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Or Something Stranger Still

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Ryan has to admit something to himself, something he’s been denying for the past two hours: he’s lost. Not just lost but lost by himself, on a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night. To make things worse, his phone is dead, so no GPS, and no final voicemail to his loved ones before he gets mauled by a bear. Did this part of the country even have bears? If he did find one, he hoped his card could could outspeed it. The road is narrow, so the only real direction he can go in is forward. His hope is that, at some point, he’ll hit civilisation.

It’s raining a little, not enough to justify turning on the wipers, but enough to irritate him. The whole situation feels like the set up for a horror movie. He’s either about to find Frank-N-Furter’s castle or run into a satanic cult. He hopes it’s the former -- at least there would be more singing. The radio’s on low volume, playing some late night chat show. It’s white noise, meant to drown out the sound of wheels hitting dirt road. He winces every time he hears a rock hit the side of the car. He’s been driving down the same stretch of road for so long, seeing nothing but barbed wire fences separating endless fields, punctuated only by the occasional tree. It’s so monotonous and dull that what happens next comes as a complete shock.

A figure vaults over a fence, landing on crouched feet in the road. Ryan slams his foot on the breaks, and the tyres screech in protest. He’s thrown forward and caught by the seat belt. It takes him a moment to process the whole situation. The figure is a man. He’s hunched over a little, holding his arms in a defensive position to block out the glare of the headlight. Even hunched up, Ryan can see that he’s tall and gangly. He thinks he can make out floppy, brown hair.

For a while he just sits there, dumbstruck. His mind races for an answer. His thoughts jump from ‘cultist’ to ‘murderer’ to ‘complete fucking moron’ -- seriously, did this guy have a fucking death wish? He’s a deer in the headlights, standing a few metres from the car that would have run him over if Ryan hadn’t reacted in time: if he hadn’t turned on the dazzlers an hour ago; if he wasn’t still jacked up on the caffeine from that third cup of coffee. Too many ifs for Ryan’s comfort. The animal part of his brain screams at him to run, to get away. But where would he go? The road is narrow, so he can’t turn around, and forward isn’t an option. Instead, he turns off the dazzlers. The guy puts his arms down and Ryan can make out a pair of soft, brown terrified eyes. His clothes are ragged and splashed with mud. There's a tear on his shirt sleeve and Ryan can spy a streak of blood. Dry, he hopes.

He thinks, for a moment, about opening the door and stepping out. Then he imagines this stranger throwing him out of his own car and watching it speed away into the night. He opens the window instead. He hears crickets in the distance. He stops white-knuckling the wheel and turns off the radio. He sticks his head out of the window. At the very least, the rain is refreshing on his clammy skin.

‘Hey, are you OK?’ He calls. The guy flinches. Can he even see Ryan? It’s still pretty dark, even with the headlights at their regular setting. Unsure of what else to do, Ryan shifts so his entire head is out of the window, in full view. He waves at the guy, wiggling his fingers a little in what he hopes is a non-threatening gesture. He repeats, ‘Uh, hello. Are you OK?’

No response. He can’t tell if the guy is scared or sizing him up or what. A few moments pass, with none of them speaking or making a move. When Ryan can’t take any more - right before he goes to undo the door - the man takes a tentative step forward. Then another. He raises his hand, as Ryan had. With nothing else to go on, Ryan copies, spreading his fingers. Hell, if this went on long enough he might even do the fucking Vulcan greeting. It’s not like his night could get any weirder. The guy keeps moving forward, his movements slow and precise. Ryan can feel a voice in the back of his mind telling him to run. Car jackers don’t move this slow. Only an idiot would give their victim ample time to flee. They don’t usually appear out of nowhere, either. For a second his mind flips back to ‘serial killer’ and he quells it. His foot rests on the accelerator. He can high-tail it if he wants. And yet he stays, doing nothing but maintaining eye contact and holding out his hand.

‘You really shouldn’t just stand in the road like that, you know. Do you need help? Are you lo-’ His babbling is cut-off when their hands meet. The guy intertwines their fingers. Before he can react, he feels something, like a shift in the atmosphere; the deep, placid calm before a storm. The chirping of the crickets is clearer, the rain is crisper. It’s the same road, the same night, with the volume turned up. The man himself is clearer. There’s still fear in his eyes, but he can see - no, feel - he can feel trepidation and curiosity. For the first time that night, A sense of calm wash over him, though where it’s coming from, he has no idea. Just a second ago his heart was hammering so hard it felt like it was going to burst straight out of his chest.

The guys is shaking -- if it’s from the nerves of the cold is anybody’s guess. Ryan just smiles, and the corner of the guy’s mouth twitches by a fraction. Ryan feels a thrum of energy in his chest, like an adrenaline high. He feels alive, like he could do anything. He wonders, briefly, if this is how a contact high words. He swears he senses a twinge of amusement permeating from the guy, though how he knows that is beyond him.

An embarrassing amount of times passes before Ryan gets his bearings. ‘Uh, hi,’ the wonders tumble out of his mouth. He clears his throat. ‘What are you doing?’

The guys eyes light up in recognition, and he finally speaks, ‘I can understand you.’

‘Yeah, same here. Can you tell me your name?’

‘Name,’ the guy repeats. For the first time, he breaks eye contact, and stares into the distance. ‘I...Shane. My name- is Shane.’ And the guy looks so proud of himself that Ryan can’t help but crack up a little. Shane startles, but doesn’t move away.

‘OK, good. My name is Ryan. Do you need help?’

‘I need…’ Shane looks around. There’s nothing in the darkness. Then again, Ryan had thought that five minutes ago, when the only thing on the road was him and his shitty car. Shane looks back at Ryan his bright eyes pleading. ‘I need to get away from here.’

And well, Ryan can’t say no to that, can he?

‘OK, Shane. Let me just…’ he moves his hand from Shane’s grasp, and it’s as if a tether has been cut. The energy he’d felt saps out of him. He stifles a yawn. He leans over and opens the passenger side door.

Shane says something unintelligible.

Ryan looks back. ‘What did you say?’

Shane repeats. It’s the same sounds repeated, but to Ryan it’s total nonsense. He can however, hear the urgency and fear in Shane’s voice. At least that means they’re on the same page, then.

He gestures at the empty seat. ‘Come on, dude.’

Shane stands there for a moment. His eyes glisten, like he might cry. Then, he takes a breath and obliges.
Is Ryan really doing this? He’s heard a million times before that you’re never meant to pick up a hitchhiker in case they’re a serial killer. The inverse is also apparently true, though he’s not about to off Shane and throw his body into a ditch. He’s too squeamish for that, anyway.
Shane gets in and closes the door. His movement are slow and deliberate, like the sound of a branch cracking might send him fleeing. He scans the console, the lights and dials and what-not. He soaks it all in as if it’s all brand new to him.
Ryan drums his hands on the steering wheel. Shane reaches out and puts his hand over Ryan’s. His long digits easily cover Ryan’s, and he tries not to let it bother him. (He just doesn’t like feeling small, damnit.) The energy comes back all at once, and Ryan suppresses a shudder. He feels an inexplicable sense of gratitude from Shane.

‘Thank you, so much,’ says Shane, half as second later.

‘You’re welcome,’ replies Ryan. It takes him a moment to realise that, despite hearing Shane speak, the man’s lips hadn’t moved.

‘Oh,’ thinks Ryan, and he swears that somewhere, in the back of his head, he can feels Shane’s recognition.
Shane smiles.

‘Oh.’

Chapter Text

Ryan considers himself both logical and open minded. He’s willing to admit that there are things in this world that he doesn’t understand. Things like ghosts, the Bermuda triangle, missing airplanes. He’s trying his best to think of why Shane is acting the way he is. This is not a normal hitchhiker encounter, not by any stretch of the imagination. No shady, black SUVs have come after them. So far.

He could also do without the forced physical contact, as small as it may be. He's not the type go on the defensive when another guy brushes past him, but come on. He hasn’t known Shane for long, and this kind of physical contact doesn't come easily to Ryan.

They’ve been sitting in silence for a while, which Ryan is happy about. He’s at the point of tiredness where concentrating on more than one thing is becoming a chore. This is undermined, of course, by something Shane does.

Shane scratches the back of his neck. He makes a show of it, craning his head forward and pulling down the collar of his shirt a little. Ryan looks over as he does it, and gets a good view of the guy's neck. Even Ryan will admit that that's a weird thing to say about a person. It doesn't matter, though. What he sees is numbers. Or letters. He's not sure. He swears he sees a hashtag at the beginning. (He hopes to God Shane isn't the basic white girl type.) Either way they're tattooed onto the back of the guy's neck. There's redness around the text, like it's a recent addition. He only gets a few seconds to stare at the thing before he remembers about the road. Priorities.

He shouldn't ask about it. Shane definitely has bigger things to explain than a weird tattoo. Ryan can think of a dozen other things he'd rather know about- should ask about, even. The last thing he wants is to piss of this weird stranger.

 

‘Hey, is your arm OK?’

A small part of him expects an immediate response. Instead, Shane puts his hand on Ryan’s shoulder.

‘What?’

‘Your arm. Is it bleeding?’

Shane looks at the offending limb. His eyes widen. ‘It shouldn’t be.’

Ryan rolls his eyes. ‘Well, yeah, no shit. Do you need a band-aid or something?’

‘Uh...no?'

‘Good. OK, that’s- that’s OK. I just- if you’re hurt you need to tell me, OK? I can try to help.’

Some of the tension leaves Shane’s shoulders, and he gives Ryan a look that he can’t quite pin down.‘OK.’

Good. It’s fine. This is fine.

-

It takes them an hour to find a town, and Ryan's never been so happy to see civilisation. He's flat out exhausted and wants nothing more than to get a solid eight hours of sleep. He thought, a few times, about pulling over to the side of the road and camping out. He got the feeling that Shane wouldn't appreciate that. Especially considering his insistence on high tailing it from...wherever it is he'd came from.

The town itself is tiny. There’s a few stores here and there, mostly mom-and-pop type places. Ryan spots a diner and at least two bars, which is good enough for him. When he spies a motel, it’s all the excuse he needs to settle down for the night - or morning. He’s tired and figures that Shane’s probably tired, too. During the drive, he rarely spoke unless spoken too.

The motel reception is a small room, built to look like a cabin. Shane's wearing Ryan's jacket. It's a little small, especially at the sleeves, but it makes him look a little more presentable. It's not like he could walk in all covered in dirt and dried blood.

Before going in, Ryan made it clear to Shane that the whole hand-holding thing wasn't going to work in there. Not if they wanted to be inconspicuous. He’d just have to...be quiet. Smile and nod, that sort of thing.

As they walk in, a bell goes off overhead. Shane jumps at the antiquated system.

