It was in the hospital waiting room, Daniel’s makeshift sling biting uncomfortably into the tender muscle of his shoulder, that he began to seriously consider the possibility Michael was trying to kill him.
His arm probably wasn’t broken, but it hurt like a motherfucker, and the pain had just increased, spreading to his head and making his eye twitch furiously every time Michael said he was sorry during the ride to the emergency room. A drive which Daniel spent sitting silently, staring out the window and not complaining as Michael wildly disregarded red lights and stop signs. Michael wanted to stay with him but Daniel, cradling his injury, promised if he stepped one foot into the hospital he’d press charges.
It was a small thing, but extremely satisfying, to watch the way Michael paled and took a step back.
The odds Michael had more than a handful of bench warrants out against him were pretty good by the way he immediately sulked into his sedan and left without protest. It was raining, and Daniel was hurt, but he stood outside and watched until he couldn’t see the car’s taillights anymore. And he didn’t feel bad, not even a little, for being such a colossal dickhead about it.
There was no break, just a bad sprain, but that didn’t change the fact that Daniel spent his cab ride home and then the rest of the weekend picturing shoving Michael feet-first into a wood chipper. Feet first, just to make sure Michael could see the gleeful look on his face as he did it.
He had it coming, Daniel would say to the police. I don’t regret anything.
It had to be that Michael was trying to kill him. Weeks before, it started small - and bittersweet - at work with formal requests to spend their lunch hours together instead of an assumption. A mug of hot chocolate left on his desk that Daniel could do nothing with but stare at suspiciously, watching the red and yellow gummy bears Michael had dropped in morbidly disfigure before dissolving. He’d come home once to a ten-gallon tank on his coffee table with a goddamn turtle in it, and although the turtle was adorable, and Daniel had felt extremely giddy for a half-second, it was weird and a sign that whatever Michael was doing was beginning to escalate.
But none of that suggested Michael had homicide on his mind. It was the rest of it that was the problem. Mugs of hot chocolate and gifts of cute, unwanted turtles quickly turned into food poisoning and arson and maybe grand larceny. It definitely turned into vandalism and destruction of public property and Daniel losing his security deposit, although, after so many years with Michael seeming to come and go from his apartment as he pleased, it was surprising he hadn’t lost that sooner.
All of Michael’s erratic and unnerving behavior, which was once spread out messily all over the place was suddenly laser-focused on Daniel. And no matter how many times Michael apologized, he’d still knocked Daniel out and dragged his unconscious body, the way a serial killer might, down the stairs, stuffed him into his sedan and driven to the woods, the way a serial killer might, and once Daniel woke up tried to make him listen to Joy Division and eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches. And hey, Dan, don’t you think the stars look nice tonight?
When the nurse asked him how he injured himself Daniel almost told her his deranged and extremely dangerous partner probably caused it when he was moving his unconscious body down two flights of stairs. But instead he told her he didn’t know and isn’t that weird? Because the last thing he needed was her misconstruing the situation and asking if he was being abused by his partner. Which he was, sort of, but not in the way she’d think and he had no interest in making a joke out of a real-life issue so serious.
It was the following Monday when Daniel was thinking over that exchange with the nurse and wondering why his brain had tortured him, at such an inappropriate time, by jumping from partner to Partner, work to personal, that he had his epiphany. As soon as the realization came, Daniel’s phone rang and he yelped, startled, then yelped again when instead of a name or a number the display read, in all capital letters, ANSWER THE FUCKING PHONE. He did, because he was terrified and had no idea what else to do, and nearly pissed himself when after his meek hello? it was the Chief’s voice that answered.
It was more of a lecture than a conversation. Daniel just nodded furiously throughout, fumbling with the phone in his sweaty palm against his equally sweaty ear, somehow certain that the Chief could see him despite how he claimed to be calling from a different dimension at his very high personal expense.
Under no circumstances was Daniel to bring criminal charges against Michael; no police, no judges, and no paperwork. And it would be especially abhorrent if he still wanted to, having just grasped the very obvious truth that Michael wasn’t trying to kill him but instead was very much in love with him.
