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Teach Me How To Breathe

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"You did okay, Mickey. You tried."

He didn't know why he said it. He knew that the vague words, which, already didn't mean a whole lot, would mean that much less coming from him, but they slipped out in a rushed mumble all the same. He convinced himself it was purely selfish, an obligatory acknowledgement of Mickey's efforts with his brother.
He told himself that he didn't care all that much when he noticed Mickey's hand shaking; a momentary reminder of how out of his depth the kid was, before flexing his jaw and shoving the offending hand into his pocket. He convinced himself he didn't care that Mickey wouldn't meet anyone's eyes these days, only ever fixing them on Ian, as though that's all he could see. Maybe it was. He convinced himself it wasn't gratitude and begrudging respect he was feeling for the guy, who, to the surprise of everyone, himself included, had stuck around for the chaos that was prescription pills and visits to the clinic.

Yet that night, when Mickey slipped outside and realised the steps were occupied, Lip found himself gently reaching out and grabbing his wrist to stop him from leaving. 'Cold' was the only thought he had before he yanked his hand back as though it had been bit and attempted to distract from it by offering up his cigarette. Mickey had observed the whole ordeal with raised eyebrows before cautiously accepting the smoke.

They passed it back and forth, and there, in the dark, with Mickey staring at the ground, it just came out. "It's a lot more than most people would do".

He didn't know why he said it, knew it meant nothing, but Mickey stilled, and his breath hitched, and he looked up slowly and Lip blamed the cigarette on his inability to breathe properly. Mickey's gaze on him was hard and calculating, like it always had been, but the glint in them was unmistakable, even in the dark- tears that he wouldn't let fall. Mickey didn't reply. Lip didn't want to know what he would have said.

It became a regular thing.

~

2 AM reflected blearily at him from the alarm clock near his bed. Stress was gonna be hell on his lungs, he thought to himself as he walked outside in his boxers and a hoodie. Mickey was already sitting down, and only barely glanced up, nodding in acknowledgment and passing Lip the cigarette he was fiddling with. They always shared one, even though the pack was within arms reach. Neither of them ever mentioned it. To anyone else, it would've looked comfortable, but Lip had been finding out new things about Mickey lately. His fingers were tapping out the melody to some old rock song he probably didn't even know he remembered against the cold step. Lip had figured out that Mickey only did that when he was worried; Ian had tossed his pills again.

"When I was fourteen, Monica flushed her pills too", he muttered around the cigarette hanging loosely from his lips.

Fuck. He didn't know when he had lost his brain to mouth filter, and judging from the disgruntled noise beside him and the unimpressed side long glance Mickey was giving him, the guy was wondering the same thing. They never talked. Lip wasn't surprised. He doesn't think he even remembers how Mickey sounds with the amount the guy's spoken lately, other than when he sometimes strains to hear Mickey whispering things to Ian when his brother couldn't sleep. He wanted to hear what Mickey says to get Ian to calm down. He wouldn't admit that though. So they didn't talk. They'd somehow ended up outside together every night for the past two weeks, sure, but they weren't friends. Lip was just committed to nicotine. Yeah, that was it.

His tongue, though, had failed to get the memo, and the words tumbled past his parted lips before he could reach out and pull them back in: "Didn't get out of bed for a month. I think I spent every minute with her, just sitting there, as if wiling her to get up would be enough. Fiona'd look at me with, I don't know, like, pity or something in her eyes. Said I shouldn't hold my breath. I did, though, fuck, probably still am. Sat at the end of that bed every day like a goddamned lap dog, begging her to eat the shit I had stolen from the store that day. Almost got kicked out of school for skipping so much. Then one day, she just disappeared. Came back three days later so strung out she couldn't remember my name. Stopped asking her to take her pills. Couldn't even look at her. Then she left for good. Fuck I shouldn't have stopped trying -"

"You mind shutting the fuck up?". Lip was ripped so violently out of his reverie that he physically flinched, not catching the unmistakeable tremble in Mickey's voice despite its harsh tone, but realising too late that the story couldn't have been easy for him to hear, especially with how bad things were with Ian.

Shit. Shit. What the fuck was that? He could feel his face heating up as he racked his brain trying to find a suitable reason for why he would bear his wounds to Mickey Milkovich of all people at 2 in the goddamn morning. Mickey stood up to go back inside.

"Fuck. Hold on", he said, getting up while berating himself for his moment of vulnerability. The fuck thought it was a good idea to start talking in the first place. Mickey's hand stilled on the door handle and he turned his body slightly so he could fix Lip with a heated glare. Heated and angry, yeah, but noticeably hurt all the same.

