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Strong enough (when I’m broken down and I can’t stand)

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It was early evening and still pretty quiet at the Wild Pony. Michael sat back a little bit, shuffling the chair he was sitting on a little further away from the table and closer to the wall, away from the others. He thought he was being discreet about it, but you never knew. He had become quite used to being confronted about distancing himself. Thankfully not in front of everyone, but afterwards, in private - especially Liz and Isobel tried to rope him into some type of heart to heart conversation on the regular, but Max had also tried it under the pretense of brotherly bonding over a beer.

Alex never said anything of course, they weren’t in that place, but Michael could sense the little glances he threw his way, even if he made sure he never actually met Alex’s eyes. Not when he was feeling like this anyway. He was afraid Alex would read him like an open book and he didn’t want to put that on him. Other days he was better at going through the motions. He could make an effort to make friendly small talk even with Forrest, to laugh in the right places, to good-naturedly be the recipient of friendly teasing and joke back in turn.

Today though he seemed to be getting away with keeping to himself, at least no one tried to get him to join in the conversation. There was an animated discussion going on about home decoration of all things. From the chatter that got through to him even in his closed off state, it seemed that Isobel and, surprisingly, Kyle were the most opinionated about colour schemes and the best placement for mood lighting. Although he should probably stop being surprised that Kyle was no longer the jock stereotype he was in high school, he had proved himself to be past that many times already. He had actually evolved a lot more than Michael could give himself credit for, something he didn’t really want to dwell on for too long.

Right now he was just grateful that he was allowed to sit quietly and let his thoughts drift. This particular conversation had started with some innocent joking about how much time Forrest was spending at Alex’s and Forrest saying something about being open to relocation, framed as a joke, but was it really? The conversation had then swiftly turned from Alex and Forrest potentially shacking up to heated arguments about eggshell versus crisp white. He actually suspected it had been a purposeful shift in focus done for Michael’s sake, but he wasn’t completely sure who had initiated it. Isobel would be the obvious one, but the speed at which Kyle, Liz and even Greg had picked up on it was a bit worrying, was he that obvious? At least Maria and Max were busy behind the bar now prepping for the rest of the evening, so the audience was a bit smaller than it would have been earlier.

Either way he wanted no part of it. It was like a fog had rolled in after Forrest’s comment, like Michael’s mind had instantly created a protective layer around him and he could only half hear what was being said after that.

He had originally thought this would go differently. The first weeks after Alex’s song he thought he had done the right thing walking away. They both needed some time to breathe. Michael thought it would be temporary, a good thing for both of them. He even congratulated himself on making what he thought was a mature choice for once.

But as the months passed he could feel a numbness creeping in. Forrest was still around and Alex seemed happy. Thinking back to that evening in the bar, was it really that it just wasn’t their time right then, or wasn’t it more likely that Michael, albeit subconsciously, had accepted that it would never be their time? Wasn’t the reason Michael left not that he made the mature choice of taking a temporary step back, but rather that he saw Alex and Forrest and realised that in the end he wouldn’t measure up?

Michael tried to be supportive of their relationship. Alex had been so understanding when he was with Maria. Maybe Alex had already then seen that this was better. That they could be friends, but shouldn’t be anything more. Alex had thought they would end up together once, but he didn’t anymore…

He normally tried to push these thoughts away. He had hope, he did! But still, he would probably never be good enough for Alex, he wasn’t good enough for Maria, he wasn’t good enough for...

“Michael!”

“Huh?” His thoughts came to a stop and he looked up to see six pairs of eyes directed at him.

“Stop dreaming, Mikey. We know you think we’re boring but your suffering is over, we’re leaving”

Michael stretched and tried to pull it off as if fatigue had been the only reason for him zoning out. It probably didn’t work, but he was grateful to Liz for giving him an out.

“Yeah sorry about that, long week”

“Mhmm,” Liz raised an eyebrow at him, hidden from the others’ view, but didn’t comment further. “We were just talking about that actually, how everyone is so busy lately that we hardly get to hang out and just have fun anymore. We need to fix that!”

