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The Top of My Lungs

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Every small town has a story. But this small town has a legend.

The thing about legends, though, is that they tend to sensationalize the little things. The white lies. The overdramatized stories that everyone comes to know as fact, until they forget the bigger truths that were at the heart of the legend all along. The facts get overshadowed by the fiction. There is what is true and what is presumed to be true. The thing about legends is that the difference ceases to matter. At least, to the people outside them.

Not to the people they were written about.

The thing about Roswell is that it has more than one legend, if you know who to ask. Legends that broke more than one heart and tainted more than one soul. The town itself was built on the back of one- of an extraterrestrial crash out at Foster’s Ranch that brought with it survivors of another world. If you ask anyone on the street if there’s any merit to the legend, they brush it off as a hoax. They laugh. They continue on with their day. But the tourists keep coming all the same, eager to try to spot their own little green man, not knowing that who they’re looking for has already been elbow deep in their engine when they stopped at the junkyard for an unexpected repair.

There is what is true and what is presumed true. What matters is perspective. What matters is nothing at all.

True: Rosa Ortecho was behind the wheel in the car accident that killed Kate Long and Jasmine Frederick on June 14, 2008.

Presumption: Rosa Ortecho was under the influence when she got in that car. She and the girls were skipping town to party and get high in the desert. Rosa just happened to start the party a little early.

Presumption: Rosa Ortecho died in that accident, too.

Presumption: Rosa Ortecho died at all.

On June 14, 2008, two brothers came stumbling into a cave in enough time to see their sister burn out Rosa’s lifeforce with a flash and a scream. Both girls collapsed. One woke up. The other didn’t.

Through his tears and the searing pain in his broken hand, one boy dug a grave with the force of his own mind, knowing that in doing so he was walking away from anything that could ever matter to him again.

On June 15, 2008, the other boy looked deep into Liz Ortecho’s eyes as the earth swallowed her whole and felt his soul crack in half. When the dust kicked up behind her car as she was leaving, he didn’t stop her.

When Isobel Evans comes back to herself, she starts losing time. It’s happened before, ever since she was 14. Just in small bursts and starts. But when she ends up in nothing but her nightgown in a field two miles out of town, her parents drag her kicking and screaming to the shrink’s office. Who does she find there but a jock trying to reconcile what he knew of his father before and what he knows now. He’s cute.

There’s less kicking and screaming after that.

-----

Presumption: Jesse Manes is a hero. A good man. An honorable man. An example to the rest of us.

Truth: Jesse Manes has four sons, all of whom served in the military.

Presumption: His children followed in their father’s footsteps willingly. They were proud to serve.

Truth: His sons were dragged behind him by their ears. They were horrified. Or, most of them were.

Presumption: Jesse Manes is a hero.

Truth: Jesse Manes is a crime.

If you ask Alex, the proof of that was spilled and mixed with the blood that his father forced him to clean from the floor of the toolshed on June 14, 2008. Alex was horrified, heartbroken, and reeling.

On June 15, 2008, Jesse Manes sits Alex down at the kitchen table. There are enlistment papers to his right and a bloody hammer to his left. The message is crystal clear: either Alex gets the hell out, the way his father tells him to, or he’ll go back and finish what he started. Alex knows he will. Jesse Manes has always been a man of his word. Alex knows that if he leaves, Michael will be safe from his father’s wrath. He doesn’t care if it means sacrificing himself in the process.

He ships out later that summer. Michael’s sitting in the holding cell at the sheriff’s office. They don’t get to say goodbye. Alex isn’t even sure he would have if he could have.

-----

If there’s one thing Alex has learned in the last ten years, it’s this: no two deserts are the same. There’s something about the way the sagebrush sticks to the horizon here, that the boy he used to be will never confuse with the sands and heat of Baghdad that he came to know as a man.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? He left the sagebrush as a boy with a broken heart. Now he’s back, more a man with less of a body and every intention to pick up the pieces he left behind, no matter what anyone else has to say about it. He sees the sign for Foster’s Ranch pass over his head. There’s saguaro dotting the skyline if he focuses hard enough. His uniform feels tight against his chest in a way that it never used to back in Iraq, and it settles something rocking loose in his chest.

