chips.

Michael groaned. “Is that seriously what you’re here for?” 

“The man who’s going to help me paint gets to help me choose,” Isobel proclaimed, shoving them into his hands.

Since they were so close to home, Michael didn’t even have to do a preliminary analysis of the crop circle samples. Instead, they were sent off to Liz down in the lab, and Maria, Alex, and Michael settled into a routine that was becoming familiar, almost homey. Maria was actually starting to look forward to their banter.

“Just look at the picture, Guerin,” Alex was saying, in a tone that read more fond exasperation than true annoyance.

“I don’t need to!” Michael waved his hand. He was slouched casually in his chair, booted feet on his desk, the heels of which rested indelicately on a casefile. His aura lighter than when they first met, the colors playful and mischievous and--Maria tilted her head slightly, regarding him--just this shade of fond. “Cattle mutilations? All predation and scavenger activity. No big mystery, no aliens just--”

“Just look.” Alex leaned over to set the photograph on his desk, one hand resting near Michael’s ankle.  

Michael rolled his eyes, taking it. “And?” He reviewed the photo, both looking and feeling utterly unimpressed. 

“And that’s clearly not predation,” Alex pointed out, and Michael sighed, conceding the point, but shrugging. “Look at how precise that incision is,” Alex demanded.

Michael tilted his head, regarding the picture with some distaste. Maria couldn’t exactly blame him, the images were gross, sad and infuriating.

“I’m no surgeon, but I’ve worked on plenty of ranches. Predators are a hell of a lot more precise than you might think,” Michael said. “And that’s not even taking into account shrinkage from desiccation, which can make wounds look a lot cleaner than they actually are.” He looked back at Alex. “Let me guess you’re going to tell me it was done in five minutes. Or better yet: the farm hand had just looked away for a second!” He said the last bit in a falsetto and even Alex had to hold back a laugh.  

“Yes, actually!”

Michael folded his arms, nodding in mock-seriousness. “Right. Which probably means the mountain lion got spooked and ran off before they could eat their little snack.”

“Guerin, this is the field over from where we found the circle last week!” Alex said, instead of admitting that Guerin was right. “Coincidence rarely is so coincidental.” 

“Occam’s razor directly contradicts that.” Michael shook his head, throwing the pictures back on his desk. “Seen this at least once a season out at Foster’s.”

“You’re impossible.” Alex threw up his hands. “Come on! A known alien symbol shows up in a wheat field and dead cattle are found less than a mile away, and you don’t find that the least bit suspicious?”

“Known alien symbol,” Michael drawled. “If it’s so well-known, it could have easily been faked. Hell, the mutilations could just be the work of the disgruntled ranch hand that quote unquote found it.”

They’d had this argument at least twice a day for a week. Maria would almost call it flirting if Alex wasn’t completely hyper focused on his work (Guerin was definitely flirting but he kind of always was so it was a moot point). The not so-Bigfoot case had come around at an incredibly inopportune time, almost right after Flint’s B&E, which both Maria and Alex found suspicious as hell. Flint may not have the pull to drag them off to Oregon on a missing children’s case, but Jesse Manes fucking did. Not that they had any proof that he had a hand in it.

“Even you admitted that the circle is a grade-A con job if it is fake,” Maria pointed out smoothly. Alex shot her a grateful look when Guerin grumbled. “And as much as I do enjoy listening to the same song over and over, there are other cases we could focus on...”  The circle was definitely something; Maria felt that in her bones. But the cattle mutilation? She was more inclined to agree with Guerin. 

“Knock knock!” Liz called out brightly from their doorway.  

“Well well, look who the cat dragged in,” Maria smiled, happily. The mood in the room immediately shifted. Easy happiness from Alex, a contraction and tensing on Guerin’s part. 

Oh right. They hadn’t met yet. Which might explain why Liz had been so eager to walk the results down to them instead of emailing them, like normal.

“You got my test results, Ortecho?” 

“Right here.” She waved a folder, before handing it over and heading around Alex’s desk, making a beeline for Michael. So transparent. “You’re Michael Guerin? The new CI? I’m Liz Ortecho.” 

“Yeah,” he said, with a nod, offering his hand over to her, cautiously.

“Liz, what’s this?” Alex asked, studying the file. 

“Huh?” She let Michael’s hand go, leaning over Alex to look at the file. One of the benefits of a tiny office was that she barely had to move to see it. “The P2P? I dunno. Someone smoking or dealing meth’s my best guess. Unless you actually found a meth lab on the property?”

Weirdly, Guerin suddenly seemed very interested in the cattle mutilation pictures. And he wasn’t making any jokes about meth heads. That was a first, Guerin never let those chances go by.

Alex groaned, clearly irritated. “So, you’re telling me the most likely scenario is some junkie made the crop circles?”

“‘Fraid so,” Liz confirmed, not unkindly. “Definitely some kind of hoax.”

There was a wave of something that felt like relief from Michael, who was leaning back in his chair, watching them from between the pictures and the brim of his ever-present hat. Maria turned a curious eye on him, and he met her gaze, mouthing ‘told him so.’ 

God. Knowing them they had money riding on it, and that’s why he was so relieved. Guerin was going to scam her husband out of a small fortune if they weren’t careful (she had to admit a certain amount of weird pride in that thought, though she’d never tell Alex that).

Idiot boys. She sighed and decided not to think anything more of it. Her radar when it came to Guerin tended to be spotty at best, anyway.

Maria was watering the plants in her window when her phone rang. She glanced at the number, recognizing it as a work number. She sighed. It was Saturday. Alex was out. She was looking forward to a nice hot bath and a good book. She did not want to deal with anything work related until Monday, damnit.

“DeLuca,” Maria sighed into her phone, resting it between her cheek and shoulder as she continued to tend to her plants. They didn’t have much of a backyard for a proper garden, more just a patio with a handful of pots with tomatoes and peppers, so Maria kept a lot of them around the house and daydreamed about eventually moving into a place with a little more space. 

“Hey Maria, sorry to bother you.” Ah Liz. That made sense. She was a workaholic and there was no reception in the labs, hence the work number. Maria mentally crossed her fingers that this was in no way work related.

“Please tell me you’re calling because you want to go out drinking tonight.”

Liz laughed. “I mean, I’m down, but that’s not why I’m calling. I know you’re in between cases right now so the no work on weekends policy is in effect but--” Maria groaned but she knew that if Liz was calling, it would likely be important, so she didn’t stop her “--I was reviewing that John Doe file Alex’s booty call passed on to him. What’s his name?”

“You mean Federal Agent Forrest Long?” Maria chuckled. 

“Yeah, that guy.” She could hear the grin in Liz’s voice. “Is Alex there?”

“Nope. He’s out. Don’t you bother him. He needs a break.” Maria leaned against her kitchen counter. She had spent the last two days basically nagging Alex to take a break. Just a couple hours, Alex. A change of scenery will do you some good. He had finally relented this afternoon, only just leaving an hour ago.

“Yeah, I noticed he’s been burning the candle at both ends since his brother fucking broke into your house,” Liz sighed. “Fuck Flint.”

“Amen.” Maria couldn’t emphasize that enough. Honestly in her opinion there were only two good Manes in the whole world, and it was a testament to their resiliency that Jesse Manes hadn’t completely fucked them up. Even if Alex thought otherwise. “So, Forrest was right to be suspicious about the cause of John Doe’s death?”

“He was,” Liz said. “I just wish he’d gotten this file to us before the body was cremated. ‘Cause I would have loved to take a look at it with Kyle.”

“Oh?” Maria felt a little flutter of excitement in her chest. 

“Based on the autopsy the coroner ruled the death natural. Cardiac arrest likely caused by myocardial infarction. Necrosis of the left ventricle--” 

“Skip the jargon. Was it caused by a heart attack or not?”

Liz grumbled. “Will you let me finish? Infarctions are normally caused by thrombus occluding the coronary artery--”

“Oh my God, Elizabeth. In English!” 

Liz did this all the time and Maria was sure it was less about building up a picture of the case and more about annoying Maria.

“Plaque forms in the coronary artery, Maria, causing a clot--a thrombus. This restricts blood flow to the heart. Usually to the left ventricle, which causes it to die. In fancy sciency terms, necrosis. This cascades into a series of other ailments which I won’t bore you with--”

“So, kind of you,” Maria said dryly.

“But suffice it to say--” Liz continued, with a hint of condescension that Maria would definitely give her shit for later. “Of what was left of this man’s heart, MI absolutely tracks.”

Maria stopped. Wait a minute… she must have misheard. “I’m sorry. What was left?” She didn’t expect that sentence outside of that old suspected shape-shifter cold case from the first year or so they’d been on this job. Maybe this was connected?

“This guy’s heart was shredded, Maria. Like it fucking burst in his chest.” 

Maria blinked, setting down the watering can. Completely focused, now. “Okay, I don’t know much but I know that’s not normal.”

“Nope,” Liz agreed. “The corner called it based on the necrotic tissue and the swelling. But honestly he had no other theories.” Maria could hear the excitement in Liz’s voice. “I gave him a call anyway. Get this, there weren’t any signs of blood clots or ischemia or anything else. But that could just be because we don’t have a lot to work with….” Liz let that last bit hang in the air. 

“But you think there’s more?” Maria prompted.

“Yeah, weirdest thing.”

“The exploding heart isn’t the weirdest thing?” Maria asked. Alex was going to flip. Hell, she could almost feel Liz vibrating with excitement through the phone.

“Nope! According to the report, there were hyphae found in the man’s heart.”

“What?” Maria put her phone on speaker and pulled up the notepad app to quickly jot down what Liz was telling her.  

“Er, fungal strands. You know, like roots. At least that’s what they look like. Thankfully the coroner wasn’t lazy and did try to identify the species.” 

“And he couldn’t,” Maria guessed. She understood Liz’s excitement now.

“And he couldn’t,” Liz confirmed, sounding excited. “And he has a sample. Which I convinced him to send to me.”

“Seriously?” Okay. Maria was impressed. Beyond impressed.


“You’re amazing!” Alex was going to be over the moon. She briefly considered texting him. But if she did that, he’d be barreling right home, and really it wasn’t as if they could do anything about it tonight. So, she finished up her notes, adding reminders for things to research later. 

They were going to have to figure out who this guy was, it seemed. Not always the easiest task. But Guerin was proving to be very good at research so maybe she’d give him the case. Maybe he wouldn’t even complain much since it probably (not definitely) had nothing to do with aliens or cryptids.

“I know. So, you’re buying drinks tonight.”

Maria laughed. “A drink. One,” she said, but she was already heading to her room so she could change.


“Sorry, babe, but I know how much you can drink if you’re properly motivated.”

“Pot meet kettle.” But Liz was laughing. “Meet you at our usual place in 30,” she said, before they both hung up.

It was Michael’s first fucking moment to himself since he walked out of prison. Between his siblings and Manes and Deluca, Michael hadn’t had an evening to himself. Honestly the smart thing to do would be to go to bed early. But just because he was a genius didn’t mean he was smart. 

Anyway, it wasn’t his brain that had him walking into a bar on a Saturday night. 

Jack’s was Michael’s kind of bar--busy but not popping. Country music blaring from the radio. Full of locals, in for a drink and good time. Michael glanced around as he made his way towards the bar, there were a couple of girls giggling at a pool table, watching their boyfriends play. A different time and he might have headed over, ready for a good hustle (maybe try a couple more of DeLuca’s tips) and maybe a bit of a brawl. That wasn’t the kind of itch he was trying to scratch. Instead, he checked out the rest of the clientele. A group celebrating a birthday, people on dates, a couple of men sitting quietly in a dark corner, heads bowed close, bodies angled toward each other in such a way that their knees would have to be pressed up against each other. Michael had not been expecting that but it was nice to see. Apparently, this town was a bit more open than Roswell had been. 

Not a whole hell of a lot of good prospects. But the night was still pretty young.

Michael slipped into an empty seat at the bar and ordered a beer. It was still early but he was already trying to decide how many beers to down before trying his luck elsewhere when he felt the hair on the back of neck rising, like someone was glaring at him. He turned to look as casually as he could, and sitting at the other side of the bar, staring straight at him, perfect eyebrows drawn together in something like a frown or a scowl, was none other than Alex Manes.

Michael groaned. Fucking really? Was he cursed? Was he actually fucking cursed?

He took a pull from his beer and got up, walking over to him. Manes raised an eyebrow, but whatever. He was definitely not going to try and chat anyone up with Manes here, watching and judging his technique. Google maps had promised him at least ten bars within walking distance. So, time for a quick hi and bye. After a bit of snark, he was going to go somewhere else. 

“I know I’m still in range of my anklet. So, are you stalking me, agent?”

“I was here first,” Manes said dryly, rolling his eyes. He raised his beer to his mouth, tilted it back, and Michael was definitely not watching the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. Definitely not.

“DeLuca here too?” Michael asked.

“No,” Manes answered. “She has her own plans tonight.” He nodded to the empty stool next to him and Michael considered it, taking a deep drink from his beer before dropping down next to him. Intent on finishing his beer and going. 

Anyway, since Manes was here cramping his style, he could answer a question that had been bugging Michael since they got back from Oregon.

“So, you and Maria… you’re not together together?” He asked, shooting Manes a sideway glance. 

“Ah,” he started, humming, taking a drink. For a moment it looked like he was going to tell Michael to mind his own damned business, which would have been fair. “I’m gay.”

Manes looked like he was ready for a negative reaction. Michael wondered how many rednecks had given him shit for it. “Interesting story there I’m guessing,” Michael prompted, leaning casually against the bar. The look Manes was giving him was one that Michael’s worn himself--defiant, unapologetic, and cautious.

“Maria and I have always been really close,” Manes said, fiddling a little with the lip of his beer. “We’ve been best friends since childhood. First kisses and everything.” He chuckled. Michael smiled. “And then when I enlisted…” He hesitated, handsome features twisting into a grimace. “My dad’s a dick. My whole family is, really. I didn’t want them making any medical decisions for me. Best way to make sure someone I trusted had that power was getting married to Maria.” 

Michael nodded. It made sense after all. “You stayed married.”

“Yeah,” he acknowledged, and there he smiled softly. “We do love each other. It works for us. Besides, neither of us has much time for romance.”

“What about that guy out at Silver Falls?” Michael asked, raising an eyebrow. He remembered the looks before they left to find Billy. Long’s thumb brushing against Manes’ sleeve. All of Manes’ hard edges softening momentarily. 

Manes flushed a little, looking a bit surprised at being caught out. “Forrest? That’s not exactly romance. Colleagues with benefits, at most.” He paused for a moment. “Anyway, what about you?” 

“Me?” Michael was proud that he didn’t choke on his beer. 

“Yeah, figured you’d be here with some girl on your arm. Maybe a Linda? Tess? A Bella?” 

He wasn’t surprised that Manes brought Isobel up. Whenever either DeLuca or Manes mentioned his siblings there was always an undertone of suspicion. 

Well let them keep wondering.

“Gross,” was all Michael said before groaning, running a hand through his hair. “Look, it’s not for lack of trying.” He waved his hand. “I’ve been busy with you guys. And when I haven’t been up to my ass in poison oak, one or both of my nosy-ass siblings have been around.”

He laughed. “I’m seriously going to start writing down all this snarky shit.” Shaking his head, peeling at the label of his beer and sobering a bit. “But I mean… what about before jail? There had to be someone, right?”

Michael sucked in a slow breath. “Mn. Not really, no.”

Manes arched one of those perfect eyebrows. “Really?” he asked, in a disbelieving tone. 

“Oh what, I’m such a catch?” Michael asked, dryly. 

“Smart, funny, adorable curls. You’re not not a catch.” 

Michael was rusty with this whole flirting thing, but that felt like flirting; he could feel his cheeks flushing, and he took a quick drink. Breaking eye contact with Manes. “Surprisingly not a lot of interest in a junkyard dog slash con. Besides…” He trailed off, uncertainly. 

“Besides?” Manes prompted. 

Michael tapped his fingers against the bottle. How could he even explain that he’d never had any interest in forming connections on a planet he wanted more than anything to leave? “I dunno, I guess it never felt right. Never been the settling down type.” 

“I guess that makes sense.”  

Michael shot him a glance, and he didn’t necessarily mean for it to be a suspicious glance, but he knew that it was. “Yeah?” 

“Your house is literally on wheels,” Manes pointed out, dryly.  

Michael had to admit that Manes had him there. Instead of denying it, he ordered another beer. Honestly, he should leave, he still wanted to get laid tonight. But… it was nice talking to Manes about something that wasn’t the Fresno Nightcrawler, or something else equally stupid, for once. 

If Michael was being honest with himself, he did find Manes and DeLuca both very… compelling. And not just because they were achingly beautiful. Michael didn’t really have the words for it. There was this pull, like gravity. Michael took a pull from his fresh beer and squashed the thought. Max was the soppy poet, not Michael. 

“So,” Manes began, twisting in his barstool a little to look out at the rest of the crowd. “What’s your type?” 

“What?” Michael asked, tossing over a few bills for his beer. 

“I’ve been told I’m an excellent wingman.” Manes shrugged. Michael somehow doubted that. But he kept that to himself. “And it’s the least I can do, since apparently we’re half the reason you haven’t gotten laid in… seriously really, not since before jail?”

Michael tried not to fidget in his seat, feeling instantly uncomfortable. Maybe he should have ordered something stronger than beer. Maybe he should have fucking left like he was supposed to.

Michael wasn’t exactly sure how to answer that question. He always found it a little harder to out himself to gay men than anyone else honestly. Maybe because it felt like he had more to prove.

“No, just a couple months…” He dragged a hand through his hair, glancing briefly at Manes who frowned. Michael could tell the moment it clicked.

To his credit, Manes managed to keep from looking shocked. He just shrugged one shoulder. “Then we definitely need to get you laid tonight.”

“What?” Now it was Michael’s turn to frown.

“Yeah, can’t imagine it’s comfortable, quickies in a bathroom… or whatever.” 

Michael half-laughed, taking another drink. This was so deeply weird. “Definitely not on the top ten list,” he admitted.

Manes looked like he was debating something for a minute. “Can I ask an uncomfortable question?”

“You’re asking me that now?” Michael demanded, laughing incredulously but waving him on. 

Manes laughed too. “Gay for the stay, or…?” 

Michael’d never seen him quite so awkward honestly. It was weirdly cute. Probably because there was no judgement or expectation in the way he asked. He was curious, not just being nosy. Michael thought that it could be for the same reason he hadn’t left. This was the first time they’d had a chance to really get to know each other.

“I’m bisexual,” Michael said, stressing the bi part and added, “it’s not that hard.” 

Manes raised his hands up. “I’m not in the business of questioning queer identities.” 

Michael turned in his stool, let his foot rest against the base of Manes’. “Just messing with you.”

Manes tilted his head slightly. “Were you really?”

Michael shrugged. So maybe he did have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about it. But that wasn’t something he wanted to talk about with Alex Manes. They were having a nice time, anyway, and for once he wasn’t really in the mood to fuck it up. 

He grinned, teasingly. “Who lied to you about being a good wingman? Did things change while I was in the slammer? Scowling the new pick up line?” 

Manes rolled his eyes, swatting Michael's arm. But he didn’t deny the scowling part. Michael laughed, resting his elbow on the bar and cheek on his upturned fist, waiting for a response. 

“Maria’s said it, jackass.”

Michael supposed that as Manes’ wife, it was Maria’s job to protect his ego. Because, like Nessie, that’s not something he’d believe until he saw it with his own two extraterrestrial eyes. 

“Do you guys prowl together?” Michael asked instead of further challenging the statement.

“Prowl? Ew. We’re not cishet men,” he laughed. 

“Fair.” Michael laughed too. “Question still stands.”

“Not to take home together, if that’s what you’re angling at.” God they could if they wanted to though, Manes’ non-existent game aside. If the three of them had never met, and those two had sidled up to him at a bar, Michael would have gone home with them in an instant. Been on his knees for them. Zero flirting required. 

“Get you another beer?” Michael offered. Manes was running low. 

He shook his head. “I’m driving home. Besides, wingmen need to keep their wits about them.”

“Lord, you’re really serious about this wingman nonsense. Maybe I should ask Maria for references.” 

Manes snorted and scanned the bar, pursing his lips thoughtfully. It was fucking adorable. Michael took a calming breath and a drink from his beer. “More women here than men…. I’m going to assume you’re into waifish blondes with disproportionately big boobs?” He grinned at Michael, like he was so fucking clever. Completely stupid but still fucking adorable.  

“I mean, I won’t say no. But they’re not my type,” Michael said, rolling his eyes.

“So, what is?” 

“Brunettes,” he offered, cautiously. Not that he actually really cared, it’s just that blondes tended to remind him a little too much of Izzy.

“Helpfully broad.” Manes sounded amused more than annoyed. “Taller than you? For a man anyway. Most guys don’t want to date a woman who’s taller than them. Not that I think that’s much of an issue for you,” Manes rambled, as he looked over the meager offerings in the bar with a critical eye. 

He wasn’t gonna let it go. Ok. Michael could not tear his eyes away from Manes just then, so he made sure to keep his eyes on his face because he didn’t want them wandering over him. Because... Alex Manes, you fucker, you… you are my type.

“Plenty of men are taller than me,” Michael said instead, evasively. 

“Personality?” God, he was persistent.

Michael shook his head. “Does that matter if we’re looking for a one-night stand?” 

“Come on. Don’t give me that shit.” He leaned in a little closer, nudging Michael a little with his foot. Michael couldn’t help but relent.

“I like someone who can hold their own.” Michael glanced out at the denizens of the bar, a safer place to keep his eyes. “I like snark and confidence. I like someone who can keep up with me.” Someone who can help ground him. Not that he’d found that yet.

He caved and ordered something stronger. 

“... Probably a tall order for this place,” Manes admitted, laughing. 

Michael laughed too. “Most places.” He took a deep breath. If Manes was going to keep sitting here, looking so stupidly pretty and laughing so easily, Michael was going to be in a world of trouble. “I’ll be fine though. You probably got better things to do than play wingman for the freshly-unincarcerated.” It was a last-ditch effort.

“I don’t mind...” he trailed off, looking at Michael. “But I guess it’s weird.”

“A little,” Michael admitted. But he didn’t want Manes to feel bad. Not even a little. He wanted Alex’s smile forever. “I appreciate it though. Weirdly sweet of you.” 

“Of course,” he said, reaching to grip his arm lightly, before getting up. And usually most people’s hands felt cool to Michael, but Alex’s felt like a damn brand, and he couldn’t help but stare at him as he headed out of the bar.

Fuck. Fuck. Michael felt a real familiar itch to do something stupid. And he was never good at ignoring those. He downed his drink and followed Alex. 

Outside the air was cool and fresh and it did nothing to dissuade him from what was probably going to be a spectacularly bad decision. 

“Hey!” He caught up with him just as Alex reached his car.

“Change your mind about my offer, Guerin?” Alex asked, one perfect eyebrow arched and an infuriating little smirk on his stupid perfect mouth. “Realize you could use all the help you can--”

Michael didn’t let him finish, just cupped Alex’s face in both of his hands and kissed him quiet. The kiss lasted a couple of heartbeats before Michael pulled back. Alex was staring at him, seeming surprised and a little confused. In the silence that hung between them, Michael started to berate himself, tongue twisting on an apology or an excuse. But then Alex reached up to cup his face in his hands and kiss him back, hard, and Michael felt like he could finally breathe. 

He breathed in Alex. The subtle scent of his cologne, the hops on his breath. Michael pressed in closer and Alex’s lips parted for him, sweet and inviting. Alex’s mouth was as soft as it looked, and this felt impulsive (and stupid) as fuck but if he were being honest with himself, he’d wanted to kiss Alex since that first damn day in jail.

Guerin is kissing you was the first thing that his brain unhelpfully supplied. The second was that Michael was a good kisser, a little gentler than Alex would have guessed. Just the right amount of stubble on his face, too; the burn from kissing was delicious. As delicious as the strength of Michael’s arms as they wrapped around him, pulling their bodies flushed together. And he smelled good. Not like cologne or aftershave. Something else that Alex couldn’t place.

Alex was having a hard time holding onto all the reasons that this was a bad fucking idea. Especially when Michael pulled away slowly, after what felt like a lifetime and a moment, all at once. His eyes (not brown, hazel, no whiskey gold, stop noticing stupid details, Manes) were wide and soft and so vulnerable. It was a new look on Michael. A good one.

And that was probably why Alex leaned back in for another kiss instead of doing what was smart and stopping this entirely. He tucked his hand into Michael’s curls, like he’s always wanted to, holding him in place as he deepened the kiss. Michael made this soft sound--needy and full of desire, causing Alex to kiss him harder, rougher. And fuck if Michael didn’t sigh into it, didn’t go all soft and pliant.

Alex felt himself being slowly pressed against the side of his car, bracketed by Michael’s body, the warm weight of him keeping Alex trapped as they kissed. In response, Alex tugged on his hair and ran his teeth along Michael’s tongue, to his answering moan of approval. 

He went a little lax. Not trapping Alex but leaning into him instead. And Alex was struck by how easily Michael switched from maneuvering Alex to submitting to him--and by “struck” Alex meant really fucking turned on. 

“Wanna take me home?” Michael asked, breathless and suggestive. Fingers skimming along his belt as he nuzzled and kissed along Alex’s jaw line, down his neck. Michael’s hair went taut in Alex’s grip, and Michael moaned softly as it did. Alex tugged just a little more, listening to the way Michael’s breath went absolutely ragged, then he loosened his grip, carding his fingers through his hair gently. Michael sighed against the skin of his throat, hot against his Adam’s apple, and Alex felt his heart quicken.

As if it weren’t already beating fast enough. 

He hadn’t answered Michael yet. Maybe he didn’t want to. In this undecided state he could trace the shell of Michael’s ear with his tongue and nibble the lobe. Like this he could drink up the breathy sounds Michael made without guilt or regret. If they didn’t move, he could both fuck and not fuck Michael in a nebulous future that hadn’t come to pass yet.

But Michael wasn’t interested in some Schrodinger’s box of morally dubious sex. Michael’s hand teased down the apex of his jeans, just the lightest brush but Alex’s hips arched up into it, completely out of conscious control, wanting more. 

“I mean, I can work with this. Just... the ground’ll be hard on my knees,” Michael said, grin in his voice as he nipped down Alex’ throat. Alex groaned. “Not comfortable at all. And I thought comfortable was half the point?” 

That little shit was really going there, wasn’t he? In lieu of making any snarky remarks about sex on an Airstream bed, he gave Michael’s curls a quick yank (and fuck he was never going to get over the way Michael sounded when he did that) and they were kissing again. All sloppy with need, teeth and tongue and swallowed up moans. 

Somehow, someway, Alex got hold of his senses again. “This isn’t proper…”

Michael laughed, and honestly Alex couldn’t blame him. There were a million better ways he could have phrased that honestly. Before he could revise, Michael pressed--no ground --his hips against Alex’s. His lips parted on a gasp and Michael caught his bottom lip in between his teeth, tugging lightly.

“Baby there is nothing proper about what I want to do to you,” he said pointedly, meeting Alex’s eyes, and Alex caught a glimpse of his tongue, sliding along his teeth as he grinned.

Somehow Alex got the passenger’s side door open, and all he could hope for was that he didn’t fumble at it too badly. “Get in.” 

Michael didn’t have to be told twice. Alex made sure he was completely in before closing the car door. Splaying his hands out on the roof of it, breathing through it for a minute.

Was he really doing this? 

Looking down at Michael, who had his lip caught between his teeth, Alex was distracted all over again, thinking about how biteable that lip really was. 

Yup, he thought, throwing caution to the damn wind. I’m definitely doing this.

They were really doing this. Honestly Michael was surprised they made it to the airstream. The entire drive he’d been half expecting Alex to back out, had kept his hand on Alex’s inner thigh the entire time, rubbing slow, suggestive circles all the way up until Alex had to move his hand back down and, Michael, grinning, would start up all over again. 

And when they got back to the airstream, Michael had half-expected Alex not get out of his car. Just say good night and shoo Michael out. But maybe it was all the teasing because he was here, in the airstream, sitting on Michael’s bed. Michael kneeling between his legs. It wasn’t a sure thing yet, however. Their clothes were still on. 

That was Alex’s fault by the way. 

Every time Michael tried to go for his belt buckle, Alex put Michael's hands back on his thighs, expression pensive, just carding his fingers through Michael’s hair. As nice as that was, Michael really wanted to put his mouth on him, listen to him moan. He wanted to know if Alex was the type to twitch his hips in self-restraint or the type to grab Michael’s head and fuck his throat raw.

Fuck, he hoped it was the last.


“I don’t care, Alex,” Michael said, interrupting him. He knew what he was going to say. Some self-righteous BS about the power dynamic, about this being unethical. Maybe he’d be adorably corny again and mention how this was improper. 

As if Michael wasn’t clearly all-in. 

Just in case the message hadn’t been received, Michael leaned forward, nuzzling up Alex’s thigh to crotch. Alex’s hand gripped his hair again, but baby that is absolutely not a deterrent, he thought, and he closed his mouth over the apex of Alex’s jeans. Considering just a tiny nudge of powers to help him get the zipper down. Alex was distracted, right?

“Fuck, Michael…” Alex moaned and yes, that’s what Michael wanted. He hummed, more for the show since he knew Alex couldn’t feel that much through the denim. But Alex’s legs spread for Michael of their own accord anyway. Fuck, he was so gorgeous. 

Alex yanked back a bit hard on his hair. Michael groaned, on the thin line between pleasantly and unpleasantly frustrated. He took a deep breath, focusing on Alex’s face. The man had a goddamned poker face, that was for sure. The only way he could tell for sure that Alex was turned on (other than the fact that he was clearly not soft in his jeans) was by the way his eyes had darkened.

“Do you want to stop?” Michael asked. He kept his hands on Alex’s thighs, as respectfully as he could manage when he fucking gagging for it. He watched Alex’s face carefully, and not for the first time wished he had even a fraction of Izzy’s intuition. “I want you so fucking bad Alex. But if you don’t want to…”

“I want to....” Alex’s voice was rough, raw.

Michael smiled, leaned up to kiss him. “It’s just sex, baby,” he murmured against his mouth. And since Alex was clearly feeling shy or whatever, Michael shifted back a little, to strip off the worn henley he’d been wearing. Alex’s eyes immediately dropped to the bared skin, his gorgeous hands reached for him, and Michael went easily. 

Michael leaned into Alex, pushing him back until he was splayed across the bed. Michael kissed him, sweet and unhurried, and god that was such a fucking luxury. Just being able to take his time. 

Not too much time though. He let his hand rest on Alex’s stomach, slowly dragging to his belt. Giving Alex the chance to stop him again, if he needed to. 

He didn’t. He let Michael work his jeans open, even arched his hips enough for Michael to get them and his underwear (boxer briefs, cute) partway down. Which was enough, Michael dragged his hand over Alex’s freed cock, locking eyes with him, drinking in the way Alex’s breath hitched, the way his hips arched up.

Michael loved that. Loved these moments when his partner was completely focused on him, these moments where he was wanted and needed. Michael left a trail of kisses down Alex’s belly, along the jut of his hip. But he wouldn’t tease. Because he wanted to indulge, and he needed to be the reason Alex felt good. No, not just good. Fucking fantastic.

“Michael,” Alex breathed.

“I’ve got you babe,” Michael responded. The last thing he said before he finally took Alex into his mouth, sucking a little on the head before taking him all in. Impatient. Normally he wouldn’t be so impatient, but the want and need were getting past his self-restraint.

It was Alex who slowed him down, hands on his face, in his hair, keeping him from bobbing his head. Michael looked up at him. Alex was watching him with such burning hot intensity, it made him moan, Alex’s dick slipping from his mouth.

“Easy,” Alex said softly, a bit of a smile on his face. He hooked his good leg over Michael’s shoulder, trapping him. “Slow.”

“Kay,” Michael said, breath shaky. Anything you want was what he really wanted to say. Direct me, lead me, make me, baby please. But he just dragged the flat of his tongue against the tip of Alex’s cock and watched.

“Yeah, that’s good,” Alex praised, voice already rough and Michael hadn’t even done anything. He was preening.

It went on like that. Michael still probably a little too eager, sucking Alex down as much as he could before Alex would slow him down with his words or hands. Reservations forgotten, Alex seemed to want to ride the wave of pleasure for as long as he could. And Michael was only too happy to oblige him. Following his lead, giving him what he needed. It wasn’t a hardship. Alex had a gorgeous dick, and it felt fucking good in Michael’s mouth. The taste of it on his tongue, the pressure of the head against his throat.

Alex was so fucking careful about that, too careful. Hopefully they’d get a repeat performance and Michael could work on that damned control and reservation.

When Alex was about to come, he tugged on Michael’s hair, as if Michael gave a shit. As if he wouldn’t swallow. Like Alex wasn’t hot and gorgeous enough for that. Michael took him just that much more down his throat and then sucked him through it. Until Alex was shivering and yanking Michael off because it was too much. 

“C’mere, let me kiss you,” Alex said, and Michael obliged. Again. He always would, he thought. For Alex. Anything he wanted. 

They kissed, slow and languid and Michael wasn’t even thinking about his own unattended need until Alex was stroking him through his jeans.

“Why are you still wearing clothes?” Alex complained.

“Excuse me? Look at you.” Michael pointed out. Alex’s jeans were still hanging off his prosthetic, his button down still on. Michael just had his jeans on.

They laughed, both of them shifting to get naked. Alex also shucking off his shirt and prosthetic as fast as he could, draping himself over Michael before Michael could really admire him. He debated pushing Alex on his back again, really taking a moment to look at him naked and flushed. His needs could wait when his partner was so fucking gorgeous. But Alex licked his palm and gripped his cock, ending all thought of soft, lazy kisses and exploring (probably for the best, Michael reminded himself that this was just sex). 

Alex worked him steadily towards orgasm, leaving little biting kisses here and there. Nowhere that would show. Shame. But probably for the best. His free hand found its way back to Michael’s hair, his lips whispering encouragement against Michael’s ear, and Michael was lucky he had basically no shame in bed, because it didn’t take much more than that to send him spilling over the edge.

“You’re so hot,” Alex murmured, lips pressed against Michael’s jaw. Michael just pulled him into a slow, sloppy kiss. ‘Cause look who’s talking was probably not the best post-coital rebuttal. 

“Wanna do that again,” Michael said instead of all the soppy shit that was running through his mind. And he wasn’t normally a sentimental fuck but damn. He felt better than he had -- maybe ever.

“I’m down, but I’m going to need a minute,” Alex laughed. “Apparently unlike you, were you really that pent up?” he asked, his fingers brushing over Michael’s cock again -- still half-hard and oversensitive.

“Been a while.” Michael said, letting out a shaky breath and a laugh, something tight in his chest unraveling at that. Alex wasn’t immediately running off. He was actually snuggling into his side, carding his fingers through Michael’s chest hair of all things. Michael wrapped his arm tightly around his waist, dropping a kiss on his shoulder. “Take all the time you need.”

Alex bit his lip around a smile and that was probably the most endearing thing he’d ever seen. He brushed their noses together. Alex dropped a kiss against the tip of his nose before giving him a proper kiss on the lips, soft and gentle.

Who knew Alex Manes was so soft under all the hard assed snark?

Chapter Text

It must have rained last night, Alex thought as he slowly woke up the next morning. He was pleasantly sore and a little drowsy from last night. Warm with Michael still asleep curled up against his side. Alex tilted his head into Michael’s hair, pressed soft kisses there before nuzzling. Those curls were fucking addicting. So was the sensation of smooth muscles as Alex ran his hand down Michael’s back. 

The quiet bliss broke when Michael hummed and shifted in his sleep, sliding his hand across Alex's side, tucking in closer to him. Alex smiled, catching Michael's hand gently, tugging it up to kiss the inside of his wrist. That's when he saw it. Inked on the inside of Guerin's forearm, unmistakable. The crop circle. He sat up quickly, jarring Michael who startled awake, blinking, caught between bewildered and grumpy.

“What?” Michael asked, rubbing at his eyes a bit.

“Where’d you get that?”

“Get what?" Michael seemed to settle on bewildered and reached for him, obviously intent on cuddling and sleeping more. Alex swatted his hand away, grabbing his wrist and shaking his arm. It forced Michael to frown, completely open his eyes. “What the hell?”

“Where’d you get this tattoo?” 

"So much for the afterglow." Michael evaded the question, tugging on his arm. 

Alex didn’t let him take it back. "Guerin, answer the damn question."

Guerin yanked his wrist free now, awake and annoyed. “Prison," he said shortly.


“Fine. Space.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me,” Alex got out between gritted teeth. Please don’t lie, he thought, desperately. Not now, not when I’m so close...

“I didn’t lie the first time,” Guerin snapped at him. The softness from earlier had tightened up into tense, angry lines. He shifted, sitting up. 

“How did you know--”

“Fuck’s sake Alex we talked about this before. It’s a fucking common symbol in conspiracy circles and you know it.” 

“It’s not,” Alex said, shifting. “It’s not that fucking common. But it has shown up in the occasional air force document.”

“Ugh it’s too fucking early in the morning for this shit, Alex.” Michael rolled his eyes. Maybe it was Alex’s imagination but Michael looked shifty, and fuck he wished Maria was here to do her thing.

“You were jailed for stealing Air Force docume--”

"I was jailed for theft at the UFO Emporium,” Guerin cut him off, angrily. Defensive. “Small time shit."

“Don't give me that evasive crap," Alex snapped. All the frustration from years of hunting, of being so close, of being just one step behind, bubbling up all at once. "We got you out of that damn prison and you’ve been nothing but a hindrance--”

“--Oh fuck you Manes--”

Okay maybe that wasn’t exactly fair, but Alex plowed on anyway. “--I think it’s time you told us what you know.”

“What, is that the price for a blowjob?” Michael retorted, obviously furious, and hitting low.

Ah fuck, this is exactly why he should never have been here. But he could be furious with himself for thinking with his dick later. “Don’t be crass.”

“Then don’t be an asshole,” Guerin snapped back, shifting to the side of the bed and reaching for his jeans, working to get the one leg up over his anklet. As Alex watched him, he had to shove away another pang of guilt. "So, what, this has all been a long con to get me to admit to stealing some Area 51 shit? So, you and your military buddies can disappear me for good?" Michael continued, standing up and pulling the jeans up. “No fucking thanks, Manes. I plead the fifth.”

Shit. Alex ran a hand through his already messy hair, trying to think. He’d never been good at diffusing situations, particularly not when he was in them. “Guerin-- Michael, it’s not like that.” 

“Save it.” Michael cut him off, shortly, grabbing his hat, not bothering with a shirt as he headed for the door.

Well, apparently that conversation was over.

Alex took a few calming, steadying breaths. Trying to get his head back on straight. And his leg. Alex had accepted the cards life had dealt him a long time ago, but moments like this were still incredibly fucking frustrating. He couldn’t just run after Guerin, try to work this out. But to be fair, he could have grabbed him at any point before his jeans were fully on.

It’s just as likely that he’d mess it up more if he had.

By the time he’d gotten himself back together and dressed, Guerin was nowhere to be seen. Not that he blamed him, Alex supposed. He climbed into his car instead of making an attempt to find him and headed home.

God. Maria was going to straight up murder him.

“I’m really curious about one thing,” Maria had said to Alex when the truth came out. About fifteen minutes after he got home, since the first thing he did was go straight for the liquor cabinet. And honestly, he should not be drinking that early in the day, but it felt like the thing to do. 

“What’s that?” Alex asked, groaning, and taking another drink of his whiskey, and really hoped that she wouldn’t ask about how Michael was in bed. Because he wasn’t ready to talk about that. Wasn’t ready to even think about how fucking good that was, or about how Guerin might have just single handedly destroyed the reputation of Forrest and half of the guys Alex had slept with.

“Did you have to take a class to get certified as a dumbass, or is it more of a test-in situation?”

Alex couldn’t help but roll his eyes, which got him a slap upside the head 

“Seriously, I am stunned by the shining brilliance of your stupidity,” Maria took the glass out of his hand, appropriating it for herself. “Honestly, just. You’ve set us back months, you realize that?”  

Alex sighed. She wasn’t wrong -- even if they hadn’t even known Guerin for all that long. They were at less than zero now. But that didn’t stop him from being pissed and frustrated as hell. “I don’t understand why we have to massage the information out of him. Flint knows about him, and whatever Flint knows, dad knows. We’re on the clock.”

Maria snorted, but thankfully did not take the opening that gave her. “Because he won’t tell us otherwise. You know whatever he’s got could be seriously incriminating.”

He wanted to say that they should have threatened him with a return trip to the pen. But even before last night, Alex had no intention of doing that. 

“We haven’t given him a single reason not to trust us!” Alex protested, instead. 

“No, we didn’t. Until last night,” Maria pointed out, dryly. “He was starting to like you -- something I’m sure he regrets now. You should go take a shower and think about what you’ve done.” 

And with that Maria went to check on her tomatoes. She did not talk to him for the rest of the day either -- though she had wordlessly dropped her laptop in his lap with a news article pulled up.

‘Date Rape or Alien Abduction?’ the headline read. 

Alex tried really hard not to read anything into that.

Maria had texted Michael the night before, letting him know they were going on a case for a few days and that Alex would be taking a separate car. He didn’t respond but she had read receipts on, so she knew he’d seen it. The warning text had been a wise move because Michael had made it very clear that he was tolerating her under duress. It was the first thing he said to Maria after opening his door a crack, sticking his head out to look suspiciously for Alex. 

Instead of responding she presented the plant that she brought him. It was one she’d been planning to give to him anyway but now that Alex had royally fucked shit up, it seemed to just make him more suspicious. But even pissed, Michael couldn’t hide how his eyes lit up a bit at the plant in its neat little white pot--a newly-rooted cutting of a hoya she’d had for years, which in turn had been grown from a cutting off a plant that lived in her mother’s bar and had originally been her grandmother’s.

“This isn’t from Alex,” Maria assured. He reached for it in a manner that reminded her of a stray cat cautiously leaning close to sniff your hand. “I’ve been meaning to give this to you since Oregon. Even when you’re complaining about deer ticks you seem happy to be around plant life.”

“Byproduct of life in a concrete cell,” Michael said, touching the leaves and investigating the soil. “This isn’t from a store”

“No,” Maria admitted carefully. “I keep plants. House is nicer when it’s a little green.”

“Yeah,” Michael agreed, glancing at her, and smiling a little. He moved to the window by his desk, carefully tearing off the newspaper there so the hoya could have some sun -- but not too much. Maria smiled, watching him. Giving cuttings from that plant felt like giving little family members out and hoping that their recipient would nurture them like she would. She had a good feeling about Michael though.

“If you’re all packed up, I got a burrito the size of your head and an Irish coffee -- mama’s secret recipe -- for you in the car.”

Michael narrowed his eyes at her, as if trying to read her as much as she read him. Eventually, he nodded. “Okay. How long ago did you water this?” 

“Today. It’ll be good for a week. Hoya like it on the dry side.”

“Will it be happy here?” He asked, looking at her, seeming a little anxious. It was utterly charming, and she smiled, nodding.

“Yeah. Not too dark, not too sunny. Just right.” 

Satisfied, Michael packed his bag, and then followed her out to her car to sprawl in her passenger seat, eating the burrito (very food motivated that one) and chugging the spiked coffee, while they drove in silence. Maria waiting him out, patiently. Not the time to push him.

Once in a while, she glanced over at him. Under all that angry exterior and defensiveness was fear, and hurt, and she could only imagine how much sharper it would have been when it was fresh. Alex had touched a nerve, while Michael’s guard was down, and it was gonna take a while to heal. She sighed. Her husband was, occasionally, the dumbest man alive. Most days she’d say it was one of the things she loved about him. But fucking their CI and then immediately turning around and picking a fight with him over the one thing they really needed from him? Alex really outdid himself on that one.

“So, what’s this case? More cattle mutilations?” Michael asked, around a bite of the burrito. Sounding nonchalant, but he was definitely more stressed out and upset than she’d ever seen him. Except maybe that night in the Oregon woods (and lord, if Michael puked burrito all over her car and passed out, she was leaving him on the side of the road).

Maria glanced at the clock. They’d been driving for a little over a half hour. Longer than she’d expected him to play mute, honestly. Michael was usually more curious than that, even if he did spend all his time picking apart their cases.

Though, she supposed, he probably expected her to be playing good cop to Alex’s bad. Not that she wasn’t, in a way, but she was a hell of a lot more patient than Alex was. Not to mention considerate of Michael’s feelings. Goddamnit Alex. 

“Suspected alien abduction,” Maria said, and was almost relieved to hear Michael snort in disbelief. “I know, I know, why would aliens bother abducting humans just to probe them, right?” She prompted dryly, a little smirk on her lip. 

Michael chuckled, starting to unwind, just a little. “It’s dumb. Any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel doesn’t need to probe human butts. They definitely don’t need to do it multiple times.”

“Unless it’s a sex thing,” Maria shot back, feeling rather accomplished at Michael’s almost shocked look, and the little smile that lingered at the corner of his generous mouth after. “Anyway, there’s a girl, Kelly Stanford. Went missing and came back a day later, missing time. Her clothes inside out and backwards. Her boyfriend, who she was out with that night, is missing. Police report says there’s signs of physical abuse, but her rape kit was inconclusive. There’s enough red flags--”

“For us to have to drive three hours to find out that she just had some bad mushrooms?” he sighed, regarding her like she was ridiculous, and it was almost like normal. Almost. 

“For it to be worth our while to check out.”

Honestly, it was half an excuse. For one thing, Alamogordo was home, and Maria wouldn’t mind spending a little time with her mom. 

But also, Holloman was just down the road, and any time a case brought them anywhere near to Jesse Manes, Maria and Alex jumped on it. Every damn time.

Michael shook his head and took another deep drink of his coffee. “So, what makes this so clearly an abduction case?” 

“A possible abduction case,” she corrected him. “And it’s just little things, Guerin. Missing time, inconsistency. The clothes.”

Michael frowned. “... sounds more like date rape than abduction.”  

“Yeah. And Kyle and I are going in with that assumption.”

“Kyle?” Michael’s frown deepened. 

“Ah... yeah, you met Liz Ortecho? Kyle Valenti’s her husband. Our favorite ME. He’s a skeptic, and he’s thorough. You might even like him.” 

Michael snorted, clearly he didn’t agree with that notion. He slumped back against the car door and stared out the window the rest of the way. 

Still, Maria chose to see that as a win, since Michael’s aura felt lighter than it had this morning. Maybe this was salvageable, if they could just focus on the case.

“So why are you dragging me to Alamogordo?” Kyle asked, breaking the silence. Alex, decidedly not in the mood to chat, had been dodging all of Kyle’s attempts at conversation. His anger with Guerin for not spitting out what he knew had slowly morphed into guilt and regret. Neither sitting that well with him. 

“Isn’t that pretty self-explanatory?” Alex asked, nodding at the file in Kyle’s hands. He’d been studying it for the past hour or so. 

Kyle snorted. “There are doctors there, Alex.”

“Yeah, but none of them know what we’re looking for,” Alex pointed out. 

Kyle sighed, and Alex frowned. It was true. If Alex had it his way, he’d drag Kyle around with him on all the missions that required medical expertise. He was fast, and he always found things that the local MEs and coroners missed, and Alex didn’t need to have the same just-trust-me-and-look-into-it conversation with Kyle every damn time. Hell, if he could bring Liz around too, they’d probably close at least double the amount of cases.

“You know,” Kyle began. Alex preemptively rolled his eyes over the Valenti-wisdom Kyle was sure to dispatch. “I’ve always said that motivated reasoning has no place in medicine, Manes. So, what’s the real reason?”

Alex kept staring resolutely at the road. For all the good it would do him. 

“You need a wingman?” Kyle continued. Ok, the Valenti code bullshit would be better than this. “Last time I tried to take you out, it did not go well.”

“It’s not my fault that drag night is not my scene!” Alex protested. “I will never understand why glitter has to be synonymous with queer.” God, he’d been getting glitter out of his car and off his clothes (how did it even transfer to stuff he wasn’t wearing that night damnit) for weeks. 

Kyle snorted. “Yeah, yeah. You made a terrible Avril Lavigne anyway.”

Alex flipped him off, wordlessly. 

Kyle was, of course, completely unaffected by Alex’s displeasure. He took a sip of coffee before basically demanding, “so spill it. Why am I getting recruited?” 

“It’s just a normal cas--” He looked over at Kyle, who was looking at him suspiciously. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Did you and Maria get into a fight about something?” 

Alex groaned internally but he had expected this. It was only a matter of time before Kyle brought it up. There was after all no reason for her to take a separate car. “No,” he said, tightly, and it sounded like a lie even to his own ears.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you two fight about anything more consequential than the radio station.”

“Yeah, well you don’t know us that well,” he said, grimacing

“We are basically your only friends,” Kyle pointed out.

“Quality over quantity,” Alex replied. 


Not dignifying that with a response, Alex grimaced and sat with the expectant silence for several moments. But Kyle was going to know that he was right to think something was up the minute they joined up with Maria and Guerin. “... I fucked up.”

“Yeah?” Kyle asked, prompting. 

Alex grimaced. And the story -- well, a relatively sanitized version of it -- came out. 

There was stunned silence once he was done, Kyle letting out a long breath. “...Alex, you know I love you, yeah?” He didn’t even have to take his eyes off the road to know exactly how Kyle was looking at him. “You are one stupid son of a bitch.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“So they’re both pissed at you.”

“Royally. Epically.”

“I hate you for bringing me on this awkward ass trip. And I am not sharing a hotel room with you.”

“You can share with Guerin.” 

“Nope. Think, man. We don’t even know each other.”

Fair. Alex sighed and nodded. He’d just have to explain all the room charges to their boss. No problem, right? Hopefully, Maria didn’t kick him out into his own room, because he didn’t know how he was going to explain four separate rooms.

“Was the sex really so good that it addled your brain?” Kyle asked, breaking into his train of thought.

“Fuck you,” Alex replied ever so eloquently.

Yes. Yes, it was. God damnit.

Kyle shook his head. “I’d tell you to apologize but you’re basically his warden so that’s awkward. But then you’re also the warden who fucked him so we’re beyond awkward at this point.”

“I am aware that I’ve fucked up, Kyle. You don’t need to spell it out for me .”

“Oh but it’s fun,” Kyle said, smirking. But he sobered after a moment. “I’ve known you for a long time, man. So, I know you're good at compartmentalizing and rationalizing and getting way too in your own head. And yeah, maybe Maria knows you well enough that she can work through that, but Guerin doesn’t know.” 

“I really fucking hate when you’re right about stuff,” Alex grumbled.

“I know,” Kyle said, and it almost felt like an apology.

Once Michael and Maria got into Alamogordo, they checked into a hotel, and got lunch – apparently DeLuca was really serious about this good cop role, because she was making damn sure he was well fed through all this. Only after that did they meet up with Manes and Valenti outside of the police station. Almost immediately he saw Manes and another man -- handsome in an annoying douchey model sort of way -- walking down the block towards them. Michael assumed that had to be Kyle Valenti. 

“Hi, Michael, right?” Valenti said amicably, offering his hand. Honestly, all Michael could do was wonder if the FBI only recruited from modeling agencies? Someone could literally cut themselves on Valenti’s cheekbones. 

“Yeah, Valenti right?” Michael asked, shaking his hand.

“Kyle, please.” He smiled. “Nice to finally meet the man who has the thankless job of being the voice of reason for these two.”

Michael really disliked this guy already. No one was this nice. “Yeah… so what’s the plan?” 

“We’ve already talked to the detective who’s in charge of Kelly Stanford’s case,” Manes began. Michael noticed that he kept his eyes on Maria, who was listening with an air of professionalism that was not what one expected from a husband-and-wife team. And definitely not their norm.

Huh. Maybe that good cop thing wasn’t all an act.

“I want to re-interview her,” Manes continued. “Every question the moron asked her was a leading one. He had a narrative he wanted to build and damn the facts. And it was easy for him too. What with her being lethargic and constantly complaining about a headache.”

Maria frowned. “They taped the interview?”

“Second interview was this morning just a couple hours after finding her boyfriend’s body,” Manes said. “Detective Miller thinks she killed him.”

“Body?” Michael blinked. Maria hadn’t mentioned a body, and he found himself (against his better judgment), looking over at Manes. It was the first time he made eye contact with Michael. They both held it stubbornly. Neither one wanted to break first.

He nodded, grimly. “Her boyfriend’s body was recovered a few hours ago.” 

“So, this isn’t just an abduction. It’s a homicide,” Maria said, thoughtfully. 

“Possibly both,” Manes said and Michael finally broke eye contact to roll his eyes and snort. Yeah of course he thought that. 

“What happened to innocent ‘til proven guilty?” Michael asked sourly. “Or does that not apply to little green men?”

Manes just glared at him, apparently not thinking that needed to be dignified with a response.

“Okay, while you guys deal with that, I have a body to deal with,” Valenti said, excusing himself with a double-handed pat on Manes’ back that was straight out of some sports movie. Valenti, quite obviously, did not want to be around the awkward. Honestly, Michael couldn’t blame him. He’d rather be pretty much anywhere but here at the moment. 

“They ready for us in there?” Maria asked.

Manes nodded. “Hypnotist just got in a few minutes ago.”

“Hypnosis?” Michael asked flatly. “Seriously?” 

Maria nodded, looking a little amused as she shared a glance with Manes. “Yeah.” 

“Do you think you’re gonna fucking recover repressed memories or something?” God, this was dumb, even for them. 

“Of course not,” Manes said, his hands jammed in his pockets. Michael stubbornly didn’t look at him again. Federal Agent Alex Manes who?

Maria was shaking her head. “All of that is an urban legend. You can’t trust memories ‘recovered’ in a hypnotic state because memory is so malleable. It’s already easy enough to implant them, let alone in a hypnotic state. But she’s traumatized, and hypnosis can help her work through the emotions enough to give us a coherent statement. We actually do it pretty frequently.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Of course, you do.” 

“Come on,” Manes snapped before Maria could respond to Michael. “Let's get inside and talk to her before those idiots force her to lawyer up.” Michael flipped off the back of his head. Maria just sighed.

“Yeah, God forbid she has a defense against the corrupt legal system.” Michael wondered if he’d gotten enough sarcasm into that, or if he should layer some more in. “Murder charges are a dime a dozen, these days.”

Manes turned back to look at him, his jaw flexing, and if he kept doing that, he was going to crack a tooth. “I am trying to help, Guerin.”

“That’s what they all say.” 

“Ok kids, how’s about we focus,” Maria said, glaring at them both. “We’ll conduct the interview, and you just listen for anything that might seem suspicious, ok Guerin?”

“Yeah this isn’t my first rodeo, unfortunately,” Michael said, causing Maria to glare at him now. Ok. He felt bad about that. He opened his mouth to apologize but closed it again just as quickly, not wanting to do it in front of Manes. 

So, he left it at that, and they went inside. 

Alex was feeling frustrated. Not just because Guerin only spoke to him when he felt he absolutely had to, but also because he wasn’t really sure how to interpret Kelly Stanford’s interview. It had been a lot.

They reconvened at the hotel, in Alex and Maria’s room, to go over the case over takeout from Maria’s favorite Thai place. Guerin had grabbed something with plenty of noodles and sauce, and flopped on Manes’ bed, putting his feet up, boots still on.

Alex saw it from the corner of his eye, and immediately grit his teeth. “Guerin!” He snapped, about to yell at him to get himself and his dirty boots the hell off his bed when Maria kicked him in the ankle. He hissed under his breath and shot her a dirty look. 

God damnit.

Across the room, Guerin looked like a smug damn cat. 

Not that there were enough chairs for them all to sit on. Maria and Kyle had taken the two at the table, which meant that Alex was left with perching on Maria’s bed. But he had the decency to keep his shoes off her bed, because he at least hadn’t been raised in a barn. 

“So,” he started, picking at his food, annoyed that he didn’t really feel much like eating it. “Find anything interesting in the autopsy?”

Kyle hummed. “Cause of death appears to be blunt force trauma.” 

Maria swallowed a spring roll. “Appears to be?” she asked, tilting her head.

He nodded. “Yeah. Hard to not come to that conclusion when half his head was caved in. Definitely too much for Kelly Stanford to have done though. And there was evidence of inflammatory response indicative of anaphylaxis...” Kyle clearly caught Maria’s eye roll, because he quickly added, “evidence of an allergic reaction.” 

“Allergic reaction to what?” Alex asked, frowning. 

“Good question. His stomach was empty, but I found a needle mark on the back of his neck, so I sent his blood out for a tox screen. And another sample to Liz, just in case. The full workup will take a few weeks, but the preliminary results didn’t turn up any known compounds.”

“But it was weird enough for you to send it to Liz,” Maria prompted, looking over at Alex. Both of them trying not to get excited. They’d been down this road before.

“Yeah.” Kyle nodded. He pulled out his cell phone and flipped it over to Maria and Alex, getting up to also show Guerin. “Because according to the files, both he and Kelly also had this weird burn on the back of their necks...”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Maria said, studying it. “Looks like roots.” 

“Yeah, I looked it up. They’re--”

“Fractal burns,” Guerin breathed, and instantly seemed uncomfortable. Again, as if he were holding something back. Alex glanced at Maria. Well? But Maria just shook her head at him. Come on. 

“You’ve seen this before?” Kyle asked, looking at him, startled. 

“Er… yeah,” Guerin began, slowly. Then he took out his own phone. “Yeah in… woodworking. Makes cool lightning bolt designs. All you need is electricity and something conducive. Fill them up with resin. You got a pretty table.”

Alex really wanted to pressure Guerin. That couldn’t be all of it.

“Yeah it also happens when something is hit by lightning,” Kyle continued. “Which I think is more likely than someone practicing their resin art on the vic.”

Was he hit by lightning?” Maria asked.

Kyle shook his head. “No exit wound on the foot, nothing about the scene to suggest it, so I’m gonna say no. Which leaves us back at square one.” 

It was really hard not to get excited about this case. Alex found himself focusing on this mystery before him instead of his frustration at tiptoeing around Michael’s feelings. 

“So, what did you guys find?” Kyle said after a moment. Maria and Alex’s phone buzzed. Kyle had texted them the images. “Headaches, nosebleeds, achiness? Typical abduction story?”

“Mostly.” Alex nodded. “Except…” He trailed off, not really sure how to put it. “The interview had been weird. Weirder than usual. Her story kept shifting, but she didn’t seem to be hiding anything or equivocating.” 

In the few minutes he’d had alone with Maria while they got food and Guerin waited in the car, she’d confirmed that. It was like Kelly’s memories were shifting sand.

“She swore she saw aliens,” Alex continued. “Right up until she swore she saw men in Air Force uniforms.”

Kyle whistled under his breath. “That’s… good, right?”

Guerin, who’d mostly been quiet while he stuffed his face, scoffed. “Why would that be good?” 

Alex was aware of both Maria and Kyle looking at him. It was his story to tell, but fuck if he wanted to tell it. Not to Guerin. Not after everything that happened.

“Got to love a government conspiracy,” he said, instead.

Alex wasn’t sure if Guerin was just that good at reading him or if he picked up Kyle and Maria’s disappointment in him, because he looked skeptical. Fuck them, why did he have to share? Guerin wasn’t, he thought very much aware of how petulant he sounded.

“All right,” Guerin began, shifting his attention to Maria and Kyle. Alex, much to his chagrin, was disappointed that Guerin didn’t needle him for the truth. “Well, whatever really happened I don’t think that girl did anything to her boyfriend. Learning her boyfriend was dead was the only real reaction any of you got out of her.”

“She seemed pretty upset about the aliens,” Maria pointed out.

Guerin snorted. “Because there was a hypnotist there bringing up aliens to her,” he pointed out dryly.

“She brought them up first, Michael.” Maria pointed out. The guy they’d been working with was good. Made sure to stay away from anything that could be suggestive. “She also brought up the Air Force.”

“She did?” Kyle asked, frowning. 

“Yeah,” Guerin admitted. “When she mentioned that she could hear aliens in her mind, stealing her memories… It was maybe the only time she seemed focused.”

“Yeah you’re right,” Alex said. He tried to catch Guerin’s eyes unsuccessfully. “Her attention was homed in on the hypnotist. Like this wasn’t the first time she’d experienced it.” 

“You’re seriously....” Guerin rolled his eyes so hard it was a wonder they were still in his head.

Alex was absolutely serious. “Project MKUltra.”

“Yeah,” Kyle began, dryly. “And so, when the LSD didn’t work the military shifted its attention to the more reliable method of hypnosis. C’mon man.”

Guerin was grinning, pointing at Kyle. Oh great. They were going to get along, weren’t they?

“Hypnosis was already part of MKUltra. So was sexual and verbal abuse….” Maria began, a hard edge to her voice. “We’ve been assuming that what happened to Kelly is either the product of drug abuse or trauma or both. And maybe that’s the case, but what if this is just continued experimentation? MKUltra, like a whole lot of other military and government experiments, targeted vulnerable populations. Couple of teenagers fit that bill.” 

The room was silent. Grim. Fuck, she was right. It just made Alex even angrier. 

“Is there any way you can expedite those tox screen results?” Guerin asked after a moment. Alex was not a bit surprised. If Alex had learned anything in the last few cases he’d been with Guerin, it was that Guerin cared. The more vulnerable the potential victim, the angrier and more protective he got. It was one of his better qualities. 

He wanted to say something about that, but he’d never done so before and it definitely wouldn’t be accepted kindly now.

Kyle pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll text Liz.” Which made more sense than asking a lab to speed it up. Liz knew what was at stake, and she was insatiably curious. Besides, she could be trusted to keep her mouth shut.

“Great. I’ll...” Alex broke off as his phone started ringing and grabbed it. “Hello?” 

“Agent Manes?” The voice on the other line was familiar. It took a minute for him to place it though. 

“Detective Dulles?” He glanced over at Maria.

“Yeah. Hey, you better get down to the station. There’s a body.”

“You think it’s related?” Alex asked, blinking. 

“It’s… weird.” Dulles said. “Real weird. Can you just get here? Bring that ME of yours.”

Alex frowned, setting his food aside, listening. “Right. We’re on the way.” 

“What’s going on?” Maria asked, as he hung up. She was already up, grabbing her jacket. 

“Detective Dulles says they got another body. Called it ‘real weird.’” He glanced over at Kyle. “You up for another autopsy?”

“Oh, I have nothing better to do than to spend four more hours at work tonight, obviously,” Kyle said, with a groan, but he was already up on his feet. 

“I’ll hold down the fort,” Guerin said.

“Nuh-uh.” Alex did not trust Guerin alone right now. Not that he probably wouldn’t deserve Nair in his shampoo or whatever petty revenge Guerin might try to enact, but. “You can help us go over the case files again.”

Guerin didn’t seem thrilled with Alex (add it to the list, bud) but he got up anyway, following them out.

Alex was glad this case was getting more interesting by the second. Glad for the distraction, sure, but especially glad for the lead. Maybe this case would be the connection he needed to finally catch his dad red handed.

Chapter Text

“Okay, weird’s an understatement,” Kyle said, slowly.

They were standing around a gurney inside of the morgue at the hospital, where a body was half-exposed in its body bag. And inside that bag was an… alien.  No seriously. It was an alien. Kyle barely could believe his eyes. Big grey head, giant eyes that were currently closed, no nose to speak of, and a tiny mouth. The body was slim but not thin or short. It seemed about the size of an average man, to be honest. Which maybe was a relief? Why that would be the case, Kyle had no idea. 

Detective Dulles looked over at him, and honestly the man was definitely a weird shade of green. Apparently, he had a dodgy stomach. “You don’t need me for this, right?” 

“No,” Kyle said, shaking his head and grabbing some gloves to pull on. “Go ahead.” Better anyone pukey was far away from here. 

Dulles all but ran out of the room, which Kyle supposed was fair, but honestly how often did you get to see a real life alien autopsy? Kyle certainly wouldn’t be leaving if he were in Dulles’ shoes. He shifted his attention to Michael, about to offer him the same out. Michael looked a little pale but not clammy which was usually a good tell for pukey. 

“I wish I had a drink,” Kyle groaned, and pulled the body bag down a bit more before grabbing his camera and taking several pictures from different angles.

“Me too,” Michael replied, staring down at the body, arms crossed, looking tense. Kyle wondered if this was the first dead body he’d seen. Alien or not, that could be a bit overwhelming. “Several, in fact.”

“What the fuck am I looking at,” Kyle asked, feeling a little hysterical. Well, he knew what he was looking at, he just couldn't believe it.

“Kyle…” Alex began gently but even he sounded stunned, and Kyle took some comfort in that. Even fucking Alex Manes couldn’t have expected this shit to befall him today. 

“Yeah, I know,” Kyle said, touching the alien shoulder. It was cool to the touch, but it felt real. Soft, pliable. Not exactly like human skin -- but then, he supposed, why would it? He looked up at the others. 

Guerin also touched the body, poking the other shoulder, tentatively. Kyle couldn’t quite read his expression. He seemed stunned, which yeah fair, but there was something else there. He glanced over at Maria, who seemed utterly engrossed, too. Fair enough.

“It was just found like this…?” Michael asked, something between anger and confusion in his voice.

Maria shrugged and she touched Michael’s arm, rubbing it a little, as if she were trying to soothe him. “Yeah, some hikers found it in Oliver Lee State Park, apparently. Some random bits of scrap around. The detective made sure to document it and keep it on the downlow.”

Michael let out a soft breath. Nodding. 

“You sure you guys want to be here for this?” Kyle asked. Not everyone was okay with ribs cracking open and internal organs being weighed out, even if this was an alien.

“I’m not leaving,” Michael said, a stubborn set to his mouth even as he tugged his hat down, low over his eyes.

“Do it,” Alex said, nodding, and starting to record on his phone.

Kyle took a breath, and pulled the surgical tools closer to himself, picking up a scalpel to start collecting samples off the body. 

The minute he did, though, the skin peeled, in a way that was distinctly not normal. And yeah, he knew how ridiculous that sounded. “There seems to be two layers of...” He trailed off, and then shifted, moving from the arm to the head, searching for a change in texture. 

“What?” Maria asked.

“Epidermis. Skin under the skin.” Ah. There it was. The tiniest little join, and he got his fingers into it and pulled, peeling off the mask.

The room was full of stunned silence for a moment before Michael broke it. “What the fuck.”

“What...” Maria breathed out as Kyle revealed a man under the giant alien head, blonde and olive skinned, probably in his late twenties.

“Yeah of fucking course,” Michael said, and if Kyle didn’t know any better, he’d say he sounded relieved. 

Kyle just stared down at the human body enfolded in an alien costume for a minute. Both trying to get some initial impressions and mentally recovering from the whiplash. “It’s never dull when I take a case with you two,” he said dryly, glancing briefly at Alex and Maria who definitely were disappointed.

“I gotta say, this is a really well done prosthetic,” he said, after a minute. “Whoever this guy is, wherever he got this suit, someone invested a lot of money in it…” He paused, noticing the glint of a chain around the man’s neck and he dug to pull a necklace -- no, a set of dog tags -- out from under the man’s alien suit.

“Military,” Alex breathed out, getting excited again. Which yeah, sure it wasn’t a real alien but whatever was going on wasn’t going to be some standard military op. No way. 

“Kelly’s story’s getting more plausible by the second,” Maria added. 

“Think you can do something with these?” Kyle asked, offering them over. 

“On it.” Alex took the tags from Kyle. “All right Sebastian Walker. Let’s find out your story.” There was a hard set to his jaw now. Determination. 

As Alex stepped out, Kyle turned his attention to Guerin. “It’s gonna get kind of gross in here.” He warned him. “You might want to go get a coffee?”

Michael looked over at Maria, who was pulling a pair of gloves on. “You’re staying though?”

“I’m going to help Kyle get the suit off of him,” she explained. “You go. I’ve helped before.” 

Michael looked stubborn for a minute before he let out a breath. “Yeah. Coffee,” he agreed and beat a hasty retreat.

Maria watched him leave, shaking her head a little. “If they kill each other in the hall, I’m holding you personally responsible,” she said, as she stepped forward to help Kyle roll the body onto its side, so he could look for a zipper.

Alex had snagged a free interrogation room and gotten to work on his laptop. He might no longer have security clearance, but they couldn’t take away the hacking skills he’d learned in the Air Force. It didn’t really take that long to get the information he was looking for.

There was a suspicious lack of detail in Airman First Class Walker’s files. Alex might normally find that frustrating, but right now, that was a really really good sign.

That meant that there was something to hide. 

The disappointment he felt at discovering that he didn’t have definitive proof of extraterrestrial life had been replaced by the need to uncover this new mystery.

The research had taken him pretty well over an hour, and he figured Kyle was probably getting close to finished with the autopsy, so he closed his laptop, slipping it back into his bag and headed out of the interrogation room into the hallway.

Only to find himself staring at Guerin, who was lounging on a bench with a coffee in his hand, legs extended out into the hallway. He looked long and lean and so utterly fuckable. Alex had to let out a slow breath, fighting an utterly absurd flash of anger at how damn good he looked. 

Guerin looked up, so that the brim of his hat was no longer in his eyes. Just staring at Alex, flatly. 

"Guerin,” Alex started. Fucking hell. He probably should apologize for being an asshole, right?  That’s what people did. “I’m...”

“Relieved aliens don’t look like a knickknack you buy at a Roswell gas station? Yeah, me too,” Guerin cut him off, his voice tight, getting up and tossing his empty cup. “Find anything?” He nodded toward the room Alex had been working in. 

Alex wasn’t sure if he was grateful for the out or not. “Not really. But I-” He stopped, the words freezing in his throat as a new figure stepped into the hallway, from the observation room directly next to the interrogation room he’d been in. 

Shit. Fuck.

It’d been a good two years since he’d seen his father, but he looked exactly the same, down to the crew cut that was only barely shot through with grey to the fatigues. Not that the asshole ever changed, inside or out. Nightmares never did. “The fuck are you doing here?” he asked, tightly. It wasn’t lost on him that two other airmen also stepped out to flank Jesse. His father really didn’t need an intimidation squad, so they had to be here for the body.

“Alex,” Jesse started, as if nothing were wrong between them. “I heard you were in town.”

“So, you decided to, what, spy on me?” Alex kept a tight rein on his anger, but he couldn’t help but point out the obvious. “I’m not in the force anymore. Besides, last I checked, I outranked you.”

Jesse’s tight smile could shatter glass. “This must be the famous Mr. Guerin,” he shifted the topic, and Alex did not like the way he was looking at Michael. He didn’t even think about it, just kind of angled himself between Jesse and Michael. Jesse raised an eyebrow at Alex, just a little. Enough. Jesse always knew when he cared about something, and always always did his best to take it away from Alex. 

“Oh, I’m famous now,” Michael said, dryly, “I guess I’m honored.” He seemed relaxed, oblivious to the tension in the hallway, though he was pretty good at hiding how he was feeling, playing it cool. Alex wished he had that ability.

“Well, after your little raid on government property, I thought it prudent to keep an eye on you. Especially once my wayward son decided to take you on as an informant.”

Alleged raid,” Michael said, tightly. His veneer of calm slipping. Immediately, obviously uncomfortable.

And god damnit, Alex had known it. Knew that Jesse was going to be watching Guerin. Flint had said as much, and he’d let himself get fucking complacent.

“Is there a point to the family reunion, pops?” 

It took a moment for Jesse to shift his attention off Michael back onto Alex. Way too long. “One of my men went AWOL. I heard a rumor that local law enforcement recovered his body.”

“You should take that up with Detective Dulles.” Alex nodded down the hall with a jerk of his head. 

Jesse regarded Alex quietly, in that way that always put Alex’s teeth on edge--infuriatingly smug and disappointed but unsurprised, with a pinch of disgust for flavor in those big blue eyes. The disgust was the hardest part. Alex couldn’t remember a time when his father wasn’t disgusted by him. 

Jesse sighed, as if he expected Alex’s resistance. “Airman Walker was a disturbed young man,” Jesse said instead of playing games with Alex. “He saw things that weren’t there. He was heavily involved in conspiracies. You understand what that’s like.” He paused, looking at Alex significantly, with a small smirk. “Disturbed. We couldn’t get him help son, but we can at least get him a proper, dignified burial.” 

“Like I said,” Alex responded tightly. “You’ll have to take it up with Dulles, since this is his jurisdiction.” 

Jesse chuckled like he was talking to a particularly slow child. “The Air Force doesn’t care about his jurisdiction. But good talk, Alex.” He motioned for the two airmen behind him to start heading for the autopsy room, following after them at a leisurely pace.

Alex kept himself still, kept himself from trying to stop them. It wouldn’t end well. He just hoped that Kyle had gotten some samples set aside somewhere to send to Liz.

But of course, Guerin went right after them, glancing at Alex with what might even be concern as he passed by him.

“Michael…” Alex started, reaching for his arm, trying to stop him.

“Maria’s in there,” Michael replied, and of course he was right. Not that Maria couldn’t handle herself, but she shouldn’t have to, particularly not with Jesse. Alex nodded and followed Guerin into the room.

Inside, Jesse was smiling at Maria, and if they all didn’t know exactly what kind of person he was, it might be read as charming. “Well, well, if it isn’t my favorite daughter-in-law.”

“Oh, Jesse, you can choke on lies that big,” Maria replied dryly.

“Charming as always.” Jesse motioned for Kyle and Maria to step aside, and they did because the airmen looked like they were ready to shove them away if necessary. “Still can’t believe you’re letting Alex drag you on these wild goose chases.”

“What can I say, I like birdwatching,” she responded, smoothly. “Right now, I’m looking at a red-rumped bush tyrant.”  

There was a suspicious sound from one of the airmen that sounded like choked-back laughter, and Jesse’s face -- well. It was always a goddamned pleasure to see confusion and irritation flash across that granite cliffside. Alex had found no one better at getting one up on Jesse than his wife, and it was fucking poetry. It almost made this encounter worth it.

But while Maria was skillfully roasting Jesse, their only lead was being wheeled away by a stone-faced airman. The other was grabbing the organs that had been removed along with any other samples Kyle had left out, as well as the suit, the morgue recorder and Kyle’s camera. 

“This is why I miss you at Christmas dinner, Maria,” Jesse replied dryly, once he regained his composure. “You’ll both be so kind as to allow Airman Franklin to check for any stray samples. Spirits won’t rest unless the body’s all buried, right Alex?” 

“Doctor?” Airman Franklin looked at Kyle.

“Oh, yeah, sure. It’s not like soppy dead tissue wouldn’t show in my pocket,” Kyle said dryly. “Take your time, enjoy the frisk. I go to the gym for a reason.”

Franklin looked distinctly uncomfortable at that, and definitely used a light hand on the frisk, before turning to Maria.

“Touch me and you’ll lose the hand,” Maria said, with a warning shake of her head. Franklin looked back at Jesse, uncertainly.

“Let’s not make this unpleasant, Maria.” Jesse nodded for Franklin to continue. 

“Too late, you’re here,” she replied, staring at Franklin so hard his touch was lighter than it had been with Kyle. 

When the frisk turned up nothing, Jesse smiled at them. “Well, this was fun. Should I expect you for Sunday dinner?”

“You’re more than welcome to hold your breath.” 

Jesse just chuckled. “Pleasure to finally meet you Mr. Guerin,” he said, and Alex could swear he saw Michael’s skin crawl. Or maybe he was just projecting?

Jesse though looked pleased as punch as he made his way out. He also seemed to make a point of catching Alex’s eyes before disappearing out the door. That look was smug. Just reminding Alex that he was always one step ahead of him. 

Alex tried to shake off the impotent fury. Focus on the fucking case. He counted to twenty once his father left. “Did we get anything useful?” 

Maria looked away from Guerin, who she’d been talking to in a low voice. She smiled and walked over to the freezer, opening the hatch and pulling out a body on a slab. From under the arm, she pulled out a couple of vials of blood. “Sensed his trifling ass the moment he walked onto the floor. Also got plenty of footage on my phone.” 

Alex let out a heavy breath, crossed the room in three steps, and planted a kiss right on her mouth. “You are the best fucking wife in the whole damn world.”

She smiled, tweaking his chin gently. “Don’t you forget it.” 

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Kyle said, stripping off his gloves and mask, going to wash up. “I need some damn sleep. And I’d like to follow up with Kelly in the morning. Can’t hurt to get a blood sample from her, too.” 

“Sounds like a plan,” Alex agreed, squeezing Maria a little. Conscious of Guerin’s curious eyes on him, but it was way too late in the day for him to even consider opening that can of worms.

It had been a whirlwind of a day. Michael felt like his emotions had been on a rollercoaster, and it wasn’t even over yet. Honestly, the day did not have to get any more frustrating after he almost watched an alien autopsy. Sure, it turned out to be a guy in an elaborate Air Force gimp suit, but Michael was still dealing with the aftermath of having been prepared to let them cut open an alien. He had been ready to watch. 

