South Side Chicago, Illinois
There’s a small house almost under the tracks on South Trumbull Avenue, its paint peeling and joints sagging into the dry earth and wild weeds. The lights are on in the living room, soft yellows and the harsh sound of drunken conversations spilling out into the front yard through the open windows, the sun-bleached curtains barely moving in the still and oppressively humid summer night. The rest of the house is quiet, dark, the doors to the back bedrooms closed after the younger kids were told to go to bed hours ago and they begrudgingly agreed, knowing very well what happens if they ever push their luck and try to argue.
But coming around the back of the house, there’s a small window cracked wide open in hopes to let in whatever breeze there might be, and inside the dark room there’s a narrow bed shoved into a corner right next to the window. On it, the worn, thin sheet has been suspended on a broken hockey stick to make it droop down the mattress like a tent, lit up from the inside by a flickering torch clutched in the hand of a grubby little boy, sitting cross-legged and bent over a tenderly taped together comic book.
The corner of the magazine’s cover where the date used to be printed has long since been torn off, but the issue looks to be at least twice as old as the boy himself. His brother Iggy had it before him, who most likely stole it from the local goodwill or some other kid, smaller or slower than him. Mickey is seven years old and he doesn’t care if the magazine is ancient or ill-gotten, it’s his now and it’s his absolute favorite thing in the world. He’s been reading it for years, over and over again, and every time he does there’s some little new thing revealing itself to him – words suddenly making sense, feelings and decisions resonating with a great big world opening up inside him.
He has got other comic books, too, but this one is by far the best one, because it’s got aliens. Big, slimy baddies from outer space looking to enslave humanity and take over the whole of the universe. Which is a huge damned place, by the way, like unbelievably, insanely huge – bigger than a hundred million whales stuck together even. If Mickey could be anything growing up, he’d wanna be an astronaut. But not one of those cheesy dudes shuffling around with flags on the moon, no… he’d be like a cool spaceman – an explorer – zipping around between the stars and planets and be the first person to actually figure out exactly how big the universe possibly could be. And who else is out there.
Grinning down at the two-toned panels on the page, Mickey flips the magazine closed and struggles out of his sheet-tent, the whole structure collapsing behind him as he slips off his bed and tiptoes over to the open window. Climbing up on the rickety chair placed under it, he settles in on his knees and picks up his binoculars, adjusting the focus as he scans the dim night sky for any sign of life or movement. It’s an ungrateful task, keeping watch over the universe from a big city like Chicago where he can’t see shit from all the light and fumes and stuff, cluttering the atmosphere and making them a perfect target for an invasion. But if anything, Mickey figures that’s only more reason for him to keep his nightly vigil.
When the aliens come, he’ll be ready. If they’re baddies he’ll fight them off, and if they’re good guys (or even just okay guys) he’ll make friends with them. This way when he asks, they won’t hesitate to take him with them when they go back to space.
But given all the things Mickey has read about alien species, likely is they’re gonna be evil. If that’s the case, maybe he can kick their asses and take all their stuff, and fly off into the universe on his own. Well, if his sister agreed to do whatever he said, maybe she could come too. Sidekicks can be useful sometimes, doing all the things the hero doesn’t wanna do. And guess he might get a bit lonely, too, all on his own in the infinity of space.
Mandy is still a baby, two whole years younger than him, but she can be pretty fearless and badass when she follows him around and mouths off to the older kids down the street. If she behaves and doesn’t make a fuss, Mickey magnanimously decides that he might consider bringing her with him, when the time comes.
Yawning and squinting up at the glum sky, Mickey rests his chin on his folded arms and thinks about all the adventures he’ll have – with no one to tell him what to do or how to act. He’ll learn kung-fu and have a ton of space-guns, and he’ll teach it all to Mandy so she can fight for herself.
Maybe he’ll come back to Earth from time to time, everybody cheering and waving when he lands and his Mom and Pops all happy to see him and proud of him. He can send them space treasure so they can get a better house and Pops won’t have to work anymore, and maybe they’ll be happier and Mom’ll stop yelling and Pops will stop being mean.
Mickey is just about to go back to bed when there’s a sudden crash of light in the corner of his eye, flicking across the dark sky for a split second before it disappears once more. It could have been lightning, if the colors hadn’t been so off – yellow and orange and much smaller and quicker than any bolt of lightning he’s ever seen before. He always sits up and watches the slashing white streaks stab through the air whenever there’s a storm, so he knows how lightning is supposed to look and this was not it. There’s no clap of thunder following it, either, just eerie silence and the distant wail of a police siren.
Squinting out at the sky he forgets for a second about the binoculars he’s got clutched in his hands, but then he picks them up and tries to focus in over their neighbor’s crooked roof where he thinks the light was before. There’s nothing there, it’s just a still mess of dark clouds against a dark sky and… wait.
”Holy crap,” Mickey whispers, sucking in a quick breath in a silent gasp.
There’s something there, almost the same exact color of the sky but definitely moving, fast, and heading for ground in a slight curve. Then it disappears behind the rooftops and Mickey almost falls off his chair when he hears a distant rumble of something massive crashing into brick and ground.
He hesitates for a whole second before he springs into action. He threads the strap of his binoculars over his head and one arm so he can adjust it to hang down the center of his back while he moves over to his dresser. Carefully pulling out the top drawer, he works in silence as he rummages through the mess inside until finds the belt he’s borrowed from his Pops, the one with the holster hanging off it. His pajama bottoms don’t have any hoops on them, so he straps the belt tightly around his middle and tucks in the end so it won’t flap around and get in the way.
It’s with some sense of ceremony that he then pulls out the red, intricately patterned bandana he’s got rolled up into a headband, slightly crusty and stained with sweat and grime, and holds it up to his forehead as he bends his neck and ties it around his head with a secure double knot in the back.
He doesn’t have any proper guns, his Pops still insists that he’s too young and clumsy to have one of his own, so instead he sticks his flashlight down the holster and climbs up on his bed to grab the kick-ass sais he’s got hanging on the wall, crossing them down the back of his belt. After some quick deliberation, he also takes down his swimming goggles and straps them on over the bandana. They’re tinted green, and will do the trick if the aliens have got some kinda funky hypnosis ray or red laser brainwashing device. They almost always do, the slippery fiends.
Tiptoeing out of his room, Mickey quietly closes his door behind himself and peers around the doorpost and into the dimly lit living room. His Pops and Uncle Ronnie are arguing about something, but his Mom and Auntie are laughing so it must be one of those fights that sound worse than they are. The important part is that they’re preoccupied, and don’t notice him creeping past the living room towards the hallway.
Passing Mandy’s closed bedroom door, it suddenly strikes him that this could be one of those times when a sidekick could come in handy, so he silently opens her door and sneaks inside her darkened room.
”Mandy,” he whispers urgently, shaking her by the shoulder when she doesn’t react, ”wake up!”
”Go away, I’m sleeping,” she complains, like a baby.
”I saw it,” Mickey tries to explain, already regretting his decision to stop by her room, ”a ship, an alien ship! It crashed just a couple of blocks away, I swear.”
”Wanna sleep,” Mandy just whines, completely missing the point of what’s gotta be the single most exciting thing that’s ever happened in their shitty neighborhood, ”go away, Mickey.”
”Jeez,” Mickey rolls his eyes and lets go of Mandy’s shoulder, ”I’m gonna find someone else to be my sidekick then, you’re useless!”
”Good,” Mandy mutters and pulls her covers up over her ear.
Mickey has wasted too much time on her as it is, anyway, she’ll be sorry in the morning when she wakes up and he’s saved the world, or left it all together. He creeps out of the house and only stops on the porch long enough to pick up an old tire iron leaning against the wall next to the door. You can never have too many weapons when you’re left to fight off an alien invasion without even so much as your useless sidekick sister.
It’s really dark out, but Mickey knows these streets and alleys and secret passageways like the back of his hand. He weaves through the houses like a ninja on a mission, climbing fences and skillfully avoiding getting too close to any of the yards containing dogs that might jump him or otherwise compromise his position.
He’s not entirely sure where he’s going, except for a general sense of the right direction, until he gets close enough to see the dark silhouettes of the abandoned construction site a few streets down from his house. It was supposed to be a whole block of new apartment buildings, but now it’s just an overgrown field with a bunch of hulled out and withering brick structures where people sometimes sneak in, looking to get away. Mickey’s climbed the tall fence many times, but never in the dark. He walks alongside it, dragging the tips of his fingers over the hoops in the wire as he keeps his eyes on the still buildings inside, scanning them for any kind of suspicious activity.
It’s dead silent and he can’t see any light or movement, but there’s dust in the air like a big mushroom cloud, creeping out from the center of the half-finished buildings and working its way across the wild field surrounding them, slowly covering Mickey and half of his neighborhood in a thin layer of dry dirt. This is it, this is where the ship landed, he can feel it in his heart, beating wilder as his fingers halt over a sudden gap in the fence.
This wasn’t here last week, Mickey has circled the site enough times to know that the only way in is to climb over the tall, rickety fence, avoiding the barbed wire on top and jumping down into the soft piles of soil dug up behind old man Fischer’s house. Now there’s a hole in the fence, big enough for Mickey to slip through without any trouble and carefully approach the skeletal structures, swinging the tire iron in front of himself as he walks through the waist-high weeds.
He doesn’t have to search for long, stepping in between two buildings the faint dust in the air suddenly intensifies and he starts feeling like it’s getting in his eyes. Crouching down he drops the tire iron to the ground for a second to adjust his goggles, fitting them over his eyes, and untie the bandana to unfurl it and retie it over his nose and mouth. It smells like a stinky butt, but it stops the dry dust from stinging his nose and getting down his throat. He can forget about being stealthy if he starts hacking up a lung.
Picking up the tire iron and staying down in a low crouch, he slowly moves further inside the silently settling dust cloud, wiping at his goggles with the back of his free hand when they immediately get clogged up and dirty, obscuring his vision completely. He stumbles over a sudden uneven part of the ground and on his hands and knees he feels his way up the side of what appears to be a freshly dug up mound of soil and concrete.
Suddenly there’s a clap of actual thunder and, as if on cue, Mickey feels a big drop of rain hit the top of his head. It takes a couple of seconds, but then the heavens open up completely and the cloudburst his Mom’s been complaining about for the past week of humid hell is finally dropped over their dried out neighborhood. He’s soaked through in an instant, but the rain also seems to settle the dust and magically clear up the air around him. Mickey pulls down the bandana and tears off his goggles, blinking to adjust to the dim light as he wipes rain and grime off his face and slowly starts to make out his surroundings.
He sits on the lip of a massive crater, and still ticking and smoking in the center of it lies a small, oblong vessel, gleaming in the dark and changing the sound of the rain as drops hit its smooth surface, hissing and pinging.
Mickey should probably pinch himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming, only if this is a dream he really isn’t all that interested in waking up any time soon. So he grips on tighter to the tire iron and climbs up over the edge of the crater, before carefully skidding down the slippery side and landing in the already forming muddy puddles at the bottom.
The spaceship isn’t as small as he thought, it towers over him when he lands next to it, sitting back on his butt in the mud to avoid crashing into it. It’s warm, heat radiating off the gleaming metal and vaporizing the rain as it lands on the scalding surface. Carefully, Mickey starts to edge his way around it, hoping to find some kind of opening or mechanism to get inside the thing. It looks like nothing he’s ever seen, rounded and streamlined and with thin fins sprouting from the front and spiraling around the whole ship towards the tapered back. That’s what he assumes it is, anyway, that the front is the part half buried in the mud and the rear is left sticking up towards the sky.
”Hello?” he tries, and nudges at the hull of the ship with his tire iron.
No response, nothing but the rain fizzling into mist and another distant clap of thunder.
Carefully avoiding one of the larger fins sticking out of the ship, Mickey climbs over the pile of concrete rubble gathered around the nose of it and moves over to the other side. There is a gaping black hole in the ship, several feet wide and perfectly round, half buried in the mud and looking like it’s trying to swallow the ground whole. Mickey scrambles backwards, unnerved by the absolute darkness inside the ship and scared of what it might hide. But when nothing happens for a couple of seconds he finally remembers his flashlight, yanking it out of the holster and holding it up in front of himself.
”Hey,” he whispers as he fumbles with the button, his fingers wet and cold from the rain, ”you okay in there?”
The torch flickers and blinks when he finally gets a grip on it and turns it on, but the uneven circle of light is still strong enough to find its way into the dark concave of the ship and reveal a myriad of buttons and levers, suspended around an empty, backless stool – like a tiny solar system of controls orbiting the pilot’s seat.
He missed it. An alien landed in his own backyard and he missed it. But it’s real, and it’s here, and suddenly Mickey gets the strongest urge to show it to someone. Not the government or TV or anything, not even a grownup. No, none of those people can be trusted to deal with something like this.
If the alien is here to cause trouble, revealing Mickey’s discovery would only lead to world wide panic. And if the alien just happened to crash or is here to make friends, snitching on it would probably land it in some government lab or whatever. That’s no way to treat some poor alien, crash-landing on Earth of all places, and in weather like this to boot.
But he wants to tell someone, because Mickey has been insisting that aliens are real for years and all he’s ever gotten for it is laughed at or punched on, and yet here he is; staring into the cockpit of an undeniably alien ship.
If he could get Mandy to stop being so damned lazy, then maybe she could come and confirm the fact that he isn’t dreaming or gone nuts, and she can start focusing on being less useless as a sidekick. She sleeps like the dead, though, and probably won’t get up on his word alone – he needs some kind of proof. Maybe there’s a loose part of the ship he could grab with him and show her, convince her that he’s not bullshitting.
He takes a couple of careful steps closer to the ship, shaking the torch when it flickers and shining it all around the insides of the open cockpit. There are no alien knick knacks in there, just the control panels and the padded stool in the middle of the cramped chamber. The seat looks wet and shiny, like it’s covered in something sticky. Blood maybe, or alien goo. Mickey pokes it with the tire iron and it moves from the light touch, gently swiveling around when he pushes at it with a little more intent.
Suddenly, lights flicker alive all around him, tiny dots of red and green in an uneven pattern across the whole sphere of controls.
”No way,” Mickey whispers and feels his whole face splitting into a wide grin. He barely touched the thing and it’s already responding, imagine what he could do with a little practice.
Dropping the tire iron in the mud and sticking the torch back into his holster, the light moves and bounces off the ceiling as he grabs the side of the opening and heaves himself up into the lopsided cockpit. Biting his lip in concentration, he climbs up on the controls and gingerly sits down on the sticky stool, carefully placing his feet on the structure underneath it to keep from sliding off and landing on his ass back in the mud.
Sitting in the middle of the controls, the amount of choices suddenly seem overwhelmingly infinite. Mickey doesn’t even know how to drive a car, yet, what if he accidentally decides to push some kinda self destruct button, or some alien bullshit he can’t control even if he knew what it was? He could end up blowing up half the planet, if he’s not careful.
He decides to leave the flying lesson for later and grabs his torch again to slowly move it all around himself, mouth falling open when he realizes that the dark, shiny metal of the hull is see-through from the inside. The rain hits and cascades down around him, and he can see the large dark square shapes of the abandoned buildings looming above. It’s probably the single coolest thing he’s ever seen, and he can easily imagine himself cruising through space in this thing, sitting back and letting the whole galaxy open up around him as he sails across it.
A sudden angry flash of red breaks through his thoughts and pulls his attention to a section of the console to his left.
”Shit,” he mutters and swivels the stool to get closer to the flashing light. It might not mean anything, but it wasn’t blinking like that before and red and angry feel like pretty universal indicators to get the hell out.
Holding on to the console, Mickey gingerly slips off the stool again, carefully placing his feet wherever he hopes will hold him. He’s just about to jump down on the ground when he feels something brush against his wrist. Not thinking, he instinctively lets go of the console and then tries to grab onto it again as he gracelessly feels himself falling out of the ship. He lands face down in the mud, wincing at a sharp pain shooting up his elbow when it hits against something hard. The tire iron, fuck.
Feeling like there is something behind him just waiting to pounce on him, he ignores the pain and grapples after his torch, struggling to twist around to his back so he can shine the light up inside the ship and hopefully scare off whatever it is that touched him.
There’s nothing there.
Breathing heavily he sits up in the wet mud and moves closer to the vessel, back in under the domed entrance and out of the rain. That’s when he sees it; a small object on a chain, hanging off the console and swinging slightly from side to side after his fall.
It looks like some kind of necklace, with a pendant like an upside down pyramid, narrow and tall and sharp. Like a geometric tooth made out of some sorta black metal. Its dull surface and pendulum swing is almost hypnotic when he stares at it.
The sound of an engine cuts into his open-mouthed study of the necklace. A car, maybe two, closer than they should be considering that the whole block of abandoned buildings is supposed to be out of bounds. The silence is deafening when the engines are cut off – first one and then another – and then quickly broken again by the harsh sound of doors opening and closing and heavy footsteps on the gravel covering the disused driveway.
His brain finally catching up to what’s happening, Mickey springs into action. Quickly snatching down the alien necklace he threads it over his head, tucking it down the front of his soaking wet pajama shirt before switching off the torch to stick it down the holster, leaving both hands free as he scampers up the slippery side of the crater.
His limbs are cold and tired, and he feels about twice as heavy now as he was leaving his house half an hour ago. But he’s wiry and stubborn and soon out of that damned hole, keeping his knees and back bent as he hurries through the weeds to duck around the nearest building. Well out of sight, he straightens up and starts running as fast as he can across the field and through the opening in the fence.
He feels the heavy weight of the strange pendant over his wildly beating heart the whole way home, his legs shaking like jello when he throws himself up the stairs to his house and slumps down on the porch to catch his breath.
Sneaking inside the now completely dark and silent house, Mickey peels off his dirty, soaked clothes and hides them in the back of his closet, before he dries himself off and puts on some clean clothes. Then he sits on the edge of his bed and thinks about trying to shake Mandy awake again, to convince her to go outside in the middle of the night, in the harsh cold and pouring rain. He doesn’t see that ending well for him. Also, he feels strangely shook up. His skin is still chilled and he keeps shivering involuntarily from a kind of lingering dread of something hiding behind him, waiting to pounce on his back and bite his head off.
It’s a big spaceship, half buried in the ground. It’s dark and raining outside. It’s not going anywhere. It’ll still be there in the morning when it’s light and dry and Mickey can bring someone with him to watch his back.
Shivering, Mickey climbs up on his bed and hides under the covers, pulling them up over his head and gripping his fingers around the alien pendant as he squeezes his eyes shut and tries to fall asleep, eventually managing to relax enough to give in to his exhaustion.
At the first light of dawn, he’s warm and awake and filled with excited determination. The pendant still hangs around his neck like a tear in reality – solid, indisputable proof. Proof that they’re not alone in the universe, that Mickey was right, that all his dreams can and will come true.
It takes some convincing, but when he tells them about his night and shows them the necklace he eventually gets both Mandy and Iggy to come with him to the old abandoned construction site.
Mickey leads the way, pressing his lips together to keep from correcting his older brother when Iggy walks behind him and runs his mouth about stuff Mickey knows at least ten times better. He gets the whole storyline from issue 28 wrong, for one, and he keeps saying outrageous shit like ’Pluto isn’t a real planet’.
”You’re not a real planet,” Mickey mutters under his breath, ducking in through the opening in the fence. But he doesn’t argue like he usually would, not when they’re so close to the crash site and they gotta stay alert.
The whole lot looks completely different in the soft, early morning sunlight, the wild field still wet and dark after the night’s heavy rain. Mickey hunches down and runs across it, pleased when Iggy finally stops yammering and follows. Closing in on the abandoned buildings, the sound of his siblings’ quick footsteps over the wet ground behind him spurs him on as he runs faster, heart pounding. This is it.
It’s gone. Mickey comes to a grinding halt and spins around on spot, taking in the empty yard.
”It was here,” he says, gesturing at the complete lack of a crash site and swatting angrily at a lazy bumblebee hovering past his face, mocking him.
”You’re such a fucking liar, Mick,” Iggy scoffs and kicks at the pile of dirt where the crater used to be, ”and that necklace looks so fucking gay on you.”
Mickey tries to fight him off, but Iggy is faster and bigger, and doesn’t really have to try very hard to grab the pendant off his chest and pull until the odd, fine chain breaks around his neck. He dangles it above their heads and grins when Mickey tries but can’t reach it.
”Give it back, Ig,” Mickey commands, feeling his resolve crumble when his treacherous voice comes out sounding more like he’s pleading, ”please, I’m not lying!”
”I’m hungry,” Mandy chimes in, only glaring at Mickey when he desperately looks to her for some solid sidekick backup.
”You want it?” Iggy asks, pretending to lower the necklace before he spins it over his head and throws it over the dirt mound at a large patch of wildly growing nestles. Mickey watches with wide eyes as it gleams in the low sunlight before disappearing inside the poisonous jungle. ”Go get it.”
”Fuck you, Iggy,” Mickey growls and resolutely starts climbing over the dirt mound, bristling at his brother’s gleeful laughing.
”It’s what you get for lying!” Iggy yells after him.
Mickey ignores his horrible siblings, only vaguely aware of the sound of their footsteps as they fade away.
He knows what he saw, Mickey knows what happened last night. A real life space alien landed in this run down yard and between then and now, the government must have found the ship and taken it away, cleaning up the site. Maybe they found the alien too, and now it’s in a lab somewhere, suffering torture and who knows what.
If they’d found Mickey at the scene, they probably would have taken him too. Locked him up or brainwashed him into forgetting.
But they didn’t find him, and now Mickey is the only one who knows the truth.
Aliens are real, and they have come to Earth.
South Side Chicago, Illinois
Dale Turner is a good man. He works nine to five and pays his taxes, he gives to charity when he can and he always buys cookies from the local Girl Scouts when they come knocking on his door, even though he can’t eat them. Sugar upsets his sensitive constitution, so he donates all his unopened boxes of chocolate chip cookies to the local shelter. Dale Turner is a good man, but right now this fact isn’t helping him at all.
Right now he’s wishing he could be anything else. Strong, maybe. Reassuring, heroic.
But no, all he is, is good, and today is the first time in his life that he feels like he isn’t nearly good enough.
”Come on, Gloria,” he pleads, squeezing his wife’s hand in an attempt to help her when she winces in pain, ”we have to call for an ambulance.”
”No,” she gasps and grits her teeth, clutching his hand to her chest, ”no hospital.”
”It’s too much,” Dale whispers, leaning closer to touch his forehead to hers and carefully brush some stray hairs out of her eyes, ”you can’t do this alone, I won’t risk your life, not for-”
”I can do it,” Gloria interrupts him, repeating the promise for what must be the twentieth time in the last two hours, ”just talk me through it, like we’ve practiced.”
”We didn’t practice for this,” Dale insists, leaning back a little in hopes to get his wife to see how absolutely terrified he is, ”we were never supposed to do have to do it without the doula. You weren’t supposed to do it in this form.”
”I’m fine, hon- ngh,” Gloria squeezes her eyes closed and Dale feels like he’s losing his mind when he sees the tears drip down her temples, soaking into her hair and the already sweat-damp pillow under her head, ”childbirth hurts, Dale, women do it every damn day without help.”
”What can I do?” he asks, wiping gently at the side of her face, still holding on to her hand as her body slowly relaxes back down on the bed.
”Call her again?” Gloria pants, and he can feel himself nodding when she opens her eyes to look at him and he can tell that she’s just as scared as him, whatever she says.
It’s no use, he’s called the doula fifty times in the last five hours and he’s gotten the same infuriating message every time. He does it anyway, one hand still stuck in his wife’s iron grip as he dials the number and feels his heart breaking when Gloria screams in agony.
”You have reached Ethel Fergus, certified doula and discrete facilitation of unconventional births, I can’t take your call at the moment so please leave your name and number and I’ll-”
Dale bites back a curse and disconnects the call. He’s already left enough messages to reach double digits, one more isn’t going to make any difference.
”Fucking Ethel,” Gloria cries, laughing helplessly before giving in to another tortured wail, clutching her free hand over her stomach.
”Jesus, man, what’s going on in here?”
Closing his eyes at the sound of his neighbor’s voice, Dale holds on to Gloria’s hand and refuses to turn around, hoping that the kind idiot will just go away if ignored.
”Luke,” Gloria says, not sharing her husband’s wishful disposition, wincing as she stares at the door over Dale’s shoulder, ”don’t-”
”I called for an ambulance,” Luke says, his voice harsh and worried, ”I heard screaming, I thought someone was dyin’.”
”No ambulance!” Gloria grits out, hiding her eyes behind her hand as she shakes through another contraction.
”It’s done,” Luke sounds less assured now, ”I called ’em soon as I heard you screaming, you folks don’t got insurance or somethin’?”
”Don’t leave me,” Gloria cries, her stubborn facade crumbling as she looks up at Dale and paws at his face, trying to pull him closer, ”oh no, please.”
”I have to call them,” Dale whispers, kissing the palm of her hand, ”it’s done, I have to call them.”
He tears himself away and gets up off his knees, joints cracking and legs trembling after hours spent hunched over the side of the bed. He turns away from her when she starts sobbing, covering her face with both hands.
”Stay with her?” he begs Luke, their clueless neighbor staring back at him with his arched eyebrows all the way up his forehead for a second, before he nods and hurries over to the bed to crouch down on the other side of it.
Dale takes his phone and disappears into the bathroom, the only room in their tiny house with a door that closes properly. He finds the number in his contacts labelled ’laundromat’ and barely hesitates at all before he dials it.
”Yes?” a stern voice greets him after only a couple of rings.
”Yes, um-,” Dale lets out a shaky breath, ”local division, please, Chicago, six-oh-six-oh-nine.”
Dale counts the seconds of silence, and only gets up to sixteen before he’s reconnected and a different, but eerily similar voice comes through.
”We have a situation,” he croaks out, closing his eyes when he feels them sting with unshed tears, ”my wife, she’s giving birth and there’s an ambulance on way.”
”Atik,” Dale says and swallows, ”Jeltz. Gloria Reyes-Turner, Illinois five-three-eight, six-two-nine.”
”We have your location, sir, there will be a team with you shortly.”
Dale sighs, half relieved, half resigned. ”What do I tell-”
”It will be dealt with,” the bored voice cuts him off, ”congratulations on your new addition.”
”Thanks,” Dale says, pursing his lips together when the call abruptly disconnects.
There’s a flurry of activity in the house when he steps out of the bathroom, Luke is gone and the front door is wide open as two EMTs are taking up the whole room with their rushed, precise movements and calm, authoritative orders. Dale stands in the bathroom’s doorway for a second and just stares, until Gloria’s cry of his name snaps him out of it and he bustles his way past one of the EMTs to kneel down in his old spot.
”You the father?” someone asks, and Dale tears his eyes off his wife’s pained face long enough to glance over his shoulder at the man looking back at him with a concerned frown.
”Yes,” Dale nods, ”yes, I’m the father.”
”Congratulations,” the man says and gives him an encouraging grin that changes his whole face. He looks kind, and Dale finds himself instantly wanting to believe him when he unpacks his bag and tells them everything is going to be fine.
It’s not, but Dale doesn’t care anymore. As long as Gloria and their baby are fine, he quite frankly doesn’t give a rat’s behind about the rest.
”There’s no time to get you to a hospital, ma’am, this is happening right now,” the EMT calmly narrates, as he directs Gloria to move her legs with his gloved hands, ”what’s your name?”
”Gloria,” Dale fills in when his wife doesn’t answer, face screwed up in concentration as she tries to breathe through another contraction.
”Alright Gloria,” the EMT smiles at her as he drapes the sheet over her knees, ”I’m Ian, and we’ll get you through this together, okay?”
Gloria swallows convulsively and nods, gripping on harder to Dale’s already numb hand. Dale looks back at Ian just in time to see his calm smile slip into another concerned frown.
”What the hell?” Ian’s partner does a double take behind him, gawking down at Gloria’s privates over his shoulder. ”Oh my god, what the fuck is that?”
Ian looks almost as disturbed as his partner, but he appears ready to handle the unusual situation better, glancing up at Gloria and Dale before he seems to make the decision to pull on a neutral face and carry on like normal, telling Gloria to push. His partner doesn’t fare as well, judging by the way she clutches her hand over her mouth and disappears into the bathroom, the door banging closed behind her.
”You’re doing great,” Ian assures them when Gloria struggles through another push, but his voice is shaky and he seems to be having some trouble refraining from wincing when he sticks his hands in under the sheet in order to help out, ”just one more, Gloria, and you’re done…”
”I can’t,” Gloria gasps.
”You’re doing amazing,” Ian insists, and Dale can’t help feeling his heart swell with pride for his beautiful, strong wife, even as Ian’s professional countenance dips into an uncertain grimace and he cocks his head like he’s confused about what it is he’s looking at, ”probably, I think? Just one more, come on, you’re doing so good.”
Gloria grits her teeth and shakes as she uses her whole body to push one last time, and suddenly the whole room is filled with a faint blue and pink light, dancing and caressing the lines of Ian’s shocked face as he carefully pulls out his hands and holds up their beautiful baby.
Tears are streaming down his cheeks as Dale bends down to press a kiss to his wife’s forehead and watch her take their baby in her arms.
”Do we cut, uh-,” Ian says and hesitates, his gloved hands carefully guiding the long, translucent lappets still connecting baby and mother, until they slip out completely and start floating and flailing around in the air in front of his face, ”oh-kay, guess not?”
