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September 23.
Wednesday.

 

It’s the first cold day of fall. Mickey can feel it as he’s stepping out of his apartment building; there’s the bite to his fingers as he’s lighting up the first cigarette of the day and there, his still warm breath coming out of his mouth like a puff of smoke before he’s even had a chance to poison his lungs.

”Fan-fucking-tastic,” he mutters under his breath at nothing in particular and hunches his shoulders a little against the estranged morning chill as he rounds a corner. At least he doesn’t have far to go.

It’s a slow morning, he opens up the diner and moves around the small space, clearing the tables and setting down all the chairs, loads the coffee maker and listens to it stutter to life as he starts prepping the meager sandwich selection they serve in the early morning before Etch comes in and opens the small kitchen.

The bell dings and the door opens while Mickey’s still preoccupied with slapping cheese on buns, he barely acknowledges the quiet figure shuffling inside. Throwing a glance over his shoulder he sees the guy gingerly taking a seat in the small booth in the far corner of the room.

The diner is not a very impressive place. It’s on a corner with big windows opening up two of the walls, glass covered in grease, dust, and the sun-faded ’Corner Diner’ logo. There are two small booths along the window next to the door, and three along the other. The counter is close by the door, behind it a cramped kitchen leading out to an ill-lit alleyway. That and four small round tables with rickety chairs taking up most of the floor space, is it. The decor is unintentional and mostly dusty wood with the odd break of a framed picture or two; all chipped frames and photos misted over with layers of grease and dust. It’s not a charming place, it’s for people who like their lives simple. Workers looking to get a cup of ordinary non-fancy coffee for under a buck in the morning and something greasy from a short and never-changing menu at lunch. It’s a working class dive, nothing romantic or chic about it.

”Want anything?” he asks, not sparing another glance across the room. The guy’s taken the best seat in the house as far as Mickey is concerned; hidden away in the corner by the sun-faded plastic fern and with a prime view of the fairly busy street outside. No way he’s going over there to take the guy’s order though, not when the place is otherwise empty. If the guy wants anything, he can speak up.

But he says nothing for the next ten minutes, so Mickey takes his time finishing the sandwiches, lines them up on a tray and maneuvers it into the chilled display next to the register. When he’s done, he sticks his pad and pen in his apron pocket before making his way over to the corner booth.

The door dings again and he doesn’t stop when he glances at it.

”Will be with you in a second, alright Edna?” he shoots over his shoulder and the old lady merely grunts as she makes her way to her regular table. Mickey frowns as he moves in on the guy in the corner. He’s got a really old, really dirty hoodie on, hood covering his head and casting most of his face in shadow as he’s staring out the window. His pale wrists are a bit too skinny, sleeves coming up short with at least a few inches, and his hands are trembling slightly, his long fingers fidgeting.

”Hey man,” he says, sure he sounds more annoyed than he means to when the guy kinda flinches and turns ever so slightly towards him, eyes down, ”if you got money I can get you something to eat, but this ain’t no shelter and you can’t stick around all day on a cup of coffee, alright? There’s a place down the street that opens at eight, if you got nowhere else to go you can stay here for the next hour but then I’m gonna need you to leave.”

He can swear the guy smiles, even if it’s the smallest smile he’s ever seen. It’s followed by a sigh and those hands, nails a bit too long and skin covered in tiny freckles, rubbing roughly at his face. The hands fall back on the table and the guy finally looks up at Mickey, reclining somewhat in his seat.

”Lookin’ that bad, huh?” he says, and it’s not really a question. The guy’s eyes are clear though, a bit wet and red-rimmed sure, but clear and steady as they lock on Mickey. Well, isn’t this awkward.

”Pretty fucking terrible, man,” Mickey crosses his arms because like hell he’s gonna apologize, he’s ejected enough bums and crackheads from the diner to make his assumptions entirely valid, ”you kinda stink too.”

The guy just huffs though, a rambunctious belly laugh if measuring by the tiny smile before, and scratches at the no doubt unwashed hair underneath his hood. He pulls out a strand of it and frowns as he rakes his fingers through it, trying to gauge the state it’s in. It’s fiery red, is all Mickey manages to register before there’s a wet cough behind him. Right, Edna.

Red seems to have forgotten his presence, his distant attention once again turned halfway out the window, so Mickey merely stands there for a beat before returning back behind his counter. He unwraps one of the cheese sandwiches and places it on a plate before grabbing the now full coffee pot and making his way over to Edna. She doesn’t look up from her paper, she never does, when he places the plate down, turns one of the coffee cups right way up and pours enough to leave room for milk. He’s not really thinking about it when he moves over to the corner booth and does the same there. Red doesn’t flinch at his presence this time, doesn’t snap out of whatever it is that’s got him all caught up as Mickey flips, pours, and walks away.

It’s gotta be at least ten minutes later when Mickey casts his eyes in Red’s direction as he’s counting out the change for a BLT and a coffee to go. He forgets himself for a second, looking at the guy nursing his cup of coffee like it’s a life-saver. He doesn’t seem to be drinking any of it, just holding it in a gentle grip with both hands and inhaling the warmth and smell.

With a slight quirk of an eyebrow, Mickey recounts the change, hands it over and turns his attention to the next guy in line. Eight rolls around and Etch shows up, turning the grill on for the more serious breakfast eaters, filling the diner with the mixed smell of eggs, bacon, and pancakes. They get pretty busy for a while with the short breakfast rush, easing up slightly just before lunch. Around eleven, Mickey does a refill round and when he gets to Red he doesn’t really think much about it, just pours him a fresh cup and takes the old, cold cup with him to pour out. It’s a waste of perfectly good coffee, but he finds that he doesn’t mind doing it.

He does the same during lunch, placing a small plate with three sad-looking cookies on it with the new cup of coffee. Red’s gone by the next time he walks by and all that's left of him is a cold cup of coffee, two and a half cookies, and ten bucks.

Mickey shrugs to himself, pockets the money, clears the table, and eats one of the cookies.

 

 

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Chapter Text

September 24.
Thursday.

 

Red shows up around seven thirty and Mickey doesn’t know if he’s surprised. He’s looking just about as run down as the day before, wearing the same dirty old hoodie and smelling like he’s run a marathon and probably threw up somewhere along the way. Mickey sees him come in this time; keeps his eyes on him as he slowly shuffles through the room and sits down in the corner booth.

He doesn’t say a word all day, seems barely aware of anyone else’s presence. Without being asked, Mickey does the same silent dance of the hot and cold cups of coffee over the course of the day, but this time he offers up a chocolate glazed donut instead of cookies. Who can resist a good old greasy donut? And fucking chocolate, right? Always a hit. He doesn’t know why he does it, maybe something at the back of his mind’s thinking the guy really looks like he needs to eat something. Or maybe Mickey’s just bored.

He sees Red leave this time, early in the afternoon, and he finds himself disproportionally interested when he makes his way over to the table to clean it up. The fucker has barely nibbled at the pastry, ruining it for a potential re-sell, and again left a ten dollar bill. Mickey isn’t about to complain, but the whole thing’s getting a bit ridiculous. They have a free refill policy, and the sweets have technically been complementary since Red hadn’t ordered them, so his check would have come to an impressive 75 cents if he’d asked for it. Technically Red hadn’t even ordered the coffee, so it’s anyone’s guess what he’s doing showing up at the diner at all.

Two days in a row now he’s been paying good money to sit and nurse endless cups of coffee, staring out the window. It catches Mickey’s attention mostly because he’s more used to not getting tipped at all than whatever’s going on here. But beyond the standard flicker of resentment he still feels whenever people are being stupid with their money, he doesn’t let his mind linger on it.

At the end of the day, Red’s reasons are none of Mickey’s business. So long as he’s not causing any trouble, Mickey’s happy enough to leave him to it.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter Text

September 25.
Friday.

 

”Anything you do like?”

Red looks up at him, runs a hand through his unruly hair as his eyes dart around the diner and land back on Mickey, standing by his table pouring today’s second cup of coffee. He’s managed to sip his way through about a third of the first cup before it’s gone cold, Mickey notices. He also can’t help noticing that the guy seems to have showered today and maybe even changed clothes, although it’s hard to tell given he’s still wearing the same tattered and dirty pale green hoodie.

”I mean,” Mickey shuffles a little and scratches at something behind his ear, ”I’m sure you’ve had plenty of time to read the menu by now, it’s got like ten things on it.”

Red looks like he’s about to say something but has no idea what.

”So if you’re fucking allergic to pancakes or whatever,” Mickey continues, an exasperated tone creeping into his voice despite his efforts to keep it level, ”you could maybe tell me what it is you want and I can try and make it happen. Or maybe, you know, look into going to a different diner if nothing suits your highness here.”

”No additions, no alterations,” Red says and Mickey is certain it isn’t the first time he speaks but it sure feels like it. He’s a bit mesmerized by the sound of it to be honest, and he blames this when he realizes he’s staring at the guy like he’s insane, brain scrambling to understand what he’s trying to tell him.

Red picks up the menu card from the table and flaps it a little at Mickey.

”No off the menu orders,” he says, now smiling a little, ”says so right here.”

”Well, I’m the one serving your ass and I say it’s fine,” Mickey vaguely registers someone coming through the door and the need to start wrapping this thing up, ”if you think you comin’ here’s gonna be a regular thing, I can make sure we’ve got what you want as an off the menu special so long as it ain’t some fancy shit like quail eggs or fucking granola.”

There’s that small smile again, eyes fixed on Mickey.

”No,” he says, ”thanks.”

”Come on Red,” Mickey shakes his head like he’s not gonna give up that easy, ”gotta eat something, you kinda look like you’re about to starve to death.”

”Would you say that’s a step up from lookin’ like a homeless drug addict?” Red challenges softly and Mickey smirks at him thinking just how much he’s still not gonna apologize for that. He gives him the eyebrows instead.

”I’d say eat something,” he says and crosses his arms over his chest as Red matches Mickey’s champion eyebrow raise with a chin lift. Mickey has to hand it to the guy, never has he seen so much stubbornness in such a tiny movement.

It’s a standoff and it lasts for a couple of seconds in what seems like deafening silence until the low murmur of the diner tunes back in and Red leans back in his seat, mirroring Mickey’s crossed arms.

”Toast,” is all he says.

”Toast.”

”And a glass of water.”

”Anything on that toast, Elwood?”

”Nope,” Mickey swears there’s a twinkle of recognition in Red’s eyes at the Blues Brothers reference, ”just toast.”

”Glass of water and toast, coming up,” Mickey repeats and takes the old coffee cup with him as he finishes his refill round, taking new orders. There happens to be a full English breakfast on the menu and it’s got toast on it so Red’s in luck; Mickey’s pretty sure the toaster still works and they’ve got a loaf of sliced bread in the freezer. The full English definitely isn’t one of the more popular items on the breakfast menu, it’s the kinda thing that has an upswing Sunday morning when the hangover crowd falls in and orders with a very special kind of reckless abandon.

”There ya go,” Mickey mutters as he puts down the glass of water and a plate with two pieces of dry toast. He takes out the receipt for it and sticks it under the plate, Red’s check has amounted to an impressive 1.49 today and he kinda wants the guy to know he doesn’t owe him as much as he seems to think.

”Thanks darlin’,” Red hums back, to Mickey’s slight bafflement. That’s how the rest of the day goes, though, for some reason. Mickey brings him more coffee, water, clears his plate, more coffee, and Red barely looks at him but he smiles that tiny smile sometimes and it’s thanks doll, so kind of you sweetheart, thanks honey-pie, thank you blue-eyes. Mickey doesn’t know if he thinks he’s being funny or if he’s taking the piss, but he lets it be. He’s pretty sure he’s being teased, but it’s in such a low-key, soft way he just doesn’t have it in him to put up a fight. After the way he’s been acting toward this guy the past few days, fussing over him like some damn mother hen, maybe the emasculating pet names serve him right.

 

 

 

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Chapter Text

September 28.
Monday.

 

Monday mornings, man. It’s raining like there’s no tomorrow outside making it look like the sun never came up at all this morning and Mickey’s shoes are still wet from his walk to work. They’ve stopped squishing with every step he takes, but they’re far from dry. On top of that, they’ve hardly had any customers come in in the two hours they’ve been open, save for Edna in her hand-made garbage bag rain poncho and a small group of unfortunate road-workers looking for coffee and to get out of the rain for five minutes. Mickey thinks he should have stayed in bed, but this is what he does now. He gets up, he goes to work. At some point it became routine, and at some other point he began to enjoy it.

Still, Monday mornings. Whose idea was that?

Then Red’s at the door, bell jingling, puddle quickly forming on the floor as he collapses his tattered umbrella and looks about him like he’s unsure of what to do next.

”Leave it by the door,” Mickey directs him, and starts making a fresh pot of coffee now that he knows he’s gonna need it. In the corner of his eye he sees Red balance his soaked umbrella against the wall by the door and linger in the doorway for a moment before he makes his way into the diner. He doesn’t beeline towards his corner booth like he usually does, but instead walks up to the counter and looks around him like he hasn’t been in the place before. He leans against the counter, fingers tapping gently against the glass surface, and Mickey can feel him looking as he slots the coffee grounds in place and fills the machine up with water, flipping the switch. When he turns around and meets Red’s gaze he can’t help thinking he’s looking at a whole new guy.

The hoodie is still tattered and old, but it’s looking surprisingly clean now. The hair’s calmed down too; the red somehow brighter with the sides buzzed short and neater on top. But generally there’s just something about him, like he’s been ill for months and finally feeling like he’s on his way back to the living.

”Morning Mickey,” is what he says when Mickey doesn’t speak and Mickey isn’t going to ask how he suddenly knows his name, ”you weren’t here on Saturday.”

Ah, he must have asked Katie who waits tables on weekends.

”You stalking me or something?” Mickey isn’t only being facetious when he’s asking. ”I need to worry about this, Redwood?”

Red looks amused at that and yes, Mickey knows his nicknaming skills are on a whole other level but he’s not gonna let the guy small-smile his way out of this one. Mickey can wait.

Red takes a step away from the counter and shakes his head slightly as he rubs his neck in something akin to self-consciousness.

”I wanted my special and they said they’d never heard of it,” Red shrugs and puts on an exaggerated look of disappointment, ”told me to order something from the menu or leave. Didn’t feel very special at all.”

”Well, you need to know what it’s called,” Mickey cannot help grinning, and he’s really trying, ”otherwise any sort of scum could come in orderin’ toast and running our business to the ground, real fast. Total anarchy, man, just asking for specials without knowing the name of ’em.”

”That how it is?” Red’s smile is brighter too, not that Mickey is noticing or whatever. But he can still see it; the shadows around his eyes, the tension around the mouth. Mickey can’t help hoping it isn’t anything too serious, no one needs to deal with that.

”You want anything,” he says in place of all the other things pushing at his thoughts, ”or you here for the snappy conversation?”

”I’ll have my special please,” Red narrows his eyes like he expects Mickey to give him something snappy.

”One Red Hot Breakfast Special, coming up,” Mickey nods and turns towards the kitchen to kick-start the toaster to the sound of Red’s low huff of a laugh turning into a surprising crack of a cackle. The sound causes Mickey to pause and look back at his customer, only to catch the back of him as he flips his hood back up and carefully makes his way over to his corner.

The kitchen is tiny and quiet, Etch is sitting on his chair by the small back door reading a book when Mickey comes in.

”Need anything?” he asks, not bothering to look up.

”Nope, it’s just Red and his toast, I can deal.”

He hadn’t been able to resist telling the cook about the toast order the other day, Erdetch must be one of the biggest Blues Brothers fans he’s ever met and he didn’t disappoint; giving Mickey a perfect Matt ’Guitar’ Murphy to his Aretha (”The tall one wants white bread, toast. Dry. Nothin’ on it.” ”Elwood!”) as Mickey was waiting for the bread to pop up. This time, though, he just hums and nods and keeps reading. Mickey thinks he likes Etch for this very reason, the two of them are often the only two working at the diner weekdays, have for years, Etch in the kitchen and Mickey waiting tables. They talk sometimes, beyond number 5 please, sunny side up and coming right up, 2 minutes, but it’s never forced, both just as happy keeping to themselves.

When Mickey steps back out into the diner and sees it’s still as empty as before, he makes a quick decision as he grabs the coffee pot and makes his way over to the corner booth. Setting down the toast in front of Red, Mickey sits down opposite him and raises the pot and an eyebrow in a silent question. Not a muscle moves in Red’s face as he turns two of the cups over, eyes locked on Mickey as he’s pouring, Red’s first, then his own.

”Thank you, sweet-cheeks,” Red says, quietly. And that’s that, he wraps his long pale skeleton fingers around the cup and brings it to his face, elbows on table, and casts his gaze out the window. Mickey takes the opportunity to read the paper, because it’s right there, brought in earlier by one of the workers, and they sit like that in what Mickey feels is a very comfortable silence for almost forty minutes before the doorbell dings and another soaked soul shuffles inside.

 

 

 

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Chapter Text

September 29.
Tuesday.

 

Yesterday, Mickey could have stayed in bed the whole day for all the world cared, today he wishes Katie was here helping out the diner is so busy. He doesn’t mind it being busy, he can deal, but the system they’ve got in place doesn’t really account for a full house. Between taking orders, cleaning tables, working the register for take away, and making sure there’s always a fresh pot of coffee waiting when the first runs out, he barely has time to think let alone sit down and nurse a cup of joe. When things are busy like this Mickey usually reduces his lunch to a combined lunch and smoke break; stepping out back with a cigarette and a sandwich for ten minutes while Etch keeps an eye on the diner. This is gonna be one of those days, he knows it. No way this crowd is gonna let up anytime soon.

”Pretty busy today, huh?” a voice says behind him and Mickey turns to look at Red.

”Swings and roundabouts, man,” Mickey sighs and wipes his hands on his apron as he bends down to put the cheese back in the small fridge under the counter, ”what can I get ya?”

Red looks over his shoulder and then back at Mickey, tapping at the counter lightly. He keeps doing that, Mickey thinks and stops stressing about table three’s number 5 and 3 long enough to wonder if it’s a nervous tick or if his fingers are missing something. Like softly rolling a cigarette between them, bringing it to his lips to suck on fuck he could really go for a smoke right about now, or maybe they’re missing a keyboard. Maybe Red’s one of those hacker dudes, would explain a thing or two if he was.

”I’m not sure-”

”One number 5 one number 3, ready to serve,” Etch calls out from the kitchen, setting two plates down behind Mickey in the little window connecting the kitchen and diner.

”Have a sec to think about that, Red,” Mickey takes the plates and spins around to bring them out to table three, talking as he’s walking, ”maybe get some butter on that toast today, huh? Really shake things up.”

Red’s usual table is occupied, same as all the other tables, but Mickey’s sure he can find him a chair somewhere. Most of the patrons in the diner right now are either there alone or eating in silence with company and Mickey knows these kinds of people generally don’t mind sharing tables with strangers so long as they keep their thoughts to themselves. Mickey knows for a fact that Red’s real good at that. He serves table three and does a quick round of the small room.

”All good here?” table four nods, mouth full of pancake. Guy works construction and usually only comes in at lunch for a sandwich to go, but sometimes he seems to have the time and money to come in for breakfast too. He’s a pretty terrible tipper, but then they all tend to be in this neighborhood so Mickey’s not gonna hold it against him.

One of the ladies at table seven holds up her empty cup at his question though, and he nods at her before rounding back towards the counter. Red’s left, it seems. The bell above the door is still swinging slightly and as Mickey’s bringing table seven lady her coffee he catches a glimpse of him across the street before bus number 42 cuts him out of sight completely, and he’s gone.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter Text

September 30.
Wednesday.

 

”Thank you, Mick.”

That’s new. No one’s called him Mick since he was a kid. Mickey’s not sure if he maybe preferred the honey-pies and blue-eyes, at least he knew what those were all about. Antagonizing, poking fun. Annoying and harmless. ’Mick’ feels… personal.

Nothing has changed though, far as Mickey can tell. Red’s at his table, barely looking at Mickey same as always, while Mickey’s pouring his coffee. He does use his words very sparingly, Mickey has noticed this. Maybe he’s cutting down on syllables now too and that’s all there is to it. Mickey always got real antsy about nicknames, he can’t really explain why. On his own end, he likes to use them to keep people at bay; friends, family, hookups, all kept at a certain distance and the nicknames help with that. But ’Mick’? That’s just way too familiar, isn’t it? Mickey doesn’t even know this guy’s name and here he’s-

”There a problem?” Red’s looking at him and Mickey’s realizing that he’s just standing there like an idiot, coffee pot in hand. He takes another second just to look at the guy and he can tell Red’s tired, a little defensive now, curious maybe, looking to be left alone most definitely. Mickey knows that one very well.

He’s gotta be crazy to read this much into a stupid nickname, the guy obviously didn’t mean anything by it. Let it go.

”Breakfast?” is what he says.

”Sure,” Red picks up the menu card, to Mickey’s great surprise, ”what’s ’daily pie’?”

”It’s pie, I don’t know,” Mickey thumbs at his right eyebrow, careful keeping the pen in his hand angled so he’s not accidentally doodling himself in the face, ”get two delivered in time for lunch, one sweet one savory, they change.”

”Savory?”

”Yeah, you know, quiche, or whatever,” Mickey shakes his head a little and can’t help mirroring Red’s small smile, it’s a funny word sure, but come on, ”usually onions or leeks or something in it, I don’t know, broccoli. I’m more of a pie-man myself, like ’em sweet.”

”You got any tea?” Mickey did not expect that.

”Tea?” The ’really?’ is implied. Red makes a face like he knows.

”Not really supposed to be drinking coffee,” the guy almost makes it sound like he’s apologizing to Mickey and now he’s wrapping his long goddamned fingers around his cup like he’s worried it’s gonna be taken away from him, ”usually have one cup in the morning though, ’cause holy fuck, don’t know how else to do it.”

”So you want tea?” Mickey’s feeling like he’s being an asshole about it now, but they haven’t got tea at the diner and he’s pretty sure he hasn’t made a cup of tea in his almost 30 years on this planet. Can’t be that much to it though, just leaves and water right?

”I don’t know.” Red’s floundering, pulling his fingers through his hair causing his hoodie to flop down on his shoulders. At least they’re in this together. ”Thought I’d try it out?”

”Like, black tea?”

”Might as well stick to coffee, understand it’s got a lot of caffein in it.”

”Some flowery shit?” Mickey’s brain scrambles for something, anything. ”Like fucking rooibos or something? Goddamned chamomile?”

Sorry, but he doesn’t know how to have this conversation without sounding like an asshole, he is trying. Red doesn’t seem to mind though, he seems to take the suggestions to heart with due skepticism.

”Sounds like I’m sticking to water,” he concludes with a sigh, ”it’s just nice… it’s finally cold out and everything.”

Mickey doesn’t really get that, all fall means to him and his thin-as-fuck skin is never really feeling warm again until spring decides to roll around, sky-high electricity bills from turning on all the heaters in his small apartment, and layer upon layer of unflattering sweaters. Red’s gotta be one of those furnace people, always complaining about it being warm when it’s clearly freezing.

”How ’bout green?” Mickey’s not giving up that easily, not now, they’re already in way too deep, ”knew a guy once, swore by it.”

”Yeah?”

”Guess we could invest in a kettle,” Mickey shrugs, ”and a few bags of tea, can’t fight gentrification man, before you know it you’ll have to queue to get in here.”

”Don’t know if I want to be the cause of that.”

”Don’t worry, I’ll hide the kettle when the hipsters start pressin’ their noses against the windows,” Mickey doesn’t know if he’s ever been the target of such a brilliant smile before, it splits Red’s face like a flash of lightning and Mickey’s traitor of a mug smiles right back like he has no cool, like, none at all. Jesus.

”Alright,” best put an end to this, he does have a job to do, ”that settled; you good with our usual procedure for today?”

”One Red Hot Breakfast Special, please,” Red agrees with a nod, smile dialed down to something a bit more manageable.

”As you wish.”

Mickey could have set down the coffee pot, walked out the door, stood square in the middle of the road, and awaited the sweet relief of death right then and there, wincing at himself as he quickly walks away to refill Edna’s coffee and take orders from a couple who just got in. Thank fuck for small distractions and what the hell? Why did he say that? The words were out his mouth before he even realized what he was saying, he really didn’t mean anything by it.

Today was officially off the charts strange. First he gets his panties in a bunch over someone not saying his name to completion, and then he goes and straight up Princess Brides a guy like it’s nothing. Red’s not laughing his ass off though, nor is he beating him up or leaving the premises in horrified shock. Chances are he’s not a 13 year old girl and therefore hasn’t seen The Princess Bride in a while, calm the fuck down. Never mind that it’s a classic and kinda saved his life one weekend a couple of years ago when all Yev wanted to watch was that fucking fox and hound cartoon over and over again, driving Mickey out of his mind he can’t stand that train wreck of a movie.

”Thanks,” is all Red says when Mickey brings him his breakfast, giving him a quick glance and a very normal and polite smile. Mickey feels his confidence return to form, since when did he give a fuck about any of the weird crap falling out of his mouth, anyway? Not ever, that’s since when. Maybe just dial down the accidental declarations of undying love a little, and he’s golden.

By lunchtime, they’re almost as busy as they were the day before. Mickey catches Red getting up to leave in the corner of his eye just as José walks through the door.

”Mickey,” he greets, same as every day, hoisting up the big styrofoam container he’s carrying onto the counter, ”got one cherry, one potato and leek, today.”

Mickey takes some money out of the register and slaps it in his hand, greeting and payment all in one, before José swings the big plastic bag he’s got by his elbow over the counter. They’ve got a nice little system going with the bakery down the street, delivering the pies and whatever bread, baguettes and rolls they didn’t sell the day before. Day old bread is no issue for the diner, but harder to sell at a bakery.

”Thanks man,” Mickey takes the pies José’s handing him and starts unwrapping them, thinking Red usually doesn’t leave until well after lunch, ”no quiche before you take off?”

Red pauses with his hand on the door, turning to Mickey who’s peering at him over José’s shoulder.

”Not today,” he seems tired again, like the air’s been knocked out of him a little, ”besides, don’t wanna take up a whole table when you’re this busy.”

”Don’t worry about it,” Mickey turns his attention to what he’s doing, transferring the cherry pie to one of the lidded plates and placing it on top of the chilled display. He hears a jingle and looks up in time to see Red’s broad, bony shoulders hunch out the door.

”How’s the family?”

Mickey glances at José, trying to let his eyebrows do the talking. But José is one of those people you would call a ’sweet kid’ and therefore impervious to unfriendly scowling.

”Same,” smalltalk, doesn’t help that the kid has no idea what he’s asking either.

”Cool,” José re-lids the box and smiles, like he’s perfectly content with that answer, ”see ya tomorrow.”

 

 

 

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Chapter Text

October 1.
Thursday.

 

Mickey is not entirely sure why he’s digging through the dusty boxes in the kitchen’s small storage room, broom falling on him not taking a hint as he keeps pushing it back. If he doesn’t find the thing right away, he’s not gonna keep looking.

He finds a couple of them in the third box of assorted crap he opens though, so he figures his effort can still be considered minimal. He’s absentmindedly polishing the little sign on his sleeve as he gives the broom a final shove and gets out to make his way through the empty diner. Placing it on the corner table, he whips the washcloth off his shoulder and starts wiping the tables, setting down chairs, and placing clean cups. He likes this time, it’s time to himself. One would argue that he has plenty of time to himself when he’s at home, but this is different. This is making everything ready, this, more than anything else he does at work during the day, makes him feel like he’s doing good. A lot better than he ever thought possible.

So when he’s getting jittery, or angry, feeling cornered or like he’s missing out, or got more than he deserves, he can use those moments he’s got early in the mornings to push everything else aside. He doesn’t know why it helps, but he’s thankful for it and never was one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

He’s rearranging some things in the kitchen to accommodate the kettle he’d scammed Tony into giving him last night when he hears the door open. He’s not flipped the sign yet, so he’s guessing it’s Edna. He fills the kettle with water and turns it on, just to see if it works. Piece of cake, tea’s on the menu. Well, not on it. Maybe he should think of a secret password people can use if they want tea, to keep it on the DL. There’s the door again, and now he can smell the coffee wafting into the kitchen on the morning breeze between the front door and the poorly insulated back window.

Washing his hands quickly and drying them on his apron he walks back out into the diner to see Edna behind the counter, staring at the dripping coffee, and Red at the other end of the room, taking a seat.

”Mornin’ Edna,” he says and leans against the counter next to her, back to the diner.

”No coffee,” she mutters.

”Yeah, sorry about that,” Mickey thumbs at his bottom lip, he knows what it tells people about him, but he can’t seem to stop himself, ”bought a kettle. Well… when I say bought.”

”What for, kid?” Edna tears her eyes away from the dripping coffee to frown directly at Mickey. He crosses his arms in defense.

”Dunno, tea?”

”We’ve got tea?”

”We do now.”

He can’t believe the old lady still manages to make him nervous. Thinking that it’s probably because he kinda likes her doesn’t really help.

”Uh-huh,” she says, ”hope it didn’t set ya back too much ’cause you ain’t getting any money for it.”

”Nah, told Tony he owed me since Iggy’s wedding, probably thought he was gettin’ off easy giving me his kettle.”

”Tony the oldest?”

”Next to, never was around much when things went down though.” Mickey uncrosses his arms and starts preparing the sandwiches, feeling Edna peering at the back of his neck. ”You probably never even met him. And I don’t know who paid for Ig’s wedding present, but it sure as hell wasn’t me.”

”Customer,” is what she says, ending the conversation and maneuvering Mickey away from the sandwiches with her whole body, pushing him to the side. He nods and gives her the knife, wiping his hands on his thighs as he rounds the counter and walks across the diner.

”What’s up?” Red’s not sitting at his usual table, he’s sitting at the one next to it, ”something wrong?”

”No, why?” Red tears his gaze from the window and looks at Mickey, genuinely confused.

”You switching tables on me man?” Mickey hugs his chest and raises his eyebrows at the other man, ”and here I thought you were shapin’ up to be one of our most dedicated regulars, I’m kinda disappointed at your lack of borderline obsessive compulsive seating habits. Gotta take a couple of points off for that.”

”It’s reserved,” all that top-shelf banter, and that’s the reply Mickey gets? Some people.

”It’s reserved for you, numbnuts.” Mickey can’t help smiling at the surprise flashing across Red’s face.

”Really?”

”Your table now, if you want it.”

”I’ve only been comin’ here like a week.” Red huffs out a low laugh and gets up to walk with Mickey the five feet to his regular booth like it’s some kind of ceremony. ”You sure?”

”Got a feeling,” Mickey smirks and nods at the ’reserved’ sign on the table, ”think you’ve got just the right stuff to make it in this crazy world.”

Red huffs again, eyes on his hands, looking like he doesn’t know what to say to that. Alright, truth time.

”Plus, you’ve been comin’ in here like every day just sittin’,” Mickey argues, hands unwrapping from his chest to gesticulate along with his words, like they’re underlining a point, ”and I kinda wanted you to know that you can do that, or whatever, no need to hightail soon as it gets busy, thinking you ain’t got the right to be here same as everybody else.”

Red is smiling at him now, like the softest, most genuine thank you he’s ever gotten.

”You know, it’s been kinda-” Red starts and sighs, ”I’ve been… I haven’t-”

”Your business, man,” Mickey tries his best to look like he’s meaning this in the nicest way possible, ”it’s not that I don’t care, but also I really don’t care.”

Red looks relieved when he nods, and Mickey is glad. It’s clear neither of them wanted this to turn into some kind of sincere exchange of truths and reasons. Mickey doesn’t really want to know why Red started showing up, or why Mickey doing basically next to nothing seems to have helped him in some way, so he’s happy to cut that conversation short. He’s also pretty convinced he’s had nothing to do with Red’s slow recovery, but it seems to have done him some good to have somewhere to go. And the toast might’ve helped a little too, who knows.