(But really what would have been the alternative? Protest?)

He was going to have nightmares about that fucking autopsy for a week. Nightmares about him or Izzy or Max being strapped to a gurney while Kyle Fucking Valenti hovered over them with a scalpel. And he was pretty sure Jesse Fucking Manes was also going to be there too. Smug and arrogant like every evil movie villain wrapped up into one. 

“That’s not a man who gets fucked with easily,” Michael had commented to Maria, watching Alex, thoughtfully. The euphoria of getting one over on his dad had passed quickly and Alex was left looking like he was trying to pull himself back together. Michael had never seen Alex so out of sorts.

Okay, he looked less shaken and more angry. But Michael was slowly starting to understand the different layers of Alex Manes’ anger language. 

“No, he’s not,” Maria agreed and had reached out for Michael, squeezing his arm gently. It was sweet. It was an act meant to comfort, Michael thought, and a protective one. Her firm grip hadn’t eased until Alex caught her attention.

Michael didn’t think she had much in the way of really stopping that creep if Jesse wanted to shove him into some Air Force Guantanamo. But Michael had a feeling that if that’s what Jesse Manes had wanted, he’d have done so a long time ago. 

But he couldn’t be sure. Because he didn’t know Jesse Manes. Yet.

He started with Maria. 

“He’s the reason we’re married,” Maria had explained, after Alex and Kyle had gone back to the motel and Maria and Michael stopped off to get food and booze. 

“I know. Alex told me about it.” Before their fight, which was only two days ago, now. Felt like longer. “He said it was because his dad was a dick, but he definitely undersold it.”

Maria was quiet, pulling from the back seat the six packs and the tequila she bought while Michael carried the three boxes of pizza--chicken and BBQ, Alex’s favorite apparently. 

“Jesse Manes is a piece of shit,” she said darkly, grip tight on the neck of the tequila bottle. “Alex’s life was hell in that house. Every other week a new bruise. Mom basically converted her office into a bedroom for him, so he could get away whenever he needed to.”

“Why didn’t she call the cops?” Michael demanded.

“She did,” Maria shot back, defensive and angry. Glaring at Michael. “And she got hell for it. Jesse Manes is a well-respected white military leader in a military town. The cops love him. Suddenly my mom was up to her ears in inspections and bogus violations. She almost lost her fucking bar because of him… Alex was horrified, felt like it was his fault. He didn’t even want to come over anymore.” She slammed the hatch back down and took a deep breath, gripping the bottles tightly, likely to keep her hands from shaking.

“I’m sorry,” he began, stumbling awkwardly over his words. “I shouldn’t have assumed your mom was--”

Maria shook her head. “No, I get it. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. It’s just that I can still remember the cops coming around, like a pack of hyenas… Guess I’m not over it."

She took another breath, trying to compose herself, but she couldn’t quite shake the haunted look on her face. Michael was glad for the boxes of pizza occupying his hands or he might have done something stupid like put his arm around her. 

“Yeah.” Michael nodded. It wasn’t like he’d ever experienced anything like that, but he knew what it was like to be on the edge, constantly worried that your life was going to fall apart, and it sucked. “I don’t blame you.” 

She nodded, accepting that. Clearly not in the mood to talk about it anymore, though.

The best thing he could do right now was try to pull the conversation towards something not quite as traumatic. Honestly, he should just change it entirely but fuck he needed to know what he was up against. “...Why do I get the feeling that the reason you guys are doing this whole alien-hunter schtick also has something to do with Jesse Manes?” 

Maria tensed again, and then slowly relaxed, as if forcing herself to, and put on a smile that was just pained enough for him to regret asking the question.

“Well, I’d question that genius brain you’re always bringing up if you couldn’t put that together,” Maria replied, tone forcibly lighter, and just dismissive enough that Michael knew to shut up and stop pushing.

They started to make their way from the parking lot towards her room. 

Michael half-laughed, going along with the bid to lighten the mood. “Well. Guess I could cut Manes a little slack.” Ugh. He didn’t want to. He wanted to keep being good and angry at him. But if fucking over Jesse Manes was the reason Alex was being a dick, well. Maybe he understood that.

Maria shook her head empathically. “If he thinks you’re pitying him, he’ll give you more reasons to be pissed at him.” 

Michael snorted a little. Yeah. That’s what he would do, too. “Good to know.” 

“However,” Maria began thoughtfully, stopping a few doors from her room. She turned to look at Michael. “Maybe ease up on the sarcasm for one night? Within reason yeah?” 

Michael looked at her steadily for a moment. Truth be told, he wasn’t feeling particularly sarcastic tonight anyway. “Got it, boss.” 

Maria gave him a sly smile, nudging him a little with one of her pointy elbows. “A girl could get used to that. Be careful.”

Michael chuckled, but he had to remind himself not to get too comfortable, no matter how much he liked her. He’d already made that mistake with Alex. They started to walk again. “Maria….”

She glanced back at him. “Yeah?”

“What about you? You ok?” Michael asked. Maria had been solely focused on Alex, but she’d been off too and now it made a whole lot more sense why. He hated seeing it in Alex but at least he was kind of used to Alex being dour and pissed off. But Maria? He wasn’t used to it and he sure as hell didn’t like seeing it. 

“I’m pissed,” she said honestly. “Nothing a 5th of tequila won’t cure. Jesse Manes thrives on making people feel off balance and unsafe. I know how to handle that. But this is your first time--”

Michael shook his head. “Nah. First time with this guy sure, but he’s not the first asshole I’ve ever met who likes to make people feel small and powerless.” 

Maria nodded. She bumped him gently with her shoulder. “So, we’re on the same page?”

“Yup. Nothing liquor can’t handle.” 


Alex was in the bathroom when they finally got back to Maria’s room. They set out their food and drinks on the little table, tugging it closer to Maria’s bed so the three of them had a place to sit, since there were only two chairs.

“You sure you want me here?” Michael asked, feeling kind of weird. Like an interloper. “I can just grab some food and beer and go watch porn on the bureau's dime.”

She laughed. A real one this time and it made him feel warm.

“I mean that’s an option,” Alex said, stepping out of the bathroom in soft looking joggers and dark t-shirt. His skin was still damp from the shower, and his shirt both stretched nicely across his chest and clung to every curve of every well-defined muscle. It was annoying. Michael was angry with him and here he was looking so soft with his damp hair in his eyes. “Don’t mind if you just eat here, though,” Alex continued. 

Michael got the feeling that Alex really didn’t want him to leave. But why? Was it because he didn’t think Michael could handle himself if Jesse came back? Or was this more personal? He couldn’t tell if he was more offended at the first thought, or more annoyed at the second. 

Alex didn’t wait for Michael to respond, going over to see what pizza they got. He smiled at Maria, kissing her temple before taking a seat with her on the bed, arm loosely around her waist. He looked angry, and tired, and he was leaning just a little against Maria. Imperceptible to anyone who didn’t spend an embarrassing amount of time staring at these two. 

Michael dropped in one of the empty chairs, deciding he was too tired to get pissed at the remote chance that Alex was trying to mother him. And pizza was best hot and fresh anyway.

They ate quietly except when Michael had to extol the virtues of the pizza they were eating.

“Frankie’s is the best pizza in the state,” Alex pointed out. 

“You guys are just gonna have to buy me pizza in every city in New Mexico so I can test that theory then.” 

“Honestly, it might be doable,” Maria chuckled. “We drive through the state often enough.”

“That feels like a threat,” Michael groaned. “During all those boring Reddit searches you inflict on me, I learned about a Fresno Nightcrawler. You seen it? Looks kinda like a pair of pants went out for a walk. How about we go there next? I donno what’s in Fresno, but it’s not the desert and it’s not a goddamn forest. So… let’s go look for some haunted pants.” 

Alex chuckled. He was relaxing, by degrees. “The California desert isn’t the same as ours, but it is still a desert.” 

“What about the Proctor Valley Monster then? San Diego. Could hit up a beach. Never seen the ocean before.”

Maria rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “Careful there, Guerin, we’re gonna start thinking you actually like the cryptid hunts.”

Alex covered his own smile with a beer. “I’m sure he’ll do plenty of complaining even while shoving ramen down his throat as he stares at the majesty of the ocean--instead of ticks, he’ll bitch about jellyfish.” 

Michael sputtered. “Tacos, surely. I hear they make them with fish out there.” 

“Surf and turf burritos,” Maria pointed out. 

“California burritos,” Alex countered, and at Michael’s obviously quizzical look, he explained, “carne asada with french fries.” 

“Oh, like you can’t get a burrito with a side of fries here,” Michael said, with a roll of his eyes, and Maria kicked him under the table, presumably for the sarcasm. But they were both laughing, and it felt so good. A much-needed distraction.

“No, no, in the burrito,” Alex was saying, shaking his head.  

“Wait, really?” Michael hummed. Thinking about it, but honestly there was only one word for it. “Genius.”

They went on like that for a while talking about food. Letting themselves relax slowly, until the exhaustion of the day finally caught up with all three of them. 

Thanks to Jesse’s sudden appearance, the case had gone abruptly cold. They spent some time on it in the morning. Alex was like a man possessed, frowning, hunched over his laptop, doing something that wasn’t strictly legal. Beer, food, and some light conversation might have helped him get some sleep last night, but he wasn’t able to stay asleep. 

He was vaguely aware of hours passing as he worked to hack into the base’s system, or his father’s files. Eventually, Maria got up, smoothing her hand over his hair. He could feel the worry in the touch, but he was focused. Couldn’t break away.

He could hear her moving around, getting dressed, texting. Presumably Guerin or Kyle.

Eventually, Guerin and Kyle came by with bagels and coffee. Guerin set some down next to Alex, who grunted in thanks, grabbing the coffee without looking. Not that he could completely ignore the conversation around him.

“You okay?” Maria was asking Guerin, and out of the corner of his eye he could see her rubbing his arm gently. 

“Yeah, didn’t sleep well is all.” Alex could hear the exhaustion in his voice. 

Kyle snorted. “Did anyone? I swear, I’m going to be reliving that autopsy every time I close my eyes.”

“Yeah,” Michael said, quietly. “Me too.”

Alex knew the feeling but compounded by Jesse’s visit and the complete shutdown of the investigation. This all felt so useless. Until they could get Walker’s (and Kelly’s once they acquired some) blood to Liz, they didn’t really have much to pursue. 

“Kelly’s free.” Kyle broke into his train of thought at one point, with a hand on his shoulder. Alex looked up, startled. “Come on.”

Alex let out a breath. “Take Maria.” He shook his head.   

“I’m taking you,” Kyle said, his tone brooking no dissent. “Let your programs run.”

Alex made a face, sighing and setting the laptop aside. “Fine,” he said, chugging the rest of his coffee, which had already gone cold. 

Kelly had texted her mom’s address -- apparently, she’d decided to stay there while she recuperated, so that’s where they met her. It was a nice enough place, closer to the city center. Her mother answered the door and offered them coffee that they both turned down. Alex didn’t want to linger.

“Why do you need my blood?” Kelly asked, as Kyle swabbed her skin with alcohol. The poor girl looked exhausted, her eyes puffy and bruised.

Kyle looked up at Alex, expecting him to explain while Kyle was working. And see, this is why Maria should have been doing this. She was better at explaining this kind of shitty, uncomfortable stuff. 

“Your boyfriend had an unusual compound in his blood. We’re just covering our bases.” 

Kelly bit her lip and nodded, slowly. “All right,” she agreed faintly, and let out a sharp breath as Kyle slid the needle into her vein. “You think he was murdered,” she said, voice thick. “By who?” 

Fuck, this was uncomfortable. “Honestly, we don’t have enough information to say anything conclusively.”

“That’s bull,” she said, wiping at her eyes a bit. “You think it was the military? You think they what, fucked with our heads? Drugged us?” 

Kyle squeezed her arm gently. “We don’t know, but that’s what we hope to find out. But it’s going to take time,” he said, his voice reassuring in a way that Alex really couldn’t be. He set the vial aside and gently put a Band-Aid over the needle mark. 

“Promise me you’ll tell me. What you find out,” Kelly pressed, looking first at Kyle, then at Alex. “I need to know what the fuck happened.” She was obviously tired and miserable and stressed, and had been the victim of something horrifying, but she looked at them with a determined set to her jaw. 

Alex found himself nodding, against his better judgment. “Once we have anything concrete.” 

They packed up and left shortly after that, Alex letting out a sigh of relief once they were pulling away from the curb. 

“You look like shit, man,” Kyle said, dryly. “Time to get some food in you.”

“I’m fine, Kyle,” he countered, waving his hand. “Let’s just…”

“Nope,” Kyle shook his head, interrupting Alex’s (probably predictable) suggestion that they head home and get to analyzing the blood. “You need solid food. Besides, Maria’s busy.”

“Busy?” Alex asked, frowning. “Busy doing what?” 

Kyle looked over at him, flatly. “You really do have a one-track mind sometimes.”

Oh crap. Alex groaned a little as it dawned on him. “Mimi,” he said, and fuck that should have been obvious.  

“She texted to let me know she was headed to the Pony about 20 minutes ago.” 

Alex scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Okay. Food, then.” He was going to have to make an appearance, but he was not going to the Pony on an empty stomach. Not with the way the DeLuca women poured. “Burgers work?” 

Kyle groaned. “Remind me to check your cholesterol when we get back home.”

Alex couldn’t help but laugh, directing Kyle to one of his favorite diners. As a bonus, it wasn’t too far from the Pony. 

“Nice place,” Kyle said, as headed towards the bar. It was a classic galley style diner, with a long bar crowded with stools and several booths, which were all pretty full. Still a popular place

Alex headed down to the end of the bar, where there were a handful of empty stools, grabbing a menu and handing it over to Kyle. “Maybe they’ll have salads for you?” He offered. He didn’t need one, they hadn’t changed their offerings in years. He scanned over the staff, not recognizing anyone.

Kyle shook his head, looking over the menu. In short order, Alex had ordered his standard burger, fries, and a chocolate shake, and Kyle a southwestern chicken salad. Maintaining abs took way more sacrifice than Alex could ever accept. Well unless you were Michael Guerin, apparently, but Alex was absolutely not thinking about those abs or the person they were attached to. 

“Gonna wash my hands,” Kyle said, dropping the menu into the holder and leaving Alex to hold down the fort.

Alone, Alex just tried to soak up the ambiance, the retro 50’s style decor. He ran his hand along the light blue bar and noted with amusement that the stools were still as uncomfortable as ever.

There was something about this place, its popularity and almost claustrophobic size that made it one of his safe spaces in high school, along with the Pony and Maria’s place. Public spaces always felt better, felt like his dad couldn’t or wouldn’t reach him there.

Even if, as an adult, he was well aware that there really were no safe spaces, there was still something about it that helped calm him down, set him at ease. 

Suddenly, he became aware of someone, leaning close to him. At first, he thought that they were reaching for a menu or ketchup or something, but then they whispered a single, harsh word, clearly meant for him.


“I’m sorry?” Alex shifted, immediately tensing and frowning at the man who’d sidled up to him. He was unremarkable--white guy, middle build, middle age, balding. Cheap, ill-fitting suit, a tie that would have been terrible and out of fashion even when it was made, sometime in the 90s. The guy didn’t hold himself like military. He had that furtive, shifty look to him, like every conspiracy theorist Alex had ever met before.

“Butyricol,” he said again, settling on the stool next to Alex. “Don’t look at me. Look at a menu.”

Alex frowned. He was hardly a skeptic, but he really wasn’t in the mood to have his time wasted by one of the tin hat brigade, and he was ready to say as much. “Look I’m not really in the mood--”

“You’re here looking into Kelly Stanford’s abduction, and the deaths of Will Garcia and Sebastian Walker.” The guy hissed, forcing a menu in Alex’s hands. “Weird case, right?”  

Who are you?” Alex asked. But the guy knew enough for him to pretend to study the menu. 

“No one important, just a man with my ears open.” He rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “I listen.”

“All right.” Alex shook his head, opening up the menu. Might as well, right? Jesse had stolen all their leads. If this guy could give him a new one, anything solid, maybe this wasn’t a wasted trip. “So, what do I call you?” Pushing for more information. Anything he could use to look this guy up, verify his story.

The guy shifted in the stool, uncomfortable, and lifted up the sugar container, checking underneath. Alex didn’t even roll his eyes. He’s met enough of these guys to know what they were like.

Satisfied, the guy said, “Green. But you don’t need to know that, just listen. You want to understand what’s going on here? Look into drug trials going back to the 70s, of--” 

“Butyricol,” Alex filled in, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. “Am I going to be able to google that?”

Green shook his head. “All of its trials are highly classified. You’re going to have to dig. Get creative. You’re some fancy government hacker, right?”

Alex raised an eyebrow. Apparently, this guy had done some digging of his own. Alex said as much, trying to see if Green would let anything else about him slip. 

“We keep track of champions of the truth.”

Alex groaned internally but filed away the ‘we’ for later. “Ok so this is what, some kind of off-book medical trial?” He asked. That wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, and he supposed it made some amount of sense. 

Didn’t explain the alien suit though.

“No, no.” The man shook his head. “The questionable experiments are long since done. They know what they have and how to use it. They’re working on setting the stage, now.”

“Setting the stage for…?” Alex trailed off, expectantly. 

“Mass panic, mind control, market manipulation, world domination, take your pick.” 

“Oh, so the usual,” Alex said dryly. This was the thing about the tin hat brigade. Sometimes they were useful but a lot of the time they were sad, lonely people looking for a way to feel special, even if they went crazy in the process. Alex wasn’t sure where Green stood yet. 

“It’s always the same story, isn’t it?” Green laughed softly. “A cabal of elites, manipulating the rest of us to keep themselves on top.”

Alex mentally kicked himself. He shouldn’t be taking this seriously. He needed to keep his feet planted firmly in the real world. “Look, man, I...” He started, looking over as the waiter was heading his way, with his and Kyle’s food.

“I’ll be in contact,” Green said, and when Alex looked back, the guy was gone. He scanned the dinner for Green. The guy couldn’t possibly move so fast. But there was no sign of him. 

Shaking his head, Alex pulled out his phone and jotted down a few notes--Green, we, Butyricol. Maybe it would lead to something. Maybe it wouldn’t. But right now, Alex had a whole lot of nothing to lose. 

“No complaints about the service time,” Kyle was saying as he slid back into his seat next to Alex, startling him.

“Huh?” Alex turned back to him, slowly. 

“Food came fast,” Kyle said lightly, but he took one look at Alex’s face and immediately got serious. “Hey, you okay? Something happen?” 

Alex looked towards the back exit, which he had to assume Green had slipped out of, fighting the instinct to follow him. Drag him back and demand answers. 

No. If the guy wasn’t legit, it would be pointless. And the guy was legit, it could expose him, put him in danger. Definitely damage any trust he had.

“Yeah.” Alex nodded, looking back at Kyle. “Did you see the guy sitting next to me?” 

Kyle raised an eyebrow. “Uh… kinda? Didn’t make much of an impression.”

“Of course, he didn’t.” Alex groaned a bit, grabbing a fry and dipping it into his milkshake. “Either I just got visited by an informant or a paranoid conspiracy theorist.” 

“In your world, is there really that much of a difference?” Kyle pointed out, but he was frowning. “What did he say?” 

Alex shook his head. “Mostly a lot of nothing. But have you heard of anything called butyricol?” 

“No. Something to do with the case?” Kyle asked. 

“Maybe,” Alex nodded. “Apparently some sort of off-book drug the military was working on in the 70s. Could be the mysterious substance on the tox screen?” 

Kyle groaned. “Let’s lay off the speculation, okay? Liz and I will analyze what we got, and you can dig into this butyricol thing.”

Frowning, Alex nodded. He didn’t love it, but Kyle was right. They couldn’t assume they had any answers at this point. Not until they got more time with it.

“And for now,” Kyle added. “You’re going to try your damn hardest and I mean put all that stubborn tenacity of yours into taking a fucking break.” 

“Why does everyone want me to take a fucking break lately?” He asked, under his breath.

“Have you met you?” 

Alex snorted. “You realize the last time I ‘took a break’ I fell into bed with Guerin. Maybe breaks are a bad idea.”

“Right idea, wrong person,” Kyle argued. “You’ve been needing to get laid bad.”

Alex sighed. Why wasn’t there booze in this shake? “I get laid plenty, Valenti.”

“Whenever you and Forrest Long cross paths isn’t plenty,” Kyle said rolling his eyes. 

Fuck. Forrest. Alex pinched the bridge of his nose a little. “Yeah, maybe that’s ‘cause he’s boring in bed.”

He regretted saying the words the minute they came out (though that didn’t make them any less true). 

Kyle was quiet for a moment before speaking again. “I’m going to regret asking this, but really?” 

Alex took a minute to keep eating. “Mn. Yeah. I mean, if you’d asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have thought so. But…” he trailed off, struggling to put it into words.

“What, Guerin is just that good?” Kyle asked, dryly, disbelieving. 

“No!” Alex protested. “Kinda. I dunno, it’s not like I have that varied of a history.” 

“Dear God, you think Guerin ruined you for other men,” Kyle said, rubbing his face with his hands. “You’re a fucking mess. It was one goddamn lay.” 

“Shut up, Valenti,” Alex growled. “I didn’t say that. I just need to broaden my field. Right?” 

“I’m pretty sure I literally just said that.” Kyle shook his head and turned in his seat to face him. “Alex, I’m going to tell you something and you’re not going to yell at me about it.”

Alex immediately narrowed his eyes at him. He made no promises. 

“Start dating,” Kyle said, after a moment of enduring Alex’s mute glare. “You’re not the casual sex type. You're the mate for life type. Find your swan.” 

“I’m literally married,” he protested.

Kyle rolled his eyes. “Yeah, so? You love Maria but you’re not in love with her. It’s a moot point.”

“I literally hate you sometimes,” Alex said with a sigh. But Kyle wasn’t entirely wrong. There was something missing. There always had been, and when Alex looked at it hard enough, he knew that it was person-shaped. 

But how could he even think about that, when he was constantly looking over his shoulder, constantly trying to win this game of 3-D chess with his father? The last thing he wanted to do was drag some innocent guy into Jesse Manes’ sights. 

A small part of him wanted to remind him that Michael was clearly already in Jesse's sights.

Kyle squeezed his shoulder gently. “Alex, you’re allowed to be happy.” 

“I’ll be happy when dad gets what’s coming to him,” he replied stubbornly, shrugging Kyle’s hand away and turning back towards his food. Discussion over. 

Chapter Text

“That’s it. I’m done.” Maria stretched, arms above her head, back arched a little.

“Yeah?” Michael was looking at her, a little confused, a lot appreciative, and damn she liked it. 

Keep it to flirting, DeLuca. She reminded herself, sternly. No matter how hot Guerin was, the fiasco between Michael and her husband didn’t bear repeating. 

“Yeah, I want to be anywhere but here,” she said decisively, standing up and going to grab her purse and jacket. She and Michael had been working fruitlessly on the Kelly Stanford case, looking for a new lead. But they weren’t making any progress and she had places to be, people to see. Well one person. 

Michael shut the file he was looking at, getting up and grabbing his hat, obviously as eager not to be chasing his own tail as she was. “Anywhere in particular?” 

“Yeah,” she said with a nod, making a snap decision in inviting him. “Wanna see where I learned the art of the hustle?” 

Michael didn’t need to be asked twice.

The Wild Pony was a bar in an adobe style building a little off the main road. It had an extensive patio with lights strung up, and the inside was somehow both seedy and classy at the same time, covered in old bar taps and license plates and plants and crystals. If she knew anything about Michael, and she felt like she was starting to, at least a little, he would immediately feel at home. She did, anyway.

Maria smiled, heart suddenly full, when she caught sight of her mother at the bar, restocking the bottles. Mimi’s back was to her, but Maria could see her mother’s face in the mirror behind the bar, puzzling over a black and white notebook. 

Michael was buzzing with curiosity next to her, likely recognizing Mimi right away from the photo that sat on Maria’s desk. Before Michael could mention it, though, Mimi raised her eyes and caught them in the mirror. She turned around, beaming. “Baby!”

“Hi mom!” Maria said before she was engulfed in a tight, swaying hug. She caught a flash of emotion from Michael, something that felt like jealousy or longing, but most of her attention was focused on the warm sunshine that was her mother. Maria squeezed her tightly, sighing. 

It had been way too long. 

“Mom let me introduce you to Michael,” Maria said, pulling away only enough to be able to look at him. “Michael, this is my mother, Mimi DeLuca.”

“Nice to meet you ma’am,” he said, and Maria almost snorted at how cowboy it came out.

Mimi smiled, squeezing Maria’s arm, shooting her a somewhat curious look, but not pressing. No, mom. No, she tried to tell her with her eyes.

“Mimi’s fine.” Chuckling, Mimi offered her hand and looked appreciative when Guerin took it in a nice, firm handshake. Mimi always said you learned more about a man from his handshake than you did his palm. “Come on, let’s get you both a drink. Though maybe Maria shouldn’t get one, since she’s apparently forgotten she has a mother.”

“What?” Maria protested, “I call you weekly.”

“Call? Call?” Mimi looked at Michael, mock affronted. “Calling is only acceptable when you live in another country. Don’t you agree?”

“Sounds like fine logic to me.” Michael grinned when Maria scoffed. 

They sat down at the bar and Mimi poured tequila for all three of them. “It is good to see you again, sweetie. I’ve missed you.” Mimi placed her hand over Maria’s, eyes a little unfocused as she studied Maria’s face. “Wish it was under better circumstances. Your aura is so dark.” Frowning, she pulled out from behind the bar a pair of black, uncut crystals, resting one in Maria’s hand and one in Michael’s.

Michael frowned, bewildered, and set the crystal down on the bar. After a brief glance at Maria, and a nervous little smile at Mimi, he pulled it back a little closer to himself but left it sitting on the bar. Weird. 

“Black Tourmaline,” Maria said, smiling softly at her mother.

“Best at absorbing negative energy,” Mimi said, clearly proud that Maria remembered. “And here’s one for Alex too. Not that it does him much good. I’ve given that boy an entire mine’s worth and he’s still so clouded.” 

Michael quirked an eyebrow but didn’t sass Mimi over it. Smart boy. 

“You know he’s trying, mom,” Maria said, turning the tourmaline over in her hands.

Mimi nodded. “I know.” She reached over and cupped Maria’s cheek, briefly. “You’re both brighter when you’re together.”

She turned her attention to Michael now, looking not just at him, but into him. Maria knew the feeling -- there was something about Michael that begged to be read. She tried not to hold her breath, feeling irrationally nervous about this, about her mom meeting him. Michael was nervous too. And if Maria could sense it, so could Mimi.

“Don’t worry, Michael, I’m not going to ask for your palm to read your fortune.” Mimi winked, not at all addressing his weirdness with the crystal. Michael seemed to relax minutely. She always did know what to say. “I know you don’t believe... I think you should keep the crystal though,” she added. “Brainy types like you always like these kinds of things.”

Michael laughed a bit, turning it over in his hand, nodding, as he considered it. And for a heartbeat, Maria worried that he would refuse it, hand it back. 

“It’s a gift, Mimi,” he started slowly, after a moment. “I appreciate that. I don’t get many of those. Besides, it’s pretty.” Michael shrugged, looking at the rock in his hand before slipping into his chest pocket. “Thank you. I, uh, think it’ll fit perfectly at my desk in the office.” Maria could feel the soft, uncertain awkwardness under his words. She wanted to pull it back, look at the roots. But it probably wasn’t the time.

One of the other patrons called for Mimi down at the other end of the bar and she headed over with a promise to be right back.

Maria watched Mimi work. Refamiliarizing herself with her mom’s mannerisms--how she held a bottle during a pour, her work laugh, the way she pushed her curls out of her eyes. Maria missed her mother so damn much, and the customers kept on coming. But she had gone this long without spending time together, she could wait until Mimi’s shift was done.

“All right, I guess I’m pouring,” she said, slipping around the bar, so she could grab the whiskey for Michael. Her eyes caught a deck of cards, and she scooped it up, grinning a little. “You up for a game?” 

He raised his eyebrows, smiling lazily. “Not afraid I’m as much of a card shark as a pool shark?”

“I think I can hold my own,” she said dryly, pouring him a glass of whiskey before grabbing a set of chips. “Come on. My favorite booth is empty.”

She led him to a booth near one of the few windows, crowded with plants. It was one of the quietest booths. She’d spent countless days here-- practicing her tarot cards or palm reading or doing homework.

Michael settled into the booth like he belonged there. Reaching up to touch the leaves of one of the plants that had grown a little too eagerly into the booth. His eyes soft, thoughtful. 

“This looks like the same plant you gave me yesterday.” 

“Oh... yeah.” She probably shouldn’t be surprised that he recognized the plant, at least not that he recognized the type of plant. Hoya were distinctive. Though it felt like more than recognition. Deeper. It felt like knowing. She hummed, setting her glass and the deck of cards down, reaching for the clasp of her necklace, slipping it off, with a deep breath. Holding the table lightly as the soft murmur of everyone’s emotions rushed back in, like a wave held back too long. “That was grandma Patty’s. I propagated a plant off her ten years ago, right before I moved away.” 

Michael, lightning quick as ever, put it all together. “Oh, you gave me a… cutting--that’s the word right?--of your grandma’s hoya?” He almost sounded too casual, as he said it.

“Yeah,” she said, looking at him intently, pushing away the feeling of being exposed, of being caught red handed caring too much. That was more his speed, she thought, then pushed that away because it was uncharitable. She started to shuffle the cards. “I figured if anyone would appreciate it, you would.” 

“Thank you,” he said softly, emotions deep and complex and utterly indecipherable. He rubbed his thumb over one of the leaves a moment longer before shifting to pick his hat up off his head, setting it aside on the table. She was starting to recognize that as one of his tells, fiddling with that hat. He probably knew it, too.

“So what game are we playing?” Michael asked, resting his eyes casually on the table and her hands, a quirk to his lips. “Blackjack?”

“You’d like that wouldn’t you?” Maria shot back. “Use that nerd brain to count the cards.” 

“I mean I’m going to do that no matter what game we play,” he pointed out, with a lazy smile.

“Poker.” She patted the stack of chips she grabbed. “Keeps you from having too much of an advantage.” 

“Texas Hold ‘Em I bet too. Tch. Learned a word on the internet recently. It fits this perfectly,” Michael paused. “Basic” 

She threw a chip at him, but he caught it easily. Jerk. “You wanna play or do you wanna be put outside?”

Michael laughed. “I’m not a dog.”

Maria hummed like she wasn’t so sure and continued to shuffle. “Let’s go with Five Card Draw.”

“Oh, we’re going old school and basic,” Michael said dryly, but nodded, waving his hand a little. “Go ahead and deal. What are we playing for? Reduced sentence?” He grinned. 

“Yeah, you wish,” Maria laughed. “How about... The Truth.”

Michael let out a slow breath, giving her a look, suddenly on edge again. She’d be a fool if she hadn’t expected that. She was glad he didn’t get up and walk out honestly. 

“You really are a mercenary.”

“Relax, Guerin,” she said, lightly bumping his foot under the table. “If the truth is too hard, I’ll rack up some favors. Maybe a couple dares.”  

He laughed, shoulders losing a little tension. “Oh, like that’s going to be any easier.” 

She smiled at him. “Remember, it goes both ways. Use those card shark skills and you can get at all my secrets. That is unless you already know you’ve met your match.”

“All right shut up and deal, DeLuca,” he half-groaned.

Maria couldn’t help the smug smile that tugged at her lips. She knew that would get him. After all, if the tables were turned, it would have gotten her.

“So, we’re just using the chips to bluff with, then?” he asked, reaching over to divide them out.

 “We can be more interesting than that. Why don’t we go with number of follow up questions?” She dealt out the requisite five cards, set the rest of the deck down next to her and placed an empty shot glass on top. 

“Right.” Michael swept his cards up, looking over his hand with a little smile on his face. He rearranged them a little, before grabbing a chip and tossing it in. “So, are we asking our questions before or after we draw?” 

“After a win,” Maria said. “To avoid wussing out just because a question is hard.” She threw in a chip too. 

“All right.” Michael nodded, and put two cards down, drawing off the deck. Humming softly and tossing in another two chips. She was actually a little surprised his bet wasn’t more cautious -- he liked to keep his truths to his chest. 

Maria discarded three, and drew for herself, too. Calling Michael’s bet without raising it and then laying down her hand, nodding for Michael to do so, too.

His pair of sixes to her pair of tens. She grinned, victoriously.

“All right. Shoot.” Michael looked a little wary. Probably hadn’t expected to answer a question so soon. 

Maria hummed softly, considering it. She didn’t want to softball him, and she didn’t want to scare him off. But she also did want some damn answers.

“Bella really your sister?” She asked and with her necklace off, it was even easier for her to pick up any deception. 

Michael blinked, as if he hadn’t expected that to be her first question. “I haven’t lied to you about her.” 

Maria shook her head. “I know. But she’s definitely lying. No one should pause and trip when giving their name.” 

Michael groaned, raking his hand through his curls. “...yeah, okay, fair. But she is my sister. In every way that counts.” She could sense it too, his love for her. Brotherly and protective. 

“So, it’s the name?” She asked, with an eyebrow raised. 

Michael made a face, but he nodded. “Honestly, I don’t fucking know why she’s going by Bella, anyway. Her real name is Isobel, and I feel like since you met Max and he gave you his name, you could have pretty easily looked that up. Actually surprised that you didn’t.”

Maria shrugged. Maybe she and Alex might have after returning from Kentucky. But after meeting earnest good old boy Max, they kind of didn’t feel the need to. And then Flint distracted the hell out of them. At the time, she’d figured whatever was squirrelly about Bella-- Isobel --could be found out later on. 

Later on was apparently right now. “Honestly, we have bigger fish to fry.”

“Are you sure you mean fish and not black demons or cyclops sharks?” Michael smirked. 

She chuckled. Fair hit. “You know we’ve never gone fish-cryptid hunting. I’d ask how you feel about boats, but I don’t want to waste my questions...” She paused. “You said in every way that counts, so you’re not blood related?”

He held up two fingers. She was close to her limit of follow up questions. “Genetically speaking?” He shrugged. “No. Probably not.”

“Probably?” Maria asked, taking a sip from her own drink before collecting the cards to shuffle. 

“Don’t have a spare gene sequencer lying about,” he pointed out, dryly.

“This have something to do with those sealed records of yours?” Maria asked, before she could stop herself. Alex had done his research while they waited for Guerin’s paperwork to clear. But neither of them felt the need to break into his childhood records, even though Alex could easily bypass the Chavez County PD’s security. Whatever happened to him as a kid? Not relevant.

“Gonna have to win that answer out of me,” Michael responded with a smirk, nodding at the three chips she’d bet. The underlying discomfort in his words was subtle. He’d tell her the truth if she asked after a win and be mostly ok with doing so. Mostly. The discomfort was wrapped up in shades of anger and something else, something smaller and… hurt? Maybe vulnerable. 

He plucked the cards from her hand, dragging her back to the here and now. Shuffling again, he dealt the cards out, motions just as practiced as hers.

“Fair.” She nodded, studying her cards. This hand, Michael won, with a straight to her two pair. And he felt damn smug about it.

He sat back in the booth, as if considering his question for a long moment. And when he asked, “do you really believe in all this cryptid alien supernatural stuff?” it didn’t feel like the question he wanted to ask either. 

“Really, that’s what you’re asking?” She was actually surprised. “I figured you’d want to know about Jesse Manes or something.” 

“Alex’s story is his own. I’ll get that out of him eventually. If I feel like it.” He focused on her. Oh, but he was curious. Curious and cautious. “Spill.”

She laughed. “My mom just gave you a healing crystal, I’ve told you I’m sensitive and you’re still asking that?”

“Eh, that doesn’t mean you believe in lizard men.” Michael shrugged. “Or aliens.”

“I believe in aliens. Lizard men are gonna require a bit more proof.” Maria tapped the deck against the table as she thought, focusing on shuffling for a moment.

“You really think little grey men are going around probing people?” There was a nervousness and an anger underneath the easy, sarcastic tone. It was bewildering.

Maybe Maria was too cocky, thinking she was finally starting to understand him.

She rolled her eyes. “What you’re really asking me is if I think movies have it right. Definitely not. This world’s more extraordinary than you think, Guerin.”

Michael snorted. “Not likely,” he said, dryly, and gestured for her to deal. She tilted her head slightly, trying to read behind that statement. It seemed to weigh heavily with... not feelings… not meaning… maybe connotations?

Either way, she was going to have to win again if she expected to get anything else out of him. 

It wasn’t a hardship. She liked poker, especially when it wasn’t too easy. Michael was good enough at bluffing and the art of the non-answer answer, and the game was simple enough that her abilities were barely helpful. And even when they weren’t asking each other probing questions, they were sniping at each other, back and forth. Egging each other on, convincing each other to fold, or not to fold. Someone definitely called someone a chicken more than once. 

And laced through it all was a casual and easy sort of flirting that resulted in leaning over the table to whisper teasingly at each other, or a lingering brush of fingers when chips were handed over. Maria’s leg brushing over Michael’s as she recrossed her legs. Michael’s foot idly resting against hers while he smiled that lazy, infuriating smile of his. Though they both pretended it wasn’t happening, didn’t push it too far.

“Manes says he’s a good wingman,” he asked over another winning hand, and she very nearly choked on her tequila. 

“Seriously?” Maria shook her head a little. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised. Did Alex offer to play Michael’s wingman at the bar? Was that how that mess started? “What’s the question in that?” She asked, playing with a few chips, idly. 

“Can confirm?” He asked with an eyebrow raised. 

Maria leaned back in the booth a little. Considering the question. “I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe him. He’s great for keeping the creeps and weirdos away, but as far as actual wingman duty goes...” she trailed off. “Well, you’ve seen his face.” 

“Perma-glare?” Michael filled in, with a smirk. 

Maria laughed and nodded to concede the point. “I love him but he does tend to scare the less hardy prospects off. And he’s really bad at recognizing flirting, especially when it’s directed at him.” She smiled fondly.

“Ok, what are you thinking about?” Michael asked, taking a drink. His curiosity had less to do with teasing or being nosy--more like genuinely wanting to know…them. Her. 

Despite his lack of chips, she told him. 

“Oh just... remembering awkwardly flirting with Alex in this very booth, before he’d come out,” she said with a fond smile. “Not that the flirting really stopped after he came out, it just got less awkward.” 

“So, you’re the reason he’s so bad?” Michael grinned. Now he was teasing and it was so much lighter than she expected it to be given how angry he was with Alex. Maybe all Alex really had to do was apologize.

“Fuck you,” Maria laughed. “To be fair, we were bad at it, but it was fun and comforting for both of us. And over time, we got better. Well... I got better.” She smirked a little. “Honestly, I can credit Alex for a good 50% of my game.”

“So -- although it would be generous to say Alex had any game, whatsoever--” Michael said, “whatever he does have is in large part thanks to you?”

“In my husband’s defense,” Maria pointed out, “he’s pretty enough that that doesn’t typically matter.”

Michael laughed again, a little sharply. Obviously reading the subtext - that however bad Alex’s game was, it had gotten him into bed. “He is that,” he said before taking another, deeper drink from his glass.

Maria started to shuffle again, deciding it was best to move away from that landmine of a topic. 

A dozen hands later, she’d gotten more bits and pieces of his story. Here she found her sensitivity more useful. Skirting around the topics that would make him clam up if asked or pressed. Knowing when he was being really careful to only tell her part of the story, or when he was comfortable telling her everything. A sort of curious hole emerging, but not one she had any idea of how to interpret.  

The Isobel mystery had to do with more than just a name change, and both brothers were completely baffled. But mostly worried. 

“Do you think it’s got something to do with her husband?” Maria asked and Michael shrugged. His aura darkened. Clearly he did not care for the husband. 

“She swears there’s nothing wrong. But I dunno. I never really liked the guy. Maybe I’m not objective about him.” 

“Why?” she pressed a little more. 

Michael shrugged. “Honestly? I dunno. I guess the three of us have never really trusted outsiders. It’s always just been us, you know?”

When she nudged, he opened up a little more about his relationship with his maybe-not-related-siblings. Their records were sealed because they had been abandoned in the desert as kids. He’d been very brief in his explanation, but Maria couldn’t tell if that was because he didn’t want to talk about it or because he just didn’t have much information. It was likely both.

His hurt was raw and complicated--angry and red and oozing. Maria’s hand itched to reach out, touch him, and even though she’d done so many times before, that night even, in that moment she hadn’t felt comfortable. Did she have the right? They were barely friends. 

She shuffled and dealt out the cards instead. And when Maria won again, she moved on to lighter topics. His relief was palpable.

Michael’s interest in gardening was new, a product of prison and the small garden they let cons work on. His favorite job, other than pool hustling, was working out at Foster ranch (yeah that Foster ranch), but it was a tough call between that and the junkyard.

“It has nothing to do with UFOs,” Michael shot back when she teased him. But he was lying and he was on the defensive.

“You like working with your hands,” Maria said, carefully skirting whatever he was avoiding for now.

“Yeah,” Michael replied and shrugged. “Makes me feel grounded, I guess.” 

He’d gotten some intel out of her too, learned that her dad died when she was really young. That Mimi and her grandma Patty raised her right in this bar, in the apartments upstairs. How they were all sensitive, and how her grandmother had slipped away into dementia, shortly after Maria graduated high school. 

“I don’t know why but I can’t shake the feeling that it was my fault, somehow…” Maria said quietly, her hand rubbing the spot on her chest where her pendant usually rested. “I think… I enlisted half to run away from it all.” 

“I get it.” Michael murmured. And she could feel it, his desire to run away, too. “Mimi wasn’t thrilled about the National Guard then?” Michael asked quietly, his fingers skirting across her knuckles briefly.

“Yeah, mom took it hard,” Maria explained, taking a drink. Maria still carried a lot of guilt about that. “She felt like she was losing me and grandma Patty at the same time. Plus, she’s not a big fan of the military in general.”

Michael nodded. He opened his mouth then closed it. Didn’t have enough chips in to ask any more questions. But she could feel the question, lingering, could guess at its shape. And maybe she wanted to talk about it, a little.

“She also wasn’t a fan of the eventual job at the FBI,” Maria continued. “But now? I think she knows I’m happy. And it was for a good cause.”

“I get the impression that the good of the country isn’t the cause you’re talking about.” Michael tilted his head, thoughtful. Though it reminded her a little of the way her mom tilted her head when she read people, a habit Maria herself had picked up over the years.

“You would be right,” Maria replied. And she left it at that. She didn’t need to get into all things about this country that upset her. Not right now. This was supposed to be about slyly interrogating Michael. Even if he somehow had switched the interrogation on her.

But that was ok. And she was definitely enjoying herself too much for this to be a strict interrogation. Even when the conversation became more serious, it still felt like Michael was an old friend. He was easy to talk to. A good listener. 

Michael was about to speak again when something caught his eye. Someone. Maria shifted to look too, ready to give Michael shit about checking someone out when he was supposed to be playing poker, when she realized it was Alex.

“Hey, babe.” She waved for him. Not that Alex wasn’t already heading straight to their old haunt, nudging her over to slide into the booth next to her. 

Michael had the cards in his hand, catching her eye, with a bit of a smirk. Shuffling. A question hung between them, and she bit her lip, trying not to laugh. Nodding just a bit. “You’re just in time to play poker.”

Alex took one look at the necklace on the table, and gave her a look, significant. 

“Winner gets to ask the loser a question, plus however many chips they bet as follow-ups” she explained, spotting him a stack of chips. 

Alex perked up at that, glancing at Michael from the corner of his eye. “Oh yeah? Deal me in.”

Michael kept his face neutral, but she could see the shift in aura. Maria wasn’t so dumb as to declare that it was like a shark sensing blood in the water. But… it wasn’t not something like that. He even sat up a little straighter, glancing at Maria with a glint in his eyes.

Maria was amused. She knew exactly what Michael was thinking, that they would band together and crush Alex at poker. On a normal day, there was no way she’d betray her husband like that. But honestly, Michael deserved the win. And maybe then they could all move forward.

Before they could start their first round, Mimi came around to give Alex a tight hug. The bar had gotten busier. Maria hadn’t even noticed. But now that she wasn’t so focused on the game and Michael, she picked up on the buzz of minds around her, the leveled murmur of people talking, the music just a little bit above the din. No wonder Mimi hadn’t been around much.

Mimi probably sensed that Alex needed a hug and was only too happy to oblige. Giving him a long, swaying hug, her fingers rubbing his back and petting his hair like he was still that scrawny awkward teenager from so long ago. Alex held her back, squeezing her tightly.

“Setbacks are just opportunities to look at the problem from a fresh, new angle, Alexander,” she said once they pulled back a little. She was still holding Alex’s arms, rubbing gently. Soothingly.

“Did Maria--” Alex paused, shaking his head. 

Mimi smiled at him. They both knew Maria didn’t have to say anything. She squeezed his shoulders gently. “You better bring my girl back more often.”

“Should I stay in the car?” He asked, grinning. “Since apparently I’m a chauffeur.” 

Mimi tweaked his nose, winking. “Don’t ask dumb questions.” 

Alex smiled at her, soft and sweet, the weight of the frustration not gone, but a little lifted. “Thanks, Mimi.” 

She smiled back just as softly. “Karaoke starts in a half hour, and I expect a duet.” Alex started sputtering, never a particular fan of karaoke, but Mimi cut him off. She continued before he could really decline, “I’ll get you a beer. Maybe a chaser, too.” Mimi knew well enough that Alex tended to need a little liquid courage before he hit the stage. She rubbed his arms once more, then dropped her hands, heading back over to the bar. 

Alex groaned, and sat down next to Maria again, heavily. 

Michael started idly shuffling the cards, watching Maria lean a little against Alex as he sat down again. He ignored the soft rumble of want, that itch to nudge Alex over to his side of the booth so he could wrap his arm around him. Hands to yourself, Guerin. Learn from your mistakes, he chided himself. Besides, he was still pissed at him.

“Everything go okay?” Maria asked as Manes reached over to take Maria’s necklace carefully off the table, slipping it into his jacket pocket. It had a little zipper, which Alex used. Maria kissed his shoulder in thanks. It must be important, with the care he was taking. Not irreplaceable though -- Michael had noticed an identical one on Mimi. 

“Like clockwork. Hopefully I’m not jinxing it,” Manes said dryly, as Michael dealt out the cards and Mimi dropped off his beer. “5 Card Draw?” he asked.

“You a hustler too?” Michael asked. 

Alex chuckled. “I cut my teeth at the same bar Maria did,” he said dryly, as he looked over his cards. “Mimi would disown me if I couldn’t hold my own.”

But a quick look at Maria’s face made it clear that Alex was nowhere near as good as he wanted Michael to believe. 

This was going to be fun, he decided. “All right,” he said, and tossed in his opening bet, putting down some cards.

It was also going to be a long game. Alex Manes may be an asshole, but he was an asshole made of similar ilk to Michael. Except that Maria’s trick of throwing a couple softball questions to relax her opponent before a hard one wouldn’t work on Manes. He never relaxed. Michael had learned that the hard way. 

So, hardball it was. 

It wasn’t exactly easy to subtly cheat using his powers at poker. Occasionally he could influence how the shuffle would fall out, or how cards were dealt, but that was by no means a guarantee. So, he’d have to bluff and count his way to winning questions. Fold when the odds weren’t in his favor. Like he’d been doing with Maria until the game shifted to something that felt less high stakes and more fun, playful. He wasn’t sure if it was the flirting, the alcohol, the hometown bar feel or the fucking rock in his pocket but talking with Maria was fucking easy. Like he could lean back and open himself up to her. Hot, but terrifying.

Honestly, Maria was a wild card. He had a feeling she might be his ace in the hole, but it wasn’t like her loyalty lay with him, even if her sympathies did. 

He didn’t lose the first round. Nor did Manes. Maria did. Manes had the highest hand, so he asked her questions about an absolutely boring domestic squabble (whether she’d thrown something in the trash or recycling bin). And it wasn’t just him; a couple hands later, Maria also asked Manes whether or not he’d actually gotten the oil changed on the car.

It was stupidly adorable, and Michael bit his lip on a smile, focusing on shuffling the cards. But Maria knocked his foot with hers subtly, giving him a pointed look while Manes was taking a pull of his beer. Pay attention, those sharp eyes said as they pointedly but briefly rested on Alex. 

“Liar,” Maria said. “You absolutely did not get the oil change done.”

Manes was messing with the label of his beer bottle even as he met Maria’s eyes. “I did!” he started, tracing his fingers along the lip of his bottle. Forced eye contact and fidgeting hands, huh? Michael would have never expected that from him. 

Manes pressed his hands on the table then groaned. “Look, I went. But the line was really long and before I got in, we had a case and...”

“I knew it,” she said, shaking her head. “Just for lying, I’m giving my follow-up questions to Guerin. Open season.” She tapped the three chips Alex had set down.

Michael made a show of putting the chip on the side. “For later.” 

Alex groaned again. He took the deck from Michael and started to shuffle. Michael just smirked and leaned back in his booth comfortably. 

“Have you asked him about his weird sister?” Alex asked Maria when he beat Michael. 

“Asked and answered.” Maria confirmed. 

Alex glanced down at Michael’s forearm and Michael tensed despite himself. He knew this was a possibility. If you want to win big you gotta put some skin in the game. And it wasn’t like Michael wasn’t good at tangoing with the truth, especially when he expected the dance.

Alex chewed his lip a little, dragging his eyes back up to Michael’s. “When did you start hunting UFOs?”  

Michael blinked then laughed a little. Just… that question. It was hard not to cackle like a maniac. From the moment I lost Max and Isobel. From the moment I realized without a shadow of a doubt that this mudball was nothing but loneliness and suffering. From the moment I set foot back in Roswell, I have wanted nothing more than to be free of this place. Look at this backward podunk hillbilly planet from a hundred miles away and flip it off. “... guess I was always interested. But I didn't do much actively till I graduated high school.”

Manes nodded, thoughtfully (Michael ignored how Maria was staring at him, didn’t scratch where it felt itchy). Manes tapped his fingers lightly on the two chips Michael had bet, obviously considering his follow-up question. “Why? I mean… what drew you to it?” 

Fucking hell, Manes. Michael thought, exasperated. Worst thing was, he probably thought he was throwing softballs (and if they weren’t so hard to answer both honestly and vaguely, without calling attention to himself, he might even appreciate it). 

Michael brushed a hand over his hat, considered putting it on again before deciding not to. “You know how I grew up. Guess part of me hoped the aliens would come abduct me.”

Manes let out a slow breath. “…I know the feeling,” he admitted, quietly. 

Maria pressed her shoulder against her husband’s and glanced briefly at Michael. Like maybe she wanted to touch him, hold his hand or something. He didn’t even look for pity on her face. He knew there wouldn’t be any. Maria was just kind. 

“But you went--” Manes started, then paused, shook his head, frowning. Michael arched an eyebrow. 


“I’m going to sound like an asshole.”

“That ship has sailed, Manes.”

He glared at Michael and sighed, softly. Because yeah, can’t argue with the truth, buddy. “Just seems like it’s gotta be more to it. Who wastes a scholarship for some junk at a museum?” 

Michael chuckled, and even to his own ears, it had a sharp quality to it. “Apparently, I do,” he said, and as soon as Manes opened his mouth to press for more information, he shook his head. “Nope. You only get two. Not my fault you wasted the second.”

“Ugh. No way. That was a non-answer,” Alex protested. 

“Ask a rhetorical question, get a rhetorical answer, dear husband,” Maria chuckled. 

“Whose side are you on?”

“Truth’s,” she said, booping his nose lightly.

He grimaced, rubbing his nose. “Oh my God, I can only handle so many lies at once.” But Manes was laughing and, fuck, it was still nice. Even though Michael was still mostly pissed off at him. It was still nice.

(And maybe, just maybe, the edge of that anger had been blunted).

“All right boys, focus up,” Maria said, dealing out another hand.

At this point, Michael was getting used to Maria’s tells. They’d shifted, when Alex joined the game, punctuated with casual looks. A small smile and a fiddle with her earring later, he was calling Manes’ bluff with a tidy pile of chips, winning with a full house to his straight. Michael grinned, widely. 


“So is your dad the reason ‘You want to believe’.” And yes, Michael could not help adding the air quotes. 

Alex rolled his eyes a little but nodded. “Yeah, he is,” he responded, a little brusquely, bracing for the onslaught of questions Michael had won. Michael could already tell Manes was going to answer every question as succinctly as he could manage. Just the bare minimum. This was going to be like pulling teeth. 

“Not a lot of love lost there, obviously. So… why?”

Speaking of teeth, Manes was definitely grinding his right there. Stressed and angry, and as much as Michael might have wanted to take pleasure in it, he just felt bad. A little guilty for pushing. “Dad’s never been too fond of rainbows. But monsters do hate the light.” 

Michael had actually meant why Alex was determined to look for something that Jesse Manes was involved in (hiding or searching for, Michael couldn’t guess yet). Why not just put it all behind him, cut his father out of his life, and get a boring IT job or something. But just the way Alex answered the question, it was an explanation in itself. “You think… finding the truth will help you what, get him discharged, put him behind bars?”

Alex took a deep breath and exhaled. Visibly trying to calm himself. “Dad’s involved in something… something fucked up. Illegal and off-books. I haven’t been able to find all the details. But once I do…” He trailed off.

Michael found himself nodding slowly. “You have anything to back that up or is it all vendetta?” It was a dick thing to say. Alex’s nostrils had immediately flared, eyes hard and flinty. Maria was glaring at Michael too.

Michael knew that he was toeing a line, but Jesse Manes had known him. On sight. Michael wasn’t stupid enough to think that the entire United States Air Force gave a shit about what he may or may not have stolen so it must be that Jesse had a specific interest in him. Maybe he studied his file. Maybe he was involved in locking him up. The very idea made his blood run cold. His safety, his siblings’ safety, was way more important than Alex Manes’ feelings. Period. Full stop. 

“I had evidence,” Manes said, his tone flat. “Then I made the mistake of underestimating him, and now I don’t. But you don’t care about that. You want to know what my evidence was.”

Michael shrugged. Uncomfortable. Maria was shifting in to rub Alex’s back, soothing. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t help.”

Manes looked reticent, his jaw tightening. Michael hummed softly and reached to pick up one of the extra chips Maria had given him, putting it down on the table, pushing it towards him. 

Manes let out a heavy breath. “What do you want to know?” He asked, his voice hard, defensive.

Everything, Michael wanted to say. But these chips were finite, and he needed to be cautious using them. He tapped his finger on it, for a few moments. But Manes had already given him the question. “You said you had proof?”

Manes nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose. He looked… rough was the only way to put it. Burdened too. Alex typically had the rigid posture imposed by military training but right now, his back was a little rounded, his shoulder drooping. He traced the rim of his beer bottle, thinking, and Michael frowned, expecting a lie but then he straightened up, shoving the bottle away. His face set in grim determination. “My family has been involved in a massive government conspiracy. Covering up proof of aliens since the ‘47 crash.”

Michael kept his face carefully composed. Trying to figure out what to say, how to say it.

And Alex took that as skepticism. “I saw the pictures, Guerin. Clear, well-taken photos of a saucer. Of extraterrestrial technology. Lattice-work pieces that were made of strange indestructible material. Weird, cloudy glass with odd symbols printed on it. And…” He took a breath, fingers tugging through his hair. Michael just tapped the chip, trying not to fiddle with anything else. His own agitation did not need to be on display, because he could picture exactly what Manes was talking about. He had chunks of all it, back in his bunker, hidden under a pile of rusting cars and junk.

“Of aliens,” Alex breathed out, looking pained. “I don’t think they looked that much different from us.... But I could never find a good full body picture. Mostly I found pictures of internal organs. I didn’t recognize some of them... and weirdly even in the black and white photos, the organs seemed to have a shine to them. There were specimen numbers scrawled on the photos, details about the autopsy. One of the things that stuck with me is that their hearts are on backwards.” 

“I believe you,” Michael said quickly, practically cutting him off. It was too abrupt, and he knew it, but he needed Manes to stop talking. It was like being punched in the stomach, hearing that. He needed a minute to box all his feelings up and shove them resolutely away. “You think your father is somehow continuing the experiments?” He asked once he was able to, picking up another chip and putting it down harder than intended. Praying the answer wasn’t what he knew it would be.

Alex nodded, tightly.

What did that even mean? Was Jesse Manes just fucking with their technology? Or -- god he could barely articulate this thought to himself -- were there other survivors? 

Alex was still talking, cutting off his train of thought. It was probably a good thing because the chips were starting to tremble. “The air force is at least funding his research on technology,” Alex said. “Maybe that’s what this bullshit with Sebastian Walker is about...”

“But it’s not funding all of it,” Maria added quietly. Michael had forgotten she was there. He had been so focused on listening to what Alex was saying, and on not throwing up as a result of everything he was learning. “There’s at least a half dozen private companies with interests in it too. Alex has traced the money, all in offshore accounts and cryptocurrency. They don’t want anyone to know.”

Alex nodded. “Whatever else he’s involved in, it’s unethical if not downright illegal. And it needs to be shut down. He deserves to be behind bars.” 

There were other questions, of course there were. But Michael couldn’t bring himself to ask them. He was still stuck on the word ‘specimen’, on Alex’s description of their -- of his internal organs. His people, his family, trapped on some army base, alive and terrified. Because of course there had to be survivors of the crash. Someone had stashed him, Isobel and Max in a cave miles away from the crash site after all.

And they hadn’t come back for them.

What happened to them? Did the air force catch up to them? Did they end up as parts in one of the photographs Alex had found? 

“I can’t throw my great grandpa Harlan in prison,” Alex said quietly. “Or my granddad but my father is still alive and still involved in something that has roots in… genocide, human rights violations--”

“They’re not human,” Michael interrupted, tone flat and empty to his own ears. He thought about the apparent greyling on the slab yesterday. It was ridiculous but he couldn’t stop thinking about it--

“Hey.” Maria reached out for him. He almost recoiled, had to force himself to keep his hand where it was while she touched him. Her hands were small, warm, and at least for the moment, he felt slightly less cold, less alone. He squeezed her hand back, gratefully, before he could stop himself. Forced a bit of a smile to his lips.

Alex had refilled Michael’s glass from the whiskey bottle Maria had brought with her. Michael took it gratefully, draining it and almost reached for the bottle but distressed as he was, he was still aware of what he must look like to them. 

Maria was about to ask him a question, he could see her formulating the best way to phrase it. Michael braced himself, getting ready to lie and deflect and keep them from wondering too much about his very peculiar reaction to the confirmation of extraterrestrial life. 

Mimi broke into the silence that had fallen. He’d never been so thankful for an interruption because his brain felt sluggish, shot, and he wasn’t sure if he was capable right now of spitting out the kind of lies on the fly necessary to ward them off.  

“Things are way too serious over here,” she said, lightly. Michael could almost say her cheeriness was forced, strategically timed. But that was ridiculous. “And I believe you owe me a song.” She was looking significantly at Alex.

“Mimi…” Alex frowned. Yeah, who the fuck could be in the mood for singing right now?  

“Go on, you know she won’t take no for an answer,” Maria said, nudging him and nodding lightly in Michael’s direction. Maria obviously meant to take the opportunity to talk more. Michael supposed she had also noticed that he was more open when alone with her, but that was going to stop here. It had to. So maybe it was for the best that Alex was shaking his head, protesting. Alex was easier to goad into a fight, to control the topics and shift them off Michael.

Not that he really wanted to fight right now. Honestly, he’d rather just disappear into the crowd with a beer and process this whole damn conversation.

Mimi grabbed Alex’s hand and tugged at him. “The diaphragm is vital for clearing your aura. You know that Alex.”

“Yes, pushes out the negative energy,” Alex groaned, getting to his feet. He looked at Michael, who just shrugged. The DeLuca women were nothing if not tenacious. 

Mimi looked at Michael. Winked. It was a moment of levity that felt incongruous, but obviously she was intent on changing the vibe. As she pulled a reluctant Alex towards the stage, he heard her say, “you focus too much on shedding light in the darkness. But that’s not the only way to be a beacon, baby boy.”

“Mimi, that’s too cryptic even for you,” Alex sighed but whatever her response was Michael didn’t hear it. 

It was hard to shift gears, but Michael made himself do so, for his own sake, if not for Maria and Mimi’s. It’s not like he wasn’t a master of shoving away his feelings where they couldn’t bother him or be used against him.

“Do I need to stuff cotton in my ears?” he asked Maria, forcing a smirk on his face. 

Maria looked like she wanted to ask whatever question had been floating up to the surface before Mimi came but instead she just shook her head, squeezing his hand a little. He thought about dragging his hand away, but Maria squeezed it again, gently, rubbing her thumb against his knuckles and he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do anything else but hold on. 

“Alex has a great voice,” Maria said, “he’s just uptight. Doesn’t like to let loose.”

Didn’t he know it. But Michael better understood the reasons why now. Alex was so rigid out of necessity. It was either stand tall or buckle under the weight of his father’s hatred, and his family’s dark legacy. 


Instead of turning his attention back to Maria and giving her an opening, Michael focused on Alex, up at the front of the bar, Mimi pressing the mic into his hands. He looked awkward, exasperated but also fond of Mimi as she fussed with the karaoke machine, selecting the perfect song. When the distinctly 80s (and un-Alex-Manes) sound of bass synth and drum beats filled the room, Alex shook his head, looking like he would have beat a hasty retreat if Mimi hadn’t grabbed him again, laughing, and leaned into the microphone to sing with him:

Clock strikes upon the hour

And the sun begins to fade

Alex rolled his eyes, but he let Mimi gently nudge him to sing with her. And within the first few lines, he was obviously, physically relaxing (though that was probably more Mimi’s doing than the song’s), his eyes closing as his voice strengthened. 

Maria wasn’t wrong. Alex’s voice was gorgeous, warm and intoxicating, like a good whiskey. Michael knew he was staring, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. 

Mimi had been swaying with the music as they sang, and she bumped her hip against Alex’s until he started to move too, loosening up more and more. Mimi pulled away from the mic, letting Alex do the vocals by himself while she danced her way off the small stage. She grabbed a second mic before making her way--hips swaying, hands in the air--back to their table.

Maria clearly knew exactly what her mother was up to because she called out “no, no, this is his song!” the moment Mimi got in range. But she was laughing, not fighting when Mimi pulled her to her feet, shoving the microphone in her hands. Michael watched, unable to help his own small smile, as they leaned into it as one and belted out:

I need a man who'll take a chance

On a love that burns hot enough to last

So, when the night falls

My lonely heart calls

And wow, Maria too. Her voice was rich and husky, sexy and confident, like her smile when she beat him at cards, or one upped him in a verbal sparring match.

Michael watched her join Alex, the melody of their song encircling them in the same way they wrapped their arms around each other. This was not the first time they’d sung this song together. That was clear from the way neither of them bothered looking at the words, instead grinning at each other, dancing in sync. All the earlier sadness lost to Mimi’s stubbornness as much as to the rhythm of the music. Even he couldn’t entirely hold on to his rage at the sight of those two beautiful people singing together. 

The anger was replaced by a strange ache in his chest and his throat. Was it jealousy? Longing? Did it matter? Whatever he was feeling, he had to stop feeling it, for his own sanity, if not his fucking safety. God, he wanted to leave, to just turn tail and run, but he felt rooted to the spot.

Mimi was there again, grabbing his hands, her intent immediately clear. No one was getting away with moping in her bar.

“Oh no,” he protested, immediately. “I don’t know this song.”

“Bullshit,” she countered with a laugh, and clearly Maria had inherited her lie detection abilities from Mimi.

“I can’t sing!”

At least she didn’t argue with that. “But you can dance.”

“Nope,” he protested again. He had it on good authority that the terribleness of his singing was only eclipsed by his dancing, and he had made enough of a fool of himself in front of those two.

“You can in this bar.” She pulled him to his feet, her grip insistent and deceptively strong. 

He decided not to argue, though he couldn’t help but roll his eyes as she dragged him through the half-dozen people standing around, drinking and dancing. At least he didn’t feel like the eyes of everyone in the bar were on him. Oh, who was he kidding -- every eye was on Maria and Alex. And who could blame them? They were eye-catching enough without the addition of song, their voices drew you in. 

And that in itself was overwhelming, truth be told. 

Probably sensing his awkwardness, Mimi didn’t leave him. She started to dance, still holding one of his hands, urging him to follow her lead, and he two-stepped along with her as best as he could.

Michael had to admit, her energy was infectious, and it had been far, far too long since he’d let himself get lost in music. And maybe that was all he really wanted, needed --to just let go and let the music order the chaos that had been building ever since he laid eyes on the damn fake alien. 

Mimi nudged him lightly, dragging him out of his own thoughts. She pointed at the words popping up on the teleprompter and said, “at the top of your lungs now in 3, 2, 1!” 

He felt a smile pulling at his mouth, a real one. Unable to deny her, he took a big breath, yelling at the top of his lungs with her, deciding not to care that he wasn’t exactly a singer. He was never the best guitar player either and it never mattered. It was never about the quality of the music he produced after all. 

Oh, I wanna dance with somebody

I wanna feel the heat with somebody

Still laughing and singing, Mimi had danced him right up to the little stage and Michael couldn’t help but look up at Alex and Maria. Maria was smiling, reaching down to lightly ruffle her fingers through his hair, sliding her hand down his cheek to tweak his chin. Caught in the spell of her eyes and touch, he swayed with her, grinning, and let her urge him up on the stage with them. 

As Maria pulled Michael up between them, Alex stumbled over the words, surprised, but he recovered quickly. His eyes caught Maria’s and something passed between them because they each wrapped an arm around Michael, starting to rock and sway to the beat. 

And Michael was surprised, sure. But he was mostly thinking about how terrified he was that his two left feet were going to cause them all to go tumbling off the stage. There really was no chance of that happening though. 

Michael let the fear and anxiety melt away, let himself get lost in the here and now between them. Held steady by the strength of their arms around him, and surrounded by the warmth of their song, their bodies, and the cheer in their eyes. All while Mimi bounced and laughed in front of them, cheering them on.

Outside this bar everything was terrifying. But right here, at least for the moment, there was something that felt almost like safety. 

Chapter Text

Michael was more than exhausted. He sat, sunken down in one of the Adirondack chairs that Izzy had bought and draped with falsa blankets. He played with the roughness of the blanket between a couple of fingers idly, staring up at the café lights that had appeared sometime in the last few days, nursing a beer while he waited for Max and Isobel to get there. 

He wasn’t exactly one to call a family meeting, but right now it was feeling like an imperative. 

After the high of dancing at the Pony, Michael had crashed, hard. All the anxiety and anger had come flooding back, almost worse for being pushed aside. And he had plenty of time to ruminate on it. Alex and Maria had wanted to spend the day with Mimi, and Michael, who was in no mood to socialize, had asked to drive back to Albuquerque with Kyle. Thankfully, they agreed without hesitation. Though Maria still looked like she wanted to ask some questions, and that had been another reason for escaping as fast as possible. Michael wasn’t in the right frame of mind for rapid fire lying. He was barely in the right frame of mind for tolerating a car trip with someone else, even if Kyle did let him ride in relative silence.

He’d barely slept since getting back, though god knows he’d tried. His dreams had been fucking haunted. They always started with the near-miss grayling autopsy, but without fail those dreams twisted and morphed into one closer to home. A familiar dream, one that had dogged him and his siblings since they were old enough to know what they were. Only now it had been given detail, dimension by what had come to light.

He could see it so clearly, as if he were watching a damn horror movie. He, Iz, Max. All laid out -- eyes open and unblinking -- on cold, hard metal tables while uniformed men that looked like Jesse Manes talked about them like they were science experiments as they cut them open. Scalpels sliding through their skin, opening them up and revealing some kind of technicolor array of organs and-- 

“Hey, you okay?” Max was asking, startling him out of his thoughts.

Michael had to breathe for a moment, his shoulders tight as he held himself still, told his fight or flight instinct to fuck off. Once he had done that, he shifted to sit up better, looking at Max and Isobel, who stood next to the fire, wearing twin looks of concern on their faces. 

The concern was expected but still annoying.

“Beer?” It wasn’t the answer they wanted, and if possible, the worry rolling off the pair of them intensified.  

“Brought plenty,” Max said, holding up a case.

Michael waved his hand towards the chairs. Waiting patiently while Max put the case of beer down and opened it, handing one to Isobel, taking one himself, and sitting down. Michael popped off the tops of all of them in turn. Neither of them relaxed at all as they sat though, leaning forward, eyes on him. Intent. It was uncomfortable. 

“What happened, Michael?” Isobel broke the silence, impatient. And he couldn’t blame her, he’d already gotten a good dozen texts from her asking if he was okay, trying to get him to talk. Apparently his unease was just that palpable. Isobel had always been sensitive to his moods, but this time it was like she could feel him the minute he hit city limits. 

“Did something happen with the agents?” Max added, frowning and leaning closer to Michael. He didn’t touch him, but Michael could tell that he wanted to. And as much as he might want comfort, it wasn’t something he could relax into, especially not with Max. So Michael was glad Max didn’t, instead just flexed his hand before resting it on the arm of the chair.

“We’re safe, for now,” Michael said quickly. Because he didn’t want them worrying about that, at least not yet. But that just made them both frown harder, exchanging glances briefly before refocusing on Michael. “I’m not under arrest or anything and there’s no one coming to get us. Just that last case? It was a lot. And you guys should know about it.”

“A lot, how?” Max asked, stiff in his chair, beer untouched. 

“Well, it started with a suspected abduction and alien autopsy,” Michael said, quickly adding, “fake alien autopsy. Some Air Force dipshit wearing a pretty fucking realistic rubber suit.” He couldn’t suppress the shudder though, trying not to think about the feel of it under his fingers or the way that the head had just peeled off. “One of those classic stereotypical big headed grey things, you know?”

Isobel, who looked about as disturbed as he had ever seen her, glanced at Max. “Please tell me it was some kind of belated April Fool’s day prank or something?” She asked, hopefully. 

Michael shrugged. “Not sure. It looks to be some kind of classified op though. Far as I can piece together they’re drugging civilians, too…”

“Why?” Max looked both bewildered and furious at the same time. Michael could sense the tension and worry rolling off Max in waves. It set his teeth on edge and ramped up both his own stress and the ever present feeling of vulnerability that he spent so much time ignoring so that it wouldn’t drive him crazy. The fact was that the three of them were never really a united front against the humans. They were just three scared kids huddled together in the wilderness for warmth. 

Michael let out a slow breath, forced himself to focus on Max’s question. Since it was something that he’d been trying to figure out between nightmares. “It’s the military, so it can’t be anything good, right?”

“Obviously not,” Isobel agreed.

Michael made a face, and couldn’t help but speculate, even if it would probably stress them out more. “I’m thinking it could be some kind of MKUltra mind control project. Or it could be that they’re trying to induce panic over an alien invasion for some reason.”

“What possible reason could they have--” Max started.

“Who the fuck knows, honestly.” Michael cut him off because Max wasn’t asking the right questions. At the core, Max’s whys were about disbelief and morality. The how coulds born of shock and surprise, brought on by the delusion of the inherent goodness of people. But none of this shit surprised Michael, not really. People were bad and they did bad things if it benefited them (and sometimes even if it didn’t when they were small and petty enough). And that was the right question to ask right now. Why waste the resources? What was the benefit? And could it affect him, Max and Isobel?   

Michael took a pull of his beer. “Anyway, that’s actually not the worst part” 

“I hesitate to ask,” Isobel said, dryly. She was playing it cool, and she was damn good at it, but Michael knew her facial expressions well enough to know that she was just as upset as Max was. 

“So, I learned why Alex is so involved in all of this,” Michael started. Using his powers idly, he started to peel the label off his bottle without ripping it or cracking the glass. Small, precise use of his power like this was hard--especially after prison--made his head hurt a little. But that was what he wanted right now. It helped focus him. “Apparently, his family was involved in the clean-up and cover-up of the ‘47 crash. Including studying the--” He broke off. Unable to reduce their families down to the bloodless word specimen but equally unable to call it what it was. “He’s seen pictures. Of what they did to the victims of the crash. To people like us.” 

The lights above them flickered, wildly. Michael glanced at Max, whose jaw was clenched tightly. He didn’t even have it in him to make you-break-it-you-bought-it jokes about the lightbulbs. Anyway, they were almost certainly not going to survive the day, if he knew Max. Well, Isobel had been the one to buy them, so he really had no place to talk.

“Michael,” Isobel said softly, reaching out to brush her fingers over his arm. He shrugged off the touch, even though part of him wanted to just lean into it. Maybe Izzy needed the comfort just as much as he did, but it didn’t feel right, relaxing even that much. 

Thankfully, Max got up to pace, which meant Michael stopped being the focus of her concern. 

“Anyway, his dad’s clearly still involved in whatever the government is doing, because he paid us a nasty little visit while we were down there. Threw Alex and Maria for a fucking loop, I’ll tell you that.”

“Maybe it’s time you ran,” Max said, quietly, after a moment of silence. He’d settled on standing behind Izzy’s chair, holding onto the back of it tightly, Isobel’s hand resting over one of his. 

Michael couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m sorry? Did Deputy Max Evans just suggest I violate my parole?”  

Max let out a frustrated noise, throwing up his hands and resuming pacing. 

“He’s right,” Isobel said, eyes darting between the both of them in concern before settling on Michael. “Look, the border isn’t far. Between the two of us we can get over it without attracting any attention.” 

Michael thought about it, for a heartbeat. It would be easy. None of them had any real attachments. Sure, there were the Evans, but the twins had always been rather cool with them, kept them at arm's length. And Isobel was on the outs with Noah. Distance could only improve on that. It could just be the three of them in some small south American town. Like in the movies. By the beach. Michael’d never been to the beach...

But no, that wasn’t right. Thinking about the beach just reminded him of Alex and Maria, and their joking about hunting cryptids on the coast. The thought of leaving them right now didn’t sit right. It was annoying

Fuck. He couldn’t just walk away from this, couldn’t leave Alex and Maria so exposed, knowing what he knew now. Brilliant as they both were, they were likely to fall right into some trap or something because they were both so incredibly stupid in their singlemindness. Jesse Manes had already one upped Alex more than once before. 

Just thinking about that motherfucker made the hair on Michael’s arms stand on end. His gaze had felt like being caught in a sniper’s sights. Maybe putting Jesse Manes behind bars would protect them all. But going after him? Meant that his sight would inevitably fall on Max and Izzy. And that was unacceptable.

“Alex wants to shut him down. I...” Michael paused, grimaced. Thinking of someone not himself and not family first left a strange taste in his mouth. “I think I need to help him,” he added slowly. “Thing is, I don’t want to put you two in danger. More danger.”  

Max stopped pacing to look at Michael, stepping right up to him, and resting one big hand on his shoulder. “Hey, you’re not getting rid of us that easily.”

He wasn’t in the mood for Max’s nonsense today. Neither of them understood the gravity of the situation. Neither of them saw the greyling or the stone-faced men in the air force uniforms. Neither of them saw Kelly Stanford, all distressed and terrified because of what her own people did to her. 

“You don’t get it.” Michael burst out, shrugging Max’s hand off violently. 

“I get that you’re trying to push us away again Michael,” Max replied, frowning, trying to keep his temper in check. “You’ve been pulling this shit since we found each other at fifteen and--”

“No, I met the bastard.” Michael stepped into Max’s space, poking him in the chest. “And he knew my name, knew my fucking face. He’s fucking watching me, either because he wants the shit I stole or because--” 

“Yes, Michael. You stole from the Air Force!” Max glared at him. “We both told you that was dangerous and you did it anyway.” 

He’d been waiting for Max to bring this up. Honestly it was a long time coming. The only reason it hadn’t happened yet was because of time and distance. After all Max was only seeing Michael just a bit more often now than he had while Michael was in prison and that was the only reason they’d both been keeping the peace. 

“I’m not sorry I’m not content to just live blissfully unaware of our histories, deputy!” He snapped. Stupid, sanctimonious Max who always thought he knew the ‘right thing’ to do. Everything was so fucking black and white for him. So fucking easy.

“Content and blissful?” Max barked a laugh that had no mirth in it whatsoever. “That has not been my life since you’ve been in prison, Michael!”

“Oh, get off the cross, Max, we need the wood.” Michael rolled his eyes, gesturing at the firepit. “You’re not the one who had to live on prison food.” 

Hey!” Isobel said, cutting off whatever Max was going to say in response. Glaring at him as she reached to grab Michael’s shoulder again, this time with a little more force, not letting him pull away. “Stop it. The three of us are finally together again and we’re not wasting it sniping at each other and fighting about shit we can’t change!”