”He’s perfect,” Gloria sobs, ignoring the dumbfounded EMT as she combs her fingers through the undeveloped tendrils on their son’s back and laughs through the tears when the markings under his skin glow stronger in reaction to her touch.
”He recognizes me,” she says and smiles up at Dale with wide, shining eyes.
”He’s-,” Dale starts and stops when there’s a knock at the door, bringing him back to the reality of their situation.
”Run,” Gloria whispers, but she knows just as well as him that it’s too late.
Dale sits back and looks around the room for the two EMTs, but they’re both gone, and through the still wide open front door step two men wearing identical black suits. Not removing their dark sunglasses, they quickly take in the room as though to size up the situation before zoning in on Dale and his little family huddled together on the bed.
”I’m Agent Jay, this is Agent Kay,” the younger of the two announces their entrance, taking off his shades and hooking them down his breast pocket as he focuses his attention on Dale, ”we got a call for an emergency clean-up, everybody doin’ okay?”
”Yes,” Dale croaks, resisting the urge to get up on his shaky legs and follow his wife’s desperate suggestion to run, ”we-”
”Any civilians?” Agent Jay cuts him off. Dale takes the hint, snapping his mouth shut to silently nod his response.
”Two, EMTs,” Gloria says, and looks like she’s just now realizing that they’re alone in the room with the two agents, ”they were here.”
”Upset stomach,” the older agent reports, edging closer to the still closed bathroom door before twisting awkwardly to glance through the kitchen, ”and one out back.”
”Okay, great,” Agent Jay sighs, fixing his stone-cold glare on Dale and raising his dark, thin eyebrows in exasperated annoyance, ”now what the fuck were you thinking with this one, huh? Nine months not enough time to pick up the fucking phone and give us some goddamned notice? We got a hospital for this shit, man, look at us… do we look like a couple of on-call midwives to you?”
”No?” Dale tries.
”No, we sure as fuck don’t!” Agent Jay complains, his already high-strung voice climbing in pitch when Dale somehow manages to add personal offense to his already damning rap sheet.
”I-,” Dale starts and swallows, glancing down at Gloria’s heartbroken face that just moments ago had been so filled with joy, ”I-, I’m not registered, yet… I moved here last year and we’ve been trying to get the paperwork through before the birth, but-”
”But you’re undocumented,” Agent Jay cuts to the chase, turning his incredulous eyebrows on his partner before glaring back at Dale.
”I am,” Dale nods, ”Gloria is registered and has all her permits, please, I moved here to be with her, so we could start a family, we want nothing more than to stay here and build a Terran life-”
”Alright, Jesus, enough with the sob-story,” Agent Jay complains, waving a dismissive hand at Dale to shut him up, ”we’re not here to deport your ass, man, we’re not from immigration.”
”Well, technically,” Agent Kay lazily cuts in to point out, ”we are.”
”You seen me stamping passports up in HQ lately?” Agent Jay argues, throwing up a hand in his partner’s direction as though to underline his point. ”Fuck no, ’cause that shit ain’t my fuckin’ job. They want me out here rounding up illegals that don’t done shit to deserve getting hauled off the planet, Zed’s gonna have to pay me a lot fucking more than she is right now, is all I’m sayin’.”
”You’re not going to report me?” Dale interrupts their bickering to ask, a lump of nerves clogging up his throat and breaking his voice.
”What?” Agent Jay is scrunching up his face and shaking his head, like he thinks Dale’s being an idiot. ”The fuck would I wanna do that? What do you do, you got a job?”
”Yes,” Dale nods eagerly, ”sanitation, I was made manager of my precinct last month, it doesn’t pay more but-”
”See, now tell me that isn’t some valuable contribution to society right there,” the agent more or less ignores Dale to smirk at his partner, like he’s won some kind of ongoing argument, before turning back to dismissively wave a hand in Dale’s general direction when Agent Kay looks less than impressed, ”okay, whatever, congrats on the bioluminescent pooping machine, and would you fucking relax? You’re fine.”
Dale feels his shoulders slump in an effort to look more relaxed and please the testy agent, his generally dickish demeanor and surprising kindness giving Dale some serious emotional whiplash just trying to keep up.
”Just get your fucking papers in order, please,” the agent tacks on when Dale remains silent, and gestures at him with an annoyed frown, ”quick as you fucking can, so I don’t gotta deal with the hairbags in immigration gettin’ all up my ass about going easy on you today.”
”Yes, of course,” Dale thinks his head might fall off he’s nodding so much, ”yes, thank you, sir. I can’t tell you how much this means to me-, to us… my son-”
Dale stops himself and tries to swallow the practical avalanche of blubbering emotions released when it suddenly dawns on him that he is safe, that he’s been allowed leniency when he thought for sure that he’d be excommunicated and separated from his loved ones, from the life he’s made for himself here on Earth. He wants to tell this unexpected angel of mercy how immeasurably thankful he is, but Agent Jay looks like the kind of man that might change his mind and decide to be an asshole, just because, if he is subjected to too much wanton sentimentality.
So, squeezing Gloria’s hand in his own, Dale settles on a simple ’thank you’ and smiles brightly when Agent Jay gives him the smallest hint of a nod in return.
Jay nods at the overly grateful man kneeling on the floor, still hugging his arms around his wife and child as though he thinks me might yet be forcibly removed from them at any second. Frowning at the slight pang of jealousy flashing through his gut, Jay lingers in the room to watch the man laugh and cry all at once, bending down to press a soft kiss to his baby’s- whatever, Jay really fucking hopes it’s its head. Kinda hard to tell on the wiggly, translucent, fish-shaped disco ball of a bouncing baby boy.
”She still barfing?” he abruptly turns away from them to ask Kay, waving his hand to indicate the closed bathroom door.
Kay leans closer to it by an insignificant amount and shrugs with his face. ”Sounds like she might be done.”
”Great, you do her and I’ll take care of the other guy,” Jay decides, brushing past his partner before he has time to argue. Quickly moving through the kitchen and out the back door, he lets it swing and clatter shut behind him as he joins the second EMT on the porch.
He’s smoking, looking out over the small vegetable garden in the backyard, shoulders tense and his slightly curled red hair a mess when he runs his long fingers through it, leaving his freckled hand to rest on the back of his neck. He spins around at the sound of the door, but seems to relax a little when he spots who it is, his alert eyes quickly darting down before jumping back up to focus on Jay’s face.
They’ve met many times before, over the past seven years since Jay got recruited to Chicago’s Men In Black division. Seventeen times, to be exact, and every single instance of sporadic dumb chance has etched itself into Jay’s memory in embarrassing detail.
Ian on the other hand, through no fault of his own, never remembers Jay at all.
”Hi,” he says, leaving the cigarette between his lips to hold out a hand in greeting, ”I’m Ian.”
”Yeah?” Jay crosses his arms and shrugs, but then gives in and grabs the guy’s big, firm hand when he doesn’t take the hint to drop it. ”Okay, sure. I’m Mickey.”
”Mickey,” Ian grins, eyes sparkling, before he seems to once more recollect the past fifteen minutes. Pulling in a nervous drag off his cigarette, he takes it between two fingers and gestures with it in the direction of the house. ”That was crazy, right? Tell me you saw all that, too?”
”I saw it,” Jay nods, frowning when he feels the by now familiar urge to not give a fuck about protocol and just let Ian have this one, ”some wild shit, for sure.”
”It was beautiful,” Ian mumbles, looking down at his hands before glancing back up at Jay, his slight smile turned crooked and dangerously dopey, ”thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, but then you walked in.”
Jay groans, squeezing his eyes shut over the sound of Ian’s pleased chuckle, burning red into his neck and cheeks and flipping his insides around completely.
”That’s the worst one yet, man,” he sighs and reluctantly pulls out the pen-shaped memory eraser from his inner breast pocket, absently setting the dial to half an hour as he speaks, ”gonna have to do better next time, Gallagher, or this thing here ain’t ever gonna work out.”
”What?” Ian asks, his flirty smile contracting into a puzzled frown. ”How do you know my last name?”
”Don’t worry about it,” Jay tells him and puts on his shades as he holds up the pen and detonates it. It gives off a bright flash that leaves Ian wide-eyed and slack-jawed in its wake.
Jay puts the memory eraser away again and steps forward to gingerly take the cigarette from Ian’s fingers and put it to his own lips, pulling in a deep drag and blowing out a small cloud of smoke between them.
”There was just a normal, no-nonsense birth in this house,” he gently adjusts Ian’s memory, wincing when he tries to think of something nice to say to replace the world-altering experience the guy just had, ”you saved the day, big damn hero. That baby in there is alive just ’cause you came in and did your thing.”
Jay pauses and sighs, this is the part that’s really starting to suck some major fucking ass.
”And me,” he says, raising his eyebrows as he stares into Ian’s dull eyes, ”you never saw me. I don’t exist.”
Pulling in another lungful of smoke, he sifts it back out through his teeth as he thoughtfully clicks his tongue.
”I mean, feel free to have, like-, one or two disgustingly explicit dreams about me, if you want,” he adds, ”only fuckin’ fair, right?”
He nods to himself and decides to leave it at that, and get out of there before Ian snaps out of his dazed state and he’ll have no choice but to flash him again. He does enough of that as it is, poor guy’s brain is gonna up and melt soon if their paths keep crossing at the rate they’ve been going.
Pulling open the door, Jay hesitates and turns on spot, pointing at Ian with his stolen cigarette.
”Oh, and you should probably quit smoking, that shit’s gonna kill you,” he says, ”just a thought.”
Moving through the kitchen, he stubs out the cigarette butt on a dirty plate in the sink, before he walks out into the the other room. The baby has adapted to a nice caramel brown while Jay was gone – landing somewhere smack in the middle of his parents’ respective skin tones – and he’s turned convincingly baby-shaped, too, complete with four limbs and a nice big head, dark eyes staring up at his cooing parents.
They look like a fucking all-American dream, huddled together on the bed, crying tears of joy and whispering sweet nothings to each other like no one else is in the fucking room. It’s pretty gross, but kind of sweet, and Jay is secretly thankful it was him who caught this call instead of some of the other bureau letters he’s met. Types he assumes like to fall asleep brushing up on intergalactic migration policies, still dressed in the black and jizzing all over it in excitement over strict order and enforced law.
There was a time when Jay would have lit the rulebook on fire and then pissed on it, just on principle, and even though working as an agent for the past seven years has shaped him into a pretty fucking square shadow of his former delinquent youth, he still insists on holding on to a healthy chunk of that practical disregard for authority.
After all, what’s the point of being an agent for a top secret self-governing alien immigration agency if he can’t bend the rules a little, especially for some fucking extra-human interest?
No fucking point whatsoever, far as he’s concerned.
”Jeltz,” Kay scoffs when Jay joins him on the front lawn, closing the door behind himself, ”ten years ago we barely knew that wretched planet had life, and now the fuckers are landing in droves.”
”You got a problem with how I handled that?” Jay asks, unlocking the car with his clicker as they approach it. ”’Cause if you do, just come out and fucking say so, man, instead of spouting a bunch of planetarist nonsense, looking’ at me to just sit here and nod along to your Paradise Ranch racism.”
”There are laws,” Kay says and holds up his hands as though he’s got no say in it, ”he’s here illegally and should be reported. And then, if deemed necessary; deported.”
”It’s one fucking guy, you seriously wanna throw him off the planet for knocking up his wife?” Jay defends his own actions, more than some random Jeltz immigrant’s right to settle. He’s already uncomfortable enough with the way his partner’s conservative views always seem to end up forcing him into full-on liberal radicalism whenever they get into intergalactic politics. ”Hell, why not bring in the baby, too? Lazy shit’s been alive for a full fifteen minutes at this point and he’s not gone and got himself registered yet, fucking typical Jeltz, right?”
Kay rolls his eyes at Jay’s exaggerated ranting, but he also doesn’t really deny any of it.
”One guy today, ten thousand tomorrow,” he mutters as he pulls open the passenger side door and climbs inside their anonymously black Ford LTD, ”you don’t even know if he was telling the truth about why he’s here, or if he’s actually done anything to get registered.”
”You think I’m not gonna check?” Jay says as he gets in behind the wheel. ”I know what I’m doing.”
”Yeah, I know, I trust you,” Kay obviously decides to drop the topic ahead of it getting any worse, holding up his hands to signal that he’s backing off before grinning slyly at the side of Jay’s face as they zip through the slow traffic, ”so, did you get in some one-on-one time with your boyfriend?”
Jay groans, for a second wishing that his partner could have been both racist and homophobic, and spare him the pain of having to suffer conversations like these.
”Shut the fuck up,” he grouses, ”he’s just some guy.”
”Yeah, just some guy,” Kay laughs, ”some guy who flirts with you like he’s got a week left to live whenever he’s around you. Always got some new cheesy-as-fuck pick-up line too, even though far as he knows you’re meeting for the first time, every time.”
”Fucking embarrassing,” Jay winces, trying to hide the way his whole body wants to react, just thinking about Ian and his God-awful lines and interested, clear eyes, ”like, how many times do I gotta wipe the guy’s brain for him to catch on that it ain’t gonna happen?”
”Come on,” Kay seems intent on pushing this, ”it’s like, romantic, isn’t it? Means he’s really into you for real, or something.”
”Or something,” Jay mutters, clicking his tongue as he turns a corner and avoids looking at his partner, ”fuck, not like anything’s ever gonna happen, don’t know why you gotta go on about it.”
”Don’t know,” Kay says, and he’s probably smiling like he thinks he actually does know something, ”I think you like it, and if that stick up your ass wasn’t so rigid, I think you would’ve boned him a long time ago, then erased his memory.”
Jay scowls, baring his teeth in a disgusted grimace as he shakes his head at the suggestion.
”I’m good, thanks,” he drily assures his obviously very concerned partner, ”got that sweet stick up my ass, after all. I’m all set.”
”Ugh,” Kay winces.
”Mmh,” Jay hums, shifting in his seat and biting his lip just to drive home the point before grinning at his partner’s uncomfortable groaning, ”yeah, that’s right, don’t go there if you can’t take it, old man.”
”Think I’ll pass on ’taking it’, thanks,” Kay huffs and nods at Jay’s pleased grin through the rear-view mirror, ”but sitting on your principles is one thing, kid. What about romance?”
Jay raises his eyebrows at the question and slows the car down to carefully turn it into a narrow alley while he talks. ”’Cause boning someone with the intention to erase their memory of it after is romantic, and not just creepy as all fuck?”
”Touché,” Kay concedes in a mutter, and Jay can tell from the corner of his eye that his partner is bracing for impact as they pick up speed again and drive straight for the dead end brick wall.
Twenty years on the job, and some subconscious part of Kay’s brain still thinks it’s gonna die whenever they drive through the cloaked entrance to HQ, the bricks melting away around them as they burst through the wall and into a dimly lit tunnel turning down in a tight spiral.
”Twenty years on the job,” Kay sighs, echoing Jay’s thoughts, ”can’t remember a single time someone’s hit on me since I put on the black.”
Jay clicks his tongue and shakes his head in mock sympathy.
”That’s ’cause you’re ugly as shit, man,” he says and grins when his blunt assessment gets Kay to snort out a startled laugh, ”’sides, flirting is a two-way street. Gotta give a little to get some, if you get me.”
”Thank you, Steve Harvey,” Kay sounds less than impressed with the solid advice, ”are you insinuating that I don’t know how to flirt?”
”I’m saying you gotta drop something if you want people picking it up,” Jay shrugs as the tunnel suddenly opens up to a vast garage, concrete pillars lined up in rows disappearing in the distant gloom, ”and if they don’t, you pick that shit up yourself and make sure they get a good look at your ass while you’re down there.”
Kay looks at him, pursing his lips in thought.
”This is a fascinating insight to your love life, partner,” he says, ”you’re gonna end up just like me, aren’t you?”
”Fuck off,” Jay grins and parks their car next to a long row of identical vehicles, ”and yeah, but my game isn’t why I’m gonna end up like your sad ass, and you know it.”
”Now now, son,” Kay tuts as they climb out of the car, the sound of the doors opening and slamming shut echoing through the garage, ”blaming your civil status on the bureau’s systemic pressures and expectations to sever all ties to society is just lazy.”
”Right,” Jay locks the car with his clicker and leads the way towards the elevator.
”True,” Kay admits as the doors slide open, ”but lazy.”
MiB HQ, The Diamond, Central Chicago.
Jay sighs and pulls himself closer to his desk, one of the wheels on his chair squeaking with the movement and his neck cracking as he sits up and tries to straighten out his aching back. It’s been a little too much paperwork lately and he can feel it all in the creak of his spine. Fucking painfully ironic – and entirely unfunny – if he ends up taken down by a lack of decent lumbar support instead of eaten alive by some extra terrestrial lizard, as per his retirement plan. He’s been working on that thing since he was five and yet here he is; twenty-seven years old and 28 floors underground and generally fighting nothing worse than a whiny wheel, mind-numbing boredom, and a slowly developing tennis elbow.
Saving his report, Jay absently clicks through to the web browser and signs in to his fake-ass Facebook account, lazily scrolling through the feed. He doesn’t miss any of this bullshit – inconsequential political debates mixed in with the never-ending supply of virtual strangers’ fucking baby shit.
But once in awhile there’s that one name, over a post with a dumb video that’s just his brand of humor, or tagged in a blurry photo of a girl at some epic party somewhere, black unruly hair slick against her sweaty temples and mascara perpetually smudged as she’s chugging on a bottle of off-brand vodka.
At least she’s smiling in the photos these days, and all her bruises seem to have faded and not yet been replaced with any fresh cuts and scrapes.
”Heads up,” Kay comes up behind him, setting down a steaming cup of tar-black coffee on his desk as he pointedly eyes the monitor, ”who’s that?”
”None of your fucking business,” Jay mutters, quickly closing down the window before grabbing his coffee and leaning back in his chair to look up at his partner, sitting down on the edge of his desk, ”thanks.”
”Just looking out for you, tiger,” Kay shrugs and sips from his own cup, glancing up at the glass walls of the office on the mezzanine floor, ”you know her policy on that stuff.”
”Christ, I wasn’t fuckin’ facebooking,” Jay defends himself, gesturing at his finished report on the softly glowing screen, ”I wasn’t reading listicles or fallin’ for click-bait, I was straight up spying.”
Kay huffs. ”Well, guess that technically is part of our job description.”
”What I’m saying,” Jay leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on the desk, crossing his ankles as he shoots Kay a smug smirk.
His partner only grins back when a sharp buzz causes Jay to drop his feet back down on the marble tiled floor and sit up straight, so he can reach across the table and press the button labelled ’Z’ under the flashing red light on his intercom.
”Yeah?” he asks, frowning as he looks up at the mezzanine floor to see Zed standing by her desk, receiver to her ear and steely eyes already fixed on him.
”Agent Jay,” Zed’s tinny, displaced voice comes through the coms, ”Agent Kay, would you both please join me in my office for a minute.”
”Sure thing, boss,” Jay says, checking his watch as he’s releasing the button and standing up, ”hope it’s quick, I was thinking lunch after this.”
”Any idea what it’s about?” Kay asks as they stride through the bustle of the open office landscape, dodging the emphatic gesturing of an Andromedanian blob arguing with Agent Em two desks over.
Jay shrugs and looks up at Zed’s office again. With the new angle through the clear layers of plexiglass floors he can see a familiar face projected to scale on the intra-division coms. They jog up the stairs and Jay raps his knuckles against the bulletproof glass wall, before immediately opening the door and letting himself and his partner into the office.
”Agents Jay and Kay,” Zed turns to greet them as she gestures towards the large screen, ”of course, you know Agent Jay from before, Director of the New York Division.”
”Agents,” Agent Jay smiles and nods at them when they line up in front of the screen, ”it’s been a while.”
”Two years,” Jay reminds him and grins back at the memory of his last official visit to the New York HQ, ”congrats on the new job, man.”
”Thank you,” Agent Jay’s smile turns a shade more genuine, which wouldn’t have seemed possible before it happened, ”been sticking it to the man going on two decades, and look where it got me.”
He flashes them a wide grin and shrugs, spreading his arms out to indicate the large office around him. ”King of the castle!”
”Guess they got sick of your bitching and just let you have at it, huh?” Jay teases him, feeling his lips pull into a cheeky grin when Agent Jay laughs. It’s a good laugh, bringing back memories of many late nights of drinking and shit-talking. ”Ey, is it true? You really trying to take down LAD?”
”Have you been reading my newsletter, Agent?” Agent Jay asks, and it sounds like he’s joking but he looks like he’s genuinely, and pleasantly, surprised.
Jay raises his eyebrows and crosses his arms, trying to appear dismissive but probably looking guilty as all fuck.
”Well,” Agent Jay chuckles, ”LAD is just one part of it, a symptom of what’s rotting at the core of our institution. I’m trying to implement a complete reform here, and change the way we operate on every level; from Immigration and Customs to Registration and extraterrestrial welfare, to how we negotiate all of our planetary and intergalactic relations.”
”We’ve all attended the rebranding workshop,” Kay cuts in, not even trying to hide the resentment he still carries for having been coerced into wasting a whole day on company policy bullshit; listening to inspirational talks and suffering through seemingly endless powerpoint presentations, ”please don’t make me relive it.”
”Fair enough,” Agent Jay narrows his eyes and stands up a little straighter, clasping his hands behind his back, ”then let’s talk business instead.”
Zed steps closer and quickly taps her fingers over her tablet, eyes on one of the screens next to Agent Jay’s as a bunch of files flash up for them all to see.
”This is Toby Keen, registered extra-human Illinois five-five-nine, six-oh-nine,” she says as she brings up the image of a man in his early forties, dark and conventionally handsome, smiling amicably at the camera, ”landed in ’06, Mr Keen was one of the first of the Jeltz to make contact with us after the Aurigae Conflict ended and Atik opened up their stratosphere for civilian travel.”
”And opened up for ten years of mass migration,” Kay points out, like he thinks the room needs reminding of that fact, ”we know, met two of them this morning, didn’t we?”
Jay ignores his partner’s attempt to rattle him, or whatever the fuck he’s doing, and just nods. He trusts Kay not to rat him out by actually telling Zed about their earlier house call – or Jay’s unconventional way of dealing with said house call – but he would also never expect him to keep his trap shut in any way gracefully or subtly.
”Since he landed,” Zed continues, obviously choosing to ignore Kay’s input as she taps through some more pages of the report flicking past them on the screen, ”Mr Keen has been an ambassador for his people, and over the past ten years he’s helped countless of his species to settle in and find a place as citizens of Earth.”
”What did he do?” Jay asks, glaring between Agent Jay and Zed to try and figure out where this is going. ”’Cause if you’re looking for some sucker to babysit a fucking diplomat, let me just stop you right now and tell you that you’re both very welcome to ask someone else.”
”I’m afraid not, Agent,” Zed cuts the argument short, bringing up a new photo on the screen. It’s of a man lying face down on a large oriental carpet in the middle of a sparsely decorated living room, a large wound burnt through half of his rib-cage. ”Mr Keen was found dead in his home this morning.”
Jay feels a pinch of regret at being so flippant about the guy, and maybe a little bit bad for the excitement rushing through him at the prospect of a real case.
”Pretty much,” Zed agrees, completely unfazed as usual, ”estimated time of death is somewhere between 11 and 12 PM last night, his wife woke up at 6:30 AM and found him like this. They live in a large house, but still.”
”Suggests a quick, silent hit,” Jay says, frowning as he steps closer to get a better look at the victim and his surroundings. ”What did Bee say?”
”The body only came in half an hour ago, he’s still working on the autopsy,” Zed nods, bringing up a more detailed photo of the victim, ”but between the precise execution and the obvious use of an implosion capacity carbonizer, preliminary findings strongly suggest a Cephlapoid attack.”
”Jesus,” Kay mutters and shuts his mouth when Zed shoots him a warning glare, but only to immediately open it again, ”and you brainiacs want to shut LAD down? This is exactly why we need to double down on surveillance and make sure we keep an eye on these lawless monsters. They are literally a planet of assassins, this is what they do!”
”Not all of them,” Zed argues, before wincing slightly, ”a vast majority do make a living as assassins, yes, but they’re not monsters and they’re far from lawless. They operate according to centuries of tradition and with strict law governing all their activity, however monstrous it may seem to us.”
”We’ve reached out to Munforte,” Agent Jay adds, ”asking the Cephlapoid king for any intel they might have on the matter.”
Kay snorts. ”And how did that work out for you?”
”They haven’t been entirely forthcoming with… anything, no, so far,” Agent Jay admits, ”but then again, neither have we. It is of the utmost importance that we keep this incident on the down-low until we know what happened for sure and can take action within the parameters of intergalactic law.”
”This is neutral ground,” Jay thinks out loud, looking at Agent Jay when he nods, ”ordering a hit on an Atik official-, on Earth, this could be seen as a direct act of war.”
”Which is why we need you two to investigate this case before we contact the Jeltz and deliver the news about Mr Keen’s demise,” Agent Jay explains, ”it’s our job first and foremost to keep the citizens and refugees living on this planet safe, one wrong step here and we might trigger another century of war between Munforte and Atik, only this time we’ll be stuck in the cross-fire.”
”I haven’t had a run in with one of those punk assassin squids since the late nineties,” Kay says, looking around the room as Agent Jay nods in agreement, corroborating his point, ”they’ve been on the no-land list since before I put on the black. If there’s one here now, killing extras for whatever reason – ’cause they wanna start another war or they just got murder in their blood – fact is they shouldn’t have been able to land in the first place.”
Jay looks over at Agent Jay on his screen, subtly switching his stance and squaring his shoulders, obviously getting ready to shut down any kind of debate Kay might want to instigate, right now. Jay isn’t a fan of being told to shut up and obey, but there has got to be a time and fucking place to bitch and moan about your political opinions, and this sure as fuck isn’t it.
”This is why shutting down LAD makes absolutely no sense,” Kay continues, obviously feeling like this is the perfect time and place, ”if we had eyes and ears on this guy, we wouldn’t be standing here with a dead body and no solid leads – we’d be down in the cells already, bagging and tagging the scumbag who did this, no muss no fuss.”
”Your opinion has been duly noted,” Agent Jay cuts in, his usually jovial tone of voice suddenly hard and immovable, ”and dismissed. This bureau may be separate from the state, but we do not exist in a vacuum. The world has changed drastically in the last fifteen years, and it is clear to me that the Men in Black need to change with it.”
Jay has heard Agent Jay talk about this before – ideas for the bureau that he’s had since he first got drafted, but which only recently have caught on through the upper levels of the organization. Most of it is corporate bullshit, but some of it is making more and more sense every time Jay has to listen to his friend go off about it.
”You don’t have to agree with me,” Agent Jay continues, eyes still trained squarely on Kay’s blankly sullen face, ”but, respectfully, I don’t give a fuck. The Landed Alien Display was an idea of its time and it does not reflect the shifting values we’re trying to implement within our organization today, where we need to actively counterbalance whatever bullshit they’ve got cooking in the White House by switching up our priorities. To respect the privacy and freedom of all legal citizens of this planet, even when – and I’d say, especially when – it’s a huge pain in the ass.”
Kay huffs and shakes his head, but he doesn’t argue.
”The world is changing,” Agent Jay reiterates, ”and we need to change with it. We cannot stay hidden forever, and the extras living here under our protection deserve to live openly and proudly. It is my absolute conviction that the world will be ready to know what we have already known for decades – that we are not alone in this universe or, indeed, on this planet – and when it is, we have to be prepared to deal with the fallout.”
Listening to his friend speak, Jay almost feels like he would as little boy. Staring up at his father – big and imposing and all-powerful – as he tells the world around him what he wants and how it ought to behave. But Jay’s old man only ever spoke about change as it would serve him, and while the things Agent Jay is pushing for most likely will be tough on them, they all seem part of an effort to make the world a better place in the long run. For everyone.
And Jay finds himself desperately wanting to trust him when he says it can be done, even while he doesn’t believe it at all.
”Our country is in a state of turmoil,” Agent Jay says, almost like he can hear what Jay is thinking, ”nazis in the streets, racists and bigots and fearful people crawling out of the woodworks the second they got the chance. But I’m telling you that they will not win this fight, and one small group of people pulling in the wrong direction is no reason to continue hiding.”
”I don’t know,” Kay clearly can’t help himself, ”it’s been working just fine for over sixty years.”
”Sure it has,” Agent Jay all but rolls his eyes at the comment, ”and so far all contact that’s been made with us, has been made by the books and under the radar. But before you know it we’ll have the Omicronian Intergalactic Party Cruiser crash-landing in the Bering Sea and ’nuclear strike’ will be on everyone’s lips before the ship’s even had time to plug in the karaoke machine and advertise the open bar.”
”Agents,” Zed cuts in, ”how about we leave the politics for one of our many, many Policy and Guidelines meetings, and instead focus on the task at hand.”
Kay huffs indignantly, but still takes a step back and squares his shoulder as Agent Jay looks over at Zed and nods his approval.
”Find out what happened here,” he says, ”you have twenty-four hours before we have to contact the Atik government and give them the unfortunate news of Mr Keen’s death.”
”That boy is so full of hot air,” Kay mutters as they approach their car, ”one day he’s gonna start levitating mid-speech and fly right out into space.”
”Don’t call him ’boy’,” Jay says with a wince, pulling open the door on the driver’s side, ”besides the obvious point that it makes you sound like a racist old prick, dude’s well over forty.”
