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The Ninth Fold

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one.

Michael Scofield unbuttoned his jacket as he descended the WDCH’s broad steps. He’d always loved the hall and had studied the schematics, thanks to his professor’s ties with the center, even though he’d been in his last year in college when they’d broken ground. It had been his dream, at the time, to meet Gehry and talk to him about the building’s aesthetics.

And now that the night was almost over, he was surprised to find that he hadn’t paid any attention to the building itself. Which stood to reason, he supposed, considering he’d been on edge the entire time. Considering that the invitees were the cream of the Los Angeles crop and more than a few law officials were in attendance.

He was still on edge, still waiting for the other shoe to come pounding down because he hadn’t thought he’d make it through the night without someone recognizing him. It would be the perfect time for the muffled whine of a silencer and the bullet in the back of his head. If this were a movie, it would happen now: when the hero was almost at the end of a long, difficult mission, already congratulating himself on his success.

But no bullet came out of the dark and he only had to get past the roped-off crowd of reporters and photographers to the left and he’d be home free.

He didn’t have to look for his ride. There, centered at the curb was the sleek black limo they’d rented that morning. His driver stood before it, hands clasped in front of him, legs apart, eyes hidden behind unnecessary sunglasses.

Alex must have arrived early to get such a choice location. Either that, or he’d quietly threatened the other drivers into giving up the spot. Probably the latter—Alex was good at quiet threats.

The distance to the limo was maybe twenty-five feet now and Michael was coming abreast of the media. He focused on Alex, silently telling the men and women that were glancing his way that he was nobody special, just move along, please.

He’d been so careful, these last few weeks, avoiding any notice that could lead the Company in his direction and tonight his luck held. No one recognized him and he made the last ten feet unmolested.

“Sir.” Alex opened the passenger door. “Did you have a pleasant evening?” Michael could see the tiny glimmer of a smile that Alex didn’t bother hiding.

“It was perfect,” he replied and climbed in. Alex nodded imperceptibly—message received—and closed the door.

Safe inside, the tension that been sitting on his shoulders lifted. He rubbed the back of his head, sank into the soft leather, and sighed.

Alex got in, started the car, and pulled away from the curb. “Where to, sir?”

“You know where.”

“Would you like a refresh—”

“Alex,” he said irritably, “cut the chauffeur crap, all right?” He loosened his bow tie and unfastened the top buttons of his too-stiff shirt. He hated tuxedos and really wanted to rip the whole thing off, but he had to get the suits back to the rental shop in the morning.

Alex took his sunglasses off and hooked them over the visor. “Did you eat?”

“I couldn’t move without someone sticking a tray in my face.”

“Did you eat, Michael?” Alex asked again.

“No.”

“Too nervous?”

Michael stared out the window, watching the traffic weave around them. “Something like that.”

“Your brother called.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That it was going as planned. That you were fine. Then he threatened me. Then I threatened him.”

“You guys are going to have to work out your differences. It’s starting to get in the way of the projects.”

There was a long pause while he waited for Alex to say something cutting about Linc and his attitude, but he didn’t. He took a deep breath and said softly, “I will if he will.”

Michael shook his head. Linc was always bull-headed—that was a given—but he would have expected different from Alex. He was, after all, the professional hunter, the one that had so coolly tracked them down from state to state, country to country.

But Alex had changed and in more ways than one. When they’d met up again in L.A., Michael was puzzled to find Alex almost a shadow of his former self. It wasn’t just the lost weight or the unkept hair—his whole demeanor had altered.

Gone was the agent that was constantly in Michael’s face, hounding him, ruining all his plans, one by one. Now Alex kept his head down, especially around Michael. He’d retreat to the nearest corner, only coming forward when he was asked a direct question. It was odd and unsettling. Michael didn’t make the mistake of assuming that Alex was less dangerous, less capable. Rather, he was like a cornered dog, ready to snap if someone got too close.

At first he thought it was another phase of withdrawal, but as the days progressed he realized it was something worse. Some event had broken Alex wide open and considering Alex’s recent past, it wasn’t hard to guess what had happened.

But he couldn’t bring himself to ask about Pam and Cameron. He told himself that if they’d been hurt or murdered, Alex only had himself to blame. That he’d been the one who’d jumped into bed with the Company and had followed their orders, no matter the cost.

It was usually about this point that his sense of fair play elbowed in and reminded him that Alex had been coerced into the murders he’d committed. That Pam and Cameron’s lives had been hanging in the balance the moment the Company set their sights on Agent Alexander Mahone, and that was hardly his fault.

He shook his head at the familiar direction his thoughts had taken him. He hated the compassion and understanding that always managed to talk him out of his dislike of Alex. It would be so much simpler if Alex were like T-bag—with no dimension save that of evil.

The limo made a smooth left turn and Michael looked around, startled—they weren’t anywhere near the freeway. “Where are we?”

Alex didn’t answer. He made another left, this time into an empty shopping center.

He opened his mouth to ask again, when Alex steered the car towards the only illuminated building in the lot: an In-N-Out Burger. He navigated the narrow drive-through and pulled up to the speaker.

He frowned and leaned forward. “Alex—”

“You need to eat, Michael. You’re getting too thin and you’ve been on your feet for six hours.”

“You’re not my father.”

“No, I’m not,” Alex agreed evenly.

He slid to the edge of the seat and said to the back of Alex’s head, “Linc and Roland will freak out if we’re late.”

“Then call them and tell them where we are. What do you want?”

Michael opened his mouth to insist and surprised himself with, “A burger with fries and a Coke.”

Alex nodded and rolled down the window. After he’d given the order he pulled around to wait in line with the other cars.

He didn’t sit back. He leaned against the driver’s seat and propped his chin on his folded arms. The woman in the Camry in front of them was bent sideways to fix her hair in the rearview mirror. She was also trying to get a glimpse inside the limo. Which was useless—the limo was built for privacy and all she’d see were the reflections of the fluorescent lights from above. He and Alex could be doing anything inside this black tank and no one would be the wiser.

His shoulders twitched and he rubbed his chin on his arms, trying to erase the image of what that “anything” could be.

Alex turned his head slightly, sending out a faint hint of aftershave and Michael stifled a tired grin with his sleeve. Who would’ve thought that Alex used Armani for Men? Maybe it was just the rented suit.

“Anything happen that I should know about?” Alex said.

He shook his head. “No.”

“Was Roland right?”

“Yeah, the Ambassador is keeping the card in a shielded vault on his yacht, which is docked in Santa Monica. All we have to do is figure out a way through the shield. Or find a way to make him take us for a ride.”

“Your brother wants to set the boat on fire.”

He snorted. “Of course he does.”

Alex stepped on the gas and they moved up. “How many women hit on you tonight?”

He clenched his jaw. “That doesn’t happen every time,” he muttered.

“Yes, it does.”

“Look, I know you and Sucre have a bet going, but it was only that once.”

“Yeah, well, that once almost ruined the mission.”

Michael wanted to shoot back a childish, ‘Well, it didn’t,’ but he kept his mouth shut, because Alex was right—the attention he'd received last month in San Francisco from a trio of teenagers had been a problem. They’d cornered him at the wrong moment and he’d nearly missed the opportunity he’d been waiting for all night. Linc had stepped in at the last moment, pushed the girls aside and dragged Michael away, saying something about their bedtime.

Sucre had joked, back at their temporary base, that they were going to have to keep him at home if they wanted to get through it all in one piece. Linc had laughed, Roland had rolled his eyes and Sara hadn’t said anything. Neither had Alex, come to think of it.

And Sara had been avoiding him ever since. Which, he thought moodily, wasn’t exactly new. She’d been turning away from him ever since Chicago.

“Michael?” Alex was looking at him in the rear view mirror.

“Yeah?”

“Sara was up again last night.”

Michael met his glance, almost glaring. He hated when Alex seemed to read his mind—it was unsettling. “Are you spying on us, Mahone?”

“No, Michael, but when one of your team spends every night pacing the floor, that’s a concern.”

“I’m handling it.”

“Have you talked to her?”

He straightened up. “Of course I have, Alex. What, you think I just dragged her along without asking her? That she’s here because I’m forcing her?” He caught himself. His voice had risen—he was almost shouting. He looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. Which of course they hadn’t because the limo was also soundproof.

Alex twisted around and held a hand up entreatingly. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then mind your own business.”

Alex turned back around and spoke so softly that Michael had to lean forward again to hear. “Michael, of all the things I learned from my failures as a husband and father, the most important was communication. It’s everything. Sometimes it’s the only thing. And all your planning and your will won’t change that. Just—” Alex stopped and shook his head.

He was saved from replying by a long honk from the car behind them. They’d been so preoccupied with each other that they’d missed the movement of the cars in front—there was no one ahead of them now.

Alex swore under his breath and pulled up to the window. He paid the attendant and took the food with a smile and a thank you, and they were moving again. “Here.” He gave Michael the bag, then the drink.

The smell of hamburger and fries went straight to his stomach and suddenly he was starving. He tore open the bag—there were three hamburgers. “Which is yours?”

“I ate earlier.”

He unwrapped the first and wolfed it down. He was halfway through the second by the time they got to the freeway, heading north to Ventura.

Agent Self had found them another warehouse to hole up in, figuring it would give them a good base of operations in case Helton’s card was either at his place in Montecito or the harbor in Santa Monica. Michael wished it had been hidden someplace inland. The warehouse was on the waterfront and it was cold. That was probably why Sara was having a hard time sleeping.

The thought reminded him of their truncated conversation and he asked, “Are you ever going to tell me about your family?”

After a moment Alex said, “No.”

“So I have to talk but you don’t? That’s hardly fair, Alex.”

Alex smiled, briefly. “You want equality between us, Michael?”

The answer took him aback because, no, he didn’t want to be on equal terms with Alexander Mahone—he couldn’t afford it. Given the advantage, Alex would be one, maybe two steps ahead the entire time.

But, that wasn’t quite fair, he thought with an internal shrug. They were on the same side now and Alex had gone above and beyond to prove himself.

Weeks ago, when he'd made his deal with the devil, he’d told Self that he’d need Mahone if the operation were to succeed. It was only recently that he’d realized how right he’d been.

Alex was always there when he needed him, was more help than anyone else, even Linc, who enjoyed playing the team off each other a little too much. Alex managed to take the bits and pieces of information and come up with a solid lead, almost every time. Michael wasn’t used to working with someone who was his intellectual equal and he found himself relying more on Alex and his thoughts and opinions more than he probably should.

He wiped his mouth with a napkin and looked at the food in his lap. He wasn’t hungry anymore. “You sure you don’t want any? I’m done. Besides,” he said, overly sweet, “you’re the one that’s getting too thin.” It was a stupid barb and he cringed the moment he said it.

Alex looked back at him in the mirror and shrugged. He held up his hand.

He unwrapped the third hamburger and leaned forward. He gave it to Alex, too aware that when he cupped Alex’s hand to stop the wrapper from slipping, his hand lingered a little too long.

He sat back again, this time moving to a corner where he knew Alex couldn’t see him in the mirror. He wiped his palm on the napkin, over and over, then stuffed the crumpled paper back in the bag.

He propped his head on the cold window and spent the rest of the trip pretending to be asleep so Alex wouldn’t ask him any more questions he didn’t want to answer.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

two.

Alex smiled at his dinner companion’s silly joke and tried not to watch Michael zig-zag his way around the tables as he came towards them with a large tray, heavy with food.

The night, for once, was going well. The restaurant was crowded and noisy—perfect cover in case anything went wrong and they had to run for it.

Sara sat across from him, seemingly engrossed in whatever that ass, Richard Jenkins, was saying to her. On the other side of the room, near the kitchen doors, Bellick was bussing tables while keeping an eye on the action and Sucre was stationed outside in the foyer, just in case they needed backup.

Burrows, thank God, had been talked out of coming on this one. He’d argued, but Michael had finally said that among the crowd of rich, white snobs, he would stand out like a bull in a china shop and he’d grudgingly agreed. And then Burrows had slapped Roland on the back of the head because he’d snickered too hard at Michael’s comment.

But still, it was going well. Alex was doing his best to schmooze Petra Randolph Jenkins and Sara was doing her best to keep Petra’s husband distracted. It wasn’t too hard on either account. Petra was at least thirty-five years older than Richard and about twenty years older than Alex.

It was a story for the ages, he thought sourly; she preferred younger men and was already newly married, even though she’d buried her husband of thirty-eight years just two weeks ago. And Richard, according to his Facebook profile, liked expensive toys and liked having someone else pay for them.

When Michael had mapped out his latest plan, he’d decided they needed an upper-management businessman type and a female assistant or wife. Two others were necessary to make sure nothing happened and that the exits remained clear. The woman’s role was a given—Sara had just nodded when Michael asked if she was up to it.

Alex assumed Michael would take the role of the businessman, but said he was too young and would screw it up. That had left Burrows, Sucre, Bellick, and Alex. Sucre and Bellick refused flat out and Michael said no to Burrows. Then he turned to Alex and smiled, as if he’d been waiting for just this moment. As if he knew how uncomfortable he'd be, playing the smooth-talking New York-based moneyman.

Michael knew him too well, or maybe not well enough because whatever skills Alex had once possessed, they’d deserted him and he was struggling with his role. He was off his game and nervous, worried he was going fuck it all up, worried he’d let the team down.

“Here we are.” Michael arrived with the food and he waited while a second waiter set up the stand. With an exaggerated flourish he began to serve them, first Sara, then Richard and Petra. When he got to Alex, he fussed with the plate, turning it this way and that until Alex wanted to stab him with a fork to get him to stop.

Petra leaned over and put her hand on Alex’s thigh for the third time that evening. “My, I wish I had ordered the tuna. It looks delicious. May I have a bite?”

He heard a soft snort. He didn’t have to turn to know that it was Michael—all evening Michael had been strangling his smiles as Petra moved in on him with all the focus of a hungry shark.

Earlier, needing to get away from Petra’s hands and perfume, he'd made his excuses and stepped out on the wide patio. Glancing around, he caught Michael and Sucre near one of the French doors on the right that lead to the foyer. When Sucre saw him, he elbowed Michael and Michael turned. They both grinned broadly. He'd refrained, just barely, from flipping them off. He'd turned away, wanting to be mad, finding he couldn’t—it was funny and it was good seeing Michael laugh like he almost never did.

And just the realization that he’d been measuring Michael’s moods, that Michael’s happiness meant something—

He'd returned to the dining room, chastising himself for paying too much attention to things that shouldn’t matter, reminding himself that he was here for a job and the minute it was done, he was out the door.

But the discomfort didn’t disappear and before too long he was watching Michael again, watching the deft way he handled himself, the way the other patrons followed his progress as he moved by their tables.

“He’s a very handsome boy, isn’t he?” Petra said in his ear. He didn’t jump but only because those reflexes had been trained out of him a long time ago.

He smiled at Petra. “I suppose so,” he said as casually as he could. The last thing he needed was for Petra to think he was as interested in young men as she was. It would make his job harder, later on.

“Are you married, Mr. Elliot?”

He took a sip of water and glanced across the table. Sara had heard. She didn’t turn from Richard, but she was frowning and he could feel her hurting for him. “Yes, ma’am, I am.”

Petra raised an eyebrow. “Do you have any children?”

He nodded, and ate a piece of tuna so he wouldn’t have to speak. His face grew cold, then hot, and he struggled to hold onto the present and not drift away as he had on that disastrous first job. Petra didn’t seem to notice.

“That’s lovely. I regret I never had any, but then, now I don’t have to worry about who to leave my money to, do I?” She smiled inanely and placed her hand on his arm. Up close, her careful makeup looked like a mask and only accentuated her age. He remembered that Pam had never worn much makeup—she hadn’t needed it. “No,” Petra added, still oblivious to his growing anger, “having children would make one’s life miserably busy, don’t you think, Mr. Elliot?”

A thin bead of sweat trickled down the back of his neck. He should never have let Michael talk to him into this. Any minute his control was going to snap and he’d reach for Petra’s skinny neck and—

“Adrian is divorced, Mrs. Jenkins.” Sara’s firm, cool voice was like a balm and he closed his eyes briefly. “It’s not something he likes to talk about.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Adrian.” Petra patted his arm, all false sympathy now.

He looked up and gave Sara a small, grateful smile. She turned back to Richard.

He gave Petra a smile to match the one she was still wearing. “Think nothing of it, Petra. It’s fairly recent.”

“Well, I know what you need.” She raised her arm and waved to Michael. For one bizarre moment, he thought she was waving Michael over to what, offer him up as a consolation prize?

But no, all she wanted was a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, which was fine by Alex. He sat back and exhaled softly. He’d been trying to get her drunk all evening so she would tell him about the late Mr. Randolph, the original holder of the second card.

And so far it had been a bust. Petra was a talker and she’d been too busy chatting and feeling him up to drink the wine she’d ordered. He didn’t want to seduce her to get the intel, but it was his job, and he’d do it if he had to. He’d done much worse things for the good of his country.

“Sir?” Michael asked quietly. He was behind Alex with a bottle and when he leaned over to pour the champagne, he brought with him the scent of cotton and sweat, and that centered Alex like nothing else. He’d gotten used to Michael’s scent back in that hellhole, Sona—he could probably find Michael in a dark room with a hundred other bodies crowded around just on smell alone.

The perfect bloodhound, he thought with no little sarcasm. He took a sip of champagne and sighed as the alcohol went down smoothly.

Michael poured Richard’s and Sara’s, then gave him a quick look over their heads. He wasn’t sure how Michael had picked up on his earlier difficulty, but he had. He moved round to Petra, still focused on Alex, and said softly, “Ma’am.”

“Thank you, dear,” Petra patted him on the hip and Alex quickly hid his smirk. It was about time someone shared his discomfort.

But Michael just smiled and Alex reminded himself that Michael Scofield had women throwing themselves at him all the time; a little touch now and then was nothing new.

“What shall we drink to?” Petra asked cheerfully, interrupting Alex’s dark thoughts.