It was hard to shake off the sudden guilt. “He started it.” Michael couldn’t help saying, childish as it may be. He and Max kept glaring at each other, and honestly, Michael just wanted to keep yelling at him, at them both, until they both fucking left him behind, for good. It was better that way, anyway. He was one hell of a lost cause, and it was time they both realized that.

“Yeah, well, Max lets his worry override his common sense, sometimes,” Isobel said, tartly, ignoring Max’s protest. “And you,” Isobel continued glaring at Michael again “do too. You can’t keep pulling this move.”

“Guess I’m just a fuck up,” Michael replied, mulishly.

Max threw his hands up in the air. “Would you stop with that already? It doesn’t work, Michael. Neither of us are going anywhere, dammit. I am so sick of you fucking up on purpose just to push us away.” 

Max,” Isobel sounded both exasperated and angry. “Go inside and get the whiskey.”  

“What?” Max asked, frowning. But at her stern glare and point, he groaned and headed into the airstream.

The minute he was out of earshot, Isobel squeezed Michael’s shoulder again. “Do you need to go on a walk? Clear your head?”  

“No,” he said, frustrated. “I need you and Max to go back to Roswell and lie low.”

“Well, need to stay,” she countered, a little sharply, and Michael frowned. 

“Look, I know things aren’t great between you and Noah but--”

“Things are fine--” Michael snorted. “I’m fine. We’re not talking about this right now.” Isobel squeezed his shoulder tighter, shaking it a little, as if that would shut him up. 

“We’re not talking about it ever apparently,” Michael grumbled, but took a deep drink of his beer.

“Anyway, the point is, I’m not leaving you,” she said, shaking her head firmly. “Not ever again. Neither is Max. So, you just need to get used to that.”  

Michael snorted again.

Isobel pinched him. “Actually, it’s more accurate to say that you need to just admit to yourself that you don’t actually want us to leave.” 

“Ow!” He swatted her hand away and offered instead, “I don’t want anything to happen to you. Max isn’t wrong. I fucked up by letting myself get caught. It’s my fault I’m on Jesse Manes’ radar… that you might be too...” He couldn’t even finish that thought, the terror of it made it hard to breathe. 

“There’s no reason to suspect that he knows about us. Just the opposite. If he thought for a minute that you were an actual alien...” she trailed off, making a face, as if she could see the images that crossed his mind every time he closed his eyes now. “We’re safe. We’re okay.”  

“Yeah, for now,” Michael said, swallowing a sudden lump in his throat. 

“We’re safer if we work together.” Max stepped out of the airstream, with some whiskey, a bottle of acetone, and plastic cups. Setting one down on the arm of Michael’s chair, and pouring half and half for him, then himself and Isobel in turn. Once they all had a cup, Max reached over to squeeze Michael’s arm, and it wasn’t lost on him that Max’s hand fell right over the damn tattoo. Michael inhaled deeply, trying for more calm, and let Isobel and Max maneuver him back into his seat. 

“We’ll figure it out together,” Max continued quietly, dropping into his seat tiredly, anger fizzled. Taking a drink, he leaned his shoulder against Michael’s and that was as close to an apology Michael was comfortable with. So he leaned a little into Max too and downed his drink. 

Caring about people was the fucking worst.

They’d had a few more beers, gotten some more out of Michael, about the things he’d learned from his handlers and about the things he’d told them. It had felt like hours, talking together. But the sun had barely set when Isobel and Max had decided to leave--give Michael the space he needed to regroup. 

“Do you think he’s okay?” Max asked, as he put the jeep in gear, looking at the warm glow of the Airstream windows. 

Isobel looked up from her phone, where she’d been distracting herself by deleting texts. Several of them were from Noah, and her stomach clenched as she, without reading, deleted them. 

“No,” she said slowly, thoughtfully. “But I think he will be. Probably.”  

“Probably?” Max frowned, as he backed out of the spot. His worry was like a deep current - smooth at the top but powerful and turbulent underneath, threatening to pull her down in the undertow. 

“I mean, he’s been through worse and been fine,” she said, chewing her lip a little.

“Define fine,” Max said dryly.

“Fair,” Isobel chuckled then sighed, slumping just a little in her seat. “But that’s not what worries me, anyway. He seems different. More open?”

Max snorted. “Ah yes, open. That’s why he tried to run us off to Roswell.” Max was going to be bitter about that for weeks. She rubbed her hand down his arm briefly, trying to offer comfort. It was pointless to tell him not to take it personally. Michael was very good at making it personal. Especially with Max. 

And anyway, Max wasn’t wrong. 

“It’s not that.” Isobel half-laughed, half groaned. “I mean that I don’t really like how much he’s trusting them. Like, how long did it take for him to really trust us?” 

Honestly Isobel was playing her feelings down. She was stressed about how much Michael seemed to be opening up to Manes and DeLuca (opening up for Michael anyway). It was bad enough that they were FBI without there being this horrible connection between the Manes and her people. Which was, as of the last seventy years, just two people. And she was fiercely protective of both of them. She had to be, because they were both utter idiots. And she couldn’t lose them. She shivered at the thought, clenching her phone tightly in her hand.

Max frowned, looking over at her. “You have a point,” he said slowly.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s nothing,” Isobel said, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that things were changing, and she couldn’t tell if it was a good thing or not. Though in her experience, change wasn’t typically for the better. 

“Maybe,” Max agreed.

Her phone buzzed in her hand again and she looked at it, a knot of dread in her stomach, expecting it to be Noah. It wasn’t, thankfully, just a spam message, but somehow that didn’t relieve her. She threw it back into her bag, sourly. Wondering if she was projecting her own anxieties onto this situation. Michael could be right. Manes and DeLuca could be… not allies since that implied they knew their secret, but they might not be the enemy. They might even help.

“Maybe we should get to know the people Michael’s hanging around a little better,” Max continued, seeming to address her thoughts. “Never met anyone Michael actually wanted to help before.” 

“I guess it couldn’t hurt,” she said, thoughtfully, “although I don’t think there’s a take-your-siblings-to-work day coming up.” 

Max hummed, thinking. “No, there isn’t.” 

“You know what is coming up?” she asked, nudging him. A scheming smile slowly spreading across her face. Oh yeah, that could work.  

It took him just a minute to catch on, but once he did, he started laughing. “Oh, Iz. Sometimes, you are diabolical.” 

The long-abandoned hospital facility they were exploring didn’t just have one basement. Instead, it was a series of interconnected sub-basements that linked four or five crumbling buildings. A literal maze of underground corridors and tunnels leading to boiler rooms, maintenance and storage rooms, and to other parts of the complex. According to the dream team, there had been reports of strange shadows in the night, mysterious rituals and terrifying creatures. The usual tales one hears associated with abandoned medical facilities with a potential history of human rights abuse. Bullshit invented by overactive imaginations and superstition. 

To be fair though, Michael couldn’t deny a certain level of unease walking through the old empty hallways of the hospital upstairs. And it still lingered now as they moved through the dilapidated and oppressive basements. Not that he was afraid of any ghosts or demons or whatever Manes and DeLuca were looking for, but because he had a perfectly reasonable mistrust of drifters and feral animals.

And let’s be real, his alien ass would never be comfortable in a medical facility, abandoned or not. But wandering around an old one, knowing the history detailing how badly humans were willing to treat each other? Let alone an extraterrestrial if they got their mitts on one? Yeah. Extra no bueno.

“Hold on, I think I saw something move,” Maria said and started moving down a corridor they hadn’t checked yet. Michael suspected her light reflected off something innocuous like a bit of broken glass or the eye of a rodent. 

Thankfully it wasn’t a long corridor, barely more than a couple yards away, so Michael could comfortably keep an eye on her. 

Michael was aware of how weird it was, but he was relieved to be on an actual case again. ‘Cause, honestly, he’d been fucking bored and Michael never responded well to boredom, especially when he was worrying about things. Unfortunately, work had done little to distract him. Sure, there were a lot of interesting problems, but it was slow going, and the worst part was getting those answers. It involved a lot sitting behind a desk, staring at a goddamn computer all day -- not Michael’s favorite mode of work. 

Along with doing his usual research on cryptids, he was analyzing toxicology reports on the blood of Kelly and Walker, while scouring through missing persons reports to try and identify the exploding heart guy. Liz had sent the hyphae to an outside lab that could do more detailed analysis, so he also found himself refreshing the department email constantly hoping for the genetic sequencing report to appear, hoping that would help them ID the fungus, and maybe the John Doe too. Both Liz and Michael were utterly bewildered as to why it was so hard to source this damn fungus. Like, it was weird enough that it was inside of a person. Why the fuck did it seem to be not of this Earth?

Don’t think about that, he had chided himself. 

It was just dead end after dead end on all of that, leaving him bored, frustrated, and anxious. Not his favorite cocktail of emotions. So while their current case might entail wandering through a damp, dark and smelly basement, it was still a hell of a lot better than being trapped at a computer or a lab station.

“Anything interesting on butyricol?” Alex asked, shining a light down another in a series of long spooky corridors. 

Oh right and, as if he wasn’t looking into enough obscure shit, he was also researching some weird chemical compound -- butyricol -- the name of which Alex had apparently gotten from a nutcase conspiracy theorist in a café in Alamogordo. Which just fucking figured. From one crackpot to another, Michael supposed.

“Nothing. No theoretical papers, no animal studies, no clinical trials. If it exists it’s top-top secret, and if that’s the case, there’s no reason for that Green guy to know about it. I’m pretty sure that he took you for a ride, man,” Michael said. He tried to keep the I-told-you-so out of his voice. “Found out more about him, though. Specifically his podcast.”

“Oh?” Alex glanced over to him, curiously. 

Michael grinned. “Yeah. Well. I’m assuming one of them is him. There’s this conspiracy theory-slash-ghost hunting podcast by these twins, Grant and Graham Green, and they definitely fit the description you gave me. I’ll send you the link.” Okay, so the last week had kind of sucked but that podcast was definitely a highlight. That shit was so over the top that it was hilarious.

“Don’t count them out,” Maria interjected, making her way back to them, “the tin hat brigade aren’t always entirely useless.” 

“Oh, I can change both your minds with two words,” Michael said, smirking. “Peyote documentarian.” 

They both groaned, causing him to grin wider. Bursting the bubble of two attractive conspiracy theorists was really much more fun than one would think.

“Right. Great. Did you see anything?” Alex asked Maria, changing subjects.

“Nah, heard some rustling. Probably mice.” 

Resuming her exploration, she started down a corridor they hadn’t explored yet, casually looking into any empty doorways, fearless as ever. 

“That sounds about right,” Michael agreed, following her and smiling to himself at how she didn’t seem to be intimidated by anything. He wondered if she’d always been like that, or if it was a side effect of years of snooping through creepy abandoned buildings and forests.

They were far enough underground that there wasn’t any natural light source. All they had to rely on were their flashlights, which definitely upped the creep factor. The fact that the place must have been flooded at some point recently -- maybe a flash flood, maybe old leaking pipes that were still connected to the water grid -- definitely didn’t help with the ambiance either. The air was both stagnant and moist, and aside from the sound of their footsteps, there was an ever present dripping sound which echoed off the walls. The peeling and curling paint exposing what Michael hoped was dark wood and not mold. 

Honestly the worst thing about this place was that it never seemed to ever get entirely silent. But Michael just kept reminding himself that it was a really old facility, abandoned and probably animal infested. And anything else was just the creaking and moaning associated with old structures.

They ended up in what looked like an old boiler room and Michael took a moment to check out the machine in question. It looked sort of like a chimney on its side. He could see what was likely a firebox and possibly a mechanism that could put it on wheels… or no, the way it was bolted down made Michael think it never moved. Michael kind of loved these old school machines--cast iron with their amusing mildly phallic shapes. They just had a character to them that modern equipment didn’t. 

He brushed his fingers over the cold metal, half expecting it to be warm. But it was cold. Obviously...

This place was definitely getting to him. He let the sound of Maria’s voice settle him firmly back in reality, moving to where she and Alex were standing by a wall defaced by strange symbols in red paint.

“Well, that’s weird,” Maria said, making a thoughtful sound. She gestured with her flashlight at piles of bones, the skeletons of small animals. 

“Really weird,” Alex agreed, and Michael could hear the fascination in his voice. Predictable. Michael looked over the bones, laid out meticulously on the dusty floor, in a series of circles, connected by a line.

Great. “Delusional drifters with no problem killing small animals and--” he paused, his flashlight falling on what looked to be the centerpiece, revealing the skull of what looked like a dog “--puppies. Awesome.” 

Snorting in amusement, Maria squatted down to review the bones. She pulled out her cell phone, snapping a couple photos. “Definitely animal bones. Probably rats and small birds,” Maria said, picking one small bone to inspect it carefully. “Squirrels, too.”

“Seriously?” Michael asked, surprised. “You’re just going to touch it? No gloves or anything?”

Maria made an amused sound. “You scared, Guerin?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Fuck you. This is the shit you believe in, not me. It’s just gross.”

She shook her head and said, “none of this looks legit.” At Michael’s confused look she elaborated. “I mean like documented ritualistic set ups. I’d say this was done by someone pretending, like teenagers goofing around. But we’re pretty deep in these tunnels....” 

“Don’t underestimate drunk teenagers.” Michael shrugged, briefly glancing back at the boiler. Cold and dead just like the rest of the facility. “They’re determined.”

“Be that as it may, I don’t think teenagers were eating rats down here,” Maria said, still studying the bones. “Marks on some of these bones are consistent with predation. Still...could be someone down on their luck.”

“Drugged teenagers, then? Also, how many satanic rituals have you two seen?” Michael asked. Honestly, she was a little too blasé about this whole thing and that was weirding Michael out more than this creepy little set up.

“A couple,” Alex replied, frowning. He was standing very straight, tight around the shoulders. “No demons then either but the set ups were a bit more--” His face twisted in disgust as he looked for the right word “--professional.” 

Overall, Alex didn’t seem as at ease as Maria did, and Michael took some kind of comfort in that.

“More disturbing than this one,” Maria added, shuddering a little and Michael knew right then and there he did not want any more details on that case. Setting the bones down, Maria got up, dusting her hands off and gave the room a thorough sweep. 

“I can only imagine,” Michael said, dryly. Turning away from the circles, he moved back to the entrance of the boiler room. He looked down the hallway and started taking a few steps down it. He thought he heard something. Maybe that rustling that Maria had mentioned earlier. Probably a rat, he reminded himself, eyes drifting to the weird symbols on the wall and bones. But he would rather go rat hunting than hang out in that creepy ass boiler room.

Maria nudged Alex to help her, taking pictures and documenting the "alter" they’d found. She was conscious of Michael wandering but didn’t pay it much mind. As happy as she was to have Michael’s sarcastic snark back, it was a relief to get a break from it while she was trying to concentrate.

Not that her mind wasn’t wandering right back to Michael anyway. He’d been so closed off and angry barely a week and a half ago. No, just a week ago. Christ, it felt longer. 

Maria was so glad they’d taken the time to go to the Pony, to try and relax after the shitshow that was meeting Jesse Manes. Like usual, Mimi had known exactly what they all needed. A little truth, a lot of alcohol, and music. 

There were very few problems that that combination couldn’t solve. But Michael, like Alex, still drifted into brooding. If she was feeling less charitable she might even say he was sulking.

At least, work had given them both something to focus on. Maria had never seen Michael so focused actually. Unfortunately though, unlike Alex, their work had done very little to improve Michael’s mood. He’d been chafing in that office chair. He was the kind of person who didn’t do idle hands very well, obviously.

And though Maria still didn’t know exactly why Michael had felt so much distress in Alamogordo, they could at least make sure to break up the monotony between cases more often. Anything to brighten Michael’s mood a little. Maria hadn’t realized how much she liked the gleam of mischief in his eyes, the sly curve to his pretty mouth, until it was gone.   

“You picking up anything around here?” Alex asked, interrupting her thoughts, aiming the EMF meter he’d insisted on bringing, on the creepy looking boiler in the middle of the room. He’d been waving the thing around the whole day, taking readings.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, no. You okay?” Maria asked Alex. He’d been radiating discomfort ever since stepping into the medical facility. Ghosts were his least favorite paranormal phenomenon (it was the intangibility that bothered him, the inability to develop a proper plan for them. You couldn’t put a bullet through a spirit or trap it) and even though ghosts weren’t what they were looking for here, this place definitely had the vibe.  

“Fine,” he said with a nod. “Just be happier when we’re out of here.” 

“I know,” she said softly, reaching over to rub his arm gently. Deciding that it would be a Thai night as she did, since it was one of Alex’s favorites. And he could use a little pampering lately. 

Maria had been fine with Michael going back to Albuquerque the day after Karaoke night, so she could focus on Alex. He always was a lot fucked up after seeing his dad. They had stayed at the Pony, seeking comfort and recuperation in their old home above the bar. Spending the day on Mimi’s worn old rust colored couch, eating chicken adovada and chillies rellenos, had been good. Peaceful. But Alex had still found his way back to his laptop more often than Maria would have liked. And each time they would drag him away from it, urging him to kick Jesse Manes out of his head for a few more hours.

He seemed a little more centered now that they were home, but his whole aura was still cloudy. 

“Let’s--” she was cut off by a startled scream and the sound of a door slamming.

Maria’s sidearm was in her hand before she even had the chance to process the fear and adrenaline surging through her.

“Guerin!” Alex was calling out, sidearm also drawn. They glanced at each other, concern mirrored in each other’s face, and headed towards the direction they heard Michael scream.

At the end of the corridor, there was a closed door and Alex wrenched it open, sidearm and flashlight up as he checked the new corridor. Nothing. No Guerin. They heard a loud crash ahead of them and moved. 

The flooding here was worse, as a result of the leaking pipes above, she could feel the water trying to seep into her boots. Maria would wonder about that later, right now she was acutely aware of how the ceiling was lower, the corridor was narrower than the others. The walls seemed almost to close in on them.

“Guerin!” she called out, silently praying he’d yell back to her, or even jump out from somewhere and try to scare them. 

He didn’t respond and Alex swore, quickening his pace down the hall. Feet splashing across the floor. “You picking up anyone else?” Alex asked.

“No, just Guerin, ahead of us,” she said, pressing forward with Alex, cautiously. 

At least she could still feel Michael.

There was another loud bang and they could hear something that distinctly sounded like nails scraping, scratching on metal, ahead of them. They started to run now, and honestly Maria was a little freaked out because all she could pick up was Guerin’s distress. Nothing else. Nobody else. 

The corridor opened up into a larger room, full of file cabinets and trash. One of them shoved over, half blocking the doorway. “He’s just up--” Maria started, but she pulled up short. Right in front of her and Alex was a set of glowing eyes. A loud snarl echoed around the room. 

For a moment, whatever it was stayed in the shadows, and all she could see were its eyes and sharp yellowed teeth, long gleaming canines reflected in their flashlights as they tried to catch a better glimpse of it. The sound of nails scraping across the floor and the low unnatural growl were the only sound in the room.

Instinctively, protectively, Alex and Maria moved a little closer together. 

Alex inhaled sharply next to her as it came into better view, head low as it growled at them. A dog -- no, maybe a coyote? It was hard to tell. It looked to be covered in scabs and lesions, and had little to no hair left. It was probably miserable, but it looked pretty horrifying, and Maria had to push down her instinctive fight or flight reaction. 

Of course her instincts were rarely wrong. It growled again, tensing, long claws pressing into the ground before it lunged. Neither of them wasted another moment. The sound of gunshots reverberated off the walls. There was the high whine of pain followed by a thump as the animal fell on its side.

“Fuck,” Alex cursed again, moving towards the body, sidearm still trained on it. But it wasn’t moving anymore.

“Michael!” Maria called out. There was a door in the far corner of the room, and she could see scratch marks on it. “Michael!” She banged on the door then tried the doorknob. The door wasn’t locked. 

Michael was right on the other side of it -- a supply closet by the look of it. Looking shaken. “You okay?” he asked, immediately. 

“Idiot!” Maria closed the distance between them, throwing her arms around him and hugging him tight. God, she’d been scared shitless. Michael seemed startled, but he squeezed her back and they stayed like that for a moment. Finally, she pulled back far enough to slap him on the arm. “Don’t run off like that! Did it bite you? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” he reassured her. “Scraped my hand up a bit on that door, but I moved fast enough not to get my ass bit by… is that a fucking zombie dog?”

Alex was looking at the animal, crouched down over it. “Pretty sure it’s a coyote. With mange, probably. Looks half-starved too. Who knows how long it’s been down here.” He looked up at Michael. “You scared the shit out of us, Guerin.” There was no anger in his voice. He looked as relieved as Maria felt. He holstered his sidearm, adjusting it a little. Maria could tell that it was more to have something to do with his hands, something that wasn’t touching Michael. 

Maria knew the feeling. Thankfully, she didn’t have to deal with the angst of having fucked things up with Michael, so she could fuss a little. “Let me see your hand,” she demanded, shining her flashlight on it. He was bleeding. She hissed, and pulled out the bandana she always kept in a pocket. It was a habit she got into thanks to Patty, and it had been surprisingly useful, from picking up potential evidence to providing emergency first aid. The scrape on Michael’s hand didn’t look bad, but it was bleeding pretty freely.

“Yeah that makes three of us,” Michael said dryly to Alex, though he was smiling at Maria, softly. Fond, in a way that made her chest ache just a little. She resolutely ignored it and instead of getting lost in his eyes, she focused on wrapping and tying off the bandana securely, so that there would be pressure on the wound. “I was just looking around and it came out of nowhere.” 

“Probably because it was desperate and starving, and it saw an opportunity.” Alex rose to his feet, scanning over the room with his flashlight, pausing on the file cabinet that was on its side, on top of what looked like an old crash cart. It almost looked like it’d been thrown across the room. Maria moved away from Michael to check it out, just because it was weird, out of place. 

“Can we get the fuck out of here?” Michael asked, sounding almost plaintive. 

“Got big plans?” Alex asked, dryly. Though the coyote definitely had solved the mystery of the chewed bones, if not whoever had arranged them so meticulously. 

“I’m bleeding and I don’t want to be here anymore not enough of a reason?” Michael asked. 

Maria glanced at Alex, who nodded his head that they should leave, and she knew the only reason he was relenting was for Michael. The sap. 

“Good enough for me,” Maria said to Michael, though she was pulling her camera out, snapping a couple pictures of the cabinet and the room on a whim.

Chapter Text

“Well, that was a bust,” Alex groaned as Guerin dropped their bag of equipment onto his desk.

“Thanks, Michael,” Maria said, lightly nudging him as she slipped by and peeled off the FBI windbreaker that she only wore when they were going on some kind of dirty job. “Let me help you bandage that up,” she said, nodding at his hand, and grabbing the first aid kit. 

“I got it,” he said, pulling the bandana off and tossing it over onto her desk. “Thanks.”

“Oh, come on,” she said, her voice soft and firm at the same time. Alex knew that voice all too well, and knew that Guerin wasn’t going to be able to refuse her. Well, good. Someone needed to take care of him.

Even so he had to squish down a bit of jealousy. Forced himself to focus on unpacking the bag, reminded himself, yet again, that it wasn’t going to happen.

“You really should get a tetanus shot,” Maria said, as she worked to clean out the wound. 

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Michael said, a little dryly. 

“What’s on the docket for tomorrow?”

“Well, we need to write up today’s case, do some research on the symbology and the bon--” Alex started, looking up at him and then trailing off as a familiar face poked into their open office door. “Deputy Evans?” he asked, bewildered. 

Michael blinked and looked over his shoulder. “Max? How did you even get in here?” He asked, frowning. 

“Hey. Um, I flashed my badge, and said I had a meeting.”

“Are you serious?” Michael sounded exasperated. “I’m here every day and I’ve got to deal with everything but a cavity search.”

Max looked very much like he was holding back a laugh. “Sorry. Badge talks,” he paused, frowning. “Are you ok? What happened?”

“Chupacabra,” Michael said, dryly. Apparently the sarcasm wasn’t reserved just for him and Maria. Alex found that somehow more endearing.

“Wh-- Seriously?” Max’s eyes widened. 

“No.” Michael rolled his eyes. 

Maria laughed and dropped his hand. “All patched up.” 

Max let out an exasperated sigh. “Okay well, anyway, Is-- ah Bella was getting worried that you forgot…” he trailed off, with a significant look at Michael, who cursed under his breath, glancing at the clock. 

“Shit. Time got away from me. We just got back,” Guerin said, sounding uncharacteristically apologetic. Which immediately had Alex worrying. 

“What’s going on?” Maria asked, a tinge of worry in her voice. 

“It’s our birthday,” Max explained. Michael groaned, glaring at Max as if saying that much was a betrayal, somehow. 

Maria perked. Of course she did. She loved birthday parties. Alex could never escape celebrating his own and he dare not forget hers. 

Max,” Guerin said, sharply. He was clearly sensing Maria's interest and not liking it one bit. “It’s not our actual birthday.”

Max just looked at him, steadily. “Near as we have. And it’s the first one since you got out so you’re coming.” Michael looked rebellious for a moment before Max sighed and added, “it matters to her.”

“Yeah,” he said, on a sigh. He looked over at Maria and Alex again, almost apologetic. “Sorry. Mind if I get out of here?” 

“Of course, not--” Alex started but Maria interrupted him.

“What are you guys doing?” 

“Traditional to hit a bar. Grab a few drinks,” Max said, a grin lighting up his face. “Maybe get a tattoo,” he added it like an inside joke but Alex perked up now. Fuck if he didn’t want to press. Maybe Max would be more amenable to telling Alex everything he wanted to know. Since Michael seemed very good at drawing out all of Alex’s secrets but hated sharing any of his own. 

He was wondering if it would be crossing a line inviting himself when Max added, “you should come. Both of you.” 

“I feel like we should buy you a birthday drink Guerin,” Alex said as nonchalantly as he could muster. Maria glanced at him, eyebrow raised, obviously catching on immediately. Not that he was surprised. He could never get anything past her after all.

However, Guerin looked confused and maybe a little unsure. Maybe even disturbed. “What? No…”

Alex shoved down something suspiciously like guilt. Maybe this was a terrible idea. But they were being invited and Max’s smile was welcoming. If anything, it had gotten even bigger. 

“Since when do you protest free drinks?” Max asked, with a short laugh. “Seriously, you guys are welcome. There’s a nice place with an outdoor beer garden, I can give you the address…” 

“Oh, my two favorite words!” Liz said, just sort of materializing at Max’s side. Max all but jumped out of her way, startled. But he couldn’t take his eyes off her as she moved deeper into their office. “I was going to show Mikey--”

“Mikey?” Michael demanded, annoyed, and was completely ignored. Max was smiling.

“--the sequenced genome of the fungus, but I am 100% more interested in a beer garden right now.”  

“Uh... that’s. That’s great. The more the merrier!” Max practically stumbled over his words, and Alex wondered if he was always this awkward around women. If not, he was going to be in for a rude awakening once he met Kyle. “You got a post-it? I’ll write down the address.”

“Just text me. Gimme your phone, and I’ll give you my number,” Liz said, flashing a smile and holding out her hand for his phone. “I’m Liz by the way. You’re Max right? Michael’s brother?”

“Uh yeah,” Max said. “How--”

“Google,” she said, with a grin and a slight, suspicious little flush as she punched her number into Max’s phone. “Your profile pictures don’t do you justice,” she added, as she handed his phone back, then handed a file over to Guerin. “Look that over once the hangover wears off.” 

Michael snorted. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, sounding dismissive, but he had a smile on his face as he tossed the file into his inbox.

“What time does the party start?” Maria asked.

Max glanced at his watch. “Well Michael probably needs a shower so... three days from now?”

“You are not funny, deputy,” Michael said dryly and stood up. He looked decidedly uncomfortable and honestly Alex was kind of enjoying it. “I’m getting drunk tonight and I’m not paying for any of it.” He pointed at all of them. 

“Of course!” Maria laughed. “Birthday shots are on me.” 

Alex and Liz exchanged glances. They were so fucked. 

“You may live to regret that,” Max said, starting to usher Michael out. “Seven-thirty or so? See you guys there.” Alex watched as Michael let himself be tugged away by Max and tried very hard not to second guess his decision to join this party. If he set Michael off again, Maria wouldn’t have to kill him; he'd do it himself. But Alex needed whatever Michael knew. Jesse Manes wasn’t going to just stop everything he was doing while Alex gently coaxed the truth out of Michael, like the angriest doe.

He was just going to have to remember to be careful. 

“Guess we got to grab a present,” Maria said in the silence left by their exit. “And clean up.” Looking down at herself, wrinkling her nose. 

“As if you ever look bad,” Liz said dryly. “But do you have any idea what he might like?”

“I don’t know much,” Alex said. “But I can safely say that whatever booze we get him will probably be enough.”

“He’s partial to whiskey,” Maria said, and Alex raised an eyebrow.

“Three of us can go in a nice bottle?” Alex suggested. 

“Yeah,” Liz said, with a nod. “Maria, you know the most about booze. Mind grabbing it?”

“We can swing by the store,” Maria confirmed.

It was just a standard beer garden. Situated behind a bar with long wooden tables and large red umbrellas. The trees were covered in fairy lights which hung from one tree to another. Max, Isobel and Michael had only been sitting around for about thirty minutes, drinking beer from a generous pitcher Max had ordered for the table. 

“To the two unfortunate assholes stuck with me on this shitty mudball,” Michael said, raising his glass to them. 

As much as Michael protested about this fake birthday they all shared, he didn’t actually mind it. He actually--don’t tell them--kind of liked it. He’d spent many a year alone and scared and angry. But not since he was fifteen, when he had finally found his way back to Max and Isobel (or better said they had found him, endured all his rage until he wore himself out and slowly, begrudgingly let them into his life). In these moments, when they were all sitting together, laughing, sharing food and drink in the relative safety of anonymity, he felt a little less alone. Hell, even the birthdays he’d spent in prison were easier because he knew that he at least had them, knew they were having a drink for him. 

“That toast was truly touching,” Max said, but raised his glass as well, chuckling softly.

“Damn right,” Michael replied. 

“There’s no other asshole I’d rather have for my baby brother,” Izzy said, dryly.

“I am not the baby brother,” Michael complained.

Isobel waved her hand, dismissing his protest while Max laughed and said, “yeah, okay sure.” 

“You two are...” Michael trailed off, catching sight of Maria and Alex stepping into the bar and fuck. He drained the rest of his beer and got up, grabbing Isobel’s arm. “Izzy, c’mon.” 

Bella,” she corrected, with an exasperated roll of her eyes. Michael was too distracted to clue her in that her dumb secret was out, too distracted by his impending doom coming toward him in soft supple leather jackets, painted on black jeans, and satin yellow dresses. “What? Where?” He barely heard her say.

“I need something stronger. Shots. We’re doing shots. Max, hold down the fort. We’ll bring one back for you.”

“Seriously not necessary.” Max held up his hands.

“Michael, it’s absolutely too early to get roaring drunk,” she protested. And on the one hand, she was right. The food they ordered hadn’t even arrived yet. But on the other hand...

“This is about survival, Isobel,” he hissed at her, nodding his head back towards the two agents who were talking to Max now. He had no idea Maria was hiding such gorgeous legs under those pantsuits. “I cannot handle this ambush without booze.”

Immediately she was craning her neck, looking back at Alex and Maria curiously, and whistling softly. “Manes has a great ass. I can see why you need more drinks at the reminder.”

Michael glared at her, immediately regretting telling her about sleeping with Alex. Not that he had much of a choice, not when she caught him brooding. Isobel was a shark and his angst was blood in the water. 

“And DeLuca,” Isobel continued, humming. “I’d kill for curves like those. Amazing skin too.” She hummed thoughtfully, inclining her head as she regarded them. Michael, for his continued sanity, focused on flagging the bartender down. He was kind of glad he hadn’t received the drinks yet because he almost choked when Isobel said decisively, “those are date outfits.”

“What? No!” Michael shook his head vigorously. “Those are just their street clothes.” 

Isobel was laughing now. “Please, Manes must have been greased into those jeans and it’s clear DeLuca put a little extra care into her liner. Trust me. A girl can tell.” She beamed at him, patting his chest. “You’re fucked, baby brother.” 

Michael sputtered. Not that he hadn’t noticed the outfits. This was supposed to be a casual birthday drink, not a goddamned date. It was not a goddamn date. 

“Fuck you.” 

He waved the bartender over, ordering two shots, and taking them both himself, despite Isobel’s protest. Fuck, he’d thought the suits had been unfair. This was next level.

Just behave, he told himself. Remember what happened the last time you let your dick take charge? 

He and Alex had finally achieved an uneasy truce built by the mutual silent agreement to pretend nothing ever happened, and he was not going to let his libido fuck it up. But it’d real fucking nice if Alex upheld his end of the bargain by looking less fucking hot. Maybe wear a trash bag or something?

Oh, who was he kidding? Alex would make a trash bag look good with his artfully tousled hair and resting bitchface. He’d just look like some avant garde model. All cheekbones and smolder.

“Guerin! Happy birthday!” Maria's voice pulled him away from his woes. He turned to find both of them standing before him, looking even hotter close up. Maria held out a long, shiny gift bag to him.  

He blinked, looking over at Isobel, practically panicked. What the hell?  

“It’s a gift, Michael,” Isobel said, nudging him gently, as if that were some normal fucking thing. As if he got them all the time, like some kind of normal person. As if back when they were teens, he hadn’t strictly forbidden her and Max from ever getting him presents, because he couldn’t return the gesture, because he barely knew them, because he barely trusted them.

And here were these two, offering him gifts, like he could trust them.

But how do you tell your too-hot wardens that presents were way, way too much? That he’d only gotten a handful in his life and that they had to be practically forced on him every time? 

It was Alex who just rolled his eyes, taking the gift bag from Maria and pushing it in Michael’s hands, brusquely. Not quite glaring at him but that eye contact was pointed like a knife. “Seriously. Happy Birthday, Guerin.” Only Alex Manes could make gift giving aggressive. 

“Don’t mind him,” Isobel said dryly in response to Maria’s confused and worried expression. “He’s just shit at accepting gifts. Chip on his shoulder and all.” 

“I’m not,” he protested, even if she was right on the money. “Thanks.”

Michael felt deeply awkward as he looked down at the gift bag in his hands. There was a card on top of the colorful tissue paper that was barely hiding the contents. A bottle of some sorts. Resigned, Michael started to dig, pulling out a bottle of whiskey. It didn’t look cheap. If the fancy black and white labeling and the dark caramel color wasn’t giveaway enough, the 20-year written in script across the labeling cinched it. He raised an eyebrow. 

“It’s from all of us. Liz and Kyle too,” Maria offered, her voice a little gentle, as if she knew that this was a lot for him. He looked away from her, back at the bottle. “And there’s something just from me and Alex in there too.” 

Michael frowned (more gifts seriously) and handed the bottle to Isobel to hold while he dug more, fishing out the second gift. A cheap plastic kids’ sheriff star. Unexpected and sweet, and it struck a chord somewhere deep in his heart. He laughed, unable to hold onto his awkwardness or irritation at the sight of it, taking it out of its little capsule and holding it in his hand. 

“We should all carry badges when we’re on a case,” Alex explained, a little too quickly to be teasing. Endearingly awkward. 

“A gun would have been better,” Michael said, aiming for sardonic but his soft laughter flubbed the landing. He was looking down at the star with what he was sure was an overly fond expression. He tried to school his features into something less soppy but it was entirely impossible. 

Fuck. How was that the sweetest fucking gesture? It wasn’t a real question. He knew. Because this was something he would have gleefully bought himself if he’d thought of it first. And be gleefully excited for the twin groans he’d get when finally brandishing it during a case. And they knew that. 

Michael took a breath. Isobel was nudging him again. He didn’t even have it in him to shoot her a dirty look. He just looked up at Alex and Maria, nodding. “Thank you. This is… it’s really nice.” 

Maria was beaming at him and Alex had this soft little smile. Michael just felt impossibly warm.

“Ok you guys should definitely get a drink,” Michael said quickly, carefully putting the star back in its little capsule, and both it and the bottle in the bag. He’d read the card later. 

“Agreed.” Iz nodded, and waved them over to their table. She had a somewhat calculating gleam in his eye, and Michael frowned. “Come on, first rounds’ on us.”

“First round’s on her,” Michael corrected quickly. “I’m not made of money.” 

“You know it’s my birthday too,” Isobel said. Michael just ignored her and took a deep drink of fresh beer.

After grabbing their drinks, the inevitable small talk commenced. ‘Bella’ and Max asked about how he and Maria met, their work, their social lives. Questions that were light, innocent, but also probing. It felt like the siblings wanted to dig for information just as much as Alex did. Not that Alex had any idea what they thought they were probing for. Unless Michael had told them about their hook-up. God. The thought was enough to make him want to slam his beer and leave.

“No this isn’t a new department,” Maria was telling Isobel, who was the liveliest of the three siblings. Basically holding court with Maria while he, Max and Michael mostly drank and listened. “There’s always been weird happenings, things that are not easily explained by conventional means. And the FBI has always been tasked with investigating these odd occurrences.”

Isobel rolled her eyes. “Seems like a waste of tax dollars. Though,” she said, thoughtfully, “I suppose it’s better if the government wastes my hard earned tax dollars on Bigfoot hunts than on more wars--’

“Or walls,” Max added. And they all clinked glasses to that. 

“Thankfully the current administration has bigger fish to fry,” Maria said, smiling. Alex could see it on her face - she appreciated the banter.

“Anyway.” Isobel took a pull from her beer. “I don’t want to complain about what you do, especially since it means we get Michael back. But you can’t have found anything concrete,” she continued with a slightly calculating look in her eyes. And Alex tried not to groan -- apparently probing skepticism ran in the family.

“Depends on what you’re looking for proof of,” Maria supplied. “If it’s of your brother being a sarcastic shit…” she trailed off, teasingly. And with that, she easily deflected the interrogation back on them.

Isobel snorted. “Please, everyone who’s ever met Michael has those receipts.”

“So, he’s always been the sarcastic little shit we all know and--” Alex stumbled over it for a moment-- “tolerate?” He finished, as smoothly as humanly possible. He very deliberately did not meet either Maria or Michael’s eyes. But that meant catching the interested way Max and Isobel were watching him, overtly protective. 

“Oh no,” Isobel started, smiling fondly at Michael. “He was so cute and sweet in high school.”

“Maybe in comparison to a Jersey Devil,” Michael drawled, as if his honor had somehow been insulted.  

“Rude,” she said, smacking him lightly. “And stunningly inaccurate.”

“I’m sorry, did you forget the knife he pulled on us?” Max asked, dryly.  

“Wait, wait. A knife?” Alex asked, with an eyebrow raised. 

“They surprised me!” Michael protested, laughing. Max snorted, apparently that wasn’t how he’d tell it. But Michael was still talking, “I was a teenager, and I’d just come back to Roswell after I got emancipated. I was out in the desert in my truck, half asleep and these two just show up out of nowhere…”

“Mikey!” Liz clapped her hands on Michael’s shoulders, interrupting whatever Michael was about to say next, and Alex groaned under his breath at the interruption. “Happy birthday! Did Maria and Alex pick out something nice? It’s from all of us, you know?”

If Alex had less control over himself, he would be swearing a blue streak instead of sourly taking a drink of his beer. Maria had filled him in on the bits and pieces of Michael’s life that she had extracted from him during their poker session, and Maria kept mentioning that something didn’t quite make sense to her, that there was something like a hole in his story. When pressed as to what she thought it was, she hadn’t been able to say more than that it was just a feeling. But now, Alex felt it too. Only he had actual concrete questions. Like how did they know Michael was out in the desert? How did they even know the new kid in town was the same boy who had wandered through the desert with them at seven years old? It felt like a puzzle. No, like a case. Like the one in Oregon. Kids ending up in places that didn’t make sense. 

For one brief, wild moment, Alex thought about digging Maria’s bloody handkerchief out her desk, having the DNA lab run it under the table, and see if he could solve at least one mystery. Maybe even reunite Guerin with his long-lost family, find out why they were such utter douchebags, leaving kids out in the middle of the fucking desert.

That brought him up short. No. Not all questions needed answers. 

Michael, oblivious to the swirl of thoughts in Alex’s head, looked startled to be touched by someone that wasn’t one of his siblings. “Uh, yeah. Thank you.” The awkwardness from earlier came back at the mention of the gift, and he quickly shifted the subject. “Max, Bella, this is Liz, our lab…”

“We’ve met,” Max said quickly, and it didn’t take a detective to see the way he’d brightened when Liz came in. Obviously Isobel noticed it too because she raised an eyebrow. 

Liz’s smile back was just a little too bright as she took the seat right across from Max. They held each other’s gaze for a moment. “Yeah. Good to see you.” 

Isobel cleared her throat after a moment, since they didn’t seem inclined to break eye contact any time soon. “Hi. Bella,” Isobel introduced herself, offering her hand.

Liz reached for Isobel’s hand to shake it. Only to pause in the middle of the handshake, staring at Isobel. But this was different, not like with Max (Alex was thankful because that would have been a little too weird), this was more thoughtful. As if Liz was trying to place where she’d seen Isobel before. “You look really familiar. You guys grew up in Roswell too, right?”

Isobel nodded, glancing over at Michael. “Yeah. You too?”

“My family runs the Crashdown,” Liz said slowly, still obviously trying to place Isobel. Alex bit down on the inside of cheek to keep his excitement in check. Was Liz gonna be his ace in the hole? “Maybe that’s where I know you from?”  

Isobel shook her head, her smile taking on a bit of an apologetic tinge. And nope, Alex could not handle another missed opportunity. “Isobel’s her real name if that helps,” he offered and completely ignored the metaphorical record scratch that statement caused.

Isobel’s smile slipped into a perfectly blank mask. The sort of face one made when they had no idea how to react and defaulted to no reaction whatsoever. Michael’s glare on the other hand -- it was hard to ignore how immediately, protectively furious he became. Even so, Alex was not going to feel bad about this. 

Max was also frowning at Alex and started to put an arm around Isobel. But Isobel took a deep breath, reaching to squeeze Michael’s arm, catching Max’s eyes and shaking her head. “It’s fine. It’s not like I’m in hiding or anything,” she said, with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Just trying on a new nickname is all--” Maria caught Alex’s eye then, and underneath the table, she tapped his knee-- lying. “Anyway,” she turned back to Liz. “We really never hung out on that side of town.” 

“Really?” Liz was frowning, head tilted. 

Isobel frowned back. “Really.” She wasn’t lying as far as Alex could tell, but there was also a little uncertainty in the curve of her lips and the tenor of her voice. Maybe it was nothing but the shock of having her secret spilled. Maybe it was something more. He nudged Maria, just a little, under the table, and she responded by discreetly taking off her necklace and passing it to Alex, who pocketed it.  

“Beer?” Max broke in, clearly trying to defuse the situation. He held up the pitcher Maria had bought for the table. 

Alex didn’t miss the way Isobel sighed, relieved, taking a deep drink of her beer and slipping her phone out, glaring at it, as if she could take her anger and upset out on the glass and metal.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Liz said with a nod, shifting her attention away from Isobel, towards Michael. “So, Mikey, talk to me about flesh-eating mushrooms.”

Michael groaned, good-naturedly. “I’m going on record to say that I still think this fungus thing has nothing to do with your John Doe’s weird death.” 

“Right ‘cause it’s infinitely more plausible that he inhaled a spore that germinated inside him,” Liz said, and by the way she rolled her eyes, this argument was a well-worn path.

“Look I’m not saying we’re having a Sidorkin redux,” Michael replied, defensively.

“Sidorkin redux?” Max asked, trying to weasel his way into the conversation and back into Liz’s attentions. 

It worked too, because Liz turned to him, eyes sparkling, and leaned in close. “Oh man, Sidorkin’s this weird-but-apparently-true case in Russia, where a man was actually found to have a fir tree sprouted in his lungs.” 

Alex winced at the reminder. He hated the Sidorkin case. He’d forever be suspicious of conifers after hearing about that nonsense.

“What?” Max sounded bewildered.

Michael snapped his fingers. “Keep up deputy. Doctors thought the guy had lung cancer but it turned out he inhaled a seed--” he looked pointedly at Liz now. “And apparently, despite all odds it germinated.” 

Max looked practically green. “Are you hearing this?” He stage-whispered to Isobel, nudging her. But she didn’t look up from her phone, gripping it so hard Alex was somewhat surprised it hadn’t broken. He glanced at Maria who was watching Isobel carefully, frowning, and he wondered what she was picking up. He left her to it though because it wasn’t like he could ask right now. 

Anyway.” Michael shook his head. “I’m not saying our John Doe inhaled a spore, I’m just--”

“Oh, go on Mikey, what are you saying?” Liz asked, in that playfully aggressive tone she got with Guerin whenever they were debating science.

Guerin in turn sounded exasperated and amused all at once. “What I’m saying is that there is precedent, unlike some kind of weird parasitic fungus causing a heart to literally explode, which sounds insane by the way.”

“So does a fir tree growing inside a person!” Liz protested. “C’mon Sidorkin is at least proof that crazy sounding things do happen.”

“Oh, and Russian media constitutes rock-solid proof.”

“So, you admit there’s actually no precedent and you were just using Sidorkin as a distraction!” Liz crowed, victorious.

“Is this really birthday talk?” Isobel complained. Probably noticing the sharpness in her tone, she set aside the phone and reached over to ruffle Michael’s curls fondly. It was enough to distract Michael who ducked out of the touch with a soft smile and a half-hearted protest. 

God damn if Alex didn’t ache to touch Michael so freely, to be the reason Michael laughed as easily as he did around his siblings, so much more open, less defensive. 

“They are science nerds,” Alex pointed out, shaking his head, “For them, it is.”  

Liz fired off a finger gun at him and pulled Michael right back into an animated conversation about mushrooms and conspiracy theories. While Max tried to keep up and stay involved in the conversation, Isobel rolled her eyes and took the opportunity to get up and head to the bar -- probably for a breather as much as to refresh her drink.

Well, time to grill the other sibling, then.

“It’s nice. That you two can be here with him. I’m sure he misses home,” Alex said, deciding to ease a little more gently into the interrogation this time.

Max started, tearing his eyes away from Liz, and half-laughed. “Not so sure about that.”

“What do you mean?” Alex asked, with a raised eyebrow. For all his bluster, Michael seemed to be happy that Isobel and Max were there.

“I just mean,” Max began, a little awkwardly, “I don’t think Michael’s ever felt at home.”

“What, in Roswell?” Alex asked, confused. 

Max shrugged. “Honestly? The planet. Izzy and I’ve tried to make sure he always felt included but...” he trailed off, looking at Alex. Clearly he hadn’t forgotten Alex’s earlier lack of tact.

“Sorry,” he apologized awkwardly, and hoped it sounded sincere enough to mollify Max.  

“I guess it’s fine. It’s not like she’s in witsec or on the run from the law or anything. Truth be told we’re not really sure why she was insisting on it.” His eyes drifted over to the bar. Isobel was paying for what looked like another round of shots.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Alex shook his head, pouring more beer for Max. “Really best to keep the family to only one criminal mastermind.” 

Max snorted. “God, please don’t call him that, he’ll take it like some kind of compliment.” 

Alex chuckled, shaking his head. “Never.”

“I know you’re basically his parole agents, but Michael seems to like working with you,” Max said, as if fishing for something, though Alex couldn’t think what it might be. Their disastrous hook up immediately came to mind, but Max probably didn’t know. After all, not only was he clearly the protective big brother type but he was also in law enforcement and would know exactly the ethical nightmare that Alex had jumped right into.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said, slowly, trying to figure out Max’s angle, and being really careful not to look over at Michael. No point in giving Max anything to work with.

Max sipped his beer. “I mean, he really seems to be trusting you. It’s unusual.” 

“Is it?” Alex tried not to pounce on that too obviously.  

“Yeah.” Max paused, looking at him as if he were trying to size Alex up. “Guess you guys must really get along.”

“Something like that,” Alex said, shifting nervously. All this talk about Guerin made it even harder not to look at him, linger on the wicked glint in his eyes or the way he tossed his curls when he got animated. “I think he mostly likes giving me shit about cryptids and aliens and stuff. He loves being a skeptic.”

Max laughed. “Being a shit has always been his favorite pastime.” 

Alex smiled. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“So that’s the dynamic, huh?” Max said, slowly. “Figured it’d be more…” he trailed off, groping for the word.

“Professional?” Alex filled in for him.

“Combative,” Max finally said with a shake to his head. He sounded like he was speaking from experience. And Alex supposed that made sense. Brothers that grew up to be a cop and a con respectively probably had been butting heads since childhood. 

Alex had to laugh. “Fair. He definitely doesn’t do well with authority, does he?”

“Not at all,” Max concurred. “Which is why it’s weird he does so well with you.”

Alex shrugged a little. “We try to treat him more like a partner than a con.” He chose his words carefully. “Honestly, though, the thing that’s really weird to me is that he ended up with us,” he pointed out, trying to shift the conversation back on Max, “he doesn’t actually seem like the criminal type. And from his files, I would have expected him to get some kind of scholarship, end up in a fancy job.”

Max looked over at Michael, now excitedly arguing with Liz over protein encoding. “He got offered one to UNM, actually.” 

“But he didn’t take it?” Alex, of course, knew Michael hadn’t. Michael started his life of crime instead. Wasted a chance of a lifetime for some green painted knickknacks from a UFO museum. But Michael was a genius so that made no sense. There was a story to be told here. 

Max shook his head, looking both frustrated and annoyed. And Alex wasn’t sure if he was going to answer, so he prompted just a little more. “With a brain like that, he could have saved the world.”

“Michael doesn’t care enough about the world to change it,” Max said, looking down at his beer. There was something very tired and dispirited about the slope of his shoulders. 

“That’s not true,” Alex said firmly, and Max raised his head to look at him, frowning. “It’s not. Michael cares a lot. Yeah he’s angry. But he cares.” More than anyone Alex had met, even if he tried to hide it.

“It’s not that simple--” Max cut off, abruptly, as Kyle came in, hands dropping on Liz’s shoulders and leaning down for a kiss. 

God fucking damnit. Alex sighed. Isobel was back with a tray full of shots. He grabbed one, taking it. This clearly was not his damn night. It was like the universe was conspiring to interrupt him just when things were getting good.

“Hey babe!” Liz said, happily leaning up into the kiss. 

“Sorry I’m late.” 

Alex lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave at Kyle, before he turned back to Max, hoping to salvage the conversation. But Max had notably deflated. If Alex weren’t so damn annoyed and frustrated, he might pity him.

But only a little. Handsome, tall, small-town cop? He couldn’t imagine Max lacked for company.

“Kyle, this is Max,” Liz said, after introducing Isobel.

“Hey, man, I’m Liz’s husband,” Kyle said, offering his hand to Max who took it with sullen, automatic politeness. Of course, that turned into surprised bewilderment when Kyle continued with, “huh, Liz’s right. Profile pics don’t do you justice at all, man.”

“Right?!” Liz said as Kyle dropped in the seat next to Liz, throwing an arm around her shoulders. 

“I.. thank you?” Max said, obviously thrown, looking over at Michael, who shrugged. “Let me get you a beer,” he offered, grabbing the pitcher and pouring for Kyle, then topping off the rest of the drinks at the table. Rather obviously looking for an excuse to go get a refill.

While Alex started trying to work some information out of Max, Maria found herself watching Isobel, more, trying to figure out the best way to approach her. 

Normally Isobel would be exactly the kind of person to drive Maria up a wall. Entitled, bubbly. Blonde. But under it all, particularly after Alex had outed her, she felt worn, frayed in a way that didn’t show up in the bright smile and the way she tossed her hair. Like she was only barely holding things together. And even if they weren’t and probably would never be friends, Isobel was someone Michael cared about. Maria wanted to help, for his sake, if nothing else.

Isobel glanced down at her phone, something she’d done every fifteen minutes or so, with a little frown, chewing her lip. Maria couldn’t be sure from her vantage point, but it looked like Isobel was dodging phone calls from someone. So, when she excused herself to go to the bathroom, Maria was slipping away too, to catch a private word with her. 

Right outside the bathroom she paused, hearing Isobel’s voice.

“...I appreciate what you’re trying to do but--” 

“How’s Albuquerque? Getting many jobs? Should I be planning a move?” A man on the phone, just barely loud enough for Maria to hear.

Isobel’s shock and dismay was palpable. “What, did you look me up or something?”  

“Yeah, I checked your business website and social media. Saw that you’ve listed yourself as available in Albuquerque.”


“Baby, you haven’t been taking my calls. Max won’t tell me anything. What was I supposed to do?” 

“Oh, I don’t know, Noah, maybe give me a little space?” Isobel snapped, sounding worn, tired.

“Iz, come on. I love you. We can work this out,” he pleaded, sounding sincere, almost desperate. “Just talk to me.” 

“Look, I’m here because I’m worried about Michael. Not everything is about you,” she said, levelly, smoothly, but it was a lie. It was definitely about him. Maria could sense all the feelings that she kept out of her voice--trepidation and uncertainty. Distrust. Though here, Maria wasn’t sure if that was entirely aimed at Noah. 

Maria recognized that cocktail of feelings, had come across them many times. Which was even more concerning, honestly -- she normally saw it in couples who had a history of emotional or physical abuse. Maria remembered Michael saying that he and Max never liked Noah, that they married young, that there was an age difference. 

“Baby--” he started, and Maria gripped her purse, ready to enter the bathroom, give Isobel the excuse she needed to cut off the call. But it wasn’t necessary.  

“I have to go,” Isobel said. Maria heard the sound of her phone hitting the bathroom counter hard, and silence fell.

Maria waited several breaths. Just feeling Isobel out, the waves of anxiety coming off her that didn’t seem in proportion to the call she’d just overheard. When she finally slipped into the bathroom, Isobel was leaning on the sink, eyes closed, breathing deeply. Though she immediately opened them when she heard Maria walk in, leaning toward the mirror as if she’d just been touching up her makeup. Keeping up appearances. 

Maria had a feeling Isobel was very good at keeping up appearances. 

“Oh, hi,” Isobel said, wiping at her suspiciously smudged eyeliner, “allergies,” she added, by way of explanation. Maria might have even bought the explanation if she hadn’t just overheard what she had. Isobel was a really good liar.

It was something she and Michael had in common. And in Maria’s experience, the best liars tended to be forged by survival, in some really really shitty circumstances.

“Hey,” Maria responded, going to touch up her own lipstick, letting Isobel relax for a moment. Isobel rummaged through her purse, pulling out eyeliner to touch up what had been smudged and wiped off. 

After a minute or so, Maria slipped away her lipstick and caught Isobel’s eyes in the mirror. Well sometimes the best approach was the direct one. “Are you okay?”

Isobel frowned, looking over at her, sharply. “Of course, I am. Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked.

Maria turned her attention back to her reflection, playing with imaginary stray hairs. “I dunno. Was just getting a vibe. And I know you’re new in town.” She paused, glancing over at her. “Maybe you don’t need anything, but if you do, and it’s not something you want to involve your brothers in, you can call me.” 

Isobel was staring at her in what could only be described as bemused shock, and Maria had to wonder if this was one of the first overtures of friendship she’d ever gotten. Which was a sad thought. Honestly, did this family really need to be so fucking tragic? “Thanks,” she said, and even if there was more than a bit of suspicion there, there was also genuine gratitude. So clearly, Maria’s instincts weren’t super off.

Maria nodded, and let Isobel make her way to the door. She didn’t want to push further and cause her to clam up.

Isobel paused at the door. “Actually, mind giving me a ride home tonight?” she asked, and at Maria’s startled look, she shrugged, putting on a sheepish look. “I don’t trust Uber.”

Maria briefly toyed with asking her why she didn’t ask her brothers. But then decided against it, assuming it had to do with keeping up appearances. Not being ready to admit that things were out of control. Isobel still looked upset and if Maria could see it, her overprotective, already plenty worried, brothers would too. 

Keeping up appearances. Maria had seen it many times before in these cases. 

“No problem,” Maria agreed, with a nod. 

Maria excused them both from the party, citing Isobel’s (real) intoxication, and had deflected offers for a ride from Max and Michael by telling them to stay and enjoy themselves. Maria had done all the talking really. And Isobel had been thankful, still too shaken up by Noah’s phone call to think she could have been half as convincing. 

The interrogation definitely hadn’t gone quite how she’d expected it to, Isobel thought as she glanced over at Maria, who was putting the SUV into park. But it hadn’t been a total bust, she supposed? Maria was being surprisingly nice, giving her a ride, not asking any questions. Even though Isobel had a feeling Maria could see right through her facade.

It was disconcerting.

“Thanks for the ride,” she said as she slid out of the back of the SUV, carefully keeping her feet under her. And on unsteady feet, she started to make her way to her door, only to come up short. 

Her breath caught in her throat as she took in the fact that there was a large bouquet of intricately arranged flowers on the doorstep. The realization slammed into her, leaving her dizzy and breathless.  

Fuck. But of course. He had said he looked her up. But she had tried to be careful. Paying her rent in cash, not going by her name... 

She barely processed that Maria was saying her name, sounding increasingly worried. Only really snapping back when Maria was there in front of her, between her and the flowers, her hand on Isobel’s elbow, steadying her. 

“Hey. What’s wrong?”  

Isobel breathed slowly, trying to remember those stupid yoga and mindfulness classes her mom always dragged her to. Tried to shake off the sudden, irrational fear.  “Nothing. I’m fine. Just too much to drink.”  

Maria shook her head. “It’s more than that,” she said, with quiet confidence. “How can I help?” 

Isobel chewed on her lip a little. She didn’t want to trust DeLuca or Manes. Still wasn’t entirely sure their motives were pure. But she definitely couldn’t call Max or Michael right now without there being a whole scene and she really really didn't want to go in alone. “It’s just… can you come in with me?” God, she felt so stupid, feeling like Noah was lurking inside. Even if he was, why would that be so bad? It’s not like he’d ever hurt her, right?

Maria was frowning, looking at her like she could get right into Isobel’s brain, and she had to repress the urge to laugh a little hysterically. Tell Maria that was her gig. “...Yeah, of course,” she said, after a moment, nodding. 

As they headed inside, Maria kept close, but not so close that Izzy could snap at her for being overly helpful. She even scooped up the flowers, and Isobel had to bite her lip on a request to throw them in the trash.

Stop being a crazy bitch. She reminded herself as she dug her keys out, fumbled through them to find the right one. So what if he knows where you live? He loves you. You know he’s just worried. Keeping tabs. You’d probably do the same thing, right?

She let them into the one-bedroom apartment. Compared to her place in Roswell, it was sad -- mostly devoid of furniture, and what little she had was mismatched and secondhand, paid for in cash from the few gigs she’d managed to get since she’d moved here. But it was hers, and until now it had felt like a sanctuary. Like the one place in the entire world that she could be her entire self, without having to keep up the appearance of humanity or the expectation of being the sister who had her shit together. Without having to pretend to be the happy housewife, sure in her marriage. Her husband. 

“I’ll get you some water,” Maria was saying, as Isobel went, almost compulsively, to turn the light on in the bedroom, check the closet, then the bathroom and the shower. As if Noah would be hiding somewhere like a goddamned serial killer. 

“Okay,” Maria said, when Isobel finally came back into the living room and sunk down onto the couch, suddenly exhausted. “What’s going on?”  

“What do you mean?” The question sounded fake, like a deflection, even to her own ears. 

“Come on,” Maria said. “Fake name, new city. And this place is cute, but I don’t think this couch was your first choice. You’re hiding from someone. Whoever sent those flowers.”

God damnit. Michael was right. Maria was annoyingly perceptive. Isobel tucked her hair back behind her ear, trying to regain even the slightest sense of control. Not that it worked, because a moment later, words were spilling out of her. And she wished she could blame it on the shots, but she’d been needing to tell someone about this for a long time. “Do you ever feel crazy? Like you’re literally losing your mind?”

“More often than you might guess,” Maria said, softly and moved to sit on the coffee table since there wasn’t anywhere else to sit that wasn’t the couch yet. Giving her a bit of space while still facing her. 

Isobel could feel it, felt that she was telling the truth. Having a sympathetic ear just helped push her to spill more. 

“Sometimes with Noah -- my husband? -- I just feel wrong. I don’t know why. I mean, he loves me, right? I know he does. I mean, he’s never been anything but the perfect husband.” She shook her head, sure that she was already making a mess of this, that Maria already thought she was crazy, that it was all in her head. “This sounds so stupid.” 

Maria hesitated, looking thoughtful. “No, it doesn’t,” she said, resting a gentle, warm hand on her knee and squeezing. “Tell me what’s happening? No judgment.” 

Buoyed by that, Isobel relaxed, just a little. Looking down at the water in her hands. “It’s just little stuff, you know? I’m not a forgetful person, but more and more, the last few years, I can’t remember simple stuff, like what I had for dinner, or what I was wearing the day before. Or if we used a fucking condom. And it keeps happening more and more.” 

Maria frowned, rubbing her back gently. “Have you gone to a doctor?” 

Isobel couldn’t help but laugh. A ragged, harsh sound. “There isn’t anything wrong with me. Not physically anyway.” She side-stepped the question, used to giving non-answers that sounded like answers.  

“So... you think your husband is involved?” Maria sounded confused, but not skeptical. And Isobel supposed that in Maria’s line of work, she needed to have an open mind. 

“No. Of course not, I’m not that crazy,” Isobel said, quickly. Because of course she didn’t. How could Noah have anything to do with it? “I just. I can’t talk to him about this. He just tells me I’m tired or I need a spa day or a sensual massage and I can’t handle it right now. I can’t handle being coddled or placated.” 

Maria took her hand, just holding it gently but securely in both of hers. The comfort was so unfamiliar from anyone but Max or Michael, and if she were less drunk she’d probably throw it off with a scoff but right now it was comforting. She hated it. 

But maybe she was starting to understand why Michael trusted Maria, at least.

Silence played between them for a while before Isobel decided to keep talking. “I thought I was pregnant. About a month before Michael got out. I mean, I wasn’t, I was just late, but... we’ve been fighting over it for years. He really wants a kid and I--” she tripped over the words a little. Maria gripped her hand a little tighter now, Isobel could sense an undercurrent of anger. Anger on her behalf.  But when she looked up again, Maria just looked patient, just listening to her, and the grip on Isobel's hand relaxed. She rubbed her palm across Isobel’s hand, calluses catching on Isobel’s knuckles.  

Isobel took a breath, focused on that. Tried to relax. “I’m just not ready. I guess I kind of flipped out. Took the first out I could, coming here. And now? I just. I’m not ready to go back. Deal with him and ugh my mom...”

“And you’re here for space.” Maria’s eyes were on the bouquet. “I’m guessing you didn’t give him your new address.”

Isobel shook her head.  

“Gross,” Maria said, and Isobel frowned, worried that Maria thought she was overreacting. As if Maria could feel that, somehow, she added, “the flowers. I’ll throw them out.”

“Thank you,” Isobel said, feeling her eyes welling up with stupid tears that she resolutely wiped away. As touched as she was by Maria’s actions, she couldn’t afford to be weak right now. Couldn’t afford to let herself feel like she’d found a real friend. But she’d gone for nearly thirty years without any. 

Which was fine. It had always been fine. She still had Max and Michael.

Maria got up to trash the flowers (actually taking them outside) and Isobel immediately missed the warmth of her hand. The connection. Kicking off her shoes, she stretched out on the couch, pulling the thick weighted throw over her body. Isobel had half expected Maria to leave once the flowers were gone. Had been preparing for sitting in silence, alone in this place that wasn’t her home. Wasn’t safe anymore. But Maria came back in, heading right to the kitchen.

Isobel frowned. “What are you doing?” She asked, confused.

“Going to make some tea,” Maria said and paused, glancing back at her. “Unless….”

“Top left cupboard,” Isobel provided. 

Listening to Maria move around the kitchen was comforting. The soft pad of her footsteps, the clink of mugs being taken down and the stove turning on. The way Maria hummed quietly. There was no reason it should, but listening to that made the anxiety in her chest unspool a little. Enough that she could almost enjoy warming up under her blanket while she slowly started sobering up.

Eventually Maria was coming back, holding two mugs of tea. She set one down within Isobel’s reach, then nudged her feet aside so she could sit on the opposite end of the couch. “What’s your favorite flavor of dumb tv?” She asked, turning the TV on and calling up the guide. 

“Anything but romantic comedy.” 

Maria squeezed her foot and started flipping through the channel’s. “Good. ‘Cause my favorite heist movie’s on.” 

Isobel smiled, trying not to sniffle as she reached for her tea. Damn feelings.

Chapter Text

“Slaughter Canyon, huh?” Guerin asked, as he wedged his small overnight bag into the back of Alex’s over-full SUV. Looking unimpressed. “Let me guess. Named for the headless corpses strewing the floor? Some sort of American government atrocity?” 

Alex shouldn’t find that funny, he really shouldn’t. He should just correct the assumption, tell Guerin the area was named for the white people who ‘discovered’ it, and move on. Instead, he found himself playing into it. “You nailed it. Tons of decapitations. Rumors of a haunted burial ground. Curses, even.”

“So, we’re looking for ghosts?” Michael asked, with a lift to his eyebrow, shutting the hatch.

Alex took a drink of his coffee, nonchalant. “There are also rumors of a hellmouth.” 

Guerin took a deep breath, let it out slowly, hanging his head for a minute. “What fresh hell...”

Alex couldn’t help but let out a short laugh. They were finally back to casually sniping at each other over ghosts and cryptids, which Alex hadn’t realized that he would miss until it was gone. 

And he had really missed it. 

He was about to give him more shit, make up for some lost time, but Liz poked her head out of the car. “Could you two hurry up? We’re going to be late to meet our guide and I want my freaking mushrooms!”

“Oh, I didn’t realize this was our road trip.” Michael said dryly, “in that case, count me in.” 

Alex laughed softly, and generously did not point out that drugs were definitely not allowed on parole. “Get in.” 

Guerin shook his head and climbed into the back with Liz, while Alex took the passenger seat. Maria was driving, hair up in a loose bun and sunglasses on. She, like the rest of them, was dressed for hiking in the heat. Slaughter Canyon Cave was a good mile hike in the Guadalupe Mountain Range -- relatively rugged and uncomfortably hot during the day, this time of year. 

Maria reached over and squeezed his knee before starting the car again. 

He smiled fondly at her, winking and starting to drink his coffee. Liz was excitedly talking to Michael about the match she’d found on the genetic tests of the hyphae they’d been investigating. They were apparently rare, and most importantly, a patch of the mushrooms were growing nearby, in a place that they decidedly should not be.

“Someone probably just like... planted them there,” Michael suggested, sounding bored.

"Oh my god Michael, you don't just plant mushrooms," Liz began.

“Be that as it may,” Maria cut in before an argument could start, a little exasperated. Alex understood. He’d sat through enough heated arguments about mushrooms to last a lifetime. “We follow the leads that we get, and this is the best one we’ve gotten since the case landed on our desk.” 

“Exactly.” Liz nodded firmly, as if IDing the John Doe and maybe bringing closure to someone who cared about him was at the top of her list. Alex wasn’t exactly sure she was even that interested in the exploding heart part as much as the mushrooms; she was entirely hyperfocused on them. 

So,” Liz continued. Alex caught sight of Michael shaking his head. “Panellus stipticus is a pretty common bioluminescent fungus in North America. But what we have is an extremely rare varietal, pluvius. It’s only been documented about a half dozen times since its discovery in the fifties. Colonies will crop up and then die off, and no one really knows why. And this one is extra interesting because it’s been found growing on a cave wall.”

“Wait, why is that interesting?” Guerin was asking, sounding curious, and Alex shifted, trying to catch a glimpse of him with the passenger mirror. Subtly. Sadly, the angles just weren’t right for that, but he could envision Guerin’s face, the little twist to his lips, the way his hazel eyes would sparkle. “Fungi grow in caves all the time.”

“Yeah, but you’d expect them to be growing on the ground, in the guano, right? But this isn’t. The patches are up on flowstone and researchers can’t figure out what it’s feeding on.”

“Algae?” Guerin suggested, and Alex shifted enough that he could catch him out of the corner of his eye, running a hand through his curls, setting them into disarray. That shouldn’t be so damn charming. 

“Not present at the levels you’d expect for something like this to grow.” Liz flipped through papers. “The biologists who discovered it a couple months ago are kind of freaking out.”

“Wait,” Michael said, looking up from his cell phone. “This place is a tourist trap. You’re telling me no one saw these mushrooms until a few months ago?”

“No, Mickey, that’s when they sprouted.” 

“That is weird. And a hell of a lot more interesting than ghosts.”

Maria laughed. “Oh, don’t think we’re not going ghost hunting. There’s enough rumors out there that we thought we’d bring our equipment to grab some readings while you and Liz get your samples.”   

Michael groaned. “Please tell me you’re joking.” 

“Alex Manes never gives up an opportunity to ghost hunt.” Liz shook her head, smiling, “no matter how many times I tell him ghosts aren’t real.”  

“Because you’re wrong!” Alex had to defend his own honor, twisting in his seat to look back at their two resident skeptics, both wearing identical smirks on their faces. 

“Prove it.” Liz winked at him. He groaned and settled back down in his chair. 

“Why does none of this surprise me?” Guerin said, with a dry chuckle, and Alex tried to block the sound out. Things had been good, since they’d gotten back from Alamogordo and Guerin’s birthday. They’d been slowly getting back to normal. And that was fine

The ship has absolutely sailed, he reminded himself, something he’d found himself doing again and again lately. You’re the one who kicked it off the dock.

It was already afternoon by the time that they met their guide at the Carlsbad Cavern visitors’ center, where they listened to a lecture about caving safety. The path inside the cavern had been marked out for them, but caving was still inherently dangerous, and their guide was taking that seriously.

Once that was over with, their guide loaded up her car and they headed further out into the desert, parking in a small dirt lot nearer Slaughter Canyon Cave. Another hour of hiking from there, (this time lugging around their gear), and they were all hot, dusty, and tired.

Michael looked over at Maria and Alex, talking quietly together as they took a minute to drink water after the scorching hot hike. 

They’d both dressed sensibly down for the day, in rugged black pants and tight black tank tops, both of them with their FBI windbreakers loosely slung around their hips. Michael tried not to obviously ogle them, but it was impossible not to look. Maria’s skin glowed in the late afternoon sun and the tank top was doing her curves a world of good. Both of them were impressively muscled but Michael remembered the feel of Alex’s arms and back under his hands and knew that his skin was even smoother than it looked. 

He tried to shake off how gorgeous they were as the guide unlocked the gate and let them into the caves, down the narrow, loose switchback trail that took them out of the twilight zone and into the cool depths of the cave. So far down, they only had their flashlights and lamps to provide light. And as with any place devoid of light, it was eerie. But after the oppressive heat, he didn’t mind. Michael felt he could breathe just a little easier as they all pulled on jackets and windbreakers at the floor of the first room, full of bat bones and the evidence of early mining for guano. They pressed on, through a room full of spider-like rimstone, crawling across the floor in delicate, spider-web patterns.

It was nearly silent, except for the rustle of bats, the sound of their feet and breath, and the ever-present dripping of water, all around them. It was peaceful, almost meditative. He swept the beam of his flashlight over the stalactites and stalagmites, the twisted Helictite formations, and the smooth sheets of white flowstone on the walls. The whole thing was impressively massive in a way that pictures really could never capture.

This dumb planet did, occasionally, have some redeeming features. 

“There,” Liz was saying, breaking into his train of thought. He glanced over to her, as she gestured over to the other side of the room. “Look.”

Michael looked, dropping the beam of his flashlight and searching the darkness for the soft glow of biological light. His breath caught when he saw them. The pictures the field biologists had gotten hadn’t done them justice. He’d expected a faint sort of blue or even the green of the common Panellus that Liz had shown him earlier. But they weren’t green, instead a soft, shifting sort of oil-slick color that had not been captured properly in Liz’s photos. In person, they were a lot more beautiful. 

And disturbingly familiar. 

Michael shook his head just a touch, trying to dismiss the coloration as a coincidence. This was a natural phenomenon, not alien. There was no logical reason for it to be alien. 

“There’s more in the room up ahead,” their guide said, stopping Liz before she could go for them. “The formations are less delicate up there, too.” 

Liz looked impatient but she nodded. They had promised to leave as much untouched as possible, after all.

“This way,” the guide waved, leading them to a safety line to help them up the slippery path to the next room, and Michael found himself face to face with a monster.

“Well, that’s fucking horrifying,” he said, dryly. Unsettled despite himself as he stared at the hulking, flowstone-capped stalagmite that looked like some sort of petrified hooded giant skeleton with way too many yellowed teeth. He could almost smell the bad breath off of it.

“Super cool you mean,” Liz said, completely unperturbed, heading forward so she could snap a few pictures with her phone. “Kyle’s gonna love this thing.”

“Sorry, Liz, I’m with Michael,” Maria said, coming to stand next to him. “That thing’s going to haunt my nightmares.” 

“And people wonder why this place is haunted.” Alex also seemed firmly on their side. But that wasn’t a surprise, nor was the EMF recorder currently in his hand. Thankfully, it was unlikely that thing would be squealing too much all the way down here. 

Liz rolled her eyes. “The three of you are ridiculous. And I expected better from you.” She nudged Michael. “Come on, Mikey. Over here.”

Michael didn’t know which to be more offended by -- the persistence of that nickname or the lumping him right in with Maria and Alex’s paranoid paranormal bullshit.

“According to my research there were at least three murders in front of this thing,” Alex said, pointing his EMF recorder at the stalagmite. It whined, faintly, moreso when it was near Alex and Maria’s phones than it did at the unfortunately-shaped mass of rock.

“The air feels heavy right here.” Maria was rubbing her chest, eyes closed. “And... loud. This whole place is.”

Alex hummed softly. “What are you getting?”  

“Nothing I can sort yet,” she said after a moment, dropping her hand from her chest, shaking her head. “Sorry.”

Ok, no, Michael would take the dumb nickname over being associated with that nonsense any day, he decided. And the mushrooms were still a hell of a lot more interesting than imaginary ghosts, so he headed over to where Liz was already studying them, taking pictures.

“These ones are a lot brighter than the ones in there,” she said, voice just a little hushed. Michael smiled. He was starting to like Liz and her appreciation for everything science. It was refreshing after spending so much time around Ed and Lorraine Warren over there. 

“Well, we probably should grab some samples,” Michael said as he drew closer, a little distracted with pulling out some evidence bags. He did glance up when Liz gasped and found with some surprise that the mushroom caps were glowing even brighter now. “Huh. Is this normal?” 

“I don't--” She turned to their guide. “Hey, is this common?”

The guide turned towards them, from where she’d been watching Alex and Maria take readings of the stalagmite. At the sight of the mushrooms, she frowned. “They tend to glow more brightly when it’s raining or about to rain. But not this brightly. That’s so weird.” 

“Maybe you two should step back,” Alex said.

“They’re not bombs, Alex.” Liz had her phone out, recording a few minutes of footage, catching the way the light and colors swirled, the way that they had spots of brighter light, almost like constellations. 

The mushroom’s oddly familiar oil slick color and the now mysterious intensity to their luminesce had Michael feeling increasingly uncomfortable. He was afraid to touch them, worried that there would be a ripple in color at his touch. But he also needed to pocket a sample if he could. Just in case. He didn’t want the FBI to know what he was testing for.

“By the way, this place isn’t a known alien hotspot, is it?” Michael asked as casually as he could, half-regretting the words the minute they came out of his mouth. As if any mention of aliens would have Alex and Maria sniffing him out. He had decided to stay and help them, not share his life with them. 

“No,” Alex replied, dismissively. “Not unless you listen to Jim Ragsdale. He lived around here supposedly.” Michael wasn’t surprised by Alex’s dismissiveness--a second UFO crash in ‘47 was compelling but Ragsdale had changed his story so often it wasn’t even remotely believable. 

However, staring at the mushrooms, Michael wondered if Ragsdale’s stories might have had more to them than complete fabrication. 

“Most people who come here aren’t looking for aliens,” their guide confirmed. “It’s the ghosts.”

“Hey, wait! Gloves.” Liz handed a pair over to him, and Michael tried not to let out a sigh of relief. “Don’t want you contaminating our samples. Plus, reports are a little vague about whether or not they're toxic.” 

“So, I guess we won’t be experimenting with them after all,” Michael said, dryly.

“Just on them.” They both laughed. Then Liz leaned in, conspiratorially so their guide wouldn’t hear. “Maria’s the best hook up for that. Ask me some time about our couples’ vacation to Palm Springs.”

“Oh ho,” Michael said, glancing appraisingly over at Maria, who was wiping non-existent sweat from her brow like some kind of model. A few strands of hair that had escaped their neat bun were curling and framing her face. Logically, he knew the caves were supposed to be cold, but it definitely felt warm down here and she was the source of the heat. Michael forced his attention back to the mushrooms, getting the gloves on and then picking up a knife. It took him a minute to steel himself enough to touch them, but when he did, he was relieved that the colors didn’t swirl like he half expected them to do.