Kay scoffs, getting in on the passenger side. ”He’s got a good eye in for you, which I don’t get. You hate all this company policy reform bullshit just as much as me, if not more.”
Starting the car, Jay shrugs as he checks the rearview mirror and backs out of the narrow parking spot.
”I hate the song and dance,” he admits and takes off through the garage, heading for the east-facing exit, ”don’t so much mind the tune.”
”The hell does that mean?” Kay asks with a laugh, his annoyed frown smoothed out when Jay glances his way.
”Don’t ask don’t tell,” Jay throws out the first example he can think of, gripping the wheel with one hand so he can leave the other open to gesture freely when Kay appears lost on the parallel, ”tell all the queers to hide so people don’t gotta see them, and we got no problem? This is the exact same bullshit, man, take it from someone who’s spent most of his life in a fucking closet, forcing a whole community to live their lives on the DL really shouldn’t be the goal here.”
”But we’re talking aliens, Jay,” Kay argues, instinctively ducking his head when they drive through another cloaked exit, ”aliens, there’s a reason why we’ve kept their presence on Earth hidden for this long.”
”Oh yeah, and why is that?” Jay asks, frowning out at the dimly lit tunnel as it opens up into a dirty back alley. ”Actually just tell me fuckin’ why, though, ’cause people are dumb? ’Cause they can’t handle it? ’Cause you and me are so fuckin’ special.”
”A person is smart, people are panicky and stupid,” Kay paraphrases an honest-to-God section of their handbook. Jay remembers reading it and thinking it sounded smart, once, but the easy, flippant statement has really lost a lot of its shine over the years he’s spent in service.
Kay doesn’t seem to have had the same revelation.
”Always been that way, kid,” he hums, like it’s set in stone, ”always will be.”
”So you’re gonna keep on denying people knowledge and then sit there and call ’em stupid?” Jay says, raising his eyebrows with a pleased smirk when Kay lets out an amused groan. ”Yeah, okay, and that don’t seem like a problem to you?”
”You sound like him,” Kay clearly tries to change the subject by teasing him, going on the way he grins when Jay risks a glance his way and picks up his eyebrows by another notch.
”Like fuck I do,” Jay flat out denies it, ”are we doing Pearl’s first, or what?”
”As good a start as any,” Kay allows for the divergence for a second, before bringing the conversation right back on track, ”the real question is if you actually believe in all that corporate policy reform hooey, or are you maybe – actually – just hot for teacher.”
Jay makes a sharp left turn and shakes his head.
”Fuck off,” he scoffs, ”who do you think I am, huh? I ain’t never changed my mind about shit to please some dude, man, like ninety percent of my game is straight up antagonism. Rag on them until they either leave or find a way to shut me up, works every time.”
”But not on Agent Hot Air?” Kay asks as Jay makes a turn and pulls up to the side of the street, parking outside a row of cluttered storefronts spilling out on the sidewalk.
Jay rolls his eyes and gets out, gesturing at his partner over the roof of the car when Kay follows his lead.
”What’s with the twenty questions about this shit?” he complains as they start moving towards the shops. ”Four years together in this damned car and now you want the 411 on my botch-ass love life?”
”Just curious,” Kay says with a shrug, parting the beaded curtain barely covering the entrance to Pearl’s Place, the glass door wedged wide open to let in some of the hot August air, ”after you.”
Jay moves past him and walks into the shop, the beads rustling behind them as Kay follows and lets the long strands fall back down to dance and clatter against the doorposts.
”Just curious,” he mimics his partner with a scoff, walking up to the register and snapping his fingers to get the attention from the bored teenage girl reading a newspaper behind the counter, ”ey, is Pearl around?”
The girl sighs and doesn’t look up from the paper as she points with her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the narrow doorway leading to the back rooms.
”Thank you,” Jay snarks, ”we’ll just let ourselves through then, I guess.”
”Free country,” she mutters dismissively, pointedly shifting her gaze over the open spread of her glossy magazine and still not sparing them so much as a cursory glance.
She puts on a good show, but Jay doesn’t miss the way her hand discreetly reaches in under the counter at the same time, the tendons in her wrist straining as though she’s pushing in a hidden button. Looking her over, Jay also catches the split second of a flicker in the corner of her eye, the tell-tale sign of a cloaked 360 degree vision.
Jay clears his throat and pulls out his ID, flicking it open and tapping the edge of the worn leather casing against the glass countertop.
”You got your license and registration on you, miss?” he asks, mostly just to be an ass but maybe also to make some kind of point.
The glamor shimmers across her face when the girl’s eyes suddenly swivel and expand, her reptile pupils like stone when they focus on him entirely. It’s like an instinctual flare of cocky pride, both a warning and a courtesy, and it disappears as quickly as it appeared – leaving her unimpressed hazel eyes to lazily bore into Jay instead. Her teenage derision is almost as effectively intimidating as her reptile show of dominance.
She doesn’t offer up her papers, but she also doesn’t start a fight so Jay considers it a win. In a show of good faith, Jay flips his ID card closed again and tucks it back into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. They don’t break eye contact for a second as the girl reaches out to push down a clunky button on the PA system next to the register, before leaning only demonstratively closer to the mic when she opens her mouth to speak.
”Alors,” she says, her voice amplified through the whole store along with the squeak and distortion of old speakers and a couple of bad connections, ”Maman, il y a des flics ici qui sont venus te voir.”
Jay only raises his eyebrows at her when she pointedly looks up at him and cracks a small, wicked smile.
”Est-ce que je les laisse entrer, ou-,” she continues, dragging out the syllable as she looks between the two stony-faced agents, ”peux-je les manger?”
”Le déjeuner sera prêt dans une heure, bébé, ne mange pas les invités,” a distant voice calls from the back rooms, ”send them through!”
Jay crosses his arms and smirks, thoroughly unimpressed by the whole display when the girl raises her eyebrows at him and makes a sweeping motion with her arm, showing the way to the door at the back end of the shop.
They leave the girl to her business and move through the increasingly narrow aisles of the shop, lined with shelves and stuffed full with stacks of canned food and unmarked bags of dried produce. The further back they get, the more off-brand things get – until none of it is looking like anything you’d find growing on a farm this side of the solar system.
Brushing aside another beaded curtain, Jay ducks through the small doorway at the far end of the shop. It leads to a glum, narrow hallway that in the dust and vague light seems to go on forever, unevenly spaced doors and open doorways lining the corridor on either side. The beads do another clattery dance, letting him know that Kay is right behind him as he makes his way over to the first office to the left. Peering into the smoke-hazy room, he raps his knuckles against the splintering wood of the wide-open door.
”Agents,” Pearl greets them, getting up from behind her desk only to turn around and wrestle open a small window, airing out some of the fumes. She waves her hands as though to shoo the smoke out into the sunlight, before turning to inspect her guests with a sour frown.
”Pearl,” Jay nods at her, ”how’s business?”
”Considerably better two minutes ago,” she says, narrowing her eyes at Jay for a second before shifting her sullen gaze to somewhere just off his left shoulder, ”I wish I could say it’s a pleasure, but you boys never visit with good news, or come bearing gifts for that matter. Would it kill you to sweeten this deal we’ve got from time to time, eh? Some chocolate wouldn’t hurt.”
Kay huffs and steps up on Jay’s side, gesturing offhandedly in the general direction of the storefront. ”We sweeten the deal enough already by not booking your ass right now. I saw at least five different banned substances in there just walking through, and I’m sure we could rack up a couple of health code violations if we really put our backs into it. We’re being incredibly lenient with you and your business, Pearl, and you know it.”
”Tit for tat, non?” Pearl proposes, sitting down in her squeaky chair and picking up one of the brown cigarillos from the case half buried under the mess of papers on her desk. ”I assume you want something, so I suggest you stop threatening me and get to the point-”
She puts the cigarillo to her lips and flicks her lighter, the bright orange flame flaring up and throwing light and dark shadows to dance briefly across her face, catching on the golden sequins sewn into the brightly patterned fabric pinned tightly around her hair, tied up in a knot on top of her head.
”Vite, messieurs,” she demands in an impatient exhale as she sit back in her chair, looking up at her guests through the thick puff of smoke flowing out through her nose and mouth, ”before I change my mind.”
Jay can tell that his partner is gearing up for a bitch-off just by the way he squares his shoulders, so he takes it upon himself to cut the crap and get cracking.
”We’re looking for a squid,” he says, ignoring the annoyed puff of air Kay lets out next to him, ”here on business, carrying an unlicensed carbonizer.”
Pearl’s eyes snap to him, searching his face as though she thinks he might be trying to trick her.
”I don’t deal with Cephs,” she says, absently shaking her head before taking another quick puff off her stinky cigarillo, ”I can’t help you.”
”You can’t help us?” Kay asks, glancing at Jay before looking back at Pearl, shifting uncomfortably in her seat and glaring back at them. ”But you know something?”
”I don’t deal with them,” she repeats, ”and I know no more than any other extra living in this city.”
”And what’s that?” Jay frowns, raising his eyebrows and pursing his lips together when Pearl looks between him and Kay, like she thinks they’re either idiots or messing with her.
”It’s a-,” she starts, waving a hand impatiently as she mutters under her breath, smoke swirling from the cigarillo still casually clutched between two fingers, ”an urban legend, it’s bullshit. I heard it a lot a long time ago when the conflict ended, and now the whispering has started again. It wasn’t true then, it won’t be true now.”
She cocks her head to the side and takes a drag off her smoke, before reaching over to put it out in the overflowing ashtray on her desk. It wasn’t even half-finished and it makes Jay’s fingers twitch, and think of the last time he felt nicotine rush through his system.
He wonders what Ian is doing right now, and then immediately shuts that bullshit down.
”They say he’s here,” Pearl continues, clearly reveling in the drawn out reveal, ”that the lost heir of Munforte didn’t die in the Last Revolution, but was sent here and is kept hidden on neutral ground.”
”Like some fucking space Anastasia?” Jay huffs, eyebrows climbing up his forehead when Pearl shrugs.
”Told you it’s just a story,” she says, holding up her hands in a show of surrender to his disbelief, ”all I know is that there’s been a contract on his head since the Aurigae Conflict ended. But even if he actually survived the revolution there’s no way he’s survived the following 20 years, even finding refuge on a neutral planet. Cephs don’t like unfinished business.”
”Wait,” Jay stops her, frowning at the sudden reminder of something she said earlier, ”you don’t deal with them? But you know them- are there Cephlapoid extras living in Chicago that we don’t know about?”
Pearl looks between them, almost like she’s shaking her head as she seems to think it over. They have a deal, she helps the bureau when they really need it and in exchange, they don’t bust her for dealing with low-level illegal contraband amongst the ever increasing number of unregistered aliens taking up residence across the city. She knows them all, and she would never surrender their names to the MiB, not for anything. Jay knows this from experience.
Which is why he also knows something must have really spooked her when she sets her jaw and closes her eyes, and gives them a name.
”Nathan Schachter,” Kay reads off his notes as they step out of Pearl’s, ”doesn’t exactly sound like a rampant, warmongering assassin, does it?”
Jay takes another big bite out of his hotdog and shrugs, struggling a little not to spill all over himself when the toppings threaten to overflow the bun.
”Don’t even know if he’s our guy,” he says, wiping away some pickle juice escaping the corner of his mouth, ”could just be another squid, looking to keep his tentacles outta trouble.”
”Doesn’t sound like any squid I’ve ever known,” Kay mutters, glancing down the street.
”You’ve known a lot of ’em?” Jay asks, popping the end of his ’dog in his mouth and grinning when Kay throws him a bored look.
”Met enough to know they’re always bad news,” he says, ”and nothing in this case so far has worked to convince me otherwise.”
”Plenty left to go,” Jay shrugs, swallowing down his lunch before hungrily eyeing the still untouched hotdog in his partner’s hand, ”you’re not eating that?”
”Help yourself,” Kay makes a face, handing it over, ”can’t believe you’re eating this shit, you realize they stick all kinds of dodgy import meat in these, right?”
Jay smirks and takes an extra big bite, just to make a point, as they slowly start walking in the direction of their car.
”’s good,” he says, voice muffled as he chews, ”Earth pig, space pig, what’s the big diff? She makes us buy something every time we come here, not like I’m gonna throw away good food.”
”To each their own,” Kay definitely still sounds like he thinks it’s disgusting, but also like he’d prefer not to talk about it anymore, ”let’s drive through Checkers on the way, I’m starving.”
”Sure,” Jay pops the last end of Kay’s unwanted hotdog in his mouth and checks the traffic as he walks out on the street to get to the driver’s side, ”let’s get you a burger, you big baby, like you got any clue what they grind into their meat at those places, you wouldn’t believe the shit Cheryl’s told me.”
”That’s the whole point, though, I wouldn’t believe it,” Kay argues, pulling his door open when Jay unlocks the car, ”like, at least they make sure to hide all the gross things going on backstage, you know? Let a guy live a lie, why don’t you?”
”To each their own,” Jay mimics his partner, smirking when Kay’s rolling eyes disappear out of view as he gets in.
A gust of wind snags the greasy square of paper left behind his hotdog out of Jay’s hand, it flutters down the street and lands in a gutter. Ignoring it and brushing some stray crumbs off his suit, he joins his partner in the car.
”He’s not in LAD,” Kay tells him, tapping away at the little keyboard under the screen built into the Ford’s console, ”surprise, surprise.”
”Cross-reference the address with the external records,” Jay suggests as he gets the car started and pulls out into traffic, ”Pearl’s got no reason to lie to us.”
Jay keeps his eyes on the road, but he can still sense the look Kay shoots his way.
”She knows we can shut her down,” he says in defense of what must sound like some kinda naive, misplaced trust, ”she wouldn’t risk it over some misjudged loyalty to a fucking Ceph, man, you saw her in there. She likes them even less than you do, and that’s saying something.”
”Here,” Kay ignores his solid argument and points at the meager profile filling up the screen, ”the CPD’s got him on a minor assault charge from ’98, and-”
Jay can hear him swiping through the file, looking over the different hits.
”-the OCC’s got him on a pet license, huh,” he continues, pausing for a second to read through the page before he continues, ”Schnauzer.”
”Age?” Jay asks as he turns them in towards Checkers’ drive-thru, getting in line behind the dusty pickup blocking the ordering station.
”Not the dog, numbnuts,” Jay complains, switching gear and creeping forward when the pickup moves on to the next window, ”the guy.”
”Specificity is a virtue, partner,” Kay mumbles as Jay drives up to the speaker, winding down his window, ”and it’s forty-eight, according to this.”
”Welcome to Checkers, may I take your order?”
”Yeah, can-,” Jay starts before he turns to his partner, remembering that they’re not here for him to have a second lunch on top of the alien sausages sloshing around in his belly right now, ”ey, what do you want?”
”Big Buford, just the burger.”
”The eh-,” Jay leans closer to the mic, ”Big Buford, no frills.”
”Would you like fries with that?”
”When did these things start landing?” Kay asks, back to business.
”Nah, just the burger,” Jay clarifies out the window, the disembodied voice repeating his order and asking them to dive up to the next window as he sits back, ”sixty-two, there was like a wave of first contacts from the Alpha Aurigae system in the early sixties, Atik being the shining exception I guess. Munforte was officially put on the no-land list in sixty-nine, after the Cruces trial.”
”How the hell do you know all this shit?” Kay mutters, not looking up from the screen as he shakes his head. ”You weren’t even alive at the time.”
”Wrote about the Aurigae Conflict for the essay portion of my entry exam,” Jay drives up to the next window and ignores his partner’s derisive snort, ”what’s up, Cheryl?”
”Agents,” Cheryl greets them, leaning out her window to hand over the brown paper bag, ”Big Buford, that’ll be 4.99 please.”
Jay throws a hopeful glance at his partner, who shrugs dismissively.
”You owe me since last week,” he says, still not bothering to look up from his reading even as Jay is passing him his lunch.
”Sure, whatever,” Jay clicks his tongue and shuffles in his seat so he can wedge in a hand under his ass and get out his wallet, nodding slightly at Cheryl, ”haven’t seen you around in a while, how’s the new leg?”
Cheryl’s stern face softens a little as she lifts a shoulder in a half-assed shrug.
”Not perfect, but better,” she says, taking his money when he hands it over, ”it’s got me walking, so I’m not gonna complain.”
Jay nods. He usually makes it a point not to involve himself with the bureau’s operations beyond his own assignments, but lately he’s been feeling kinda restless and reluctantly interested in some of MiB’s more humanitarian endeavors and departments. Like the Extremity Adjustment Center, which turned out to be a lot like some kind of cross between a physical rehabilitation center and a robotics lab, and a really fucking nice place to spend the occasional day off. And not just because of all the cool technology built into the humanoid bodysuits, but also because he got the chance to meet some really genuinely decent extras there.
Like Cheryl. The six inch tall, moth-looking alien is surly and stubborn as all fuck both in and out of her human body, but she’s also funny as shit when she wants to be and, in the end, just another bug looking to keep her animatronic head down and live her life in peace. He doesn’t get to meet too many of those when he’s out working cases.
”I hear tech’s been cooking up a new prototype for the B-model,” he tells her, even though he probably shouldn’t, ”think it’s supposed to be out for clinical trials next year, in case you wanna get on the waiting list.”
”Maybe,” Cheryl hands him back his change and glances at the short queue of cars waiting in line behind him, ”enjoy your meal, Agents, come again soon.”
There’s definitely something she’s not telling him, but he knows better by now than to try and push for her to open up. This is not the time or the place for any kind of in-depth interrogation either, judging by the impatient honk coming from the car behind them.
”Yeah, okay,” he mutters and pointedly makes time to give his rear view mirror the finger, before he puts the car in first and looks back up at Cheryl, ”give me a call if you change your mind about that list, alright? I’ll try and bump you up or something.”
She gives him a terse nod but doesn’t say anything when there’s another insistent honk from the back of the line, so Jay decides to floor it before he gets too annoyed and does something stupid, like getting out of the car to make a point about harassing the wrong people.
He’s always been the wrong people, ever since he was born into the shadow of his family’s name. Sometimes it feels like a big joke that putting on the black – and with it transcending normal society’s law and order – somehow managed to make him more cautious about breaking it.
But most of the time he’s just happy he’s no longer a Milkovich.
There’s a tinny ’ding’ and the elevator doors reluctantly slide open. Jay takes the lead as they step out into the hallway and, glancing down the corridor to his right, goes with his guts and makes a left.
”209?” he asks, reading the numbers on the passing doors, 217, 216, 215.
”207,” Kay says behind him. Close enough, at least they’re going in the right direction.
Peering down the hallway, he counts out the doors until he has identified the right one, first now noticing that there is a man standing right in front of it. One hand on the doorknob, it looks like he’s trying to decide if he should go through the door, or walk away.
”Hey!” Jay calls out, getting the man’s instant attention, eyes widening when he sees the two suited officials moving towards him. He does a quick check of his options, glancing down towards the dead end on his other side before looking back at Jay and taking a step away from the door.
”I wasn’t-,” he starts and holds up his hands when he cuts himself off, looking nervously between Jay and the door. They can hear the muffled yapping of a smallish dog through the flimsy wood-imitation, and it only grows louder as they move closer.
”You Nathan Schachter?” Jay asks, raising his eyebrows when the man shakes his head and takes another step back. It makes sense, Jay’s close enough now to tell that this man is a clear decade older than what they’re looking for. ”You know him, though? He lives here?”
”Yes, yeah-,” the man lowers his hands and looks away from Jay to frown at the still yapping door, ”I wasn’t trying to break in or anything, I have a key. I’m his neighbor.”
”Yeah?” Kay comes up next to Jay and takes out his flip book. ”What’s your name, sir?”
”Ellis,” the man says, seemingly having no issues giving out his name to an as yet unidentified authority, ”Bert Ellis, I’ve lived next to Nate for three years, and I tell you every single morning of those three years I have met him in the hallway stepping out or coming home with Isabella-, that’s his dog-”
”Schnauzer,” Kay confirms with a nod, making a note.
”Yes,” Ellis looks even more confused than he did before, glancing nervously between Jay and his dramatic-ass partner, laying it on real thick with his federal agent schtick, ”she’s a good girl. I’ve never heard her bark like this.”
Ellis gestures towards the door again, the yapping pausing for a second only to come back with renewed force.
”I didn’t see them this morning,” he says, looking pleadingly at Jay, obviously feeling less nervous about his silence than Kay’s exuberant performance, ”maybe it’s silly.”
”You got a key?” Jay asks, raising his eyebrows when Ellis nods and it takes him an extra second to catch on and dig out a cluttered key ring.
”It’s this one,” he says, holding it out by one of the keys.
”Step back, sir,” Kay says as Jay turns to the door and unlocks it.
”Shouldn’t we maybe knock first?”
”We’re federal agents, sir, we don’t knock.”
Ignoring the conversation behind him and pushing the door open, Jay sneaks a hand in behind his lapel to carefully rest it over his holstered service weapon, unclipping the safety strap with his thumb as he steps in over the threshold.
Isabella the dog goes straight for his feet, running eights around his ankles and yapping even more than before, standing up on her hind legs to paw at Jay’s knees and calves.
”Alright,” Jay mutters and tries to be gentle about it when he uses the side of his foot to usher the small dog out of his path, so he can make his way down the narrow hallway and peer into the larger room beyond.
The living room is cluttered and a little unkempt, two large west-facing windows letting in the sharp midday sun and showing every speck of dust dancing through the still air. The lights are all off and Jay can’t sense any movement from any of the adjoining rooms in the modest one bedroom apartment. It’s quiet, too, once Isabella finally decided to shut up and instead cower behind Jay, her labored panting and the soft ticking of a distant wall clock the only noise that can be heard.
”Nathan Schachter?” Jay tries, but all he gets in reply is a quick bark from Isabella, before the dog suddenly gets up and slinks past him and in behind the couch standing in the middle of the room. She whines pitifully and then barks again, like she’s telling Jay to stop pussyfooting and follow.
”Jesus,” Jay mutters when he rounds the couch and sees the lifeless body of a man, what’s left of him looking to be about forty years old. At first glance he might appear to be just another case for the local authorities – his glassy, wide open eyes and slack features still distinctly human – but anything more than a cursory look at the mess spilling out of the lacerations across his chest and belly would instantly expose his alien nature.
There’s very little blood, considering the wounds, and everything seems to be a couple of shades grayer than it should be.
Jay lets go of his gun and takes a couple of quick steps around the body, crouching down by his head to check for any kind of life-sign, taking out his phone to enable the body-scanner and hover it over the man’s face and chest. Its calm beeps only confirm what he already knew, Nathan Schachter is dead.
The light gasp is almost not audible at all, only just loud enough to get Jay to lock his phone and glance over his shoulder. Ellis is staring down at his dead neighbor, hand clasped over his mouth. Kay steps into the room after him and Jay is just about to snap at him for letting the normie inside when Isabella the goddamned dog suddenly erupts into a snarling, barking hell-beast, leaping up to stand between her expired master and the newcomers.
”Take care of this,” Jay gets up on his feet, pointing at the dog and then at the distraught neighbor, pursing his lips together and raising his eyebrows at his partner’s blunder, ”he’s been dead for a while, man, I’m calling it in.”
”Squid?” Kay asks, probably figuring he might as well be blunt, seeing as he’s gonna have to wipe Mr Ellis’ memory anyway. Jay nods and gestures towards the body.
”Sure was something, anyway,” he says, ”looks like he didn’t uncloak to defend himself, whatever happened here must’ve been quick.”
”What?” Ellis squeaks, bringing the attention back to him.
”Not to worry, Mr Ellis, could you-,” Kay sighs and scowls down at the dog, still snarling and barking at his feet, ”could you do something about the dog and come with me, please? I need to officially take your statement.”
Ellis visibly swallows, trying to collect himself, then he takes one last long look at his friend before he stoops down and easily picks up the upset dog.
”Sure,” he says, hugging Isabella to his chest, seemingly calming them both down, ”good girl, let’s step outside with the nice Agent.”
Jay waits for them to disappear out of sight before he calls HQ, carefully walking through the living room as he makes his brief report, simultaneously taking mental inventory of all of Mr Schachter’s Earthly possessions. It’s mostly dusty books and tacky knick-knacks, filling the teak shelves and sometimes spilling out on the carpeted floor in stacks of old volumes and weird-ass statuettes.
Jay finds that there is something mildly unpleasant about Mr Schachter’s home, but not really in the murdery alien, squiddy kind of way he would have expected. Jay’s apartment is quite literally a soulless box fitted by the MiB’s Accommodations Department and their star interior designer, who’s gotta be both color-blind and dead sick of her job judging by everything from the monochrome wallpapers to the modest furnishing. It’s not like it matters what his home looks like, anyway, he only goes there to sleep and occasionally relax, watch a movie or rub one out – or both. He never brings anyone there, he’s never bought anything personal to hang on the walls or put on the shelves. His wardrobe is all dressed in black, just like him.
It’s the job. It is what it is. And maybe Mr Schachter’s home makes Jay uncomfortable because even though it’s a straight up mess, at least it’s a lived in mess. There’s not a single thing in the dead extra’s apartment that doesn’t look acutely personal.
Except maybe the one thing – gleaming and sleek, and sticking out like a sore thumb – is an implosion capacity carbonizer sloppily hid away on the worn carpet of his closet.
Crouching down on the floor, Jay reaches in and gingerly picks up the gun, holding it up to check the clip before he bags it. Carrying it with him he turns to take in the rest of the bedroom, the neatly made bed and the full length mirror hung up next to the closet. The bedroom is significantly less cluttered than the rest of the apartment, it’s practically spartan in comparison to the living room. There’s only the one small stack of books on the bedside table, three or four of them neatly piled up and weighted down by a clock radio.
Jay walks over to the bed and sits down, setting the gun aside for a second to move the radio and pick up the top book. It’s a copy of some kind of romance novel, but the title isn’t nearly as interesting as the worn edge of a bookmark sticking up about half-way through it.
Pulling it out, Jay puts the book back and holds up the bookmark to catch the light.
It’s a photo, the time and date printed by the lab on the back.
”March 2008,” he mutters, swiping the smooth pad of his thumb over the note in the bottom corner. The pencil has faded and smudged over the years, but Jay can still make out the neatly printed inscription. ”My prince”.
He turns the photo around and feels something drop inside his gut. It’s of Nathan Schachter, a little younger for sure but still looking pretty much the same as now – except alive. So damned alive, smiling wide for the camera with one arm slung over the shoulders of a younger man pressing a kiss to his cheek.
His face is half hidden, his distinct profile softened by late adolescence and his hair buzzed short to match his camo getup. He almost looks like a completely different person than the one Jay talked to just this morning, but still there is no doubt in his mind.
A sudden noise from the other room breaks him out of his close study of the photograph, reminding him of the backup he requested. Following some kind of gut reaction he might want to look over at a later time, Jay quickly tucks the photo into the inner pocket of his jacket before he grabs the bagged gun and leaves the bedroom.
”-this is terribly exciting,” Bee is in full form, standing over the body mid-lecture when Jay joins them, ”I mean not for this poor fellow, of course, it’s just that I haven’t had many opportunities to study these fascinating people in any kind of practical sense in years.”
”Well,” Kay shrugs, ”here’s your shot, doc.”
”Indeed,” Bee agrees, Kay’s dry tone probably shooting right over his head when he kneels down by the body and takes out one of his instruments, ”did you know I did a year off planet for my second degree? Oh yes, I’m one of only three Terrans to ever have been invited to study Cruces on their home planet-, a dreadful place, Munforte, tremendously fascinating.”
”Uh-huh,” Kay absently agrees, looking at Jay, ”you got something?”
”Smoking gun,” Jay says, handing the weapon over to one of Bee’s assistants milling around the scene, bagging and tagging shit.
”Yeah,” Jay nods, the photo practically burning a hole through his suit as he doesn’t mention it, ”recently fired, too, clip says less than 24 hours ago.”
”Seems we might’ve caught our killer,” Kay looks down at the dead extra, ”and got ourselves a new case in the process.”
”Same case,” Bee corrects him, folding up his instrument and looking up at them, ”there are some minor, but significant inconsistencies in the evidence found at the scene of Mr Keen’s murder. I’m not at all convinced that the perpetrator was a licensed Munforte assassin, or even Cephlapoid for that matter.”
”Come on,” Kay mutters, rolling his eyes and gesturing at the deceased Mr Schachter, ”you just said this guy’s a certified squid, doc, and Jay literally found the still smoking gun in his closet.”
”What inconsistencies?” Jay asks, frowning when Bee looks at him.
”Nothing that can’t be explained by chance or circumstance, I suppose, except for one thing,” he says, holding up a finger, ”there was no contract.”
Jay raises his eyebrows in surprise, looking between Kay and Bee. ”We got access to Munforte’s records?”
”No, and we won’t,” Bee dismisses the idea with a wave of his hand, ”you don’t understand, a Cephlapoid termination contract isn’t just an idea, or mere ceremony, it’s a physical object and absolute law. An assassination authorized by Munforte is properly finalized only once the contract has been returned to its subject.”
”Maybe he lost it,” Kay shrugs, ignoring Bee’s affronted scowl at the mere suggestion, ”I misplace important papers all the time, always find them behind the cabinet though.”