Daniel managed to say, “But he kidnapped me and almost broke my arm.”
And the Chief made an echoing, inter-dimensional sound of displeasure, and said, “Grow up.”
Knowing Michael’s motivations were less murdery and more affectionate did somewhat change the vibe of how Daniel perceived his behavior, the property damage, and hospital bills left in his wake. Although not enough to acknowledge the hopeful but ashamed look on his face as Daniel made his way to his desk. Staying angry at Michael was generally an exercise in futility. Some weird coping mechanism mixture of selective amnesia, self-care denial, and good, old fashioned repression and affection keeping him and Michael perpetually close.
And even if it were true that Michael’s feelings for him had developed into whatever his brain thought love was, that didn’t amount to much. Michael claimed to love a lot of things. It wasn’t an exclusive club and was always changing. What he was probably feeling was friendship but as far as Daniel could tell Michael had never had a real friend before him, and his emotional maturity being what it was, it made sense he’d have no way to distinguish between the two feelings.
Staying mad at Michael was a challenge, even with the constant, throbbing pain in his arm to remind him why his anger was just. Partially because, after so long together, Daniel could tell the difference between misguided but earnest Michael and malicious, callous Michael. Yes, he’d knocked Daniel out and kidnapped him, technically, but it wasn’t the first time he’d done that. And yes, it wasn’t even the first time he’d physically hurt him. At least the last injury had, probably, been mostly accidental.
And Daniel was starting to remember other equally agonizing details that were previously lost in the drugged-up, pain-induced haze of his memory. Like how when Michael realized he was hurt he’d carefully cupped Daniel’s face with his warm, dry hand and brushed his free fingers gently along the inside of his elbow. He’d looked genuinely sorry and upset and, even more alarmingly, worried. Even given the circumstances, Daniel’s heart still skipped a few beats.
Honestly, the more Daniel thought about it, the most regrettable part of the night was he knew if he hadn’t been hurt he would have stayed with Michael in the middle of the woods, eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches and listening to Joy Division and watching the sky. It sounded nice. If Michael had tried to kiss him, Daniel would have let him. He might have kissed him back. The entire line of thinking was incredibly off-putting. But most things about Michael were.
The night hadn’t gone that way, though.
dangerdirt_69_Xx: is your arm okay?
So he’d kept the fucking turtle. It was a stupid little turtle that liked to eat strawberries and was much friendlier than Daniel expected, meaning it hadn’t yet tried to bite any of his fingers. He hadn’t given it a name, but he kept it.
dangerdirt_69_Xx: i can fix this
dangerdirt_69_Xx: you would’ve said no if i asked first
Before the last message stopped pinging Michael had rolled across the small distance between their desks, bumping his chair against Daniel’s to get his attention.
He tried to remind himself about how disturbing Michael’s actions were over the previous months and that the underlying cause of it didn’t matter; he was destructive and annoying and dangerous. Had no sense of decency or respect or empathy. Michael was a child - when he wanted something he took it without thinking, and when he made a mistake he expected it to be okay in the end. Assumed he’d always be forgiven or just didn’t care.
“I’m not interested in speaking to you, Michael.”
The wheels of his chair squeaked as he rolled away and he sighed. Daniel was glad he didn't turn around to look at him. He would rather not see whatever expression accompanied that sad of a sound.
Of course Michael was right though. He was infuriatingly right about a lot of things, all the time, and most insultingly about Daniel’s idiosyncrasies. Even before his epiphany and subsequent eerie phone call from the Chief, he'd already forgiven him. While crawling into bed Sunday night, wincing as he jostled his wounded arm, Daniel found that although he was still furious with him it was more out of frustration. He just felt tired.
Over the following days Michael gave him an abundance of space at work, which was as nice as it was frustrating. His arm was feeling better and ideally things would just go back to normal. Or as normal as they ever were between them.
All that space and time and silence had done nothing but give Daniel ample time to think. And he really, really didn’t want to think about what he thought he now knew about Michael. Mostly because thinking about that inevitably turned into thinking about himself, and his feelings, and doing that had been off-limits for a long, long time.