“To new friends?” Sara suggested with a smile.

“To new friends,” Petra answered and they all raised their glasses and drank.

Alex was poking his cold fish when Petra leaned over and whispered, “And hopefully we’ll get much better acquainted later on.”

He smiled and didn’t sigh. It was going to be a long night.

****

By the time he got back to the motel it was almost four in the morning.

Michael had picked this place carefully—it was close to their mark and within ten minutes of a couple major highways, but essentially off the beaten path. Meaning they could come and go as they pleased.

The motel had been built in the forties and was made up of individual cabins with a central office. The team’s three cabins sat a distance from the others and backed up to the woods. The cabin he shared with Michael and Sucre was on the left, Sara’s was in the middle, and Bellick, Roland and Lincoln’s was on the right.

He fit the key into the lock, turned the knob, and pushed the door open as slowly as he could.

“How’d it go?”

He didn’t jump. He knew Michael would be up, waiting. And there he was in the chair by the door, dressed in his usual sweater and jeans.

He opened his mouth then looked over to where Sucre lay, wrapped around his pillow. He jerked his head and stepped back out. Michael followed, a dark shadow against the darker night.

He led the way to the edge of the woods. There was an old park bench hidden by a mostly fallen tree and he’d spent the previous morning there, going over the plans.

He sat down and arched backwards to stretch his spine. The night with Petra had been nothing out of the ordinary, but it had been a while since he’d had sex. His back and shoulders ached—it was times like these that he felt his age even though he was still on the right side of fifty. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked up.

It was nice out here; it was like being in a different world, so quiet and peaceful. The motel was far enough from the city that there was little light pollution and the stars were clearly visible, even through the ever-present California haze.

Michael crossed his arms and stared beyond Alex into the woods. “How’d it go?”

“Fine.”

“You’re late.”

“Do you need me to tell you why, Michael?” Alex retorted, not bothering keeping the edge out of his voice.

Michael sat down beside him and folded his hands together. “No, I guess not.”

Alex sighed. “Petra has Randolph’s effects in a deposit box in Sacramento. She has no idea what the card is. She thinks it’s a fancy cell phone.” He had to smile because the way Petra had pouted as she told him about the Scylla disk had been almost comical. She was actually angry that her husband had a cell phone that she couldn’t access. And this after she’d cheated on him with one boy after another.

“How hard will it be?”

He fished inside his pocket and held up a key. “Fairly simple I should think.”

Michael smiled and took the key. His long fingers were warm against Alex’s. “Roland and Linc had a bet. Linc said you’d come home empty-handed. Roland said you’d get it.”

Alex put his hands back in his pockets and relaxed against the bench. He was tired enough to sleep out here, even with the chill. “Roland is an idiot.”

Michael snorted. “Yeah, well, he likes you. You should have heard him going on about you tonight. Like you’re a cross between a ninja and James Bond.” He leaned forward, knees on elbows, and turned the key over and over, not looking at Alex.

“Don’t tell me you’re jealous,” he retorted, trying for sarcastic levity. It came out more serious than he’d intended.

Michael grinned and shook his head. “Hardly. It’s just when he gets nervous he shakes his foot and drives me crazy.” He fell silent. There was a heaviness about Michael, which was normal, and an awkwardness, which was not.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

He sat up and ran a hand over his mouth. He said wearily, “Michael—”

“Linc told me about your son.”

The blunt words echoed strangely and he nodded as he heard them again and again. He’d been dreading this conversation, had done everything he could to avoid it— “Did he now?” he said, his throat dry as sand.

“Alex—”

He crossed his arms tight and interrupted, “Michael, don’t— I can’t—” His chest burned and he dug his fingers into his elbows, almost clawing at his own flesh to ease the still-fresh pain.

But Michael was already nodding. “Yeah, okay. I won’t— Linc knows, but no one else. I didn’t want—” He turned to look at Alex and said softly, simply, “I’m sorry.”

And he meant it. For the first time he looked at Alex without that stone wall of mistrust. He looked like he actually cared.

Alex’s throat closed up and he bowed his head. The comforting null space he’d been living in these past few weeks was developing a crack and it was the last thing he wanted, this exposure. He held himself tighter as if that could force the seam back together.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Michael hesitate then reach out. He placed a light, careful hand on his back.

He held his breath. He knew he should shrug Michael off, should get up and walk away. He didn’t. He leaned, just a little, into Michael’s warmth.

If Michael was surprised by his unspoken admission of vulnerability, he didn’t say anything. He just drew a deep breath and settled his hand a little more firmly.

They sat there for a long while, in that uncomfortable position, until the angry grief that clogged his throat faded and he was able to say in an almost normal voice, “Michael, thank you.” He pulled away before he could say more and straightened. He wasn’t sure if he was thanking Michael for the comfort or for treating him like a human being and not simply a cold-blooded killer.

And it looked like Michael was as confused. He frowned and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe he’d just been consoling the man who’d hunted him across two countries and killed his father. But he didn’t retreat back behind his walls—he just nodded and stood.

Alex led the way back to the cabin.

When they got inside, he gathered up his gear and went to wash up in the tiny bathroom. He brushed his teeth and showered, scrubbing away the remnants of his night with Petra. He changed into sweats and a T-shirt, feeling almost normal again.

He switched off the light before he opened the bathroom door. Michael and Sucre shared the bed nearest the bathroom. Sucre slept like the dead, but Michael had a hard time with light—he needed the room pitch black before he was able to relax.

It was another thing he should be worried about, he thought, as he navigated his way across the dark room. The fact that he knew Michael had difficulty sleeping, that he needed total darkness and absolute silence to be able to fall asleep.

But that was worry for another time. Right now all he wanted was a bed and a pillow.

He threw his things on the chair and felt for the foot of the bed, then followed the edge. He pulled back the covers and slipped in with a sigh that was almost a groan. He was so goddamned tired and he was only going to get maybe three hours sleep. It wouldn’t be enough, but it would have to do.

“You okay?”

He barely heard Michael’s soft question. He turned on his side. His eyes had adjusted to the low light and he could see Michael facing him with his hands under the pillow like a kid. “Yeah, just tired.”

“If I can, I’ll let you sleep in tomorrow.”

That was a surprise. “Thanks.”

“It’s only fair, seeing that you did all the work.”

“Okay.” Michael’s words reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite remember what it was. Exhaustion dragged him down, sweetly, surely. It felt so good, this bed, this pillow, and Michael, just a few feet away. He wanted to tell Michael that, but before he could, he was out.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

three.

Michael put his hands on his hips and kicked a piece of loose planking. Piece of cake, Lincoln had said. Just get to the marina outside of San Rafael, pick up a phone number from the contact provided by Self, then hire a boat to take them north to Fortuna.

They found the marina easily enough—it lay in a small bay at the bottom of a short, steep wooded hill. The only problems were that it was abandoned with no chance of renting a boat and there was a single road in and out—the perfect trap, in other words.

However, there was nothing for it—they’d parked the cars at the top of the hill, out of sight from the road, and climbed down through the mess of trees and underbrush. They waited a moment to make sure it was clear, then Michael, Alex, Sara, and Bellick had walked across the small parking lot, onto the waterfront boardwalk. Sucre and Linc stayed in the treeline and kept a watch on the road and Roland.

Michael kicked the plank again and looked around. No wonder the marina was closed—it was falling apart, literally. The boardwalk and the pier were rotting and the line of boats that were still docked were rusting where they floated as if the owners had just shrugged their shoulders and said to hell with it. The only thing that didn’t look like it wasn’t going to disintegrate before his eyes was a small boatyard office that stood to his right on the other side of the pier.

But it was pretty, in a lonely, desolate way. He wondered why it had been allowed to fall into disrepair and what it would take to get it going again. And that was the last peaceful thought he had because he was just turning to Alex to get his opinion on what they should do next when the rev of an engine broke the quiet and a car raced down the hill.

It was coming too fast to be anything but trouble and they scattered. Alex, Sara and Bellick took off down the pier and Michael ran for the office, thinking that at least when it all went to hell, it went to hell fast.

He whipped around the back of the building and pulled out his gun. He crept around to the far side and peered around the corner. The car skidded to a stop at the entrance and a woman got out.

“Shit," he whispered because he’d planned for everything except Gretchen Morgan. She was supposed to be dead, but there she was, clearly alive, dressed head to toe in her usual black, holding a gun. Even at a distance she looked deadly and very, very angry.

Hoping this wasn’t another of Alex’s double crosses, he ducked back and quickly revised. The contact was out, at least for now. He was shy, Self had said, and would run at the slightest hint of trouble. So it was time to run again, but he needed to take care of Gretchen. She was now at the far end of the waterfront, walking fast and there was no way he could hide for long.

He was checking his clip when two gunshots rang out and his heart jerked in his throat. He hurried the far corner looked out.

Sucre was down, scrambling awkwardly back into the trees, holding his arm to his chest—even from the distance, Michael could see the blood on his shirt. Linc was nowhere to be seen. He’d probably dragged Roland back up the hill the minute Gretchen got out of the car.

He hurried back and his heart pounded again. “Goddamnit! Alex!” he broke the silence with a hiss and pointed wildly to where Sara was crouched out in the open, still on the pier. Alex looked around from his perch inside a boat and before he could call out again, he scuttled to the pier and hustled Sara into the nearest boat.

Bellick was all right for now—he was using a pile of ropes and debris for cover. Michael held up his gun and Bellick shook his head. Alex had seen the exchange and he pointed towards the trees, then held up his empty hands as well.

“Fuck,” he muttered—neither of them could provide back up. At least not the mechanical kind, and he remembered how Alex had taken out the prisoner in Sona in one swift, brutal move.

Gretchen was halfway to the pier now, walking slowly, as if she had all the time in the world. He wasn’t sure if she knew where they were hiding but he couldn’t take the chance. If she turned onto the pier and trapped Sara and Alex in the boat, they’d have no choice but to jump, and she could pick them off at her leisure.

She was almost to the junction when Michael stepped out and aimed straight for her head. She turned her gun on him and didn’t blink.

“Hello, Michael. Long time no see.”

“Hello, Gretchen.”

“I’m assuming your merry men are around here somewhere? I already got Fernando—he’s not having a good week, now is he?”

He met her shark smile for shark smile. “Looks like you’re having a bad one as well,” he said, nodding at her most recent bruises and wounds. “Pretty soon all the makeup in the world won’t cover the damage.”

Her blank, blue eyes widened and he wondered if he’d made a crucial mistake—whatever hold on reality she’d had looked to be gone. Her fingers twitched and he held his breath, waiting for her to fire. When she didn’t, he swallowed and shifted his weight from foot to foot—the old planking creaked dangerously beneath him.

She moved closer and Michael backed up, holding her gaze, doing everything he could to keep her from looking down the pier. She cocked her head and asked sweetly, “Leaving so soon?”

“Hadn’t planned on it.” Which was nothing more than the truth—he was still scrambling for a plan, throwing away each as it developed. He had once choice, really, and it was ridiculous, something no trained assassin would fall for, but—

He backed up again, angling towards the water’s edge and said casually, “Well, you know, Gretchen, gotta go—places to be, etc., etc.”

She raised her eyebrow and her smiled broadened. “People to kill? That’s me, Michael, not you. You’re the good one, remember?

“Everybody’s bad if they’re pushed hard enough.”

She nodded, this time seriously. “I suppose you’re right. We’ve all done things we regret.”

Which wasn’t what he meant at all, but whatever. “Too bad your employer didn’t treat you better.” He was almost there. Alex was crouched, ready to spring, but the angle was still off.

“Yes, that was unfortunate. We had a slight... difference of opinion about the success of my last mission.” She laughed as if it were the most amusing thing in the world.

“Did you kill him?” He didn’t care. Gretchen’s keeper was about to be dealt out of the game, only neither of them knew it.

“Bite off the hand that feeds me?” Gretchen asked in mock horror. “Michael, that hurts. You know I’m not that stupid.” She raised her gun again and her eyes grew cold. She stepped closer, and that was what Michael was waiting for.

His plan was simple: get her to the center of the pier and let Alex take her down. But when her spike heel hit a rotten board and she collapsed with a shout, even he was surprised.

Her gun went flying up and back, and Alex was out of the boat, already snatching it up. He hurried to stand on the other side. They stared down.

Her leg had gone clean through the pier, just past her knee, leaving her to crouch awkwardly. Worse, the plank had driven a splinter the size of his pinky deep into her thigh, holding her down. She was trying to push and rock her way out of the hole, but all that did was embed her deeper. She finally gave up and hit the planks with her fists, and then took a deep, deep breath. Slowly, as if she were a puppet with a broken neck, she looked up.

For the first time he saw true fear in her eyes and a unbidden heat warmed his chest. He hated her and wouldn’t cry at her funeral, but... He crouched on the balls of his feet and nodded, “Looks bad.” Blood was pooling around her leg, dripping to the water below. “Looks like you got the artery.”

Gretchen growled, but didn’t say anything.

“You’ll bleed out before an ambulance can get here.”

“Michael,” Alex said quietly. He shook his head and Michael nodded. Alex was right—they had to go. He stood up and looked around. Bellick had helped Sara out of the boat and she stood there, white-faced, arms crossed tight over her breasts.

He jerked his head. Bellick touched Sara’s arm and they hurried away.

He looked back down. Gretchen was bent over, gritting her teeth, panting now. Blood was everywhere—on the pier, soaking into her clothes—the coppery smell was thick in his mouth and he swallowed hard.

Alex gave him a look he couldn’t interpret and then knelt and went through her pockets. He found a cell, a notebook and a small camera. He handed them to Michael and went to wash the blood off his hands where the boardwalk dipped to meet the water's edge. He came back and they stood there, waiting, until she stopped breathing, stopped moving.

And then the marina was still and quiet again, as if the last few minutes hadn’t happened.

“Michael.” Alex touched his arm, bringing Michael out of his daze, and led the way back to the treeline.

“Where’s Sucre?” Michael asked as they started up the hill.

“Bellick and Sara were helping him up. He looked okay. I’m not sure if she actually hit him or not.”

“I saw blood.”

Alex looked back and frowned. “Are you all right?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m fine. I just never...” He trailed off. Talk about a bizarre turn of events.

“Yeah, she surprised me too. I thought she was really dead this time.”

“Yeah,” Michael muttered, and he couldn’t help himself. He stopped and turned to look back.

He could barely make out the pier because of the trees, but he thought he could see a small dark blot on the grey expanse of wood. He sighed and turned to find Alex watching him, something sad and serious in his eyes. His black sweater and the half-light of the forest set off his blue eyes, making them glow. “What?”

Alex looked away and ran his hand over his mouth. Michael’s stomach tightened. “Alex, what is it?”

“Michael, you know what it is.” Alex reached out, but didn’t quite touch his shoulder.

He clenched his fists and shook his head. He turned back to the mountain and started to climb again. But he was moving too fast and he got reckless—he stepped on a loose log and almost lost his footing when it rolled out from under him. He caught himself with a snarled, “Dammit!” then bowed his head and stood with his hands on his hips, trying to catch his breath, waiting for Alex.

Alex stopped right behind him. “Michael, you should have seen her, down in the boat. She was shaking like a leaf. She can’t keep this up.”

He wasn’t talking about Gretchen and something soft and fragile inside Michael crumpled because the same thought had been living inside his own head for the last two weeks—it was killing Sara, slowly but surely, being on the run like this.

And she would never say it, would never give up. She loved him, and he loved her, but now he was starting to wonder what kind of love it was and if it would ever enough. “I know,” he whispered.

“She needs to get away from all this," Alex murmured. "And she needs to start talking to a therapist, someone she can see all the time, because Michael, she’s in a very bad place.”

He nodded again.

Alex stepped closer. “It’s not your fault. She chose this for herself. But now you have to do the hard thing and—”

“Let her go?” He crossed his arms and held himself tight. This was how it had been two weeks ago in Monterey when Alex had come back from screwing Petra Jenkins. He’d done the same thing when he'd asked about Pam and Cameron, had wrapped his arms around himself as if he would just fly apart if he didn’t hold on tight.

Alex moved closer until he could hear each breath he took. “It sucks, Michael, and it might be the worst pain you’ll ever have to bear, but that can’t matter, right? She has to come first.”

He nodded, not taking a chance on opening his mouth—who knew what would come out if he did?

“Do you want me to leave?” Alex made a vague gesture, pointing up the hill. “We’re not in a hurry, not now.”

He shook his head violently. He didn’t want to be alone in this dark forest of silent trees with the knowledge that he’d used Sara’s weakness against her.

“Then...” Alex put his hand on the small of his back. And he remembered that, also. How Alex had allowed himself to be held, even tentatively. How his own arm had felt so large and bulky against the prominent bones of Alex’s spine.

Alex began rubbing his back, cautious at first, then not. Up and down, up and down. It was hypnotic and he thought he could stay there forever, just like that. A stray, inconsequential thought drifted through his mind that no, it wasn’t Armani for Men that Alex wore, it was Eternity.

“Michael!”

Lincoln’s shout echoed through the woods, and they jumped apart, each stumbling in their haste to get away from the other.

Michael recovered first and smiled sheepishly, but couldn’t look at Alex when he said, “Linc probably thinks you jumped me.”

Alex raised an eyebrow and it was only when they were at the crest of the hill that Michael realized what he’d said. He flushed and hoped that Alex would think it was because of the climb.

They split up when they got to the cars. he looked in on Sucre and was relieved to find that he hadn’t gotten shot, but had just banged up his arm when he'd ducked Gretchen’s bullets. He was mostly embarrassed and Michael snorted at his sheepish smile, then gave him a hug.

Sara was already in the back of their SUV and Alex was in the driver’s seat. Michael didn’t look at him when he climbed in. He reached out a hand for Sara and wasn’t surprised when she didn’t reach back. He put his arm around her anyway, too conscious of Alex and his watchful gaze.

