There’s a lot of things in the world Michael is afraid of. Losing Max or Isobel, being captured and tortured and cut open because they aren't human … Alex and literally everything to do with him. They all scare the hell out of Michael, but he has no desire to ever tell anyone that.
A hammer in someone else’s hand is a fear he'd shout about from the rooftops if only someone bothered to ask why he's been shit scared of them for the last decade.
He’s pushed himself through it enough that he can cope with the noise, and it’s bearable if he’s the one actually holding the hammer. It’s not pleasant, and he can guarantee he’ll have nightmares for the next couple of nights no matter how much acetone he mainlines, but Michael can manage.
But if someone else is using it close enough to hit him? Totally different matter. He can’t stop himself shuddering, knocked down by the irrational nausea and panic and the hot starbursts of pain that start in his left fingers and throb throughout his entire body until he can’t think, can’t breathe, can hardly cry. All Michael can do is let himself be dragged back to that shed, back to where he had both the best and worst moments of his life then got kicked out, bloody and broken and useless, unable to stop Jesse Manes taking out the rest of his anger on his youngest son. Every time it happens he gets lost, drowning in the memories until he passes out wherever he landed, and when he wakes up he can’t shake the residual feelings for days.
He’s always ran away before it gets to that stage, preferring to find a lie about why he bailed on someone than to explain why he’d had a panic attack over them using a basic household tool. But being the town lowlife has its benefits - Michael hasn’t had to say anything in years, even if he’s occasionally had to find himself another job. The joy of people assuming you’re always hungover, lazy, high or bugfuck nuts means they don’t tend to expect great things from you.
He’s managed to avoid any hammer-related moments for nearly two years, until he ends up roped into helping fix the bar at the Pony with Max. Admittedly, they probably had something to do with breaking the baseboard in the first place, seeing as they were both well-featured in the argument that caused the damage, but it was worth it. Michael won’t stand by and listen to assholes being violently homophobic and sexist, even if there’s six of them and only Max and himself on the other side, and he’s drunk off his ass.
Even if the reason was fairly noble, his hands and ribs ache and Maria’s bar ended up a casualty of war, so it’s only fair that they both pitch in and help repair it.
But Max is still in a sour mood so he keeps throwing biting remarks at Michael, and Michael will admit he didn’t wake up feeling so great himself so he keeps rising to the challenge and growling insults back. He tries to keep it down and not act like a complete fucking jackass though, because Liz, Maria and Alex are playing a butchered game of pool and the last thing Michael wants is for Alex to think any worse of him than he already does.
Then again, he thinks Michael is an irredeemable criminal for pawning copper wire, so a bar fight can’t be something he’s surprised by. But he might be able to raise Alex’s opinion by coming back to fix his damage, so he’ll cope with his sanctimonious asshole of a brother for a while longer then hightail it out of the Pony booze-free.
Alex lets out a bright, loud laugh at something one of the girls say and it’s distracting enough that Michael doesn’t see Max pull the hammer from the toolbox until it’s too late. He freezes in place and gulps down the sudden lump in his throat and tightens his grip on the timber board in his hands just in time to stop it hitting the floor, because the last thing he wants is to draw attention to himself for a fucking hammer. Not with Alex here, when he’ll know exactly why Michael’s losing his shit.
Michael will do anything to not remind him of that day, because he might have been the one being beaten, but Alex dragged himself out of that shed as a changed man, one who was timid and haunted and bruised and barely recognizable as the Alex Michael fell for. No piercings, no awesome clothes, no skateboard. The only sign that it was the same guy was the occasional spark in his eyes when Michael got him alone somewhere safe, somewhere they could be themselves again.
He won’t subject Alex to any more reminders than he does by carrying the scars on his hand.
Max glares at him from the other end of the board. “Mind on the job, Michael. You can drink after we’re done.”
“I’d do a better job drunk than you’re doing sober,” Michael snarls back.
“Well, you’d know. When were you last sober, again?” Max’s words deserve something particularly cutting being shot back at him, but Max moves to swing the hammer and everything in Michael’s brain goes blank and cold.
He tries to stop himself flinching away - he never told Max the truth about how his hand was broken and he doesn’t want to do it here. He succeeds in staying still and keeping the board in place, but the thudding vibration of the hammer sets off the phantom pain and before Michael knows what he’s doing, he’s dragging his sluggish, unsteady body off the floor, having to use the bar to hold himself upright.
The girls and Alex are moving closer, but he can’t look at them. Max is speaking, concern and frustration and disappointment warring with each other on his face, but Michael can’t make out a word. His world tunnels to just the hammer still held in his brother's hand and his own pounding heartbeat in his ears, everything else feeling like he’s underwater.
“I …” Michael trails off, not sure he can make the words come out or even what he wants to say. He wants to apologize, he thinks. To all of them, all for different things. He wants to explain, wants Max to put the hammer down, wants someone to help him stay standing so he doesn’t fall down in a heap.