After the Emmys liveblogging bomb scare and T-Bone’s last minute rescue that had felt more like an interruption, Daniel was forced to confront the fact that, in that moment under the desk with Michael, sure he was about to die, he’d wanted to kiss him. And not just kiss Michael, but climb into his lap and spend his last minutes on Earth fucking his brains out. Having no idea what to do with that disturbing information, Daniel filed it away and decided to never, ever for the rest of his life think about it again.
And he managed not to, for the most part. Sure little sparks of it would flame to life here and there - like when Michael laughed at his jokes or remembered about non-dairy creamer or spent three hours trying to convince Daniel that video games were Art - but he could handle it. Michael wasn’t always abrasive, he could be charming and kind and downright delightful at times. And when he talked about things he loved it was like Daniel could feel his enthusiasm in the air around him. His passion and wonder were infectious. And Daniel never really figured out how to defend against it.
In just a few days, without the constant distraction of putting out Michael’s fires, all of what he’d hidden away, pretending it didn’t exist, was front-and-center. And the more he looked at it the less he understood. Knowing that Michael was feeling something didn’t help. All it did was provide the one thing that, previously lacking, made it easy to convince himself early-on he didn’t care about Michael at all: Hope.
Hope was dangerous and usually misguided, in his experience. Hope made people do stupid things. Like spend all night staring at his bedroom ceiling, wishing he hadn't gotten hurt and for the alternate version of that night instead.
okay you can forgive me now
His brain had gone from partner to Partner because even though it was impossible, even when he was deep in his self-care denial and selective amnesia, the thought was always there. Despite his instinct for self-preservation, despite how it would never, ever work out, and despite Mandy, and every other girl, who he'd wanted to want so badly.
don’t ever fucking knocking me unconscious again, Michael. I mean it.
Daniel clutched his phone, keeping the display close to his face so he could see without his glasses on, and waited.
i wanted to show you something.
It was a little after three in the morning, which was a time of day no sane person would ask any variety of the question “Are you busy?” The evidence of how completely off-kilter Daniel felt, dizzy and unbalanced by how fast he swung over the last week from threatening to press charges against Michael to wishing they’d gotten the chance to, at the very least, make-out a little, was that he answered:
Being around Michael outside of work always felt a little bizarre no matter how often it happened. The office was a perfect backdrop for Michael’s particular brand of otherworldliness and outside of it, in the real world, he tended to look incredibly ordinary.
He was chewing on his bottom lip, leaning against the driver’s side door with his arms stretched over the top of his car, drumming a rhythmless beat with his thumbs. Daniel watched him for a few moments from the safety of his building’s vestibule, a heavy feeling he couldn’t recognize balling up in his chest. When Michael finally noticed him he smiled and waved, and Daniel sort of smiled back while an incredulous huff made his head nod.
For a while they sat in silence as Michael drove them out of the city, and Daniel lamented he hadn’t bothered to get dressed properly. There was something about his vest-tie-chinos combo that felt safe, sometimes, like a uniform or a superhero suit. Sitting next to Michael in his pajamas and an old hoodie made him feel vulnerable as if he were giving too much of himself away or letting Michael too far in.
“It was an accident,” Michael said without taking his eyes off the road. “Remember years ago after the prank war? You made me promise.”
“And you always keep those.”
Michael didn’t say anything, but from the corner of his eye, Daniel saw the way he shook his head and rolled his eyes.
The silence came back after that, but it was suddenly suffocating, and Michael must have felt it too because he started messing with the radio. He landed on something Daniel didn’t know but it filled the car with a welcomed distraction. When Michael started singing along softly, Daniel pulled his hood up and turned his body towards the window to hide the unavoidable, affectionate smile that tugged at his mouth.
“I don’t always say no.”
“Yeah, I guess. Not anymore,” Michael conceded thoughtfully after a few moments. “I don’t break all of my promises.”
Daniel touched his neck as he turned to look at Michael, pressing his cold fingers against his warm, flushed skin. “Not anymore.”