***

That night, it took Michael a while to work up the nerve to talk to Sara. She’d refused dinner and spent the evening on the balcony of their crappy Motel 6, but only because he'd asked her not to wander off. She said she was going to do some research but every time Michael checked on her, she was staring down at the bright blue swimming pool, watching the kids splash around.

At ten, after the kids had gone to bed and the pool was empty, he decided he couldn’t avoid it any longer. He grabbed the blanket off his bed and went outside, ignoring the concern Linc threw his way, ignoring the way Alex didn’t look up from the cryptogram he was solving.

The evening wasn’t as cold as he thought it would be, but he tucked the blanket around Sara anyway. “Hey.” He sat next to her.

Sara smiled up at him from her papers. “Hey yourself. Any news?”

“There was a report of a grisly accident outside of San Rafael, but other than that, no.”

Sara turned back to look at the pool and nodded calmly. “That’s good.”

They sat there, both staring at the blue water until Sara sighed and turned to face him. “Am I going to be the one to have to say it?” She smiled as she spoke, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

He bowed his head and whispered, “No.”

“I’ve found a place, Michael, in Europe. It’s safe and they speak enough English so I can get by.”

“How’d you find it?”

Sara hesitated, then said, “Alex had friends go through the same thing, and—”

He jumped to his feet but Sara pulled him back down. It wasn’t hard; his anger was easy, mostly for show. “Michael, no. It doesn’t matter, not now.”

He nodded and tried to think of the questions he needed to ask. “How will you get there?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow, out of San Francisco with someone that Lincoln trusts. She’s going to take me to Prague and stay with me a while. Then I’m on my own.”

“Jane.”

Sara nodded. “She knew your father?” He nodded again and Sara shrugged. “She says she has a way of deactivating the monitor without anyone knowing.” She tapped her ankle. “Hopefully she won’t try to kill me once we’re alone.”

The words were cold and fatalistic and he couldn’t believe she’d said them. “Sara—” he protested, but she held up her hand.

“No, Michael. I knew how this was going to be. Only I... I guess I didn’t know how I was going to be, if you know what I mean. I thought I was stronger than this.“ She pulled the blanket around her. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t stand aside and wait for you to be killed and I can’t stand the thought of having to kill someone just because they got in my way. I just want to get away for a few months so I can–” She was crying now, slow tears that she tried to hide. Michael hesitated, then pulled her gently onto his lap.

For all her looks, Sara had never been delicate, never been weak. But she felt fragile now, as if a simple puff of wind could sweep her away. “Will you be able to get in touch with me?”

She put her arm around his waist and stroked his back, just like Alex had earlier in the day. “Jane says not at first, that I’ll need to settle in, but after a while, once they’re sure I’m not a security threat, they’ll let me use their computer.”

He buried his face in her hair. “Do you need a ride?”

“No. Bellick and Sucre are taking me.”

A sharp bitterness bit and he scowled, “Does everyone know but me?”

Sara’s hand stopped moving. “They don’t love me, Michael, not like you do. I think they’ve known for a while what was going to happen.” She didn’t mean it as a rebuke, but she probably should have. If he hadn’t been blinded by his own needs and fears, he would never brought her along in the first place.

Alex had tried to tell him, weeks ago, but he hadn’t listened. “Will you stay with me tonight?” he asked through a tight throat.

Sara paused, then turned away and shook her head. “I can’t. If I do, I’ll never leave.”

He nodded, then kept nodding, because this was it. Right here, right now was all he’d ever have of her. And no matter what he told her, not matter what he told himself, the chances of seeing her again weren't good.

A little voice in the back of his head jeered and asked why he couldn’t go with her, but he strangled the thought before it fully formed. It was time to let go, and that was that.

Sara must have come to the same conclusion—she pulled out of his arms and stood up. She gave him a long, clear-eyed gaze as if memorizing him, then handed him the blanket and went inside.

Lincoln said something to her, then Alex. Michael shut his ears to the rest; he couldn’t bear it.

Instead, he opened up his mind’s eye the way he’d learned in school when he was faced with a particularly difficult design problem. He pictured himself standing in front of Wright’s Falling Water, watching the way the angles bisected themselves, moving and rising—

By the time he came out of his self-imposed trance, it was dark inside. He stood up, feeling like an old man, and folded the blanket neatly.

He slid the door open then shut, and set the security bar. Everyone had gone to bed. He paused in the middle of the room, then took off his boots and curled up on the sofa. He dragged the blanket around him and looked up.

Even through the closed curtains, the reflected light from the pool bounced and shifted on the ceiling and he knew he wouldn’t sleep any time soon. It would be the same difference if he just went to the room he was sharing with Lincoln and Sucre—although, there he’d have a proper bed.

But he didn’t move and when Alex came out from the other room a few minutes later, he realized what he’d been waiting for.

Alex was barefoot. Michael didn’t know why that touched him so, but it did and when Alex crouched before him and stared with eyes that burned, Michael stared helplessly back.

Neither said a word and he wondered if the others would find them that way in the morning, still as statues, just staring at each other.

Finally, Alex whispered, “I took a look at Gretchen’s cell. There wasn’t a tracking device, but no data, either. I gave it to Roland, just in case, then your brother smashed it.”

“What about her notebook?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay.”

Alex paused, then said, “Michael?”

“What?”

“Can I see your foot?”

Michael frowned and was on the verge of saying, ‘what foot,’ when he realized. "Why?"

Alex shrugged. "Because I want to see it."

Michael hesitated, then slowly bent to pull off his sock. He hardly ever looked at his left foot—it was ugly and incomplete, the remembered fear and pain still fresh.

If asked a year ago, he’d have said that missing such a minor appendage wouldn’t make a difference. But it had, and although he’d learned to compensate, it didn’t mean he liked looking at it. It made him sick.

Alex reached out then paused again, silently asking Michael's permission.

He swallowed hard and nodded.

Alex touched, gently running his fingers down the outside and over the amputation. Michael held his breath as his heart began to pound because Alex’s touch wasn’t clinical, wasn’t dispassionate.

“I never told you, I think, how much I admired you for what you did for your brother,” Alex murmured, still focused on Michael’s foot. “It was stupid and had disastrous consequences, but still...”

“But still?”

Alex withdrew his hand and turned back to Michael. “But still, that kind of love and dedication are rare.” He opened his mouth to say more, then shook his head. He reached out again, this time touching Michael’s cheek with the back of his fingers. Then he stood up and sat in the chair by the lamp.

“You can do your puzzle if you want. The light won’t bother me,” Michael said through the fist in his throat.

Alex raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t call Michael on his lie—he just turned on the lamp and adjusted it so it wouldn’t shine in Michael’s eyes, then he put on his glasses and picked up the newspaper and pencil. With a little frown he began writing swiftly, pausing every so often.

Michael watched, caught by the faint, fleeting emotions that crossed Alex's face as he worked, still dazed by what had just happened.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

four.

“I’m telling you guys, it was the best, the best! You should have seen him—one, two, and the dude went down!” Roland punched the air with his fist and gave a hop of unmitigated glee. Bellick and Sucre both turned and grinned at Alex as he walked past the conference table.

Alex rolled his eyes and got a bottle of water from the mini fridge. It was hot outside and he was as tired as if he’d been running all day instead a few crazy minutes. He wanted a shower and a little alone time before Michael and Burrows got back. Which he probably wouldn’t get considering Self was coming by with some news that couldn’t wait.

He twisted the cap off the water bottle and looked around for a recycling bin before he remembered where he was. He grimaced and threw the cap in the trash.

He’d been doing that a lot lately, forgetting where he was, forgetting where he’d put stuff. It was only little things, like the other day when he spent five minutes looking for his other pair of glasses only to remember they were still at the house in Chicago. It was starting to unnerve him, his absentmindedness—concentration and focus were everything in his line of work.

He reminded himself that he wasn’t in his line of work anymore and gulped down the water to wash away the bitterness that the thought brought.

“Then what happened?” he heard Bellick ask. Roland sat on the table and began to tell his audience of two what Alex had done next to the man The Company had sent after them.

He walked over to one of the big windows and peered through the dirt and grime that covered the windows, thankfully out of earshot. He didn’t want to hear about it—he’d been there, after all.

The group had moved back into their original warehouse for the final leg of the project. In two weeks they’d only retrieved the data from four of the five cards. It was, in Self’s words, a complete fuckup and Alex expected at least one of them would be dragged back to lockup by the end of the day.

Self had exploded when he found out about Sara. Burrows had insisted that she’d been more hindrance than help in the last operation. It didn’t make much difference and Self had been on their case, 24/7. For the most part, Alex let Self’s anger roll off his back. He’d met men like him before; hell, he’d been like that before and as long as Self didn’t interfere, Alex would think of him as background noise.

He finished the water and got another bottle, drinking that as quickly as the first. He looked at his watch and hesitated, then said a mental fuck it; he needed a shower and if Self had to wait, then he had to wait.

He grabbed his bag and broke into Roland’s storytelling, “I’m just going...” He jerked his head towards the bathroom.

Roland gave him a double thumb’s up and said, “Sure, man. I’ll tell them where you are.” He winked and Alex managed to turn before he rolled his eyes again. Michael was right. Roland’s earlier fear and mistrust had made a 180 and it was starting to get ridiculous.

The bathroom was tucked away in the rear of the warehouse. It was nothing more than a small room with a toilet and a tiny shower stall, but murky light filtered in through the painted windows and it created a kind of underwater effect. Alex liked it.

After that first job Michael had installed a few things for Sara so she’d feel more at home: a small cupboard and wall rack for her clothes. Alex ran his finger along the curve of a shiny white hook, remembering how happy Michael had been at Sara’s reaction.

They hadn’t heard from her. Jane had called to say that the trip had gone as planned and that Sara was safe. Michael, of course, had spent the week worrying about whether Jane was trustworthy and had suggested several times that someone should fly over to see if she was all right. Burrows had finally snapped at him, telling him to either leave and find out or get with the program.

Michael kept quiet after that, but Alex knew it was a forced silence and that the lack of information still bothered him.

Which was par for the course because they were all on edge, lately. There’d been a lag in the intel and Self had been called away for the entire week, leaving them to kick their heels in growing frustration. Their small band of ex-cons didn’t play well with each other and after Roland had pissed Burrows off one too many times, Michael had come up with a bogus recon just to keep them apart. Sara, it turned out, had served as a buffer and now that she was gone, there was little to keep the team from each other’s throats.

And Bellick wasn’t the problem, which was a surprise to Alex—it was Burrows. He was champing at the bit to be done with the project so he could go find Sofia and LJ. As with Sara, there’d been no news from Mexico and each day saw him more irate, more angry at everyone around him.

Oddly enough though, Burrows stayed out of his way. He wasn’t sure if it was because of Cameron, or if Michael had said something.

He gave a mental shrug as he stripped off his clothes and turned on the shower. Either way he was glad—it wouldn’t be an even match if it came down to it, and he didn’t want to hurt Burrows. Michael wouldn’t like it.

He stepped into the shower and reached for the shampoo. He smiled. Michael had done the shopping last time and he’d bought some green stuff in a clear bottle. It smelled like pears. Which always made him grin because who’d have thought a structural engineer would like the scent of Spring Valley Pear?

He’d washed quickly. When he was done, he stood still and let the water stream over him. It was almost obscene, the feeling of the wet slipping over his skin. He turned his face to the spray and ran his hand idly up his chest, wondering if Michael was back yet, if he and Burrows had another fight on the way home. He was picturing the scene, the way Michael’s face would have flushed with irritation when someone knocked on the door.

“Alex? Hey, Alex?”

He sighed and banged his head on the shower wall a couple times. Roland had better stay the hell out if he knew what was good for him. “Yeah?”

“Michael’s here and he wants—” Roland cut off abruptly and for a second, he thought the warehouse had been compromised. He leaned out and heard a low, “Alex?”

Speak of the devil. “Yes, Michael?”

“Can I come in?”

Even through the hiss of water, he could hear the urgency in Michael’s voice but he hesitated before saying, “Give me a minute.” He turned off the shower and grabbed the towel, making sure it was wrapped firmly around his waist before unlocking the door.

Michael slipped in, closed the door and relocked it. “Do you know an Agent Sullins?”

“Fuck,” he said. He ran a hand over his wet hair.

“I take that as a yes.” Michael smiled without humor. “He’s outside, looking for you. Somehow he got wind that you were back in the States. Who is he?”

“IA.”

“Fuck.”

They stared at each other for a moment. He was suddenly aware that he was mostly naked and that Michael was standing too close in the too small room. Too close, and he could see the creases that ran along his lower lip, the little beads of sweat that lined his forehead from only a few seconds in the hot room.

He shivered, just slightly, something he’d chalk up to the cold and not Michael’s proximity. “Can you get rid of him?”

Michael shook his head. “I doubt it. Roland let it slip that you’re here. Who’ll outrank who, Self or Sullins?”

“Sullins, but Self will do everything and anything he can to avoid splitting up the team. Besides, if you’re not here...”

“Then I’m in a Federal pen.”

He rubbed his mouth and sighed. “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Michael nodded, clearly unhappy with the turn of events. He looked down and nodded at Alex’s ankle. “Is that thing hurting you?”

Startled, he glanced at the monitor and shook his head. “No, it’s fine. Why?”

“Mine’s really uncomfortable. It digs into my ankle. I’m getting a rash.”

He smiled slowly. It was almost comical, the illustrated man having skin so sensitive it chaffed at a bit of plastic. “You want me to take a look at it? Maybe I can do something about it.”

Michael shrugged and looked down again. “Yeah, that might be a good idea. We’ll see about it, later.”

Alex watched him go, still smiling at the odd comment. It was almost as if...

He sighed and put away all thoughts of Michael and his mixed signals, then locked the door again and dried off.

When he got to the main room, he found Self and Sullins, staring at each other down the length of the broad table, stiff-legged, like mongrel dogs ready to pounce.

The team was gathered together, nervous and edgy as if they were one second away from running. Only Michael was standing apart, doing his best, Alex figured, to open up the field so there was another target in case someone got trigger-happy.

Burrows glared at Alex when he came into the room—he barely noticed—he was used to Burrow’s glares by now. He pushed a damp strand of hair off his forehead and smirked. “I can see there’s a whole lot of trust in this room. Agent Sullins have you met Agent Self?”

The agents growled at each other and Alex grinned again—it was like old times, one department poaching another’s territory. He sat down.

Michael moved around to his right; the rest of the team followed, all on the one side of the table. Roland grabbed his rolling chair and scooted directly behind Alex. He wanted to turn around and tell him that, considering his past history with Sullins, sitting behind him might not be the best idea. He didn’t.

Sullins nodded and said stiffly, “You’re looking better, Alex.”

“Thank you, Richard. I’m feeling better,” He said with false warmth.

“And it looks like you’re back in business,” Sullins nodded at the group, “only on the wrong side.”

“Well, according to you, they’re my kind of people,” he said, still obnoxiously pleasant. His surprise had worn off and so had the numbness he’d been living with for the past two months. He felt that old flutter inside his chest, a weak approximation of the thrill he always got when he was on the hunt or facing a particularly dangerous situation. It was about time.

Sullins had the grace to look guilty and Alex remembered why he liked him, even after all the bad blood between them. Sullins was a good agent and still felt shame, which was unusual in his experience. “I’ve heard some things through my contacts, and it sounds like you were framed, just as you’d said. I’m sorry—”

“How’s Agent Lang?” Alex interrupted; he didn’t want to hear Sullins’ excuses. What was done was done.

Sullins relaxed and he smiled. “She’s fine. I told her I might have a lead on you. She sends her love.”

Alex ducked his head and smiled softly. Felicia was one of the bright spots in his world and he was glad she was okay. He was also glad she couldn’t see him now—her moral compass was set in stone and she wouldn’t understand it, that he’d taken up with common criminals. Beside him, Michael drew a sharp breath—Alex could feel his stare, dark and suspicious. He leaned casually to the right, into Michael’s space.

“Are we done with tea time, fellas, ’cause I’ve got an agenda to meet,” Agent Self growled. He pushed by Sullins and grabbed a chair. “Alexander, do you trust this man?”

“When all is said and done?” Alex narrowed his eyes and stared up at Sullins. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Then,” Self turned to Sullins, “sit down and shut up. Or leave. Those are your two choices.” Burrows snorted. Alex didn’t have to look at him to know that he was grinning.

Self didn’t wait for Sullins to sit, but turned back to the team and said bluntly, “So here’s the deal, gentlemen. The Company has someone on your tail, somebody that makes Gretchen Morgan look like a fairy princess. He’s killed four people already—that we know of. We think he’s the one that killed James Whistler. And Alexander,” Self turned to look straight at Alex, “we think he’s the one that murdered your son.”

He knew what was coming before Self was halfway through, but still, he wasn’t quite ready for it and the muffled pain bit deep in his chest. Behind him, Roland whispered, “Dude.” Michael said nothing, but then, he’d also known what was coming.

“His name is Wyatt and the thing you guys need to know, what we’ve figured out from the sketchy background we’ve managed to dig up, is that he doesn’t make deals and he doesn’t play games. If you don’t tell him what he wants to know, you’re dead. Plain and simple. Plus, toxicology reports of several of his victims showed traces of a sophisticated chemical, like sodium pentathol—”

“Truth serum,” Michael interrupted.

Self nodded. “That’s right, truth serum. So it won’t matter how good you are at withstanding torture,” he looked at Alex again, adding, “he will find out what you know. And that means if he gets one of you, he gets all of you.”

There was a long silence, then Michael asked, “What else?”

“The wounds are precise, and the crime scene always clean. We have a witness who saw him in Texas. He was, she said, African-American, very large, very polite. He also wore a beautiful suit.” Self smirked and added, “She thought he was a minister.”

He turned to Alex. “Alexander could probably take him in a physical fight, and probably you, Lincoln. But the rest...” He shook his head and waited for a moment to let that sink in. “Roland tells me that you took out a Company man this morning, Alexander. Unfortunately he was a foot soldier, not the real deal. He went by the name of Louis, but we’re not sure who he was working for—this Wyatt or someone else.”

