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slowly and all that it means

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Two weeks ago, Kyle had shown up at the cabin with two low-set beach chairs and a six pack in tow, offering nothing but a shrug and a wry grin at Alex’s raised eyebrow. They’d set them up at the porch and steadily worked their way through the beer without saying much - Alex would rather chew a finger off than admit that something about Kyle’s presence had become a comfort over the last couple of weeks. Things were still a little awkward but Alex didn’t much mind, and Kyle seemed earnest enough in his efforts to make up for being a shitty teenager.

Alex could give it time.

It had become a bit of a habit to sit out there at night, staring at the expansive backdrop of the desert sky and absently stripping the label off the bottle cradled between his hands. His thoughts would come through more cleanly as he tracked the distance between the paint splatter of stars, feeling calm and small and insignificant in the face of the enormity of space.

He’d been slumped in one of the chairs, folded nearly in half in the worn seat, when he’d heard the rumble of a familiar motor down the stretch of road curving up towards the cabin. The headlights of Michael’s truck shut off before blinding him completely and Alex leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, too exhausted to properly stand but unwilling to leave himself completely open either.

“Hey,” Michael had said when he’d gotten out of the truck. He’d had his hands shoved deep in his pockets, looking at a spot about five inches left of Alex’s eyes. His lips had pressed together as he’d scuffed the heel of his boot in the packed dirt-way leading up to the cabin porch, everything about him radiating a nervous tension. “You got a minute?”

Alex chewed the inside of his cheek. “Is it alien stuff?”

“Nah,” Michael said with a one-shouldered shrug, still not looking him properly in the eyes. “Just wanna go for a drive.”

Alex had frowned, weighing the options in his head. It was getting late and the steady, gnawing ache in his leg was eating its way up his knee and hip. His limbs were stiff from spending long hours hunched in front of the screens back at the bunker, and he’d already gone through three fingers of whiskey.

On the other hand, Michael had come to him.

Michael always asked for too little and expected nothing.

“Okay,” he’d said after a moment, watching the line of Michael’s shoulders soften significantly. “Give me a hand.”

Michael’s eyes flicked over to meet his in startled surprise but he moved forward all the same and grabbed Alex’s outstretched hand with his good one and smoothly hauled him to his feet, holding steady until he was sure Alex’s footing was solid.

“You good?” he’d asked.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Alex had said, and Michael let go of his hand.

 

*

 

Michael drives them to the drive-in lot.

Desert gravel bites at the wheels of Michael’s truck as it rumbles to a still and Alex flexes the stiffness from holding on to the door handle out of his hand. It’s not a cold night, but the exposed skin at his wrists pebbles at the proximity between them and he tugs his sleeves lower down.

Michael sighs before yanking up the parking brake and turning off the engine. He shifts forward in his seat but only slides his hands up the steering wheel again without looking at Alex, elbows poking out. The tension is still bunched in his shoulders, in the leg jiggling up and down, rattling the keys he’s clenching in his hand. Alex doesn’t let himself think too hard about it before softly placing his hand on Michael’s bouncing knee.

It’s warm to the touch, and there’s a tiny shift of tendons and bone under his palm as Michael startles, his head swinging around to stare at Alex. His leg is still under Alex’s hand.

“It’s just me,” Alex says and tries to smile.

Michael’s face does something complicated then, his eyes still wide and a little wild. This close he looks tired and worn, like the sun colours that usually make him up have been wrung out of him. The bark of a laugh that comes out of him has an edge to it, sharp and stilted.

“You say that like it makes shit easier,” he says roughly. The catch in his breath makes Alex’s own trip over itself and he briefly wonders how long that will keep happening around Michael, knows he doesn’t really want it to stop. Michael grabs the hand on his knee and brings it up to his mouth, pressing a quick and messy kiss against the pulse at Alex’s wrist before releasing it. “I figured it out, you know.”

Alex slowly curls the fingers of his freed hand and exhales; the wetness at his wrist feels like a brand on his skin. And then the words sink in. “What do you mean, ‘figured out’? You mean the ship?”

Michael shakes his head. He drops the keys in the takeaway Crashdown cup jammed between their seats and rubs his palms over his faded jeans. His movements are jerky and agitated despite the softness he’d held Alex’s hand with. “It freaked you out.”