“Isn’t that what today was? I thought this was a group get together thing?” He had been reluctant to come, but Isobel had made it very clear that everyone was coming and that he wasn’t allowed to just sit at home and sulk on his own “like some Sanders wannabe” as she put it. And since Rosa was out of town - she would never have come to something like this - he would have been the only one to refuse and he wasn’t feeling strong enough to face Isobel’s wrath.

“Nope,” Isobel interjected, “it’s not enough. We need to let loose properly. Dance, get sweaty, get Valenti covered in glitter.” She blew a kiss to Kyle who rolled his eyes. “So Planet 7 it is, we just got to decide on a day and then it’s gonna get wild baby”. She reached over to ruffle his hair, before getting her phone out to start looking for dates with Liz. Clearly they were the ones in charge of it all, no surprise there.

Everyone else seemed to be on their way out so Michael took his chance to slip away as well, muttering something non committal in the direction of Liz and Isobel.

**

It was almost two weeks later when they finally managed to gather everyone at Planet 7, Michael included, he never really stood a chance.

He was lounging by a table a bit away from the dance floor now. Watching the others in a big sweaty group moving to the music with various levels of grace, depending on their levels of intoxication. Michael himself had been nursing a single beer for the better part of an hour by now, trying to make up his mind.

Before the evening had started, he had considered going out with a decided purpose, to flirt, and find someone to take home or to take him home, to forget everything for a night. He used to be an expert at that, but it had been a while now. He had spent around ten years with no “relationship” lasting longer than a weekend and a reputation in town ensuring that everyone he hooked up with knew from the start that this was a fun, no feelings attached, guaranteed orgasm kind of deal. Going from that to now having two exes who were more or less impossible to avoid was weird.

Michael had decided a while back that he was going to cope with all of it by trying his hardest to be good. A good ex-boyfriend to Maria, showing up to help out whenever he could, behaving when he came to the bar. A good ex-something to Alex, trying his best to make Forrest feel welcome whenever he joined the group. He thought he had been doing an ok job, but then of course from time to time the mask slipped, like at the Wild Pony that last time the group were all together when the potential threat of Alex and Forrest moving in together had been too much to keep up appearances.

Alex hadn’t said anything about it then, but when they were all leaving he had briefly clasped Michael’s arm and given him that slight smile that to Michael seemed to contain both fondness and pain, mumbling “see you, Guerin” before slipping out the door after Forrest. Michael hadn’t actually seen him since then though, which was entirely his own doing. He had been burying himself in work, helping Sanders with whatever he could. He had also been spending some time pondering where he was going from here. Right now there was no alien drama, he was mostly sober and well behaved, took care of his day job, did some studying on the side. He was trying to figure out how to be the new and improved Michael.

Fuck it, maybe this would be what he needed, some easy fun, a release. Planet 7 was a new hunting ground for Michael. It had only been open for a few years and back when he was still hooking up with strangers regularly he had usually been able to get what he needed at the Wild Pony or a couple of times on trips to Albuquerque, since he hadn’t openly picked up men in Roswell. He hadn’t really let himself look too closely at why that was. It was part of the things he kept tucked away in the back of his mind. He had once said to Max that it was just Alex, but that statement had been more about feelings than about sex (noone messed him up like Alex). When it came to sex he was just as interested in men as women, he just didn’t always act on it, except for those Albuquerque trips.

But hey, one thing about new and improved Michael could be that he was out and open about his sexuality right, to the whole town and not just his closest people, and this was the perfect place and time for it. Maybe this was just what he needed to blow off some steam, take his mind of Alex and Forrest together on the dance floor.

He had noticed a group of three guys at the bar earlier, tourists, who had clearly been checking him out. Maybe it was about time to see if his macho cowboy swagger (he winced slightly, hearing Alex’s voice in his head) would work as well here as it had on the female tourists over at the Pony.