'Good morning!' Says the woman at the counter. She smiles at them and waves. Shane copies her actions. It’s janky and rehearsed, like he learned how to greet people off of Wiki-How. How he’d greeted Ryan, he realises. Then, Shane spies a cork-board and immediately loses interest in the woman. It's covered in lost pet posters, outdated barbecue announcements, and local garage sales. Shane busies himself with the board.

Ryan walks over to the counter. 'Morning.'

'How can I help you?' Asks the woman. Her tone is chirpy without being saccharine. Ryan wonders how much coffee you need to be that eager this early. She has pink rinsed bob-cut., and is wearing a green cardigan with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. She has the kind of half-moon glasses Ryan has only even seen in movies. Her arm rests on a newspaper, giving the skin a grey tinge.

Her name tag says Maureen, and it's covered in tiny, scribbled stars.

'Uh, we're looking for a room?'

Ryan hashes out the details with her. He takes the first vacancy she mentions, a room with a double bed. He doesn't know how long they'll be staying there, and figures that he's paying. Somehow, he doubts Shane’s carrying cash or cards. He's not going to complain about the bed situation. He's spent more than a few nights sleeping in cars in back allies. He's not going to complain about bunking with a stranger.

He signs them in under pseudonyms, though only changed the surnames. Well, changed his surname.

‘Sir- uh, Ryan?’ Asks Maureen.

‘Uh, sorry, I zoned out. Did you say something?’

‘I asked how long you and your partner are in town for.’

'Partner? He almost baulks at the word before correcting himself. 'Oh, Shane.'

Ryan looks back at Shane. He's poking at one of those perforated tabs on a poster. Ryan can't tell if he's trying to pull it off, or if he's just bored.

'Oh, we're probably only staying for a few days. We wanted a bit of peace and quiet, you know?'

She gives him a look, like she’s just been proved right. 'You'll certainly get that here! We don't get a lot of visitors. Are you two doing anything fun?'

‘I hope so.’

‘Well, you’re welcome here. We get all sorts of folks in. They had a festival in the part last summer, you know.' She nods towards the cork board, and Ryan swears there’s a twinkle in her eye. It takes him a moment to find what she was hinting at: tucked away in the corner is a small flyer. Ryan can’t make out any text, but there’s no mistaking the rainbow flag.

‘Oh,’ he thinks.

As if sensing them, Shane turns around. He looks at Ryan, then smiles. Maureen grins.

Ryan clears his throat. ‘That- that’s nice.’ He isn’t offended or anything. He had signed them up for one bed, after all. And he isn’t the same idiot frat bro that crawled out of college. It had taken a lot of self-searching, but he had shaken off most of a lifetime of heteronormative thinking. He’d lived in L.A, for crying out loud. The whole 'no homo' attitude is pretty bullshit, and also pretty boring.

He's seen a lot of movies where the main male leads have real chemistry. Half the time it seems like they're half a second away from kissing one another. So if, some kind, middle-aged lady thinks he’s one half of a gay couple, he’s cool with it. He hopes Shane is too. Otherwise the situation will get real awkward real fast.

'Well, it's been nice meeting you, but right now I'd really like to go to sleep.’

-

When Ryan wakes up, the mid-day sun is shining through the blinds. He groans and tries to pull the sheets closer, only to meet resistance. He frowns, still out of if from sleep. He rolls over to get away from the sun, letting out a sigh.

He opens his eyes to see that he’s face-to-face with Shane, who’s staring right at him, unblinking.

Ryan flails in panic to get away, throwing off his side of the sheets in the process. The moment reminds him of a dozen horror different movies where the protagonist wakes up next to a ghost or zombie, or some shit. Shane isn’t any of those things (he’s pretty sure), so the hammering of his heart is a little (read: very) embarrassing. The covers land on Shane, who’s lying on his side. He’s now looking up at Ryan, still staring. Whatever Shane’s searching for in the other man, Ryan doubts he’ll find it. Ryan sits up and rubs at his eyes.

‘Jesus, dude.’

Shane puts his hand over Ryan’s.

‘Are you OK?’ Says Shane..

‘Yeah, I’m fine. You just- fuck, you scared me.’

‘I wanted to make sure that you’re OK,’ he frowns. ‘You weren't moving.'

‘Of course I wasn’t moving. I was asleep.’ He couldn’t have been out for that long. A few hours at the most.

‘You were so quiet. And still.’ There’s a glazed look to his eyes, and he looks away, gaze landing on the TV. His hand stays where it is. Concern washes over Ryan, along with a myriad of other emotions. Concern he knows isn’t his own, could only be Shane’s. He’s not going to pretend to know how or why this is happening. Accepting it earlier had felt easier. He had excuses: he was tired, it was late, Shane needed help. Whatever. That wouldn’t fly, now. He needed to know, to understand. Being able to analyse and assess a situation sits pretty high on his hierarchy of needs. If he can do those things, he might be able to help Shane.

'I'm sorry I scared you. It's just sleep, Shane. Nothing bad's gonna happen if I sleep. I promise.' For the sake of it, he tries to project calming thoughts at Shane. Getting in a zen mindset is an unnatural feeling for Ryan, who's so used to feeling like his brain is fried half the time. He's trying this new thing where he doesn't over analyse situations and instead let's things happen. This is probably how he ended up in a motel room with a stranger.

In spite of all logic, it works. He's never comforted someone through vibes alone, and it gives him an odd sense of accomplishment.

'I just- I wanted to make sure that...that...' Shane trails off, his nervous energy dissipating.

Ryan nods. 'I get it. (And he does.) It's unnecessary but I get it.' Whatever shock Shane is going through is making his brain do weird things, and he's OK with that. It's not like the guy tried to smother him with a pillow or anything.

They sit in amiable silence for a while. Ryan's hand is getting all sweaty, so he breaks their contact. He sits back against the headrest of the bed. Shane mirrors his movements. Ryan turns the TV up and he finds some nature documentary about marine life. Shane seems pretty invested, which gives Ryan time for his brain to wake up. He's going to need a lot more than a glorified nap to get back up to high gear. Like pancakes. A lot of pancakes.

Ryan thinks about Shane, of all of the bizarre things the man has done that Ryan has been rolling with so far. His desperation to run, the bizarre language barrier, his inability to give a normal greeting, the fucking sleep stare thing. Shane isn’t normal, that much is a given. Ryan feels he deserves to at least know why these things are happening.

He nudges his elbow against Shane's. Shane presses the edge of his knuckles against Ryan's bicep. ‘Shane, I need to know something.’

‘Need to know what?’

‘Look, I don't know what you need. But I want to. I want to help you, and to do that, I need to know what you’re running from.’

Shane’s reaction is physical. His shoulders tense and his head ducks down a fraction. His gaze shifts to the ground. Ryan takes in the minute details of the man in front of him. The faint but abrupt intake of breath, the twitch of his fingers, he sees these things and they fill him with guilt.

‘Shane, I need you to tell me. I want to help you, but I can’t do that if you’re not honest with me.’ Ryan feels the guilt writhe and intensify in his gut. He can hear the tone of his voice shifting into formality, the precision of the words. It’s an old, well worn habit. Great for his old line of work, awful for coaxing odd strangers. There’s a fine line between analysing information and dissecting it.

‘And if I do tell you?’

‘Then I’ll try my best to help you. But I have my limits, and I won’t make a promise I won’t keep.’

Shane contemplates this. ‘I’m...I’m running from people who- they figured out how I communicate, the things that I can do that...that they can’t. Things that...things that humans can’t do.’ Shane’s eyes bore into Ryan’s. It wouldn’t take a genius to see that Shane isn’t big on emotional displays. Right now, he’s completely serious. There’s a sincerity about him that confirms what Ryan already knew -- Shane is being open and truthful. In this moment, he trusts Ryan.

‘So you’re...not a human.’

‘No.’

‘So if you’re not human then-’

‘Just say it,’ Ryan thinks. He can’t.

‘Then, to you, I’m an alien,’ finishes Shane. It’s simple. Matter of fact.

‘Oh. Huh.You're an alien.’

‘You’re taking this well?’

Shane’s right. This should be a gut punch kind of revelation. Ryan should be losing his goddamn mind. He should be jumping up and down or celebrating or something. His brain is moving at the pace of a snail, and the information he wants to process isn’t getting through. Shane is an alien. It’s an objective fact. And yet he can’t- fuck, he feels like he’s floating.

'You're an alien,' Ryan repeats.

'Yes. Do you not believe me?'

‘Oh, I believe you.’ He laughs and runs a hand through his hair. He can feel himself going lightheaded. ‘So the people you’re running from. They knew.’ (The people are still 'they' for now. He’s getting some strong Stranger Things vibes and the conspiracy theorist in him is going nuts. Half of him wants to pin the whole thing on the government.)

‘Yeah. They found me and took me to a facility. This isn’t how I usually look,’ he gestures at his gangly self. ‘I can change how I look, if I want. I thought that if I looked like them they wouldn't be scared.'

Ryan outs his head in his palm. That Shane would even think to do that- to comfort complete strangers. He can't articulate what he wants to say beyond, 'oh fuck,' or 'fuck those guys.' Ryan’s seen enough first encounter movies to know where this is going.

‘They-they never stopped trying to figure it out. Figure out how I- fit together.'

'So they were scientists?'

'I guess. The scientists, they thought I was naive, that I didn't know what was going on.'

‘So you got the fuck out of there,' finishes Ryan. Away from those shitty, shitty scientists. A thought dawns on him. 'When I picked you up, how far were you from the facility?'

'I don't know, I just kept on going. I kept on changing so they wouldn't be able to find me.'

'So they wouldn't recognise you now?'

'No.'

'Good. That's- that's good.'

Ryan should have figured that aliens don’t look like lanky white guys. He has to question why an extraterrestrial being would want to have legs that long and eyes that droopy.

'And now I'm here.'

'We should both get some food. I need- fuck, dude, I need time to mull this shit over.'

Shane hums. 'So you're not afraid?'

'Of you? Fuck no. This is pretty exciting actually.' Shane is possibly the least threatening person he's ever met. There's no fight in the guy.

'There's somewhere I need to go, but I have no way of getting there myself. Ryan, I'm just running.'

The implication isn't lost on Ryan. He knows, honestly that he can't leave Shane by himself. If he doesn't get hit by a car, he'll wind up at the hands of some other malicious group. If he left the guy now, he'd never forgive himself, for a number of reasons.

He thinks about the tattoo, how an alien would get such a thing and why.

He smiles, his eyes full of warmth. 'Well, then, I guess we're both on the run. Together.'

(An alien and a human walk into a diner. There’s no punchline, Ryan’s just very excited. He’s giddy.)

