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The Wild Pony had one of the more memorable dive bar smells Michael had ever encountered. He’d once mentioned it in passing, thoughtful in a way that happened after a few beers, but Isobel had just made a face and said, “You think I breathe in through my nose in here? Please.” And Max, well, Max probably never set foot in here unless he was making an arrest or handing out warnings and disapproving looks. Incredibly, with Michael, the topic had never come up.

Michael wasn’t well traveled. He hadn’t experienced much culture outside of New Mexico, the dive-bar variety or otherwise, which was ironic for someone not of this earth. Here and there, sure, he’d made impromptu trips to Texas or Arizona, the Four Corners, or sometimes got asked to trailer horses farther out if there was no one else and the price was right. But after a certain point, desert was desert was desert. Even the people looked the same, sounded the same, fought and fucked the same.

The Pony was different somehow. Roswell was different. Worse, maybe. But like the town, the Pony was home, even though it lived a step outside the predictable stink of old beer, sweat, vomit, and mould. It smelled the way old gas station bathrooms felt: alienation and decay that sank into your pores and hung around like an old bruise. Could be Michael was projecting. Could be everything was bullshit and none of it mattered.

In a way, the stench was a comfort. For lack of better options, Michael came here so often it was practically an old friend, and he’d spent enough time passed out on the bar or bleeding on the floor to be intimately familiar with its deepest, most robust notes of townie despair. He had that in spades tonight, even by Guerin standards, but rather than suit his mood, the smell just turned his stomach, made him want to storm off someplace where he could blow shit up with his mind until the hollowness inside lost its teeth.

It was Friday night and a payday, no less. Conversations ran loud, drinks flowed too freely. Confidence was high and tempers higher, and a middle-aged singer with “ask me about my daddy issues” platinum-blonde hair played an acoustic guitar and crooned predictably about lost love. Across the bar, Alex Manes threw back his head to laugh at something Kyle had said while Liz smothered a fit of giggles against his shoulder.

Michael scowled and took a swig of his beer. The humans were closing ranks. For three people who’d done a bang-up job of ruining Michael and his siblings’ lives these past few weeks, they sure looked chipper. Meanwhile Max was probably off masturbating into a puddle of his own tears right now, and who the hell knew about Isobel, locked up like an animal. Things hadn’t been this spectacularly fucked-up in a while, and that was saying something. For once Michael wasn’t even the loose canon.

Between Max’s directionless rage and stunningly bad life choices where Liz was concerned and Isobel’s increasingly worrying and erratic behaviour, Michael kept coming to the same conclusion: it was down to him to hold it together, to protect the people he loved. He’d lost them once before and his purpose along with it. He was fucking tired of feeling so directionless. So… adrift. Max and Isobel were everything. Michael knew what he needed to do even if he didn’t quite know how yet.

Trouble was responsibility rested about as well on his shoulders as water on a duck’s back, and Michael didn’t want to think about how much longer they could keep delaying the inevitable fallout from their past. What would happen if Isobel snapped again and if they would be in a position to cover it up this time. They could all end up prisoners of some twisted government experiment for the rest of their lives. And worst of all, he couldn’t shake the picture of what Alex’s face would probably look like when he found out what Michael had been hiding from him all this time.

So he was here. At the Pony. Throw a bunch of desperate, drunk hicks in a room together, and distraction was usually easy to come by in some form or another. The rest Michael would figure out later. Too bad he was doing such a shitty job of it.

Instead of looking for someone to fight or fuck—hell, instead of hustling some easy targets out of their money at the pool tables—he sat hunched over a piss-warm beer, refusing to let Alex catch him looking and trying not to appear like the world was ending. It seemed like everyone was in on their secret and their ghosts were coming back to haunt them in force.

Michael wasn’t up for that kind of scrutiny tonight. He’d rather dwell on his more human concerns, like the new leak in the Airstream’s roof, the dwindling balance of his bank account since he’d abandoned his side hustle, and the incredible shitshow that was his love life—or lack thereof. He was just where he ought to be, half in the bag and haunting the bar so predictably that even Maria was mostly ignoring him, but he felt like more of an outsider than ever.

“I can’t tell if you’re about to cry or start a fight,” Maria commented, suddenly in front of him. Michael blinked. Usually their interactions consisted of her giving him shit for being a deadbeat or calling the cops on him, but something had shifted since he found her alone and in tears at the bar a few days ago. A tentative trust, maybe. She poured him a mezcal neat, the good stuff, and looked at him with a furrowed brow and a thoughtful expression. “Not sure which would inconvenience me more.”

“You’re the psychic, so why don’t you tell me,” he drawled, sounding more touchy than laconic, though he gladly swapped out his beer for the tequila and lifted it to her in thanks. “This on the house?”

“Don’t get used to it. And I’d be happy if you kept your tears and your anger issues to yourself, Guerin. Just this once.”

“Then I’m probably going to disappoint you, sweetheart.”

Maria wrinkled her nose. “Never call me that again, thanks.” Despite her tone, her expression softened. She nodded her chin at the section of the bar Michael was doing his level best to ignore. It was difficult; Alex’s laugh had a habit of rising above the din, and his smile was damn near electric amongst the drunks and dusty cowboys who frequented the Pony. “This pity party have anything to do with your friends in the corner?”

“Not my friends,” Michael answered. Or deflected. Whatever.

“You know what I mean.”

“Do I, though?”

After Isobel, Maria possessed one of the most dramatic eye-rolls Michael had ever been fortunate enough to witness. In this case he deserved it—and most other cases, probably—so he just acknowledged his caginess with a halfhearted eyebrow waggle and a crooked smile.

Maria remained unimpressed. “Instead of sitting here doing your best Eeyore impression, you could get up and, I don’t know, join them,” she suggested. “Maybe free up a space at the bar for someone who actually intends to pay for his drinks. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

With exaggerated slowness, Michael craned his neck to look at the empty chairs to the right and left of him. He turned back to Maria with his eyebrows raised, and at the way she met his gaze stubbornly, Michael couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Let’s skip the part where we pretend like you and I both don’t know exactly why that won’t happen anytime this century.”

He sipped his tequila to stave off any further conversation. Historically Michael came here to get shitfaced and cause trouble, two things he did very, very well and everyone pretty much expected of him, but he was way too aware of Alex’s presence to do either one right now. Sometimes it was fun to give people what they wanted and put on a show. Just not tonight. Michael was tired, tired of pretending, tired of trying to convince Alex and everyone else there was more to him than an attitude problem and high-functioning alcoholism in a cowboy hat. Far as anyone knew, that was Michael Guerin to a T: Roswell’s resident burnout and self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let Alex keep his moral high ground. Michael didn’t have much, but he did have his pride, so he was going to sit here, miserable and mostly sober. It spoke volumes that Maria was actually annoyed with him for not giving her a reason to kick him out.

Except annoyed wasn’t the right word. Maria was looking at him like a jigsaw puzzle she’d suddenly realized was missing a few pieces, and he didn’t prefer that any better.

She leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “Do you want me to call Max?” she asked. It was kind of her not to mention Isobel, even though she surely knew Max and Michael were barely on speaking terms depending on the day and the phase of the moon. “I get the feeling you could use some actual friends whose names aren’t Jose or Bud.”

Michael snorted. He threw back the rest of his drink and stood. From the corner of his eye, he was intensely, irritatingly aware of Alex’s gaze zeroing in on him and then away, like he too was trying not to look. It sent a wave of anger tingling down to Michael’s fingertips. Great. Maria didn’t have the first fucking clue he could move things with his mind, and she still somehow managed to be right on the money. Maybe she was not totally full of shit with this psychic thing after all.

“Do what you want,” he said. Just to be contrary, he fished out his wallet, peeled off a few bills he really couldn’t afford, and threw them on the bartop. Maria arched an eyebrow, but Michael was already walking away, half-drunk beer in hand. “I’m gonna take a piss.”

Surprisingly the john was the one room in the Pony that didn’t smell like something, at some point, might’ve died in there. A couple of locals in Wranglers and trucker hats stood over the urinals when Michael sauntered in, and it spoke volumes that he didn’t react when one of them stared a second too long, gaze travelling discreetly up the length of Michael’s body before their eyes met. At the lack of response, the guy shrugged, shook himself off, and tucked his dick away, still buttoning his fly as he followed his buddy out of the bathroom. Michael grimaced when neither of them bothered to wash their hands.