”This is not a piece of paper,” Bee argues, glaring at Kay, ”you don’t just pin it to the body and call it a day, or lose it down the back of a cabinet. We’re talking about a highly sophisticated piece of tech and – depending on the status of the target – varying acts of thorough ceremony all involving some form or another of deeply invasive post-mortem surgery.”
”They stick the contract inside the body?” Jay sums it up as a question, glancing down at Mr Schachter’s corpse, remembering the kind, smiling face in the photograph.
Bee looks like he isn’t entirely pleased with Jay’s simplification, but he still nods. ”I suppose that’s one way to put it, yes. One gets marked for treason and likely to face one’s own execution if one is careless with ceremony under the rule of Munforte. It’s probably the only truly reliable thing about them, so they take it very seriously.”
Jay scratches the back of his head as he tries to get a better grip on the situation. ”What’s it look like?”
”The contract?” Bee lights up when Jay nods. ”Oh, there are over a hundred known variations, depending on the subject’s status, crime, and – for a lack of a better term – class. I couldn’t possibly tell you.”
”Then make an educated guess.”
”Well,” Bee looks up at the ceiling for a second, like he’s mentally sifting through what he knows about the late Mr Keen, ”guessing isn’t my forte, Agent, but considering the facts it’s likely to be a diplomat’s contract from the lower class spectrum, which probably makes it round and warm in color, and no bigger than what could fit in your hand.”
”This is ridiculous,” Kay huffs, nodding at Mr Schachter, ”this guy’s been here for over two decades from what little we know about him, what’s to say he didn’t just kill the good ambassador like a fucking normal person?”
”Yes, but then why the carbonizer?” Bee points out. ”Why go through the trouble getting your hands on a black-market weapon and committing a politically significant murder if the motive is personal?”
”Doc,” one of the assistants cut in, ”we’re ready to move the body.”
”Excuse me, Agents,” Bee says, ushering them aside and out of the way.
Jay clears his throat and turns to his partner, fully prepared to tell him about Ian’s photograph when something once again stops him. This whole thing is nothing more than a freak coincidence, surely, and Ian is pretty much the hottest fucking guy he’s ever met. He was bound to bump into one of his presumably many, many, exes at one point or another, it only makes sense. The fact that the ex in question happens to be a recently murdered alien shouldn’t have anything to do with Ian at all.
If Schachter has been holding on to this one photo for closing in on a full decade, chances are they haven’t been in any kind of contact for just as long. The best they can hope to get out of talking to Ian would, tops, be some personal insight to Schachter’s private life since he landed, and maybe some kernel of a clue as to why he one day would get himself a banned alien weapon and go shoot down an interplanetary politician.
The much likelier scenario is a totally clueless Ian about to get some sad news about the gross old man he dated as a fucking teenager, before finding out about the whole alien business – adding a couple of unfortunate tentacles to the hopefully mostly repressed memories of grey pubes.
Kay doesn’t need to be there for any of that.
”The neighbor wasn’t much help,” Kay tells him, reclaiming Jay’s full attention, ”but he said Schachter worked at the Barnes & Noble on Jackson.”
”Right,” Jay nods, swiping the pad of his thumb over the side of his mouth as he makes a quick decision, ”I’ll take the car and go talk to his colleagues, and you stay here and wrap up the crime scene.”
”Sure,” Kay agrees, ”I’ll get back to HQ with Bee and catch up on all this contract nonsense, see if there’s actually something there.”
Jay nods again and pats his partner on the shoulder as he walks past him, heading for the door. ”Let me know if you find anything.”
He doesn’t go to Nathan Schachter’s place of work, and if Jay already knew which dispatch station Ian belongs to then that’s his business. It’s not like he looked the guy up or anything, it’s just simple deduction and a damn near impossibility for him not to have figured it out after bumping into him for the third time on duty in the same precinct. Maybe he didn’t have to remember it once he figured out, but whatever, guess that’s part of the job too.
Figuring people out and never forgetting. It doesn’t sound as cool as ’hunting aliens’, but as far as job descriptions go it’s probably more accurate.
”Ey,” he steps up to the thing looking most like a reception when he walks through the doors to the dispatch station, rapping his knuckles against the desk to get the attention of the lady behind it, ”I’m looking for Ian Gallagher.”
”In regards to what?” she asks, barely looking up as she starts typing on her computer.
”A DOA he brought in last week, ma’am,” Jay says, trying his best to sound level and official, ”got a couple of follow up questions for him-”
”Mr Gallagher just finished his shift,” the receptionist cuts him off, and it isn’t entirely obvious if she’s trying to be helpful or brush him off when she finally looks up at him.
”Can I get his address?” Jay tries, pulling out his notebook. ”It’s pretty urgent that I get to talk to him.”
”As a matter of policy we never give out personal details about our employees,” the receptionist explains, making sure not to look the least bit impressed by Jay’s suit and the implied badge that comes with it, ”but he probably hasn’t left the building yet so you’re welcome to wait out back and see if he’s willing to talk to you.”
”Sure, thanks,” Jay says, pressing his lips together in a snarky smile when he nods at her and leaves.
There’s nothing out back, except one locked door he instinctively gets the feeling isn’t the one Ian’s supposed to come out through. The receptionist had a certain attitude about her, a kind of language he’s known how to understand since before he could talk. He could have claimed to be the goddamned president and she still would’ve sent him out back to stare at a door that’s likely to never open.
Unless he’s the one opening it. Taking out his phone, he quickly activates the decoder and checks his surroundings before hovering it over the keypad lock on the door, smirking when he hears it click.
Quietly making his way through the station, he easily avoids bumping into any of Ian’s colleagues and heads straight for the locker rooms. The whole station is pretty quiet and still, and there’s only one person left in the men’s locker room, towel wrapped around his hips and his hair still wet from the shower where he sits with his back to the door, elbows on his knees and head bent.
”Ian Gallagher?” Jay asks, even though he already knows, and forces himself not to stare at the drops of water snaking along Ian’s spine and disappearing down towards the bunched up hem of his loose towel. Ian’s head whips up and he twists to look at Jay, eyebrows climbing when he sees him, giving him a quick once-over before settling his gaze on Jay’s face.
”Yeah?” he says and stands up, adjusting his towel and tucking it more securely around his hips before he squares his shoulders and looks Jay over again, a cocky smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth when Jay can’t help doing the same. ”That’s me.”
”Agent Milkovich,” Jay introduces himself in the way that’s become a habit for him whenever he meets Ian, helplessly using this old name he’s supposed to have distanced himself from years ago, ”I’m with the MiB, I just need to ask you a couple of questions.”
”Guess that’s alright,” Ian smiles, pulling a hand through his hair and combing it back, ”but then you gotta do something for me.”
”Yeah?” Jay huffs, raising his eyebrows when Ian smiles wider. ”What’s that?”
”Give me your number?” Ian suggests, looking pleased as hell when Jay rolls his eyes. ”And let me buy you a drink sometime.”
”That’s it?” Jay shakes his head and gestures at Ian’s dripping physique. ”One look at this and one lousy drink, and you think I’m gonna bend over like some bitch?”
Ian shrugs, and in all honestly it makes Jay wanna tear his clothes off right there and then and let Ian bend him over whatever, wherever, and as many times as he’d like.
”Know what I want when I see it,” Ian says, eyes steadily on Jay’s face this time, ”figured you do, too. Likes a guy to cut to the chase.”
He’s full of shit. In all the separate times they’ve met for the first time, this is the only time Ian has done anything but vaguely flirt and dance around the unspoken question. If he wanted to cut to the chase, he could’ve done so years ago.
He’s also right, and Jay probably admits as much by the way he’s grinning.
”Cool,” Ian grins back, ”so ask me your questions and we’ll see what happens.”
Jay knows exactly what happens. He gets the answers he needs and then he probably won’t even wait for Ian to make his next move, before he’s brought out the memory eraser and once again reset their relationship to zero. But it’s nice to pretend, if only for a minute, that instead he’ll let Ian ask, and buy the drinks, and kiss him outside the bar, and take him home, and fuck him until he sees stars and nothing else matters.
Letting the fantasy go, Jay digs his teeth into his bottom lip and reaches into his jacket to pull out Schachter’s photo.
”You know this man?” he asks, holding it out so Ian can get a good look. It takes him a second, but then his flirty smirk falls into a dark scowl as though by the flip of a switch.
”No,” he says and turns away from both the photo and Jay, walking over to his locker and pulling it open with a little more force than strictly necessary.
”Pretty sure you do,” Jay says, moving with him while still maintaining a cautious distance between them, ”pretty sure you know that this is Nathan Schachter and that this is you, right next to him.”
”I got nothing to say to you,” Ian bites out, shoulders tense when he pulls a t-shirt over his head and down over his back, the drops of water leaving dark stains in the washed-out green fabric, ”I don’t gotta tell you shit.”
”You’re right,” Jay admits, doing his best to keep his eyes on Ian’s face when the guy whips his towel off and angrily stuffs it into a duffle bag, before pulling out a pair of boxers and putting them on, ”and I get that you got your code about running your mouth but Christ-, join the fucking club, man. We can do this here just you and me, or I can bring you in and shit’ll get a whole lot more complicated, real fucking fast.”
Ian scoffs, pulling on his jeans and slamming his locker closed before he grabs his bag and jacket and resolutely strides out the room, Jay hot on his heels.
The dispatch station has a stairwell leading right down to the garage spreading out underneath the whole block, where Jay parked the car and Ian most likely keeps his vehicle too, judging by the way he tears down the stairs and purposefully makes his way through the glum concrete structure.
”Come the fuck on, man,” Jay mutters and picks up his pace to keep up, raising his voice, ”the guy’s dead, clamming up ain’t gonna do no fucking good for either of you.”
Ian stops so suddenly Jay almost crashes into him, before Ian spins around and glares down at him, somehow managing to use his couple of extra inches to tower over him when they end up chest to chest.
”What?” he snarls, eyes flitting between Jay’s as he stares him down. He’s clearly trying to intimidate, but it’s the hint of desperation behind it that makes Jay take a couple of steps back and hold up his hands.
”We found him dead in his apartment less than an hour ago,” Jay decides not to sugarcoat it, breathing out a low sigh when unmistakable hurt flashes across Ian’s face, ”I found your picture next to his bed, you’re pretty much our only lead right now.”
Ian scrubs a hand over his eyes and then pulls it back through his hair, wincing. He doesn’t look at Jay when he shakes his head and sniffs.
”Haven’t seen him since-,” he starts, only to cut himself off and shake his head again, ”it’s been a couple of months.”
Jay feels something prickle up the back of his neck – and more or less assumes it’s because he’d been expecting years, not months – before the window of the car next to them suddenly explodes into a million pieces, showering over them as Jay instinctively grabs Ian by the shoulder and tries to shield him.
”Down!” he hisses and they both crouch down behind a concrete pillar, silent bullets blasting small holes in the graffiti at roughly the same height where their heads had just been.
Ian is breathing heavily when Jay huddles up in front of him, letting him flatten his back against their shelter and doing his best to cover the rest of him with his own body, putting one hand on the concrete next to Ian’s head for support while he risks a quick glance around the corner.
”Can’t see ’em,” he mumbles, leaning his weight on Ian for a second as he lets go of the wall to take out his gun. Ian follows his movements with his eyes, pressing his lips together and closing his eyes for a second, his breathing immediately calming down.
”Them?” he asks, his voice low and steady when he opens his eyes again.
”At least two,” Jay whispers, ”listen, my car’s three rows down behind us, it’s a black Ford LTD with blank plates, you’d recognize it?”
”Good,” Jay nods and licks his lips, changing his stance the best he can so Ian will have a clear path to move past him, ”when I say ’go’, you-”
A large explosion right behind them suddenly lights up the whole garage, the blast wave busting windows and setting off alarms and knocking Jay off balance, crashing him into Ian. Ducking his head down close to Ian’s, he instinctively wraps his arms around him to shield them both from the wave of heat and debris that immediately follows the blast.
The bent and blackened – but still clearly blank – license plate whooshing past their heads tells Jay all he needs to know.
”Shit shit shit,” he chants, quickly struggling out of Ian’s arms that somehow ended up around him, too, and getting on his feet, ”stay down.”
He needs to move quickly, using the noise and confusion after the blast is probably his only shot at getting an upper hand. Gun at the ready, he launches himself around the corner and immediately spots his target, shooting it down before it’s had a chance to react. Whipping his gun to the right he trains it on the spot where the second shooter was before the explosion. There’s no movement, and no one has successfully shot his head off yet, so chances are the second shooter’s on the move, and responsible for blowing up his car.
Keeping his head down, Jay runs through the rows of cars until he gets to the red minivan hiding the limp body of the first shooter. It’s a man, sprawled out on his back and with his gun still clutched in his hand. Jay gets in next to him and flattens his back against the van, moving his own gun to his left hand so he can reach out and pry the weapon out of the dead man’s iron grip.
Jay almost shoots the guy when Ian suddenly appears by his side, crouching down next to him and very tactfully ignoring the fact that he just spooked the crap out of a combat-trained field agent.
”Christ,” Jay bites out, ”could’ve shot you. Told you to stay down, let me handle this.”
Ian just stares at him, like Jay is the one being fucking unreasonable right now.
”Let me help,” he says, and then proceeds to reach out and take the dead shooter’s gun right out of Jay’s hand.
Jay is just about to protest that it isn’t a fucking handgun he’s got there – but a black market import High Frequency phaser and that he should keep his fucking hands off it – when Ian gets a steady grip on the handle and after only a second’s consideration unlocks the safety and finds the trigger.
”Point and shoot, right?” he says, raising a curious eyebrow at Jay’s silent disapproval.
”Right,” Jay lets him have it, ”don’t shoot yourself in the face, and stay down.”
Ian rolls his eyes but seems to take his orders this time, when Jay checks that the coast is clear and skulks around the van and in behind another row of cars.
Not spotting any movement, Jay risks making his way through the open space between two rows of parking spaces when his poor car flares up in a second explosion, the fire roaring up against the low ceiling when it’s finally reached the gas tank. It only pulls his attention for a moment, but it’s all it takes for someone to detach from the shadows and kick the gun out of his grip.
Cursing he steps back and holds up his hands, glaring at the woman standing in front of him with her weapon pointed squarely at his chest.
”Where-,” she says, right before she snaps her head back and collapses to the ground.
”Fuck,” Jay lowers his hands and steps up to the limp body, studying the light bruise forming on her forehead where the phaser must have struck. A perfect shot.
He gives Ian a cautious glance when he steps up by his side, but the guy barely seems to notice him. He’s staring at the woman he just gunned down in cold blood, the HF phaser still in his grip and ready to be raised again, if needed. He looks calm, but his jaw is tense and his lips are pressed together into a thin line.
”It’s fine,” Jay tells him, trying to reassure him and obviously not succeeding when Ian only scowls in response.
Instead of explaining why it’s fine, Jay walks up to the prostrate body and crouches down next to it, rapping a knuckle against the woman’s cold sternum.
”The fuck-,” Ian spits and steps closer, only to stop dead in his track when the woman’s eyes suddenly flick open, staring up at the ceiling.
Resting one knee on her elbow, Jay puts the gun to her stomach and smiles at her.
”What’s up,” he says, nodding when she blinks and looks down her nose at him, not moving her head at all, ”now, this is what’s gonna happen-”
He cuts himself off when a crack starts to appear on her chest, neatly parting right down the middle of her ribs.
”Don’t fucking think so,” he says and puts his free hand over it, effectively closing it again, ”you’re gonna tell me exactly everything you know about what the fuck’s going on right now, and then maybe, maybe, you get to crawl out of here with all your little legs intact, you get me?”
”Jesus,” Ian breathes out behind him, but Jay doesn’t look back to check if he’s okay.
”I know nothing,” the woman clearly says even though her mouth isn’t moving. Jay puts some more pressure on her chest when he feels it stir under his hand.
”No? You just felt like blowing up my car and shooting at me for no fucking reason, huh? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
Lifting his hand, he purposefully allows for the hatch to open with a couple of inches before he smacks it back down.
”This is only gonna go one of two ways for you, buddy,” he says, ”either you tell me everything you know right now and I help get you deported, or you continue telling me nothing and I get you nothing.”
”Fuck you,” the woman snarls, her eyeballs still the only thing moving.
”That means a max sentence,” he reminds her, in case she doesn’t know, ”in central pen, you know what they do to little bugs like you in there? It ain’t pretty. Arrested a predator from Omicron Persei Eight last year, that’s your ecosystem, isn’t it? Bet he’s worked up a real appetite in there, eating Earth grub all year.”
”Shit,” the woman groans, her chest moving like something is pushing desperately at it from inside, ”I was hired.”
Jay bears down harder on her chest, staring her in the eye.
”I don’t know!” she yells, mouth still not moving. ”Got a call half an hour ago with a name and where to find him, I didn’t ask why.”
”Him?” Jay repeats, twisting his neck so he can look up at Ian, whose mouth falls open as he shifts his confused stare from the woman to Jay and then back again.
”Hey!” he exclaims and points past Jay, eyes practically bugging out.
Jay turns back to his captive and swears when he realizes that he has moved his hand. Not much, but enough for the hatch to open and the centipede-like alien inside to squeeze herself out and wiggle away through the parking lot with surprising speed.
Leaving her to escape, Jay stands up and looks around the mayhem caused by their brief shootout. It’s bound to attract all kinds of unwanted attention, and it changes things if these shit rent-a-killers were after Ian and not him. He needs to focus on getting Ian somewhere safe before he does anything else, and HQ is by far the safest place he knows.
”You got a car?” he asks, raising his eyebrows when Ian looks at him. He seems to weigh his options for a moment, but then he bends his head in a curt nod and starts walking the way he was before they got interrupted.
”What was that?” he asks as they weave through the cars.
”Don’t know,” Jay admits, looking around them for any sign of movement, ”but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more of them coming.”
And as though he motherfucking jinxed them, there’s a loud whiz past his ear and a dull thud as a bullet lodges itself into the concrete of a nearby pillar. Another two shots join the first and he feels a sharp sting down his arm when one of them tear through the black fabric of his suit. He ignores it, clasping Ian by the elbow and pushing him into a sprint.
Ian is faster than him and reaches his car first, practically skidding across the hood as he flings himself around it and stays low when he pulls the door open on the driver’s side. Jay gets there the same second Ian reaches across the seats to unlock the other side and by the time he’s got in, Ian’s already got the motor running and his foot on the gas.
There’s a distinct sound of bullets indenting the rusty metal on the side of the car as the engine revs and they speed through the underground garage towards the nearest exit.
”Where are we going?” Ian asks, gripping the wheel with both hands, knuckles turning even whiter than the rest of his hands.
”Left,” Jay directs him, ”I’m taking you to HQ, you’ll be safe there.”
”Who did you say you were with?” Ian asks. ”MiB? What’s that, like a section of the CIA? FBI?”
”Not exactly,” Jay barely has to think it over at all before going with the truth, ”we’re independent of any government, we’re the Men in Black.”
Ian frowns and looks like he’s about to say something stupid, so Jay cuts him short.
”Anonymity is our name, silence our native tongue,” he decides to recite the goddamned oath, rolling his eyes at himself even as he recalls it word for word, ”we’re no longer part of the system, we’re above the system, over it, beyond it. We are Them, we are They-, yada yada, whatever.”
He waves his hand impatiently when Ian opens his mouth as though to ask a question but doesn’t know where to start.
”Think of it as an intergalactic immigrations office,” he tries to bring the whole thing down to a more understandable level, ”and I’m the goddamn sheriff of Mos fuckin’ Eisley.”
”Aliens,” Ian sums it up, surprisingly not sounding like his head is about to explode. The bug crawling out of her fleshy animatronic bodysuit earlier probably helped some.
”Bingo,” Jay sighs, ”that chick back there, the guy I shot… your old boyfriend too, I’m afraid.”
He gives it a second to really sink in, before he glances over at Ian and tries to gauge his reaction.
He’s fucking beautiful, the sharp angles of his profile softened by the afternoon sun flooding through the side windows of the car. He says nothing, eyes trained on the traffic as he makes another turn without asking, keeping to the speed limits and hopefully blending in with the traffic, bullet holes and all.
”I’m gonna call for backup,” Jay decides, taking out his phone and thankfully finding it still in one piece.
”No,” Ian stops him, voice suddenly sharp and immovable.
”Ian,” Jay tries his best to sound like he can be trusted to deal with whatever might happen next, ”you’re in some real fucking danger right now, I’m trying to protect you.”
Ian slows the car down for a red light and lets go of the wheel with one hand to nervously scrub it through his hair.
”I can’t,” he eventually says, jaw set with his decision, ”I’m-, I can’t get involved with any of this shit, trust me, it’s not gonna end well.”
He shakes his head in a way that makes Jay think there’s something he isn’t telling him, some reason other than South Side instinct to avoid cops at all cost.
”I can’t,” he says and looks at Jay with his big fucking eyes, dead set on getting his way, ”please, my family… this can’t come back to them. I swear, I’ll kick you out of this car before coming with you and getting any more involved than I already am, I’m sorry.”
Biting off a curse, Jay turns his head to look out at the traffic passing by and rubs a hand over his eyes as he considers his options. And it’s simple, really, his only priority right now is keeping Ian safe, even if that means going against protocol and take care of this one solo.
”Alright,” he sighs, ”you got some cash on you?”
Ian nods, glancing hopefully at Jay.
”Let’s find somewhere we can lie low for a few hours and figure out our next move,” Jay winces when some of the adrenalin seems to ebb out of him and his arm slowly starts to throb with pain, ”let me just call my partner and-”
”No,” the car swerves slightly when Ian lets go of the wheel with one hand to blindly reach out and grab at Jay’s arm, only to immediately let go, ”the fuck-”
Ian holds up his hand so he can get a good look at it without risking an accident, eyes wide when he turns his palm out for Jay to see the red, wet smudge across it.
Jay looks down at his own hand, and seeing the sticky blood seeping out from under his sleeve suddenly makes him aware of the wetness spreading down his whole arm on top of the throbbing pain.
”Yeah, I got nicked,” he mutters and twists his shoulder so he can get a better look at the tear in his jacket, slashing across his upper arm, ”it’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
Ian breathes out a quiet ’Jesus’, but leaves it alone.
”Listen, I gotta call this in,” Jay insists again and holds up his hand when Ian opens his mouth to protest, ”my car blowing up would’ve set off alarms back in HQ, and it’s better I let them know they don’t gotta flip the whole city upside-down looking for me. I just gotta check in, I promise I won’t say shit about you.”
Pursing his lips together, Ian doesn’t really look like he’s got blind trust in Jay’s word. But this time, at least, he doesn’t try to physically interfere when Jay selects Kay’s number and puts the phone to his ear. After the first dull tone has rung out, confirming the connection, Jay holds out the phone face up and puts it on speaker.
”Jay,” his partner picks up after another two rings, ”where the fuck are you? You okay?”
”Yeah, I’m fine,” Jay says, glancing at Ian’s scowling profile, ”car’s pretty fucking banged up though.”
”Where are you?”
”On the move,” Jay looks out the window. It might be the blood-loss talking, but he isn’t sure he’d be able to tell Kay exactly where he is even if he wanted to. ”Listen, I’m gonna go radio silent for a couple hours, see if I can figure this shit out. Any news on your end?”
”Found Mr Keen’s contract in Schachter’s apartment,” Kay reports, speaking fast as though to get it out of the way. Jay winces when he puts some pressure on his wound and tries to avoid looking at Ian, not wanting to catch his reaction to hearing someone talk so casually about his dead alien ex. ”His prints were all over the carbonizer, too, which by the way was a clear match for the one left the big hole in Mr Keen, but shit-, Jay. You gotta give me more than radio silence. Zed sent a team after you when the alarm came in, I need to tell her something more than-”
”Tell her I’m dealing with it,” Jay cuts him off, ”I left a couple of bodies with the car, you can start there if you wanna help. Find out who’s pulling the fucking strings while I shake ’em or lure ’em out again, either works.”
”Tell me where you are,” Kay repeats, his voice almost down to a whisper, ”I can get to you in five minutes, you don’t gotta do this alone.”
Jay can almost feel Ian tensing up next to him, his hands gripping the wheel anxiously as he most likely waits for Jay to break his promise.
”I’ll be in touch,” he says instead, before disconnecting the call and unceremoniously throwing his phone out the window.
Of course, Ian’s car is basically a pile of junk on wheels so he has to turn the plastic handle like a loser in order to first crank the window open and then close it again. It takes some of the immediate drama out of the gesture, but Ian seems to get the gist of it anyway when he quietly stares at Jay through the rear-view mirror.
There’s no tracing them now.
Squeezing his hand over the cut on his arm, Jay waits for Ian to unlock the door and let them inside the glum motel room. They parked the shot out piece of shit car a couple of blocks away and Ian dug around the cluttered backseat until he found a worn old baseball cap he could put on and cover his glaringly conspicuous hair.
Leaving Jay outside the motel to lean against a wall and pretend like he wasn’t bleeding like a faucet, Ian went inside the reception to pay for a room. He came out with a key and a bag of supplies, which he now dumps on the foot of the king-sized bed before he disappears into the bathroom, leaving the door open and turning on the lights on his way.
Jay carefully locks the front door behind them and shuts the blinds, leaving only a crack for him to peer out of for a minute, checking that no one’s followed them.
”Sit,” Ian demands, pulling Jay’s attention away from the street outside – blinking at the change of light when he smooths down the blinds and turns around.
Ian is stepping out of the bathroom hands first, holding them out in front of himself as he carefully dries them off on a paper towel. He throws the damp wad of paper into the trash basket across the room and points, first at Jay and then at the bed. ”Take that off and get my bag.”
Jay raises his eyebrows at the idea of being ordered around by this guy, but then wisely figures that the stubborn frown on Ian’s set face probably isn’t one that will be argued with. He gingerly shrugs off his suit jacket and lets it fall to the floor, feeling a jolt of excitement rush up his spine when Ian keeps staring at him as he slowly unbuttons his dress shirt with his bloodied, cold fingers.
Keep your fucking head on, Agent. This isn’t the time.
Down to the white tank he wears as an undershirt, Jay grabs Ian’s bag and the things he bought from the reception and moves them along the bed so he can sit down in front of Ian and still reach their sparse supplies.
”What do you need?” he asks, wincing when he manages to leave bloodied prints on the plastic bag, pushing it aside to see what’s inside. He’s starting to feel a little woozy, and tells himself that this is the only reason why he almost jumps out of his own skin when Ian’s warm fingertips suddenly grace his shoulder, lightly pressing into the area around the cut.
”It’s not too deep,” Ian mumbles, eyes fixed on the wound when Jay turns his head to look at him, ”I’m gonna clean it up and do a quick fix, but I don’t have anything with me for the pain.”
Jay rolls his eyes, but still can’t help wincing when Ian’s searching fingers catch an exposed nerve.
”It’s fine,” he says and pulls out a bottle of vodka from the bag, wasting no time to twist the cap off as he mutters; ”don’t mind if I fucking do.”
”That’s not for drinking,” Ian swoops in out of fucking nowhere and takes the vodka right off his dry lips, setting it aside on the bedside table, ”there’s a bottle of water in there, drink that instead.”
”You gotta be kidding me,” Jay complains but does as he’s told, anyway, and sits there quietly sipping his goddamned water while Ian gets to work, cleaning his wound and taping it up with a couple of basic supplies he asks Jay to get out of his duffle bag.
”You never know when you’re gonna need it,” he says when he notices Jay’s curious looks, and then seems to put on a mask of professional distance as he sits down next to him and gets to work in focused silence.
Jay can feel his carefully measured breaths fanning over his naked shoulder, warm in the barely heated motel room, and he tries not to lean into it whenever he feels Ian’s precise fingers brush against his bruised skin. His hands have run cold since he washed them, and each brief moment of contact is like a balm over the dull pain still throbbing through Jay’s arm with his quickening heartbeat. In the silence of the room, Jay can still hear the ringing after the explosion. A far away constant tone and heat locked over his ears.
Jay blinks and turns his head only to find himself staring into Ian’s concerned eyes, seemingly searching for signs that he might be about to topple over.
”Fucking fine,” Jay tries to brush it off, but his voice sounds strange even to his own ears. He scowls when Ian looks the opposite of convinced, placing one of his miraculous, cool hands over Jay’s forehead.
”Don’t think you have a fever,” he says and ignores Jay when he scoffs, ”did lose a lot of blood, though.”
”Getting shot will do that,” Jay mutters and goddamn fucking sighs when Ian’s hands are removed from his skin and the mattress shifts as he stands up. Looking down at himself, he notices that Ian’s already done working and that his arm is neatly wrapped up in a stark white bandage.
He’s starting to feel like he’s under water, skin prickling when the cold of the room suddenly folds over him.
”Been a while,” he mumbles and bends his head, trying to rub the bleariness out of his eyes. He was seventeen. It’s been ten years since he got properly shot at last. Turns out alien scum and villainy’s got nothing on corner-shop cashiers, or his old man.
Jay doesn’t remember feeling like this after, though. Maybe it’s because he’s older now, or because he hasn’t spent the last hour marinating in cheap Jack.
”Eat this,” Ian’s voice cuts through all the noise, and gives Jay enough time to react before he carefully lobs over a pre-opened granola bar, ”the closest thing I could find to some fucking fruit.”
Jay eyes the snack suspiciously for a second before biting off half of it, grimacing a little when he finds all of his prejudices against this kind of wannabe candy pretty much confirmed. It’s somehow sticky and dry at the same time, and dress it up how you like – it still tastes like horse feed.
