For the next three weeks, Michael buries himself beneath the hood of half the cars in Roswell. He tries shutting off his brain and pushing his emotions aside, but it doesn’t work. He’s never had Alex’s talent for disassociating. The noise in his head always too loud, too unrelenting to completely shut off. It’s in the middle of all that mental chaos one Friday afternoon that he realizes the daily drives to Alex’s house had given him the peace and quiet that he’d so often sought and so rarely found anywhere other than behind a guitar.
And that’s eye-opening enough for Michael to grab a bottle of water and sink onto the broken junkyard bench he’s claimed as his own. For so long, he’d been too scared to examine his somewhat compulsive routine during Alex’s absence. Every thought in his head waiting to scream at him about backsliding, about falling into old, harmful patterns. Because after years and years of repetition, that had seemed the obvious answer -- Alex had left and it had triggered his abandonment issues.
He’s not deluded enough to believe all their history hadn’t played a part, maybe even a significant one. But with Alex’s return knocking the edge off his need for connection, he thinks the answer might not be such an open and shut case. But giving himself the benefit of the doubt has never come naturally.
Where does he even begin?
How about this: Alex can be a dick. And that’s fine because he can be a dick too. I mean, hell, if he runs through the list of people he loves, they’re all very capable dicks. So after the past twelve years, neither he nor Alex can possibly harbor any notion that the other is perfect. And if his relationship with Maria had taught him anything, it was that Alex wasn’t the source of his relationship struggles. And it’s easy enough to surmise with Alex’s breakup with Forrest, that Michael is not the source of his either.
They were two hurt boys who’d grown into two hurt men who’d found it too easy to hurt each other and themselves. Both of them masters of self-sabotage. And there is no magic person out there somewhere that he’d magically be good for without a lot of emotional effort and elbow grease.
He gulps at his water and tries to pinpoint the exact need visiting Alex’s house every day had satisfied -- or attempted to satisfy. Sure, he’d missed seeing Alex, but it’s not like they’d been seeing each other on a regular basis before he’d left. And yes, his breakup with Maria and then hearing Alex’s song had brought up a bunch of feelings he’d foolishly assumed he’d moved past. The song especially had reignited a hope for them he’d long thought gone. But he’d also been totally fine with Alex exploring his options with Forrest.
If Maria had asked him to go on a countrywide road trip while supporting a book she’d written, a book she was super proud of, Michael would have left town in a heartbeat. And it’s not like Alex had asked him to look after his house while he was away either. That had been entirely his own idea and his own choice. Alex hadn’t owed him any kind of response while he’d been away with his boyfriend.
Why was everything always so complicated? What the fuck had he really wanted? And what does he want now?
Tossing his empty bottle into the recycle bin, Michael bends over the Subaru's engine to finish replacing Lucy Stedman’s spark plugs, each question still plaguing him. He loses the next hour to his thoughts and the sun beating at his back. So lost in his head he doesn’t hear another car pull into the junkyard.
“The kid will help you,” Sanders yells from his cushy perch in the office watching the Diamondbacks lose.
“Give me a second.” Michael wipes his hands quickly on the thighs of his jeans and releases the hood, letting it fall heavily back into place. Looking over his shoulder at the shop clock, he realizes it’s past quitting time and sighs. “What do you need?”
“Thought you might like dinner.”
Michael snaps his head in the direction of Alex’s voice. “Dinner?” It’s an ineloquent response, but they haven’t done more than share a couple of incredibly benign texts in the past three weeks. All of them concerning Artie, Alex’s missing garden gnome.
He raises a large cardboard box stuffed with takeout containers. “I think I bought everything on the menu at that Thai place you love.” The smile on his face is gentle but nervous. The dark circles under his eyes have faded and his cheeks are flushed. It’s then and there that Michael realizes how simple the answer to his questions really is. How simple the answer has always been.
It’s Alex. He wants Alex.
But he doesn’t know how to go about telling Alex that, though. “Any particular reason?”
Alex shrugs. “I just...I wanted to say thank you for the past few months. Everything with the house. It’s not enough,” he says, looking down at the week’s worth of food, “but it’s a start, I hope.”
“You didn’t have to do this. I mean, you don’t owe me for something you never even asked for.” There’s a part of his brain yelling at him just to say thank you and invite Alex into the Airstream for dinner, but there are other deeply instinctual parts screaming at him that he doesn’t deserve a shot at happiness and never will. No matter how much he wants what he wants. “I don’t have room in my fridge for all this food.”
“Call Isobel and Max, share it with them. A sibling night or something, I don’t know. Beat Max at Scrabble.” He shoves the box of food into Michael’s arms, smiles, and starts to walk away.
“Wait, Alex.” Dammit, he doesn’t want to repeat the past, doesn’t want to watch Alex as he walks away. “Come inside. Help me eat this.”
“Oh, no, Guerin. I didn’t come here to get invited inside. Really, just enjoy the food.” His hands are shoved deep in his pockets and the air between them is both electric and awkward as fuck.