The bathroom had about as much to recommend it as the rest of the bar, but with worse lighting and a dented grate that sporadically rattled like a tin can full of nails. Michael didn’t actually have to piss. He leaned grumpily against the wall next to a bunch of outdated band posters and uninspired graffiti and nursed his beer, scowling at the muted sounds of music, laughter, and conversation just a hand’s reach away. It might as well have been another planet.

Dicking around on his phone only entertained him so long. With Isobel locked up, there was no one who’d bother to contact him unless it was for money or sex, and there were plenty of good reasons not to text the handful of numbers he had saved to his contact list. He put his phone away. Even after the beer had gone unpalatably warm, Michael stayed shredding the label until there was a mess on the floor and glared at anyone who looked at him twice when they wandered in to use the facilities.

As if word quickly spread of the sullen cowboy haunting the men’s restroom, the trickle of guys looking to drain the snake eventually slowed and then stopped. Then the ensuing silence just started to feel more ridiculous than comforting. Michael missed his trailer, suddenly, and the expansive nighttime quiet of the junkyard. Just like when he was a kid, there was a difference between running away to the desert to be alone and watching every family who visited the group home continuously pass him over.

The bathroom door opened again as someone shuffled in, their tread somewhat irregular. Michael glanced up and blinked. Alex’s face didn’t quite register surprise to see him there, but his steps faltered as he paused with one hand on the door, then shook his head and came the rest of the way inside. Without his cane, Alex stood awkwardly, like he’d forgotten what to do with his hands or still didn’t trust his balance, not a hundred percent. Or maybe he was just drunk: hair mussed, shirt unbuttoned lower than was strictly decent, and it was late enough in the evening for a five o’clock shadow to have grown in, sharpening the boyish curves of his face and making his full mouth look, impossibly, even fuller. The bright flush that stained his cheeks was way more attractive than Michael was equipped to deal with at the moment.

Alex had pretty much always had this effect on him, ever since they were seventeen years old. While it would probably surprise most people to learn Michael did have boundaries and self-respect, the truth was they all took a hike whenever Alex Manes was in the room. Frankly he was sick of it. He was worse than a diabetic who’d never gotten the memo that cake was off the menu.

Michael raised his eyebrows back. He took another swig of beer in greeting, though the taste immediately made him grimace. “Fancy meeting you here,” he said.

Alex studied him a moment. He had the perfect excuse to walk up to a urinal and turn his back to Michael, but he remained where he was and sighed like Michael had still, without trying, managed to piss him off.

“Maria said I might find you in here,” he began, meeting Michael’s eyes with stubborn steadiness. “She was worried about you, not that I can imagine why.”

Michael flashed a grin so obnoxious it made him want to roll his eyes. “That makes two of us. She hasn’t even had to boot my hick ass out yet.”

Alex’s gaze travelled over him once, then away. Dismissive. Michael’s fingers tightened reflexively around the neck of the beer bottle, twisting in annoyance when Alex snorted. “I think that’s the problem,” Alex said. “People get nervous when they see you acting like a responsible member of society.”

“Sounds an awful lot like other people are the problem to me,” Michael drawled back. He pushed himself off the wall and hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. “Don’t worry, I’m sure the Michael Guerin Shit Show will return to its regularly scheduled programming in no time. But if it’ll make you feel better, I can go out there and punch someone the hell out right now.” Meanly he added, “Is that Kyle Valenti I saw you with earlier? How’s he doing?”

The comment earned him a scowl and a noise of disgust. Good. Michael was in just enough of a petty mood to enjoy this. “Leave Kyle alone. He’s fine.”

“Kyle’s a jumped-up homophobic piece of shit who’s called you every slur his pathetic little mind can conjure up,” Michael pointed out with a grunt. His voice shook as he said it. Kids at school used to abuse Alex for everything from his looks to his sexuality to his Native heritage, and then he went home and got shit all over again from his dad. It was a bit of a sore spot; Michael couldn’t help but feel pissed about it on Alex’s behalf, even ten years later. “He’s anything but fine.”

“Yeah, well, we buried the hatchet.” Alex dodged his gaze. “I was close with his dad, and Kyle was my friend for a long time. That still counts for something.”

Michael barked a laugh and then had to stifle his irritation when it came out sounding sad and vulnerable. He shook his head. “Guess I know where I stand, then,” he said and saluted Alex with his beer. He didn’t know whether it was annoyance or guilt that made Alex’s expression shift when he realized what he’d said.

Alex sighed. He’d never, not from the time Michael ran into him again outside his trailer, bothered to get angry about anything, not even when Michael needled him. It was like either he’d lost the energy for it in Iraq, or Michael just wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. But however bored Alex seemed with the conversation, his gaze was frank. “Listen, Guerin, I just came in here to check on you because Maria said I should. Clearly it was unnecessary—you seem like the same old asshole to me.”

Michael stiffened. He and Alex had called each other plenty of things over the years, not all of them kind. Shared history and heartbreak would do that. But Alex, against all odds, was the one person who’d never actually stooped to calling Michael an asshole until now. For a second he faltered, skip-step, recovered badly with a smile so false he nearly choked on it.

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he said. “You need a reason to walk away, right? Well, try this one one: I don’t wanna talk, and I sure as hell don’t need your pity or your concern. Been doing just swell without ’em the last ten years, and I’ll keep doing fine for the next ten too. So don’t trouble your pretty little head about it.”

It was almost satisfying to see the hurt register in Alex’s expression. Under the shitty restroom lighting, his frown deepened, and shadows crept beneath his eyes like bruises. For all he’d been through more in his life than the population of Roswell combined, seen shit and survived the kind of horrors the rest of them could only imagine, Alex had the most expressive eyes of anyone Michael knew. There was no hiding how he felt with a face like that. Michael hated that he was beginning to know what Alex’s sadness looked like more than his happiness or his love, could picture him angry and hurting better than he remembered what Alex looked like when he came or how his lips always parted just so when Michael fucked him.

Maybe he was an asshole.

He forced out a long, hard breath before Alex could respond and rubbed his hand over his eyes, then through his hair, no doubt screwing it up into elflocks. Suddenly Michael was so exhausted that he had no idea how the hell he was even holding himself up. He wished he could be anywhere but stuck in this shitty restroom in this shitty bar with the one person capable of making him feel like the biggest turd alive.

“Look, just—” Michael gestured at nothing. “It was big of you to come check on me, Manes, but you really didn’t have to bother. Tell Maria I’m—”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Alex took a step forward. His expression was guarded but set, intent in a way Michael didn’t like. He’d had horses on the ranch look at him the same way when Michael said one thing and they decided they knew better. Usually ended with someone eating dirt. Usually Michael.

He had the reputation for stirring up trouble, but of the two of them, Alex was the guy who’d pick a fight with a wall if he thought it’d looked at him wrong. When people called Alex a fag in high school, he came back with more piercings, louder clothes, louder hair, started throwing punches and nursing a chip on his shoulder the size of Albuquerque. When people called him a pussy, Alex went and joined the fucking Air Force. When Michael begged him to stay, he jumped on the first flight overseas.

Their relationship since he got back from Iraq had been like one big game of chicken.

Michael’s shoulders slumped in resignation when Alex approached to within touching distance and came to a stop. Voice softening, he said, “You honestly don’t seem all that fine, Guerin. What’s going on?”

“Coming from the guy who just called me an asshole?” Off the dramatic way Alex rolled his eyes—he could give Isobel and Maria a run for their money—Michael scoffed and resisted the urge to pull his hair out. He started to say, “I’m so fucking sick—” at the same time that Alex said, “Look, I’m sorry—”

They both stopped. Alex blinked, then narrowed his eyes. That challenging, obstinate look that made Michael actually feel his blood pressure spike. “You’re so fucking sick of what?”

Michael lifted his eyes skyward and chuckled. Nails over a chalkboard would’ve sounded more convincing. He pushed his hair behind his ears to stall for half a second before he met Alex’s gaze. “I’m so fucking sick of your bullshit, man.” Tired. He just sounded tired.

“Excuse me?”

Michael balled his fists. Without warning, a bulb in one of the wall sconces popped and exploded. Glass tinkled down like stars while electricity sparked and shorted. Alex jerked in surprise. Not a Max-worthy effort, but close. About as stupid too. Michael was gonna expose himself for what he was, and this wasn’t the way he wanted Alex to find out. He just usually had more warning before crap like this started happening.