Liz raised an eyebrow at his hesitancy but didn’t say anything about it, thankfully. Probably just assumed he was worried about the potential toxicity or trying to figure out how to cut them. Instead, she chattered on about the mushrooms as he carefully started cutting off some samples, trying to get a few without disturbing the rest of the colony too much. 

“Here, I’ll label them.” She slipped away her phone and took the bags, writing carefully on them in sharpie--name, date, cavern--before putting them in her backpack. 

Eventually Liz looked over at him. “I’m going to do some initial analysis. Why don’t you go ahead? Check out the next cavern?”

“I’ll go too,” Maria volunteered. “Get some more readings.”

“Sounds good.” Michael looked at the guide. 

“Go on,” the guide said, waving them off, obviously more interested in whatever Alex was doing with a tripod and what might be a laser grid scope. “Path’s safe enough from here to the Christmas Tree.” 

Maria picked up the EMF reader and nodded to Michael to head off. They started down the path, which narrowed a little, now that they were no longer in the big cavern. It was darker too. The only light coming from the occasional glowing mushroom and their flashlights. Michael kept the light in front of them, pointing lower to the ground as he didn’t relish tripping and smashing his teeth on a rock.

Maria kept sweeping her light along the walls and columns. The flowstone looked eerie as it came and went into view, like catching the tail end of something spectral.

“So, what kind of spirits are we looking for here?” Michael asked. “The benevolent kind?”

“You worried?” 

Maria chuckled when Michael snorted. “The sightings have all been benign here,” she continued. “People hear a lot of crying. Sometimes they see apparitions. But what I think is most interesting are the whispers.” 


“Mn... yeah. People say they’re definitely language, but no one seems to know which one. And they also report not hearing them, exactly.”

“Which means?” He glanced over at her, confused.

“They couldn’t really say.” Maria paused to study a particularly large glowing mushroom. It was growing a little higher than they could reach. But the brighter patches--no let’s be real here Guerin, markings --were more distinct on this one due to its size. He glanced at Maria who didn’t seem to be any more curious in it then she was about the rocks. Thankfully more interested in the ghost stories. 

“It’s weird right?” She continued. “When asked to repeat the words as best they can, they can’t. Like they understood that they were listening to a language but they didn’t hear words. Or even the sounds of words. Like you’d expect them to be able to at least repeat some of the phonemes, right?” 

“C’mon DeLuca, that makes zero sense,” Michael said. Uneasy. He wished he were alone with this problem right now, because he felt like he did in his own lab. Like he had a bag full of distinctly alien spaceship parts that he desperately wanted a minute to piece together, but he couldn’t. Not while he was being watched. Not while he was having to monitor his own every movement, his every word. 

“Maybe not. If you’re not experiencing it,” she elbowed him, lightly.

Michael winced, rubbing his arm. “And you are?”

Maria shrugged the question off. “I’m getting something. It’s like--” She paused and looked at Michael, then shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. How’s Isobel?” 

Michael blinked, thrown both by the sudden change of topic and the topic she was changing to. He looked at her. “Wait. Are you guys talking?” Surprised. Out of everyone he’d been hanging out with at the FBI, he thought that Isobel would like Maria the least, somehow. And vice-versa, for that matter.

She shrugged again. “Yeah, we’ve been texting some since your party. I actually got her into my studio.” At Michael’s blank look, she added, “jiu jitsu.”

Martial arts? Michael couldn’t help but ask, “I’m sorry, did you abduct my sister and replace her with a clone?” 

“Can’t blame a girl for wanting to know a little self defense,” Maria said lightly, shifting her attention back to the cave. Michael frowned, highly disturbed by the idea of Isobel feeling like she needed to know self defense, especially considering her behavior since moving to Albuquerque. And maybe even more disturbing than any of that was the fact that she had shut him and Max out of it so thoroughly. It was unlike her.

“Speaking of self-defense,” Maria continued, seemingly oblivious to his mess of thoughts, or perhaps in response to it, “thanks for letting me tag along. Alex was about to break out the spirit box, and that thing is an assault on my ears.”

Michael snorted as they walked, and tried to relax, to stop ruminating on things he couldn’t fix right now. “It is. Annoying and dumb as hell. Though to be fair, every single one of those stupid ghost hunting gadgets are dumb as hell.”

“Oh, come on, Guerin,” Maria protested, “electromagnetic fields are absolutely a thing.” She waved the EMF detector, which was blessedly in silent mode. 

“Sure. But that doesn’t mean there’s ghosts,” he said, jumping on the chance to get away from heavy topics and tease her more. 

“So, what does it mean, then?” 

“It means that you have unshielded, crappy equipment.” 

“This is top of the line!” She protested, laughing. 

“It is crap. Give me a day and some tools and I can shield that equipment so that it’s actually functional.”

Maria smacked him lightly. “Oh, come on, Guerin.” 

“I’m serious, DeLuca. There’s no such thing as ghosts, and any so-called proof of them is just… the human mind trying to make sense of randomness. Apophenia.” 

“No way. Ghosts are real!”

“Oh, DeLuca, no,” Michael said in a tone of profound disappointment. “Look. Aliens, yes. Even cryptids I could buy if there were proof. But you cannot actually believe in literal ghosts.” 

“I absolutely do. I’ve seen one!” Maria said, a stubborn set to her mouth. 

“Really?” Michael asked, rolling his eyes.

“Really,” she said, pushing him a little, frowning. “My grandma Patty.” 

Oh. Okay, now he felt like a dick. He bit back the immediate impulse towards defensive sarcasm. 

“It was after she died,” Maria said, a tension to her shoulders as she looked at Michael. Just waiting for him to say something rude, which was fair. Michael tried to make his body language more open and understanding, accepting. It was something he wasn’t used to doing, but he wanted her to feel safe.

“She was standing behind the bar at the Pony,” she continued, eyes a little shinny in the light of his flashlight. “Younger, maybe even my age? More vibrant. You know it’s funny, it felt like the whole world zeroed in around her. But she was always like that,” Maria said with a fond, pained chuckle. The sound of it made Michael want to put his arm around her, even as he pushed down his own childish envy. He’d give anything to see even an apparition of any one of his family. 

“Did she do anything?” he asked, awkwardly.

“Normally I’d expect her to be serving drinks, you know? But it was like-- like she was looking at me. Not really, obviously, but it still felt like her eyes were on me. And she talked to me.” She glanced at Michael, seemingly self-conscious. “I know you probably think I’m crazy.” 

Michael shook his head. What else could he do?

“Anyway. What she said still resonates with me. She said ‘we have to help if we can. We have to help because we can.’” 

“Help who?” Michael asked.

“Can’t exactly ask a ghost follow-up questions,” Maria pointed out, with a shake of her head. “Still seems like pretty good words to live by.” 

“Yeah,” Michael said, quietly. And for once, he didn’t have any sort of snarky follow-up. Maria was a special kind of person, one he’d met all too rarely. Someone who helped other people just because it was the right thing to do, and it didn’t matter if she was putting herself in danger. It was ridiculous, but she nonetheless chipped away at his surly nihilism, almost made him want to believe that there could be more people like her.

The walls were opening up around them again, into what must be the Christmas Tree room. Michael paused, sweeping his flashlight over the walls. There were more mushrooms, punctuating the darkness with their glow. It felt colder here too, heavier--goosebumps spread across his arms and he attributed it to the draftiness of the cavern, the low light and their topic of conversation. 

“Okay, seriously, you don’t hear any of that?” Maria asked, suddenly. 

Michael frowned, looking over at her. “Hear what?” 

Maria was glancing around, sweeping her flashlight over the flowstone and the mushrooms, as if looking for something. Her free hand kept going back up to rub her chest, right over the spot where her pendant usually rested, Michael noted. 

“That whispering? Like you can’t hear it in your head? It’s actually getting annoying.” 

“What, are ghosts telepathic now?” He asked, dryly. But he was a little worried about her, this place seemed to be disturbing old memories. 

Maria glared at him but it lacked the usual bite, she was distracted, listening. Trying to make out words, he supposed. Michael found himself worrying more about her. He’d never seen a site affect her so much. He didn’t like it.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, Guerin--”

“Trick question, Deluca, they’re anything you want them to be. They’re not real,” he cut her off and regretted it the moment it came out of his mouth. But she had already turned her back on him, moving further into the cave. Away from him. Maria had been so open and trusting and he had to go and be an asshole again. This place was starting to get under his skin too. 

He followed her. “Look I get it. This place has a vibe, I feel it too.”

“Just shut up, Guerin,” Maria said, frowning. Maybe he should have listened but he couldn’t. He didn’t like that he might have hurt her. 

This place is just dark and cold, and we’re all primed from ghost stories,” he pressed on, catching up to her and resting a hand on her shoulder, trying to get her to stop. Look at him. “Hey. I didn’t mean to sound like an asshole. Maria--” 

Maria let out a frustrated noise. “Ugh! Could you just...” She started, and then before Michael could fully process what was happening, she was grabbing him by his jacket, hauling him in and kissing him.

Michael’s flashlight clattered to the ground, and the noise must have startled Maria because she pulled back, eyes wide in the soft glow of the mushrooms. “I... just needed you to shut up, for once,” she said, quickly. 

Michael stared at her dumbly for a few heartbeats. They were still so close he could feel the warmth of her, and when she looked like she was about to draw away, he didn’t think, just acted, catching her head in his hands and leaning in for another kiss.

She met him halfway, a kiss that started clumsy and turned overwhelming and almost desperate, like a dam breaking, the both of them clinging onto each other for dear life as it threatened to sweep them away.

It was just him and her, and mushrooms that glowed so brightly they might have been stars. The kiss could have gone on for a heartbeat or an eternity. Michael would never be able to say. But it still felt too soon when Maria pulled away. It was probably for the best, because a moment longer and Michael just knew they’d be ripping at each other’s clothes. And not for the first time, the thought you are so screwed filled Michael’s head.

“I’m, um... You should get your samples,” Maria said, smoothing her hair, then her rumpled clothes. Michael caught the way her fingertips lingered briefly over her lips and he had to squeeze his fist tightly to keep himself from pulling her back against him, kissing her again and again. He wanted his kisses to linger forever on her lips. “I think Alex is calling me.” 

Michael let out a shaky breath as Maria turned and beat a hasty retreat. 


Michael leaned down to grab his flashlight and his hat -- which had gotten knocked off his head so that she could twine her fingers in his hair, which had been delicious -- and tried to focus on the present.

At very least, Maria’s retreat gave him the space that he needed to collect not only the samples Liz needed, but a few to pocket for himself, to test later on his own. 

He took a few minutes to just breathe, to forget how perfectly her body fit against his own before he turned his eyes to the mushrooms on the walls. 

He had a job to do. 

There was a clump nearby, and with one more glance over his shoulder to make sure he was still alone, he went over to it. He had to shake off the feeling that they were glowing even brighter as he got close to them. 

He wiped his suddenly-damp palms on his jeans. It’s just a bunch of damn mushrooms, Michael. Get it together.

Praying that nothing would happen, he reached up slowly to brush his fingers over them.

The slowly-shifting colors swirled, and coalesced, a symbol appearing under his fingertips and his mind filling with something, a million voices, a deafening roaring silence, stars appearing in his vision, spreading out before him like standing inside of a planetarium--

Michael dropped his hand, quickly, beyond startled. He stared for a long moment, then slowly reached up to touch it again.

It was a star system. One Michael didn’t quite recognize. 

His eyes widened but he touched another one and then another. Each one in turn had a different symbol, the static in his head taking on a different flavor for each one. A familiar sort of static, the way he felt every time he touched a piece of the console he had been painstakingly putting back together.

Stars upon stars, like some kind of map, a route laid out for him if he only had the means and knew how to navigate it. And at the end there was a red-lit planet, circling a dwarf star.

“Holy shit,” he breathed out, softly. He took a step back, looking around at the room full of mushrooms, each pulsing invitingly. Michael swiftly moved to another spot, reached out to touch the bulbous oil slicked cap of the next mushroom, when a faint but grating staticky sound caught his attention. A spirit box. 

Michael cast a guilty look over his shoulder, sighed, and started digging out his gloves, cutting a bunch to tuck into his inside jacket pocket, carefully. 

Once that was done, he had to wrestle with another problem. Liz was going to expect samples too. Michael chewed his lip, fighting with his instincts. It would be extremely suspicious if he didn’t bring any back, but Liz was smart. Maybe almost as smart as he was. It was only a matter of time before she figured out that these samples weren’t of this world. 

He needed to figure out a way to make sure Liz didn’t get that far. Somehow. He needed to ‘lose’ them or destroy them or something, but he was drawing a blank as to how to do that.

Once Maria and Michael left, Liz turned her attention back to the mushrooms, wanting to run some chemical analysis on a sample. She frowned when she realized that their glow had diminished. That was odd but the guide had suggested that the intensity of their luminescence had external triggers… only it wasn’t supposed to rain today. 

“This is going to help you communicate with me,” Alex spoke into the cavern, holding a device that looked a bit like a handheld radio. Liz braced for when he turned it on; the static of the spirit box filled the cavern. Liz immediately regretted not following Maria and Michael’s lead and exiting the cavern.  

Thankfully, Alex had it turned down, so that it was echoing just loud enough to be annoying, but not quite loud enough for her to actually want to take a hammer to the damn thing. She sighed and kept working for several minutes through the staccato buzzing of the box and Alex’s asinine questions to the aether. 

“Is there a Joseph Wheeler here?” psh psh psh “My name is Alex. Can you say Alex?” psh psh psh “Did you just hear shut up?”

Liz looked up at him. Enough was enough, and well -- he did ask. “No, but I’m saying it now. Could you turn that thing off? It’s fucking creepy,” Liz complained. She was having trouble concentrating. And there was something important about the way that the mushrooms glowed, something she was missing. “This place is creepy enough as it is.” 

“Haunted places usually are,” Alex responded dryly. 

“Please,” Liz snorted, using a scalpel to cut into the sample she was working with, intending on getting a thin slice to look at with her field microscope. “This place is no more haunted than my kitchen. Every time you feel a cold draft you think it’s ghosts.”

Their guide laughed, and Alex scoffed. “Okay, first of all, I have had Kyle’s cooking and I have no doubt that your kitchen is at least a little haunted. And secondly, I do not!”

“Endless scientific observation of you proves otherwise,” Liz grinned. “And for someone who talks a lot of shit about Kyle’s cooking, you eat plenty every time we have you over.”

“Come on,” Alex continued, stubbornly. “You’re feeling it too, aren’t you? Uneasy?” He prodded.

Liz couldn’t deny that. There was something about this place that was starting to set her on edge. But it was just as likely that the cause was Alex’s annoying ghost hunting shenanigans or that there was an elevated level of carbon monoxide or, hell even ELF waves were more likely. She was pretty sure there was a Navy or Air Force facility not too far off, and there were plenty of rumors of underground antenna arrays. But she and Alex had had this argument so many times over the years, they both had memorized it by now. 

“Be that as it may, I’m way more interested in these samples.” She slid the prepared slide onto the microscope, adjusting it to bring the sample into focus.

She couldn’t help but gasp. The structure of the hyphae shimmered in the microscope light, and it was frankly one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen.

And like nothing she’d ever seen before. What would this look like under the more powerful microscopes in her labs?

“What is it?” Alex asked, turning the spirit box off, finally.

“This is just...really cool. And dare I say it, alien,” she said, with a little laugh. “Come look.” 

Alex went to join her on the ground, sitting next to her and leaning over to look into the microscope. Whistling under his breath. “Woah. Were the other samples you had like this?” 

“No, they were dead and you know-- contaminated with blood and viscera. This is fresh,” she said, softly, as if her voice would make the shimmering stop. “I cannot wait to get them back to the lab.” 

Alex was grinning as he pulled back from the microscope. “Same. But until then, you got anything else you need to do with light?”

“Why?” Liz asked, immediately suspicious. 

“I... might have gotten a laser grid,” Alex said with barely restrained excitement.

“Come on Alex. I was going to do some chemical analysis!” She protested. 

“You can do that in the lab,” he said lightly, and got back up to his feet far too quickly for a man down a leg.

Her protests fell on deaf ears and she found herself quietly sitting in the dark, the only light from the mushrooms and pinpoint light of the lasers, while the spirit box roared to life again, waiting uselessly for something to trigger the grid.

At one point it was triggered and Alex let out an excited, soft little noise. But Liz rolled her eyes, and had to burst his bubble. “That was a bat, Alex.” 

“I know it was a bat,” Alex hissed. But Liz felt like he sounded a little disappointed. 

Shit. Maria’s pulse was racing and she was berating herself as she headed back to rejoin Alex and Liz. 

Why the hell had she done that? Seriously? Was annoying, smug little shit really just her type? Was Alex’s stupid rubbing off on her?

Ok, no, it wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t just that. Annoying and smug though he was, Michael was hot. Magnetic. And Maria had been painfully aware of that since the get go. Just as aware of that as she was of his reciprocating attraction. It wasn’t like Michael had made any effort to hide it. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been flirting all this time. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been happy to play with fire. But fuck, it had burned so good.


She rubbed at her chest, where she normally would have her necklace. But she’d forgotten it in Alex’s damn jeans. Lord, she was so annoyed with herself. And freaked out, quite honestly.

This was the first time that it all felt real. It was nothing like when she saw her grandmother’s ghost. That cavern felt like there were multiple people in there. But not currently there. It was like an imprint in the dirt, an echo in a valley. But somehow also more. A thousand disembodied voices trying to whisper arcane secrets in her ear. And she had felt that if she could just focus, she could understand but Michael would not shut up

And instead of just telling him to shut up like a normal person, Maria had kissed him. Who the hell does something like that?

Someone who really wanted to kiss him, her own traitorous brain whispered. 

That was something Maria could not deny, at least privately any longer. But she was not going to indulge the part of her that wanted to kiss him again. That part wanted to turn back around, press Michael up against a stalagmite, slip her hands in his hair and drink up every little breathy moan he made. 


But as much as the thought of his hands and mouth on her turned her knees to jelly, someone needed to be the adult here. 

Maria didn’t even notice how dark the main cavern was until she burst into it. An alarm blared out, and she yelped, her heart hammering again as she realized it was Alex’s fancy new laser grid. 

“Goddamnit Alex, are you trying to give me a heart attack?” she snapped, unnecessarily.

“Sorry Maria,” Alex said, turning off the grid and turning on a flashlight, the light of which was blinding for a moment. “Didn’t expect you back…” He trailed off, frowning as he looked at her. Alex was always better at reading her than he had any right to be. “What’s wrong?” Alex glanced around her. “Where’s Michael?”

“Collecting samples,” Maria replied. “Nothing’s wrong.” Faced with Alex, she realized not only did she make the disastrously stupid mistake of kissing Michael, but also, she was going to have to tell her damn husband, sooner or later.

And Alex was not above gloating.

“I’m just going to get some air,” Maria said, heading for the path out. She needed to get away from Alex’s curious and worried glance, and Guerin’s stupid face. “This place is getting to me.” 

Even though the path was steep and slippery in parts, Maria moved quickly, her footing certain. And soon enough she found herself outside the bat-friendly gate (which really just looked and felt like prison bars), in the cool night air.

She sat down and let herself breathe, looking up at the stars, seeing bats swooping through the dark sky here and there. 

It was mentally quiet out here, at least, even if she still could hear just the faintest murmur of voices from the cave. She could ignore it mostly, in favor of the soft din of the desert around her. She closed her eyes, focusing on the sounds, letting them ground her. First and loudest was the endless chorus of crickets, the chirps blending together into a sound like an alarm. But concentrating, she could hear the drone of cicadas, the call of coyotes in the distance, and the occasional cry of an owl. And every once in a while, very faintly, the flap of bat wings or their faint clicking chirping sounds.

Sitting out here almost reminded her of quiet nights in high school where she would climb up onto the roof of the Pony, smoke a joint, and let the problems of the world and her newly developing sensitivity just fade away. 

She could use a joint right now, or at very least a flask of something. But she was older now, and she couldn’t outrun her problems or ignore them till they went away, anymore. 

All the same she closed her eyes, just focusing on breathing, trying to expel all the stress and the negative energy. She opened her eyes again slowly and frowned. The stars were gone, and she felt the sensation of the sun on her skin. It was daylight, the sky was soft and out of focus, and it seemed to her that she was looking at the world through a blue filter. Even the buzz of the cicada seemed to both be muffled and echoing oddly.

The only thing that seemed to be in sharp relief was her grandmother Patty, standing at the entrance of the cave. She looked young, possibly in her late twenties or early thirties. Definitely close to Maria’s own age. She was talking to a man Maria had never seen before, white and skinny—gaunt, tired and worn. Maria felt such pain and rage from him it was almost suffocating. 

And before she could even properly register their presence, they were gone again, leaving Maria bewildered and feeling even more off-kilter than she already was.

Alex watched his wife leave with a frown. Something was up and if Guerin said something stupid -- no, who was he kidding. Guerin always said stupid shit. And he couldn't even punch him over it, for a myriad of reasons. 

“Think she’s okay?” Liz asked, with a frown.

“If she wanted help, she would have said something,” Alex said slowly. No, he didn’t think she was okay, not even remotely. But if Maria needed a moment, Alex would give it to her. Respect it. He knew what it was like, the need to quietly gather your thoughts. To be undisturbed for a moment and untangle yourself from a problem. “Guess we should pack it up. It’s getting late.”

He didn’t miss the slightly relieved noise their guide made, which meant it must be even later than he’d thought.

He and Liz packed their equipment up in relative silence -- a comment here and there, Liz coming over to help him put the bulkier stuff in bags.

“Where the hell is Guerin?” He asked eventually, annoyed. 

“Here.” Michael was stepping back into the light. He looked a little flushed, eyes shifting around the room. Pretty obviously looking for Maria. Alex couldn’t tell if Guerin was relieved or worried when he didn’t see her. “Got plenty of samples for you, Ortecho.”

“You’re the best, Mikey,” she called out lightly, going to take them from him. 

“We packing up?” Michael asked.

“Yup. You get to carry the kit,” Liz said, handing him the heavy bag. 

Michael laughed softly and didn’t complain.

It was dark and chilly when they stepped out of the cave, a light wind rustling through the sparse vegetation. 

“Hey.” Alex stopped at the mouth of the cave next to Maria. “You ready?” 

She looked up, smiling at him. It was forced. Just a little too big.

“Yeah,” Maria said. “We should come back sometime though. I hear the bats coming in and out of the main cave is something to see.” She reached up to take his offered hand, climbing to her feet. She glanced briefly over at Guerin, who didn’t meet her eyes. She cleared her throat and grabbed one of the bags Alex was carrying. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Sounds good to me.” Alex nodded, glancing back at Guerin, who was not meeting his eyes either. What the hell was going on?

Their guide had gamely helped them with some of the equipment on the hike back, but she didn’t stick around to see them off, and Alex couldn’t blame her one bit. It was almost midnight, and they had enough equipment that re-packing it was a bit of a Tetris job. 

Everyone was tired. It’d been a long day. Michael didn’t even bicker with him as they carefully packed away the equipment and mushrooms. Maria and Liz leaving it to them. Though he couldn’t hear them chatting either. Soon enough they were all loaded into the car. 

“Are we going back to Albuquerque tonight?” Guerin asked, from the backseat. Alex glanced at him in the rearview mirror. Trying to read him. But he had his hat pulled down over his eyes, arms crossed over his chest. It seemed protective to Alex.

“We’ll grab a motel. It’s too late to be driving back,” Alex said as he turned the key, and was met with deafening silence. 

He frowned, turning it again. Nothing. “Shit.”

“Are you kidding me?” Maria asked, half-laughing in incredulity from the passenger seat. Already pulling out her phone, to call a mechanic, presumably.

“Pop the hood?” Michael asked, already getting out with a flashlight. It took a moment for Alex to realize why. Oh right. Mechanic. Honestly, Guerin’s list of skills was annoyingly expansive. 

Alex let Michael work in peace for about fifteen minutes while Maria searched for tow trucks or mechanics in the area.

“Any luck?” Alex asked Michael, who was wiping his hands off.

He shook his head. “Can’t do much without more tools. Lights are on so it’s probably not the battery or alternator. Could be your starter, ignition switch, exciter cable, solenoid, ground cable--” 

“I get the picture,” Alex said quickly, before he could list a half dozen more possible problems. 

“You guys get hold of a mechanic?” Michael asked, making a face that was clear even in the darkness. He didn’t really approve of calling out a mechanic for something he could probably easily fix himself, given the right equipment.

Alex shook his head. “Maria’s still trying to at least get us a ride into town, but we might be stranded out here till daylight.”

“Are you serious?” Michael asked, startled. And then he immediately groaned, “I mean, fair, I wouldn’t be answering the phone at this time on a Friday night either. Or any night. You drive out into the desert in the middle of the night in a crappy car, you deserve to be creeped out by coyotes.” 

Alex snorted. His SUV was not crappy. 

“Well, I for one don’t particularly relish the thought of sleeping in it,” Maria broke in, having stepped out to see what was going on. She and Guerin looked at each other for a moment before looking away, awkward and tense. Maria moved back towards the passenger side door. “Liz snores.”

“Hey!” Liz protested. 

Michael shut the hood and the slam of it made all of them jump. “Roswell’s only a couple hours away. I’ll call Max, get him to bring some tools.” 

Chapter Text

Fuck. Michael was fucked. So fucked he was genuinely reconsidering running.

This was the best chance he had so far, and probably the best one he was going to get. Alex was distracted by what must seem like odd behavior from his wife. While said wife was not only making every effort to avoid looking at Michael, but also making sure there was at least an SUV’s worth of distance between them. 

Maria kissed him, he thought grumpily. Sure, he kissed her back and then kissed her again right after, but how could he not? Her kisses were sure, demanding. With just enough teeth to make sure he complied, to make him whine for more. Just like he always fantasized kissing her would be like. 

But she still started it. 

Not that it mattered who started it. Because he fucked up. He let himself get carried away. Sleeping with Alex was one thing... he couldn’t bring himself to say “bad enough”, ‘cause he didn’t regret it, wished he could do it again, it was so good. He was just angry with himself, over how stupid he’d been to expect things to turn out differently the morning after. And now here he was kissing Maria too? Like the outcome was going to be any different. What the hell was wrong with him?

Any day now, they were going to realize that he was more trouble than he was worth and dump his ass back in jail, and fuck that, forever.

Michael ran a frustrated hand through his hair and turned away from the agents and the stalled SUV. Mexico was right there. He could practically throw a rock and hit it. 

Literally the only thing that was stopping him were the damn mushrooms. Y’know the other--no, the real --reason he was fucked. He needed to stop thinking about Maria’s hands in his hair or the way Alex stared at him when he thought Michael wasn’t looking and focus on keeping his secret safe. 

Tonight was probably going to be his best and only chance. 

Michael grabbed one of the flashlights and ducked his head under the hood of the SUV. He angled himself so he could keep an eye on Liz, watching her furiously scribbling notes in her journal by flashlight. No doubt about the damn mushrooms. She was like a damn dog with a bone. 

How was Michael going to keep Liz from unlocking the secrets of the universe without showing his hand?

He was no closer to the answer when Max pulled up two hours later. The jeep’s headlights eerily broke the darkness of the parking lot as it approached, coming up against the left side of the SUV before the engine shut off.

Michael let out a slow breath, weirdly relieved to see him. Not that he expected Max to be very useful, nor did he need the assist but at least he wasn’t alone in all this anymore. And maybe, just maybe, they could salvage this fucked up situation together. 

“I cannot believe you got stuck in the middle of the desert at this time of night,” Max teased as he slid out of the jeep. 

“Not my truck.” Michael pointed out. “Blame Manes, over there.” 

“Hey,” Alex protested, “why is this my fault?” He and Maria were coming back from the little bathroom facility this parking lot featured, ostensibly having used them. But Michael wouldn’t be surprised if Alex had mostly been trying to figure out what was wrong with Maria. Given that Alex had been frowning at her (and when not at her, at Michael) from the moment they left the cavern. 

“A man who skips oil changes definitely skips his routine maintenance, too,” Michael pointed out, tartly. Honestly, that was the real takeaway of that poker night and Michael should have realized it early on.  

Alex grumbled but he couldn’t argue the point. Michael chanced a glance at Maria but instead of laughing like he would have liked to see her, she seemed distracted. Her attention drawn to the trailhead, eyes faraway. Concern and guilt bit at him, but he pushed it away. 

He really needed to get his head in the game. 

“I could just give you guys a ride back,” Max offered.

“Alex doesn’t want to leave all the fancy junk--I mean ghost hunting equipment out here alone overnight,” Liz said, coming around the back of the SUV, smiling at Max and holding the cooler where they had stored the mushrooms. “Hey. Thanks for coming out so late at night.”

Max smiled back, clearly flustered. “Oh! It’s not a problem at all.” And there they went again, staring into each other’s eyes. They’d been like that too at the birthday party, at least until Kyle showed up. Michael rolled his eyes. 

“Let’s see if we can get this running.” Michael turned to pull the jumper cables (that he had insisted Max carry way back in high school, and he was pleased to see that he’d kept it up) out of the back of the jeep. Though considering what he suspected the issue to be, it likely wasn’t going to be much help. He set the cables, and had Max try starting Alex’s SUV up. And of course, nothing. He dragged his hand through his hair, considering the situation. 

That’s when it occurred to him. The SUV staying stubbornly broken might actually be the best thing that could possibly happen. If they all went to the hotel, left the SUV here, he and Max could sneak back out, and steal the mushrooms. Yeah. That could work, especially if they broke a window or two and snatched some of the EMF readers or the laser grid array. Make it look like a robbery. There had to be meth heads or desert cultists in the area the robbery could be blamed on.   

“Looks like we’re gonna have to leave it,” he called out to Alex, waving his hand for Max to get out of the car.  

“Damnit,” Alex groaned. “You really can’t fix it…?” Alex trailed off, turning towards Liz, who had just opened the cooler. It was the glow of the mushrooms that distracted him, stronger than it had ever been in the cave. A bright pulsing light coming from inside the cooler, eerie in the desert night, catching everyone’s attention. They clearly were reacting to him and Max.

It felt like there was a large blinking neon sign pointed at them: aliens right here!    

Liz let out an excited sound and grabbed Max, pulling him towards the cooler. “Max, look!” 

The quiet of the desert was abruptly shattered by a droning, whining humming and staccato static. The stupid spirit box and EMF reader had turned on. No, they went crazy. Everyone gasped, and it suddenly got much worse. All the electronics started sparking. Michael, reaching for the jumper cables, backpedaled, and slipped just a bit in his own control. 

Just enough to put a crack in Alex’s windshield and knock over Liz’s microscope. 

Silence fell on two dead cars.


“What were you saying earlier about proving ghosts are real, Ortecho?” Alex said, breaking the silence first. Max’s shoulders sagged a little in relief at Alex’s conclusion, and Michael felt that too (in addition to a little exasperated fondness towards Alex, the smug shit).  

Liz sputtered. “I am sure there is a perfectly rational explanation for that.”

“Oh yeah?” Alex demanded, smirking. “Like what? There’s no carbon monoxide out here, Liz.”

“I mean technically speaking…

Michael didn’t bother listening to the rest of Liz’s response, too busy glaring a hole into Max, who was trying his hardest not to look sheepish, considering he was in Alex’s line of sight. Liz was still holding his arm though and when Max noticed it, the spirit box sputtered back to life, causing them all to jump again. 

“Carbon monoxide can’t do that,” Maria said, in a tone that felt somewhat dulled to Michael. She seemed less excited and more wary, unsure. Subdued. It was odd and unlike her and he didn’t like it one bit. 

Michael shook off the worry. She kissed him! If this was about the kiss, it wasn’t his fault. And he had bigger fish to fry anyway. Max had nearly exposed them and killed the jeep. Fucking Christ.

He needed to get Max away from Liz if they had any prayer of getting out of here with their secret intact. “Hey, Max, I need you.” 

“Ok--” Max did look grateful as he very gently extricated himself from Liz’s grip.

“Forget the car,” Alex said, walking towards the back of the SUV. “Guerin, let’s set up the rest of our equipment.” Bold of him to assume it was even still working, honestly. Alex started motioning towards the right side of the SUV. “Start there and make a perimeter--”

Michael opened his mouth to protest, but Maria beat him to the punch. “No, we should set up our equipment while they work on the cars,” she said, blandly, and with an undercurrent of annoyance that Michael assumed originated with him. “I, for one, have not given up on a hot shower and an hour or two of sleep in a real bed.”

“Amen,” Liz said, still standing between the two cars as everyone else started to spread out, cooler in hand. She glanced over at Max who was heading towards Michael by the jeep’s open hood and sighed, moving towards the back of the cars. Michael assumed to help Maria and Alex, who were pulling out equipment from the SUV. 

Michael tried not to breathe a sigh of relief at being left (mostly) alone, and as soon as Max was in grabbing range, he dragged him over. 

“Dude, what the hell?” Michael hissed as the two of them ducked under the hood. 

“What the hell yourself,” Max said defensively, nodding over at the cracked SUV window.

“You started it. I am not going to Area 51 over your boner, Max,” Michael glared at him.  

Even in the moonlight, Max flushed visibly, stumbling over his words.

“Would you just shut up? She surprised me. She’s… touchy.”  

Loud crackly static cut through the quiet, obviously startling Max because their headlights flared briefly. Michael punched him in the arm, hard. “Stop it. It’s just the fucking spirit box,” he hissed. 

Michael lamented that the spirit box had to survive Max. It did give them a little more cover to talk, at least.

“Look, I’m sorry!” Max hissed back. “I can’t help it. I was reading a compilation of ghost stories of the Americas before you called and--”

“Are you serious?” Michael groaned. “You don’t actually believe--”

“No!” Max said, but it lacked heat and Michael narrowed his eyes at him. Max’s expression became defensive. “I mean, we exist.”

Fuck’s sake, Max was going to be the death of him. “We are scientifically possible.” 

“I’m just saying,” Max began, grumpy, uncomfortable and a little embarrassed. He kept stealing glances out at the others. “Not everything can be explained by science.”

“Coming from someone who doesn't know the first thing about science!” Michael snapped at him, waving a hand at him dismissively before raking it through his hair, frustrated. “I can’t believe your nerdiness is going to get us caught.”

“I know, Michael.” 

“Ghost-slash-alien hunters, Max.” 

“I know. I know. I got it under control now,” Max growled, running a hand through his hair, face set in determination. “Let’s just fix these cars and get out of here.”

“Unfortunately,” Michael said. “I can’t magic a car better and you’re not the only source of exposure tonight.”

Confused, Max looked back at Michael who gave him the Spark Notes version of what happened to him alone in that cave with the mushrooms. Max’s eyes widened, face growing pale and serious as he looked at the cooler sitting innocently by Liz, who had decided to sit a couple feet away from their cars and had started preparing a slide for her microscope.

“Oh my God,” Max said. 

“Not real,” Michael snorted. But he appreciated the sentiment.

“Michael focus,” Max said and Michael stared at him in disbelief. Seriously? After what Max just did from lack of focus? Max totally ignored him though. “Have you come up with any ideas for getting that cooler away from her?” He raised his hand before Michael could answer. “And cut the snark. I’m not asking because you’re a con but because you know them.” 

Michael threw up his hands. “Yeah, my plan was to ditch their car and sneak out and come back. Make it look like they were stolen along with some equipment. But you sort of burned that plan.” He gestured to the now dead jeep. 

A frustrated silence settled over them until Liz and Alex’s arguing cut through. Looking over, they found Liz had been pulled away from her microscope to help Maria and Alex with their equipment, something she obviously did not appreciate. Maria and Alex were aiming to cover as much ground as possible with their infrared and thermal cameras

“Hey, I’m gonna grab something to get a fire started with,” Michael said, his eyes on them as they were pulling out the thermal camera. 

Max let out a sigh, long-suffering. “Michael, open fires are illegal, and I’m literally a cop.”

“What are you gonna do, arrest me?” Michael asked dryly, keeping himself as calm as he could.

“No fire, Michael. It’s too dangerous. One spark and…”

Michael made an annoyed noise, throwing up his hands. They were going to get caught because Deputy Evans was too worried about causing a fire. 

“All right, all right, deputy. So that means it’s up to you to fry it.”

“Fry what?” Max asked, confused. 

“Thermal camera. They scan us, and we’re as good as caught.”

Max swore under his breath, probably remembering the time Ann Evans took his temperature and freaked. Thankfully the Evans were of the anti-vax variety, but she’d kept him in bed on a strict diet of herbal remedies until he sneaked out to play with the neighborhood kids, just to prove he wasn’t sick. Max had hated elderberry and echinacea ever since. 

“You know very well I don’t do the range EMP thing on command,” Max groaned, tired, frustrated and done with the night. Well, that made two of them. “I have to touch it and that’s gonna be obvious.” 

Michael threw his hands up, doing a turn around the jeep to keep his temper in check. He didn’t even worry about any of the humans thinking that was strange. Maria was busy ignoring everyone, mounting the thermal camera on a tripod. Alex and Liz were working on the laser grid. It seemed like they were going to set it up around the cars but it was slow going since they kept stopping to argue with each other.  

”Whatever it is could be moving around? Or maybe it’s more than one,” Alex mused, excitedly. 

“ELF” Liz replied. “Could have been some kind of spike from the military facilities out in the desert.” 

“Low frequencies don’t cause sparking!” Alex sounded victorious. “Or cause car windows to crack!”

Alex was right. There was nothing around for miles to explain away any of what happened. Michael wasn’t usually the type to suffer from panic attacks but if one was going to happen, right now seemed like the best time.

“Oh!” Max said in a loud whisper. “That’s it! Michael, they think we’re ghosts. So, we should just be ghosts.” 

Michael blinked, about to argue with him, but… no, that made sense. A lot of sense. “Get them good and jumpy. Distract them!” 

Max nodded. “You knock some stuff over, I’ll keep messing with the electronics. The moment either of us sees an opening, we take out the thermal camera. Then we’ll figure out the mushrooms.” 

“All right.” Michael nodded, then he nudged Max. “Better get in there then, loverboy.”

Max sputtered. “What?”

“Look, your powers are a bit hit and miss. Unless you’re flirting with Liz and then they’re predictably unpredictable. So. Go. Impress me with your awkward lack of game.” 

Max definitely wanted to argue, Michael could tell. But it was hard to argue with Michael’s logic when his horrified embarrassment caused the jeep’s lights to flicker on weakly and the radio to start changing stations before it fizzled right out again. Max dropped his face in his hands.  

“Did you get the jeep running?” Liz asked.

“Not yet,” Michael replied. “Almost!” She didn’t ask any follow up questions, thankfully. 

Michael let out a slow breath, feeling a lot less anxious. This could work. “Hey, before you go, I don’t suppose your magic healing hands include cars?” Michael asked, making a face. 

“Nope,” Max said, glumly. They were stuck out there, at least for a while longer. “Time to put on a show.” 

It was weird out here, creepy. That was for damn sure. But it was late and they were tired. Liz knew that she was probably overreacting due to exhaustion and remembering stories that she and Rosa would whisper to each other late at night from their beds, just to see if they could make the other scream (Rosa was the master at that. Liz never quite managed the trick of it).

Liz shook her head, hoping it would dislodge all these so-called nervios. She moved back behind the cars to where she’d left the cooler, the microscope and a sample resting on top of her jacket. A thin protection from the ground. She was cold but that didn’t quite matter to her as much. There was science to do. Alex could set up his laser grid faster without Liz around to be infuriatingly smug at.

There was something about the way the mushrooms shimmered. Brighter, dimmer, brighter. There was some sort of pattern, if only she could see it, if only everyone would just shut up about ghosts and broken cars and let her focus

The samples in the cooler flared again. Even the sliver she’d placed on the slide gave off a little bit of light, like a… She frowned, remembering the way the jumper cables had sparked. 

“Hey.” Max’s deep voice broke into her concentration.

What?” She practically snapped, looking up at him, and immediately regretted it. “Sorry. I’m just… I get caught up.”

“I just… wanted to see if you wanted a blanket? To sit on?” Max offered, a little sheepishly. “It’s getting cold and this way you can get your jacket back. I always keep a few in the back of the jeep.” He held one up.  

Oh. Liz felt the smile tugging at her lips. Max was so sweet. Awkward. Charming. And the crush was obvious, from space even.

For the first time since her wedding, Liz actually slightly regretted not being single.

“Thanks,” she said, nodding, getting up to take it and spread it on the ground. “Wanna see what I’m working on?” she asked, after settling back down, with her jacket on. She patted the blanket next to her.

“Sure,” Max said, with a small smile, dragging his hand through his hair and settling down with her. “Some kind of mushroom, right?” 

“Yeah, a really rare variety, it’s only ever been found in a couple places, and it tends to die off before anyone’s managed to study it.”

“Didn’t you guys say something about flesh-eating mushrooms at the party?” Max asked, and he was eyeing them with healthy suspicion. 

“Relax. Here, have some gloves,” she said, pulling a pair out, handing them to him. “Plenty of people have been around these and haven’t ended up with spores in their heart or lungs, so I’m pretty sure we’re safe. The real mystery is how our John Doe got the hyphae introduced to his system.”

“I mean, does it matter? You’re just trying to ID the guy,” Max said and there was something about his tone that seemed overly casual. “If the guy was here, why not just circulate his photo and move along?” 

Liz rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t really tell us how he died though,” she said, lightly. “I am a woman of science. Plus, I do love a good mystery.” She gave him a little nudge with her elbow and he smiled. A little further behind them, the EMF detector gave a bit of a whine. Maria and Alex started talking excitedly. But Liz was too caught up in Max’s smile to really pay attention. Max Evans had a really nice smile. It went well with his voice, which always sounded a little sleep-rough. It was very sexy. 

“Even a mystery that's this weird?”

“Honestly? Weirder the better. It’s really fun to burst their bubble when I come up with a mundane explanation for the crazier cases. So, I lend out my services when they get something juicy.” 

Max smiled, softly. “Okay. So… other than the fact that it’s rare and possibly murderous, what makes this mushroom so special?” 

While he spoke, she’d been peering through the microscope, trying to focus on the mushroom’s cellular structure instead of the handsome man next to her. It worked. Every time she looked, it took her breath away. They looked stained, expertly prepared for some kind of scientific journal, not field prepped in a dusty parking lot. 

At this magnification, the color was less oil-slicked in description. Liz wished Rosa were here to give names to the colors and shades she was seeing. Her unartistic brain inadequately supplied names like pink and purple and teal to the colors of the cellular membrane and proteins, all of which seemed to pulse--or better said spark, weakly. As if broken.

“Liz?” Max asked.

“Sorry?” She flushed, a little embarrassed about not hearing his question.

But Max just shook his head. “What makes them so special?”

Liz beamed excited. “Honestly? They’re really cool. Gorgeous, even. You’ve got an artistic brain, you’ll really appreciate the beauty I think--”

“Ah, wow, artistic brain?” He laughed, a little self-deprecatingly. But Liz wasn’t having any of that.

“You told me you write at the party.”

“I told you I dabble,” he protested, running fingers through his thick, wavy hair. Adorably sheepish.

“Pfft,” Liz said. “If you draw, if you write, you’re an artist. That simple. Anyway, take a look.”     

She shifted herself and the microscope closer to Max, who was looking a little unsure but also pleased, and utterly soft with his lower lip caught in his teeth. He looked at her with such warm affection, Liz wanted him to keep looking at her like that forever. 

“C’mon Max,” Liz said, leaning in closer to him and he finally relented, looking into the microscope. “The structure,” Liz began, unable to help but talk about the mushrooms. They were just so cool, “is in some ways very similar to other fungi, except that there seems to be something inorganic about them. I need to get them back to my lab to be sure but…” There was something about the structure. Something machine-like. Designed. But she didn’t want to say that part out loud. Not yet. Not until she had the data to support her theory.

The wind picked up slightly, interrupting her thoughts. It smelled like a storm was coming. 

The door of the building that housed the toilets banged open, causing Maria and Alex both to let out startled little noises before they started moving closer to the building, to investigate. As if it wasn’t just the coming rain.

Actually, no, that was weird. She didn’t remember any rain in the forecast when she checked it. But then again, maybe that explained why the mushrooms in the cooler were suddenly flaring up?

She really needed to get those back to the lab, they were too delicate to be out in the open like that. She leaned over to the cooler, to close it, her shoulder brushing Max’s as she did. 

And the damn ghost hunting equipment went crazy again, causing her to jump and Max to sit up from the microscope, abruptly. 

There was a loud clatter as something heavy fell over. 

Liz couldn’t help but jump, her shoulder bumping into Max’s, her heart hammering in her chest against all reason. Max’s arm came around her as the SUV came to life, radio blaring and then it sort of bounced. Like if a heavy wind had lifted it up momentarily and dropped it to the ground again. 

Liz couldn’t deny it freaked her out. It didn’t make sense. Nothing about tonight made sense. All the ghost stories Rosa had told her when she was young and impressionable came flooding back all at once. She grabbed on to Max, trying to soak up his warmth, letting it push away the chill.

“Hey, you okay?” Max asked, his hand light on her back.

“Yeah,” she said slowly, reluctantly pulling away from him, even when her instinct was to just wrap her arms around him. He felt safe

“Where did the thermal camera go?” Liz heard Alex say. 

“It was just here,” Maria replied, her tone nowhere near as calm as it usually was. Liz supposed that if Maria was disturbed by what was going on than it was no surprise Liz was bothered. Maria was the rock of the group--credulous yes, but unflappable. Not entirely level headed, not like Kyle, but definitely more than Alex (and herself if Liz was in the mood to be honest). 

“Sorry,” Liz said, laughing awkwardly. Now she was the one feeling embarrassed. “Almost climbed into your lap there.” 

“No, it’s, um. It’s fine,” Max was saying, his hand still resting against her back.

“No, it’s not--” Liz looked up at Max and their eyes locked, whatever she was going to say tapering off. Max had nice eyes. Kind. And a damn kissable mouth.

The EMF detector flared again, with a high-pitched whine. And Liz was fucking thankful for it as they pulled apart immediately. What the hell are you doing, Elizabeth? 

Max let out a heavy breath, looking at her. But Liz was not going to make that mistake again. He could keep those puppy dog eyes to himself. 

“That stuff’s really going crazy,” he said, the lightness of his tone sounded forced. She wondered if he felt as weird about that near-miss as she did. “Is that normal?”

“No definitely not,” Liz replied, getting herself together. Focusing on what was going on right now. Max was right. Everything was going crazy. But Liz was not in the damn business of believing in ghosts, so instead of feeding into their mass delusion, she took a breath and rolled her eyes, deliberately. 

Max hummed. “Well either way, maybe you should save this stuff for a time when the ghosts aren’t going crazy.”

“Oh god, please tell me you’re not one of those.” 

“One of what?” he asked, sounding a little defensive.

“One of them,” she said, gesturing over at Alex and Maria. “Credulous.” 

Max shook his head. “No, it’s not like that. It’s--” He let out a heavy sigh. “This whole place is creepy and it’s dumb. I’ve been reading a lot of mythology of the Americas. Most recently a collection of ghost stories.” 

“Mythology nerd?” 

“I just like books. And since Michael’s off hunting cryptids, I thought…” He trailed off, seeming embarrassed. 

That was so sweet. And knowing Michael, Max probably hadn’t told him for fear of being made fun of. But it was the same kind of thing she would do, if Rosa were still alive. She always wanted to understand what her sister was into. Maybe if Liz had been more successful, Rosa wouldn’t have run away.

“Hey,” she said, bumping his shoulder lightly. “He might not appreciate it, but that’s sweet.”

“Well, you’re right about him not appreciating it,” Max said dryly. 

“That’s how siblings are,” Liz said, with a sigh.

“Great. Broken,” Maria sighed, picking up the thermal camera from the ground. With just her small flashlight, it had taken her a moment to find it in the darkness, a good ten feet from where they’d left it, mounted on the tripod. The force of that wind had been insane. But Maria was hesitant to call it wind. Wind strong enough to almost flip an SUV didn’t just come out of nowhere like that. It had knocked the camera clear off its tripod and into what might have been the only damn rock in the whole dirt parking lot.

Weirdly enough she hadn’t felt any wind either.

The camera had landed not too far off from the restrooms. A medium sized, single story gray stone building, worn smooth by years of wind, with separate facilities for both men and women that looked like it hadn’t been rebuilt since the 50s. Old. Dilapidated. And maybe it was paranoia or credulity, but it gave her the creeps. The scrub brush all around the foundation of it seemed to dance with shadows, the doorways sank in like gaping maws. And one of the doors banged open and closed just a moment ago, but Maria could have sworn they’d been locked, previously. 

“Seriously?” Alex asked, sourly. “I just got that damn thing.”

“Maybe Guerin can fix it,” Maria replied, absentmindedly. What the hell was going on tonight? Never before had they experienced so much paranormal activity in one place. It was getting fucking creepy out here. The electrical disturbances and the weird winds were bad enough, but she was already on edge from the Christmas Tree room and what happened outside the caverns. Seeing her grandmother’s ghost had been incredibly unnerving, leaving her shaken and unable to really keep her head tonight. She wanted to brush it off as a tired hallucination, but maybe. Maybe she was seeing them again. Ghosts. 

“Definitely not till he fixes the damn car,” Alex said, scrunching his face a little, unhappy. The unease coming from him was palpable, provided that you were psychic. Ghosts would never be Alex’s favorite supernatural phenomena, as much as he might want proof of their existence. 

“Obviously,” Maria replied, tightly. Alex frowned at her, but thankfully didn’t ask her if she was all right again, just squeezed her wrist. She knew Alex had questions, he’d already asked them earlier, privately, while they waited for Max to arrive. She had just deflected them or point blank told him to drop it. Maria didn’t want to talk about it, not right now, mostly because she didn’t know how to begin without bringing up Guerin. For whatever reason, he felt inexplicably tied to everything that was happening to her. 

“We can’t ignore the problem, Patricia.”

Maria whirled around at the unfamiliar voice, her heart in her throat, hand resting where she usually kept her holster. Daylight illuminated the parking lot, muted through with what felt like blue-tinted glasses. She looked around for Alex. Please let him be seeing this too, she hoped. But he was gone. 

Her grandmother and that tall, gaunt man from before were walking away from the restroom facilities -- different now, though, newer.

“We won’t. We aren’t, Patty said, pausing, and resting her hand on his arm. “You can trust me. You know that.”

He paused, turning to look at her. “You have earned my trust for the entirety of my life time, Patty,” he said and glanced around at the empty lot before a rucksack floated into his hand. “Don’t forget this.” 

They started moving again, towards the trailhead, talking. Maria couldn’t make out the rest over the sound of her own harsh breathing. Her heartbeat seemed just as loud and felt like it was going to burst out of her chest. She stumbled and barely caught herself as she moved towards the apparitions, only for them to fade away, night falling again with a rapidity that left her breathless.

“Maria?” Alex demanded, concerned. His arm wrapped around her shoulders, making her practically jump out of her skin. “Maria, what the hell? I’ve been--”

“Did you see that?” She asked, turning to Alex, desperate for him to say yes. 

“See what?” he asked, concerned, scanning their surroundings. 

“The ghosts,” she said, pointing. “Right over there.” Alex had been right next to her, how was it that he hadn’t seen anything? Why did they only show themselves to her? 

Alex was staring at her, confused. Maybe a little more freaked out than she was, but Alex was damn good at keeping that contained. So was she, normally. He pulled her closer to him, offering support; his body warm, steady. She leaned against him, feeling shaky on her feet. 

“What did you see?” He asked, glancing down at the EMF detector in his hand. It was quiet. An odd occurrence tonight. Using one hand, he swapped it out for the spirit box that was in his interior jacket pocket, checking it too. Just static. No words. He turned it off a moment later.  

That hit her, rather like a punch in the gut. Was she just seeing things? If she was seeing ghosts, after all, then Alex should be seeing them too. 

She took a few shaky breaths before she spoke again. Pull yourself together, DeLuca.

“Just a man and a woman,” she said. “They walked from the bathrooms towards the trailhead before disappearing.”

Alex’s eyes widened, and he turned on the EMF reader again. Again, silence. “Nothing unusual,” he said after a moment, with a mixture of relief and disappointment.

“You sure?” Maria asked, feeling like she was losing her mind.

“Are you telling me everything?” He asked in return, keeping his tone as gentle as he could manage. And honestly it just made her feel worse. That Alex felt like he needed to use kid gloves with her, like she was some kind of hysterical witness, it was awful. 

“I saw what I saw, Alexander,” she said tightly, and pulled away from him. 

“What’s happening?” Liz asked, heading towards them. “You guys have been pretty quiet for a while. No spirit box or any….” She trailed off at the sight of them. Maria could just imagine what they must look like, her stressed and upset, Alex nothing but concerned.

Maria couldn’t deal with two pairs of worried eyes on her. “I need some air,” she said, firmly, stepping away from them, towards the trailhead she realized. As she walked, she was unable to help but examine every shadow, real or imagined. 

“Air?” Liz asked, confused. She exchanged a few low words with Alex, before Maria heard Liz approaching. “Maria?”

“I don’t need the skeptic routine right now, Liz,” Maria said. Her voice sounded sharp to her own ears. Brittle.

“No judgment.” Liz replied hurriedly and glared over at Alex when the spirit box roared to life again. “I’m gonna take a baseball bat to that thing.” 

Maria tried not to flinch at the sound of it. Entirely too loud, grating, and skipping channels in a distinctly unusual way. Before it had been so silent, yet now it seemed to be ‘talking’ more.  Normally that might be interesting, but right now, it was doing anything but helping. 

“Probably just gonna scare away any of your ghosts,” Liz tried, grinning, a little. 

“I... I don’t really know what I saw,” Maria said, frustrated and all too aware of Liz’s concern under her light tone. Maria hated it, never cared to be treated as something fragile. 

She just needed a moment to pull herself together. Wiping her hands on her pants, she noticed the soft trembling of them. She clenched them into fists until they stopped, until the sting of her nails biting into the soft flesh of her palms grounded her. 

“Did you find anything interesting, Liz?”

“Nothing concrete,” Liz answered but she sounded a little less interested in that now. “I’ve really got to get them back to the lab. Sooner rather than later, so that they’re still fresh. Listen, you’ve been acting kinda odd ever since you and Michael went to explore the lower caves, did something happen?”

She rolled her eyes. Guerin was the farthest thing from her mind right now.  

At the expression on Maria’s face, Liz explained, “no, I mean, like did he convince you to smoke the mushrooms?” She nudged Maria a little with her elbow. 

Maria laughed a little, unable to help herself. He would.  

C’mon DeLuca, live a little, he’d probably say, with playful emphasis on her name. She liked how he said her name, liked how his lips and tongue glid along the curves and caught on edges of the syllables, teeth scraping over that last vowel as he settled into a mischievous grin. 

Maria suddenly wished he were with her instead of fussing over the car. He was so good at making her laugh, good at distracting her with just his proximity. It was like he had his own gravity, drawing her in. A warm sun, the image sprung to her, unbidden. And she would not mind falling into his orbit right now.

Get it together, she told herself, sternly. As much as Guerin was a welcome distraction, she couldn’t afford that, not anymore.

The whine of the spirit box was getting closer. Liz turned to snap at Alex, “can you please take that damn thing somewhere else?”

“Sorry… I think this is where it wants me to be,” Alex replied, sounding perplexed.

“The random words are stringing together to form ‘come bug Liz’?” she asked dryly.

Alex rolled his eyes but there was no sting to it. He was too bewildered. “No, it’s like the thing is tuning itself. But it’s better over here. Clearer.”

The spirit box continued its staticky sputtering. The words, usually half-decipherable, were coming out a lot clearer, Maria couldn’t help but notice. 

Psk. Psk. Here. Psk. Psk. Wait.

“What?” Liz asked, snatching the box out of Alex’s hand.


There was a light in the distance, drawing her attention away from Alex and Liz. Maria focused on it, breathing. Trying to let the anxiety and irritation fall away. It took a moment to sink in that there shouldn’t be a light out there, that she wasn’t staring at the moon or a planet or a passing plane. Almost unconsciously, Maria started moving towards it, inexorably drawn to it. The landscape shifted again but even though it was more subtle this time, Maria still groaned unhappily. Not again.

It was still night, but there was a different scent to the air, cooler. The stars and moon had disappeared behind a layer of clouds, leaving her in near total darkness, disorienting her even more. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her vision. No stars, no moon. Just darkness. And then the light was blinding her. A car or…oh lord…? No, a flashlight.

Maria raised a hand, trying to shield her eyes, trying to make out the figure moving towards her. Through the blinding light all she could make out was a tall, dark silhouette. There was something about that silhouette too - like it emanated pure menace. She knew, instinctively, that if he got whatever he wanted, people would suffer, die. God, she was terrified. Frozen in place, completely vulnerable. 

The light shifted and the figure came into view, walking past her, like she wasn’t even there. Maria gasped. She knew him. He’d spent the entire fucking night flirting with her best friend. 


He took several steps from his car and then stopped, closing his eyes, like he was listening for something. After a moment, he opened them, smiling in a way that made her stomach twist before he confidently made his way up the trailhead. Only then could Maria finally move again.

Her legs gave out from under her. Sitting on the hard rock ground, Maria tried to breathe.

Michael had been having fun. Sure, it was a mean kind of fun, but Maria and Alex did it to themselves, believing in all this shit. Playing with the frequencies of the spirit box, slowing things down so it picked up more random bullshit on the radio, blowing shit over with fake winds, breaking some of Alex’s fancy equipment? Priceless.

But then something changed. Maria, instead of being slightly spooked and exasperated, had slipped into what seemed to be outright terror. And fuck, Michael wanted to go fuss over her, like Alex and Liz were doing now. Mushroom missions and awkward kisses be damned. It was hard to push away his worry and his concern, his need to be there for her, to help and care and soothe. But he had to push that aside. He may like them (a lot), and knew that it was necessary to help them, but he still didn’t entirely trust them. Not with his secret. Not with the safety of his family. 

Focus, Guerin, he snarled at himself. 

The cooler full of mushrooms was sitting, forgotten, behind Max, who was up on his feet, thoroughly distracted by everything, too.

Michael nudged him. “Hey, can you fry them?” He asked, quietly. Hoping that no one would hear him. They were distracted, sure, and there was some distance between them, but he was paranoid as hell. 

Max looked a little startled, worried. “I don’t know if it’ll work,” he said under his breath. 

“It’s probably the most subtle thing we’ve got.” Michael had been turning over what to do with the damn things. If they took them, that would be obvious. There were only five of them out there, and he and Max would be the only suspects. He could try destroying them with some of Liz’s chemicals, but he hadn’t actually tried to destroy their tech before, and he had no idea what the reaction would be.

But Max could kill them. He couldn’t do a sustained EMP on command, but he’d shorted plenty of appliances over the years. This had to work.

Max must have read the desperation on Michael’s face, because he nodded, clenching his jaw, setting it. He glanced back up at the others, then dropped down next to the cooler. “Get in front of me. Keep them distracted.” 

Michael nodded and stepped in front of him. He could see Maria’s silhouette moving away from the other two, and there was nothing confident in her stride. Michael fought the urge to go to her again. Maria had a husband and a best friend, she didn’t need a fake-human who’d been fucking with her all night.

Fuck, this was shitty. But he had a job to do. The others were far out enough in the desert that he didn’t expect them to see the soft glow from the open cooler, but just in case he half-heartedly rolled a few tumbleweeds through the desert on the other side of them, to keep them distracted. Tracking their vision away from Max instead of back toward him. 

He could hear Max grunting with effort behind him but didn’t take his eyes away from the humans to see what he was doing. Eventually though, the soft glow of the mushrooms subsided. 

“Done.” Max’s voice startled him. He sounded rough, tired and high at the same time. Michael glanced over his shoulder at him.

“You gonna puke?” 

“Nah,” Max said, shaking his head. 

Michael took a minute, just looking at him, worried. But Max didn’t have that clammy cast to his face that would normally mean he was about to lose it, so Michael nodded. “Right.” He looked up at the sky. It was lightening, had been for a while, and it was going faster now. Thank fuck.

It sucked having to destroy those mushrooms. He wanted to know more. He thought back to the constellations he’d seen in the cavern. That had been a star map. Directions to home. Michael was sure of it. He only needed a clearer understanding of how his people’s tech worked. And he knew that Liz (he really wished he could trust her) and the FBI labs could get him closer to that understanding. Help him figure out how to put together the parts of the ship that he had squirreled away back in Roswell. 

Maybe he could find a way to sneak into the lab during off hours and work on the ones he had stolen for himself? 

He’d have to figure that out later.

“Ok,” Max said. “I’m going to give my jeep a jump before they come back around.”    

Michael frowned, shaking off the regrets. “I thought you couldn’t…”

“I don’t know,” Max said, shrugging. “I feel different. I want to give it a shot.”  

Michael sighed, getting up and going to pop the hood. He glanced over at the others, before giving Max the go-ahead, and spent the remainder of his time watching Alex and Liz huddling around Maria.

This night really sucked.

“Are you okay?” Alex asked, in the quiet of their house, once they were finally, finally home. It was well into the afternoon, when they got back, and by then they were both exhausted. But also, incredibly hungry. 

“Hm?” Maria responded absently, glancing over as she slid her necklace on. Her senses were immediately muffled, a glorious relief akin to drowning out a jackhammer with a feather pillow. And for the first time in close to twenty four hours she felt really safe again. 

She shook her head a little. “I’m fine. It was just a weird night.”

That was an understatement, and she knew it. It had been a long damn night and morning. The hauntings and apparitions had tapered off with the sunrise, and the mechanic had come not long after. Thank fuck, because Maria had been absolutely done with being out there. Done dealing with Liz and Alex fussing -- and Michael too, anxiously slinking around the edges, seeming like he wanted to fuss but too nervous to get close to her.

And Max. God, Max. She still had no idea what to make of him. The pure menace she’d seen in that… calling it a ghost didn’t feel right. One didn’t see ghosts of living people, right? But whatever it was, that figure didn’t feel like the Max who spent the whole night flirting awkwardly with Liz and arguing with Michael over car repairs. 

Alex was rummaging in the fridge, pulling out leftover pizza and a couple of beers and dropping them hard on the kitchen counter. 

“Ok. What the fuck did Guerin do?” He asked, flatly, and Maria got the sense that he was ready to go straight back to that airstream and re-break Michael’s nose. Which honestly, was sweet but he should know that if Guerin’s nose needed breaking, she’d have done it her damn self. 

“Nothing,” she said quickly, turning to grab some plates for their pizzas. Of course, that wasn’t exactly true, it just wasn’t what was weighing on her, which was something she definitely didn’t want to talk about right now. 

“Maria…” He said, frowning at her. “You’ve been off since you two went down the Christmas Tree room. Something happened.” 

She let out a heavy breath and handed him a plate with a couple slices. “Warm that up for me?” 

Alex’s mouth twisted into a frown, worried and frustrated and more than a little annoyed with her. Maria supposed she would be too if she thought he was keeping secrets from her. 

It’s not that she wanted to keep him in the dark (well about the apparitions anyway, part of her would be really ok with him never knowing about the kiss with Guerin). She just needed some time to process everything she’d seen, everything that happened to her. She loved Alex, but his first instinct would be to make it into a case, because Alex was a problem solver, a fixer, and that was how he’d deal with the stress of Maria being in trouble. 

He’d want to give his opinions and offer advice, like he actually knew anything about her abilities. 

Maybe she should just tell him about what happened with Guerin. It would be a distraction, at least, even if it meant Alex was going to be annoying as hell. 

“It’s just,” she started, only after he turned towards the microwave. Alex took his time placing that plate in the microwave, bless him. She took a few beats to weigh exactly how she wanted to pull the bandaid off. “I kissed Guerin,” she finally said, all in one breath. 

“I’m sorry, you what?!” Alex half-shouted, slamming the microwave door shut in his surprise. 

“It just kind of happened?” she said weakly, waving a hand in the air. 

He spun around to look at her. “Maria Patricia DeLuca. Are you kidding me right now? After all the shit you gave me!” 

“I know!” She groaned and reached over to start the microwave. She might deserve the dressing-down, but she also deserved warm pizza. “Though I will say in my defense, I only kissed him, I did not sleep with him, so you’re still the dumbass world record holder.”

Alex snorted. “That’s not as much of a defense as you think it is. What the hell possessed you?” 

“He just,” she started, shaking her head. “He wouldn’t shut up.” 

Alex arched one of his stupid perfect eyebrows, completely judging her. “He never shuts up,” he reminded her. “That’s like his third most defining feature behind curls and cowboy hat.” Ok, yes but Alex couldn’t understand, kissing Michael was the quietest her head had been all night. And he wouldn’t understand until she was ready to tell him the rest of the story. 

“Alex,” Maria said exasperated. 

“But this time,” he continued. “You decided to shut him up. With your mouth.” Now he was laughing at her. “Brilliant solution, Maria. Seriously.”  

Grumpy, Maria swatted him, deciding not to dignify that with a response. The microwave beeped, and she shooed him aside so she could get her food. 

Silence fell for a couple minutes as Alex heated up his own leftover slices. But he still looked absolutely tickled by this turn of events. Probably because now he wasn’t the only one making Michael Guerin-induced poor decisions.

Alex kept his curiosity in check about as long as it took to cook his food, and it was obviously eating him up the entire time. 

He nudged her with his elbow. “...So how was it?” 

Maria glared at him. “Alex, I swear to god, I am going to divorce you.”

“That good?” He grinned, looking so fucking vindicated. Probably thinking about all the shit she gave him when he came home the morning after with Guerin. 

She groaned, grabbing her beer and taking a pull. “Better. What the hell.” Guerin couldn’t have done her the favor of being a bad kisser? Hell, even a mediocre one? That asshole.

Alex was smirking and she kicked at him lightly, half-heartedly.  

“I knew it,” he said, dodging, though he winced a bit and Maria immediately felt guilty. He’d been on his leg all day and night, climbing around caves and traipsing through the desert. “I told you.” 

“Come on, let’s sit down,” she said, grabbing a couple more beers and nudging for Alex to head to the couch. She grabbed his crutch on the way, hoping he’d take the hint. “And yeah, you did. I have to admit, if we hadn’t been in a creepy cave, I might have been as dumb as you were and dragged him off to the nearest horizontal surface.”

“Hey,” Alex protested, but he was smiling, pulling off his prosthetic, with a soft sigh of relief. He worked off the sweaty liner next, dropping it to the floor with a grimace. Maria worked off her equally gross bra through her shirt and dropped it on top of his liner. Holy fuck it felt good to get that bra off.  

They sat in silence for a moment, reveling in the joy of taking off sweaty gross things.

“No more cases that involve hiking,” Maria said, slouching down into the couch and putting her feet up on the coffee table, plate resting on her belly. 

“Agreed,” Alex said. “Anyway, I’m glad you had more self control and didn’t fuck Guerin on a bed of mushrooms.” Maria snorted at that and he continued, laughing a little, “you don’t need to make my mistakes. Even if you are missing out.” 

“Ugh,” Maria said around a bite of pizza, getting it down before she followed up with “still being dramatic about the whole thing? Completely ruined for sex with anyone else?” She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. 

“Oh my god, have you and Kyle been talking? I never said that,” Alex protested. 

“He might have mentioned you being woeful about how good Guerin was in bed. I extrapolated.” She was grinning, happy to be the one doing the teasing again.  

“Okay, for the record, Special Agent DeLuca, I never said that Guerin’s dick was life changing--” Maria snorted and this time Alex swatted her arm. “I didn’t. I just said that Forrest was kind of boring, and Guerin helped remind me of that fact.”

Maria snorted again. She wanted to keep making fun of him, she did. But hell, if that kiss had been any indication, Alex was probably right. And quite honestly, she wasn’t sure she was ready for any life changing dick. She liked her life. 

“Well, he’s off limits.” 

know that,” Alex said, a little sourly. “Do you know that?”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Yes. Obviously yes,” she said quickly. But there was still a part of her, bigger than she’d like to admit, that was quietly whispering buts and maybes. And she knew Alex had the same problem. She remembered how he wore his tightest skinniest jeans to Michael’s birthday party. They might both say that Michael Guerin was off limits, they might even believe it but there was a creeping sense of something...

If she were in a dramatic mood, she might say that shared feeling was certain doom. “You know, maybe we should take a little time, go out on the town. Might be good for both of us.” 

Alex snorted. “Maria, last time I ‘went out on the town,’” he said, with air quotes and all, “I ended up in Guerin’s airstream. I don’t think random sex, different guy is our solution this time.”  

“Well then. Tequila,” she said decisively, getting up and heading into the kitchen. Grabbing the rest of the pizza, the bottle, and a single glass. They could share. 

“It’s not even one PM,” Alex protested. 

“We’ve got nothing on except an early bedtime.”  

“Reports to write,” Alex countered. 

“Hush, my love,” Maria said, putting the stuff down, kissing his hair. “Right now, it’s time for self-care.” 

Chapter Text

Who is the grinning man? A government agent of suppression? A bogeyman? Or something far more sinister? An extraterrestrial visitor in disguise? A monster? A wendigo?”

“Could you turn that off?” Maria asked, sounding exhausted, waking into the living room to find Alex on the couch with his laptop open, playing Greener on the Outerside while he researched a case.

Alex couldn’t blame her annoyance. He’d been listening to the Green twins all morning and they were a lot. Stopping the podcast, he glanced up at Maria. She still looked worn out, and Alex worried. He was planning to go in later -- Forrest had emailed him about a hot tip and cryptids waited for no man. Maria had declared that she was taking the entire weekend off work, and she didn’t care if Mothman himself knocked on the door and asked her to go to a salsa club. It was for the best. He probably would have tried to insist if she hadn’t been logical about it.

“You feeling okay?”

“Much better after a good night’s sleep.” She nodded. “I can’t believe I let that place spook me so bad.” She laughed, but it was uneasy, and she was toying with her necklace anxiously.

“Breakfast’s in the kitchen,” he said, trying to keep the worry out of his tone. They didn’t make it a habit to keep secrets from each other.

“Best husband,” she said, leaning over the back of the couch to press a kiss to his hair before she went to grab one of the breakfast sandwiches.

Once she settled back on the couch and had eaten most of her breakfast, Alex finally nudged her with his toes. “You’re awfully quiet.”

“I’m fine, babe,” she said, shaking her head, and shifting to lean her head against his shoulder. But she wasn’t, he knew what she had seen at Carlsbad had left her shaken.

“Do you wanna talk about it now? What you saw?” He prompted, gently. His expectations weren’t high. Maria was stubborn (one of the many things they had in common) and if she wasn’t ready to talk about it, she wouldn’t, no matter how much he pushed.

She hesitated for a second before shaking her head a little. And Alex resigned himself to being in the dark for a little longer.

“Honestly,” she began. “I really don’t know how to explain it. I must have been over-tired. I could have sworn I saw grandma Patty, but what the hell she’d be doing, haunting way the hell out in the desert like that…” She trailed off.

Over-tired made some sense to Alex. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen Patty’s ghost. But she was right, that was an odd place for a DeLuca haunting.

It was just the intensity of her reaction that bothered Alex, like there was something she wasn't telling him. He just couldn’t figure out what. Alex slid his arm around her and kissed her hair, gently. “Can I do anything?” He asked.

Maria hummed softly, turned her face into his shoulder. “Not really. I just need a whole day not talking about or thinking about ghosts or cryptids or aliens. Maybe two.”

Alex chuckled. “Okay. No work talk,” he promised.

Maria just rested against his shoulder, lapsing into silence for several minutes.

Her phone dinged, and she groaned, reaching for it. “It’s Isobel,” Maria said, humming softly. “Seeing if I want brunch.”

Alex smiled. “You should go. I have a feeling that woman knows her way around a mimosa.”

Maria laughed. “And what will you do, all alone, without me?”

Alex gestured at the laptop. “There were some rumblings about Men in Black sightings up in Santa Fe. Figured I could pop up there, do some interviews, stake things out.”

Maria kissed his cheek gently. “Take Guerin.”

“Oh, do you think you can trust me all alone with him?” Alex asked, smirking slowly.

“Alex...” she started, a warning tone in her voice. “So, help me...”

“I mean, he’s so magnetic. I’m not sure--” He was cut off, briefly, by a pillow to the face “--I’ll be able to resist--” Another smack with the pillow and he was laughing, grabbing for it “--that dusty charmer.”

“Ugh you’re the worst.” Maria shoved the pillow over his face, bearing down. “You hypocrite!”

“This being terrorizes people in the dead of night. He is known by many names, but the story remains the same. The grinning man may appear humanoid at first, but look closer with us, if you dare. At seven feet, this unsightly creature could at first glance pass as an abnormally tall human. But further examination reveals physical anomalies that are impossible to overlook. His wide-set eyes are described as black, cold, and beady. His face and head are utterly devoid of hair, and his nose shallow and narrow. But by far his most distinctive feature is the one he is named for. Wide and full of menace. Beware, for if you see the smile, it will likely be far too late…”

“Greener on the Outerside?” Michael asked as he stepped into the office, scanning worriedly for Maria. He still felt like an asshole, considering what he and Max had to do.

Alex looked up from his computer. “Yeah. It’s compelling, I have to admit.”

Michael rolled his eyes, setting down the coffees he’d grabbed on the way in, to assuage his guilt. She’d probably think he was apologizing for the kiss. And that sucked. But better she thought that than she knew the truth. Fuck he wished things could be different. He was sick of secrets.

“Where’s Maria?”

“Enjoying her weekend,” Alex started, and the worry must have shown on Michael’s face, because he continued, hurriedly. “She’s fine. Just tired. And it’s not like either of us ever take our vacation days, so she’s entitled. Is that coffee?”

“Ah… yeah.” Michael nodded, nudging the travel tray closer to him. In an effort to keep the guilt he felt for his part in her distress off his face, he focused on his concern. It wasn’t hard. He was really worried about her. He’d never seen her so shaken. “Take your pick.”

Alex picked up one of the large to-go cups, turning it to see what was written.

“Cappuccino with cinnamon,” Alex read and glanced up at Michael with one very knowing eyebrow arched. Maria’s order.

“Yeah,” Michael grumbled, suddenly feeling very exposed. He turned away from Alex, taking the two steps that got him around to his desk. “I know your order too. You two are caffeine addicts if you haven’t noticed. I think I’ve seen more cafes with you than the inside of this place.”

“Are you trying to apologize for something?” Alex asked, a little dryly, a quirk to his lip that had Michael feeling like he was being made fun of.

“I can’t just do something nice?” Michael’s tone was a little sharp as he leaned on offended. But with the way Alex was looking at him, any hope that he didn’t know about the damn kiss went out the window. Time to change topics quick. “What’s on the docket for today?”

Alex was silent for a moment and Michael didn’t need to turn around to know those shrewd eyes were on him.

“You remember Agent Long?”

Michael paused, thinking. “That agent we met on the Bigfoot case?”

Michael remembered two things distinctly about Forest Long. One, the green hair, ‘cause really why was the FBI ok with that? And two, that the guy crowded into Alex’s space way too much for that relationship to be professional. Michael deliberately did not examine the sudden feeling of irritation leveled at Agent Long.

“Yeah.” Alex nodded. Michael also did not study Alex for any hint of interest. It wasn’t any of his business who Alex Manes was fucking... Michael forced himself to focus on what Alex was saying. “He called in with a tip for me. Possible case up in Santa Fe. I figured we could pop up there, see if there’s anything to see.”

“What kind of case?” Michael asked.

“Men in Black sighting. Supposedly.”

Michael pointed at Alex. “Case closed.”

Alex glared at him, grabbed a piece of paper, crumpled it up, maintaining eye contact the whole time, and threw it at him. “No. The MiB are potential aliens. I’m guessing you didn’t get to that episode of Greener on the Outerside?” Alex must have read the confusion on Michael’s face, because he was grinning. “We’ll listen to it while we drive up there.”

“Do I have to remind you about the peyote documentaries?” Michael asked, watching as Alex stood up, grabbing some files and his laptop bag. “Grab the coffees and c’mon,” Alex said, rolling his eyes and heading out the door.

Sighing, Michael followed, unsure exactly how to feel about being alone with Alex the whole day. They hadn't been alone together for an extended period of time since… well since they hooked up. Michael hoped that the most eventful thing to happen this time around was finding the actual fucking Men in Black. He honestly thought he might prefer being abducted over the alternatives.

After all, it was highly unlikely he was going to kiss or be kissed by Tommy Lee Jones.

“Government agents, extraterrestrials in disguise, or the undead risen by strange and unknowable techniques? No one knows for sure. However, one thing is for sure, encounters with the Men in Black have been documented since long before Roswell. And the crux of these encounters has always been to silence. To stop Ufologists like you, like me, from getting to the truth, dear listeners. These strange, pale, expressionless men who drive classic cars and wear dark suits and derbies use intimidation and sometimes otherworldly abilities to keep the American people--nay, the entire human race--in the dark!”