”Besides, you tip like you’ve got money sprouting out of your ass,” Mickey grins like the devil at Red’s snort of surprise and delight, ”you do realize that, don’t you? 10 bucks for a cup of coffee, fuck.”

The guy just smiles and ducks his head, not meeting Mickeys eyes.

”Breakfast?”

”Sure,” when he does meet Mickey’s eyes, there’s something very new there, a glint of confidence Mickey thinks fits the guy hell of a lot better than what’s been shadowing his eyes for the past week, ”thanks Mick.”

”Yeah, whatever,” Mickey grumbles and thumbs at his lip as he turns away to go see about that toast.

While they were talking, Edna has finished up the sandwiches, put them away, plated one for herself, and is now sitting at her table with her coffee and paper. Everything back in its right place.

The rest of the morning continues to be pretty calm, picking up as usual around lunch. When things start calming down again, he plates the last piece of quiche and a sandwich, taking the food with him over to the corner booth.

”Up for some lunch today?” he asks, not really knowing what he’s asking; there could be a million reasons why Red’s not eating and some of them don’t have easy fixes. He places the slice in front of Red anyway, looking like cheese and ham today, and puts down his own sandwich on the table opposite him like a question.

Red looks up from the notebook he’s been staring into most of the morning, Mickey’s seen him occasionally scribbling in it whenever he’s passed him or looked in his direction. It’s new and Mickey guesses it’s better than staring out the window. He doesn’t respond when Mickey takes his silence as compliance and sits down, instead he grabs a fork from the plastic holder by the window and slowly starts eating his lunch.

”How’s the tea working out for you?” Mickey winces at himself, is he seriously forcing smalltalk on this guy right now? What kind of hellspawn is he turning into? Red makes a face though, like he doesn’t mind the question but has a thing or two on the tea.

”Not the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” he says and sips his cup tentatively, like a demonstration, ”maybe I’ll get used to it, can’t have loved the taste of coffee first time, right? Just started drinking it so early I can’t remember.”

”Didn’t start drinking coffee until I was like nineteen,” Mickey divulges around his sandwich, one eye on the room in case anyone wants him.

”Late bloomer.”

”Thought it’d stunt my growth,” Mickey winces a little when Red grins at him.

”Wanted to be 5’10” like Cindy Crawford?”

”No, fuck off,” Mickey’s confusion only grows when Red straight up laughs at him, ”what?”

”Fucking Clueless man-”

”Who are you calling clueless?” Mickey’s eyebrows shoot up at full height when Red’s laughing intensifies.

”No, Mick, it’s a movie-”

”Hold that thought,” Mickey says as he quickly takes another bite and gets up from the table. He’s got some furious handwaving across the room, momentarily overlooked as he was being ruthlessly ridiculed for no reason. He can’t help shooting some inappropriate sign language over his shoulder as he walks away, the guy is definitely still laughing at him. Red’s gonna have to explain himself later.

Two minutes later though, when Mickey sits back down, Red’s once again hunched low over his notebook, this time writing with a kind of determination Mickey doesn’t want to disrupt. In a split second, he’s let go of whatever annoyance he felt from before and instead takes another bite of his sandwich and enjoys just sitting there, in silence.

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

October 2.
Friday.

 

It’s one of those slightly off days, Mickey can feel it in his bones. Edna comes in in the morning, sure, right on time. World’s gotta be fucking ending for her to not come in same as every other day. After that though, Etch calls in sick so Mickey has to get hold of Sonya and coax her into coming in on her day off. Then the day descends into complete and utter anarchy.

Regulars who’s shown up every Friday since the dawn of time doesn’t, instead there seems to be a steady flow of fresh faces; young people, some of them fucking yuppie-lookin’, ordering pancakes and pie left right and center, throwing off the delicate balance the diner usually maintains. By noon they’ve already sold all of the pie and the coffee keeps running out before Mickey has a chance to brew a fresh pot. Meanwhile, the pile of lackluster cheese sandwiches doesn’t diminish. It just sits there, slowly sweating away into the realm of the inedible.

It’s not like Mickey ever could control who does and doesn’t step into the diner, but most days goes according to a certain pattern. It is a reliable place, like that. They don’t change, been more or less the same for decades. That’s why people show up, that’s why people come back. Not because it looks like an interesting place to bring your lunch date. Today is one of those days when the universe seems to have other plans. It happens, from time to time, and while anyone else might enjoy the slight change of pace, Mickey doesn’t. He’s used to things being a certain way, and he likes it like that. Etch reading in the kitchen, Two-Fingers coming in for breakfast, sandwich on Wednesday to Thursday, pancakes on Fridays, Pineapples having her cup of coffee, two sugars, while reading the menu and always ending up having the full English. Whatever.

Red hasn’t shown his face all morning either, and damned it if Mickey hasn’t already gotten used to seeing it around, too.

Around two in the afternoon, a group of three men around Mickey’s age comes in and sits down square in the middle of the room. Mickey approaches them, pen and pad at the ready.

”What can I get ya?” he asks, and tries not to scowl too much at them when they barely acknowledge him and start reading the menu cards, smirking dismissively. Mickey tries not to judge people too harshly, these days. Growing up and having a kid and absolutely not ever wanting to turn into his own father has definitely changed him in that regard.

But there’s something he’s feeling instinctively about these guys, an uneasiness creeping up his spine.

”What kind of roast do you have?” one of them asks, voice bored.

”Coffee?” Mickey replies like a question, eyebrows shooting up when they look at him. Holy fuck. ”Only got drip, man, one kind. It’s fucking coffee. It’s good.”

The guy puts down the menu and looks at his friends.

”Three coffees then, please,” he says, not looking at Mickey, ”to start things off.”

Mickey rolls his eyes and sighs, pocketing his pad as he leaves them to start a painfully one-sided conversation on, as far as Mickey can tell, how to best trick girls into fucking them. Mickey feels this sudden and unusual surge of thankfulness for being who he is; essentially friendless and gay as all hell. Not even in high school had he been able to tolerate the aimless fucking bullshit the douchey straight guys in his year came up with in the locker rooms after PE, back when he still attended. It didn’t get easier with age.

”Working hard or hardly working?” Red’s voice is like a gong shaking his whole being, snapping him out of his antagonizing train of thought. Mickey’s probably been standing there behind the counter for a few good minutes just refusing to do his job, arms crossed and glaring at the coffee, before Red interrupted him. He hadn’t even noticed the door opening.

He turns around and kinda feels some of the anger drain right out of him.

”That’s the cheesiest thing I’ve heard you say yet, Red,” he compliments with a quirked eyebrow, ”well done.”

Red grins and shrugs, hands in his pockets.

”I aim to please.”

”You’re late,” Mickey can’t help it, ”coffee? Or did you get today’s cup somewhere else?”

The guy’s like a fucking ray of sunshine when his smile widens and Mickey isn’t strong enough today to fight the thought sailing through his mind.

”You cheatin’ on me, Red? Got some hip young barista thing on the side?”

”I’d love some coffee, Mickey,” he says, a mockingly sincere tone to his voice, ”no one pours it quite like you do.”

”Sit the fuck down.” Mickey laughs and waves him off to his corner, Red looking mighty pleased with himself as he hunches his shoulders a bit and walks away. ”I’ll be right with ya.”

Red waves a little over his shoulder and Mickey looks at him for a second as he takes his seat, hoodie shielding his face.

”Took you long enough,” dudebro number one says when Mickey returns to their table, pouring their coffee in silence.

”Anything else?” Mickey asks, determined to keep this thing as short and professional as possible.

”No, we’ll let you know,” the guy’s still looking at his friends as he’s taking to Mickey and Mickey doesn’t know why it’s bothering him so much.

”You do that,” he says and takes the pot with him to Red’s corner.

”Good mood today?” Red smiles at him as he pours his coffee.

”Sure, whatever,” Mickey sighs, ”you’re like a ball of fucking sunshine though, got laid last night or something?”

”Nope.”

He is looking so much better than Mickey thinks he’s ever seen him; not as pale, not as grey. Mickey would file it with everything else weird going on with this off-kilter Friday if it didn’t make him strangely pleased; seeing Red looking like he’s sprung to life after a long winter.

He shakes his head.

”Lunch?” he says, bringing the conversation back to basics.

”Sure, pie?”

”All out, man, the universe,” Mickey gestures vaguely upwards, ”got a whole bunch of sorry-lookin’ sandwiches if that’s something you’d be into?”

”Gimme what you’ve got,” Red says, picking up his notebook and pen from his bag on the floor, ”surprise me.”

”Yeah, okay.” Mickey takes the coffee pot and leaves Red to his writing. He scans the room for anyone looking to get his attention as he’s moving back behind the counter.

There are two young women eating lunch together in the booth by the door. They’re both leaning in slightly over the table between them, caught up in quiet conversation. Mickey doesn’t know why he’s starting to pick up on it, but suddenly he’s very aware that the annoying men in the middle of the room are now talking about the two women. Now and again trying to get their attention and failing.

Mickey sighs for what feels like the hundredth time today as he’s plating the least sweaty cheese and ham sandwich for Red, keeping an eye on the room as he makes his way back to the corner.

He doesn’t say anything when he places the plate in front of Red and sits down opposite him with another sigh. Red looks up at him from his notebook, eyebrows picked up in a silent question.

Mickey barely shakes his head in reply, and Red casts his eyes back down on his writing.

”It’s the worst thing,” dudebro number one is still doing most of the talking, and now loudly enough for the whole diner to enjoy, ”it’s like, I’m just trying to be a nice guy, and this is what I get? You’re the worst, you know that?”

Mickey assumes he’s talking to the girls now, but his eyes are still on his friends as he’s talking. He’s got one of those insufferable smiles on his lips, believing he’s saying what everyone’s thinking while everyone’s thinking he really ought to shut the fuck up and go home.

”Something wrong with the universe?”

Mickey blinks at Red, momentarily forgetting all about the display in the middle of the room.

”Yeah,” Mickey grumbles and crosses his arms, ”one of those days, I guess.”

Red just hums in response, not looking up at Mickey.

”You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” Red looks up now, first at Mickey and then following his annoyed glare to look over his shoulder, across the room.

The leader of the coffee-drinking assholes perfecting Mickey’s day has left his friends behind, giggling excitedly, to sit at the booth by the door. One arm over the back of the seat behind one of the girls, eyes steadily on the other across the table. The girls are clearly looking anywhere but at him, physically pressing themselves as far away from him as the booth will allow.

”Nah,” is all Mickey can say before he gets up and walks over there.

”Need anything?” he asks the girls pointedly, crossing his arms and picking up his eyebrows, looking between the two of them and completely ignoring the guy at his elbow.

”We’re good,” the guy says, even though no one asked him, and one of the girls snorts loudly and looks out the window.

”I think you are,” Mickey thumbs at his nose, ”I think you’re good to go.”

”What?” The guy actually looks at him this time, arm slipping down from the back of the seat as he turns slightly towards Mickey.

”You’re done,” Mickey clarifies, ”time to gather the flock and fuck off.”

”You can’t kick me out,” Mickey can hear the two guys behind him, whispering to each other, ”I’ve got rights.”

”Yes I can, and no you don’t,” Mickey twists to look at the other two before turning back to number one, ”so kindly fuck off or you and I can finish this conversation out back.”

”You’re threatening me?” Mickey thinks the guy probably never has been threatened with physical violence his whole life, ”anybody hear that? This guy threatened me!”

”How’s it gonna be, douchebag?” Mickey cracks his knuckles lightly for good measure, ”gonna leave or am I gonna get to punch some good out of this day, huh?”

”I don’t believe this, you can’t do anything to me,” the guy huffs, looking back at the girl across from him with a cocky smile, ”go back to flirting with that twink you’ve got in the corner and let me do my thing-”

”Holy fuck!”

Mickey’s hardly aware of what he’s doing. One second his hand’s at the back of the guy’s head, the next the guy is cradling his bleeding nose with both his hands, staring up at Mickey. He vaguely registers the guy’s friends swearing behind him, but they’re not moving.

”You fucking-” the blood splutters through his fingers as he tries to articulate what just happened, ”you fucking assaulted me! I’m calling the fucking cops on you, you’re going away for this.”

”For what?” Mickey is all fire on the inside, face dead calm.

”For fucking up my nose, man!” the guy shrieks, looking at his friends and then at Mickey again.

”Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mickey looks around him, ”anyone see some guy get assaulted in here today?”

Mickey swears he hears a cricket chirping in the silence that follows.

”I’m sorry man, I don’t think you remember correctly,” he says to the bleeding man in front of him, ”no one seen nothing going on here today. Ain’t that right, Red?”

His eyes doesn’t leave the guy as he’s waiting for backup he hopes is coming.

”What’s that, Mick?” Red asks, voice incredibly casual, ”I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary today.”

”Didn’t think so,” Mickey smirks, ”Edna?”

”I think it’s time for you boys to leave,” Edna answers, voice tired, ”before we call the cops on you and have you forcibly removed.”

”What? You can’t- I think you broke my nose!”

”Yeah, and now you’re bleeding all over my diner,” Mickey knows he’s won when he uncrosses his arms and the guy flinches like he’s been hit all over again, ”it’s very unhygienic.”

They finally leave, shouting threats and profanities as they get up and hurry out through the door. Mickey sighs and mutters out an apology to the girls in front of him before getting a bucket of water and a washcloth to get rid of the unseemly blood-splatter.

Mickey’s out back smoking ten minutes later when Red pops his head out the door and finds him, whole body following as he comes out and joins him in the alleyway.

”You alright?” he asks and Mickey just eyes him for a second, half-burnt cigarette hanging from his lips.

”Fucking fine, man,” he eventually sighs, looking away from Red’s intense scrutiny, ”ain’t the first time I’ve ruffled some feathers.”

”Didn’t think so, either,” Red leans against the wall next to Mickey, ”but I kinda get the feeling it’s been a while.”

Mickey just scoffs.

”And maybe it didn’t feel as good as it used to?”

Mickey glances at Red, looking back at him like he understands him. He doesn’t. Red doesn’t know the first thing about him. Still.

”Maybe.”

This fucking day. He doesn’t know what it is but he feels completely unguarded, vulnerable even, and insanely thankful when Red just nods slightly at his admission.

”I’m headin’ off,” is what he says instead, hesitating for a second before continuing, ”you did good in there.”

Mickey feels his whole body shake slightly, if it’s from the slight cold outside or the adrenaline catching up with him, he doesn’t know. He didn’t do good in there, he fucking risked everything for no good reason at all. He was ready to beat the shit out of that guy, so god damned ready. And he would have, had it come to that.

He’s supposed to be better than that, now. Thought he was.

”Whatever,” he mumbles and looks up at Red in time to see his faint smile before he disappears back through the door, ”see you monday, Red.”

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

October 20.
Tuesday.

 

”So what’s your point?” Etch seems more amused than anything else, going by the tone of his voice, and Mickey has to take a beat to sift through his thoughts. He is kinda serious about this, for once, and feels an unusual need to actually articulate some kind of persuasive argument.

”My point is I practically grew up in an armory,” leaning back, elbows on the counter behind him, Mickey peers at his co-worker through the hatch connecting the kitchen and the diner, ”knew my way around a fucking shotgun before I could even speak properly. Piles of handguns, automatics, machine-guns, whatever, even had a couple of grenades lying around at some point.”

”And you’re saying that’s fine?”

”No, I’m sayin’ I’m the exact kind of gun-totin’ white trash these people are pandering to, and I ain’t fucking buying it, whatever they’re selling,” Mickey pauses but when Etch doesn’t say anything for a couple of seconds, he continues; ”guns are fine, guns are guns, I like guns. Like shooing ’em, handling ’em, got a nice heavy feel that’s like nothing else, right? Doesn’t mean it’s a fucking human right to bear arms.”

”Mickey Milkovich,” Etch stops fiddling with whatever he’s doing in there to fold his arms against the hatch and thoughtfully regard Mickey though it, ”you’re surprising me right now, you know that? I like it.”

Mickey just scoffs and rolls his eyes at him for good measure.

”All I’m saying is that I sure as fuck shouldn’t have had a gun when I was a kid,” Mickey shrugs, ”and a lot of people would have been better off if Terry’d been cut off too. That said, probably didn’t have a single legal piece in the house, obviously it’s not as easy as all that. But fuck, least they can do is try and reel in the legality of the whole thing, all I’m sayin’.”

”You a card carryin’ democrat, my friend?”

”Fuck off is what I am, like I give a fuck about politics,” Mickey chooses to ignore how blindingly obvious it is right now that he kinda does give a fuck, ”just doesn’t make much sense to me to not be a fucking socialist or whatever when you got nothing and some asshole one percent got everything, is all.”

”Uh-huh,” Etch hums with a smile tugging at his lips and he disappears back into the kitchen.

”You an NRA-member or something, Etch?”

”Nope,” there is a rattling of pans and then the sound of water running, ”I hate guns, ban ’em all if you ask me. Kept one for ’safety’ when the kids were born and it felt like a good idea until Sahra got her little hands on it and nearly shot herself in the head. Kinda shook me up, never want one around my kids ever again.”

”Shit,” Mickey twists around where he’s standing to sweep his eyes across the diner, making sure he isn’t wanted by the small crowd still in there after the lunch rush, ”and still you fight me on this?”

”Just enjoy arguing with you, Mickey,” Etch laughs and Mickey can’t help smiling a little, ”like it when you get all passionate about shit.”

Mickey’s mouth falls open, trying to get some kind of sound out, an incredulous look settling on his face.

”Passio- what the fuck?” he croaks, ”the fuck are you talking about?”

”I don’t know, Mick,” a voice behind him chips in, ”you do get pretty riled up about breakfast.”

”Most important meal of the day,” Mickey crosses his arms as he turns to look at Red, standing there like no time has passed at all. Mickey can’t really say how long it’s been, but he does remember the last thing he said to him with a twinge of embarrassment. See you Monday, Red. He hadn’t realized what an entirely stupid thing that’d been to say until it was Monday and he had, in fact, not seen him.

But here he is now and Mickey takes a second to quietly survey the other guy, hoping he’s coming off as unimpressed as he’s trying to be.

”You’re alive,” Mickey deadpans and really doesn’t know what he means by that, Red looking at him like he’s wondering the same, ”thought for sure you’d starved to death by now.”

But no, he looks good; healthy. Still kinda skinny, still a certain tension to his shoulders, hunched under the hood still covering his head. But without a doubt good, better. He shrugs, ducks his head so he’s not meeting Mickey’s eyes.

”Where ya been?” Mickey wishes Red would say something, anything, because he really doesn’t know what’s coming out of his own mouth right now. He didn’t mean to ask that, doesn’t really want to know.

Red’s hint of a smile widens, lines on the sides of his face carving into his pale skin.

”No place special,” he says.

”You look… different,” Mickey frowns when Red huffs out a, and there really isn’t another word for it, delighted laugh.

”Well,” he drawls, ”I guess.”

There’s something very strange about this exchange that Mickey can’t put his finger on. He feels like he’s missing something and he doesn’t like it. Frown only growing deeper he scrambles for something to say.

”You been gone,” well, that was pretty fucking stupidly obvious, but somehow Red seems happier than ever before.

”That’s only natural,” he says as he takes a step closer to the counter and Mickey feels himself freaking out slightly. He recognizes it now; it’s the same feeling he has when he’s realizing that someone is flirting with him and that’s why none of what is being said makes any actual sense to him. Subtext, or whatever, never was his thing.

Seems like there’s a butt-load of subtext going on right now and Mickey doesn’t know if he wants it to be flirting or if he’s an idiot for even thinking that it could be.

”You, eh,” he tries, feeling like he’s digging himself deeper with every word, ”you gonna stay?”

”If you want me to,” Red hums, almost like he’s singing, ”yeah.”

This isn’t working for Mickey, at all. He’s all dark bars and purposeful ogling, followed by a curt nod or a straightforward invitation. Always the other guy’s place, leave before the sun rises. Shiny men smiling and talking subtext at his place of work in the middle of the day is the complete opposite of standard, of comfortable. It plain isn’t done.

”What?” he asks, eyebrows high, opting to show his confusion rather than prolonging this alternate universe of a conversation. The smile slips from Red’s face.

”Um,” he says.

”Isis,” Mickey glances over his shoulder when Etch’s voice breaks the silence and for a second Mickey actually thinks he’s trying to introduce jihadist extremists as a change of topic, like that would be any less awkward, ”he’s dancing circles around you, Dylan-wise.”

”Isis oh Isis, dear mystical child,” Red sings quietly, to Mickey’s great surprise, ”what drives me to you is what drives me insane?”

The last bit comes out less like a tune and more like a question and Mickey looks from Etch to Red, and then back again.

Etch nods knowingly, infuriatingly, but when he’s getting nothing more than a prolonged glare from Mickey he turns his eyes on Red, pointing a spatula at him.

”Mickey here isn’t well versed within the realm of folk rock,” he explains and even though Mickey feels as confused as ever, Red’s face flashes from apprehension to understanding to sheepishness within seconds, ”and he knows fuck all about Bob.”

”Oh.”

”Yes, he has no idea what you’re talking about.”

”That is…” Red’s looking at him again and while Mickey isn’t enjoying what’s happening right now, at least any potential flirting is well and truly off the table, ”that is very impressive.”

”Still don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” Mickey admits, glaring after Etch who’s looking like he just had his point fully underlined, quietly disappearing back into the kitchen.

”You eh, you managed to recite a whole verse of a Bob Dylan song with me, without knowing what you were doing,” there’s something like wonder to Red’s voice and Mickey shoots him a doubtful look, ”no seriously, it was perfect, like we’d rehearsed it. Thought for sure you were testin’ me or something.”

”Testing you for what?” Mickey finds himself curious, feeling whatever defensive confusion from earlier quickly melting away.

”Dylan-knowledge, figured you were starting off with Desire and then you’d move on to The Basement Tapes, really give me a hard time,” Red smiles when Mickey’s shaking his head at him, none of what he’s saying is making any sense, ”really? Nothing?”

Mickey widens his eyes to emphasize his head shake.

”I think this is the strangest and, I’m really sorry for saying this,” Red doesn’t look sorry, ”the most magical conversation I’ve ever had.”

”Glad you’re having fun,” Mickey scoffs, a tentative smile pulling at his lips, ”I was freakin’ the fuck out, personally. Thought for a second that you were maybe like, flirting with me, or whatever.”

It’s dangerously close to a territory Mickey doesn’t traverse with just anyone, at any old time, alarm bells chiming in his head. He feels himself instantly relax though when Red lets out a surprised laugh and actually looks a bit embarrassed.

”Wow,” he says, scratching at his hood, ”sorry about that.”

”Don’t worry about it,” Mickey shrugs and decides it’s time for him to take charge of the conversation, ”hey, just in case you’ve forgot, it’s been a while after all; this is a diner.”

Mickey gestures towards the room like he’s giving him the grand tour.

”Oh really?”

”Yeah, and you, sir, have been known to come in here on the regular.”

”That so?”

”From time to time,” Mickey shrugs one shoulder, ”kinda one of those diva types, fussin’ up a storm about this and that, demanding all sorts.”

”Rings a bell.”

”Alright, cool,” Mickey nods, ”so we’ve established that you’re not dead, don’t have amnesia, and that you’ve most likely ’come part of some sorta cult that thinks Bob Dylan is the messiah-”

”Yeah?”

”-and that the only way to weed out the unworthy is to walk around talking in codes and songs, confusin’ unsuspecting, upstanding fucking citizens,” Mickey is really enjoying the way Red’s shaking his head at him, ”guess that leaves only this; want some coffee?”

”Yeah, to go?” Mickey nods and vaguely registers a curt wave over Red’s shoulder, ”and I really only came in to ask something.”

”So long as it ain’t about spreadin’ some kind of gospel,” Mickey shrugs as he moves around the counter, ”give me a second?”

Red nods and waits by the counter while Mickey delivers a check and quickly clears an empty table, asking around if everyone’s all good. When he comes back, Red’s gently drumming his fingertips on the countertop, looking out the window to his right. Mickey grabs a paper cup and pours some fresh coffee in it. Red stops his drumming and smiles softly when Mickey lids the cup and slides it towards him.

”What’s up?” Mickey asks, pouring himself a cup while he’s at it.

”It’s no biggie,” Red prefaces and for a second he seems a bit nervous about the whole thing, ”I’ve been away, for work, but now I’m probably gonna come in here most days again and don’t get me wrong, you make truly life-changing toast and all-”

”Damn right.”

”-and I appreciate it,” Red’s smiling again, ”but I’ve finally- I’m running again and I… I can’t live on toast, Mick.”

It would be a complete and utter lie if Mickey claimed not to enjoy it when Red somehow managed to be so dramatic about every single order he made, like he wasn’t at some shitty south side diner and he could have just come in, sat down, and demanded his will be done like anyone else would.

”Such a diva,” Mickey grins, ”you got something in mind?”

”Do oats fall in the ’fancy shit’ category?”

”As in porridge?” Mickey makes a face, ”I wouldn’t call it fancy no, but Red come on, no one’s ever eaten porridge ’cause they like it, you can do better.”

”I like it.”

”Alright,” Mickey holds up his hands in surrender, not wanting to give anyone cause to call him passionate about breakfast ever again, ”Etch!”

Etch pokes his head out the hatch, his well worn book still in his hands.

”Red wants to change his breakfast special and I’m washing my hands of the whole deal.” Mickey picks up the dirty dishes he’s been collecting the last hour as he’s speaking, making his way into the kitchen. ”Figure something out.”

”You asking for something fancy?” Mickey hears Etch ask as he starts loading the dishwasher. ”He’s very sensitive about that stuff.”

”No, I think I cleared that hurdle just fine,” Red’s voice is barely audible at the back of the kitchen but Mickey still scoffs under his breath, rearranging some plates to make space for the last two, ”you got any strong feelings about porridge that gonna hurt my case?”

”Fuck no, love porridge,” Mickey rolls his eyes, loading the machine with detergent and sealing it shut, ”well, maybe ’love’ is a bit strong, but they say it’s real good for you, you live longer or some shit. Got both my girls eatin’ it in the mornings. You like muesli?”

”What’s not to like about muesli?”

”I do this thing for my kids where I mix oats and muesli, it’s good, they’re totally into it.”

”Jesus,” Mickey can’t help it, what an absolute dork of a conversation. He hits the button on the machine and tries to stay out of it as he leaves the kitchen.

”Well, I’ll take your word for it.”

Red looks happy enough when Mickey returns behind the counter, fingers tapping gently against the side of his now half-full paper cup.

”You done?” Mickey asks, looking between the two.

”Almost,” Etch grins like the devil and slowly retreats into the kitchen, his last word drawn out as he speaks it; ”mmmuesli.”

Mickey cringes, both at the stupid-ass word and the fact that Etch sometimes seems to know him far too well.

”Refill for the road?” he asks Red with a sigh, picking up the coffee pot like him asking was more a formality than an actual question.

”Sure, why not,” Red says as Mickey’s prying the lid off his cup and filling it up again.

”What’s this bullshit about porridge making you live longer anyway?” Mickey thinks it’s a perfectly valid question, Red’s laughing at him like it isn’t.

”Heard it on the radio,” Etch pipes up from within the kitchen.

”Doesn’t make it true, don’t be such a fucking sheep,” Mickey shakes his head when Red pulls out his wallet and starts rooting through it, ”on the house today, man.”

”Okay.”

”Radio BBC,” Etch argues, ”channel four! Quality fucking programming, asshole.”

”See you tomorrow, Mick.”

”The fuck are you listening to the fucking BBC for, it’s like the Boston Tea Party never even happened, Jesus.”

Etch is laughing at him now, and Red’s taken his cup of coffee and left.

 

 

 

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Chapter Text

October 21.
Wednesday.

 

”Who’s that?”

Mickey stops reading mid-sentence to look up at Red.

”Who’s who?” he asks, peering out at the thin crowd of post-lunch diners. None of them stand out as particularity noteworthy to Mickey, so he returns his gaze to Red, raising his eyebrows in question.

”The old lady,” Red clarifies, ”she’s always here when I get here in the morning.”

”Why d’you wanna know?” Mickey wonders, shuffling his paper a little and casting his eyes back down at the article he was reading. It wasn’t very interesting but he tried. He’ll probably have to read the whole thing again from the top soon as Red stops distracting him if he wants to get anything out of it at all.

He glances up at Red in time to see him shrug lightly, looking at Edna where she’s sat at her usual table.

”Scoping out the competition,” he smiles when he meets Mickey’s eyes again, ”since I’m working on being your most frequent regular.”

Mickey snorts and looks back down at his newspaper, deciding he can’t be bothered with whatever this article was about, closing the paper to open it again on the next spread.

”She’s got you beat by like four decades, so good luck with that.”

”She’s been comin’ here for forty years?” Red sounds impressed, and genuinely interested. Mickey glances up at him again, studying the side of his face for a second before making a decision. His usual policy is to tell no one nothing about anything, but there’s something about Red. He thinks the guy actually will appreciate knowing this story and for whatever reason, Mickey wants to oblige.

”Edna,” he says, folding his newspaper away and letting it rest on the table between them, Red looks like he hadn’t expected to get any more information and turns to Mickey to give him his undivided attention. ”She lives in the apartment above the diner.”

”Very convenient.”

”She also owns the diner,” Mickey shrugs when Red raises an eyebrow at him in surprise, ”she and her husband bought the place in the seventies, just the two of them managing the whole thing until he died- when was that? Shit, over ten years ago now.”

Ten years. Mickey shakes his head lightly before continuing. ”She tried working the kitchen and the diner on her own for a while, gettin’ up at the ass crack of dawn to make soup and sandwiches to last the whole day so she could deal with customers and bus tables.”

”That’s pretty crazy,” Red comments and rests his elbows on the table as he looks at Edna again, ”seems like a real strong lady.”

”Stubborn as fuck,” Mickey admits, ”nearly worked herself to death, took a minor heart attack and a trip to the hospital to get her to hire some help. And I still don’t think that’s what did it, in the end.”

He leans in over the table, ever so slightly. The corner of Red’s mouth quirking up as he does the same.

”She had to change the menu when she worked the place alone, limit it to what she could manage on her own,” Mickey confides, ”the thing hadn’t been changed since they wrote it in ’76 and first thing she does when I started workin’ here after her breakdown was to change it right back. She likes things a certain way.”

It’s nothing special, but it’s all I’ve got she used to mutter to herself when Mickey first started.

”Kinda sounds like someone I know,” Red mumbles and picks up the menu card from the table to study it, ”very unfashionable… and covered in forty years of bacon grease.”

”Fuck you very much,” Mickey laughs and leans back in his seat, ”I made those cards when I started, they’re not that old.”

”Really?” Red screws his smile into a look of mock surprise, adjusting a pair of invisible spectacles as he re-evaluates the laminated document in his hand. ”I formally redact my previous comment… it’s a timeless design, Mick, very nice.”

A casually raised middle finger seems like an appropriate response to that.

”Yeah, well, you should have seen the old menus,” they still have one tacked to the wall in the kitchen, Mickey could show it to him, ”so faded they were basically just laminated pieces of white card. Back then, if you didn’t know the menu by heart, you didn’t get served.”

”Miss the good old days, huh?” Red’s crossing his arms, leaning back, ”when menus were menus, men were men, and a dollar was a dollar.”

”Ey, I was the one going through the place like a fuckin’ whirlwind or whatever, shakin’ things up with my youthful spirit and radical typefaces,” Mickey can’t help matching Red’s small grin, ”I ain’t some crotchety old grandpa and I will challenge you if you start implyin’ anything like it.”