But the words kept coming and didn’t stop. When he grabbed the front of Alex’s shirt and bunched it in his fists, it wasn’t to push him away. A clatter rang out as his forgotten beer bottle hit the floor and rolled. This time the bathroom mirror juddered sympathetically at the breath Michael blew out, hard. “You say you want nothing to do with me, act like you can barely stand to be seen together in public, but God forbid I tell you to fuck off—then I’ve caught you like a bad cold. Always gotta be on your terms, huh?”

When Alex just stared at him, wide-eyed, tiny cracks started to spiderweb up the corner of the mirror and branch out. Below, the bathroom pipes gave an ominous groan, and Michael’s breaths came faster as he tried to get himself under control. Even Alex flinched at that, twitching an aborted glance over his shoulder like he wasn’t sure whether to be more concerned about the possibility of the place exploding or Michael stroking out.

Michael grabbed Alex’s face before he could lose him, palms against his cheeks, but Alex was stepping closer, not away. Hunching over him like a shield. He wrapped his fingers around Michael’s wrists on instinct. Even ready to kill each other, they held on: if that wasn’t the perfect embodiment of their whole relationship, Michael didn’t know what was.

He let out a wounded noise, shook Alex once, then hauled him close. Their foreheads bumped together a bit too hard and Michael’s nose smashed against Alex’s cheekbone. He didn’t care. “We were supposed to have each other’s backs,” he forced out against the corner of Alex’s mouth. “But you always fucking walk away, Alex. Don’t try to tell me it isn’t true, because it wouldn’t hurt so goddamn much every time if it weren’t.”

Abruptly Michael snapped his mouth shut. That was… too much. He wished he had the power to reverse time and take back painfully honest admissions rather than move shit with his mind.

All that emerged from Alex was a token sound of protest at best. The Alex Manes from ten years ago would’ve been ready to throw down by now—he was always easier to rile than a wet cat and carried a grudge like a champ. It freaked Michael out that there was no sharp answer on the tip of Alex’s tongue about all the ways Michael should go fuck himself, just this helpless clinging like two men lost at sea. Above it all Michael could smell him: warm skin, beer, soft hair. He breathed Alex in and shuddered the breath back out.

“Michael,” Alex whispered. “It’s not that simple.” For once it wasn’t Guerin . Michael couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Alex call him that outside of bed. “You know I always come back to you.”

“It’s not the comin’ back that’s the problem.”

“But I’m here now.” Alex cupped Michael’s face in his hands, palms soft against Michael’s stubble, and his breath was warm against Michael’s mouth. Those dark-star eyes of his reflected pinpricks of light like tiny galaxies. No wonder Michael was such a fucking goner for him.

Alex started to lean in, and the bathroom door opened.

All the air in the room seemed to disappear when Alex startled back with a curse, looking like he’d been burned. Michael sucked in a breath and blinked furiously. At the commotion, the guy who’d walked in slowed his step and glanced between them with such a face of confusion that it might’ve been funny in other circumstances. It shifted to bewilderment when Alex moved not run away, but to set himself in the man’s path with an expression like a thundercloud.

“It’s a nice night. Piss outside,” he bit out and pushed the guy back in the direction of the door.

Ignoring the outraged bleat of “Hey!” Alex shoved it closed after him so hard it rattled the frame. He threw the bolt and turned back to Michael, breathing hard like he’d just run a race. They stared at one another. Michael swore under his breath and reached for him.

Old wood paneling creaked when Michael hit the wall. An exposed nailhead jabbed him in the shoulder with the impact, but Michael didn’t care, too preoccupied with the way Alex bullied him back with surprising force, the way their mouths met hard, kisses biting and desperate right out of the gate. Alex always kissed like a challenge, spoiling for a fight, and Michael’s dumb ass was constitutionally incapable of walking away from one of those. He clutched Alex’s head and gasped against his lips when he felt the familiar sharp tug of Alex’s hands in his hair, pulling at his curls hard enough to sting.  

It was like this every time. Alex got him so hot, so damn needy that it was like there were two Michaels, the one who’d learned the hard lessons about being in love and the Michael who wanted Alex too badly to care. Because it might have been true that Alex made him fly apart into a million pieces with a touch, but he also calmed the thing inside him that never knew rest except when they were together.

Alex licked into his mouth, slicking his tongue against Michael’s in the dirtiest way possible, and Michael helplessly opened to him, swept his thumbs along Alex’s cheekbones and tried to haul him closer until only atoms were left between them.

Fuck. Michael had missed this so bad it made him ache. Missed how quick this fire caught and sparked out of control, how they kissed like they wanted to devour each other, slick and filthy and frantic. It was animal instinct, something deep in their cells.

When Alex bit his lip just shy of too hard, scratched his nails across Michael’s scalp with his breaths coming harder, it was as good as “please,” probably the most Michael would get, knowing him. He groaned and grabbed hard at Alex’s hips so he could feel how hard Michael was already, and Michael went lightheaded at the whine Alex tried to bury in his mouth. Those quiet sounds of his drove Michael crazy—aloof, serious Alex Manes yielding to the kind of want that basically governed Michael on a habitual basis, and Michael took that as an invitation to get under his clothes next, fingers itching for soft skin and firm muscle.

He pushed his hands down the back of Alex’s jeans and boxers and cupped his ass, squeezed until Alex hissed his name. The hiss trailed off into a moan when Michael slid his fingers into Alex’s crease. A pulse of lust shuddered through him at that, the way Alex rubbed himself back against Michael’s hand like a cat and kissed him even harder, control starting to slip.

“That’s it, sweetheart,” Michael murmured. It was pure nonsense, the shit that came out of his mouth in bed, and Alex, appropriately, bit him again in response. Michael laughed against his mouth.

Alex pulled back slightly to study him, still holding Michael’s face in his hands. Even from this close, the intent, unreadable look in his eyes made Michael pause, though he couldn’t deny the swoop of dread his stomach gave. It was like his insides remembered how it felt when Alex walked away too, and Michael caught himself bracing.

“What?” he asked. He’d thought things were moving in a direction they both wanted. But Alex just looked at him a second longer, absently stroking his thumbs across Michael’s cheeks, and then his lips quirked into a crooked smile. Michael’s eyes went wide as Alex started to go down to his knees. He made a grab for his arm. “Wait, your leg—”

“—is fine, Guerin.” One dark eyebrow twitched in annoyance. Obediently Michael shut up. They’d hooked up twice before Alex so much as let him look at his leg, much less touch it. As far as Michael was concerned, he was still just Alex, though he never knew how to ask about it or if he was even supposed to. So he said nothing as Alex used Michael’s arm to stabilize himself but otherwise knelt without difficulty.

The look Alex cast him was full of sass despite the flush that’d risen to his cheeks, and Christ, Michael could throttle him sometimes, but Alex was so goddamn beautiful it made his chest hurt. Michael touched his cheek, the pomegranate-pink swell of his lower lip. The tightness in his throat made him swallow, especially when Alex turned his head to press an open-mouthed kiss against his palm, eyes piercing beneath his long dark lashes. It went without saying Michael respected him as a person and everything, but he also couldn’t deny there was a part of him that thought Alex belonged on his knees.

Alex made short work of Michael’s belt and the fly of his jeans, the metallic jangle of his belt buckle wincingly loud in the small room. Michael could barely keep up. He stared dumbly as Alex unzipped him, useless except to make a hungry noise at the back of his throat when Alex yanked his jeans open, then tugged them down just far enough for his dick to spring free. Michael had never been so fucking glad to have skipped laundry day in his life.

Alex’s eyes drifted half-shut as he leaned in to nose at the seam where Michael’s thigh met his hip, but he didn’t break Michael’s gaze. The skin was so sensitive there that Michael shivered and felt his cock twitch. He was already dripping, and Alex, the fucker, just smiled lazily at him, lips warm against his skin, and curled a hand around his cock.

“Any other protests?” he asked with an arched eyebrow.

Michael huffed a breath. More out of exasperation than to answer the question, he wove his fingers into Alex’s hair and shook his head. Probably he would regret this later; that was almost a given, based on their pattern. But if softness wasn’t what Alex wanted, Michael didn’t have to be told twice. “No,” he answered roughly. “Plenty else you could be doing with that mouth other than giving me shit.”