“Where’s Wyatt now?” Michael asked. He’d gotten a piece of paper  and a pen and was drawing bisecting rings, one after the other.

Self leaned back in his chair. “That I do not know. Last I heard, he was up north. But if Louis managed to give him this location, you can bet he’s on his way here.”

“So, what,” Bellick stuttered and looked around wildly, “we just sit here and wait until he finds us?”

“No, Brad,” Self said, “that’s not what you’ll do. I think I might have a way to finish this up, once and for all.”

“Gee, where have we heard that before?” Burrows interrupted sarcastically.

Alex cracked a smile and Michael snorted softly.

“This time it might actually be true, Lincoln. And if it goes as planned, in the end you’ll have your freedom, no questions asked.” Self practically sneered, and Burrows gave him a black look.

“What’s the plan?” Michael asked.

“We have a unique opportunity. We’ve retrieved an encrypted log from the late William Kim’s computer—”

Alex narrowed his eyes and straightened up.

Self cocked his head. “Alexander knows what that means. As some of you know, Kim was a point man for the Company but officially he was the head of Caroline Reynold’s security team. The data we recovered is incomplete and the references too vague for accurate interpretation, but there are repeated references of the word, ‘general.’ At first our guys thought Kim meant, you know, ‘generally,’ like—”

Burrows interrupted, “Yeah, we get it. Go on.”

Self pursed his lips, but continued, “Now we think it’s a reference to an actual general, someone with military training, in charge of this entire operation.”

Burrows opened his mouth again and Self held up his hand. “This will go a lot easier if you’ll just shut up. Anyway…” He turned back to the group. “we cross-referenced the recovered data, the trips Kim took, and the few cell phone records we could find, and we came up with three possibilities as to who the General could be. And it looks like all three will be in Washington for the next six days for a joint meeting. A meeting that they can’t excuse themselves from.”

Self leaned forward. “So this means that we have a slim chance of finding out what the hell this General is up to.”

“By breaking and entering,” Michael said slowly.

“Yes.”

“At three different locations, into three different facilities, any of which will probably make the Tuxhorn estate look like a walk in the park.”

Maybe.”

“All the while trying to elude the Company’s pet assassin.”

“Yes.”

They were all silent again and this time the silence held and stretched until finally Sullins spoke, “Will there be time to wait for Wyatt, then complete the operations?”

Self turned to Sullins. “No, because we have no idea where he is. Each day they sit and wait is another day they could be breaking into one of the facilities.” Self shook his head—he looked genuinely sorry about it.

Alex cleared his throat. “We need to treat them as one problem. If Gretchen and Kim were any examples, Wyatt will keep in close contact with the General. If we take him out too soon, that will tip our hand and we can’t afford for the General to cancel his plans.”

Self looked around at the team and then raised his hand like he was in grade school. Alex covered his mouth with his hand to hide his smirk. “I have an idea and you’re not going to like it.”

“What’s is it?” Michael asked, his voice gone soft and low.

“You ever go quail hunting, Michael?”

Alex dropped back in his chair and his smirk changed to a bitter smile. The Agency was so typical. Hanging someone out to dry was the oldest trick in their book. He supposed he should be surprised that they hadn’t done it sooner.

Bellick and Sucre looked at each other and turned to Michael, but Michael was frowning at Self and didn’t see. Sucre touched Michael’s arm and said, “Quails?”

Self leaned forward and tapped the table with his finger. “You leave one man behind and when Wyatt gets here, that one man leads him on a chase, taking him away from the group, keeping him occupied as long as he can.”

Michael shook his head slowly. “No.”

“Michael—”

“No. You want us to leave a man behind, just so he can be bait, and possibly end up tortured for information? No.

Bellick stood and looked around as if he might take off.

Self waved him back down and tried again. “Michael—”

Michael leaned over and pointed at Self. “You’re asking me to give up a member of my team right before a difficult mission? Right before three difficult missions? Wyatt wasn’t part of our original deal. He’s your problem—you send your own men after him.”

Self smiled and spread out his hands. “Michael, you’re it. You guys are my men, as pathetic as that may be.”

Michael glanced over at Alex, then tried again. “Say this goes as you say it will. What’s to stop our man from giving up everything he knows? If Wyatt is as bad as you say, it would be pointless and cruel.”

Alex interrupted, looking down at the table as he spoke. “If the bait doesn’t know what the plans are, he can’t give anyone up. At least, not the important details.”

The whole team started talking at once. Bellick shouted to Sucre about the “Low man on the totem pole,” and behind Alex, Roland was shaking his foot so hard his chair sounded like it was going to fall apart. Even Sullins had leaned over to Self, his face and gestures telling Alex what he thought of the plan. Only Michael was silent.

Alex turned. “Michael.”

Michael met his glance. His face was like stone and Alex wanted to smile. It was such a Michael reaction, one he’d seen so many times, blankly full of concern and worry. But never, Alex thought, never before for him, and he said again, “Michael,” just because it was such a welcome surprise.

“No.”

“It’s a good plan.”

“There are a lot of holes. A lot could go wrong.”

Alex smiled ruefully, “A lot could always go wrong. A lot always does. This would be no different.”

“I’m not going to be your guinea pig, Self!” Bellick burst out next to Alex.

“It’s me, Brad,” he said, still looking at Michael.

Bellick sat back down with a huff and then a muttered “Well, then...” He shut up and Roland stopped rocking his chair.

Sullins tapped the table with his fingertips. “What’s to guarantee that Wyatt won’t murder Mahone out of hand just for the information he has right now?”

He jerked his head up to look at Sullins. It seemed as if it had been a century since anyone had called him Mahone, simply and without any hatred.

Self said simply, “Nothing. I can’t guarantee a thing. And I won’t be around to make sure Alexander is okay. I’m going to stay out of this one. Totally.”

Michael turned to Self and said, “So that’s it?”

“It’s the best I can do at short notice,” Self said with a shrug.

Michael leaned back and Alex followed suit. The silence was thick, like after a shootout when each side had regrouped to count their losses.

“What kind of support can you give us, Agent Self?” Michael asked.

Self hesitated then glanced up at Alex. “Alexander, if you’re going to do this, you should leave now. You can come back tonight when the team has packed up and left. I’ll have money and a new vehicle waiting for you.”

Sullins stood and buttoned his jacket. “I’ll give you a ride, Mahone. We can get dinner and catch up.”

Alex bit back the sharp words that were on the tip of his tongue. The last thing he wanted was to spend a few hours with Sullins talking about old times. But there was nothing for it and he pushed back his chair. Before he could stand, Michael grabbed his arm.

“How will you find us again?”

And he couldn’t help it—he smiled and murmured intimately, “You forget what I did for fifteen years. I found you once, I’ll find you again.”

A very small fire lit in Michael’s eyes. He let go.

Alex thought he’d be able to just leave, but Bellick stopped him as he tried to edge by. He stood and held out his hand. Alex took it.

Sucre gave him a brief, hard hug. Roland would have done the same, but he forestalled him by thrusting out his hand. Roland looked disappointed and Burrows laughed out loud. He didn’t bother saying goodbye to him.

He hurried to the bathroom, gathered up his gear and stuffed it all in his bag. He paused at the bathroom door, then went back to the shower and grabbed the shampoo. He crammed it in the bag thinking that if he died in the next few days, it was the only thing he’d have of Michael. It was stupid and ridiculous and only emphasized how lost he was when it came to Michael Scofield. But he didn’t put the shampoo back.

When he got back to the main room, the team was huddled around the conference table, already going over the plans. Michael, however, stood back by the windows, arms crossed tight around his chest, mouth pressed in a thin line. He didn’t answer Alex’s nod, but he wasn’t disappointed. This was going to be hard on all of them, one way or another.

Without another word of goodbye, he shouldered the bag and left.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

five.

Michael waved goodnight to Sucre and shut the door. He locked the door and listened—the bathroom water was still running which meant Linc was still in the shower. Which meant he had a few minutes to himself.

He sighed and fell on the bed nearest the door and stared at the wood-paneled wall that dominated the small room. From about five feet up, the wall was covered with small pictures of various Western scenes. They were arranged in order of sunsets, mountain ranges and then little cabins in the woods. Michael wondered at the kind of mind that had felt the need to be so regimented, so orderly. It was creepy, like something you’d see in a slasher film.

It didn’t help that the images were bland and boring—he’d give anything to just sweep them all to the ground but he was aiming for inconspicuous and the room next door was occupied by a family from Nevada. They would hear it if he trashed the room.

The sound of running water stopped. After a few minutes Linc came out, dressed in jeans with a towel around his shoulder. “At least there’s plenty of hot water.”

He nodded, then went back to contemplating the paintings.

“How’s Sucre’s arm?”

“Fine.”

“Should we get him to a doctor?”

He crossed his arms over his stomach and shook his head at the paintings. “No.”

“And Bellick and Roland?”

“Bellick’s complaining about Roland. Roland’s complaining about Bellick.”

“And about Mahone, I bet.”

“Yeah, he’s not going to forgive us for that any time soon.”

Linc tossed the towel on the room’s only chair and sat down on his bed. He turned on the TV and said, “It was Mahone’s decision.”

“Tell that to Roland,” he said dryly.

“I have. Over and over.”

“Well, there’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well stop talking about it.”

Linc turned to Michael. “What’s eating you?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Is it one of the guys?”

“No.” He shrugged again, trying to dispel the apprehension that had been riding him all day. “It’s this place. It doesn’t feel right.”

“The others were just as normal, if that’s what you mean.”

He turned on his side so he could pretend to watch the news. Linc was right, he wasn’t in a good mood, but maybe it was just because they were all more than a little sick of each other. They were definitely sick of Roland and his constant complaining. The guy didn’t shut up.

It was a problem, one he wasn’t sure how to handle. No one wanted to be here, but they couldn’t cut and run, not at this stage, and they needed Roland and his brain. They couldn’t just dump him by the side of the road like Linc had threatened more than a few times.

If Alex were here he wouldn’t be dealing with the Roland issue. But then, he reminded himself, if Alex were here, he wouldn’t be dealing with a couple other things. Like his own anger over letting Alex take a fall for the team. Like the growing awareness that his previous antipathy had changed into something both inconvenient and dangerous.

Absence, they said, made the heart grow fonder.

With Sara, absence had just made him feel guilty. By the time Self had shown up with his news about Wyatt, he'd already started to forget her. Not truly forget her, he'd argued with himself—that would never happen. But it was an undeniable relief that he didn’t have to worry about her anymore, didn’t have to worry that she would catch a stray bullet or fall deeper into depression.

With Alex, however, the adage seemed to be true because ever since he walked away without a backwards glance, Michael couldn’t stop thinking about him.

He bent his knee and touched the ankle monitor. Even days later he still couldn’t believe he’d pulled the, Do you want to see my etchings? routine. It had been a spur of the moment comment, so spontaneous that it was only after he’d said it did he realize what he was really asking. But he hadn’t been able to help himself; Alex had looked startling beautiful, standing in the weak blue light of the bathroom, all planes and angles and slick-wet skin.

If Michael had been shocked by his initial involuntary response to former-Agent Mahone’s almost naked body, he wasn’t any longer. It had become something he was getting used to, the thoughts that crept in when he least expected them, the way his body tightened up when he remembered little things like Alex’s voice or the way he moved.

And the memories were so clear and insistent that he realized it was no longer a question of why, but when, because the attraction was familiar and comfortable, as if it had been building for years, not weeks.

Even now in Mormon country with his brother just feet away and a clean, wholesome family not much further, all he had to do to get his heart pounding was picture Alex with that damp towel around his waist and nothing else. Or think back to Sona when Alex had accosted him in his cell, strung out and so goddamn scary—he’d stood so close, so fucking close and Michael hadn’t been sure if he was going to kill him or—

Michael bit his lip, and clenched his fists, forcing back a groan. Now was not the time to be thinking about Alex and their fucked up past. He rolled over to his back and stared at the water-stained ceiling.

It had been four days since they split up in Los Angeles and no one had seen or heard from Alex, including Agent Self.

Self had called the night of the Palmdale job, furious because Alex had gone off the grid and his ankle monitor was no longer sending out a signal. Under false pretenses, he'd requisitioned an emergency team—they went back to the warehouse but found it empty. There were no signs of a struggle and the locks hadn’t been jimmied. Michael hadn’t bothered pointing out that he’d taken a chance, letting Alex go, knowing his background.

Michael didn’t tell Linc what had happened. He spent the next two days alternating between angry disappointment and worry. Finally, after he’d made a crucial mistake in the schematics of the building in Palmdale and had gotten into an argument with Linc about his recent lack of focus, he sat himself down and made peace with the fact that he was just going to have to take Alex’s absence on faith, that the situation was out of his control and he needed to deal. He told himself that Alex had changed, that he was part of their team, that he wouldn’t desert them, even if he could. That he wouldn’t desert him.

That decided, he was able to relax and concentrate and the second job, the office in Santa Rosa, went smoothly. They didn’t find the device, but at least he didn’t screw anything up.

The third facility on Self’s very short list was in southwestern Utah. They’d hauled ass the night before and arrived in the little town of Central at eight in the morning.

The facility was a mile out of town—Linc and Sucre drove out to do their recon while Bellick and Roland booked a couple rooms in the only motel in a fifty mile radius. Michael spent the afternoon chatting up the townspeople, trying to get as much info on the plant as he could.

He found out that the residents thought the building was a privately owned research facility and that whatever the research, it was hush-hush and none of their business. There were no on-site services for long-term occupation and it was staffed with a handful of people from out of town.

It was an odd place to stash a device as important as a Scylla card, and Michael had gone over the documents Self had faxed him, just to make sure they were in the right spot. He visited the town hall to see if he could dig up any more history, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary and his unease had deepened.

After dinner, the team had regrouped at the motel to go over the plans. Now all they had to do was wait until eleven when they would make their initial foray

“Look at that,” Linc nodded to the TV.

He turned. The nine o’clock news was on and the crew was on-scene, reporting from the edge of a huge fire in Palm Springs.

“They say that sixteen mansions burned in the last day, and that the cost will be in the billions.”

“Was anybody hurt?”

Linc shrugged. “No, just a lot of property damage.”

“Then that’ll teach them to build too close together,” he said dryly.

Linc laughed. “Always the engineer.”

Michael grinned, then rolled to his back. He didn’t care what was happening in Palm Springs, California; he had enough to worry about here in Central, Utah.

He was nodding off, trying to ignore an infomercial about a new synthetic chamois when someone knocked urgently on the door.

Linc was up in a flash, gun in hand. He padded to stand behind the door then nodded.

Michael peered out the window. Roland was outside, practically doing a jig, he was jumping up and down so fast. He reached to knock again, but before he could, Michael unlocked and opened the door.

Roland rushed in and slammed the door shut. “Michael, we have a problem.”

Linc rolled his eyes. “Roland, can’t it wait?”

Roland rounded on Linc and shook his head. “No, man, it can’t. There’s something wrong with the plant. I can’t show you here. All my stuff is in the other room.” His voice rose as he spoke, and Michael put a finger to his lips. Roland jerked his head up and down, then was out the door, clearly expecting them to follow.

Shaking his head, Linc stashed the gun and pulled on a shirt and boots. Michael grabbed the room key and followed him out.

The second room was at the end of the row and when they got there they found Roland at the room’s only desk, crouched over his laptop, foot shaking a mile a minute. Michael remembered Alex’s comment and wanted to smile but couldn’t because something really was up—Sucre and Bellick were sitting on their beds, both of them frowning.

He put a hand on Roland’s shoulder and leaned over. “C’mon, what’s wrong? It can’t be that bad.”

Roland shook his hand off and hissed, “I think it is that bad. I think we’re totally screwed. I was going over the snaps, just to get the system in my head, you know? And...” Roland turned the laptop towards Michael and scrolled through the images of the plant. “Look.”

Linc jostled Michael aside so he could see the screen as well. “What’s he talking about? Can you see anything?”

And yeah, he could see it. “Fuck.” He pushed away from the desk, dislodging Linc. He turned in a tight circle before bending over the screen again just to make sure.

“What is it?” Linc asked again.

He shook his head and pointed to a small unit in the back of the plant. The photo had been taken from a distance of at least thirty feet but the signs of age were easy to see: rust, faded hazard labels, peeling paint. “That’s the main box, right?”

Linc frowned and crossed his arms. “Yeah, we went all the way around and that’s all there was.”

“It’s too small,” he said as he straightened up. He ran his hands over his face and the unease he’d been feeling all day turned to full-blown panic. He’d screwed up. Again. “It’s too old and it’s too fucking small.”

“Too small?”

“Yeah. For the kind of power needed to run and protect the device, they’d have a pretty heavy-duty system and it wouldn’t be old and rusty.”

“Plus, they’d have a fucking huge back-up generator,” Roland chimed in.

“Plus, they’d have a fucking huge back-up generator,” he agreed grimly.

Linc grasped his arm and said, “Are you sure? I mean, are you a hundred percent sure? I thought you said the schematic showed all that stuff. Maybe this is just a decoy or something. Could the real deal be underground?”

He shrugged. “I doubt it. Installing that kind of system underground would pose it’s own problems—the whole town would know.” He looked at the pictures again and shook his head slowly. “I don’t know what happened, and I have no idea what’s really inside that building. It sure as hell isn’t a power plant. Whatever it is, the device wouldn’t be stored there.”

“Besides,” Roland said as he traced another photo with his fingertip, “I can’t see a satellite system or anything like that, can you?”

He nodded again, because no, he couldn’t find anything that indicated any advanced communications system either. And that was another thing he should have realized hours ago. A government operation would never rely on a conventional wireline system. “They could be using buried cable,” he said, even though he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell this small town was wired for cable. And, if the Company had installed any, that was another thing the entire town would know about.