Here goes nothing. "I-I meant, shit, I owe you alright? I'd be the first one to bet on you disappearing months ago, but you're here, and you're, fuck, you're helping him so fucking much it's like you being here means we can all breathe properly cause Ian's the fucking safest he's ever been and I'm a shitty brother for not being here so, just, uh, thanks, for not giving up on him, you know, like I did with Monic-" he cut himself off, afraid he over stopped again.

Mickey was watching him silently, head slightly tilted, gnawing on his bottom lip as he assessed the man opposite him. This is what Lip would have seen if he wasn't suddenly finding his shoes so interesting. He needed a drink. One second, two seconds, three.. And finally, when he couldn't stand it any more and was steeling himself to shove past Mickey to get inside because fuck the guy for making him feel like an asshole, Mickey sighed. "Lip," he said, as the other glanced up, which was an issue because now he was staring into Arctic blue eyes that seemed a little too soft, and shit when did they get so close and - "you're a good brother". Mickey opened his mouth to add something else but then seemed to think better of it, and with a slight raise of his hand in a makeshift wave, turned and went inside, grumbling something about Gallaghers and their love for speeches.

Lip stayed outside for a few more minutes, trying his best to figure out why his hands were shaking.

~

They didn't talk the next night, and Lip told himself he didn't care. But when Mickey sat down he had two bottles of beer with him, and he looked a little more at ease, a little more in control, like even though all this other shit was practically drowning him, he could handle this situation. He could handle Lip. And Lip, in turn, felt his breathing evening out.

They stayed until both beers were finished.

~

"You shouldn't blame yourself, you know."

Lip dropped the lighter he had been fiddling with and cursed when it rolled off the step. It was a week after his unexpected outburst, and they had settled into an unspoken routine. 2 AM. Every night. Mickey didn't ask why Lip was awake at that time, and Lip was grateful, so he returned the favour. He'd bring cigarettes, and Micke'd bring beer. Fuck, if anyone had told him a year ago that the most stable part of his life would be nightly smokes with a Milkovich, he would have laughed in their face. Somehow he sensed Mickey thought the same.

He told himself it wasn't really a big deal, wouldn't care if it stopped. He vaguely wondered if his head was so messed up that he needed some semblance, however fleeting and silent, of normal in his life, or if it was just a welcome escape to a world they both so resented these days, but in the end he decided to stop questioning it. It helped him sleep; couldn't be a bad thing.

They hadn't talked since then though, adopting nods as a way of greeting, grunts of acknowledgment when a cigarette or beer was offered, and vague waves as versions of exits. Lip had stopped anticipating conversation and so was lost in thoughts of Helene and her husband when Mickey said it. Barely audible, accompanied with a harsh breath at the end as though he hadn't planned on saying it out loud, but still disrupting the silence. He was so surprised that it took him thirty seconds - fuck you so what if he counted - to stutter through a "w-what?"

Mickey glanced sideways at him then jerked his head back down to where he was fiddling with the label on the beer, and if it wasn't so dark, Lip would have noticed a slight flush creeping up his neck. "All that shit with your mum, just, what you said the other night, about not doing enough, you looked pretty torn up about it so-"

"Couldn't give a shit about my mum even if I tried" he bit out coldly.

Mickey gave him another sidelong look that was both parts unimpressed and uncomfortable. "Good for you, college" he said, not bothering to sound interested, rough voice dripping with sarcasm, then paused, seemingly choosing his words carefully. "Just, wasn't your fault, couldn't have helped anymore than you did. Shouldn't beat yourself up over it." He said it slowly, drawing out each syllable as if he was afraid to let them out of his mouth, afraid he'd regret them. Suddenly, Lip became painfully aware that Mickey had lived his whole life like that, afraid to be who he was and feel what he felt, and the realisation hurt like a punch to the ribs.

"I don't need your pity." He meant to sound intimidating, but it came out defensive.

"Wouldn't waste my time pitying you princess, now shut the fuck up", Mickey scoffed around his cigarette.

They sat in silence for a few minutes before Mickey got up to leave. Walked back up the steps, turned the door handle-

"Mickey?"

"What now Gallagher?" he snapped.

"Thanks", he said as he turned around to look at the dark haired boy.

Pause. Ten seconds. A car backfired in the distance. It dawned on Lip vaguely that he counted time when he was nervous.

"Yeah. Night."

~

"You got a kink for geometry or something?"

"Excuse me?".

Mickey broke eye contact and he dragged his gaze down lazily, stopping to rest on Lip's tattoo. A triangle. Hilarious. It was getting hot again, summer nights becoming almost claustrophobic, so Lip had opted to come outside with nothing but a pair of sweatpants on.