He went up to the counter to order a whisky and then sauntered over to the table where they were now sitting.

“Care for some company?”

They did.

A while later, Alex leaned against the bar sipping a glass of water, taking in the scene in front of him. Unnoticed by Michael, Alex had been watching him out of the corner of his eye the whole evening. Michael seemed so sad most of the time now, even though Alex was sure he thought no one noticed. It was weird seeing him try to make polite small talk when they were all out together, doing his best to hold back the eye-rolls and sarcastic comments that Alex was sure were just below the surface. And from time to time he just withdrew all together, like it had become too much and he had to retreat to some safe space in his head. Alex was very familiar with the feeling and he felt a little stab of pain in his chest each time he saw Michael that way.

But tonight seemed different, after looking like he just wanted to get out of there earlier, Michael had now joined a group of out-of-towners and seemed to be doing his utmost to make this a night they would tell stories about for a long time. He was laying on the sexy cowboy persona real thick, flirting heavily with all of them. They had been doing shots for a while now, Michael was down to a couple of buttons holding his shirt together and the three men were by this point all but drooling. Alex couldn’t really blame them.

“Do you think he is actually planning for it to go anywhere, or is he just out for an ego boost?” Liz sidled up to him, hooking her arm around his.

“What? Oh, I dunno, I wasn’t..., I mean…” Alex stumbled on his words. He hadn’t realised he was staring quite so obviously. He had lost himself in Michael’s almost naked chest, the line of his neck as he threw back shots, the way his tongue poked out to lick his lips. Refusing to acknowledge any bitterness about Michael letting other people have this, when all Alex seemed to deserve lately was bland conversations or complete avoidance. That was not the point he firmly told himself. Michael was allowed to have fun and there was no harm in Alex just enjoying the view.

“I think it’s stupid,” Liz was slurring her words just a little but tried to compensate by speaking louder, poking her finger into Alex’s chest as she continued. “He’s so annoying, this is just the latest of a million escape tactics he’s tried over the last months. Always making up some excuse why he can’t just hang with us. Like tonight, it was finally going to be all of us doing something fun together and instead he’s over there doing god knows what.”

She glared at the other table, but then her voice softened, “He can’t get into his thick head that people actually care about him, that we want him around.”

Alex remained silent. It felt like Liz was going somewhere with this, slurred speech and poking aside.

“So Forrest left?” she asked abruptly.

“Yeah, he’s going out of town tomorrow and wanted to get at least a few hours sleep.”

“You don’t want to be there to see him off in the morning, kiss goodbye?”

“Come on Liz, you know it’s not like that. We have a good time sure,” Alex blushed slightly at Liz’s suggestive grin and wink, “but it’s nothing more, nothing serious.”

“Well, you guys know that and I know that,” she dragged out her words, “but I’m pretty sure Mikey over there doesn’t know. You ever think you should tell him that?”

“Sure,” Alex’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “I will just be like hey I know you broke up with your girlfriend not that long ago, and you made it clear several times that we’re not anything, but just so you know me and Forrest are just fucking, nothing else. Ok, we good?”

Alex winced, maybe he was more drunk than he thought. Good thing he’d switched to water. He could see from Liz’s smug smile that she thought she had scored a point.

“Yeah,” she dragged that out even more “I very much doubt he made anything at all clear, but sure keep to your delusions. You and him are a match made in heaven, both of you complete idiots!”

“But you know,” she added with a smirk, “if you do talk I’m not sure you should be so explicit about the fucking part.”

Alex tried to think of a snarky retort, but he felt deflated suddenly, like it was all too much. Maybe he should just go home and go to sleep, then he could go back to pretending things were fine in the morning again.

Liz must have noticed the sudden slump in his shoulders, because instead of continuing needling him she pulled him into a hug, holding him tight.

“Sorry” she whispered, but Alex just held her closer. He really didn’t have anything to say.

Eventually Liz pulled back and looked at him, swiping a strand of hair away from his forehead.