He woke up bleeding in the sand reaching for the man with the curly hair and whiskey eyes that held him in his dreams. Instead of calling out his name in the dark, he strangled out a scream. Even half dead and half a world away, Alex Manes didn’t have any of the choices he thought he did.

This isn’t who he’s supposed to be anymore. It’s almost done; he’s almost out. There are whispers on the wind and in dark, where no sane person dares go on their own. There’s something Jesse Manes is hiding. Something damning. Alex is chasing after it with the taste of tang and hope on his tongue. It’s almost done. He’s here to pick up the pieces and leave the rest of it behind.

And on the other side of this mountain he’s climbing, maybe there will be the man he never wanted to leave behind. But the only way he’ll ever know is to climb.

-----

Foster’s Ranch is a landmark in the community, for more reasons than one. Sure it’s where the UFO crash supposedly happened, and the tourism that it brings helps keep their community alive. But the animals raised on this ranch supply beef, pork, and other goods to local restaurants and the farmer’s market. Tending to the land and the livestock has been one of the steadiest sources of employment in Roswell for as long as Alex can remember. If you ever needed a job, Mr. Foster would find something for you to do around the ranch.

One of the last good people and the last good businesses in this cracked and broken town. Of course Jesse Manes wants the pleasure of destroying it. Another tic in his dazzling service record. Alex huffs to himself. Jesse has never seen a war zone. Alex would like to see him try, if only for the laugh.

When they pull onto the property, Alex notices a silver airstream parked by the big barn. Something about it feels like it’s pulling Alex in. Like this is a place he should know, deep down in his heart of things. When he sees the angry cowboy stalking over from the familiar beat-up Chevy, he understands. The pieces of his personal puzzle are starting to come together. He’d know that gait anywhere, even if the man’s face is currently hidden by a huge black Stetson.

To say he’s surprised to see Michael is an understatement. Alex was anticipating having to go through Max or Isobel to see where he wound up. But here he is, full of spit fire and spite, telling Alex off from the start. God, he’s missed him.

Michael looks good. The last ten years have served him well. His curls are wild in a way that will never be tamed, and his whiskey eyes are hard with disillusionment. The tension in Michael’s shoulders melts for a moment when he sees Alex, but then he registers the uniform, knows what it means, and the hackles are raised again. But this time, Alex knows that Michael is protecting himself against a very real, specific, memorable threat. He doesn’t blame him, he never will.

“So, you made it back from Baghdad, huh?” he practically spits.

“Mostly,” Alex shrugs, reaching down to tap on the metal of his prosthetic. The other man’s eyes widen just enough for Alex to see it. Anyone else, and he doubts they would notice anything. But then, Alex Manes has always been able to read Michael Guerin better than anyone else.

“Bet your dad had plenty to say about that,” he whispers, voice dripping with something Alex thinks is supposed to be hatred, but it hits just left of the mark. Alex takes a step closer, grabbing Michael’s wrist where it comes up to wrap itself in his uniform. He looks Michael deep in his eyes- his calm in every storm in the desert.

“None of it good. I don’t care what he thinks. He’s never seen a war zone. He doesn’t know me.”

“Is there anyone that does, Alex?”

Yes, he wants to scream. You.

“Meet me at the reunion,” Alex whispers instead, begs. Michael’s eyes flash for a millisecond before he’s ripping himself away and tucked safely away inside his trailer. Alex takes a breath and lets him go.

Alex knew what he was signing up for when he came back, and he was never under the impression that it would be easy. Nothing worth it ever is. But Michael is here, where Alex thought he’d never see him again. And that’s as good a place as any to start.

-----

Michael Guerin has had a very odd day.