“Stop with the bullshit. Come inside.” Readjusting his grip on the box, he tilts his head towards the open door of the Airstream and heads in that direction, trusting that Alex will follow.
Michael sets the box on top of the counter over his mini-fridge and starts unloading all the hot, greasy takeout containers. Alex climbs up the steps and stands next to him, looking around like he’s seeing the place for the first time.
“You took down all your maps and calculations.”
“Yeah. They’re all down below in the bunker. Safer there. We should probably eat the noodles first since soggy noodles make terrible leftovers.” He hands Alex a takeout box and a pair of chopsticks. “Let’s sit on the floor. If that works for you?”
Alex nods and eases himself down beside Michael’s bed, leaning against the metal frame. He stretches his legs across the narrow space, and Michael sits against the wall, facing him. Their knees pressed together in the middle. They tear into their food, a companionable quiet falling between them.
“Can I ask you a weird, intrusive question?” Now that he’s started considering what he wants he can’t stop. And right now, he wants to sit here in the peaceful hour of sunset with Alex and relearn the shape of each other. To retrace their crooked outlines with revealing words and knowing glances and soft touches.
“Ask away. Don’t really have any secrets. None I’d keep from you anyway.” He looks back down at his food, but he’s smiling in that shy way Michael finds utterly irresistible. It makes him wonder how long they’ll last before their ever-looming physical need shuts them up.
Because it’s only a matter of time.
“How’d you get half a year off from work. Didn’t think the military was that generous.” He bumps his knee against Alex’s. “Unless they kicked you out.” He starts to laugh but falls silent when Alex stares back at him, eyes an open wound. It had been a joke, only a joke. “Oh wait, fuck, Alex. I’m sorry.”
Alex waves his chopsticks and clears his throat. “Not your fault. And anyway, I’ve wanted out for years, right? Just never been able to pull the trigger, so it is what it is.”
“What didn’t happen?” he laughs, but it’s a bitter sound. “Flint got court-martialed over a dozen different charges. My dad’s death had to be covered up with that stupid fucking smoke inhalation excuse. I’m pretty sure they think it was either me or Flint who shot him. Which, close enough. And then the USAF-owned lab under my command got blown to shit. Honestly, I’m lucky I wasn’t court-martialed and thrown into a military prison in the cell next to my brother.”
Michael has to swallow the urge not to drive straight to Max’s house and murder him over the lab explosion. “Is that why you left?”
He shakes his head. “I left because Forrest asked me to and I was trying to be a good boyfriend or something. The discharge just made it a lot easier. Maria said it was a sign from the universe to take a break. Do something for me.”
They set their empty cartons aside. Michael settles further into the wall studying Alex’s expression. He’s guarded, but it’s not as intense as usual. He’s back to looking tired, the shadows playing tricks in the contours of his face. “That’s fair. You deserve a break after all that bullshit.”
Alex raises his eyes and stares back at Michael in obvious confusion. “You don’t think I was just running away again?”
“If I’m being honest, I probably let that thought cross my mind once or twice. But no, Alex. Going on a trip with your boyfriend to clear your head after what happened last year is a reasonable response.” He means that and he hopes Alex believes him.
“Well, it didn’t work. I just felt more and more unraveled with every state line we crossed. But enough about me. What have you been up to? Other than stalking my empty house, of course.” He smirks at Michael playfully.
Michael snorts. “Nice diversion.”
They both laugh. And their smiles don’t immediately fade; they don’t feel the need to look anywhere else but at each other. Something starts to shift between them, each new word they speak cracking open old wounds and stitching them back together so they can finally heal, this time with less scarring.
“Diversion or not, I genuinely want to know.”
Michael takes a moment to process how good it feels to be asked. He could get addicted to this, sitting with Alex and talking about absolutely nothing more than the minutiae of their lives. Without warning, the old fear creeps in. The fear that his wasted life won’t be enough to hold Alex’s attention. He can either hang onto that fear or he can let it go.
Alex tilts his head, waiting for him. Michael takes a breath and lets it go.
“We’ve been trying to keep tabs on Jones after he escaped last year. That’s been an unsuccessful nightmare. Otherwise, I’ve just been working. Got a couple of new certs to hang on the wall, I guess. Brake and transmission. Sanders has been up my ass about getting them for years.” He shrugs, already uncomfortable with talking about himself. It’ll take some getting used to.
“Things with Maria okay?”
That makes him smile. “Of course. DeLuca and I will always be okay. I’m right back to being her most annoying person on the planet, but this time around, she laughs a lot more. We make good friends.” There had only been the briefest moment of awkwardness between them after she’d ended things.
“Good. That’s good.”
“No more diversions.” Michael wraps his fingers around Alex’s left ankle, one finger sliding under the hem of his jeans to stroke softly at his warm skin. Such an innocent barely-there touch. But it’s a connection Michael’s been badly craving for so long. And Alex’s audible exhale suggests he has been too. “Tell me about Forrest or at least what made you come home.”