Red holds up his hands in defeat but the twinkle in his eye spells trouble. Whatever retort he had in mind will have to wait, however, when Mickey’s day job beacons.

”Just a sec,” Mickey excuses himself as he quickly downs the last of his coffee and wiggles his way out of his seat to attend to a waiting customer. Red nods and picks his pen back up, returning his attention to whatever he’s writing in his notebook.

Mickey takes some orders and tops up a couple of cups of coffee and with that he reluctantly concedes his lunch break officially over. So instead of sitting back down at Red’s table to finish his lunch and perhaps continue their conversation, Mickey clears the table of his dishes and grabs the last corner of his sandwich, shoving it in his mouth as he wipes his side of the table.

”You done with that?” he asks Red, gesturing towards his plate of pie-crumbs.

”Yeah,” Red doesn’t look up or pause his writing, ”thanks.”

”Want anything else?” Mickey asks, he doesn’t want to disturb the guy but this is his job.

Red looks up long enough to give him a small smile and shake his head.

”I’m good.”

”Awesome,” Mickey states drily and stacks the plate on the other dishes balanced on his left hand, taking them out to the kitchen to load the dishwasher.

Half an hour later, he’s out back for his afternoon smoke when he hears Red’s voice through the open back door.

”Thanks for breakfast Etch, it was really good.”

Someone really ought to tell this guy he can’t keep waltzing into the kitchen like he owns the place.

”Kitchen is a staff only area,” he announces, nudging the door open enough for him to peek his head in, keeping the cigarette outside between his fingers. Red’s standing in the opposite doorway, gesturing pointedly at his feet. He is on the right side of the threshold, Mickey has to give him that. And right now the two of them gotta look pretty stupid, balancing at either edge of the kitchen.

”He’s complimenting the chef, he can do whatever he wants,” Etch states and frowns at him, ”and close the door Mickey, you’re letting all the heat out.”

Mickey squints at him for a split second before he complies, if only because he really needs to finish his cigarette and get back to work.

”Bye Mick,” he hears Red call out, faintly, as he closes the door and shivers against the late October air.

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

October 22.
Thursday.

 

It’s raining, drizzling lightly, when Mickey steps outside at 6:45 in the morning. He stays under the shelter of his gate for a second, long enough to light up a cigarette, before making his way out on the street. It’s like walking into a wall of moist, the air thick with humidity. Mickey hunches his shoulders a little and sighs against the damp air.

The morning is still pretty dark, before long he’ll be walking to work through what’ll feel like the dead of night and then it won’t be long before he’ll have to deal with icy sidewalks and snow. In light of that he shrugs a little at today’s dampness, conceding that maybe it’s not all that bad. At least it’s not freezing cold.

Two blocks away from the diner Mickey stops for a second by a red light to relight his cigarette.

”Fucking rude,” he mutters at the damp air, his lighter sputtering a little before flicking up a bright flame, the damned weather most definitely back on his bad side. The end of his cigarette rekindled, Mickey sucks his lungs full of smoke and looks up as he exhales and returns the lighter to his back pocket.

There’s a man jogging in place on the sidewalk across the intersection, waiting for a green light. He stills his movements when he looks at Mickey and puts up his hand in a small wave. It takes Mickey a second to recognize him through the drizzle and the dawning light and before he has a chance to react, the light’s turned green and Red’s back in motion, steadily running the way Mickey’s come, partially hidden by the traffic between them.

Mickey glances after him for a second before he snaps out of it and continues walking, glaring at the street light as it changes back to red while he’s only halfway across the street.

 

 

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Chapter Text

October 23.
Friday.

 

Mickey’s stomach grumbles wildly and he quickly consults his shitty Casio wristwatch before shoving the till shut with his hip and handing over some change to a customer. It’s already past two in the afternoon and he hasn’t had an opportunity yet to take a lunch break. He scans the diner and sees at least two tables calling for his attention, cursing under his breath as he remembers Red. He usually brings him some lunch when he takes his own break, without being asked to do so. On busy days, when Mickey can tell he won’t have time to sit down, he makes sure Red has his lunch by half past one, at the very latest. He completely forgot about that today.

”Two fives and a seven,” Etch calls out behind him, putting out two plates and then a third for him to serve. Mickey ignores the tiny voice in his stomach telling him to take the food and run, and instead picks up the plates and makes his way through the diner. He comes back behind the counter with two new orders for Etch and a desperate call for a coffee refill. The new pot hasn’t finished brewing yet, so Mickey busies himself with plating up a slice of quiche and some salad for Red.

He’s looking for the damned salad dressing, crouched down behind the counter, when he hears the door jingle.

”Hey dad.”

Mickey straightens enough to peek over the countertop at his son.

”What’re you doin’ here?”

”It’s Friday,” Yevgeny replies, like it’s obvious.

Mickey shakes his head a little and dives back down to continue his search. It was right there half an hour ago. Dressings don’t just sprout legs and leave. He’s too hungry for this.

”Yeah, it’s also two in the afternoon,” Mickey points out, and there the damned thing is, front and center. Never look for things on an empty stomach. ”Why aren’t you in school?”

”Miss Atwood was sick and they couldn’t find a sub so they let us out early,” Yevgeny shrugs the shoulder his backpack is hanging from when Mickey stands up behind the counter. Mickey resists a ridiculous urge to tell him to wear the thing properly or else he’ll grow up all crooked.

”So why aren’t you at home?” he asks instead. ”Thought I was picking you up after my shift?”

Yevgeny shrugs again and for a second Mickey wonders what happened to the kid who only a year ago seemed to never want to shut up.

”You tell your mom ’bout this, at least?” Mickey doesn’t need Yevgeny to say anything to that, the look on his face sufficiently telling. ”Alright, guess I’m calling her. You got homework?”

Yevgeny shakes his head.

”Congratulations,” Mickey deadpans and points at his kid, ”apron up, and wash your hands.”

Yevgeny grins and shrugs out of his jacket, backpack still looped around one of the sleeves, before shoving them into the little clothes nook behind the counter and digging out an apron. Wrapping the apron string around his waist and tying it in the front he disappears into the kitchen to wash his hands.

”Yevy, my man,” Mickey barely hears Etch greeting over the sizzle of the grill, ”long time.”

He doesn’t hear Yevgeny’s reply, picking up the diner’s phone and dialing Svetlana’s cell number, one of two he knows by heart. He doesn’t have to wait long before someone’s picking up.

”Hello?”

”Hey Svet,” Mickey turns his back to the diner and keeps his voice low, ”just lettin’ you know Yev’s here.”

”Why?” Straight to the point as always.

”School let out early.”

”He shouldn’t walk to diner alone,” Svetlana scolds him, accent sharp and annoyed.

”I didn’t make him do it, and he’s almost eleven for fuck’s sake, not a little kid.” Mickey snaps and then sighs, rubbing his fingers across his forehead like he’s subconsciously trying to smooth out his frown. He’s ten. He’s just a little kid. ”I’ll talk to him, he shouldn’t walk ’ere alone.”

”As I said.”

Yevgeny returns from the kitchen, holding up his hands at Mickey for inspection. Mickey nods at him and moves the receiver from his mouth to give him direction, the top of it still pressed to his ear.

”One 2 one 3, ready to serve,” Etch puts the plates out just as Mickey’s about to speak.

”Tables four and six,” Mickey says instead of whatever task he had intended to give him and watches Yevgeny carefully grip the plates, one in each hand, ”and when you’re done, give this to Red.”

Mickey puts Red’s lunch plate up on the display and returns the receiver to his mouth, keeping his eyes on Yevgeny as the boy makes his way through the diner before once more turning his back to it and focusing on the sound of Svetlana’s voice.

”He works?”

”Of course.”

”No homework?”

”Oh, I didn’t ask,” Mickey can’t help it.

”Homework first, then diner work, then-”

”No homework,” Mickey stops her, teasing her isn’t worth it when it’s landing him a lecture, ”of course I fucking asked.”

Mickey gives her as second to swear at him in Russian. At least, that’s what he always assumes she’s doing when she switches languages on him.

”Roger with you?” he asks when he thinks he’s had enough, cutting her off.

”Yes.”

”Which one is Red?” Mickey turns around to look at Yevgeny, standing on his toes on the other side of the display to carefully grab the plate on top of it.

Mickey shifts the receiver away from his mouth again.

”Corner booth,” he says and points in the direction of Red’s table. He doesn’t turn back around, instead leans his elbows against the glass display and follows Yevgeny with his eyes as he moves through the room.

”I don’t think he likes him.”

”He is young boy, almost teenager, it’s natural.”

”Seems to me he likes most people just fine,” Mickey argues, watching as his son puts down the plate, Red looking up at him. Surprise at first, followed by a friendly smile. ”But not your new guy. You sure this one’s worth your time?”

”Roger is man, takes liberties and thinks he is center of universe like all of you. But he is good man, he’s good to me and to Yevgeny.”

”If you say so,” Mickey sighs. Yevgeny’s got his back to him, still standing by the corner booth. Red’s crossing his arms, listening, amused as far as Mickey can tell by his distant profile. ”He puts one wrong finger on either of you and I’ll break every single bone in his hand.”

Svetlana scoffs at him, well familiar with his special brand of affectionately violent promises.

”Blah blah woof woof,” she drawls before returning to her mothering agenda, ”no violent movies, bedtime before ten, vegetables with every meal-”

”You don’t have to tell me this every time.” Mickey would be annoyed if he wasn’t so goddamned used to it by now. Red’s shaking his head and Yevgeny turns around to make his way back towards Mickey.

”I tell you what you need to hear, so listen and do what I say.”

”Yes ma’am.”

”And I want him home before dinner on Sunday, no swearing.”

”Piece of piss,” Mickey says, rolling his eyes and smirking a little when Yevgeny joins him behind the counter and smiles at his exasperation, ”just won’t talk to him all weekend, we’ll mime our way through it.”

”You will find way to mime ’fuck’, guaranteed.”

”Hate to break it to ya, but I already know several ways to communicate that particular sentiment without using my words,” Mickey indicates his head towards the freshly brewed coffee, ”table 3, and ask around?”

Yevgeny salutes and huffs out a quiet giggle when Mickey swats at him, easily ducking out of the way and venturing back out into the diner, coffee pot in hand.

”You are very talented man, now stop bothering me and go back to work. Yevgeny will call me tomorrow, yes?”

”Yeah, sure, I’ll remind him,” one time the kid forgets to call and check in, one time, ”try to fucking relax, will ya? This new guy of yours any good in bed at least?”

”Better than you.”

He should have seen that one coming. ”I’d figure just having a fucking boner would qualify him as better than me.”

”You would be surprised.”

”Yeah, no,” Mickey glances around the room, not interested in having the disappointing sex talk with his ex-wife, ”bye Svet.”

”Was she mad?”

Mickey hangs up and looks at Yevgeny, coming up next to him with a worried expression on his face.

”No kid,” he says softly and extends a hand to ruffle his unruly hair a little, Yevgeny pulling a face and angling his head away, ”’course not. She just- we don’t want you walkin’ here alone, you know that.”

”Don’t know what the big deal is,” Yevgeny mutters and leans against the counter, back against the kitchen, looking down at his feet.

”There’s a huge difference between you walking to your mom’s with Marcus, and you walking here alone,” Mickey feels like a broken fucking record, ”and that difference is twenty extra minutes of south side wishin’ you grievous bodily harm.”

Yevgeny looks at him and Mickey knows that look very well.

”And there’s about a million huge differences between me at ten and you now,” Mickey says, crossing his arms, ”and you know all of them so don’t go givin’ me that look. This ain’t a fucking democracy kid, you just gotta do what we tell ya.”

Mickey conveniently leaves out the part where he’s pretty sure that whatever this is; a benevolent dictatorship sounds about right, he would find himself at the very bottom of it. Yevgeny rolls his eyes at him and smiles a little.

His stomach growling again, Mickey makes sure no one’s calling for his attention and takes the opportunity to grab a sandwich. His back to Yevgeny as he’s unwrapping his lunch, he tries to sound as casual as possible when he changes the topic.

”How are things at home?”

”Same.”

Mickey turns around to lean against the counter and face Yevgeny, raising an eyebrow at him as he takes a bite, prompting his son to continue by not saying anything. Yevgeny only shrugs.

Mickey isn’t the best at asking questions. He usually figures that if people want to tell him something, they will, and if they don’t then it’s none of his business. And vice versa. With Yevgeny growing up, however, it’s becoming painfully clear that Mickey’s gonna have to change in that regard. Make things his business.

”And Roger?” he asks before taking another bite, waiting for Yevgeny to answer, filling the silence with his chewing.

”Fine,” Yevgeny eventually sighs and looks down again, muttering something Mickey can’t quite hear.

”You know,” Mickeys says, using the back of his hand to wipe at some crumbs stuck to the corner of his mouth, ”you gonna start lying to me you better get practicin’, ’cause that was some weak shit.”

Another half a smile, always something.

”Come on, once more with some fuckin’ feeling,” Mickey grins when Yevgeny can’t stop the titter bubbling up his throat, ”it’s like you’re not even trying.”

Mickey takes a moment to munch on his sandwich and consider his son.

”It’s fine if you don’t like him,” he says, eventually, and it earns him eye contact, ”you don’t have to like him. He ain’t your dad, never gonna be.”

No one had been more surprised than Mickey when Yevgeny turned out to be a really good kid. He figured that it couldn’t be genetics, and while he had ended up trying his best and Svetlana literally lived to mother her child, they could hardy be considered parents of the year by any stretch of the imagination. Still, somehow, Yevgeny grew up and was a really good kid. He was funny and smart, he did well in school and more often than not did as he was told. Mickey mostly saw no other alternative than to give Yevgeny full credit for it.

”I know you’re not used to it, but believe me,” Mickey points at Yevgeny with his half-eaten sandwich, ”not the last time it’s gonna happen. Gonna be plenty people in your lifetime even you won’t be able to like.”

”I liked Tina.”

”I know you did,” Mickey sighs and braces himself mentally for the high-level diplomacy he’s about to employ, ”but she was a two-timin’ ho-bag who wasn’t at all good for your mother.”

Well, at least he cleaned up his language a bit.

”What?” Yevgeny frowns. ”What did she do?”

”Don’t worry about it,” Mickey deflects, wincing a little. Svetlana is very specific about what she does and does not tell Yevgeny about her dating. ”She’s gone now and you’re gonna have to be okay with that. Just like you’re gonna have to be okay with Roger bein’ around.”

”But I don’t have to like him?”

”Not if you don’t want to.” Mickey takes another bite of his sandwich as Yevgeny takes his words into consideration. ”Might help though, in the long run.”

Yevgeny looks very skeptical at this and Mickey doesn’t blame him.

”But what you have to do is trust your mom,” Mickey continues, ”trust her to know what she’s doin’. She says he’s good, he’s good. Ain’t much more to it.”

Mickey doesn’t trust Svetlana for a second when it comes to guys, but it isn’t Yevgeny’s place to worry about any of that. He doesn’t need to know that his smart, independent and resourceful mother happens to have chronic bad luck when it comes to picking mates, coupled with a dash of poor judgement and spades of romance-specific pessimism.

”But I don’t have to like him,” Yevgeny repeats, looking so sincere in his need for reassurance that Mickey can’t help smiling fondly at him.

”Right.”

”Hey,” Mickey turns around at the sound of Red’s voice and he can still feel himself smiling like a dope, trying his best to wrangle it down some and look at least a little bit casual as Red’s shrugging on his jacket, eyes darting between Mickey and Yevgeny, ”left what I owe you on the table.”

”You always do,” Mickey replies, an eyebrow arched in a silent question. Red usually just leaves, a nod or a quick hand up as only farewell.

”Yeah,” Red hesitates for a second, frowning slightly, then his lips pull into a crooked smile and he nods at Yevgeny before moving towards the door, ”nice meeting you, kid. See you next week, Mick.”

”Whatever man,” Mickey leans his elbows against the countertop and looks after Red as he takes a couple of steps backwards before turning completely and leaving, ”see ya, Red.”

Red’s already halfway out the door when he says it, but Mickey knows he heard him when he gives him a quick thumbs up over his shoulder.

”Why is he Red?” Mickey turns back to Yevgeny and looks at him for a second, trying to gauge if he’s being serious. Yevgeny’s looking back at him with nothing but sincere curiosity though, and Mickey suddenly gets it when he remembers that Red was wearing that damned hoodie of his, like always.

”Is he a Red Sox fan?” Yevgeny starts guessing when Mickey doesn’t immediately reply. ”Is he a hemophiliac?”

”A hemo-what?”

”Mr Evans told us about it in biology,” Yevgeny explains, ”it’s when you can’t stop bleeding.”

”And I would know this about my customer how?”

”Maybe he cut himself on a butter knife,” Yevgeny suggests, holding up a finger and illustrating his point by waving his other hand over it, like a fountain, ”swoosh-swoosh, blood everywhere. Hemophiliac.”

Mickey offers no more than an unimpressed shake of the head.

”No?” Yevgeny’s finger stops spraying imaginary blood so he can tap it against his chin instead, ”he a communist?”

Mickey brings a hand up to snap his fingers and point at his nose.

”Really?”

”No, not really,” Mickey shakes his head and laughs at Yevgeny’s excitement and subsequent disappointment, ”he’s got red hair.”

”That’s it?” Yevgeny asks, scrunching up his nose as he mulls it over. ”How red?”

”Pretty fucking red, Yev,” Mickey sighs and takes his son by the shoulders to usher him out from behind the counter, ”now go do your job before anyone clears his table for us.”

 

 

 

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Chapter Text

October 26.
Monday.

 

Mickey’s coming up to Red’s table as he’s still removing his jacket and sitting down. He looks up at Mickey in time to see him raise the coffee pot and his eyebrows in question. He smiles in response.

”Hey Mick,” he says, eyes on the cup of goodness being poured in front of him.

”Mornin’,” Mickey hums.

”So I think I need to formally lodge a complaint,” Red’s looking at him now, fingers wrapping around his cup when Mickey’s done pouring, and Mickey would believe the serious tone to his voice if it weren’t for the slight crinkling under his eyes.

”Yeah?” Mickey quickly casts a glance over his shoulder to make sure he has time for it, sitting down before he pours himself a cup and sets the pot to the side. ”This about the rat in the toilet?”

Red looks surprised for a split second, then he jumps on the bit with reckless abandon.

”Mr Wensleydale?” Red cracks a small smile. ”No, I have no issues with him.”

”Oh, so you’ve met?” Mickey’s flat out grinning, can’t help it. ”Introduced yourselves and everything? Met the wife?”

”There’s a Mrs Wensleydale?”

”Yup, spring wedding,” Mickey nods, ”beautiful ceremony.”

Red leans back in his seat and for a moment he’s just looking at Mickey, small smile playing at the corner of his mouth. Mickey meets his gaze and drinks his coffee.

”No,” Red eventually speaks, ”it’s about one of your employees.”

Mickey’s eyebrows involuntarily shoot up in question.

”The young man serving me my lunch last Friday, more specifically.”

Mickey’s not stupid, he knows what it looks like when he’s got his son around; and it looks like he’s got his son around. Enough people have told him over the years that Yevgeny is the spitting image of him to quench any possible doubt he might have had of his own genetic involvement, as well as making it obvious that any kind of discretion concerning their relation is near impossible. Anyone with a working pair of eyes looking at the two of them next to each other would know that they’re father and son.

Still, Mickey’s pretty certain he doesn’t want to tell Red more than strictly necessary about Yevgeny, the sole inhabitant of the inner most circle of his already heavily guarded private life.

”Oh, that guy,” Mickey quickly screws his grin into a solemn frown, ”consider him fired, no problem.”

”Really, just like that?”

”Just like that.”

”Wow,” Red shifts a little in his seat, ”I feel so important right now.”

”Anything for our most loyal customer,” Mickey states and spreads his hands out, indicating the endless possibilities, ”although, I gotta tell you that kid’s got five kids of his own to feed, and I barely paid him as it was, so… you know. That’s on you now.”

”Well, what can I tell ya?” Red laughs and shakes his head, looking at Mickey like he’s trying to figure him out. ”Life’s real tough like that, sometimes.”

Mickey nods his agreement and hesitates for a second before deciding to quit the joke for the sake of his own curiosity. ”What did he do?”

”He asked me some strangely personal and very creative questions,” Red quirks an eyebrow when Mickey groans a little.

”Did he ask if you’re a commie?”

”Yes,” Red confirms with a surprised smile tugging at his lips, ”he does this kinda thing often?”

”And about the hemophilia thing?”

”Like he was a curious cross between a national health care survey and one of those immigration forms they hand out on airplanes,” Red nods, ”said I’d have to kill him if I told him anything and he seemed weirdly okay with that.”

”Weak ass death threats never did deter that kid,” Mickey can’t help the slight tinge of affection and pride to his voice, ”on behalf of Yev, and his parental unit; sorry about that.”

”That’s his name?” Red asks, careful excitement softening his features a little, ”Yev?”

”Yevgeny,” Mickey admits, might as well, ”his mother named him.”

”Yevgeny,” Red repeats, doing a pretty decent job at it, ”your wife is..?”

”Russian,” Mickey fills in, and feels the need to cut this conversation short creeping up on him real quick. ”Ex-wife.”

”Sorry to hear that,” Red frowns, and it looks like he’s about to ask something else when Mickey finally wills himself into action and abruptly stands up.

”Gotta, um,” he fumbles a little, searching the room for an excuse and deciding to be vague when nothing specific comes to mind, ”prepare some stuff.”

”Sure,” Red smiles and nods, and Mickey thinks he gets it. Starting to realize just how much this guy seems to get it. Get him.

”Etch’ll be here in-,” Mickey glances at his watch, ”ten, maybe fifteen, get your breakfast for you then, that alright?”

”Perfect, thanks.”

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

October 27.
Tuesday.

 

”Hat-lady's got her friend with her today,” Mickey notes while sticking their order to the side of the kitchen hatch, looking meaningfully at Etch.

”Bacon and eggs?” he asks and grabs the piece of paper before moving over to the fridge, studying Mickey’s scratchy writing.

”You know it,” Mickey confirms, leaning his arms against the hatch, waiting for Etch to finish the order. ”And Red’s here now, if you could get his special ready for him?”

”Sure thing,” Etch hums over the frizzle of cold pancake batter hitting the hot grill. ”You know if hat-lady wants blueberries with her pancakes?”

”It’s Tuesday,” Mickey says, half-heartedly stifling a yawn.

”Remind me.”

”Blueberries.”

Blueberry pancakes on Tuesdays, chocolate chip on Thursdays, bacon and eggs for her friend when she’s got company. Mickey doesn’t really want to remember all this, but he does. It’s not exactly riveting stuff and sometimes he kinda feels like all he’s got up there are details about other people’s preferred breakfast. Not terribly sexy. It is what it is, though, and could be a lot worse. No one’s gonna kill him over a breakfast order gone wrong, hopefully.

Would be excellent fucking irony if someone did.

”Here you go, ladies,” he mumbles as he’s placing plates between the two women.

”Thank you, Mickey,” hat-lady’s friend coos, making hat-lady giggle on his other side. Giggle.

”Need anything else?” he asks, eyeing them sternly to keep the silliness to a minimum, crossing his arms for support.

”Can think of a few things,” the friend leans her elbows on the table and slowly picks up a piece of crispy bacon, parting her maroon lips to bite it in half, eyes steadily on Mickey.

”Classy,” Mickey complains with a tight-lipped smile, shaking his head at them as hat-lady’s giggling intensifies, ”don’t you fucking dare call for my attention unless you actually want something. I’m fucking serious.”

Mickey issues the warning as he’s backing away, making sure to be a couple of paces away from the table before turning his back to their excited cackling. There have been incidents of bum-pinching in the past, he doesn’t take any chances with this crowd.

He swings by the kitchen to pick up Red’s breakfast and brings it over to him in a wide circle, avoiding the ambush of cougars in the middle of the room. By the amused look on his freckled face, Mickey’s women-troubles have not passed Red by unnoticed.

”What?” Mickey asks, plate clattering a bit louder than he intended when he puts it down in front of Red.

”You’re a dreamy waitress,” Red says, ignoring his breakfast to smile incomprehensibly at Mickey.

”The fuck- excuse me?” Mickey shifts his weight from one foot to the other, folding his arms across his chest to square himself into some kind of significant mass. It seems to work about as well on Red as it had done on hat-lady and her suggestive friend.

”You’re a dreamy waitress, Mick,” Red repeats fearlessly, leaning back in his seat with his half drunk cup of coffee, peering up at Mickey over the edge as he takes a sip.

”I heard ya the first time, Red,” Mickey’s voice comes out in a kind of hiss before he schools it into a more standard, albeit irritated, tone, ”in what fucking world would anyone think it okay to call a guy either dreamy or a waitress?”

Mickey isn’t successful in his intimidation, he can tell by the way Red’s face is still doing that smiling thing.

”Fine,” Red compromises after a moment’s contemplation, ”you can be a dreamy waiter if that kinda thing is important to ya. Dreamy is, however, non-negotiable.”

Mickey just looks at him, hugging his chest closer and hitching his eyebrows further up his forehead. Red better be going somewhere good with this.

”I know it,” Red seems unaware of the dangerous ground he’s treading, ”I’ve seen it. My sister was a dreamy waitress once, men of all ages fawning over her, the odd woman, marriage proposals every other week.”

”The fuck are you talking about?” Mickey frowns to stop himself from joining his present company and smiling like an idiot. He isn’t amused. ”Those two? They’re just messin’ with me, think it’s funny to make me uncomfortable, much like someone else I know.”

”Don’t think so,” Red insists, eying Mickey with unfamiliar intent, ”they want you. Wanna save you. Stars aligning, shirt tight enough around those arms, bet the apron doesn’t hurt. Serve ’em enough pancakes and I bet women propose to you all the time.”

”Pretty sure that’s not how it works,” Mickey huffs.

Red’s smile fades a little and he sets down his cup to mirror Mickey’s defensive stance, crossing his arms and cocking his head slightly.

”You went the more old-fashioned route with your own proposal, huh?” he asks and he suddenly sounds genuinely curious.

”Not so much,” Mickey looks away when he says it and he smiles a little, unwanted memories flashing through his mind. ”Whatever. Eat your fucking breakfast and please, keep your theorizing to yourself.”

”You’re not gonna join me today?” Red’s eyes flit to the seat opposite him for a split second and it doesn’t escape Mickey that this is the first time they’ve even gotten close to discussing his habit of inviting himself to sit at Red’s table.

”What do you think?” he says. ”You’re lucky you still have your food after all that. Ever heard of not antagonizing the hand that feeds you?”

”They only warned me about biting,” Mickey rolls his eyes and Red’s grinning wide again, ”Mickey?”

”What’s up?”

”Will you marry me?”

”Yeah, no,” Mickey laughs, ”I’m definitely sure that’s not how it works.”

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

October 28.
Wednesday.

 

”Coffee, please.”

Mickey twists far enough to cast a glance over his shoulder, registering the woman standing by the counter, meeting his eyes.

”Sure thing, Stay Puft,” he replies, wiping the last of the crumbs off his work surface before turning around to face her, ”anything else?”

”No,” she says, slight frown creasing her forehead, ”did you just call me a marshmallow?”

”Maybe?” Maybe not the best idea. ”You got a problem with that?”

”I’m-” her eyes widen a little as she takes a moment to think about it, ”I really don’t know. I’ve never been called a marshmallow before.”

To be fair, she looks nothing like a marshmallow; her skin a bronzy brown and her small frame far from that of a tubby sailor or a shapeless cylinder. What she does have is her hair gathered on top of her head in an afro shaped into a spherical mohawk, and something in Mickey’s brain apparently decided to make a snap connection to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Maybe it was the gravity defying fluffiness of the ’do that did it, or maybe just a random crisscrossing of thoughts.

”I’m not unreasonable,” Mickey shrugs, ”can change it if you’ve got a better idea. You want that coffee to go?”

”No,” Stay Puft quickly looks around the diner and then back at Mickey, ”I’ll have it here.”

Mickey nods and turns his back to get a cup and fill it up.

”You could just call me Anne,” she says behind him.

”Why?” Mickey grins at her when he turns back around again, placing the cup on a saucer and sliding it towards her.

”Cause it’s my name?” she chuckles and frowns again. Still not entirely convinced she shouldn’t be offended by all this.

Mickey makes a face like he isn’t impressed. ”Might have to keep callin’ you Stay Puft if that’s the best you’ve got.”

It takes a second, but eventually she lands on amused, smiling brightly and shaking her head.

”I kinda get it,” she mutters and pays for her drink. Mickey doesn’t know what she means by that and he doesn’t ask. She nods at him, dropping her change in the tip jar before walking away.

He’s about to turn back to his sandwich-assembly when he notices where she’s heading and he finds himself unable to tear his eyes from her. She walks up to Red’s table and sets down her coffee like Mickey has done so many times before. But now, Red’s getting up from his seat and he’s wrapping his long arms around her, at least a head taller and engulfing her slight frame.

Mickey doesn’t pay them any attention when they sit and talk, intently, quietly, leaned close together across the table. It’s over an hour later when they leave together, Red walking up ahead to open the door to let Anne through. Mickey doesn’t realize he’s looking until Red turns and meets his gaze. He should probably look away, guiltily snap his eyes to more neutral ground, pretend he wasn’t staring. But he doesn’t, never was the type to be embarrassed by that kind of thing.

Red smiles at him, then nods slightly and leaves, jogging past the window to catch up to his friend.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

October 31.
Saturday.

 

It’s Halloween and Mickey knows he probably should want to be at home, or out enjoying himself, instead of working the evening shift. But it’s Saturday, and a holiday, so the money is good and Mickey likes having a valid excuse not to go anywhere on days when people usually assume you want to go out. Granted, it’s been a long while since anyone tried to get Mickey to go out, especially on Halloween; the dumbest of all the holidays. So really, all logic suggests that he should want to stay at home and hide.

It’s not so bad though, the diner isn’t the kind of place that attracts any of the dumbbells dressed up as sexy cats or whatever it is people dress up as these days, it’s more like a beacon for the lonely and unpopular. In all honesty, he doesn’t even know why they’re open. The evening shift is always slow going and it’s not better on a weekend when everybody generally have someplace better to be. Etch refused to come in, he’s got kids at home after all and he seems to actually enjoy taking them around his sketchy neighborhood, dodging the drug dealers and creeps in favor of whatever sane people there actually are handing out free candy in this economy. Yev’s at his mom’s, a strategic choice on his part ever since exhaustive research informed him that Svetlana’s neighborhood held more free candy per capita than Mickey's.

None of it makes much sense to Mickey, but then he’s been reliably informed that his sensibilities in cases like these are those of a particularly grumpy 90-year old. So maybe he should keep himself to himself and let everyone else run around looking silly and ignoring stranger danger best they like.

Sonya is on the grill tonight, singing softly to herself in the kitchen. Mickey really fucking likes her but, you know, she’s singing. It’s like a poorly tuned radio you can’t turn off without being an asshole and he’s not feeling particularly confrontational tonight, so he lets it be. He guesses it’s kind of nice, maybe. Homely. It’s a question of attitude, right?

He sighs and slowly makes his way through the diner, wiping some tables that don’t need wiping, and ends up sitting down in Red’s corner booth. He’s not heard anything from Katie yet about the permanent reservation but if he knows her at all he figures she’s probably thinking it’s nice to have one less table to worry about when Red’s not there and it’s busy. He feels the same.

Big guy in the booth by the door finishes off his last fry with a discreet burp and a sigh. He’s the only one still in there and they’ve got about half an hour before closing, Mickey takes a deep breath and leans his head back against the padded seat, shutting his eyes for just a short while. He’s really looking forward to going home and having a beer, maybe watch some TV.

He hears big guy clearing his throat and asking for his check. Mickey doesn’t open his eyes.