But at least it’s got a thin layer of bitter chocolate in there, somewhere, so guess it’s not the absolute worst thing he’s ever put in his mouth. Closing his eyes and thinking of breakfast he manages to chomp the whole thing down and actually feel better for it too, the crunch between his teeth even distracting him some from the pressing tone in his ears.
”Lie down,” Ian continues to try and boss him around, adding insult to injury by putting a hand to Jay’s good shoulder in order to gently push him back. Jay waves off his touch and kind of instantly regrets his instincts when Ian lets go of him and holds up his hands, stepping back.
”Don’t got time for this shit,” Jay complains but lies down anyway, swinging his legs up on the bed and letting his heavy head rest down on one of the king-sized bed’s lumpy pillows. Exhaustion immediately starts pulling at his eyelids, disagreeing with him.
”Get some rest, Jay.”
Ian’s voice sounds far away, and that name sounds wrong coming from his lips. He blames it on the blood-loss, and his goddamned weak heart, when he opens his mouth and mutters one last thing before he lets sleep roll him over and take him down.
He wakes up with a start. Absolute nothingness imploding into the baffling reality of a cold motel room and a threadbare blanket tangled up in his legs.
“Fuck,” he exhales and stops struggling, flopping back down on the bed and rubbing a hand over his face. His blanket isn’t trying to kill him, but his left arm hurts like hell and the room is dark. He’s pretty sure it wasn’t this dark when he fell asleep, even though he’s still kind of fuzzy on the details.
“Got us some food,” Ian’s voice brings it all back. Mickey drops his hand and blinks up at the shadows on the ceiling, before he turns his head to look over at the window.
Ian has pulled the armchair across the room and situated himself as lookout, gun on his lap and one thin section of the blinds tilted at an angle so he can peer out at the parking lot and street running past the motel. He has pulled one of the bedside tables closer as well, in order to rest his feet and have somewhere to put the two containers of Chinese takeout.
His grubby boots are literal inches away from the still closed white box Mickey assumes is meant for him, but he doesn’t care. He feels like his stomach is about to erupt when he’s slowly made aware of the sweet and spicy smell of a cheap, greasy meal. His favorite.
He might be fucking salivating, or something, because he doesn’t have to say anything for Ian to drop his feet down on the carpet and get up, handing over the takeout along with a fresh bottle of water and a fork.
He says nothing about it when Mickey scoots back on the bed to sit up and immediately digs in, practically inhaling the noodles and chunks of crispy, fried pork. Instead he steps back to his chair and sits down, his amused little smile slipping the second he grips the gun and again trains his steady gaze out the window.
Mickey gets through about half of his noodles and a whole bottle of water before he slows down, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth and swallowing before he decides to finally open up the floor for a well needed debriefing.
”You seem very calm,” he says, raising his eyebrows when Ian throws him a look that’s half curious and half suspicious, “always do.”
Mickey lifts his shoulder in what he’s hoping might be a disarming shrug.
”I tell you we got aliens living among us and you haven’t freaked out on me yet. Just sayin’, usually there’s a lot more…” he waves his fork through the air, looking for the right word, ”panicked yelling. And vomit.”
Ian makes a face and shakes his head, turning back to look out the window again for a good minute before he says anything.
”I already knew,” he eventually admits, frowning, ”I mean… I knew about Nate, guess it doesn’t come as a big surprise that there’s more.”
”Tell me about him,” Mickey prompts, hoping that one good shootout is all it takes for Ian to loosen his lips. Apparently not.
”Mickey,” he sighs, shaking his head again.
Hearing Ian say his name, even as a plea for him to back the fuck off, sparks something deep inside Mickey’s gut. It almost makes him want to do as he is asked and drop it, but he can’t. This isn’t just about two unsolved murders, anymore, it’s also about preventing a third.
”Look,” he says, wincing when he tries to shift on the bed and accidentally puts too much weight on his left arm, ”I’ve got two murders on my hand and both victims were – in very different ways – representatives of two neighboring planets smack in the middle of a highly volatile and unprecedented peace effort, all pretty much hinging on them not walkin’ ’round on Earth, murdering each other. This whole thing is gonna blow up in all our faces if I don’t figure out what the hell’s been going on with these guys and why, right now.”
Jaw tense and lips pressed together, Ian remains silent when he looks over at Mickey. But at least he’s listening, and judging by the concerned frown marring his forehead he’s starting to lose some of his conviction, as well.
”Right now,” Mickey repeats, and tries to at least sound passably sympathetic about it when he continues, ”it’s looking a lot like your man Schachter got himself a black market gun and killed a high profile Jeltz diplomat. I need to know why. Can you remember anything he might have told you about it? About the Jeltz, about Atik, or fucking Munforte for that matter-, anything that might tell us why he did it.”
”He didn’t,” Ian states, and Mickey is so taken aback by him actually saying anything that he has to mentally slap himself when he finds himself instinctively wanting to believe him on his word alone, ”he wouldn’t, he-”
Ian sucks in a quick breath and scowls when he turns back to look out the window, his lips once more firmly pressed together. Mickey is just about to switch up his interrogation tactics to something a little more hands on when Ian sighs and bends his head.
”He got away from that place ’cause of the killing,” he says, ”never told me much about it, but this… said he’d rather die than go back and join another one of their pointless wars. I know he’d never murder anyone, not for anything. He’s-, was… he was just trying to live his life in peace.”
Mickey closes his eyes for a second, trying to reconcile the new information with what he already knows. Ian’s character witness is all well and sweet in the moment but it’s hardly gonna stack up against the actual evidence they dug out of Schachter’s closet, and Mickey is pretty sure he’s about to say as much when he opens his mouth and something else entirely comes tumbling out.
”You love him?”
It’s a shit question to ask, and none of Mickey’s fucking business. He can see Ian thinking the same thing, right before he sighs and runs a hand through his hair, blinking out at the street.
”Guess so,” he mumbles, before clearing his throat and for some unknown reason decides to clarify, ”I mean, yeah, ’course. Not the way he wanted me to, but yeah. I got real sick when I was seventeen and-, shit, I was a real fucking mess when I met him.”
Mickey keeps quiet and waits for Ian to continue at his own pace.
”He didn’t hesitate for a second when I needed help,” he says, smiling sadly at the memory, ”tried to give him what he wanted for a while, felt like I owed it to him, you know? But after a year or so I got selfish and broke it off, wanted to look for something that felt… just, more.”
He sighs again and rubs a hand over his face, shaking his head like he’s admonishing himself for letting his mouth run.
”Stayed in contact,” he gets back on track, ”he still wanted to help me out with my fucking meds, stay friends. We were friends. Trusted him with my life... he didn’t do this.”
”Must’ve trusted you too,” Mickey says, distracting from his own interrogation by picking up on the wrong thing in Ian’s testimony, and uselessly trying to guess the sadness out of his shining eyes, ”if he told you what he was, he must’ve really trusted you.”
Ian seems to consider something, maybe what he wants to say. Or if he trusts Mickey to say anything at all.
“Told you I hadn’t seen him in a few months,” he eventually begins, sounding hesitant at first but then continues with more confidence. “It’s true, I haven’t. But, I don’t know. I talked to him on the phone just a couple of weeks ago, and there was something…”
Ian looks away, jaw clenched in what looks a lot like regret.
“He was scared,” he admits, “said that some federal-looking guys had been harassing him, following him around and making threats.”
Mickey frowns when Ian looks over at him, a silent challenge in his eyes. “Kinda sounds like you guys, doesn’t it?”
It suddenly occurs to Mickey – and he’s blaming getting shot for not getting there sooner – that if Ian already knew about Schachter being an extraterrestrial squid living illegally on Earth, then he probably also knew a thing or two about the Men in Black.
And whatever it is he thinks he knows, bets are it won’t be about the bureau’s extra-humanitarian work, or about their recently adopted progressive agenda.
“We don’t make threats, Ian,” he tries to assure him, “we’re not the mob, we’re immigration. If we were after your man we would’ve got him already.”
Ian stares at him. “Someone got to him.”
“It’s not what we do anymore,” Mickey says and winces, very aware of how the MiB would conduct their business just five years ago, not to mention when Schachter first landed on Earth some twenty years before that. “Listen, whatever he’s told you about what we used to be isn’t true anymore. We’re changing, we’ve got big plans to go public. Be more accountable. Make it easier for people just like Schachter to live here openly, safely.”
Ian doesn’t look convinced, the tendons in his hand flexing when he tightens his grip on the gun.
“I’m not the enemy.”
Ian sighs, and he looks almost pained when he turns his head and stares out the window.
“I want to trust you,” he says, and Mickey believes him.
But there is something he still isn’t telling, Mickey can sense it. The tension in his shoulders and strain in his voice, there’s something there that Ian knows and still won’t say.
Whatever it is, Mickey isn’t going to force it out of him.
”Where did you learn to shoot a fucking HF phaser, anyway?” he asks instead, smirking when he successfully distracts from the heavy topic and gets Ian to look at him again, before casting his eyes down on the weapon resting on his lap.
”Oh,” he says with a slight grin, picking up the gun and resting it against his shoulder like he’s posing for a cheesy action movie poster, ”ROTC.”
”Somehow I don’t think you got to handle a whole lotta alien tech in high school,” Mickey says with a raised eyebrow, feeling stupidly pleased when Ian huffs out a laugh and lowers the gun again.
”Maybe not,” he says, ”guess I’m a natural.”
He sounds strangely sad again, saying it, and it completely derails Mickey from his line of questioning. Instead they fall into a comfortable silence while Mickey eats the rest of his cold noodles and Ian keeps vigil. It gives Mickey a moment to just take him in, and he makes the most out of it. Revels in the intimacy of the small room and the first conversation they’ve had in five years that has made it past flirty pleasantries.
”When did you find out?” Ian suddenly asks, and Mickey thinks he probably shouldn’t even remember when, let alone tell someone about it.
But he does remember, and he wants Ian to know.
”I was seven,” he says and huffs at the memory, putting the empty box away on the floor and letting himself sink down on the bed again, ”ship practically crashed in my fucking back yard, saw it with my own damn eyes before they came and cleaned it up.”
”The Men in Black,” Mickey nods, ”’course I didn’t know that at the time, I didn’t see them. If I had I wouldn’t have remembered any of it now, so I guess it’s good I got scared and ran home to hide and dry out. Got my brother and sister to come with me in the morning, they ragged on me for a fucking year after when we got there and the ship was gone.”
Ian looks at him now. ”You have a family?”
Fuck it, at this rate Ian’s probably gonna get the whole day plucked from his memory by the time they’ve figured this bitch out and reported back to HQ. Might as well give him all the dirt while Mickey’s still got the chance.
”No,” he says, ”Jay doesn’t. No family, no name, no fingerprints.”
He holds up his hands, as though his perfectly smooth fingers and palms are visible to Ian through the gloomy room. Staring at his blank knuckles, he’s suddenly struck by some kind of fucked up nostalgia for the things he’s chosen to leave behind.
”No tattoos,” he adds, in a weak attempt to maybe trivialize his sacrifice, balling up his hands into fists and letting them drop.
”What about Mickey’s family?” Ian asks, staring at him like he thinks the question might be one step too far.
It really isn’t. Mickey is starting to suspect that he’s been dying to have this conversation with anyone, and getting to have it with Ian only makes it bubble up to the surface that much faster. Like he can’t wait to let Ian in under his skin, and keep him there for as long as he’ll be allowed.
”Mickey’s dead,” he says, shrugging a shoulder when Ian only waits for him to go on, ”got shanked in jail waiting for a bullshit trial over some bullshit crime, pretty sure Mandy was the only one giving a fuck by that time, that’s my-, was… his sister.”
Mickey shakes his head at the dumbass rhetoric he’s managed to wrap himself up in, he’s never had to talk about his old life with anyone before and it isn’t as clear cut as he’d imagined. Nothing of Mickey’s belongs to him anymore but still he can’t deny that he thinks of Mandy as his sister, every time he looks her up and worries for her safety, or rolls his eyes at her choices, or laughs at her dumb Facebook posts.
”His parents are dead, too,” he says, clearing his throat, ”mom died when he was seventeen, and the old man disowned him a year later when he both came out and went to college, honestly don’t know which one he hated more.”
”I think I can guess,” Ian says and looks surprised when Mickey makes a face.
”I don’t know, he really fucking hated me going to college, man,” he says and grins at the memory, pretty sure it comes out more like an awkward grimace, ”but whatever, I kinda hated it too.”
Ian smiles, eyes shining in the narrow reflection of the street lights outside as he keeps looking at Mickey.
”Who knows,” Mickey says, rubbing at his cheek as he tries to put his finger on a whole lifetime of conditioning to kick back at anyone and anything making him feel small. School had always done a real awesome job making him feel small, and poor, and wrong, and that shit didn’t exactly get better in college. ”Guess I wasn’t there to learn what they wanted to teach.”
Ian doesn’t have to ask, he only raises his eyebrows in a silent, obvious question.
”Shit,” Mickey huffs out a quick laugh and looks up at the ceiling, feeling kind of self-conscious under Ian’s interested gaze, ”conned my way into a full ride at the U of C by stealing some guy’s identity, spent a whole year gettin’ on all the egg-heads’ nerves with my paranoid sci-fi bullshit, tellin’ anyone who’d listen about how fuckin’ astrophysics should be less about theory and more concerned with all the aliens already made contact with Earth, years ago, starting with the one crash-landing right in front of my own two eyes.”
”They didn’t believe you,” Ian deadpans, but he doesn’t look like he thinks it’s just a funny story when Mickey chances another glance his way.
Mickey wonders if Ian has had a lot of experience of not being believed, but he doesn’t ask.
”’Course they didn’t,” he says instead, ”found out about the identity theft and got me thrown in jail, is what they did. That’s when Kay showed up, said I didn’t have to spend the next ten years in there, that they could offer me a choice.”
Ian frowns. ”Doesn’t sound much like a choice.”
”Nah,” Mickey shrugs and clicks his tongue, not really liking Ian’s instinctually critical reaction to the only good thing to ever fall into Mickey’s fucked up life.
He’s done a real good job for a long time not thinking about his poor options, instead focusing on the things he got given that gave his life some purpose. He isn’t sure he’d like his own reaction if he ever allowed himself to be critical of it, if he gave himself permission to think about what it meant to offer that kind of choice to a desperate kid fearing for his life.
”Never was a choice,” he says, pushing it all to the back of his mind where it belongs, ”was all I’d ever fucking hoped and dreamed of, you know? Ever since I was a kid, all I ever wanted was goin’ out in space and findin’ something better.”
He feels his face burn with a flash of embarrassment, hearing the words falling out of his treacherous mouth. Wasn’t he supposed to be getting Ian to talk, right now? Why the fuck is he the one pouring his fucking heart out like they’re having a fucking sleepover, whispering in the dark about their secret dreams and desires.
His secret dreams and desires.
”Never liked space,” Ian says, kind of instantly dissipating the dark cloud collecting around Mickey’s head with the ridiculous, but sincere, admittance, ”it’s too big.”
Mickey lets his head fall back again and he grins up at the ceiling, trying to imagine what the sky looks like in the night on the other side of the motel’s roof. He still remembers it like he saw it from his bedroom, growing up, even after everything he’s found out and seen since.
”Wanted to be in the army,” Ian tells him, like they’re on a fucking date and this is all they gotta do right now; share and enjoy each other’s company, ”thought that was all I’d ever be good at and I never planned for anything else. Then I got sick and everything changed, I changed too.”
Mickey wants to ask about this thing that keeps coming up, about Ian getting sick. What he means by it, and if he’s good now or if it’s still something changing him. He closes his eyes and tries to collect himself, tries to talk himself out of this whole labyrinth of a situation and back on track where he can focus on doing his goddamn job.
”I hear ya on findin’ something better,” Ian goes on, not helping at all, ”feel like it’s all I’m doing, sometimes, every single guy I’ve ever been with. Nate was a great guy, you know? But not good enough for me, apparently.”
Pursing his lips together, Ian shakes his head and looks down at his hands.
“Now he’s dead.”
Kicking off the blanket, Mickey scoots his way across the bed and sits on the very edge of it, knees knocking into the armrest of Ian’s chair when he reaches out and carefully puts a hand on his leg.
”Don’t-,” he says before snapping his mouth shut, realizing that all he can think of saying is ’don’t be sad’, like some idiot.
Ian’s thigh is warm under his palm, a slight uneasy tremor in his knee going still as Mickey strokes his thumb over the worn fabric of his jeans. Ian looks at his hand and then up at Mickey’s face, the small frown creasing his forehead suddenly making it really clear what it must seem like to him that Mickey’s trying to pull.
”Fuck,” Mickey bites out under his breath and quickly retracts his hand, ”I wasn’t-”
But before he’s had time to make some lame excuse, Ian reaches out after him and grabs him by the wrist. Mickey’s brain is firing on all cylinders – torn between bracing for a hit or making a first move – and ending up just following Ian’s lead when he abruptly stands up, fingers still in a tight grip around Mickey’s wrist and pulling him along until they’re eye to eye and breathing the same air.
He must be breathing, anyway, he can feel his own chest rising and falling in the tight space between them. He must be breathing, because every lungful of air suddenly feels impossible, like there’s a heavy weight on his ribs, restricting him.
And Ian must be waiting on him to make the next move, because he’s staring at him like he still isn’t sure. Mickey wants to make it clear, show him all the things he’s wanted to do with him since the day they met, all the things he’s wanted to have with him over the years as he broke his own heart little by little, erasing Ian’s memory over and over and over again.
Ian is waiting on him but he can’t do it, not like this. Not yet.
The grip on his wrist starts to loosen, and then Ian’s hopeful eyes disappear out of view as he dips his gaze and bends his head. Mickey can feel him moving away and he probably should let him, but he can’t. Not yet, not until he knows the truth and can back away for the right reason.
”Ian,” Mickey struggles to get the words out, wetting his lips and stepping with Ian to keep him close for just a little while longer, ”there’s something you gotta know.”
”It’s okay,” Ian murmurs, and closes his eyes completely when Mickey can’t help putting a hand to his cheek, barely touching him as he slowly swipes his thumb along his dry lips. Ian leans in, exhaling a shaky breath and scowling in frustration when Mickey reluctantly rocks back and out of his reach.
”No, it-,” Mickey hesitates, as he takes Ian’s face in both hands and waits for him to open his eyes and look at him. He’s listening and he isn’t moving away, his hands finding their way to the small of Mickey’s back and holding him steady.
It feels like his chest is vibrating, like Mickey might actually fucking die if he doesn’t get this out now.
”This isn’t the first time we’ve met,” he says, swallowing down the bile rising up his throat at the thought of what he’s done, following orders and messing with Ian’s memories, ”I have this-, this memory eraser thing and- fuck, you’ve seen so much shit you weren’t supposed to see, man, I’ve used it on you and it’s not fucking okay.”
Looking up into Ian’s eyes, he can’t tell if he’s angry or if what Mickey’s telling him isn’t making any sense. There is no reverse on the memory eraser, it’s a permanent fucking violation on the mind – a wound healed over again and again getting ripped open by Mickey’s pathetic desire to be remembered, and to undo what he has done.
“I’m-,” Mickey starts only to immediately stop himself, feeling like ‘sorry’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. He’s nothing to Ian, and he probably doesn’t deserve any of Ian’s forgiveness. “I’m just some guy you’re not supposed to remember.”
Ian is staring at him, eyes wide and searching, but when he expects to be pushed away instead he feels Ian’s fingers digging into his back, gripping him closer. Mickey watches him carefully as he swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing nervously when he licks his lips and seems to make a decision, setting his face into a stubborn frown.
”I remember,” he says.
There’s a slight whirr of an electric charge filling the silent room – and Mickey probably would’ve paid better attention to it if he wasn’t so busy listening to his body screaming at him to kiss first and ask questions later – when the door splinters and bursts open, letting in a flood of blinding lights as four armed agents storm the small motel room.
Then Ian is torn out of his arms.
”Get off him!” Mickey yells and struggles against the firm hands grabbing him and pulling him back, away from Ian, until he feels himself shoved up against a wall, his feet leaving the ground when he kicks and squirms. The dark shades break and fall off one of the agents’ stony faces when he manages to get in a good head-butt, only landing him another hard shove into the wall and an elbow to the neck holding him in place.
”The fuck are you doing?” he gasps, watching helplessly as the other agents manhandle Ian out the door. ”Hey!”
”Calm down, Jay,” a familiar voice tells him, but he doesn’t listen. Ian has stopped struggling, twisting his head to lock eyes with Mickey over his shoulder before he disappears out of view.
He looks scared, and it’s the last thing Mickey sees before he feels a sharp sting in his neck and everything goes black.
”You’re safe now.”
South Side, Chicago
“You ready for this, kid?”
Ian swallows and nods, leaving the lights flashing but switching off the sirens as he turns the rig in on the right side street.
“Let’s go,” he says, pushing down his jittery nerves when he parks and Sue is already jumping out on her side. He grabs his kit and follows, jogging after her and quickly trying to assess the job at hand.
The anonymous call had been about a smaller explosion, and Ian slowly feels the adrenalin ebb when just a quick look tells him that they’re not dealing with a bomber this time. A big truck has been forced halfway up on the sidewalk and there’s a smaller car crashed into the side of it – it has been banged out of shape and the smoke curling out of the hood isn’t good news for the driver’s ride home, but at least the airbags deployed and the guy is able to stand on his own two feet next to Sue, listening to her instructions on how to stop his nose from bleeding.
Ian leaves them to it, meeting Sue’s eyes and nodding before he makes his way over to the truck in search of the second driver.
“Fuckin’ Christ,” he hears someone curse as he rounds the hood, “could’ve torn up the whole street with this thing, what the hell?”
“I know,” a second, slightly miserable voice answers, “I wasn’t-“
They both fall silent when they notice Ian stepping around the truck, heads turning to face the intruder. Ian, on the other hand, forgets about the two strangers – and his job – when he sees the huge, perfectly square hole carved out of the side of the truck, edges still glowing red hot.
“What the-,” he starts, glancing quickly at the three guys before doing a double take.
No. Two guys – one standing and the other sitting on the edge of the truck’s new modification – but three heads, the third looking a lot like it’s trying to hide behind the second.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” the other, thankfully one-headed guy, mutters and snaps his fingers in front of the two heads, “hide that shit, ain’t nobody wanna see your ugly mug in fuckin’ stereo, man, get a grip.”
Ian blinks when his eyes kind of lose focus and drag away from the man, only to snap back a second later. He looks perfectly normal now, and Ian’s brain is already trying to convince him that he must have been imagining anything differently. Only, he knows perfectly well what’s hiding under the surface of some people, and double-headed men is not the most bizarre thing he’s ever seen.
“Ey, Kay!” The second man calls out, properly pulling Ian’s full attention to him for the first time. He’s wearing a black suit and he looks in charge of the situation, waving impatiently at the driver to get up and go with the older man appearing around the back of the truck. He’s wearing the same black suit, and the same air of natural authority.
“Deal with this guy?” the first suit tells his older clone. “I gotta deal with this shit.”
Ian feels like he should turn on his heels and run the fuck away when something at the back of his head tells him ‘this shit’ probably means him, but then he notices the large gash across the driver’s back and his sense of duty kicks back in.
“Hey!” he croaks out, ignoring his instincts by walking closer. Fiona would have his ass if she could see him now. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” the first man in black assures him, blocking Ian’s way as his associate grabs the driver by the arm and disappears around the truck again, “we got him.”
“And who the fuck are you?” Ian huffs, glaring at the guy and silently cursing himself out when he hears the slight wavering in his own voice.
“Agent Mickey Milkovich,” the guy says and puts his hand behind the lapel of his jacket, as though he’s about to take out his badge, “we’re with the Men in Black, and you’ve just seen your first alien. Congrats.”
“Okay?” Ian swallows and frowns when – instead of a badge – Mickey takes out some kind of metal stick and holds it up between them, twisting the smooth dial running across the center of it.
“Are you medically trained?” Ian asks. “If not, please step aside and let me do my fucking job.”
Mickey lowers the stick and raises his eyebrows at him, but Ian still thinks he can see his lips quirk up in amusement.
“Tough guy, huh?” he says, and Ian definitely doesn’t miss the way his eyes dip, checking him out, before returning to settle on his face with an appreciative smirk. “This is way above your paygrade, Raggedy Ann, don’t worry about it.”
“My name’s Ian,” Ian supplies, like Mickey not knowing his name is the thing he should be worried about right now. In fact, he’s a fucking idiot for standing in front of a federal agent talking to him about aliens, and straight up giving him his real name, not even hesitating. Fiona is going to kill him, if she finds out.
“Alright, Ian,” Mickey says, taking out a pair of dark sunglasses and putting them on before he raises the metal stick again, “sorry about this.”
Ian blinks, just as a sharp white light emits from the stick and fills the whole alley.
“So here’s the thing,” Mickey drawls, taking off his shades and pointing at Ian with them, “you got here like five minutes ago and you’ve seen nothing outta the ordinary, right? Just a car crashed into an empty truck, see- this one, they’re towing it away right now.”
Ian frowns up at the large truck as it slowly starts to move. It’s still got that eerie, square hole gaping at him, revealing stacks of unmarked boxes inside the trailer.
He looks back at the agent when Mickey snaps his fingers in front of his face.
“Focus,” he says, “you wanna tell me what just happened here?”
Uncomfortably shifting his stance, Ian knows what he has to say but his voice still comes out strange and uncertain when he does.
“Nothing?” he says and frowns. “Just… a normal crash. The truck has been towed.”
“Good,” Mickey grins a joyless smile and steps forward to pat Ian once on the cheek, like he’s a child that just got something right for the first time.
Ian wants to push him off, but Mickey’s hand is warm and dry and gone before he has time to react. Forcing himself not to move at all, he watches Mickey walk away.
“Oh,” the agent snaps his fingers and turns around, “and you never saw me, ‘cause I don’t exist.”
With that, the agent gets into the black Ford LTD parked on the other side of the street and takes off after the truck, tires skidding over the worn asphalt.
Ian stares after him for a second, before shaking himself out of the weird trance that sharp light had tried to put him in. He’s known about the Men in Black for a long time, but he’s never met one before.
And if he has his way, he never will again.
“Think you can fix it?” Sue asks, glancing back at Ian through the rear view mirror.
“Fix what?” Ian huffs and grabs on to the stretcher to keep it steady when Sue drives the rig over an uneven patch of street. “Barely was a relationship to begin with, thinking about it, him cheating on me kinda just… underlined that, I guess.”
“Come on,” Sue disagrees, but seems to come up short as to why. Ian has probably told her more about his relationship to cereal than he’s told her about the one he just ended with Caleb.
“He was hot,” he admits with a shrug, making a face when the positives already start running dry, “didn’t really feel that spark, you know?”
Sue clicks her tongue and slows the ambulance to a halt at a red light, before flashing Ian a grin over her shoulder.
“Guess this means you’ll come out drinking with me tonight?” she asks, gleefully, wagging her eyebrows when Ian groans. “Come on, this is not the time to mope, this is the time to celebrate!”
“Really?” Ian asks, feeling a smile tugging at the corner of his lips, despite himself. “Celebrate what?”
“That you’re free of a boring, spark-less relationship, for one,” Sue decides, shifting gear and getting the rig rolling again, “there’s a whole sea of potential sparkage out there, Ian, just gotta rub yourself against the right people.”
Scrunching up his nose at the contradictory tangle of metaphors, Ian shakes his head and takes a second before he decides to admit something he’s been suspecting for a while now.
“Don’t think I’ve ever felt it,” he says, glancing at Sue through the mirror and looking down at his hands when she says nothing, waiting for him to go on. “Not really.”
Sue smiles at him through the mirror when he looks up again. “You’re young.”
“Yeah, but-,” Ian says with a grimace, “aren’t you supposed to fall in love when you’re young? Like sparks flying, music rising, disgustingly in love?”
He remembers telling himself he’s in love. Or feeling about half of what songs and movies have promised him for years, and thinking ‘is this it?’. It always seems to come up short.
He’s tried to tell himself that he just hasn’t met the right guy yet, but he can’t help wondering when it’s time to start facing the fact that no guy is ever going to be right if Ian is the one who is wrong.
Sue throws him a sympathetic look, which does very little to convince him that he isn’t utterly out of step with normal fucking human emotions.
“Whatever,” he says, clearing his throat, “pretty sure that kinda love is just a big lie cooked up to sell people shit, anyway.”
“Oh, it’s not,” Sue insists before she seems to catch herself, turning away and cursing under her breath, “I mean, it’s probably different for everybody, Ian, and that’s fine. But it’s not a lie. Trust me.”
Ian sighs and nods to himself, looking over at the black bag laid out on the stretcher.
“You think this guy ever felt it?”
“Ninety-six years on this planet,” Sue huffs and shakes her head, “sure fucking hope so.”
There had been plenty of pictures up on the walls in Mr Greenberg’s house, looking like over forty years of history played out around this unassuming man growing a little older in each one. But they had been called over to his home by the alarm, and no one else had been around when they arrived and found him already cold on his bathroom floor.
“Maybe,” Ian mumbles, reaching out to carefully place a hand over the vague outline of Mr Greenberg’s arm. He immediately pulls it back when there is a sharp sting of something like static electricity sparking through the black plastic and up through the tips of his fingers.