“Sometimes I think me and Max are all drama, but we have nothing on the two of you, although I’m just recently discovering that.”

Gently she added, “Do you know that he’s been looking into leaving?”

Alex felt like he had been dunked head first in freezing water, sobering up almost instantly.

“What do you mean leaving? He would never leave Max and Isobel!”

“Maybe not, but he gave me a whole speech the other day when we were in the lab about how he wasn’t doing anything useful here, how everyone else had their own lives and he asked me lots of stuff about my time in California.”

Alex stared over at the table where Michael was sitting. He felt like a train was bearing down on him, frozen on the tracks.

Michael could apparently feel the eyes burning a hole in the side of his head and turned slightly, giving Alex a suggestive wink. Wow, he must really be wasted.

Without letting himself think too deeply about what he was about to do, Alex stalked over, ignoring the fact that his leg definitely needed a break.

“Hey, can we talk? Outside?” Not waiting to see what the reaction would be, he continued to one of the back doors and out onto the patio.

I only took a few short moments for Michael to appear. Thankfully they were alone out there.

“Alex?”

“Hey, sorry about that, I uh just wanted to ask something and the music was loud so…” he trailed off.

“No sure, we can talk,” Michael assured him. The alcohol seemed to have lowered some of the walls that had been firmly in place lately whenever he was around Alex.

“Ouf, I need to sit down though,” Michael swayed a little.

They ended up sitting next to each other on the steps leading down to the dark and muddy backyard. Just looking out into the shadows at first, no words spoken.

When he felt Michael starting to shuffle around a bit, Alex was reminded that he was the one who had initiated this.

“Are you really thinking of leaving?” He attempted casual, but fell short by a mile.

“Oh you heard about that huh? Well it was just a thought, thinking there isn’t much here for me right now”. For someone who didn’t know Michael the air of nonchalance might have fooled them, but Alex could hear the nervousness in his voice. “Not forever you know, maybe like a temporary break, you all got your own things going on, I’m just like the extra guy.”

“Our own things?” Alex raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I mean Liz and Max are getting back together, Isobel is having the time of her life exploring her possibilities as she so nicely puts it, Maria is dividing all her time between Mimi and being a kick-ass business woman, and you and Forrest, you’re doing really great aren’t you?”

“Wouldn’t have guessed you would be the main cheerleader when it came to me and Forrest,” Alex ventured carefully. He remembered Liz’s words and wondered if he should explain about him and Forrest, but he was also reluctant about exposing himself too much.

If he was being completely honest it had been quite nice to have Forrest to hide behind, to not have to confront his feelings about Michael and about everything that had transpired in the last year.

He already started to regret coming out here in the first place, maybe he wasn’t ready for this tonight. He was suddenly disgusted with himself. Why did he always do this? Starting conversations they wouldn’t finish, it just messed them up further.

While Alex's thoughts had been spinning, Michael had been staring off into the distance. When he finally started talking it was slow, unusually hesitant, like he was weighing each word, trying it out in his head first before saying it out loud.

“Maria mentioned that before she and I got back together, you encouraged her to not give up on me… to give me a chance… that it was a big part of why she actually did... I figure that’s what we do then if we’re friends, we support each other… also when it comes to relationships.”

He drew a breath.

“It’s just, it’s not so easy for me. I mean, you were obviously able to let me go and to be supportive of me and Maria. Which is great,” he hurried to add.

“I’m just grateful you didn’t tell Maria what a screw-up I am, but then I guess she figured that out on her own.” He grimaced. “Anyway my point is… you are past me and good for you. I’m just not able to let things go so easily, so maybe I just need a change of scenery.”

Alex felt a rush of anger as he realised what Michael was saying. His own feeling of guilt didn’t disappear, but at least it temporarily diminished in the light of Michael being such an oblivious idiot. Damn him for sitting there and saying that it had been easy for Alex. He wanted to scream.

“Michael stop!”