"Anyone ever tell you you're not funny? uh, the guy at the tattoo place had a shtick about it meaning a shit ton of things, ahm the whole truth, love and courage bullshit or was it the good old father, son and holy ghost. Fuck But, uh, I was hooking up with this girl that summer, got drunk one night and started cursing out Frank and Monica, think it was right after they disappeared on one of their benders. The girl was a philosophy major or some shit, all into symbolism, and she drew this small triangle on my chest with a shitty pen while she listened to me talk. Said it meant father, mother and son. Pointed to the top corner of the drawing and said it was me, cause I was smarter or kinder or whatever than the both of them put together. Some ironic and sarcastic fuck you to whoever said all parents deserve respect or some shit. And, uh, I wanted to believe her at the time, so, thought screw it. Why not." He finished, voice shaky, forcing out a small, humourless chuckle.

He flicked the butt of his cigarette unceremoniously on the ground and risked a glance to Mickey, who was watching him silently, head slightly tilted.

"They really did a number on you, huh", Mickey said softly, fixing Lip with an assessing gaze.

It was so blunt, tactless and dismissive, yet at the same time so unforgivingly honest and Mickey-like, that this time, Lip's laugh wasn't forced, instead loud and unapologetic in the wind. He only laughed harder when he saw Mickey's scandalised expression. Then the dark haired boy's mouth twitched slightly and he smiled softly, before letting out a quiet chuckle, then a full blown laugh that rung out into the air and mixed with Lip's.

They laughed because they knew how fucked up the story was, and they also knew that given half the chance he would've gotten the tattoo again, and probably so would Mickey, given the meaning. They laughed because the south side was not only ingrained in their bones it was apparently inked into their skin. It was so bitter, twisted and fucked that all they could do was laugh.

They stayed there for an hour that night. Didn't speak again, but kept stealing glances when the other wasn't looking, with a bemused look on their faces, as though they couldn't believe the situation they were in.

Neither one noticed that they were done with the beer and cigarettes in the first fifteen minutes.

~

"Jacked a car night of my 16th."

"How'd that work out for you, tough guy?", Lip chuckled, blowing out smoke.

"Fuck you. Felt like I won the lottery when i found it. A beat up 90's Cadillac, man, fucking gorgeous. Decided right then and there that I'd get in and I'd never come back here. And I, I just drove." Mickey's eyes held a glint and his voice sounded a little softer on the ears than usual, quieter, and if Lip had analysed it he'd probably make some joke about Mickey wanting to let the memory rest in peace.

"How far'd you get?", Lip questioned, matching Mickey's gentle tone.

"Lake Michigan", Mickey murmured with a small smile as his fingers traced a pattern into the step underneath them. If Lip didn't know any better he'd say it looked suspiciously like the shape of the lake he was talking about. "Just sat there all night. Couldn't see a single wave. It was weird you know, no fucking gunshots, no screaming, felt like I could just sit and just fucking be for a minute. hadn't eaten in a day, I had no clean clothes, had a cracked rib or two - dad's birthday present - don't think I had ever been in more pain. And I don't think I ever felt freer, like my fucking self, ya know?"

"Why the fuck'd you come back?" Lip whispered, curious, desperate even, to know the answer, but scared at the same time.

"Couldn't leave my mum. With him. He'd have killed her." Mickey muttered, leaving out the part where his dad had done just that not a year later.

But Lip knew. Mandy'd told him one night, and he remembered holding her. So he blamed his automatic instincts when he reached out and curled his hand around Mickey's thigh, right above the knee. Mickey froze, staring down at where his leg was heating up, and Lip watched the expressions on his face change as Mickey realised that Lip already knew this story.

The touch lasted no longer than ten seconds, but it felt like enough time to sear the image into his brain before he was roughly shoved away by Mickey who had already started putting his sweatshirt back on.

"I don't need your fucking pity", he snarled at a still frozen Lip as he got up to go inside.

"Wouldn't waste my time pitying you, princess" Lip purred around a smirk, echoing Mickey's words from all those weeks ago.

Mickey paused, raised his eyebrows at Lip and fixed him with an unmoved expression. Then he proceeded to sit back down too forcefully and snatch the cigarette out of Lip's mouth too harshly to put in his own.

But he stayed, so Lip took it as a win.

~

And so they started talking. Slowly, and not much, but Lip realised he probably knew more about Mickey than he did about Mandy, Karen or Amanda put together.
Mickey hated orange. He lost his virginity at fourteen. He was unexpectedly good with numbers. The scar on his left arm was from a bar fight with a homophobic asshole. He could draw. He thumbed the tip of his nose or lower lip when he was frustrated or upset. His eyes wouldn't stay focused on one thing when he was uncomfortable. He was afraid of becoming his father, and hated himself for a thousand different reasons. He found it hard to sleep through the night these days and he hated this place with a vengeance. Mickey wished his kid looked like Ian.