Chapter Text

Ryan stares at the bottle of Sriracha in his hand. The flying goose logo stares back at him. He looks over at Shane, who’s standing in the freezer section, palm pressed against an icy door. He wipes away the condensation, then inspects the sheen it leaves on his hand. No one else is around, and the cashier is busy reading a newspaper, so Ryan leaves him be. If the alien wants to hang about between the ice cream and frozen vegetables, then he can. Ryan contemplates putting the hot sauce back: Ryan doesn't want to judge, but Shane seems like the kind of guy that can't handle spice. At all. He doesn't want to freak him out over food or anything. What would an alien even eat?

Shane seems to get the concept of ‘don’t open shit or take shit we haven’t paid for’. Right before they went in he informed Ryan that he’d mastered the experience of shopping (not his words), and that he’d only been thrown out of one once before. Needless to say, he didn’t fill Ryan with confidence. The supermarket is a decent size, and is, as far as he can tell, the only one in town. If he gets thrown out of the only place that sells hot sauce for miles around, he’s not above making Shane walk to get more.

Ryan turns the corner into the next isle and finds a basic homeware section. Ryan’s grateful that the store sells plates and cutlery because he had zero alternative plans. The plates are made of flimsy paper and the knives and forks are plastic, but it’s the thought that counts.

Ryan's limited himself to a single basket. If he got a cart then he'd end up buying too much, guaranteed. He's focusing his efforts on finding non-perishable foods. Things that'll survive being in the trunk of his car for days or weeks- however long this all lasts. Even before he picked up Shane, Ryan had only a basic idea of what he'd do once he found somewhere to stay. He's more or less winging the whole thing, which should not be how travel works. Ryan likes to consider himself a master of ‘fake it ‘till you make it’.

In first encounter movies, the characters are always on the move. They’re always either shooting up aliens, or the aliens are chasing them. There’s always some bumbling white guy who rises up to become the masculine action hero the movie needs. Ryan isn’t that guy. If someone handed him a gun or a phaser he’d drop it. If anything resembling a xenomorph ran at him he’d be dead in a heartbeat.

Shane is the antithesis of hostile. He's a chill as hell dude who also happens to be an alien. Ryan's stomach flips whenever he thinks of that fact. He'd managed to pick up an alien off the side of the road. You know, as you do.

He hears Shane make a disgruntled noise. He peeks his head around the corner. Shane has his entire forearm in the freezer. He’s wincing at the biting cold. As far as Ryan can see, he's reaching for a tub of ice cream. Ryan drops the Sriracha in the basket.

His fingers make contact with the tub - chocolate - and he looks triumphant. The second he fishes the tub out he fumbles with it. It slips out of his damp hands and hits the ground. It rolls down the aisle towards Ryan. Shane offers him a sheepish grin.

Yeah, Ryan thinks he's safe from hostile alien forces.

 

In broad daylight, after a shower and a change of clothes, Shane looks a lot more presentable. He’s wearing one of Ryan’s shirts, which is a snug fit. The blood on his arm is gone, and Ryan thought wearing a short-sleeve would reveal some kind of cut, yet the flesh of Shane’s arm is as pale and smooth as the rest of him. Ryan’s a little glad, at least, that he doesn’t have to bust out his first aid kit.

Every now and again Ryan will catch Shane inspecting something - a foodstuff or a street sign - as if for the first time. It hits Ryan, every single time, that Shane could very well be seeing those things for the first time. He doesn’t vocalise a lot of his thoughts, so Ryan has no way of knowing which things are brand new and which he happens to be taking a weird, renewed interest in.

He’s a tourist, Ryan realises. A cosmic tourist. Ryan can’t pretend to know what it’s like to experience everything brand new while pretending to be a regular citizen. He can, however, relate to being a tourist in a foreign country. When he thinks of it that way - as Shane as a guy with some serious cultural differences - the situation almost feels normal.

This train of thought ends when Shane almost walk in front of a car.

They’re waiting at a traffic light for the lights to change. Considering the time of day, the roads are busy. They’re on the main road into town, so every now and again a car shoots past. Ryan’s pretty sure he’s seen a few driving over the limit. He’s glancing down at his receipt - memorising the prices of things like bread - so he’s distracted when Shane steps out. It happens in a second. The shift from green to yellow, and Ryan can hear the rush of wind as a car barrels towards them with no intent of slowing down. He drops his grocery bags, resulting in a loud crack as glass shatters on the sidewalk. He reaches out and grabs Shane by the collar, yanking him out of the way just as the car goes past in a blur. Shane makes an undignified yelp as he’s hauled back, and the driver blares their horn at the two. Shane drops his bag too. The contents spills out. The stupid ice cream tub rolls out, stopping at Ryan’s shoe.

Ryan squares up to the taller man. He has to crane his neck to make eye contact. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Ryan blurts. It’s rude and sharp but he doesn’t fucking care.

Shane stares at him, shocked and silent.

'You can't- fuck, Shane, you can't just walk out like that. It's fucking dangerous.'

God, this must how be his mom felt when he was a kid. Teaching him not to do dangerous and stupid shit, shit never thought he'd have to explain to an adult man. A human man, he realises. Why would Shane know what the colours on a traffic light signify? Why would he even know what traffic lights are?

Ryan can feel a bundle of emotions, all tangled up and confused. As quick as it came, the shock of adrenaline that made him snap into action is dissipating. Ryan can feel his face heating up. He's clenching his fists, though he's not angry. Well, he is a little. It's more like concerned anger, the kind felt after witnessing something reckless. Shane isn't reckless, it doesn't take a genius to realise that.

'I'm sorry,' says Shane. And he means it. Shane's hit with guilt, and his own form of adrenaline-laced fear. If the blush on his cheeks in anything to go by then he's more embarrassed than scared. He looks away from Ryan and focuses on the spilt food at his feet.

'Just be careful. I can't help you if you're-' he cuts himself off. The whole thing reminds him too much of his and Shane's first encounter. He doesn't want to think about how different the situation would be if he'd reacted a little differently to a man in the road. If, if, if. He tries to push those thoughts down. It's all too easy for him to get lost in a maze of hypothetical, anxiety fuelled scenarios. These thoughts seem plausible at the time, though in retrospect are almost always irrational. Ryan doesn't think that it's irrational for him to be so scared right now.

Shane crouches down and starts to pick up their groceries. He keeps his head down, eyes laser focused on the objects he's picking up and storing away.

Ryan feels a pang of guilt. The poor bastard has no idea what's happening, does he? He's doing better than Ryan ever would, if their role were reversed. And here Ryan is, screaming at him like an angry dad. Ryan wants to comfort him, to reach out and-

It hits him: they're not touching. They're talking and there's no physical connection. He's projecting everything he's feeling onto the big guy, who's doing a decent job of keeping his own emotions reigned in. He knows he spoke aloud. Both of them did. Fuck.

Ryan crouches down and reaches for the broken jar. It's a clean break, one jagged piece, bleeding pasta sauce onto the pavement. Ryan fetches out the jar and throws it in a trash can. (He liked that brand.)

Shane looks up at him, a glint of recognition in his eyes.

Ryan gives away the faintest smile.

 

-

 

There’s...something happening in Ryan’s brain. A thread, a thrum of energy every time he looks at the Shane. Everything feels a little disorienting, like he's wandering around in a dream. Or that he's over caffeinated.

They don't talk about...it. Not at first. Shane's waiting for Ryan to say something, to react. And yeah, Ryan knows he should. But he doesn't want to have the 'You're probably telepathic that's so fucking cool???' talk in public. Not while he's hauling bread and toilet paper down the street. He tries not to think about it, because Shane's thoughts are right there. He trusts Shane not to go snooping around in his brain, but still. He doesn't trust himself not to think of something monumentally stupid.

When they get back to the motel, Ryan tells Shane to go back to the room. Even uttering the words feels weird. He's speaking in two separate voices, one of which would sound incomprehensible to him. If Shane can understand him, then there has to be some kind of filter on what he’s saying.

He heads to his car and unloads his shopping into the trunk by himself. It’ll only take a few minutes tops, but he wants this little moment to himself.

When Shane gets far enough away, Ryan feels the invisible connection between them cut out. It's as simple as a switch being flipped in his brain. He doesn’t know if he prefers having his mind to himself.

He focuses on packing shit away, just to give his brain something to focus on. He's bought mostly canned goods, dried foods and bottled water. Things that won't spoil He feels like a terrible Survivalist prepper. He doesn’t know what scenario his foodstuffs would be useful in. A suburban blackout, maybe. Or a hurricane.

When he's done, he goes to close the trunk before hesitating. He reaches back in and pushes some things aside. He finds a section in the material that's cut open and pulls it back. He keeps a few things there, in the layer between the trunk and the body of the car. Hidden away from prying eyes. He takes out his phone - a shitty burner - and his charger.

Ryan’s no sci-fi/action hero. Both he and Shane are the kind of guy who’d die first in a horror movie. But he is the king of being over-prepared. Yeah, maybe it is a good idea for them to stick together.

 

-

 

When he gets back to the room, he doesn’t know if he should tap Shane on the shoulder or mentally yell for him or what.

He’s standing by the blinds, pulling the drawstring over and over. The lights are off, so every time he pulls them shut the room goes dark.

The remaining groceries he left Shane in charge of are on the room’s small desk. They’re organised by size, with no regard for category, so there’s a packet of toothbrushes in-between an energy bar and that fucking tub of ice cream. It’s the kind of thing Ryan would do to keep himself preoccupied -- which is why he did it, he realises.

They’re doing all of this ass-backwards.

Ryan turns on the light, causing Shane to jump. The blinds stay closed.

‘We need to talk about- about this. About what happened out there.’

Shane’s expression stays neutral. He remains where he is, on the exact opposite side of the room to Ryan. And he can feel a shift as the connection returns. He can feel intent, the nonverbal request for permission. Ryan doesn’t know how to convey his own assent. Not in a way that doesn’t involve words, at least. He tries anyway, focusing on his own feeling of relief. He wants Shane to feel comfortable; to feel safe and not like he's being cornered.

‘I- look, I’m not mad or anything. I just want to know how I could hear you. Understand you.’ Ryan moves further into the room, giving Shane plenty of space. ‘Can you understand what I’m saying right now?’

Shane waits a few moment before responding, 'Yes. I can.'

Ryan sees Shane's lips move, but also hears his voice in his head. It’s almost enough to make his head spin. He sits on the edge of the bed. He

‘Why when we were out there? Why now?’

‘Because I can trust you. You want to protect me.’

And Ryan has nothing to say to that. Ryan likes to think that he has an answer to everything. Perhaps not the right answer, but he always has some comment up his sleeve, a comeback he can throw out. He likes explanations that he can wrap his mind around. He has a constant need to know why: why this, why that. (It’s the kind of attitude that infuriated the adults around him when he was a kid.) But right now? He's got nothing.