Michael smiled and the air around him seemed to shimmer for just a moment against the dark night. Daniel imagined he could see a faint outline just around Michael’s body, glowing warm and golden. He looked away, back towards the passenger side window, and reminded himself of the time, and how tired he felt, and how easy it was to see things that weren't there when you missed someone enough. Even if it was only a week.
They weren't driving out to the woods. At least not the same ones Michael had taken him the first time. In fact, Daniel realized he didn't recognize where they were at all or the roads they'd taken to get there. He'd lived in California for a while but as far as he could guess Michael never lived anywhere else, so it wasn't entirely disconcerting how nothing looked familiar.
His hand still moved without his permission to clutch Michael’s forearm nervously, and he asked, “Where are we going?”
Michael's breathing hitched, his eyes leaving the road immediately to look at Daniel’s hand grasping his arm. Touching wasn't something they necessarily avoided but Michael hadn't expected it, and Daniel made a note of the uneven rise and fall of his chest and the surprising appearance of a blush high on his cheeks. So prominent he could see it even in the dark.
“Michael?” Very deliberately Daniel stroked his thumb over Michael's muscle, tense from how hard he was gripping the steering wheel.
It was only after Michael turned the car, causing Daniel’s hand to fall away from its hold on him, that Michael cleared his throat. “Remember those two times my head exploded?”
A high-pitched, nervous sound popped out of Daniel’s mouth before he could stop it.
Yes, he remembered both times Michael’s head exploded and, perhaps even more upsetting, the two times he watched it grow back. Those memories were the foundation of all Daniel’s repression-based coping mechanisms. He hated thinking about it, and not just because it was horrifying and inexplicable and happened to Michael. The memories were literally difficult to focus on, and the few times he tried to Daniel wound up with terrible migraines.
“You're not taking me out to the… desert?” Michael hummed in affirmation. “Desert. To do... that... what are we doing? And don't say I have to watch that happen to you again.”
“Nope!” Michael said cheerfully. He swung the car around another sharp turn and they were no longer on a proper road. Daniel braced his hands against the dashboard to steady himself as the car began to bounce. “But I started thinking about it a few weeks ago -.”
“A few years ago your head exploded twice and you only just started thinking about it?”
“And it's weird, right? Dan, I'm pretty sure most people don't have heads that explode and grow back. None that I've seen anyway.”
“Yes, Michael,” Daniel agreed softly, unable and uninterested in keeping the fondness from his voice. “It's definitely weird you can do that.”
“So I was thinking if I can do that what else can I do?”
Daniel opened his mouth to suggest that maybe Michael should leave alone whatever weird, mystical force was determined to keep him alive, but he decided against it as Michael brought the sedan to a stop. He flashed a wide, toothy grin over his shoulder as he climbed out of the car and Daniel followed, somewhat hesitantly, as the dull pressure of an oncoming headache started at the base of his skull. A dozen or so yards ahead of them was an old, what looked to be broken down, RV.
“What exactly is happening right now?” Daniel asked.
Michael didn’t answer him and Daniel might have asked again if not for how he suddenly found his hand being held. Michael laced their fingers together and, double checking to make sure he wasn’t holding onto Daniel’s injured arm, yanked him towards the RV.
It was just as shabby inside as outside, but every single inch of it was perfectly Michael. From the empty boxes of Lucky Charms to the action figures and comic books were strewn over almost every available surface. Daniel sat down on the old, busted-up couch, as Michael futzed around with an old CRT TV on the kitchenette table. He turned the dial one way and then the other, and slammed his hand on the side of it, mumbling to himself.
There were a few pictures tacked around randomly on the walls and in more than one of them Daniel found his own idiot face smiling back at him. His stomach turned and his heartfelt incredibly light, and he could feel himself about to say something stupid and very regrettable, but Michael made a sharp shout of triumph and the moment was lost.
He plopped down heavily next to Daniel, so close their shoulders pressed together, and rubbed his hands.
“I can do a lot, Dan,” he said quietly. “I wanted to tell you before all this, like… when the fire happened and then the robbery stuff and especially when the turtle happened.”