~

Then one night Mickey didn't show, and Lip got drunk on Mickey's favourite beer - which, fuck, he knew now - telling himself he didn't care.
Ian was back on his meds. He tore the skin on his knuckles from punching a wall, and ran his hand under cold water while listening to Ian's breathy moans from the other room. And he told himself he didn't care.

~

"Wasn't graced with your presence last night", Lip said, going for nonchalance and failing miserably.

"Yeah sorry I- uh, well, Ian was feeling better and, he wanted to, you know, so,.." Mickey trailed off with a slightly forced chuckle. "How's your thing with the professor milf going. Sex still as good?" He asked, a teasing lilt to his tone but it sounded slightly off.

"Her name's Helene, jackass" Lip bit out harshly.

"I know, could practically give you a biography at this point with how much I have to listen to you whine about her" Mickey joked with no real edge, gently nudging his side.

"Door's wide open if you don't wanna hear it", Lip snapped, getting up and walking onto the road.

"Damn, Gallagher. Who's dick's up your ass tonight?" Mickey asked, warily and slowly, but still following Lip as he crossed the street.

"Go fuck your self that's who", Lip sneered as he turned a corner, fully intent on getting shitfaced there under the El. "But next time yours is up Ian's ass would you mind putting a gag on it so other people can sleep?" He finished just as he felt a strong hand on his shoulder roughly spin him around.

"The fuck is your problem, college?" Mickey asked, brows furrowed, slightly out of breath and looking extremely put out by the turn his night was taking. Fuck him.

"Just don't need to hear you fucking my brother while he moans like a bitch, that's all." He spat just as Mickey shoved him backwards and his back hit something hard, causing him to huff out a harsh breath.

"Watch yourself.", Mickey growled lowly as he stepped closer to Lip, crowding him against what felt like a brick wall.

"Make me", Lip spat, punctuating ever childish syllable with a shove at Mickey's chest, forcing him backwards.

"Okay, tough guy", Mickey muttered before rearing his fist back. Only he missed because Lip ducked, allowing him to land a swift punch to Mickey's stomach instead, sending the other back on his heels, hunching over. When he straightened up though it was with a glint in his eye and this time, his fist didn't miss, connecting squarely with Lip's jaw, then using Lip's surprise to tackle him to the ground.

They shoved and punched and kicked until they were both panting and groaning in pain, unable to breathe properly.

Then Lip lit a cigarette and passed it to Mickey.

~

Lip got up gingerly and turned to walk back to the house, but a hand, gentler this time somehow, spun him round again.

"That's gonna need stitches", Mickey stated, eyeing the bleeding gash on Lip's cheek for a few seconds before looking down at the ground. "I can do it, if you want or whatever, have a lot of practice", he said with a laugh that said he clearly didn't find the punchline all that funny.

"You got a doctor kink or something, Milkovich?" Lip teased cautiously, lips twitching upwards slightly. Mickey's eyes snapped up, surprised and affronted, straightening defensively before noticing the look on Lip's face. He scoffed and looked away for a second like he was offended. Lip chuckled - he knew better. Mickey was trying not to laugh.

"Lip.. why were you upset?" Mickey asked quietly, hand slipping from Lip's shoulder to rest on his lower arm.

"Just stressed about school", Lip mumbled nonchalantly, refusing to look at Mickey.

Mickey raised a skeptical eyebrow but remained silent.

~

They made their way back to the house, in silence, and just as Lip was about to disappear into his room he heard a cough behind him. He turned back around only to regret it instantly when he realised how close Mickey was standing, and why was he smirki-

"Since we've been divulging information recently, just for the record..", he murmured as he fixed his gaze with Lip's, "Ian wasn't the one getting fucked". Mickey stayed long enough to chuckle a bit at Lip's stunned expression before vanishing into his bedroom and shutting the door.

Lip leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, and fuck he wasn't blushing. It was just godamn hot.

~

Ian broke up with Mickey on a Tuesday.

They all heard the fight. Ian said Mickey didn't owe him anything. Mickey said he loved him. Ian didn't want to take his meds. Mickey didn't think he could stay if he didn't. Ian didn't need to be fixed. Mickey didn't think he could fix him either way. (The last part Mickey didn't say to Ian, but had said to Lip one night after their second beer).

Lip waited on the steps for four hours that night, staring at two unopened bottles of beer, and he realised with a cold laugh that Mickey wouldn't come to the Gallagher house just for him. And he sat there, selfishly hating his brother for making him leave.