He stutters out a response. ‘I-It’s the, uh, right thing to do.’

Shane’s eyes soften. He tilts his head to the side. ‘Is that all there is to it?’

‘What do you mean? Can’t I just do something selfless?’

‘I mean is this all just for me? To help me?’

The implication isn't lost on him. ‘I don't know what you want me to say. Look, I don’t want your enduring memory of humanity to be that we’re all malevolent fucks. I mean, yeah, sure, a lot of us can be dicks.’
Shane makes a noise somewhere between laughter and mirth.

‘I don’t have an ulterior motive here,’ he continues. ‘I mean, I wanna know more about you. Believe it or not, you’re interesting as fuck. I have, like, a thousand questions. But that’s- I’m not gonna ask you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. If you wanna share then that’s great, but if you don’t then I won’t push it.’

‘For what it’s worth, I trust you because you’re honest. You’re very genuine, Ryan.’

He can feel the tips of his ears heat up. He guesses that’s really all there is to it.

 

-

 

Ryan’s phone is on the desk, charging. Every now and again he glances over at it, even though he knows he won’t have any notifications. Going off the grid, digitally speaking, is meant to be good for you, help you concentrate better and appreciate life more and all that shit. He’s starting to think that turning it back on was a bad decision.

Shane's attempting to eat his precious chocolate ice cream with a plastic spoon. His efforts to warm up the tub in his giant hands are slow going, but he seems content.
He bought them a shitty, grocery store sandwich each, so at least they won't go hungry. They really need to scope out a diner.

Ryan skips through the channels. Every channel he finds is on an ad break. He settles on one running ads for schlocky, low-budget sci-fi shows.

The ads end, and the logo for a movie studio plays. Well, at least he timed it right. The screen goes dark and stay that way for a while. The TV doesn't have a reflection, so it must be part of the movie (he hates that kind of thing).

White text fades in, and he grins.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

He laughs and Shane looks at him, puzzled.

'Dude, have you seen this movie?'

Shane looks a little irked. 'No? Why would I?'

Dumb question. 'Shit, sorry. It's- look, this movie is mandatory viewing for you, OK? This is, like, the quintessential first contact movie.'

'First contact?'

''It's like, uh, humans meeting aliens for the first time? It's a pretty popular concept in science fiction. This is one of the earlier versions of that. Wait, hang on,' he hops off the bed and turns the lights off. 'Gotta have the right movie atmosphere.' He insists.

Shane looks around, confused. 'The air is fine.'

'Shh.'

Ryan eats his terrible sandwich. Shane is going to town with the ice cream. Ryan doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth himself, and he’s feeling nauseous just looking at the guy.

Onscreen, Americans and Mexicans stand in a desert, arguing with the French. Ryan has to shush Shane a few times for crinkling the plastic sandwich container.

Shane doesn't have as many questions about the movie as Ryan would have expected. He doesn't have many questions, period. It's a little infuriating. It's hard to tell what he's thinking. His eyes are definitely focused on the screen. He's not one of those pushy movie buffs that insists on everyone loving certain movies...but come on. Is it too much to ask for an actual alien to like a classic sci-fi movie? It's like the start of a joke.

Shane moves across the bed towards Ryan.

He stage-whispers, 'I have no idea what they're saying.'

And yeah, that makes sense. Ryan's not going to pretend to know how this whole translation thing works, but a link not working on a prerecorded movie, especially an old one? That sounds about right. Without looking away from the screen, he reaches over and places his hand on Shane's knee. Ryan's own knees are tucked comfortably under his chin. They're at the foot of the bed, so with no backrest he's slouched over.

Close Encounters is full of long, quiet scene of people standing around in silent, contemplative awe, so he gives Shane a few minutes to adjust. Then, he asks, 'Is it working?'

Shane hums. 'I think so. It's hard to follow what they're saying. It's all so jumbled.'

Onscreen, Roy argues with his wife while their kids make a racket. It's loud and claustrophobic, and makes Ryan feel on edge.

'No, see, that's the point. It's all about communication- or failing to communicate, I guess. Like, in the first scene, everyone's arguing because they're confused. And they're confused because they all speak different languages.

(Well, to be more specific, they're confused because there's a series of World War Two era fighter planes parked in the middle of the desert, but Shane doesn't need to know that.)

'What do you mean, different languages?'

'Well, the Americans are speaking English, and the Mexicans are speaking Spanish. They're all stuck because of that language barrier. Then Claude shows up, right? He's French and speaks, uh, French. But he also speaks English. He kind of helps to bridge the gap?'

'Why don't- why are they all speaking different languages?'

'Because they're from different places.'

'But they're all human.'

'Yeah?'

Shane's quiet for a while, a slight frown on his face indicating his concentration. Ryan can practically hear the cogs turning in his head.

'How many languages can humans speak?'

'Fuck, uh, it depends. Most can only speak one, maybe two. I'm fluent in English - that's what we're speaking - and I can speak a little Spanish. I can understand more than I can speak, though. It's rare, but some people can speak three or more languages. There's a few common languages, but worldwide there's, I don't know, at least a few thousand.'

Shane stares, wide-eyed. 'Oh my.'

Ryan snorts. 'Yeah. We're kind of a mess.'

'So...Americans and Mexicans. What did you mean by that?'

'OK, so they're nationalities...'

Ryan proceeds to explain the concept of nationality, and the movie starts to fall into the background. He doesn't dwell on the concept for too long. He wants Shane to watch this movie, even if it kills him. On the plus side, the movie is over two hours long, so they don't miss much in their discussion.

They sit and talk through the film. There are a few scenes that Ryan insists on going uninterrupted by conversation, notably the ending. Shane seems less into the idea of the film and more into Ryan’s enthusiasm. A little like how non-sports fans treat sports fans. There’s something about the communication with the UFO that gets to him. The weird synth music, the even weirder light show, the collective triumph of the scientists. He loves every part of it.

At some point he lies on his stomach. His hand keeps on slipping off of Shane’s knee as he gets more comfortable. When it happens one too many time, Shane goes ahead and puts a hand between Ryan’s shoulder blades. This is how he finds himself caught off-guard. It’s nice. He can’t find a comfortable position for his head that doesn’t make his neck ache; his solution is to lean it against Shane’s leg. Shane responds by gently scratching at the nape of his neck, so he must be doing something right.

Chapter Text

Like everything else in the town of Greenville, the library is small. Quiet. Boring. Libraries remind Ryan of childhood; of afternoons spent sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle at storytime. He remembers taking out book after book, reading them as fast as he could get his tiny hands on them. He remembers reading about magic and warriors and space and ghosts and...he can’t remember the last time he stepped into one as an adult. His library card, if he still has one, doesn’t cover Northern California anyway. He can’t see any kids in here -- there’s barely a children’s section. Poor bastards.

He’s sitting on a vinyl couch. Every move he makes is met with a groan of protest from the worn out fabric. The table in front of him is covered in maps: road maps; hiking trail route maps; routes through Oregon and further north. He got them from a display rack titled What to Do. The number of maps outweighed the number of pamphlets advertising local events. It’s a little sad, but he isn’t surprised. It’s a very passive aggressive way of telling people who patronise the place that they should leave - go and find a place with more (better) things to do.

‘Shane,’ he calls- thinks, rather. Is it possible to project your voice as a thought? ‘Shane, get over here.’ It comes to him easily: all he needs to do is will the thought and it happens - a little like sending a text message.

He looks around. There’s a few other people in there, all of whom remain dead quiet. Shane is...around. Their mental connection is open, and Ryan keeps on getting weird, sensory thoughts sent his way. Mostly of book textures. Shane won’t stop smelling the books. Ryan doesn’t know if Shane can understand written language this way - through the connection - but he hasn’t gotten any complaints yet.

‘I can’t,’ Shane replies. ‘I’m stuck.’

That’s...not the response he was expecting. ‘Where and how?’

Ryan sees a vision that isn’t his. It’s Shane, in a bean bag chair, surrounded by books. He’s half-sitting, half-lying down. His knees are level with his eye-line. Every time he moves he only succeeds in sinking further into the chair. He looks up and sees a placard reading ‘CRIME’.

‘I can’t get up. Help?’ Shane tries.

Ryan snorts out a laugh. He clamps a hand over his mouth, stifling the sound. No one bats an eyelid at him, anyway, though he can feel Shane’s irritation.

‘I heard that. Stop making weird human noises and help me.’ Seeing an image through someone else’s eyes is pretty disorienting, and Ryan’s head spins a little. He stumbles to his feet, setting off to free Shane from his comfortable, bean bag prison.

So. Maps. Ryan’s charting potential journeys through the North of the state and into Oregon and beyond. He doesn’t want to finalise anything without Shane around. This is going to be his journey, too. He says as much to Shane, after showing him the maps.

‘If we stick to the west side of Oregon and really worked at it, we could be in Portland in a few days.’

Shane traces the route with an index finger. He hums in thought. He’s holding a thick hard back, drumming his fingers quietly along the spine.

‘We don’t have to go to Portland,’ adds Ryan. ‘There’s plenty of other places along the way.’

Preparing for the likely scenario of Shane coming with him, Ryan has tasked himself with an impossible conundrum: where do you hide an alien? Do you take him somewhere quiet and peaceful, or somewhere busy and heterogenous? Ryan knows that Shane’s knowledge of North American geography has to be nonexistent, but he’s determined to involve him in the decision making process.

Shane cocks his head to the side. ‘Am I coming with you?’

They’re back to handholding. They’re close enough for say, their arms or legs to be touching, but both went for the others hand as they sat down. The couch is low to the ground (though not as low as the bean bag), so Shane’s knees stick up.

‘Well, yeah. I thought we were clear on that. You said you needed to get somewhere, right?’

‘I did but- if-I don’t want to get in the way.’

Ryan stares at him. ‘OK, first off, even if I did need to get somewhere urgently, I wouldn’t just kick you to the curb. Second, I promised that I’d help you, Shane- that I’d keep you safe. You’re not getting in the way of anything, trust me. I barely even know what I’m doing.’ He runs a hand through his hair. It’s true. He’s winging it pretty hard at this point. ‘What about- what about you, Shane?’

‘What about me?’

‘Is there somewhere you need to be?’

‘I-I need to…’ He stares off into space, again. He gets a look about him - the same as when Ryan first found him -- the look of someone with no direction to go in. Not just confused or scared- completely lost.

He squeezes Shane’s hand. ‘Shane..?’

Shane scratches at the back of his neck with his free hand.

‘I need to find someone.’

‘And this someone…’

‘She was the only one I could trust. She helped me escape.’

‘So, you want to find her?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you know where she is?’