”5.50, big guy,” he says, ”same as every time.”

He hears the metallic thuds of coins against wooden table, and then the sounds of big guy getting up and putting on his coat, gently humming along with Sonya in the kitchen.

Mickey then hears the door open and big guy’s soft ”Goodnight”. He’s a nice guy, careful. Comes in for a burger a couple of days a week and still feels like he needs to state his order in full, still asks for the check every time, like he thinks they don’t remember him.

Someone’s sitting down opposite him now, knees nudging against his. It can’t be Sonya, going by her shaky rendition of what Mickey incorrectly assumes is an Abba song still coming from somewhere within the other room. He opens his eyes and Red’s in front of him, a small smirk on his lips and an eye on the menu card in his left hand.

Mickey sits up straighter, to relieve the pressure against his knees, and folds his arms across his chest.

”Kinda figured you for a full costume sorta guy,” he greets him as Red meets his gaze, smile widening.

”And I figured you as a work on Halloween kinda guy,” Red retorts, ”guess that shows who’s got the other one pegged, huh?”

”Maybe I’m going to a party after this,” Mickey challenges, ”maybe I’m already in costume.”

”As what?”

”A grumpy 90-year old trapped in the 30-year old body of a manly yet sensitive waiter.” Mickey’s insides kinda twist at Red’s throaty laugh.

”It’s a very convincing costume,” Red smiles, ”you gonna get me something to eat, or what?”

”Sure thing, Red, what’s it gonna be tonight?”

Red glances at the menu again in mock despair.

”I don’t know,” he mourns, ”this evening thing unlocks so many options, I’m overwhelmed.”

Mickey grins and shakes his head, getting up from his seat. ”I’ll get you a fucking burger man, don’t bother with anything else on there.”

”Okay, I trust you.”

”Mind if I join ya?” Mickey shoots over his shoulder as he’s walking towards the kitchen, ”I’m starving.”

”Sure, yeah, no,” if Mickey didn’t know better, he’d think Red was a bit flustered, ”don’t mind.”

Mickey nods to himself and almost jogs the last few feet to the kitchen, knowing Sonya likes to turn off the grill twenty minutes before they close and move out as soon as she can.

”Hey,” he leans against the doorway as he gets her attention, she stops singing to shoot him a smile, ”two burgers?”

”Sure thing, then I’m closing for the night.”

”Sounds good, you working tomorrow?”

Sonya’s already slapped the frozen patties on the grill and is now pouring fries into the steel basket on the deep fry. ”Yep, Etch’s pulling a double on Monday, and then I’m back for the evening shift on Tuesday.”

Mickey doesn’t need to know any of this, but he likes knowing what’s going on around him and all this Holliday bullshit is messing with their regular schedules.

”Alright,” he says and leaves her to her cooking in order to clean up big guy’s table and flip the sign on the door. No use for people to come in now with Sonya ready to turn the grill off. He’s cleaning up behind the register when Sonya’s placing the two plates in the window behind him.

”That’s me headin’ out then,” she says, already taking off her apron, ”have a nice night Mickey.”

”Sure, whatever,” half of Mickey wants to know if he’s ever likely to get better at this sort of thing, the other half couldn’t care less, ”thanks.”

He grabs the plates and nods at her as she brushes past him and out the door.

”Here ya go,” he says and sits down opposite Red again, placing the plates between them.

With Sonya gone, it’s real nice and quiet. There’s the sound of cars driving by outside, wheels against the wet asphalt making that special soft sound. It stopped raining a while ago, but everything still looks wet in the dark. Mickey’s not looking at his dinner companion for a good five minutes, focus entirely on his burger, but after a while he’s becoming aware of eyes on him and all it takes for the comfortable silence to shift into something else is a quick glance across the table.

Sonbitch is looking right at him with something like an amused question on his features; lips quirked into a smirk as he’s slowly eating his way through his fries.

”Something wrong with the burger?” Mickey asks, because what the hell.

”Nope, ’s fine.”

Mickey puts the last bite of his own burger in his mouth and sits back a little, nodding at Red with a frown, not bothering to finish chewing before he speaks again. ”Then, what?”

”Nothing,” Red picks up his burger and plants his elbows on the table, quirking an eyebrow at Mickey as he takes a big bite.

Now they’re just looking at each other, Red eating and Mickey just staring for a while before he reaches out and starts stuffing fries in his mouth, two three at a time. It would be kinda weird, but it isn’t so bad.

”You’ve never asked before,” Red finally states after a while, burger almost gone.

”What?”

”You’ve never asked,” he stuffs the last bit of burger in his mouth and gestures vaguely at Mickey while he chews the food down enough so he can talk around it, ”you kinda just sit down, usually.”

”So what? Maybe I’m all polite and shit most of the time, and you just don’t know it,” Mickey shoves his last two fries in his mouth and raises his eyebrows at Red’s unimpressed half-shrug. ”Maybe you’ve gotta earn that shit, huh, thought of that?”

”You always get this eloquent when you’re uncomfortable, Mick,” he’s smiling that smile, crooked and soft, ”or is it just with me?”

”Whatever man,” Mickey mumbles, rather proving Red’s point. ”Tell me again why you’re not out on a street somewhere, dressed like fucking ginger Superman or something, getting drunk and embarrassing yourself?”

”Didn’t tell you the first time you asked.”

Mickey rolls his eyes and gets up, doesn’t know why he’s bothering. Not like he wanted to know, anyway. He nods towards the handful of fries left on Red’s plate, ”you eatin’ those?”

”Yeah.” Mickey can feel the guy’s eyes on him as he takes his own plate and heads towards the kitchen. He can sense Red getting up behind him and following him. Mickey washes his plate in silence and moves back out behind the counter to finish cleaning up for the night. Red’s at the counter, elbows on the glass, eating the last of his fries from the plate in front of him.

”Didn’t feel like going out tonight,” he says, voice low. Mickey doesn’t turn around when he hears him speak, keeps cleaning the coffee maker in silence.

”There was a party but, I don’t know,” there’s a pause, and then a low sigh, ”last couple of years, it’s just not been- I feel like I’ve changed and I don’t know- it’s-”

”Calm your tits, Red, Jesus,” Mickey feels exhausted just listening to him, he turns around and shoots a tight-lipped smile in Red’s direction, ”it was just a question, you know, small talk or whatever. No need for all this opening up bullshit, alright?”

He feels like he forced the guy to talk against his will, and he can’t stand it. If that makes him the asshole for shooting him down now when he’s obviously trying to say something, then that’s the way it’s gotta be.

”Alright,” Red echoes, lips pressed together in a thin line, ”what do I owe you for dinner?”

”4.50,” Mickey takes the five dollar bill offered to him and stuffs it in the till, not waiting for Red to tell him to keep the change. ”I gotta close up.”

Red nods but he doesn’t move, so Mickey carries on like he isn’t there. Puts the last plate in the dishwasher, puts all the chairs up, marries all the ketchup bottles and sets them back on the tables. He takes the money from the register and takes the books out with him to sit down. He could sit in any of the booths, but he sits down in Red’s, not looking up when Red tentatively follows and sits down with him.

He does the books for the day, enjoying the straightforwardness of the numbers and the feeling of hard cash in his hands. Glancing up at Red once, he might just have taken a moment to enjoy the view, the guy’s gaze fixed on something outside and Mickey only being human and all.

He’s got his chin in his hand, lights from the cars going past outside dancing across his face. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe him in that moment.

Mickey quickly looks away before he’s caught, eyes on the money. Hands slowly shuffling the bills in his hands, he needs to recount it.

When he’s done, he locks up the money and turns off the lights, motioning at Red to get up as he unties his apron and pulls out his coat from behind the counter. Once outside, Red helps him pull down the security shutters and then just stands there for a moment with Mickey as the latter pulls out a cigarette and lights it.

Mickey takes a deep drag from the cigarette and offers it to Red through his exhale of smoke, quirking an eyebrow at him.

”Quit,” is all the guy says at first, waiting until Mickey’s returned the offer to his own lips before he speaks again, ”but… If you don’t mind-”

”Just spit it out, Red,” Mickey mutters around his cigarette, glancing up at him when he hesitates, hand scratching at the back of his neck.

”Gonna sound stupid,” he says with a sheepish smile Mickey’d dare anyone to kick out of bed.

”How’s that any different from normal?”

Red just huffs and kinda takes a step closer, leaning against the shutter Mickey just padlocked to the ground. How come this guy always seems amused whenever Mickey tries his best to be offensive? Or, you know, when Mickey can’t help being defensive and say mean shit even when he really doesn’t mean to.

”Can I just hang around?” Red eventually asks, Mickey biting at his lower lip to keep himself from pointing out that he’s already hanging around, ”I miss it, can still feel the itch. It’s like it’s not even the nicotine anymore, it’s just this. Having a smoke with a friend in the dark.”

”You wanna inhale my secondhand smoke and still tell people you’ve quit,” Mickey exhales straight into his face this time, smirking when Red only looks kinda pleased about it, ”don’t ya?”

”One way to put it.”

”Be my guest, I guess.”

Mickey finishes the rest of his cigarette in silence and Red’s just looking at him, again. Mickey wonders why it doesn’t feel super awkward whenever this happens and peering up at the guy’s blank face Mickey thinks it might be because there’s no question lingering between them. The looks Red’s giving him aren’t asking anything, they just are. There’s no ’and now what?’. Red shows up, he doesn’t show up, he eats, he writes, he smiles, he does nothing, there’s chit-chat, there’s silence. Red might’ve called Mickey a ’friend’ just now, but Mickey knows it doesn’t mean anything. He knows nothing about Red, fuck, not even his name, and Mickey likes it that way. Meeting his gaze through another puff of smoke, he thinks Red might feel the same way. They can be whatever together, because they’re nothing together. They’ve created this bubble of deep familiarity between them, at this diner, simply by Red showing up and being there, but just one step outside the diner and Mickey can feel just how nonsensical it is. Out here, they’re just strangers.

He smiles a little under the last stream of smoke flowing out his mouth and nostrils, dropping the end of the cigarette to the ground and stubbing it out with the toe of his shoe. He jabs with his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the general direction of his home. Red hoists himself off the shutters and points vaguely down the street, in the opposite direction.

Mickey nods and puts his hand up in a sloppy wave-salute as he turns and walks away.

”Happy Halloween, Mick,” Red half shouts after him when he’s some way down the street and if Mickey shakes his head and can’t help the fond smile taking over his entire face, well, then that’s his business.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 3.
Tuesday.

 

”Number 1, blueberries, and number 3 sunny side up,” Mickey calls out through the window, pinning the order to the frame, not pausing to hear Etch grunt his response he turns around to the counter and maneuvers a piece of apple pie from the container on top to a plate. Waiting for Etch to complete the order, he taps his fingertips against the counter and sweeps his eyes across the room. No one is calling for his attention. Lunchtime is just around the corner but it’s still fairly calm, nothing he can’t handle. Another hour and a half and it’ll probably be slow enough for him to have time to sit down and eat something, maybe even sneak out back for a smoke.

Etch interrupts his near pornographic reverie of what he’s going to do to his filtered little friends soon as he gets the chance with a sharp knock against the hatch.

”1 blueberries, 3 sunny side up,” he calls out and disappears back into the kitchen smog. Mickey balances the two plates on his left arm and takes the pie with his right hand, keeping them steady as he moves around the counter and out into the room.

He hears the door jingle as he puts down the plates and he can’t suppress the tiny surprised noise that escapes his throat as he looks up and sees who is coming through the open door.

”The fuck are you doing here?” he asks, smiling, as he walks up to his brother.

”Fucking language, man,” Iggy sighs, earning an eye roll from Mickey, ”need your help.”

”Can’t watch her Ig,” Mickey immediately puts his hands up, ”I’m working, I’m not just sitting on my ass here, I can’t keep my eyes on her all the time.”

”She’s good,” Iggy puts his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, standing in front of him, ”don’t need to do nothing, just let her stay here for an hour.”

”Good?” Mickey raises his eyebrows and casts his eyes down on the girl, ”good? You’re the stuff nightmares are made of, A-team.”

The little girl grins up at him, couple of teeth missing.

”Just gonna be an hour, bro,” Iggy repeats, ”I’ll tie her to a booth or something. Wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

Mickey crosses his arms, he is definitely not giving in, and looks up at his brother only to notice that Red has come in at some point and is now standing slightly behind Iggy.

”I can keep an eye on her.” What a traitor.

”Go take a fucking seat, Red, this ain’t your business,” Mickey scowls, uncrossing and recrossing his arms as he turns his gaze back down on his little niece, ever smiling that half-devil half-angel smile, ”I’ll be ’round in a second take your order, just need to eject these two freeloaders first.”

”Seriously, Mick,” this seems to grab Iggy’s attention, turning away from Mickey and locking on to his new target, Red smiles tentatively at Iggy and shrugs, ”I’m just gonna sit there and work anyway, I can keep an eye on the kid.”

”You know this guy?” Iggy asks, not looking away from Red, ”he safe?”

”He’s just a regular, Ig,” Mickey sighs and thumbs at his eyebrow, he’s fighting a losing battle, ”I trust him.”

”Alright,” his brother really is desperate, ”no more than an hour, I swear.”

”Now hold the fuck on-”

”Fucking language, Mickey, shit, Emma’s gonna murder me if she comes home swearing like a fucking sailor.”

”He always says an hour,” Mickey ignores his idiot brother and looks straight at Red, ”and it’s always at least three, and she’s a fucking escape-artist, and a biter, and I really can’t-”

Red’s laughing now and holding up his hands to placate Mickey into silence.

”I’m good, I’ve known my share of strong-minded kids,” Mickey scoffs at his diplomatic choice of words, ”but it really isn’t up to me though, is it?”

Mickey groans as Red turns his eyes to his niece. Many things can be said to describe the girl, but shy isn’t one of them. With his fiery hair and shiny face, Red’s going to be her new favorite toy within the next five minutes if they let her decide.

”Hi,” he says to her, ”I’m Ian.”

”Amelia,” the girl is one huge toothy grin as Red crouches down to her level and holds out a hand. Amelia doesn’t shake it, because she’s five and just doesn’t really get the point of it, instead she grasps Red’s hand with both of her own and turns it over a couple of times, like she’s inspecting it.

”Dad,” she demands, ”I’m staying here with Ian for a while, okay?”

”Okay,” Iggy grins and plants a kiss on top of his daughter’s head, Amelia trying her best to squirm out of the way and still hold on to Red’s hand, and then he’s out the door.

”One hour, maybe two,” he promises over his shoulder before the door closes and he disappears.

Mickey feels like he hasn’t moved in the past five minutes. In one hurricane of a conversation all of his subconscious walls and defenses have crumbled around him. His fucking family is at the diner, and there’s Red, still with his hand in the vice-like grip of one of them. And his name is Ian.

”That what it takes, huh?” he finally manages, raising his eyebrows as Red looks up at him. Mickey sighs and wipes his hand across his face, ”A-team, go take a seat. In the corner, go, I’ll get you pie in a second.”

At the promise of sweets, Amelia finally lets go and runs through the tables to climb up into Red’s booth, Mickey’s eyes on her the entire time.

”Cute kid,” Red says, something slightly apprehensive in his eyes, studying Mickey as he picks himself up from the floor.

”That what it takes?” Mickey says again, and he knows he’s not making any sense by the way Red keeps eyeing him. Mickey frowns and shuffles his feet a little, Red seriously doesn’t know what just happened here? ”I need to be a five year old devil-child to get you to introduce yourself to me, or something?”

Red mirrors his frown and adjusts his posture slightly, pulling back his shoulders to stand up straighter.

”Never knew your name, Red,” Mickey shrugs a little awkwardly and tries smiling, but it’s coming out more like a grimace that could be interpreted as apologetic.

Red’s eyes widen, and he’s slowly shaking his head as a smile spreads across his face.

”Ian,” he says, finally, holding out a steady hand between them, ”Ian Gallagher.”

”Mickey,” Mickey replies dumbly, shaking his hand.

”I know,” Ian’s smile widens impossibly.

”Milkovich.”

”Nice to meet you, Mr Milkovich, finally,” Ian lets go of his hand and shoots a quick glance at his corner table, ”but you’ll have to excuse me, I apparently have a master criminal on my hands, shouldn’t leave her on her own for too long.”

 

 

”Gallagher, huh?” Mickey scoots his niece to the side as he sits down next to her, pushing the piece of paper she’s drawing on along the table with her, ”you one of Frank’s kids?”

He’s spent the last hour or so thinking about this. Red’s got to be South Side born; you’re not likely to move here on your own volition if you’re not, even though this particular part of it is hell of a lot better than where Mickey grew up. And if he is, chances are he’s related to the drunk bastard. Drinking and making babies seemed to be the only two things that man was ever any good at.

”You know Frank?” Ian looks up at him from his notebook, slowly closing it.

Mickey takes a bite of his sandwich and quirks an eyebrow. ”Canaryville, right? Everybody knows Frank.”

”Not his kid,” Ian says, now smiling in a way no person has ever smiled before while talking about fucking Frank Gallagher, ”but yeah, I’m part of the litter. Thought he was my dad for about fifteen years, turns out he’s my uncle.”

Mickey doesn’t even blink at that. ”The American dream.”

”Small fucking world, huh? Does that make you one of Mandy’s brothers?”

”Yeah,” Mickey can’t mask his surprise at the question, or his suspicion, ”you bang her or something?”

”What?” Ian’s eyes flit to the five year old sitting next to Mickey and yeah, he knows it’s not good. ”Fuck, no. No I didn’t- didn’t know her, but she was in my year at school before she kinda disappeared.”

Ian leans back, slightly narrowing his eyes at him.

”Knew some about you though, just ’the Milkoviches’.” Ian waves his fingers in the air in front of him when he says Mickey’s last name, like he’s the boogeyman. ”As in; ’stay away from the Milkoviches, kids’. Heard a lot of stories, but I never really saw much of any of you, far as I remember. Wouldn’t have recognized you in a million years.”

Mickey raises his eyebrows and his hands in one synchronized movement, knuckles turned out towards Ian.

”Come on,” Ian laughs and Mickey’s really not used to that kind of reaction to the faded reminders of his rough adolescence, ”everyone and their grandpa’s got tattoos these days, so what if yours are a bit more… colorful. Didn’t even notice ’em at first.”

”That so?” Mickey lowers his hands, picking his sandwich back up, fingers itching. He can’t seem to muster up even a little bit of menace when he mutters; ”could still fuck you up, Gallagher, if you’re not careful.”

It’s funny how entirely non-threatening he sounds, now, he sure has changed. What’s there to miss though? Being a tough guy? Beating and threatening his way through life? It had come so easily to him then and he couldn’t do anything about that now, can’t even really say he regrets any of it. He did what he had to do. But he sure doesn’t miss a single thing about those days though, not one.

”It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Ian’s got a small, joyless smile on his lips and in that moment Mickey knows for certain he’s not the only one with a difficult story to tell. ”I remember Kash mentioning the Milkoviches too, sometimes, scared him shitless. But you guys were never around when I was there, so it was all hearsay to me.”

”You worked at the Kash And Grab?” Ian nods. ”Yeah, probably beat that guy up a couple of times. Stole a lot of shit, you know, did a lot of other stupid shit too. Drugs, guns, fights, whatever. Fucking nightmare most of the time. At home. Got Mandy moved out to live with our mom’s half sister when she was fourteen, probably saved her damned life. And I think we stopped harassing towelhead- uh, Kash, when there was another store opening on the other side of the L, but like real close to the house. Ended up doing most of our loiterin’ and casual stealin’ there.”

”Where’s your sense of civic pride, huh Mick? Abandoning local businesses like that.” Ian grins at him and Mickey can’t help smiling back. He’s not sure why he’s doing it, but he hasn’t been speaking this openly about his past in a long while and it feels kinda good.

”Convenience, man, location location location.”

”Frog!” Amelia announces and pushes her paper towards Ian, making both of them turn to her.

”Best frog I’ve ever seen,” Ian says, and he doesn’t sound condescending or overly eager in that way some people speak to kids, he’s stating a fact. Mickey can’t do that shit, he’s good at speaking straight with the kids he’s required to talk to, but he can’t get himself to look at shaky lines on a piece of paper and honestly tell that it’s a frog. Makes him feel like an asshole.

”Yep,” he agrees, hoping that will suffice. Amelia doesn’t care about him though; Uncle Mickey who? Her big eyes are fixed on Ian like they’re magnets.

”Eat your pie,” Mickey tells her, moving the plate with the half finished piece of apple crumble in front of her, ”give Red- give Ian a second to think of what you can draw next.”

This is going to take some getting used to. Red’s a person, with a name. And a fucking Gallagher on top of everything. It’s like he’s conditioned to react in a certain way to the name; stuck-up no-good trash thinking they’re better than us. He vaguely remembers seeing some of them around when he was a kid and just knowing they were the enemy, same as everybody else. Fucking Gallaghers. Just another poor-as-piss family though, struggling to survive day to day. Same as everybody else.

”You magic or something?” he hears himself say as he’s watching Amelia obediently dig into her pie. He casts a quick sideways glance at Ian, then looks back in time to catch a chunk of apple falling down the kid’s cheek. He eats the piece of apple without really thinking about it, picking up a napkin from the table to wipe his hand and then Amelia’s sticky chin, ”never knew she had a best behavior, but I think this must be it.”

”You’re real good with her,” Ian says instead of answering Mickey’s ridiculous question and Mickey can’t help his lips turning into a doubtful arch.

”Sure, whatever,” not like children are all that hard to deal with, most of the time it’s just sticky and repetitive, ”kid hasn’t died on my watch yet.”

Mickey focuses on finishing his lunch, watching Ian re-open his notebook, shuffling some pages back and forth. Then he stops on a page, clicks his pen a couple of times, and starts writing. Ian kinda hunches his whole body over whatever he’s writing, left elbow on one side of the book holding some unruly pages down, hand on the back of his neck. His fingers are alternating between scratching at his short neck hairs and gently tapping out rhythms against his skin.

Mickey doesn’t realize he’s staring until a surly exclamation of ’service!’ filters through his brain and snaps him right out of his reverie. Right, he’s at work.

”You okay here with Ian?” he asks Amelia as he’s getting up and she nods, pushing around what’s left of her demolished piece of pie on the plate, ”stop playing with your food and eat it.”

He ignores her sticking out her tongue at him and goes back to work.

 

 

It’s just after two and Mickey’s clearing tables, half an ear on Amelia’s steady chattering from the corner where she’s head to head with Ian in a very intense Go Fish tournament, when Iggy waltzes back into the diner.

”Yo,” he salutes and swipes a couple of fries left behind on the table Mickey’s clearing, ”everything go okay?”

”Fine, man,” Mickey glares at him a little, stacking up the plates and wiping off the surface, Iggy follows him when he starts walking towards the kitchen, ”you really need to stop just showing up like this, Ig.”

Iggy says nothing and leans against the wall by the door, not offering to help when Mickey starts loading the dishwasher.

”Iggy, how are things?” Etch asks from his chair, not looking up from his book.

”Can’t complain,” Iggy shrugs with a wide grin, ”just won big at the tracks.”

”Seriously?” Mickey hits the button on the machine and turns to cross his arms and switch up his glare to a scowl/head-shake combo. ”If you’re gonna come here and dump your kid on me could you at least do it for something a little less…”

”Faggy?” Iggy mocks.

”Equestrian.”

”U-huh, okay, so what’s the deal with the tall order of man-candy out there, bro?” Mickey merely shakes his head at Iggy’s poor attempt at shifting focus, ”you hitting that, or what? He is hot, right? I’m not wrong about that, am I?”

Mickey stares at him, daring him to continue, as he walks past him and back into the diner. Iggy’s never been particularly intimidated by Mickey though, especially not the last couple of years.

”You saying I’m wrong?” he insists, trailing up behind Mickey while he’s doing another round, wiping tables.

”The fuck would I know, Ig,” he mutters, keeping his voice down, ”he’s just a customer. Red comes in same as big guy, pineapples, hat-lady, two-fingers, and thin santa, whoever, and up until today we’ve had a real good toast-level kinda thing going.”

He stops and turns on Iggy, folding his arms across his chest.

”And then you show up and suddenly his name is Ian,” Mickey’s just shaking his head at his brother, ”and he’s babysitting my niece.”

Iggy has enough decency to at least look like he knows where Mickey’s coming from. He’s never shared his brother’s acute sense of boundaries.

Truth is, until now, Mickey hadn’t given it much thought that he didn’t know Ian’s name. It hadn’t struck him as odd at all. It was a buffer, it created a comfortable distance. In the diner, Ian had been Red and Red was quiet, reserved, hungry, mildly amusing. Easy on the eyes. Good company. All the complexities of real life, secrets and questions of the past, left at the door and of no consequence.

”He seems nice though?” Iggy tries and he’s not fucking wrong, but Mickey doesn’t need to tell him that.

”Whatever,” he says instead and leads the way over to the corner table, ”come on A-team, your no-good gambler of a dad’s here, time to pack up and leave Ian alone.”

”But I’m winning,” she states, confidently.

”That’s what all addicts say, kid,” Mickey leans against the side of her seat, sneaking a peek at her cards, ”before you know it you’ll be fishing for queens in Vegas, hiding from debt-collectors and casino managers.”

”Got any queens?” Ian asks, quirking a conspiratorial eyebrow at Mickey.

”Go fish,” Amelia laughs and Mickey smirks back at Ian’s expression of mock indignation.

”Milkovitches don’t snitch,” Iggy almost chants, like it’s a mantra or something, and Mickey thinks Ian’s looking a bit too amused or fond at hearing it. He can’t quite read the expression on his face.

”Got twos?”

Mickey doesn’t stop his brother when Iggy moves back towards the counter, probably to sniff out something edible, deciding instead to not acknowledge him at all. Mickey finds that it’s the easiest way to deal with him, usually.

”Yes! Got eights?”

”Go fish.”

”Hah! Got an eight!”

”This gonna take long?” Mickey grumbles, scratching at his cheek. He’s not sure why he’s so eager to get his family to leave, other than his general desire to not deal with anyone for too long at a time.

”Cannot be rushed,” Ian says over Amelia questioning him sternly about fives, ”go fish. This is so much bigger than you right now, Mick, it’s about honor. Got any sixes? It’s about winning.”

”Go fish.”

”I’m getting seriously concerned about you two,” Mickey’s never been into games, he’s not a fan of losing but he’s never been particularly competitive, ”can’t be healthy.”

Ian looks up from his cards and fixes his eyes on Mickey, something mischievous behind the unmasked, honest desire to beat a five year old at a game of Go Fish.

”I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom, Mick,” he says and Mickey’s shaking his head at him before he’s even realizing what the idiot’s doing, ”you have the luxury of not knowing what I know. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall-”

”Got fives?” Amelia asks, unfazed by Ian’s, as far as Mickey can recall, scarily accurate rendition of the infamous speech.

”You need me on that wall. Go fish.”

Amelia picks up a card and Ian turns his focus to his own, shuffling them around a little as he speaks.

”We use words like honor, code, loyalty. Got those eights? Thank you. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. Got fours?”

”Go fish.” Mickey’s still standing there listening to this drivel only out of some morbid curiosity he can’t really explain.

”I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide-”

”Kings?”

”Go fish, -and then questions the manner in which I provide it,” Ian looks at him now, and points at him menacingly, ”I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way. Got any aces?”

Mickey just rolls his eyes at the big dork, uncrossing his arms to hold up his hands in surrender and walk away.

”You can’t handle the truth!” Ian calls out after him, and there it is. The guy’s gone full nerd in Mickey’s mind, there’s no going back from this.

Not looking to risk any sort of conversation with his brother, Iggy now eating a sandwich behind the counter while selling a cup of take-away coffee to a customer Mickey didn’t even notice coming in, he returns back into the kitchen hoping to find the dishwasher ready to be emptied.

Amelia’s running around yelling and handing out high-fives to anyone who’ll take one when Mickey comes back out again.

”I won!” she says running up to him and punching him in the stomach with her little fist. Mickey has no idea where she picked that habit up but he dreads the day she starts packing some power.

”Figured,” he says and picks her up to stop her from running around any more. The few guests still in the diner seem less than impressed by her victory and much more interested in eating their food in peace.

Iggy’s got her coat and is waiting for them by the door, he clasps Mickey on the shoulder as his daughter’s claiming her independence by putting on her clothes all by herself.

”Thanks for helping out today,” he says.

”Didn’t do anything,” Mickey shrugs, ”and I’m really fucking serious about you not showing up like this. I’ll babysit all you want when I’m not working, alright? You’re lucky it was a slow day today.”

”It’s always a slow day here,” Iggy smirks, helping Amelia with her sleeves.

”We’re doing just fine, asshole,” the diner isn’t anything impressive, but he won’t stand for anyone calling it a financial failure, ”lot’s changed since you worked here.”

”Sure.”

”Fired your ass for one,” Mickey nods at his brother, pointedly picking up his eyebrows, ”did fucking wonders.”

”Yeah yeah,” Iggy laughs, picking up his daughter with a grunt, ”say ’fuck you Uncle Mickey’.”

”Language,” Mickey scolds.

”Bye Uncle Mickey,” Amelia knows how the game is played, never missing a chance to disobey her father.

”Bye A-team,” Mickey holds up the door for them as they leave, ”stay out of trouble.”

”Bye Ian!” she yells before the door closes behind them and she waves furiously at him through the window when Ian looks up at the sound. He smiles and waves back at her.

Mickey busies himself with whatever little task he can find after that, making a point of not disturbing Ian more than necessary. He doesn’t know what the guy does when he’s sitting in his booth all day, but it’s not nothing. He referred to it as ’working’ before and Mickey knows for sure he can’t have gotten a lot of it done today with Amelia there.

When Katie shows up at four to start the evening shift, he considers for a second going over to Ian and say something to him. Thanks, maybe? He hadn’t asked anything of him though, the guy had volunteered his time despite Mickey insisting he didn’t, so Mickey doesn’t feel like he owes him anything. He’d spent the whole afternoon feeling like he didn’t want to know anything more about his customer, all the while not being able to resist it at all. Asking questions and volunteering information like it was all he could do. Like Ian Gallagher had turned into quicksand soon as Mickey’d learnt his name, and all his struggling did was to take him down further.

All it takes is one glance at the corner booth, at Ian’s hunched shoulders and bent neck showing over the back of his seat, and Mickey makes up his mind and leaves without a word.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 4.
Wednesday.

 

”So,” Mickey starts, putting his lunch down and taking a seat opposite Ian, ”Tom Cruise, huh?”

”Excuse me?” Ian looks slightly affronted, closing his notebook to focus on Mickey.

”Hey, you’re the one with that whole ’can’t handle the truth’-speech memorized, so don’t get all huffy on me,” Mickey takes a big bite of his sandwich and chews it down a little before continuing, ”so I figure either you’re a Tom Cruise fanboy-”

Ian makes a noise, like he’s about to object. Mickey holds up a finger to keep him from talking, Ian’s mouth snapping shut. ”-or a weirdly niched nerd, or-”

Mickey smiles when Ian shakes his head and rolls his eyes at him, ”-or you’ve got like a photographic memory or some shit, in which case I think we need to have a talk about great power and, you know, great responsibilities.”

”Hey, alright,” Ian huffs as he tries to cover his amusement with a frown, ”first of all, Jack Nicholson, man, a fucking national treasure.”

”Sure, whatever,” Mickey shrugs and takes another bite, ”still-”

”No, absolutely not,” Ian insists with an incredulous laugh, ”I did not speak one single Tom Cruise line, and no one ever said ’remember that kick-ass speech at the end of A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise was amazing in that scene’.”

Mickey nods a little, reluctantly giving him that.