“Please, as if it’s that hard,” Michael snorted. “People are dumb as fuck.”

“Shut up and listen, Guerin,” Alex said, but he was laughing. Michael’s irritation was the real entertainment value here. The endless snark and cynicism was pretty funny most of the time, especially when it wasn’t directed at him. If Alex was being honest, he just liked being around Michael, liked his humor, passion, and his brilliance.

And he liked how comfortable he felt around Michael, like he was someone Alex could relax around, be himself. Alex could count on one hand the number of people who made him feel that way and he didn’t even need all five of his fingers to do it.

Alex sneaked a glance at Michael. The passenger’s side window was open and Michael was resting his elbow on the door, cheek resting on his fist, eyes half opened, listening as the wind ruffled his hair. He was so damn handsome and Alex had to squeeze the steering wheel to keep his hands from wandering.

The hour-and-change drive saw three episodes pass, with a semi-constant stream of snark and humor passing between them. Soon enough, they were pulling into a parking spot outside the cafe they were meeting Forrest at.

“You couldn’t meet at this guy’s office?” Michael asked as they stepped inside.

“Forrest doesn’t actually report to a specific home office. He’s always on a temporary assignment or other. Pretty useful, though, he’s always got a case for us.”

“I guess that…” Michael trailed off, going tense beside him and Alex found himself tensing up too, his hand resting near his holster as he tracked Michael’s line of sight. There wasn’t anything overtly wrong. But Michael was glaring at someone. A man, standing at the milk station, sipping his coffee and mixing sugar into it. Handsome, but unassuming in grey slacks and soft beige cardigan

“Who is that?” Alex asked, quietly.

“Noah Bracken. Brother-in-law,” Michael said, tightly.

“Ah the asshole.” At least that’s the impression Alex got from the suspicions Maria had shared with him.

“He is on the wrong side of the fucking state. Mind looking the other way while I violate my parole a bit?”

Alex frowned. “By a bit, you mean nothing physical.”

“You offend me,” Michael grinned, but with little mirth. His eyes were flinty and maybe he saw something in Alex’s eyes because he added. “I’d like to remind you that I’m the reasonable one of the group.”

Alex snorted. Even if that were true, Noah Bracken wasn’t a ghost. But...

“Oh, I think my order’s up,” Alex said before heading for the pick up area, wondering if Michael was surprised that he agreed at all. And maybe Alex was too. He could chalk it up to Maria’s suspicions about Noah, to saving Isobel some heartache. But the reality was that Michael was just kind of bad for Alex’s judgement.

He kept a wary eye on Michael though, watching him approach Bracken. Even though violence was off the table, Alex couldn’t help sizing them up. Michael was kind of skinny, but he was well-muscled and Bracken wasn’t exactly the Hulk, so in a physical altercation he was laying his bets on Michael.

“Mickey!” Bracken said when Michael drew near, with a wide unassuming smile. Just a little too polished.

Alex grimaced. This guy was a fucking douchebag. He was starting to root for Michael to punch him.

“Noah,” Michael said, tight and low. “You’re pretty fucking far from Roswell.”

“Ah... I’m here finishing up a conference?” Bracken said, bemused.

Michael shook his head a little, tilting it to one side. A small incredulous smile on his face. “I’m supposed to fucking believe that you just happen to be up here? For a what? A lawyer conference?”

Bracken still looked bemused and when he spoke, he sounded like he was humoring Michael. “I mean legal conferences are things that exist and happen pretty regularly, Mickey.”

“Right.” Michael waved it off. “Let me be clear. I hear you bugged Isobel to or from this little conference of yours? Parole is not gonna keep me from you.”

Subtle as a train, Alex thought dryly.

“I think,” Bracken began, with a slight upward quirk of his lip. A smirk more than a smile, sharp in a way that seemed inconsistent with the blazer and sweater vest. Alex had seen that look on dozens of military officers. On the face of his father. “What would bug my wife is if her poor supposedly innocent brother were incarcerated in a supermax in Colorado.”

Michael let out a laugh, a soft, soundless thing. Alex had to wonder if he was surprised by the hit back. Guess Alex wasn’t the only one who didn’t really know this man. But Michael recovered quickly, and he looked pissed.

“Not if I--”

“Uh uh,” Bracken interrupted, in a tone like he was offering legal advice. Which maybe he was, in the most douchey way imaginable. “Seriously, whatever you’re going to say won’t be good for you.”

Bracken was not breaking eye contact and neither was Michael. But there was a world of difference in behavior here. Where Michael was clearly bristling, Bracken was outwardly calm, trying to cow Michael, utterly unconcerned with how it made Michael only angrier. Actually, the longer Alex watched them, the more he realized that Bracken was enjoying himself.

Alex started moving towards them, just as Bracken broke into a big smile. “Kidding!” He laughed, lightly punching Michael’s shoulder. “You should’ve seen your face! You and Max are so serious.”

There was even more tension in Michael’s shoulders than before. They seemed almost spring loaded.

“Michael,” Alex spoke before fully reaching them. The tension didn’t leave Michael’s shoulders but he didn’t seem like he was about to start swinging, at least.

Bracken turned to look at Alex. There was a flash of something in his eyes that Alex couldn’t place; surprised recognition? Curiosity? “I assume you’re the agent in charge of his case?”

“Special Agent Alex Manes.”

“Noah Bracken,” he said, offering his hand to Alex. “Didn’t know the FBI kept their charges on such a long leash.”

Michael bristled again and Alex placed a hand on the small of his back, hoping to calm him. Michael did, leaning back into his hand, almost imperceptibly. But Alex could feel the warm weight of him at the minute shift. Alex didn’t move his hand.

“I’m his brother-in-law,” Bracken continued when all Alex did was stare at him steadily. “We like to joke around, so don’t take anything you might have heard too seriously.”

You like to fucking joke around.” Michael practically spat at him. “I don’t.”

Alex looked at the still-extended hand, coolly, and didn’t take it. “I like to make up my own mind.”

Bracken let his hand fall, awkwardly, once it became clear that Alex wasn’t about to take it. “So, FBI, huh? That must be interesting. Mickey and I haven’t really talked much about what you do…”

“We hunt UFOs and Bigfoot,” Alex said blandly.

Bracken looked at Michael, eyes narrowed, that smarmy smile faltering, cracking... Just a little. His eyes suspicious, searching, for a moment. Alex regretted not having his human lie detector of a wife along. Had Guerin and Bracken been in cahoots at some point? Was Bracken some kind of alien enthusiast too?

“Well, that must be fascinating,” Bracken finally said but he couldn’t quite manage the lightness of before. “You’ll have to tell me all about it.”

“We’re not really at liberty to discuss cases,” Alex said firmly, and the look that Bracken gave him was so indecipherable that, unbidden, the thought sprung to mind that Bracken was himself, some kind of MiB. Alex had to cover his laugh at the absurdity of that thought with his coffee cup. As if aliens wore cardigans. Really, Alex. You could break this man in half.

“Alien nut or bigfoot enthusiast?”

“I’m from Roswell, what do you think?” Bracken asked, with a disarming smile. Amiable idiot act back, apparently. “Maybe when I’m in Albuquerque, I can grab you a beer and we can chat about Area 51.”

“Sure. As long as I never hear that you’re at Isobel’s place without her express prior permission,” Alex said, dryly.

Anger seeped into Noah’s eyes momentarily. Alex met it calmly, raising an eyebrow in challenge. It seemed to make him angrier. Again, Alex was reminded of those military types who mistook strength for superiority. Those were the ones who hated being challenged the most, especially by those they deemed lesser. It was weird, the association. Bracken was clearly an asshole but even now, it felt incongruous.

“Well. Nice to finally meet you,” Noah said, recovering. But there was something hard, cold in his eyes. “And I hate to greet and run, but I’m going to be late for the next panel.”

“Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out,” Michael growled.

Bracken glanced at Michael again, sharply, before beating a hasty retreat. As soon as he was gone, Michael was turning to Alex. “I didn’t need the assist,” Michael said, crossing his arms over his chest.


“I had it under control.”


“You don’t know him like I do.”

“First true thing you’ve said so far.”


Somewhere during this performance, Michael had slipped away from Alex’s hand and, now, Alex put his hand back against the small of Michael’s back, leading him towards the cashier.

“C’mon,” Alex said. “Let’s get you hot chocolate.”

“You’re a shit,” Michael said sullenly. Alex tried and failed not to laugh. He got Michael a coffee, all black, one sugar and a cranberry orange muffin. Michael wasn’t the only one who paid attention to his partner’s food preferences.

“You know,” Alex began while Michael was eating, “you’re really not very good at being menacing. Maybe next time just ask me to do it?”

Michael started sputtering. He looked really offended. Maria would have shot Alex a look for saying what was likely the wrong thing. Alex couldn’t really regret it, hiding a smile with the rim of his coffee cup, just watching him.

“In all seriousness, Guerin,” Alex continued, “leave him alone next time.”

“Look, if he’s bothering Isobel I’m not--”

Alex lifted his hand up to stop him. “But he wasn’t. And I’m not saying he’s some innocent guy. He’s got a bad vibe for sure. But you’re a con and he’s a lawyer. There’s a line you’re gonna need to carefully walk. I won’t always be able to protect you.”

He did a shit job of it this time. He should have never let Michael talk to Noah. Lawyer or no, it was a stupid idea.

“I don’t need it.”

Alex tried not to roll his eyes, deciding it was time to switch gears a little. There was no point in arguing, Michael would not relent and Alex was not going to tell him what he was really thinking, that he’d always be there to help him. That he wanted to be someone Michael could look to for… anything really.

“Maybe. But it was kind of fun pissing him off.”

Michael looked startled. And maybe he was starting to smile, just a little. “Yeah. It always is.”

“I should have known,” Liz groaned, slamming the cooler’s lid with more force than necessary. “No one’s managed to study this before, why would I get to? Because of course the universe is set against scientific discovery. Obviously.”

“Hey, hey.” Kyle caught her by her shoulders. Pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Breathe.”

Liz let out a breath and leaned into him. He held her, and she clung onto him for several beats. He liked this, liked being the one person who could steady her.

“What’s wrong, babe?” He asked, rubbing her back gently.

“The mushrooms,” she started, pulling away to flip the cooler open. “I opened it just to peek, and…”

Kyle leaned in, startled. Liz had texted him some pictures, so he was expecting glowing, swirling, multicolored mushrooms. But these mushrooms -- what was left of them -- had dulled to dark grey, black. Almost looking charred. Unnatural.

“I’m not a mushroom expert, but I don’t think that’s how they decay. That is not how anything decays,” he said, slowly.

“You’re right. Everything they do is weird,” she sighed and then frowned, leaning over to look at them better. “Most species of mushrooms last at least ten days before they start to rot. This was all for nothing!”

“Yeah, but those are store bought...” Kyle said, getting caught up in the weirdness, unable to help himself. He could be just as curious as Liz, though usually a bit more sensible. Right now, though he could see why Liz was so fascinated by these weird things. He opened one of the drawers of Liz’s desk, where he knew she kept excess takeout utensils, grabbing a plastic knife and using it to poke at the contents of the cooler. The mushrooms almost disintegrated. Gooey but also powdery…?

“What?” Liz asked, leaning in.

“Slime’s kind of not slime-like at all,” he said, looking at her, and shaking his head. Bemused. “Do you have your notes from the field?”

“Yeah, uh--”

“They smell charred,” Kyle continued. “Ozoney too.”

Liz rummaged through her purse, pulling out her phone, and a plastic case that Kyle recognized as a slide set. “Yeah, it’s pretty strong. That’s definitely not how they smelled before….” she trailed off, as she was opening the slide case, catching her breath.

“What is it?” He asked, looking up from the cooler, curious.

Something survived,” she said, voice half triumphant, half awed as she held up a prepared slide with a softly glowing sliver of mushroom in it.

“Woah.” It was the only thing that Kyle could think to say. That tiny sliver pulsed with light brighter than the lab’s overhead lights. “The slip cover must have protected it?”

“I guess so…” Liz said, excitedly. “Just wait until you see it under a microscope. The colors are amazing. Out of this world, I was trying to get, ah, help me pinpoint the names of the colors.” She was just a little too flushed at the mention of Max Evans.

Kyle tilted his head ever so slightly at that. He knew that Liz found Max attractive. They’d talked about it. And he was tall, handsome and soft spoken. A lit nerd.

“Do I need to worry about Evans?” He asked, with a laugh. It was a joke. Mostly.

“What?!” She looked up at him, startled, eyes wide. “No, of course not!” She waved her hand a bit mock-dismissively, but she seemed guilty. “I didn’t think you were so insecure.”

Kyle frowned. “Liz, I was kidding. But like if you think he’s hot, you know I don’t care. Just ‘cause we’re married doesn’t mean you can’t find other people attractive. And he is attractive.” Kyle was secure enough to admit that. He’d be kind of a dumbass not to see it, and he was only like... A one or two on the Kinsey scale. But Evans was one of the hotter guys he’d ever run across.

She looked even guiltier, but also a little relieved. “Ugh. He’s kind of stupidly hot.”

Kyle shook his head. “Short girls always like giants,” he said ruefully. His own height didn’t bother him, really, but every once in a while, someone like Max wandered in.

Liz snorted. “This short girl’s gonna kick you in the shin.”

“Look, all I’m saying is if we need to have the talk again…” Kyle said, shaking his head. Years ago, when they’d first started working with Maria and Alex, saw how those two ran their relationship, they’d talked about whether or not their own relationship was going to be open. At the time the answer had been no, or at least… not yet. At the time no one was around to test the viability of the possibility.

“Oh, stop talking about Max. Look,” she prompted, waving him over to the microscope she’d been getting ready. “Seriously, Kyle, you have to see this.”

“Okay, okay,” He smiled, fond. She was practically vibrating with excitement. And as he leaned over to look in the microscope, he could totally see why.

Silence had fallen. Liz was hushed, and he lost himself staring at the cells, the way the colors swirled and rippled. Flashes like lightning traveled between them, weird, sparking pulses.

“What do you make of it?” He asked, finally, leaning back from the microscope.

“I mean, honestly that night was so crazy with all the stupid haunting bullshit,” Liz started. “But there is something not normal about that, right? It almost feels inorganic, like--”

“Technology,” Kyle filled in. “Like something engineered.”

Isobel did have mimosas waiting for Maria -- along with coffee, quiche, and… “What are these?” Maria asked, picking a small plastic packet up.

“Sheet masks. I figure you could use a bit of a self-care day,” Isobel said, offering her a mimosa, which Maria took, gratefully. “Michael texted and said the last case was a rough one, and since you’ve been so nice to me…”

“So, you decided on face masks?” Maria asked with a raised eyebrow. “Really?” It was a nice, if strange, gesture. “Is this from Cosmo’s top ten ways to make your friend feel better list?” She snarked, sitting down on the couch and setting her purse down.

It fell over, her collapsible baton clattering out of it, rolling onto the table.

“I had them lying around!” Isobel protested but was distracted by the baton--black with a rubber handle, folded up it was barely seven inches. “What’s that?” Isobel asked, tilting her head a little.

“Oh. A baton.” She hummed, picking it up and with a quick flick of her wrist, it extended. Sixteen inches of pure steel.

“I would have figured you’d be all about the guns, considering your line of work,” Isobel said, holding her hand out to look at it.

Maria hummed. “I like having a less lethal option. If I can avoid killing I will.”

“I guess if chupacabra charges you, you’d rather not put it down,” Isobel said after a moment, twirling it around in her hand.

She was surprisingly graceful with it. Maria made a mental note for a Christmas gift, if they were going to keep being friendly. But she couldn’t help but tease her, anyway, “Did you get those skills from marching band or your reign as Little Miss Roswell?”

“Neither.” Isobel snorted and Maria grinned, enjoying her annoyance. “Maybe I should save the face masks and mimosas for someone less snarky,” Isobel added tartly, but she was grinning.

“Like who? Michael?” Maria snorted and they both laughed. Isobel handed the baton back and she collapsed it before returning it to her purse.

Maria took another sip from her glass before asking carefully, “did your brother say anything else about it?” About the kiss, maybe? But Michael didn’t seem the kiss and tell type. Even after the night with Alex, Michael had just been grumpy and defensive without sharing any details.

Isobel hesitated, looking at her, curiously. And Maria felt herself grow a little bit suspicious.

“Not really,” Isobel finally said, “Just that you were shaken. He said something about a haunting?”

Maria let out a breath, a shaky laugh. “Yeah. It was a really weird night. Bioluminescent mushrooms that whispered, and more ghosts than I could shake a stick at.”

Isobel looked a little awkward. Not at all as surprised as Maria would have expected. Isobel’s smile faltered, slipped, entirely when she looked at Maria. Maria assumed she was trying to reign in the incredulousness for her benefit. “Wait, you’re being serious?”

Maria nodded, dropping onto the couch. She drained her glass. “Ugh. Do you have anything stronger?”

“Oh no, you are not passing out drunk this early,” Isobel said, tartly, and poured her more champagne. “Tell me about the ghosts. I figured you’d be fucking ecstatic about getting proof. You’re a ghost hunter.”

“We didn’t get any proof,” Maria replied.

“But you… saw ghosts,” Isobel prompted.

Maria nodded but still felt reluctant to talk about it. She knew she should. Especially if she wasn’t going to talk to Alex yet. Her head had been spinning for hours. Sleep had eluded her, trying to make sense of everything she’d seen that night in the desert. Trying to make sense of what she continued to call ghosts, but what she was more and more starting to believe was something else entirely… something more like visions.

Maria looked at Isobel, trying to decide whether or not she should open up to her. They weren’t exactly friends, not the weekly dinner and drinks types. But they talked. Mostly about Isobel’s shady ass husband and her overbearing brothers…. her fears that she couldn’t trust her own mind.

And didn’t Maria know something about that now?

Maria fiddled with her glass, tried not to down it all in one go. “Did Michael tell you I’m sensitive?” Maria asked and Isobel frowned at her.

“That’s not exactly the word I’d use to describe you, DeLuca,” Isobel replied, blandly.

So that was a no.

Maria rolled her eyes. “I don’t mean like that. Like--” she groaned internally, hating to use the term-- “psychic.”

“Like crystal balls?” Isobel started to laugh. “And palm readings?” Maria frowned and kicked her foot, but Isobel just continued laughing and responded teasingly, “maybe you are sensitive.”

“I mean I pick up feelings. Mostly about people. How they’re feeling. Like when they’re lying,” she said, giving Isobel a pointed look, which did seem to sober her up some. Maria took a drink from her glass before folding her arms across her chest, irritated.

“And?” Isobel asked.

“And what?” Maria snapped.

“You’re psychic and you saw ghosts,” Isobel prompted. “There’s more to the story or Michael wouldn’t have sounded so worried about you.”

Maria didn’t know what to do with Michael’s concern, wasn’t sure if it stoked or smothered her irritation. She wasn’t the type of person who handled other people’s concern well (she flat out dismissed it coming from anyone but her mom or Alex) but that Michael cared enough about her that he was concerned….

Maria hid a smile with her glass. Ignored the way warmth bloomed in her chest.

Isobel was looking at her with interest, and no small amount of amusement. For the first time ever, Maria thought she knew what it was like to be on the other side of someone supernaturally perceptive. It was fucking weird and she was a hundred percent sure she didn’t like it.

Clearing her throat, Maria took a measured sip of her drink.

“If you don’t tell me about these ghosts, I’m going to start asking you questions about Michael.”

Maria sputtered. “There’s nothing--” she started, but Isobel was raising an eyebrow. Knowingly.

“Ugh. Fine. I mean it really isn’t that big of a deal. I was out there, just messing around with the equipment with Alex. And I mean, things were weird. Stuff was getting blown over, all our electronics were going crazy…” She trailed off at a flash of what felt like exasperation and irritation, maybe even anger from Isobel. But it didn’t feel directed at her.

Maria twisted her fingers in her necklace a little. It was doing a good job of muffling her abilities.

Patty had told her never to take it off, that things would be too much without it. And sure, Maria hadn’t always listened to her, had taken it off here and there from time to time, but boy did she regret not having it for Carlsbad.

“Yeah, I heard from Michael,” Izzy was saying and Maria forced her thoughts to the present.

Ok. That felt true, as far as Maria could tell, but Isobel was still exasperated and annoyed. “I’m sorry you went through that. It sounds horrible. I promise, I’m not judging you,” she added seriously when she caught Maria staring at her, eyes narrowed, trying to understand what she was feeling.

“Did you get all the credulous genes in the family?”

“Not genetically related, remember?” Isobel waved a hand.

Maria half-laughed, conceding the point. But she didn’t say anything -- didn’t even know where to begin.

“So, anyway, I’m confused,” Isobel began again when Maria didn’t immediately start talking. The way Isobel spoke was careful, probably trying to make sure she didn’t offend her again. Maria didn’t like it. Didn’t like to be treated with kid gloves. “Everything that happened was undeniable--the cars breaking down, the machines turning on and getting blown around. Everyone saw it happen and looking for weird phenomena is what you do for a living. Why are you all stressed out?”

“I’m not stressed out.” Maria was aware she sounded a little mulish.

Isobel rolled her eyes. “Well, something’s going on with you. You’re all closed off and twisted up.”

Maria was surprised. Isobel was sounding more and more like her by the moment. And suddenly there was something in Isobel’s expression that indicated to Maria that she realized she said too much. But that couldn’t be right?

Isobel Evans, like her brother, was incredibly hard for Maria to get a good read on. It was fucking annoying.

“It’s all in your body language,” Isobel explained, a little hurriedly, as if picking up on Maria’s surprise, suspicion. “Arms crossed over your chest--that’s defensive behavior. And you look like you haven’t slept either. What has Alex said?”

“Alex is my partner, not my minder.”

“I didn’t say that. That, by the way, is more defensive behavior.”

“Since when are you a therapist?”

Isobel shrugged. “I’ve been reading. Trying to get some clarity on a few things. Anyway, spill.” She shoved Maria gently.

A soft sigh escaped Maria. “I don’t know that I saw ghosts… I think I might have had a vision.” It felt good spitting that out. No more pussyfooting around. Bring it out and look it in the light.

Isobel’s eyebrows drew together. “A vision?” Maria had expected more shock… but then Isobel hadn’t exactly been acting like Maria expected.

Maria nodded. “Ghosts don’t make any sense. And there was a lot that was similar, but there was a lot that was different, too.” She wasn’t a poet, couldn’t convey clearly the way the world would shift from night to day. How it felt like the world had been run through an Instagram filter--too blue, too shiny, too rounded at the edges. “Like sure, the spirit box and the EMF reader were going crazy, but there weren’t any cold spots. And it was like I was walking into a conversation, not being visited. It felt like… like time traveling.”

“A conversation?” Isobel asked, prodding gently.

“Yeah. My grandmother was there, but she was young and she was talking to this guy -- honestly, he looked half-dead.” She hesitated, sipping her drink. “He was telling her that there was a problem she couldn’t ignore,” Maria explained. “And she was telling him to trust her. And there was this sense of urgency. Like maybe they were running out of time or they were scared of something.” Maria flopped back against the couch, frustrated. Wishing she could know more. But also wishing the opposite, that she’d never seen any of this.

Isobel was quiet for a long moment. “Maybe,” she started, “if this is a vision, there’s something about your family’s past you’re supposed to know? Something connected with those caves?”

“Maybe.” Maria shouldn’t find that thought somewhat terrifying, considering that she’d been after answers of her own even longer than Alex had been trying to find the truth about his family. “But I dunno, the guy floated a bag through the air, and that felt pretty ghost-like to me.” Everything was still so confusing. There was something she was missing but she couldn’t for the life of her figure out what it was.

Frustrated, she groaned and scrubbed her hands over her face.

Isobel’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry, he did what?” And the emotion coming off her was so complex, Maria couldn’t parse it if she’d tried.

But dammit, she did want to try. For the last thirty six hours Maria had been confused and lost, she was fucking sick of it. Maybe it was Alex’s impatience, infecting her. Maybe it was just that there was so much she didn’t know about her own family and her past, even after a decade of working with Alex. She was sick and tired of being confused, of not knowing, her powers leashed and vision fuzzy.

Getting up, she walked to the kitchen--ostensibly to cut off a piece of quiche, but what she really wanted was to take off her necklace without being noticed. Even still, it took her a moment to screw up the courage to slip it off. She wasn’t exactly scared of what she might see, but it was so much easier not to be the person who had fucking visions. But that was who she was and Maria was never about running away from her truth.

She turned around to look at Isobel, the ebb and flow of her feelings clearer now. If Maria thought unleashing her abilities would answer all her questions, she was very much mistaken. Maria just found herself with more questions.

Isobel was worried about a secret coming out? But what the hell secret could be tied to Maria seeing her grandmother?

“He just stuck his hand out in the air and floated Grandma Patty’s bag into it like he was a fucking magician,” Maria explained, hoping she could tease more clarity out of this conversation. “Not really something a person does.”

“No.” Isobel’s voice was quiet. Her whole vibe was careful, in the same way Guerin was, sometimes. What the hell? “Definitely not a human ability. Must be ghosts, I think.”

And that? That was a lie.

Maria frowned, deciding to push. Isobel wasn’t Guerin, she didn’t have to handle her with kid gloves. She needed to be careful, but it wasn’t the same dynamic.

Maria moved back to the couch, to Isobel. “You know, it wasn’t just my grandmother I saw out there.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw Max, too.” It came out unnecessarily blunt, Maria realized. She almost backtracked. But how do you make that sound better?

Isobel’s upturned nose flared a little. On the defensive and shocked but she was very good at keeping her face neutral. Every inference Maria made now was from the emotions she was picking up. “I’m assuming you mean something other than the fact that he was there, helping you.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Different clothes. Different time of year. And funny enough, he just seemed menacing, for lack of a better word.”

Isobel’s eyebrows drew together. Confused. Disturbed. And she wavered between facing Maria and drawing away. Maria thought she would argue, it felt like that was the decision Isobel was going to make but then, strangely, she felt like she was emotionally retreating before her aura just disappeared. Maria was horrified by the emptiness she felt from Isobel. She started to move towards her, just to make sure she was alive and then it was like something reformed in her. No, emerged?

Maria gripped her champagne glass and suddenly wished she hadn’t downed so much, so quickly.

“Max? Menacing?” Isobel said, lightly, leaning back against the couch, elbow on the arm of it, cheek resting on her upturned fist. She crossed her right leg, swinging it a little. Up and down. And she looked at Maria, her smile just a little too crisp. “Please, he’s about as menacing as a lab puppy.”

Maria frowned, at the immense difference she felt. Isobel could be guarded and sarcastic but she had a softness to her that was undeniable, a kindness. She was achingly lonely but determined. Maria felt none of that now and it was strange because she was seeing Isobel but if she closed her eyes? She would have sworn it was someone else.

Slaughter Canyon may have left Maria feeling unbalanced and stressed, but she was clear headed. And her instincts were still sharp. Maria knew she had to trust those instincts. Whoever she was talking to now, was not the same person she’d been seconds ago.

The truth of it left Maria feeling deeply unsettled and also like she was in danger. Danger was something she could handle though.

“I guess you’re right,” Maria said, pushing her awareness out again, seeking Isobel’s emotions. But all she was met with was absence. Like there was a wall blocking her.

“Anyway. Why don’t you tell me about all the spooky stuff you and my brother are up to. Find any more proof of aliens?” not-Isobel asked, with an airy wave of her hand.

Maria set her champagne glass down, carefully. Whatever was going on here, she needed to tread carefully. Whoever, whatever she was talking to definitely wanted to pump her for information.

Good thing Maria was no stranger to an interrogation.

Forrest didn’t have an interview set up for them. Instead, he had gotten them into an alien abduction support group. Because that was a thing, apparently, and it was exactly what Michael would have expected from a room full of people who thought they’d been abducted. Mostly middle aged and above women in florals and frumpy sweaters, a couple of guys who looked like accountants, and a few more who looked like they subsisted on weed and Cheetos. But god, he had underestimated how much they could talk. Nor did he anticipate how weirdly horny they would be.

“I mean it was terrifying. But I was transfixed.”

“On his face?”

“On his abs. The dude is jacked and he is not afraid to show off the work he put in.” The woman paused, fanning herself a little. “I mean if it hadn’t been so creepy, I might have shown him a good time, if you know what I mean…”

Michael, unfortunately, did know what she meant. And honestly, he wished he’d sneaked some booze in his coffee.

Another voice cut in.

“He didn’t say anything. But it felt like he was reading my mind.” One of the accountant types.

“How so?” Alex was asking, and he was taking notes, as if any of this was worth anything.

“His stare was very piercing. I think he was judging me worthy. Special.”

“...Worthy?” Alex frowned, confused but also wary, Michael could see. He was getting better at reading Alex.

“For abduction. Yeah, I know that sounds strange but… it’s not like Santa Fe is short on people. Something about me drew him. Each time.”

“Each time?”

“I’ve been abducted eleven times by the lizard people.”

“Oh my God,” Michael couldn’t help but groan. Alex not-so-subtly kicked him.

“Look, I know it sounds crazy when he mentions lizard people,” said a woman, the youngest of the group by at least a decade. Her hair was parted into two long braids that hung over her shoulders. “But they’re actually a race of shapeshifting aliens. They can look however they want.”

“And sometimes they forgo the lizard suits for an eight pack?” Michael asked, dryly. Clearly Alex didn’t think he was adding to the interrogation -- no, interview -- because he shot him a dirty look.

Not that the sarcasm landed, because Pigtails just nodded vigorously. “Yeah!”

“And you know this how?” Michael probably should learn by now not to engage.

“Because he’s also the Mothman.” Because of course he was.

“He’s not the mothman, Carol!” said the Lizard Men’s favorite abductee.

“Well, I mean, they’re both definitely on the protein,” Alex said dryly. Michael snorted, amused. And yes, Michael did remember seeing that weirdly jacked Mothman statue when he was doing debunking research on Point Pleasant.

The horny one from earlier perked up. “Oh my God, he’s right!”

Alex, likely sensing that all the horniness was about to reach out-of-control levels asked, “what about his other abilities.” His voice was as close to pleading as Michael had ever heard it. Thankfully, it redirected them.

“He’s definitely telepathic.”

“Did he say anything?”

“No, he just stared.” Michael looked at the speaker. A dark haired woman who’d been quiet through most of the meeting, just drinking watery coffee and listening. “Stood right over my bed staring at me. I know you probably think I was dreaming but I have proof?”


“The bedroom door was open. I always leave it closed to keep the cats out at night.”

“And that constitutes proof?” Alex was starting to sound a little strangled, which Michael supposed was the only saving grace here. He gave it ten more minutes, max.

“I mean he didn’t leave a 20 and thank me for the good time,” she said dryly. “Look, if it were just me, I’d think yeah maybe a bad dream. But Lacey said she was chased down the block by this creep. Maureen saw him staring through her window.”

“So, you guys have a stalker.” Michael said, finally. “Not an alien. A stalker. A peeping tom creep.”

“Then he’s got a congenital disorder or something because that’s not a normal looking person,” she snapped back. “Also, there was the clicking.”

“Oh God the clicking,” groaned another woman, maybe Lacey? “It just kept getting louder and louder, it was torturous. And all the while there was this face. Big rictus grin and those beady eyes.”

“Rictus is a good word,” another woman interjected. “Just all teeth, menacing. But the eyes were cold. Calculating.”

“And you said there was a clicking,” Alex said.

Everyone nodded at once.

“I had the worst headache for days.”

“It was just so loud.”

“And it was like the louder it got the closer he came.”

So yeah, sure, this so-called alien was creepy. But he never did anything from what Michael could understand. Except for the guy with the Lizard Men problem, but that guy seemed to get visited upon by an extraterrestrial every other week and Michael wasn’t sure how he felt adding himself to the weekly visit. Ha. But yeah, obviously that guy had been on the brown acid.

Not-Isobel was interested in aliens. Maria gathered that within ten minutes of conversing with her. No matter how much she tried to shift the conversation back to her, to try and figure out who she was (dissociative personality? maybe a possession?), this person would always find a way back to little green men.

“You’ve never been so interested in aliens before Iz,” Maria said, putting it out there. Wanting to see where this would take them.

The way not-Isobel moved had a distinctly masculine flavor, not at all consistent with Isobel’s more dominant, via high femme, personality. But split personalities didn’t all manifest the same gender, if that’s what this even was.

“I mean government agents, right?” She laughed, “Men in Black. Cover ups. Gotta find the right time to ask.”

“Men in Black are aliens,” Maria said.

“You know this because you’ve met them?” Her eyes didn’t gleam with the same kind of interest seen in civilians obsessed with the paranormal. She was looking for confirmation. There was a kind of tension that Maria usually felt when someone didn’t want something confirmed.

“I know this because the US government isn’t that good at keeping secrets,” she deflected, with a laugh. “Or did you not pay attention in school?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think you’d be surprised.”

Maria raised an eyebrow. “I get the feeling that you know something about cover ups.”

“I know your husband’s ex-military, Air Force,” she said it like Maria should be surprised that Isobel knew that. “The Air Force covered up Roswell.”

When Maria just frowned at her, she offered, “and Area 51.”

“Established by the CIA during the Cold War to create a reconnaissance aircraft that could enter Soviet airspace undetected,” was Maria’s canned response. The strangeness of this conversation put her teeth on edge. As good as Maria was at dealing with interrogations, she had no experience with this kind of scenario. It did not help that years of working the most weird and mysterious cases made her feel like this was more than just spit personality. As much as she wanted to hold on to more logical explanations, this felt so very far from anything reasonable and sensible.

Isobel waved her hand dismissively. “C’mon Mari, spill secrets. Tell me all about it. The little green men. Or are they grey?”

That felt less like a request and more like a demand. But Isobel’s voice remained calm and she was still drinking her mimosa placidly. Maria suddenly was reminded of the snake from the Jungle Book. It was the way Isobel worked so hard to retain eye contact, her words slow and steady -- hypnotic.

Heartbeat picking up, Maria found herself slipping her hand into her pocket, wrapping her hand tightly around her necklace, taking a little comfort in it before slipping it out and trying to put it on nonchalantly. “Haven’t seen reliable evidence of either. Though the extraterrestrial conspiracy of lemurs was grey and black?” Maria’s senses were immediately muffled but even so she got frustration, annoyance, as if Maria wasn’t behaving in some kind of expected manner.

Isobel’s eyes sharpened. Landing on the necklace as it rested on Maria’s skin. “Lucky charm?” She asked, with what felt like forced nonchalance.

“Something like that,” Maria said, uncomfortable with the scrutiny and the way that Isobel’s eyes still rested on it. Hot. Angry.

"I suppose...." Isobel started, raising her eyes up to Maria's face again, refocusing. “I shouldn’t be surprised you won’t tell me if you’ve found anything interesting,” she said, with forced casualness that seemed to be papering over barely-restrained fury.

“I mean I told you about Max,” Maria countered, keeping her head level.

“You did,” Isobel said and though she just smiled at her, foxlike, Maria felt her emotions change with whip-like speed, into something like bubbling excitement. Maria regretted letting herself get spooked enough to put her necklace back on. She wanted to know more because why would Isobel feel like she’d won some kind of prize right now?

Maria had been so perplexed, she almost missed when Isobel said, “Weren’t you tripping balls on mushrooms in the desert?"

Maria had to suppress the sudden urge to get angry, defensive. This wasn’t in character, for one. A few minutes ago, Isobel had been teasing, too but there was no playfulness here, no actual affection. This was an interrogation tactic. This was an attempt to get Maria off balance. She let out a slow breath. Focus. Treat this like a case.

“We didn’t eat the mushrooms,” Maria said, blandly, or as much as she could manage. “Honestly, something about them seemed inedible.”

“Yes, because they’re not,” Isobel said with a certainty that surprised Maria. Isobel shook her head, seemingly exasperated. She turned her body a bit, away from Maria, as if she was done with her. It was so fucking offensive, Maria’s jaw clenched momentarily before she calmed herself down again. Isobel has never been so infuriating. “Max and mushrooms. It could be perfect...”

“Perfect?” she prompted, confused.

Not-Isobel seemed deep in thought, not responding. Instead, she mused to herself, “that can’t be right though. She would have been found….”

“Who would have been found?” Maria demanded.

“Everything is moving too slowly,” Isobel said, annoyed. For a moment, she glanced at Maria, calculating.

“Meaning...?” Maria asked, frowning. It would be an understatement to say that statement felt ominous.

“Ask Michael,” Isobel said.

“What?” Maria was starting to feel like a broken record. Isobel looked at her with so much frustration.

“Why did I assume subtlety would work?”

“Ok, you’re going to be a little less snide and a lot more clear starting now, Becky.”

But not-Isobel didn’t say anything, just leaned back against the couch, as if suddenly exhausted.

“Who’s she?” Maria pressed again, shoving Isobel’s shoulder, angry. But she was completely ignored, Izzy’s eyes closed. Looking almost unconscious. “Hey!” Maria demanded, reaching out to shake her shoulder.

Isobel gasped. “What?”

“Iz…” That was her. This was actually Isobel. There was no trace of the other… No, not personality. This didn’t have that flavor. But the other option was possession and she was not quite ready to accept that yet.

Isobel was staring at her, eyes wide and a little terrified, and Maria could sense the dread and realization coming off her in waves, sweeping away Maria’s anger and replacing it with concern.

I just feel like I keep missing time,” Isobel had confided, voice small and scared. She seemed small and scared now too.

“I… have a headache,” she said, sounding a little breathless. Upset. “I think you should go.”

“Hey Isobel, no,” Maria started, resting her hand on her arm. “Are you okay?”

Isobel shook her head, tried to shore up her strength. Even with her necklace on, Maria could easily sense Isobel erecting walls around herself. “No, this was fun. But you should go. Now.”

Maria frowned at her. “You can’t just--”

Isobel’s jaw tightened. Anger overtaking her fear. “I can and I will. Get out!”

Maria nodded, going to get her purse, her baton, sometimes you needed to know when to retreat. Looking back at Isobel once more before she stepped out the door. And the fear, the stress on Isobel’s face was going to haunt her.

Well, what’s one more ghost? She asked herself, dryly, as she stepped out the door.

“Look,” Michael said to Alex after they’d finally beat a hasty retreat from Wackos Anonymous, walking out to the car. “I feel really bad for those women. It does seem like there’s some weirdo running around getting off on scaring women. And honestly, the cops should get on that ‘cause sooner or later he’s not gonna be satisfied with just giving them a fright.”

“You’re probably right,” Alex started, and held up his hand before Michael could get too smug about it. “Probably. I mean, it does seem weird that this alien--”


“--or whatever he is just likes to stare at sleeping women. But the reports of telepathy and the telekinesis indicate something not entirely human.”

“I think the Men in Black have better things to do than perv on women,” Michael said dryly.

Alex nodded but didn’t concede entirely. “Yeah the M.O. isn’t entirely what we would expect from an MiB or any of the other known subtypes. Could be -- what did the Greens call it? The Grinning Man?” Michael rolled his eyes but Alex ignored him, forging on. “Anyway, at the very least, I think we owe it to them to stake out the neighborhood.”

“Ugh. Fine,” Michael sighed, looking up. Night was just falling, and Alex wasn’t wrong. If they caught this guy, those people would be safer. “But you’re grabbing us more coffee.”

Alex laughed. “Deal,” he said, lightly, waving for Michael to get in the car.

They headed out to the neighborhood, to the location that Alex had pinpointed as the epicenter of the sightings. Stakeouts were, of course, boring as hell. Even with Alex there to talk about nothing really or to lightly tease. But after a while the conversation naturally lulled, the silence comfortable. It always was with Alex.

Michael tried hard not to slouch in his seat and fall asleep, eyes drifting to Alex’s hands on the steering wheel, tapping the rhythm of whatever song was stuck in his head. And suddenly, he was reminded of the solid warmth of it on his back, earlier, when confronting Noah.

Fuck he missed those hands on him. Like a lot. He was so distracted by that thought, that he almost missed Alex talking to him.

“What?” Michael blinked up at his face and Alex laughed softly at him. He was so damn pretty. It was incredibly unfair.

“Yeah, we definitely need a recharge,” Alex said. “You’re about to fall asleep.”

“‘Cause nothing is happening. We should just go home.”

“There’s a McDonald’s down the road. Probably the only thing open this late at night. Want a cheeseburger?”

Michael made a vague noise of agreement, not bothering to tell him that heavy foods were probably just going to put them to sleep faster. It wouldn’t change his mind about leaving. Too stubborn.

“Okay. Be right back,” Alex said with a nod.

Michael breathed out a sigh of relief as Alex shut the door, heading up the street towards the McDonald’s. Closing his eyes, Michael tried to get his stupid, irrationally horny thoughts under control. It was definitely time to go out to a bar, find a distraction. A moment later, his brain reminded him what happened the last time he went out for a distraction, and honestly it was not helping the horniness situation.

He let himself drift a little, trying to push away the thoughts of Alex’s hands, his skin, his mouth. Focused on the near-silence of the night, just broken here and there by the sound of a passing car. The scent of the warm night air. And maybe he let himself slip into a little fantasy of curling up with Alex -- or maybe Maria. Just letting his hand slide over their skin, pulling them close, burying his face in a warm shoulder and breathing in...

And then, suddenly, he was bathed in light. So bright that he started, blinking his eyes open and immediately shielding them, squinting into the overwhelming whiteness. The light seemed to coalesce, birth shadow and shape. And suddenly, he was staring at a grotesque face, wide-set eyes, face twisted into a grimace, a caricature of a grin. Mouth full of teeth just too long, too many.

It felt like staring death in the face. Or it would have if… “Is that a tin foil onesie or fucking body paint?” He asked, dumbly. Dude was jacked.

The man--Michael supposed--stepped closer to the car, bending an abnormally long body over so he could look at Michael. That face was even creepier this close up. Wide set eyes. No nose to speak of. Not just bald, but completely hairless. And a smile that looked almost painfully wide. It felt so sinister.

Michael’s head was filled with a sense of amused confusion. Who are you?

“Michael,” he answered, too startled to do anything else. “Who are you?”

There was a strange, screeching, nails-on-chalkboard feeling that settled in his bones. He got the feeling that it was meant to be laughter. Indrid Cold. You are looking for me?

Michael blinked. What the fuck. “Uh…” He started, a little dumbly, sitting up straighter in the seat. “Yeah. Apparently, you’ve been perving on a bunch of people? Breaking into their houses to watch them sleep?”

Surprise. Amusement. Ah. Is that not acceptable? You live among them more than I do.

“Where do you live?”

I could show you…

“Pass,” Michael said quickly, absurdly thinking of that guy from earlier. The one frequently kidnapped by lizard men. Guess that guy’s story was becoming more credible by the second. “No, no. I’m on the clock.”

You could bring your pet human? I could introduce him to mine?

What the fuck. What the fuck. “Wh… Are you kidnapping people?” Michael frowned at him… at Indrid Cold. “You realize you’re not supposed to keep humans as pets.”

Perhaps not. But they are adorable, Cold said, not answering the question.

Adorable?” Michael echoed, bewildered. That was not the adjective he was expecting.

Cold hummed in agreement. They make so much noise.

Michael got the sense that Cold thought he should be agreeing with him. And it struck him that Cold knew what Michael was, or what he wasn’t, because at least in that, they were the same…

Michael shuddered a little.

They’re entertaining. Indrid Cold straightened for a minute, leaving Michael face to face with his abs. Eight of them, chiseled to perfection. This close up Michael could tell he was wearing some kind of bodysuit, the material nothing he’d ever seen before. But he couldn’t think about it for long because Michael noticed that Cold was twisting, looking toward the McDonald’s.

It seems yours is coming back. I shall go.

“Yeah hey, do me a solid and lay off the creeping,” Michael said, getting ahold of himself long enough to say that.

Indrid seemed amused, leaning down again to look through the window. I suppose. I’ll see you again, Michael. Perhaps next time we can have dinner.

God this was so fucking weird. “Sure, fine. Just don’t watch me while I sleep, you weirdo,” he said, and tried really hard not to wonder what he meant by dinner.

That horrible twisted metal sound again, mixed with an odd, deafening clicking sound. And then light flooded the area. Darkness and silence fell again soon after.

Michael stared out into it for a heartbeat, two (or possibly longer, time felt strangely disjointed) when the door opened, and he practically jumped out of his skin. “Fuck me, Manes.”

Alex froze, eyes wide. Probably confused by Michael’s colossal overreaction. “Hey. Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Michael started, nodding, just trying to breathe and calm the fuck down. “I was just talking…” He trailed off. No way. No way did that actually just happen.

“Talking?” Alex asked, sliding into the driver’s seat and handing him a burger and coke. Michael took the items slowly, still processing.

“No, I mean, I just saw--” Michael cut himself off again. Shaking his head, trying to clear out the cobwebs.

Something must have shown on his face though, because Alex lost the tense and worried lines in his face.

“Oh my god, Guerin, did you just have an experience?” Alex asked with a grin that was downright mischievous.

“N...” Michael started, narrowing his eyes as Alex started grinning even wider. “No. I dozed off. Had a weird dream. All that bullshit you insisted on listening to on the way up got in my head.” And that’s what it was, right? That’s all it could have been. Right?

Alex looked calculating, curious. And just no.

Seriously Alex, it was just a weird dream. I mean you didn’t see a UFO fly off, did you?” He waved at the window for emphasis.

Alex relaxed and just laughed, grabbing some fries. He looked at Michael before stuffing his face, eyes glittering with his amusement. “You know if you got abducted, we’d save you right?”

“Could you shut up?” Michael shoved at him. “I’m not getting abducted.”

After all, he thought to himself. Can’t be an alien abductee when you’re an alien abductee. Then it’s just going home.

“You say that now, Guerin. You say that now.” Alex grabbed his phone, hitting play again on that damned podcast.

“A wraith. An apparition of a living person. A spirit doubled. Double walker. Double goer. Doppelganger. Not to be confused with a deadringer--people who look uncannily alike. A doppelganger is more sinister. But its true intent is a mystery. Some believe their goal is to replace their counterpart--you or I. Others believe it is an omen of death. Whatever the case may be seeing your doppelganger is a known death sentence--as experienced by Catherine the Great and Abraham Lincoln. Today on Greener on the Outerside, we’ll be exploring the doppelganger and its links to projects at the Department of Energy. But first a word from our sponsors…”

Chapter Text

Michael stared at the body bag on the gurney, wishing desperately that he were anywhere else. Doing anything else.

“Guerin, I'm sorry. They just brought him in. We don’t have a cause of death yet, but…” Kyle’s voice had been cracked, awkward. He’d looked like he wanted to be anywhere else. Michael did too. Possibly on one of the infinite alternate universes where this wasn’t happening. 

Focus, Michael. He breathed, closing his eyes. Focusing on his senses in an effort to bring himself back to the here and now, even if it sucked. 

He could feel the tightness in his shoulders, the hollow in the pit of his stomach. He breathed in slowly, expanding his awareness.  

The morgue was cold, frigid even. Too bright and strangely loud. Every movement and word echoed eerily. He could hear papers being shuffled, a couple of MEs talking about the shitty lunch place they’d visited while they stood over a corpse. Maria and Alex behind him, quiet and close. Their presence was weirdly comforting.

How the fuck did this happen?

Ten hours ago, everything was fine. Max had been texting him questions about engines for the book he was working on, and Michael had been giving him shit back. They had been fine. Brothers. And then he’d come in for work, like usual. He and Alex sniped back and forth about cryptids while Maria, thankfully back in the office too, was listening with amusement. They were supposed to be researching a couple potential cases--chupacabra and werewolves. And all he’d been thinking was that his life was ridiculous, and he kind of loved it?

But then Kyle came in, strangely hesitant. His eyes on Michael, voice kind as he broke the news. Max was somehow on a slab. Time smeared into a kind of weird, surreal blur, everything moving both too fast and too slow, but he was frozen, unable to even get his lungs to pull in air. 

Frozen until Alex grabbed his shoulder, voice filled with concern as he gently repeated something that Kyle had said. They needed an ID.

No time to try to reach out for Max with Michael’s limited senses, no time to even text Isobel -- what the fuck would he even say? How could he ever begin to explain to her when nothing made any fucking sense to Michael either. 

A breath. Focus. 

The body bag was Max-sized, slate grey, resting innocuously on a slab. Michael couldn’t think. He swallowed.

He needed to give an ID. Get the case moving, if there was going to be a case.

And that thought unleashed a wave of fresh panic.

“Take your time. Whenever you’re ready.” Maria’s voice cut through soft, gentle. Concerned. Michael hated it as much as he wanted to bury himself in it. That fucking made no sense. It didn’t matter. He stared at the slab, his stomach clenching. 

Michael took a deep breath, steadying himself. Squeezing his fists tight enough for his nails to bite into the flesh of his palms. The pain was good. Grounding. Michael wished he could hit something. 

“Yeah. I’m ready.”

Kyle nodded and unzipped the bag, and it sounded like a gunshot.

The face he revealed was far, far too familiar, and Michael felt like he’d been punched in the gut. He stared at him for several breaths. Unable to form the words. 

Yes, that’s him. That’s Max.

Michael suppressed the urge to run a hand over Max’s hair. It was shorter than he remembered. Shorter than Max usually kept it. Michael frowned. Max usually told him about mundane shit like haircuts. Looking at him more closely, Michael searched for that familiar scar on Max’s temple. It wasn’t there. And he looked somehow younger. His cheeks a little rounder, skin just a tiny bit smoother.

“The hell...” he said, softly. Keeping presence of mind enough not to impatiently use his TK to roll Max over. “Valenti, I need to see his shoulder. Help me.”  

Kyle looked startled, but he didn’t argue or question Michael. Aside from nagging Michael to put on gloves first before helping roll the body onto its side. Michael took a long hard look at the back of his shoulder.

Completely blank. No tattoo, no three-spoked crop circle to provoke even more questions from Alex.

“It’s not Max.” Michael’s hands dropped on the gurney to brace himself, dizzy with relief.

Suddenly burdened with the body, Kyle practically yelped, the thing slipping out of his hands and hitting the gurney with a solid thump. “What?” Kyle looked startled. 

“Max has a tattoo. Back of his shoulder.” Michael pulled the gloves off, tossing them in a trash can, hands still shaking a little. Unable to fully sink into the relief that it wasn’t Max. He still looked like Max dead on a slab, making it harder to shake off the residual terror. “Whoever this is…”  

“Isn’t Max,” Alex filled in. He hesitated for a moment before reaching to squeeze Michael’s arm, and Michael leaned into it, into the warmth and strength of Alex’s grip, his presence, their bullshit be damned. Alex didn’t move his hand away, drew it up instead to rest between Michael’s shoulder blades. 

“Twins maybe?” Maria was asking. “I know you were adopted.”  

“I mean, I doubt it…” Michael started, then trailed off. Looking back at the body. That couldn’t be possible, could it? 

Fucking hell. There were too many questions. Too many points of exposure. And it was hard to think in this fucking morgue.

Not for the first time in so many months he felt like his secret was on the precipice of being revealed. And it just.... it was hard to think.

“I need to,” Michael began, pulling away from Alex. He didn’t want to. He just wanted to bury his face in him, anchor himself within the solace of Alex’s arms, the scent of his aftershave. Needed that physical comfort. With it he could pull himself together. But he couldn’t do that. There were too many reasons why he couldn’t do that.

“I need to breathe.”

He made it down the mostly empty hall when he heard the clack-clack of high heels following behind him. He turned to find Maria quickly closing the distance between them.

“Hey, I know you needed...” Maria shook her head, reaching out to rest her hand on his arm, right where Alex had been touching him. “It’s not Max. But that was still a lot. I wanted to make sure you were ok?” 

She frowned at the inadequacy of the question and started to amend it but Michael, unable to resist the need for closeness anymore, surged forward to kiss her. Just a soft press of lips, just needing her warm breath against his skin, her soft lips sliding gently against his. Something to distract him, for a moment, from the insane bullshit and the horror that was his life. 

He was terrified she would push him away. But instead, Maria cupped his face with her soft cool hands, urging him closer. He released a soft, shuddering breath against her lips and her response was to kiss him a little harder, as if sensing he needed it. She didn’t pull away either when he broke the kiss to press his nose in her hair and just breathe. Breathe until he could trick himself into thinking the world wasn’t spinning out of control, trick himself into thinking he could do this all alone. 

And god damnit, he wished he could trust these people, because he felt like he was buckling under the weight of all these secrets. They just kept piling up. One after another after another. It was getting impossible to handle.

But he needed to. He wasn’t a human FBI agent, he was an alien con with very little leverage and everything to lose.

In the end he was the one that pulled away first, ostensibly to gather himself. Michael did a shit job at it truth be told, still feeling shaky and completely out of sorts when guilt finally overrode his desire for comfort. She let him pull away but still held onto his hand.

He didn’t have the bandwidth to even feel awkward about any of it. But he had cleared up just enough mental space to try and deal with the real problem. 

Michael swallowed. “If we’re family -- can we say we don’t want an autopsy? No case? Just... a quick private funeral and a burial?” 

Maria frowned, surprised and confused by the request. “Even if he had no family, we need to know what happened to him.” 

“Why?” Michael asked, quickly. “Doesn’t look like the guy was murdered. If there’s no crime here… And anyway, Max should at least have a say before anything is done...” Michael racked his brain for a reasonable excuse to keep them from cutting that body open and finding those sparkly organs Alex had mentioned seeing in his father’s files. 

The sudden thought of Jesse Manes finding that body made his blood run cold. 

“Hey,” Maria said softly, resting a hand on his chest, gently. “Calm down, breathe.” She waited a moment before continuing. “Guys that age don’t just drop dead. It’s suspicious circumstances. But... we can ask Kyle to bump it to the bottom of his list. Take a few days to sort things out. Let you guys adjust. Maybe… I don’t know. See if you can dig up a familial connection?”  

It wasn’t good enough. Michael wanted to break things, explode every damn window in the building, wanted to pull her into his arms, kiss her again. Kiss Alex. Act like the most selfish asshole in the world. Make them hate him. But instead he breathed through the anxiety, the anger, focused on the warmth of Maria’s palm against his chest. His shirt was so damn threadbare it was like she was almost touching him. 

Okay. Plan B. If he couldn’t prevent the autopsy on the human end, he’d need to make sure there was no body to autopsy. He could get Isobel. Dead of night, snatch the body. That would work, right?

“Okay,” he said, eventually nodding.

It had to work.  

Isobel couldn’t sleep. She was exhausted, but jittery. It felt like seconds ago it had just been sundown, and now it was after midnight. Nothing but stupid reality TV and infomercials were on. But she flipped through the channels, trying to find something to fall asleep to.

To be honest, she hadn’t really been sleeping well since Noah had left those flowers.

A series of heavy knocks at her door startled her. She gripped the remote tightly. For one horrible second thought it was Noah, as if thinking about him had summoned him. But then the voice registered.

“Isobel!” Bang Bang Bang. “C’mon Isobel, open up!”

She turned off the TV, tossing the remote on the table with a little more force than necessary and got up. “Oh my god Michael you scared the shit out of me,” Isobel growled as she yanked the door open. “What the hell?”

“I need your help moving a body,” Michael said. 

Isobel stared at him. Honestly expecting that to be a joke, but Michael neither looked nor felt like he was joking. Actually, he felt kind of desperate, and more than a little frayed at the edges. It freaked her out a little, any time Michael was anything more negative than morose or angry.

“I always thought I’d be the one saying that,” she said under her breath. He might play the bad boy, but she knew how sweet he was under all that, how much he tried. 

She waved him inside and continued, “so I ask again, what the hell?” She turned toward her room so she could grab clothes that weren’t PJs. These were a favorite pair and whatever shenanigans Michael was going to involve her in, she didn’t want to ruin them.

“No wait, come here,” Michael said, grabbing her arm before she could get too far, looking nervous. Isobel frowned. She knew that look. Michael’s Isobel-is-made-of-glass face. 

She wasn’t having it. “Michael--” 

“Seriously,” Michael said. “You need to sit down for this. It just sent me through the fucking wringer.”

Bewildered, Isobel took a seat and listened. Listened to him detailing out seeing some kind of Max-clone in a fucking morgue. The minute he said that she was reaching out for Max. It was harder to feel him when they had so many miles separating them. That was one of the harder things to get used to when she moved to Albuquerque, not having the feeling of Max’s consciousness ever present in the periphery of her mind. But with a little strain she could sense him, the warmth of his awareness, familiar and comforting, pressing up against hers. He was ok. Alive. A little sleepy and befuddled by the brush of her psyche against his. She sent him a soft pulse of love and received one in return. 

“You haven’t talked to Max,” Isobel stated. It was obvious by Max’s calm that he had no idea.

Michael raked a hand through his hair, frowning. “I called him, just to, ah…”

“Hear his voice,” Isobel supplied, instead of listening to Michael try to work his words past his emotional constipation. Michael nodded, looking a little embarrassed. “I get it. I just checked to make sure he’s ok too. Even though I know I’d have felt it if he weren’t.”

“I ended up pissing him off.” Michael laughed a little, stressed and shaky. “But that was good. That body was too quiet. I needed to hear him yell at me.” 

“On brand,” she said, fondly. Reaching to rub his arm gently. She was quiet for a moment, thinking about this fucked up situation they found themselves in. Guilty from the relief that it had been that poor person and not Max. “You think… they’re one of us, somehow?”  

“I mean what the hell else? His human doppelganger?” Michael asked exasperated. “At least the Feds think he’s Max’s long lost twin. They’re giving us a little time to grieve, see if we can find the family relationship. Buys us time to do some corpse-snatching.”

Isobel blinked. Oh fuck of course that was her idiot brother’s plan. “Michael, we can’t just walk into the FBI headquarters and steal a damn body!”

“Why not?” 

“Because if you get caught, that’s a one-way ticket back to prison! Probably for good this time!” 

Michael snorted, derisively. “Prison’s better than Area 51.”

Isobel let out an exasperated noise and reached over, grabbing his hand, hoping to ground him. He needed to slow down, think things through. “Michael, could we just consider for a moment an alternative?”

He frowned, tilting his head, indicating for her to go on.  

“I think… I think you should trust Maria.” 

Isobel had been turning her conversation with Maria over in her head since it had happened. Ignoring the frankly terrifying realization that she had dissociated or whatever during it, what Maria had to say about her visions had gotten the wheels turning. Maria might not have understood what she’d seen, but Isobel did. Her grandmother, Patty, had visited a cavern full of alien technology. Had known an alien. Had helped them.  

Maybe it was selfish, wanting to really confide in a friend. But if there was ever a time for it...

For a moment, she felt him waver. He seemed so tired and scared that she almost thought that he might actually listen for once. But he shook his head, abruptly. “You think I should trust the fucking FBI, Isobel, are you hearing yourself, right now?” Michael’s voice hit a note that she was tempted to call hysterical. 

“Not the FBI. Maria,” she responded, trying to keep her head and voice level. It really sucked having to be the level headed one in this situation. “Look, Michael, I just… have a feeling.” 

“Oh, you have a feeling,” he said, sarcastically. “Fuck that. They want to do an autopsy, Isobel. If they cut him open and find--”

“Ok ok. I get it,” Isobel groaned. Michael was fucking mulish. But maybe he was right. Besides, Max would probably never forgive her if she told someone. She stood up. “Let me slip into something more appropriate for a felony.” 

Barely ten minutes later, and she’d gotten on jeans and a grey hoodie, pulled her hair back into a braid, and tucked it into the neck of it. 

She couldn’t believe she was going to add corpsenapping to her resume. But she wasn’t going to let Michael do this alone, and she wasn’t going to do this sloppy.

They barely exchanged a half dozen words as she drove them to the FBI headquarters. Michael didn’t talk much when he was this stressed out, and she didn’t much feel like it either. But once she was a block away from the compound (what looked like a massive fortress to her stressed out eyes), she pulled up to the curb and reached for his arm. 

“What’s our game plan?” 

“You mind whammy them into loading the trunk,” he said, expression grim.

Isobel grimaced. “That’s a terrible plan, Michael. First of all, as you damn well know, that’s not how my powers work. Second of all, that’s going to leave some kind of trail.” 

“Well, what do you suggest then?” he asked, tightly.

Isobel let out a slow breath. “Can’t be that hard for you to get us into the building. They know you. Just say you forgot something if they ask. Then we make sure the cameras are off--”

“How’d you become a super spy?” Michael asked, with the dry sarcasm he always used as a defense mechanism.

Thankfully, they had a similar sense of humor. “How else? Movies. Anyway, you’re the one with the rap sheet for B&E.”

“Yeah not sure if you’ve noticed but the UFO Emporium is not the FBI.”

Isobel rolled her eyes but didn’t argue further. They both knew Michael was full of shit. He’d broken into more secure places than the UFO Emporium or the FBI. But she would give him this--the stakes had never been so high before. And it wasn’t just because of the prison time they’d get if they were caught.

“Anyway,” Isobel said, “Getting the body out will be harder. We probably can’t just take a stretcher out… maybe get it into a large box? File cabinet?”

“It?” Michael made a face. “That’s a person, Iz. One of us.” 

“I’m compartmentalizing,” she said, tartly. “You could stand to do some of that.” She knew he was stressed, so was she. But Michael needed to get his head in the game. Start using that genius brain to think logically.

Michael grimaced and waved for her to keep going. “There’s a security gate we’ll need to get through before we can get into the parking lot proper. Just roll down the window and let me talk.”

Isobel nodded. She could see the guard shack as they drew closer. It was white and pretty standard size--just enough room for the guard and security equipment, the gate just a barrier arm. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, hoping to keep her hands from shaking, as she slowly approached the gate. 

The barrier arm never lowered down to block their path. They came to a stop in front of the guard house, looking at it in confusion, expecting someone to come out asking for identification. The door never opened; no head poked out from the small window. She could see the lights on inside though, the flicker of surveillance screens.

“Why would it be empty?” Isobel asked.

“Beats me. I’ve never seen it empty,” Michael replied. 

“Parking lot’s completely dark too,” Isobel said after a couple of minutes just sitting there. “Is it usually this dark?” 

Michael was frowning. “No, the lights are usually on, this time of night.”  

They shared a look, uncomfortable and worried. But they couldn’t turn around now. They had to keep moving. 

“Are we going to get seen if we park in the lot?” Isobel asked, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, nervously.

Michael was quiet for a long moment, seeming to debate the question. He seemed more focused now that they were there, all his stress pushed aside for the task. “I don’t think so. Cameras aren’t that good, and there’s only a few up on the building. The burned out lights can give us extra cover too. Just park on the far end of the lot,” he said, waving to direct her.

“Okay. Here goes nothing,” she said with a nod, and drove in to find a spot. 

There were only a handful of cars scattered across the lot, confirmation of the obvious. Just a skeleton crew to deal with. 

“So. Plan is you take care of the cameras, I take care of any guards, right?” Isobel asked and Michael nodded, motioning her to follow him 

They headed through the lot to the back door that most employees entered through. Breathing through her nerves, squaring up her shoulders. She wasn’t exactly looking forward to the strain she was about to put herself through, using her powers to influence a half dozen people or more. But she was even less excited about messing with people’s heads again. It was something she had increasingly been trying to avoid, since she started losing time. Maybe she just started feeling bad for people, didn’t want them to feel the same way she did, questioning the things she saw, the things she did. 

But making guards be a little more interested in their cell phones than the two aliens walking around with a dead body wasn’t so unethical. And it was better than all of them getting carted off by men in hazmat suits. There were a lot of things Isobel Evans could make fashion, but a scientist elbow deep in her chest cavity wasn’t one of them.  

She could do this… No, she had to. 

“Yeah,” Michael confirmed. Grabbing the door to open it for her and freezing. There was no one inside. “Okay, that’s fucking weird.” 

Michael shook his head in disbelief and stepped inside, Isobel following warily. She had the strangest feeling of dread, which she chalked up to this crazy plan but… it also felt like something else. Something out of her reach. Some kind of knowledge maybe? Isobel shook her head. Keep it together, she reminded herself, firmly.

“There’s always someone here.” Michael spoke softly, upset, and she suppressed a stupid urge to squeeze his shoulder. “Two guards, at least, to run bags through the x-ray and run the metal detectors. There’s something wrong here, Iz.” 

“Maybe,” Isobel said after a moment, moving towards the security desk. “But whatever it is… it can cover us? This could be a good thing for us?” She didn’t believe it. But they needed a win.

“Yeah. Sure.” Michael nodded, pressing his lips together in a determined line. “There’s a camera.” He reached to stop her movement, before she could get too far. Isobel froze, immediately. 

“Tell me when you’ve got it disconnected?” 

“... It already is,” Michael exhaled a heavy, “what the fuck” under his breath. 

Isobel turned to him, holding his arms, steadying him -- but steadying herself, too. “This is not the time to freak out, Michael. Okay?” 

“No,” Michael agreed. “But I don’t want to get caught up in whatever is going on here.” He looked at her. “Maybe you should wait by the car?”

“Oh yeah nothing bad ever happened to a woman alone in a dark parking lot,” Isobel replied, with a little more snark than she probably needed. This was stressful. “Let’s just keep moving,” she continued, more gently. 

She moved past the metal detectors and the x-ray machines, keeping an eye out for security cameras. But she had a feeling they would all be off. 

And they were. All the cameras off, all the security gone. It was impossible to even be grateful for the quiet because it was just fucking eerie. Izzy and Michael started moving faster, an unspoken agreement that they both wanted to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible.

“Morgue’s up here,” Michael gestured at a door. Isobel let out a sigh of relief. Halfway there, right? 

The morgue was empty. Sterile, no bodies on slabs as she had irrationally expected. Too many movies. But that wouldn’t make sense, right? Decomposition. That’s why they had all those coffin-refrigerators. They would have to put all the bodies away in their little drawers every night.

Michael moved towards the cold lockers and Isobel swallowed, following. This was maybe the part she was looking forward to the least. Even if it wasn’t Max, the idea of seeing his face, pale and lifeless, was nightmarish. 

Isobel refrained from reaching out to Max for comfort. He’d be able to sense something was wrong with her. She was too stressed, the fear of whatever had made the FBI headquarters desolate and abandoned like a haunted mansion palpable. 

It took Michael a minute to look over the victim list that was kept on a clipboard, but once he did, she squeezed her eyes tightly closed as Michael opened the locker. The click echoing, feeling loud as a gunshot.

“Fuck,” Michael said softly. 

“What is it?” Isobel asked, having sudden, horrific visions of the body dissolving into a pile of green goo -- thanks, again, to terrible movies. She chewed her lip, opening one eye to look at him, but still stubbornly not looking at the body.

It’s not here.” 

“What?” Isobel demanded, finally looking towards the open locker. It was empty. No pale feet with a tag around the toe. No sheets. No goo. No nothing. “Could they have put him somewhere else?” She asked after a few beats. Completely baffled.

Michael shook his head but moved back to the clipboard, reexamining it. “It’s supposed to be there.”

“You don’t think they have it somewhere else for the autopsy?” Like Area 51.

“No, they said they wouldn’t.” He was frowning, defensive. “Maria promised. She said we’d have a couple days.” 

“Oh, now you trust her?” Isobel demanded, annoyed. Her words a byproduct of her frustration with Michael. She did think Maria was true to her word after all.  

“Yeah with non-alien secrets,” Michael snapped back. 

He was bristling. One of the metal slabs rattled a little and Isobel looked at it pointedly until he took a breath and relaxed. She decided it would be best not to bring up Maria DeLuca anymore. They couldn’t afford the distraction.

“Okay, so then it has to be somewhere. It couldn’t just get up and walk away…” She paused, looking at Michael. “Could it?”

“Alien corpses don’t zombifiy, Isobel,” Michael said dryly but there was some uncertainty. Even if they both knew it was ludicrous, they didn’t know much about themselves or their biology. Anything really was possible.

“All this shit is connected isn’t it?” Isobel stated, motioning around her, referring to the dead cameras, the missing personnel.

“I really want to say no. I want to say that Kyle just… misfiled the body.” 

“But you don’t believe that. You think someone else took it,” Isobel said. She didn’t need to ask, she knew the answer. But she did anyway, stupidly hoping that he’d give an answer that wasn’t goddamn terrifying. 

“Seems like it," Michael said grimly. "We better get out of here.”

Isobel stared at the empty locker for another long minute before she nodded. “Yeah. Rather not be in the vicinity when this shit is discovered.” 

“Let’s go get a fucking beer,” Michael drawled, tugging her away with gentle hands.

Isobel snorted. Letting him. She needed out of this house of horrors. “I swear that is your solution for everything."

“First of all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Michael said, shrugging. “Second of all, I need a beer to talk about the possibility of there being more aliens around.”

Isobel stopped in her tracks, breath caught in her throat. “You think there are other… other survivors?” She’d been so busy worrying about humans that it hadn’t even crossed her mind. But it tracked with all the things they’d seen tonight still... it was so hard to believe. For so long it had just been the three of them. 

For so damn long. So, if there were others, where the fuck had they been hiding? 

Michael looked at her. She could see uncertainty, confusion, anger and maybe even a little hope on his face. A mirror of her own feelings. 

“Well, it ain't the Men in Black,” Michael finally replied, defaulting to anger. He turned and headed out the door.

Sighing, she followed. “We’re going to need something stronger than beer.”

Maria woke up to Alex’s phone, ringing incessantly. She groaned. Trying to put a pillow over her head, but Alex’s ringtone could wake the damn dead. It was way too early in the morning for whoever that was, she thought, dragging herself out of bed, grabbing a robe and heading across the hall to Alex’s room.

Her husband was, predictably, passed out. Maria wasn’t a morning person, but Alex put her to shame. But this… this was probably about staying up all night researching because it was better than staying up all night worrying about Michael. He’d been angsty all goddamn night. A few times it almost seemed like Alex was going to put on his prosthetic and jacket and head over to the airstream. Honestly a part of her regretted he hadn’t. A bigger part regretted that she hadn’t.

She grabbed his phone, looking at the caller ID. Kyle. 

“What?” She answered it, shortly but keeping a rein on her temper. He wouldn’t be calling this early if it weren’t important. 

“The body. Evans’... doppelganger. It’s gone.” 

Maria blinked, processing that.

“How? Who?” She asked, as soon as the words formulated themselves. “Jesse?”  

“That’s the weird thing,” Kyle said. “There’s nothing. No security footage, no scanned badges, no reports of a bunch of uniformed airmen marching down the halls. No one noticed anything out of the ordinary. It just disappeared, somehow.”

Maria let out a slow breath, and nodded, starting to nudge Alex awake. “Okay. Keep digging. We’ll be in soon.” 

When Alex stayed stubbornly with his head under the pillow, she shook him harder.

Maria,” he snarled at her, grabbing the pillow and swinging with it. “I am no longer in the military and there is no such thing as a ghost emergency.” 

“But there is, apparently, such a thing as a ghost-napping,” she said, dodging the pillow easily. “Get up, my love. Someone stole our John Doe from the morgue.” She paused, letting Alex jerk awake, already looking furious and upset. She held up her hand. “Not your dad, this time, so that’s new and different.”

“Great.” He groaned in pure, tortured frustration. “Make me some damned coffee, then.” He sat up, rubbing at his eyes and reaching for his crutch.  

“You’re lucky you’re cute. Cause morning Alex’s manners are atrocious,” she said dryly. But she couldn’t really blame him. Mornings made Alex grumpy, and this news wasn’t exactly going to mitigate that.   

Forty-five minutes later Alex was sitting in front of his computer, Maria and Kyle flanking him and watching security footage.

What was left of it, anyway. Half the damn cameras in the building had been broken. But it was seeming like their best shot since none of the personnel remembered anything amiss that night.  

“What are you all staring at?” Michael’s voice broke into their concentration. He was here way too early, she noted. But she supposed it made sense. Attributed it to the stress of a John Doe who looked like his brother.

Maria let out a breath, turning to him. “Hey. You okay?” He looked exhausted. Haunted. Maria wanted to pull him into a long hug and then send him right back to bed, not tell him that his brother’s doppelganger's body had gone missing in the night. 

“Yeah, fine,” he said, shrugging off the concern.

“Our John Doe went missing somehow overnight,” Kyle said, eyes on Michael for a moment too. Maria could feel his concern bubbling under his calm exterior. 

Michael’s expression was unreadable, as were his emotions. He held himself tightly, both physically and emotionally, as if any slip in his control would send him spinning out. The desire to hold him just got stronger but Maria only reached out to squeeze his arm, briefly but gently. “We’ve been going over the security footage. We’re going to find whoever did it.” 

“Well, we’re not finding them on these.” Frustrated, Alex stood to get himself more coffee. “Half the cameras were out and the only one we got any footage on is the parking lot camera. No resolution on it.”

“So, we’ll work the case,” Maria said, as calmly as she could.  

“Okay.” Michael seemed subdued. “What do you want me on?”

“Stolen body is a pretty big flashing neon sign that this was actually a murder that someone’s trying to cover up,” Alex mused. “You were using facial recognition with the exploding-heart John Doe, right? Let’s try and ID this guy, at the very least. See if we can figure out if anyone in his life would have a motive.”

Michael took a breath and nodded. “On it.” 

Maria watched him all but throw himself into his desk chair, rub at his eyes and try to focus.

Unbidden, the kiss sprung to mind. Not the one in Slaughter Cave, but the one he’d pressed to her lips yesterday. It had been so soft. So needy. He’d felt so broken. He didn’t feel that way today, but… she shook her head a little, pushed away all the instincts to fuss, and turned her attention back to Alex. “I’ll keep reviewing the security footage. Alex, you want to see if there’s anything on those super-secret channels you know how to access?”

Alex grunted, sliding over to his desk, leaving the security footage for her to review.  

She tucked her hair back and turned her attention back to the video, rewinding to check the few minutes she’d missed. It was painstakingly boring, but this was the only camera that hadn’t gone suddenly and mysteriously offline for the night. 

It was mind-numbing work. She found her mind drifting, first to Michael, sitting hunched and miserable behind his computer screen and then back to that body in the morgue. The dead Max, the menacing Max in her vision, the one that was the personification of a golden retriever… Everything was swirled around and confused. The effort to reconcile the Max she’d seen in her vision with the one she’d spent all evening in the desert with was incredibly difficult. And then there was the change in Isobel the other day, which had primed her to accept that the two Maxes could be the same person.

Maria’d been a lot more wary of Max and Isobel both, ever since.

But now, she couldn’t be sure of anything. Was their missing John Doe the man in her vision?

Focus, DeLuca. The answers would come eventually, but not if she couldn’t figure out why the body was gone and who took it. 

She stared at the grainy camera footage, fast forwarding here and there. And really there wasn’t much to see, especially given that it was night. A nearly empty parking lot. Mostly nondescript cars driving in and out here and there. Some she recognized, most she didn’t. People getting out of said cars -- she recognized more of them. Most of them. But considering their ‘department’ was a bit of a black sheep in the FBI, they weren’t exactly lunch buddies.

Wait a minute...

She paused the video, squinting at it. Another man had walked into frame, paused under one of the lights -- not in uniform or a suit. From what she could make out, he was casually dressed, dark hair. Sipping coffee and just looking up at the building. A little too nonchalant.

She recognized casing behavior when she saw it.  

After several minutes, he turned toward the camera. Maria held her breath -- trying to make out anything she could use to identify him. 

The image brightened for a second, from a flare of lights, and then suddenly the image went dark. From that point on, the cameras had picked up nothing but vague shapes, an expanse of black and smudges of grey.

Are you kidding me!” Maria burst out, unable to help the frustration bubbling up. 

“What is it?” Alex was turning toward her, and she could feel Michael’s eyes on her too.  

“I don’t know, some kind of...”  She grabbed the mouse, to rewind the video. “The lighting acted up. But I think this guy…” She trailed off, advancing frame by frame until she found the clearest possible image of him. It was still grainy as all hell though. “Might be our suspect.”  

Alex was frowning. “And of course, there’s no level of detail on it. These cameras remain the worst.”

Michael was coming around the desks as well, to look, curiously. “What, you can’t enhance it or something?”

“That technology only exists in movies, Guerin,” Alex retorted, rubbing his hand over his face, either in frustration at the lack of detail or at Michael. “But at least we have basic details. General build, hair color. It’s something to go off of.”

Michael squinted at the screen. “I mean. I guess. That guy could be anyone though. I mean, put him in a line-up against, say... Noah, and there’s no way I’d be able to pick him out.”

Alex snorted. “Which is where your crack detective work is gonna come in.”

Michael groaned. “Yeah, yeah,” he waved at him, and went back to his computer

Michael was exhausted. Body snatching was a lot of damn work. Even if the body they’d gone there to snatch had already disappeared.  

There wasn’t exactly time to try and figure out who the hell else might want to steal an alien body from the FBI morgue, but Michael could only hope that working the case would get him closer to the answer. He needed FBI resources. He just wasn’t looking forward to whatever new tricks or lies he’d have to employ to keep Maria and Alex from discovering the truth. And he really hoped that he wasn’t making the wrong choice here.