‘She-no. She got me out but we couldn’t-’ his voice grows quiet. ‘We were separated.’

‘Do you have any idea where she might be? What she would’ve done?’

Ryan can feel himself slipping back into his old role - one of a trusting confidant. It scares him a little, how fast it happens. It’s more of a mindset, really, a tool he used as a means to an end. Right now, he needs to be asking the right kinds of questions. To glean imperative information from what he’s hearing, that was his job- his purpose. And he was fucking good at it.

Shane reaches into the pocket of his jeans. He pulls out a small card - a business card, from the looks of it. ‘She gave me this.’ Ryan takes it. It reads:


Sara Rubin

Research and Development

Vista Dynamics


The card is thin and crumpled at the edges. The card has an email and a number. The former is a regular Gmail account, as opposed to a company handle. On the back, there’s a phone number, printed, with a red pen, in neat handwriting. An arrow points from the number to that name: Sara.


-


A few minutes later they’re on a library computer, with a Chrome Incognito tab - or three - open. The screen shows the sleek, corporate website of Vista Dynamics. The About page claims they’re some kind of pharmaceutical company. There’s a lot of talk about the betterment of humanity and the power of genetics, and Ryan’s starting to feel sick. As far as he’s concerned, they can fuck right off. At the very bottom it says, ‘a subsidiary of the United States government’.

‘I fucking knew it,’ thinks Ryan, though this is the one time he wished he didn’t know. A faceless corporation in the business of stealing extraterrestrial visitors is one thing, but one owned and controlled by the most powerful government on the planet? He’s more than a little fucked. The government could make the two of them disappear without a trace. It thrills him a little, to think that the Men in Black could swoop in at any minute.

‘How long were you,’ Ryan lowers his voice, ‘On Earth before they found you?’

‘Not long. At least, I think it wasn’t a long time.’

‘And Sara?’

‘It was her job to observe me - which is pretty fitting.’ He makes a noise of amusement.

‘What?’

‘That’s what I’m meant to do.’

‘What, observe?’

‘Observe Earth’s inhabitants. I’m doing a terrible job of it.’

Ryan snorts. ‘You could have fooled me. You literally never ask questions about anything.’

‘And you ask so many.’

‘I- shut up.’ He gently punches Shane’s arm, smiling.


-

‘Why do you never ask questions?’

They’re in a diner. Ryan’s ordered two stacks of pancakes. He has a notebook - taken from the trunk of his car - and his phone. He has no new messages or voicemails, but then again, he wasn’t expecting any. He takes a note of Sara’s number, then starts flipping through his contacts. He needs to find a number he hasn’t had to think about in weeks. He finds it jotted down on one of the middle pages, labelled ‘Worst Case Scenario’.

Shane watches the steam rise from his cup of coffee. ‘It’s not how I was taught to observe. I’ve never been to a planet like this. One with this level of intelligent life.’

‘I’m taking that as a compliment,’ jokes Ryan. ‘So what, you’ve been looking at barren landscapes?’

‘Something like that. I’ve seen life, but it was mostly microscopic bacteria. And you can’t really ask bacteria about their culture. It was a little boring.'

Ryan can't conceive of the idea of alien life - no matter how minute - being boring.

‘I liked them. They were simple. Humans are so complicated and unpredictable.’

‘Well, I’d hate to think the rest of the universe thought Earth was boring. Are on you, like, a science mission, or something?’

Shane takes a long sip of his coffee. A crease forms on his brow as he thinks. ‘It’s more complicated than that. We were sent here-’

‘Wait, we?’

‘The crew- was sent here to observe flora and fauna.’

Ryan's stomach does a flip on the word 'crew'. It makes it all the more real. He immediately thinks of Star Trek, of standing on the bridge and beaming down to planets...he can't even fathom what they look like. What Shane really looks like.

‘I guess that makes me part of the local fauna. Is that why you were watching me sleep? Were you observing me then? Getting sneaky, convert intel.’ He’s teasing, but Shane takes him seriously.

‘Ryan, I’d never do that to you. I’d never treat you like that.’

Ryan’s next words die in his throat. There’s a severity to his tone; a desperation for something that Ryan can’t name. Something is being lost in translation, and Ryan’s too scared to ask what that is. Shane has a...thing about sleep, Ryan gets that much. Shane’s been trooping on for long enough on zero hours of sleep for Ryan to know that he doesn’t need to do it. There’s something else there, though: an underlying thought that he won’t let Ryan see. He feels a part of it, the feeling that he’s being observed, even though there’s no one else around. The parking lot outside is empty, the diner is empty. It’s fine. They’re fine. And yet it’s like there’s a dozen sets of eyes watching, analysing. Ryan takes a sip of his coffee, then just keeps on going. His throat burns as he chugs the drink, but it means not having to talk. Because how the fuck does he follow that up? With an apology, probably.

If Shane is perturbed by the conversation, then he doesn’t show it. He continues, ‘Ryan, I’m not meant to be here.

Ryan puts down his notebook. ‘On Earth? Why? What happened?’

Across the diner, a door opens, and a waitress enters with their food. As she walks over, Shane says- thinks, ‘I was meant to stay in orbit.’

Hearing someone speak out loud while also projecting their speech into your brain is it’s own brand of weird. Hearing someone’s thoughts, clear as day in your own mind,

while they don’t so much as open their mouth is somehow even weirder.

Ryan thanks the waitress and Shane, awkwardly, follows suit.

‘Oh,’ thinks Ryan. It’s all he can think to say. Literally. He immediately coats his pancakes in syrup. He tries not to think too much about what all of this caffeine and sugar is doing to his body. His hands haven’t started shaking yet. So far so good.

‘The scans we- the crew, I mean- took showed that the atmosphere is breathable. And, well, I wanted to see what it was like. It was a once in a lifetime type chance.’

‘Oh,’ ‘ thinks Ryan. ‘‘Oh fuck, Shane. You’re stuck.’

'Sort of. The ship is still up there. I can get back, it just won’t be easy.’

‘How has it not been spotted? We’ve got satellites and shit up there. How has no one from the International Space Station noticed a bunch of nerd scientists hanging around?’

Shane quirks an eyebrow. ‘The ship’s got a cloaking device,’ He says, as if that explains everything.

'Do you have a frame of reference for how long you've been down here?'

'It's been...a while.'

‘Do you miss them?’

‘The crew? Yeah. There’s only a few of us and I know most of them personally.’

‘Must be nice.’

Ryan feels a twinge of longing in the pit of his own stomach. To have a group of people - friend and colleagues - who cared for your well being, missed you, who wanted you back home and safe...he’d give anything to have that sense of security.

‘Ryan?’

God, Shane’s not even speaking and his tone is still soft. Ryan doesn’t like dealing with his own emotions at the best of times, never mind having someone else experience them too. His gut feels likes it’s twisted into knots.

Shane reaches out and takes Ryan’s hand, turning it so his palm faces upwards. He runs the pad of his thumb over Ryan’s palm in a circular motion.

It’s...nice. It’s soothing.

Ryan doesn’t say anything. He finds that he doesn’t need to.

He picks his notebook up and flips it open to a fresh page.

‘OK, if we’re gonna travel together then you’re gonna need a fake ID. If we get stopped by the police or whoever and you don’t have identification? It’s game over.’

‘How do I get one?’

Ryan waves a hand. ‘Don’t worry about it. I know a guy. I can get it here in, like, two days, tops.’

He scribbles down a few notes. Because he can, he doodles a UFO by Shane’s name. It’s a silly little thing, but it fills him with a sense of childlike glee.

‘OK so. Fake ID. Then Sara? Then we get you back into space. You do want to find Sara, right?’

Shane hesitates. ‘She’d...want to know that I’m safe.’

There's that feeling again. Last week he believed there's life out there, if only humans could find it. And now he's planning a road trip with an alien, and one he barely knows, at that. If Shane asked him to move Heaven and Earth, he'd find a way to do it. Ryan couldn't say no to Shane if he tried.

Chapter Text

When Ryan wakes up he feels more refreshed than he has in weeks. The bedsheets cover him from toe to chin, which is an odd first for him. For as long as he can remember, he’s been a restless sleeper. Nothing short of tucking the sheets under the mattress should stop him from moving about. There’s an arm around his shoulder, holding him close. He nuzzles into the fabric under his cheek. He hears a sigh that isn’t his and a hand cards through his hair.

It lasts for all of five minutes. Ryan’s phone starts ringing. It vibrates off of the desk and hits the carpet with a thud. He almost jumps out of his skin. Shane jumps too, his heart beating like a drum under Ryan’s ear. It’s then that Ryan realises he’s clinging to the alien like a limpet.

He doesn't have any time to process what's happening before Shane asks: 'What is that?' His voice is deep, as if he'd also slept.

It takes Ryan a second to realise that his phone is playing the theme from The X-Files. He knows for a fact that only one contact in his phone has that ringtone. Shane looks at Ryan, then at the phone. He stares at the thing like it might detonate any second.

All Ryan can think to say is, 'I can explain.'

Look, Ryan knows when he’s out of his depth. If there was ever a time for him to ask for help, it’s now. That’s exactly what he did the night before. Or at least, tried to. He sent what he thought at the time was an innocuous text:

to: B.B: I really need your help with something. Call me when you get this.

Honestly, he didn’t know if he’d even get a response. And yeah, in hindsight that message is pretty cryptic. The next time he makes a split decision on a phone, someone should be there to slap it out of his hand. Afterwards, he'd put his phone down and shoved the thought to the back of his mind.

‘Ryan?’

Anyway. He’s in bed, still kind of out of it. Part of him is still trying to figure out how he ended up cuddling with Shane - not that he's complaining. The phone goes silent for a moment, then starts again. He reaches out to Shane. ‘I’m sorry. I called a friend- I think he can help us out.’

’Called? Oh.’

A sense of panic starts to build in Shane, so he runs a hand down Shane's arm in what he hopes is a soothing gesture. He clarifies, ’He doesn’t know anything about you. I told him that I need help, which is true. He’s the only one I can still trust.’ His throat goes dry. He knows it’s true, but admitting it is like tearing off a band-aid. ’Look, I need to take the call.’ He extracts himself from Shane's hold and part of him wishes he'd stayed in bed a little longer.

By the time he gets to the phone it’s stopped again. He gets a glimpse of the screen before it starts back up and his hear sinks:

ten new messages
two missed calls

There’s something about seeing that many unchecked messages that sets off a kind of primal fear in his brain. It reminds him, in a way, of being a teenager; sneaking in two hours after curfew, hoping he won’t get caught and knowing full well that his mom will catch him in the act. It’s the fear of being a disappointment in someone. The guilt of knowing you did the wrong thing with no regard for the consequences.

He clears his throat then accepts the call.

‘Hel-’

‘Ricky? Is that you? Are you OK?’