A little too on the nose, he thinks as he shakes the sting out of his hand, and really fucking inappropriate.
“What the hell?” Sue mutters, pulling his attention away from the body bag and back to her. Grabbing on to the seats, he pulls himself halfway into the front of the ambulance and peers out through the side windows.
A black Ford LTD with blank plates is cutting in right in front of them, before slowly hitting the brakes and forcing Sue to pull up to the side of the road.
“Fuck,” Ian bites out and falls back in his seat, looking around the rig for an escape he knows isn’t there, “fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Look at these clowns!” Sue chuckles from the front, probably not noticing Ian’s mini freak-out in the back. “They look like a couple of B-movie special agents, oh shit they’ve got badges.”
“Ma’am, FBI, please step out of the vehicle.”
“What’s the problem, Agent…?”
“None of your concern, anymore, ma’am.”
Ian sucks in a nervous breath when someone pulls the back doors open and sunlight suddenly floods the ambulance, forcing him to hold up a hand and shield his eyes.
“You too, dumb-dumb,” a slightly familiar voice calls through the light, derailing Ian’s knee-jerk reaction to run, or start throwing punches. He ducks his head and climbs out of the ambulance, refusing to look at the two agents as he joins Sue on the sideline.
He doesn’t need to look at them to know that it’s the same fucking guys as last time, and that this – on the whole – is a real bad situation.
“Ey, Frankie!” the younger agent – Mickey, and Ian fucking hates that he remembers his name – steps up into the back of the rig, seemingly addressing the un-moving body bag. “Wakie-wakie, your ride’s here.”
“What the hell?” Sue protests and takes a step forward, only to stop in her tracks when the older agent – Ian thinks he remembers Mickey calling him Kay – shuts the doors behind his partner and turns around.
“Nothing to see here,” he says and takes out a pair of sunglasses from his breast pocket.
And Ian is honestly wishing he could forget that the whole thing has happened at all, as Agent Kay is flashing his bright light and telling them it hasn’t.
“Fuck,” Ian groans and turns his back on the black Ford LTD pulling up next to the police car, blocking traffic around the two crashed vehicles in the middle of the street.
The young woman whose scraped up arm he’s been tending to looks up at him with a worried frown.
“Not you,” he promises her, ignoring the unnerving prickle up his spine as he forces himself to stay and remain calm. “You’re going to be fine.”
“It’s these bozos again,” he hears Mickey coming up behind him, “ey, Raggedy Ann, what’ve you got for me?”
Cringing at the dumb nickname, Ian slowly turns around and looks Mickey over, narrowing his eyes at the blur of an FBI-badge when he holds it out long enough for anyone to see absolutely nothing.
This is getting dangerous, and stupid, but Ian can’t really do anything except play along and hope it won’t happen again.
“What’s this about?” he asks, subtly positioning himself between his patient and the fake FBI-agent.
“Oh, I remember you now,” Mickey snaps his fingers and points at Ian, “you always full of stupid fucking questions, or is it just when you wanna piss me off?”
Ian should have just shut his mouth and stepped back, but here he is. Being glared at for a third time in the same number of months, by the same exasperated Man in Black.
“You know me?” he forces himself to say, scrunching his nose up in a frown and pursing his lips together when Mickey rolls his eyes.
“Jesus, you wanna chit-chat some more,” he asks, eyebrows high, “or you wanna do your fucking job and give me the 411 on whatever the fuck’s gone down here, man, ain’t got all fucking day.”
Ian is just about to rattle off the details of the MVA – or maybe ask another stupid question just to see some more of that steam poof out of Mickey’s ears – when someone shouts at them from across the road.
Snapping his mouth shut, Ian follows Mickey’s lead and looks over at the agent’s partner standing with Sue and the other driver. The driver is a short, balding man in his fifties, flashing them his pearly whites with a nervous grin when they look over.
Kay nods and pats his jacket over the slight bulge in his breast pocket.
“Short and sweet,” Mickey mutters and puts on his shades, pulling out the memory eraser.
Ian can’t help thinking it’s complete overkill when the white flash is washing over him and his patient, and Mickey unceremoniously writes himself out of their day.
“Nothing weird has happened to you today,” he drones, “and I don’t exist, got that?”
Pushing his cart along, Ian looks over the rows and rows of cereal and thinks for a second about trying something new, before giving in and grabbing his usual all-bran. Resting it on top of the carton of eggs, he is about to turn around and head for the registers when a piercing shriek stops him in his tracks.
It’s coming from the aisle next to his. Without stopping to think he abandons his cart and runs in the direction of the sound, skidding around the shelves and rushing up to an elderly lady collapsing to the ground in shock.
“Help!” he shouts as he gets on his knees and starts looking her over, hoping someone else will call 911 while he makes sure she’s fine.
She is still conscious, but he can tell she hit her head in the fall so he opts not to move her too much before the on-duty EMTs get here.
“A beast!” she mutters and widens her eyes when Ian tries to get her to tell him her name. “Behind you!”
“What?” he says, the hairs on the back of his neck standing to attention when her eyes shift from him and up towards the shelves above them.
Slowly turning his head, his heartbeat evens out and his mind stills as he locks eyes with the purple, vaguely lizard-shaped creature clinging to the pasta section, the flaps on its face slowly starting to flare as it prepares to attack.
Used to acting on command, Ian throws himself down over the old lady, bracketing her head with his elbows and ducking his own head down next to hers. There’s a loud whir through the air – like an electric charge – and then a loud splat above them, seconds before Ian feels chunks of warm goo hitting his back and all around them on the floor.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he chants beneath his breath and closes his eyes for a second, knowing without a doubt what’s coming next, before he pulls himself off the poor old lady to check if she’s still conscious.
“You okay, ma’am?” he asks, feeling a little guilty when she blushes deeply and tries to look away. “Don’t move, I think you might have hit your head on the way down.”
“Nonsense, young man,” she mutters and starts to sit up, just to prove him wrong. “Where are your manners? Help me up!”
Knowing better than to argue, Ian carefully helps her up, brushing off the strange orange goo splattered across her black dress whenever he gets the chance.
“Nice one, dude,” Mickey tells him, holstering a small, strange-looking silver gun as he steps up next to them. “That was some Captain America shit, right there.”
“Thanks,” Ian mutters drily, pulling a hand through his hair and wincing when he feels the wet chunks of exploded alien fall down the back of his head. It’s not until he locks eyes with Mickey that he remembers that he isn’t supposed to remember.
“Who are you?” he says and frowns, really wishing he was better at that whole lying thing when Mickey looks less than impressed.
“I’m no one,” he says, already putting on his damned shades, “you on the other hand…”
Ian watches him as he pulls out the memory eraser and carefully sets the dial.
“You’re strangely calm considering the fact that I just showered you in alien guts.”
Ian squares his back and nods.
“Used to be in the army,” he fibs, mostly because it’s always easier to explain that it that way than to get into the whole messy story, “trained for this kind of… wait, did you say alien?”
“Congrats, genius,” Mickey says, but his smirk seems to dip when he holds up the memory eraser and the bright light fills the aisle, “you.”
Ian blinks when Mickey points at the discombobulated lady.
“You fell down, ‘cause you’re old,” Mickey decides, waving his hand dismissively when the lady tuts, “and this guy here tried to be a hero and help you out, putting some real sleazy moves on you in the process.”
“What?” Ian croaks out before he can stop himself, absently wondering how much say people normally have in this process.
“And Human Torch here,” Mickey continues, turning to Ian, “why are you harassing this poor woman? Try someone roughly your own age next time, you’re making all of us uncomfortable.”
“What, I-” Ian tries, fighting the urge to argue the multitude of things Mickey managed to get wrong in one go.
“What is this mess?” the old lady cuts in, suddenly re-noticing the goo splattered all around them.
“Watermelon?” Mickey suggests, glancing quickly at Ian as though to check if he’s buying it. “Yeah, sure, watermelon. Why not.”
“Why not,” the lady agrees, clearly resigned.
Ian swallows and nods when Mickey glares at him again. “Watermelon.”
“And let’s not fucking forget,” Mickey wraps up, “I don’t exist.”
“Incoming,” Sue announces as they push the stretcher through the doors to the morgue.
The coroner usually in for the night shift isn’t there, instead they’re met by two men dressed all in black.
“Great, we’ll take it from here.”
“Who are you?” Sue asks, slowing down to a halt and eying the strangers suspiciously.
“Agent Milkovich and Agent Krustofsky, FBI,” Mickey says, holding up his badge for a whole millisecond before pocketing it again, “we’re here to do a quick examination of your limp friend here, see if she’s got something we’ve been looking for.”
Raising his eyebrows at the unusually large amount of information, Ian helps Sue to push the stretcher through the room.
“Krustofsky?” Agent Kay asks his partner under his breath, and glancing their way Ian catches the tail end of Mickey’s proud smirk.
“Krusty the Clown, man,” he says, pulling on some latex gloves and stepping up to the stretcher, “tell me your real name or stop bitching about me taking creative liberties.”
“You know my real name,” Kay mutters, clearly not giving a damn about Sue and Ian listening in, “it’s Kay.”
“Uh-huh,” Mickey hums, turning to Ian and raising his eyebrows in a silent question, “you mind?”
Ian looks at Sue, then Kay, then back at Mickey. “Sorry?”
“The bag, Highlander,” Mickey prompts him impatiently, holding up his gloved hands and pointedly eying the zipped up body bag.
Feeling like he should have walked back out the room the second he realised that this’d be another alien edition groundhog day, Ian leans in over the stretcher and carefully pulls down the zipper to expose the upper body of the middle-aged woman inside.
Mickey feels with his gloved fingers over the woman’s neck, from ear to ear, until he seems to find something hidden behind her curly hair. There’s a soft click, and then a perfect square detaches from the center of her chest, raising up before springing open like a door.
Outside, the woman looks like just another regular human, but on the inside she’s like a steampunk cosplayer’s wet dream.
“What the hell?” Sue gasps, looking a little green in the face when she clasps a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god, what the hell?”
Ian doesn’t have to act surprised for this one. Sure, Nate has told him about extras without their own camo having to live in robotic human suits, but he’s never actually met one before.
Or maybe he has. That’s kind of the whole point of the EAC, for what he knows.
“Empty,” Mickey observes, like finding a whole clockwork inside a person’s chest isn’t at all remarkable, “like we thought. Slippery son of a bitch got away again.”
“Who got away?” Ian asks, looking nervously between the two agents when Mickey turns his sharp, suspicious eyes on him. He probably needs to dial up the stupid on his line of questioning. “What is this, anyway? Some kinda prank?”
“Yeah, you’re on fucking Punk’d, dude,” Mickey scoffs, the suspicion replaced by what Ian’s starting to think might be his default level of exasperation as he takes out his shades and puts them on, “smile for the camera.”
The flash of light takes Ian by surprise this time, not noticing Kay getting it ready and firing it off once Mickey got himself covered. It’s like something tries to push at his mind, and twist his own memories around. He doesn’t like it at all, and he has to dig his nails into the coarse fabric of his pants to keep from breaking character and start throwing punches.
What fucking right do these assholes have, walking around and essentially lobotomizing innocent people for no fucking reason? It’s sick, sick in a way Ian can barely wrap his head around as he stares at Mickey and tries to find some sign of remorse in his blank face while he rattles off some bullshit about the coroner and procedures.
“You ain’t seen us,” he concludes, like always, “we don’t exist.”
It takes a couple of days for Ian to entirely shake the feeling that maybe he imagined the whole thing.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me?”
Ian doesn’t have to turn around in order to recognize the voice. Closing his eyes he takes a second to silently curse out his bad luck, before he turns around and gives Mickey a blank look.
“You’re like a damn cockroach, Weasley,” Mickey says, his usual annoyed scowl turned up to eleven, “getting real sick of seeing your face wherever I go.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ian lies, not bothering to mask his steadily deepening dislike of the agent this time, “and my name is Ian, learn to use it or get the fuck out of my face.”
Clenching his jaw, Ian swallows a curse on his idiotic mouth. He really needs to stop introducing himself to Mickey. Forget about Fiona killing him, Lip’s gonna lock him up in the basement if he ever finds out about this.
“Hey now,” Mickey says and grins, sharp and calculated and on the whole a lot fucking worse than the scowling, “is that the way to talk to a federal agent?”
He holds out his badge, and Ian gets to look at it long enough this time to see that, whatever name it has been made out for, most definitely isn’t Mickey Milkovich.
Ian knows what he probably should do right now, but he’s genuinely too fed up with this day to stop being stubborn.
“Like to give as good as I’m getting,” he snarks, and he must be losing it because he doesn’t catch the double entendre until Mickey gets a weird look in his eye.
Half outraged, half impressed, all the way turned on. It wouldn’t be his first choice – if he had a choice – but Ian can work with this.
Dipping his eyes to deliberately drag his gaze down Mickey’s immaculate suit, Ian can already feel himself calming down as he takes control.
“Tell me, Agent..?” he asks, feeling the power of the situation slowly shift to him when Mickey looks confused by his sudden change in demeanor.
Oh, he can definitely work with this.
“Milkovich,” Mickey mutters, eyes shifting uncertainly for a second before he tries out that scowl again.
Ian tilts his head back in a small nod, the corner of his lips quirking up in anticipation of what he’s about to say.
“You got internal affairs at the FBI?”
Mickey narrows his eyes, but seems too baffled by the whole exchange to cut it short. “Why?”
“I need to report a crime,” Ian says and sighs, “seems like one of their Agents have stolen my heart.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Mickey groans, taking a step back and looking around the park where, roughly half an hour ago, some guy got mysteriously dropped to the ground from a significant height. “What is happening right now?”
“It’s you,” Ian continues, forcing himself to remain dead serious, “you stole my heart.”
“Yeah, okay,” Mickey holds up a hand to make him stop, the other one already searching behind his lapel for the memory eraser, “and now I’m gonna do us both a fucking favor and take the last five minutes from you too.”
Mickey seems no less annoyed than he usually is when he flashes Ian with the bright, white light, re-writing the immediate past with some bland story about a perfectly normal guy falling on his ass from a perfectly reasonable height. But there’s definitely something there – in his quick retreat and slightly hunched shoulders – and watching him as he speaks, Ian thinks he can detect a slight shade of pink blooming under his pale skin.
It’s not the most dignified way of handling the situation, perhaps, but it’s sure going to be a whole lot more fun this way.
“Ladies and gentlemen, step aside,” Mickey barely even looks in Ian’s direction as he trails in behind his partner, taking over the emergency call come crime scene with unusual efficiency, “this is now a federal case.”
Ian ignores Kay’s attempt to herd all the first responders aside for debriefing, and follows Mickey with his eyes as the man in black moves through the room, stepping carefully around the dead body and crouching down to slowly hover his phone over it.
“Asphyxiation,” Ian tells him, moving closer once he has made sure that Kay is busy dealing with one of the beat cops who were first to the scene. Mickey doesn’t look up from his phone.
“Thanks,” he says, but really doesn’t sound like he means it at all, “you got any more answers to questions I didn’t ask?”
Ian is deciding between a cheeky ‘yes’ and a more honest ‘maybe?’ when Mickey locks his phone and looks up at him, his usual annoyed frown kind of smoothing out when he does.
“No?” he asks, raising his eyebrows impatiently, immediately covering up whatever softness Ian might have imagined seeing there. He stands up and shoos with a hand in Ian’s direction, like he’s some kind of stray dog. “That means ‘bye’, Scarlett, Jesus, fuck.”
He probably really should take the hint and leave, but if he has to go through this whole horrible song and dance again, Ian figures he might as well make sure Mickey’s having an equally terrible time.
“I know you’re busy today,” he says and smiles innocently when Mickey throws him a confused look, “but do you think you could add me to your to-do list?”
The agent’s pained grimace honestly makes Ian’s whole day, before he’s ushered off to the side with the rest to get his memory zapped.
Mickey is very obviously ignoring him, stepping around the huge hole in the ground and inspecting the half of a spaceship still showing over the lip of the crater, and Ian feels like he’s winning some kind of game.
“You okay?” he asks, when the sound of retching subsides behind the ambulance.
“No,” Sue replies, obviously not yet done throwing up.
Leaning back against the rig, Ian crosses his arms and watches as Mickey has a quick argument with his partner and then starts heading over their way.
“Let’s get this over with,” he mutters, still not looking at Ian as he puts on his glasses and already checks his pockets for his little memory wand.
“Hey,” Ian says with a small nod, “is your name Netflix?”
Mickey sighs and shakes his head, holding up a hand as though he’s silently begging Ian to stop.
“‘Cause I could watch you for hours.”
“Okay, have a look at this,” Mickey says as he’s stepping up to them, wand at the ready, “and not a fucking word from you, freckles.”
Ian frowns. “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Mickey stares at him, his expression hard to read with the dark shades blocking his eyes. It’s not until he’s halfway through it that Ian realizes how this particularly unfortunate pick-up line may be a little too much like talking about bombs in airport security for it to really be funny.
“Oh, I know,” he says and snaps his fingers before pointing at Mickey and going for gold, “you look exactly like my next boyfriend.”
Mickey shakes his head and says nothing as he picks up the memory eraser, but Ian could swear he sees his lips quirk up in a small smile right before his face disappears behind the flash.
Sue is running ahead to get the rig open, leaving Ian to push the stretcher along on his own as a black Ford LTD pulls up right next to him and Mickey climbs out of the driver’s seat.
“We’ll take it from here.”
“That’s okay, I’m on top of things,” Ian says and grins, “but maybe you’d like to be one of them?”
“Oh wow, you were right,” Kay cuts in, looking at Mickey over the top of the car, “wildly inappropriate.”
Mickey shrugs and points his whole hand at Ian.
“I can’t deal with this shit today, you zap ‘em and I’ll do the dirty work.”
“Fuck me if I’m wrong, but haven’t we met before?”
“Shut up and look at this.”
“You get it? ‘Cause we haven’t met before so I’m wrong.”
“Oh, I fucking wish.”
“Are you a banana?”
“Can’t fucking wait to see where this is going.”
“‘Cause I find you a-peeling.”
“What?” Ian knocks down a ball and straightens up to smile at his brother. “That I’m kicking your ass right now?”
“One ball down and your cocky ass always thinks you’re gonna win,” Lip rolls his eyes and then nods in the direction of the doors, “no, that guy-”
Ian refuses to look over his shoulder, in case this is another one of Lip’s sorry attempts to wingman him some twinky piece of ass, that somehow always turns out being surprisingly straight, too. He just hasn’t got the touch, and Ian is all out of both patience and interest.
“It’s weird,” Lip seems to hesitate for a second, before pointing towards the bar, this time, “but that guy looks exactly like Mickey Milkovich.”
Hairs prickling up on the back of his neck and insides acting like he’s on a fucking roller coaster just hearing the name, Ian turns his head and scans the bar for the by now familiar gait and perpetual scowl.
He isn’t sure what he expected, but he still somehow manages to feel disappointed when he spots Mickey at the bar in his usual black, Kay at his elbow as they talk to Kermit, one of the Alibi’s regulars. Ian shakes his head, trying his best and failing to repel the brief image of what Mickey might look like off duty – all casual in a colorful floral print and jeans, but most likely no less snarky and annoyed.
And shake the sudden swell of possibilities that would have come with bumping into Mickey outside of work.
“Why is that weird?” he asks, thanking all his recent practice when he turns back to Lip and schools his face into a look of confused interest. “You know him?”
“No, I mean, yeah,” Lip shrugs and goes back to openly stare at Mickey over Ian’s shoulder, “you don’t remember Mickey Milkovich?”
Ian shrugs, because he sure does remember him, even though he’s been told again and again that he shouldn’t.
“They lived just a block away, man,” Lip tells him, “Mickey was in my year. Surprised everyone by going off to college, and then surprised fucking no one when he got himself locked up and killed. None of that rings a bell?”
Frowning, Ian tries to conjure up the image of Mickey in high school. There’s nothing there about Mickey – which isn’t strange considering how much Ian kept to himself back then – but he does remember something else. A girl in his own year, with a nasty reputation and a whole gang of violent brothers.
“Oh, right,” Lip smirks and snaps his fingers, “you were busy at the time, weren’t you?”
Ian rolls his eyes but says nothing to defend himself. It has all been said before and even though Lip likes to be a dick about it sometimes, he’s also made it perfectly clear that it’s all in the past. Ian had been going through some serious shit, and at the time it had seemed like running away had been the only viable option. Of course, wrapped up in his own issues he hadn’t noticed his family slowly falling apart without him.
Guess none of them knew how much he was needed until he wasn’t there anymore, supporting his corner of the Gallagher house.
“I remember Mandy,” he says, shifting the conversation back to the Milkovich siblings.
“Yeah?” Lip winces. “You know we were hanging out for a while?”
“No way,” Ian grins, suddenly remembering one of those nasty rumors, “you and Skankovich?”
“Hey,” Lip protests, shaking his head when Ian holds up his hand in an apologetic gesture, “she was sweet… completely messed up, but sweet. It didn’t last long, her brother and her dad died within the same year and I wasn’t, uh-”
“Good enough?” Ian jabs and raises his eyebrows when Lip throws him an unamused glare.
“What she needed,” he decides, with unusual humility, “could’ve handled it better though.”
Lip gives him the finger and there’s something so familiar about the moment that Ian makes up his mind on the spot. He’s never been good at keeping things from his brother.
“It’s him,” he says, taking a breath for strength when Lip just looks at him, “it’s Mickey Milkovich. I’ve met him a couple of times at work.”
Frowning, Lip’s eyes move from Ian to the bar, and then back to Ian. “That’s impossible.”
Pressing his lips together, Ian takes another second before he says it. “He’s MiB.”
Hissing out a quick ‘fuck’, Lip leaps in behind one of the bar’s structural pillars, pulling Ian in with him and shoving him up against the painted concrete.
“Are you crazy?”
“Well,” Ian sighs, trying to joke away the unpleasant feeling of being ten years old and told off by his, only barely, older brother, “I prefer the term chemically imbalanced.”
“This is serious,” Lip ignores his comedic flair, glancing around the pillar, “he knows about you?”
“Come on,” Ian groans, “give me some fucking credit. It’s not like we hang out or anything, he shows up at work sometimes and has no idea who I am, okay? Thinks I don’t remember him and I play along, relax.”
“Should have told me,” Lip bites out, “you should have told us, how are we supposed to protect you if you don’t tell us when you screw up and get yourself exposed to Them.”
“Hey,” Ian protests, frowning, “what was I supposed to do? Run away whenever they show up? Sure, that’s not suspicious at all.”
“You should have told me,” Lip repeats, like a broken record.
“Yeah, ‘cause this is really helpful,” Ian says and motions with his hand between them, “I feel real fucking safe right now.”
They are interrupted by a loud splat, immediately followed by Kev’s usually manly baritone pitched into a shrill shriek. Lip takes half a step to the side to see what’s going on, eyes widening to almost complete circles.
With his overly protective brother distracted, Ian takes the opportunity to step out next to him. From tipsy to all but black out drunk, every pair of eyes in the bar is on Mickey, arm raised and gun pointed squarely at where Kermit’s head used to be.
Ian is just about to go over there and do something when Lip steps into his path and blocks him off.
“Ian, please,” he whispers, and Ian probably would have ignored him if he hadn’t looked so honestly scared, “stay out of it.”
Ian looks up and Lip turns around when shocked gasps erupt around the room and the Muppet version of Kermit’s voice pipes up from the disturbing knob of flesh growing out between his shoulders.
“Do you have any idea how much that stings?”
“Probably about as much as I don’t give a fuck, Alvin,” Mickey says with a shrug, still not lowering his weapon. “Now, do I gotta do it again, or is this new head more of a singer than the last?”
“Okay, okay,” Kermit sighs, throwing up his hands, “but can we at least take this outside? You’re embarrassing me in front of my friends.”
Kev makes a strangled noise from behind the bar. Kay is already putting on his sunglasses, hand digging around behind his lapel.
“They won’t remember,” Mickey says, holstering his gun before gesturing towards the doors, “but sure, after you.”
“Okay everybody,” Kay addresses the whole room as Mickey and Kermit leaves, “I’m gonna need y’all to step up and pay attention to me, and I’ll tell you exactly what’s going on.”
Ian follows the rest of the room as they move closer to the bar, but he can’t keep his eyes from sticking to Mickey’s back, watching him as he holds open the door for Kermit and then turns around. His blank expression doesn’t change when he spots Ian in the crowd, but he still holds his gaze for a beat before he disappears through the door.
Struggling to put a finger on the strange feeling in his gut, Ian turns back to the crowd only to be met by Lip’s wary glare.
“Seriously?” he asks and Ian knows exactly what he means, from the way he says it to the deep set look of judgement on his face. He’s wrong, and Ian does his best to look like he hasn’t got a clue what he’s talking about.
Lip doesn’t know everything, and he is definitely wrong about this one.
“-and if you could just have a look at this,” Kay tells them, holding up the memory eraser and flashing the crowd with its bright light, “and I think you’ll remember that this is just another very ordinary night at the bar, with nothing but friends and regulars, people you see here all the time. Me and my partner, we don’t exist.”
The crowd starts to disperse and Lip turns to Ian.
“What were we doing?” he asks, shaking his head like he’s trying to wake up.
“Think I was beating you at pool,” Ian reminds him, trying his best to ignore Kay as he slips out of the room and Kermit returns, his head back to normal.
“That doesn’t sound right,” Lip teases him with a grin, picking up his cue and walking back to the table.
Ian hesitates. He knows he should tell Lip about what just happened, and just grin and bear it through a repeat of the lecturing and the judgement. But he can’t.
Because Lip is insufferable and smug and overbearing, and always right. And Ian thinks he might be feeling that fucking spark.
“Are you a campfire?”
“Come on,” Mickey complains, gesturing at the literal burning car down the street, being furiously dealt with by a group of hunky firefighters. Any other day and Ian would have turned around to enjoy the show, but today he can’t help thinking that the secretly amused line next to Mickey’s lips is more interesting than five guys yielding a big hose ever could be.
“Just asking,” Ian shrugs and grins when Mickey shakes his head, “‘cause you’re hot and I want s’more.”
“Jesus Christ,” Mickey groans and starts walking away.
“Oh, come on,” Ian laughs, turning with him and easily keeping up with his fast pace, “gotta be worth a name, at least?”
“Fuck you, is what it’s worth,” Mickey mutters.
Ian opts to consider it a genuine offer. “Your place or mine?”
He gets the finger, as expected, and he feels light on his feet when he laughs and Mickey turns his head too late to hide his own pleased smirk.
“Jay!” Kay cuts in, impatiently patting the roof of the Ford LTD when they look over. “Stop flirting and get in, Zed wants us back at HQ.”
“Jay?” Ian asks, smiling wide when he turns to Mickey. “Is that your name?”
“One of them,” Mickey mutters, the corners of his mouth dipping back down into a displeased frown. “You gotta stop this shit, man.”
Mickey sighs and rubs at his face, before he seems to make a decision and abruptly puts on his shades.
“Forget it,” he says, before he detonates the memory eraser, “I don’t exist.”
Ian watches Mickey through the glass as he talks animatedly with the patient Ian and his partner picked up from a call about a domestic disturbance less than half an hour ago.
They wouldn’t usually stick around at the hospital, but Sue needed to pee and Ian had his suspicions about the bug-eyed man with the broken arm who seemed more scared than relieved when they showed up and insisted to take him in.
He had a feeling Mickey might show up for this one, and he’d be lying if he claimed to stick around for no other reason than concern for his patient.
Thing is, Ian can’t stop thinking about Mickey. He is short-fused, snarky, rude, and completely useless at flirting, not to mention the fact that he’s a literal agent for the people who occupy at least half of Ian’s worst nightmares. But there’s something there, a pull. A connection.
First of all he’s hot as fuck. Ian would even go as far as call him ‘beautiful’, albeit not to the guy’s face. But more than that, he just seems right.
Ian doesn’t know Mickey at all, but everything from his dumb cock to his pretty damned astute instincts tells him Mickey might be just the right guy.
For what, he isn’t entirely sure. Fucking would be nice, for sure, but then there is everything else. Then there is the small hopeful voice, telling him Mickey might be one of the few people who would truly understand, and might even accept him fully for what he is.
Or he might lock him up, or shoot him in the face, so on balance he probably better stick to the script.
“Hey,” Ian rushes up to him when Mickey steps out of the patient’s room, “are you a doctor?”
“Do I look like a doctor?” Mickey complains, trying to wave him off as he starts walking down the vaguely beige corridor.
“I don’t know,” Ian says, trying to sound as pitiful as possible, “I think there’s something wrong with my eyes.”
Mickey actually slows down, and Ian can swear he sees concern flash through his eyes before he seems to catch on.
Ian grins. “‘Cause I can’t take them off you.”
“You’ve got an impressive repertoire, I gotta admit,” Mickey mutters, glancing sideways at Ian, “all your moves suck, but at least you don’t repeat yourself.”
“Not sure what any of that means,” Ian tries to sound casual about it, “but it sounded a lot like compliment.”
“Okay,” Ian says, unsure what to do when Mickey doesn’t take the lead and zaps his memory at first available opportunity, “so… if you’re not a doctor, why were you talking to my patient?”
“He’s not your patient anymore,” Mickey points out.
“He shouldn’t have been brought here to begin with,” Mickey cuts him off. “He never should’ve been in that house at all, but the idiot got himself a black market ticket and shipped here in a fucking crate, thinking he was landing on some kinda paradise planet, no charge.”
