One step through the door of the renovated warehouse and Alex immediately knows that Kyle had been right to warn him away from speed dating. There are roughly two dozen other men in the room, and he at least vaguely recognizes every single one of them. The swell of hope that he was going to show up and meet some handsome new stranger deflates in his chest, but at least he can breathe again now that his expectations are bashed to bits. He considers turning around and walking out the door, but Trey Banton, local dating entrepreneur and former high school acquaintance, claps and motions for everyone to take a seat.
So, he takes a seat.
Above him, the air conditioner blows noisily through the half-closed vent. Local weatherman Martin Scott sits across from him. He smells nice and smiles sweetly at Alex, obviously nervous, sweating a touch at his temples. Alex smiles back and wonders if this won’t be so bad. At the very least, he gets to catch up with people he hasn’t seen in a while. Not that he’s ever cared to catch up with the people he hasn’t seen in a while. But they shake hands across the table and make boring small talk about the weather and the drought and Roswell’s tiny queer population. It’s pleasant enough.
The buzzer sounds; Martin moves down a seat. The next guy is dark-haired, balding. His shoulders and back are perfectly aligned; his buzz cut and severe expression immediately out him as ex-military. “Thank you for your service, Captain Manes. It’s an honor to meet you. Properly, I mean. I knew your father. Great man.”
Alex inwardly cringes, the blood coursing through his veins icing over. The ex-soldier sitting across from him had often stopped his father around town to blow smoke up Jesse’s ass. “If you say so.” He has no interest in continuing that tradition. “Personally, I thought he was a colossal dick. And the apple didn’t fall from the tree.”
The man whose name Alex can’t remember to save his life frowns and averts his eyes to a spot over Alex’s shoulder. They don’t say another word to each other. But Alex feels better now, oddly. Freer, somehow. Thinks that maybe Kyle had been wrong after all. Maybe this is a chance to set the record straight, even if that means Roswell will never be a place he finds love. Well, never finds love again, anyway.
Each guy comes and goes without fanfare. Half of them only want to talk about his service, his leg. All the military talk reminds him of Forrest, and he hates being reminded of Forrest. He’s had enough empty hero worship to last several lifetimes. Another guy offers to sell him weed, another to join his pyramid scheme. One guy barely glances at him, just hands over his business card, and says he’s free on Friday. Free for what, Alex has no idea.
It’s a bust. The entire night a sham, a scam. But eventually, the last buzzer sounds and the evening ends harmless enough. No one had expressed more than a passing interest in him, successfully dodging the Alex Manes bullet. Which, good for them.
Everyone filters out quickly, no one staying long enough to mingle over burnt coffee and day-old donuts. Most people leave alone, a few pairing up for a hookup of some kind or other. There’s a small crowd following the weed guy to his truck. Alex considers heading that way too, considers buying Maria a gift for not laughing in his face when he’d said he was giving speed dating a try. Ending the night stoned with her giggling at his side and making fun of this whole experience is truly the best outcome he can imagine now.
The night will fade into nothing but a distant, hazy dream. He’ll ignore the part about being lonely. He’ll ignore the part about constantly sabotaging his own life, deferring his happiness for some future moment when he’s able to look in the mirror and see his own face again. But Maria will know and he’ll know that she knows. They’ll ignore it together. He’ll listen to her smile when she talks about Kyle. And neither of them will say Michael’s name even when they’re both thinking it.
Remaining at the table, Alex prefers to watch everyone else leave first. He speaks quietly with Trey, thanking him for the invite, and then walks out into the night, hip aching from sitting in the too narrow, too rigid chair for an hour too long. He narrows his eyes to sweep his surroundings, but he stops dead in his tracks as soon as he sees Michael parked twenty feet directly in front of him. He’s half-leaning, half-sitting on his lowered tailgate, boots crossed, amused smirk on his face. As soon as Alex spots him, he takes off his hat, curls springing free, blowing wild in the night breeze.
Alex stops breathing. Actively tries to take a breath and can’t. His heart stutters, stops. He has to clutch at this chest to get it going again. Michael tilts his head, eyes sweeping over him. Head to toe, back again. Alex stands frozen, caught completely unaware with nowhere to hide. His skin tightens, the hair along his arms vibrating. Every coherent thought in his head vanishes.