“Thought so.”

When Alex wrapped his mouth around him, Michael’s belly all but turned to liquid and he threw his head back against the wall with a soft cry of “Fuck.”

Alex had a mouth that had changed Michael’s world at seventeen and never stopped; it was criminal what he knew how to do with that thing. Michael gripped his hair, not to direct, just holding on for the ride while Alex sucked him inside-out, rearranged his molecules, and made Michael want to weep from the searing wetness of his mouth and curling tongue. He couldn’t hold back the groans Alex wrenched out of him, had to bite down on his fist to muffle his own volume. The last thing they needed was Maria banging down the door or, worse, some homophobic asshole realizing what was going on and deciding to intervene.

For someone so sensitive about anyone finding out about them, Alex moaned hungrily around his cock as he took Michael into his throat. Michael shuddered as Alex squeezed his hips, then pushed his hands under Michael’s T-shirt to scrape his nails across his stomach, fingers dragging through rough hair and then lower to circle around the base of Michael’s cock. Coyly, and because he knew exactly how to drive Alex out of his mind, Alex drew back to circle his tongue around the head and pull teasingly on the foreskin.

Obediently Michael whimpered, all but pleading, “Alex, come on.” Alex just chuckled, biting his lip and meeting Michael’s gaze as he stroked his cock in long, slow pulls that made Michael’s thighs shake while he pushed up the hem of his shirt. He kissed the crest of Michael’s hipbones and nipped at the thick hair leading down to his cock, lips lingering almost sweetly considering the torture his hands were capable of.

Michael swallowed and cupped his fingers beneath Alex’s chin, tilted his face up so he could look at him properly. His stomach wanted to bottom out at the sight of those reddened full lips and heavy-lidded eyes, chin jutted a little defiantly the way it always did when Alex was turned on, like sex was just one more challenge for him to show the finger to.

“I wanna fuck you so bad,” Michael managed to get out. His voice sounded rougher than sin, but holy shit did he ever not care when it made Alex blink at him slowly and wet his lips in an unconscious response. “You don’t know what you do to me.”

Alex’s smile was slow, widening into a deadly flash of teeth that would haunt Michael’s dreams for the rest of his life. “Don’t I?”

“Jesus Christ.” Michael deeply regretted the thought of losing Alex’s perfect mouth on his dick, and yet he wanted to kiss him way more. It didn’t escape his notice that it was more difficult for Alex to climb to his feet than kneel, but nor did Alex push him away when Michael helped him up. “I don’t know if whatever mood you’re in is ’cause you’ve been drinking, or if you’re just trying to torture me.”

Giving a thoughtful hum, Alex sucked his bottom lip between his teeth and pushed himself against Michael’s body. With aching slowness, he dragged his mouth up Michael’s throat to his ear, then tugged the lobe with his teeth. “I was in the air force,” he reminded him with a hot puff of breath against his ear. “Takes a lot more than a couple beers to get me wasted these days, Guerin.”

A laugh shook free of him. “Oh good. Just torture, then.”  Michael cradled Alex’s jaw and shifted so he could look at him, though not before leaning in to steal that kiss he’d wanted. He pulled back and rubbed his thumb beneath his lip, meeting Alex’s eyes seriously. “And it’s Michael. I know you know that.”

Alex dropped his gaze under the guise of pushing Michael’s jacket off his shoulders. Recognizing the diversion for what it was, Michael acquiesced and let Alex undress him, but he kept his eyes intent on Alex’s face when Alex went for his T-shirt next. He pulled it over Michael’s head and stalled. Michael waited.

“You’ve always been Guerin to me,” Alex said after a too-long pause. He ran his hands appreciatively, if hesitantly, over Michael’s chest.

Michael shivered as Alex’s thumbs brushed his nipples accidentally-on-purpose but didn’t let himself be dissuaded from the topic at hand. “Not like this.”

He stepped away from the wall to walk Alex back in the direction of the bathroom sinks, the mirror Maria would probably have to replace now because of him, cracked all to hell. He reached out for the buttons of Alex’s shirt and started to undo them one by one, met Alex’s eyes intently.

“There’s no Guerin and Manes here, okay? Manes is your father, and Guerin is some shitty name they picked for me at an orphanage. So when it’s just you and me, like this, I’m Michael. And you’re Alex.”

The use of his name wrenched a visible shiver out of Alex, pretty much as intended, and yeah, that was manipulative maybe, but Michael trusted it to get his point across. And he meant it, so there was also that.

He let it pass without further comment and finished getting Alex’s shirt unbuttoned, pushed it off his shoulders a bit to better appreciate the strong planes of his chest and stomach, his beautiful tanned skin. A flush had spread from his cheeks down to his nipples, and Michael wanted nothing more than to worship the dark trail of hair that disappeared beneath the waistband of Alex’s jeans, spend hours biting at his chest and nipples until Alex was on the edge and begging.

At the thought, Michael’s mouth fell open to pant roughly, and he shoved Alex back against the sink with his body, thrilling at the feel of skin against skin, Michael’s cock smearing a damp trail across Alex’s belly when he ground himself against him. The look Alex sent him from beneath his eyelashes set Michael on fire all over again.

“Tell me you want it,” he said lowly into Alex’s ear. He smoothed his hands up Alex’s back, fingers splayed against muscle and prominent bone, shoulder blades, the ladder of his spine. He breathed deeply against Alex’s hair and eased his right hand down again past the waistband of his jeans. This time when he cupped Alex’s ass, he wasn’t coy about it, pressing his fingers purposefully into the crease so he could brush them against Alex’s hole. Michael felt, with his whole body, the way Alex inhaled sharply and shuddered, going boneless against him.

He thumbed against Alex’s lips with his free hand and gave an appreciative murmur at the way Alex opened for him, breathing hotly against Michael’s hand. When he pressed his tongue against the pad of Michael’s thumb, Michael felt his control slip a little more.

He rubbed harder against Alex’s rim, teasing until he felt Alex start to relax. “Tell me how much you want my dick, baby.”

 “We’re in a public bathroom,” Alex hissed back, then moaned when Michael shook his head and pressed the tip of his middle finger inside, much as he could without lube. Alex hissed and sagged farther into Michael’s embrace. Sloppily he kissed the edge of Michael’s jaw, followed by a scrape of teeth.

That was nice, but it didn’t answer Michael’s question. “Didn’t seem to be a problem when you were blowin’ me against the wall,” he said.

Alex was riding back against Michael’s hand. His breaths were coming harder too, the flush had deepened on his face and neck, and he had to swallow before he got out, “That’s not the same.”

“It’s a little the same.” Michael smirked and reached between them to unfasten Alex’s jeans. There was no protest; Alex was still looking at him dazedly with a furrowed brow and that adorable frown, but Michael knew it was happening. They were doing this.

He pushed him back against the sink, and Alex went, visibly unravelling even though Michael hadn’t even touched his dick yet. Alex grimaced at the touch of the cold mirror against his shoulders as he leaned back but didn’t tear his eyes from the hand Michael dragged down his chest to his stomach. Michael had been dreaming about this. Hell, maybe they both had. Warm, slippery-hard flesh met his hand when Michael reached inside Alex’s jeans and underwear, and he grinned shamelessly at Alex’s broken-off moan, the way his face scrunched up pleasure.

Hungrily Michael crowded him against the mirror, starting to jerk him off. Every quiet whimper and moan made his cock throb, the way Alex tried to hold them back, swallow them down, and Michael sucked a line of kisses up his throat and behind his ear in encouragement, nodding jerkily when Alex rocked his hips up to meet his fist. He gasped at the pulse of wetness that leaked over his fingers in response to the thumb he rubbed beneath the head of Alex’s cock, but Michael was grinning too, greedy for all of it. He shifted to grab his cock with his other hand, stroking himself to relieve some of the ache.

“Tell me what you want, baby,” he said again against the corner of Alex’s mouth, and Alex just murmured unintelligibly and turned his face toward Michael, trying to kiss him.

His fingers bit into Michael’s skin as he clutched at Michael’s shoulders and neck, thrusting into his fist, and the look of open-mouthed ecstasy on Alex’s face almost undid him. Michael growled. At this rate they were just going to come all over each other like a couple of horny kids.