“Human trafficking?” Ian says, in an attempt to keep up with something he’s suspecting he isn’t supposed to keep up with.
“You know what I wanted to be when I was a kid?” Mickey asks, not waiting for Ian to shake his head before he continues. “A fucking space explorer. I was fucking seven years old and I already knew humans sucked.”
Ian hasn’t been paying attention to where they’re going, but suddenly they walk through a door and they’re outside in the cooling October air, and Mickey finally slows down to a halt.
Not knowing what to say, pretty sure there’s nothing he can say, Ian takes out his cigarettes and lights one up, silently offering it over to Mickey once he’s got it going.
Mickey stares at it for a second, before he reaches out and accepts it.
“Thanks,” he says, looking up at the darkened sky as he slowly sifts the smoke through his teeth.
Ian has been on enough tough calls to recognize the frustration and the heartbreak on Mickey’s face, and to know there is very little he can say to make it better.
“Turns out sucking is a universal fucking quality,” Mickey eventually concludes, sounding a whole lot calmer, but no less bitter.
Ian considers his options carefully – everything from ‘sucking doesn’t have to be all bad’ to ‘what about the universality of love?' – but decides on bringing it down to here and now, and them, and distract the distressed agent the only way he knows how.
“You never told me your name,” he says, and smiles when Mickey rolls his eyes at him.
“I talk about fucking space aliens,” he complains, waving Ian off when he tries to borrow the cigarette for a second, “and you’re still trying to score?”
Ian shrugs, taking the cigarette when Mickey offers it to him. “So you’ve got one or two screws loose? I don’t judge before I flirt.”
“You’re like a fucking dog with a bone,” Mickey huffs and shakes his head, and Ian would take it as a sign to step down if it weren’t for the fact that he isn’t supposed to know how many times they’ve done this already. If it weren’t for the small, pleased smile tugging at Mickey’s lips.
“Ian,” Ian says, finishing off the cigarette before he sticks his hand out, “nice to meet you..?”
Mickey ignores the gesture, and Ian feels the disappointment creeping in when he puts on his glasses and takes out the memory eraser.
“It’s Mickey,” he says, right before the flash of light goes off, “and I don’t exist.”
“Easy, easy!” Ian holds out his hands and kneels down next to the woman on the floor.
Her right leg is shaking uncontrollably, twitching and rattling and bending in ways he’s never seen parts of the human body be able to do before. She looks terrified, and clings to his arms when he tries to steady her.
“I can’t stop it,” she says, her voice low and shaking along with her leg, “I can’t control it.”
“I’m an EMT, you’re gonna be okay,” Ian tries to assure her, making sure to keep eye contact and taking a deep breath, “what’s your name?”
She breathes with him, and seems to calm down as much as she can while her leg rattles against the floor of the Checker’s kitchen.
“Cheryl,” she says and nods when Ian takes another deep breath, before she remembers to mimic him.
“Okay Cheryl,” Ian repeats as he lets go of her shoulders so he can try and catch her leg, “you on any medication?”
“No,” Cheryl whimpers, the sound turning into a strangled scream when her foot suddenly makes a 180 degree turn and her knee snaps in the wrong direction.
She is grabbing on to Ian, pulling him in close until she is crying into his ear.
“Them,” she sobs, “please, get Them.”
Ian has a good idea who ‘they’ are, but up until now he’s spent his whole life trying (and failing) to avoid them. He wouldn’t even know where to start if he wanted to find them.
And trust that he’s given it some thought, late at night when he can’t sleep and he’s rehearsing conversations in his head that he knows he’ll never have.
“Ey, firetop,” Mickey’s gruff voice comes out of nowhere, as though conjured by Ian’s desperate thoughts, “shove over.”
Shuffling to the side but still hanging on to Cheryl’s steel grip, Ian looks up in time to see Mickey kneel down on her other side.
“This is gonna sting,” he announces, before meeting Ian’s eyes and giving him a stern nod, “hold her still.”
Ian would probably do whatever Mickey asked, right then, the building anxiety draining right out of him the second he heard his voice. Focusing back on Cheryl, he adjusts his gip on her hand and takes another deep breath, trying to keep her attention on him as Mickey takes out his phone.
He gives it a couple of taps and holds it out over Cheryl, stretching his arm out like he’s trying to get it as far away from his own face as possible. It’s scrunched up in an uncertain grimace and his eyes are closed, so Ian takes it as a cue to turn away from the phone and hunch in over Cheryl to try and shield as much of her as he can, from whatever it is that’s about to happen.
The phone beeps, once. The long, shrill tone filling the room before leaving it in tense silence.
Then Cheryl explodes, in tiny little eruptions starting in her feet and working their way through her body, all the way up to her head. Like a string of firecrackers, hidden inside her joints and shutting her down, one section at a time.
“What did you do?” Ian panics when he feels her hand go limp in his. He holds it up and tries to find a pulse.
“Relax,” Mickey tells him, and the hand on his shoulder is surprisingly gentle when it’s moving Ian out of the way.
Too confused to argue, and still willing to trust that Mickey knows what he’s doing, Ian sits back on his heels and watches in silence as Mickey gets a dirty fork off the floor and unceremoniously jams it in under Cheryl’s jaw.
“Trust me,” Mickey mutters as he uses both hands to twist the fork around, as though he’s attempting to bend her face open, “hold this?”
Ian still doesn’t hesitate, he leans forward and grabs on to the fork as Mickey lets go of it.
“Electromagnetic pulse,” Mickey explains as he tries to wedge in his fingers next to the fork, nodding at Ian to put some more strength into it, “had to shut this thing down before it got out of control. Lock usually gets fried in the process. Here.”
Ian nods when Mickey seems to have found a good grip, fingers digging in under Cheryl’s jawbone, and carefully applies more of his weight to the fork.
“Should’ve scrapped this model years ago,” Mickey continues, looking up at the ceiling as he seems to feel around on the inside of Cheryl’s face, “but nah, always gonna be one or two suckers in the hood with no other options that can have ‘em, save a couple of bucks. Ah.”
There’s a soft click, and then Ian feels the pressure lifting off the fork as Cheryl’s face slowly swings open to reveal a small chamber inside her head.
“Ey, lady,” Mickey tries, addressing the lump of brown fur nestled inside the chamber.
“Cheryl,” Ian helps out.
“Cheryl, you okay in there?”
It doesn’t move for several long seconds, but then the fur slowly starts to turn within the cavity of Cheryl’s head, unfolding itself and rising up to its full size.
At about six inches tall, Cheryl looks a lot (but also not at all) like an uncomfortably large moth.
She makes a long string of clicking noises, but it isn’t until Mickey answers that Ian realises that she’s talking.
“I don’t know, man, they might get the suit back up and running,” he says with an apologetic shrug, “but you’re not walking anywhere with that leg. It’s gonna have to get replaced.”
Cheryl clicks eagerly at him.
“Maybe,” Mickey makes a face, “but why would you want that? It’s a piece of junk.”
Cheryl clicks angrily at him.
“Okay, okay, chill out, Jesus,” Mickey holds up his hands in defeat, “how about I give you a ride to the Center so you can yell at someone who gives a shit?”
Cheryl seems to shrug, as well as a moth can shrug, and Mickey nods before glancing over at Ian.
“You okay with all this?”
Ian blinks, not entirely sure what to say.
“Yeah,” Mickey answers for him, scratching at the side of his nose, “you usually are.”
Pressing his lips together over a pleased smile, Ian looks down at Cheryl’s old body. It looks heavy for one person to carry on their own, and Ian wouldn’t mind stealing some more time in Mickey’s company.
“You need help?”
“Sure,” Mickey huffs, a smile of his own pulling at the corner of his lips as he looks at Ian with open appreciation, “thanks.”
Cheryl clicks impatiently.
Rolling his eyes, Mickey gets up off the floor.
“Cover your eyes,” he says, before walking over to the small crowd of Checkers patrons gaping at them from the other side of the counter, “okay people, come closer and I’ll tell you what’s happening right now.”
Ian puts a hand over his eyes, mostly because Cheryl is staring at him, and stays on the floor as he listens to Mickey talk.
“There’s just been a small accident back here, one of the staff fell and hurt her leg. She seems fine but we’re gonna take her to a hospital anyway, just to make sure. That’s it, everything is very normal and you’ve never seen me before, if anyone asks. Have a nice day, or whatever.”
Ian helps Mickey carry Cheryl’s lifeless body out the back door, easily avoiding the still dazed staff in the kitchen. They stuff her down the boot of Mickey’s car, only barely managing to fold it up and fit it all in there without damaging it more in the process.
Not wanting the weird, wonderful moment to end, Ian takes out a cigarette and lights it up, before offering it to Mickey. He takes it, and for a few minutes they sit on the hood of the black Ford LTD and pass the smoke back and forth in silence.
And Ian knows he should stay quiet, but smiling up at the sky he can’t help himself.
“No wonder it’s so grey today,” he says, glancing at Mickey to catch his reaction. He’s looking up at the sky, too, calm and gloriously unprepared for what’s coming. “All the blue is in your eyes.”
Mickey drops his head back and groans, pinching his eyes closed.
“Too early in the relationship for poetry?” Ian asks, grinning when Mickey gets off the car and turns to face him.
“Wouldn’t call this a relationship,” Mickey cruely dismisses him, “and wouldn’t call that poetry.”
“Guess not,” Ian sighs, “anyway, I’ve heard relationships based on tense experiences never work.”
Mickey clicks his tongue and tilts his head to the side. “I don’t know, if you were Keanu Reeves I might’ve been more inclined to give it a go.”
Ian laughs, unreasonably happy that Mickey caught his Speed reference, and slightly heartbroken when he immediately follows it up by taking out his sunglasses and that fucking stick.
“You did good,” Mickey says, before he leaves, “you helped a woman who was in pain, and now you get to go on your day knowing you done good. But you didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, and you never saw me. I don’t exist.”
Ian stands on the parking lot and looks after Mickey’s car as it drives out of sight, so wrapped up in his thoughts that he almost doesn’t notice when his phone rings.
Reacting too slow, he sees the missed call and immediately dials the number back.
“Nate?” he says when the line picks up.
“Ian,” Nathan breathes out in a sigh of relief, “you’re safe, thank God.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? You okay?”
“Yes... no, I-,” Nathan has always been nervous by nature, at least since Ian got to know him, but there’s something in the way he hesitates that makes Ian think this time is different. “Thought someone’s been following me for weeks but, you know… figured it was just me, being paranoid.”
“Nate, did something happen?”
“There was someone in my apartment,” Nathan whispers urgently, “I got home and he was just there, he- uh, he didn’t say anything directly but he threatened me, Ian, and I swear. He’s one of Them.”
Closing his eyes, Ian exhales a slow breath through his nose in order to stay calm. “You sure?”
“Don’t know how they found me,” Nathan ignores his question, “maybe it was that Gungan shop lady who told them, I need to find us a new supplier.”
Ian pulls a hand through his hair, eyes prickling at the thought of what they might have to do. “What’s the plan.”
“Keeping you safe is all I care about, Ian,” Nathan says, talking over him when Ian tries to protest, “if I tell you we have to move, will you do it?”
Biting his teeth together, Ian fights against the great surge of emotions telling him to stay, to hold on to what he’s got.
His family, he’ll do anything to keep them safe.
He swallows and nods his agreement, forcing himself to speak so Nathan can hear it.
“Good,” Nathan sighs, “trust no one, my prince. They have agents everywhere.”
Ian sits in the open back of the rig, watching as the fire is slowly defeated, leaving behind a charred, wet house. Anyone affected by the smoke and fire have long since been rushed to the nearest hospital, so Sue and Ian are only still here as standby, in case something that shouldn’t happen, happens.
He saw the black Ford LTD when it creeped down the street ten minutes ago, slowing to a halt next to one of the fire trucks. He’s seen it out of the corner of his eye since, staunchly refusing to turn away from the fire and acknowledge the two men in black stepping out of the car and moving around the site, talking to everyone involved.
They’ll get to him when they get to him. They always do.
He doesn’t have to wait long.
“Hey,” Mickey greets him, walking up to the ambulance on his own. Ian spares him a quick glance, before turning back to the fire.
He looks so fucking good in orange, it almost hurts.
“You know what happened?” Mickey asks.
“Got here late,” Ian shrugs, and goes with the same confused explanation he’s been hearing around the site since he arrived, “but some of the guys were talking about a dragon… must’ve been a gas leak or something, right?”
“You okay, man?” Mickey asks, and he sounds genuinely concerned. It’s almost enough to break through Ian’s stone cold resolve. “You don’t look so good.”
“Wow, thanks,” Ian huffs, looking the other way, “compared to what, exactly?”
Ian closes his eyes over the strange, surprised hurt in Mickey’s voice. It can’t be helped. Mickey is the enemy and can’t be trusted, and Ian needs to do what he has to do to keep his distance.
Just ignore him, don’t flirt, don’t engage, let him think he’s flashing your memory and move on. One day and then another, and then another, and before you know it enough days will have past for it to be true.
You won’t remember him, and you won’t remember the way he makes you feel. Just being around.
“You don’t remember me?”
The question takes him completely by surprise, and before he’s able to stop himself Ian turns and frowns at Mickey, who grins wickedly.
“Oh, that’s right,” he says, pressing his lips together and snapping his fingers, “we’ve only met in my dreams.”
Ian stares at him for a second, feeling his defenses crumble to dust. Then he smiles, equal parts pained and helpless.
Mickey scoffs. “What’s that?”
“I would never say anything that cheesy to get a guy’s attention,” Ian lies, looking back at the dying fire.
“Is that right?”
“You know,” Mickey mutters, the teasing tone suddenly gone from his voice, “I really hate doing this.”
“Doing what?” Ian asks, turning his head in time to see Mickey take out the memory eraser, his dark shades already covering his eyes.
The bright light almost blinds him for a second, and he can’t help wishing that it would work this time.
“That thing you said,” Mickey starts, nodding distractedly, “about the gas leak. That’s what happened. I wasn’t here, ‘cause I don’t exist.”
Usually this means he’s done. But this time, Mickey takes off his shades and he looks at Ian.
And Ian wants to look away, but he can’t. Mickey’s eyes are like a quiet storm, dancing in the dying light of the fire.
“Whatever’s on your mind,” he says, grimacing awkwardly at his own words, “it’s not gonna seem so bad in the morning. You’ll wake up and you’ll feel happy, and everything’s gonna work out just fine.”
Ian escapes out on the back porch, lighting up a cigarette with trembling hands and looking out over the small vegetable garden as he smokes.
He’s seen a lot of births before, even one or two alien ones. But this is his first Jeltz birth, and probably the first time he’s been this close to an Atik native without taking their life.
He didn’t even realize it until the baby was out, holding the small life in his arms and handing it over to its mother. He was so filled with wonder and happiness for the couple and their new child, that it took a minute for everything to click into place.
Standing in their garden, he feels decades deep wounds pulling back open on his soul. Long suppressed memories of his old life, the hurt and trauma he inflicted during his short time in service. The hurt and trauma he suffered getting there, shaped from birth to only know the value of death.
He gently wrings his hands together, feels the roughened pattern of his skin and reminds himself of his current form. Of who he is in this life.
Just a guy, trying his best to help people. Wherever they come from.
He sets it aside and welcomes another, more pressing emotion. The swell of butterflies fluttering pleasantly through him, drowning out any feeling or thought that isn’t him. He hasn’t seen him in a few months, and he has missed him more than he thought.
Pulling a hand through his hair, Ian bites his lip over a goofy smile when he hears the door open behind him. He turns around, trying to act surprised when he sees Mickey step outside and join him on the porch.
He looks good, and Ian takes his time to appreciate it before reverting back to their well-worn script.
”Hi,” he says, leaving the cigarette between his lips to hold out a hand in greeting, even though he knows Mickey won’t take it. ”I’m Ian.”
Crossing his arms with a shrug, Mickey just glances at it before looking back up at Ian.
Ian smiles, and just to make it a little more awkward leaves his hand out, hovering between them until Mickey seems to surprise them both by rolling his eyes and taking it in a firm shake.
”Okay, sure. I’m Mickey.”
”Mickey,” Ian grins wider, before remembering where they are. Pulling in a nervous drag off his cigarette he takes it between two fingers and gestures with it in the direction of the house. ”That was crazy, right? Tell me you saw all that, too?”
”I saw it,” Mickey nods, ”some wild shit, for sure.”
”It was beautiful,” Ian mumbles, looking down at his hands before glancing back up at Mickey with another helpless smile, ”thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, but then you walked in.”
Mickey groans, squeezing his eyes shut and tipping his head back as Ian huffs out a pleased laugh. He could swear he can see the smallest hint of red tinting Mickey’s ears and cheeks.
”That’s the worst one yet, man,” Mickey sighs as he pulls out the memory eraser, ”gonna have to do better next time, Gallagher, or this thing here isn’t ever gonna work out.”
”What?” Ian asks, forcing his easy smile into a mask of confusion. ”How do you know my last name?”
”Don’t worry about it,” Mickey tells him as he puts on his shades and detonates the memory eraser’s bright flash.
Ian looks on as Mickey puts the stick away and steps forward, carefully holding on to his quickened breath when he gets close enough to gingerly take the cigarette from Ian’s fingers and put it to his own lips, pulling in a deep drag and blowing out a small cloud of smoke between them.
”There was just a normal, no-nonsense birth in this house,” Mickey tells him, wincing when he seems to think of something, ”you saved the day, big damn hero. That baby in there is alive just ’cause you came in and did your thing.”
Ian wants to take that one last step forward and kiss him, when Mickey sighs.
”And me,” he continues, raising his eyebrows and meeting Ian’s eyes. It feels impossible that he can’t see the longing in there, the hope and the thousand unanswered questions pushing for Ian to take the leap of faith and tell Mickey who he is. What he wants.
”You never saw me. I don’t exist.”
Pulling in another lungful of smoke, Mickey sifts it back out through his teeth and clicks his tongue.
”I mean, feel free to have, like-, one or two disgustingly explicit dreams about me, if you want,” he adds, to Ian’s immesurable delight, ”only fuckin’ fair, right?”
He nods to himself and starts to leave, only to hesitate in the door before turning around and pointing at Ian with his stolen cigarette.
”Oh, and you should probably quit smoking, that shit’s gonna kill you,” he says, ”just a thought.”
Jay’s head is pounding when he wakes up, not to a dark motel room this time but to the insides of a bright white cube of light. His hands have been cuffed together uncomfortably behind his back and there’s a small steel table and an empty chair in front of him, both bolted firmly to the ground. The chair he’s sitting on, too, he knows from experience that it won’t budge even if he’d try to tip it over or break it, it’s built to hold things generally much bigger and stronger than him.
He tries anyway, at least managing to make some noise when he kicks at the table and hits the bracelets of his cuffs against the chair. He knows they’ve got a camera on him.
”Hey assholes!” he yells at the blank wall. ”Get me the fuck outta here!”
The door suddenly opens behind him and he can feel at least two guards hanging back as Zed steps into view, rounding the table and sitting down opposite him.
”Agent,” she says, eying him carefully for a second before she nods at one of the guards over his shoulder.
”What the fuck’s going on?” he mutters, twisting in his chair and glaring at the guard when he bends down to unlock his cuffs.
They whirr and click and instantly release, but bringing his sore hands around to rest them on the table he realizes that the two bands are still locked around his wrists, ready to clasp back together at any time, if needed.
”I’m sorry about this,” Zed sighs and gestures at his hands, and then the whole room, ”but you pretty much broke Agent El’s nose back there, and I need to know that you haven’t been compromised.”
”Compromised?” Jay snarls and gets out of his chair, glaring at the guards when they visibly tense up by the door. ”They were roughing up a civilian under my protection, Zed, they were the ones barging in like fucking SWAT, acting like I was some kinda hostile.”
Zed stares at him like she thinks he’s missed something, and he fucking well hopes he has because none of this is making any sense. Pacing the small room, Jay swallows and decides to focus on the one thing that matters.
“There is a delegation from Munforte in orbit as we speak,” Zed infuriatingly avoids answering the question, “they made contact with us about an hour ago, accusing us of harboring a political refugee. After nearly two decades, they claim that the lost prince has reappeared on their radar.”
Jay blinks, surprised by this new information and reluctantly distracted by the idea of a ship-full of pissed off murder squids orbiting the Earth, waiting for them to explain how and why Schachter ended up dead under their watch.
“What did you tell them?”
Zed sighs and sits back in her chair, smoothing a hand down the side of her black hijab. It’s not often that she doubts herself, she has an unwavering sense of right and wrong – and all the strength to back it up with clear orders and decisive action. Jay has only seen her waver a couple of times before, but he still knows all her telling ticks when she feels forced into a corner and pressured to act against her instincts.
“I made a deal,” she says, not quite meeting his eyes, “we will hand over the prince and not interfere with their law, and in return they have agreed to remain in orbit and not invade our stratosphere. They helped us locate you and let us bring you in ourselves, peacefully.”
Frowning, Jay stares at her and waits a whole second for her to go on and explain what the fuck she’s talking about before he remembers that he really doesn’t give a fuck about any of her political problems right now.
“Where the fuck is Ian?”
”His majesty is waiting outside,” Zed again tries to dodge the question, but why she thinks spouting bullshit about some old urban legend is going to do the trick is beyond him. ”He has surrendered himself to be extradited to his home planet on the condition that he can sit down with you for five minutes in private first, so he might-”
Jay smacks his palm hard against the wall, making her flinch and stop mid-sentence.
”Cut the fucking crap, Zed,” he demands, voice fucking daring her to stall for another second. ”Where is he?”
Jay spins around at the sound of his voice and stares at Ian as he walks through the door. His first instinct is to rush up to him and put his hands on him, check if he’s alright, that he’s all there. He stops himself before he makes a complete ass of himself though, and lingers by the wall like some sort of caged animal as he watches Zed stand to attention.
“Some privacy, please?” Ian asks, although it appears more like a demand when Zed looks like she’s one step away from curtseying before she leaves the room with the two guards in tow.
Jay watches him intently as Ian walks around the table and sits down, properly facing him for the first time since he stepped into the room. He appears to be unharmed, his shoulders sagging a little with relief when he seems to come to the same conclusion about Jay.
“You okay?” Jay asks, anyway, raising his eyebrows when Ian closes his eyes at the question and bends his head.
“Yeah,” he says, and Mickey thinks he can see a quick smile pulling at the corner of his lips.
“Good, that’s good,” Mickey mutters, the jumble of unsolved information instantly pushing back in once Ian’s immediate safety has been established, “you got any kinda clue about what the fuck’s going on right now? ‘Cause I got nothing.”
He’s starting to suspect that Ian might be as clueless as he is, and is just about to start complaining when Ian huffs and opens his eyes.
“The first time we met,” he says, leaning his elbows on the table and clasping his hands together, eyes fixed somewhere on the floor between them as he speaks, “me and Sue were running hot on an anonymous call about an explosion in Chatham, but there was nothing there when we got there. A banged up car-, a truck. A couple of confused bystanders, and you.”
“Don’t sound like nothing,” Mickey can’t help pointing out, folding his arms over his chest and fighting the urge to cross the room when Ian grins.
“True,” he says, resting his chin on his knuckles and glancing over at Mickey, “been thinking about you a lot, you know? Lately... I’ve been thinking about tellin’ you-, thinking here’s a guy, here’s like… the guy. Maybe he wouldn’t…”
“Wouldn’t what?” Mickey asks when Ian seems to hesitate.
Uncrossing his arms and going with his gut, he sits down opposite Ian and makes sure to catch his gaze, holding eye contact. Ian stares at him much like he did back in the motel room, eyes flitting from side to side as though they’re searching Mickey’s for some kind of truth.
Then he blinks, his eyelids remaining wide open while a second set of lids close over his eyes from the side – slow and deliberate.
Only Mickey knows that they’re not eyelids – they’re gills. And Ian isn’t human.
“You’re a squid,” Mickey states, frowning at himself when Ian looks away at the term, “you’re the one they’ve been looking for?”
Ian nods, sitting back in his chair.
“You-,” Mickey starts, the reality of the situation slowly dawning on him, “you remember?”
“Yeah,” Ian says, a careful smile pulling at his lips before he’s nervously pressing them together, “I remember. My gills work a lot like your shades, and even without them you’ve got your little stick set to work on human brains.”
He gestures at his head and swallows uncomfortably. “Mine only looks human.”
“This is crazy,” Mickey huffs, scrubbing a hand over his face, “everybody’s been thinking the prince of Munforte’s been dead for decades, and it’s-, what happened?
Ian looks like he isn’t going to tell him – most likely out of a lifetime of habit – but then he’s releasing a slow breath and starts talking.
“I was five when the revolution broke and the executioners came for my family,” he says and makes a face, “I managed to escape, crashed on Earth. Fiona, my sister-, my adoptive sister… she was only twelve when she found me in the rain and took me home, kept me safe and told everyone I was her little brother, one of them. A house full of kids on the South Side, no one ever questioned it.”
Mickey shakes his head, clenching his fists when he feels an unfamiliar pang of sympathy.
“You could’ve asked for amnesty, you were just a kid.”
Shaking his head, Ian smiles wryly and looks down at his hands. He’s wringing them slowly, rubbing his palms together like a long-worn habit.
“Cephs are considered mature at what would be only three years old, here,” he says, “I was already a fully trained assassin by the time I landed on Earth. The plan wasn’t to stay. I was just gonna lay low and then take off, soon as I could. But then… life happened, I guess.”
“You’ve been hiding for, what? Some twenty years?”
“Yeah,” Ian nods, “Fiona and my brother Lip, they were the only ones who knew about me. No one else, not even my younger brothers and sister. My camo is instinctual, Fiona is the only one who’s ever seen me looking anything different than this.”
“Lip Gallagher,” Mickey says, something clicking together in his mind, “Jesus… I think I was in school with your brother.”
“Yeah,” Ian says again, but this time he smiles, “I know.”
Mickey tries to think back to what little he remembers about the grade-A asshole Lip had been in high school, and if he ever had any run-ins with a younger brother that could have been Ian.
“You won’t remember me,” Ian helps him out, his slight smile dipping when Mickey looks at him again, “I kept to myself a lot, to my family. We didn’t wanna risk anyone finding out I was hiding out on Earth.”
“All the neighborhoods, in all the cities, in all the worlds,” Mickey can’t help joking, even though he thinks it might come out more wistful than he intended, “and you ended up slumming it South Side.”
“Imagine,” Ian smiles and then shrugs, “I get that to most, growing up where we did isn’t the ideal or anything, but to me… I got to grow up loved, got a shot at a new kind of life. Being some kinda human, live in peace.”
“You’re long lost royalty from another planet,” Mickey says, and he can’t help being a little impressed by the idea when he says the words out loud, trying them out, “kinda epic, isn’t it? You don’t want to go back?”
“I was an assassin, on a planet of assassins,” Ian corrects him grimly, “would disappear into this body and never leave the streets where Ian Gallagher grew up, if I could go back and do it all again.”
“Schachter found out about you,” Mickey suddenly realizes, scowling at his own lack of tact when a pained expression flashes across Ian’s face.
He remembers and he’s been playing Mickey for a fool this whole time – lying about who he is and how much he knows since the moment they met. All of the shit he said back at the motel, Mickey can’t trust any of it.
The thought hurts more than it should, but Ian might’ve even been the one who killed Schachter. Two Cephs living illegally in the same city, maybe Schachter threatened to reveal Ian’s real identity and got killed over it.
Or maybe Schachter found out about Ian and blackmailed him into doing things against his will, like being in a relationship with a much older man.
“It wasn’t like that,” Ian sighs, as though he can read Mickey’s thoughts, “I was happy to grow up under the radar, protected from all the shit I’d escaped on Munforte. But when I got older I started feeling trapped, held back from living my life, you know?”
Mickey opens his mouth to cut in, still worked up over the idea that Ian might somehow have been coherced by his ex.
“Kinda snapped and ran away from home,” Ian continues, holding up a hand as a sign for Mickey to let him finish, “didn’t know it then but I was sick, and a lot of what I was feeling then was, like… part of it. Didn’t know there was anyone else like me on Earth when I met Nate. Was working clubs in Boystown and I would’ve been dead within the year if he hadn’t helped me.”
Trying to piece together what he’s known about Ian from before, and what he’s saying now, Mickey finds that most of it seems to easily snap together. Like a big puzzle of secrets and half-truths blending together to create a whole.
Ian shakes his head and huffs, like he thinks it’s fucking funny or something.
“It’s stupid,” he says, and seems to need a second before he decides to continue, “the sun is different here, it’s like a… a vitamin deficiency.”
Raising his eyebrows in a silent question, Mickey keeps his mouth shut and waits for Ian to go on.
“Sounds like nothing but ten years of it was getting to me,” he shrugs, obviously trying to downplay something that must have been really rough on him, “started messing with my mood, then my mind… Nate knew a guy and could get me the supplements I needed, got it smuggled in from the Aurigae System before the Jeltz started settling and all the legit traders got a reason stock up on the stuff as well.”
“He do a lot of business with the Jeltz?” Mickey asks, raising his eyebrows when Ian makes a face.
“I didn’t say that,” he insists, shaking his head, “we talked about them a few times, when it got too much. About the war, about…”
Pressing his lips together and closing his eyes, it almost looks like it physically hurts him to find the words to explain.