Sucre nodded to the TV and said, “Here? Cable won’t be here for another hundred years, man.”

Linc got out his cell and thrust it at Michael. “You’ve got to call Self.”

“And say what, that we wasted almost three days on nothing?”

“Michael,” Bellick spoke for the first time, “could Self be setting us up?”

Linc turned to Bellick and snarled, “For what, Bellick? What would be the point?”

Bellick raised his hands and backed away. “I don’t know. It just seems weird, you know? He gave us the names, and those other places were more like office buildings, right? This isn’t like them.”

“No, it’s not,” Michael said slowly. An idea was bubbling up, and if he was right, everyone was going to be pissed, and mostly at him. “Hey, Roland?”

“Yeah?”

“Remember the building in Santa Rosa? The one that was a bust?”

Roland rolled his eyes. “Of course I do, Michael. It was like, two days ago.”

“Remember that room you said was right on the money for the digital signature?”

“Yeah, but that just held a huge fucking mainframe and nothing else. We all saw it.”

Michael put his hands on his hips and closed his eyes. “You said something about a decoy, Linc. What if that computer was for show?”

There was a long pause, then Lincoln threw up his hands and barked, “Ah, fuck, are you kidding me? It was at that second place, Michael?”

“Keep your voice down,” he hissed, “someone will hear.”

Linc closed his mouth. It didn’t stop him from glaring.

Bellick looked from one to the other, “You mean we gotta go back to Santa Rosa?”

“We’ll do a quick drive by of this plant, but yeah, that looks to be the size of it.”

There was another long pause while they all took it in, then Sucre said, “Well, if we’re gonna go, we might as well make it sooner rather than later, right? It’ll take us more than a day to get back to Santa Rosa. At least we know where it is, right?” He gave Michael an encouraging slap on the arm, and turned to get his things. Michael smiled gratefully and followed Linc back to their room.

He’d learned long ago that there was no talking to his brother when he was this angry, so he calmly collected his clothing and equipment and packed it all up. He brushed his teeth and looked regretfully at the shower.

“I’m going to the car,” Linc called out, already out the door.

He put away his toothbrush and picked up his bag. He stood in front of the wall of pictures one more time, then sat his bag down and got out a notebook and pencil. He only had a minute, but he knew this by heart.

He tore a sheet out of his notebook and trimmed off the ragged edges. He folded the paper this way and that, running his thumbnail along every crease. He picked up the pencil and wrote the tiny figures inside the beak’s fold. When he finished, he went to the wall.

He took the third sunset picture down and traded it with the third mountain range. Then he slipped the tiny origami crane behind the sunset picture and pushed it flat so the paper wouldn’t fall out.

He didn’t consider his actions. He’d done the same thing at the warehouse in L.A., at the building in Palmdale and the one in Santa Rosa. What he was doing was about as useful as throwing a thimbleful of seeds into a gale force wind. But it was something he needed to do, so he did it.

Then he picked up his bag, turned out the lights, and pulled the door closed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

six.

With a heave and a grunt, Alex rolled the heavy body off the pier and watched it sink into the black water. He waited for it to bob back up. It didn’t. The chain he’d used was thick and heavy, and with any luck, Wyatt would stay down there, making a tasty meal for the harbor fish.

He wiped his hands on his jeans and turned around, looking to make sure he was still alone. It was three in the morning and even though the place was like a graveyard, it was always best to make sure.

There was no one around. He limped back to the SUV, got in, and drove into the warehouse.

His leg was starting to throb, and his jeans were sticking to the wound—it was going to be a bitch getting his pants off. He limped to the bathroom only to find that the first-aid kit was gone, probably taken by the team.

Wishing Sara was around, he ransacked the warehouse and the dry-docked boat but found nothing but an old bottle of rubbing alcohol. The back seat of the SUV was more forthcoming—he found a fancy kit that contained a useless box of band-aids, a packet of eight aspirin, and a miniature spool of thread. But it also had a roll of gauze and a small tube of antibiotic ointment.

He held the kit in his hands and weighed the idea of finding an open drug store then decided it wasn’t worth the questions that would come up. It was obvious that he’d been in some trouble—his hair was singed from the fire and he still reeked of smoke.

He went back to the bathroom and washed his hands with alcohol, then grabbed a towel and hobbled back to the conference table. He arranged everything and then with a wince, he began the excruciating task of taking off his jeans. The denim was stiff with blood where it had stuck to the raw flesh and he was sweating by the time he finished.

Head ringing, he fell into a chair and propped his foot on the table, trying to figure the best way to treat the wound. It was in an awkward place, on the meaty back of his calf and he had to twist his leg to even see it.

It looked worse than he’d thought it would, angry red where the rope had burned through the fabric and the underlying layers of skin. But, he’d gotten off pretty well, all things considered. Most of the wound was just surface injury— it would heal in a few days.

The only bad part was the center where the rope had landed—he cleaned it as best he could, making sure he got out all the bits of denim and polypropylene, then doused the entire area with alcohol. He didn’t bother holding in his shouts and curses—there was no one around to hear, in any case.

After the wave of pain lessened, he smeared the ointment on the gauze and wrapped the whole thing around his leg. He tried to make himself get up to go wash again, but in the end, he just poured a pool of alcohol into his palm and washed that way. Then he crawled onto the table and lay there, still half-dressed, staring up at the faraway ceiling.

He’d have to tell Self, eventually, what had happened with Wyatt. But only after he’d caught up with the team and completed the mission. After he made sure they were all safe.

Then he’d tell Self how Wyatt had been waiting for him at the warehouse, the night after Michael and the team had left. How he'd managed to give him the slip after a fight that left Wyatt with a broken wrist and himself with a minor concussion.

He couldn’t wait to tell Self how Wyatt had used the ankle monitor GPS system to track him down and how he boasted that he’d get Burrows and Scofield the same way. Which was stupid and unprofessional, giving away information like that. Alex dumped the monitor into the water and took off, driving slow enough so that Wyatt wouldn’t lose him in traffic, but fast enough that he wouldn’t get suspicious.

He led the way south to Palm Springs and after a chase made longer  by his throbbing headache, he made his stand in a cemetery maintenance shed on the edge of the city.

He grinned at the ceiling. Wyatt had been a piece of work, that was for sure. With beautiful simplicity that he almost admired, Wyatt had trapped him and torched the shed. He hadn’t time to decide what to do—the fire reached a shelf of lawn chemicals before he knew it and went wild. He’d been kneeling behind a mower, getting ready to charge the double doors when a bundle of synthetic rope that had been hanging on the wall fell on the back of his leg.

It hurt like hell and when Wyatt burst through the doors, he hadn’t hesitated. He shot him five times and leaped across the body to safety.

Getting Wyatt to the car hadn’t been fun. Self was going to be pissed about the fire spreading to the groundskeeper’s house. But it wasn’t like he'd started it himself. If he could figure out a way, he’d just leave that part out, and if not, then screw Self.

The thought made him laugh, there on the table with the bloody towel and the remnants of his jeans because Self was the last person on earth he’d want to screw. Now, Michael, on the other hand—

Alex spent the rest of the night on the table, not sleeping, thinking of Michael. When the sun came up he showered with his leg sticking out from the stall, then went to find a clinic.

It was late morning when he got back with his leg properly cleaned and bandaged. He ignored the pain pills the med tech had insisted he take and sat down to consider his next move.

Michael had recklessly assumed that he could find the team wherever they went. Which would be fine if he still had the resources of the FBI or the PD to back him up. What he had was an SUV, less than two hundred dollars cash, a weapon, and his brain.

And oddly enough, the thought perked him up. He’d worked with a hell of a lot less and had always gotten his man. He just needed to think like Michael once more...

Michael never did anything without a plan. Michael never made a plan without writing it down, even if it was just scribbled symbols. Michael liked to doodle or sketch while he thought things through. Michael liked to send cryptic notes that only his co-conspirators would understand...

Alex got up and began to methodically search the warehouse. He concentrated on the office area, the bathroom, and the boat. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he knew he’d recognize it when he found it.

He’d finished with the boat and the bathroom and was working on the desk drawers when he hit his shin on the table. Pain streaked up his leg and he grabbed his thigh with a hissed, “Goddamnit! He fumbled for the packet of ibuprofen and got a bottle of water from the refrigerator.

He’d gone back to his search when he was struck by something odd. He hopped back to the refrigerator and crouched awkwardly before it.

That first day, Bellick had been in charge of putting away the groceries. He’d thrown everything in the refrigerator, shoving the bottles wherever they would fit. No one had bothered to reorganize the contents and it had stayed that way—everything all over the place. He clearly remembered that last day having to push things around to get to the water.

Now the bottles were neatly lined up in the door, but the food was still a mess. He looked closer. There in the back, behind a loaf of bread and a block of cheese, stood a single bottle. Like he was investigating a crime scene, he gently moved the food carefully aside and reached for the bottle. He stood up and held it up to the light, turning it this way and that.

At first he couldn’t see it. It was tiny, just a scrap of white paper, hidden under the label. Heart thudding dully, he found his knife and slit the label up the side. It fell apart and a little paper crane fluttered out.

He picked it up carefully, cradling it in the palm of his hand. And slowly smiled.

***

“Once again, our top story: Palm Springs officials now believe the Springhill fire was started accidentally when—” Alex turned the radio off and parked the SUV on the shoulder as far to the right as he could. He got out and walked across the highway, then climbed over the guardrail and made his way to the edge of the cliff.

He took off his sunglasses and looked around. This would be the perfect place to retire. It had everything; a beautiful golf course, extensive running trails, and this: miles and miles of clear blue water. No forests of buildings, no milling crowds, no FBI, no fucking Company.

He drew a deep breath of cool sea air and closed his eyes. Pam had never liked the ocean. She’d preferred the mountains she’d grown up in, but he loved the water. When they’d divorced, he’d made idle plans of a boat and shorefront property, but he’d never gotten around to it.

The thought of Pam brought a swift, familiar pang and he pushed it away automatically. He wasn’t sure when he’d be able to think about her and Cam clearly, without grief, but it sure as hell wasn’t now.

So he turned his senses outward, hearing the rush of the ocean as it broke against the rocks far below, the cry of a shore bird. He took another deep breath and let it out slowly. Gradually the leftover tension from the previous week loosened and gave way to a shaky sort of peace.

If he’d thought ahead, he would have brought his lunch with him; it would have been nice to eat here and not the local MacDonald’s. But when he’d gotten on the road he hadn’t planned on going anywhere in particular. It was plain luck that he’d ended up on the road that took him here to Bodega Bay and this amazing view.

He stayed until the sun dropped behind a bank of clouds and the cool wind turned cold. Then, reluctantly, he returned to the SUV. He knocked his leg against the running board when he climbed inside and he had to wait until the pain passed before he could start the car. It had been two days since the fire and the wound was already healing. It still hurt like a son of a bitch, though.

He whipped a neat U, driving east. He’d get dinner, then head back to Santa Rosa, back to wait for Michael.

***

It was dark when he returned to the anonymous office building off Laurel Avenue.

He circled the block looking for any familiar vehicles—when he found none, he told himself not to worry—lack of evidence didn’t mean he was in the wrong location. He circled once more, then found a good parking spot two streets down from the target, out of reach of a nearby streetlight. He cut the engine and peered through the windshield.

The building lay in the middle of one of those labyrinthine office parks that had been so popular in the 70s and 80s. It looped and curled and spread, separated by landscaped lot dividers and extensive parking.

Each group of buildings was connected by a single broad alley that looped and curled and spread as well. It was a nightmare, logistics-wise, and it wasn’t hard to see why the Company had chosen to safeguard a card here: the location was innocuous, there were multiple ins and outs, and the police department was only three streets over.

It also hadn’t been hard to figure what entry point Michael and company would have to use—there were only two viable ones that Alex could see—the front with its minimal security or the rear. The rear, however, faced the alley and when he'd canvassed the area, he’d counted at least six security cameras.

He tapped his fingers restlessly against the steering wheel and looked at his watch again. He was too early. He hadn’t wanted to arrive before twelve and it wasn’t quite eleven-thirty. If Michael was running true to form, the team would show up between one and two.

Just for something to do, he got out his notebook and opened it up. The little crane fell onto the seat divider and he picked it up, placed it on the dash, then checked the figures again.

There were three sets of coordinates, each prefaced by a one, two, and three. The first set was for a large office in Palmdale. A simple Google check had told him that the place had been burgled unsuccessfully only three days before. And since the team was missing, presumably still on the hunt, he figured they were heading for the second set of coordinates.

Coordinates, according to the SUV’s GPS system, that led to the building right down the street.

He put away the notebook. He picked up the crane again and held it up to the faint light. Yesterday, when he’d found the message Michael had left for him, he’d tried to refold the crane but hadn’t been able to. He’d managed the body but not the head—it was deformed, not at all the graceful thing it had once been.

He sat it on the dash again, crossed his arms over the steering wheel, and stared at the headless bird.

He was out of his fucking mind.

Here he was—a wanted man lying in wait for another wanted man, both set to steal something that would be the death of them all if the owners found out. And his old excuses wouldn’t wash anymore. He wasn’t doing this for his country, for revenge, or even just plain hate; he was doing this for himself. Because any other option was out of the question because if he walked away, that meant Michael would no longer be in his life.

He rubbed his forehead against his crossed arms and closed his eyes. He didn’t understand himself anymore. Before, his focus had been on work, on bringing in scum that threatened the safety of the citizens he’d sworn to protect.

And he’d never kidded himself that the good of the public had been the only reason because there was also the hunt. The high he got from outsmarting, outthinking, outrunning anyone that tried to get away. That and his ability to focus on the task at hand were the reasons he was excelled at his job, the reasons he was able to walk away from his marriage.

He felt like a pendulum, at times. One day swinging one way, the next in a completely opposite direction.

When he’d been hunting the Fox River 8, all he could think about was the next step—where was Scofield heading, how to get there first.

When he’d approached Pam, before it all went to hell, he’d thought, this is it, this is all I want, all I can want.

And when he’d been locked up in Sona, he focused on his family, pushing the distraction that was Michael Scofield to the back with all the other things that couldn’t matter.

But just this morning, when he was on the hunt once more with Michael’s coded message repeating in his head, he caught himself wondering how he’d ever thought to give it up because the adrenaline was pumping and he’d felt so alive. And it wasn’t just the chase because there was also Michael...

Back and forth, back and forth, and the only question now was where he would land?

He picked up the crane and looked at it another moment, then tucked it carefully into his pocket. When he saw Michael again, he would ask him to refold it.

That decided, he slipped into the waking doze he’d perfected while still with the Bureau. He rested there, externally focused on the building and the surrounding streets, but mentally he was back in Sona that second day, watching with savage delight as Michael took down that con with a swift kick to the kneecap...

It had been so hot, seeing Michael unleash himself like that, and Christ, he’d wanted to fuck Michael, or make Michael fuck him because it had always been there between them, this obsessive heat. As far back as that first day in Chicago when he’d looked up and locked eyes with his quarry for the first time. Even then, when all he'd had of Michael were the stories and the pictures, he’d wanted to drag him off, wanted to crawl inside that brilliant mind, that beautiful body, and figure out how—

A muffled bang jerked him out of his daze and he looked around, trying to source the noise. He heard it again—this time it was just a muffled thump: a car door being shut. There, on the block in front of him, hidden in the shadow of a tree was a sleek black car with three dark figures beside it.

He snarled at his carelessness in letting the car drive past, then he check his clip and switched off the dome light. He got out and pushed the door firmly until the latch clicked. It was a safe bet that he’d caught up to the team, but just in case...

Keeping to the shadows, he crept across the road and hurried up the sidewalk. He was halfway there when two other figures dressed in black came from the opposite direction and met up with the first group.

If he'd been unsure, his hope was confirmed when the group silently skirted the edge of the only streetlight and he saw Michael’s face, pale and serious under his black watch cap.

The group walked a few feet, then, without any warning, Michael turned into what looked like a mass of bushes and disappeared. The other men followed.

Alex ran, not wanting to interfere with the plan at this late stage, but not wanting to give them too big a lead in case they lost him in the maze of buildings. When he got to spot where they’d all vanished, he was surprised to find no one at all. He pushed through the bushes—the parking lot beyond was empty and so were the shadows around the building. He drew back and knelt to see what he could find.

And there it was. He smiled—Michael and his access tunnels. Under the shelter of a wide bush lay a metal disk, propped open with a small rock. He yanked it up and peered down. He couldn’t see much, just a utility ladder leading to black. He dropped it back in place and thought.

They weren’t counting on him for help and the last thing they needed was for him to come in and screw up the plan by getting lost down below, or worse, somehow blocking their escape. The best thing to do would be patient, to stay still. He edged back into the shelter of the bushes and sat down to wait.

He didn’t sit there for long—it was maybe ten or fifteen minutes when he heard a vague noise. Someone or someones were running down below, getting closer with each second. Something was up—the enclosed space acted as an echo chamber and he could clearly hear the agitated voices as they started to climb.

He crawled to the opening and was poised to help the first man out when a gunshot broke the night’s silence. He jerked his head around to find that the target building was alive with floodlights. As he watched, a figure ran out of the main entry and alarms started shrieking. It was Roland—he'd recognize that floppy hair anywhere. And that wide-eyed stare seen even from the distance—Roland was petrified and he clutched his right leg as he ran. Alex swore, jumped up and raced towards him.

Roland caught sight of Alex with a startled gasp and swerved to meet him. As Alex grabbed him by his sweatshirt and took off back towards the bushes, another shot rang out. Roland ducked, Alex pulled.

Up ahead, black figures poured out of the access tunnel like oversized rats and sprinted towards the cars. Only one had stayed behind and when he dragged Roland through the bushes, he found Burrows on the sidewalk, aiming a gun right at his face.

Burrows didn’t say anything other than a quiet, “What the fuck?” Alex shook his head and pushed Roland into his arms, then ran.

He got out his keys and hit the remote start, still running. The SUV roared to life and he was in, already pressing the gas and popping the car into reverse.