He glanced over the edge of his computer screen at them, hunched over their respective computers. Alex was on his phone too, multitasking. Both serious and competent. Alex, in particular, was more focused than he’d ever seen him. 

Mysteries of the universe to uncover, right? The irony was that Alex had no idea how close he was. Michael’s skin felt tight from the stress of it. 

He was so tired of all this. All this lying, all this sneaking around. He missed his life before all this. Just being able to go to work, fix some tractors, and drink some beers. Tinker in his bunker here and there. But weirdly, he also really missed traipsing through some tick infested forest with Alex and Maria, listening to them talk about some ridiculous cryptid like there was any chance in hell of it existing. He missed teasing them and laughing. And flirting, no matter how ill-advised it might be.

He wanted to tell them. Fuck he wanted to. But the fact of the matter was Alex had too many family connections. Even if he could trust Alex, he didn’t want to put him in that position. It was too damn dangerous. And even if it weren’t, as much as he felt like he could trust them, they weren’t his friends. They weren’t damnit. They were his parole agents. It wasn’t exactly like him, to be naive or optimistic, he couldn’t take the chance, and be wrong.

So, he needed to work.

It took a while, running the facial recognition algorithms that Alex had set up for him, but eventually he got a hit on a Facebook page.

He frowned a bit, scrolling through it. The program had hit on a face in the background of a group of college kids, in what looked like an outdoor bar.

Michael just stared at it for a long moment. This person wasn’t part of this group, the camera accidentally caught him. He didn’t look like Max, not really. The face and hair were the same, but he had a beard, a bit long. Kind of hipstery. And the way he was dressed wasn’t at all like Max--white shirt and a vest, drinking a beer. 

Michael clicked through the pictures. A few more of the kids, goofing off for the camera. Pictures of their burger and fries, their craft beers, all too damn fancy. No more pictures of not-Max. No more to the story.

And there, the last picture of a beer, he could make out the etching of the bar name.

“Got something,” Michael started, grabbing a post-it, and writing it down. Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery.

“Yeah?” Alex asked, glancing up from his computer, cellphone tucked between his cheek and his shoulder. Though he was soon hanging up so he could focus on Michael. 

“John Doe in the background of a picture. Taken at a brewery in,” he paused for a moment, typing the name into google. And he shook his head in disbelief. “Santa Fe.”

“Seriously? We just got back from there!” Alex groaned, but he was already getting up to see what Michael had found.

“Guess I’m driving,” Maria said, with a soft laugh. “Let’s chase the lead down.” 

The bar was nice, if a bit too hipster for Alex’s taste. Expansive outdoor patio, full of colorful, mismatched furniture, arranged around a tree wrapped in cafe lights. It was nice. But it lacked soul. Where were the license plates and the kitschy neon signs? The antique bar taps and the carefully tended plants? No, Alex wasn’t entirely biased because his mother-in-law owned the best bar in the country. 

“This is definitely the place.” Maria was looking at the picture Michael had found on her phone. “He was sitting over… there.” She pointed at a table.

“I dunno about you two, but I could definitely go for a beer,” Michael quipped. But it didn’t have the levity of his normal jokes. He was stressed, taut like a rubber band. 

“I will treat you to a pitcher once we finish this,” Alex said, against his better judgment. They didn’t really have time to stop for a drink. But Michael deserved to be taken care of right now, no matter how dumb Alex felt for wanting to baby him. “For now, we should see if anyone recognizes him, get any leads we can.” 

“We’ll hold down the fort,” Maria said, nodding for Alex to go on. Fiddling with her necklace a little, a sign that she wanted to talk to Michael. 

Alex nodded, eyes flitting over to Michael too. He probably needed a talk. Or at least a breather. Alex could do the heavy lifting for a while. It was the best way he knew to help. “Sounds good,” he said, keeping his tone even and calm. The faster they put this case to bed, the sooner the tension would ease from Michael’s shoulders, the sooner he could relax. So, Alex needed to work faster.

Still, he couldn’t help but reach to squeeze Michael’s shoulder. Noting the way Michael looked at him, eyes soft, lost, guarded. Instead of asking any more questions, Alex thanked fuck that Maria was there, with all her emotional range, and stepped away, heading for the outdoor bar. 

A short woman, dark hair pulled back into a messy ponytail was wiping it down. She smiled at his approach. “What can I get you?” 

Alex leaned against the shiny varnished wood. “Actually, I’m looking for someone. Do you recognize this guy?” 

The bartender paused in wiping the bar down, to lean over it and look at Alex’s phone. Humming. “Oh. That guy, yeah. Comes in during our live music events for an IPA like… once a month,” she said after a minute. “At least. Good tipper. Has a dog, too. Some kind of boxer, or pit bull maybe? Good boy. Loves the treats here.” She nodded over at a jar, full of what looked like some kind of artisanal handmade treats. “He’s a nice guy.”

Alex blinked, bemused. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but that wasn’t it. “You know anything about him? A name, where he works?” Alex prodded a bit. Once a month was good news. That probably meant he either lived or worked close by. This bar was the vanguard of a gentrification wave in what used to be an industrial part of town. It was still mostly old warehouses, some of which were already being converted into open floor offices or over-priced lofts. 

She gave him an appraising look. “He in trouble?” 

“No ma’am,” Alex said, as gently as possible. “He’s dead.” He reached into his pocket, presenting his badge and ID card. “We’re just following up some leads.”

Her eyes went wide, and she sucked in a breath. “You’re serious?" she asked, looking shaken at Alex's nod. "Shit, what happened?"

"That's what we're trying to figure out," he said, patiently. "Do you know anything else about him? Name, friends even?"

She shook her head. "Just his beer choices, honestly. He’s kind of a hipster…” She let out a soft laugh when Alex glanced around the bar, eyebrow arched. “Yeah, yeah, I know. He’s... was a fan of the IPAs. Waxed poetic about the grain bills and hops. Seemed to know more than I did, half the time...” she trailed off, thoughtfully. "Actually, I think he might work across the street?" She said, a little uncertainly. “I could swear I saw him going in there once.”

“Across the street? One of the warehouses?’

“The white one, with the teal awning.” She nodded. 

Maria was treating him with kid gloves, and as much as he liked her warm hand resting over his, her thumb brushing against his knuckles, it was making Michael crazy. 

All he wanted was for this all to be over, for things to go back to normal. So, when Alex came back with a lead, Michael was immediately on his feet, didn’t even ask about the beer. Beer could come later. When he and his family weren’t in mortal peril.

The warehouse wasn’t very big. One story, squat, probably a little under four thousand square feet. It didn’t look like it was in disrepair, but the white siding and the teal awning had been painted a good while back. He walked right to the front door and tried it. Locked.

“Looks empty,” Maria said, looking through one of the large windows. There were two sets and Alex, who was gazing through the other one, nodded.

“Yeah, completely dark,” he said. “But it’s hard to tell. There’s a tarp or something covering this window…”

“Same here,” Maria said, frowning. “That’s not for blocking the sun.”

“Nope,” Alex agreed, just as suspicious as she was. “But we’re going to need to come back later--”

Oh hell no. They weren’t waiting for a warrant or whatever the fuck the FBI was supposed to do. Michael popped the lock with a tiny nudge of power. “Door’s open,” he said, nonchalantly. Maria and Alex exchanged a bewildered look, but Michael just pushed the door open and walked in. He wasn’t in the mood to think up a lie. Hopefully something in here would distract them enough to forget about it.

“Guerin!” Alex hissed. “Get back here!”

Michael pushed past a curtain of black plastic and walked into a large open space. He stopped dead in his tracks.

“Guerin, I said get back here...” Alex began, grabbing the back of Michael’s shirt. But he stopped dead in his tracks, trailing off as he looked around. “What the hell is this place?” Alex finally got out, looking around the room in shock.

Michael was too stunned to say anything. There was alien tech everywhere, on the floor in boxes, on the tables. Michael pulled himself free of Alex’s grip and moved closer. He’d never seen so many of them in one place. His collection was nothing compared to this. But a lot of the parts seemed to be deactivated or broken in ways that Michael had never encountered before. He brushed fingers over a jagged piece, stunned.

“Maria get in here quick and shut the door,” Alex hissed. And a moment later Michael heard the click of the door closing. The room was mostly dark save for the soft glow of the tech shards that pulsed with a soft purple-pink light. But there was something brighter deeper into the building. Michael could see the glow through the cracks of a closed door, a very familiar glow.

“Fuck.” Michael was already walking towards the door before he realized it. 

“Guerin, wait for us,” Maria said, exasperated.

“I’ve seen these before,” Alex was saying, a note of excitement in his voice. “In pictures from my father’s files. Harlan was holding parts that looked just like this.” 

“Yeah, Alex, but I don’t think Jesse is involved with this place,” Maria said, an edge to her voice. “He’s an asshole. Not an idiot. There’s no security here…” She paused and there was an undercurrent of concern, or dread, like a worst fear coming true. “And there’s also the mysterious X factor--Max Evans’ twin.” 

Everything they were saying sounded far away as Michael’s hand closed around the doorknob. Also locked, not that that gave him a moment’s pause. 

He couldn’t bite back the startled gasp as he got the door open. The entire room glowed with a row of pods. Each one had a figure in it. Some embryos, others infants. Some adult-sized. Michael’s stomach clenched. 

Each one had Max’s face.

“Goddamnit, Guerin, wait!” Maria shouldered past him -- easily, Michael had gone slack with shock, horror. Maria stopped dead in her tracks. “What the fuck.” She breathed out slowly, then looked at him and then back around the room. “What... is this some kind of… cloning project?”

“You came to that conclusion awfully quickly,” Michael replied, forcing the glib reply through a tight throat. Of all the stupid things to latch on to in a moment like this.

Maria snorted. “You know how many Illuminati slash celebrity clone conspiracy theories I’ve read?” Maria’s comment was about as on-automatic as his was, snark as they worked through their shock.

“Al Roker is definitely a clone...” Alex joked, finally catching up to them, trailing off as he walked into the room, eyes going wide, taking it all in. Shocked.

The three of them stood there, in stunned silence. Well Maria and Michael did. Alex had pulled out his cell phone, clearly recording. Michael had to push down the urge to throw up. He was cold with dread. 

This was it. He could feel his life spiraling down the drain. Area 51 here I come

Eventually, Alex broke the silence. “So… what, our John Doe is a clone of--” He cut off and looked sharply back at Michael.

“Don’t you fucking accuse me of knowing about this,” Michael snapped back at him, horrified bewilderment giving way to defensive anger, which was a relief. Anger was easy. He knew how to live in anger, how to function.

“That’s not what I said,” Alex said. Calm, but with an edge of something. Worry? Dismay?

Whatever it was, Michael didn’t believe him. He grunted, shrugged. Turning back to the pods, ignoring Maria’s eyes on him, and stared at the blank face of a teenaged Max, his mind racing so fast that he could barely catch a single thought.  

Alex, too, was stepping aside after a tense minute, to a table that was full of papers. “These look like schematics of some sort. But these symbols. Maria look.” His voice was low, as if trying to give Michael some space, but he couldn’t contain the excitement. “This is exactly the kind of stuff that was in my dad’s files. Which means these… egg things. The clones. They’re not human.” 

Michael’s stomach was dropping even further. It was time. It had to be time. They were only seconds from putting together the truth about Max, about Isobel, about him. And he needed to be well on his way before they decided to do something about it. He turned, planning on beating a hasty retreat while they dug through the files, and came up short when he saw a figure, silhouetted by the glow of the pods, blocking his exit. 

“Hey there Mickey.”  

It was like being punched in the fucking stomach. Noah.

Everything clicked together. His and Max’s almost instinctive distrust of Noah. The way Isobel had slowly contracted during the course of their marriage. Running into Noah in Santa Fe. The blurry image on the security cameras. The fucking lights in the parking lot. The insanity of an empty FBI field office. All at once, the puzzle pieces formed to reveal a sickening picture. Whatever, whoever Noah was, he wasn’t just Isobel’s annoying, creepy husband. He was one of them. And he wasn’t a good guy. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

“Who…” Maria and Alex were taking notice of him. And even in the dark of the warehouse, Michael could see Noah smiling. Smug. Condescending. Sharp. 


“Bracken?” Alex said, surprised, frowning, and Noah turned his eyes on him, delighted in a way that made Michael’s skin crawl. 

Michael instinctively moved, making sure he was between Noah and Maria and Alex. 

"You really shouldn't have brought the humans," Noah said. “But then again, they’ve got you on a leash. Why don’t I do something about that for you?” 

Chapter Text

“Back off, Noah,” Michael said through gritted teeth. It did little to mask that he was scared. 

Noah Bracken was not what Maria expected, especially considering how unnerved Isobel was by him. In appearance, he was unassuming - handsome and unthreatening. But he walked into the room with a slow swagger that was incongruous, a sense of violence that didn’t fit on that skinny frame in pressed slacks and cashmere cardigan. And somehow, Maria knew that it wasn’t an act. 

There was something familiar about him too, Maria realized after the initial shock wore off… she couldn’t quite place it...

It didn’t matter. File that for later. There were more pressing concerns. Bracken was moving deeper into the room, the door behind him closing ominously, towards the row of glowing eggs or incubation pods or whatever they were. Circling them, practically. 

“You finally made it,” Bracken started, glancing at Maria and Alex briefly, his eyes seeming to linger on her for a brief moment, dropping down to her chest, then coolly sweeping over Alex and back to Michael. The way he looked at them made her feel small and insignificant. It pissed her off. 

Maria kept a rein on her temper and gave the room they were in a quick sweep. There was one more exit, towards the back of the room that likely led outside. On either side of the door there were long tables, containing medium sized canisters full of who knows what, but they glowed. And there was strange, glowing purple-pink glass cluttered in front of them. A fire alarm, pods, and a couple of chairs next to the long L-shaped table covered in the paperwork Alex had a moment ago been excitedly looking through.  

While Maria cased the room for all its advantages and disadvantages, Bracken had continued talking, grin wide and excited, “I always told him you should be working on this project. You've got your mother's brains.”

“My...” Michael started. He seemed to be having trouble forming a coherent thought. 

“Who’s ‘he’?” Alex asked, stepping closer; Michael’s arm shooting out to block Alex’s progress.

“Nope,” Bracken said, with a casual flick of his wrist Alex’s mouth forcibly closed. “The grown-ups are talking.” 

Horrified, Maria reached for Alex, who was making muffled, grunting sounds as he tried to force his lips apart. What was it? Mind control? Telekinesis? Whatever it was, she felt it too. An inexorable force, keeping her from moving her jaw. 

Even in the weird dim glow of the pods, Michael visibly paled, looking back at Alex for a moment, at her. Eyes full of worry that was quickly burned away by anger. 

“Leave them the fuck alone.”

There was a rattling sound, and it took her a moment to realize the tables were shaking, paperwork, test tubes, paper cups and cannisters falling to the floor. The creaking of fluorescent fixtures swaying filled the room. Even those floating egg-shaped incubators shuddered minutely. What the fuck? 

“You’re so sentimental, Mickey,” Bracken responded, looking at the shaking table, glancing unconcerned at the eggs. He looked nothing so much as amused. Maria didn’t need her senses to know he felt confident and secure about his dominance over them. And she couldn’t deny it because neither she nor Alex could open their mouths. 

She and Alex have been in sticky situations before but Maria had never quite felt so out of her depth. Her blood running cold when Bracken turned his gaze on them. “And over what?” He continued. “Your human jailers? Cast off the chains. You don’t have anything to lose but your limitations.

Human? Human. The way Bracken kept saying that word, as if she and Alex were the only humans in the room. 

But what really caught her attention was that Michael didn’t dispute it, wasn’t bewildered at all. Nothing but horrified understanding rolling off him. Alex looked at Maria, eyes wide, and she knew that the pieces of the puzzle were also slotting together for him. Things that didn’t make sense were starting to make a lot more now. 

“You’ve known all this time?” Michael’s voice sounded hoarse.

“You’re not exactly subtle,” Bracken said, with a laugh. “You and Max and Isobel, chugging nail polish remover straight out of the bottle. Do you know how many she’s got stashed around the house? Put it in a flask, for god’s sake.”  

“...Tell me what the fuck is going on here.” Michael was moving closer to Bracken, looking mesmerized and horrified. The L-shaped table scraped across the floor after him, Alex had to pull her out of its way, pens and test tubes rolling off the edges only to never drop to the floor. They just floated up in the air, hovering, following, threateningly.

The back door swung open. She almost didn’t notice it, caught up by the strangeness happening before her. 

She felt a new strange sensation, like she was being gently shoved. And by the way Alex shifted, looking at her in complete bewilderment, he felt it too. A soft pressure against her shoulders, like an invisible hand gently trying to usher them out towards the back exit, away from Bracken and Michael. 

Michael. Of course it was. Michael, through his unseen power, was trying to usher them to safety, moving the tables, rearranging the battlefield. Maria and Alex looked at each other again, and they didn’t need to exchange a word to know that neither of them had any intention of leaving their curly haired shit alone with Dr. Frankenstein over there. 

“Oh, these?” Bracken waved a hand at the pods, unbothered by the furniture moving, the groan of metal. “Failures. Bad stock. We haven’t had a single viable one. But you,” he pointed at Michael. “I have a feeling you could turn it all around.”

Well, at least he was a talker. Maria moved her hand, slowly, taking advantage of Bracken’s distraction. Carefully undoing the snap of her holster and easing out her sidearm. 

She had a feeling she was only going to get one shot at him.

“Me?” Michael snorted. “Why me? Why not Max?” 

“Trust me I’ve asked that question many fucking times myself,” Bracken groaned. He stroked his hand over one of the eggs. “Best answer I have for you is that Maximo isn’t exactly a genius. Your mother invented this process. And I have a feeling you’d like to do her proud, wouldn’t you?” 

“The hell do you know about my mother?” Michael asked, bristling with anger. She could sense underneath the rage, the desperation to know and the fear of that knowledge. 

But Bracken was playing him. She could sense that too, the way his words were leading. Manipulation. Cat and mouse games. 

“I know she’s the one who built the ship that brought us here,” Bracken sing-songed. “Well, I say here. But coming here wasn’t exactly their plan. It was his plan.” For the first time Bracken seemed angry and annoyed. 

Michael was urging them to move again, more insistent. Maria wanted to yell at him. Whatever this was, they would never leave him to face it alone.

“Quit playing the fucking pronoun game,” Michael snarled. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Maria and Alex moved towards the door, both trying to find a clear shot. Michael wasn’t helping by trying to shield them. 

Bracken smiled slowly and inclined his head towards the pods, away from them. This was it. This was the shot. Maria fired, but the bullet stopped inches from his face, hovering in the air dramatically. 

“Get a fucking clue,” Bracken said, looking at her. “You're still alive because you’re leverage. But I don’t need you both.” The bullet spun around and shot right back at her.

“No!” Michael yelled, swinging his arm wide. The bullet stopped in midair again, halfway to her. It trembled. No, it shook violently. Michael looked strained. Bracken looked amused.

“Aw Michael, you don’t actually think you can--” 

He didn’t get to finish because both Maria and Alex had opened fire on him. Maria hoping beyond hope that one of the bullets would hit him. He couldn’t stop them all right? 

Bracken yelled furiously and Maria felt like she was hit by a truck, smacked back by an invisible force, knocking her right off her feet and right through a table, into the boxes by the backdoor.

White-hot pain sliced into her shoulder, and she gasped for several heartbeats, her head spinning. 

“Leave them alone.” There was another loud thunderous crash. Bracken grunted in pain. Maria looked up just in time to see him slam half-through the flimsy wall back out toward the entrance, plaster dust sent flying everywhere.  

There was a heartbeat of silence, Michael turning to them. “You two need to get out of here, this is above your pay grade, and I can’t fight him and protect--”

“I don’t think you understand who the hell is in charge here, Michael,” Bracken’s voice cut him off coldly, each syllable clipped.

“Never really responded well to so-called authority,” Michael drawled, with an ease that was totally contradicted by the tension, in the way the way he shifted to face Bracken again. 

“You haven’t had the right kind of discipline,” Bracken said, with a slow smirk, looking over at Alex, who was picking himself up, wincing, next to what looked to be one half of the table she had gone through. “I guess that’s to be expected.”

Maria drew in a startled breath, searching for her sidearm. But it was lost. Fuck it, it was mostly a binky anyway. They obviously weren’t going to take Bracken out with projectile weapons. Or with just laying around. 

Maria scrambled to her feet, only to be shoved back down, hard again by that invisible force, her head swimming.

One half of the broken table lifted itself up and for a horrible moment she thought it was going to come down on Alex but instead it chose the other person nearby, Michael; swinging at him with excessive force. Michael raised his hand, she assumed to stop it, but it barreled right into him, smashing him against the pods, pinning him there.  

“Guerin--” Alex’s yell was cut off and there was another bang and groan. 

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

She heard the crunch of boots over rubble, and suddenly Bracken was there, hauling her up to her feet by her neck, tight enough that it was difficult to breathe. The toes of her shoes scraped against the ground. She couldn’t even kick the bastard, staring back at her with a smarmy little smile, his hands in the pockets of his trousers.

“You know. When I saw this the other day, I almost didn’t believe my eyes,” he began, conversationally. “Almost thought you were one of us. But your powers are weak, stunted, whatever you are. And you’re not doing yourself any favors with this.” He wrapped his hand around the necklace as he spoke, slowly, then yanked it off in one sharp move. Maria hissed as the silver chain cut into her skin before it broke.

“How did you end up with this, I wonder?” He asked, conversationally.

The world shifted, a sudden lurch that she almost dismissed as a head injury or the effects of pure terror. But the light had gotten too bright and too dim at the same time. She was viewing the world through a fisheye lens, everything all lens flare and blue tinged.  

“You can’t beat me, Michael.” The words echoed. 

It was happening again. And no no, not now, she didn't have time to be distracted right now.

She was charging Bracken to save Michael, then being choked out--

No, she wasn’t. She was on the ground, unable to move, bleeding, but with a perfect view of Alex. Bracken gripped his face, hand glowing. Alex looked scared. She’d never seen him so scared. Michael yelling at Bracken, pleading. But Bracken was focused on Alex, who was screaming. Dying, Maria realized with horrifying clarity. He was killing her husband. 

The sound of wood smashing into the ground broke through her awareness. Her vision cleared and she was back, back in time to see another table hurtling towards Bracken, only for it to bank sharply and collide into Michael, who hit the ground, gasping for breath. 

Bracken dropped Maria and turned, looking at Michael. His attention redirected enough that she was back on her own two feet, free of his influence. And as much as she wanted to step in, throw a hook or a kick, the memory of her vision stopped her. It was best to let him forget about her for the moment. They were just so damn outmatched, physically. 

Think DeLuca. Think. 

She needed Alex. Where the fuck was he? She swept her eyes over the room, but her eyes were caught by Bracken again.

Bracken was swaggering forward, actually fucking stepping on Michael’s back, pinning him down.   

“Look, Mickey. You want your pet humans to die a quick death? Your sister to live on in peaceful ignorance? You’ll stop fighting. You can’t beat me, Michael,” he hissed, leaning down over him.

Maria took a step forward then stopped. She shuddered, realizing that her vision was on the verge of coming true. No. Fuck this. No.

So, she took a breath, bided her time.

“But I guess you need to be shown that,” Bracken was saying, shifting his foot off of Michael and instead grabbing him by his hair, dragging him up.  

“Who should I tear apart first, hm?” 

The acrid smell of chemicals and smoke filled the air. Maria looked away from Michael and Bracken to see a fire growing near the pods and starting to slowly travel, growing in intensity as it consumed documents and whatever strange chemicals had filled those canisters she’d noticed earlier - they must have been knocked over during the ensuing battle. And at the origin of the blaze was Alex, cradling his side and holding a lighter.

Fucking hell, she loved that man.

The fire alarm screamed to life, deafeningly loud, the sprinklers popping open. It distracted Bracken just enough that Maria could pull out her expandable baton, surging forward and hitting him hard upside the head, smacking him again, for good measure. He needed to stay down. 

Bracken crumbled, dragging Michael with him and Maria wasn’t wasting time. Getting Michael up to his feet. 

“Go with Alex!” She urged him, shoving him toward her husband who was already making his way towards them. They all needed to get the hell out of there, but she needed a moment to find… Oh thank fuck, there it was. Her necklace, in a pile of dust and oil-slick colored glass. She grabbed it, stuffing it in a pocket, before quickly joining them. Looking up to see Alex reaching for her.

“Let’s get out of here before he wakes the fuck up,” Alex said firmly, grabbing her wrist.  

“And before this place goes up in smoke.” Michael nodded over at the fire, already spreading, alarmingly quickly. But Michael was just as bad as she was, grabbing a handful of whatever papers he could that weren’t already on fire, protesting even as Alex was hauling him out by his jacket.

Only once they were by their car did Alex turn to them both. “Are you two okay?” He asked, hurriedly.  

Maria ignored the pain in her shoulder, reaching to cup Alex’s face. “Fine. You?” 

“Bruised and pissed.” Alex let out a laugh, reaching up to cover his hand over hers. He looked exhausted but also relieved, and he leaned a little into her. 

Maria laughed too, feeling just a bit hysterical, then looked at Michael, who looked haunted. She couldn’t blame him. This was absolutely going to haunt her nightmares.

“Let’s get the hell out of--” she started, when she was cut off by the deafening crack of an explosion.

She hit the ground, instinctively.

The warehouse was ablaze. Alex had never seen anything go up so damn fast. He wondered what had been in those jars that he’d set alight. Wished that they could have gotten samples, that they could have saved more paperwork. Wished they hadn’t been so completely and utterly out of their depths.  

Beyond the frustration, everything fucking hurt. Alex didn’t think he had any broken bones, but he hadn’t gotten such an impressive collection of bruises in a long damn time. Maria seemed just as in pain, if not more so. She moved carefully, mouth tight, brushing off any concern. Alex knew better than to buy it; he'd seen the bloodstain on her shirt before she threw her blazer over it. 

He could hear sirens closing in on them, and for a moment he was tempted to stay. They needed to talk to the fire department and the police, protect the crime scene. But the important thing was that they were all alive, and he wanted to fuss over his wife. Over Michael. 

That’s how they ended up driving away, away from the greatest discovery of his career. 

“Urgent care?” Michael asked, once they reached a stop light. Turning his head to look at them both with concern, worrying his lower lip despite the cut there. Bruises were forming on his face and there was a cut that probably looked worse than it was just below his right eye. 

Impotent rage surged through Alex, and he had to take a breath before he could speak.

“No, let’s just head to that motel we stayed at a week ago,” Alex said.

Michael frowned. “You should get checked out,” he said, glancing at Maria, worried. “Maria’s definitely injured.”

“Nothing tequila won’t fix,” Maria said dryly.

“Maria—" Alex frowned at her.

“We’re going to get takeout at Paloma’s and hit the liquor store,” Maria said decisively, pulling out her phone which was amazingly still intact. 

“What? Seriously? You want to eat? Now?” Michael asked. Alex looked up at him, noted that his knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel.

Probably surprised we’re not hauling him off to Area 51. Alex sucked in a breath. Fuck. 

Michael was an actual fucking alien. 

Okay. So, no urgent care but he definitely wanted to get Maria somewhere quiet and look her over, patch her up. And process.

Alex found himself staring at Michael, who was looking at them through the rearview mirror with so much apprehension that it seemed to Alex that he was waiting for them to turn into monsters, into his father. 

God damnit. Alex let out a slow breath. He needed Michael to be less scared of them. Needed to get him to relax a little until they got somewhere private, until they had the breathing room necessary to convince him that they weren’t a danger to him.

Maybe Maria had the right idea.

“I mean how the hell else do you handle something like this, if not with copious amounts of tequila and tacos,” he asked, trying to go for levity. Filing away every last impulse to yell at Michael, or to ask every fucking question that had plagued him for years (because he knew that would not end well), or hold him down and never let him go, which admittedly would be proving Michael right. But fuck if Alex didn’t itch to… he was better off with them. 

Wasn’t he?

“Agreed,” Maria said softly, smiling at Alex. “I just need a margarita and to pretend that everything’s normal for a night.” She slipped a hand into his and squeezed gently, meeting his eye with a distinctly I’m proud of you gleam in hers. She probably thought he was promising no well-meaning interrogations.

Alex kissed her temple. He’d try his best, but that was definitely a promise he’d have a hard time keeping. 

Decision made, Maria gave directions to Paloma, leaving them there to order their food while she went to grab the booze, ignoring both Alex and Michael’s protests, and Alex’s desperate attempt to telepathically communicate to her that he should not be left alone with Michael, he was just going to fuck this up again.

After ordering, Michael took a seat on one of the wooden benches lined with brightly colored cushions, leaning back and pulling his hat down so Alex couldn’t see his face. Not that he needed too. Michael’s body language spoke volumes, tense and defensive. His slouch could be barely called that with how tight his muscles were, how tightly his arms were crossed over his chest.

Instead of saying anything, Alex just sat stiffly beside him and pulled out Maria’s cellphone. She lent it to Alex since his phone hadn’t survived the thrashing (though he still had it and had every intention of seeing if the SD card was intact). 

They had some time before their order was up, and obviously Guerin didn’t feel like talking (something Alex felt guilty relief about), so he made all those important work calls that he would absolutely have no time for later. Connected with the police and fire department captains, let them know they were on the case and gave excuses as to why they weren’t onsite at the moment. 

Michael said nothing but Alex knew he was listening, the tension in his body only ratcheting up until Alex couldn’t handle it anymore. Hanging up, he reached out, put his hand gently on his shoulder but Michael just pulled away, stood up.

“Been a while. Should check on our order.” 

Thankfully, it was ready. As they stepped out into the cool night air to wait for Maria, Alex glanced at Michael, whose expression was entirely shuttered. He sighed. But didn’t allow himself to get angry or hurt, instead more determined. 

They got a room at the Silver Saddles Motel. Michael ended up helping carry the liquor bottles because Maria almost dropped them just trying to get them out of the car. He frowned at her the entire way to the room and when they were inside with the door closed, he beat Alex to confronting her.

“Okay DeLuca, you won’t go to urgent care but you need to let me see what the hell is going on,” Michael said firmly, placing the tequila on the small table next to the food. He turned to meet her stubborn eye with his own.

Honestly Michael didn’t make any fucking sense. How could he be simultaneously prickly and distant with them and concerned and caring. Contradictory though he was, Alex had every intention of taking advantage of it.

“Michael’s right, Maria,” Alex said, handing him the first aid kit, a medium size orange duffle bag, specially put together by Alex. 

“Sit down, take off your jacket,” Michael ordered, and it was such a strange tone on him. Alex wasn’t used to a bossy Michael, and by the bemused and grumpy way Maria was looking at him, neither was she.

“I’ll pour out the tequila,” Alex said, knowing they were going to need it.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve ever been hurt on a case.” Maria sounded annoyed even as she started to slowly work off the blazer, being especially careful with her left arm. Her blouse was torn at the shoulder and Alex could now see something glittering between the shredded fabric.

Maria,” Michael hissed, urging her to sit down on the bed, dropping down next to her and impatiently swatting her hands out of the way. To the untrained eye, Maria looked put out but Alex could see the way her eyes softened as she watched Michael gently work her shirt open. Guerin had an... effect. But that wasn’t new information. They had both felt it. Talked about it.  

Alex heard the kit's zipper open and saw that it had done so itself. Upon seeing that all Alex could do was pour himself a healthy shot of tequila into one of the solo cups Maria bought. Downed it in one go. 

Michael was a fucking alien. Every time it came to mind it felt like a fresh revelation. Part of Alex still wanted to deny it, if only because things would be a whole lot easier if Michael was just a regular old unfairly attractive con.

“Alex,” Maria said, frowning at him, and he realized this was the second time she’d said his name. “I’m going to need that tequila if Guerin’s gonna be pulling glass out of my shoulder.”

Glass?” Alex demanded, pouring out a liberal amount of tequila into another cup as he quickly made his way to her. 

Up close, he could see the alien-looking glass glittering from where it was embedded in two long cuts down the back of her left shoulder. The shards were small but even slick with her blood, they retained that soft oily pinkish-purple glow.

“You should have said something,” Alex said, dropping carefully to one knee so he could look for the tweezers in the kit.  

Maria however just downed her cup of tequila. “What for? We weren’t going to be able to deal with it until now anyway.” She glanced pointedly at Michael who was frowning down at her shoulder, instead of at her. For the moment all his fear was replaced with nothing but concern and disapproval. “Not taking this stuff to urgent care if we want to keep his secret.” 

“What if it’s radioactive!” The words shot out of him unbidden and Alex felt like his voice was taking on a shrill note of hysteria. Except Alex had never been hysterical in his life. But fuck if he wasn’t feeling out of his depth again. He tried to focus on getting the bactine out of their kit. 

“It’s not,” Maria said.

Alex shot his head up to glare at her. “How the hell do you know?” 

And they both looked at Michael, whose expression went from guilty concern to something more defensive.

“It’s not,” Michael confirmed, sourly. “These are like machine parts, tech, and are no more radioactive or... poisonous than a toaster.” 

“Tech?” Alex asked despite himself, curious. 

Michael went back to examining Maria’s shoulder closely. “Yeah. Think of them like computer parts,” he said, shifting to hold his hand over Maria’s shoulder, an inch or two from the vicious looking gashes. 

“Computer parts don’t glow like--” Maria broke off with a hiss. Alex looked up to see Michael’s hand hovering slowly along Maria’s shoulder, the shards carefully pulling themselves free of her skin. Blood stained, and somehow still glittering, they followed and floated towards Michael’s hand as it passed over Maria’s wound. It made Alex think of a magnet. Only a hell of a lot cooler.

A moment later, Michael turned his hand, showing her the shards in his palm. “There. All out.” 

“That’s incredible,” Maria breathed looking up into Michael’s flushed face. He shrugged and dropped all the shards into her empty cup. 

“Not really,” he said, soft and uncomfortable. 

“Overruled,” Alex said, with way too much emphasis, handing him the gauze and a bottle of bactine. 

Michael didn’t respond, instead just concentrated on cleaning up Maria’s shoulder. Alex hoped he wasn’t imagining that Michael looked less defensive.

Maria endured the treatment stoically, taking multiple swigs directly from the tequila bottle.

“God, don’t be so dramatic,” Alex chuckled and got her a fresh cup, as Michael gently pressed the dressing over her shoulder.

“Is there anywhere else?” He asked, softly. That guilty expression back on his face.

“No, the rest of me is just a giant bruise.” Maria shook her head, offering him her cup of tequila. He didn’t take it. Instead, he looked at Alex, curiously.

“Did you… do you?”

“No glass in me. He just threw me into regular old walls,” Alex said dryly. Michael narrowed his eyes at him, clearly not convinced. “Seriously!”  

“You are two of a kind,” he said rather dryly.

“Fair. But I promise, just bruised to hell and back. I think you’re actually in worse shape” he said, squeezing in between Maria and Michael on the bed. 

The cut under his eye had stopped bleeding thankfully, the blood drying on his skin. Alex took a moment to look him over, gently turning his face this way and that with the light press of his fingers against Michael’s jaw. Pliant though he was, he kept avoiding eye contact, looking somewhere between annoyed and guilty. “I’m fine.” 

Michael let Alex fuss though. So, he took it as a win.

“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly as Alex was finishing up. “I didn’t know about him,” Michael breathed out, the guilty look on his face just intensifying and Alex felt horrible. 

Maria shifted closer to them; her torn blazer thrown over her shoulders again, probably to give herself a modicum of cover. Resting her hand on Michael’s arm. “Not your fault.” 

Alex shook his head, relieved that she had stepped in. That was a lot of emotion that he didn’t know what to do with. “C’mon, why don’t you help me move the table closer. Maria needs tacos to counteract all the tequila she’s putting away.” 

Maria raised an eyebrow. “When have I ever not been able to drink you under the table?”

“No time like the present…” Alex trailed off, watching the table he’d meant to drag over just resituate itself by the bed. Alex had to bite the inside of his lip not to comment about it again. Drawing attention to Michael’s abilities wasn’t exactly going to make him feel safer.

“Why don’t you get the food?” Michael asked, quietly. 

Alex did, feeling way, way out of his depth. Maria poured more shots of tequila into solo cups (despite being pointedly told not to aggravate her shoulder) and the three of them sat on the bed to eat. Alex was glad that they had something else to focus on for a moment. 

Unspoken, Maria and Alex sat on either side of Michael on the queen bed, effectively trapping him between them. It caused Michael to tense and Alex was sure he was assuming that they were just trying to keep him from running away. Not entirely wrong, sure. But Alex also wanted to offer him comfort more than anything, and this was better than trying to find the words. The right words. Alex wasn’t exactly good at those, his mind going back to that disastrous morning after with Michael. 

No wonder he freaked out so bad.

Alex just pressed his leg against Michael’s, pushed the burrito towards him, and swore he’d do better this time.

They all ate quietly. Michael worked on the biggest burrito he’d ever seen, Alex and Maria working on a pile of soft tacos washing them down with tequila. Michael continued to reject the tequila, chugging complimentary water bottles instead. Honestly, Alex would say he was probably smarter for it, if the behavior wasn’t so damn out of character for Michael. 

“I’m confused,” Michael finally said. “What the hell are you two doing?” Alex was surprised by how long he sat stubbornly stewing in his confusion.

Silence met his question. Alex glanced over at Maria who sighed and shoved another taco in her mouth. Alex felt a little better seeing that she was feeling as awkward and unsure as he was, that she too felt how precarious a situation they were in right now... 

“You know who -- you know what I am,” Michael continued. “And I know you’ll say--”

Alex grit his teeth at that tone, he hated the fucking blatant distrust. 

“--that my secret’s safe with you, but food and booze are a bit much don’t you think? Are you just hoping I’ll be quiet until you can get someone to scoop Max and Isobel up too? Ship us off together to some black site? ‘Cause I’ve already told them to get the fuck out.” 

“Fucking hell Michael.” Alex glared at him. “We’re not shipping you off anywhere.”

Michael snorted, “I’m your dream come true. I’m your--” Alex bristled.

“Drink.” Maria pushed Michael’s shot towards him and his expression became somehow more sour. Maria frowned and continued, a little softer, “unless this doesn’t work for you? Do we need to pick up some...” she trailed off, looking over at Alex. She was looking for the right word but all he could focus on was her anger, hurt, worry, all his feelings mirrored in her eyes. 

“Acetone.” Michael broke in. “And no, alcohol works fine.” He still pushed the shot back towards her though. “Just not exactly in the mood to drink.”

“Want to keep a clear head for the inevitable escape attempt?” Alex said dryly. Michael frowned at him. So did Maria, which was patently unfair because Michael started it. “What? It needs to be said,” he added, speaking to her directly, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. But it was hard. All this damn time and Michael still didn’t know them? Of course, he understood why Michael was wary, scared. Didn’t keep Alex from being angry, offended. They weren’t stone-faced suits, Michael knew that.  

“Ugh none of that,” Maria said, and poured another shot for herself and Alex, who wasn’t sure he should take it. Maybe he should stay clear-headed lest Michael run off where Alex couldn’t find him. Couldn’t keep him safe. Couldn’t be by his side. Fuck.

Drink.” Maria glared at both of them for a moment before looking directly at Michael. He was staring back at her mulishly. “You’re not going to be taken anywhere but to bed. You need a shower and sleep. We all do.”

“And tomorrow?”

“We head back to the warehouse,” Alex told him, finally taking a sip from his cup. He reminded himself that if Michael wanted to leave, he could. Easily. Alex needed to stay the course. Needed to impress on Guerin that they weren’t evil. He wasn’t his father.

Alex had to take a breath. Force himself to relax.

“The fire should be out by then,” he continued after a moment. “See what we can salvage--”

Michael snorted. “Of course.”

Maria let out a frustrated breath. “Damage control, Guerin.”

“Don’t act like it’s just that.” 

Despite his best efforts, Alex found himself bristling again. “I swear, Guerin, if you say this is my dream come true again...”

“Well isn’t it?”

Alex opened his mouth, about to fire a scathing retort but he stopped himself. Took another deep breath. Two for good measure. 

“Yes,” he said. “I want answers. But not at the expense of losing you.” 

Crap. He hadn’t meant to say that last part. Alex snapped his jaw shut. Michael sucked in a breath, looking startled, unsure. Alex himself was feeling about the same way. He hadn’t planned on that level of honesty, and he wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. Forward, he told himself.

Thankfully, Maria was there to keep them moving. “We want to work with you, Michael,” she said. Her tone was soft but she was still frowning at him, hurt. “We don’t need any answers right now.” She turned, pouring herself yet another drink, shaking her head in frustration. “Honestly I barely want to think about fucking psychopathic aliens right now. I just want to drink tequila and eat tacos with you, with Alex. I want to feel safe,” she said, pausing, forcing the tension from her own shoulders. “I think you probably want to feel the same way.”  

Michael wasn’t looking at either of them, instead spinning his solo cup of tequila as he--Alex hoped--considered what they’d just said. But Alex was also preparing himself to say something incredibly mortifying again if he had to. 

“Fine,” Michael said, finally. Draining the tequila. “Should get cleaned up. Get another blanket. I can take the floor.” 

Oh right. We only got one room, Alex remembered, staring back at the queen sized bed they were sitting on. He hadn’t even realized his mistake until now and he felt kind of bad but was also glad for it. 

“Yeah, I’m sure your bruises will really appreciate it,” Alex said dryly.

Maria snorted. Then smiled a little. Lightly, or an attempt at it. “We’ve squished into one bed before. We can do it again.” 

Michael looked between them, frowning, and Alex half expected some kind of jab about escape attempts. But maybe he was just nervous? 

“Ok…” Michael said softly and grimaced a little, like he felt bad for whatever he was going to say next. “Do you mind if I go, um, shower first?”

“Nah go ahead, take your time,” Alex said. “I don’t mind going last. I take the longest anyway.” He knocked on his prosthetic lightly and hid a wince. His leg was pretty furious with him. But that was nothing new, truth be told.

Michael nodded and got up, moving around them, grabbing his bag and heading into the bathroom. Alex focused on the last of his tacos instead of thinking about Michael trying to squeeze out through the bathroom window. 

Maria scooted closer to him and he wrapped his arm around her waist, drinking quietly until they heard the shower running. Both of them relaxing a little. 

“Good job back there,” Maria began, tone teasingly. “Providing that one human emotion. I think you got through to him.”

“Screw you,” he groaned, and turned so he could carefully wrap both his arms around her, resting his chin on top of her head. “...It was unintended…”

Maria chuckled. “Yes, that was obvious.”

Alex didn’t dignify that with a response. “I just hope it was enough to convince him not to run.”

She laughed, then sobered quickly. “Well, he’s not running tonight,” she said, softly, and Alex couldn’t figure out how she was so sure. She rubbed his back. “One moment at a time, right?” 

Alex grunted and closed his eyes. Neither of them said anything for a moment. 

“Aliens,” she said quietly.

“A lot of aliens.” Alex paused. “Why do I feel like we just got trounced by a mini-boss?”

“Bracken was a lot stronger than Michael,” Maria agreed, shivering a little. 

Alex couldn’t help but remember the feeling of his jaw snapped shut, unable to speak. The way Bracken threw them and the furniture around like he was swatting flies. Nothing had ever prepared him for feeling so fucking helpless, not his deployments, not his father’s house. Nothing.

Maria didn’t say anything, not even her usual ‘we’ll figure it out’ and it was a testament to how shaken she was, and fuck he was too. Maybe they should let Michael go. Maybe they were thinking too much with their emotions and not enough with their common sense. 

Michael was stepping out of the bathroom then, in a fresh t-shirt and boxers, damp curls falling into his eyes. He looked so soft, almost vulnerable. Stopping in the middle of the room, he looked cautiously between them and the bed until Alex nodded towards it. Get in already, idiot. 

No matter how horrible Bracken was, he could never see Michael as dangerous. And no matter the danger Bracken posed to him and Maria, he couldn’t--no, they couldn’t--leave Michael to face him alone. At least in the short term.

What to do beyond today? That was another question altogether. One he was still pondering.

Maria and Alex both took their turns in the shower. And it was so damn good to have a hot shower and take off that damn leg. But it was hard to relax under the spray of the shower. Unable to help but think of all the monsters after Michael. How best to help him.

When Alex finally stepped back into the bedroom, Michael was in bed pretending to be asleep and Maria was by the window. 

She glanced at him and he arched an eyebrow, Maria shrugging helplessly. A little awkwardly. Before inclining her head towards the bed. She was waiting for him. They’d go in together, as a team. Sighing, Alex nodded and each one of them found their way to one side of the bed, one side of Michael.

Both of them were laying close to him, with just enough space to be respectful, Alex hoped. Alex shifted a little, before awkwardly sliding his hand under his pillow, lips pressed together in frustration. 

Maria flicked the light off. Light from outside streamed in through the window slats. Just enough for Alex to see Michael’s profile in the soft light of the streetlamps. He was lying on his back, his chest rising and falling gently, his hands resting on his belly. And fuck if he didn’t radiate a warmth Alex wanted to curl up into. 

Michael wasn’t as tense anymore, but there was still some sort of reservation to his posture. Alex chewed his lip. Deciding to let Michael pretend to be asleep, let him process. 

Hell, they all needed to sleep. 

So, it was a surprise when Michael spoke suddenly. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Isobel told me to trust you.” He turned a little, looking at Maria. “I didn’t listen. And you both…” He looked back at Alex now and groaned, starting to sit up. But almost as one, Maria and Alex put a hand firmly against his shoulders, pushing him down. 

“Michael, stop apologizing for something that wasn’t your fault,” Maria said exasperated. “Did you know about Bracken?”

“Of course not!”

“Then whatever! Okay, you lied, but that would not have changed today’s outcome,” Maria said simply, and she draped her arm around his chest.

“What are you doing?” Michael asked.

“Keeping you from jolting out of bed in guilt,” Maria said, stubbornly.

Alex could see Michael frowning, bewildered, at her through the dim light filtering in through the window. 

“Pretty sure you can fling us away if you really wanted to, Guerin,” Alex said and Michael now looked offended.

“I would never--

“Yeah obviously,” Alex replied, pressing his fingertips to Michael’s jaw and gently turning his face to look at him. They were basically sharing the same pillow, and even in the dark, Michael was beautiful. 

This really was not the time or the damn place, Manes. Fucking focus. 

“I would never, either,” he said, as firmly as he could. He paused, chewed on the inside of his cheek. All he wanted was to keep Michael here. Keep him safe.

But was that something he could really promise?  

He hated the certainty that the answer to that question was ‘no.’ With his family, his and Maria’s goals? Michael would be out there, attracting all the wrong attention. 

Alex sighed, unable to keep from stroking his cheek gently. “You’re not alone, okay? We’ll get through tomorrow, and then...” he trailed off. Not wanting to promise this, but he felt like he needed to. Someone needed to look out for Michael. “I assume you’re going to want to leave. So, we’ll do what we can to keep anyone from figuring it out too soon.” 

Michael was startled, and it showed in every line of his body. “What?”  

“You heard him,” Maria said, quietly, her arm tightening around him briefly. “You’re our friend, Michael. Last thing we want is to put you in danger.”

Michael audibly sniffed in the dark, sounding annoyed.  “... well, I’m not leaving.” 

It was Alex’s turn to be confused. “Oh, now you’re not leaving?” He couldn’t help it. Guerin had looked like something wound up and ready to bolt for hours now. Alex felt like he had a sudden case of whiplash.

“I never said I was,” Michael replied, and Maria sat up a little so she could stare at him, disbelief clear on her face.

“Bullshit,” Maria said. 

Now Michael sat up, frustrated with them. “Why the hell don’t you believe me? I literally could have left at any time.”

“Because you don’t trust us,” Alex shot back frustrated and annoyed, sitting up as well and leaning further into Michael’s space. 

Michael made a frustrated sound. “You can’t blame me for wondering if learning about me might change one or two things for you.” 

“So why didn’t you leave?” Maria asked, reaching across the space left by Michael sitting up, squeezing Alex’s hand on the bed. Trying to calm him down, clearly.

“You were hurt be--” Michael stopped, looking at Maria, who was glaring at him. “You’re hurt. I need to make sure you’re ok.”

“We don’t need a babysitter, Michael,” Alex said, frustrated.

“It’s not about babysitting!” Michael sounded equally frustrated. 

“Well explain, Michael,” Maria said. “‘Cause all I’m hearing is patronizing bullshit. You know we can handle ourselves.” 

“You’ve never handled anything like this.”

“Guerin, you’ve met my dad.”

“You are not comparing a psychotic alien to your asshole dad.” Michael frowned down at him. 

Alex looked back at him steadily. “Ultimately, Guerin, they’re both a danger to you. A danger I sincerely want to keep you safe from.” He pressed his lips together, frustrated. Every word out his mouth felt inadequate. 

“Yeah, and that’s why I have to stay.” Michael scrubbed a hand through his hair and turned enough so he was able to face them both, look down at them, face determined. “You guys are the best chance I have to neutralize him, and the threat to my family. I already decided this weeks ago.” 

“You what?” Alex asked, nonplussed.  

Michael sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “I decided to stay because I knew together we could take out your dad. But I didn’t trust you. And today that bit me in the ass....” He took both their hands. “I need to put my money where my mouth is and trust you. So, I’m staying.” 

Alex didn’t wait for him to say anything else. Michael was insane and amazing, and god damnit all Alex wanted was to pull Michael into him and hold on tight. So, he did, letting out a sigh of relief when Michael didn’t protest, actually hugging him back. 

He was staying. And they could figure everything else out, together. 

Maria woke up to an armful of Michael, her nose pressed into his surprisingly soft, curly hair. And fuck, he was warm. It was the first conscious thought she had.

Wonder if aliens are warmer than humans? She thought, sleepily. 

And that thought woke her up entirely. Oh shit. Right.

I’m cuddling a literal space alien. She tried not to snort, burying her face back in Michael’s curls again. 

She peeked over Michael’s shoulder, to where Alex should be. But he wasn’t there. She pouted a little, squeezed her arm tighter around Michael, trying not to hiss at the pull in her shoulder. Alex should be there.  

“You awake?” Michael asked, yawning a little, his hand covering hers, stroking her hand. She tried not to shiver.

“Mn. Unfortunately.” She sighed.

“Where’s Alex?” He asked

“Looks like he actually got up early for once. He usually doesn’t take coffee duty.” 

“Not much of a morning person?” Michael asked, carefully lifting her hand and twisting in her arms, so that he could face her.  

The early morning light caught Michael’s eyes, turning them the color of liquid gold. Fuck he was beautiful, eyes heavy, mouth perfectly kissable. “He’s the worst,” she said, trying not to fumble over her words. 

Michael smiled a little. “So. Cold light of day. How are you doing?”  

He was so sincere that it took her breath away. However cold and menacing Bracken had been, Michael was the absolute opposite. 

Ugh, don’t think of Bracken right now. 

“I’m fine. Pissed that I’m going to have to lay off sparring for a couple weeks.” Michael made a soft, concerned noise, and she waved it off. “That’s not the thing you’re really asking about though, anyway.” 

Michael hesitated. And Maria could feel the anxiety and worry, a dull tide. Less than it had been last night, but still present. “Guess not.”  

“We’re just as much on your side today as we were yesterday,” she murmured, reaching for his hand, squeezing it between them, to her chest. “I promise.”  

There was a surge of emotion from him. Complex, dense. But the biggest of those emotions felt like gratitude. It wasn’t a surprise when Michael said, “haven’t had a lot of people on my side.” 

Maria swallowed, gave into the temptation to wrap her arm around him again, ignoring the burn in her shoulder. Resting her forehead against his, Maria gave him the sternest look she could muster. And seemingly in response, he started to rub her back gently, as if trying to soothe her. 

Idiot, she thought, feeling impossibly soft for him. “Well, you’re going to have to get used to it.” She paused for a moment, watching the play of emotion on his face. “And you are gonna have to loop us into all the dumbass shit you’ve gotten up to.”   

Michael huffed out a breath, almost a laugh. “Who says I’ve done dumbass shit?” He asked. 

Maria scoffed, fixed him with her most withering glare.

He laughed. “I mean, do you count attempted body snatching dumbass?”

She sucked in a startled breath. “That was you?”

Attempted. Apparently Noah got there first.”

She snorted. “Fucking Noah. Ruins everything.”

Michael couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re not wrong.”

They lapsed into silence for a bit. Maria reaching up to press his hair back, gently, watch it spring immediately back into his eyes. “Hey Michael?”


“No more dumbass shit unless we’re there, okay?” She said softly. “We’ll be there.” 

“Okay.” He promised her, quietly. 

Maria let out a relieved breath, smiling at him. “Good,” and as much as she wanted to keep cuddling with him, laze the whole morning away, she knew they couldn’t. They needed to get a jump on the warehouse before the police could rake the scene. “Come on. We need to get up.” 

Michael groaned. “...Yeah, yeah.” 

Neither of them moved until Alex came back with coffee and bagels and yelled at them. 

Eventually, Michael and Maria were ready to hit the road. And the air was different between them. All three of them. Somehow clearer and more tense at the same time. 

There wasn’t much left of the warehouse when they got there. The outer walls and framework were still up, barely. The white walls were charred, the windows either entirely gone or broken. The teal awning had collapsed. 

“I have never seen a fire like this,” Lt. Levine said. He looked exhausted, covered in soot and grime, like he’d been fighting a fire all night. Which he had. “It just raged and raged and raged. We only were able to put it out less than an hour ago. Flames were a weird color too. You guys said it was an accident?” At Alex’s nod, he snorted. “They were keeping something illegal in there, that’s for sure. Two of my guys had to go to the hospital. Smoke was toxic.”

Alex looked towards the warehouse, he could still see smoke curling out of the building, the roof having collapsed sometime during the night. They were standing a block away from the warehouse, downwind of it and wearing masks. Michael had barely wanted to bother with a mask and Alex itched to ask him a million questions. 

“Definitely something illegal,” Michael said, grim. He’d been staring at the building the entire time. Alex hadn’t thought he was listening. 

“But you haven’t gone in to investigate yet?” Maria asked. Alex hoped the answer was no, that they’d followed his orders. 

Levine shook his head. “No, sir. When the military tells you to do something, you do it.”

“Military?” Alex demanded, looking away from Michael and back at Levine.

Almost as if summoned, two HUMVEEs and a large truck, all sporting military plates, came around the corner, stopping right in front of them. A moment later, Flint climbed out of one of them. Dressed in fatigues, he oozed smug self-importance. 

“Alex, how did I know you’d be poking your nose in here?” Flint drawled. “Did you chase the fire truck?” 

“As always you have the wit of a box of hammers,” Maria said flatly, as Michael walked up next to her curiously.

“What the hell are you doing here, Flint?” Alex demanded.  

“That’s classified,” Flint said, all smug. “And this is a restricted area. Under military jurisdiction.” 

“Isn’t it always?” Michael drawled. Drawing Flint’s attention. 

“And you brought Guerin.” Flint seemed delighted.

“Oh, have we met? I’ve met a lot of assholes in my life. They kinda blur together,” Michael said, sounding bored, but there was a glint in his eyes that was nothing but trouble. Alex was suddenly terrified that Michael was going to start shit with his brother as an outlet for the horrifying events of last night.  

Fuck. Maybe they should have had Michael stay in the car. God damnit, this was a lot less stressful before he knew what Michael was. And Alex remembered suddenly that Flint had told them specifically to put Michael back where they found him. Remembered too that his father knew who Michael was.

At the time he had assumed it was because of Michael’s alleged break-ins into military facilities but now… fuckfuckfuck fuck!

Alex kept his face impassive. “Guerin. This is my brother. Flint Manes.” And he hoped that was enough of a tell to get Guerin to shut his pretty, sarcastic mouth.

“Oh. I met your dad a while back,” Michael started, disdain dripping from his words. So obviously it wasn’t enough of a tell and they needed to have a long talk about time and fucking place for sass. “I guess you take after him.” 

“Well, someone needs to,” Flint said, looking at Alex with thinly-veiled contempt. Dick.

“So I’m assuming you and your punchable face are here because of the fumes,” Maria said, stepping in between him and Michael, who did not hide his laughter at her accurate description of Flint’s face. “What jurisdiction are you claiming here, exactly?”

Flint reddened, in the way he always did whenever Maria started giving him shit. “National fucking security.”

“I’m sorry, wait, you’re claiming national security for a meth lab?” Michael asked, laughing. “They pay you jarheads by the hour?”

That is not a meth lab, Guerin,” Flint snapped in a tone that was all too familiar. He’d heard it from himself before, whenever Michael was being a shit about something. Alex made a mental note to check himself.

“Oh, really,” Michael said, eyes artificially wide, fake-credulous. “Why don’t you test the fucking residue, then? Guarantee all you’ll find is P2P.” 

“You think we can’t tell the difference between methamphetamines and ext--” Flint cut himself off, his eyes widening. Realizing he said too much. 

Michael’s eyes were wide too, shocked. Which proved Flint knew something. Something about aliens. Maria looked at Alex, lips pressed into a thin grim line. They were thinking the same thing. Flint knew about aliens, or their existence. He might even know Michael was one. And if Flint knew, Jesse knew. 

Alex briefly considered grabbing Michael, picking up his siblings and heading somewhere with no extradition rights. Briefly. Alex was a lot of things, but a coward wasn’t one of them. He was also an excellent multitasker. He’d protect Michael and kick his father’s ass.

Flint turned around, looking at the soldiers, now in hazmat suits, who had been unpacking equipment, large containers and devices Alex had never seen before. “Ok, clean up and containment. Everything’s to be bagged and tagged for processing at Groom Lake.”

Groom Lake. Area 51. Fuck. 

Alex stepped forward and grabbed Flint’s arm, forcing him to turn back around.

What the--”

“You really think what you’re doing is about national security?” Alex hissed at him.

“I know it is,” Flint spat back at him, yanked his arm away. 

“You’re risking your career, Flint,” Alex said, trying to reach him in the only way Flint was likely to understand. “Following dad’s psychotic ventures.”

But all Flint did was snort. “You don’t know anything Alex. And you’re pissed about it. But you’ve reaped what you sowed, brother. You always wanted to be the black sheep of the family.”

“You don’t know what you’re--”

No you don’t know!” He yelled back, furious and stepping closer to Alex, eyes wild. “Dad trusts me. Not you. You’re too soft, Alex. Go on and play with your ghosts. Let the grown-ups do the real work.” 

Michael didn’t know what the fuck possessed him to be such a dick to Flint. He guessed he had to chalk it up to some sort of pavlovian fear response to military assholes in hazmat suits. But it almost fucked up his whole plan, ‘cause he needed to get into that warehouse.

Thankfully, Alex had provided a distraction by having a family feud right on the street. Everyone was watching. Allowing Michael the opportunity to slip away, hurry to the warehouse. He couldn’t get everything, he knew that. But he could get something. He didn’t know what. But anything that the military didn’t have would keep his family safer? Right?

He was more than aware that his terrified brain was grasping at straws. First Noah then the military. Michael felt so fucking out of control. In forty eight hours his entire world was ripped out from under him and he was free falling with nothing to hold on to. 

Except Maria and Alex? 

Even if he had barely slept, they had held onto him all night long, and he had let them. He’d needed the press of Alex’s chest against Michael’s, handsome features soft and relaxed in sleep, Maria’s nose in his hair, her warm breath tickling his skin, anchoring him without trapping him.

He wasn’t alone. He had to remember that.

You say, as you run off by yourself, again. He sighed, frustrated. He wasn’t gonna turn around now.

He had to focus. The military didn’t know everything. They couldn’t possibly. Not with what he’d seen when he broke into the USAF airbase. They had puzzle pieces and he just had to make sure they couldn’t put them together. 

“Michael!” Maria hissed from behind him, causing him to nearly jump out of his skin. “I thought we agreed you wouldn’t run off and do dumbass shit alone!” 

“I know I know,” Michael said, guiltily. “I just saw an opportunity and I took it. But maybe it’s best for you that I did. There’s plausible deniability if you stay out of this.”

“Nope. I also have a vested interest in fucking Flint over.” Michael hesitated for a moment, but she was clearly sincere. And fuck, he missed getting into trouble with her. So, he grinned at her, and tossed his head toward the door. They slipped in together.  

The damage from the fire and the water had made the place almost unrecognizable. There was nothing but charred and splintered wood, almost everything else seemed melted beyond recognition. Michael had been dreading going back into the room of scifi nightmares. But he didn’t have to worry too long about what he would find behind that door as there were no longer any doors. Or interior walls. The fire had taken those down with them. 

Michael tried not to worry too much about the structural integrity of the damn place, focusing on the task at hand.

“So, what are we looking for?” She asked, stepping carefully over debris. 

“If you see any more glass, grab it,” he said.

“Purse is only so big, but ok,” she said and started rummaging with her good arm.

The pods were gone, as were their terrible contents, and Michael wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or not. If he should chalk up the pod’s fate to the fire or to something more sinister.

“They blew up right?” Maria asked, echoing his thoughts. She was looking at him like he held the answers of the universes. God, he really wished he did. He was only just a little less lost than she was.

“If the fire was as strong as Lt. Levine says,” Michael began, “it could have broken the pods… At least I hope so.” 

Honestly, Michael was never sure about how destructible their tech was. The shards were hard as hell to break. But they must be able to break. After all, they were shards. The question was how. He could never conclusively tell if their ship had burnt up in the atmosphere or exploded on impact. Or both. Michael couldn’t be sure until he got all the details (if he ever did), but he did know that impact and fires destroyed things. Sooner or later. Something was gonna be hot enough, or the right amount of force would be applied. The same logic applied to these pods.

“You don’t know?” Maria asked, surprised. 

“A lot of this is as new to me as it is to you,” he admitted, trying to suppress the tangle of feelings threatening to choke him. Anger and shame and frustration and despair.  

She looked back at him, curious. “I can’t wait to hear your story.” Michael opened his mouth to respond but Maria shook her head. “We can wait a little longer. At least until we don’t have the army breathing down our necks.”

Michael nodded. She was right. They went back to sifting through the ash. Broken bits and half-melted machinery were everywhere. Bits of cracked, white shards that looked heart-wrenchingly like bone and Michael had to swallow a fresh wave of fury and pain, shaking away those lifeless Max faces, floating in the pods.

He found a few more pieces of tech where he remembered the table being. Used his TK to move rubble out of his way as he looked for confirmation that Noah was dead or more alien artifacts. Grabbing another shard of something glittery.

“Shit,” Maria said, softly, reaching to stop him. Looking in the direction of the entrance. He could hear voices now. “They’ve finished sniping at each other. Come on,” she said, tugging at him. “Back door.” 

Michael didn’t need to be told twice, ducking outside with her. There was a small alley out back, a charred tree, a low cinder-block wall. And a surprising amount of wildflowers. 

He hesitated, staring at them.  

“What, Guerin? C’mon!” Maria tugged at his arm. 

“That look like your necklace to you?” He asked instead, nodding at a clump of them. Suddenly remembering the weird deal Noah had made of that necklace. The weird deal Noah had made of Maria, come to think about it.

Maria stopped tugging on him to look at that clump of flowers more closely, pulling the pendant from out of her pocket, comparing it. “Yeah… it does. Get a handful and let’s go. We can verify later.” 

“Yeah,” Michael agreed, grabbing a handful and shoving it into an inside pocket of his jacket. 

He looked back at her, nodding and Maria’s hand clasped his, pulling him down the alley and away from the military.

Chapter Text

“Let me see your necklace,” Michael said, extending his hand to Maria. 

After the military took over the warehouse, they didn’t have much choice but to head back to their hotel room. It was goddamn frustrating and the three of them stewed in their anger the entire drive back. 

Once back at the hotel, Maria had, all business, gone to packing, looking for a productive outlet for her feelings (Michael couldn’t imagine it was effectual and admired her ability to keep it together). Alex pulled out his laptop, and when questioned about what he was doing, had grunted something unintelligible, the movement of his fingers on the keys having a distinctly furious tone. The last time Michael had seen Alex banging on a keyboard that angrily, Jesse Manes had made an appearance. He could guess at what Alex was doing. 

Maria paused in packing to look at him, curiously, while pulling it out of her pocket and handing it over. “Comparing the flowers again?” She asked.

Michael shook his head, turning the necklace over in his hands, looking for the break in it. They weren’t the only ones that had trouble idling. He kept some stuff in his bag out of habit -- including, coincidentally, silver wire (since he’d found a couple years ago that it interacted with their tech). The break wouldn’t be too hard to fix. “Figured I might as well fix it while Alex angry-hacks the D.O.D. or whatever.” 

Maria was quiet. He glanced back up at her, catching her smiling softly at him. It made him feel stupid soft and warm inside, so he ducked his head again, fishing the wire out of his bag and breaking off a bit to start carefully threading through the broken ends with his TK. 

Maria sat down next to him to watch. 

“This isn’t exciting stuff,” he said, glancing over at her. She was sitting close enough that their shoulders brushed, and he pushed away the desire to lean into her, let her run her fingers through his hair, like she’d done just that morning.

“You think I’m ever going to not be impressed by your space magic?” Maria teased, grinning at him. 

Michael snorted. But before he could say anything to that, Alex had gotten up from his chair, settling onto the bed on Michael’s other side to watch too. Not for the first time on this trip, Michael found himself pressed between them. It made threading the necklace difficult as it was hard not to focus on that closeness. And it was already difficult enough -- his powers felt off, fuzzy. Maybe he was tired. Maybe it was just a knock to the head. 

“Oh my God, I don’t need an audience!”

“What? Can’t perform?” Alex asked, raising an eyebrow at him, with a smirk that Michael would lean over and kiss away if he had a shred less self control.  

Michael stared at him hard and said very simply, “fuck you.” Alex in turn just grinned wider. Michael could hear Maria’s muffled giggles beside him. It was enough to make a man question his decision to stick around. 

“C’mon, Guerin. Show us what you got,” Maria teased, throwing her arm around his shoulders. 

Torture. This was pure torture. Michael turned toward her, either to snap at her or kiss her, he had no idea what.

A loud banging on the door had all three of them practically jumping out of their skin. Terrified, Michael was sure it was the army. Flint Manes found something that led him, led the military, back to Michael, and now they were standing outside in their hazmat suits. And by the looks of Alex and Maria going for their sidearms, they were thinking the same thing. Alex looked back at Michael, nodding for him to go hide in the bathroom.

Michael just flipped him off. Did Alex think all that Three Musketeer shit they were spouting last night was just for show? Fucking idiot. 

The banging on the door continued. 

Maria silently moved towards the door, glancing through the peephole. A moment later, she let out a heavy breath, body relaxing into exasperation as she holstered her sidearm. “You’re kidding me.” 

“Who is it?” Alex asked, still frowning deeply, only lowering his gun slightly.  

“The cavalry, apparently,” Maria said, unlocking the door and starting to open it, only to be nearly plowed over as Isobel and Max burst into the room, both looking like they were ready to go down swinging.  

“What the hell are you two doing here!” Michael demanded, feeling emotional whiplash. 

They took in the scene -- Alex with his sidearm in his hands, and the lights flared wildly, a bulb in the bedside lamp popping causing both humans to jump in surprise. 

Crap. Michael winced, holding his hand out. “Alex. Gun.” 

Alex, thank fuck, caught on quick and didn’t argue; holstering his gun and sitting down at edge of the bed. “We come in peace,” he said blandly. 

Isobel and Max looked uncertain, worried. Glancing at each other, then Michael. Weighing the pros and cons of just grabbing Michael and making a run for it, more than likely. 

“Are you sure you’re ok?” Isobel demanded.

“I’m fine,” Michael said quickly. 

“When we got your text, we thought…” Max began but cut himself off with a suspicious look towards Maria and Alex.

“Seriously guys,” Michael said, frowning at his siblings. “Calm the hell down.” 

“You weren’t answering your texts!” There was a near-hysterical note in Isobel’s voice as she slapped him upside the head. Hard.

“Ow, goddamnit Isobel!” 

Before he could say anything else, she threw her arms around him and Michael felt his bones creak a bit. Though the hug only lasted a moment, Isobel turning back toward Maria and Alex, putting herself between them and Michael, as if she could protect him. Max moving to her side. 

Looking at them, determined and protective… a lot of feelings started to bubble up, none of which Michael was going to deal with right now. 

“Phone died, I got caught up,” Michael said, holding onto their shoulders. “It’s okay, Iz. Max. It’s fine. They’re safe. We have a lot to talk about.” He tried as hard as he could to project what he felt, when he thought about Maria and Alex, and the way they cared for him the night before. He’d felt safe. Protected.

“I wish I bought more tequila last night,” Maria groaned, pulling out the bottle from her duffle and shaking it a little, sloshing around the last three quarters of liquor. Honestly, Michael was kind of surprised there was any left, the way those two were pounding it back last night. 

“This a whiskey conversation, anyway,” Michael quipped, smiling at her fondly. 

“It’s not even noon,” Alex pointed out. Getting up to clear bags off of the chairs, taking one of them. Michael realized that he was giving them the bed to sit on together.

Max finally let out a heavy breath, relaxing a tiny bit. Enough to envelop Michael in a tight hug. “Hey, ease up there, Max,” he said, wincing. He might be better off than Maria but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t still covered in bruises. 

“Do you want us to go?” Maria asked, carefully. “Wait outside maybe?” 

Michael hesitated. Looking at Isobel, her eyes red-rimmed, dressed in the same outfit she’d worn for their body snatching escapade. And Max, a real, fully formed Max. Not a dead body. Not a half formed lump, gestating in a pod. This was his brother. Living and breathing and annoying. 

He shook his head, swallowing. “You should stay. They know you know anyway. And you guys can help me fill in the pieces.” 

“Fill in what pieces?” Izzy sounded frustrated, impatient. Michael nudged her to go sit on the foot of the bed with him, waving for Max to sit on the other side of her. 

“No easy way to say any of this,” he said, hesitating. This fucking sucked. He glanced worriedly at Isobel. Should he rip the band aid right off? Start at the beginning?

Rip off the bandaid. It’s not going to get easier if you put it off. “Noah’s an alien.”

Isobel let out a laugh. "What? Michael, don't be an ass…" She froze, staring at him with wide eyes. Clearly reading the fact that he wasn't joking. Her shoulders trembled a little and Max wrapped his own arm around her, eyes seeking out Michael’s, horrified.

Isobel covered her mouth, let out a little choked sound of horror, causing Max to hug her tightly, despite her protests. Michael reached to hug her too.

“Stop it. No!” Isobel shrugged them off, violently, standing up. 

“Iz...” Max started, reaching for her again.

She didn’t let him pull her back. “Fuck, just give me a second.”

Michael watched her, the way she trembled in fury and horror. Revolted. Watched her force herself to get it back together. She shook her head, but Michael didn’t think it was in denial. Which maybe made sense, considering her behavior lately. Clearly she had known something was wrong.  

"Did he know? About me?" She asked, tightly.

"Yes," Michael said. “He, uh, brought up all the acetone bottles you were bad at hiding.” 

Isobel looked at Maria. “Mind if I have some of that tequila?” She asked, words clipped.

“You know I never do.” Maria handed it over, and instead of drawing away, she reached to squeeze her arm, gently, looking concerned.   

Isobel took a deep drink from the bottle. She didn’t pull away from Maria, squeezing her hand tight enough to hurt. Maria just endured it stoically, standing close, quiet, without further touching Isobel. Watching her. 

Michael kept forgetting that they were apparently somehow friends now.

The lights flickered again, dimming before going very bright. Michael gripped Max’s shoulder tight and thankfully that was enough to keep him from breaking all the lightbulbs in a fit of rage. Max’s jaw was clenched so tight, Michael wouldn’t have been surprised if he was exerting enough force to break diamonds. And Michael understood. Fucking hell did he understand but... 

“Breathe,” he murmured, glancing over at Maria and Alex. Neither of which, thankfully, seemed stressed out by the displays of uncontrolled alien powers, just curious. Though most of Maria’s focus was still on Isobel and Alex was looking at him. Both, however, wearing twin looks of concern, for them. 

Fuck, they were amazing. 

After a couple more pulls from the bottle, Isobel let out a deep breath and set it down on the table, heavily. “Okay. Tell me," she said, finally. "Everything, Michael, not just some sanitized version you think I can handle."

This was going to suck. Michael glanced, worriedly, at Max, wondering how high the hotel bill was going to get after Max broke all the electronics in a fit of rage. Michael squeezed Max’s shoulder, shaking a little until Max nodded, exhaling as much of his anger as he could. 

This time, he began at the beginning, with the body they’d found. Fuck it seemed like weeks ago now. Michael could barely even remember how long it had been, honestly.

Max had gone white. “He looked like me and you two didn’t even... that’s why you two kept calling and reaching out to me that night and neither of you told me I had a twin --” his voice cracked. Pain and anger warring.

Michael shook his head. “You should uh… probably wait ‘til I finish before your entirely-justified tirade, Max.”

Max was glaring at him now, nostrils flaring like a bull. But he made a motion for him to continue, clearly not trusting himself to speak.

Michael continued, skipping all the detective work they put into find the warehouse. Max and Isobel listened quietly, without interruption. But kept looking at Michael with wide horrified eyes, Isobel with her arms tight around herself, and Max shaking his head in denial as the story drew to a close.

“No,” Max said simply. “That’s not possible. None of that makes sense. We came out of those pods together. Nothing like that…” The distress in his voice had Isobel joining them back on the bed. She wrapped her arms around Max, despite her own shock. Apparently her instinct to take care of Max was stronger. Or maybe it was easier to focus on his pain than her own? 

“If he was growing-- if I’m one of his…” Max looked so goddamn freaked out, unable to get the words out, looking at Michael like he had any fucking answers. Michael wished more than anything he did, just so Max could stop looking so lost. “Why would he leave me with you if I’m…” He broke off, swallowing.

“He’s dead right? I need him to be dead,” Isobel said, voice flat but it did nothing to hide her anger. Her fear. 

Michael bit his lip and shook his head. “Can’t be sure. We barely got out of that place alive. He was strong. Way too strong. And there was a fire, an explosion…”

None of this was really Michael's fault but he felt like a failure anyway, unable to resist latching on to the belief that if he had killed Noah, Isobel and Max would be having an easier time right now. Instead, Noah had left him feeling inadequate. He couldn’t protect Maria and Alex. He couldn’t do anything for the pain Isobel felt, for the horror Max was experiencing. 

Michael watched Max, sitting quietly, staring down at his hands. Too quiet. The lights flickering once again, violently, the TV came on suddenly before shorting. Isobel quickly pulled Max against her, pressing her forehead to his temple. Her eyes closed, and Max’s drifted closed too. She was tethering him to something happier. Calming him down, before he could do any real damage to anything.

Michael swallowed hard. Watching them cling to each other, until his eyes stung with tears, equal parts distressed for Max and feeling left out. Michael felt an ache in his chest, reminded of how he still often felt like he was on the borders of their relationship.

Then Maria and Alex were there, Maria settling onto the bed behind him, her hand warm on his back, Alex standing in front of him, squeezing his shoulder. Michael let out a shuddering breath, grabbing her hand and pulling gently until she was pressed against his back, arms around his shoulders. He pulled Alex towards him too, with an arm around his waist, and Alex went without complaint, stepping in between his legs so Michael could press his face into hip and try really hard not to cry. 

Alex’s hands slid into his hair, stroking gently. Michael could feel Maria breathing too, the two of them almost perfectly synched. And he let himself drift as much as possible.

Michael’s shuddering had finally subsided. He’d been quietly soaking Alex’s shirt with tears for a while now. Maria wasn’t exactly sure how long. Had lost track of time, pressed against Michael’s back, so focused on soothing him as much as possible. 

He’d needed the time. The cry. Maria could feel it -- like a dam that had needed to break for far too long. So, they’d wait until he was ready, until he was done, just providing comfort. She glanced up at Alex, who was looking at Michael with such a soft, protective expression, carding his fingers through his curls so gently. He was probably sick of standing (he’s been putting his leg through hell lately) but he was obviously as disinclined to move as she was.   

And she realized that once they had a moment to breathe, she and her husband were probably going to have a long talk.

She looked over at Isobel and Max. There was a curious sort of hollow where they should be, emotionally. Not gone, exactly, but as if they had gone within. Out of focus, like they were behind a pane of greased glass. And she wondered, all over again, what exactly she and Alex were dealing with.

Come to think of it, she thought, her brow creasing in a frown. That business with the electronics was a little too similar to their haunting in Slaughter Canyon to be dismissed as a coincidence.

She snorted lightly, reminded herself that she could yell at Guerin later, when he felt a little less fragile. 

As glad as she was that he was finally finally opening up to them, she wished it wasn’t at the cost of so much pain. Because she missed the snide, sarcastic little shit he could be.

