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Let’s Reinvent These Shadows

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The sun is hovering in that eternal twilight over the distant hills that grow into mountains on the horizon behind the Sander’s Auto sign. He’s been watching the sun get lower in the sky for a while now so he sees the moment that Alex’s car turns in and drives under the sign and into the yard.

The fire pit is set up and waiting for the dark so that he can illuminate the night with the bit of warmth and comfort that he has been finding in the blaze lately. He might not be turning into his father any time soon, he still needs a spark and fuel to make the flames dance for him, but he finds it increasingly meditative and calming to tire himself out as he stretches out this new skill and pokes and prods at exploring it’s potential. He’s invested in a gallon of Coleman’s camp fuel, using his drinking alcohol on this new hobby was wasteful. 

He watches as Alex parks the SUV and steps out of the car. He’s wearing the same leather punk rock motorcycle jacket that reminds him of the Alex he knew a long time ago. He walks carefully and Michael would like to attribute that to the trials of war but he knows that Alex’s war started long before he joined the military and watching Alex walk carefully to prevent himself from aggravating his body is not a new experience. They are both well-versed at mapping each other out and knowing where not to touch to avoid pressing on physical hurts.

But the metaphysical hurts… they’ve always had a habit of aiming true.

“I’m sorry, I was kind of a dick last time we spoke, I was a bit angry.” Alex starts speaking as he reaches him, an explanation shared so that he can be forgiven by the time he takes a seat.

“Angry,” Michael repeats needlessly as he takes a drink from the bottle of beer he holds in his hand.

“Tired, frustrated, annoyed… a cumulation of many emotions that resulted in me lashing out and I’m sorry.”

Michael shrugs, “combative expressions of love and devotion as a prelude to imminent death is very on-brand for you, actually.” He says it casually but he feels these moments so sharply each time they happen. 

Alex huffs a laugh and sits beside him with a sigh and stretches out his leg, fingers pressing into his thigh in an attempt to loosen the muscles that are seizing and causing him pain.

Michael frowns, that’s not really going to help, but stays silent. Alex is unlikely to let himself rest before he completes the mission that has him here, sitting beside Michael on a random Tuesday night.

“Your death isn’t imminent.”

“Well, it was either me or Sanders. And I’ve already told Sanders that if he gets murdered, I’m burying him in the desert surrounded by cheap daisies and hiring a Mariachi band to send him off.” Michael admits easily and reaches over and hands Alex a beer. “Anyway, after the fires it seems the vision has changed completely, so we’re back at square one.”

“As long as you’re around so we can keep playing Hardy Boys.” Alex smiles, sits back in his chair and takes an easy sip of his beer.

Michael studies his easy expression and smirks, “Is that a kink for you?”

“You said…” Alex looks at him confused and then shakes his head. “No, it’s not a kink for me. Fighting crime together is not really something I plan to do with you.”

“No…  of course not, you like doing that shit on your own.” Michael knows that comes out sounding more bitter than he meant it to but he also feels the truth in what he says and he can’t help but resent Alex’s absence over the past week.

Alex turns to look at him and Michael avoids his eyes. “I’m gonna go,” Alex sets the beer on the floor and stands up. “Apparently you’re still in a shit mood and I want to be able to look at you in the morning without getting annoyed.” 

It’s fair, he wouldn’t stick around for his shit moods if he didn’t have to either. The burning all-encompassing anger of the past week has been replaced by the bitter fatalistic spiral where he plays out the multi-verse of ways that the world can fuck him over by destroying the people he loves. 

But confusion interrupts the regret that his reactive words are chasing Alex away, “where are you planning to be in the morning?” 

“I forgot that part,” Alex acknowledges and turns to face him contemplatively, chewing on his lip. “Do you want to meet me for breakfast at the Crashdown tomorrow?”

“What?” Michael sits up, frozen and at attention as he watches Alex, with the mountains and setting sun behind him.

“As friends?” Alex adds with a casual hand gesture that communicates calm indifference.

Michael feels all the air escape from his lungs. “Yeah, no.” He shakes his head and collapses back into his chair and stares into the fire pit, mind blank. 