”Secondly,” Ian leans forward a little and points a finger against the table as emphasis, ”don’t think you oughta call me a nerd one second and try an’ Uncle Ben me the next, Mick. Shows an alarming lack of self-awareness.”

”Ey, watch it,” Mickey lets his eyebrows do the talking as he quickly sips his coffee, chasing down the last of his sandwich so he can articulate himself more freely, ”with great power comes great responsibility is fucking common knowledge, the nonsense you were spoutin’ yesterday is well beyond anything normal. Except maybe ’you can’t handle the truth’.”

”And I only threw that one in at the end to make sure you knew what I was talking about,” Ian admits.

”Nerd,” is Mickey’s final judgement, ”no doubt about it.”

Ian’s shrug is as crooked as his smile.

”So you just know a bunch of movie quotes by heart, or what?” Mickey asks. ”You gonna give me the whole routine sometime?”

”No it’s-”, Ian pulls his hand through his hair and looks heavenward for a second before once more landing his gaze on Mickey, ”I don’t know, I was gonna be a soldier, growing up. ROTC in high school, aimed for West Point.”

”Knowing how to make lunatic speeches part of the requirements?”

”No,” Ian’s smile widens for a second and he looks down at his hands, ”thought it was cool, is all, I was thirteen and we’re supposed to make a speech in class, for English, and I thought it was a good idea to memorize this one word for word and act it out in front of everyone.”

When he’s looking at Mickey again it’s first through his pale eyelashes, almost hesitantly, then quickly shifting into his usual steady gaze, chin firmly set. And Mickey can see it now, his reserved nature and the slight sharpness in his response. Like the faded remnants of squaring his frame to attention.

”And how did that go for ya?” Mickey smiles when Ian leans his head back and lets out a short laugh.

”It was pretty bad,” he says and Mickey thinks he can detect a slight blushing across his pale cheeks, ”turned out it wasn’t exactly what they wanted, Miss Lawrence thought I was bein’, eh, disruptive was the word, I think… gave me detention.”

”Yeah?”

”Without a doubt the most embarrassing detention I’ve ever sat through,” Ian admits, ”especially since I genuinely thought I’d done a good job at the assignment.”

”That what started it all?” Mickey asks, ”the quick descent into juvenile delinquency?”

”Yeah, a pretty slippery slope from there,” Ian’s cautious, crooked smile is probably Mickey’s favorite, ”spit-balls, whoopee cushions… snakes in cans. You name it, I did it all.”

Mickey can’t for the life of him stop himself from thinking that this guy is a goddamned delight, no two ways about it. Ever since Ian started coming in there’s been something about him that’s made Mickey comfortable being around him, talking to him, even telling him things from time to time. Letting his guard down some, bit by bit. What’s striking to Mickey right now is how funny Ian is, in a quiet, unassuming, and fundamentally dorky kinda way. Like maybe he’s letting some of his guard down too.

”And you know the thing is,” Ian continues, leaning forward a little as he’s placing his elbows on the table and gesturing with one hand towards his face, ”I was sporting a pretty decent shiner from fighting some guy Lip was dealin’ with the day before, no one gave two shits about that, whole bag of weed in my backpack and I’m just sittin’ there, doin’ time for some Brady Bunch shit.”

”Once went to juvy for stealin’ a Snickers bar,” Mickey offers, grinning wildly at Ian’s surprised snort, ”probably done ten worse things before breakfast that day.”

”Peas in a pod, you and me,” Ian smiles, shaking his head and chuckling lightly.

”Don’t think so, man,” Mickey objects, pouring himself some more coffee, ”never in my whole life even entertained the thought to memorize a whole scene from some shitty nineties movie.”

”Be honest,” Ian puts up a hand to decline when Mickey raises the pot at him in question even though he knows he shouldn’t be offering, ”it’s the nineties thing that’s really gettin’ to you, isn’t it?”

”Fucking golden age of crappy action cinema, the very best kind,” Mickey says with some conviction, ”ain’t nothing wrong with that.”

He sips at his coffee for effect, leaving Ian hanging.

”Fact that you still remember somethin’ word for word you knew when you were thirteen, now that’s some worrisome stuff right there.”

”Kinda my party trick,” Ian reveals, tilting his head a little to the side, ”I make sure to refresh my memory from time to time, make sure I got it down pat.”

”Lotta chicks go for that, do they?” Mickey asks, pretty confident in his assessment that Ian’s never in his life needed to rely on cheesy tricks to get him some.

Ian’s looking away for a second, smile like the fucking Mona-Lisa.

”Not really.” He’s not the kiss and tell type and Mickey has nothing but respect for that.

Mickey opens his mouth to ask something, maybe get Ian to tell him what happened with his military aspirations, or maybe ask about Lip, vaguely remembering Ian’s older brother from school. But he quickly catches himself and thinks better of it, something almost like relief flashing through him when the door opens with a small group of construction workers ambling inside.

”Looks like that’s me back to work,” he mutters instead and gets up.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 6.
Friday.

 

Ian hasn’t said two words to Mickey today, so far. He came in early this morning, accepting his breakfast as wordlessly as Mickey was serving it. It doesn’t feel spiteful or awkward, on Mickey’s end it’s mostly about dialing back something he feels is quickly spinning out of control. He doesn’t necessarily mind being friendly with the people he serves if that’s what they want, definitely doesn’t mind shooting the shit with Ian from time to time, but there has to be a limit. They’re not friends.

So Mickey leaves the guy alone and Ian doesn’t seem to mind. But when Mickey comes back from a quick smoke after lunch and all he wants is to relax for a second with a cup of coffee, he sees no issue in sitting down where he knows he’s always welcome.

Ian doesn’t look up at him when he does so but Mickey swears he can see him quirking a small smile, head ducked over his notebook in deep concentration. The diner’s calmed right down, it’s almost three already and the place is empty bar one or two people. Mickey drinks his coffee in silence, looking at Ian for a while before turning his gaze out the window.

”Are we friends?”

Mickey takes a second, his eyes switching focus to his own vague reflection in the dirty glass. He resists the bone deep reflex to reprimand Ian about asking stupid fucking questions, recognizing that it’s part of a defense he doesn’t need anymore.

”Sure, why not.” Mickey turns his head and looks at Ian, whose eyes immediately dart away from his.

”I wanna tell you something,” he says, grimacing a little, ”and I don’t want you freaking out thinking it’s a big deal, me telling you.”

”Well, then you’re fucking up right now,” Mickey can’t help frowning at him, ”kinda sounds like a big deal.”

”Guess it is, I mean, to me it is. To people in my life- they’ve had a hard time with it before.”

Ian’s looking down at his hands, fingers picking at his nails.

”Just spit it out man,” Mickey wants it to sound encouraging or whatever, but he doubts he’s succeeding.

”I’m not well.”

”Kinda figured as much when you first started coming here.”

Ian nods, turning his face away slightly, looking at anything but Mickey. ”It serious? You dyin’?”

”Shit- no.”

”Contagious? Cause the other day you spent a whole lotta time with my niece man, and-”

”No, fuck, stop,” Ian’s shaking his head now, faint smile on his lips, ”it’s mental- a mental illness. Bipolar.”

”That it? You’re some kind of crazy?” Mickey doesn’t like the way Ian winces at that, at all. ”Don’t know fuck all about bipolar or whatever, but it sounds to me like it’s some private shit, man. That stuff’s nobody’s business but yours. No need for a fucking public announcement walking around tellin’ everybody about it like you’re some kind of pedophile.”

”No, I’m- I’m not… I’m telling you,” Ian meets his eyes for what feels like the first time since this conversation started, ”’cause I’ve caused people a lot of pain in the past, and I’ve done- I’m good now, mostly. Stable. Medicated. Still fucking sucks sometimes, but not nearly as bad as it’s been. Could be.”

Ian takes a shaky breath, sucking the air in and slowly releasing it with a quiet ’fuck’, before speaking again.

”My own sister doesn’t like leaving her kids alone with me for more than a few hours, always something in the back of her mind tellin’ her today is the day the dam’s gonna break.”

”Okay,” Mickey doesn’t know what to do with any of this information.

”I feel you should have known this before you let me be around Amelia,” Ian sighs, and the whole thing sounds like something that’s been beaten into him over a long period of time. Not at all like something he believes himself. ”But I’m telling you now so next time-”

”That’s fucking insane, Red,” Mickey knows this much is true, at least, ”you gonna start wearing a fucking warning sign around your neck, next? You don’t owe me any of your story, and I sure as fuck ain’t gonna judge you for being sick, judge you for something you obviously seem to have under control anyway.”

”Yeah?” Ian’s jaw is working nervously as he hesitates. ”Wasn’t that long ago I first came in here lookin’ like shit, wasn’t so much in control of anything then.”

”Looked fucking fine to me.”

”No, I didn’t,” Ian scoffs, ”you thought I was a homeless junkie.”

”Easy mistake to make in this neighborhood,” Mickey dismisses him with a shrug, ”skinny fuck like you were then, looking that strung out, in any other place people probably would have rolled out the red carpet and asked you to wear fucking designer underwear or something.”

”This you saying I could be a model, Mick?” At least he’s got that steady smirk back on his face, that edge to his voice Mickey knows how to handle.

”Not a compliment, man,” Mickey shrugs easily, ”just calling it as I see it.”

Ian nods, looking down at his hands again. Mickey catches a small movement in the corner of his eye.

”I see you lady, hold on a second, will ya?” The tiny lady two tables down stops waving at him and starts digging through her purse. Mickey looks back at Ian while he’s getting up, ”that all? We done? Wanna wrap up this after school special with a fucking hug or something?”

It’s almost hurts how badly he kinda wants Ian to say yes when the guy laughs and looks up at him, shaking his head.

”Fuck you, Mickey,” he says with a warm smile.

”You’re very welcome,” Mickey taps his knuckles lightly against the table as he walks away, feeling Ian’s eyes on him.

 

 

”See ya next week,” Mickey mutters and nods at Katie’s cheerful ’see ya’, pushing the door open while fishing out a pack of smokes from his coat. The biting wind is in stark contrast with the bright autumn sun and putting a cigarette to his lips he blinks a little at the low light finding him between buildings. He hunches over and shields his face from the wind with his hands, flicking his lighter with increasing desperation. It worked just fine before.

He’s looking down the street to calculate where the closest convenience store is when the door opens behind him and Ian joins him on the sidewalk.

”You got a light?” Mickey asks, with little hope, eyeing Ian as he’s readjusting his collar around the hood of his sweater.

Without a word, Ian puts his hands in his pockets to rummage around.

”Oh thank fuck,” Mickey mumbles around his cigarette and takes a step closer when Ian smiles faintly in triumph and pulls out a lighter. They huddle closer when the wind catches the first flame, shoulder to shoulder with Ian’s fingers fumbling slightly between them. After a couple of tries, the damned thing is lit and Mickey takes a step back, gripping the cigarette between his fingers to blow out a lungful of smoke.

”Always prepared,” Ian shrugs and makes a move to walk away.

”Hey,” Mickey exhales, fingers rolling the cigarette around a little before brining it back to his lips, his eyes on Ian who turns around to look at him. He’s got this calm, open look on his face and Mickey thinks he’s maybe always looked at Mickey like that but it isn’t until now that he’s realizing quite what it means.

”Can I ask you something?” He decides to make sure.

”Sure,” Ian says, shrugging his shoulders against the wind, ”yeah, man. Anything.”

Mickey nods a little and looks down at the dirty sidewalk for a second before squinting back up at Ian, backlit against the dully orange sunset.

”I was probably gonna go home and google this thing,” Mickey huffs when Ian raises an amused eyebrow, ”the bipolar thing. Seems kinda backwards though, right?”

Ian looks away, shrugging his coat closer around him, but he’s still smiling slightly when he looks at Mickey.

”You can ask,” he confirms again, ”I get that you don’t wanna make a big deal, I appreciate it. But if there’s something you wanna know it’s better if you ask me. I don’t mind.”

”You-” Mickey starts and flinches when there’s a sharp knock behind him. He glares at Katie on the other side of the glass door, glaring back and shooing at him with her hands. She hates it when he smokes right outside the diner, claims it’s bad for business. ”You, eh. You got time?”

Ian’s smiles, ducking his head a little to hide it.

”Yeah, got some time,” he starts walking, eyes on Mickey to make sure he follows, ”this way, right?”

”Right.”

They walk in silence for a minute, slowly and aimlessly and in the general direction of Mickey’s apartment. Mickey glances at Ian’s profile, expressionless, calm, eyes fixed somewhere in the distance.

”You’re okay?” Mickey eventually guesses is the core of his curiosity, and he’s nothing if not straight to the point.

Ian smiles a little and meets Mickey’s eyes for a second before once more looking straight ahead.

”Yeah,” he nods, ”I’m okay.”

”And this thing, it’s like extreme moods right?” Mickey tries, wincing a little.

”I guess, manic depressive,” Ian sighs and when Mickey doesn’t say anything for a little while, he continues on his own accord, ”I’ve gone from not leaving my bed for… weeks, to running around thinking I’m invincible, doin’-”

He sighs again and runs a hand through his hair.

”You don’t have to tell me.”

”No, I don’t,” Ian hums, not looking at him, ”it’s different for different people. Paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, mania… and on the other end apathy, hopelessness, depression. Some get suicidal.”

”Hurricane Monica,” Mickey remembers, the words out of his mouth before he’s really thinking. He glances quickly at Ian, ready to apologize and shut this thing down if he’s stepped out of line. Ian looks back at him and though there is sadness there, he doesn’t appear too bothered by Mickey’s bluntness.

”Hurricane Monica,” he agrees, ”it’s genetic, partly. Bipolar.”

”Fuck,” Mickey exhales. When rumors spread across Canaryville that Frank’s on and off wife had offed herself in the most spectacular manner, Mickey and his family had treated it like just another South Side story. ’Hurricane Monica’, people would say and shake their heads, like they’d all seen it coming. Mickey hadn’t thought about all the kids left behind, back then. He hadn’t thought about reasons. About genes.

”Your mom?”

”All my life,” Ian smiles sadly, ”always promising and sweet-talking, then leavin’ us- leavin’ so many times. She slit her wrists on Thanksgiving once. I was sixteen. Family dinner in one room, fucking bloodbath in the kitchen.”

”Shit,” Mickey mumbles and focuses his desire to reach out to Ian on his cigarette, taking it gently and tapping the ash to the wind.

”She was manic when she died though,” Ian sighs, ”she didn’t jump. She thought she could fly.”

Ian is quiet for a moment and they walk together in silence, shoulder to shoulder separated by only a couple of inches.

”You’re not your mom.” Mickey doesn’t know much, but he knows this. He’s not Terry, Ian isn’t Monica.

He can feel Ian’s sideways glance and he meets it, holding it, meaning it. Ian nods.

”So, what,” Mickey clears his throat and breaks eye contact, ”there’s like, a cure?”

Ian shakes his head and for a second Mickey thinks that’s all he’s gonna get.

”Antipsychotics, mood stabilizers,” Ian gestures at is head, ”fucking cognitive psychotherapy. Understanding it, balancing it. Even shit out some.”

”And that works?”

”Mostly,” Ian grimaces slightly as they turn a corner and a strong gust of wind catches them, coats flapping around them, ”hardest part was realizing that I needed any help at all, and then it took a long while to get it right.”

”That what all this no coffee bullshit’s coming from?” Mickey asks, glancing at Ian when he lets out a rough laugh. They’re so close to Mickey’s apartment now but he’s not ready to escape the biting wind and the open floodgates to Ian’s life, so he silently steers them around another corner, taking them the long way around.

”Coffee, weed, alcohol,” Ian nods, and if he notices the unconventional route, he doesn’t mention it. ”Messes with the balance, and doesn’t mix well with the meds. So instead we’ve got exercise, routine, fucking omega 3 or whatever. Shit ton of vitamins.”

”And the smoking?”

”No one ever told me to quit,” Ian admits, ”but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was changing my whole way of life, figured I might as well cut down on the cancer-sticks too, while I was on a roll.”

Mickey just shakes his head and tosses the burnt out stump of his cigarette to the ground behind them. He’s not sure if he’s impressed or terrified.

”I get kinda goal-oriented,” Ian smiles when Mickey huffs out a quiet ’no kidding’.

A little old lady with her walking frame causes Ian to take a slight step to the side, making room for her to pass in the other direction. Their shoulders bump for a second before Ian files in behind Mickey.

”What about you?” he asks when he returns to Mickey’s side, half turned away, eyes on the old lady, before turning to Mickey with a curious look on his face.

”What about me?” Mickey frowns, and he’d go for another cigarette if he didn’t know he’d have to ask Ian for a light again.

”All that criminal promise, once,” Ian jokes, cautiously, ”and now look at you. Steady job, kid. Clean. Literally and figuratively.”

”I realized the value of regular showers, so what?” Mickey shrugs. ”Nothing impressive about that.”

”Don’t need to hide from me, Mick.”

”Who the fuck is hiding?” Mickey bites and regrets it instantly. He wants to tell Ian, the realization is slow and slightly uncomfortable. ”Whatever.”

Ian nods and says nothing. Maybe he’s fine with Mickey’s reticence, maybe he’s waiting.

”Having a kid changes you,” Mickey eventually decides is both sufficiently vague and the absolute truth. ”Everything else kinda falls away, an’ you just gotta get your shit straight. Not much choice in the matter.”

”There is always choice,” Ian’s looking at him, voice steady and convincing, ”and not everybody makes the right one, we both know that way too well.”

Mickey nods and avoids Ian’s sincere expression, pretending something on the other side of the street catches his attention. They fall into another bout of silence and Mickey takes the opportunity to figure out exactly how to approach his next question.

”So when you-” he eventually starts, clearing his throat to get rid of the uncertainty in his voice, ”so when you first came to the diner-”

Ian nods, like he knows what’s coming.

”Did I do okay?”

”What?” Ian frowns and looks at Mickey when he stops walking. They’re outside Mickey’s apartment building now but he doesn’t say anything, he just meets Ian’s curious stare and waits.

”I’d been cooped up in my apartment for over a week, not speaking to anyone,” Ian scratches at the back of his neck, elbow shielding his face from Mickey’s searching eyes for a second, ”finally got enough of a grip to make an appointment with my therapist that morning and I kinda forced myself to leave home early so I wouldn’t go back to bed and blow it off. Your diner was close by.”

”Shit,” Mickey closes his eyes at the memory of their first meeting and pinches at the bridge of his nose, ”I’m really fucking sorry, man.”

”Don’t be,” Ian’s smile is wide and genuine when Mickey looks at him again, ”it was good. Obviously.”

”You were feelin’ like shit and I was being an asshole,” Mickey sighs.

”I was feeling like shit and you talked to me,” Ian’s voice goes a little thick and he looks away suddenly, clearing his throat over the unusual display of emotion. He looks like he wants to say more, but then he nods silently and shrugs, hands still tucked into his deep pockets.

”You ever thought about trying anything?” Mickey doesn’t bother with prefacing the sensitive question with a ’tell me to fuck off if it’s too personal’. He trusts that Ian will, if it is.

Ian doesn’t avoid his gaze this time, eyes steady and face set. Mickey understands. If the answer was no, admitting to it wouldn’t have been very hard.

”I know you’ve got a whole bunch of doting siblings,” Mickey thumbs at his bottom lip, frowning at his own words, ”and probably a whole lotta other people lookin’ out for ya, but if you’re feelin’ like that promise me you’ll come down and I don’t know, talk to me, instead of doing something stupid?”

Ian’s expression doesn’t change and Mickey takes a step back, mirroring the instant regret he’s feeling.

”Or you know, anyone else,” he amends, ”I know you got better people in your life that know you for real and I don’t think I’d be of much fucking use but I just… I-”

Fuck it.

”I’d try.”

Mickey doesn’t know how to react when Ian grasps him by the shoulder and pulls him in, arms folding around him in a firm and quick embrace. He has enough presence to grasp the sides of Ian’s coat and hear his soft ’you’re something else, Mick’ over the traffic and wind and the side of Ian’s hood pressing against his ear, before Ian lets go and takes a step back.

”See ya, Mickey,” he says, eyes shining, taking a few more steps backwards and shooting Mickey a crooked smile before turning and walking away down the street.

Mickey stays where he is, feet glued to the pavement and eyes on Ian’s back until he disappears around a corner. So much for dialing it back.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 12.
Thursday.

 

Mickey tries not to think about it, how nice it was. He’s not a big hugger; he has a pretty rigid sense of personal space and he isn’t exactly the cuddliest of people. What he is, however, is a very physical person, only what had used to be violent and explosive over time became protective and controlled. Gentle, even.

Either way, there has always been a few select people in his life he cares about deeply and he’s never been adversed to hugging them from time to time, when it’s called for. Ever since Yevgeny could stand up on his own, he’s liked to wrap his arms around Mickey in whatever way he could and press his face against him. Knee, thigh, stomach. Chest, now. Mickey can tell the kid is gonna outgrow him, Svetlana’s got some tall-ass genes on her side. Perhaps he’ll outgrow hugging him. He’s never hugged Svetlana. Fucked her once, obviously. Kissed her once, too, unavoidably. They’re good friends now, but they have a silent agreement to keep a certain distance. It’s easier that way.

He used to hug Mandy sometimes, when they were kids, and when everything else seemed very complicated, that always came easy. He’d combine it with a nuggie or a titty twist and laugh when she’d push him away. Iggy does this thing sometimes where he grasps Mickey by the shoulder and squeezes it tightly, and Mickey is pretty certain his brother would like to extend his affectionate display into a hug. Hasn’t happened yet.

He can’t remember his mom well enough to know, but he guesses she must have held him at some point. It’s what mothers do, maybe even his. And then there’s Terry. Well, Terry was Terry. If language was to redefine casual violence as a form of affection, Mickey’s youth would have been one of sentimental opulence.

Mickey racks his brain to come up with a time before Ian when someone who wasn’t family willingly hugged him and he draws a complete blank. Maybe that’s why he kinda can’t stop thinking about it now; Ian just going for it, like it was no big deal. Mickey bets he has an open door hugging policy, no application or waiting period needed. He wouldn’t be surprised, he’s very good at it. Arms like he was made for it.

”Fucking ridiculous,” he mutters under his breath and rubs at his eyes. It’s been almost a week and he’s been pretty good at not worrying about Ian not coming in since last Friday. He has no reason to; the guy is a grown-up with a job, apparently, and is perfectly free to do whatever the fuck he wants. Besides, Mickey figures that it’s part of the deal, when someone tells you they’re occasionally mentally unstable, not to jump to the conclusion that they’ve killed themselves whenever you haven’t seen them for a couple of days. It’s not fair on Ian, on his decision to confide in Mickey. It’s definitely not helpful to either of them.

Still, Mickey can’t deny something unravelling inside him when the doorbell jingles and Ian steps inside. A weight off his heart, a flutter in his gut. Call it whatever you want, gonna sound pretty fucking gay either way. Mickey can own that, privately.

Ian smiles and nods at him, making his way over to his table to shed his heavy coat and take a seat. Mickey finishes up what he’s doing, hands on auto-pilot making sandwiches, thoughts clearly elsewhere, before grabbing the fresh pot of coffee and zigzagging through the tables towards Ian’s corner.

”Breakfast?” he asks before quickly glancing at his watch, 11:15, ”or just coffee for now and I’ll get you some lunch later?”

”Coffee and lunch sounds like a plan,” Ian decides and juts his chin out a little as he looks up at Mickey, ”gonna join me later, for lunch?”

Mickey pours his coffee and glances quickly at Ian’s expectant face, before focusing again on making sure he’s not over-pouring the cup.

”Don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he says, eyebrows raised when the cup is full and he’s looking at Ian again, ”but it’s kinda a thing I do, when I can.”

”Good,” is all Ian says, turning away to pick his bag up from the floor and take out a laptop. It’s one of those thin, shiny-looking things, the ridiculously expensive kind, although this one has seen better days; edges scraped and banged up, top covered in a layer of scruffy stickers. Mickey swears he can see some disney princesses and ninja turtles in there.

”Good,” Mickey echoes and he lingers by Ian’s elbow for a second. Guess he knows what he’s doing for his lunch, now. It’s what he pretty much always does when Ian’s around, but still, the whole thing feels so goddamned official now. If he was the worrying kind he might be inclined to think Ian’s got something on his mind, something Mickey won’t like.

”You got something to say?” he asks, because he’s not gonna spend two hours not thinking about this, about not worrying. Ian looks up at him, fingers resting gently against the keys of his laptop.

”No?”

Mickey sighs and puts the coffeepot down on the table, taking a seat and settling in to wait Ian out. Ian looks at him, then quickly glances around the diner and out the window before closing the laptop and folding his hands together on top of it.

”I wasn’t-,” he starts, frowning, ”it’s nothing.”

Mickey folds his arms across his chest and nods slightly at him, prompting him to continue.

”I wanted to say thanks, okay?” Ian sighs and then smiles that crooked smile. ”Didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but I wanted to say it. Make sure you knew.”

”Knew what?”

”That you did a very nice thing, last week, and I really appreciate it?” Ian makes a face when Mickey maintains his blank stare. ”Saying I can come to you if I’m feeling low. Most people wouldn’t.”

”What kinda assholes do you normally talk to?” Mickey frown grows deeper when Ian laughs. ”No seriously? Of fucking course you can come talk to me, who wouldn’t say that?”

”Most people don’t,” Ian doesn’t seem upset about it, resigned maybe, ”don’t want nothing to do with that kinda thing, unless they have to. It’s understandable.”

”Fuck off, understandable,” Mickey mutters.

”It’s scary,” Ian shrugs, ”it’s not easy. It’s… very difficult to care about someone who doesn’t care about themselves, sometimes.”

”Is what it is,” Mickey says, suspecting that he would find it heartbreakingly easy to care for someone like Ian, no matter how much they didn’t themselves, ”life’s not easy, all the time. Doesn’t help being a dick about it.”

”Well,” Ian nods, smile small and gentle, ”I wanted to say thank you, anyway.”

”No need, made your feelings pretty clear last time,” Mickey grins when Ian self-consciously averts his eyes, ”unless emotionally loaded hugging means something else where you come from.”

”North Wallace?” Ian snorts, following Mickey’s movements with his eyes while he’s getting up from his seat.

”Outer space, man,” Mickey laughs and quicksteps out of the way when Ian swats at him, coffee sloshing around in the pot. ”Too slow.”

Mickey is feeling very childish, chuckling to himself as he’s walking away from Ian’s incredulous grumbling of ’Jesus’ and ’like taking to a profane five year old sometimes’, yet undeniably lighter at heart.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 13.
Friday.

 

”You got any more of those?”

Mickey lowers his newspaper with about an inch to level Ian with a blank stare. ”Newspapers? No.”

”No, man,” Ian smiles, shakes his head, closes his laptop, and looks like he’s settling in for some conversation. Mickey sighs, in all honesty more at the warmth pooling in his stomach than at Ian interrupting his quiet time, and picks up his paper to shield himself from view.

”Ink.”

”’Scuse me?” Mickey lowers the paper again, eying Ian’s widening smile.

”You know having a conversation with you sometimes-,” Ian sighs and folds his arms across his chest, not at all masking his still clear amusement, ”it’s like pulling teeth.”

Mickey folds his newspaper up, carefully, ostentatiously, and fixes his eyes on Ian as he mirrors his pose, picking up his eyebrows in a silent ’yeah?’.

”Not complaining,” Ian smiles like he’s trying not to, and uncrosses his arms before leaning forward a little and pointing lazily at Mickey, ”ink, Mick. Tattoos. Tats. Some more of that phat line art, brah?”

Mickey can’t help laughing at him, Ian’s already pretty deep voice dropping and his fingers flicking briefly in the air between them as he’s channeling whatever kind of person he imagines would talk like that.

”No,” Mickey says, uncrossing his arms as well to self-consciously rub at his knuckles.

”Why not?”

”Fuck you think, why not?” Mickey shrugs and picks up his coffee so he can lean his elbows against the table and stop worrying at the faded ’fuck u-up’ on his hands. ”Don’t know, bunch of reasons. Stick an’ poke might have seemed a good idea when I was thirteen and high off my ass, but you know. I’d give Yev hell for it if he tried anything like that now, fucking unsanitary, what that is, and not worth the risk. Walkin’ the straight and narrow, who the fuck here can afford gettin’ something legit done?”

”You’d want something big?”

”Nah man, I want like an inspirational quote in the smallest cursive font known to man on the inside of my wrist,” Mickey taunts, ”carpe fucking diem.”

”Never look back,” Ian grins.

”Believe in yourself.”

”Think positive.”

”Yes!” Mickey laughs, pointing at Ian at the suggestion. ”Almost as bad as getting someone’s fucking name.”

”But you think about it?” Ian insists.

”Sure, I do,” Mickey wraps his fingers more tightly around his cup, slowly spinning it around, ”but fuck that, it’s not worth that kinda money, in the end. Got a kid to feed.”

Ian nods, eyes darting away for a moment, landing on the table.

”What about you?” Mickey asks him and feels the pull at the side of his mouth when Ian looks up at him sharply, like he’s startled by the question.

”I got some,” Ian admits, sounding reluctant, ”one.”

”Shit, it’s not someone’s name, is it?” Mickey groans.

Ian smiles, eyes down again for a second, leaving Mickey hanging.

”No, not someone’s name,” Mickey feels himself release a genuinely relieved breath, hoping it’s not too obvious, ”but shit circumstances none the less.”

”Yeah?” Mickey picks up his eyebrows, ”you gonna tell me or you want me to go get the pliers?”

”Not gonna tell you, Mick,” Ian’s half a smile suggests that he would, and Mickey probably wouldn’t even need to resort to dental surgery.

”Gonna show me, at least?” Mickey asks, realizing a little too late that they probably aren’t talking bicep or calf. Definitely not, judging by Ian’s raised eyebrow.

”Don’t think so,” Ian smiles, and pats his ribs under his right arm, ”gonna have to work some for the full visual.”

Mickey frowns at that and doesn’t miss the flash of panic through Ian’s eyes, gone just as quickly.

”Unless you want me to take my shirt off at the diner,” Ian quickly continues, ”I can’t help you.”

”Is it something really stupid?” Mickey prods, more curious than ever and happy to follow Ian’s line of ’ignore and move on’.

”No,” Ian huffs out a laugh and pulls a hand through his hair, ”no, not- you’re probably imagining way worse things right now. It’s like… Imagine thirteen year old me transcribing a speech off a bad VHS copy of A Few Good Men, and then imagine that same kinda thing, but instead as a permanent drawing takin’ up something like this area-”

Ian draws out a circle on his lower ribs about 6 inches in diameter.

”And then un-imagine whatever visual you’ve got up there of botched black and white portraits of Tom Cruise,” Ian’s scowling and pointing at Mickey’s head, like he knows what his brain is up to, ”you know what?”

”No, what?” Mickey’s grinning so hard he can feel his cheeks starting to hurt.

”It’s a fucking eagle, alright?” Ian sighs, throwing his hands up a in defeat but grinning back at Mickey all the same. ”An eagle with a gun.”

”You serious?” Mickey hadn’t expected him to give it up so readily, and now he’s almost incapable of processing what Ian’s telling him. ”Like, a handgun?”

”Rifle,” Ian clarifies, one shoulder raised in a lopsided shrug.

”An eagle,” Mickey repeats, ”carrying- carrying?”

Ian nods, rolling his eyes a little.

”Carrying a rifle, in its, what- talons, I’m guessing?”

”Correct.”

”Yeah, sure,” Mickey widens his eyes, ”anything else would be absurd.”

He puts up his hands, roughly measuring out the size of the circle Ian had drawn on himself before, picking up an eyebrow in question as he looks at Ian. Ian makes a face and mirrors his pose, then widens the gap between his own hands with about an inch.

”No kidding,” Mickey huffs and they put their hands down in unison, ”guess you were real serious about that whole army thing, huh?”