‘Brent. It’s so good to hear your voice-’

‘Hear my voice? Are you fucking kidding me? It’s been a month, Ricky.’

‘I know. I’m so sorry. And uh, I go by Ryan now.' He deserves, at the very least, a gentle stabbing for all of the bullshit he’s put Brent through. There’s ghosting someone and then there’s cutting all ties and disappearing off of the face of the Earth indefinitely. He feels reassurance coming through from Shane, and he wonders if the alien can understand Brent at all.

'Uh, OK?'

‘Look, I wouldn’t call unless it was extremely important-’

‘Oh wow, thanks dude.’

‘There’s no one else who can help me out here.’

Shane steps into the bathroom and closes the door. Ryan feels like his fucking brain is working too fast. He owes Shane a massive explanation and he owes Brent a lifetime of apologies. He also can’t stop thinking about if Shane can understand Brent’s side of the conversation, or if he’s convinced that Ryan is selling him out.

‘They took your office back, you know? Now some fucking writer’s using the space. He had your decal taken off the door and everything. I saved all of your shit, don’t worry. Everything the police didn’t confiscate- you’re lucky the landlord didn’t just throw everything out.’ Brent sighs. ‘I could- Ric-Ryan, I could’ve helped you. You didn’t have to leave.’

‘Look, thanks for saving my case files and shit, but there’s no way you could have helped me.’

‘You don’t know th-’

‘Yes I do,’ his voice wavers. ‘Look, that isn’t why I called. I have this friend. He’s in a pretty fucked up position right now. He doesn’t have anybody else- I’m just want to help him out. I need to get him a fake ID.’

‘This sounds very familiar...is he also asking you for money?’

For the first time in the conversation. Ryan feels a spark of anger. ‘Don’t you fucking go there. Shane is nothing like her.’

‘Shane?’

Oh, fuck.

He backpedals‘I-I mean. Shit. Can you pretend I didn’t say that?’

God, why can’t he just shut up when he needs to?

'Wait, is this why you left?’

‘What?’

‘Is that why you skipped town? To be with some guy? And you didn’t tell me?’ Brent, for what it’s worth, sounds genuinely hurt.

‘No! I just met him like a day ago...Now that I say that out loud it does seem a little bonkers.’

‘Wait, a day ago? So this isn't...oh.’

‘What?’

‘I just thought...nothing! Nothing. Doesn’t matter.’ Ryan didn't know it was impossible to hear embarrassment over the phone.

‘Brent. This guy needs my help. If I do nothing then he’s as good as dead.’

Brent sighs. He mutters a curse under his breath. ‘When do you need the ID by?’

‘As soon as humanly possible. Like, yesterday.’

There's a pregnant pause. ‘Does he know?’ asks Brent. ‘About you?’

Ryan feels like all of the air’s been knocked out of his lungs. He steels himself. ‘No. I haven’t told him.’

‘Are you going to?’

‘I...I don’t know.’ If Shane looked at him with his sleepy, sloth eyes for long enough he’d probably crack under pressure. He’s got the kind of unassuming face you can’t help but trust.

‘Jesus Christ. So you’re not coming back?’

Ryan doesn’t say anything. He keeps his gaze focused on the bathroom door. For all he knows, Shane could be listening in. (With the connection, he probably doesn’t need to. Who knows.)

‘I’m not gonna convince you to come back to L.A or anything. Just- look, if you ever need help then you fucking tell me, OK? I don’t care if I have to come to- wherever the fuck you are. Just tell me. I'll always help you.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I hope this is worth it, Ryan. I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.’

‘Yeah, I do too.’


-


By the time Shane emerges from the bathroom, Ryan's sitting on the bed, head in his hands. He's still in his fucking sleepwear. He hasn't been awake for that long, but he feels as if hours have passed.

'Ryan?'

Shane's by his side in a second. He puts a gentle hand on Ryan's back.

'I'm OK. That conversation just really took it out of me.'

'Did xe upset you?'

'I mean...kind of.? It's mostly my fault anyway.' How did...how did we end up cuddling? I'm not mad or anything, I just wanna know.'

'You looked...distressed.'

Ryan raises an eyebrow. 'In my sleep?'

Shane flushes red.


-

What happens is this: Ryan falls asleep. Unlike the first time, he doesn’t collapse into bed exhausted. It's a gradual process: his breathing slows right down; his eyes keep slipping shut; he keeps on doing that weird, deep, yawning thing where he stretches his mouth all the way open and shows off his teeth. A lot of things he, and other humans do, are weird. With Ryan, though, it's kind of endearing.

When you arrived in the town, the sun was rising over the horizon. It set a while ago, so it’s the middle of the night. You think. It’s hard for you to keep track of time. Humans have such arbitrary time keeping metrics, so you tend not to bother with them. You know that night is when most humans go to sleep.

You understand enough about humans to know that sleep is a necessary process. You’ll never understand how they can just...do it. It’s as natural to them as thought sharing is to you. Ryan doesn’t ask you about sleep and you’re thankful for it. Sleep isn’t necessary for you. You suppose that if you tried hard enough, you could will your body to sleep. You won’t. You’re under no one’s obligation to do so and so you won’t.

Instead, you meditate. You’re still aware of what’s happening around you which, thankfully, isn’t much. If you were on your ship, you would have spent this time analysing information you collected during your allotted work hours. You think of the sweet, artificial taste of ice cream; you think of how the warmth of the planet’s sun has lessened since you arrived, indicating a change in seasons; you think of Ryan. The human occupies a lot of your thoughts. You think about his smile and his strange laugh. You think about his sincere honesty. You think about the thoughts he won’t share with you. You can sense the. under the surface, where you can’t get to them. Between members of your species, there are no secrets. At least, not in the way that humans think of them.

You know from experience that even mentioning hidden thoughts - that you’re aware of them - is an indiscretion among humans. You can’t ask him, but that doesn’t stop you from trusting him. He’s only known you for a brief period of time, yet he’s willing to do so much to help you.

You can hear Ryan breathing, deep and even. In the darkness you can make out the rise and fall of his chest. He rests like his body has given up on itself, like he may never open his eyes again. You focus on his breathing, in its reliable pattern. You match your own to it and let yourself drift, anchored to a feeling of being solid. Honestly, it’s a little boring.

He lets in a sharp intake of breath and you jump. He mumbles something unintelligible. The two of you aren’t connected, but you have the feeling that if you were, his words would still be meaningless. His hand twitches, knocking against your own. You get a fleeting sense of panic from him. You can't connect with him, not when he's asleep, so whatever comes through is incidental. You know that he can't be asking for help. Not consciously. Whatever he's experiencing is unpleasant.

Your heart pounds and you’re not sure why.


-


Ryan doesn’t tell Brent everything. There’s no fucking way he could convince Brent that: a) aliens are real and b) he knows because he’s sharing a motel room with one.

Brent will try to get out of accepting payment for the ID, but Ryan will try anyway. He writes out a cheque, adding an extra $50 on top of he knows it Brent's usual asking price. He signs it under the name he used to go by: Ricky Goldsworth. This whole thing feels like a Ricky move. He’ll screw you over then skip town, and while he’s at it he’ll destroy your reputation. That’s what Ricky did to him. That’s what he did to himself.

Ryan was never a sleeze. Before he left LA, he’d thought he was going places. He never pushed his clients for more money than they could give. He didn’t stand for that malicious bullshit. Sometimes, if a client couldn’t afford the fee he’d cut them a deal. He did it for people who were truly desperate, throwing whatever money they could at a man they had no choice but to trust: their last chance.

This is how he met her.

{‘They say you’re good at this.’}

The name she used was Francesca Norris. She’d told him her husband was a dangerous man and that he was cheating on her. She wanted enough evidence to file for a divorce on the grounds of adultery. She was very insistent about that detail. When everything was said and one, Ryan would discover that none of these facts were ever true. Later, he would lose everything to a woman he’d never met.

{‘I need to know that I can trust you.’}

Officially, he’s Ryan Bergara. When he needed to play the part of the professional detective - of a trustworthy man who would get the job done - he would become Ricky Goldsworth. When he was Ricky, he was looser, more self-assured. It wasn’t so hard to take on the persona of another person. Look, he’d taken a drama class or two before. He knew how to act (albeit, mostly in theory). But this was something else. There was taking on a role, then there was crawling into someone else’s skin.

{‘No one can ever know about this.’}

For his services and secrecy, Francesca offered enough money to pay the rent on his office in downtown LA for three months. If he had known then what he knows now, if he’d known the storm that was to come, he would have hung up the phone, blocked her number, then gotten on with his life. Back then, the prospect of losing his office space through unpaid rent had seemed so important.

{‘Of course. I’m uh- I’m very discreet. You can trust me to get it done.’}

They always did.

Francesca wired the money into his account the next day. Ricky Goldsworth got to work.


-

Brent sends a message, asking for a few details for the ID, none of which Ryan knows how to provide. He guesses Shane looks around thirty, and he pulls off a plaid shirt well enough to be from the Midwest. When he tries to explain the Gregorian calendar to Shane he's met with confusion. Like, OK he already knew how arbitrary the system is, it's not like he needs a reminder. When he gets Bent's next message, they're in a clothes store:

from: B.B: On its way.


Ryan types out a text, stares at it for thirty seconds, then deletes it.

to: B.B: We're trying to find someone.


It feels like too much all at once. He turns his phone off and tries to forget about if for a while.


(He watches Shane pick out half a dozen plaid shirts of disparaging sizes before he steps in.)

Chapter Text

Ryan has to hand it to Brent, he gets the ID delivered in about half a day, making him more efficient than the US Postal Service. It arrives in an unassuming envelope, addressed to ‘Ryan and Shane’. There’s a stamp in the corner, which feels a little redundant. It’s of Paddington, though, which is a nice touch. Ryan didn’t even know those were available in the US (not that he’s up to date with the world of stamp collecting)

He gets a text from Brent saying that it’s at the reception. The things is, Maureen doesn’t seem to want to give the damn thing up. She’s displease, or at least appears to be. He has to listen to her rant about how this is all unusual, and that it’s not her job to sort someone else’s mail. He has to resist the urge to let his eyes glaze over and check out of the conversation entirely.

‘...And see, I thought your partner would have come with you.’

He’d told Shane to wait outside. The whole thing shouldn’t have taken this long.

‘Uh, well, I figured I’d just get it myself, you know?’

‘He seems rather...quiet, don’t you think?’

‘Uh, I guess. He can be a little shy, but once you get to know him he can be pretty talkative.’

She looks about, as if they aren’t the only two people in the room. She leans in, and Ryan is surprised he can't smell her damn breath with how close she is. 'You two boys, you’re not in any trouble, are you?’

‘Uh, what? No, of course not.’