Alex turns to leave and Michael sees him take a few steps out of the corner of his eye, shake his head and turn back. This is new. Alex has always been the kind to make soul-shattering declarations and then walk away before Michael has a chance to process anything. But it seems this time Alex doesn’t want to let things end with a whimper. Which is fine, Michael’s always been a bigger fan of the bangs.

“Why?” He stands, hips cocked and arms crossed, looking confident and uncompromisingly demanding but he probably just wants to take the weight off his right leg and all Michael really sees when he looks at him is the boy he loves.

Michael studies him “I think we need to have a few more conversations before we go out in public. You definitely need to clarify a few things before you ask me out.”

“I wasn’t…”

Michael interrupts him, “If you weren’t… then definitely not.” He closes his eyes for a moment to accumulate a bit of courage behind his eyelids and admits, “I don’t want to be your friend, Alex.” 

Alex’s arms drop weakly to his side. But he doesn’t say anything in reply. Michael presses his lips together tightly then breathes in deeply, frustrated. He shakes his head dismissively and hitches his hips up to coax his lighter out of his pocket and into his hand. He flicks it open, the sound it makes as it sparks pumps the blood in his veins but he doesn’t light anything.

Alex is still watching him attentive but silent. 

Michael smiles wryly, “I saw you with Forrest when you got back to town. You looked good together.”

Alex shakes his head and approaches again, slowly. “Forrest and I weren’t serious.”

Michael laughs surprised that this news doesn’t make him feel better. “Oh fuck, now you want to make me feel sorry for a Long? Not serious with Alex Manes, I can relate.”

Alex shakes his head and steps away, turning back towards his car. “You are still being an asshole.” 

Michael on the other hand can’t stop himself from standing up to follow him. “No, really I’m impressed. You looked good; unafraid to stick your tongue down Forrest Long’s throat out in the open, in the middle of town. Confidence is a great look on you, I’ve always loved it.” He reaches for Alex and grabs his arm and Alex immediately wrenches himself free, forearm up and defensive in a way that makes Michael retreat instantly.  

Alex studies Michael intensely, the furrow between his eyebrows deep and the muscles in his jaw pulsing. It’s getting dark enough that soon Michael won’t be able to see the details of his face. But the way things are going, Alex will leave before that becomes an issue.

“You don’t get to be a dick about Forrest.” 

“I wasn’t actually trying to be a dick about your not serious one-year relationship with Forrest. I feel sorry for him. You’re still always making these finite and unshakable choices; between what you can and can’t have, between appearances and what you really want, between your commitment to your work and having a relationship. I thought you’d stopped doing that but maybe you haven’t changed as much as I thought you had.”

Michael turns his attention away and to keep his hands busy and his eyes off Alex he starts to pretend to move sticks and coals in the pit that was perfectly set up, to begin with. 

“You do not get to say that to me.” Alex sounds hurt, on the edge of restrained anger. But it seems like he’s through with the conversation because Michael hears his steps as he walks off.

“Two weeks ago I would have said… what a difference a year can make… but the truth of it is that nothing has changed. Maria and Max are still running straight towards death, I’m still a violent, angry, unevolved dick head and you…” 

Michael says it mostly to himself but he isn’t quiet about it and it still startles him when Alex says behind him; 

“What? What do I do?”

Michael straightens up and turns to face him. “You walk away.”

“Do you want me to stand here and take it, Michael? Is that how I prove myself to you? How long I can stand still, while you vent your frustration on me. Is that how you measure people’s love and devotion? Because Max and Isobel have stuck around, so far, right?”

That comment strikes deep and undeniably true. Michael has a habit of lashing out until people leave him and then feeling vindicated for proving that people always abandon him.

“No, I don’t ever want you to stay to prove something. I want you to stay because you want to.”

“I come back,” Alex declares easily and takes confident and unwavering steps towards the chair he’d been using and sits down.

Michael shakes his head, “You always come back, Alex. That’s easy. I don’t need you to come back. I need you to stay.”

“I’m here now.”

“Are you?”

“I left the service. I’m posted in Roswell now.” Alex states as if he’s proud that he managed to break away from a prison he’s always been free to leave.