”Well,” Ian scratches at the back of his neck, eyes somewhere on the wall at Mickey’s left, ”yeah. I guess.”

”What happened?” Mickey asks, despite the stubbornness set in Ian’s jaw and his uncharacteristic reluctance to meet his eyes. ”Or ’s that one of those things you don’t gotta tell me?”

Ian closes his eyes for a second, exhaling loudly. Then he laughs and rubs at his face, and when he looks at Mickey again it’s with a small, knowing smile and something like an apology to the tilt of his head

”I got out of a really bad relationship,” he starts and rolls his eyes, an acknowledgment of that he knows exactly how that sounds as well as a response to Mickey’s wide-eyed expression, ”realized I’d never get to West Point, for a bunch of reasons… shacked up with my mom and her ’friends’ for a while, thinking that was a good idea will tell ya some about my state of mind at the time. Tried to enlist, but I wasn’t eighteen yet, so, I don’t know-”

He looks around the room, his shoulders tensing as he seems to clasp his hands together under the table. Maybe he’s looking for someone to take Mickey away from this conversation, but the room is quiet and when he looks at Mickey again he doesn’t seem to hesitate.

”Did some real stupid shit for money, got a tattoo,” he shrugs, unclasping his hands to scratch absentmindedly at the fabric covering the unwanted memory. ”It’s fine, it’s not ugly or anything. But I got diagnosed not too long after that and it’s just- it’s a reminder, you know?”

Mickey doesn’t want to know what ’stupid shit’ Ian might have done for money, certain it was nothing as relatively innocuous as dealing or stealing. He doesn’t press the issue, won’t think about it.

”Could’ve been worse,” is the dumb thing he decides to say, cringing and tiredly shutting his eyes at the flippant tone of his voice. Then he hears the unmistakable sound of Ian’s lowly laugh and he cautiously cracks an eye open to look at him, slowly realizing that his lack of tact and overt sympathy never seem to sit particularly ill with the guy. Come to think of it, Ian’s never taken Mickey’s abrasive nature as anything other than what it really is; mostly surface and reflex. Where others tend to find him disagreeable, Ian must have seen something else, something immediate. Or maybe he likes a certain level of disagreeability in his friends.

”True,” Ian smiles, breaking Mickey out of his ridiculous revery, ”could’ve been somewhere really visible.”

”Oh, think you’re funny, do you?” Mickey tries to sound menacing but can’t help laughing, ”real fucking joker, huh, Jack Nicholson?”

Ian lets out an appreciative noise at Mickey’s words and doesn’t try to dodge out of the way when Mickey throws a torn off piece of his lunch at his face. Instead, he snaps his jaws open and catches the crumbly piece of bread midair like a fucking dog. His smile is wide and triumphant as he chews and looks at Mickey like he’s waiting for something.

”You want a standing O? A fucking treat?” Mickey shakes his head and firmly folds his arms across his chest. ”Ain’t encouraging that sorta childish behavior in my diner, man.”

”You’re the one trying to instigate a food fight, Mick,” Ian points out, ”I’m the one minimizing the damage right now with my sharp as fuck reflexes and-”

”Your big mouth,” Mickey cuts in, half a mind to throw some more bread at his face just to see it happen again but vetoing the urge before it properly forms for, oh, so many reasons.

”My vaudevillian genius,” Ian corrects, casually flipping him off.

”Don’t think there’s gonna be a lotta circuses millin’ around here looking to recruit your ass for doing something every other Lassie and Beethoven can do just as well,” Mickey eats the piece of bread his traitorous fingers have autonomously torn off his half a sandwich.

”Beethoven?” Ian smiles, shaking his head. ”Really?”

”First and second, bitch,” Mickey shrugs, ”you gonna give me crap for watching kids’ movies as a kid now?”

”Oh, no,” Ian grins wider, ”I just think it’s adorable that it’s still your first point of reference when you have to think of a famous dog. They’re all over the place now, man, got instagram accounts and everything.”

”They’ve got what?” Mickey can’t help the slightly desperate tone to his voice.

”French bulldogs,” Ian’s looking way too fucking happy, ”some rat-looking things with their tongues sticking out, I don’t know, chihuahuas? Cats. They’re all there. People uploading their pictures, pretending it’s the animal doing it.”

”The fuck?” Mickey feels genuinely ready to resign from the world. ”Why?”

Ian shrugs. ”For fun?”

”Fun,” Mickey repeats with a groan and rubs at his eyes, ”fun?”

”I don’t totally understand it, but would you rather have ’em out on the streets, getting into fights?” Ian asks, and he’s still smiling while his tone has taken on something slightly different, slightly challenging, ”loitering around, stealin’ and destroying shit? ’S what I was doing when I got bored. Things bored kids do for fun will always be stupid as fuck, Mick. So let ’em.”

”Fun,” Mickey sighs, voice severely lacking in hostility this time, ”alright. Don’t see how bashing people or being ridiculous online are the only two available options, but I’m not gonna play into this ’old man Mickey’ routine and complain about it.”

Ian scoffs and meets Mickey’s eyes when he looks up at him. Mickey doesn’t know what it is, this thing happening between them, but it feels new and entirely alright.

”But ’adorable’?” he asks, breaking the silence, watching with something dangerously close to delight as Ian cringes and hides his face behind one of his big scrawny hands. ”Now that’s just fucking hurtful, Ian.”

”Won’t happen again, Mick,” Ian vows, his crooked lips promising something entirely different. Mickey stares at him for a bit too long, helplessly scanning his features while Ian dips his head and focuses his attention once again on his computer, sliding it towards himself and carefully opening it.

”Better not,” he mumbles and averts his eyes when Ian glances up at him through his pale goddamned eyelashes. He knows he should get back to work, there’s always something he can clean or prepare, but he doesn’t. He picks up his newspaper and hides behind it, staring blankly at some vaguely upsetting headline.

Better not, sounds about right. Better not.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 18.
Wednesday.

 

”French toast and one full English,” Mickey recites as he puts down the plates and eyes his customers to make sure he got it right. They grunt and look pleased enough, so he nods and makes a quick turn, scanning the room for anyone wanting anything. Table 3 just got their order, 5 and 6 got their noses deep within newspapers; one complementary, one slightly more serious. He picks up a couple of plates left since lunch, pockets the measly tip stashed under one of them, and walks over to the kitchen.

”Calming down?” Etch asks, not looking up from where he’s hacking away at a particularly stubborn patch of burnt grease and egg when Mickey walks past him to the dishwasher.

”Yep,” Mickey hums, stacking the plates carefully before leaning his shoulder against the stainless steel machine to regard his coworker’s efforts.

”Haven’t seen your new pal around for a couple of days?” Etch isn’t the best at acting nonchalant, face almost cartoonish when he looks at Mickey out of the corners of his eyes, his hand switching its grip on the scraper for a better angle.

Almost a fucking week, Mickey notes to himself, and he’d consider being embarrassed about knowing that if he was the kinda guy who got easily embarrassed about shit.

”Who?” he asks instead, feigning ignorance.

”Carrot-top,” Etch smirks, plays along, ”what’s that you call him? Red?”

”Ian,” Mickey mutters, not sure he wants to have this conversation, wherever it’s going, ”it’s Ian, you know it’s Ian.”

”No, I didn’t,” Etch stops scraping for a second to look directly at Mickey, all teasing aside looking pretty curious now, ”so you guys are gettin’ real friendly, huh?”

”Fuck off, real friendly?” Mickey makes a face and turns a little so he can rest his back against the dishwasher and cross his arms. ”The fuck does that even mean?”

”You never know people’s names,” Etch shrugs and goes back to his scraping, ”it’s, I don’t know, noteworthy? Seem to get along, ’s all.”

”He’s alright,” Mickey shrugs, ”he’s nice.”

”Bet he is,” Etch’s got that suggestive wiggle back in his eyebrows, ”not too shabby to look at either, I’d think?”

”Yeah, no,” Mickey stares at Etch for a second before pushing himself off the dishwasher and moving to leave the kitchen, ”nope.”

”Oh, come on, Mickey,” Etch laughs as he dislodges a chunk of egg from the grill, ”you’re so fucking uptight.”

Mickey hesitates in the doorway, he could just walk out on all of this, but then again; uptight? Don’t fucking think so. And who else is he going to talk to about this? It’s a startling realization; that he might want to talk about this. Might have a ’this’ to want to talk about.

”You and Ig now make two straight morons with boners for this guy,” he points out and turns around to catch the side of Etch’s wide grin, to settle in with a shoulder against the doorjamb.

”Well, good-looking fella, ain’t he?” Etch shrugs with the infuriating confidence of someone who’s never feared for his life for having a thought like that. ”Bet the missus wouldn’t complain too much if I brought someone like that home for a spicy date night.”

Mickey scoffs and hugs his arms closely across his chest, glad Etch’s still got his back turned to him.

”Yeah, well, good luck with that,” he mutters, ”guy’s straight, so guess you’re perfect for each other.”

”He said he’s straight?”

”They’re always straight, man,” Mickey offers, but doesn’t elaborate.

”Maybe you should ask him?” Etch suggests, glancing over his shoulder at Mickey. The movement causes a chain reaction with Mickey shuffling his feet, redistributing his weight, and mimicking Etch to cast a quick eye on the diner, making sure no one’s calling for him.

”I’ve tested the waters,” Mickey shrugs, returning his eyes to Etch’s back, ”and it’s not gonna happen. Besides, ain’t like that, man. We get along and all, but it ain’t like that.”

”Okay,” Etch doesn’t sound convinced, ”okay, I believe you, even if I don’t trust in you ’testing the waters’ for shit. You’ve got an ex-wife and a kid, Mickey, you think the guy’s gonna jump to queer conclusions just because you look at him like you wanna kill him?”

”’Scuse me?”

”I’ve seen you flirt, man,” Etch chuckles, ”it’s intense, and not entirely obvious.”

”You haven’t seen shit,” Mickey laughs, ”I can be obvious when I want to be.”

”Don’t doubt it,” Etch grins and yelps when Mickey throws whatever he can get his hands on at him. A stale footlong baguette, as it turns out, bouncing off Etch’s shoulder and landing on the grill in an explosion of crumbs.

”Can be fucking smooth too,” he adds, ”if I need to be.”

”Uh-huh.” Etch doesn’t sound convinced at all, curling out the trashcan from under the bench with his foot, scraping the busted bread and the slowly browning crumbs off the grill and into it. ”Now, that I gotta see.”

”Not gonna happen, Etch,” Mickey promises.

”Shoot, Mickey, you never gonna take me to a gay bar, let me wingman you some tight piece of ass?” Etch complains, chuckling at Mickey’s distressed ’Jesus’. ”And you’re not sweet on this Ian guy, this what you’re telling me? Couldn’t let me keep some of my hopes and dreams, could you?”

Mickey ignores the first part but actually finds himself consider the second.

”Don’t think of him like that,” he shrugs and rolls his eyes when Etch lets out an incredulous sound, ”I’m not blind, man, but that doesn’t mean- I don’t know. It’s just not gonna happen and that’s, like… it’s fine, alright? Don’t make that many friends this easily, it’s nice, not gonna ruin that by listening to my fucking dick an’ outing myself first chance I get, alright?”

Etch doesn’t answer, just makes a small noise of vague disagreement.

”I know the kinda guy he is,” Mickey clarifies, not wanting to leave the subject open for debate, ”been that kinda guy. He’s south side, and army, he’s got a code. He can be the sweetest guy you’ve ever met, but one wrong word or move too far an’ before you know it you’re getting jumped in a dark alleyway all the same.”

Mickey sucks on his teeth and feels with his tongue for the expensive as fuck implant on his bottom left; a subconscious tick of his whenever his mind flickers through a certain set of unpleasant memories. It’s been a while now, but if that’s because Mickey’s gotten better at keeping himself to himself or because the world’s suddenly come up roses is anyone’s guess. Mickey’s safe money is on the former.

”Fucking trust me when I tell you it’s not worth it,” he shrugs, ”I’ve been there, it’s never worth it. I’m keeping my fucking mouth shut and my dick under wraps until I’m dead sure me and mine ain’t gonna get bashed over this bullshit. Just the way it gotta be.”

He can tell Etch is swallowing whatever it is he really wants to say, nodding silently and not looking back at Mickey.

”You got something to say,” Mickey sighs, knows he’s come on a bit too strong, ”say it.”

”Seen the way he is around you, is all,” Etch turns around, eyes surprisingly soft when they land on Mickey, ”doubt there’s anything you can say that’d change that.”

”Then you don’t know what it’s like to come out,” Mickey counters, matter-of-factly, raising his eyebrows in challenge when Etch makes a face and winces at Mickey’s words.

”Guess I don’t,” he sighs and peers cautiously at Mickey across the room, ”know a thing or two about being your friend, though.”

”Yeah, no,” Mickey repeats with a smile he can’t suppress, and this time he really means it when he turns around to leave, ”thank you, but no thank you.”

He walks out of the kitchen to the sound of Etch laughing, and while he doesn’t necessarily feel any better from their conversation, it didn’t really hurt either. A step in the right direction, in his book.

When he looks out across the diner, he immediately spots Ian taking a seat at his table and whatever small amount of warmth he had in him drains straight out of him. How loudly was he talking? He never talks about himself loudly, he knows he never does, but now, for some reason, he can’t recall. Can’t remember thinking about it at all this time.

He slowly lets out a relieved breath when Ian sits down and with the motion angles his head just so that Mickey can see his bright white earphones. The absolute panic slowly ebbing out of him now solidifies beyond any doubt his decision to keep certain aspects of his life secret from Ian.

”The weary wanderer returns,” he says when he’s at Ian’s elbow, attracting his attention by gently swiveling the coffeepot in front of him.

”What’s that?” Ian asks, taking out his earphones.

”Nothing,” Mickey smiles, at ease at last, ”good to see you, man, how was your week?”

Ian eyes him curiously, but doesn’t seem too shaken by the uncharacteristic question.

”Fine, Mick,” he says, small smile playing on his lips, ”how was yours?”

Mickey grins wide, the innocuous small talk for some reason really working for him today. ”Same, same.”

”Good,” Ian smiles wider and shakes his head a little, switching it up after a few turns to a nod, accepting Mickey’s raised offer of coffee. ”Good.”

Ian’s cup is just about full when Mickey feels his back pocket vibrate. He puts down the coffeepot and reaches back to fish out his phone, eying it suspiciously. Hardly anyone but his immediate family and his coworkers have his number, and very few of those who do ever use it. Svetlana usually calls the diner directly, knowing that Mickey’s less likely to ignore her if she does, Yevgeny never calls him during work hours unless it’s something really important.

But it isn’t his son’s name flashing up on his angrily buzzing phone, instead it’s a number he doesn’t recognize. Mickey never was one to avoid confronting telemarketers, however, and the thought of it possibly being something important pushes him to warily accept the call, eyes on the carefully curious look on Ian’s face as he puts the phone to his ear.

”Yeah?” he asks, and strains his ear to pick up on any kind of recognizable sound from the muffled noises on the other end. ”Mandy?”

Ian mirrors his concerned frown at the mention of the name, eyes stuck on Mickey, following his movements as he sits down opposite him, phone still to his ear.

”Goddamned it, Mandy,” he sighs and raises his voice as much as he feels comfortable doing inside the diner, ”Mandy?”

”What’s wrong?” Ian asks, concerned when Mickey lowers the phone to stare at it.

”Don’t know,” he says, front teeth worrying at his lips, ”think it’s my sister, never calls me unless-”

Mickey falls silent and then cocks his head a little, a thought slowly smoothing out the worried frown on his forehead.

”Or,” he says and opens up his contacts to scroll through them. Eyes back on Ian, since he’s right there and all, he puts the phone back to his ear, waiting out the dull tone.

”Hello?”

”Cal?” he asks to make sure, casting his eyes down on his free hand picking at a scratch on the table, ”Mandy there?”

”Who’s this?”

”Mickey,” he sighs, switching ear before he continues, ”think she’s been dialing me with her ass again, she okay?”

”Yeah, Mickey?” Callie hesitates and Mickey can hear someone say something to her in the background. ”You wanna talk to her?”

”No-,” Mickey starts but stops himself when he hears the rustling of the phone switching hands and some more indistinct conversation. Mickey glances up at Ian again and nods at his slightly raised eyebrows. He smiles, relieved, and Mickey can’t help but return it, faintly, before he gets up from the table to take a few steps away and into some semblance of privacy.

”Mickey?” Suddenly Mandy’s voice is there. ”What the fuck?”

”Not a fucking social call, Mands,” Mickey wants that at least to be perfectly clear, ”just wanna tell you to watch where you park your ass, okay? That shit got me thinking something’s wrong. And thanks for fucking telling me you’ve switched your number, again.”

”Sorry,” his sister has this way of saying ’sorry’ that makes her sound anything but, ”everything’s fine.”

”Good,” Mickey sighs, rubbing tiredly at his eyes, ”thank you, was that so hard?”

”You worry too much,” Mickey knows the sugary tone to her voice very well, knows he probably doesn’t worry nearly enough, ”by the way, while I got you; I’m coming home for Christmas.”

”What?” She’s nothing if not full of fucking surprises. ”Why?”

”Real nice, asshole,” Mandy complains, ”maybe ’cause I haven’t been back in years, ’cause I wanna see my brothers?”

”No really,” Mickey scoffs, ”why?”

Mandy sighs loudly, but then she lets out a short laugh and clicks her tongue.

”I don’t know, I wanna see you?” she says again, and this time sounds like she really means it. ”See Yev.”

”Now that I can believe,” Mickey admits, ”you flying in?”

”Yep, on the 23rd, back on the 27th. Can I stay at yours or you gonna make me get a dingy motel room somewhere?”

”You can stay,” Mickey shakes his head at her even though she can’t see him, ”but I ain’t picking you up at the airport, or dropping you off.”

”Wasn’t gonna ask, anyway,” Mandy snarks, ”pretty sure you’re still walking everywhere like some loser.”

”Yep, yep,” Mickey pinches at the bridge of his nose, already looking forward to, fuck, five days of this, ”that’s exactly what that makes me, yep.”

”I’ll text you my flight details later,” Mandy’s already wrapping things up, ”so you know when to expect me.”

”Thanks,” Mickey says, drily, and then hesitates for a moment before managing something a bit more genuine, ”lookin’ forward to it.”

”Me too,” she sounds distant now, voice low, ”look, I gotta go, sorry I worried you for nothing.”

”Used to it,” Mickey quips, ”talk to you later.”

She hangs up without another word and Mickey stares at his phone for a second before he pockets it and slowly turns back to Ian’s table.

”Everything alright?” he asks, he’s got his laptop out now and one earphone in his ear, one in his hand. There’s a low steady beat leaking out from whatever music he’s listening to.

”Yeah, sure,” Mickey answers, rubbing at his lower lip while he contemplates whether he should take the coffee and run, or stay and elaborate. Ian decides for him when he turns one of the other untouched cups around and fills it up, placing it down in front of Mickey’s usual seat. Like he has no power over his own body, Mickey sits down and wraps his hands around the slowly warming cup.

”She okay?” Ian prompts, closing the laptop and pushing it gently to the side, out of the way. He takes out the other earphone and winds the cord up around his fingers before putting them to the side as well.

”Yeah, no, she’s fine,” Mickey sips at his coffee and meets Ian’s open, focused eyes. He feels none of the reticence he so strongly argued for earlier, now that Ian’s here in front of him. Here, in his casually comforting presence, there’s that treacherous notion of complete confidence; unconditional and judgement free. Mickey knows there’s no such thing, though. Still, maybe. He has been wrong before. Ian would be the kind of insufferable person to prove him wrong just by being nice. ”She’s in New York, moved there when she graduated.”

”For college?” Ian asks, and he seems genuinely curious.

”Yeah,” Mickey smiles a little, ”at first. She got through a year of it before giving up. Don’t even know what she was studying, almost think she didn’t know either, sure sounded like she didn’t whenever we talked.”

Ian smiles with him, hiding it briefly behind his coffee cup.

”Don’t really know what she does now either,” he admits, and he can’t remember the last time he talked to someone about his sister. He’s never really wanted anyone to know about her, his strong need to keep her safe at all costs usually trumping any other kind of sentiment. ”Lives with some people in Harlem, think they’ve got like a-, a- thing. I really don’t know what they’re doing. Some kind of improv theater thing, but not really? It’s all very uh- conceptual, and I apparently ’wouldn’t understand, anyway’.”

”Sounds like she’s having a good time though?” Ian shrugs a shoulder, like he thinks it’s okay that Mickey doesn’t know.

”Yeah, whatever,” Mickey scoffs, ”fucking hope so.”

”You worry,” Ian notes, knows. Mickey shrugs and looks down at the slightly oily black liquid in his cup, scowls at his own distorted reflection. He really does look like he wants to kill someone. No wonder he’s so unsuccessful at any kind of flirting that isn’t straightforward propositioning. Well, great. Guess that makes his face good for something.

”She moved out when she was fifteen,” he says, and suddenly he wants to tell Ian something, anything, like he’s compensating him for all the things he’s not ready to tell him yet. ”Lived with Edna for a while, she’s our mom’s stepsister.”

Ian looks surprised by this, glancing over at the old lady sitting at her usual table, and Mickey realizes just how guarded he’s been, how he’s been systematically avoiding any little piece of information that could be perceived as even a little personal when talking to Ian at the beginning of their friendship. Still kinda does.

”She’s not even blood,” he continues, eager now to reveal all about this little corner of his life, ”but she still took her in for a couple of years. Got her into a slightly better high school, difficult to get much worse than our old school, right? She worked here on weekends, stayed out of trouble, didn’t have to deal with Terry or any of our shit anymore.”

”It was bad at home?” Ian asks and Mickey makes a face at him, not bothering with verbalizing the ’what do you think?’.

”She met Cal in high school,” Mickey smiles a little at the memory, ”nerdy little chubby latina girl, nothing like Mandy at all. Suddenly they’re best friends though, fucking inseparable, and while Mandy was failing it up at CCNY, Cal went to Brown on a scholarship. Left there with a degree in social sciences or some shit, only to go straight to New York and piss it all away movin’ in with Mandy and her new hippy-dippy friends.”

Ian’s smile is wide and oddly soft and Mickey knows what he’s about to say.

”Yeah, yeah,” he laughs, trying his hardest to sound gruff and failing miserably, ”sounds like they’re having a good time, what the fuck ever, man.”

”You’re proud of her,” Ian doesn’t know shit about any of this, even if that isn’t by his own choice, but he’s not dumb. And he seems able to see right through Mickey, often and with alarming ease.

”Maybe,” he deflects, crossing his arms in an annoyingly telling way, unable and unwilling to stop himself. ”Happy she’s got people, found some kind of family.”

Ian nods, and Mickey thinks he probably has that too; that deeply rooted need Mickey’s got to keep his family close, safe, even when said family pulls and fights to hurt and stay apart.

”You- eh,” Mickey tries, and starts again, ”your-, what’s his face, your brother?”

”Lip?” Ian frowns, and Mickey vaguely recollects there being more than one.

”That’s the one,” he nods, ”you’re close, still?”

If Ian’s at all surprised by Mickey asking, he’s hiding it well. Probably knows better than to draw attention to the stuttering way with which he manages to squeeze this one out.

”Yeah,” he says, a quick grimace telling that this wasn’t always the case, ”he’s in LA now, been for a few years. It wasn’t easy, when I got diagnosed. They’d gone through all that with Monica and all they could see-, they didn’t see the difference.”

He glances up at Mickey to respond to his involuntary, and slightly outraged, snort with a small and crooked smile. Eyes fucking sparkling with amusement at Mickey’s protective reflex.

”We’re a year apart,” he says, eyes back on his hands, fingers tapping gently against the edge of the table, ”always were close, before that, always did everything together. For a while, it kinda went to shit and he didn’t know at all how to deal, with me, with anything. He was in college and all, had a real hard time letting go of south side, still kinda has.”

”Sounds like an idiot,” Mickey decides, and the crinkling around Ian’s eyes when he looks at him like he’s doing now gotta be one of his new favorite things.

”Smartest guy I know,” Ian says, ”but yeah, an idiot all the same. Wanted nothing to do with him for a long while, but I kinda miss him like crazy now.”

”Whenever I talk to Mandy,” Mickey relates, ”feels like we’re fucking thirteen, fourteen again, she just pulls out all of that in me, can’t stop myself from saying stupid, immature shit, can’t physically stop the nuggies and fucking shoving matches.”

Ian chuckles and looks way too fucking pleased with whatever mental image he’s got going.

”Calms down after a while though,” he empties the last drops of coffee in his cup into his mouth and cringes at the cold and bitterness of it, ”around day two, three, you could almost think we’re adults again.”

”Almost,” Ian agrees, nodding as he absentmindedly glances at his wristwatch.

”You want anything?” Mickey suddenly remembers his job, like a bucket of ice dumped on his head.

”What?” Ian seems to have forgotten too, looking up at him in confusion for a split second before smiling slightly and shaking his head, ”no, thanks, no, I- I need to go soon anyway. Only stopped by for- eh, for some coffee.”

”Well, you got that at least,” Mickey sighs, ”even though the service was fucking atrocious.”

”Colorful,” Ian disagrees, ”downright charming.”

”Yeah, well,” Mickey huffs and pries himself out of the booth, ”gotta go charm some of my other customers now, I think, before I’ve got a coffee-demanding rage riot on my hands.”

”And here I was thinkin’ I was special,” Ian laments, crossing his arms as he leans back and looks at Mickey with narrowed eyes.

”Not my fault I’m so good at what I do,” Mickey shrugs, ”hate the game, man.”

”You did not just say that,” Ian groans, his eyes closing completely when his face scrunches up in disgust.

Mickey grins wide and hesitates for a moment, looking at Ian sigh and shake his head, meet his eyes again. The thought strikes him suddenly, and out of nowhere, but he can’t shake it.

”Hey,” he says, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, ”you okay?”

Ian hitches his eyebrows up in surprise, mouth dropping open for an automatic ’fine’ before snapping shut again. He looks back at Mickey, cautious.

”Why wouldn’t I be?” he asks, and Mickey understands that this isn’t the easiest thing for Ian. People asking him that question.

”No reason,” Mickey shrugs, stretching out a hand to spin the coffeepot around by a quarter on the table, not picking it up just yet, ”just coffee, right?”

”Just coffee,” Ian agrees, and when Mickey looks at him again he thinks he can see some of the tension slipping from his sharp eyes and set jaw, head tilting in slight admission, ”maybe some company.”

Mickey feels the corners of his mouth pull into a wide smile, unstoppable. He nods and decides to leave it at that, picking up the coffeepot by the handle and quickly, firmly, placing his other hand on Ian’s shoulder as he walks past him. He can’t deny the thrill going up his arm from the brief touch, reminding him that it’s the first time he’s instigated any kind of physical contact between them.

He makes a mental note not to do it again.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 20.
Friday.

 

”Hey, asshole,” Mickey picks himself up from the floor and leans across the counter to punch at Iggy’s shoulder, forcing him to look up from his damned phone long enough to acknowledge him, ”you gonna help out or just stand there?”

”Planned on just standing,” Iggy reveals, smirking at Mickey’s annoyed grumbling, ”maybe try my hand at sitting, eventually.”

”I hate you,” Mickey sighs and shoves at the box he’s been rifling through with his foot, inching it back in under the counter. He’s spent the last ten minutes looking for their extra supply of toothpicks, getting increasingly frustrated with how something can clearly be somewhere one day and gone without a trace the next. He knows they’ve got at least another box of the little bastards, somewhere.

”If that means I can continue just standing here,” Iggy mumbles, eyes back on his phone, ”I’ll take it.”

Mickey officially gives up the search in lieu of wholeheartedly giving his brother a hard time. ”Remind me again why you’re here, other than to just generally grate on my fucking nerves?”

”Had an hour,” Iggy explains, eyes not leaving his phone. He never has a good reason for visiting Mickey at work, and Mickey guesses he should feel flattered by that, by his brother’s apparent genuine desire to ’just see him’. Hard to appreciate something when it’s being an annoying waste of space, though, so Mickey saves any possible sentimental notion he might harbor for later.

”Happy to know you’re not working yourself to an early grave,” he drawls, leaning his elbows against the counter. Iggy lets out a short, very pleased, laugh and puts his phone away. Mickey hates that fucking thing. Not necessarily because he wants his brother’s undivided attention at all times, but because tapping away at the thing in front of other people is just rude, and suddenly, before he really knew what was happening, also socially acceptable. The two things kinda make for a perfect storm situation for Mickey; paradoxically allergic to certain brands rudeness and always ready to rage against the machine.

”What do you want me to do?” Iggy asks him, completely catching Mickey off guard. He doesn’t actually need any help, and quickly surveying the small crowd of people behind Iggy he realizes no one else seem to need them right now, either.

”Just stand there,” he scratches at his chin and looks up at Iggy who shoves his hands in his pockets and leans a shoulder against the glass display between them, ”look pretty.”

”Can do, boss.”

”I believe in you,” Mickey mutters and rubs at his eyes. It’s been a pretty long day, and of course Iggy had to show up right after everything had settled down.

Picking up his head and placing his chin in his hand, Mickey quietly observes the few diners still there after lunch, taking a moment to enjoy the stillness. His eyes linger on Ian’s profile, his long torso hunched over his laptop, the small white buds back in his ears. He came in earlier, for lunch, but so far there hasn’t been any opportunity for Mickey to sit down and talk to him. It’s fine, it’s nice that they don’t have to force anything. He’s also kinda itching to go over there, start something.

”You know he’s a Gallagher?” he asks, not leaving Ian with his eyes, suddenly realizing he’s not talked to Iggy about this yet.

”Who?” Iggy looks completely blank when Mickey turns to him.

”Ian,” Mickey frowns when Iggy doesn’t react, ”Red? The guy you let your kid spend a whole day with while you were off yellin’ at horses?”

”He’s a what?” Iggy asks, still the same uninterested and confused expression on his face.

Mickey sighs and rubs his hands over his face, laughing against his palms, before he picks up his head once more to start the whole thing over with renewed strength.

”A Gallagher,” he repeats, ”lived on North Wallace? You remember Frank at least, the dad? Constant fixture at the Alibi, drank with Terry sometimes, in between Terry looking to kill him.”

”Fucking Frank?” Iggy seems to finally have reached far enough through his weed-addled mind to spark some kind of recognition, twisting where he stands to get a good look at Ian. ”He’s related to asshole Frank?”

”The very same,” Mickey hums, ”his dad, or, something like that anyway.”

”Fuck,” Iggy turns back to Mickey, making a face, ”wouldn’t even have pegged him as south side. Guy looks like a tourist.”

”The real deal,” Mickey shrugs, ”whatever the fuck that means.”

”No shit,” Iggy muses, turning once more to look across the room, ”he the gay one?”

”What?” Mickey winces, not this again. Between Etch and his brother, Mickey feels like he’s on gay trial with this guy every other day now.

”No, I mean,” Iggy frowns as he tries to remember, ”pretty sure one of Frank’s kids was gay, went totally crazy and ran away, became a porn star or started whoring or something.”

”Where the fuck did you hear that?” Mickey asks, hands cold and clammy as he thinks of things Ian doesn’t want to tell him. He has no confidence in Iggy’s memory being at all reliant, however, nor in Canaryville’s rumor mill getting anything even a little bit right. Still, Ian did go awol at some point, and said himself that he did a lot of stupid shit. Hurt people. It wouldn’t surprise him if that left people talking, saying all kinds of nasty shit about him.

”Don’t know,” if Iggy notices any of Mickey’s unease, he doesn’t mention it, ”people talk, whatever. Probably not true, is it? But I did hear stuff. Could have been the other one, the short, crazy one. Once saw him crucifying some barbies behind the gymnasium, kid couldn’t have been more than seven at the time.”