When he woke up in the drunk tank, the last thing he expected was for Max and Isobel to come barreling in, Isobel screaming that Max just brought Rosa Ortecho’s sister back from the dead. Then told her about the whole alien thing. First, Michael thinks, why couldn’t he have figured out how to do that a decade ago? It would have saved all of them a lot of pain. Second, he gets pissed. He walked away from Alex because Max convinced him that keeping this secret was more important than anything else in the world. Except, apparently, Elizabeth Ortecho. Who the hell does he think he is?

When he pushes the door of the cell open with his TK, it’s a damn near thing not to bust everything in that room against the walls.

Max just couldn’t let her die, huh? Michael’s never done anything for anyone else, huh? So what, if he’s been dealing with his broken mess of a hand for the last decade. So what if he had to leave Alex alone in that tool shed with that lunatic and his hammer. So what if he still has nightmares about it. Everything for the secret, right?

Unless your name is Elizabeth Ortecho, apparently.

At least everything Michael had to lose he walked away from a long time ago. At least, that’s what he thought until the Air Force came knocking on his door when he came barreling home.

When Michael leaves Alex out in the cold, as it were, with the Airstream door slamming shut in his face, he doesn’t know what to feel. Hell, Max just up and resurrected someone, and here Michael is facing his own ghost. The familiar pain in his hand makes the joints stiffen and the muscles seize. He swears under his breath, wishing he’d had the forethought to stock up on more acetone. Some genius he is.

“Meet me at the reunion,” he’d said.

Michael remembers everything. He remembers how good it was with them before it all went wrong; before Rosa died and he just didn’t know how to cope. How Alex tried to be there for him after Jesse Manes came after him with a hammer, even though Alex didn’t know that that was just the tip of the iceberg, and that Michael couldn’t even tell him the half of it. So when Alex finally gave up and shipped out, Michael couldn’t do a damn thing but let him go and try to live with himself. Alex had tried so hard to stay away from that part of his family, and yet after that summer he spent ten years deep inside of it.

Michael’s not so naive to think that Alex going to war was completely his fault- Alex has a complicated family and a lot of older, authoritative relatives that had been breathing down his neck from the second his voice dropped. But Michael’s also not blind enough to think that he wasn’t at least part of the deciding factor. A spark that burns. A catalyst. All because he couldn’t tell the truth.

Now Alex is back stateside for the first time in nearly a decade, complete with a fresh prosthetic that he didn’t have before. Michael doesn’t even want to think about how that happened. He doesn’t have enough acetone for that.

Meet me at the reunion.

Max just brought Liz Ortecho back from the dead. He told her the secret. He barely hesitated.

Well, Max isn’t the only one who has spent the last ten years full of regret. Michael is done with other people telling him how to live his life. He is done with shame. And he is done with secrets.

-----

The reunion is everything he expected from Isobel. She’s effortlessly transformed the old warehouse space into glittering lights and filtered windows. The cover band is playing old classics from the previous decade, and the room is full of people who never gave Michael a second glance. He was the street kid, the foster care reject, the guy without a family living in the back of his beat up old truck. He doesn’t care about what they think. He never has.

He and Isobel are talking about this thing with Max and Liz. Consequences and contingency plans. Isobel seems sick just thinking of how far she may have to exert her powers, but his sister’s nothing if not observant. Michael can feel his attention splintering the second Alex walks through the door. His gaze locks with Michael’s almost instantly and Michael can feel them exhaling the same held breath and he is so sick of all the secrets.

Isobel clocks him right away.

“I’m sorry, are you too busy making moon eyes at Alex Manes that you can’t even concentrate on the huge, life-threatening secret that Max has completely abandoned?! This is serious. We need to focus, Michael, not get our rocks off. Especially not with any of Jesse Manes’ brood of soldier boys.”

“Be sure you tell the good doctor that when you see him, Iz. I’m sure his mother will appreciate your glowing review of law enforcement.”

“Leave Kyle out of this,” Isobel spits, gripping Michael’s arm. Her eyes are hard.