“The turtle ‘happened?’ Why did you even give that to me?”
“Dan, she’s just a baby. I couldn’t trust her with anyone else.”
Daniel laughed a little and rolled his eyes. Michael was staring at him intently, his eyebrows drawn together and Daniel flushed, embarrassed under the scrutiny. He looked away, beyond the kitchenette and towards the back of the RV and the messy, comfortable looking bed there. Which helped his nerves and the heat on his face, not even a little bit. Michael was just so close, and smelled surprisingly good, like campfire and sea salt.
The brush of Michael’s knuckles across his cheek drew Daniel’s attention away from the well-slept in bed, and he puffed out an unsteady breath. Their proximity, the absolute quiet of the RV, and the desert surrounding them for miles seemed to heighten the sensation every place they were touching and every soft sound of their combined breathing.
“Why’d you bring me here?”
“I don’t know,” Michael said and narrowed his eyes as he looked back at the TV. “It just works better some places. Out here, and the woods where I brought you last week.” He looked back at Daniel and the air around them crackled. Again Daniel thought he could see a faint outline around Michael, blue this time, but before he could focus on it pain shot from the back of his neck to the crown of his head, and he pitched forward off the couch.
Michael caught him, pushing him to sit back, and a harsh groan fell out of Daniel as the pain in his head made his eyes water. He grasped at Michael’s t-shirt, pulling him closer and readying himself to beg him to get them the fuck out of there before his head exploded, but the TV set suddenly flipped on and Daniel could hear his own voice under all the white noise.
And the pain in his head was gone. Just as quickly as it arrived.
He looked at the screen over Michael’s shoulder and held him a little tighter. “What is that?”
Michael just stared at him as Daniel stared at the TV. He was sitting next to Michael on a train that his memory told him was in New York, and the Daniel on television was talking about ordering take-out, seemingly unfazed by how television Michael was tugging his winter scarf away from his neck to nuzzle and kiss him.
“They’re always like that,” Michael said, his eyes still on Daniel. “They have an apartment and two tiny dogs and they fuck all the time. I think they might be in love.”
“Michael, what am I looking at.”
“Us,” he said. His voice was an awe-filled whisper. “A different version of us. Daniel writes books and Michael plays a lot of video games. He’s magic too, like me.”
“Is this… is this the future?”
“No, it’s now. They’re in the same now we are. Just different.” Daniel finally tore his eyes away from the television and looked up at Michael, who cupped his cheek and moved in a little closer. “I watch them a lot,” he said softly. “I think a few years ago they had to leave here. I don’t know why. But they’re -.”
“There are dozens of them,” Michael blurted. “And almost all of them - they’re all -. I think we were supposed to do something we never did. We missed it. They all live somewhere else, usually on the east coast. They’re all really happy, Dan. And they all -.”
Michael didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, he wrapped a big, warm hand around the back of Daniel’s neck and pulled him forward into a kiss. His lips were soft and perfect and Daniel couldn’t help moaning, opening his mouth so they could deepen it and moving his arms up carefully to wrap around Michael’s shoulders. He’d been waiting for this - through the arson and the middle of the night one-call phone calls from police stations, his cold, abandoned mugs of gummy bear graveyard hot chocolate and his cute, stupid, baby turtle. Wanted it since the day he tried to leave Michael behind and go back to the east coast and forget about everything that had happened between them; all the insane, impossible things from the first moment they met to the day he booked the hot air balloon.
He’d stayed up all night thinking about the look on Michael’s face. How heartbroken and wrecked he was, and the way his voice cracked when he tried to convince Daniel to stay. He honestly tried to leave, knew he had to, but how could he? Michael had looked at him like he was in love and Daniel wanted that more than anything back then. He couldn’t convince himself to walk away from it.
And then four years passed. Four more years of adventure and danger and Michael’s bullshit, but nothing else. Not one lingering hug or about-to-die kiss. Four more years and Michael never looked at him like that again. And nothing had felt right since.
So how could he have known? Even entertaining the idea that Michael’s motivations over the last few months had been love was impossible. Daniel’s hope for that had died four years ago when he’d chosen Michael and being in love over safety and turned out to be wrong.