Isobel breathed in deeply, and Maria looked back at her. Isobel’s emotions went from fuzzy to back in focus, soft worry and simmering anger, but she was calmer now. And so was Max, opening his eyes too. 

Clearly hearing them, Michael straightened up, wiping away the evidence of tears. Alex tried and failed to not snort in amusement but before Michael could react, or maybe even notice, Maria reached out for Alex’s hand and pulled him in between her and Michael. Mostly so he could sit down. 

Isobel looked at Michael and frowned, reaching for his hand, squeezing it. Michael squeezed it back quietly. “Ok. We need to figure out what to do. I don’t really fancy a visit from my dear husband,” she said, dryly, her nose wrinkling. 

Max took a breath, taking her free hand. “Michael and I, we’ll switch off, make sure you’re not left alone.” 

“I don’t need a babysitter, Max, I need to be able to protect myself!” she protested.  

“It’s not about babysitting, Isobel,” Michael said, sounding exasperated. The tension returned to his back and shoulders. Alex exchanged frustrated glances with Maria, before she just reached out and squeezed Michael’s shoulder. Thankfully, he didn’t pull away. He took a breath, let his voice grow a little more even. “It’s about protecting each other.” 

“Funny how I’m the only one who seems to need this round the clock so-called protection,” she snapped, letting go of their hands and folding her arms. Angry. Protective. 

Maria glanced at Alex, uncomfortable. They were both out of their depths. Maria had no idea what to say, or if she should say anything at all. This was a family moment that they were stepping on, a situation that had happened many times in previous cases, but it was different this time. Usually, they didn’t have personal attachment to the victim.   

“You’re his wife,” Max said, disgusted, angry.

“And you’re his fucking science project,” Isobel shot back furiously, jabbing his chest. 

“Not his,” Maria said quietly.  

“What?” Isobel snapped.

“The way he was talking, he’s working with someone else…” She looked at Max. “I’m guessing it’s the guy who looks like our John Doe. The one who looks like you.

“That’s who’s trying to clone me?” Max said.

Michael exhaled, nodding. “I think so… Noah was complaining that someone didn’t want you, so I had to do it. I think…” Frustrated, he ran a hand through his curls, giving them a wild look. 

“You think?” Max demanded.

“A lot was going on at the time, Max.” Michael sounded defensive. Maria couldn’t blame him.

“Sorry,” Max exhaled, elbows resting on his thighs. He leaned forward, rubbing his face, shaking his head. Maria couldn’t begin to understand what he must be going through right now. But all she could sense was distress and the warring need to recoil and to learn the truth. 

“Well. If that’s the case, we need to find him and Noah,” Isobel said, grimy. 

“First we need to confirm if he’s dead or alive,” Alex said. 

“Could you do it?” Max asked, looking at Isobel, trying to sound calm. He hesitated a moment, Maria could sense some regret at asking. “You get the strongest feelings of all of us.”  

Isobel shook her head. Immediately rejecting that, violently. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Do what?” Alex asked, frowning. 

“We all can kind of sense each other,” Michael explained, voice still a little rough from crying. “Isobel’s best at it. I’m guessing that’s how she found me?”

“So, you’re like… an alien Find my Friends?” Alex asked, raising an eyebrow at Isobel.

Maria groaned and punched him lightly in the arm.

Isobel rolled her eyes, letting out a breath that sounded frustrated. “It’s not an exact science. And besides I have a connection to Max and Michael, psychically,” she explained. “I never tried with him. Obviously. Why would I? I don’t even think it works with humans… And I always felt guilty about lying to my so-called human husband so I kept a tight leash on my powers. I don’t even know what he feels like psychically...”

A horrible thought occurred to Maria. “Wait. Isobel. When we talked about my visions, something happened to you. Something weird.” 

Isobel frowned. Tense. Upset. Not that that wasn’t par for the course, right now. “What do you mean?”  

“We talked about what I saw in Slaughter Canyon. I told you about seeing someone…” She trailed off, glancing at Michael, mouth tightening. Oh, she was going to have such a conversation with Michael later. “...someone who had alien powers. And I think that’s what freaked you out so bad. The idea that your secret was close to being out. That’s why…” She trailed off. She knew she had felt that oily presence before. She just hadn’t placed exactly where, until now.

“What is it?” Isobel prompted, looking at her, nostrils flaring a little. Dread.

“I think Noah was possessing you, Isobel. That’s why you were losing time, forgetting things. There was never anything wrong with you.” 

Shit,” Michael said under his breath, furious and upset all over again, and Max looked like he wanted to punch a wall or set something on fire.

Isobel put her hand over her mouth, looking ill. 

Michael narrowed his eyes towards the bottle of tequila Isobel had left on the table. Glaring at it for a second before Maria felt a spike of confusion and panic. It was enough to distract her and she almost addressed it. But Isobel cursed loudly, reminding Maria why she brought all this stuff up in the first place. 

Michael got up, grabbing the bottle. “You should kill this,” he said, offering it to Isobel, who waved it off. 

Isobel didn’t look at him. She was holding her face, trying to keep her breathing even. “I’m fine, Michael.” 

Maria hated that she had to push this issue. Hated having to put Isobel through this. But they needed to confirm whether he was alive or dead. He already had an advantage in strength and power, they couldn’t give him the element of surprise either. 

“We can use it against him,” she said, slowly. Decisively. “know what he feels like. If… how does your power work, exactly?” 

Isobel looked at her, looking sick, horrified, all her bravado wavering at that prospect. Maria’s guilt intensified. She squeezed Isobel's hand, rubbing her knuckles gently with her thumb. “It’s bullshit. I know. I’m sorry. And if you think there’s another way...”

“What other way?” Isobel demanded, voice going high for a second before she forced herself to calm down. She was quiet for a moment, gripping Maria’s hand tight enough to hurt. Compartmentalizing. Sorting everything away but her anger. Finally, she spoke again, a little more determined, “we need to get ahead of this if he’s still around. I refuse to be surprised.”

“Ok,” Alex said. “Hold on. So, we possibly have a way to sniff him out but what are we going to do when we find him?”

“Kick his ass,” Isobel said firmly.

Maria was pretty amazed at how well Alex kept all the doubt he was radiating right now off his face. 

“Iz.” Michael was the one to voice it. “You don’t get how powerful he is. And he obviously doesn’t just have the one power, if he’s like you too--”

“I don’t control people,” Isobel snapped at him, glaring. 

To his credit, Michael winced almost immediately. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just saying, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to sneak up on him.”  

“Whatever plan we make has to be air tight or--”

“We?” Max interrupted Alex. “Look I appreciate that you’re taking care of Michael but there’s absolutely no ‘we’ here. You two need to go back to Albuquerque and lay low.”

“How about we don’t waste our time with an argument that you’re gonna lose,” Maria said dryly. 

“Seriously Max, leave it,” Michael said but Max shook his head. “You can’t out stubborn them.” 

“It’s not about being stubborn,” Max said. “It’s about common sense. You guys have done plenty. But I’m not going to let you get hurt, or worse, for us.”

“So, we do this smart,” Alex continued, ignoring everything Max said. 

Max was opening his mouth to argue but Michael and Isobel just grabbed his shoulders and shook their heads. “trust them, Max. And no offense, but this is my psycho husband, so I get to call these shots.” She stared at him for a long moment, until Max groaned, hanging his head a bit, in defeat. “Okay. So, what does ‘doing this smart’ look like to you?” She asked, looking back at Alex.

“Knock him out, preferably from a distance.”

“I can commandeer some barbiturates,” Maria offered. “Unless you guys have a suggestion for something that can dampen your powers?” 

Michael’s head snapped up. “Wait. Your necklace,” he said, grabbing it from where he’d abandoned it on the bed when Isobel and Max had barged in. “When Noah pulled this off you, he said something about you having powers, right?”  

Maria nodded. “He thought I was an alien at first, I think.” That made Max and Isobel look at her in confusion, and she was absolutely there with them but now was just not the time. 

“Yeah,” Michael said, nodding. “Said this wasn’t doing you any favors.”

“Where are you going with this?” Isobel asked, tilting her head. 

“I grabbed a handful of flowers that looked just like this, outside the warehouse. At first I thought I was just tired, but ever since, my powers have been kind of wonky.”  

“Wonky?” Max frowned. 

“Yeah. Like… I tried lifting that tequila bottle and I couldn’t,” Michael frowned.  

“So, the flowers suppress your powers?” Alex mused. “... we really should read Liz in.” 

No.” All three siblings spoke together. 

Well, there was something they could agree on, Maria thought, shaking her head. “Can you synthesize a serum from those flowers?” she asked Michael.

“Can she?” Michael shot back.

“Let me see a flower.” Alex extended a hand.

“Why?” Michael asked. 

“Seriously Guerin?” Alex frowned but at Michael’s mulish stare he rolled his eyes. “I am only going to try and ID it. Unless you know what it’s called or where it’s from?”

“You think it’s earth based?” Isobel asked as Michael pulled a flower from his pocket and handed it to Alex. 

“I’m not a goddamned botanist.” Michael shrugged. “All I know is, there were a ton of these growing out behind the warehouse. And one in Maria’s necklace, apparently. And now I’m going to fucking wash my hands and hope this isn’t permanent.”  

Maria went to her duffle and pulled out some evidence bags. “Let’s seal up the rest here.” 

Michael nodded, pulling them out and shoving them in the bag, happily. Though gently enough that they didn’t get overly crumpled.

“Well, it’s a start,” Isobel said. “But we’re not just going to be able to hand over a bouquet to Noah. Hope he, what, buries his face in them? We don’t even know how they work.” 

“Another reason to bring in Liz,” Maria replied. But neither Isobel or Max looked too keen on it. And as frustrating as it was, she supposed she couldn’t blame them for being hesitant to include yet another human.

Michael frowned at the tequila bottle again. This time it moved, wobbling on the table, before he let out a breath and stopped. Looking at his hands, which were dusted with yellow. “Might be able to just use the pollen?”

“Makes sense,” Maria said. “Could be like an allergy.” 

Michael nodded and grabbed the mobile lab, setting it up on the table and taking one of the evidence bags from her, slipping some of the flower pollen onto a microscope slide. They lost Michael after that. He was completely engrossed in what he was doing, which was great but Maria definitely didn’t enjoy spinning her wheels.

Isobel and Max looked just frustrated and lost, and Maria, for all her empathy, didn't really know how to help. So maybe they needed to keep moving forward. “Okay. Why don’t you and I work on figuring out where this asshole is?” 

Isobel nodded, lips pressed together, looking a little pale. Max grabbed her hand. “You can do this.” 

She smiled at him just a little, squeezed his hand -- then swatted at it gently, a couple moments later. “Why don’t you and Alex go on a booze run. Grab some acetone. This might be a lot.” 

“More reason I should stay,” Max said.

“I won’t let anything happen to her,” Maria said, with the conviction of someone who knew what the fuck she was doing.

“Any of you,” Alex added, standing up. “C’mon let’s get some food. Anyway, we need to figure out a way to deliver a pollen payload.”

“Fair,” Max said and stood up, though reluctantly. In the end he dropped a kiss to Isobel’s hair and followed Alex out of the hotel room.  

“Okay.” Maria turned to Isobel. “What do we do?”  

Isobel ran a hand through her hair, nervously. “Are you sure about this? My power can be kind of… invasive.” 

“I trust you,” Maria said, steadily. Instead of reminding her that Maria was also psychic. And that seemed to be the right thing to say, Isobel relaxed a little. 

“Okay. Just… keep him in your mind. How he felt.” 

Maria nodded, closing her eyes for a moment and focusing on Noah’s mind-- slippery, serpentine, smug and self satisfied. When she opened her eyes, the world felt like it had shifted, brightening and dimming at the same time. Like one of her visions, but sharper. Clearer. Isobel looked serious, focused, holding Maria’s hands in hers. And then suddenly, they were flying, the world rushing by them, the sound of a radio, a car.  

“This 92.5 KSFX, for all your classic rock needs,” they heard. “Up next Well Respected Man.” The vision was starting to coalesce, into colors and vague shapes.

The song filled the air. A little too loud. Too sharp. Jarring.

And he's oh, so good,

And he's oh, so fine

“I’ve never seen it like this before.” Isobel breathed out. “It’s so clear.”  

“Where are we?” Maria asked. They could figure out the rest of it later. 

“Roswell,” Isobel said. “Home. Or… close, anyway.” The landscape stabilized around them. It looked like a gas station. Empty save for the attendant and... Noah, looking disheveled. Once nicely-pressed slacks and cardigan singed and torn, a nasty looking burn along his neck and jaw. He limped a little, down the aisle, grabbing some nail polish remover from the shelf, cracking it open and taking a deep drink.

“You okay?” Another voice broke into the vision. Isobel sucked in a breath, nudging Maria. There was an attendant, an older man. Red cheeks. He looked at Noah with bewilderment and some concern. “That ain’t gonna get you drunk, son.” 

Noah snorted, gripping the bottle hard enough to turn his knuckles white. Taking another deep drink before he turned to the attendant. “Just fine,” he said, letting his hand fall to the attendant’s shoulder. “Could be better, though.”

And he's oh, so healthy,

In his body and his mind.

Maria couldn’t help but yell “no!” -- as if it would do anything. As if it would help.

Noah gripped the attendant tightly, even as his hand flew to Noah’s wrist, trying to pull himself free. Noah shoved him hard into a shelf full of Hostess snacks and Twinkies, knocking the breath out of him, sending several packages tumbling to the floor. Noah’s hand started glowing. The attendant let out a strangled scream, before he fell silent, body going limp. 

He's a well respected man about town,

Doing the best things so conservatively.

He pulled back, letting the attendant’s body fall to the ground. The burns were gone and the color back in his cheeks. Dusting off his sweater a little, he moved around the counter, resting his hand against the security camera console, frying it. 

And then suddenly he was looking at them. Smiling, knowingly. Maria’s blood ran cold. 

“Can’t wait for you to come home, babe.”

Isobel gasped, her heart racing a mile a minute. She was crying. Hard sobs wracking her frame. Uncontrollable, even as she tried to focus on her surroundings.

The horrible, cheap brown wallpaper, dingy blue carpeting of the hotel room comforting in the relative safety it provided. She took a deep shuddering breath, trying to get hold of herself. But seeing him. Seeing those lips she’d kissed a hundred times, twisted into a condescending smirk, eyes that had seemed full of love now cold and hard. She was seeing the man behind the mask, and she felt used and foolish and stupid and so, so angry. 

Maria’s arms were around her. Michael’s too. The two of them anchoring her. Maybe it was just an after-effect from being in the mindscape with her, but she could feel Maria’s fear, loathing. Michael’s quiet desperation and worry. 

“He’s a monster,” Isobel said. “I let a fucking monster sleep next to me every night for a decade.”

“Isobel no--” Michael began.

“Ten fucking years, Michael!” She screamed and covered face with her hands. Ten fucking years and she had no idea. “And I always thought I was so smart. I had it together. But no, I was just his fucking dupe--”

“That’s not true. Or you wouldn’t have moved up here,” Maria reminded her. 

Isobel shuddered. Furious, but mostly at herself, still. Trying to breathe. “Did you get anywhere on that pollen?” She asked Michael, flatly. She wouldn’t sleep again, until Noah was fucking dealt with.  

“No,” Michael said.

“You mean you didn’t create a serum?” Maria asked, surprised.

Michael shook his head. “What, because I was looking at it under a microscope? You all seem to think I have multiple degrees in different science fields.”

Isobel let out a shaky laugh. It felt good to laugh. “You’re smart enough to.”

“I’m also smart enough to know that time is of the essence. Maybe Ortecho could do better in the time we have but I can’t.” He ran a hand through his hair, a little frustrated. “But I am pretty sure that enough pollen will actually knock us out. So… I was talking to Alex and we agreed he should see if more can be acquired.” 

Isobel could sense how incredibly stressed out and unhappy Michael was with that decision. He kept shifting his feet like he wanted to get up and head out the door after Alex Manes. And if Isobel wasn’t so fucked up over her own life right now, she might have teased him a little about it.  

Instead, she just pulled him back down onto the bed with her, wrapped her arms around him, and rested her forehead against his. “I love you,” she murmured. 

He awkwardly hugged her back, patting her back a little. “Yeah, yeah, I know.” 

“I don’t say it enough.” 

“You don’t need to,” he said, quietly, and fuck, he was so good. 

“I should figure out food then,” Maria said, standing up.

Michael shifted just enough to be able to look at her. “Is food code for grabbing an uber to the warehouse.”

“I’m not an idiot, Guerin,” Maria said, but she had that same worried energy Michael did.

“Good, ‘cause we’re contractually obligated to engage in dumbass ventures together,” he replied. 

And that made Maria smile, sitting down on the bed beside him. Her hand on his hip. “We need to get Alex under contract.”

“Fuck yes,” Michael sighed.

Thankfully, the military had been frighteningly efficient. The site apparently had been combed through and cleaned up before Max and Alex had even gotten there -- the only hint of anything alien left was the flowers. Thankfully there were plenty. 

Once they’d separated out the pollen, they wasted no time heading down to Roswell. 

Isobel was pretty sure Noah was waiting for her, but Alex hadn’t wanted to give him any more escape time than he already had.

They’d stopped off at the Crashdown, to strategize. The five of them sitting, tense, around a diner table, arguing their plan in hushed voices. Isobel had called their security system up on her phone, just to make sure Noah was still there, watching rooms light on it as ‘occupied’ as he moved around the place. Based on the way they were lighting up, he seemed agitated. 


“Absolutely not,” Max stared at Isobel, arms crossed over his chest, obstinate. “You are absolutely not going in there by yourself. Or at all.” 

“He’s my husband, Max,” Isobel shot back. 

“Exactly my point,” Max replied.

“What do you think is going to happen? I’m going to collapse into subservience the moment I see him?”

Max flushed. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Yeah, you’re doing a perfectly good job of that yourself.” Isobel crossed her own arms, glaring at him. She wasn’t in the mood for Max’s paternalistic bullshit. She’d endured plenty of that. Enough of that. 

They glared at each other. She wasn’t really used to being on opposite sides with Max. But she wasn’t going to back down. This was her fucking life.

“Michael, you’re just going to sit there quietly?” Max demanded. “What the hell do you think about this?”

Michael looked up at them. “For starters, I think you both need to lower your damn voices,” he began flatly. Max rolled his eyes dismissively and Isobel snorted. Ignoring them, he continued, “honestly I’m not sure why we’re not just shooting him with a high-powered rifle. You’re a sniper, right?” He asked Alex.

Alex groaned. “For the third time, Guerin, that wasn’t my job, and we don’t have the time to rig a pollen payload that we know for sure is going to work on him, let alone set up the shot. You watch too many fucking movies.”

“Fine, fine.” Michael waved a hand. “Anyway, Iz, Max isn’t entirely wrong.” Goddamnit Michael. She could already hear the lecture coming and she opened her mouth, about to cut it off but Michael spoke up first. “But he’s not entirely right either. Noah hurt you the worst, and you should be the one to nail his ass to the wall. But not alone.”
In their stunned silence, Michael paused to glance over at Maria and Alex. “Alone doesn’t work. Learned that the hard way.” He looked back at her, reaching out to squeeze her hand, look over at Max. “We can be back up.” 

Isobel swallowed. An annoying little lump in her throat, and dammit she wasn’t going to get emotional about this. Not here, not now. She nodded a little, and glanced over at Max, ready for another outburst.

Max looked annoyed. He was always an obstinate mule when he was feeling protective. But she could also sense a desire to do violence in him. He wasn’t just arguing against her involvement because he wanted to keep her safe. He may never admit it, even to himself, but Isobel knew that he wanted to hurt Noah because he was hurting. 

However, sensing he was overruled, he looked at Michael. Forcing himself to relax, uncrossing his arms from his chest and resting his hands on the table, fingers splayed. “Do you have a plan?”

Michael shrugged and looked back at Maria and Alex. “You two are the tacticians. What do you think?”

Maria let out a slow breath, fiddling with the straw in the milkshake she’d ordered, to be polite. “I don’t love it, if I’m being honest. I’m just worried about him getting into your head, like he did before,” she said. “If you’re not quick enough with that pollen, or he reacts fast. I mean, he was able to stop fucking bullets in the air.”

Isobel fought down the knee-jerk defensiveness. Forced herself to listen. “Do you think he’d expect it from me though?

“Can you confidently say you actually know what he’d expect?” Alex replied. 

That stung. He didn’t mean it to. His awkward ass was just making a point. But it still stung. She picked at the fries in front of her that she had no intention of eating, let out a slow, frustrated breath. “No.” She hated admitting it.

“Well, if we go in, guns blazing, it’ll just be a repeat of the warehouse. Possibly with more dead bodies,” Maria said, a little tartly. “But we do have an advantage this time.” 

“What do you have in mind?” Michael asked, having absolutely no problem working on the fries. 

“My necklace.” Maria pulled it out, placing it on the table. “If it mutes your powers, maybe putting it on will be like a psychic defense?”  

“That’s an awfully big maybe,” Max said, his anger leashed, but still simmering.

Isobel shook her head. “It’s the best thing any of us have so far. So, I go in and what, throw the pollen in his face?”  

Alex shook his head, immediately. “Having the necklace on didn’t stop Bracken from throwing Maria around. Still too big of a chance he’ll dodge it.”  

“He needs to not see it coming,” Max said. “I’ll come in the back door? Make a distraction.” 

“Could work.” Maria nodded.

“And what are we going to do?” Michael said, for all his talk earlier he clearly didn’t like being left behind. 

“We’re plan B,” Alex said simply. 

“And just because I like to be thorough, you know what he definitely won’t see coming?” Maria said, slowly, with a grin.  

Isobel tilted her head, curiously. “The Spanish Inquisition?” she asked, dryly. 

Maria laughed, nudging her lightly with her elbow, and Isobel couldn’t help but laugh, too. It was so fucking stupid. They might all die.  

“This.” Maria dug into her purse and pulled out her baton. “I’m pretty sure Bracken doesn’t know about all the jiu jitsu you’ve been taking, and I really don’t think he’s going to predict you bashing his smug face in.”  

“I mean I did start taking it for him,” Isobel said, taking the baton from her. She ran her thumb over the black rubber handle.

“You did it for yourself,” Maria reminded her. “He gets to reap the benefits.”

“That’s one way to put it.” Michael snorted. 

They continued to discuss their plan over fries and milkshakes. It wasn’t the best plan, as Max pointed out. Like Isobel didn’t know that. Like she wasn’t aware that it was led a little too much by emotion. But like hell she was going to sit out on the sidelines while the man who violated her for a decade was dealt with by others.

While Maria and Alex were settling up the bill inside, Michael waiting for them, Max came outside to wait with her. She needed the fresh air. It helped calm her nerves. 

“Isobel,” he began and she looked at him, wary about what he might say. “It’s not that I don’t think you’re capable, you realize that, right?” He asked, looking back at her.

“You just feel like it's your job to protect me,” Isobel replied. “But it’s not.”

“It is,” Max replied, stubbornly, and plowed on before she could interrupt him. “But it’s also my job to support you. Like you’re always doing for me.” He reached out, squeezed her arm, rubbing it a little. “I’m sorry I’ve been shit at it.”

Isobel pushed away her anger. Truth be told, half of it was projection anyway. She shook her head. “No, you’re not shit at it. You’re supportive in a lot of ways, Max. Just right now, the macho BS is getting in the way.”

Max laughed a little. “Well now that I’ve been thoroughly dragged…” Isobel laughed a little too, and shifted to hug him tightly. 

“Just let me do this, okay?” She said softly into his shoulder. “I can do this.”

“I know you can,” he said, softly, rubbing her back. “And you’re right. This is your fight. So, I’m following your lead, okay?”
“Just follow the plan and try not to get hurt.” She pulled back from him and gave him a stern look.

“You too.” He grinned at her, lopsided and soft. And god, her heart hurt, looking at him. She just loved him so much. 

They could do this. She could do this.

“Of course, I’m not going anywhere,” Noah said, desperately emphatic in a way that belied how hard he was lying. “We're in this together. Of course.”

Shit. He was upstairs. That wasn’t the plan. Isobel frowned as she quietly shut the front door behind her, cursing mentally. Three seconds in and their plan was already shot to hell.

“I really hope that’s still the case--”

Isobel sucked in a breath. That was Max ’s voice, she thought wildly. And then remembered that Max had a potentially-evil doppleganger, and for a moment her heart sunk, believing that he was in the fucking house too. 

“For Rosa Ortecho’s sake,” the voice continued, and she realized that it was coming from a cellphone speaker.  

Who the fuck was Rosa Ortecho? 

She briefly considered slipping back out, or waiting for Max, and revising the plan. But no. The more they fucked around, the more likely it was that they’d lose whatever element of surprise they had. So, Isobel eased out of her shoes and crept up the stairs, as silently as she could. 

“And for your sake too,” Noah shot back, sounding suddenly angry. “Oasian fetal stem cells aren’t exactly easy to come by.” 

What the fuck. Isobel sucked in a startled, angry breath, then clapped her hand over her mouth, hoping he hadn’t heard that. 

There was a moment of startled silence on the line. “So, you finally managed it, then?”

“It is my husbandly duty,” Noah replied and Isobel felt sick. 

“Well stud, you do realize your value has dropped considerably, now?”   

She couldn’t do this any more. Couldn’t listen to Noah’s shocked and sputtering response, or anything else they said. Isobel squared her shoulders, stepping into the doorway of their room. “Honey, I’m home.” 

Surprised Noah spun around to face her, a light blue sweater in his hand. He’d clearly been packing, no matter how tough he was talking on the phone. 

He got a hold of himself quickly, smiling at her and placing the folded sweater neatly on the bed. “Well, speaking of my lovely wife. I do believe I’ll have to call you back.”

“Noah,” she said, gripping the baton tightly in her hand, stepping towards him. Her anger getting the best of her, standing here in their fucking bedroom. In this house of lies. “So, this whole time this marriage, everything we built, you wanting a baby was, what, part of that fucked up little science experiment of yours?”

“Isobel,” Noah started. That cool, calm veneer falling over his features. But she knew it was an act now. He was scared, and desperate. “It didn’t have to be like this. It doesn’t have to be like this.” 

His eyes grew more focused then and she knew he was trying to get into her mind. For a moment, she forgot about Maria’s necklace and braced, fear gnawing at her. But then he stumbled back, holding his head, looking dizzy and disorientated. 

With a flick of her wrist, the baton extended, and Isobel was already closing the distance. Noah turned to look at her then--good--just as she brought the baton down on his face with as much force as she could muster. 

Noah crumpled, falling to the floor. But he wasn’t out yet, looking stunned. And, mind focused solely on her rage, she brought the baton back up with arching swinging hitting him so hard he nearly came off the ground. Distantly, she heard something crack, and maybe she should stop, but her hands were in motion again.

“Isobel!” Max was there suddenly, pulling her back. She didn’t realize it was him, at first, wildly struggling, elbowing him hard in the gut. But he was holding onto her and calling her name. And slowly, slowly, her vision was clearing.  

“Max?” Isobel gasped, stilling in his arms until she saw Noah, lying motionless on the ground. He was bleeding profusely. “Oh my God.” 

“It’s okay,” he said, softly, squeezing her, gently. “It’s going to be okay.”

Isobel shook her head, pushing at him, trying to get out of his arms. Was Noah dead?

“So much for the plan,” Alex was saying dryly, from behind them.  

“Is he dead?” Isobel asked, her voice cracking, strange to her own ears.

Michael slipped around them, squeezing her arm gently, but going to kneel next to Noah, looking for a pulse. “... Sadly, no.” 

Isobel slumped against Max, relieved. Whether she was relieved that he wasn’t dead because she cared about him or because she didn’t want to be a killer was harder to tease out. 

“Did you even need the pollen?” Maria asked.

Isobel shook her head. “…The necklace threw him for a loop, I think.” She was shaking. Why was she shaking so hard?

“Ok well then,” Alex said. “Isobel, let me have the pollen. We’ll deal with Bracken while you get a drink.” He glanced at Max and Michael, nodding his head for them to go with her. She couldn’t even be angry about being pushed out, he was right. She needed to get out of this room and… she wasn’t sure. Scream? Drink herself into oblivion.

“Wait,” Isobel said, halfway to handing him the pouch full of pollen. “What are we going to do with him?” That was something they hadn’t really talked about. Too busy focused on taking him down to worry about next steps. 

“It’s not like there’s supermax for alien psychopaths,” Michael said dryly, looking down at Noah.

“How about for now,” Alex started. “We tie him up and douse him in some pollen. We don’t need to make this decision right this instant.” 

“I have an idea.” Max said, grimly. 

“Two stories,” Alex grumbled, handcuffing Braken as Maria shook some powder over his face and shoulders. “Ugh, I should have Googled the address.”

“Who the fuck has a two story house in New Mexico?” Maria replied and Alex grunted in agreement.

“We were so lucky,” Alex said, sitting down on the bed and noticing Bracken's phone next to the open suitcase. He reached for it. 

“Gonna hack it?” Maria asked. 

“Can’t hurt.” Alex said, with a shrug, and tapped the screen. The keypad came up and he looked at it for a second before tapping zero four times. The screen unlocking immediately. “Good to know aliens are just as stupid with password security as your regular old human.”  

“Husband, dearest. Can we focus on the murderous alien that we currently have unconscious for who-knows-how-long?” 

Alex pocketed the phone. “We’ve cuffed him and covered him in pollen. We can’t keep him like this forever. And like Michael said, we can’t send him to supermax.”

“Supermax won’t hold him.” Michael was coming back into the room after helping Max downstairs with Isobel. “The only reason I stayed in was for them.” 

“Even if it could, the primary concern is keeping your secret,” Alex replied. 

Michael nodded, flashing Alex a grateful smile, that Alex tried not to dwell on, lest he get distracted by how good that smile made him feel.

“Well, the desert at least provides us with a lot of isolated places to bury a body,” Maria said, looking determined, if not excited by the prospect of murder. Alex felt the same way. Cover ups and murders were not the reason why they joined the FBI. 

But they both would do it, without hesitation. To protect people from that asshole. To protect Michael.

“Don’t exactly want either of you to become murderers on our account,” Michael said with a shake to his head. “Alien problems require alien solutions.” 

Alex frowned. “What exactly are you thinking?”  

“Remember those pods we saw in the warehouse of horrors?” Michael asked. As if they could forget. “Just so happens we have a few of those of our own.” 

“What?” Alex and Maria said at the same time.

“What do you mean you have some?” Maria asked, exchanging glances with Alex. Both of them trying not to jump to conclusions. 

Michael ran an awkward hand through his hair. “Can we talk and move this body at the same time? I’d rather him not come to in the middle of this.”

“Ok,” Maria said, frowning. “We should grab a rug.”

Michael looked confused. “Why?”

“Well, we can’t very well float him into the car,” Alex said. “It’s daylight and these suburbs are always full of nosy neighbors.” 

“Fair.” Michael laughed. “There’s one Izzy always hated downstairs.” 

It didn’t take long after that for the three of them to be on the road together. Michael’s TK made it easy to roll Noah up in the carpet and carry him into Alex’s SUV. Of course, they made a show of pretending to carry the rug while outside, just in case. 

Isobel hadn’t wanted to come, and Max had opted to stay with her. She had looked so worn out and miserable, watching them throw Noah into the back of his car. Alex understood that drained and empty feeling that came after that kind of anger. Considering she only learned about her husband's lies and betrayal a day ago, Alex thought she was doing really well.  

Michael drove the car. Mostly quiet, and Alex, despite the burning need to ask him questions, refrained as they drove out into the desert. There would be time for that later. Michael just needed their support now. 

“We’re here.”  

“Where’s here?” Maria asked, as they all got out of the car. 

“Where Max, Isobel and I woke up.” Michael said, softly.  

“Woke up?” Alex echoed, popping open the back of the SUV with his key fob.

“Things will make more sense when we’re inside,” Michael replied as he floated Noah’s body out, letting Alex shut the trunk. Heading toward some abandoned mineshafts.  

Alex and Maria shared a worried look, following him. He led them down towards a mine that was covered up by a big heavy piece of wood. Inside it was cooler but also not as dark as Alex would have expected. Lanterns maybe? But as they moved deeper they could see the real reason. Three of those egg-shaped pods floated in the middle of the room, glowing softly. 

“You already know that we were found out in the desert, right?” Michael asked, as the pods came into view. “Well, my first memories are of coming out of one of these.” 

Maybe it was just because they were in a dank, dark cave in the middle of the New Mexican desert, but these pods looked different from the ones at the warehouse. Sleeker, the shells smoother. And they looked sturdier, somehow.

“You hatched out of one of these?” Alex asked. 

“I knew you were gonna ask that, but I didn’t think it’d be so soon,” Michael said dryly, rolling his eyes. “We’re not birds.” 

“These don’t seem the same as the ones in the warehouse,” Maria said, moving closer to look at the pods.

“Yeah,” Michael agreed. “These are stasis pods. We were in there for like fifty years. Longer, probably, considering interstellar travel.”

Wow,” Maria said, softly.  

“So, you were part of the ‘47 crash,” Alex gasped in disbelief. “Seriously?” 

“Oh, you mean I looked too good to be 80?” Michael smirked, but then he trailed off, startled. Noah’s body hit the ground with a dull thud, and Michael swore a blue streak.

“What’s wrong?” 

“Looks like we weren’t the only ones with this plan,” Michael said, looking furious. Gesturing to a bucket on the ground with some kind of silvery-grey substance in it. “Noah was prepared.”  

It took Alex a moment to put all the pieces together. “So that silver goo has something to do with how you get in the pod?”

Michael pulled out a silver bracelet from his pocket. “Only way I know how to get past the outer membrane.” He made a face. “Fuck. Help me get this bastard out of his clothes so we can shove him in there.” 

“And he won’t get out?” Maria asked, watching Michael unroll Noah with his powers. “Like you guys did?”

“We were set on some kind of timer, I think,” Michael said. “It’s not like it comes with an instruction manual, but I’ve managed to figure out a few things. Pretty sure I know how to set that timer. A century sound good to you guys? It’ll at least give us a bit of time to figure out what to do with him between now and then.” 

“Pretty sure?” Alex asked, pausing in working Noah’s shirt off. 

“Our other options are murdering him or parking his ass in a jail he’ll be out of in hours,” Michael said, dryly. 

Which of course weren’t options at all, and they all knew it. 

Wordlessly, the three of them stripped Noah down, and worked to coat him in the thick silver substance. It was grosser work than he had expected.

Soon enough, they were pushing him into the pod. Try as he might, Alex couldn’t really see a seam or a split in the pod. Noah just passed through the outer membrane like he was incorporeal. His legs and arms folding in towards his chest of their own accord. It must have been the pod placing him in a fetal position, floating in whatever substance was contained inside. Damn, this was strange.

Michael placed his hand over the pod with his eyes closed for a moment. The surface of it rippled, lit up with symbols both familiar and unfamiliar. Alex couldn’t help but just stare in wonder.  

When it was done, Michael stood back and glared at Noah’s face distorted through the liquid, jaw clenched, and hands curled into a tight fist. Maria reached out for one of his hands, uncurling his fist gently and just holding it, squeezing. Alex wished it could be as easy for him, wished he could touch Michael freely. He supposed he could, right now. But it seemed like he could only manage it when Michael was distraught, distressed. It seemed rather unfair.

Alex still did it. Placed his hand against Michael’s back, stroking gently. Offering comfort. Greedily enjoying how Michael leaned into his touch. 

Somehow, Alex refrained from asking all his questions then and there. Also on the drive back to Max’s house, having received a text that he and Isobel had relocated there, which made sense.

Alex wasn’t sure exactly what he pictured when he thought of Max Evan’s house, but the rugged cowboy library wasn’t exactly it. It suited him though.

Maria set the food they’d picked up on the way down on the table and moved towards the couch, sitting down next to Isobel. Isobel was curled up, hair still wet from a shower, in sweats and her brother’s hoodie. She had a mug of something that smelled like alcohol and acetone wrapped in her hands. 

“We need to talk about Rosa Ortecho,” Isobel said, looking tired, but lighter too. 

Chapter Text

“She’s not here,” Kyle said, answering the door in an open robe and a pair of boxers. He looked rough, tired. Unshaven. He scrubbed a hand through his messy hair. “She’s at the lab.” 

“At the lab?” Maria asked, confused, glancing at Michael, who -- to his credit -- was looking up at the porch light and not down at Kyle’s bunny slippers, which had been a gag gift from two Christmases ago. Not even one joke cracked. “Working on…?” 

“The damned mushrooms,” Kyle said, with a groan. “She’s obsessed.”  

“What?” Michael demanded, perplexed. “Not the ones from Slaughter Canyon?” 

“The very ones.” Kyle shook his head, exasperated. 

“But they’re--” he broke off quickly and shot Maria a look that oozed guilt. And in return, she narrowed her eyes at him a little, just enough for him to realize she was absolutely going to rake him over the coals for what he did. She owed him an interrogation. She just needed ten quiet fucking minutes.

Michael just looked guiltier, shifting his weight a little from foot to foot. She shook her head and turned back to Kyle. “Anyway. The mushrooms?” 

Kyle looked between them, bewildered. “Yeah I mean, most of them were dead but there was a sliver left. And she got caught up. Started ranting about weather patterns and hyphae and spores. She even drove all the way back there to get more.” Michael inhaled at that, startled. “And... I mean I get it. I’m fascinated too. But humans need sleep, though she doesn’t seem to agree. I haven’t been able to unglue her from the damn microscope.” 

He looked a little pleadingly at Maria. “You mind knocking her out and dragging her back here? I’d do it myself but…”

Maria half-laughed. “I’d kick your ass if you tried,” she filled in. Taking a moment. “Actually, you should come with us.” Liz was going to need him, to help her process the news. 

Maria hadn’t even figured out how to tell Liz that not only had they found a lead on the sister she’d spent years unsuccessfully trying to find, but that the lead involved fucking aliens. This was not going to be an easy conversation at all, and Maria was kind of annoyed at Alex for having a perfectly reasonable excuse for bowing out. Someone needed to pursue the meager leads they had, before anything could manage to get itself scrubbed off the internet or company databases. 

“She’s not listening to me,” Kyle said, understandably frustrated. 

“Look, Dr. Abs, MD,” Michael said, waving a hand at him. Maria’s eyes finally slid down to the naked chiseled torso she’d been politely ignoring. “Get rid of the bunny slippers and robe and throw on a track suit or whatever. We’ve got shit to talk about. With both of you.”  

Kyle frowned at him, taken aback by his attitude. Michael sounded more irritated than the situation warranted from Kyle’s point of view. After all, he had no idea how vehemently opposed Michael was to telling Liz about Rosa, even now. He had wanted to just find Rosa without them. Isobel had been the one who had finally convinced him, tiredly taking his hand before saying “she deserves to know.”  

Michael hadn’t been able to muster an argument. So here they were.

“Please, Kyle,” Maria said, nudging Michael gently. “It’s kind of important.” 

Kyle’s nostrils flared, annoyed but he relented, disappearing into the house to get dressed. 

“You need to relax, Guerin,” Maria said, not unkindly. “I know this is hard--”

“DeLuca,” Michael began, angrily, then paused, swallowing visibly. Sighing he paced down the walkway some, pulling off his hat and running a hand through his hair. She waited, sensing a torrent of emotions from him--anxiety, fear, discomfort. Finally, he turned to look at her. “Top three on my list of people in occupations I never wanted to know about my secret. The military.” He ticks them off with his fingers. “The FBI. And fucking medical professionals.” 

It was a lot for him. She knew. These last few days had been a lot for everyone, with no time to process.

Maria sighed. “I trust them. I know it doesn’t really help, but I trust them with my life. With Alex’s life.” 

“And I trust you,” he replied, still looking tense. He leaned up against a beam, hands in his pockets. “Doesn’t make this any easier.”

She closed the distance between them, standing close and running her hand up and down his arm. His eyes were molten gold in the sunlight, framed by long dark lashes, downcast, soft and a little vulnerable. Maria understood what it was like to not feel safe, so it was naïve to think she could just put his mind at ease with promises they both knew she may not be able to keep. No matter her intention. But intentions still meant a damn lot. 

“I know,” she said, unable to resist reaching to cup the back of his head, letting her fingers slide into those soft curls. Michael responded to touch. It grounded him. And maybe it grounded her too.

“I just…” He started, his hand settling on her hip, tugging her in gently, and Maria swayed in, wanting to kiss away the tension, till his pretty mouth was slack and soft and...

“You want to tell me what all this is about?” Kyle stepped out, locking the door instead of looking at them. Maria cleared her throat a bit, her cheeks hot. 

It was one thing to kiss Michael Guerin. It was another thing entirely to do so in front of Kyle. Especially considering the conversation they were about to have.

“We’ll explain when we’re with Liz,” she said quickly. Michael pulled away, putting hat back on, heading for the car. The air around her felt cooler in his absence.

“Ok.” Kyle came up to her, curious, concerned and... did she detect just a hint of judgment?

No, that was definitely judgment. And hell, she couldn’t blame him. He’d been there for the disastrous fallout when Alex had crossed that line, and here she was, pirouetting on it.

Sourly, she wished she had leaned in for that kiss, since the damage was apparently done. 

“Off to the lab.” 

Thankfully the drive to the FBI Field Office was a quiet one. Michael drove, for want of something to do, and Kyle settled in the back seat, eyes closed. The frown on his face told Maria that he was blocking them out more than sleeping. 

Before long they were entering the labs. Liz was sitting at a workstation, back to them, hair up in a very messy bun, and in just a tank top and jeans. There was a strange array of test tubes and jars with chemicals, Chinese take-out containers, and a tray of mushrooms, some cut and some intact. They pulsed with that same soft purple light Maria remembered from the caves. 

It was that sudden intensity of the pulsing that caught Liz’s attention, not the door opening and closing behind her. But she knew, immediately, that someone was there. Frowning and pulling out her earbuds, she turned swiftly to look at them. Her wide eyes fell on Michael as she slid off her stool, to her feet.

“Shit!” Michael only narrowly dodged one of those beakers full of chemicals hurtling straight at him. Liz had been aiming for his head.

“Liz, what the hell!” Maria demanded, getting in between her and Michael, catching her before she could try and brain him with a microscope or something. 

“He’s an alien!” Liz protested, trying to dodge around her.

Michael let out an exasperated sigh. “Fuck’s sake, Ortecho.” 

“Ok, look, Liz, you’re tired,” Kyle began, reaching out for her.

“Oh don’t give me that patronizing Doctor McSexy voice,” Liz huffed and Kyle frowned at her, frustrated and not a little concerned.

“Maybe take a beat, Kyle,” Maria said. If she was unsure how to proceed before, she was even more lost now.

Michael was stepping around them. “You keep the wine down here, yeah?” He asked, rummaging in a drawer, despite Liz’s protests. 

“You’re going to need an open…” Kyle trailed off, eyes going wide as the cork popped itself right out of the bottle, and a clean beaker floated itself into Michael’s hand.  

Maria bit her lip on a groan but if the desired effect was to freeze Liz and Kyle in bug eyed, slack jawed shock, he succeeded. 

“So. Yeah. Alien,” he said, pouring a healthy amount into the beaker and handing it over to Liz. “Part of what we needed to talk to you about.” He paused, looked at the mushrooms, at the broken beaker, and grimaced. “How’d you figure it out?” He pulled up a stool, taking a pull straight from the wine bottle.

“The cooler.” Liz was frowning, shrugging Kyle’s hand off of her. “The lightning fractals. Electricity… electrical phenomenon that only started when Max showed up, the fact that those mushrooms only ever got so bright when you or Max were close by. The fact that Max was the only one near that cooler besides me. But what cinched it? Their cellular structures. Those aren’t just regular bioluminescent mushrooms; those are some kind of bio-machine.”

Michael just stared at her, impressed. “That is some really good tired logic. So you leapt to aliens?” 

“You don’t really fit the profile for el chupacabra.” Liz half-laughed, and finally took a cautious, nerve-soothing sip of her wine. “I mean, I thought I was going crazy. So I decided to comb your office for your DNA. Just to, you know, set my mind at ease?”  

“Comb through our office?” Maria demanded.

Liz shrugged, entirely unrepentant. “I don’t know, I thought that I might get some hair? Fingerprints? Scrape some cells off your keyboard? Then I hit paydirt! Found an old bandana in your drawer with dried blood… Look, it was hour twenty, I wasn’t exactly thinking completely straight… But I was right. Not human.”

Kyle actually groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. Maria couldn’t tell if he was mad about the DNA theft and violation of scientific ethics or disturbed by the alien bullshit.

Michael nodded, slowly, and took another drink of the wine. “Okay.” 

“Ok but why throw a beaker at him?” Maria asked, still pretty pissed about that. The worst thing Michael ever did to her was disagree with her, for fuck’s sake.

Liz laughed, looking a shade guilty. “To be fair, again, I haven’t slept much. But I don’t know, maybe there was a plot to infiltrate the FBI or something? I mean weird shit has been happening...”

“And you think the cover least likely to rouse suspicion is as a fucking con?” Michael rolled his eyes. 

“This cannot be happening,” Kyle said, under his breath. He pulled up a stool and sat down heavily on it. “Guerin’s an alien.”

“In the flesh,” Michael said, dryly. 

“And Max and Isobel too, I assume?” Liz added.

“Yeah,” Michael said, looking significantly less happy confirming that fact.

“Greetings from the Gringo Homeworld,” Kyle groaned, shaking his head. Liz snorted, leaning over to rub his shoulder. 

“You’ve met three whole aliens, and you assume they all look like us?” Michael asked dryly. 

“Can we focus?” Maria cut in, going to take the bottle from Guerin, and taking a deep drink of it, herself. “We’ve got a lot to talk about. And weirdly enough, the alien bit is not even close to the strangest part of it.”

Maria decided to start from the top. 

Liz was right and it energized her. Solving a puzzle always did. Aliens. Actual aliens. God, she had so many questions. But Maria’s expression was so serious it quieted her and worried her too. 

The story was crazy. Max clones and evil psychotic aliens, one of which was in a stasis pod shaped like a glowing egg. It was unbelievable. Like something from one of the murals that graced the walls of the Crashdown. Liz could not wait to see it. But soon enough all of Liz’s excited curiosity immediately crumbled, giving way to horror. 

What?” She asked. Hardly able to believe what she was hearing.

“We think this… evil Max clone, whoever he is, has Rosa,” Maria repeated. And Liz could tell she was trying to be gentle, but there was no way to gently deliver this kind of news. 

Liz’ head felt tight. She couldn’t think over the overwhelming sense of anger and shock. Liz felt like crying, like breaking something, like curling up in a ball and wishing that none of this were true. Instead, she forced herself to look between Maria, Michael, and Kyle. Forced herself to pay attention to their faces and demeanors, something to focus on that wasn’t her feelings. Maria’s eyes full of gentle worry. Michael studying the floor a little too hard. Kyle, reflecting her own horror, reached out for her, concerned.

She caught his hand in her own, squeezing hard. “Why?” She asked, bluntly. 

“We don’t--” Maria began, but Liz cut her off.  

“Michael. Why?”  

He looked up. Eyes a little wide, a little scared. As non-threatening as an alien could be in the situation, though she wasn’t quite ready to believe the ‘we come in peace’ schtick. Even if a week ago she would have said Michael was a cool guy. After all, weren’t there at least two blatantly evil aliens running around undetected until recently? Who knew how many more of them were out there. And if maybe she had misread Michael and his siblings. 

“Dunno,” Michael said, frowning at her. A surly defensiveness to him. “Best I can tell, from what Isobel told me? I think he was using her as leverage. Against Noah.”

“How is my sister alien leverage?” Liz asked, frustrated, trying to make the puzzle pieces fit. Their lack of answers was infuriating. “You didn’t ask him?” 


“You didn’t think to interrogate him, Special Agent!” Liz stood up now, furious, rounding on Maria. All this time she and Alex had wasted, investigating fucking Bigfoot or Mothman, but now they stop doing their damn jobs?

“Alex is chasing leads right now,” Maria said, tightly. She kept her tone even, calm, but she was still glaring at Liz. Her arms crossed over her chest. 

“For the last ten years Rosa has been going through God knows what--” Don’t think about it, Liz told herself. Do not let yourself think about what Rosa could have experienced, scared and alone. Do not think about how she might feel abandoned by her family, by Liz. “Meanwhile you have all the answers sitting in some cave in Roswell!” 

“We didn’t know how long we could hold him,” Maria answered, voice rising to match Liz’s.  

“Don’t give me that!” Liz squeezed her hands tightly by her side to keep them from shaking.

“Liz!” Maria slammed her hand on the countertop. “We barely were able to neutralize him. Getting killed would not have helped Rosa!” 

“Liz,” Kyle called softly. He got up and put his arm around her. But she couldn’t quite let herself relax into him.

“Look,” Maria continued, having collected herself. “We have Noah’s cell and a burnt-out alien warehouse. Alex is working the case. He’s good at his job, Liz. We both are. You know that.” 

She did.

But knowing that and trusting it were two different things entirely. She couldn’t right now. Not when it was Rosa. “And if that leads to nothing?” Liz demanded. “We take him out. We wring out whatever information we can out of him.” Maria started to argue but Liz didn’t let her. “It can be done. Those flowers! I can make a serum. Dampen his powers.”

Yeah, she could do this. She pulled away from Kyle, giving his arm a squeeze, and starting to pace thoughtfully. Her mind already formulating ways to synthesize a serum from pollen, mentally pulling up previous articles she’d read about similar endeavors with earth plants. The science gave her a sense of control, one that she badly needed at the moment. 

Michael, however, sucked in a breath the moment she said that, upset. Liz did not care.

“I know you still have some pollen left,” she said, meeting his eyes. “Or am I going to have to take a trip to some warehouse in Santa Fe?” 

Michael glared at her, furious. “Sorry if I’m not really okay with helping you develop a chemical weapon you can use against us.”

Hey,” she said, firmly. “This isn’t about you. It’s about my sister.”

“And about my family too,” he shot back.

“If you calmed down for a minute you’d realize that we both could benefit from a way to neutralize evil aliens.”

“Oh, I’m the one who needs to calm down?” He said, under his breath. Not quietly enough. 

“Did you forget the creep wearing your brother’s face? What happens when he comes looking for Max?”

Michael let out a breath, hard. Angry. But Liz knew the hit landed. “...Just as long as you don’t forget who your enemy actually is, Ortecho,” Michael said through grit teeth, nodding his head towards the broken glass. 

Maria reached out to him, concerned, but he didn’t let her take his hand, instead started towards the door. 

“Michael!” Maria called.

“I just need some air!” He said before slamming the door shut behind him. 

“I should…” Maria started. And then sighed. “I’m pretty sure he’s about to go steal my car.” She shook her head, turning away from the door. “Are you--” she hesitated, looking at Liz.

Liz didn’t want the pity. “Go. I’m going to get started,” she said, turning her back on Maria.

Still, she lingered for a moment. Liz could hear her, awkwardly shifting her weight, before she retreated, the sound of her footsteps echoing down the hallway.

Before she got far, Liz heard the sound of someone calling her name, the murmur of voices. It didn’t sound like it was going to be a short conversation, and Liz smirked to herself. Guerin was definitely stealing her car. 

Good. Maria could walk home for all Liz cared right now.

Kyle took a breath, looking at her with concern and disapproval. But thankfully he didn’t start in on her yet, instead pulled on a pair of latex gloves. “Okay. Where do we start?”

Michael had decided to go home, the minute he left that nightmare of a lab. Back to the airstream and his firepit and his beer. He’d drink until he forgot about how Maria was likely giving Liz the key to his destruction. But Michael ended up sitting in Maria’s car for several minutes, frozen, gripping the steering wheel, and desperately not wanting to be alone.

Fuck, he wished Max and Isobel had come back up to Albuquerque with him.  

Finally, angrily, he turned the key. The SUV was stupid fancy, the kind of car he always hated getting stuck fixing at the junkyard, more computers than mechanics. 

As the car rumbled to life, the GPS lit up, with an icon conveniently marked ‘home’. Before he could really think through the decision, he pressed the button and pulled out of the parking lot.

The DeLuca-Manes house was imposing from the street, but once he got through the automatic gate, it was nice. Smooth stucco walls in a warm terracotta. Gravel and drought-tolerant xeriscaping. A modest backyard. He could see why Maria missed having a garden. The whole thing was nothing fancy. But still the kind of place Michael never bothered to dream of owning. He parked the SUV in the driveway, next to Alex’s fucking SUV (fucking Feds, he thought fondly), and headed up the short path to the doorway. Taking a breath and ringing the doorbell. 

And waited. He ignored the camera fixed on him. There were a lot of those, actually. 

A couple beats passed and no one came to the door. Michael frowned, reaching for the doorbell again, ringing it longer this time. And then knocking, loudly, because what if it was broken? 

He was considering just unlocking the door with his TK when the door finally opened. Alex, in jeans and using a crutch, frowned at him in confusion from the doorway. “Guerin?” 

Michael felt instantly awkward. He hadn’t really thought of a good reason for coming over. Had just gone there on instinct… on need, if he were being completely honest with himself. “I, uh, came to see how the hunt was going…” 

Alex studied him for a second, and Michael felt strangely naked under his gaze. He felt instantly stupid for coming over. He should have known better... For a wild moment, he expected Alex to shut the door in his face, and Michael wouldn’t blame him if he did. But Alex just shifted aside instead, making room for him to pass. “Come in.” 

Michael tried not to breathe out too heavy a sigh of relief, stepping in. “Nice place.”

It was homey. Michael walked deeper into the house, clean, modern, with plenty of plants and crystals tucked everywhere. He could clearly see both of their influences, and it made him smile a bit, and wonder about the parts that he couldn’t place on Alex or Maria. Like the row of thrillers on the bookshelves, or the guitar in the corner. Or the keyboard. 

“Yeah. Not to sound like an ass, but how the fuck did you find it?” Alex asked as he shut and locked the door behind them. Locked door behind a locked gate? Alex was obviously the paranoid sort. And that tracked with the three security cameras and two motion detectors Michael had already clocked.

“Lifted your wallet,” Michael said nonchalantly. Just to piss him off.

Alex frowned at him. “Guerin--”

Joking, geez Manes.” Michael grinned at him, and tossed Maria’s car keys to him, lightly. “Stole Maria’s car.”

Guerin,” Alex groaned. “Seriously?” 

“To be fair, Dr. Frankenstein was getting a little too close to alien experimentation for my taste. I don’t think Maria’ll be super mad that I had to get out of there.” 

Alex softened, moving closer. The gentle thump of his crutch the only sound between them for a moment. There was something deeply personal about seeing Alex in his home, on his crutch. Maybe because Michael knew how private Alex was, how hard he kept up a certain appearance of himself. It was something he could very easily understand. And maybe that’s why he felt weird about intruding like this.  

“So, Liz didn’t take it well?” Alex guessed, eyes all over Michael’s face. Gauging his feelings, his reaction. 

“Well, she threw a beaker at me.” Michael tried for blasé but Alex frowned, looking pissed on his behalf and... that was really nice. Michael smiled, squeezed Alex’s shoulder. “I’m fine. She couldn't hit me if she tried.” He shrugged and the reminder seemed to relax Alex. He moved to the plush, brick-red couch, covered in colorful throws that screamed Maria, and sat down.

“C’mon sit.”  

Michael didn’t need to be told twice, going to drop down into it next to him. Alex’s laptop was sitting open on the coffee table in front of him. Screensaver up--an x-wing speeding through inky black and star speckled space.  

“You get anything?” He asked, looking back at Alex. 

“Mn. Warehouse was rented out by a W. Jones.”

That’s not an alias,” Michael said, dryly. 

Alex chuckled. Deep, and warm. Michael wanted to curl into it. “Well, fortunately for us he didn’t rent in cash.” 

“Really? Thank fuck.” Michael exhaled. “Paper trail means we can find him.” 

“Well, we can find the half-dozen different storage units he’s rented out on that card, anyway,” Alex confirmed. Nudging him gently.  

“Rosa Ortecho isn’t going to be in a storage until,” Michael sighed, frustrated. And he forced himself not to think about how she could be. What a nightmare. A decade long nightmare. Poor Rosa… poor Liz.

He was still angry with Liz but he got it. He’d do anything to keep Isobel and Max safe. And maybe that was partly why Liz didn’t feel safe, because he knew how far she might go, for her sister. Just as far he would go for his own.

“Probably not,” Alex said, pulling Michael out of his thoughts. “But this Jones person had to have rented the storage units for a reason. So we work the case. See what he’s up to. Something’s gonna give us the next step.”

Michael let out a frustrated breath. 

“Hey.” Alex’s hand was covering his own. Cool and strong. “I know you haven’t been on many long-haul cases with us. And I know they suck, especially when the stakes are so high. But Maria and I have, and we’re good at our jobs.”

Michael snorted. “How long have you been looking for proof of aliens again?”

Alex smiled… and lifted his other hand to gently poke Michael right between the eyes. “Found one eventually, didn’t I?”

Michael blinked at him, trying not to flush. Inhaling roughly, he glanced away from Alex’s warm brown eyes, looking down at their joined hands. 

Alex. Maria. Whether or not they should, they both made him feel so good. Whole in a way that he didn’t even realize he’d been longing for.

Alex looked at him steadily for several breaths. And fuck, Michael just wanted to shift in, rest his head on Alex’s chest and listen to his heartbeat, until his own slowed down and matched his, let him calm him down.

It was probably for the best that Alex was pulling his hand free and standing up. “You want a beer?” He asked, moving towards the kitchen. 

“Absolutely.” Michael got up, following him, trying to ignore the pounding of his own heart.

“I could bring it out,” Alex said, dryly. “I might be disabled, but I’m not incapable.”

Michael let out a half laugh. “I just want to see your kitchen. You can learn a lot about people from their kitchens.”

“You’re going to learn that we like takeout and we have a maid who deep cleans once a week.” 

“Oh my god.” Michael groaned. “Seriously? Of course you guys have a maid.”

“Solved sixteen different arguments the day we hired her.” Alex shrugs. “Sometimes keeping the peace is more important than money.”

Michael snorted. He wasn’t so sure about that. 

“So you said Liz was playing Dr. Frankenstein?” He asked, as he opened the fridge, looking over the contents. Michael took the opportunity to spy too -- it was, as advertised, mostly full of takeout containers. Thai, Chinese, Italian. A couple leftovers that looked home cooked (so maybe cooking was a weekend thing for them). A frankly ridiculous collection of gourmet cheeses. A couple of beer bottles on the door, some hipster brand Michael usually wouldn’t be caught dead drinking, and a collection of hot sauces, many of which looked down right nuclear. 

He took a breath, pulling himself back into the here and now. “Liz wants to use the flowers to make a serum that blunts our powers.”

Alex sucked in a breath, straightening, two beer bottles caught in his hand. “Oh,” he said, looking at him. “That’s what’s got you worked up.” 

Michael bristled. “You say that as if it’s not perfectly reasonable--”

Alex frowned. “Michael, this isn’t new. I mean we threw that idea around before we caught Noah.”

“Yeah before,” Michael protested.

Alex looked down at the beer in his hand, set the bottles down on the counter. “Tequila. Up there.” He gestured to a cabinet to Michael’s left. “Mind getting it down?”

Yeah, fair. Michael could use something harder. He grabbed a bottle, not paying attention to the label. “Alex, Noah’s caught. She doesn’t need that kind of power.” Michael poured himself a shot into the glass Alex gave him and took it, relishing the comforting burn. “And don’t you tell me I can trust her.”

“I wasn’t. She threw scientific equipment at you,” Alex pointed out, sensibly. “Would be kind of dumb.” He started to rummage in one of the drawers, pulling out a bottle opener for his beer. “And I’m not going to tell you there’s no reason to be worried. You’d be risking a lot. But we have the chance to get a tactical advantage here. Something we might need with this Jones guy.” 

“Yeah, that’s what the government always says when Superman catches them with a cache of kryptonite weapons,” Michael pointed out, dryly.

“Too. Many. Movies,” Alex said, but he was shaking his head, a fond smile on his lips. “I’m not the government, Guerin.”

Michael snorted. “You’re literally a G-man.” 

Alex laughed. “Yeah, maybe from eight to five on weekdays and the occasional weekend or late night because cryptids apparently don’t sleep,” he admitted. Pausing for a long moment, before he used the opener, cracking open his own beer. “Look. I think Liz isn’t wrong. But… if this is too much for you, I get it. I’ll back you up.” 

“Really?” Michael asked, unable to keep from voicing his surprise. He frowned at Alex, feeling like he should take him at face value but… it was hard. He’d been burned so many times in his life. It was hard to move past that frame of mind.

“Yeah really.” Alex took a pull from his beer, probably using it as an opportunity to formulate a response. Sighing, he moved closer to Michael, who was leaning back against the counter. Alex settled next to him, leaning against the counter and his shoulder, Michael weighing whether he should put his arm around him or not. 

Alex took another pull from his beer. He didn’t look at Michael when he spoke again, but at the plants, in their kitchy mismatched pots, lining the windowsill over the sink. “I called it a case early. But it’s not really. Not for you. For you it’s your life. Your family’s lives. And I know I can be really... single minded, to put it mildly.” He paused, smiling a little, humorlessly. “But I do get that. Maria does too. You should have a say… more than a say, Michael.” 

Michael took a deep breath, and grabbed one of the beers, popping the cap off with his TK and catching it in his hand, squeezing it, letting the bite of the metal settle him. Contemplating that. 

“Look,” Alex said after a minute. “You don’t have to make any decisions yet. I’ll talk to Liz. Right now, we need to figure out how to search these storage units without alerting the military.”

Michael inhaled slowly, and took a drink of the beer. “I’m assuming Flint has a habit of showing up?’

“Both my father and brother have a habit of popping up when they’re least wanted,” Alex reminded him, running a hand through his hair, leaving it endearingly mussed and sticking up in places. “In my more paranoid moments I think they have a tracker on me.”

“There are more cameras outside your house than at the field office,” Michael began sarcastically. “You think you can get more paranoid?” A pause. “I suppose yeah since I don’t see any cameras in here.”

“Only because Maria would divorce me in an instant,” Alex grinned, wryly, taking another pull from his beer. 

“Marriage is all about concessions I hear,” Michael joked.

“In any good partnership.” Alex looked up at Michael, nudged him a little with his shoulder. 

Michael put his arm around Alex’s shoulders, tucking him in close. When Alex did nothing more than relax into him, Michael turned his head, pressing his nose into Alex’s dark silky hair.

“Thanks…” he said after a moment. “I… I’m not…”

“You’re fine, Guerin,” Alex replied, resting his hand over Michael’s, the one resting on his shoulder. “I’m not good at it either. Trusting. Opening up.”

“No shit,” Michael said with a laugh. Shaking his head.  

“Oh fuck you,” Alex laughed, too. 

“Promise?” Michael couldn’t help but tease. Flushing as soon as the word was out of his mouth. Down boy, he reminded himself. You can’t -- and then he cut himself off, because what he had been starting to think was that he couldn't afford to get too close to Alex or Maria.

But why the fuck not? They’d been in possession of his secret for almost a week now, and he wasn’t black bagged yet. Michael would be fooling himself if he didn’t admit that all he’d ever wanted was to be close to them. That his secret and the fear of that secret coming to light were the only reason he’d tried (and mostly failed, if he were being honest with himself, (if they were being honest with themselves given what happened with Maria barely a few hours earlier) to keep them at arm's length. But he didn’t have that excuse anymore, and frankly he was getting tired of telling himself no. 

Alex was looking at him in surprise, unsure of how to proceed. Likely sensing that Michael was more than just joking. But he didn’t move and his eyes were dark with a desire that mirrored his own, a hesitance he was familiar with as well. Alex’s tongue peaked out of his mouth to wet suddenly dry lips, and of course that was what shattered whatever was left of Michael’s self control. Moving his hand from Alex’s shoulder, he cupped the curve of his skull and pulled him into a kiss. 

And thank fuck, Alex was leaning right into it. Michael let out a soft breath against Alex’s mouth, relief and need all bundled together. Alex shifted so they were chest to chest, hand in his hair, deepening the kiss. Demanding, fuck yes, he remembered Alex was a demanding kisser. Taking what he wanted, pulling Michael where he needed. And god, he wanted that right now.

Kissing Alex was just as electric as Michael remembered, too. The slide of their lips, their tongues intoxicating. Michael moaned into it, wrapping both his arms around Alex’s waist and pulling him flush against him. There was the clattering sound of Alex’s crutch falling to the ground as Alex’s weight settled fully against him, pushing Michael right into the counter behind him. Alex’s now-free hand was sliding under Michael’s shirt, blunt nails digging into his back. 

Yes, yes this was what he needed, everything he’d been missing, the weight of him pressing against Michael, the spicy scent of his aftershave, the way Alex whispered his name in between stinging nips and the soothing kisses that followed. For the first time in days, Michael felt himself relax. Really give in. 

“You know it’s common courtesy to put a sock on the doorknob.”

Alex and Michael gasped, breaking the kiss, but still clinging to each other as they turned their heads to find Maria leaning against the doorframe with her arms crossed and an eyebrow arched. 

“No please, don’t stop on my account. I was enjoying the show,” Maria continued, a downright wicked gleam in her eye.

Alex groaned, obviously looking for his crutch. And as much as Michael didn’t want him to pull away, he didn't want him trapped either, so he used his TK to pick it up for him. Alex took it, gratefully, and took a step back, hand dragging slowly off Michael as he did so. 

Alex glanced at Michael, who prepared himself for guilt and regret on Alex’s face. But there was no regret on his face, just a soft smile and his fingertips lingering on his lips. Michael wanted to pull him back into his arms, Maria too. Michael looked at her. Unsure how to interpret her behavior. “Maria…”

“Shut up.” Maria pushed herself off the doorframe and, in seconds, she was crowding in his space, leaning up on her toes, hands on his chest for balance. Michael didn’t even think, just acted. Meeting her halfway into a kiss, groaning as their lips finally met. Her lips soft and fuck she smelled good, like milk and honey. He wrapped an arm around her, hauling her in between his legs. She deepened the kiss instantly, as if she needed to claim him too after Alex. Fuck that was hot. 

But he needed Alex too. His free hand reaching out for Alex who, yes thank fuck, he took it, and heeded Michael’s gentle urging to come close. They were both pressed up against him, the weight of their bodies trapping him up against the counter. It dug uncomfortably into the small of his back but Michael didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but the hot slide of Maria’s tongue against his, Alex pressing a soft kiss to his shoulder, his throat.

Maria was the one who maneuvered them to the couch. It was good that she did, because Alex was too intoxicated by Michael’s kisses to really care about much of anything else. On the couch, they took turns kissing Michael breathless. Taking their time, kissing him slowly, lazily, getting acquainted. Reacquainted. He had forced himself to forget how Michael kissed him with everything he had. Forced himself to forget the way Michael touched him, pulled him in close and held him tight, like he might lose him.  

That grip never eased, even when Maria urged them to break apart with a gentle tug on Michael’s hair; her voice husky, and playful, as she admonished Alex. “Don’t be greedy.” 

Michael hummed deliciously against Alex’s lips before pulling away, not bothering to open his eyes as he kissed Maria, open mouthed and deep.

Maria’s eyes met Alex’s for a moment, before Michael did something that made her eyes darken, lashes fluttering closed with a soft moan. Alex watched them for a moment, watched them kiss. Watched Michael pull her legs into lap. His curls tangled in her slim, manicured fingers. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, to have him tucked between them, Alex kissing his neck and shoulder while Maria swallowed up his little moans of pleasure.

Closing his eyes, Alex pressed his nose behind Michael’s ear, nuzzling and kissing and inhaling deeply. 

Michael smelled so fucking good. Like bourbon and grease and rain.  

Rain. Alex remembered waking up with Michael, in his airstream, smelling it. And he remembered it in Oregon, too. And in the warehouse, come to think of it.

Do aliens just smell like that, he wondered, letting out a soft laugh, running his hand down Michael’s arm, watching the way Michael shifted to press more into Maria, press her into the couch. Alex traced the way his jeans hugged his ass, his legs. The bulk of the anklet.

Fuck. The anklet. Alex sucked in a breath, reality starting to crash in. What the hell were they doing? Alex pulled his hands off Michael.  

Michael made a soft noise in protest, turning to blindly seek out his mouth. Alex couldn’t quite commit to stopping. He didn’t fucking want to. Alex turned to look at Maria--Michael’s lips dragged across his cheek, to nip his ear. Maria was already looking at him, eyes dark, mouth kiss-bruised and worry just starting to creep over her features. Already picking up his change in mood. 

Alex let out a heavy breath. All he wanted was to pull Michael right into a kiss and forget about all their complications. But. 

“I think we should...” He started, and trailed off because Michael’s hand was slipping under his shirt and his brain was shorting out just a little. 

Maria made a frustrated sound, glaring at him, and honestly he couldn’t blame her. He was also pissed at himself right now. 

“Head to bed?” Michael asked, low, lips grazing Alex’s throat, arm sliding around his waist and pulling him in and fuck Michael was strong and warm and...  

And he sternly reminded himself of what happened the last time he let himself get carried away with Michael.

“Nnh…” He cast a desperate look at Maria, her hands were under Michael’s shirt, rucking it up. Alex could see a strip of belly, flat and tantalizing dark with hair. She was shaking her head at him. No, Alex, don’t. He could read the thought in her eyes.

Damnit. Back me up.

“To sleep,” Alex got out, trying to focus past the way Michael’s fingers were gripping the waistband of his jeans, glaring at Maria. Who was looking back at him with so much exasperated annoyance. He glared at her harder. He could not be the only sensible one here, Maria. Not with the way Michael was clinging to him. He needed his damn wife to be as level-headed and self-sacrificing as he was being here, damnit. “It’s been a long day. A long few days.”

Michael hummed. “You know what really helps me sleep…” 

Fine. Maria mouthed, throwing her hands up, frustrated, angry. She took a breath, exhaling slowly before speaking. “... Alex is right, Michael. You can stay in Alex’s room. We’ll bunk together.”

Oh of course the minute she decided to be useful she threw him under the bus like that. As if the bed wouldn’t smell like him for days after, just to torture Alex.

Michael finally drew back from Alex, looking between the both of them. His brows drawn together, searching their faces as if to figure out the joke. “You’re serious right now?” he asked, finally. 

“Yeah,” Alex said, relieved when Maria nodded. “This week has been hell--”

“This has nothing to do with that!” Michael replied, frowning at them both. Annoyed, yes, but there was something desperate and worried in his tone that made Alex’s heart ache. Made him want to forget all his reservations and kiss away the frown from those plush lips.

“We know,” Maria said softly, taking his hand and squeezing it. “But we should still take a step back.” 

“Ok.” Flopping back against the couch, Michael let out a frustrated sigh. He pulled his hand free from Maria, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ok.” 

They showed Michael to Alex’s room. It was spacious, with a big comfortable bed. Michael looked at it like he was being put in the dog house. And in the time it took to sort him out with extra blankets and towels and pointing out the bathroom, Michael’s expression had fluctuated between frustrated, disbelieving, needy and desperate to finally land on resigned. 

Alex knew he was doing the right thing. But doing the right thing didn’t make him any less horny or frustrated. He went back to the kitchen, grabbed two glasses, pouring tequila into both before sitting down at the kitchen table to wait.

Less than ten minutes later, Maria was sitting across from him, sipping her own glass. He was glad she didn’t wait for him in her bedroom. That was too close to his room. Alex hoped alien hearing wasn’t so good that Michael could hear them all the way in the kitchen. 

“Here’s to being cockblocked by both Kyle Valenti and my husband today,” Maria said, raising the glass of tequila to him before drinking. 

Alex snorted. “No life changing dick remember.”

“I don’t know about you, but I was rather planning on changing his life,” she retorted tartly, taking another quick drink before getting up, to grab bread and some gourmet cheese out of the fridge. 

He laughed softly at that, not arguing. “Does that really go with tequila?” 

“I have had a long damn week. I deserve something decadent in my mouth.”

“Gross.” Alex laughed. 

She winked at him, settling back into her chair. “What stopped you?”  

“What didn’t is probably the better question,” he said dryly.  

She raised an eyebrow. “Something changed your mind, though. I felt it.”

Alex shook his head, reached out for some bread. “Anklet was the trigger. When I saw it, it just reminded me of--”

Maria rubbed her temple. “The power differential. Right. It doesn’t feel like there is one when we’re together. Cons and wardens stuff just fades away. It’s just us.” 

“I know.” Alex fiddled with his glass. “Same.” The world felt different when Michael was with them. But that was simply wrong. Michael was a con and they were his wardens. 

Still… the situation didn’t feel quite so simple. He didn’t fully understand how these new revelations changed their dynamic, but the scales felt out of balance. Alex took a swallow of tequila. “It’s all too complicated. With the three of us. I could, we… I don’t want to fuck it up. With him.” Alex slid a hand through his hair, frustrated with his own feelings.

The truth of the matter was that he was terrified of doing this wrong again. Of hurting Michael again, this time irreparably. 

Maria exhaled, loud and frustrated, folding her arms over the table and resting her head on top of them. “I know.”

And it wasn’t just his relationship with Michael that could be irreparably damaged. Losing Maria was his worst nightmare. He’d give up anything if it meant his relationship with Maria was safe.

“I like him,” Alex said into the frustrated silence that followed. “A lot. And you do too.”

Maria raised her head to look at him, frowning. “Is this some kind of ‘we both want him so neither of us can have him’ bullshit?”

Alex shrugged. “I dunno, Maria. This is a really complicated situation and I guess I’m just pointing out all the gremlins on the wing of the plane.” 

Maria frowned. Holding out her hand for him. “Hey. You know I appreciate your tactical mind, right?” She waited till he caught her hand in his, nodding. “But remember, sometimes we need to listen to our hearts.”

Her frown deepened when Alex sucked his teeth. “Maria, this isn’t Disney. This is real life.” 


“It’s too much of a risk. At least right now. While my dad is still out there, waiting for us to fuck up, while Guerin’s still serving his sentence... It leaves us all vulnerable, but him most of all.” 

“Fucking Guerin isn’t going to make him any more or less vulnerable,” Maria said, shaking her head. “This is about insecurity.” Alex frowned at her. “You said it yourself. You’re worried about screwing it up.” 

“You’re not?” he asked, taking another drink of the tequila.

Maria paused, then nodded. “Of course I am.”

“But it’s not enough to keep you from starting something with him?”

She shrugged. “I’m not letting Jesse Manes cockblock me too. And you shouldn’t either,” Maria added, looking at him concerned and annoyed. “You’ve let him do that for long enough.”

Maria wasn’t wrong but she wasn’t right either. Or at least she was being naive if she didn’t realize Jesse Manes had already ruined his life, hers too just by association. He didn’t mention any of that because she would deny it, get all self-righteously pissed at him for owning that guilt. She would remind him that she had her own reasons for following him into the FBI. 

And he would be a self-absorbed asshole if he didn’t acknowledge the truth of that too. 

“So why did you let me stop it?” Alex asked, with a raised eyebrow.

“Because you didn’t want to do it,” Maria said, shrugging, looking a little offended that he would ask. 

“It’s really that simple?” He asked, leaning back in his chair a little. “You’re just… ready to have a threesome with your platonic lifemate and CI?”

She laughed. “It’s not like you’re hard on the eyes, Alex.”

“Be serious.” Alex threw a piece of bread at her. She caught it, smeared some camembert on it and took a bite.

“Fine. You want serious? I do want him. Badly. I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise, and have failed spectacularly. I’ve decided to stop lying to myself. But I don’t want him at your expense.”

“So it is about me.”

“It’s about us,” Maria said firmly. “We haven’t talked it out. And as much as I’d like to go right back to stripping Guerin for parts, ruin your sheets--” she ducked as Alex tossed another piece of bread at her, laughing. “We probably need to talk about it first.” 

Alex paused, thoughtful. Fucking hell. Was he getting in the way of her happiness? “You can, if you want. Go strip him down. But you’re gonna owe me new sheets,” he joked, hoping it covered the way his chest twisted at the idea of it. Not of Michael and Maria being together, but stepping aside felt like giving up, on Michael, on happiness, on them. But it was also hard for him to imagine a world where he got any of that. His life as it was now, the relative peace with Maria, felt too good to be true sometimes.

Maria saw right through him, as usual. “None of this self-sacrificing bullshit. Cut that shit out. Regardless of what you grew up thinking about yourself, you deserve to be happy. This could make you happy, and you’re not giving that up for me.” 

“What, so it’s together or not at all?” He asked, tilting his head. “That’s not exactly fair either.” 

“I think,” Maria began, and he could hear the caution in her voice, trying not to say the wrong thing. “That you’re really close to being in love with him.” She held up her hand, staving off the protest that she knew was coming. “And so am I. And if one of us got to pursue it and the other didn’t… that’s the thing that would start coming between us.” Maria met his eyes, expression serious and unwavering. “That I can’t have.” 