“C’mon. Alex. You want me to fuck you, or am I gonna finish you off right here? I like both options just fine, but it’s not like you not to have an opinion.”

 Alex shuddered and buried his moan against Michael’s cheek. His indecision was palpable, probably holding him back out of sheer hyperawareness of the fact that they were in a public place, in Maria’s bar with the doorknob occasionally jiggling, or someone knocking impatiently, before they gave up and looked for another place to piss. Michael would be lying if he said this wasn’t one of the more reckless things he’d done, even for him. He was having a hard time not letting nerves and sheer excitement get the better of him. For Alex it had to be on par with skydiving without a parachute.

Michael was just about to make a decision for both of them when Alex squeezed his arm particularly tight and gasped, “Fuck, fuck, okay. God. Just do it.”

He shoved Michael’s shoulder urgently, and suddenly he was sliding down off the sink, his forehead deeply furrowed in that deeply Alex way of his. But his meaning was also pretty clear when he kissed Michael hard enough to bruise and then turned his back to him, simultaneously trying to wriggle his jeans down and rub his ass against Michael’s erection. He urged Michael’s hands to his hips and threw him a wild look Michael had never seen before.

It took him aback for a second until Alex’s expression turned annoyed, the military man who didn’t like his orders going ignored, and he glared over his shoulder and snapped, “Come on.”

Michael’s eyebrows shot up his forehead. “Yes, sir,” he answered automatically, grinning. He couldn’t resist sketching an ironic salute, and Alex rolled his eyes.

“I can’t believe I’m actually about to do this,” he muttered. It sounded pissy, but the way he swallowed betrayed his nerves.

“That makes two of us.”

Michael leaned back to run his hands down Alex’s flanks to his ass, pushing the tail of his shirt up so he could see better. Shit, but he was in love with the view. He’d always been beautiful, but Alex had gone to war a skinny kid with an attitude and come back a grown man with an ass you could bounce a quarter off of. Still the same attitude, though.

“Goddamn, Alex, you’re so fucking gorgeous,” he murmured, leaning in to kiss the back of Alex’s neck while he rubbed his cock between his ass cheeks. “You got no idea what you do to me.”

Alex turned his head slightly to look at him. “Do you know what I’m going to do to you if you don’t hurry the hell up and fuck me?”

Helplessly Michael laughed. He had to rest his forehead against Alex’s nape while his shoulders shook, and he clutched at Alex’s stomach. “Jesus Christ, Alex, I love you, but you are a fucking trip sometimes.”

At that they both went really still, Michael a second too late. He blew out a breath involuntarily, low and shaky with sudden terror at what the hell had just come out of his mouth, but then he shook his head and told himself it didn’t mean anything. If Alex didn’t know how he felt by now, it would hurt just as bad when he walked away again. Three little words wouldn’t change that, and it wasn’t even the first time he’d said them in his life. So. Didn’t count.

After a moment Alex reached down and gently covered Michael’s hands with his own. He bowed his head. Michael had no clue what that meant, but he kissed Alex’s neck again anyway, trying to hide his embarrassment. His hope. At the scrape of Michael’s teeth over his jugular, Alex moaned and rocked back against him, guided Michael’s hand down to his cock. He was still hard, dripping precome down the shaft. Michael told himself that had to mean something that his accidental slip hadn’t totally assassinated the mood.

“You got anything on you?” Alex asked breathlessly. It wasn’t, if Michael were honest, exactly the thing he hoped to hear after telling Alex he loved him—not even if he wanted to retcon his whole life right now—but he also appreciated the distraction.

“Rubber in my wallet,” he murmured back. Despite Alex’s groan, he let go of his cock and reached down to palm his ass, gave it a squeeze, and huffed shakily when he realized a rubber was all he had. Michael quirked an eyebrow and met Alex’s eyes in the mirror, then got on his knees.

Alex’s eyes went a little round. “What are you doing?”

Michael grinned. “I don’t know about you, but my momma taught me to never fuck a guy without lube.” To punctuate the point, he jerked Alex’s jeans a little farther down to give himself more room.

He didn’t know how in the hell Alex managed to look unimpressed while standing with his pants down and his ass in another man’s face, but off of the flat look Alex cast him over his shoulder, somehow he did. “You don’t know your mom.”

Well, he had him there. Michael bit his lip, unrepentant, and spread Alex’s ass open for him. His cock throbbed at the sight of him exposed, paler skin and dark hair, the lovely furl of his hole. He flicked his eyes up to meet Alex’s gaze again, and he could already feel how his throat had gone dry on him when he rasped, “Guess I just like eating you out, then.”

Before Alex could muster the brain cells to summon further sass, Michael leaned in and licked a long, slow, dirty, strip from his taint up to his asshole, flicked it teasingly with his tongue, then pushed his face more firmly between his cheeks and got to work reminding them why they both loved this so much.

An unabashed moan shook itself free of Alex’s throat, quickly muffled; there was a thump, presumably of his hand slapping against the mirror. For all his attitude, Alex went almost completely boneless as Michael went at him, struggling to widen his stance despite the jeans around his thighs and pushing his ass harder against Michael’s mouth.

There were few things Michael loved more than going down on someone, but Alex, for more reasons than one, was his favourite. He just came apart at the seams, unravelled messily, gloriously. It was something else to watch him let go and give in to pleasure. As an adult, he seemed to resist it. Trusted it less than when they were young and stupid and blind to the cost. But Michael could see how badly he needed it, to be able to lose control sometimes. And he needed to give it to him every bit as much.

He sucked and licked at Alex’s hole, relentless, rubbing his stubble against that sensitive skin and teasing the rim until it was loose enough for him to wriggle his tongue inside. Alex gave a sob and reached back to fist a hand in Michael’s curls. Just that, the act of Alex holding him steady while Michael groaned hungrily and fucked his tongue deeper, working him open little by little, made Michael’s cock ache and leak until he could feel it soaking into his jeans. If they both walked out of this alive, it’d be a fucking miracle. Michael was halfway to turning to ash on the spot.

He could’ve kept at this for hours, tortured Alex’s asshole until he was a crying, begging mess, but he had to forcibly remind himself this wasn’t the time or place. With another teasing flick of his tongue and a bite to one round, golden cheek, he slapped Alex hard across the ass and pushed to his feet, then hauled Alex back roughly so he could rub his cock over his spit-wet entrance.

“Michael, come on,” Alex said, voice so hoarse that Michael couldn’t tell if he was actually begging or if that was just his imagination. Michael thought his brain might leak out of his ear when Alex wet two fingers and reached back to slide them into himself, either making sure he was stretched enough or just trying to explode Michael’s brain on purpose. He panted hard. “Enough teasing. Just get in there already.”

“You always know how to ask a guy so sweetly,” Michael answered. He was teasing, mostly, but the playfulness had disappeared from his voice. The need to fuck Alex hard was eating away at him too, and he reluctantly let go in order to fish out his wallet and fumble the condom out of the billfold. Funny, but he’d never been the guy to carry rubbers around on him until Alex got back into town.

He dropped the wallet somewhere on the floor—he’d probably have to burn that later—and tore the foil packet with his teeth. Rolled the condom down his dick, then spat into his free hand so he could slick himself up a little more. He had to take a deep inhale, trying to calm the hell down, and pressed his face back to the nape of Alex’s neck. He breathed him in deeply, but he barely had a second to get his shit together before Alex blindly curled his fingers around him and guided Michael to his hole, face wrecked with need. Without warning, he pushed back hard.

Michael slid into him so fast it startled a cry out of him, and Alex gave such a loud shout that Michael almost didn’t have time to slap a hand over his mouth to quiet him. He cursed when Alex bit his finger in retaliation.

“Fuck,” he said, trying to muffle it against Alex’s hair. “Damn it, you’re going to get us arrested!”

Alex grunted. He had his eyes screwed up tight, and when Michael pulled his hand away to fist it in Alex’s hair, Alex bit his lip instead and breathed rapidly through his nose as Michael slid the rest of the way inside. They both shuddered as they adjusted, or as Alex adjusted and Michael attempted not to come on the spot, anyway. He was sweating like a bastard already, breaths shaky, and Alex was working his hips back against him and visibly trying to keep from crying out.