It’s slightly unsettling that Iggy almost seems to know more about Ian’s family than Mickey does, even though his intel hardly can be called reliable. Mickey doesn’t remember any of the Gallagher brothers besides Lip, and now Ian, even though saying that he remembers him might be to greatly exaggerate things. Iggy’s vague memories aren’t helping, at all, ’the short crazy one’ doesn’t exactly narrow things down. Besides, Mickey did his fair share of barbie-torture when he was a kid, he would hardly call someone crazy for it.

”Whatever,” he decides, not interested in listening to bullshit rumors about Ian’s past.

”One of them beat the shit outta dad,” Iggy suddenly remembers with a slowly budding grin.

”What?” Mickey eyes his brother suspiciously, pretty certain he wouldn’t have forgotten something like that.

”Well,” Iggy’s face goes slack with the effort of recalling the events truthfully, eyes trained somewhere far away, ”got in with him pretty good at least. You don’t remember? Sure you do, it was, fuck- when was that?”

”Alright,” Mickey shuts him down, ”he’s right over there, you gonna keep gossiping like an old lady or just ask him? Fuck.”

”Ey!” Iggy shouts, causing Mickey to flinch and curse, and all of the late lunchers still in the diner to look up, except Ian, ”Gallagher!”

That catches his attention, Ian looks up and flits his eyes around the diner, quickly landing them on Mickey. Mickey crosses his arms and shrugs slightly, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head towards Iggy. Ian looks surprised but turns his eyes to Iggy none the less, removing his earphones.

”Yeah?” he asks, cautiously and not nearly as loudly as Iggy.

”Come over ’ere, will ya?” Iggy commands and grins wildly when Ian frowns.

Mickey and Iggy watch in silence as Ian glances quickly at his watch before he seems to take a moment to think it over, hands rubbing slowly at his thighs under the table, eyes on his laptop. Then he appears to come to a decision, brining his hands up to fold the computer away and file it into his bag. Taking out his wallet and shuffling through it he drops a couple of notes on the table, weighting them down with his cup after downing the last of his coffee, most likely cold by now.

He grabs his bag and coat before he finally gets up and walks over to the counter, eyes warily on Mickey as he stops before them, glancing at Iggy.

”Iggy,” he says, ”how are things?”

”Good, man,” Iggy grins, he always did enjoy making people uncomfortable.

”You’re not leaving on account of this asshole, are you?” Mickey asks, relaxing his fingers best he can when he feels them digging into the skin above his elbows, ”he’s only got a couple of questions, but I can make him leave if you wanna be left alone.”

Ian shakes his head, dipping it slightly before looking at Mickey.

”No, I just got a- a thing, soon,” he explains, ”need to leave in a couple of minutes anyway.”

His eyes shift to Iggy and then back at Mickey, one eyebrow slightly raised. ”So, what’s up?”

”You ever beat up our dad?” Iggy asks, causing Mickey to groan and turn away for a second, almost missing the panicked expression on Ian’s face.

”What?” he asks, face blank now but his eyes darting nervously between the two of them.

”Ig claims to remember one of you Gallaghers getting in a fight with Terry, once,” Mickey clarifies, glaring quickly at Iggy before uncrossing his arms and trying his best not to look too hostile, for Ian’s benefit, ”but don’t take his fucking word for it, I don’t remember ever hearing about anything like that.”

”Sure you do,” Iggy frowns, ”it was like ’03? ’04? Shit, it was like- around-”

”Yeah, okay, don’t strain yourself,” Mickey shakes his head, ”didn’t happen, did it? Admit it.”

”No, bro, you were all caught up in your own shit, you didn’t-,” Iggy’s eyes widen when something seems to finally click into place, ”it was- fuck, of course! It was the last time, that time after Yev was born, when he was on parole?”

”Holy fuck,” Mickey stares at Ian, who’s looking increasingly uncomfortable, ”that was you?”

”Um, maybe?” Ian admits.

”How did I not know this?” Mickey exclaims, turning to Iggy when Ian doesn’t answer.

”The cops didn’t bother calling in the fight, I think,” Iggy shrugs, ”just booked him for parole violation, maybe wanted to leave the kid out of it.”

”Lip and Kev got me out of there before the cops showed up,” Ian adds, dropping his things to the floor and nervously pulling a hand through his hair as he looks at Mickey again, ”I’m really fucking sorry, Mick, I didn’t know- I don’t really remember it. I wasn’t- wasn’t all there.”

Mickey gets it, realizes that it’s bound to have been around the time of Ian’s first manic episode and that there’s gotta be a few things he doesn’t recall all that clearly, for which he can’t claim complete responsibility. He looks genuinely remorseful now, eyes wide as they scan Mickey’s expression, looking for understanding, for forgiveness. Mickey wants to heave himself over the counter and kiss his stupid goddamned gorgeous fucking face.

”He’d been paroled for something like two days,” Mickey swallows over the thickness suddenly in his throat, ”came home and put his hands on my son, never seen him so fucking gentle with anything, carrying that kid, couple of weeks old.”

Ian presses his lips together and averts his eyes, looking like he wants to say something. Mickey doesn’t give him the chance.

”Never been so fucking scared in my life, Ian,” Mickey continues, voice low, ”when we got the call he’d been locked up again after beating on some kid at the bar, first time I felt like I could breathe properly. You have no idea.”

”I’m sorry,” Ian says, and he doesn’t get it, at all.

”No,” Mickey looks at Iggy briefly before he continues, ”you don’t understand. He was supposed to be locked up for a couple of months, tops, then he goes and gets himself a life sentence while he’s in there, and four years later, he’s dead. You, fuck… Ian, you set us free.”

Mickey can tell Iggy’s bowing his head slightly, sees it in his peripheral vision, but he keeps his eyes steadily on Ian, wants to make sure he really gets it into his head what he’s trying to tell him. Iggy hadn’t known about most things going on between Terry and Mandy, before Tony got her moved out, or Terry and Mickey, before the former got locked up for the last time. Not until later, when the bastard was dead and his sister and brothers stopped talking in codes, did Iggy fully understand what had been going on around him. Loyal and trusting, simple in the nicest possible sense, he hadn’t understood the breadth and length of Terry’s physical, sexual, and emotional abuse until it was in no uncertain terms explained to him.

”He was a shit person,” Iggy offers in support, even though Mickey knows his brother’s feelings on the matter are slightly more nuanced than his own, still on some unwanted level torn, ”and a worse father. You did the world a favor. Fuck knows you did my brother one.”

”I didn’t know,” Ian frowns, still isn’t looking at Mickey, ”fuck, I- I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

It takes a moment for Mickey to understand why Ian seems so shaken by this. Personally, he’s had six years to come to terms with Terry dying the way he did, the way he lived, and even then he didn’t really need more than a couple of months to deal with any residual issues left after the event. Mickey’s father had died long before that, in every other possible sense of the word, and his actual death had been nothing but an intense relief to him. It had meant a divorce, long time coming, and it had meant coming out. Not in the sense of parading around, not even in the sense of saying the actual words, because those who mattered already knew. But finally having the freedom to say ’him’ instead of ’her’ and his family and friends slowly, carefully, following his lead. It had meant his son, finally and truly out of Terry’s reach.

He doesn’t want to tell Ian any of this, but he looks at him now and he can see the guilt and regret painted on his face, clear as day.

”Not your fault,” he says, and knows it isn’t nearly enough, ”not like that, Ian, come on, don’t worry about it.”

Ian looks highly doubtful at that, shaking his head and still not meeting Mickey’s searching eyes, leaning over to pick up his things from the floor.

”I gotta go,” he says, cringing on his coat and hanging his bag off one shoulder, eyes on the ground and then tentatively on Iggy for a second before he takes a step back, ”I’m sorry. Don’t know what else to say.”

Iggy leans his elbows against the display behind him and looks back at Mickey with a slight smirk, the bell dinging softly as the door closes behind Ian.

”Guess it’s never fun to find out you killed a guy, huh?” he says, voice light.

”Keep an eye on the place,” Mickey tells him and grabs his coat from under the counter before he hurries around it and out the door, after Ian. He can hear Iggy say something back, sure to be idiotic and most likely heavy with insinuation, but he doesn’t pay it any mind. Ian’s still right outside the door, hands covering his face, when Mickey steps out on the sidewalk.

”Hold the fuck on,” he says when Ian winces at the sight of him and makes a move to walk away, and for some reason he stops, hands clenching and unclenching by his sides, back still turned to Mickey.

Mickey takes his time, puts on his coat and digs around in his pockets until he finds his cigarettes.

”Come on,” he says, cigarette at his lips, the lighter warming his face a little in the dry autumn cold, closing in on winter. ”Talk to me, man.”

Ian’s whole body heaves with a sigh and then he turns around. His eyes are glassy and his mouth is a thin line, matching the one splitting his forehead in two.

”Fuck,” Mickey starts, no idea what he could possibly say to make this any easier on Ian, ”wouldn’t have let Iggy say anything about this if I’d known-”

”That I killed your dad?” Ian huffs and bends his head, his face hidden behind his heavy sleeve as he rubs a hand across his forehead.

”You didn’t-,” Mickey shuffles his feet a little before taking a step closer, keeping his voice low, ”none of that shit, okay? You got in a fight with the guy, that’s all. Asshole pissed everybody off fucking daily, Ian, very few had enough balls to go after him.”

Ian makes a face, but his hand’s been dropped out of the way and he’s almost meeting Mickey’s eyes again, so Mickey will take it.

”He jumped some guy in there,” he insists, ”killed him, alright? In prison. Terry was a fuckin' alcoholic, abusive rapist, and in the end fucking stupid too, and no one had it comin’ more than him when they finally gave him that life sentence. Don’t even know exactly what happened after that, honestly didn’t give enough of a fuck to find out, but I guarantee you whatever he got was nothing compared to what he gave.”

Ian sniffs and blinks, taking a step to the side and angling his face towards the sky. Mickey lets him, lets him regain some space and composure.

”Didn’t fucking kill him, Ian,” Mickey says, like a promise, ”you didn’t. He did that all on his own.”

His hand moves of its own accord, grasping at Ian’s arm, his shoulder, thumb stroking across his collarbone through the thick layers of his coat and shirts, grazing over the short hairs behind his ear when he grasps him gently by the neck, causing him to turn back towards him. It’s when Ian finally meets his eyes again that Mickey realizes what he’s doing and lets go, hand punching lightly, dumbly, at Ian’s shoulder before dropping down and hiding in his coat pocket. He takes half a step back and brings his cigarette to his lips with the other hand.

”Don’t remember it,” Ian sounds very calm when he finally speaks, and Mickey doesn’t do anything to stop him when he reaches out and gently takes the cigarette from him, gingerly placing it to his own lips with two fingers, closing his eyes over the never-lost addiction being indulged for the first time in a long while, ”Lip was there, though, told me about it after.”

He shrugs and holds out the cigarette between them, offering Mickey to take it back, but Mickey merely shakes his head and lights up a new one for himself. Ian nods his thanks and puts it back to his lips, speaking around it.

”Said we’d been at the Alibi, me talking his ear off about some stupid shit,” he says, slowly exhaling a long stream of smoke out the corner of his mouth, ”he went to take a leak and when he came back, says I looked like someone possessed. Raging about something, suddenly launching myself across the room at Terry fucking Milkovich of all people.”

”Please tell me you kicked his ass,” Mickey grins when Ian huffs and shakes his head.

”Got in one or two good hits, I guess,” he narrows his eyes at Mickey, ”but then his friends got involved and they got me down on the floor pretty quickly. Kicking the shit outta me, Lip trying to get in there, couple of regulars too, Kev. Frank just sat there, pretty sure he was laughing but what the hell do I know, I was high. High off my own brain and whatever else I could get my hands on. No clue what the fuck I was doin’.”

”I’m sorry,” Mickey says, without thinking, and Ian honest to God fucking laughs at him. It’s short and distressed, but Mickey still thinks it’s good.

”Yeah,” he says, ”me too.”

”Knew I liked you for a reason, Red,” Mickey jokes, trying to relieve some tension, but Ian’s back to not looking at him again, the lines down the sides of his mouth not there because of his usual, infectious smile.

”I really gotta go,” he says, frown deep as he sucks the last bit of life out of his bummed cigarette and drops it to the ground, stepping on it with the toe of his shoe and blowing the smoke out through his nose. Mickey doesn’t want him to go, not even a little bit, but he knows he has to, understands it if he wants to.

”Sure,” Mickey says, carefully eying him when Ian nods and shrugs his coat closer around himself. He seems to hesitate, and then with one last quick glance at Mickey, another curt nod taking the place of whatever words he’s got stuck in his throat, he turns away and walks down the street.

Mickey stays outside for another minute, finishing his smoke. He looks at Iggy through the dirty window, sees him talk and laugh with one of the diners, pouring him a fresh cup of coffee. With a sigh he drops his cigarette and steps on it before going back inside, a small part of him he doesn’t want to listen to wondering if he’s likely to ever see Ian around again.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

November 26.
Thursday.

 

”Come on, Yev,” Mickey calls through the apartment, ”we’re gonna be late if we don’t leave now, and you know how your mom feels about that.”

”Can’t we just take the bus?” Yevgeny complains as he joins his father in the cramped hallway, sitting down on the floor to pull on his boots.

”The bus?” Mickey exclaims, not sparing on the dramatics, taking a deep breath as though he’s about to launch into his usual spiel about the horrors of public transport versus the values of a brisk walk. It’s one Yevgeny’s sure to know by heart by now, most likely word for word.

”Forget it,” he groans, sure enough, shaking his head as he ties the laces on his left boot, ”forget I mentioned it.”

”Forgotten,” Mickey confirms, pretty pleased with himself. He hoists Yevgeny up from the floor with one arm, turning the lights off and unlocking the door before ushering his son through it.

”You’re the stubbornest person I know,” Yevgeny laments, walking a slow circle wall to wall in the narrow hallway, waiting for Mickey to lock up behind them.

”Most stubborn,” Mickey absentmindedly corrects, pocketing his keys and grabbing Yevgeny by the shoulders, leading him down the hallway to the elevator, ”it’s not raining, it’s half an hour tops if you stop dragging your damned feet, and besides, it’s like the only tradition we have, so excuse me if I think it’s my parential fucking prerogative to insist.”

”Pre-”

”Prerogative,” Mickey repeats when the elevator doors ding open and they carefully step inside, expecting the slight dip and metallic protest with their added weight.

”What’s that?” Yevgeny is the supreme Admiral Button Pusher, it’s been his assigned role in their crew of two since he was a toddler and Mickey secretly loves it that it’s something he still does without worrying about being childish, pressing firmly at the discolored ground floor button soon as they settle inside the small metal chamber.

”It’s like privilege, isn’t it?” Mickey searches for the right words, gripping the handrail on the side wall when the elevator lurches into action, ”the exclusive right to something, to a decision. Means you do what I tell you.”

”Not sure I like that word,” Yevgeny says, the near death trap of an elevator slowing to a halt and the doors hesitantly jerking open, ”sounds like something that isn’t going to work in my favor for a long time to come.”

”Nah, it’s a good word,” Mickey swings the front door open, holding it up for Yevgeny to walk through first, ”you’ve got lots of prerogatives kid, some even I can’t say nothing about.”

”Like what?” Yevgeny turns and looks up at him, waits for Mickey to follow and walk next to him out on the sidewalk.

”Like preferences, deciding how you wanna live your life,” Mickey shrugs and takes out his pack of smokes, shaking out his lighter and a cigarette from the nearly empty, battered carton, ”autonomy. You know what people mean when they talk about consent?”

”Yeah, think so,” Yevgeny frowns, eyeing him suspiciously when Mickey shields his face with his hands to light up, ”this about sex?”

”Sure,” Mickey pockets his lighter and blows some smoke out to his left, as far away from Yevgeny as possible, ”can be about sex, and we can talk all about that when you think you’re ready to know.”

Yevgeny makes a face and snorts, like he finds the prospect of him ever wanting to know anything about sex preposterous.

”It’s gonna happen,” Mickey grins, reaching out with his free hand to ruffle through his son’s hair, shoving at him a little with his fingertips when Yevgeny tries to shrug him off. ”But it’s more than that, it’s about you being the only one who can decide about you, your body, your mind. No one else got any right to that.”

”Even you?”

”Especially me,” Mickey mutters, clearing his throat before elaborating, ”I’m just here for guidance, and, you know… fucking emotional support, or whatever.”

Mickey frowns and sucks at his cigarette, feeling for a second like he really fucked that one up. But then he looks at his son, walking next to him and nodding carefully to himself, eyes far off somewhere down the street in front of them.

”That’s pretty cool, dad,” he eventually says, smiling at Mickey, melting the near perpetual scowl right off his face, ”thanks.”

”I trust ya,” Mickey says, turning away to blow out some more smoke when Yevgeny beams up at him.

Since Yevgeny started talking, and actually making sense doing it, Mickey found that he had a real easy time being honest with the kid. Not in his usual disagreeable, aggressive way; dishing out hard truths and relishing in not sugarcoating anything for shit. No, faced with the open acceptance of this tiny new person that didn’t seem to think of his dad as anything other than a positive, he found himself being honest in a way he never had been before. Not with other people, not even with himself. After over twenty years of hiding from just about everyone, it took some getting used to, but it also wasn’t hard at all. At the end of the day, being honest with Yevgeny didn’t mean for Mickey to surrender himself to saccharine sentimentality or overbearing sincerity; it meant having a natural reaction and then learning how to use the right words to make sure Yevgeny understood. Understood that he was loved, supported; understood when he got something wrong, when he’d do better to reconsider.

”Marcus’ dad wants him to be a doctor,” Yevgeny tells him now, changing the length of his stride a little to better match Mickey’s even pace.

”Oh yeah?” Mickey puts the cigarette to his lips and lets it hang there, words slightly muffled as he speaks around it, leaving his hands free to zip up his coat better against the crisp air. ”I’m not so sure I want Marcus to be a doctor, your mom told me about that time you two tried playing with those brick things.”

”Jenga?” Yevgeny asks and laughs when Mickey nods, smoke billowing out his nose. ”His hands were shaking so much, he kept knocking it over on his first move.”

”Imagine that, but with intestines falling all over the place,” Yevgeny squeals in disgusted delight when Mickey reaches out and squirms his hands over his head, down his shoulder and back, making squishy noises to complete the imagery of a medical Jenga disaster somehow raining down on him, ”gotta know your strengths, man.”

He pretends to brush some residual gore off Yevgeny’s shoulder before leaving him alone to shudder and make a disgruntled face at the unpleasant thought. Mickey takes the cigarette from his lips and taps some of the built up ash off on his other side.

”Marcus says he wants it,” Yevgeny continues, ”but how does he know that? I think I wanna be something new like every week.”

”People are different,” Mickey shrugs, ”maybe he knows, maybe he’s just saying that ’cause it’s all he knows. He’ll figure it out, just like you will.”

”Would you want me to be a doctor?” Yevgeny doesn’t look at him, but that usually doesn’t mean too much.

”Being a doctor is a real good thing,” Mickey says, picking his words carefully, ”but not if it’s not what you wanna do. Gotta like working with people, doing that shit. Not just playing with your toys or counting your money.”

Yevgeny seems to mull this over for a second before he shrugs and looks at Mickey, eyes big with curiosity. ”What did you wanna be when you were my age?”

Mickey sighs and takes one last, deep, drag off his cigarette before tossing it to the wind behind them, sifting the smoke through his teeth as he takes a moment to think about it.

”Don’t know,” he eventually decides, ”didn’t really think about it much. Never thought about it.”

”You didn’t want to work at the diner?”

”Never wanted anything,” Mickey says and smiles a little to placate the worried look on his kid’s face, ”wanted to be free, I guess.”

”From your dad?” Yevgeny knows just enough about his grandfather, enough to know him dying wasn’t a great loss to anyone. If Mickey can spare him the details, he will, for the rest of his life if he has any say in the matter.

”From Terry,” Mickey nods, putting a hand on Yevgeny’s shoulder to pull him closer against his side, squeezing his thin frame lightly before letting go, ”from myself, ’cause I used to believe him. Thought all these things were wrong with me, even when I knew I couldn’t change, try as I fucking might.”

”You like working at the diner?” Yevgeny has nothing of Mickey’s reluctance when it comes to asking questions, and Mickey would be annoyed by it if he wasn’t so busy being impressed.

”It’s good,” Mickey raises his eyebrows at his son, the small gesture making him laugh despite the somber subject, ”you wishin’ I was some hot-shot, VIP guy, huh? So you can brag about your old man to your little friends?”

Yevgeny smiles, wide and toothy. ”No, I love the diner.”

”Bet you do,” Mickey lands a hand on his kid’s head, raking his finger through his slightly too long hair for a second before Yevgeny steps out of his reach, ”bet the free food doesn’t hurt.”

Yevgeny grins and shakes his head, quickly closing the distance he’s created between them. Mickey’s slightly surprised when he feels a small, cold hand in his, Yevgeny hasn’t volunteered to hold his hand since he was about six years old. It’s not what he’s doing now, either, and Mickey quickly realizes this when he feels the cold fingertips trail along the old scar running across his palm. Ever since he’d gained some semblance of control over his flailing baby limbs, Yevgeny has liked to grab Mickey’s hand and trace the line with his fingers; back then it was red and angry-looking, now it’s thin and white and all but forgotten. He’d been five when he’d first thought to ask about it, and seven when Mickey eventually gave up and told him. Since then, his fascination with it has turned into a subconscious tick whenever he thinks about his dad’s turbulent past.

”Hey,” Mickey says, softly, and folds his fingers around Yevgeny’s for a second before they slip out of his hand, ”you don’t gotta worry about any of that shit, alright? I don’t. Right now, I’m more worried about your mom kicking my ass for making us late for her Thanksgiving dinner, now that’s some scary ass shit right there.”

Yevgeny giggles a little and Mickey is happy to see that he’s shoving his cold, ghostly white hands down his deep, wool-lined pockets.

”We could just turn back, order some pizza like last year?” he tries, eyes hopeful when he looks up at Mickey.

”Nice try, not gonna happen.” They stop for a moment at a red light, shifting to green almost immediately and allowing them to cross the street. There’s some excited yelling coming from the fenced off basketball court on the other side, from a small group of guys fighting over a worn out ball. ”Besides, we only did that because your mom was sick, you forgetting that small detail? She’s really been looking forward to this year’s dinner.”

Yevgeny groans loudly and damned near pouts, even though he knows Mickey hates it when he does that shit.

”It’s not fair,” he whines, ”it’s your week and still we have to go to mom’s and pretend to like her stupid boyfriend.”

”This about Roger?” Who is he kidding, of course it’s about Roger. The stalling, the whining, the unyielding reluctance. ”Thought you started getting along just fine?”

Walking past the chicken wire fence, he does his best to ignore the noise and competition going on on the other side, aiming all of his focus on his son. Who shrugs.

”Jesus, Yev,” Mickey sighs, ”this guy an asshole when I’m not around or something?”

Yevgeny shrugs again. ”No, guess not. He tries too hard, I don’t know. I don’t wanna like him.”

”Yeah, okay,” Mickey curses under his breath and resists the urge to turn around and give the basketball playing dickheads yelling behind them a piece of his mind, ”I know I told you you don’t gotta like him, right? Well, maybe I didn’t make it clear that it’s okay for you to like him, too, if that’s how this thing works out.”

”Is someone yelling your name?” Yevgeny starts looking around, trying to find the source of the indistinct hollering behind them.

”Not likely, don’t change the subject,” Mickey puts an arm over Yevgeny’s shoulders in an effort to keep him going in the right direction, ”you don’t have to hate this guy on account of me, alright? You listening to me?”

”Someone’s yelling at you,” Yevgeny’s looking concerned enough for Mickey to take him seriously this time, stopping to have a look around and listen.

”Mick!” There it was, someone was calling his name. Ready for a fight, Mickey twists around and peers back at the basketball court they’ve just passed, spotting a well-familiar figure on the other side of the chicken wire, one hand up like he’s been waving at them. Smiling bright like a fucking lighthouse.

”Isn’t that the guy from the diner?” Yevgeny asks, breaking Mickey out of his stunned staring.

”Yeah,” he takes a step towards Ian, feet working on their own, before he stops and turns to Yevgeny, ”I just gotta talk to him for a second, that okay?”

”Yeah, sure,” Yevgeny shrugs and doesn’t hesitate when starts walking towards Ian, leaving Mickey to pick up the trail.

”Hi,” Yevgeny says when he’s close enough.

”Hey,” Ian says, shifting his gaze from Mickey to Yevgeny, ”hi Yev, how are you? It is Yevgeny, right?”

”Yeah.” While Yevgeny sounds a little apprehensive at Ian knowing his name, Mickey’s nothing short of impressed that the guy remembered, and remembered it right. Mickey has a hard enough time with whatever Tom, Dick or Harry Yevgeny brings home for the occasional play date.

”Hey Red,” Mickey says as he comes up to stand next to Yevgeny, ”you okay?”

”Yeah, sure, Mick.” Ian smiles and the asshole looks downright amazing, nothing like the apologetic wreck he was when Mickey saw him last. His hair is a little rumpled from play, cheeks and ears fucking rosy in the biting autumn cold, hot breath puffing out his carefully smiling mouth.

”You planning on coming back at all?” Mickey asks, not bothering to cover up the slight sting he’s feeling at the six fucking days he’s been agonizing over this. No point in pretending he hasn’t, not to himself at least.

”What?” In an instant, Ian’s looking guilty again and Mickey almost regrets bringing it up. ”No, Mick, I- sure I am. Had a busy week, that’s all, got nothing to do with you. I’m sorry I left you like that, I didn’t handle the situation well at all.”

”Fuck that,” Mickey drags a hand across his face and manages a faint smile as he crosses his arms and meets Ian’s questioning eyes, ”don’t worry about it.”

Ian nods and smiles a little in return, it’s looking slightly strained, but genuine. He turns his eyes on Yevgeny again, expression softening further with it.

”We’re shooting hoops, me and my brothers,” he says, pointing with a thumb over his shoulder at the two guys struggling with each other at the far end of the court, ”you wanna join us for a while, maybe?”

”No, thanks,” Yevgeny replies, eyes wide, ”we’re already late.”

”Kid’s not into sports,” Mickey grins when Yevgeny squirms and sputters out an indignant ’dad!’, ”and we’re on our way to dinner with his mom.”

Ian looks disappointed for a split second, before covering it up with his crooked smile and shrug. ”Another time, then.”

”You could join us for dinner,” Yevgeny suggests, out of nowhere. Mickey turns to his son, not missing the wide-eyed look of surprise on Ian’s face before he does so, crossing his arms and staring down at him.

”What’s that?” He asks, pitch of his voice higher than he’d really like. ”Two seconds ago you were whining about Roger being there, and now you’re inviting a complete stranger?”

”It’s my per-”

”Prerogative.”

”It’s my prerogative,” Yevgeny mirrors Mickey’s stance, crossing his arms and squaring his shoulders best he can.

”Well done on using the word,” Mickey glances quickly at Ian, catching the soft expression on his face before he angles himself away some, as though he thinks he’s intruding, Mickey returning his attention fully to his son, ”but that’s not even close to right. This is one of those instances where you have little to no say, alright?”

Yevgeny groans again, making that twice within a very short time span. Mickey isn’t a fan.

”I know you and Ian are real good friends and all,” he says, putting a heavy, understanding hand to Yevgeny’s shoulder, ”but he can’t come over and play until I’ve met his parents, that clear?”

”Who’s Ian?” Yevgeny asks, completely serious in his confusion. Ian snorts loudly and Mickey sees him in the corner of his eye hiding a wide smile behind his hand.

”And the point goes to dad,” Mickey announces, ruffling his son’s hair some before grinning happily at Ian, ”game over.”

”Stellar parenting, Mick,” he says, smile still wide when he lowers his hand, resting it against the fence between them, two fingers bending through the chicken wire.

”Ian!” One of the guys on the court suddenly shouts, causing Mickey and Yevgeny to look over at them and Ian to quickly drop his hand from the fence. ”Hey, cock-sucker, what’s taking so long?”

”The fuck did he call you?” Mickey can feel his blood boiling, like a switch has been flipped in his head, and he’s slightly alarmed by how ready he is to rush to Ian’s defense, fists first if necessary.

Ian turns around and extends a very clear message with his middle finger, only to get a couple of shit-eating grins in return. The two guys resume their roughhousing, the friendly-looking black kid distracting the rude gangly one by stealing the ball from him, laughing and dribbling it out of his reach.

”Those,” Ian sighs and turns back to shoot Mickey an apologetic grimace, ”are my brothers. Liam, sweetest kid you’ll ever meet. Carl is… Carl doesn’t believe in censorship.”

”That what the kids are calling it these days?” Mickey huffs, relaxing a little, watching the two brothers play for a second to try and jostle some memory of them back from Canaryville, coming up with nothing. ”Big family dinner at the Gallaghers' today, I assume?”

”Yeah,” Ian smiles, ”Fiona doesn’t like us around when she and her husband are cooking, thinks the boys are more of a nuisance than actual help.”

”This the same sister that doesn’t trust you with her kids?” Mickey asks and Ian looks surprised. He probably never expected Mickey to remember something like that.

”Well,” Ian shrugs, ”can’t exactly blame her.”

”U-huh,” Mickey smirks, ”sounds like she’s got some issues, maybe she should consider getting some help, get her shit straight.”

Ian smiles wider and shakes his head a little, like he doesn’t know what to do with Mickey.

”Hey,” he then says, that concerned frown Mickey’s been trying his best to keep at bay back between his brows, ”I’m really sorry about last time, and about everything.”

”You need to stop apologizing, man,” Mickey sighs, ”it’s not like that, you got nothing to be sorry for.”

Ian’s eyes dart from Mickey to Yevgeny, and back again. Mickey can tell he’s choosing his words very carefully.

”I-,” he starts, pausing to look down on his shoes for a second before looking back at Mickey, ”I thought I’d gone through all the shit I’d done, thought there wouldn’t be any more of it. Just seems like it’s never gonna end sometimes, you know?”

Mickey nods and tries to look as sympathetic as he possibly can, not trusting the results at all.

”Made it all about me, and that’s not right,” Ian’s eyes are flitting slightly from side to side, as he’s staring intensely into Mickey’s, ”I’m sorry about all of it.”

”Yeah well,” Mickey thumbs at his eyebrow and glances quickly at Yevgeny before turning back to Ian, ”guess I can’t stop you. You be sorry, Ian, and I’ll just go ahead and be fucking thankful, okay?”

”Guess I can’t stop you,” Ian echoes with a sad smile, one hand scratching at the back of his neck. When he looks back up at Mickey, there’s something there that Mickey can’t put his finger on. Not entirely sure he wants to.

”I eh- I’ll see you around?” Mickey ends the awkward moment and the conversation in one go, an eyebrow raised as he tries to glare at Ian, make sure he knows that ’no’ isn’t an acceptable answer.

”’Course,” Ian’s smile brightens, and Jesus, if Mickey hasn’t missed the sight of that, ”I got another busy week, but I’ll be back soon as I can, distract you from your livelihood.”

”You better,” Mickey tells him, hoping he doesn’t come across like some needy bitch. Ian’s smile doesn’t falter though, as he nods in agreement.

”Nice seeing you again,” he says, turning his attention to Mickey’s kid.

”Yeah,” Yevgeny agrees, and Mickey thinks he can see himself in his son’s helpless smile, ”you too. Happy Thanksgiving.”

”Gobble gobble,” Ian replies, clearly without thinking it through, and Mickey swears he can see a slight blush creeping in under the redness already there from the cold and exertion when Mickey laughs at him.

”See you when I see you, Red,” he chuckles and drapes an arm across Yevgeny’s shoulders to lead him away.