“I don’t-,” he says, seemingly determined to at least try, “it’s like... having PTSD from a past life, or something, I’m not sure you’d get it.”
Mickey makes sure to catch his gaze when he opens his eyes. “Try me.”
Staring at him for a couple of seconds, Ian seems to recognize that Mickey isn’t looking to judge him. That he only wants to understand.
“Munforte and Atik had been at war for centuries already when I was born,” he says, “no one questioned it. No one thought about why, or who.”
He rubs uncomfortably at the back of his neck and shrugs.
“Imagine then waking up in a whole different life, where you don’t have to kill and nothing that made sense before makes sense anymore. And you know it’s no use trying to… repent, or let the guilt eat you whole. But it wants to, and it’s always there.”
He isn’t quite looking at Mickey as he talks, allowing Mickey to really, shamelessly study every line and faded freckle on his face.
“Five years is half a life on Munforte,” he says, “Ian is just a guy who grew up around the corner from you but, you know… it still feels like a lie, sometimes. And like more than I deserve.”
Mickey swallows over the lump in his throat. He wants to reach across the table and put his hand on Ian’s, comfort him and tell him whatever he needs to hear. But Mickey has never been good at comforting anyone, and wouldn’t even know where to start.
“Guess how much we know about Cephs,” he says instead, shrugging helplessly when Ian looks at him, “fuck all, that’s how much.”
Ian looks confused by this, but Mickey figures it’s a hell of a step up from devastated.
“You hear about a planet of assassins and, you know,” Mickey continues, putting his hands up in a hapless shrug, “the reasonable reaction is to ban the whole bunch from ever stepping over your threshold, right?”
Ian bends his head. “Right.”
“Sure,” Mickey scratches at his eyebrow and then gestures vaguely to catch the point he’s trying to make, “but that still leaves the universe with a planet of assassins, and no one’s even pausing to think if a whole fucking planet of individuals actually, honestly, all want to be fucking assassins.”
Mickey isn’t sure if he’s doing this right at all when Ian’s eyes seem to mist over and he blinks to hide the tears welling behind his pale lashes.
“Don’t know,” he says and wipes self-consciously at his nose, “feels a lot like sayin’ I wanted to be a fag-bashing criminal growing up, just ‘cause that was the way I grew up.”
“You wanted to be a space explorer,” Ian says, his voice still heavy with emotion as he recalls Mickey’s childhood dream.
“Yeah,” Mickey agrees, allowing himself a small, hopeful smile when Ian nods and looks at him, eyes shining with clear and unadulterated gratitude, “that’s right.”
“Wasn’t lying to you before,” Ian tells him, obviously trying to pull himself together, “I don’t know who killed that guy, and Nate would’ve died before he picked up arms again.”
“I believe you,” Mickey says and can’t help pressing his lips together in a wry smile, “even though you’ve been lying to me for years.”
Ian gives him a scathing look, but to his credit he doesn’t flip the table or start screaming about the pot calling the kettle black.
“Yeah, okay,” Mickey says and grins, “just didn’t think you had it in you, is all.”
To his surprise, Ian looks genuinely remorseful.
“Don’t fucking apologize,” Mickey complains, shaking his head when Ian looks like he’s ready to do it again, “Jesus, you needed to protect yourself, I get it.”
“I wanted to tell you,” Ian says, and it kind of breaks Mickey’s heart to hear it, “I should have trusted you sooner and maybe-”
“Ian,” Zed cuts in, turning their attention to her standing in the opened doorway, “it’s time.”
“Time for what?” Mickey asks and looks at Ian, vaguely recalling Zed saying something about a deal when Ian nods. “Seriously?”
“They’re waiting,” Zed explains, sounding a lot like she’s apologizing, “I’ve tried to stall, but they’re um-, aggressively impatient.”
“This is fucking bullshit,” Mickey sputters, holding up a hand to make Ian sit the fuck back down when he stands, “he ain’t going fucking nowhere. He’s staying here.”
“It’s fine, Mick,” Ian says, stopping him when Mickey tries to argue. “Hey. It’s fine. I made a deal.”
“So?” Mickey can feel the desperation pumping through him, looking for a way out. “Make a new fucking deal!”
“I’m just going home,” Ian says, his eyes and voice steady when he looks at Mickey and nods, “it’s time.”
“This is bullshit,” Mickey repeats, pleadingly lowering his voice when Ian averts his eyes, “why are you doing this? They will kill you, you know they will.”
Ian shakes his head, that stony resolve back in his eyes when he looks up at Mickey again.
“They won’t,” he says, “my contract was lost when I escaped, this is just ceremony. They can’t actually do anything to me without it. Trust me.”
And Mickey does, terrifyingly so. But he doesn’t trust the Cephs for shit, least of all with Ian’s life.
“You don’t know that,” he says, swallowing convulsively when his voice wavers.
“Ian,” Zed insists, and this time Mickey doesn’t try to stop him when Ian gets up.
Instead he gets up with him and helplessly stares at him as Ian seems to hesitate, eyes searching Mickey’s for something to maybe stop him, convince him to stay and fight.
But then he breaks away, lips pressed together as he shakes his head and walks past Mickey and towards the door.
Mickey feels like he isn’t in control of his body when he follows and gently puts a hand on his shoulder to turn him back around and pull him into his arms.
And Ian lets him, steps into his embrace and wraps his arms around Mickey’s chest and clings to the back of his tank as they press together until there is no space between them at all.
Mickey wants to fight, kick and scream and shoot his way out of this fucked up situation. But this isn’t his decision to make, it’s Ian’s.
And Mickey feeling like his whole future is slipping out of his hands is not enough to try and convince Ian to change his mind.
So he closes his eyes and he holds on tight, until Ian is stepping out of his arms and walking away.
Watching him disappear through the door hurts, much more than it reasonably should. A great weight bearing down on Mickey’s chest, an invisible hand reaching in and squeezing his heart until his knees buck and he slumps to the floor.
“The fuck?” he gasps, clawing at his chest and chipping for air. His vision is fogging up, darkness pushing at his eyes as his lungs start to burn. He’s pretty sure the door is still open, but the guards left with Ian and Zed.
Hands grab at his shoulders and hold him up.
“Agent, are you hurt?” The hands move over his chest and his head, checking for visible injury. “Oh, I never knew what to do with the living, I’m afraid I need you to help me out and tell me what’s wrong, Agent Jay. Are you having a panic attack?”
“I-,” Mickey gasps indignantly, “fucking-, panic ah-, fuck-, sake.”
“Whatever it is hasn’t affected your charming personality, at least,” Bee notes, “thank heavens.”
“Fuck-, off-,” Mickey chips, but clasps his hand over Bee’s when the dull pain intensifies and pulsates out through the center of his chest.
Mickey collapses to the floor when the pain abruptly stops and the tension drains out of his body in an instant.
Blinking up at the ceiling, he takes a couple of deep breaths before he looks down his prostrate body, and then up at Bee kneeling by his side.
He is staring intently at something clasped between his delicate fingertips, turning it around as he examines it. The chain around Mickey’s neck moves with it, lifted off his chest where it usually disappears down his undershirt, still attached to the pendant in Bee’s reverent hands.
He has never showed it to anyone, has always kept it close to his heart. The alien trinket he found that night when he was seven, that he had dug out from the nestles and kept hidden under a loose floorboard in his room. The one thing to give him hope at times, during long nights with scrapes and cuts and broken bones keeping him awake long into the morning. When his wants and needs started to betray him, and he felt like an alien in his own home.
When he felt all alone in the world. He would squeeze the strange, metal-like object in his hand, and he would feel this tangible connection to the alien stranger who had left it behind in their ship.
Seeing it in Bee’s careful grasp turns his stomach, and makes him feel like a helpless kid. Sprawled on his back and at the mercy of someone else’s judgement.
“You found it!” Bee breathes out and turns his beaming smile on Mickey. “I expected it to be larger-”
He shuffles back when Mickey struggles to sit up, snatching the pendant from his hands and shoving it back down the hem of his tank.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mickey mutters and spits on the concrete floor. His mouth tastes like metal. “What the hell was that?”
“Mr Keen’s contract?” Bee says, his excitement turning into a doubtful frown when Mickey stares at him.
“What?” Mickey groans, pinching at the bridge of his nose. He feels like they’re having two conversations at once, and his head still reeling from the pain and the onslaught of information. “Kay said you found that thing in Schachter’s place.”
“We certainly did not,” Bee insists, “we went through that apartment with a fine-tooth comb, and I assure you we only found books and Earthly doodahs in there. Now this, on the other hand-”
He nods at Mickey’s chest, where he’s still covering the pendant with his hand.
“It’s old, but still very much in effect,” Bee says, nodding emphatically, “I’ve heard of contracts having a physical reaction to their targets, maybe it’s gone on the fritz because Mr Keen died without the completion of the more ritualistic part of the assassination.”
“My necklace tried to kill me?” Mickey asks, folding his fingers around the shape of it, bunching up the fabric of his shirt covering it.
“Don’t be dramatic,” Bee dismisses him, “you’re not supposed to wear it, Agent, at least not if you’re a comparably weak and insignificant human such as you or I, pardon me saying so.”
“I found it,” Mickey thinks out loud, “over twenty years ago. A ship-, it crashed into this old construction site in my neighborhood and I found it, I-”
He stops, refusing to believe his own thoughts for a second.
“It was raining,” he says and looks at Bee, “Ian said it was raining when he landed twenty fucking years ago in-, fuck!”
Bee blinks at his excessive expletives, but helps him up when Mickey struggles to get off the floor.
He isn’t sure what it means that he has Ian’s contract, that he’s had it for all this time. But it’s something, and he sure as fuck isn’t going to let Ian leave without a fight.
“This is terribly exciting.”
Bee is out of breath, struggling to keep up as Mickey sprints through the winding corridors and slams the button for the nearest elevator.
“Where did they go?” Mickey asks, pushing at the doors when they open too slowly.
“Main gate, I would assume,” Bee says, leaping in after him through the already closing doors, Mickey smashing the button for the right floor in a useless attempt to speed up the whole process, “it’s a royal delegation, after all.”
“What does this mean?” Mickey asks, pacing the short width of the elevator as it starts to move. “What’s it mean that I’ve got his contract?”
“Well,” Bee seems to consider it, pushing up his glasses, “from all the rumors I’ve heard of the prince’s disappearance, I never knew about the contract being lost. It’s very possible that they never wanted it to be known, and that they mean to call for a retrial.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mickey nods, staring up at the numbers counting down the floors, “Ian mentioned that, said he might get pardoned or something.”
“Unlikely,” Bee says, matter-of-factly, “Cephlapoid law is quite simplistic when it comes to matters such as these. If they want him dead – and trust me when I say they undoubtedly do – they will see him executed. A retrial will only result in a new, more efficient contract, I’m afraid.”
“Asshole,” Mickey mutters, shaking his head when he sees Bee looking at him from the corner of his eye, “told me he was gonna be fine.”
“I imagine he lied,” Bee hums, just as the elevator slows down.
Mickey is practically bouncing on his feet when the doors ding and slide open, revealing the large, open hall of the main gate – flooded with light through the slanted glass ceiling.
There is a group of people gathered around the central landing pad, and in the middle of it all is Ian, hands cuffed together and flanked by two stony-faced Cephlapoid escort guards.
“Hey!” Mickey shouts, only realizing he hasn’t got a clue what to say next when the whole room turns to look at him.
Whatever, there hasn’t been a situation yet he couldn’t turn to his favor by walking wide and talking loud enough.
“Hang on a fucking minute,” he says, striding up to the group and pointing at Ian, “this man is a political refugee, what makes you think you can just waltz in and grab him like this?”
One of the disguised Cephs standing next to Ian glances uncertainly at Zed.
“Because we made a deal?” she says, grabbing on to Ian’s elbow.
“Mickey,” Ian warns, shaking his head.
“Jay,” Agent Jay steps up next to Zed, looking intently at Mickey when he turns to glare at him, “hold up, okay, this is not the time.”
“Fuck that, this is exactly the time,” Mickey sputters, gesturing at Ian and the Cephlapoid delegation ready to take him away and execute him, “I get that we’re on shaky ground right now, alright, you guys murdered their guy, they murdered your guy. How about we just put a fucking pause on the murdering for a sec and-, I don’t fucking know, try talking it out for a fucking change.”
There’s some general shuffling and murmuring going on around him, and – glancing over at Agent Jay and Zed – a fair bit of nervous wincing.
“What,” Ian’s guard pipes up again, “exactly do you mean, when you say,” she lets go of Ian so she can do air quotes, “‘murdered’?”
Mickey rolls his eyes, sick to death of all this political discretion bullshit. It was never his strong suit.
“Your guy Schachter,” he says, pointing at the Cephs with his whole hand, “killed their guy, Keen-”
Looking through the small crowd, he spots the rotund Jeltz ambassador and points to him. The crowd gasps.
“And then someone,” he continues, waving his hand impatiently, “and I’m gonna take a wild fucking stab in the dark and guess they were Jeltz, killed your guy Schachter-”
The Jeltz ambassador sputters indignantly.
“Leaving me and this guy,” Mickey nods at Kay, suddenly appearing in his field of vision as he makes his way around the crowd, strategically positioning himself between the Cephs and the exit, “to run around like fucking headless chickens, tryna prevent fucking war of the worlds down here, and honestly?”
Spreading his arms out in a wide shrug, he nods at the Cephs. Ian closes his eyes and bends his head in anticipation of what Mickey is about to say, most likely thinking all this is doing is getting him a faster, more thorough death.
“I’m fresh outta fucks to give about your little cold war right now,” Mickey says, anyway, because he’s got nothing left to say but this, “you’re not fucking taking him, he’s staying here.”
“He is a convicted war criminal,” one of the squids starts, only to be interrupted by the Jeltz ambassador.
“Murderers!” he exclaims. “This is how you honor our peace?”
The squid rolls her eyes. “Nige, we keep telling you that ‘murderers’ is more accurate than insulting-, but more importantly; no! We have honored the treaty, Mr Keen’s life was not taken under contract from Munforte.”
“We can show you the receipts,” her colleague adds, “we have receipts now.”
The Jeltz ambassador deflates immediately, looking to Agent Jay for guidance.
“I think,” he says, using every ounce of his innate pondus as he holds up a hand in a calming gesture, “we can all agree that no one here would risk another war.”
Mickey looks around the room as Cephs and Jeltz alike hum in agreement. Ian is still tied up in the middle of it all, but now there’s a glimmer of hope in his eyes when they meet Mickey’s.
“Goodness no, could you imagine?” the Jeltz ambassador huffs. “In this economy.”
Mickey feels himself slowly relax as the crowd around him seems to do the same, nodding at each other and chuckling nervously at the ambassador’s comment.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me!”
There’s a scuffle behind the Cephlapoid delegation and the crowd shifts around Mickey, blocking his line of sight as he instinctively tries to catch Ian’s eye and make sure he’s okay.
Shoving people out of the way, Mickey gets eyes on Ian just in time to see him being pulled back, stumbling, an arm coiled tightly around his neck and a gleaming gun to his temple.
“Stand back!” Kay yells, pulling Ian further back and cowering behind him.
Mickey doesn’t know what to do, his fingers are itching for a gun and his instincts are telling him to relax, because Kay always has his back. And then there’s the small voice at the back of his head, slowly piecing together a larger puzzle, bit by heartbreaking bit.
“What does it take for you idiots to start murdering each other again?” Kay complains, eliciting pained gasps from the crowd when he tightens his grip on Ian. “I’ve laid it all out for you, all you needed to do was what you’ve been doing for thousands of years, how hard can it be?!”
His head spinning, Mickey locks in on Ian’s focused eyes and steps forward, hands up in a show of surrender.
“Kay,” he says, wetting his lips when he sees his partner hesitate at the sound of his voice, “what’s your plan here?”
“Sorry, Jay,” Kay says, and he sounds like he means it even as he tightens his grip on Ian again and forces him back another step, “can’t you see what’s happening? We’re being invaded, doors wide open for the scum of the universe to come take what’s ours.”
Mickey takes a careful step closer, trying to remember his hostage training.
“Always knew you were kinda racist, man,” he says, because he pretty much flunked that course, hard, “never thought you were this fucking stupid though.”
He shrugs when Ian makes a face.
“Yeah,” he admits, “probably should’ve guessed.”
“Cut the act, Jay,” Kay snarls, “you want them gone as much as me, you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you get it.”
“No,” Mickey shakes his head, “I really don’t.”
“Fine!” Kay growls, Ian’s cuffed hands gripping at his arm when he pulls him further back. “You want this one alive?”
“Yes, please,” the Cephs interject, “we really have our hearts set on killing him ourselves.”
Deciding to deal with one asshole trying to kill his future boyfriend at a time, Mickey gestures at the Cephlapoid delegation to shut the fuck up, moving past them and focusing on Ian.
“Any closer, Jay,” Kay says, his hand squeezing the gun convulsively, effectively stopping Mickey in his tracks, “and he’s dead, I swear to God.”
Ian chips for breath when Kay finally loosens his hold long enough to show something clutched in his hand. It’s a small, circular device, and pressing it releases a loud knell and a small cloud of shimmering dust, dropping to the ground and revealing the startling absence of both Ian and his captor.
“Shit!” Mickey spins around, trying to see where they went.
“It’s a short distance teleportation device,” Bee explains, rushing up next to him, “they can’t have gone far-, there!”
There’s a second knell high above them, and Bee is pointing up at the slanted glass ceiling where they can just barely make out the vague shape of something materializing on top of the cloaked landing pad suspended above the Diamond.
“Fuck’s up there?” Mickey asks, craning his neck to see better.
“My jet,” Agent Jay supplies, stepping up to them with an apologetic grimace, “and we’re not gonna catch him if he gets away with it, might’ve been overly zealous when I asked to get the power maxed.”
“Awesome,” Mickey mutters, wincing when the see Kay firing his gun and a part of the landing pad explodes and flickers into visibility, destroying the elevator controls. “How do I get up there?”
“Service ladder?” Bee suggests.
“Jay,” Agent Jay steps in his way, most likely trying to stop him from doing something stupid. Mickey cuts him off before he can say anything.
“James, don’t,” he says, knowing full well it’s a low blow to use the name Jay revealed to him in drunken confidence, years ago, “I gotta do this.”
To his surprise, Agent Jay only nods and pulls out a Noisy Cricket from a hidden holster under the back of his suit jacket. The tiny weapon almost disappears in his grip when he hands it over to Mickey.
“Mickey,” he says, because the asshole always has to be even, “take this, we’ll approach from the air.”
Orbiting Earth, just shy of breaking through the stratosphere, hangs a great big alien ship. Its occupants, four creatures looking a lot (but not at all) like octopodes, sit in tedious suspension as they monitor the extradition of their would-be, overthrown, and soon to be executed monarch.
They don’t consider themselves as ‘aliens’, of course, although they are visitors from another planet. Which is why they’re respecting the odd ways of the Terrans and have spent the last few hours hovering on the threshold of their planet while things proceed.
On Munforte, a couple of hours isn’t technically longer than what they are on Earth, but Cephlapoids still somehow manage to get a Terran day’s work done in the time it takes some Earthlings to wake up and get the coffee running. Efficiency is a virtue on Munforte, as it has been for millennia.
It’s no wonder then, that they don’t immediately know what to do with overnight TV.
“Change it back,” one of them says, “this is tedious.”
Two of his companions wiggle their tentacles in agreement, while the fourth revels in the fact that he might actually be the only one in the room who more or less understands how these Earth transmissions work.
He has a nephew who has been on a longer mission to Earth before, and has explained a lot of this in great detail to him. But he isn’t going to reveal any of this to his colleagues, if he can help it.
His name is Hastur, and he is acting captain of the ship while his commander is taking part in the drama playing out on their screen.
“This is real life,” he explains slowly, slapping away a stray tentacle when it tries to switch the channel anyway. He gets it, he does, they’d been in the middle of a very interesting television program about a dirty Terran in a white tank top, crawling around narrow spaces in a tall building while another Terran was threatening to shoot a bunch of people with wild abandon.
It’s not the way he would have done it, but that’s apparently the joy of this thing Terrans call ‘fiction’.
“It’s tedious,” his colleague reiterates sullenly, tutting at the screen, “at least turn the volume back up.”
The sound crackles and twists as it fills the room, quickly adjusting the levels and finding the right pitch.
“- closer, Jay, and he’s dead, I swear to God.”
Leaning closer, Hastur makes sure to hide his surprise when their main target suddenly disappears off the screen in a puff of dust. Their surveillance system is locked to the ex-prince and scrambles to follow when they teleport off screen, the image flitting wildly across the city before once more honing in on the diamond shaped MiB building.
This time they get a view of the roof, and two people suspended in thin air some fifty yards above it.
It takes a minute, but then a third person is climbing over an invisible edge, struggling to his feet and weilding a tiny gun.
“It’s John McClane,” one of Hastur’s dimwitted colleagues notes, pointing a tentacle at the new player. The clothes are pretty much the same, Hastur has to agree, before remembering that he knows better.
“No,” someone else chimes in, “John McClane is bald.”
Hastur shimmies one of his flaps in annoyance. “John McClane is fictional.”
“Shhh!” Hairy John McClane is yelling at the other Terran, and Hastur finds himself inordinately curious to find out about what. “This might be important.”
”-you tried to kill me, in the garage!”
“I didn’t know!”
“Oh fuck off!”
“You didn’t tell me you found this guy’s picture, how was I supposed to know that you’d be there, chatting up a fucking squid?”
“You could have tried not killing anyone!”
“Whatever, like you’ve never thought about it!”
“What happened to you, huh? No, really! Tell me exactly how you managed to get this entirely twisted in the head so I can spend the rest of my miserable life doing the exact opposite!”
“They have our target,” Hastur’s lieutenant points out, breaking him out of the scene. “Should we get down there?”
He’s right of course, even though Hastur probably could have stood to wait a little longer.
“Thank you for volunteering, Lieutenant.”
“I trusted you,” Mickey says, scowling at how pathetic he sounds once he stops yelling. Ian is still between him and his partner, shielding any reaction Kay might have to his words.
It’s better. Ian’s eyes are shining with sympathy, studying Mickey’s face intently, probably ready to react the split second he decides to make a move.
Mickey doesn’t have a move, or a plan. He has climbed up on the invisible landing pad, and he has yelled until his lungs burned, and now he is waiting for a fucking miracle to materialize out of thin air.
He gets a giant octopus.
The air shifts with the sheer force of it not existing in one second, and then towering over them in the next. And in the baffled moment it takes for Mickey to even understand it being there, it has already wrapped two tentacles around Kay’s body, picked him up in the air, and torn him clean in two.
“Holy fuck!” Mickey exclaims and runs up to Ian who stumbles forward, suddenly free but his movements still hindered by the cuffs linking his hands together.
Mickey catches him by the shoulders and quickly gets himself in between Ian and the fucking Kraken lumbering towards them.
He aims to shoot, only to have the Noisy Cricket knocked out of his hand, the blast missing the uncloaked Ceph by several feet and sailing off into the sky.
Before he knows it, he’s surrounded by tentacles, coiling around him and squeezing until his lungs start to burn and his feet lift off the ground.
He feels his whole body straining under the pressure when he hears the distant charge of a Noisy Cricket loading. The Ceph stills in its movement, and somewhere from within the flaps and tenacles booms a garbled voice.
“You can’t kill me, you are bound by the laws of-”
Then he explodes, dropping Mickey into a pile of slimy guts and sizzling bits of tentacle.
A wedge of lemon and some bubbly, and the seafood restaurant would practically open itself.
Mickey lies on his back for a second, trying to catch his breath as he stares up at the calm clouds in the sky, before he sits up.
“Jesus,” he says and almost gags, wiping goo off his face as he twists and turns, trying to find Ian. He’s standing behind a large pile of tentacles, Cricket still in his hand as he tries to move closer to Mickey, slipping and sliding on the squiddy remains. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Ian confirms and almost slips on his ass when he loses focus on his feet, “shit.”
Breathing out a sigh of relief, Mickey looks out over the city, and then back down at the mess around him.
“Your flirting game is strong,” he admits, craning his neck so he can see Ian slowly moving closer, “but your action quips need some serious work.”
Ian huffs and takes a second to think, climbing over a particularly large, wobbly chunk.
Mickey shakes his head, recoiling at the suggestion.
“The fuck?” he says, absently shoving off the still wriggling tentacle covering his right leg. “What’s that even in reference to?”
“Squids,” Ian says and shrugs, clearly losing confidence in it even as he speaks. “Squirting ink?
Mickey thinks he can feel his eyebrows reach all the way up to his hairline. “You squirt ink?”
“Yeah, no,” Mickey clicks his tongue and looks up at Ian, who has managed to make the short trek over to stand next to him, “maybe stick to silence.”
Ian holds out a hand in a wordless offer to pull Mickey up on his feet, the broken chain dangling from the half of his handcuffs still stuck around his wrist. Mickey waves him off, sitting seems like the safer option right now.
He is exhausted down to his bones, and he’s pretty sure he’s added one or two cracked ribs to his steadily growing collection of wounds. His heart swells with gratitude when Ian simply shrugs and sits down next to him.
Glancing sideways, it’s like he’s seeing Ian for the first time, for a second time. It feels like years since he sat in Ian’s car and looked at him from the same angle, thinking nothing he wanted ever could come true.
He is still achingly beautiful.
“This what you really look like?” Mickey asks, gesturing vaguely at the surrounding squid ragu.
Ian doesn’t turn to face him, his passive profile not telling Mickey anything about what he’s feeling. He takes a second to answer, silently wringing his hands in a practiced motion.
“Guess so,” he eventually says, and finally turns to meet Mickey’s eyes. Jaw tense and lips pressed together in anticipation of Mickey’s reaction, he looks scared.
“Alright,” Mickey says, nodding when Ian averts his eyes and seems to relax, just a little. “And what, you were gonna, just-, let them take you to your execution?”
Ian huffs, shaking his head as he looks out over the city.
“Better than war,” he says, like a fucking saint, “and I told you, I lost my contract. They’d have to do a retrial, always a small chance that they’d find me innocent and just deport me.”
Feeling with his hand over the narrow lump under his shirt, Mickey makes sure the pendant is still there by pressing it lightly into the center of his chest.
“I-,” he starts, but before he gets the chance to say anything at all, the platform is crowded by the sudden appearance of three new Cephs. They’re thankfully dressed in their humanoid camo, but they still seem to fill up the entire platform with their presence.
“Jesus, fuck,” Mickey groans, “where do these guys keep coming from? Is there like, a hole somewhere we can plug, ‘cause I’m not sure I got it in me to wrestle another squid today.”
He’s too busy complaining to notice when Ian gets up, and walks over to his estranged kin.
“It’s me you want,” he says, “leave Mickey out of it.”
“Fucking-, noble idiot!” Mickey mutters and scrambles to his feet. “Hey, assholes!”
All three of the Cephs turn to look at him as he slips and skids his way over.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” he confirms, just because they look confused by his first introduction, “know what this is?”
Stepping in in front of Ian, he grabs the chain around his neck and holds it up, struggling when the length of it only allows him to hold it at about level with his chin. The Cephs squint and lean closer, trying to see what he’s talking about.
“Fucking-,” he grumbles and pulls the chain over his head so he can hold it up higher and let the contract dangle from his closed fist. The black metal catches the light of the low morning sun, and the contract spins and hums in the air.
They recognize it now.
“That’s right,” he says and grins viciously. “His life is mine to take, whenever I please. I decide, and you’ve got shit to say about it.”
Mickey was never sure about this gamble, but seeing the pure hatred darkening the eyes of Ian’s would-be executioners, he’s ready to spin the wheel and put all his money on red.
“That’s right,” he says, “go pack yourself back up in your little spaceship and fuck. Off.”
The chain is still tangled up in his hand, so the contract jingles lightly when he gives the Cephs a one fingered salute, in stereo, as they disappear back up to their ship.
Grinning up at the clear sky, he feels Ian staring at him before he turns around and sees it. He expects him to look happy, and wouldn’t have hated it if he’d done a bit of swooning, but instead he has backed away, jaw set as he eyes Mickey suspiciously.
“Where did you get that?” he asks.
Mickey looks down at his hand, at the one material possession he couldn’t surrender when he was asked to die and start a new life. He always knew, deep down, that it never belonged to him.
“Found it,” he says, holding it up between them, “twenty years ago, in the rain.”
Ian lets out a low breath, eyes widening in realization as Mickey walks up to him.
“Kept it safe for you,” he says, and threads the chain over Ian’s head, tucking the contract down under his t-shirt.
He’s about to step back again when Ian grabs on to his wrist and pulls him in, his mouth open and ready, his warm breath against Mickey’s lips and cheek as he stops them just short of colliding together.
Smiling, Mickey feels like every burn and pain drains out of his body as he touches a hand to Ian’s cheek and finally guides their lips together.
He is only vaguely aware of the helicopter hovering into his periphery until Ian turns his head and breaks the kiss, holding on tighter to Mickey’s waist when the wind starts whipping around them from the blades.
“Looking good!” Agent Jay calls out to them through a megaphone, and laughs when Mickey gives the helicopter the finger.
Ian’s breath is warm against the side of his face as they stand together and watch the helicopter turn and disappear down the building again. Then he feels him press a light kiss to his jaw and laugh into his skin, before he asks:
“How are we getting down from here?”