He opened his eyes to meet Alex’s heavy-lidded stare. It was almost laughable how jacked they both looked, wild-eyed and hair sticking up like they’d been drop-kicked by a hurricane, but it was going to get a whole lot worse before it got better. Michael pulled out slightly. His intention must’ve telegraphed since Alex braced a hand against the mirror. Michael watched Alex’s mouth go sweetly slack, then thrust back in hard enough to jar him forward. This time Alex managed to choke back a yelp, but barely.

Between still being mostly dressed and the fact that there was nothing more than a wall and a locked door separating them from a packed bar, Michael was realistic that this wouldn’t be the most graceful sex of their lives, nor the longest, frankly. If they were lucky, it’d be fast and quiet and Maria wouldn’t come storming in with a loaded shotgun. He was already embarrassingly close to the edge and had pretty low faith in Alex’s ability to keep the volume down should Michael attempt to fuck him stupid, so they were playing it safe, if sex that could get you locked up for public indecency was the kind of thing you considered safe. He really, really didn’t want to have to explain this one to Max.

Michael adjusted until he could slide in and out with no more than an easy roll of his hips, fucking Alex in a stedy, deep grind. It was different, more of a slow burn than an explosion, but still so fucking good. Alex clearly didn’t disagree, given his gasps and agonized mewls of pleasure, the way his mouth hung slack and how he kept squeezing his eyes shut like he was in pain. He was stroking himself fast, cock swollen and red, and Michael wrapped an arm around his chest to better feel the tension through Alex’s body, the strength corded through that locked muscle. Leaning his weight into Michael’s embrace, Alex let go of the mirror in order to lock on to Michael’s wrist, holding him there.

With a quiet curse against the side of Alex’s face, Michael slid his free hand around Alex’s neck and pulled him back so they were absolutely flush, even with Alex’s shirt still a negligible barrier between them. It stuck to the sweat between their bodies. He shifted again in search of a better angle, found it when Alex jerked and cried out softly, then louder as Michael proceeded to nail his prostate with the kind of relentlessness that made his reputation for being an asshole well-deserved.

He pressed his hand back over Alex’s mouth and held it there, even when Alex opened his eyes to stare at him. Not in fury like Michael expected over him pushing Alex around like this, but a surprising, desperate, ferocious need that almost made Michael’s heart stop in his chest.

Alex moaned against his fingers and thrust back to meet him. Michael could feel his lips moving against his skin as his cries gained intensity. Unmuting himself like he trusted Michael to keep them safe. And Michael would. But he also had every intention of giving Alex something to scream about, if screaming was what he wanted to do.

“Nuh-uh, baby,” he said lowly against Alex’s ear. “You’re gonna give away the whole game.”

He started to fuck him in short jabs, harder, faster, even risking the sound it made when their flesh slapped together. Alex jerked against him like he’d been shot. It was getting to that point where Michael was losing the ability to remember why he shouldn’t just fuck him the way he so desperately wanted to, make Alex sing the sweetest sounds and howl Michael’s name. Kind of like his ability to control his mouth; the words just started pouring out of him, utter filth and nonsense like he was suddenly possessed by the porn star of Christmas past.

“Gotta stay quiet unless you want everyone in that bar to know your ass belongs to me,” he bit out. “They’ll know exactly how much of a slut you are for this, how badly you need me to fuck you. And you do need it, don’t you? Nobody else can do you as good as this, sweetheart. Never could, never will.”

Alex keened; his eyes rolled back in his head as he started to clench down around Michael’s dick punishingly hard. He was so, so close, Michael could tell. He was almost at the tipping point too.

“That’s it,” he panted. His chest was burning and his skin felt too tight all over. “Come on, baby. Come for me so I can take you home and do it again properly, fuck you for hours until you’re screaming my name.”

Gasping, Alex wrenched away Michael’s hand over his mouth and barked a short, harsh “Michael, fuck,” then all but smashed their faces together in a kiss Michael was only too desperate to reciprocate.

It was sloppy and hard and perfect, Alex forcing his cries into Michael’s mouth, and for another agonizing few seconds, they stayed locked like that, lost in each other and Michael so ready to come that he thought his balls might explode. Then Alex stiffened, even his hand on his cock stilling, and with a broken shout of Michael’s name muffled between their lips, he shuddered and jerked through his orgasm, splattering the mirror.

A handful of thrusts later, Michael was helpless but to follow, holding on to Alex for dear life as he came apart. The feel of Alex’s body around him, his cries, the way he surrendered to this impossible thing between them, it was all so much. Too much. He tried to stifle his shout against Alex’s hair and only more or less succeeded.

He was left shaking when it ended, hallowed out, and tremors shivered through him like little earthquakes. They seemed to travel from his body to Alex’s and back again in a kind of shared consciousness. Michael wondered if this was what it felt like for Max and Isobel to share a brain. He longed for that, to be so connected to another person that you could taste their misery, but their joy too.

He pressed his mouth back to Alex’s again weakly. Dazed, Alex twisted farther around to open for him properly, somehow always so sincere in this. He licked the sweat off Michael’s upper lip, then into his mouth, and when it mostly subsided into them panting against each other again, they settled for clutching one another instead, foreheads leaned together as their breaths came too hard, then slowed, then fell into a shared cadence.

“Jesus,” Michael managed after a few minutes. “That was something else.” Alex murmured something against the corner of his mouth that sounded like agreement, so incoherent it made Michael chuckle. “You okay in there?”

There was another incomprehensible sound before Alex said, blearily, “Ask me that again in a week.”

Michael snorted and kissed his forehead. “You’re gonna have to settle for thirty seconds, and then we officially gotta get the fuck out of here before someone breaks the door down.”

Off Alex’s grimace, Michael started to go about the slightly uncomfortable process of pulling out and disposing of the condom. In the end he wound up flinging it into the nearest toilet with a frown and a shrug. Someone else’s problem to deal with now.

Alex, admirably, was trying to wipe a come splatter off the mirror and rinse it down the sink, not that the mirror looked any better for his efforts. He caught Michael watching and nodded his chin at the impressive crack Michael had caused. His brow furrowed. “Do you think an earthquake happened?”

Michael shrugged as nonchalantly as possible, tucked himself back into his jeans and buttoned and zipped the fly, fastened his belt. He bent to grab his wallet off the floor to buy time. At this point the ability to play off strange phenomenon was practically his second talent. “Probably wouldn’t be a first. Earthquakes happen all the time.”

“Other places, maybe. Roswell hasn’t experienced anything significant in decades.” The furrow between Alex’s eyebrows didn’t ease as he studied the cracks in the mirror, the busted light. “Not enough to cause damage, anyway.”

“Okay, Bill Nye. Whatever you say.” Michael tugged on the tail of Alex’s shirt to get him to turn around. “C’mere.”

Reluctance slowing his movements, Alex turned, and their eyes met. It pained Michael to see some of that hesitation creeping back in, eroding everything that’d just passed between them like a river eating away at its own banks. Michael tried to ignore the ache that caused and reached out to pull Alex closer by his lapels, still hanging open. But Alex went to him.

Michael ducked his head and started buttoning Alex’s shirt, then lifted his eyes to his face. Alex was looking at him steadily, dark eyes intent. Despite himself, a smile tilted Michael’s lips as he said, “Gotta get you looking respectable again. Not like someone just fucked you silly in a public bathroom.”

Eyebrows quirking, Alex took over buttoning the shirt from him, and Michael just took the opportunity to pat Alex’s hair back down into place instead. “Someone did just fuck me in a public bathroom,” he said, deadpan. Something clenched in Michael’s chest when Alex visibly fought back a smile.

He grinned back. “Hell yeah they did.”

They fell silent awhile, humour subsiding as the moment settled around them, the kind of moment that’d been defining their relationship since the start, charged and heady. Michael didn’t know what to call it when the air in the room changed like this, but it always happened with Alex, no matter if they were fighting or about to fuck or just staring at each other, like now. He just knew something in him went quiet along with it, and like Alex felt it too, he sighed quietly and reached out to touch Michael’s face, then leaned in to kiss him softly.

Michael didn’t pull away even once the kiss subsided. Suddenly he didn’t know what to say, faced with the prospect of walking out of here, and he went tense when Alex stroked his cheek one last time and then stooped to fish Michael’s T-shirt off the floor.