“No,” Alex says. He thinks he mostly means it. “I already told you that I’ve known about aliens for a while now.”

“Sure, but,” Michael shifts in his seat, turning his body against Alex’s with his knee pressed against the gear shift. He sucks his bottom lip in between his teeth with a noisy inhale, and it’s in the stubborn tilt of his chin that he knows he's about to do something stupid, but it's not enough to stop him from doing it. “Seeing it laid out like that for the first time? Must have been pretty tough to wrap your head around.”

Alex opens his mouth but hesitates. Back at the cabin, he keeps Michael’s missing ship glass carefully wrapped in a pillow cover and shoved in the back of the closet overstuffed with Jim Valenti’s things. After copying the symbols down to paper and uploading them to the hard drives at the bunker the safest option had been to hide it. Kyle had pursed his lips in a decidedly unimpressed manner when Alex had laid the plan out but had to Alex’s genuine surprise refrained from commenting. It hadn’t mattered; Alex didn’t need Kyle to put it to words to know exactly what he thought about keeping Michael unknowingly stranded.

Or maybe he was just projecting.

“I guess,” he hedges, slowly. “Listen - “

“Because that was the first time, right?”

Alex frowns. “What are you - “ Realisation suddenly hits and he feels very cold. “You know.”

A corner of Michael’s mouth crooks up in an attempt of a smile and he meets Alex’s eyes. “Yep,” he says, dragging the word out and popping the p obnoxiously. His voice is very casual and light when he follows it with, “Valenti’s got a big mouth. Were you going to tell me?”

Alex licks his lips to buy time. There are a few options; he could be Airman Alex and be infuriatingly logical about it: “we still don’t fully know what it does, it could be dangerous.” There’s coolly unopinionated Alex, which he knows Michael fucking hates; “guess we’ll never know.” Or the true Alex that is a coward and just blindly insist that, “yes of course, I just needed time.”

What he ends up saying is, “I don’t know. I hope so.”

Michael watches him with an expression he can’t decipher and the startling realisation that Michael can be anything other than an open book to him is terrifying. Alex wants to touch him so badly that his hands are trembling with it so instead he knots his fingers together and dips his head down.

“Sometimes I feel like you’re the only one in the world who knows the truth about me,” Alex says into the silence that follows. His voice comes out calmer than he’d expected. “I can’t find myself and it’s so hard to come back. Everyone thinks I’m so brave because I crawled out of a war alive but you know that I’m really - “

“If you say ‘a coward’ we’re gonna have a problem,” Michael interrupts very evenly.

Alex swallows. “Aren’t I though?”

“No. Alex,” Michael says emphatically and reaches over to curl the fingers of his good hand into the sleeve of Alex’s jacket, shaking it gently but insistently. “Being scared doesn’t make you a coward. It’s part of what -” his mouth twists with irony, eyes flicking up “- makes you human.”

“And you’d know all about that,” Alex says but it’s without heat and his insides sing with relief when it makes Michael’s smirk soften into something genuine, his face settling back into something knowable.

“Oh, I’ve had practise.”

He means to say something funny in reply, something to keep the lightness going so he can pretend Michael doesn’t know about the alien glass, that the past ten years didn’t happen, that he never walked away with fear tight in his throat.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he admits instead. Michael frowns and leans in, sliding his hands up Alex’s neck and then finally cradling Alex’s jaw softly, smoothing his calloused thumbs against the planes of his face, unearthing every line with a reverence Alex knows he doesn’t deserve. “I don’t want to ask you for something you can’t give.”

Michael is shaking his head before Alex has even finished talking. “I don’t have anything I don’t want to give you,” he says hotly. His thumbs press against the bones of Alex’s face before he lets go, abruptly. “Don’t you get it?”

“Don’t you?” Alex bites back. The air between them is hot despite the cracked windows and the chill of the desert night, and Alex wipes a hand over his tired face. Michael is so much all the time, and Alex doesn’t know how to even begin to reciprocate in a way that is true, doesn’t know if he even can. “What if I asked you to stay?”

Michael stares right back at him, chest heaving and his chin raised in defiance. “Why don’t you?”