In the end, he books it for the exit at a drunken stagger, barely getting out the door before he trips over his own feet and goes down hard, landing badly on his damaged hand with a strangled yelp. He hauls himself back up in a rush, even though a bright red flash of blood on his fingers makes him want to throw up. Group homes and shitty foster parents taught him at least one thing - don't fall, and if you do, get the hell up as quick as you can. Never show them any part of you that’s vulnerable, never give them an opening to hurt you worse.
His truck’s parked around the side of the Pony, sheltered against the wall, and Michael gets in his first decent lungful of air when he slides onto the seat. He lets himself curl up small along it like he used to, his head pressed into the passenger door and his left hand tucked safely against his chest while the right searches blindly for the bottle of nail polish remover that’s hidden under the carpet edge beneath the seat.
Getting it open is an uncoordinated effort and he spills the stuff all over his shirt and down onto his chin trying to get it in his mouth, but he manages to swallow the remaining three-quarters of the bottle in a couple of gulps then throws it behind the seat.
Then all that’s left to do is give it time for the acetone to kick in and give him some relief from the hurt he’s got going on inside and out. He curls up tighter in one of the only safe places he’s got left, the old seat solid and warm at his back, and lets his body shake itself apart while he waits.
It’s taking too long, but it always does these days. Michael knows he’s got a problem, that he’s a functioning addict on a substance you can’t exactly go to rehab for, but he’s not really sure how to kick it. Not alone, anyway, and he doesn’t know if he can make himself ask for help anymore. The last time he tried to get totally sober it took him two days of feeling like he had the worst case of the flu possible, and when Isobel turned up at his trailer unexpectedly, all she’d done was look at him like he was a piece of shit for being what looked like dead-hungover at noon. It kind of killed any ambition he had to keep going.
Michael tries to swallow down the lump in his throat and the burning hot tears that are going to spill any second, and wishes he could go back ten years. Back to when he had college and music and his family, a fully functioning hand and Alex.
He lost them all in less than twenty-four hours, and a lot of the time Michael can ignore how badly it hurts, but when he gets like this he can’t stop himself feeling miserable. He’d done everything he could to protect his siblings and Alex and given up everything he’d worked so hard to get, and it still hadn’t been enough for him to keep them. When he sees Max, he just sees the things they did together and alone, and the shame and guilt and pain is like a haze over any interaction they have, tainting it like poison. Isobel looks at him and sees a waste of a life that she wants to fix but doesn’t know how, and Max apparently sees the same things even though he fucking shouldn't, because he damn well knows better. He knows what happened that night, knows why Michael really threw in his chance at college and why he’s let himself cultivate the image he’s got, but he only sees the illusion.
And Alex … Alex sees it too. It’s not his fault, Michael doesn’t blame him, because he’d never managed to talk with him about that day or the night of hell that followed, but it still hurts so badly. It hurt when Alex became more closed off around him and it hurt when Michael didn’t do enough to keep him, and it hurt when he stopped seeing high school Michael and instead saw the town lowlife, and it hurts and it hurts and it hurts every time they do this stupid fucking dance and Michael always gets left behind in pieces.
Michael wipes at his eyes with his sleeve and sucks in a shuddering inhale, not near enough oxygen getting into his lungs with every breath and it’s leaving him dizzy and cold and he’d be terrified if this wasn’t the same process he went through every single time. Now it’s just part of the new normal for him - every now and then he falls apart at the seams, and all he can do is hide away and let it happen until he can put himself back together.
God only knows how long he’s lying there for, shivering and sobbing and hurting, before the passenger door pops open and Michael launches up with a strangled gasp, nowhere near able to defend himself but not willing to stay down instead.
It’s probably a good thing that he isn’t in any shape to be throwing punches, because it’s not Max glaring down at him. It’s Alex watching him with the softest, saddest eyes Michael’s ever seen, one hand hovering above Michael’s shoulder for a moment before it drops back to his side.
“Just me, Guerin.”
The iron band around his chest loosens just a little, because no matter how bad things are between them, Alex has never so much as looked like he was going to take his fists to Michael. He sniffs down the tears and wipes the tracks off his face and stares back at him, not sure why he's here when he's the one who made the decision to walk away.
“The hammer?” Alex asks gently, and he’s the only person who could ask that without Michael only hearing pity, so he nods in reply, trying to force down the shudder just thinking about it brings on.
There’s indecision on Alex’s face for a moment, his brows furrowing as he bites at his bottom lip, before he pushes gently at Michael’s shoulder. “Shove over.”
And no, that wasn’t what Michael was after at all. He doesn’t want Alex’s time if he’s only here because he’s feeling guilty for something he didn’t do in the first place. “It’s fine -”
Alex cuts him off with a glare and a raised eyebrow. “Guerin. I want to be here.”
It’s been a very long time since Michael heard Alex say anything along those lines, and he’s completely helpless in the face of it so he scoots over enough to let him slide onto the seat.