He was backing up, tires screeching, when the first car passed him. He whipped around in a tight U and gunned the engine just as a bullet hit a parked car on his left, shattering glass.

The rearview showed no pursuit, but he didn’t breath a happy sigh of relief—they weren’t out of this yet, not if the Company was involved.

They’d gone about two miles when the car ahead veered into an empty lot and skidded behind an old gas station. He frowned but did the same.

He’d just pulled up when someone jumped out of the car and ran towards him. Michael. He hit the autolock and Michael jumped in and said breathlessly, “Follow Linc.” Two SUVs streaked down the road behind them and Burrows took off. “Where to?”

Michael pointed. “South on the 101.”

“Did you get it?”

“Sucre has it.”

After that it became a short, tense, game of cat and mouse, or mice, Alex thought, as they did their best to elude their pursuers. As Burrows took a series of quick left turns until they were suddenly accessing the freeway, going south.

There was still a fair amount of traffic and he ducked between two semis and slowed his speed to match. Up ahead, Burrows did the same and he waited for whoever was chasing them to catch up.

They didn't, but it took fifteen minutes before he felt his shoulders relax and another ten before Michael stopped staring at his side view mirror.

At the twenty-minute mark, he sighed and looked over at Michael. His hair was a bit longer and he hadn’t shaved in a few days, but he looked the same. Tired, but the same. “So.”

Michael smiled back at him. “So.”

He grinned and turned back to the road. The last forty minutes were catching up to him. His head hurt, his leg hurt.

“I take it you found my messages,” Michael said.

“I found one of them. Here...” He reached inside his pocket and pulled out the damaged crane. “Can you...”

Michael paused, then took it and bent over it, folding and creasing until it was a crane once more. He handed it gravely back. “Do you want to go first or should I?”

Alex sat the crane in the cupholder and shrugged. “I choose you, Michael.”

Michael leaned back in his seat. With a voice that eventually grew hoarse, he told Alex what they'd been up to the past five days. By the time he was finished, they’d reached San Rafael.

Alex nodded to the blue highway sign saying that they were minutes away from gas, food and lodging. “Where to now?”

“We’re going to stop south of San Rafael to make sure everyone is all right, then we’re driving straight through to L.A. I can help drive.”

Alex nodded.

“What’s wrong with your leg?” Michael said, still staring straight ahead.

And Alex had to smile—even though they’d only been apart less than a week, he’d forgotten how observant Michael was. “Nothing. Just a little run-in with a certain someone.”

Michael cocked his head. “Wyatt?”

He nodded and his smile broadened.

“What’s so funny?” Michael asked with a frown.

“As bizarre as it might seem, Michael, I missed you.”

Michael didn’t say anything for a long moment and Alex’s stomach twisted. He shouldn’t have said anything—he’d fucked it up by stepping too close to Michael’s precious boundaries.

“I missed you, too,” Michael finally muttered, still speaking to the windshield.

Alex wanted to do something like touch Michael on the arm because he knew how hard that had been, how much Michael felt he was giving up by admitting that he missed the man he’d once despised, but he kept his hands to himself. He wasn’t sure what he was doing and he didn’t want to push until Michael pushed back.

“Something’s wrong,” Michael said suddenly. He peered through the glass and pointed. Ahead, Burrows had signaled and was switching lanes until he was right in front of them.

“There’s Sucre,” Michael nodded to the SUV that swooped in front of Burrows. He got out his phone and punched a number. “Hey, what’s up?” There was a pause, then he sighed and said, “You’ve got to be— All right, yeah. We’ll follow you.”

“Is he okay?” Alex asked as Michael snapped the phone shut.

“Roland needs something to eat. His blood sugar, he says, is too low.”

“Roland,” he said with a sigh. That was one person he hadn’t missed. Michael snorted they shared a look of mutual irritation.

One, two, three, they all exited at the next ramp, then drove around until they found a MacDonald’s. The restaurant was closed, but the drive-through was still open, and again, one by one, they lined up.

He turned to Michael. “Are you hungry?”

“No, but I should eat. We won’t be stopping for a while.”

His words reminded Alex of that second job, weeks ago now, when he’d played the chauffeur and Michael the wealthy young businessman.

What would’ve happened if he’d driven to some secluded spot and asked Michael if he could join him in the back? Back then, he’d probably just get a steely-eyed glare or a fuck you, Mahone. He wasn’t sure what he’d get now, wasn’t sure if things had changed all that much.

“You’re thinking of that night, at the museum.”

He nodded. “Yes.”

Michael looked over and paused before saying, “Me, too.”

The cars ahead moved and Alex stepped on the gas and pulled up to the speaker. His stomach had knotted up again, and he had to swallow before he could say, “I guess that’s something we need to talk about.”

Michael ignored him and leaned across to give his order,  one hand on Alex’s shoulder, the other on his thigh. Alex could feel his heat even through his jacket like it was a brand, burning him up. “You go from zero to sixty in two seconds, don’t you, Michael,” he whispered into Michael’s ear, too soft for the attendant to hear.

“Not usually,” Michael countered, just as soft. He sat back with a little shrug.

When they pulled up to the window, he had to endure Michael again, leaning over to pay and he thought, I’ll get you for this, one way or another. Michael, he decided as he took the bag of food and pulled away, had a distinctly odd sense of timing.

The other men were waiting for them in the middle of the dark lot and when Alex got out of the car, Sucre came up and gave him a hug. “Man, am I glad to see you. You saved Roland’s ass, and that’s for sure.”

“You sure did. I thought he was a goner,” Bellick said as he shoved past Sucre and held out his hand “It’s good to see you, Mahone.”

Burrows was busy unwrapping his hamburger but he gave Alex a stiff nod and muttered, “I take it Wyatt isn’t an issue any more?”

He leaned against the SUV and sipped his Coke. “He is not.”

“Good,” was all Burrows said, but his face lightened a fraction and Michael, leaning next to Alex, smiled.

he shook his head and waited for Roland to jump him. He didn’t—he leaned against the car and drank his soda, still chalk white. Alex had thought he’d been shot but there was no blood that he could see—he must have banged it against something.

The thought reminded him of his own wound and he eased up on the bad leg. Michael noticed of course, but didn’t say anything.

They ate quickly. Michael held out the bag for the trash and tossed it into the SUV. “So, everyone all right to drive straight through?” Burrows and Sucre nodded. Roland was out of it, still propped up against the car.

Michael turned to Alex and asked, “Do you want me to drive?”

Alex tossed him the keys without answering. Burrows exchanged a long look with Michael that he didn’t have any trouble deciphering: Watch your back. Alex responded with a silent fuck you, Burrows, and they got in.

Michael was quiet as he followed the other cars out. They were back on the freeway when he said, “Linc is wrong about you.”

“Not completely, Michael.”

Michael squeezed the steering wheel and bit out, “Is that supposed to comfort me, Alex?”

“No, just re—”

“Would you ever hurt me, now?” Michael broke in.

He wanted to say yes, because if Michael was giving up something just by treating him like a human being, then he was giving up something as well. But he wasn’t ready to name his sacrifice and he didn’t want to hurt Michael, so he settled for a simple, “No.”

Michael relaxed and shrugged. “Then we’re even. Tell me about Wyatt.”

With a smile he couldn’t keep from showing, he made himself comfortable and began to tell Michael what had happened the day they’d split up.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

seven.

It was almost two in the morning when Michael’s cell rang. He answered quietly—Alex was slumped against the door, sound asleep. “Yeah?”

Linc growled out, “Roland wants to stop for the night so he can make sure the card is okay. He dropped the reader back in Santa Rosa, something I didn’t know about until now.” He sounded like he was one inch from smashing something. “He’s been asking the last twenty minutes, over and over. I swear, Michael—”

He cut in before Linc could vocalize his threats and really freak Roland out, “Okay, okay. We’re almost to San Luis Obispo, right? Have Roland look for a motel.”

There was a pause, then Linc came back on, “He says that’s too far. He says we need to stop now in case we have to go back.”

“Why would we go back if we have the card?”

“Like I know that? Michael, I’m not kid—”

“All right.” He rubbed his eyes. “We’re coming up to a couple small towns. See if he can find a motel in any of them. And Linc, make sure he finds someplace that’s actually open.”

Linc hung up without saying goodbye. He wanted to squeeze the phone until it snapped in two, so he made himself put it gently away. As he was pocketing it, he saw the little crane, still standing in the center of the cup-holder. He picked it up.

He was pretty sure he knew why Alex had held onto the little paper bird, why he’d had asked him to refold it instead of just throwing it away.

He put the crane back down. He didn’t want to think about Alex’s reasons. Or his own for that matter. He was running blind with no plan or scheme on this one and he couldn’t make himself stop. It wasn’t a pleasant thought and he was almost grateful when his cell rang again. “Yeah?”

“Roland wants to know how many rooms you want.”

“Three,” Michael said, without thinking about it.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he said evenly. “Mahone’s leg is messed up. He’ll need his own—”

“All right, but he pays for his room,” Linc interrupted, and hung up, again without saying goodbye. He flipped the phone closed again.

“You’re a very good liar,” Alex muttered. He turned on his side and ran his hand through his hair, making it stand up in spikes.

“Yes, I am.”

Alex smiled in mock sweetness. “To my benefit this time, so I’m fine with it.” He closed his eyes again and fell back asleep.

Michael pressed his lips together. They were like tinder and spark, always on the edge of a conflagration. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, he thought, as he remembered how it had felt, leaning over Alex back at the MacDonald’s. And Alex, he might put on a cool facade, but he hadn’t been able to hide his response to Michael’s blatant advance. Michael had heard it, the catch in his breath, the way his voice grew hoarse with lust.

The phone rang again and Michael answered with a sigh, “Yeah?”

“We’re going to the Valley Vista motel.” Linc said. “Roland wasn’t able to get connecting rooms. We’ll be there in five minutes. I’m not sharing a room with him.” He hung up before Michael could say a word and he said a silent prayer that Linc wouldn’t kill Roland in the next four minutes. That would really screw things up.

***

It took them ten minutes to find the motel and another fifteen to check in. Linc gestured to stay in the car and stomped off to the office with Bellick in tow. Michael waited in the car and tried not to watch Alex sleep.

Just when he’d decided to get out to see what was taking so long, Linc came striding out. He got out of the car and held his hand up for a key, but Linc stomped past him without a word.

Bellick came over and grinned. “Roland’s driving your brother crazy.” He handed Michael two keys. “How are we going to split up?”

“Do you guys have a double?”

“We all have luxury, travel-size, comfort mattresses, whatever that means.”

“It means doubles,” Michael said dryly. “Can you and Sucre share, just for tonight?”

Bellick shrugged. “Yeah, we’ve done it before. I don’t care.”

“I’ll stay with Linc, and Mahone can have a room to himself.”

Bellick peered inside the car. “Is he okay?”

“I think so.”

“Well, let me know if you need anything.” He cuffed Michael’s shoulder and hurried to catch up with the others.

He leaned in and reached for Alex’s arm but before he could touch, Alex stirred and muttered, “I’m awake.” He sat up and ran his hands over his face. “Where are we?”

“Gilroy.”

Alex nodded and crawled out of the car. He got his bag and followed Michael to the room. His limp was worse than before and Michael wondered again what had happened. Alex’s story had been fairly bald and had left out any injuries.

Well, he was going to find out. He was tired of half-truths and lies. His own included. He handed Alex a key and said, “I’m staying with Linc. You’re down there.” He nodded to the end of the row.

He got his bag out of Linc’s SUV and stopped when Alex said quietly, “Michael...”

He didn’t turn. He couldn’t. “I’ll be by later.” He locked the door and didn’t wait for Alex’s response.

Like the day before, Linc was already in the shower, and Michael had to wait.. he dropped his bag on the chair and turned in a restless circle. He couldn’t decide what to do. He knew what he wanted to do, but if he just left and broke into Alex’s room and pushed him onto the bed, well, that would be pretty stupid—no matter how far he’d gone down this fork in his path, he was still on the job. But afterwards...

He sat down on the bed with a sigh and waited.

When Linc came out, he was ready. He nodded and changed places with him. The water was still plenty hot and it felt so good he almost moaned. It had been three days since he’d last showered, two since he’d last shaved. He unwrapped the tiny packet of soap and washed carefully, not even bothering to pretend he wasn’t doing it for Alex. He shaved the same way, quietly focused with an underlying anticipation of what was to come.

Linc was staring moodily at the TV when Michael came out. He glanced up briefly, then muttered. “I tried to get in touch with LJ.”

He sorted through his clothes, looking for the cleanest. “And?”

“No answer. And I can’t get hold of Sofia, either.”

“There could be a dozen reasons why.” He pulled on jeans and a t-shirt.

Linc frowned and turned off the TV. “Don’t you think I know that, Michael?” He stood up and picked up a key. “I’m going to see what Roland’s found. See you there.”

He finished dressing and followed slowly.

When he got to the other room, Bellick let him—he jerked his head to where Linc and Sucre hovered over Roland, watching him work.

He didn’t have to ask if the card was viable; he could tell by Roland’s happy face that everything was fine. He stood behind the others and watched the figures scroll by in an endless, unrecognizable pattern, and wondered how long he’d have to wait before he could go see Alex.

He could follow Linc back to the room and watch him growl at the TV for the rest of the night or he could just do what he wanted. For once. “I’m going check on Mahone,” he announced abruptly.

Everyone turned to look except Linc. He just crossed his arms and said, still with his back turned, “You can’t trust him, Michael. And you can’t fix him.”

Sucre and Bellick looked at each other, obviously confused by the remark. Michael answered, just as quiet, just as resolute, “Yes, I can.” He left before Linc could argue.

He was at Alex’s room in a heartbeat—when he tried the knob it turned easily and he decided he’d take that as a sign that he was expected, not that Alex was getting sloppy.

The room was a mirror image of his—beds on the right, bathroom in the back. Alex was face down on the bed. Michael thought he was asleep, but as soon as he shut the door, Alex rolled over. “Hey.”

“Let me see it.”

Alex smiled silkily. “Why Michael, I’m not sure we know each other that well.”

“Alex, don’t mess with me right now.” He locked and bolted the door.

Alex’s smile died. “Is it the card?”

“The card’s fine.”

“Then it’s your brother.” Alex began to take off his jeans.

He didn’t bother answering. It should be sexy, watching Alex undress—it wasn’t. Linc’s comment had set him on edge and his doubts had tumbled back. He reminded himself what Alex had done to prove himself, what he’d said not two hours ago. At some point Michael was just going to have to trust, and that was something he almost never did.

Alex had pushed his jeans down to his thighs—he lay back and looked up. “You want to lend me a hand?” he murmured, and, yeah, thought Michael as he bent to help, that was pretty sexy. So were Alex’s black boxers and long, long legs.

What wasn’t was the bandage that covered the lower half of his right calf. It was fairly clean on the front, but when Alex turned over, he could see the back was brown and red where blood had seeped through. He clenched his jaw and asked, “What happened?”

Alex gave a little laugh and laid his head down on his folded arms. “I didn’t tell you about the fire, did I?”

He jerked his head up. “There was a fire in Palm Springs.”

“Yes.”

“Started by you?”

“Started by Wyatt.”

He shook his head and muttered, “Asshole.” He touched the edge of the bandage. “What can I do?”

“I need to wash it and let it breathe and I’ve got more ointment in my bag. There’s a knife in my pocket in case the bandage is stuck.”

“Let’s make this easy.” He grabbed Alex’s pants and bag and led the way to the bathroom. “Sit down; I need to wash my hands.”

Alex perched on the edge of the tub. He was wearing a black button-up and the tails covered his shorts, making it look like he wasn’t wearing anything but the shirt. Michael cleared his throat, hunting for something to say, finally coming up with a bland, “So Wyatt started the fire that took out all those homes, huh?”

Alex nodded to the floor.

“Are you going to tell Self?”

Alex looked up at Michael and squinted. “Not sure. What do you think?”

Michael raised an eyebrow, then smirked gently. “Agent Mahone asking my advice? Will wonders never cease.” Then, before Alex could get pissed about it, he said, “I think Self is going to blow a gasket, but no one died and he won’t be able to do anything about it without everything else coming out, right?”

Alex nodded. “My thoughts exactly.”

He finished drying his hands. He knelt in front of Alex and they looked at each other. “This wasn’t exactly what I thought I’d be doing right about now.”

Alex touched his shoulder. “Listen, Michael, if—”

“No, it’s fine. I was just making a bad joke. Okay,” he took a deep breath, “what do I do?”

Alex twisted so the bad leg was in the tub and said, “Let’s see what it looks like first.” He found the end of the bandage and began to unwind it. He’d only managed a short length when the gauze began to pull. He hissed. Michael gave him the knife and he carefully cut down the front.

He thought the bandage had stuck to the wound, but it hadn’t. The layers of gauze were simply glued together with dried blood and when Alex cut them off, the whole thing fell into the tub. He swallowed—the wound was at once worse and better than he’d imagined. The flesh had been scored raw in the center, but the outer edges were pink and already healing. He grinned up at Alex and said, “I’ve seen worse,” just so he could get a sarcastic smile in return. “What’s next?”

“I need a shower, but that’ll hurt like a son of a bitch. I’ve got a bottle of hydrogen peroxide in my bag. Just use that and I’ll shower in the morning.”

“Maybe I can find some plastic to keep the bandage from getting wet,” he said. He rooted through Alex’s bag and found the bottle. He held it up. “You might want to hold onto something.”

“I have done this before, Michael,” Alex said dryly. He propped his leg on the tub’s opposite edge and nodded firmly. Still, when Michael poured the peroxide over his leg, he grabbed his own thigh and Michael’s shoulder and moaned, “Shit.”

Michael waited for the peroxide to stop bubbling, then poured more, just to be sure. Alex was bent over, gritting his teeth and panting by the time Michael was satisfied that he’d got it all.