Several guys detour toward Michael, drawn in by his gravitational pull. They call out, make idle chat, proposition him because who in their right mind wouldn’t? He’s gorgeous in grease-stained jeans and a half-undone shirt worn threadbare and so soft at the edges. All gaping chest and narrow hips and the always present hint of danger, of reckless intent.
Michael nods his head, waves his hat, acknowledging each man, but his eyes never once leave Alex.
Alex stumbles slightly, but the slip allows him to breathe again. He moves forward, slow and steady. Michael’s smirk grows into an unabashed grin, creasing the corners of his eyes and making him look older, gentler -- more like himself. Alex’s heart races with something that he refuses to name, but he clenches his fists tight, fingernails biting into the heels of his palms, the sharp sting clearing his head. There are a million and one reasons Michael might be here. At this random warehouse on the outskirts of town. Like maybe someone’s car had broken down or Isobel had sent him somewhere for some reason or he’d just been driving aimlessly past and stopped when he’d seen a suspicious crowd of cars, Alex’s among them.
When he’s about five feet away, Alex stops. Five feet feels safe. He shifts his weight onto his left leg, digging his heel into the earth, and forges his backbone into steel. “What are you doing here?”
Michael scoffs. “Me? I should be asking you that. Speed dating? I had to see it to believe it.”
“Maria.” Alex shakes his head. “She told you.”
“Maria and Kyle, actually. And to be fair, I overheard. They’re waiting for you at the Pony, ready to drown you in top shelf whiskey so that whatever happened inside that building is long forgotten by tomorrow morning.” He’s still smiling, but there’s something else there, burning at the edges. Like he wants to say something more but can’t. Or won’t.
“I don’t need rescuing.” He says it. He means it. He wishes it were true.
“Never said you did.” Michael’s smile falters briefly but then returns tenfold, cocksure and crooked and criminally kissable. “Plus, I’m no savior. But I thought you wouldn’t mind seeing a friendly face after a voluntary stint in hell.”
“Maria and Kyle -- they’re dating.” It’s such a cheap retort. An old habit. He doesn’t know why he says it. Maybe he wants to see Michael’s reaction. If so, it’s disappointing. Michael doesn’t take the bait, doesn’t even flinch. Maybe he’s just a dick being a dick, weaponizing whatever he needs to regain the upper hand. His dad would be so proud.
“I know. It’s fine.” They fall silent. Alex inwardly chastises himself, his inner voice begging him to open his mouth and apologize. But he doesn’t. He never does.
Michael kicks at the dirt; Alex takes one step closer. He needs to touch Michael, maybe that will clear his head, calm him down, keep him from saying something even worse. “So, you agree with Kyle that dating is a worthless venture.”
“Speed dating, yes. Don’t you?” He stops kicking up clouds of dirt, stares Alex directly in the eye.
Alex can’t maintain the stare. He looks around the dirt lot, most of the cars have cleared out now. The security lights have clicked on, one flickers as the bulb surges and then dies. He shrugs once, twice. All his seams unraveling without his permission. “I’ve gotta do something. It doesn’t work for me like it does for you or Kyle or Maria.” He shrugs again, trying to get rid of the deeply uncomfortable weight making a home on his shoulders, the childish whine in his voice.
“What does that mean?” Michael’s too relaxed and that grates at Alex’s anxiety. His anger flares, searing and irrational.
“Just, you walk into a room, any room, and people notice. For better or worse, people look up and see you or some version of you. All that bullshit swagger or whatever. The hair, the hat. The cowboy thing, the bad boy thing. I don’t know. That doesn’t happen for me.” Another weak shrug. He drags his eyes back to Michael with a small, curt laugh, hearing how pathetic he still sounds and wishing he could take back everything he’s said so far, start over. Start stronger. He tries to square his shoulders, recover some of his control, and restructure his composure. It doesn’t work. With Michael, it never really does.
“I see you. I’ve always seen you.” Michael drops heavily onto his tailgate, the truck swaying under his weight. Memories flood back, of long ago desert nights spent buried beneath blankets and musty sleeping bags. Coyotes howling in the distance, the mountains looming over them, acting as a shield. The Chevy swaying for entirely different reasons. “So, did anyone in there see you?”