Because what he feels for Michael is incomprehensible and selfish, all the greedy, ugly parts of him clamouring for Michael’s touch and Michael’s attention and Michael’s love. Being close to him hurts with the masochism of thumbing the edges of a bruise that keeps spreading, being without him is unthinkable. He doesn’t know how to dial back this twisted, heated thing inside him to what it used to be, back to something beautiful and healthy.

He wants to scoop the soft parts of himself out; turn into a bulletproof vest and wrap around Michael until nothing else can hurt or touch him, keep him hidden and safe.

He wants him to be happy.

“I can’t be the reason you stay,” he says. “I'm a mess - I’m not reliable.”

“Maybe I’m willing to risk it,” Michael says. “Maybe I think you’re worth it.”

Alex closes his eyes.

 

*

 

The sun is coming up by the time Michael pulls up in front of the cabin, cresting over the roof of the house.

“Thanks,” Alex says after a minute of sitting in silence. The corners of Michael’s mouth lift in a shadow of a smile when their eyes meet, the rest of his face lined with resignation.

“Hey, I’m the one that kidnapped you in the first place, it’s the least I could do.”

“Fair enough.” Alex hesitates with his hand on the door handle, body turned half away. He can feel the gentle weight of Michael’s eyes on him, and he knows that whatever excuse he uses for the boundaries he draws between them will be readily accepted, knows how easy it is to accidentally take advantage of Michael’s peeled open heart.

“I’ll see you,” he says, meaning it as a question but unable to voice it.

Michael jerks his shoulder up in an approximation of a too casual shrug. “Not if I see you first.”

“Right.” Alex opens the door and carefully climbs out. The pain is immediate and he hisses through clenched teeth as his prosthetic takes the unexpected weight of him, the rest of his body prickling with sharp pins and needles from sitting still for so long.

“Hey,” Michael says. “You okay?”

Alex shakes his head and then nods. He lets the pain crash over him until the urgency of it fades into little waves lapping at his consciousness. It’s bad, but it’s nothing he can’t stove away until he’s inside and can take his meds and then pass out and get ten hours of blessed, dreamless sleep.

“Alex?” Michael’s voice is anxious behind him and Alex half turns his head so Michael can see his profile. “Do you need help getting inside?”

He shakes his head, a quick snap left-right. “No no, it’s fine.” He stretches with a wince, but makes sure to smile when he looks over his shoulder. “Just need to crash and I’ll be as good as new.”

“Okay,” Michael says in a way that sounds more doubtful than supportive, so Alex shuts the door between them and taps his knuckles against it twice. As far as a barrier goes, it’s pretty effective. He raises a hand in goodbye, fingers curling a little, and slowly picks his way over the uneven ground back to the cabin.

There’s no sound of the engine starting up behind him, and he can feel his neck prickle when he digs into his jeans pocket to fish out his keys, turning them over in his hands. Coward or not - it does scare the hell out of him, how much he feels just from sitting next to Michael, like his heart has cracked his ribcage wide open. If Alex let him, he knows Michael could break him apart like it was nothing - on the flip side, he knows that Michael never will.

Alex has been fighting since he was old enough to know what pain was. Fighting his dad, the dumb kids at school sneering at his otherness, in a too big desert, every expectation and whisper that he was weak and never good enough. Fighting how tired he is.

He turns back around.

Michael is watching him, and though there’s nothing mild about the look in his bright eyes, it’s clear of judgement and expectation both. His scarred hand rests easily on the wheel, his right still holding on to the back of Alex’s recently vacated seat.

“Hey,” he calls out. His throat feels tight and dry around the words lodged there, but he takes a few uneven steps closer to Michael’s shitty truck. The sun has risen high enough for gold to spill over Michael’s face and shoulders as he shimmies over the gear stick and climbs out of the truck on the passenger side, the curls on his head all lit up.

“You forget something?” Michael says, the casualness in his voice betrayed by the way he folds his arms across his chest. Alex knows it for the protective gesture it is, but Michael also looks at him like he can’t quite help himself, like he might never get his fill.

“Yeah,” he says where there’s only a couple of feet between them. “I have something that belongs to you.”

Michael licks his lips. “And after?”

Alex shrugs a little, puts his hand over Michael’s wild heartbeat. “That’s up to you, but,” he starts and when he gently draws Michael in, Michael follows the motion immediately, like he’s been waiting his entire life to receive the instruction. “I want to be there when you figure it out.”