“Listen,” he said, handing it over. He wouldn’t quite meet Michael’s eyes. “About what you said earlier—”

Shit. Michael shook his head decisively and cut Alex off with a smile. “Don’t worry about it,” he said just shy of too loudly, then stalled further by pulling the shirt over his head and ruffling his hair more or less back into place. “The less said about the shit that comes out of my mouth during sex, the better.”

He stalked away to grab his jacket off the floor, dusted it off, and used the moment it took to put it back on to pull himself together. He’d plastered a wry smile on his face by the time he turned back to Alex, who was still watching him unnervingly.

“This was fun,” he said brightly, one hand on the door already. He could do stupid and cheerful right out of here and deal with the rest later, and he absolutely wasn’t going to think about the unhappy way Alex was looking at him.

“Michael—”

“I’mma go out there first,” he barreled on and unlocked the bolt. “You might wanna follow a couple minutes later.” Michael paused, finally let himself hesitate, and he met Alex’s eyes as steadily as he could. “See you around, Manes.”

“Damn it. Michael!”

Michael walked out just as Alex made a grab for his arm, forced himself to keep walking because it was, literally and figuratively, the only way to move forward. The lights and noise of the bar hit him as a shock, like swimming up from underwater, and Michael didn’t let himself look around too closely at anyone, not wanting to see who seemed angry or suspicious. Like the first time he’d used his telekinesis on purpose as a kid, hell, like the first time he’d jacked off, he felt hyperaware, paranoid everyone could tell what had just happened.

As he rounded the corner from the back hallway, he tried to tell himself he didn’t give a shit and anyone with opinions could go fuck themselves. The false confidence rang about as hollow as it sounded in his head.

So of course he ran face-first into Maria. Immediately he saw it wasn’t an accident: she was standing there with her arms crossed and an expression on her face you couldn’t interpret as anything but the promise of painful and sudden death. He stepped back in surprise and didn’t catch himself in time before a quiet “Fuck” slipped out of him. Without meaning to, he put his hands up. It was weird he had that instinct around her.

“Guerin,” she greeted in a voice like steel. She tapped her fingers against her arms and looked at him so coldly that Michael felt the exact moment his balls tried to crawl back up into his body to escape. “You’ve been gone an awfully long time. I was about to send out a search party.”

Michael attempted to paste on the most winning smile he knew how, stretched, and then patted his belly. “Must’ve visited a bad taco truck,” he said. “You know how it goes.”

“I don’t, actually.” Maria stared him down hard enough to make him sweat. “And don’t think I buy that bullshit for a minute either. I might’ve been born at night, Guerin, but it wasn’t last night.”

Without warning, she grabbed his arm and started propelling him back in the direction of the bathrooms, surprisingly strong for someone so petite. Not wanting to make a scene for once in his life, Michael went, though he was sure the dread must have shown clearly on his face as she frog-marched him down the hall.

“Just what were you doing in there that put the little boys’ room out of order for damn near twenty minutes, huh?” she demanded. When he opened his mouth, she held up a finger and actually hissed him silent. “That question was rhetorical, asshole. You think I’ve run a bar this long without knowing what it looks like when someone’s fucking in my bathrooms?”

She shoved the bathroom door open with so much force that she almost hit Alex on the other side, who was obviously still waffling about how long to wait before he attempted to sneak back into the bar. Michael was pretty sure the expression “like a deer in the headlights” was created for exactly this situation.

At the sight of him, Maria came up short, stumbling to a halt. “Alex?”

Michael and Alex’s eyes met over her head. Alex had gone really pale, and his mouth opened uselessly, then closed again when he gave up trying to fabricate an excuse. There wasn’t one. He had his arms folded—clearly they’d interrupted him pacing a hole in the floor—and he dropped them to his sides uselessly. “Uh, hi.”

Maria looked between them in confusion. Michael felt surprisingly calm considering how long he’d lived in fear of this moment. He saw the moment it clicked because an expression like a thunderstorm came over Maria’s face, and she grabbed his arm again and hauled him into the bathroom alongside Alex.

“Guerin,” was all she said. It was the angriest Michael had ever heard her sound, and in the last decade, she’d had cause to yell at him a lot.

“I know what it looks like,” he tried, and Maria just snorted, talking over him to hiss, furiously, “It smells like a whorehouse in here! And what the hell did you do to my mirror?!”

From outside, some other poor asshole attempted to let himself into the restroom. Just as quickly, Maria pushed him back out, and Michael was actually starting to feel kind of bad about it now.

“This bathroom is out of order,” she snapped. Neither Alex nor Michael dared comment as she locked the bolt with frankly unnecessary violence, and then she rounded on them again like she was ready to spill blood.

“Maria,” Alex tried, but he too was silenced by a pointing finger. She glared at him for emphasis before directing all five feet four inches of fury back in Michael’s direction.

“I cannot believe you,” she burst out. When she started to advance on him, Michael actually took a step back and held up his hands again, but all she did was shove him in the chest. “I knew you were an asshole, Guerin, but this? This is a new fucking low. What, you ran out of unsuspecting women in this town, so you decide to see if a local gay guy will show you the time of day? You’re disgusting. Alex is a vet, and my friend, and way, way too good for you, do you hear me? So back the fuck off.”

“Okay, listen,” Michael said, patience officially run out. He was more than happy to go toe to toe with her if she was ready to throw down. Even if she was completely right. “For one thing—”

“Would both of you just shut the hell up?”

Michael and Maria both scowled when Alex stepped between them, arms out like he was breaking up a schoolyard fight.

He glared at Michael. “You, stop talking,” he said. “You’re constitutionally incapable of not making things worse.” Then to Maria, more gently, “I really appreciate you going all mama bear in defense of my honour, DeLuca, but you kind of have the wrong end of it.”

Maria just stared at him, eyes boggling. “What do you mean I—” She stopped and held up a hand. “Seriously? You came on to him?”

“Why is that the hardest part for you to believe in all this?” Michael asked, hands on his hips. They ignored him.

But he couldn’t deny Alex’s intervention had taken some of the wind out of Maria’s sails. She still looked pissed, yeah, and baffled at the thought that anyone might have interest in Michael ever, for any reason, but he couldn’t deny Alex was effective at calming her down.

“Alex, honey,” she began, and it was clear she was choosing her words carefully. “We are definitely going to have words over the fact that you think you can just walk in here and start hooking up with people in my bar—Mama DeLuca’s bar, Manes, damn—”

“Maria—”

“—and I understand being home has been a lot after everything you went through overseas—”

“Maria.” Alex sounded surprisingly patient for someone who couldn’t get a word in. Bizarrely, he was smiling. Just a slight uptick at the corner of his mouth, but it was there, and he looked way too amused considering Michael had less than no clue how the hell they were going to play this.

“—but trust me when I say going after literal trailer trash like this isn’t the way to make yourself feel better.”

Michael glared at her. “Really?” Maria just folded her arms and stared him down, half-smug, half-challenging. “Just when I thought we were starting to become friends,” he muttered.

This time Alex did actually laugh, a soft chuckle that made Michael a little hurt over why he wasn’t trying to defend him. Alex shook his head but looked at Maria steadily, gaze fond. “Senior year, the night at the museum,” he said.

She blinked. Michael had no idea what that meant either until Maria underwent a truly amazing face journey and then grabbed Alex’s arm in shock. Alex continued to watch her with an oddly serene expression that gave Michael a glimpse of what he must be like as a commander, cool and unflappable.

“You’re shitting me,” Maria said and looked at Michael significantly. She gave Alex’s arm a shake. “Him. He’s the guy who’s had you fucked up since ’08.”

It was Michael’s turn to be startled. Eyes widening, he tore his gaze away from Maria and over to Alex, only to find he was already looking at him. Only difference was Alex wasn’t smiling anymore. “You—you told her about that?” Michael asked.

“It was kind of a big deal for me,” Alex answered steadily. “You know. Falling in love for the first time and everything.”

Maria let go of Alex’s arm and held up her hands. She still looked stunned, but now she also seemed distinctly uncomfortable. “Why do I suddenly feel like I made a huge mistake by coming in here?”

“You could leave,” Michael suggested. She made a noise and kicked him in the boot. Incredulous, Michael turned his head to stare at her. “Did you really just do that?”

“This is my bar!” she all but shouted back.

She waved her hands, looking more flustered than Michael had ever seen her, including the night she’d cried on his shoulder and attempted to flash-pickle her liver with a bottle of tequila. But then she seemed to make up her mind about something and unlocked the bathroom door. Her expression was set when she seized Michael and Alex by a shoulder each and pushed them out into the hallway.