“Then where have you been? I haven’t seen you around and apparently, you haven’t been with Forrest. You’re not hanging out with our friends; I see your brother at the Pony but you’re not there. Kyle barely has time to himself between his actual real job and his second pointless job trying to keep two idiots alive.”

“I…” Alex turns away, reluctant to answer Michael’s question.

Michael studies Alex but can’t really see his face anymore. He crouches down by the fire and flips his lighter open, thinking, snaps it shut then flips it again and again. Finally, his thoughts consolidate and he shakes his head this time he lets the lighter catch and he picks the spark up between his fingers and flicks it quickly at the fire. The fuel catches immediately and Michael focuses the heat on a particular log until he’s sure the bigger kindling catches alight.

“These are your acts of service,” Michael finally shares out loud as the fire gains momentum. He shakes his head and sits back on his chair, defeated, understanding. He rests his head on the backrest and stares up at the stars above.

“What?”

“Maria used to say that my love language was ‘acts of service’. And I hated that… but it’s true. I fix Maria’s cash register, her sign, Isobel’s fridge, the loose tiles in her bathroom, the broken glass in Max’s French doors... a lot… I fix those doors a lot. Acts of service from the broken kid who doesn’t know what love is. That’s what this is, right? This is what you’re doing? This is your act of service?”

“What is?” Alex looks profoundly confused.

“Erasing your father, dismantling Project Shepherd, making sure Deep Sky isn’t coming for me… your acts of service.”

Alex licks his lips and blinks at the fire, hands rubbing up and down his thighs. 

“You know about Deep Sky?”

“Kyle mentioned you were approached by a shady, top-secret, government and/or private sector, paramilitary group but you just confirmed you actually went and joined them.”

“I just want…”

“Yes?”

“I just… I need to be sure that they aren’t terrible.”

Michael shakes his head, defeated, “Alex, what are you doing here?” The flames rise high and the wood sparks and cracks with heat.

“I was asking you to meet me for breakfast.” The tenor of his voice, high and hopeful.

“After joining an unsanctioned secret society. Isn’t secrecy the price of admission to this classified bullshit?”

Alex seems to want to avoid having to look at him and he’s staring purposefully into the fire, his face flickering between light and shadow.

“Do you want a weekend wife who’ll be happy you’re home occasionally and ask you standard questions about having a good week at work and who will be satisfied by generic replies that don’t provide any details?”

“That is not what I want.” Alex sounds horrified. “That is absolutely not what I want.”

“Then what’s the plan, Alex? Look at where you are.” Michael stands up to pace, agitated and throws a hand out to encompass their surroundings. The miscellaneous garbage that towers around them in the junkyard flickering in the firelight that burns between them. “We’re back to the same fucking place we were in when we were 17. Breaking the rules to be together again? Do you promise to make an effort to maintain a secret relationship you’re not allowed to have this time around? Will you email me? Or can we zoom? Maybe you can just stalk me through the security cameras from miles away on restricted hardware that tracks your every keystroke?”

“Fuck, Michael… and you’re still just trying to break things.” Alex stands up to face him but he sounds tired and uncertain and on the edge of walking away again.

“I don’t think this will ever work out between us until we can have a discussion, have a fight and see it all the way through till the end. We never do that. But even that is pointless if you’re not even going to be around.”

“We both have our ways to avoid confrontation.” Alex responds, “I walk away and you get punched in the face.” 

“All this time, all you wanted from me was to stop the violence. It’s always been easier for me to hurt from getting punched in the face than to hurt because I’m alone.” Michael admits, crossing his arms over his chest the flames waning and shimmering tightly over the logs in the fire. “All I have ever wanted is for you to stay. Such a simple thing and you fail time and again to give it to me, Alex. So maybe neither of those things are as easy for us as we think they are.”

“I don’t want that to be true, for either one of us.” Alex stands distant and Michael doesn’t want that for them either but they keep falling into the same tragic cycle.

He steps forward and reaches out to gently grasp Alex’s wrists in his hands, tugging softly until Alex raises his head and looks him in the eye.