The bandaging was fairly simply since Alex let him do most of it. He also let Michael help him up and over to the bed where he threw himself down with a grunt. “Michael,” he said, his face pressed into the covers, “don’t ever, ever go into nursing.”

He grinned. “Hadn’t planned on it.” He went back to the bathroom and cleaned up, throwing all the bandages and even the hand towel in a plastic bag. He doubted anyone was on their tail, but it would be stupid, leaving DNA evidence behind.

When he’d finished, Alex was on his side, watching the news. “Anything?”

“Nothing on the burglary. Just more about the fire.” Alex tossed the remote on the nightstand and looked back at Michael.

“Are you feeling guilty?” he asked lightly. Even if he hadn’t started the blaze and even though he wasn’t Catholic, he’d have gone to confession at least three times already.

“You know I don’t do guilt, Michael,” Alex said absently.

He nodded, not really listening. Alex's expression had changed and he was staring at him the same way he had back in Chicago, that first time in the elevator—head cocked, curious and wondering and just like that, Michael’s palms started to sweat. He rubbed his hands together and stopped himself from backing away.

Alex turned over, twisting his upper body around, arm out, palm up. He should have looked ridiculous, bent sideways like that but he didn’t; he looked open and predatory and hot. Michael’s heart jerked and he licked his lips.

Alex closed his eyes halfway, speculatively, and murmured, “If I had asked you back in L.A. when I was the fake chauffeur and you were the fake playboy, would you’ve let me get in the back with you?”

“Fake wealthy young businessman,” he corrected through a throat that was suddenly as dry as sand. He wanted to say no, I never would’ve let you touch me, because he wouldn’t have, but that day seemed so long ago and he’d changed, so he lied and whispered, “Yes.”

Alex crooked two fingers. “Michael.”

But he was already there. He didn’t speak or waste time. He crawled onto the bed and brushed his lips over Alex’s. The kiss was too short, too hesitant, and he took another, pressing firmly until Alex opened up and let him in.

His world stilled, then jerked forward again at that first kiss, at the way Alex pulled back and tipped his head to get a better angle, the way he moaned into Michael’s mouth when Michael shifted on top and began kissing him in earnest.

The mind could be such a fucked up, confused thing, he thought, as Alex ran his hands over his back and down to his ass. How was he supposed to know this was something he’d always craved, this push and pull of like mind, like body? He wished he’d been a little more self-aware, a little more in tune with his own self. But then, he never had the time. His formative years were so messed up and—

Alex tightened his arms and wrapped his good leg around the back of his thigh. “Michael?”

“Yeah?” And what about Alex? Was he right now wondering the same thing or was he thinking about the wife and son he no longer had. Was he going to regret this in the morn—

Alex hugged him so fierce it hurt. “Michael, you’re thinking too hard. Let go.”

He took a deep breath and then another, and on the second inhale, he gave in, gave up, and let go. “What would you have done to me?” he said in his sexiest voice.

Alex smiled. “If I had gotten into the back seat with you?”

And that’s what he loved about Alex—always on the same page, always in sync. “Yeah.”

“I would have slid in.”

“Yeah?”

“And I would have asked you what you wanted.”

“And I would have told you to take off my clothes.”

Alex licked his lower lip. “Yes.”

“But you would’ve said no. You would have said, ‘Do it yourself, sir.’”

“Michael.”

“Yeah?”

“Take off your clothes for me.”

Michael squeezed his eyes shut until he got his body under control and then he pushed away to stand by the bed. With an audacity encouraged by Alex’s appreciative stare, he stripped.

It wasn’t anything he’d done before and he was clumsy at first. Alex didn’t seem to mind. He followed Michael’s every move with a sharp, hungry gaze that stuttered every now and then. It took him a moment to realize that Alex was recreating the tattoos—from chest to bicep to forearm and back again. Even the line at his belly where the tattoo had ended, and he wondered for the first time if Alex would have liked to see them, touch them.

He took another deep, deep breath—the thought of Alex tracing his fingers over the removed black ink was hotter than it should be and he hurriedly kicked out of his jeans and shorts, then straightened slowly and held out his arms, displaying himself.

Alex swallowed and closed his eyes. “Michael—you’re going to give me a heart attack.”

He smiled. “Not what I had planned.”

“You and your plans.” But Alex opened his eyes and swung his legs to the floor. His shirt had fallen open and his cock was stiff inside his black briefs. He held his arms up and ordered, “Come here.”

It was an odd moment—long enough for Michael to watch himself move into Alex’s hands, slow enough that all he had time for was a fervent, ‘Oh, Christ,’ and then Alex was kissing his chest, his nipples, his belly, seemingly everywhere at once.

His heart raced and he had to grab hold of Alex’s shoulders because his knees went weak, just like the books said would happen only it never had, not for him. “Alex?”

“What?” Alex had moved on to his hip and was exploring with single-minded enthusiasm.

“I want to fuck you—will you let me?”

It sounded shockingly dirty, even to him, and Alex bit his hipbone and then said quickly, “Sorry. I’m sorry.” He nuzzled Michael’s hip in apology and shook his head. “But, Jesus,—zero to sixty, that’s you. Yeah, later, I promise, I—” And he hunched over and kissed Michael’s cock, and Michael really did fall, then.

Alex took the brunt. He dropped back to the bed with Michael on top, then stroked again and again, making his hand a living ring for Michael to thrust into.

It was a clumsy position, half on the bed, half off, but he didn’t care—there was a roaring in his ears that drowned out everything except Alex’s, “That’s right, that’s it, c’mon— I’ve got you—” the pressure and heat too much—he tumbled with a soft cry even as he tried to hold on.

He didn’t pass out or drift off. He waited a moment for his heart to quit hammering, waited until his breath slowed down, and then he got up. With a quiet, “Here, let me—” he tugged Alex’s briefs off and pushed him further up on the bed.

Alex said nothing—he lay there, his arms outstretched above his head, unusually passive. Michael swallowed—his mouth was suddenly starved and he wanted to do this right. He moved down, nudging Alex’s legs apart with his shoulders until he was cradled between Alex’s spread thighs. He looked up.

Alex came alive then, and he wrapped his good leg around Michael’s back, grabbed the ugly comforter and fisted it rhythmically. “Michael—” and that’s what he was waiting for. He stroked the crown of Alex’s cock with his chin then guided it into his empty mouth.

And yeah, inexperience meant nothing, because Alex gasped and clutched like he was giving him the best blowjob in the history of the world. He tried to say something, tried to pull, tried to push, but Michael grabbed his ass and took him as deep as he dared. Alex came quickly, almost choking Michael with his last thrust, shaking, not breathing.

He held on until Alex fell back, limbs splayed everywhere. He only moved when Alex touched his head gently, then pushed him away. He kissed the good side of his bad leg, then crawled up and fell next to him, exhausted.

Eventually, the outside world returned.

A commercial announced that there was an out -of-this-world sale on used cars at Ray’s Clean Autos in Goleta. A man in the next room coughed deeply, then coughed again. He hoped they hadn't been too loud but wasn’t too worried about it—the TV should have covered most of the noises.

It was maybe ten minutes before he found the energy to get up and go to the bathroom. He rinsed out his mouth and splashed water on his face. He was turning back to the room when he caught sight of himself in the mirror.

He switched on the light and raised his eyebrow at his own expression, surprised by what he saw: calm composure, a very faint happiness. He touched the red bruise on his collarbone and the one on his hip. He smiled again and shook his head—Alex and his sharp teeth. Then he went back to the room and paused at the foot of the bed.

Alex was still on his back, eyes closed. He wasn’t smiling but there was an air of quiet satisfaction on his face that Michael hadn’t seen before. It changed him, made him more beautiful, more distant.

He crossed his arms. This had always been the awkward part. He never knew what to do with his arms and legs, never knew if he was holding on too tight, never knew if he should stay or go.

He needn’t have worried. Alex cracked one eye open and whispered hoarsely, “Wait a minute,” then moved over. He dragged the comforter and sheet from under him and held them up. Michael got in.

As if they’d been sleeping together for years, he turned on his side and Alex moved up behind him, pulling him in, holding on with his entire body.

He shifted back and shut his eyes, tight. This was another thing he hadn’t known about himself—that being held by the man he’d once despised, that he’d run so far from, could be so sweetly gratifying.

He was truly fucked up.

That didn’t stop him from remaining motionless until Alex fell asleep. It didn’t stop him from turning over so he could trace his features with curious fingers, wondering how many people had seen him this relaxed. Only a handful, maybe only Pam. And the thought of her, of what she’d meant to Alex was no longer a neutral subject, no longer unbiased—already a small seed of jealousy had taken root deep inside his chest.

It was four in the morning when he managed to drag himself away from Alex and the warm bed. He checked Alex’s bandage to make sure it was okay, then got dressed. He paused to leave a note, then didn’t. He didn’t know what to say and he’d be seeing Alex in a few hours, anyway.

When he got back to his room, Linc woke up but refused to talk or even look at him. With a sigh, he undressed and crawled into his bed. He turned on his back to stare at the ceiling, trying not to think of Alex, just doors away.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

eight.

In the end, the wrap-up was as Self said it would be. Two days after the Santa Rosa job, the team delivered the complete card and they had their freedom. Self came by with the packets that contained their release documents and that was that.

It was almost funny, Alex thought, from his perch by the copy machine, watching as the crew got the news that they were free to go their own ways. They’d each be getting their own personal parole officer who would make their lives hell if they strayed again, but they could walk out the big warehouse doors and never look back and no one would care.

They stood around, shocked, almost disappointed.

As for himself, he couldn’t quite figure out what he felt. Relief because the Company was finally going down and that he, finally, was a free man. Confusion because what the hell was he going to do with himself now?

Mostly he felt nothing. He knew a part of him was in limbo, waiting to see what Michael did next. It was foolish and dangerously romantic, but he couldn’t help it. Just another thing beyond his control, he thought sourly.

“So, that’s it?” Sucre asked as he looked from Self to Michael. “We just go?”

“Yes.” Self nodded. “Inside your packets you’ll find everything you need, including five hundred dollars in cash. I need you to sign a form acknowledging the conditions of your release. Make sure you note that when you step through those doors, I’m no longer responsible for you. Meaning if you get into trouble I won’t lift a finger to help you.”

They all looked at each other again. Sucre came forward and held out his hand. Self shuffled through the envelopes and handed him one. Sucre tore it open and began to read eagerly.

Michael folded his arms and frowned. He had that look on his face that told Alex he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. When Self came over and held out a packet to Alex, he hopped down and took it cautiously.

He exchanged glances with Michael, then turned his back to the group and opened it up. The multi-page form was long and contained a boatload of codicils and conditions, mostly saying that the government in no way shape or form wanted anything to do with Alexander Mahone after he signed below.

He cleared his throat and sat down at the desk in the corner. He hadn’t thought about that, hadn’t thought that as much as he was done with the Bureau, they, apparently were done with him. He glanced over the document again, not seeing the words. He’d been so focused on getting out that he hadn’t, obviously, thought the whole thing through.

He let go of the papers, then rubbed his mouth and swallowed the bitter pressure that was building in his throat.

Someone came to stand before him—it was Michael, holding out his reading glasses. He was standing close enough that he blocked Alex from the rest of the team and he wanted to smile. Trust Michael to read him so thoroughly then try to comfort him by giving him the thing he needed—space, privacy.

He thanked Michael with a small nod and took his glasses. Michael went back to the others and he picked up the documents again. The moment had steadied him—Michael had steadied him—and he was able to read through the dry, impersonal copy, then sign with a calm hand, Alexander Mahone.

He pocketed the money, copied the document—just in case—and handed the original to Self. Self gave him a speculative look as he took the pages and said, “So what now, Alexander?”

Alex raised his eyebrows and laughed a little. “I have no idea.”

“Agent Sullins called me last night. He said he might have some work for you, if you want.”

At the table, Michael and Burrows were reading their documents. Michael raised his head and gave Alex a blank stare.

He shook his head and smirked. “I don’t think Agent Sullins and I... mesh.”

“That’s what he said. He also said to tell you that Agent Lang was looking forward to working with you again, in any capacity.” Self hesitated, then held out his hand and Alex took it.

Michael was still turned towards Alex, only now he was frowning. He strolled over, sat down next to him and took off his glasses. He leaned back, stuck his hands in his pockets and gave Michael a long, steady look. Michael tightened his lips, then nodded shortly and went back to his papers.

There were a lot of things they needed to talk about. One of those things, apparently, was going to be Felicia. It didn’t trouble Alex. The very fact that Michael cared enough to be jealous of someone he didn’t know made Alex feel lightheaded and strange. It had been a while since anyone had felt that much for him.

He waited and watched as one by one as his ex-teammates signed their papers. They came over to shake his hand, but they were distracted, already focused on their own uncertain futures. As he was, only now he had a little more hope that he wasn’t going to stroll off into the sunset alone.

Finally, when they were all gone except for Michael and Burrows,  he said, “Well, gentlemen, I think this calls for a drink. Would you like to join me?”

He expected a yes from Michael and a hell, no, from Burrows. He was more than a little surprised when Burrows stood up and said, “A drink? You mean a fucking shitload of drinks, don’t you, Mahone? I’ll call a taxi.” He got his cell out and strode off to the open door without waiting for an answer.

But Michael didn’t move. He picked up Alex’s glasses and turned them around and around, his long fingers working in typically precise moves. His eyes were unfocussed and blank again, his lips pressed tight together. It was as if he was working out a particularly difficult problem and couldn’t quite see all the elements, all the possible endings.

“What is it?”

“Do you remember our conversation last year.”

“You’ll have to be more—”

Michael broke in, speaking quickly, still not looking up, “The first time we spoke together, when I called you on your wife’s cell.”

Alex stilled. “My ex-wife, but you’re talking about the time when you threatened me and I threatened you? That conversation?”

Michael’s lips thinned in a reluctant smile. “Yes, that one.”

He took the glasses and put them in his pocket. “Is this about control? Or the lack of it?”

Michael looked up. He nodded once.

“You’re wondering what the hell you’re doing because the other night doesn’t seem quite real in the light of day?”

Michael nodded again.

“And you’re wondering how long it’s going to take to come to your senses.”

Michael’s eyes widened. “Yes.”

Alex shook his head, smiling more than a little bitterly. “Welcome to the club, Michael.”

“Is that all?”

“What do you want me to say? That the past doesn’t exist? That we’re not who we were, a year ago? That if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have been thrown into Sona Prison?”

Michael’s face darkened and he made to stand up—Alex grabbed his arm and held him down. “Michael, I don’t know what the hell is going on between us, I really don’t. All I know is that the other night meant something to me. You mean something to me and I want to see where it leads. And for what it’s worth, no, I don’t blame you for Sona. In a fucked up way, it got my head screwed on right.”

He looked into Michael’s eyes, holding his gaze. “Yeah, we have a lot of crap to work through, who doesn’t?

“I think it’s a lot more than ‘a lot of crap,’ Alex.”

“Maybe, but at least I know where I stand with you, and I know what I want. So now it’s your turn—what do you want?”

“I—” Michael glanced at the door. Outside, by the edge of the dock, Burrows stood with the phone still to his ear.

“Michael,” he said gravely, “you’ve spent your whole life living for your brother. Don’t you think it’s time to take something for yourself?”

Michael turned to Alex and his expression changed again, became a little lost. “I’m not any good at relationships, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’ll need to take this slow.”

“I can do slow, and I’m probably worse at relationships than you.” Which was the understatement of the year. They’d never talked about it, but he got the distinct impression that Sara had been Michael’s first and only real romance. He’d had more than a few, and they’d all turned sour—which meant that he should be the cautious one, not Michael. That he wasn’t said a lot about how much he’d changed in the past few months, how much he was willing to risk.

Michael’s face hadn’t cleared. “There are a few things I need to do, Alex. T-Bag is still out there and I was responsible for that.”

“If you’re thinking of hunting him down, your brother will fight you on it.”

“I know.”

He shrugged. Talking Michael out of a plan was always pointless. “What else?”

“I might need to help Linc find LJ and Sofia. He can’t get hold of them.”

“What else?”

Michael flushed, turning his eyes a brilliant blue by contrast. “The other night? It meant something to me as well.”

Alex nodded. The dizziness was back, as if the world was tilting off its access. Or maybe it was just settling back down. Whichever it was, he felt whole and energized and calm, all at once.

He stood up and Michael followed. They walked outside, together.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

nine.

“...and you should see this school. It’s great. It’s got a new basketball court and football field and computers for everyone, but you can’t download anything good.”

Michael switched the phone to his other ear and opened up his filing cabinet. He’d had the folder full of notes on his desk just this morning. “Did you try anyway?”

“Yeah.” LJ’s voice was sheepish and Michael grinned. “Dad found out. The school called him.”

“What did he say?”

“That it was stupid, but it was the law. And Sofia said I could get the school in trouble.”

“Well, I hate to say it, but—”

“They’re right?”

“Yeah.” The folder wasn’t there, either. He closed the drawer and then opened it again when his tie got caught. He hated wearing a suit and tie especially when he was knee deep in the first stages of a design—he always got his sleeves dirty. The partners had insisted though, saying it was only professional. Michael knew it was mostly camouflage, that they were hoping their clients wouldn’t look too closely at the face above the conventional clothing and connect recent events with Griffen+Moffet’s new hire. “It sucks doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, it does.”

He glanced at his watch and began to rifle through the junk on the window ledge. He had twenty minutes before the eleven o’clock meeting and he really needed those notes. “The kids still giving you a hard time?”

“You mean because of my dad? Nah, they’re on someone else now. Both his parents are in jail.”

“Are you—”

“Yeah, I’m sticking up for him, watching out, things like that.”

“Be careful.”

LJ sighed. “You sound like Dad.”

“I just don’t want you to get hurt.” And as soon as the words were out, he knew LJ would laugh, which he did. “You know what I mean.” And there it was, stuck between the McKenzie folder and the most recent issue of Natural Home.

“There’s not much chance of it out here. I wish we could live in the city.”