Michael jerked as if he had been lost in his own thoughts. He looked over at Alex, eyes wide and vulnerable. Calling him by his first name instead of Guerin was maybe not fair as Alex knew what it did to him, but he needed to put a halt to this.

Alex took a deep breath to collect himself. He could feel that he had been shutting down. He didn’t want what Michael had said to stand unchallenged, but he also didn’t want to start a fight.

“You need to understand. That was... that wasn’t about you and me, that was about me and Maria, or actually maybe just me.” Alex shrugged. “I didn't want to be the kind of person who stands in the way of other people’s happiness. I mean, you chose Maria, you told me so, I’d have nothing to gain from turning her against you.”

Michael opened his mouth, but he didn’t actually know what to say and Alex didn’t leave him any room to speak anyway.

“If you had been a bad person I would have warned Maria off, but I of all people know how amazing you are once you care for someone. I mean once upon a time you cared for me in that way and it was…” Alex trailed off, looking down. He continued in a small voice “I have a lot of issues, I know that, a lot of baggage. I don’t want to manipulate anyone, to get what I want at the expense of someone else, and also...” he seemed to steel himself, “I want people to choose me because they want me, not because they don’t have a better option.”

Michael suddenly felt sick.

Alex gripped the railing for support as he stood up.

“Either way, it is what it is,” he sighed, “I just want to be clear that it wasn't because I didn’t care about you or didn't think you were worth fighting for or something like that. I don't know what thoughts are going through that messy head of yours, but whatever you're thinking, don’t.”

Alex gave Michael a little sideway glance, then he shrugged again, seemed to pull back into himself like he wasn’t sure if he’d said too much. He turned and walked towards the door. ”You should get some sleep Michael.”

“Alex wait!”

For a moment it was as if the world stood still. Alex had halted by the doorway and Michael was almost afraid to breathe, his eyes going blurry from the tears pressing forward, desperation feeling like claws clutching at his chest. All the feelings that he had tried so hard to lock away over the last months, or more like the last year, came rushing back. He had thought Alex was past him, but what he had seen in his eyes before he turned his back to him had said something else.

It was now or never. It felt like one of those pivotal moments where everything comes to a halt, what happened next would determine everything and Michael was suddenly sure they both knew it. The danger of irreparable damage so present they could almost reach out and touch it.

Michael drew a shaky breath.

“Please don’t leave.” It came out as a whisper, a desperate plea.

“Please don’t leave me.”

Alex kept his back turned to Michael, but he didn’t move forward either. He just stood there, frozen, before speaking in a low voice. “You know, you never actually said that to me before.”

And there it was, the confirmation of the nagging thought that came whenever Michael was wallowing in his own misery. Michael would usually tell himself that Alex had left before and would leave again and it was for the best because Michael wasn’t good enough for him anyway so it was no use even trying. The truth though, was that he had never asked Alex to not leave. He had been so sure of what the answer would be that he saw it as protecting himself. If he didn’t ask for it, it couldn’t be denied. The pain of being left behind could be eased by being the one who pushed.

“Well I’m an asshole what can I say,” Michael quipped, although it would probably have worked better to lighten the mood if Michael’s tears hadn’t been flowing freely at this point.

Still, Alex half laughed and turned around fully. He took a small step closer, with the softest expression Michael could ever recall seeing on his face.

Michael held his breath, waiting to see if Alex would come to him, but instead he went over to the side, resting his arms on the railing as he looked out into the darkness.

After what felt like an eternity of both men just letting the silence envelop them, Michael went over to stand by his side, close enough that he could feel the firm, warm push of Alex’s body leaning into his, grounding him, grateful beyond words that he didn’t move to put any distance between them.

Michael was suddenly so tired, he blinked repeatedly to try to stop the flow of tears. He was sick of crying. He wanted to rest, he wanted to belong somewhere, he wanted to be held.

“You know,” Alex started gently, still not looking at him, “I will never be over you, I really won’t, but what if we are better off with other people? What if we keep hurting each other? What if we can never just be?”