“If this service is for me… I don’t want it, Alex.” Michael says softly. “And if it’s for you…” Alex looks away then glances back immediately with a frown.

“I just came here to ask you to have breakfast with me.”

“Alex, we will never just have breakfast.” His palms sweep up Alex’s arms until they rest firm and gentle at the base of Alex’s neck, thumbs under his jaw, stroking the unyielding bones covered in perfect skin he wishes he could touch and stroke and kiss for the rest of his life. He feels a shiver move under Alex’s skin in response to his touch. “My future is with you. And if you are not certain about that… if you don’t believe with everything you are that we are capable of having that together…” Michael lets him go and takes a step back, “Then I just hope you know that I… I will always answer the phone if you need me and I hope you find happiness but… I don’t know if I can watch you find that if it’s not with me.”

They watch each other across the small space that separates them until Michael finally looks away and walks over to the woodpile to look through the different logs, searching for the perfect one to add to the fire. When he finally picks a couple out and he turns back, he half expects Alex to be walking away from him. But his heartbeat resonates deeply in his chest as he sees that instead, he has taken his seat near the fire and stretched his legs out in front of him, picked up his beer, fingers curled around the bottle, mouth pressed to his lips.

Michael takes a deep breath and floats the logs into the fire and Alex smiles softly as they drift into the flames. Michael takes his seat again but does not grab another beer, lets Alex’s choice to stay consume his thoughts.

They both remain silent side by side, contemplative and staring into the fire. But soon Michael starts to stretch out his focus, fingers twitching on the armrest to see if he can make the flames twist and curl and dance in a particular way. He feels like sometimes they spiral to his tune and sometimes they ignore him completely.

Alex is the one that finally breaks the silence. “Your rock reacted with something at work.”

Michael’s breath hitches, the flames crack and leap high and he turns his head to look at Alex. “So?”

“I don’t know if I can leave without knowing why.”

Michael sighs, he can’t fault Alex for his curiosity, they share this particular trait. “The rock reacted with the parts of my console too. They both glow deeper and shimmer in reaction to each other’s presence.”

“So, my work tech could be alien tech?”

Michael arches a brow and bites his lip innocently, “Maybe you should consult a specialist.”

Alex snorts, “What? And I just strut into a top-secret site with my alien boyfriend.”

Michael shrugs, but can’t restrain the smirk and thrill in his bones at Alex’s casual use of the word boyfriend. “Make me a… mechanic, geologist, tinkerer, alien conspiracy theorist, miner, spelunker… I don’t know if you know this Alex but they say that if you know how to use a computer the world becomes your oyster and I heard… somewhere... that you were good at typing.”

“I suppose… if I’m no longer in the Air Force fucking about on my computer is not as treasonous as it used to be.”

“Has earth written and printed out a Prime Directive? Are there rules for interplanetary dating?”

“I’m sure SETI has something drafted; interplanetary bilateral accords… you could be an ambassador.”

“Do you think I’d need to wear a suit?” Alex turns and looks him up and down in such a way that Michael knows he’s imagining it. “Apparently my people, Oasians, were fond of the all-white cult wear.”

“You’d look good in a suit,” Alex declares his preference clearly.

Michael frowns, nodding, “white doesn’t really work well with grease and engines.” He stands quickly and floats his chair closer to Alex’s and takes a seat again.

Alex doesn’t say anything, simply leans his head on Michael’s shoulder and stares into the flames. “Hey, has the fire been reacting to your mood?”

Michael settles in with Alex at his side grateful that he hasn’t walked away today. Amazed that nothing Michael has said out loud has pushed him away again. Exhilarated that they have this chance to talk, to share, to be with each other. It’s always easier when they don’t put obstacles between them and they can just spend time together.

Really, they haven’t solved anything. And the last thing Michael wants, just as Alex had told him years ago, is for Alex to be his medicine. But he can’t help himself, the balm of Alex at his side is undeniable, the chaos in his head slows down, his entropy shifts and matches the quiet song in his blood that sings when Alex is nearby like the twin flames he entices out of the fire to circle and twist together, two intertwined helices that form a fundamental part of earth's biology.