‘Hmm. It’s just...when this card arrived- I thought it was strange that someone would think to send it while you’re on a trip. And that they put a stamp but not an address?’

'Goddamnit, Brent.' Ryan tries to keep his composure. There’s no fucking way he’s getting found out by a middle-aged busybody. This is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to her in a long time.

For a moment, he flounders. Think, Ryan think.

He opens his mouth, ready to spout total, rambling nonsense. At that exact moment, the bell above the door rings. Shane walks in and Ryan breathes a sigh of relief. Shane flashes Maureen a smile. She smiles back, at which point she sits back in her chair. He must have some kind of calming influence about him. That’s the old close encounters cliche, right? Or is that vampires..? He strides right up to them, peering over Ryan’s shoulder at the envelope. He presses a hand into the small of Ryan’s back. He’s close enough that Ryan can feel the fabric of his denim jacket. They’d bought it earlier and when Shane had tried it on, he’d looked, for all the whole, like he belonged in it.

The anxiety radiating off of him is palpable, which is understandable.

Ryan starts from the top. ‘Look, I’m really sorry about all of this. I know it’s strange, but my- uh, our friend lives close by here. He must have dropped it off in a rush,’ he rolls his eyes for good measure. ‘This is so like him.’ He tries no to think to hard about who Brent enlisted to send the thing across the state. Off the top of his head, Ryan can think of half a dozen people. Though none of them would use Paddington stamps...Anyway, he trusts Brent to find someone who won’t give away Ryan’s location.

Shane clutches the fabric of Ryan’s shirt. His anxiety peaks.

‘Is-is this mine?’ Shane asks. He looks down at Ryan when he says it.

Maureen smiles. ‘Why yes, it’s your name on it, after all.’ Finally, she lets go of the damn thing, sliding it across the desk.

‘Thank you,’ Shane mutters.

‘You’re welcome. You two have a lovely day, now.’

As they walk out, Shane the tension within Shane seems to dissipate. It's as if he nailed a job interview. When they’re out of earshot, Ryan say, ‘Hey, nice job, dude.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Well done for, you know, talking to her.’

‘Oh, thanks. Did I...did I do it right?’

Ryan wheezes. ‘Yeah, definitely. Very uh- it was very convincing.’


-


Back in the room, Ryan opens the envelope. The ID itself - a California state driver’s license - is inside a birthday card of all things. As far as ID photos go, Shane’s doesn’t look that bad. Ryan’s always turn out awful, with him looking like he just went on a murder spree before dropping into a photo booth. Ryan took the photo himself and, as far as he knows, it’s the only photo of Shane in existence (any shady government files not included). Ryan has three ID’s just like it in the trunk of his car, all of which have different names and dates of birth. Shane puts it in his new wallet and Ryan makes him swear on his life he won’t lose it.

Inside the card there’s a message for Ryan. It’s printed in Brent’ neat handwriting:

I know you'll try and send me some money. Don’t bother. Consider us even for all the times you’ve helped me out. I don’t care what everybody else says about you, I’ll always welcome you back.

Then, underneath:

I hope this guy is the real deal. If he is then he’s got my approval.

Ryan closes the card. The real deal, huh. He has no idea what Bren’t approval entails, and he’s not sure he wants to find out. It would probably embarrassing, and involve at least a hug or two.

Ryan almost jumps when he hears a click. Then another. He looks up in time to see Shane taking a selfie of both him and Ryan on Ryan’s phone.

Ryan snorts. ‘Having fun?’

Shane turns the thing over a few times in his giant hands, inspecting it. ‘It’s very...small.’

'Is it not advanced enough for you?’

Shane takes another photo in response. Ryan almost regrets giving the phone to him. He hasn’t guessed the password yet, so he figures that he’s good for at least another few hours.

‘You know, we could leave right now if we really wanted to. I mean, we need to know where we’re going first.’

Before he'd left Ryan thought the sense of freedom he'd get from a road trip would be liberating. Just him on the open road, no worries or troubles. Instead, the seemingly limitless amount of directions he could take felt daunting. He'd spent more than enough time moping about by himself before just throwing caution to the wind and heading due north. That’s how he ended up stumbling across a wayward alien, so he supposes it wasn’t a total waste.

He continues, ‘Where do you need to get to, exactly?’

‘Ryan, you don’t need to do this.’

Ryan sighs, ‘I want to, OK? You’re not making me do anything.’

Shane frowns, forehead wrinkling as he thinks. ‘I need to get back to where I landed. If I can get within range of the exact spot I landed on, the crew will be able to beam me back up.’

‘Do you know where that is?’

‘Not really. The ecosystem is completely different here to where I landed.’ Shane looks down at his own hands. ‘I could...I could try to show you?’

‘Show me?’

‘It might not work.’ ‘Well, whatever it is it’s worth a shot.’

‘Just - sit down. It can be a shock, the first time. Sometimes people faint,’ he looks Ryan up and down. ‘You’ll definitely faint.’

Ryan snorts. ‘I don’t know if I should be scared or offended.’ He complies anyway, sitting at the edge of the bed.

Shane crouches next to him. He reaches up, placing the index and middle fingers on both of his hands against Ryan’s temples.

‘Just...relax.’

Ryan resists the urge to make a horribly inappropriate joke. He doesn’t know what he’s meant to do and so closes his eyes. For a moment, there’s nothing. Then, a bright flash of light dances across his eyelids. His eyes snap open. Instead of the motel room, he’s in a wide, open space. The sky is a brilliant blue and he can feel the heat of the sun beat down on his skin. He looks at his hands and is met with iridescent skin and long digits. Before he has time to fully process what’s happening, it all changes. He registers that he's no longer in control of his own movement - if he can even call it his. One minute he see bizarre-looking, spiked trees, towering above him, spread over vast acres. Then, he’s stumbling over a series of large boulders, trying to attract the attention of a local human. He feels...embarrassed? This is the first mistake he-you make.

You can’t understand why xe is so afraid of you. At least, at first. You try to communicate, but find that xyr mind is closed off. This beings thoughts don't entwine with yours, they stay shut away. Xe falls backwards in fright, crying out. The sound shocks you. This will be the first time you've ever heard a human utter any kind of noise. You knew, beforehand, that this is natural for them, but that forethought never truly prepared you for the real thing. Xe scrambles uphill to get away from you. For the first time in living memory, your own thoughts aren't accompanied by countless others. You're alone.

-

When Ryan comes to, he's lying on his side, curled up, at the foot of the bed. There's a pillow under his head. It's a thoughtful gesture - that is, until he realises it means that he passed out. Shane's sitting close by on the floor, eyes fixed on the TV. He's watching a documentary about bears, of all things. Ryan goes to say something then stops himself. Shane doesn't have his jacket on, which means Ryan has an unobstructed view of the back of his neck. Raised, red scratch marks criss-cross over it - it being simple, black ink tattoo. It reads: #413X.

Ryan's stomach turns. He feels the edge of Shane's consciousness at the same time that the alien turns his head. He looks at Ryan. Ryan's eyes flit from the tattoo, to Shane's eyes and back.

Shane's eyebrows shoot up and his eyes widen in muted shock. He opens his mouth, as if he's about to say something, then shuts it. There's a second of sheer panic across the connection before it shuts off. It's the most expressive he's been since the two met.

'Uhh.' Ryan practically built a career around knowing the right thing and exactly when to say it. He always had so much time to mull it all over.

Shane stumbles to his feet, almost tripping over his own gangly limbs in the process. He heads towards the exit and for a second Ryan panics.

'Fuck, Shane- wait!'

Instead of bolting out of the room, he grabs his jacket off of the door peg and throws it on.

'Shit. I'm sorry.' Ryan's head is still a little foggy. He doesn't fully understand why he's apologising, just that he should. He's stepping on some forbidden territory right now.

Shane remains quiet but the connection comes back.

'I'm sorry, Shane.'

Shane fiddles with the buttons of his jacket, then fusses with the collar, as if it won't reach high enough.

'That place you showed me - I think I've been there before. I think I know where it is.'

Shane's head whips around.

'Are you sure?'

Ryan thinks back to his childhood: sitting in the back of a boiling hot car with his brother for hours on end; the car going over uneven, desert trail roads; most of all, he remembers the odd looking trees that had spiky branches. To him, they always looked as if they were reaching to the sky. He looks over at the pile of maps on the desk. None of the routes he mapped account for him ever going back though California.

'Pretty sure. It's not that far away? We could get there in, like, a few days.'

Shane smiles.

Ryan places the pillow back at the top of the bed. He takes a breath. 'I'm sorry that I looked. I didn't mean to? I also didn't mean to pass out like that.'

Shane walks over and places his hand over Ryan's.

'It's OK. I didn't want you to see that. But that wasn't it.'

'Then what was?'

Shane gestures vaguely with his free hand. Ryan wonders if Shane picked up that behaviour from him. 'You're so quiet when you sleep. I didn't know you'd woken up, then I realised you'd seen...it. It's just- it's a lot of things at once.'

Ryan gets the feeling that Shane's still a little embarrassed.

'In that memory...I could feel what you were feeling.'

Shane's thumb gently traces a pattern on the back of Ryan's hand.

'You felt- you are...alone.'

Shane doesn't hesitate. 'Yes.'

'Oh, Shane,' his voice wavers. It's like Shane's lost one of his senses - like waking up one day without the ability to experience touch. Shane sits down next to him. Ryan pulls Shane in for an impromptu hug.

'Oof. OK.'

Ryan tries not to cry into Shane's jacket, aware that the alien can sense the mess of emotions in his head.

'I'm going to get you back, OK? I don't care how long it takes.'

'I know.'

Chapter Text

Brent’s alone when it happens.

It's ten minutes after closing hours and all he can think about is getting home. Mentally speaking, he's already sprawled out on the sofa. He's organising the papers his past self left laying about on the desk, so that his future self won't be pissed at his current self. It's an endless loop of mess and clean-up.

it's quiet. It's way, way too quiet.

The walls in the building are thin, so every time he hears a door open or a voice he expects it to be Him. Ricky always stayed later than Brent, but he'd meet him around this time to shoot the breeze. He would've talked Brent's ear off about whatever new movie he was obsessed with. Or he might have teased Brent for his terrible organisational skills. Except, Ricky is gone. He isn't Ricky anymore. He's Ryan.

Without the guy around, the whole floor felt quiet. No casual conversations in the hall, no joking about how he’d steal Ricky's clients if he wasn’t too careful. He rarely left before Brent, staying long into the night and drinking more black coffee than any one man should be able to consume.

Once or twice, Ricky had even called him while on a stake-out. Sitting around for so long in the dark made him twitchy.

Ricky never gave up on anything. When he wanted to get something done, he’d do it.