Sitting up has made all the acetone rush to his head where before he felt distressingly sober, and Michael wavers between leaning back against the seat or dropping forward to rest his head on his knees until a warm arm drapes over his shoulders and drags him down towards Alex. He wants to fight it, still too raw to deal with everything being close to him means, but he’s tired and hurting and high, and well … It’s Alex. Michael’s never been able to turn him away, especially when he’s feeling affectionate enough to be so close to him in public, even if it’s only in Michael’s truck around the side of the Wild Pony at noon on a Sunday. So he lets himself be tugged closer until his head is down on Alex’s shoulder and there’s a line of heat along his side and on top of his head where Alex is resting his cheek, and even though it’s illogical it somehow relieves the throb in his hand better than the nail polish remover. He sucks in one shuddering breath, then another and another, his heart steadily feeling less like it’s being crushed and the panic slowly receding.
It’s peaceful for a while, long enough that Michael considers pulling away and letting Alex get on with leaving again. But he knows that there’s a very strong likelihood Alex won’t come back so he sucks up everything he can like a sponge, Alex’s warmth and strength, his kindness and scent, mint and coffee and chocolate mixing in with the laundry detergent he uses. If Michael could bottle it he would so he can spray it on everything he owns for the times when Alex is gone, so he can remember that he was ever really there.
“Why do you smell like nail polish remover?” Alex’s curious voice breaks through the comfortable silence, and Michael tenses against his side. Someday, if he and Alex look like they're ever getting on the same page, he wants to tell him the truth, military man or not. He wants to tell him everything, about being an alien and the night Rosa died and Isobel’s blackouts and why he didn’t go anywhere with his life like he should have, why he’s been spinning his wheels just waiting for Alex to come back and hopefully stay, but he doesn’t want to do it here. Not when he’s already feeling like cracked glass just waiting on another blow to shatter him into pieces.
“Isobel had a bottle in here, she didn’t put the cap on it. Spilled all over me.” It sounds weak even to Michael’s ears, and damn it, he’s been lying for more than a decade about why a supposedly straight guy has a supply of nail polish remover at all times. He should be able to come up with better excuses by now.
“Uh huh. We’re gonna discuss that at some point.” Alex reads straight through his bullshit, and Michael sighs in defeat. “And some other stuff I’ve found out recently.”
Oh, that sounds bad. The last thing Michael wants is Alex finding out everything from somewhere other than him. He swallows down a lump of terror in his throat, his mouth filled with cotton. He isn’t ready yet. He thought he’d have time to get everything sorted out, to have some more answers and some contingency plans in place for Max and Isobel before he sat Alex down and told him the truth. But it looks like the decision isn’t in his hands right now, and he wonders what Alex knows or why he’s even here if he knows even part of the story.
“Stop freaking out. You’re okay,” Alex’s soft voice drags Michael back from the river of panic he’s about to jump headfirst into, his arm pulling Michael closer to him again until he's at risk of letting his head fall into Alex's lap. “You’re okay, Guerin.”
Michael gulps down the fear and tries to ask anyway, so he can at least get a handle on what he’s facing. “What do you -”
“Shh. We’ll talk about it later, when you’re not half a step off a breakdown.”
He doesn’t know what to do with that, so Michael lets it go rather than open his mouth and let everything come tumbling out.
Besides, massive freaking rush of anxiety or otherwise, being close to Alex is still the closest thing to home Michael's ever had. It's nice to just be here next to him, to let himself be vulnerable for just a little while.
Alex is the one who breaks the silence again, sounding sheepish when he speaks into Michael’s hair. “I’m sorry, for the drive-in. And everything else. I’m working on … all of that.”
“It’s fine.” It’s not. The heartache every time Alex leaves never goes away, it just gets dulled for a while then banks back up again until the only thing Michael can do to ease it is either find a warm, willing body to keep him company or drink a bottle of nail polish remover and pass out. But he gets it - Michael isn’t really relationship material, or even friendship material, and Alex is justifiably shit scared of his father.
Alex sighs, lips pressing into Michael’s hair in what may be the chastest kiss he’s ever gotten from the man. “We're going to talk about that too.”
Michael has barely opened his mouth to start them off, to say he doesn't need to talk as long as Alex is going to try to stick around or at least isn't going to rip his heart out completely when he leaves, when Alex cuts in with a firm, “Later. When you're not shaking anymore and we've both eaten.”
He wants to push past the boundary line, to force Alex to actually do something now, to not leave him twisting on this uncomfortable tightrope he's balancing on, but in the end Alex's logic wins out. Michael is still shivering like he's cold even though he feels hot enough to catch fire everywhere they touch, and his stomach is decidedly empty which probably isn’t helping matters. So he lets himself be held in comfortable silence for a while longer, vowing to himself that even if loses his Max and Isobel for good, even if Alex takes the information to his father, he’s going to tell the truth. There’s no chance of what they’ve got ever working if there’s secrets that large between them, and he’s just going to have to take the chance that Alex is going to stay.