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Or Something Stranger Still

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Ryan has to admit it, to himself, admit something that he’s been denying for the past two hours. He’s lost. Not just lost, lost by himself, on a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, at night. To make things worse, his phone is dead, so no GPS, and no final voicemail to his loved ones before he strands himself or gets mauled by a bear -- whichever happens first. Did this part of the state even have bears? If it did, he found one, hopefully his car could outspeed it. The only direction he can go in is forward. 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 talk show. It’s almost 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 - that what happens next came as a complete shock.

A figure vaults over a fence, landing on crouched feet in the road. Snapping into action, he slams on the brakes, the tyres screeching in protest. He’s thrown forward and caught by the seat belt. It takes him a moment to process the situation: the figure is a man. He’s hunched over a little, blocking the glare of the headlights out with his arms. He’s tall and gangly, and Ryan can make out floppy brown hair.

For a while he 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? The man is a deer in the headlights, standing a few metres from the car that would have run him over if Ryan hadn’t reacted so fast: if he hadn’t turned on the dazzlers an hour ago, if he wasn’t still jacked up on 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. The clothes he’s wearing are ragged and splashed with mud. The sleeve of his shirt is torn and Ryan can spy a streak or red blood. Dry, he hopes.

He thinks about opening the door and stepping out, then imagines being thrown out of his own car and watching it speed away into the night. He opens a window instead. He can hear crickets in the distance. He stops white-knuckling the wheel and turns the radio off. He sticks his head out of the window. The rain is refreshing against his clammy skin.

He stops white-knuckling the wheel and sticks his head out of the window.
‘Hey, are you OK?’ He calls out. The guys jumps a little. Can he see Ryan? It’s still pretty dark, even with the headlights. 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. It’s likes he’s talking to a child or a scared animal. He can’t tell if the guy is scared or sizing him up or what. A few moments pass, neither man 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 thing.
The guy keeps moving forward, movements slow and precise. Ryan pushes back the part of his brain that still telling him to run. Car jackers didn’t move this slow, giving their victims ample time to flee. They didn’t appear out of nowhere, either. Ryan’s foot is still resting on the accelerator. He can high-tail it if he wants. And yet he stays there, doing nothing but maintaining eye-contact and holding out his hands like a fucking moron. He can be a good Samaritan when he wants to, Damnit.

‘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 has time to react, he feels something, like a shift in the atmosphere; the deep, placid calm before a storm. The chirping of crickets is clearer, the rain feels crisper. It’s the same scene, the same night, with the volume turned up. The man himself becomes clearer. There’s still fear in his eyes, but it’s mixed in with trepidation and curiosity. For the first time that night, Ryan is filled with a sense of calm.

The guy is shaking - from nerves or the cold, Ryan can’t tell. Ryan smiles, hoping it masks how fast his heart is beating. 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 contact highs work. He swears he feels a twinge of amusement permeating from the guy, though how he knows that, Ryan has no clue.
An embarrassing amount of time passes before Ryan gathers his bearings. ‘Uh, hi.’ The words 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. He breaks eye contact, and looks intensely at nothing. ‘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.

‘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. He looks back at Ryan, bright eyes pleading. ‘I need to get away from here.’

And well, he couldn’t say no to that.‘OK, Shane. Let me just…’ he moves his hand away and it’s like a tether has been cut. The energy he’d felt saps out of him. He tries not to let it affect him as he leans over to open the passenger side door.

Shane say something unintelligible.

Ryan looks back. ‘What did you say?’

Shane repeats, the same words, the same sounds. To Ryan, it sounds like nonsense, thought he can at least pick up on the emotions behind them: confusion, and a little bit of fear. So they’re both on the same page, then.

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

Shane stands there for a moment, looking like he might cry, before obliging.

Was Ryan really doing this? He’d heard a million times before that you’re never meant to pick up a hitchhiker, in case they’re a serial killer. The inverse was also apparently true, though, and he wasn’t about to off Shane and throw his body into a ditch. He’s too squeamish for that.

Shane gets in and closes the door, his movements slow and deliberate. His eyes scan 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 fingers against the steering wheel. Shane reaches out and puts his hand over Ryan’s. The energy comes back, and Ryan suppresses a shudder. He feels an inexplicable sense of gratitude from Shane.

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

‘You’re welcome,’ Ryan replies, relieved, though for what, he isn’t sure. He’s got the feeling that everything’s going to turn out alright. It took him a second to realise that, despite hearing Shane speak, his 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.

 

-

 

So. Ryan has a hitchhiker called Shane. Shane, the guy that knows what he’s going to say before he says it, but can only do this - can only understand what he’s saying - when they’re holding hands. (OK, so not literal hand-holding. Shane does it a few more times, once on the shoulder, so he doubts it can only be done with his hands -- whatever it is.) He finds out that this is the only way Shane communicates the hard way.

An hour has passed since Ryan picked up Shane. They’re still on the same fucking road, though by now they’ve passed an isolated farmhouse or two. They’re getting close to a town, Ryan can feel it. He’s tired. Scratch that, he can feel the tiredness seep into his bones. Screw coffee, he needs plain old sleep. He needs a pillow under his head and a soft blanket...he needs to stop driving.

He glances over at Shane: he’s staring out of the window with rapt attention, like he might miss something. He does this despite the fact that it’s still dark out. Without his headlights, Ryan wouldn’t be able to see his hand in front of his face. It’s extremely late, or absurdly early, Ryan doesn’t know. Doesn’t care to know how long he’s been driving.

Shane says...something. The peak and dip in intonation towards the end of his speech implies a question, though it’s meaning is lost on Ryan.

He stifles a yawn before responding, ‘What? I don’t know what you’re saying.’

Shane reaches out, his expressive eyes asking what his words can’t. There’s a crease in his forehead, not quite a frown. Of concentration, perhaps. Or frustration. Ryan takes a hand off the wheel and meets Shane’s own.

‘I said, the sky’s getting lighter. Why is that?’

Ryan steals a glance out of Shane’s window. On the horizon, a sliver of lighter yellows and oranges are mingling with the deep blues of the night. Ryan guesses the sun will be up in about an hour. Shane won’t take his eyes off of the view.

‘It’s almost sunrise,’ he peeks at his watch and winces at the time. He yawns. God, he’s tired. ‘As soon as we find a place to stop, I’m going to sleep.’

‘Oh! Energy. You need to replenish energy.’

‘Yeah.’ And he felt so exhausted, he didn’t question how strange Shane’s choice of words sounded.

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 know?'

'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.)