“This is my bar,” she repeated more firmly. “So you know what, why don’t you take your stupid cowboy angst— both of you—and sort out your shit someplace else. I actually can’t deal with either of you right now.”

Michael was already halfway out the door. “Sounds good to me,” he agreed. And he meant it—he wanted nothing more than to be halfway across the state from here by now—but some misplaced sense of duty made him slow down and turn to see if Alex was following. To Michael’s great shock, he was right behind him, but Michael was nothing if not an opportunist. He went with it.

“Use the back door!” Maria snapped when they started to head for the main part of the bar. “I don’t need you two parading your kinky sex lives in front of my customers. Gonna give them ideas, like I don’t have enough trouble on my hands on any given day already.” At Alex’s momentary hesitation, she jabbed a sharp nail at him and added, “We are talking about this later, Manes. I will hunt you down, I swear to God.”

“Love you too, DeLuca,” Alex answered. He was smiling. With a glance at Michael, he bumped their shoulders together and nodded toward the back door at the opposite end of the hall, then pushed past him. “You coming?”

“Yeah,” Michael said slowly, drawing out the vowels, but he paused. He heard the door close behind Alex, but Michael couldn’t quite look away from Maria yet, a little afraid to turn his back on her. “This means I’m banned for life for real this time, doesn’t it.”

“Out!”

Stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets, Michael bit back a smile and exited the bar into the floodlit parking lot. It was awfully full considering everyone was here to get drunk, but Michael supposed that just meant Max had an eventful evening ahead of him.

Beyond the reach of the floodlights, the desert was as eerily quiet as ever, just rocks, sand, scrub, and an impossible blanket of velvet and stars overhead. Nothing compared to the completeness of New Mexico night. It swallowed you up, the kind of dark that lured you in and terrified you in equal measure, though to Michael it felt like safety, like home, the way the mountains weren’t quite visible in the distance, but there, looming and protective guardians. He couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than that.

For all he spent most of his waking hours thinking about where he’d come from, what it was like, how he might get back there someday, the midnight desert was one of the few things that made him feel like maybe his heart existed in two places. Another of those things was currently leaned against Michael’s truck, waiting.

Alex had his hands crammed in his jean pockets as well; it was chilly out with the sun down. “You forget a jacket?” Michael asked, slowing his steps as he approached.

“Liz’ll get it back to me eventually,” Alex replied, unconcerned. He cocked his head, holding Michael’s eye contact. “She was supposed to be my ride home, though.”

“That’s inconvenient.” Michael pursed his lips and gave Alex a flat look. “We really not going to talk about the fact that you just torpedoed our whole vow of secrecy back there?”

Alex ducked his head. “Sorry for outing you.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it.”

Alex huffed, gaze drifting away to some unknown point in the distance. That was as good of an acknowledgement as Michael likely to get. After a second Alex said, “You ran out of there before I had a chance to say anything.”

Michael gave a one-shouldered shrug and moved to lean against his truck too, parenthetical to Alex. He crossed his legs at the ankle. “Didn’t feel like rehashing a conversation we’ve had a thousand times before, Manes.”

“Thought you said you were tired of last names?”

“Ever hear the saying ‘what happens in the bathroom, stays in the bathroom’?”

“Now you’re just answering a question with a question,” Alex scoffed. He came to stand in front of Michael, a bit too far inside his personal space to be casual, but Michael just looked up at him with a neutral expression and didn’t move, not even to take his hands out of his pockets. He wasn’t going to be the guy who broke first, not again. “What happened in there… I didn’t plan on any of that.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Here we go.”

“No. Shut up.” Alex held up a hand when Michael raised his eyebrows at him. “Just—let me speak. I’ve been trying to keep my distance from you because I thought it’d be for the best, and then tonight—” He swallowed heavily. “We’ve been like oil and water ever since I got back, Michael.”

“Dunno about you, but it felt more like a blowtorch and a stick of dynamite in there.”

“Yeah, exactly. Every time we’re in danger of having an actual conversation, we fall into bed, and nothing ends up getting resolved.”

“Or,” Michael suggested, drawing out the word, “you decide I’m not good enough for you, again, and you walk away. Again.” God, they really were incapable of not having the same argument every time they were within ten feet of each other. “I might be a deadbeat piece of shit pissing his life away in Roswell, man, but even deadbeats get tired of being dicked around eventually.”

Alex took a step forward. His expression was fiercer than a wolf’s. “You’re not a deadbeat piece of shit, no matter how much you keep trying to convince everyone otherwise. And this isn’t about you not being good enough.”

“Yeah. Right.” Michael shifted his focus off to the side, suddenly feeling like he’d been staring into the sun too long. Everything seemed too bright, and if he got angry now, no way was Alex going to blame it on an earthquake a second time. But Michael realized he wasn’t angry. This was something else Alex, almost exclusively, managed to bring out in him.

Hesitantly Alex put a hand against Michael’s chest, and Michael looked down at it, then back at Alex’s face. He told himself not to be swayed by the pain in his eyes. He knew it was real; that was the worst part.

“Michael,” Alex said lowly, an edge of pleading in his tone. “It’s not. Shit.” He broke off to shake his head, came back to meet Michael’s gaze again with just as much intensity. Alex grabbed his hand, the pressure of his grip only just registering against Michael’s busted fingers. “It’s because you were too fucking good for what happened. What my dad did to you. How am I supposed to just... get what I want when you’re always the one who pays for it?”

A breath trembled out of Michael—he’d barely noticed he was holding it. “Your dad doesn’t have any power over me,” he harshed out and grabbed Alex’s hand right back. “And he doesn’t have any goddamn power over you, Alex. Not anymore. So stop trying to decide what’s too much for me and just… decide what’s too much for yourself.” Michael tried not to hope when Alex wound their fingers together and held firm. He was wide-eyed, fucking terrified, but he didn’t let go. “For me, nothing else in my life feels like it’ll ever be enough when I don’t have you.”

Alex swallowed once, hard. “Did you mean what you said before?”

Michael didn’t flinch. Didn’t ask for clarification about what Alex meant. “Of course I did.”

Almost to himself, Alex nodded and looked at the ground. A muscle ticked in his cheek. He didn’t say anything for a minute, making that desperate thing want to crawl back up out of Michael’s throat again, but then Alex, of all things, quirked a smile and flicked a glance back up at Michael, eyes bright with humour. “You know, you kind of stole my thunder back there when you ran out like your ass was on fire.”

“Yeah, well.” Michael sniffed and chewed the inside of his cheek, suddenly becoming very fascinated with a section of chipped-off paint on the window frame of his truck. It flaked off further beneath his fingernail, chalky. “When you feel the axe coming, better to pull out your own knife and cut first.”

He blinked when Alex grasped his chin and forced Michael to look at him again. “I wasn’t trying to fight you, Michael. I…” Alex gave a self-deprecating chuckle, a little eye roll. He was still smiling like Michael was the biggest, most incredible dumbass in the universe. Categorically, Michael couldn’t quite rule that out yet. Alex tapped the roof of the truck. “Before you bolted, I was working up the courage to ask if you wanted to come back to my cabin with me. And maybe, if we don’t kill each other before then, what your plans are for breakfast tomorrow.”

It took a second. Michael just stared at him, wondering if it were truly possible to pass out from shock. Then: “I’m extremely suspicious on account of the fact that you just told me you don’t have a lift home.”

Alex laughed. When he let go of Michael’s hand, it was just to open the door of his truck, and he leaned against it with a look Michael decided should be illegal in all fifty states. Alex reached out and pulled him in by the sheepskin lapels of his jacket until their noses almost bumped, and Michael instinctively put his hands on Alex’s waist to steady himself. Some group of assholes walking back to their cars had the nerve to wolf-whistle, but Michael didn’t have the attention to spare for them, not with Alex’s eyes so close, the soft breaths he could feel against his mouth.

“I’m not asking you to drive me home, Michael,” Alex murmured, pressing closer. Michael didn’t know much, but he knew, from the dark sweep of Alex’s eyelashes when he lowered his gaze to Michael’s mouth, exactly where he’d be waking up come morning. And he knew that felt kind of amazing. Alex met his eyes again and smiled. “I’m asking if you want to go for a ride.”