~

Lip blamed the alcohol when he kissed Mickey for the first time.

He found Mickey sitting under the El three nights after he moved out of the Gallagher's house; legs stretched out in front of him, back slumped against a wall, scraped up knuckles nursing a bottle of jack. He looked young and fragile, like he might just bruise on the outside if you said the wrong thing. Lip didn't say it out loud, but he admitted to himself that Mickey looked beautiful in his own contradiction.

Lip moved closer warily, but apparently not quietly enough, because Mickey's head shot up in surprise. He assessed the person in front of him for a minute with his head slightly tilted, an odd look on his face, and Lip felt his face heating up under the scrutiny. The fuck was he doing here? Mickey probably hated him and only put up with him for Ian's sake. Fuck he should go.

Then Mickey sighed noncommittally before looking back down. Lip took it as an invite to slump down against the wall.

"Not in the mood for chit chat, Gallagher". His voice was unsteady. Lip told himself it was his imagination.

"Who said I wanna talk to you. I'm just committed to alcohol. Give it here", he muttered, gesturing to the bottle, attempting to ease the unwelcome tension in the air.

All he got for his efforts was a low grunt and the force of the bottle being pressed into his sternum.

Lip managed to last ten minutes before he opened his mouth. "No one blames you, you know".

He received a harsh shove for ruining the silence, but Lip caught a grumbled "the fuck do I care" make its way past Mickey's lips nonetheless.

"Just meant you can still come around or whatever, you know, for a smoke", he said, really wishing he was drunk enough to excuse what he was saying.

Mickey turned to him abruptly then, blurting out, "the fuck is this?". He then snapped his mouth shut and groaned like he regretted saying it.

"The fuck is what?" Lip asked, feigning ignorance. Really he was just trying to buy time.

Mickey's eyebrows climbed dangerously close to his hairline. "This". He gestured between the two of them violently. "What the fuck is this. Why are you her-"

The last part of Mickey's admonishment was swallowed by Lip, who had turned suddenly and crashed his lips against the other's. Mickey let out a muffled grunt but didn't move. It took Lip three seconds to pull back. Not far, just enough to gage Mickey's reaction. The other boy was breathing hard, mouth slightly parted. Lip unknowingly bit his lower lip and Mickey's eyes snapped to follow the action. They were still close enough that Lip could smell the booze rolling off Mickey's tongue. Or was that his. Fuck.

Then Mickey leaned in, slowly, gaze flicking between Lip's eyes and lips until he stopped a mere millimetre away, and stilled.

Lip closed the distance without thinking.

It was slow and deep, the bite of the liquor in sharp contrast to Mickey's pliant lips. The kiss lacked the fervent teenage urgency it probably should have had, but Mickey's hand curled around his neck, and Lip found himself tugging at Mickey's shirt collar to bring him closer, and the actions had an unmistakable air of quiet desperation. The cold air was biting his skin and he felt dizzy, but Mickey caught his lower lip between his teeth and bit down. Hard. No doubt drawing blood. And it felt like an apology. He wanted to call Mickey out on it. But then Mickey sucked his bruised lip back into his mouth and his tongue brushed over the blood. And if Lip was a romantic he would have said it felt like breathing for the first time.

Then Mickey shoved Lip back a little, not hard, but enough. And he felt cold again.

"Mickey I-" God his voice was a mess. Low and husky and exactly how Mickey looked right now, wrecked.

"was the drink. don't worry bout it. won't happen again", Mickey said roughly as he stood up and turned to leave.

Mickey didn't let himself think about how Lip's eyes were crystal clear, and Lip failed to mention that Mickey wasn't slurring his words. Neither acknowledged the still mostly full bottle lying on the ground.

And Lip watched him turn and walk home, not a stumble in his step, and let himself breathe.

~

Lip had stopped expecting Mickey to show, but he didn't stop coming outside every night anyway. It was four nights after the kiss and he was still reeling. He hadn't seen Mickey since then. So it was with a mix of fear and anticipation that he watched Mickey walk up the street and stop at the fence of the Gallagher house. Lip waited for him to sit down but Mickey didn't, just stood there, shifting his weight from foot to foot and looking anywhere but at Lip. He didn't want to come inside, but he didn't wanna say it either.

So the look on his face was one of silent gratitude when Lip got up without a word and gestured for Mickey to lead the way.

And when Lip kissed him again that night on the hood of Mickey's car, and Mickey pulled him closer with a demanding tug of his shirt, there wasn't a drop of alcohol in reach.

And Lip thought breathing should always feel this easy.