Brent didn’t realise how much Ricky didn’t tell him until it all went to shit. By the time the dust settled, Ricky was gone. The night he left, Brent found a bottle of Bourbon on his desk. Underneath the gift was a note:


I’m sorry, I’ve made too many mistakes. Don’t try to follow me.

Yours, Ricky


Ricky, pretentious bastard that he is, never signed with his name, only ever using his initials. Until that note.

If nothing else, he would have murdered Ricky for the note. Not permanently, of course. He'd kill the little fucker, reanimate him, then give him shit for ever thinking he could do something so idiotic.

On the other hand, Brent wanted to kick himself for not seeing it coming. The whole thing reeked of pageantry, which Ricky lived for.

They were friend. They'd gotten dinner together and watched old, shitty movies at Brent's place. It became a weekly thing - just the two of them and a case of beer. They trusted one another. And yet...

And yet Ricky was God knows where, hiding out. He'd forged himself a new identity, then fucked off for weeks, giving Brent the total silent treatment. - or at least, that's what it felt like. He could have been dead - fucking murdered then dumped - for all Brent knew. That's the thing: he doesn't know. Even after everything, he only knows as much as the police, and as much as Ricky confided in him - which wasn't much.

Ricky isn't just alive and safe, he has a new companion.

Brent is not jealous of some guy he didn’t even know.

Ricky loved this kind of shit. He adored personas and mystery. He talked enough bullshit about conspiracy theories for Brent to know it was genuine. He wonders if Ryan is the same.

Brent’s lost in thought when there’s a knock on the door. At first he thinks it’ll be the fucker that moved into Ricky-Ryan’s space. His jaw clenches. Brent could picture the guy, arms folded, leaning against the threshold, acting like he and Brent were friends. He never brought up Ricky, even though he had to know whose space he'd taken.

Brent turns his head. Through the frosted glass, he sees dark, curly hair. He breathes a sigh of relief. (The other guy is bald with an obnoxiously well-groomed, hipster moustache). He opens the door, stack of papers still in hand.

On the other side is a woman. He hair is dyed a deep purple. She’s wearing a lab coat, of all things, and is clutching a briefcase under one arm. She came straight from work, then. That almost never happened, at least in Brent’s experience. Ricky had had all kinds of weirdos clamouring for his attention at all hours.

‘Can I help you?’

‘I’m looking for a Mister Bennett?’

‘Well, you’ve got him,’ he smiles. She remains stony faced. Brent’s seen that look enough times to know that, whatever she wants, she means business. ‘Come in, please.’

She turns to look down the corridor, as if she heard someone. After she enters, Brent nudges the door closed with his hip. The woman goes to sit down, then notices the stack of folders on the chair.

‘Is this a bad time?’ She asks.

‘Oh no, it’s fine. Sorry about those, I’ll uh…’ He puts the papers in a desk drawer, the scoops up the folders. With nowhere to put those, he dumps them under his desk. It's too late in the day - in the week - for him to give a shit about bad first impressions.

‘So, what can I do for you, miss…?’

‘Sara. And I need your help,’ she looks at her briefcase with a determined expression. It reminded Brent of the look Ricky got when he thought he was onto something. She looks up at him, fire in her eyes. 'I need you to find someone for me.'

Straight to the point. Brent likes her already.


-


They head out of town soon after.

Ryan is determined they can make it as far as Sacramento before the sun goes down.

Shane has to move the car seat back to properly accommodate his eight feet of limbs. It’s endearing, though Ryan isn’t sure why.

For a while they drive in silence. Shane messes about with the radio, He jumps from station to station, settling on some old pop song.

Earlier, Ryan had rushed through checkout by himself. Maureen tried to go on a tangent about her upcoming vacation to visit her daughter and Ryan exited the conversation as soon as he could. She’d laughed at his attempt and said, ‘OK, I can take a hint. Don’t let me keep you from your man.’

Your man.

He knew what she thought of them. It shouldn’t bother him, yet he can’t stop thinking about the phrase. Your man. Your other half, she might have said. He keeps his mind closed off from Shane, who doesn’t question it.

Ryan glances down at his own hands. For a moment, he thinks of ever-shifting colours and long digits that don’t have nails. A crease forms in his brow. He looks back up at the road.

He nudges at Shane’s mind to get his attention. For convenience, or what Ryan assumes is convenience, Shane puts his hand on Ryan’s knee.

Ryan asks, ‘How does it work?’

‘How does what work?’

‘Changing. Shapeshifting. Whatever. What’s it like?’

‘It’s different every time. When I want to take a new form, the person has to let me into their mind first.’

‘So you have to get consent.’

‘Yeah, of course.’

OK. Good. Consent is important. Not that he’d think Shane wouldn’t seek out permission to take someone’s...form? Whatever. This isn’t a face-stealer type situation.

‘So, they guy you look like now. Was he nice?’

Shane took his form from a guy Ryan will likely never meet. How would you even ask someone to let you do that? To see a different version of yourself walk and talk, maybe even act like you do...

‘Yeah. He didn’t know who I was but he wanted to help me anyway,’ he looks at Ryan with fondness in his eyes, ‘He reminds me of you.’

Ryan clears his throat. ‘Oh th-that’s, uh, that’s good?’

Smooth.

He’s afraid they’ll lapse into silence, so he continues, ‘Was he called Shane?’

‘No. I chose the name myself. It doesn’t really mean anything, and that's why I like it.

‘What was your name before you came to Earth?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s not meant to be verbalised. Speaking is- Ryan, I’m sorry, but it’s so weird.’

Ryan rolls his eyes. ‘And beaming your thoughts directly into someone’s brain is totally normal. Could you try? What would it sound like?’

‘’Sound’ isn’t the right word. It’s more of a feeling than anything else. It’s- I can’t explain it,’ he sighs. ‘That’s the problem with speaking. There’s so many things that can’t be expressed through words alone. That’s- that’s one of the first things I found out. About humans,’ his voice grows quiet.

He squeezes Ryan’s knee, making Ryan’s stomach flip. ‘When Sara was assigned to me, she kept on asking for a name. When I couldn’t tell her, she gave me one. She said the tattoo looked like the name ‘Alex’. So.’ There’s a mix of emotions rippling across the connection: fear and distress and anger. For a second, there’s a pinprick of pain on Ryan’s neck.

‘That’s...That’s so fucked up. I’m sorry.’ Ryan cringes at his own words. Fuck, this is meant to be his thing, having a way with words. ‘Most humans are OK with the name they’re given, but some people hate it. They...hate not having a choice. So they choose a different name, one that means something important to them. They use it to shape a new identity. The name Shane fits because you chose it for yourself.’

Shane’s expression softens a little. He taps Ryan’s knee.

‘Sara didn’t know what she was doing when she gave me that name.’

‘We still have her contact info. If you want to talk to her...you do want to, right?’

Ryan wants to kick himself. They’ve had it on the back burner for a while. Shane hasn’t brought it up, so Ryan figured… he didn't know. They got so caught up with Joshua Tree.

‘I don’t think- she should know that I’m safe, but contacting her would be a terrible idea. When she helped me escape, she said that no one could ever know. If anyone she worked with found out, we’d both be caught.’

‘Wait, she still works there? Fucking- why?’

‘If we both disappeared at the same time, everyone she worked with would know. She had to stay behind. Calling her might jeopardise everything.’

‘If- the idea’s on the table, yeah? If you ever change your mind we could try calling.’

‘OK.’ Says Shane. It feels like a compromise.

They had no way of knowing what hours she worked, or when she would be most likely to answer. Leaving a myriad of missed calls or voice messages could also be suspect. At best, she might think they’re trying to pull off some weird hoax. At worst, she gets found out and...fuck knew what Vista Dynamics would do to traitorous employees.

They fall into a comfortable silence. Shane’s hand stays where it is, and Ryan is trying not to overthink it.

Maureen’s words jump to the forefront of his mind: your man. If they had the conversation again, would she have said something different? Would she have said partner, or boyfriend? Or would she have gone in the opposite direction?

‘You know… Maureen thought that we were a couple.’

‘A couple? Of what?’

Ryan wheezes. ‘No, a couple. She thought we were in a romantic relationship.’

‘Oh. OK.’

‘You’re cool with that?’

‘Well, I don’t really know what it means.’

‘Uhhhhh,’ Ryan flushes red. He is not explaining romance to an alien.

‘Ryan, I’m joking.’

‘You bastard!’

It’s things like that - cracking jokes - that makes Shane seem to human to Ryan. (This was never going to be a full on E.T. situation. They were never going to have to smuggle Shane under a blanket or anything. And Ryan knows that no sane person will look at Shane and suss him out.)

‘So, you were OK with her thinking that? And us sharing a bed?’

‘I guess I'm OK with it. And yeah, I'm fine. I don't even use the bed.'


-


By some miracle, they miss the worst of the rush hour traffic. The motel they stop at is a lot more up-built than the last one. It’s not too far from Sacramento (Ryan’s not made of money). When they get there the lobby is bustling - well, there's people about. Shane sticks close to Ryan, his big eyes taking in everything around him. He sticks to the tried and true method of smiling politely at passersby.

Ryan isn’t the best at expressing his own emotions, and Shane is making him feel… things. He hasn’t quite figured it all out yet. Shane's making him feel all warm and fuzzy and it's messing with the practical part of his brain. It's hard to stay focused when Shane gets excited over something small, like seeing a flock of birds fly past.

A lock of Shane's hair falls out of place and Ryan has to stop himself from reaching over and fixing it. That's...that's a weird, intrusive thought. He looks so nice in his denim jacket, which Ryan essentially gifted to him. His gaze must linger on Shane a little too long, because Shane takes his hand and asks, 'Are you OK?'

'Yeah, just tired.'

'Do you need to sleep?' He says it like it's a matter of urgency, eyebrows shooting up.

'Not right this second, no.'

On the way up to the room, they pass a couple in the corridor. They’re holding hands, looking at each other like they're the only two people in the world. The shorter of the two whispers to the other, making them laugh. The taller one gets a little closer, ducking down. Ryan looks away before they kiss. It'd be rude to watch. Shane has no such qualms and watches the pair with fascination. It's a good thing they both have their eyes closed.

Ryan pulls Shane along. He whispers, 'C'mon, dude.'

Somewhere along their connection, one of his own memories merges with something new. He feels the sensation of soft lips against his own, a hand curled in his hair, and a soft exhale, followed by a smile. He can't parse out the new memories from his own. It's enough to send him reeling. A hand comes up to steady him, pressing firm against his back.

'Did you feel that?' Shane asks.

Ryan stifles a laugh. Feel it?'Yeah.'

Ryan can feel Shane's apology forming, so he nips it in the bud. He sends a wave of wordless reassurance and Shane, in turn, feels relief.