“Me neither,” Alex got out through a suddenly-tight throat. Fuck, he was so lucky to have her.

Silence fell for a couple minutes. Maria letting him deal with the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. But eventually she nudged him a little. “You know it’s going to happen again though, and we may not be able to just stop at kissing. I know you need some time to work it through. But…”

Alex poured himself some more tequila, swallowing it in one go.

“You know tequila isn’t going to help you run away from your feelings. Just add worse feelings in the morning.”

“You’re my wife not my therapist,” Alex reminded her, grumpy. 

“Thank fuck for that,” Maria responded dryly, gesturing at him with a chunk of gouda. “I’d go crazy.”

“Kind of amazed you haven’t already,” he said, a little self-deprecatingly, but mostly honest. He’s needed her more than she’s ever needed him. 

“Mn. Too much work. Besides, they won’t let me take my crystals or plants with me to the nuthouse.”

Alex snorted and glanced down at his empty glass, running his thumb around the rim of it. He concentrated on that for a moment, the press of the glass into thumb, the coolness of it against his skin. Just concentrated on that until some of his anxieties ebbed a bit. Until he could figure out what he wanted to say.

“You’re right. It’s probably going to happen again,” Alex said. “I’m just worried that I’ll never be ready--”

He cut off as Maria scooted her chair around, to wrap her arms around him, tightly. “Stop. I know you’re afraid. It’s okay to be afraid. I am too. Let’s take some time, calm down a bit, and take stock. And Alex?”

Alex grunted a little, not really trusting himself to speak. 

“He feels the same way we do.”

Honestly Alex had no idea if that was better or worse. But it made him feel good. It made him feel like maybe he still had a chance, with Michael. A chance at being happy. 

Chapter Text

Michael didn’t get much sleep. Too damn wired and horny. Even after rubbing one off with his face buried in Alex Manes’ pillow. He refused to feel guilty about doing that, not when he was lying in Alex’s bed, surrounded by his scent. Not when they had just fucking revved him up only to pull back for no discernable fucking reason. They had muttered something about being tired and needing breaks. As if what was going on between them was something new and unexpected and somehow the fucking fault of stress. 

He’d been stressed since meeting those two idiots. He could say from experience that it just made the horniness worse

Sex could only improve the situation, on multiple levels. Unless of course he was reading way, way too much into things.

He did fret about that horrible possibility for too long, going over every instance of flirting, every kiss, every lingering touch. Every time the heat of Maria or Alex’s gaze left a burning trail down his spine. 

No. He wasn’t alone in this, they were feeling the same connection, attraction. They were caught in each other’s orbit, and it was really about time their bodies collided.

So how the hell was he going to convince them that this was the right move?

At some point he did fall asleep, only to wake up again, startled, at 3 in the fucking morning. 

He missed his bunker. This would be a perfect night to fuck with his schematics, to get lost in alien equations and theorizing about interstellar travel.

Thinking about Maria and Alex was maddening. Thinking about Max and Isobel--way too far away--was even worse.

Michael was honestly half-tempted to head back down to Roswell, test the boundaries of this weird newfound trust he had with Maria and Alex. He nudged at the anklet with the toes of his opposite foot. Some days, he almost forgot he still had it on. 


Fuck, he was restless. He had so much in his head, it felt like it was going to explode.

He looked back at the clock again. Time had barely moved. Michael let out a frustrated noise and sat up, dragging a hand through his hair.

No, fuck this, he decided suddenly. I’m not sitting around, just waiting for the sun to rise.

He sat up, flicking the bedside lamp on, squinting at the sudden flood of light. He took a moment to let his eyes adjust. He’d already spent some time poking around Alex’s room earlier while trying to work through his frustrations--tried to make sense of the strange geometric art on his wall, found his odd collection of ugly black beanies, flipped through his collection of vinyl records, and even strummed his guitar.  

Maybe it was time to go poke around the rest of the house. Grabbing his boxers, he shimmied them on and eased out of the room.

He stared, hard, at the door across the hallway. He figured that was probably Maria’s room, and he was so tempted to just ease the door open and climb into bed with them. But the possibility of rejection, more than anything else, was what had him passing their room and heading down the hall.  

Their house was obnoxiously nice. And in the silence of the early morning, he could take his time looking at all those bits he’d noticed earlier. The plants that Maria cared for so carefully. The art that screamed Alex. 

Alex’s laptop. Still sitting on the coffee table where he left it yesterday, running searches for any trace of this W. Jones character.

Michael paused for a moment. Alex, ever the paranoid sort, definitely had security on the laptop. And he would probably feel like it was some kind of violation of boundaries if Michael were to use it, anyway. But what he was working on concerned Michael, concerned Max. Michael had a right to be involved in that work.

Okay. He was just going to try. See if Alex’d changed his password recently. Couldn’t hurt, right? Michael reasoned, as he picked up the laptop, got comfortable on the couch, and opened it. Michael had leaned over Alex’s shoulder enough time while he logged in during cases that he was pretty sure he knew the password.

He did fuck it up on the first attempt but succeeded on the second. Good thing too since he had no intention of trying for a third time.

What popped up on screen was not the array of hacking software (or whatever it was he used to crack into secure sites, track credit card information) but a sub-reddit for polyamory--specifically on making them work. 

Michael blinked. If he hadn’t been sitting, he might have dropped the laptop in shock. 

The shock faded, leaving him awash in relief. Followed by a rush of irritation. He glanced up the hallway, toward Maria’s room again, frowning.

To hell with it. If this was just cold feet or whatever, he was going to prove to them, to them both, that they could work. Because it was getting increasingly difficult to imagine his life without them in it. 

Decision made, and still hours to go before they were going to get up, Michael decided to poke around more. Finding a window full of code that he was pretty sure had something to do with hacking, and another search -- this time for more weird ghost-hunting equipment, and then a document with a list of storage units on it. Michael scrolled through them, thoughtfully. 

Alex had found a half dozen units, apparently rented out to hipster-Max. Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Roswell, Santa Rosa. 

He supposed that Alex and Maria would want to drive all over the fucking state breaking into them. And of course, Ortecho and Valenti would join them and that wasn’t exactly going to give Michael the room he needed to prove to Maria and Alex exactly how good they could be together. 

Michael drummed his fingers on the laptop. 

Actually. Maybe this would be an opportunity to kill three birds with one stone. Work on seducing Maria and Alex, chase down the leads, and distract their resident mad scientist from engineering some kind of alien zapping drug.

He grabbed his phone and dialed Max’s number.

“You better be dying,” Max grumbled on the other line. 

“Oh, be quiet. You’re always up at the crack of dawn for your pre-work reading and coffee,” Michael said flatly. 

“Iz’s been having a hard time sleeping. I’ve been keeping her company.” 

Michael gripped his phone harder. “How is she?” 

“Good as can be expected. She’s planning on grabbing some more stuff and making the move up there a little more permanent, I think.”  

“Makes sense,” Michael said, relieved to hear that for multiple reasons. “I have an excuse for you to come up without her calling you overbearing.”

“I’m all ears.” He sounded sincere. Michael could easily imagine Max racking his brain for an excuse to follow that wouldn’t make Isobel feel like he was stepping on her toes. That was actually part of the reason why Michael had returned to Albuquerque with Alex and Maria. Trying to give her space. 

“Looks like whoever snatched up Rosa Ortecho has a bunch of storage spaces rented out,” Michael began. “Could use a hand with the search efforts. Bring along your cop cosplay.” 

“The FBI badges not enough?” Max asked, sounding amused. 

“I think they might be attracting the wrong type of attention from the army,” Michael said. Max hummed in understanding. Michael had given his siblings a very bare bones explanation of the Manes family situation, what felt like ages ago after the grayling incident. And none of them had forgotten Flint Manes’ sudden appearance in Santa Fe. “Besides, Liz will be with you.” He kept his voice nonchalant, but he knew Max wouldn’t be able to resist.  


“Yeah it’s her sister. She’s pretty invested.” 

“I know,” Max said, quietly. “We talked about Rosa before.” He sighed, deeply. “Okay. I’ll be up today.” 

“Thanks.” Michael hesitated for a moment. “And hey, Max? Don’t let her stick any needles in you.” 

“What?” Max sounded more confused than anything else. “What do you mean? Why would she?” 

“Because she’s a mad scientist who just found out an evil alien kidnapped her sister.”

Max paused. “Shit. And he has my face.”

“Don’t get weird about it,” Michael said, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like she’s met Diet-Max.”

“We are not calling him that.” 

“Decaf Max? Max Zero.”

“Ugh stop.”

“Gluten Free Max.”

Max groaned, sounding a little less maudlin than he had a moment ago. Good. “I am hanging up on you now.”

“Off the rack Max. Maxpartame.” 

Goodbye Michael.” 

Michael laughed, even as the line went dead. 

Okay. Phase one of the plan, done. Phase two would require a bit more research. Good thing he’d been on potential case-sorting duty before everything went to shit. All he had to do was find a good one. One that would give him good excuses to be close to Alex and Maria.

And all of a sudden, he knew exactly which case he was going to drag them on. 

By the time he had it all figured out, the sun had already risen and he was in a much better headspace than he’d been last night. Which was probably why his stomach had decided it was time to complain loudly.

Michael took a breath, and shut the laptop, setting it aside. It was near enough time that Maria and Alex should be waking up soon. Everyone liked eggs, right?

It was a pleasure working in their too-fancy kitchen, he had to admit. There was so much space and their pans were basically brand new. Soon enough he had a pot of fresh coffee brewed and was cutting up potatoes to roast, a pan heating up to cook omelets with some of their fancy cheeses.

“What are you doing?” Maria’s voice broke into his concentration.

He took a breath. Ok. It’s go time.

“Making breakfast,” Michael answered, glancing back at her. She was still in her pajamas--a loose pink cotton t-shirt and pair of soft white shorts--her hair covered by a green silk wrap. She looked soft and cozy and Michael itched to reach for her, pull her against him and kiss her good morning. 

And by the way her eyes were wandering down his body, the feeling was mutual.

He’d never been happier to be cooking in nothing but boxers.

Michael floated a mug down from the cupboard and poured her some coffee with his TK. 

“Oh…” Maria said, surprised, and something else passing over her face that Michael didn't have a chance to read before it was gone. Before her attention was stolen by a mug filling itself up with coffee and milk, a bit of sugar. A spoon stirred it all together as the mug floated into her waiting hands. “Fuck, you’re cool.” She grinned at him. 

Michael shrugged, a little flushed and went back to making breakfast. Using his powers a bit more than he normally would have, just for her, for the way she was looking at him, in wonder and delight. Eight eggs cracked themselves open over a bowl, before a fork started to whisk them together with milk, salt, and pepper. It was a thrill, to finally be able to use his powers with abandon, to be looked at like he wasn’t a freak. 

“So, I do have a bone to pick with you,” Maria said, a little too lightly, after a few minutes of comfortable silence. 

“What?” Michael asked confused, wondering if this was about last night. He figured she’d at least wait until Alex was up. He turned slowly to look at her, cautiously. 

“A haunting? Really Guerin?”  

Oh no, it was way worse than a conversation about last night. Michael immediately felt guilty and he knew she could see it on his face. 

“Slaughter Canyon, right,” he said, dragging a nervous hand through his hair. “I am sorry about that. I saw those damn mushrooms and I freaked out.”

You freaked out?” She sounded incredulous, frowning at him.

“I know. I’m sorry,” Michael said again. “But when I touched them…” He paused, struggling to find the right words for what happened next. He sighed, frustrated. “I don’t know how to really describe it. They changed. Full of symbols, and my head--”

“The whispers!” Maria breathed out. Rapidly putting the pieces together.

“Yeah,” he confirmed, nodding. Frowning just a little. That’s right. With everything else that happened that night, Michael had forgotten. She had heard the mushrooms too, attributing what she heard to ghosts. But… what did that mean?

“You and Max made the electronics go buggy to distract us,” Maria said, pulling him out of his thoughts.

“Max handled the electronics. I knocked shit over,” he said, grabbing some cheese to grate. “And he’s the one that fried the mushrooms too.” 

Maria hummed and Michael wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. Was she angry with him? Did she understand? Whatever she was feeling she wasn’t sharing, instead she was sipping her coffee. He took a moment to pour the egg mixture into a pan to start cooking, putting the potatoes in another pan. Having something to do helped him work through his thoughts.

“You must have been really scared,” she said, finally.

“The minute I realized those mushrooms were alien, I flipped out.” Michael nodded. “And… I hated upsetting you” Swallowing hard, he turned to look at her. “Every second of it.”

“But you did it anyway,” Maria pointed out. “Because you were scared, and you didn’t trust us.”

Michael nodded again. Trying not to hold his breath, nervous. 

“And you do now?”

“I do,” he said, honestly. Maria still looked a little skeptical though. “You don’t look like you believe me.”

“I do believe you.” She paused again, thinking. Maria was a lot more careful with her words than he ever was. “I can see how you’re trying, anyway.”

Michael frowned, somewhere between confused and annoyed at being doubted. “Trying?” 

Maria shrugged. “It’s only been a week, Michael. Can’t just flip a switch.” At Michael’s frown, she added. “I’m just being practical. More so maybe, I get it.” 

She took a quiet sip from her coffee, allowing him to really look at her. Maria was always so open and understanding, but for some reason, in that moment, he remembered just how alike they could be.

“Is that why you’re not yelling at me?” He asked. “Because you get it?”

Maria snorted, shook her head. “I understand that I just want to be angry with you, even if I have no real good reason to be. And...” She sighed, shaking her head. 

“And?” Michael prompted after a moment.

“Maybe being angry with you is easier than being… I dunno. Confused about everything else that happened that night.” 

“The visions,” Michael filled in. He wondered if her visions were directly connected to being in proximity to alien tech. 

Maria nodded. “Don’t let your eggs burn.” 

“Your eggs,” he said, turning back to them, flipping the omelet. “And don’t change the subject.” 

“What’s the subject?” Alex’s voice. Michael glanced back, and he couldn’t help but smile softly. Alex’s hair was sticking up, in disarray, and he was also in a pair of soft-looking pajamas. He also looked very cranky -- which was par for the course for mornings with Alex, Michael had started to realize.

“Omelets,” Maria said before Michael could speak. 

“Hn.” Alex grunted, pouring himself a generous cup of coffee. “Guerin, do aliens not get cold?”

“Is it cold?” Michael asked, possibly a bit too innocently considering how they both arched an eyebrow simultaneously. Michael smirked before turning back to breakfast, regretting that he hadn’t decided on a quiche or anything that involved an oven. Better angles.

Next time.  

“What’s the real subject?” Alex asked, and Michael was grateful for it. As much as he wanted to be playful and seductive he also had questions. But Michael always found it a bit hard to push people into telling their truths. Seemed hypocritical when he wasn’t much for sharing.

“We were talking about Slaughter Canyon,” Michael provided before Maria could think up a new way to change the subject. 

“Oh, was she reading you the Riot Act over your shitty rendition of Ghost Adventures?” Alex said dryly between sips of coffee. “I should take all the equipment you broke out of your pay.”

“At the rate you pay me?” Michael snorted, thinking of the meager stipend checks that were barely enough for beer, food, and gas. “Should only take about a decade. Unless of course you all decide to give me a raise for getting you to something real for once?” 

“As if you’re not cleaning up, cheating at pool regularly,” Maria pointed out with a raised eyebrow. “I should have known something was up.”

Michael laughed, winking at her. Thinking briefly of pool hustling with her in Oregon. Fuck that felt like ages ago. “Anyway, you don’t need any of those bullshit gadgets. None of them work right.”

“They’re fine for detecting paranormal activity,” Alex said.

I am a paranormal experience.”

“You’re a shit is what you are.” 

They all laughed. Alex sat down next to Maria at the kitchen table, propping his crutch against the wall and Maria leaned a little against him; Michael focusing on getting their breakfast ready.

“This looks really good,” Alex said as Michael placed the plates in front of them.

“Seriously. I keep forgetting you’re house trained,” Maria teased. Michael snorted, dropping down in the seat next to her. Well, it was a small round table, so he was technically next to both of them. 

“Is that what we’re calling it?” he asked, throwing the hot sauce he’d snagged for Alex in the air, flipping it, catching it, and setting it in front of him.  

“Thanks,” Alex said, shaking his head at what he’d probably call theatrics, and reached for the bottle. Though Alex did try the eggs and potatoes before smothering them in hot sauce, which Michael appreciated. “This is really good, Guerin.”

“It is,” Maria said smiling and Michael flushed at the compliments. 

He thought back to their first case, when Maria had assumed that he’d learned to cook in prison. And suddenly, he wanted to tell her, tell them why he loved cooking. “Well, you have a one-eyed old junkyard owner to thank for that.” 

“Go on,” Alex said, nudging Michael with his foot. 

Michael told them about Walt Sanders, how he let Michael crash on his couch when was a kid. How Sanders taught him how to cook, showed him how to fix his first engine. It was nice sharing with them a part of his past that didn’t have to do with flying saucers, even if it had sad homeless teenager as seasoning. Michael made sure not to linger on that. Didn’t want the pity. Not that either of them were looking at him with an ounce of pity (Michael had been looking for it), instead they asked him to elaborate on living with Sanders, if that was where he’d gotten the airstream, if he missed fixing engines.

“Yeah I do, I like tinkering, working with my hands, building stuff,” Michael said. “When I got the scholarship at UNM, I was thinking of majoring in engineering.” 

“Why didn’t you?” Maria asked.

Michael shrugged, wishing he hadn’t inhaled his breakfast. That question was complicated and there were still some things that he wasn’t ready to talk about. Maybe he would never be. He took a breath, shrugging. Giving a truth, if not the whole truth. “I guess… I wasn’t ready to put down roots on a planet I didn’t particularly want to live on.”

Maria reached out, quietly, for his hand, and he took it, gratefully. 

“Is that why you were stealing stuff from the Air Force and the UFO museum?” Alex asked, quietly, almost upset or disturbed…? No that wasn’t quite it, either. Michael just couldn’t put his finger on it. His tone and expression were hard to read. 

Michael nodded, awkward, torn between clamming up and talking too much. The fact that he couldn’t quite pinpoint Alex’s expression kept him talking. “Yeah. Started um, building, in my spare time. Seeing if I could reverse-engineer our tech.”

“Your ship.” Alex’s voice sounded strangled. Michael swallowed, nodded. 

“Ship is kind of generous,” Michael chuckled. “A lot of what I got was fragments. Right now it’s half a navigation console at best.”  

“Still impressive,” Maria said, looking at Alex who licked his lips, and nodded belatedly. He seemed tense. Or nervous?

“Yeah… impressive...”

They didn’t say anything else after that. The mood had shifted, lost the lightness of earlier and Michael mourned it. But he also felt that it was a necessary loss. He looked down at Maria’s hand, still clasped in his… well since the mood was broken anyway. 

“So, you guys know my story. And I know Alex’s. But can I ask why you’re involved in all this cryptid hunting nonsense. Does it have anything to do with why you don’t want to talk about Carlsbad?” He looked at Maria, who frowned back at him, looking nervous and unsure, about to pull her hand free. But he held on to it. 

“We’re all airing out our laundry,” Alex said after a moment’s silence. Maria snorted at him before sighing and finishing her coffee with her free hand.

“Trust, right?” Maria said, looking at Michael who nodded a little, trying to project understanding. Shit was hard, talking. Michael knew that and Alex definitely understood that struggle. But Michael was starting to realize that Maria might be just as bad as they were, only better at hiding it. 

She took a deep breath, as if gathering strength or her thoughts. “You already know I’m sensitive.” Michael nodded. “It’s a family trait. It started with my grandma, Patty. She died from complications stemming from what doctors assumed was dementia or early onset Alzheimer's.” Maria’s grip on Michael’s hand tightened, hard enough to be unpleasant. “But they had no idea, really.”

He shifted his seat closer to her, covered her hand with his free one. Trying to offer the same sort of physical comfort she had extended to him on more than one occasion. The tension didn’t ease entirely but it seemed less, and she threw a small, appreciative smile his way. 

“When Patty was in her twenties, she took part in a government experiment,” Maria continued. “It was supposed to be clinical trials for a medical program.” She snorted. “But you know, of course it was a front for unethical, dangerous experimentation on minorities. Black people, farm workers. People who didn’t matter. They told them they had bad blood.”

Michael winced, feeling sick. Yeah, that sounded about right. It was easy to focus on how much danger he and his family would be in if they were discovered. Easy to forget that some people never got to fly under the radar. “What kind of experimentation?” 

“Best we can figure?” Maria and Alex exchanged frustrated glances before turning back to look at him. Maria continued, “they were trying to weaponize alien--your--abilities.”

Michael stiffened. Looking between them, in shock, horror. His mind suddenly filled with a remix of every shitty alien movie, the autopsies, the medical equipment. And things closer to home. The fucking greyling in the lab. Max. He took a deep breath, steadying himself.

For once, Maria was more focused on herself than his angst, still talking. It was Alex who gripped his shoulder, looking at him with some concern. Michael shook his head, it was fine. But that lie didn’t take, Alex’s hand slid up, squeezing the back of his neck. Michael didn’t bother with any further protests. 

“Mostly, people just died,” Maria was saying grimly. “So, Patty was one of the lucky ones. Except she started to pick up people’s feelings, to read auras. My mom does it too. So can I, but I can do more than that. I’ve started to develop precognitive abilities.”

“You can see the future?” Michael tried not to sound incredulous but he must have failed because Maria pulled her hands away, slouching back in her seat, arms crossed over her chest.

“You know, I can’t handle the fact that our skeptic is a fucking alien,” Maria said flatly.

“Tell me about it,” Alex sighed and put his arm around her. Michael missed Alex’s hands but his eyes on Michael felt fond. And that was damn nice too.

“Look. When you’re in my position it pays to be discerning about information,” Michael shrugged. “But c’mon, DeLuca, don’t leave me on the edge of my seat.” He nudged her a little and she chuckled, just a bit wetly. No matter how well she was keeping it together, it was obvious that she was deeply affected. Sad. Angry.

Michael couldn’t blame her one bit. Shit. He thought about the alien autopsy reports Alex had mentioned finding in his father’s files. How furious and powerless and scared he’d been, just hearing about that. He hated that he and Maria had family tortured by the government in common. 

“So precog?” Michael prompted, gently.

Maria nodded. “I didn’t tell you…” She took a breath. “I had a vision when we were fighting Bracken. One of three that I’ve had in the last couple months. I saw him…” She paused. He could see her jaw working. Angry. Still afraid. “He put his hands on Alex. And they were glowing. I just knew he was…”

“Killing him,” Michael said, feeling sick. He had to look at Alex, safe and healthy and alive. 

“You can kill with glowy hands?” Alex asked and Michael must have looked offended, defensive, because Alex shook his head immediately. “No, Michael, I know you wouldn’t. I mean just as a skill.” 

Michael suddenly wished he had something stronger than coffee. “Well, I can’t do it anyway. But yeah, it’s an ability.” He knew his tone was surly. He couldn’t help it. He didn’t want Maria and Alex looking at Max like he was a killer any more than they might already be liable to, considering the whole evil doppelganger situation. 

Alex and Maria exchanged glances and if Michael was in a better mood he might joke that they seemed more psychic than the twins, considering how often they did that. But he wasn’t in a better mood, so he just watched them cautiously. It was only a brief exchange (for lack of a better word) and they must have decided to drop it because Maria just continued with her story, “but yeah if it wasn’t for that vision, things could have gone way worse.” 

“You said it was one of three?” Alex asked, frowning and Michael realized this was something they hadn’t spoken about. It was weird to think they kept secrets from each other. They seemed like they were of one mind most of the time. 

Maria nodded. “I don’t think I saw the ghost of Patty at Slaughter Canyon, ‘Lex. And… what I didn’t tell you is that, I saw a vision of Max… no. Probably Jones. Nothing happened. He just walked up to the cave entrance, all menace. The vision with Patty was more informative. She was talking to an alien.”

Michael remembered that last one. She had mentioned it to Isobel. 

Alex was frowning at Maria, who just looked tired and maybe not entirely apologetic. “I was going to tell you,” she said.

“After figuring it all out on your own,” Alex said, more a statement than an accusation. Were they fighting? It was a little hard for Michael to tell. But the quiet that followed Alex’s words made Michael uncomfortable. 

“So whatever cocktail of alien laced drugs your grandmother was given altered her physiology enough to pass it down to you,” Michael said, to break the silence. “So, you’re part alien in a way…” 

Maria smiled wryly, nodding. “In a way.”

“So maybe what you were seeing at Slaughter Canyon weren’t visions but memories. Or maybe some kind of upload?”

Alex frowned. “What do you mean?”

Michael ran a hand through his hair again, scratching a bit at his skull. “The mushrooms are alien tech. Specifically they’re data banks that are always on. I wonder if she was picking up, well, data.”

“I don’t think those are what’s causing my visions. There were no mushrooms at that warehouse, Guerin.” Maria shook her head .

“Yeah it’s an imperfect theory.” Michael sighed. “I just-- I guess I say that because when I touched them, I got an upload, so to speak.”

“Of what?” Alex asked, switching from frowning at Maria to frowning at Michael.

“Home.” Michael couldn’t help but smile. “I saw, I think, my homeworld’s star system.” 

“Really?” Maria asked, amazed. Alex was quiet. 

Michael nodded, smiling a little sadly. “Got a map and a route in my head. Now if only I had a way to get there.” He was dying to see his homeworld and he wondered about what other information was waiting for him in the other mushrooms. He promised himself he’d go back when things were calmer, touch every last one. Learn as much as he could about his people. Finally get some fucking answers.

Alex got up, seeming a bit antsy. He started to stack the plates, taking them over to the dishwasher. “So, you saw your grandmother with an alien?” He asked, skipping back to Maria’s revelation. “You think they were… what, working together?” He paused in loading the dishwasher to frown at Maria. 

“I don’t know,” Maria said. “I mean, it’s definitely possible. The alien said that she had earned his trust for a lifetime.”

Michael had to wonder what that meant. How Patty could have been so trusted by his people. 

It had to be connected, Michael thought. It couldn’t be a coincidence that Maria’s grandmother got experimented on with serums of alien origins and made friends with an alien. Were there aliens at the testing site? Is that where she met them? Or -- and he could hardly believe he was even thinking of this as a possibility -- did she come across free aliens?

That thought was almost too big. He took a breath, and looked back at Maria. Start with the simpler stuff. “I need to know. Everything about the experiments. Everything you know.”

Maria worried her lip for a moment. “I mean there’s not much more to it than that, that we’ve ever been able to find,” she said. “Grandma Patty told me that the program was shut down in the seventies, when people started dying. I haven’t been able to find much evidence. Just the name of a now-defunct insurance company. When we dug into it? We figured out that it was a front, run by the military.” 

“Do you think it’s connected to whatever your father’s doing?” Michael asked Alex, who was leaning against the kitchen counter, arms crossed, pensive.

“Of course,” Alex said. “Looking into what happened to Patty was what led us to Project Shepard.”

“Shepard?” Michael frowned. The name sounded vaguely familiar but he couldn’t place it.

Alex nodded. “The code name for the clean-up operation that took place after the Roswell Incident. It’s terminated now,” Alex continued. “As far as I can tell. It’s only mentioned briefly in the Project Sign and Grudge reports, and only as part of the Air Force’s efforts to alleviate public anxiety about unidentified flying objects. I think it must have outlasted both those projects, given that they were in possession of deceased aliens and alien technology but--” 

“You’ve hit a wall,” Michael said, frustrated. Alex nodded, mirroring his frustration and he also looked apologetic. Or guilty. Michael wanted to tell him to stop being dumb and taking on too much responsibility for things he couldn’t control. But there wasn’t really a way to do that without sounding like an asshole.

Alex shook his head before Michael could come up with the right words. “Your grandmother was always so adamant about you and Mimi wearing those necklaces,” Alex started again, looking at Maria. “Wasn’t just about keeping out intrusive thoughts and feelings. She didn’t want you having visions.” 

Maria nodded, holding the pendant in her palm, brushing her thumb over it, lost in thought. 

The questions kept piling up and Michael felt himself grow a little overwhelmed, frustrated, and angry. All useless feelings. If Michael weren’t sitting in the kitchen of the two people he was beginning to… really care about, he might have done something stupid. Broken something. Gone looking for a fight. Anything to break the building anxiety within him. 

Instead, Michael focused on the kitchen, on Maria who was drinking her coffee, unhappily, and Alex who had gone back to loading the dishwasher with enough angry force Michael was surprised the plates didn’t crack. 

Michael wished he could just pull them both into his arms and hold them. It would definitely make him feel better. Maybe them too. Touch helped ground him. Helped remind him that he may be lost but he wasn’t alone. Because really what the fuck were the odds of him stumbling across the two people in the world who not only could help solve this horrifying mystery but were also a part of it. The chances were astronomical. They were in this together. And not just because their histories aligned, but because he cared about them. And they cared about him. 

‘Well,” Michael began. “This is a lot of ancient history that we can’t do much about, at least right now. So why don’t we focus on something that we can do?”

“Chasing down Jones.” Alex filled in, grimly. “I have a list of storage units we can start hitting.” 

“Not so fast.” Michael shook his head. “Your creepy brother already ran us down once. I’d be shocked if he weren’t still keeping an eye on you.” Michael paused, expecting him to argue. Ready to remind Alex that he himself had brought up being tracked by his fucked up family. Instead, Alex’s expression had just darkened, anger and more guilt. Michael sighed. “So, I took the liberty of giving that list to Max and Liz.” And also spoke to them at length about the situation. “Best thing we can do for them is stay far out of the way. Move on to another case, seem uninterested.” 

“You broke into my laptop?” Alex raised an eyebrow, incredulous. 

“I’ve known your password for weeks and anyway, that’s not the important thing here.”

“Lest we forget he’s a criminal,” Maria said, dryly, but her eyes were sparkling with fond amusement, and she reached to ruffle his hair gently. “So, what do you suggest then?”

Michael breathed out the last of the anxiety as she lingered, touching his hair just a little longer than she needed to, dropping her hand, a little flustered.

This was the right move.  

“I took a little time to find the perfect case.”


Chapter Text

Max took a breath and pressed the doorbell. Nervous. Why the fuck was he so nervous?

Oh right. Because he was ringing the doorbell of a mad scientist. Michael called her a mad scientist. Max had trouble thinking of Liz as anything but a brilliant, interesting and gorgeous woman. Especially when she looked at him with those soft brown eyes.... 

Max rang the doorbell again, reminding himself that Liz was married. But more importantly, her sister was kidnapped by his sister’s psychopath husband and a man wearing his own face.

Max closed his eyes, breathed deeply. Waiting. 

Liz yanked open the door and stood in the doorway looking at him for a moment, damp hair, white sweater slipping off her shoulder. Soft-looking jeans and socks. She looked tired, deep bruises under her eyes. Bright, almost aggressively red lipstick. He tried not to shift uncomfortably under her stare. He could not for the life of him guess at what she was thinking. 


“Hi,” Max said. “I’m here to--”

“I know,” Liz said brusquely and motioned for him to enter. She closed the door behind him. “Kyle’s in the kitchen.” She pointed, clearly wanting him to go ahead so he went instead of waiting for her to lead him. She followed behind him. 

“Evans,” Kyle said, smiling a little, as if trying to reassure him. “Good morning. Have a seat.” He motioned towards the kitchen island. Max took a seat, unsure about what else to do with himself besides do as told and read body language. 

Kyle looked tired too, and Max could see the wariness under his attempt at pleasantness--gentle greeting and an offer of coffee. Maybe he was the type to be pleasant in awkward situations. But all it did was make Max more uncomfortable. Not for the first time he wished he had Isobel’s finesse in awkward situations. 

“Ugh my neck is totally fucked up. Thanks to you,” Liz grumbled, wandering into the kitchen, rubbing at it. 

Whatever Kyle did, he didn’t look apologetic about it. Kyle just handed her a mug wordlessly. Then one to Max. “Café de Olla,” he explained. “Tends to soothe the savage beast,” he said under his breath. But not quietly enough.

Liz glared at him but seemed disinclined to argue, taking a deep drink from her coffee. 

“Uh… are you ok, Liz?” Max asked, watching her rub her neck.

Someone,” she began, “decided to crush me last night.”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “Well, if you would've just stayed in bed and slept, I wouldn’t have had to resort to drastic measures.”

Max blinked, looking between them, a little flushed at the unbidden image of Kyle on top of Liz in bed. This was neither the time or the place, and he kind of wished they weren’t so open about their bedroom activities. He cleared his throat. “Oh.” 

“So, Michael sent you the list?” Liz asked, taking another sip of her coffee.

“Yeah,” Max said, glad of the distraction, pulling out his phone and bringing up the encrypted email he’d gotten from Alex. It had come from an address he hadn’t recognized and would have assumed it was spam if Michael hadn’t warned him to be on the lookout for it. “Looks like they were able to find at least ten of them in the New Mexico area.”

“Nowhere else?” Kyle asked.

Max shook his head. “No and honestly, I’d be surprised. Michael and I talked about it. We think he wanted to be close.”

“To what?” Kyle asked, frowning.

“To him, likely,” Liz said. Max nodded unhappily. “You really don’t know anything about this guy?” She narrowed her eyes. Suspicious.


“No, it’s fine.” It wasn’t. But Max answered anyway. “I dunno if Michael told you any of our history, but when we woke up, we were alone--”

“Just the three of you?” Liz was staring at him, searching for the lies.

“Just us three, Liz. I swear. We didn’t even know about Noah. Though apparently, he knew about us,” he added sourly. Max tried not to think about how he failed his sister, like he had been since learning the truth about Noah. 

Kyle and Liz absorbed that, both looking thoughtful. Kyle looked a hell of a lot less suspicious than Liz did. 

“So, whoever this guy is, is trying to create clones of you,” Kyle said, eventually.

Viable clones, according to Michael,” Max said, deeply uncomfortable. “All the ones at the warehouse were… failures.”

“Failures how?” Liz tilted her head. Clearly fascinated despite herself.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Max said. Trying not to be bitter. Closed off, angry.

“Then you’re a clone too?” Liz wondered.

Max shrugged, helplessly. It was difficult to keep a lid on all his feelings. Keep himself calm and collected. Not just for the case, but because he didn’t want to be looked at differently, like a danger.

“This is fucked,” Kyle said. 

“You’re telling me.” 

“It looks like there are at least three storage units here in Albuquerque,” Kyle said, likely sensing Max’s mood and wisely steering the topic towards safer grounds. 

Max was grateful, nodding as he sipped his coffee. And it was good. Rich, sweet. A hint of spice. Like a damn hug in a mug. He tried to let it relax him. 

“Should be easy to knock out. Then depending on what we find, I think Santa Rosa next?”  

“Solid plan,” Kyle agreed. “Did Alex say he was sending us warrants or do you have them?”

“Neither. We won’t need ‘em,” Max said, draining the rest of his coffee and standing up. “Badge will take us most of the way, and I’m not above breaking into anything that the badge won’t get us into.” 

Normally he would never suggest that, but warrants needed judges and paperwork. Best to keep this off the books.  

Liz looked at him, the suspicion easing, just a little. An appreciative glint in her eyes, maybe because he had just offered to break and enter for her? “Fine. Let’s get going, then.” 

“Aliens and werewolves, Guerin?”

They were parked down the road from Starfall Ranch, situated a little east of Santa Rosa, sitting in the airstream. Michael had insisted on taking his truck and the airstream, saying that they were going undercover and that Alex’s SUV was going to be too ‘damn conspicuous’.

After the long drive, they had filed into the airstream, to take a break, have some water, and get the details of Guerin’s so-called ‘perfect’ case. He’d been annoyingly vague on the details up until now.  

The airstream wasn’t exactly built for guests. There weren’t a lot of places to sit, save for the bed. Which no. So, Alex and Maria were crowded at the front of the airstream, by what probably was supposed to be a dining table but had been converted into Michael’s desk. Maria was sitting in one of two chairs in the entire airstream, an old stool with frayed green upholstery that was squished between the table and the kitchen. Alex’s chair was in the front of the dining area, a surprisingly comfy one made of worn brown leather. 

Alex looked around, something he’d neglected to do the last time he was there, trying not to be obviously fascinated by the endless maps on the walls and strewn across the desk. Flight, heat, topography. Pages filled with intricate equations. And a frankly concerning amount of radio equipment and… was that radar equipment? He and Maria briefly exchanged quizzical glances. 

“Mn. It was on my rejected case pile.” Michael was grinning at him from the kitchen in the most annoying way.

Rejected case. As in not worth our time,” Alex said, exasperated, dragging his attention fully back to Michael.  

“As in also not worth the military’s time,” Michael reminded him, handing over two mugs full of coffee. Freshly brewed. “As in let’s bore the everloving shit out of anyone spying on us for a week or so, until they go back to half-assed surveilling us before we do anything real again.”

Alex let out a frustrated breath. All he wanted was to jump right on the leads they’d finally dug up, bolstered by all the revelations from this past week. But Michael wasn’t wrong. That was why the three of them basically packed up and drove out to Santa Rosa the next day. After all, how many times had they gotten close, only to run into Flint, or god forbid Jesse? Alex had patience and self-restraint. He just needed to exercise it and give Liz and Max the space they needed to work. 

“What’s the story?” Maria said. Smiling softly, she absently touched the leaves of a lush plant that looked a little too big for its pot, perched on the corner of the table. Alex tilted his head a little -- the plant looked familiar, but he couldn’t place it. After a moment of fussing over it, Maria shook her head a little, leaning to look through a small hole peeled in the newspaper covering the windows. Looking out at the ranch again, Alex had to presume. From his vantage, Alex could see the fencing, a few squat buildings, a large rainbow flag, the progressive variant, fluttering in the wind. 

“The place is a wool ranch.” Michael was smiling even broader, somehow, and this had the flavor of a trap. “They get harassed by the locals pretty frequently. The owners have been bugging the FBI for ages, trying to get someone out here to get to the bottom of things, since local law enforcement’s giving them the run-around.”

Alex frowned. “The run-around?”

“Most of the incidents get written off as this place just being “weird.” He threw the air quotes in, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, the owners want to get to the bottom of it. Prove that it is or isn’t humans messing with them.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Why are the locals harassing them?” 

“I know you didn’t miss the flag.” Michael nodded in the direction of the ranch. “This place doubles as a queer retreat, and there’s a not-inconsequential subsection of people in the area who don’t think they should be allowed here. Sometimes they show up with guns.”

“So, if we go flashing our badges and guns, they’re not going to trust us,” Maria filled in. 

Michael nodded. “Exactly. Carter, the foreman, will know who we are, but that’s about it. I’ll go in as a ranch hand, and you two… well, they’re always happy to have more people on the security team in case the local militias decide to get colorful.” 

“Ok.” Alex nodded. Nothing about this didn’t make sense, but he could tell when Guerin was up to something. “Where do the aliens and werewolves come in?”

“It’s not just homophobes terrorizing them,” Michael said, taking a drink from his own mug before continuing. “The place is lousy with reports of paranormal activity and UFO sightings. I went back in the record -- before they moved in it was the usual New Mexico Ranch tall tales, but apparently there’s been a significant uptick since they moved in.”

“What is it with ranches and paranormal activity?” Maria asked, likely thinking of the Stardust Ranch and the Sherman Ranch. Alex was too. “I mean why do aliens care about ranches so much?” She was looking at Michael, cheek resting on her upturned fist.

“We rightfully realized that animals are better than people.” Michael rolled his eyes. 

“Explains the ranching experience.” Maria laughed. “I have a feeling you’re the one who’s really going to be selling this.” 

“Already have the full aesthetic.” Michael winked, nodding his head towards the black hat resting over a lamp. Maria laughed again, so fond, looking over at Michael, whose own smile lost its playful edge. Softening. It made Alex’s chest ache in a strange way. Not jealousy. Longing? He didn’t want to call it longing. 

“Not the full aesthetic,” Maria retorted. “Missing the boots and spurs, cowboy.”

Oh, he knew that note in her voice. That flirtatious sparkle in her eye. 

“Can you wear cowboy boots over the anklet?” Alex asked. Cursing himself a little as Maria’s eyes landed back on him, an all-too knowing glint in them. So, it was still on his mind. Big deal.

“Huh,” Michael said, a little too innocently. “Didn’t really think about that.” 

“Bullshit,” Maria said, but she was laughing. “Guess we’ll just have to take it off for this case.”  

Alex glanced down at Michael’s feet, currently clad in a pair of beat up old sneakers. Alex hadn’t grown up on a farm but he’d done plenty of dirty work, and a pair of boots were worth a thousand sneakers in those situations. Not to mention that he could clearly make out the anklet even through Guerin’s jeans. Taking that anklet off was the logical thing in this situation.

But a completely irrational side of him was afraid that the anklet was the only thing holding him back from fucking them up again. It was a psychological thing, Alex was aware. A physical reminder for every time Michael leaned in too close or when his smile got Alex feeling a little soft, a little dopey. 

Then don’t fuck it up, Alex. He started, looking over at Maria. But she was digging her phone out, as if unaware of Alex’s little existential crisis. Alex let out a breath. He didn’t know why he was surprised. Maria had been one of his inner voices for years. Maybe he was just jumpy. 

“I’ll take care of the failsafe -- Alex you’ve got the key for that thing, right?” 

“Ah… yeah…” Alex said and a moment later Michael leaned back against the stove for balance, propping his foot--dirty sneaker and all--on Alex’s knee with a cheeky little grin on his face. Alex wanted to drag him into his lap and kiss it away but instead just narrowed his eyes at him. “Guerin.”

“What? I’m helping. This way you don’t have to kneel.” 

Alex rolled his eyes, pulling out his keyring. He took Michael’s calf in his hand, trying not to squeeze, to push the intimacy any further than it needed to go. He concentrated on sliding the key into the anklet, turning it until it clicked. It beeped as the circuit was broken, a warning. 

“Honestly, I’m surprised you never slipped it. Doesn’t take much power to break a lock, I have to imagine,” Maria said as she tapped out the keycode on her phone. The anklet beeped again, lock releasing, opening in his hand.

Alex glanced over at her. She wasn’t wrong. He didn’t know why that hadn’t really occurred to him.

“Don’t even have to break it. It’s not hard to pick,” Michael sounded entirely too smug. Alex looked up at him, narrowing his eyes. He wasn’t sure what he had expected Michael to feel with the anklet off. Relief, maybe? But Michael was just grinning at him, as if having it on or off made no difference to him.

“Are you kidding me?” Alex glared at him. “Why?” Gesturing at the foot, still in his lap. His fingers still curled around the warm skin of Michael’s ankle.

Michael winked, playfully. “Couldn’t miss your Prince Charming moment.” Shamelessly flirting.

“Get your boots on,” Alex grumbled, roughly shoving his leg off and standing up, needing to put some distance between them. Not that there was much in Michael’s airstream. Their chests almost brushing as Alex moved past him, through the kitchen, towards the bedroom area. 

“Why did we bring this with us?” He asked, trying to change the topic. He spread his arms out to indicate the sardine can they were currently standing in. 

Michael raised an eyebrow, but leaned back, letting Alex have the space he needed. 

“Lodgings,” he replied. Alex caught his breath as a cabinet popped open next to him, a pair of well-worn grey boots floating out and past him, toward Michael. “You think they have a mansion? Totally normal for temporary ranch hands to bring their own.”

Alex blinked, glancing back at Maria, who looked just as startled as he did. Both their eyes drifted towards the tiny bed that he remembered as being barely big enough for the two of them. There was nothing else except the kitchen and the desk, which looked bolted to the wall. Fuck

“Absolutely not,” Alex said. Angry. Not panicking.

“Well we can’t leave now,” Maria said. Michael beamed, pointing at her like she was backing him up. Of course, he deflated instantly when Maria continued, “Guerin can just sleep outside.”

“Ow, thanks DeLuca.”

“You reap what you sow,” she said without an ounce of remorse. 

Michael sighed. “So cruel. Though I was planning on taking the back of the pickup anyway.” They both must have looked skeptical because he added, “I was!”

“Right,” Maria said, pulling her hair up into a ponytail. She’d left it curly, which wasn’t a surprise. Maria never bothered straightening her hair when she was on labor intensive cases. Sweat, apparently, was the enemy. “Ok. Let’s go then.”

“Oh, before I forget,” Michael said. “There’s one more thing.” He slid his hand into his pocket, pulling it out, and handing Maria, then Alex, identical silver rings.

Alex blinked at it, resting in his palm. Cool to the touch. “What the fuck is this for?”  

“Cover story,” Michael said, as if that explained anything.

“Guerin, you are pushing it,” Maria said, dropping the ring on the table. But Alex could tell she was a little flushed. Or maybe he was the one who was flushed and he was just projecting. 

“Did you miss the queer ranch bit? We need to fit in.”

“We’re already married,” Alex protested, narrowing his eyes at Michael. Yeah, he was right earlier. This was a trap. 

“You’re straight married.”

Alex and Maria both sputtered at that and Michael just laughed. The shit. 

“Oh, fuck you. Who here is straight!” Alex knew Michael was just trying to get a rise out of them, thinking tactically. Disorient them. As if those damn rings hadn’t been exceptionally good at that. Honestly, Alex could almost be proud of him. 

He still grabbed a spoon from the sink and chucked it at Michael, who slowed it down and caught it in his hand.

Stupid alien with his stupid superpowers, Alex thought, sourly. Was reaction time an alien superpower? He didn't even know.

Michael raised his eyebrow, setting the spoon down and pulled one more ring out of his pocket, slipping it onto his own hand.

Maria took his hat off the lamp and hit him with it, repeatedly. “Take that thing off. You think I’m fake-marrying someone who makes such shit jokes?” 

Michael laughed, trying to block her strikes. “Ok. Ok. I’m sorry. It was shitty.” Finally, he was able to snatch the hat out of her hand and put it on his head. “But really, this is the easiest cover story. Requires the least thought, invites the least scrutiny. And you’re already married, so that’s half the battle already won.” 

Alex could swear he could feel a migraine coming on. Maria looked at him, exasperated. She glanced back at the ring on the table briefly before meeting Alex’s eye again, shrugging a little. She’d put the ring on if he was ok with it. 

“The logic is sound,” he said, grudgingly. And truth be told, no better plan was springing to mind. He turned the ring over in his hand again, before slipping it on. Looking at Maria the whole while, knowing they had the same thought. 

We are so fucked.

The storage lockers in Albuquerque were easy to get into. The managers had taken one look at Max’s badge and had opened up the units for them. They found nothing of interest. Just some old furniture and knick knacks, some of which looked as old as from the forties, and a bunch of equipment used for homebrewing beer. 

Liz was still giving him the cold shoulder -- not that Max could blame her in the slightest. Him taking her around was some kind of penance, but honestly if she never forgave him, he would understand.

People weren’t always fair when it came to their families. He should know.

Valenti was doing his best to run interference, keep it light. Max doubted it was for his benefit. Kyle kept glancing furtively in her direction, as if trying to hide how worried he was about her. 

For Max’s part, he tried to give her space. Help however he could.

“What the fuck is with all this beer stuff?” Kyle asked, holding up a funnel, brows gathered. Max had to agree. There was a strange and unexpected assortment of stuff collected in all these units. Weirdly quaint, with all the antiques. 

“Michael said he frequented a beer garden in Santa Fe,” Max offered. 

“...Also, this man really loves his dog, apparently,” Liz said dryly, holding up a box of what appeared to be chew toys. Every storage unit so far had at least one box of dog toys. 

Her voice, the lines of her face, all spoke of barely-contained frustration. To be expected, as nothing they’d seen so far gave any clues as to where Rosa might be. 

“Great. So, we have a suburban dog dad with a proclivity for vintage furniture. Not exactly an evil alien mastermind,” Kyle rolled his eyes, going back to rummage in the box he’d just opened. “Oh, look, he reads,” Kyle said dryly, picking up a book out of a box. 

Max put down an old lamp, going to look at it, curiously. Wondering what the man with his face liked to read. 

Not that he was really looking for any points of connection with Jones. 

It looked old but in good condition, bound in dark burgundy leather. No title that Max could make out but there was something-- “I don’t think that’s a book,” he gasped, realizing what he was seeing. A symbol that looked like the one on Max’s shoulder was embossed into the cover -- though it was different, the circles empty. 

Kyle frowned, opening it and paused. “And… what am I looking at here, Evans?”

Max stared at the page Kyle had turned to. Covered in intricate symbols, written in a hand that looked uncannily like his own “...That’s our language.”

“Aliens keep journals?” Kyle sounded completely nonplussed.

Liz looked up from the box she’d been rummaging through, throwing things aside with little interest for their safety. Standing, she tucked her hair back behind her ears and moved towards them. “What does it say?”

Max frowned, looking at it. A soft, whispering pressure in the back of his mind, like memories locked up in a cellar. But then it was gone. Max swallowed his own frustration. He wanted answers just as badly as they did. Wanted to know who the hell Jones was. What the cloning program was about. Just how much danger his family was in. 

“I… I don’t know.” 

Liz let out an annoyed sound. “Our leads could very well be written in a journal that you can’t even read, despite the fact that it’s your language?”

“Did you miss the ‘woke up in a pod as a child with no memories’ bit?” Max tried not to snap at her. She was upset, and he knew that he would be just as much of a wreck if he were in her shoes. He just wished she’d understand that she wasn’t the only one going through something right now. 

He was upset too, stressed as hell. Frustrated and anxious in ways he hadn’t felt in years. If she was even still alive, Rosa Ortecho was in danger, and he absolutely wanted to save her. But it wasn’t just about her, was it? Who he was was in question, and maybe those two things weren’t equal but… right now they sure felt that way. 

He shook his head, started rummaging in the box, looking for any more journals. “If you see anything else like that, grab it,” he said, looking up at Kyle who nodded.

“I can’t read a lick of Spanish,” Kyle said after a moment or two of silence. Liz off at the other side of the unit, angrily digging through boxes. “My parents are both fluent and literate and they tried to teach me, which is why I’m passable at best when I speak it. But it’s hard when you’re oversaturated by English and…” Max must have looked as confused as he felt because Kyle flushed. “And I am totally going off on a tangent. I’m just trying to say I get it. And you shouldn’t feel bad for not being able to understand any of that.”

He bit back the immediate response - that it wasn’t the same, at all. That Kyle at least had had an opportunity to learn, had the memories of his parents teaching him. Max didn’t even have memories of his own parents, let alone his language. Instead, he focused on the meaning behind Kyle’s words. Kyle was offering a little understanding. A little solidarity. And he desperately needed that, right now. Max’s shoulders relaxed a little. He hadn’t realized how tense they were. “It’s just… frustrating,” Max said quietly. “The answers are right there--”

“Or maybe it’s just like recipes for homemade dog treats and IPAs,” Kyle offered, grinning. 

Max laughed. “Okay fair.” He looked at Kyle who was smiling at him, soft and pleased. “Thanks.”

Kyle shook his head, squeezing his shoulder and getting back to looking for clues.

They rummaged for a while longer, but nothing else interesting or alien turned up. Once the last box was searched, Max huffed out an annoyed breath. “Yeah. So. Albuquerque’s off the list. You two down for a road trip?” 

“Yes,” Liz said, seeming relieved that no one was suggesting breaks. “It’s still early enough to get on the road. How many are on the list in Santa Rosa?”

“Five in the general vicinity,” Kyle said, with a groan. “Can we at least stop for a salad before we start this road trip?”

“Who starts a road trip with a salad?” Max couldn’t help but ask.

“I’m saying,” Liz replied, laughing softly. She reached out, patting Max’s arm awkwardly before starting for the door. “Get chicken nuggets, at least.”

Max was suddenly hit with the desire to be taking this road trip under different circumstances. It could have been fun in a different life. “We’ll hit food on the way out of town.”

The three of them had gotten a brief tour of the ranch the day before, and true to his word, Michael had taken some blankets and a pillow to bunk in the back of the pickup. They hadn’t even seen him that morning -- apparently up with the sun, getting right to work. Which had been kind of disappointing, he hadn’t even let Maria make him a coffee. 

She and Alex had spent their morning getting to know the other ranchers (most of whom tended to double as security too), learning about the monsters, real or imagined, that plagued them. And then they found Michael by the barn. 

"All that genius and he uses it to torture us," Alex said blandly, watching Michael, shirtless, throwing a bale of hay onto a trailer. 

They leaned against a weathered wooden fence, pausing in planning out their rounds for later that evening. 

Maria made a vague, mostly distracted, noise of agreement. She was half listening to Alex gripe, preferring to appreciate what Guerin was working so hard to put on display.

Michael had never been quite so hot. It was one thing to see him slouching around their office or a bar, annoyingly handsome. Another thing to see him here in his element. All bare sunkissed skin and smooth, wiry muscle. He was fucking gorgeous.

But Maria couldn’t truly appreciate it. Not while Alex’s tortured lust was still giving her a headache. Which had more or less been the case since Alex had put on the brakes on whatever was happening between them. As sensible and calmly delivered as his concerns had been, he was broadcasting angst and need at every damn frequency a psychic could pick up.  

Half of the time she was tempted to just lock them in the airstream together and let nature take its course, honestly. The other half of the time she considered jumping Guerin in one of the barns. They were on a ranch. She felt like she was wasting the opportunity for a literal roll in the hay.

Sighing, she ignored the impulse. Finding herself rubbing her thumb along the silver band on her finger. She’d been doing it all day. Distracted by it as much as she was by Michael, who had pulled off his hat to wipe sweat from his brow. Like this was some kind of bad porno and she was still so into it, it was making her mad.

"Where do you think he got these?" she asked, finally tearing her eyes from Michael’s wide back to look at the ring on her finger. It was a very basic band. Nothing fancy. Not that she was terribly surprised. 

"I think he made them," Alex responded softly, chewing on the inside of his lip. 

Now that he pointed it out, she could see the slight imperfections--a place where the polishing had gone a bit rough, the ring a bit narrower on one end. 

“He’s going hard,” she said a little dryly despite her heart beating a little faster now. 

“He’s trying to prove a point,” Alex said, shaking his head a little.

“Is it working?” Maria asked, looking at Alex, who grunted in response. 

Please let it be working, she thought, privately. Alex wasn’t wrong. He might never be ready to jump. But sometimes you had to take the leap into the unknown, ready or not.

Maria was about ready to shove him out of the plane herself.

Michael moved around a bale of hay, facing away from them as he bent over to grab it, jeans tight around his ass.

“I will say that he’s making a compelling argument,” Alex deadpanned. Maria snorted. Michael was perfectly aware that they were standing there watching. She’d bet the Pony on it. Still neither of them called out to him. Perfectly content watching him work.  

Maria kept running her thumb over the ring, over and over. Her mind wandering to Michael’s hands on her, warm and rough and infinitely gentle. Like she was something very precious, like she might mean the world to him.

She pulled the ring up a little so she could spin it around her finger. She could sympathize with Alex. Michael was… overwhelming. And not entirely in a good way.

“But no,” Alex said, quietly. “I haven’t changed my stance. We shouldn’t just jump into this.” 

Neither of them had much experience with someone having such strong feelings for them. So, she understood Alex’s desire to tread carefully with Michael. He was smart, sweet and incredibly hot. She wanted to climb him like a tree. But there was also something fragile, something wild about him. 

Something Maria admitted she wasn’t entirely prepared for. Despite her own reservations, she was rooting for them, the three of them. Michael fit so neatly in their lives. Like he just slid into a Michael-shaped hole they hadn’t even been aware of until he was filling it.

“Fine,” Maria said lightly, bumping their shoulders together. “But you’re not stopping me from enjoying the view.”

“I mean. It would be a crime not to. Look how hard he’s working it,” Alex said, with a grudging smirk. “We have to. For his sake.”

“Oh yes for his sake,” Maria laughed, leaning into him.

“You two planning on taking in the scenery all day?” The foreman’s dry, amused voice broke into their conversation.

“Just taking our 15 minute break, Carter,” Maria said, willing away the flush at being caught ogling Guerin. She reminded herself sternly that he was supposed to be her husband and that checking him out was natural and expected.

Carter hummed. “Most people take the opportunity to get out of the sun.” They glanced over at Michael with some amusement. “But then again, the sun has its benefits.”

“Vitamin D,” Alex offered and looked towards Carter, who snorted and ran a hand through their thick dark hair, a shot of silver running through it. They were shorter than Alex, only an inch or two taller than Maria but definitely a strongly built person. Made sense given their line of work. 

“Was quiet last night,” Maria said, getting back on safer topics. 

“Has been for the last couple of weeks.” Carter nodded. “So, we’re about due for a visit from the idiot brigade.”

“And you said they never come on the actual property?” Alex said.

“Nah,” Carter replied. “We deal with them in town plenty, but they never really come on the grounds... Sometimes we’ll spot some of the younger, stupider of them out beyond the property line, shooting their guns. Say they’re hunting coyotes, when we call the sheriff on them, even though none were spotted recently. I’m assuming you’ve heard the other stories? The ones that are not so easily explained away by alcohol-emboldened bigotry.”

“A couple,” Maria said, nodding. “Randy told me about the figures by the fence posts.”

“I can safely admit I didn’t sleep for days after that one,” Carter said, shuddering a little. 

Carter’s partner, Randy, was built like the Brawny Man come to life. He had spoken quietly to Maria and Alex about the incident, glancing around nervously as he did, not because he was worried about being overheard by the other ranchers. More as if expecting the figures to reappear at the mere mention of them.

He’d seen the figures from inside one of the buildings, loitering by the fence, on the opposite side. Three large, slim figures shrouded in the darkness. They had been moving towards the pens, slightly hunched, their silhouettes and gaits not entirely human. The sheep bleating, distressed, as if a predator were in the vicinity.

“You believe they changed shapes?” Alex said. “Turned into wolves.”

“It’s not the first time strange wolves have been seen here,” Carter continued, making air quotes around wolves. “The previous foreman told me about a giant one that had strolled right on ranch proper, calm and docile as a puppy, 'til it tried to eat a lamb. Said it must have weighed at least two hundred pounds give or take.”

“And I’m guessing it could take a couple rounds without a problem,” Maria said, elaborating when Carter frowned, “similar reports from a ranch in Utah.” The fact that they were echoing the story from the Sherman Ranch didn’t mean much to Maria. Could be the same creature. More likely it was just the result of a popular story gaining traction. 

But Carter didn’t seem to recognize the Utah ranch. Shuddering again. “Creeps me out. Those things out there with a couple states worth of range.” 

Alex frowned. “Setting aside that story, Randy’s story couldn’t just be the less tolerant townsfolk--” 

“We don’t live near a town full of werewolves.”

“No,” he agreed. “But it was late at night. Mind can play tricks on people--”

Carter snorted. “No one here is that skittish. We saw what we saw. And I highly doubt the militia is also dressing up like little green men.”

“We’re not that far from Roswell. Alien masks are a dime a dozen,” Maria said. The foreman sighed, throwing up their hands.  

“All I know is that everyone here has a strange story or two to tell,” Carter finally said after a couple of minutes. “Strange lights or discs in the sky, an animal that doesn’t seem to move or behave like animals should. The air seems to get heavier at night, more oppressive. You’ll see on your watch tonight.” 

“Can you--” Maria started, then cut off as another voice cut in.

“Carter,” called Randy, approaching them on the gravel path. “Need you to help load the trailer.” 

Randy smiled, turning to nod. “Be right there. You two need anything else?” 

“We’ll manage,” Maria said, shaking her head and waving for them to go ahead.

Carter flashed them an appreciative smile, then stepped away to join Randy. Leaning up to steal a quick kiss from him.

Maria turned back to Alex, catching a flash of emotion on his face. Surprise. Longing.

Oh, Alex. She politely pretended not to notice. Waiting until he shook it off, so they could do some more digging.

The stories they got from Carter and Randy were similar to the ones from other ranch hands. And when they finally got a chance to talk to Michael, he was relating much of the same.

“Occasionally sheep find their way out of their pens. Fact of life. Usually, the dogs bring them back or wild animals eat them,” Michael told them, during lunch break. He was sitting in the shade of a barn, hat off, curls wild and askew, begging for her to card her fingers through them. He’d deigned to put on a shirt but hadn’t been terribly interested in dealing with buttons, which wasn’t anything new with Michael, but it was a lot right now. “Doesn’t happen that often if someone does their job,” he continued, nodding at the Malinois that was wrestling with Alex’s bootlaces.

She was a pretty dog -- mahogany coat, perky black ears and a dark muzzle. She looked nearly fully grown, paws proportional to the rest of her, but still small -- maybe the runt of the litter.

Alex was deadpan ignoring it. And Michael’s unfair hotness. “Usually? So, something different’s happening here?”

Honestly, she was a little jealous of Alex’s composure. Maria had to work hard not shamelessly flirt with Michael. 

“Well, some of the ranchers are going on about strange mutilations, you know how it goes.” Michael waved a hand in dismissal and continued to speak over playful puppy growls. “But we’ve already covered how most mutilation cases are a combination of nerves, predation, and normal decomp. A lot of these people are already nervous. Keyed up.” 

“They don’t seem the credulous types,” Alex pointed out, and finally scooped up the dog, settling her onto his lap. Probably hoping to contain the damage to his shoes. Of course, the dog just started gnawing on his hand. Alex looked down at her, smiling, pulling his hand away so he could scratch behind her ears. 

A perfect excuse to look anywhere but at Michael, his chest, the artful spread of his legs. 

Michael tilted his head slightly, looking at Alex. Maria could sense a spike of annoyance mixed in with his bemused surprise.

“You like dogs?” Michael asked when the dog started licking Alex’s face and all he did was laugh. 

“Love dogs,” Alex replied, firmly pushing her face away, voice soft as he said to her, “even badly behaved ones like you.” 

The dog barked, waving her tail and Alex laughed again, finding a bit of rope to play tug of war with her. Maria smiled. Michael was going to get a taste of his own medicine. Alex was always super cute around dogs.   

Anyway,” Michael said, after watching Alex for a minute, a soppy smile on his face even if Maria was still sensing some grumpiness from him. Perhaps annoyed that a dog was foiling his seduction plans, Maria wondered with some amusement. “A bunch of assholes fucking with them in the dark. Natural predators. Things blend together. And let’s be real, you want to believe it.” 

“Aliens exist,” she pointed out. 

“You are never going to let that go,” Michael said, huffing out a laugh.

Fuck, he was beautiful when he laughed.

“Nope.” Alex glanced up from the dog to smile at Michael, soft and a little fond, and Maria knew her face was a mirror of his.

It was a beautiful night. Full of stars. No moon. It reminded him of being a kid -- sleeping in the truck out in the desert, feeling so… free. The bed of this damn truck was his first home, the first place that was truly his, which made it home in a way the Airstream could never quite be. 

And it was spacious. He never could quite stretch out fully in the bed inside. Privately, although Michael was a little bummed that he wasn’t currently underneath Maria and Alex, he knew he’d gotten the better end of the deal with the truck.

He wished they could be out here with him, sprawled out on either side of him, wrapped in blankets. Stargazing. Maybe passing a beer or a joint between the three of them. He could imagine Maria telling him all about the astrological significance of the constellations while Alex used an app on his phone to track the stars instead just letting himself get lost in the moment. 

Sadly, they were out on patrol, leaving Michael with not a whole lot to do except rest up for tomorrow’s work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t used to sleeping this early anymore, had lost the habit once he stopped working at Foster’s all those years ago. 

He’d tried to bury himself under the covers and drift off a bit after sundown, but his mind was still racing, so he was sitting up, working through equations in a journal in low lantern light. 

Alex and Maria dominated his thoughts, as they seemed to do lately, even with all the alien drama. Even with Noah and fake Max and weird government conspiracy theories, all he wanted to think about was the way they looked at him.

And god knows he was trying to keep those eyes on him.  

Mostly succeeding too. Michael smirked to himself. Maria seemed close to dragging him somewhere dark and semi-private and ripping his clothes off. Alex too, eyes dark with an intent and desire he was still too damn restrained to act on. Honestly, Michael knew Alex was a stubborn asshole but he didn’t realize how powerful he was until he was keeping himself and Maria from doing what they all knew he wanted to do. 

A whine broke into his thoughts. He frowned, grabbing the lantern, shifting to lean over the edge of the truck, looking down. The Malinois was sitting there, looking up at him, pleading. Wagging her tail in the dust.

Michael sighed. “No.”

The dog barked, raising a paw. Begging.  

No. You’re supposed to be working. Go on,” he said, exasperated. 

She stood up, but instead of running off, she just pranced in a circle, barking. 

“Seriously, you have no manners.” He shook his head. It was cold. He could see his breath, even in the dim light of the lantern. The dog should be fine, but damnit. He felt guilty. He sighed. “Fine. Just this once.” 

She barked again, spinning in another circle. 

“What are you waiting for?” He gestured. “Come up.”

She didn’t need to be told again. Running for the tailgate, effortlessly launching herself up and in and onto Michael, licking, exciting. 

“Ugh, no,” he grumbled, pushing her away. “Sit. Come on.” But she ignored him, instead moving around the bed of the truck, sniffing. 

He shook his head, assuming she would settle down as soon as she’d investigated a bit, which she did after a moment. Settling down on Alex’s hoodie -- that Michael might have stolen from the Airstream, theoretically because he might get cold out here, but mostly because it smelled good. 

He shook his head as she made herself at home on it. Of course. Damn dog was just as infatuated with Alex as Michael was. He’d seen Alex feeding her earlier, laughing when she’d pause in eating to try and lick him. It was so damn adorable.

“Guess I can’t blame you for good taste,” Michael said dryly, scratching the top of her head idly as he kept working in his journal. Equations he’d worked out years ago, just retracing them. It was like meditation, or something, he guessed. He wasn’t sure how much time passed in the quiet of the night, punctuated by the occasional bleating of a sheep and the dog’s deep, huffing breaths whenever he stopped petting her for a moment. 

A flash of light arced across the sky. Michael looked up, expecting to see lightning. The dog made a soft sound next to him, kind of a sleepy confused bark. At least, it wasn’t just him. 

There was another light in his periphery, just a little towards the west side of the ranch. Michael turned again. The water tower was in that direction--a big white building that seemed to be illuminated by a strange orb of light. 

“What the…” Michael breathed out, setting the journal aside, frowning. 

“It’ll be gone in a second,” a voice said behind him. Michael was man enough to admit it scared the shit out of him. He turned quickly to see one of the other ranch hands, Arnie, standing by his truck. He wasn’t looking at Michael, instead in the direction of the water tower, one hand in the pocket of his blue vest, the other holding something bulky.  

“What is it?” Michael asked, frowning. Reaching over to soothe the dog, who’d picked her head up, tensed. 

“I dunno,” Arnie said, smiling at Michael, crooked and a little endearing. Probably just a side effect of the freckles. Michael always found freckles kind of cute. “Shows up every few weeks, give or take. Never lasts long though. You get used to it, after a while.” 

Michael frowned at him. “Right…” He said, turning his attention back to the water tower. But the light was gone. No way he just saw a mysterious floating orb of light. He wrinkled his nose. “Isn’t the highway in that direction?” 

Arnie laughed. “Trust me, we all ask that question first.” He folded his arms on the edge of the truck. “But it isn’t. That’s on the east edge of the property. Highway’s on the north.”

“You think it’s what, aliens?” 

Arnie shrugged. “I don’t worry much about it, truth be told. I’m not afraid of a little paranormal experience.” 

“No?” Michael asked, raising an eyebrow. 

“Only straight guys are afraid of a little probing.” Arnie winked. 

Oh. Oh.

“I guess that’s one way to look at it,” Michael said as blandly as he could. 

Arnie chuckled. “Anyway. Brought you something.” He held up the thing he was carrying -- in the light Michael could see it was one of the blankets they made on the ranch. Thick wool, brightly dyed in a kaleidoscope of colors. “Figured you might be cold out here. All alone.” 

“Got the aliens to keep me company,” he replied, nodding over at the water tower. 

“Aliens aren’t really known for how warm they are.” Arnie said, with a soft laugh. 

Michael laughed, biting his tongue on the irony of it. Oh, if only you knew.

“I should be okay,” he protested. “It’s not that cold.”  

“Just in case,” Arnie said, draping the blanket over the edge of the truck, obviously not taking no for an answer on that front. 

He reached up for the blanket -- surprisingly soft, considering that it was wool. High quality. The blanket probably cost a few hundred dollars, at least. “Thanks. I’ll get it back to you in the morning?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Arnie said with an easy smile. “We always have spares around from when someone new’s learning. Mia refuses to sell anything with a defect.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Michael said, with a twist to his mouth. Feeling really awkward about this.

“You and me both,” Arnie said with a shrug, and it felt like they weren’t just talking about a blanket, somehow.

“I… Thanks for this.”

Arnie shook his head. “Not a problem. Seemed like you needed some taking care of.”

“And you’re the caretaker type?” Michael smiled. 

“You’re welcome to ask all the other curly haired lambs for character references,” Arnie said, with another crooked smile.

Michael snorted, but he was unable to keep the corner of his mouth from trailing upwards. He looked at Arnie, who was grinning back at him, playfully. It wouldn’t take much to get Arnie to come around and sit on the tailgate with him. The interest in the man’s blue eyes was unmistakable. 

And for a heartbeat, Michael was tempted. Because fuck, he needed, lately. But Arnie wasn’t what he needed, even if he was sweet. 

Besides. Tall. Lanky. Puppy-dog sweet? He was basically a red-headed Max, and that was decidedly not Michael’s type.

“Early morning, tomorrow,” he said, softly. A gentle no. 

Arnie didn’t push. Patting the edge of the truck. “Hope they realize how lucky they are,” he said, quietly, before stepping away.

Michael flushed, watching him go. Swallowing past the sudden lump in his throat and looking down at the dog, who’d curled up on Alex’s hoodie again. Her tail wagging a little when she noticed him looking. 

Were they lucky? Michael didn’t know about that. He sighed, ruffling her ears a little. “Go to sleep, idiot. We both need to work in the morning.” 

He didn’t know if he was talking to her or to himself.

Chapter Text

Nothing terribly interesting had turned up on their first watch. Or their second. Alex was trying not to be annoyed or impatient. It was nice being here. Working a normal case, doing normal things.

Or it would have been nice if Michael didn’t seem dead-set on seducing him and Maria.

(No, that was nice too, he had to admit. Even if he had no idea what to do with any of it, since their issues were still their issues.)

For once though, Michael wasn’t immediately flirting. Instead, he was leaning against a fence post, looking a little bewildered and annoyed, not even taking immediate notice of Alex as he came up the walkway.

“Taking a break?” Alex asked. 

“Waiting for Arnie. We’re going to let some of the herd out to graze,” he replied, sounding a little distracted. “While the rest are getting sheared.” 

“Ah,” Alex said, settling against the fence post, facing Michael. He probably shouldn’t. During the last few days, Michael had made it his mission to torture Alex by being unfairly gorgeous. 

But it would be lying if Alex said he wasn’t enjoying the tease. Plenty of people had flirted with Alex, but he’d never been actively pursued before. Honestly, if it were anyone else, he was sure he’d be annoyed. But something in Alex enjoyed being wanted so much by Michael, being considered worth it enough to go through all this trouble. 

Michael, however, was worth enough to not have to do any of this. He deserved the yes without so much struggle and resistance. Alex wanted to say yes, very badly. The word was sitting on the tip of his tongue, wetted across his lips every time he caught sight of Michael, golden in the sun, and he wanted nothing more than to kiss it into every inch of him.

But he couldn’t. Every time he thought he might, his brain reminded him of the very long list of perfectly valid reasons as to why the answer should be no. The one that was circled and underlined was fear. Nothing in this space was controllable. And that was dangerous. For him. For Michael. 

“Have you seen Maria?” Alex asked.

Michael wrinkled his nose just a little, looking even more annoyed. Alex frowned, wondering if they had a fight.

“She’s in the barn,” he finally explained.

“Okay?” Alex chuckled, soft and confused. Michael took a drink from his water bottle, now looking a little embarrassed. Alex wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. Normally he’d just leave it. Either Michael would tell him or he wouldn’t and that was that. But this new situation with them, one that was still in flux, malleable, ever changing… it made Alex stupid.

“Guerin?” He stepped closer, resting a hand on Michael’s bicep. It was solid and warm to the touch. Alex had to force himself not to squeeze or rub. To keep his touch light.

Michael looked at him, and his frustration only seemed to increase.

“Mia’s teaching her how to shear.”


“She saw Mia grab a big male sheep by the face and handle it to the ground for shearing and--” Michael released a sound of frustration. But he seemed embarrassed. At himself?

Alex was startled for a long moment. Putting the pieces together. He couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of him. “You’re jealous .”

“I’m not.” The mulishness of his tone made Alex laugh even harder. “I’m not. I don’t get jealous.” 

“But you’re out here sulking.”  

“I’m not sulking, I’m waiting for Arnie,” Michael said. Stubborn.

Alex took a breath, glancing around as he went to take Michael’s hand. Realizing what he was doing, he started to silently berate himself. This was the last place he should be worried about being seen, letting any of that bother him. He held Michael’s hand with a stubborn sort of surety, rubbing his thumb over rough knuckles. Strange how he hadn’t really noticed how strong Michael’s hands were, before.

Michael looked up at him, startled. Maybe a little flushed, but with a slow grin breaking out over his face. “Distracting me?” 

“Something like that,” Alex said. It was simpler than the truth. Holding Michael’s hand like this felt like a rebellion. “Carter was saying they offered you a permanent position.”  

Michael laughed, squeezing Alex’s hand gently. “Afraid I’m gonna slip through your fingers?”

“I mean, I have to admit you do make a better rancher than an FBI agent.”

“Well don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere,” Michael said warmly, stroking his thumb over Alex’s hand. “So, while we have a minute,” he started, in a deliberately casual way that left Alex ever so slightly on edge. “Want to tell me what went wrong? Between us?”  

No. He definitely didn’t. Didn’t want to hash this out again, hurt Michael’s feelings all over again. He glanced briefly at their joined hands. Consequence of rebellion, he thought wryly.

“Did you forget the whole disastrous morning after?” He tried to deflect with a soft self-deprecating laugh. 

Michael wasn’t having it. Shaking his head. “Not that. You know what I mean. And I think I deserve to know. If I did something wrong--”

“No,” Alex said quickly. God damnit, why wasn’t Maria there? Or couldn’t Arnie hurry up and get there? He spent a moment wildly looking for any sort of escape from this conversation. But no one was coming to save him, apparently. He took a deep breath, held it for a few beats, then let it out, heavily. “It’s not you. It’s the situation,” he admitted. 

“Your dad?” Michael asked, frowning, tilting his head. “‘Cause fuck him.” 

“No. It’s-- god damnit, Michael, you have to know how unethical this would be. The power differential alone…” He trailed off, looking at Michael, whose eyebrows had disappeared under his hat. 

“I’m sorry. Power differential?” He asked. Sounding like he was very tightly controlling himself. Alex tried not to read into what emotion Michael was trying to suppress.

“We’re your wardens, Guerin. I mean, you’re stuck with us. We have the power to throw you back in prison. It doesn’t exactly make for an equal relation--”  He stopped, blinking, as Michael burst out in laughter.

“Are you serious, Manes?” Michael got out, breathlessly. 

“Guerin,” he said, in a tone that he hoped was warning, starting to draw his hand away.

Michael hung onto it tighter, getting control of himself. But his eyes were sparkling with the dampness of a good laugh and mischief.

“Hold on. Let me be real clear for a minute here. Neither the Department of Corrections nor the Federal Bureau of Investigations are keeping me here. I could have popped that anklet off and walked anytime. Hell, I almost walked at least four times.”

Alex blinked. It felt hard to breathe. Especially since Michael’s hand had slid up to his forearm, tugging him in more. 

“So... so why didn’t you?” He asked, stumbling over the words a little.

“Mn.” Michael dragged his hand up and down Alex’s arm, as if he knew exactly how to short circuit his brain. “Once I did it, I wouldn’t be able to come back. Guess I just didn’t want to burn this bridge.”

Michael slid his hand up Alex’s shoulder as he spoke, letting it rest warm and solid against the back of his neck, fingers playing lightly with the little hairs there. He didn’t say anything else to Alex, just looked at him with some combination of exasperation and desperation. Like he wanted Alex to understand and was utterly annoyed that he didn’t. 

Alex was mostly stuck on Michael leaving. How easily he could have done it. As effortlessly as he caught that spoon, Michael could have disappeared into the night without his knowledge. Four times. Alex couldn’t for the life of him figure out when those times were. 

It was terrifying, how close he’d gotten to losing Michael. Alex had to close his eyes, focus on Michael’s warm, solid hand on him, waiting. The variables that plagued him earlier hadn’t gone or changed but they seemed less consequential. 

He knew in his gut that losing Michael would destroy him. So, he needed to fight like hell to keep him.

Their progress hit a wall in Santa Rosa. They were only able to hit a couple of the storage units a day -- wel