“And don’t you presume to know a thing about Alex.” He whispers.

“As if you do? He’s just some guy you had music class with senior year. What’s the big deal? You haven’t seen him in a decade, Michael. How well could you possibly know him?”

“I guess we’ll find out.”

-----

Alex would love to say he isn’t pacing in the back room like some anxious teenager, but there is just something about Michael Guerin that he will never be able to leave in 2008. So here he is. Pacing, yes. But regretting nothing.

When Michael walks in, Alex can feel all the breath leave his body in a rush. Michael’s jeans are slung low on his hips, huge belt buckle front and center, tank top smudged with grease and henley open, swaying with him as he moves. His boots are covered in dust. He’s a vision in turquoise light filtering in from the warehouse windows around them. His eyes hold many things- willful spite, desperate hope. Fear. Confusion. Stubborn grit.

God, Alex has missed him, and how he is so wildly, defiantly alive. He crosses the space between them, narrowly resisting running a hand through those messy curls.

He hasn’t earned that yet. He came here to tell the truth, and leave all of himself at this man’s feet like he should have done so long ago. From there, it’s up to Michael. Alex won’t take another choice away from him. But he’s not going to back away, either.

“Thanks for coming,” he says softly.

“You asked me to,” Michael shrugs, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I never could figure out how to say no to you. And for the record, I didn’t want to. I wanted to see you again.”

“I’m glad,” Alex tells him truthfully. Taking a big breath, he gathers his thoughts. His hand twitches, desperate to reach out. Michael huffs a laugh.

“You trying to hold my hand, Private?” he smiles. When Alex looks up, Michael’s face is open and light. He’s cracking a joke, sure, but Alex also doesn’t think Michael would be disappointed if he followed through, and he made a promise to himself not to back down from saying what he wanted.

“Would that be okay?” he asks. Michael reaches out, tangling his fingers with Alex’s.

“What do you want to say, Alex?” he asks, tone dripping with patience.

“I want to try again,” he says without really thinking, coming out so fast both of them are startled by the force of it. He backpedals. “That summer, after things went wrong, I didn’t know which way was up anymore. Hell, you were hurt, and I could barely look at you without wanting to kill my father for what he did. I could tell you I didn’t want to leave, but I did. I needed to clear my head. But that’s when my dad drilled it into me that the best thing for everyone would be to get some distance from Roswell. He and my brothers convinced me that the only path in front of me that could amount to anything was to join up. So I did. I hated every second of it, and I hated where we left things, and I knew I had to find you again and make things right. The first time I landed in Iraq, I nearly puked. I felt so lost.

“Even though I wanted to leave, I had no clue who I was anymore. I was convinced that you either got the hell out of Dodge or would want nothing to do with me anymore, so I stayed. I tried to do some good. I’m just one person, I would never be able to stop the war, but I kept as many civilians safe as I could. Got them medical attention when I could. Re-wrote code on missile strikes to land in fields away from settlements. But none of it was never enough to make me feel like a whole person. I just felt like a cog, biding my time. And then I lost my leg, and I was done playing my father’s game.”

“What are you saying, Alex?”

“I’m saying the only power my father has over me is the power I give him. So I’m done. My enlistment is up in a few weeks, and then I’m out. I’m done trying to be the person he wants me to be. I’m living for me, making decisions for me, and I don’t care what he has to say about it.”

Michael takes a deep breath, taking it all in. “What are you saying, Alex?”

Alex takes his free hand and cups Michael’s jaw, looking deep in his eyes. “‘Every minute of every year, I was trying to come home.’” It makes Michael laugh, and a little tension shakes itself loose from his shoulders.

“Start reading apocalyptic war novels in your spare time?” he asks incredulously.

Alex shrugs. “Same ones as you, apparently. There wasn’t much else to do in the hospital.” He sobers. “I’m here to make things right between us, Michael. I want to be with you the right way, the way we should have been all along. But I’m not looking for an answer tonight. I know that a lot happened between us, and a lot has happened since I left, I’m sure. I don’t know about you, but I for one never wanted this to feel unfinished between us. So whatever you want-- space, time, nothing to do with me, everything to do with me-- just tell me and it’s yours.”