Alex’s eyes drift downward as he fiddles with the buttons on his flannel. “I couldn’t tell him about my discharge. It’s just, he’d always seen me as connected to my service, you know? Constantly going on about heroes and courage under fire and blah, blah, blah. I think this,” Alex raps his knuckles on his prosthetic, “became almost like some kind of fucked up symbol to him. Like all he wanted was to fuck Captain America -- or hell, just the shield. Does that make sense?”
“Enough sense that I’d like to punch him.”
Alex snorts. “There was never any quiet. No privacy. We were crammed together in tiny hotel rooms and that got to me really quickly. One night I asked to skip his lecture, and he flipped out. That was right around the time you started showing up at the house.”
Michael blushes. “We should probably talk about that. I bet from your perspective it seemed a bit...unhinged.”
“No. It made total sense.” Alex leans forward, brow creased. He grabs hold of the soft spot right above Michael’s knee, grounding them together while he speaks. “You take care of the people you love, even when they don’t ask you to. Even when they don’t deserve it. Always fixing things at the Pony or helping Isobel set up her events or staying up all hours of the night listening to Max work through his latest case of writer’s block. I wanted to call you so badly. Every single day, but like I said, no privacy. Your name alone set Forrest on edge.” He throws a small, apologetic smile at Michael before leaning back against the bed.
“So, you decided to come home.”
“He caught me watching the video of you at my house and gave me an ultimatum. Before I could overthink things and convince myself to stay in a bad situation, I got in my car and headed west.”
His head collapses back onto the mattress, exposing his throat to the moonlight. Michael slides forward, unable to stop himself. Or maybe just unwilling. He releases Alex’s ankle and splays his fingers gently around Alex’s neck, applying no pressure -- just a ghost of a touch. His skin exactly as Michael remembers. Then Alex swallows hard and his throat presses into Michael’s palm and it’s too much. He drags his lips down Alex’s neck, chasing the movement, and gently kisses the hollow of his throat.
Alex giggles. Literally fucking giggles. He lifts his head and Michael’s right there, smiling into his lips. They kiss lazily as the sun finishes setting, taking their time Each stroke of tongue a goodbye to the past; each shared breath a prayer for the future.
Eventually, they pull apart. For once, the desire to keep talking overcomes their incessant need to drown in each other’s bodies. Michael marvels at that revelation, and whatever spark of hope had existed before ignites into an alarming blaze.
Alex pulls him from his thoughts. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now. You remember me back in high school. I was never really good at anything.”
“What? No. You’re good at so many things.”
Another snort. “Name one.”
“You’re good at being a stone-cold dick.” He grins after the words leave his mouth, and Alex grins back, grabbing a pillow off Michael’s bed to swat at him.
“You’re such a shit.” He hits him one more time with the pillow. “But you aren’t wrong.”
Michael kisses dead whatever he was going to say next, stealing the pillow and tossing it back on the bed. “You’re good at that thing you do with your tongue. Lots of people would pay top dollar to experience that kind of talent. Trust me. This town is sex-starved and in desperate need.”
“That thing with my tongue is only for you.” Alex swipes at the unruly curl on Michael’s forehead.
Alex nods. “Only you. That’s true for a lot of things, actually.”
“Sucks for everyone else, I guess.” Michael smiles, smug and self-satisfied. “Let’s see -- you’re very good at hacking into foreign governments. I’m sure there’s a black market agent looking for that or a local IT department that could use your expertise.”
Alex nods, sighing in resignation. “Yeah, that’s likely where I’m headed. For now, at least. I have an interview at New Roswell High tomorrow morning.”
Michael fakes a dramatic shudder. “Jesus, back to high school? But I guess that makes sense. You’ve also always been so good at coming home. No matter what’s tried to stop you -- IEDs or self-righteous asshole boyfriends or even your own bullshit.”
“That’s because I never really leave. The parts of me that matter most are always here with you.” He flattens his hand over Michael’s chest and their foreheads fall together. “I had a lot of time to think during the drive back to Roswell, and I promised myself that the first time I saw you’d I’d tell you how much I love you.”
Michael chuckles. “Explains the hug.”
“Yeah, that was as close as I could get in the moment. I’ve been scared to open my mouth and say those words to you. I don’t know why because it’s really the easiest thing in the world -- loving you. Me on the other hand.” He’s laughing, his defenses locking into place in response to this new vulnerability between them.
‘God, you’re dumb. Pretty but dumb.”
Alex huffs out an amused breath before tightening his expression into something far too serious for Michael’s liking. “I just need you to know that I’m working on it. Really working on it. And by ‘it’, I mean me. I want this to work for real this time.”
“Me too.” He smacks a kiss noisily on Alex’s temple and stands up, reaching out a hand to help Alex up off the floor. “To that end, let’s get this food back in your car and head to your place where I’m assuming there’s a bed big enough for both of us. Just give me a minute to pack some clothes. I’m inviting myself to stay awhile.”
Alex starts to pack the food away. “Don’t forget Artie. I know you stole him.”
Michael doesn’t answer, just grins and shoves the weird little gnome with the chipped nose into his bag.