“Wait, wait,” Daniel said, twisting his head away from the kiss and pushing Michael away. “What do you mean ‘we were supposed to do something we never did’? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Michael said, shrugging and trying to wiggle back to Daniel’s mouth. “But none of them are in California, right? Dozens of Michaels and Daniels on my television and they’re all in love and none of them are here.”
As soon as Daniel dropped his hands from his chest, Michael buried his face against his neck and started kissing again. Sweet little chaste kisses up to the curve of his jaw. And Daniel buried a hand in Michael’s hair, encouraging him, but kept his eyes back on the television. TV Michael was swinging around a metal subway pole and the Daniel was pretending to read a book but kept glancing up at him, a moronic little smile on his face.
Daniel knew that look. Alternate reality television Daniel was happy. Really, really happy.
He pulled Michael’s head away from him by the hair enough to press their cheeks together, and against his ear, whispered, “When I was going to leave, would you have come with me, Michael?”
What would it take, Daniel wondered, for Michael to really understand what being in love felt like? Would it be like when their job changed for a few months, to sell hats, and suddenly he realized how much he really enjoyed writing? Or when they canceled The Carrie Diaries and he’d actually cried?
Would it take Daniel leaving on a hot air balloon for the east coast, never to come back, for him to realize he never, ever wanted to lose him?
“Yes,” he said, with no hesitation. “I would have followed you. I would follow you anywhere, Daniel.”
Michael had been doing so much better for such a long time and three months ago Daniel, on a whim, had started looking. He’d only been half-serious, but he’d developed a bit of a name for himself over the years and he could move on, if he wanted to. Could get a job writing for television or quit everything all together and focus on writing novels. He’d never really considered leaving Cracked, but there was no harm in seeing what else was out there. No harm in it at all.
“How long have you been reading my emails?"
“Six, seven years tops,” Michael said. “I’ve never not been reading your emails, Dan.” He pulled back and looked as sad as he had four years ago, watching Daniel pack away his work desk. Wretched and full of love. “I had to find a way to make you stay.”
“Old Michael,” Daniel said softly. He cupped his jaw and rubbed his thumb against Michael’s growing beard. “The one who needs a Chew Toy.”
“And that wasn’t working, so -.”
“Magic,” Daniel nodded. “I get it. You’re so stupid. You could have just told me.” He nodded his head towards the television and Michael turned to watch the other versions of them. They were holding hands and walking down an empty, Saturday morning New York street. “You said you’ve been watching them.”
“All the time,” Michael confessed and groaned longingly, watching the him on television bite into a bagel.
“Then you should know that I already love you. Maybe more than the rest of them. I couldn’t even try leaving you behind.”
Michael pushed him down on the couch, apologizing when Daniel winced over his still-injured arm, and then kissed him, fast and dirty. “Say it again?”
“I love you.”
“Again and then one more time.”
“I love you. I love you, Michael. And anytime you want to fucking say it back would be fine.”
Michael pushed around until Daniel opened his legs, letting him settle down between them, and said, “I’ve seen every single parallel universe and I love you in all of them. Especially this one, Daniel. I love you the most in this one.”
It was the most romantic thing Daniel had ever heard, that anyone had ever said, throughout all of history, and it was his. Because no one else could ever say it and mean it the way Michael could. Not poetry, just a fact. Michael loved him in every reality, and all Daniels always loved him back. No exceptions.
They kissed for a long time, until the sun spilled in through the windshield and Daniel opened his eyes to see Michael glowing golden in the morning light. Maybe Daniel was glowing too. A little of Michael’s magic his now.
“What else can you do?” he whispered after a while, stroking his thumb over Michael’s cheek as he rested his head on Daniel’s chest. “Besides watch television.”
Michael raised his head and grinned, his eyes alight with mischief. “You’ll see,” he promised and kissed Daniel’s chin. “Wait until you see.”
It might have taken four more years than it needed to, but it was all finally happening. And Daniel couldn’t wait to find out; he couldn’t wait to see. He’d been waiting far too long already.