Alex takes a step back to give Michael some room to breathe, but the other man stops him before he can release his hand. They stay that way for several minutes, just taking each other in. Alex can hear the gears spinning in Michae’s head, and he’ll gladly wait here until Michael finds whatever words he’s clearly looking for. Alex doesn’t care if the entire reunion clears out and the doors are locked behind them.

Eventually, Michael seems to find his voice, and he grips Alex’s hand tighter as he looks him square in the eye. His eyes are the color of whiskey and bottle glass, and Alex knows he’ll be powerless against them forever, no matter what happens here tonight.

“That last summer, before you left, I was a mess. You were right, I was wasting my time. I was doing dumb shit to try to numb the pain, but it wasn’t just about what happened with your dad. I hope you never think I blamed you for that, because I never have. Whatever’s twisted in his head isn’t on you. But-” he pauses, gathering himself. “What I was fighting with that summer, what put a wedge between me and Max, it had nothing to do with you, I swear. But I couldn’t tell you about it then and I tried every terrible thing I could think of to just stop thinking about it, because they were the only things that worked.”

Alex steps forward again, running his hand gently through the hairs at the nape of Michael’s neck, trying his hardest not to revel in the way his eyes slip shut at the contact.

“You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, Michael,” Alex insists.

“That’s the thing, though, I do want to.” Michael bites out, but Alex can tell his frustration isn’t with him. “I couldn’t tell you the whole truth before, and that was a huge part of why things went wrong between us. You’re right-- this thing with us always felt unfinished. I want to try again, too, but I want to do it the right way or not at all. That means telling you everything, and I can’t do that yet. The secrets I’m keeping, they’re not just mine.” He brings his own hands up to frame Alex’s face. He needs to get this right.

“How do I know you’re not going to leave me behind again?”

Alex doesn’t look away. He knew this was coming, and he knows it’s a test. “I know that right now my word doesn’t hold much meaning for you in terms of trust. I guess the only way I can prove it to you is to keep showing up until you believe me. But in case hearing the words would help, I’m not going anywhere, Michael. With my leg, I’m not cleared to go back to Iraq or anywhere overseas. By the time I would be, my enlistment is going to be up. I have so little time left, they’re not going to bother sending me anywhere else either. I’m in Roswell for the rest of my service. And the second my whereabouts are something I have complete control over, I’ll be staying in Roswell as long as you want me to. I’ll do whatever you need me to do to prove it, Michael.”

For whatever reason, the look on Michael’s face tells Alex that was as close to a right answer as he could have given.

“The issue was never that I didn’t trust you, Alex. If you say you’re sticking around, I believe you. But like I said, there are things I have to figure out to know if I’m in a place where we can give this a real shot. This could be the forever thing, you know? So I’m not gonna promise something I don’t know for sure that I can give.”

Alex nods, understanding completely. Or, well, as much as he can, given the circumstances. “Just to be clear, then. You want to give this a shot between us, but you can’t commit to anything until you work through some stuff.”

“Yeah.”

“So you’re asking for time.”

“Yes.”

“Okay. We can do that. Are you asking for space, then, too?”

Michael’s eyes are positively burning.

“Hell no.”

And then he’s wrapping his broken hand in Alex’s shirt. Alex loses the plot after that.

-----

Michael Guerin goes to bed alone that night, the memory of Alex’s touch still warming his red-hot skin.

Max resurrected someone. He chose to bring her in. He trusts her. He loves her, Michael knows he does. He’s spent enough time wishing he could bring his own fledgling love back to life. He’s also spent enough time playing by his brother’s rules. This time, he’s going to do things right.

In the dead of night, after Max has said a wistful goodnight to Liz and Isobel has curled herself into the shape of Kyle Valenti’s side, they receive the same ominous message:

We need to talk.