Michael said nothing. He’d heard that a lot in the past three weeks and LJ said it now by rote more than anything else.

“Sofia let me put up these really cool posters. They’re from Guatemala. I wish you’d come visit sometime.”

And that was another thing he’d been hearing a lot. “I will, sometime, LJ. I’m just really busy.”

“Yeah, that’s what Dad says.”

He could almost see the disbelief in LJ’s voice. He started to protest, then didn’t because it was true and not true. He’d been practically living at the office, only going back to his apartment to shower, sleep, and eat. He’d lied to himself at first, telling himself that it was because he was dedicated and if he couldn’t have the dive shop, he’d do his best at Griffen+Moffet. It was only after the third night of no sleep that he realized he was living in a kind of emotional no-man’s land, waiting for the call that hadn’t come. “What else did he say?”

“That they’re lucky you wanted the job, that they’re lucky to get you so cheap. That you’re lucky to have a job.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I am.” Someone cleared their throat and he swiveled around to find Jim Moffet standing in front of his cubicle, tapping his watch. Asshole. “Listen, I’ve got to go and you—”

“Have math. Like I could forget.”

He scooped up his files and calendar. “I’ll talk to you in a few days, right?”

“Yeah, don’t forget my class is going to the museum on Friday. At nine.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Bye, Uncle Mike.”

“Bye, bud.” He flipped the phone closed. Moffet was waiting impatiently as if he were a half hour late instead of ten minutes early. He got up and headed towards the conference room, using a passing delivery boy as an excuse to push up against Moffet as he walked by.

He grinned, imagining Moffet’s face. It was stupid, but he just couldn’t help himself. Moffet had been playing mind games from the start and it was almost comical, that he tried to intimidate using such juvenile means like dogging his every step, like spreading gossip about Michael’s past.

Because of his position, Moffet knew the juicy details of his incarceration and release, and had made sure the staff knew most it as well. He figured it was because Moffet, for all he was headed towards full partnership, was a sloppy engineer and he'd already caught a handful of serious errors in his plans. Rob Griffen had alluded to the latest in the last eleven o’clock, thanking Michael for his keen eyes. Michael had smiled outwardly and sighed inwardly, knowing the attacks would escalate.

Which they had. Moffet’s latest rumor was that he was into hardcore drugs—one of the building’s delivery crew had tried to buy some coke off him only the day before.

He wasn’t really worried about being fired. Even with his record, his skills made him a catch and there were other companies that would jump at the chance to hire him. But he liked Rob and liked the projects—he just needed to keep his nose clean.

Linc had told him he should just come onto Moffet and freak him out, but Michael laughingly said no. There was something about the way Moffet looked at him—direct and indirect at the same time—that set off about a dozen warning bells. He didn’t want him misconstruing the joke for the real thing—what a fuck-up that would be...

He was loitering outside the glass-walled conference room, waiting for nothing, when his cell rang. He checked his watch—he was still early so he took the call, mostly to annoy Moffet who was now chatting with another employee but still watching him. “Scofield.” There was a pause and an indrawn breath and his heart jerked awake. He took a steadying breath and murmured, “Alex.”

“Hey.”

He walked over to the window and looked down at the river far below. “Hey.”

“Is this a bad time?”

“Sort of." He wanted to lay his cheek against the cool glass—he felt like he was burning up. "I’ve got a few minutes. Where are you?”

“At the airport. I was going to come by your office, but I— You know.”

“Yeah.”

There was another pause. He looked at his watch again—he had four minutes. “You got T-Bag?”

“A week ago.”

“There was nothing about in the news.” He knew he was whining—he didn’t care. He hadn’t wanted to stand on the sidelines for this one, but Alex had forced the issue by simply leaving the day after they got back to Chicago. He called two days later from L.A., telling him that he was working with the FBI and the Mexican government to hunt T-Bag down and that he’d keep in touch. Which he hadn’t.

“That was at my request. He raped and murdered an eight-year old boy in Louisiana and I was trying to protect the family. It’ll get out eventually, but for now—”

Michael ran his hand over his head. “Christ.”

“Do you need me to say it wasn’t your fault?”

“Do you need me to say that it was?” Alex sighed audibly and Michael changed the subject. He didn’t want to argue, not now. “Are you staying? In Chicago, I mean.”

“That depends.”

He didn’t have to ask what it depended on. “I usually leave around six or seven. Where will you be?”

“At the house in Oak Park. You know where.”

He quickly looked around. There was no one within hearing range. “The house with Oscar Shales?”

“He’s not there anymore, Michael,” Alex said dryly, “and I’m assuming I don’t have to tell you why.”

His stomach tightened, but he remembered Alex’s comment of a month ago, about coming to his senses. He didn’t hang up. It was too late for that. “I can be there by nine.”

“No, earlier. And Michael, bring a change of clothes for tomorrow.”

Heat pooled low in Michael’s belly. “Alex—”

“Be early. I’ll be waiting.”

“All right.” Michael hung up without another word. He took another steadying breath and turned. Jim was by the door, his thin lips twisted with suspicion. He probably thought it was Michael’s probation officer. Either that or his dealer.

He turned off the phone and pocketed it. He gave Moffet a fake smile and brushed past him on his way into the conference room.

***

For a Wednesday, the traffic was heavy and slow. Michael reminded himself that ten miles over the speed limit was pretty good. That he’d waited twenty-three days and another hour wasn’t going to kill him. Then he ignored his own advice and ducked around a woman in a mini-van.

He’d managed to be out of the office by five and at the apartment by five-twenty. He showered, changed, and threw some clothes into his bag and was back on the road by five-forty.

He hoped he’d packed something suitable because now that he was ten minutes away from Oak Park, he couldn’t remember what he’d picked. Oh, well—if he didn’t have anything to wear, he’d just leave a little early in the morning.

The thought of what he might be doing in the morning ratcheted up his nerves and he stepped on the gas.

When he got to Bleecker Street, he turned left and slowed down. It was a pretty neighborhood, lined with oaks and maples that were probably as old as the houses. Here and there a few kids played, some on the sidewalk, some in the yards.

He pulled up in front of 5002, cut the engine, then leaned over and peered up through the passenger-side window.

Like the others, Alex’s house was picturesquely innocuous with its conservative blue paint and white trim. The only difference was that the lawn and bushes were out of control and there was a general air of neglect.

He left his bags in the SUV and got out. He didn’t recognize any of the cars on the street. Alex probably had his in the garage or maybe he sold it. Or maybe it was sold for him, when he was incarcerated.

He put his hands on his hips and looked around. Two houses down, an elderly woman was staring at him. She wore a straw hat with a bright yellow flower on the crown. She held a spade in one hand and an uprooted plant in the other. He waved cheerily and she, reluctantly, waved back.

He made himself stroll up the front walk, conscious of her suspicious eyes the entire time, wondering what she would think if she knew what had been buried in Alex’s garden.

He was still smirking when he pushed the doorbell. And then he wasn’t smirking anymore—the door opened and Alex was standing there.

He’d gotten his hair cut, was Michael’s first thought. He’d gotten his hair cut and he was wearing a beat-up black t-shirt that matched his beat-up jeans. He had a dark swipe of dirt or grease on his cheek and a rag in his hand and he looked so fucking good that Michael’s mouth went dry.

Alex pushed the screen door open with his fingertips and Michael entered the dark foyer. He didn’t get a chance to look around—he turned to make a comment about the neighbor and Alex dropped the rag and slammed him up against the door, arm tight to his throat, mouth working as if they were on the wrong side of each other again. “Michael—” was all he got out and they dove in at the same time.

It almost hurt, the kiss, because it had been too long, because Alex tasted so good. In twenty-three days he'd forgotten the little things, like how it felt to kiss someone his own height. Like how strong Alex was, arms and hands pulling him in with such easy force.

Drunk with the need for skin and heat, he grabbed Alex’s shirt and jerked. It ripped or he thought it did, so he did it again because the little violence matched the escalating delight in his chest, because it meant he was one step closer to getting Alex naked.

Alex dragged him back without once taking his mouth away. “Upstairs,’ he whispered, but Michael made a noise that he knew he’d be embarrassed about later and Alex relented.

“Okay, here.” Alex murmured and pushed him back again, pressing him into the hard door, parting his legs with one knee. “Here is good.” He palmed Michael’s cock through his jeans and squeezed. He arched back, hitting his head against the door.

He ignored the pain—he was too busy reaching for Alex’s jeans, fumbling because he couldn’t seem to make his fingers work.

When he got the buttons unfastened, he slipped his eager hand in and found Alex’s cock, warm and moist. He had a lightning quick thought about getting naked, but Alex slid and thrust into his hand. “Michael,” he said again, and Michael remembered that, remembered the low sexy sound of Alex wanting, Alex desperate.

So, he forgot about getting naked, forgot about anything but Alex, finally here, in his arms. He stroked and gasped and thrust, and everything went crazy from there.

***

They’d fallen into each other, were still catching their breaths  when a muted roar started up outside. “That’s Mrs. Hendrickson,” Alex said into Michael’s neck. “She mows every three days, right at 6:30.”

“Bet everyone loves her.” He stroked the curve Alex’s lower back.

“She’s also the neighborhood spy. Was she out there when you got here?”

He nodded.

“Then it will be all over the block by tomorrow morning.”

He snorted. “That Alex Mahone has a gentleman caller?”

“Something like that.”

“Do you care?”

Alex laughed. “Hell, no. Believe me, they’ve seen worse. Besides, she doesn’t like me and I don’t like her.” He leaned back and stared contentedly at Michael’s mouth.

“Does she know about the garden?” It was a thoughtless question and he regretted it the moment he spoke. Alex didn’t frown or pull away.

“I doubt it. If she did, she would’ve called the authorities a long time ago. She liked Pam. Naturally she blamed me for the divorce.”

He had no answer to something that was only raw honesty, so he rubbed his thumb over the mark on Alex’s cheek. Pam had said that Alex was a neat freak, that he would’ve thrown away any shoes that had gotten scuffed. “What have you been up to?”

“The mower—the damn thing’s broken. Pam used to take care of the lawn, and then I had a service, but they stopped coming.”

“I wonder why,” he said dryly.

“Yeah, well, when you get thrown into jail and stop paying your bills, companies don’t like that.” Alex pushed away and put his hands on the wall, on either side of Michael’s shoulders. His hair was all over the place and he looked happy. “Do you want to clean up?”

“Yeah.”

“Use my bathroom, upstairs. I need to cover the mower in case it rains.” He kissed Michael, long and slow, then pulled away to button his jeans. He wiped his hands on his shirt. So much for being a neat freak, Michael thought with more than a little satisfaction.

He buttoned up his own jeans and started for the stairs, then paused. “Need some help?”

Alex gave his arm a passing caress. “Maybe later.” He walked away, calling out, “There are clean towels in the cabinet.”

Michael watched him go, then went upstairs.

The inside of the house was as conventionally decorated as the out and he wondered if it was Pam’s influence. Most likely, he decided as he tapped a wrought-iron sconce—the house in Colorado had the same feel—clean and tidy with little fuss. Besides, he couldn’t imagine Alex going to the trouble of decorating—just the idea made him grin.

The hallway was lined with pictures in what looked like chronological order. He examined them, stopping about halfway down.

This one was taken in the 60s or 70s if the clothes were any indication—outside in front of a generic wood-sided house, maybe sometime in the spring. The man was wearing plaid pants and the woman, a faded pink dress. They stood stiff and unhappy but the children at their feet were smiling, paying more attention to each other than the camera.

He leaned in and squinted—he couldn’t find any resemblance to Alex, so maybe the girl was Pam. Which wouldn’t make sense because she would have taken the photos with her after the divorce. Once a relationship was over, it was over.

The master bedroom took up the entire end of the east side. There were no mementos on the dressers and the pictures on the walls had been taken down. Michael wasn’t surprised—Alex had probably removed them the minute he got home.

Like the rest of the house, the room was spotless, almost without character—the only anomaly was a book of puzzles on the nightstand. He picked it up.

Typical—Alex had started on the hardest section first and was working backward. He ran his thumb over a dog-eared page—somehow the idea of Alex sitting alone in this quiet house, in this blank room solving his puzzles made his chest hurt. He put the book down and went to wash up.

He showered quickly and didn’t bother with a clean towel—it was ridiculous, after what they’d just done.

He was back downstairs, almost to the kitchen when a phone rang.  He heard Alex answer, “Mahone,” and started to turn around because even he knew that eavesdropping was rude when something made him pause and creep forward.

Alex had his back to the door and was leaning on the countertop, hunched over a telephone book. The room was bright with early evening sun and it streamed through the windows, glancing off his glasses, turning his hair a thick gold.

Whoever was on the other end was a friend—Michael could hear the smile in Alex’s voice when he said, “Hey.” There was a pause and then, “No, I’m fine. The plane was late and I slept all the way, so—”

There was a longer pause. Alex flipped a page. He had a long red mark on the side of his neck—Michael knew he’d made it, but couldn’t remember when—he’d been pretty much out of his mind, twenty minutes ago. Alex shook his head, “I don’t know. It sounds good, but I need to think about it.”

Michael’s conscience got the better of him and he was just turning away to duck back into the living room when Alex said, “Yeah, he’s here.”

He froze.

“Yeah, I will. When are you getting in?”

He patted his pockets—he had his billfold and cell, but his keys were upstairs in the bathroom—he’d taken them out because he kept setting off the automatic alarm in his car and he it was habit, putting them out of arm's reach. He could run for them, though, and be out the door in maybe thirty, forty seconds.

“Okay, yeah. Call first.” Alex hung up, but didn’t close the phone. Without turning around, he asked, “Are you hungry?”

Michael narrowed his eyes and walked into the kitchen. “Who was that?”

Alex didn’t look up. He flipped another page. “Felicia.”

He crossed his arms. Agent Lang. “What did she want?”

“To make sure I wasn’t lying dead by the side of the road. We had a three-day rundown with no sleep. I was thinking pizza or Thai because I forgot to go to the store, but—”

“That’s all?”

Alex shrugged. “Well, we can go out if you—” He stopped abruptly, then straightened and turned. He stared at Michael, blue eyes wide and clear, cell still in his hand. “That’s over, Michael. You’re not a wanted man.”

“I know.”

“And even if you were—” In one swift motion, Alex took off his glasses and tossed them and the phone down. He rubbed his mouth, then strode across the length of the kitchen and back. Michael remembered those quick, restless moves from all the times before, when they were still fugitive and hunter.

Alex shook his head and laughed bitterly. “Michael, I know we’ve had our ups and downs. I know you have trust issues. I know you don’t know me very well,  so I know you’re going to have a hard time believing this, but I don’t fuck someone and then turn on them!”

He was shouting at the end. Michael forced himself not to retreat, wanting to shout back, “That’s what you did to Pam!,” but he settled for a quiet, “The neighbors will hear.”

Fuck the neighbors,” Alex said bluntly. He drew a deep breath, visibly taking a moment to calm down. “Okay, this is the deal, you make the decision here and now—you either trust me or you don’t. It’s a simple as that. Stay or go.”

Michael crossed his arms tighter. It wasn’t simple and he hated ultimatums, but he was already reviewing the situation, reviewing his reaction to the phone call—extreme was too light a word.

Trust, no trust. Stay or go. It was something he’d struggled with for so long. A person didn’t give up a lifetime’s habit overnight on a whim—it wasn’t human nature. But the thought of walking away...

He pressed his lips together and shook his head, this time a little helplessly. He wanted to move forward, but couldn’t seem to make his feet let go of the floor.

Alex sighed and dropped back against the sink. He said, mostly to the floor, “I killed Oscar Shales. I killed David Apolskis. I killed others that you don’t know about and I’ll never tell you about and yes, a part of me will always, always regret their deaths. I will go to my grave regretting their deaths.” He looked up and this time his eyes were bleak and weary. “I need your trust, Michael, but those other things? It’s too late for them and you can’t fix them. I don’t want you to fix them.

Michael drew a sharp breath and his arms uncurled and fell to his sides. Outside, the mower finally shut off and the evening was completely still—no birds, no barking dogs, no children screaming with laughter—it was as if he and Alex were the only things breathing in the whole wide world.

Alex cocked his head and frowned. “What is it?”

“Nothing, just—” He shrugged and tried again, “Linc said the same thing to me a couple months ago. Sort of.”

“About?”

“About fixing you, about trusting you.”

Alex dropped his head and looked at the floor. “And what did you say?”

Michael hesitated. It was strangely difficult, trying to remember not the words, but the sense of determination and belief he’d felt—it had seemed so black and white, back then. No you can’t. Yes I can. He finally said softly, “I said I could. I said I did.”

Alex raised his head and they stared at each other across the distance of five feet, across all the days and miles and events that that had drawn them together, that had pushed them apart. “And what do you think now?”

“That he’s still wrong. That I can trust you. And that,” Michael struggled with the words because this was the hard part, “there’s nothing in you to fix.”

Alex frowned and then he smiled slowly, wryly. “Then you’re a fool, Michael Scofield.” But it was said with a great deal of understanding, affection, and relief.

Michael pushed off his entropy as well as his worry, and walked over in deliberate, measured steps. He reached for Alex’s waist and then his hip and kissed him. Not a kiss of passion or lust, but just...

...a kiss.

“I guess I am,” he murmured into Alex’s mouth.

“So that means, what?”

“That I’ll try.”

“To trust me?”

“And myself.”

Alex pulled him in by the back of his neck and kissed him back, not gentle, not passionless.

He sighed and drew away, angling his head to the side so Alex could get to his jaw, his neck. “What did Lang want?”

“She has a proposal.”

“For you?”

“No, for you.” Alex ran his hands over his back and hugged him in tight. “Later, Michael, I’ll tell you later. I need a shower and then—”

But Michael, already picturing Alex wet and naked, wasn’t listening. He bent them both over the counter, into the patch of evening sun and kissed the words off Alex’s lips.

 

 

fin.