Alex shakes his head, swallowing hard, blinking away the dusty memories. “No.” He throws his head back, exposing his throat, eyes darting through the nameless stars. “I think, I think you’re the only person maybe besides Maria who ever really saw me. The good parts, the shitty parts.” His eyes land on the moon, soaking in her pale light, pleading for some of her strength, her ability to push and pull and transform. “And that’s a problem for me, Guerin. Because I fucked up so bad, and I don’t know how to let you go.”
Michael just blinks at him. Eyes wet with unshed tears, unsaid words.
“So, maybe speed dating is stupid. Maybe dating in Roswell is pointless. I mean, fuck, maybe thinking I’ll ever be someone capable of holding down a real relationship is batshit. But I’m trying or I want to try or something.” The anxiety, the fear, the doubt he’d been holding onto all night breaks through his carefully constructed dam, and he cries. Not gut-wrenching sobs, just quiet, endless tears scorching a path of invisible scars down his cheeks.
“Okay.” Michael stands up, leaves his hat on the tailgate, steps forward. Alex feels every one of his steps like a kick in the gut, heart pounding against his ribcage in perfect rhythm. Michael stops, extends his hand. “My name’s Michael Guerin. It’s nice to meet you. We’ve got ten minutes, better make ‘em count.”
For a long moment, Alex freezes, confused. But Michael raises an eyebrow and Alex takes his hand. The touch warms him, heals some of the ache in his chest. He squeezes Michael’s hand softly. “Hi, Michael. I’m Alex. I’m working on a few things, trying to be better.” A shaky breath. “I’m sorry about before.”
A simple nod. “Me too. What kind of things are you working on?”
Alex grimaces, it’s one thing to say he’s working, something else entirely to dig deeper into the specifics. He opens his mouth to speak several times, like a fish gulping ridiculously at dry air. But Michael’s patient and waits without rushing him. “Talking. I’m working on talking before I get buried in my own shit spirals.” He takes a steadying breath, relieved that he’s said something real and true. “What about you?”
Michael looks over his shoulder at his truck, spins his eyes around the parking lot, and raises them to the sky before blinking back down at Alex. He sighs deep in his chest. “This.” He gestures between himself and Alex. “I’m working on this. Going after what I want. And not getting lost in the places I’ve never been and may never go.” One more look skyward, a serene smile spreading across his face. “I don’t want to be a secret, Alex. I’m done with secrets.”
“Yeah, I know.” It’s easy to kiss him then. Beneath the silver flood of moonlight and in the wide-open night for anyone, for everyone to bear witness. To wrap his arms around Michael’s neck and press their lips together. To bypass tentative and head straight to certain. To drown in needy, desperate strokes of tongue and hungry gnashing of teeth. What’s not easy is tearing himself away long enough to say what he needs Michael to hear. “No more secrets. Not ever again. Promise.”
Trey wonders past, laughing and shaking his head at them on the way to his car. “Goodnight, you two.” Michael and Alex ignore him, barely registering his existence.
“Have you eaten?” Alex shakes his head, his stomach too twisted in knots all day to have attempted a real meal. “It’s nothing gourmet, but I could grill us a couple of burgers back at my place.”
They haven’t let go of each other. Their thumbs trail lightly over each other’s knuckles. “Okay. I’ll follow you there. If you’re sure.” He lifts his hand to cup Michael’s jaw before weaving his fingers through Michael’s curls. He needs to hear Michael say the words out loud, needs there to be no space left to fill in the blanks with his own traitorous inner voice.
Their foreheads drop together; their breathing syncs. Not everything is fixed. That will take a long time, maybe forever, but Alex sees the path now, the way forward. He sees hope in himself and in Michael and in their future together.
Michael threads his thumbs through Alex’s belt loops, tugs at his hips. “I’m really fucking sure. On one condition, though.”
“Name it.” Alex is ready to give him anything and everything. Whatever he asks for: needs, wants, desires.
Michael drags their lips together, stubble burning across Alex’s chin, hot waves of liquid pleasure dancing down his spine, curling his toes. “You stay for breakfast.”
Alex smiles, settled and sure. “Done. Let’s go home.”