“And what if we can?”

“Do you really think we could? After everything?”

Michael could feel the shift in how they spoke to each other. Words were tough for them, he knew that, but this was somehow softer, not throwing statements at each other but actually asking, both willing to hear the answer. For once there was no fight, no war, just a conversation. He felt a stirring of hope.

“We never actually tried to be anything more either. Never gave it a chance. Shouldn’t we at least try, once?”

“It wouldn’t be easy.”

“Why not, why couldn’t it be easy? If it’s something we both want, if we do it together. We can be strong together.“ Michael could hear his voice shaking slightly.

There was no answer straight away. Part of him wanted to shout at Alex to just take him back, that they were cosmic, this was just wasting time, but that hadn’t worked in the past and wouldn’t work now. Huh, maybe this was how he could be the new and improved Michael, not by being an equal opportunity flirt at Planet 7, but by actually voicing what he wanted and giving Alex the space to make his choices as well. His amazing, beautiful, emotionally repressed Alex who got that little wrinkle between his eyebrows when he was trying to work out the right thing to say, which Michael used to interpret as Alex being annoyed with him and lash out, but that he now guessed was just as much about Alex being annoyed with himself, Alex always blamed himself the most.

For a genius, it sure had taken him long to figure out something so obvious.

Michael continued his internal monologue as Alex remained silent. He was determined to let Alex take the time he needed, not push him.

Eventually Alex reached out to gently turn Michael so that they were standing face to face.

Encouraged by the gesture and the hopeful look in Alex’s eyes Michael continued, “I mean it's you, it’s always been you. I’m tired of pretending like I don’t need you, I do. So much, Alex.”

The hug started out carefully, with Alex pulling him in and Michael burying his face in the crook of Alex’s neck, inhaling deeply. From there it was like neither of them could get close enough, there was no kissing, just holding on to each other as hard as they could, chests pressing together.

Michael could feel the familiar stirring of lust low in his stomach, his body on auto-pilot whenever he got close to Alex. But for the first time in a very long time, as he allowed himself to really feel and not bottle anything up, it was overshadowed by something else, by a feeling of love, safety and peace. He felt like his heart was bursting.

After what simultaneously felt like seconds and an eternity Alex stepped back a little, to gently reach out his hand and smooth over Michael’s cheek.

“You really need to get some rest. You look like you could fall down any second.”

His hand reached around to lightly brush through the curls at the nape of Michael’s neck.

“Do you want to come with me? It's closer.”

A shiver ran through Michael as he let his head fall to the side a little, leaning into the caress, Alex’s touch never failing to make his knees weak, regardless of everything else. He tried to get his brain back online to understand what it was that Alex was saying.

“With you where?”

“Home,” Alex smiled, saying it so easily like it was nothing. He paused, tilting his head slightly so he could look Michael in the eye. His gaze turned serious. “Do you want to come home with me Michael?”

Oh.

“But, but Forrest? And…” Michael spluttered.

“Shh, let’s just go home.” Alex pressed his index finger briefly to Michael’s lips. A slight twinkle in his eyes as if he realised that the gesture was straight out of some corny romantic movie. ”I’ll make up the sofa bed and we can talk in the morning. Actually talk.”

For a moment all Michael could do was stare.

Then he was hit with a surge of emotions even stronger than before. The last time he had felt like this was so many years ago, standing under the fake stars at the UFO Emporium, giddy after having taken a chance and filled with hope for a future ahead of him with a boy he loved. After everything that had happened since then, he had lost hope that he would ever get to feel the same way. It was an extraordinary feeling to stand here now with Alex, in the glow from the outdoor lights and with faint music filtering through from the inside, daring to let himself think that they were finally on the same page again and maybe, just maybe the universe could be on their side after all.

He reached out to let Alex take his hand.

“Yeah, I’d like to come home with you Alex.”

Maybe he really could get to belong somewhere.

“Please take me home.”