”Count on it,” Ian calls out after them, making it damned near impossible for Mickey not to turn his head and look at him one last time. Damned near, but not entirely. He shakes his head some instead, allowing a stupidly wide smile a couple of seconds of unsupervised play across his face before pressing his lips together, hugging Yevgeny to his side briefly before letting go of him altogether.

”What does he do?” Yevgeny wonders after a couple of minutes of silence.

”Ian?” Mickey asks, hands in his pockets squeezing his smokes and lighter, thinking there’s just about enough time for one more before they reach Svetlana’s house. ”I don’t know.”

”You don’t know?” Yevgeny repeats, ”how can you not know?”

”Don’t know,” Mickey can’t resist teasing, and gives in to another urge by quickly lighting up a second cigarette, ”it’s never come up.”

”But you’re friends?”

”What makes you say that?” Mickey huffs when Yevgeny looks at him, eyebrows raised in a very familiar way.

”You know his name,” Yevgeny adds, fleshing out his non-verbal response, ”you never know people’s names.”

Mickey doesn’t know if he likes being this transparent, first Etch, now this? But then again; why not? No more hiding, not anymore.

”We’re friends,” he confirms, smiling a little at the memory, rolling the burning cigarette thoughtfully between his fingers, ”guy asked me, like we’re a couple of fucking preschoolers. It’s official.”

”He seems cool.”

Mickey tries to figure out if Yevgeny is going anywhere with this, but looking at his son, all he can see is genuine, unspecific curiosity. ”He is. He’s nice. I like him.”

That might have been one too many, but Yevgeny doesn’t seem to think too much of it.

”Hey dad,” he asks, after another couple of blocks walked in silence, ”are you seeing anyone right now?”

”You know I ain’t,” Mickey reminds him, mumbling his response around his half-burnt smoke, ”you know I’d tell you if I was.”

”You would?” Yevgeny glances at him with a thoughtful frown set on his forehead. ”Does that mean you haven’t seen anyone since Mark?”

”Martin,” Mickey exhales the name with a cloud of smoke, ”and no. Guess not.”

”But I was-,” Yevgeny starts, eyes glossing over as he does the math, ”seven, eight… I was eight when you were dating Martin. Dad, I was still into Muppets when you were dating Martin. That’s like a whole lifetime ago.”

”Shut up,” Mickey protests, ”you’re still into Muppets, kid, no way you’d say no to Animal, or Pepe the King Prawn, okay? No one’s too old for that shit.”

”Whatever, don’t reflect-”

”Deflect.”

”That too,” Yevgeny dismisses his correction, ”I thought you just stopped telling me about your boyfriends, for some reason.”

”You know I don’t keep stuff from you, Yev,” Mickey shrugs his coat closer around himself and throws the cigarette away when there’s an insistent buzzing in his pocket.

”But dad, three years-”

”Hey, try two,” Mickey scowls, taking out his phone to glare at Svetlana’s name flashing up on the display, ”starting to think I need to be more hands on involved with your math homework, kid.”

”Almost three,” Yevgeny insists.

”Not even close,” Mickey mutters and swipes at the phone before putting it to his ear, ”if I tell ya we’re on our way, would you agree to kill me quickly and humanely when we get there?”

”What?”

”Nothin’,” Mickey puts a hand on Yevgeny’s shoulder, stopping him from crossing the street in front of them, light just switching to red, ”we’re about five minutes away, sorry, but it’s all your kid’s fault.”

”Hey!” Yevgeny protests, glaring up at Mickey.

”You’re late and you’re full of shit,” is Svetlana’s judgement, ”but we will wait. Walk faster.”

”Very gracious of you, Svet, thank you,” Mickey smiles when his sarcastic sweetness has the desired effect of Svetlana hanging up on him without further discussion. He lets go of Yevgeny’s shoulder and puts the phone away again, narrowing his eyes at the red, man-shaped light across the street.

”Did you love Mark?” Yevgeny asks, calmly meeting Mickey’s glare, waiting for an answer.

”Martin,” Mickey says, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth for a second, thinking about the answer. It’s no wonder Yevgeny doesn’t remember much about Mickey’s last involvement, short-lived enough to not even earn the label ’boyfriend’. ”No, no I didn’t. Never got that far.”

”But you want that, right?”

Mickey gestures towards the other side of the street when the light turns, and they start walking again, Yevgeny sprinting a little to fall into step with Mickey, not leaving the side of his face with his eyes. He’s not about to tell his son about his many, very successful, sexual encounters over the past two years. What he does to get off when he needs to isn’t even relevant to this conversation, in his mind. What he wants to tell him, however, is a lot more difficult to explain.

”Sure I do,” Mickey swallows, feeling somewhat encouraged by meeting his son’s expectant gaze, ”but I’m a family man, Yev, it’s not all that easy. I was married for four years, to the wrong fucking person for sure, but we had a home and your mom still was my partner in many ways, it’s what I want. Ain’t looking for quick and easy anymore, did for a while after Terry died, but not now.”

They turn a corner, onto Svetlana’s street.

”Takes time, that shit, takes a long ass time for me to feel anything like that,” he says, ”so I gotta meet someone who’ll give me that time first, I guess.”

”In movies they fall in love at first sight.”

”Do I look like some straight, leading man douchebag?” Yevgeny grins and shakes his head. ”No, I don’t. And don’t trust in that love at first sight crap, anyway, that’s all well and nice for dreaming. Real love, the stuff that matters, that’s a whole different thing. Complicated, better.”

At least, he sure as fuck hopes it is. Mickey’s had a quick crush or two, plenty of attraction, a handful of hopes and dreams. But he’s never been in love, at least not the kind he’s hoping for, hoping it isn’t some unattainable fantasy. He thinks he could love someone, easy. Easy, completely and until the day he dies, feels that this is the way his heart works. Maybe, he thinks, maybe all he needs to get there is time, time and the right fucking guy. So far no one’s been willing to give him more than a couple of months, guys giving up on his standoffish attitude and abrasive nature before even getting far enough beneath the surface to see beyond all that. Truly understand what he’s about, what it is he’s looking for.

”Sounds nice,” Yevgeny decides, ”nicer than the fairy tale stuff.”

”Sure,” Mickey smiles at him when they reach Svetlana’s house, stepping out of the way to let Yevgeny walk up to the door first, ”lifelong commitment and companionship, that’s what all gay men my age are looking for.”

”Good,” the dripping sarcasm as per usual passing Yevgeny by completely unnoticed, he presses the doorbell to alert Svetlana of their arrival, get her to come and unlock the door, ”you should have someone like that. Hope you find him soon.”

”That’s okay, kid,” Mickey shrugs, bracing himself mentally when they hear Svetlana fiddling with the lock on the other side, ”you know it’ll happen, your old man is a real catch.”

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 7.
Monday.

 

”Stepping outside for a minute,” Mickey tells Etch as he passes him in the kitchen. Etch doesn’t look up from the pancake he’s flipping, but grunts in acknowledgement.

Mickey’s got his smokes out before he’s past the threshold, one to his lips as he closes the door behind him.

”Fucking cold,” he mutters around his cigarette while he lights it, eyes on the flame flicking up in front of him. He could put some of the blame where it’s due and berate himself for not wearing his coat out, but then that would be reasonable. Today isn’t a day for reason, it’s one for careless accusation and pointless grudges. Besides, without a coat he’s much more likely to return inside as soon as he’s finished smoking, instead of lighting up another one or simply loitering in the dingy alley with the trash all day. Yes, it’s one of those kinda days. Mondays, or whatever.

He leans back against the diner’s brick wall, back of his head hitting the stone a bit too hard for comfort. He stares at the patch of bright grey sky peeking through the buildings above him, shoving his cold fingers into his jeans pockets and letting the cigarette dangle from his lips, watches the white smoke swirl up through the air and thin out in front of him. How anyone could ever want to quit this, he’ll never understand. Not at moments like these, anyway. He almost did, once, when Yevgeny started taking and Mickey realized that he didn’t think of the smell of cigarettes as poisonous or unpleasant, but rather as an extension of his dad. That kind of positive association to smoking wasn’t really something he’d wanted for his kid and it would have given him pause even without Svetlana laying into him about it. So he’d tried.

He found out that he can’t stop, mostly because he really doesn’t want to, even with the risk of Yevgeny following his bad example. Growing up, so far Yevgeny hasn’t shown interest in following any of Mickey’s bad examples though. Hell, the kid doesn’t even curse, so Mickey’s not too worried anymore. Not about that.

Mickey cracks an eye open when he hears a sound to his left, shifting his head to glare down the narrow alleyway. There’s someone peeking in on him around the corner, a head and a set of shoulders silhouetted against the comparatively bright main street, before the rest of the guy steps in after and starts walking towards him. Mickey sighs and closes his eyes again. Mourns his solitude and the soothing warmth of his cigarette as he takes it from his lips.

”Got nothing for ya, man,” he says, smoke wafting out with his words, ”come back tonight and maybe there’s something.”

”Shady as fuck, Mick,” Mickey’s eyes fly open at the familiar voice, ”now what could you possibly be offering back alley strangers at night, huh? Should I be worried?”

Mickey takes half a step away from the wall and shuffles his feet a little, keeps his eyes on the ground and puts the cigarette to his mouth again to distract himself, waits until Ian’s made it all the way to him before he speaks.

”Yeah, well,” he says, ”this creeping around you’re doing right here doesn’t really put you in a position to question any of my back door dealings.”

Mickey only intended it to be a quick glance, but his eyes kinda stick to the guy. Ian’s smiling, fresh and easy, his usual impenetrable, calm self. He looks good, no use denying it, and Mickey feels ten times more disheveled in his presence, self-consciously pulling a hand through his hair.

”Katie,” he says around the filter pinched between his lips, keeps his eyes on Ian thinking it’d probably be weirder for him to look away, ”she does this thing, bags up leftovers and leaves ’em out here when she closes up for the night, for homeless people or whatever.”

”And that’s the second time he mistakes me for a bum, folks!” Ian announces gleefully, spreading his arms wide and looking around the narrow passage as if to find someone to make note of the situation.

Mickey only grins in response, eyes on Ian’s face as it angles this way and that before turning back to Mickey, arms falling to his sides. It’d been Mickey’s idea, originally, to distribute whatever they could the way they did. He knew what it was like to be hungry and he couldn’t fucking stand wasting food. He didn’t like doing it though, didn’t want to stand there like some damned haloed wannabe saint, framed by the kitchen light, handing crap out to the less fortunate. It would demand a kind of immediate sincerity Mickey felt he had in very short supply. Altruism was something he could get behind in theory, but blatantly placing himself in the middle of any situation never was his thing and even less so when it came to charity. So it had fallen on Katie to take care of the actual giving, his co-worker not sharing Mickey’s scruples about being an overtly good person.

”Uh-huh,” he says and takes the cigarette from his lips to tap some of the ash off to his side, feeling almost nostalgic in his refusal to apologize, ”how about you, got lost or something?”

”Looking for you,” Ian shrugs, like it’s nothing, ”saw you weren’t up front through the windows so I figured I’d find you here, facilitating your addiction.”

”Sharp as shit, Sherlock,” Mickey takes a last deep drag from his cigarette, dropping it to the ground and flattering it out with his foot as he blows out smoke between them, likes the way Ian looks coming out of the white swirls of his breath, ”you found me.”

”Hey, you okay?” Ian asks, abandoning the banter and his casual smile for a concerned frown, his eyes raking down Mickey’s body and up again in a way Mickey normally wouldn’t have minded, at all, ”you look kinda-”

”Like shit?” Mickey raises his eyebrows and can’t help smiling when Ian huffs and shakes his head, ”thanks man, knew I felt like it but it’s always good to know the outsides match.”

”That’s not-,” Ian clicks his tongue and smiles again, this time small and tightlipped, restrained, ”is there something wrong?”

”It’s fine, Ian,” Mickey sighs, a shudder going down his spine reminding him of his state of relative undress in the December chill, ”don’t worry about it.”

”You’re cold,” Ian notes, that ridiculous worried frown back, and Mickey rolls his eyes to make sure the guy knows he’s being spared another remark on his amazing powers of observation.

”Yeah, well,” Mickey mutters and knocks at the door behind him, ”didn’t expect to spend extra time out here chit-chatting now, did I.”

Ian’s face pulls into a more genuine smile, his steady eyes on Mickey a promise that he will bring it up again when warmth and coffee is in better supply. It can’t be more than two or three seconds before Etch unlocks the door behind him and cracks it open but it feels uncannily like an eternity, one where Mickey finds himself unable to look away from the guy in front of him, self-preservation be damned. Ian’s face is like a beacon and while he wouldn’t admit as much to anyone, just having him in close proximity right now seems to do the trick where everything else has failed. The tension in his shoulders and low in the pit of his stomach slowly but steadily unravelling.

”Breakfast?” he says and inclines his head towards the now open door.

”After you,” Ian accepts, motioning with his hand for Mickey to go first.

Etch is back at the grill when they walk inside, his back turned. There are two plates in the hatch waiting for Mickey to serve and he can spot at least one new guest on the other side, taking a seat in one of the far booths.

”Look what I found,” he says and lingers by the door so he can close it after Ian.

”Another stray?” Etch turns towards them as well as he can, left hand still scraping at a sizzling pile of scrambled eggs.

”Tall ass Oliver Twist,” Mickey walks past Ian so he can wash his hands before grabbing the plates from the hatch, ”serve him up some breakfast will ya.”

”Sure thing,” Etch extends his right hand across his left arm, towards Ian who quickly takes a step forward and then leans in the rest of the way to grasp it in a firm shake, ”hey man, good to see you again.”

”You too, Etch,” he says with a smile, letting go of Etch’s hand and rocking back on his heels, ”hope all’s well with your family?”

”You, don’t answer that,” Mickey cuts in and turns around to look at Ian after he’s grabbed a plate in each hand, ”and you, you come with me.”

Ian nods obediently and follows Mickey to step out into the diner.

”Dude never stops talking about his kids once you get him going,” he tells Ian over his shoulder as they’re leaving the kitchen, ”have a seat and I’ll be right over.”

”Yessir,” Ian offers him a cheeky salute, grinning at Mickey’s exasperated scowl. Mickey deliberately doesn’t look at Ian walking away from him, at his lean shoulders shrugging out of his heavy coat. Doesn’t notice the way he glances back at him, easing into his seat, leaning his elbows on the table. Mickey pays him the least amount of mind possible, without actually leaving the room altogether, and eventually even gets to turn his back on him when he puts one of the plates down for table 2. Absolutely cannot at all sense Ian’s lazy intense damned eyes boring into the back of his neck.

”Sorry ’bout the wait,” he mutters, ”all good?”

Thin Santa blinks up at him, opens his mouth some as if to answer, eyes darting side to side when no sound’s coming out. Mickey shakes his head and leaves him be to deliver the second plate to the lady at table 1. Maybe he should have saved his apologies for her, seeing as she’s not a regular and his uncharacteristic display of basic courtesy seemed only to confuse the one who is.

”Anything else?” he asks her instead, placing the plate down.

”No, thank you,” she smiles at him, all freckles and white teeth, ”I’m good.”

He grunts and nods, leaves her to smile even brighter around her first bite of blueberry pancake. Mickey takes the order from the new guy in the back booth, coffee and sandwich, brings it to him and does a refill round while he’s at it. He doesn’t bother with Ian for now, knows with the certainty of the sun rising that he’s bound to join him for a cup after he’s brought him his breakfast. The guy can wait for Mickey to be ready, it won’t hurt him.

”Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” Etch chirps though the hatch when Mickey moves behind the counter to stash a couple of bills into the register, dropping the 1.50 change into the tip jar.

”Not today, Etch,” Mickey sighs and folds his arms across his chest, leans against the sink with his back turned to the kitchen, ”not in the mood, man.”

”Alright.”

Mickey lets his eyes fall on Ian across the room, can’t will himself to look away even when Ian straightens himself a little and then turns his head and meets his gaze. He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t smirk, frown or scowl, he just looks at him. Returns Mickey’s blank stare in kind. Mickey doesn’t know Ian’s reasons, but he knows why he himself can’t look away, can’t do a whole lot other than accept the fact that Ian’s gotten under his skin real good. That he’s relatively quickly become a friend whose mere presence brings a kind of unusual comfort to Mickey. Maybe Ian feels the same, maybe that’s why he doesn’t look away now. Hand slowly rubbing at his neck, eyes unflinching. Maybe he’s just hungry.

”Red hot special,” Etch announces behind him, giving Mickey a reason to break away from Ian’s distant eyes. There’s something unruly inside him, rumbling and questioning, making him think he’s doing it all wrong. That this right here is fucking weird and not at all the way he should be with a friend, should be thinking about a friend.

”Whatever,” he mumbles and rubs at his face as he turns to grab the plate.

”You should ask him,” Etch says and looks smug for a second under the fluorescent whites of the kitchen, gripping the plate tighter on his end to keep Mickey from leaving.

”Not having this conversation with you right now,” Mickey tries his most intimidating glare, only eliciting a wide smile, ”or ever.”

”You’ve been moping around for two weeks while he’s been fuck knows where,” Etch’s hushed voice is insistent and excited, all things Mickey would prefer to avoid right now, ”get his number or something, don’t have to date the guy but you could make some plans that don’t include you waitin’ on him.”

”And you could mind your own fucking business,” Mickey counters, tugging lightly at the plate, ”but that’s about as likely as me doing any of that shit. I like it like this, no strings.”

”No strings my ass,” Etch says and holds the plate at a safe distance until he’s had his say, dodging Mickey’s grabby hand through the hatch, ”Mickey, you’re all strings.”

Mickey sighs and pointedly folds his arms across his chest, shaking his head at Etch, waiting him out rather than indulging his immature games. He’s not about to admit it out loud, but Etch has got him pretty well pegged.

”Fine,” Etch gives in after a moment’s silent standoff, ”you do you, I’m not gonna tell you how to make friends.”

”Thank you,” Mickey replies sweetly, ”you gonna let me do my fucking job now?”

Etch puts the plate down and walks away from the hatch with his hands raised in defeat, mumbling something in Arabic. Mickey snorts and grabs the plate and the coffeepot out of the machine before he starts making his way over to Ian. It’s complete bullshit, Etch knows all of ten words in his mother tongue and he’s most likely asking for direction or where the nearest public lavatory is right now, so if he’s looking to unsettle Mickey with the foreign words he’s fresh out of luck. Etch isn’t the only one who knows a thing or two about the other.

”If it’s cold,” he mutters as he sets the plate down in front of Ian and heavily drops down on the seat opposite, ”blame Sinbad over there.”

Ian frowns at the fairly insensitive nickname, and while it wasn’t exactly the most upsetting of racial slurs, it really wasn’t very clever either. Lazy, unnecessary.

”Yeah, I know,” Mickey sighs and pours them both a cup of coffee, setting the pot aside to curl his still cold fingers around his own, ”sorry.”

”You wanna talk about it?” Ian asks after letting Mickey enjoy his coffee for a minute, watching him closely while he slowly eats his breakfast. Mickey hears the spoon graze against the porcelain plate, feels Ian’s searching eyes on him as he stares into his cup and tries his best not to look up.

”Talk about what?”

”Whatever’s got you like this.”

Mickey glances up at Ian and sees him smiling back at him. A damned beacon.

”It’s nothing,” Mickey sighs, but doesn’t look away, ”I’m tired, ’s all.”

”Why?” Ian’s eating his breakfast, voice light, like it’s no big deal. Mickey doesn’t have to tell him, but he wants to.

”Kid got sick.” Mickey never liked talking about Yevgeny with anyone, partly because it was no one’s goddamned business and partly because he didn’t have a particularly strong need to blab about his kid; whether to commiserate, brag, or otherwise. Partly because he didn’t have a whole lot of people in his life interested in listening. Ian’s looking worried now, though, instantly and genuinely, so Mickey wastes no time to explain. ”Nothing too bad, man. Fever, cold, unpleasant kinda cough. Was his mom’s week last week, so she called me Saturday morning wanting to go to the hospital.”

”Jesus,” Ian breathes out.

”Fever was pretty high, so we went,” Mickey pulls a hand over his face, rubs his fingertips under his right eye, can almost feel the dark circles, ”sat in that waiting room for six hours man, some nurses checking in on him from time to time, helping us best they could to keep his temperature down.”

”Is he better now?” Ian asks, his blunt fingernails scratching against the side of his cup, his breakfast momentarily forgotten.

”Yeah, yeah. Fuck, yes,” Mickey offers him a small smile, a kind of reassurance, ”he’s fine, brought him home Saturday evening, stayed at Svet’s until this morning. He kinda kept me up all night with his coughing, sounded like a dying old man.”

”Gotta be fucking terrifying, something like that,” Ian hums and looks down at his porridge like it’s the first time he sees it, slowly picking up his spoon to stir through it.

”It’s nothing, kids get sick all the time,” Mickey shrugs and then thinks better of it, ”it is. Terrifying.”

”Tell me about him,” Ian prompts and smiles around his spoon when Mickey winces at him, ”tell me about Yev.”

”Why?” Mickey feels kinda ridiculous in his reluctance but Ian just laughs at him, does his best to slurp up the porridge trying to escape his lips with it. He’s shaking his head lightly, hand wiping at his mouth as he chews and swallows.

”Because I want to know,” he seems to hesitate, ”want to hear you talk about him.”

Mickey knows that isn’t all, can tell by the way Ian’s narrowing his eyes at him that there’s something else.

”Because I wanna ask you about your ex-wife,” he adds with a slightly sheepish grin when Mickey raises his eyebrows at him, ”but somehow I think I’m gonna be more successful asking about Yevgeny.”

Mickey sits back and crosses his arms. Lips pressed together tight.

”Hoping you won’t shut up,” Ian goads, ”once you get going.”

”Whatever man,” Mickey sighs and he can’t help it; the short laugh erupts through him and breaks down a decade of resolve in a split second, ”what do you wanna know?”

Ian sits up straight, leaning forward a little. ”He’s, what, nine?”

”Ten,” Mickey corrects, knows what’s coming next.

”You were young.”

”Older than some,” he levels Ian with a pointed stare, asking him to not go there. Ian puts his hands up in surrender and screws up his face like he’s thinking hard.

”This is like some twenty questions shit,” he muses, ”feels like I’m on the clock.”

”Ey.” Mickey starts, making Ian look at him. He has every intention of saying something to make sure Ian knows he’s on the damned clock, but that’s not what comes out. ”Don’t- just, whatever. Just ask me, Ian.”

”You were young?” Ian tries again, carefully.

”Yeah, about nineteen,” Mickey nods, ”didn’t plan for it, big fucking surprise.”

”You loved her?”

Mickey snorts, a bit too forcefully, making Ian pick up his eyebrows in surprise.

”Wasn’t like that.” He wants to tell Ian but if he starts, he’s afraid he might not be able to stop. Svetlana’s occupation at the time isn’t Mickey’s business to reveal to anyone, the reason for their coming together not something he wants to get into at all. Not now, maybe not ever. Besides all that, their marriage of convenience, albeit not a complete sham, is a bit of a touchy subject on the whole as apparently they might not be completely off the hook just because they’ve been divorced for six years. It’s a Swiss cheese of a conversation, and Mickey doesn’t trust himself to not serve the whole thing up on a plate for Ian, right now. ”It was convenient, for both of us. She got pregnant and we both had some pretty solid reasons for wanting the kid born, for wanting to get married, but it wasn’t love. It was okay, but never that.”

”Sounds complicated,” Ian mumbles, clearing his throat a little, ”sounds like it can’t have been easy.”

”Don’t know about that,” Mickey grabs his near empty cup and twists it around in his hands, the bottom of it scraping against the surface of the table, ”it was pretty easy. I was- as a kid-, man, I was lost.”

His hands still their movement around the cup and he looks up at Ian, hesitating for all of two seconds before he continues.

”When Yev was born, felt like I started figuring things out, finally,” Mickey swallows and thinks of how clear his feelings for his son had been, maybe not right away, but surely, strongly, redefining his whole perception of fatherhood, ”like I understood just how fucked up things really were, things I’d always thought just ’were the way they were’. Terry- Terry’d done a real good job on me for a long time, shutting me down at every turn, twisting around everything that should have been good in me to something unpleasant, disgusting. Fuck, sorry.”

He picks up a hand and pinches at his stinging eyes, he’s so tired. ”I’m not making a lotta sense right now.”

”Don’t apologize,” Ian’s voice isn’t sickly sweet with fake understanding or dismissive sympathy, it’s just his voice. Firm, calm, reliant. ”It’s hard, sometimes. Telling the sick apart from the good. Worse when you’re young and it’s coming from someone whose love should be best you got, and it’s all you know.”

Mickey makes a face, thinking it shouldn’t have been so hard to figure out that Terry’s love had been fucking pestilent, but he nods all the same. Long since over blaming himself for all the things that has been done to him and his siblings throughout his childhood.

”Yeah, well,” he says, smiling a little without really knowing why, ”marrying Svetlana wasn’t about love, but it was good. All power to single parents an’ all but fuck knows I couldn’t have done it. Living together was a huge help for us, the first couple of years. After that it was mostly just easy, and about keeping up appearances.”

Ian smiles wide for a second, shaking his head a little and doesn’t offer to explain himself when Mickey raises an eyebrow at him. Instead he inclines his head towards Mickey, like he’s urging him on.

”Got divorced after Terry finally croaked,” Mickey continues, hoping Ian won’t ask for the details on that one, ”guess we’re both hopeless fucking romantics, Svet an’ me, getting right down to it.”

”How so?” Ian’s smile is wide again, his body the mirrored image of Mickey’s; leaned back with his hands wrapped around his cooling cup of coffee.

Mickey shrugs. ”For thinking there gotta be something better than convenient.”

”I promise you there is,” Ian quietly tells him, like it’s some kind of goddamned vow. Like he knows anything about it.

”Oh yeah?” Mickey smirks, ”you some kind of expert?”

”Never been in a convenient relationship,” Ian laughs, and then seems to consider it, ”well, most of them haven’t- they’ve never been easy, that I can tell you for sure.”

”Got a dramatic side to you,” Mickey smirks, still holding on to his cup as he points at Ian’s innocent-looking mug, ”don’t ya?”

”Oh yeah,” Ian smiles and rests an arm on the back of his wide seat, raising his chin a little at Mickey, ”and high maintenance as fuck.”

”I don’t know,” Mickey tilts his head in consideration, placing the cup back down on the table, ”think you’re pretty easy, disregarding the finicky fucking breakfast order.”

”Usually the reason I get when I’m being dumped,” Ian laments, shaking his head at his own misfortune, holding up his hands in despair as he continues in a shaky voice; ”can’t do this anymore, Ian, it’s too much. The breakfast. The breakfast!”

”Tell me about it,” Mickey’s snorting with laughter and kinda wishes Ian actually would tell him about it, is about to ask him again, properly, when there’s an insistent cough coming from across the room. Mickey stills and looks over at Edna, glaring at him from over the top of her newspaper, shifting her eyes to the side when she’s caught his attention.

”Shit,” he says when he notices the angry-looking man at table 4 waving for his attention, ”got- yeah, okay, fuck. Work.”

He sighs at himself and steals another quick glance at Ian’s face, his small smile and half a shrug telling him to go do what he gotta do. So he gets up and goes back to work, wishing he could sit back down and take his time. Maybe, slowly, start learning how to ask the right questions.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 10.
Thursday.

 

”Morning,” Mickey holds up the coffee, like he even needs to ask these days.

”Morning,” Ian echoes, removing the larger headphones he’s got on today when he notices Mickey standing there. He nods when he seems to realize that Mickey’s waiting for it and smiles blissfully with his eyes trained on the steaming black liquid being poured in his cup. He’s got his laptop out already and the headphones look nothing less than heavy-duty, albeit pretty old and scratched up, hanging around his neck. It’s beyond Mickey what matter of noise Ian’s needing them to block out at the diner, where mild conversation is about as rowdy as it gets. And where the conversation more often than not is happening between the two of them.

”Working?” he asks, because why not. Ian knows what Mickey does for a living, maybe it’s time to even out the score.

”Yeah,” Ian says absentmindedly, frowning at what looks like a pretty lengthy email on the screen before he appears to catch himself, looking up at Mickey, ”shit, should’ve asked right away. How’s Yevgeny?”

”He’s fine,” Mickey smiles and is just about to take a seat when Ian’s phone starts buzzing and dancing across the table.

”Sorry,” Ian sighs and picks it up to stare at the screen for a second before swiping at it and putting it to his ear, glancing up at Mickey like he thinks he needs to apologize further. Mickey can’t imagine what for, it’s not like the guy’s in charge of when people decide to call him. He offers another weak smile and a nod in return, before he turns around to walk away when Ian greets the caller.

”Hi, yeah. Yes, sure.” Mickey can’t help glancing back over his shoulder when Ian sighs, can’t help catch a glimpse of him pulling a hand down his face, not entirely hiding his soft smile. ”I’m at the diner, no I don’t- yeah, okay, but you know we’re not gonna get anything done.”

Mickey quickly realizes that he has no trouble hearing every single word Ian’s speaking into the phone as he’s getting up to the counter, Ian’s voice not hushed and his face not turned away. It’s a little bit unsettling, especially considering how many times Mickey’s sat opposite him and said all kinds of things not giving two shits about whoever else was in the diner and might have listened in. He retreats behind the counter and slots the coffeepot back in place, casts the occasional glance at Ian while he goes back to preparing sandwiches.

”Yeah, no, the one on the corner,” Ian huffs, his forehead resting in the palm of his hand, elbow on the table, ”I’m not telling you to not to come, I’m just asking you not to be you when you do.”

He sounds playful, teasing, and Mickey wonders who it could be on the other end. He doesn’t want to wonder, but there’s fuck else to do right now and his brain has the same kind of knee-jerk reaction to direct orders as the rest of him. Blatant disregard. It doesn’t sound like Ian’s talking to family, but then again, Mickey wouldn’t know. The one time he’s seen Ian with family, one of his fuckhead brothers called him a cocksucker. Kinda blows the field wide open, that stuff.

It looks like he’s listening for a few seconds, then he mutters a quiet ’bye’ and hangs up, staring at his phone for a while after, thumb lazily swiping up and down the screen. Then he seems to shake himself out of it and shoves the thing into his jeans pocket, settles his headphones back over his ears and hovers his long fingers over the laptop’s touchpad.

”Morning,” Mickey almost jumps in place at Etch’s voice to his left and now he can hear the bell’s telltale jingle, as the door closes behind the cook.

”Hey,” Mickey sighs and raises his eyebrows in challenge at Etch’s knowing smirk, sailing past him and disappearing into the kitchen, ”you’re late.”

”The Professor had to call in sick this morning,” Etch answers him from the other room, his voice muffled for a few seconds while he’s washing his hands, ”had to do the school run in her place.”

”She okay?” Mickey turns around and folds his arms against the hatch, leans his chin on the top of his hand as he peers in at Etch moving around the kitchen.

”Yeah, sure,” Etch nods, grabbing a couple of bags from the dry storage, ”24 hour bug, probably. I got my phone on ’case she calls, just so you know. I will leave you hanging if she needs me.”

”You’re so fucking whipped,” Mickey teases, just because he knows the reaction he’ll get.

”Have you met my wife?” Etch grins wide before he ducks out of sight to rifle through the pile of pots and pans stashed under the hatch. ”That lady doesn’t have to be sick for me to abandon your ass and come runnin' at her beck and call. I’m not whipped, man, I’m in love.”

Mickey rolls his eyes because he feels like he has to, but really he can’t help feeling a little nostalgic. It’s a useless, lying, bitch of a feeling that he doesn’t like the shape of at all, but there it is. He’d had something like a partnership once, with Svetlana, and while it had worked just fine it had still been more like a job than a relationship. The divorce had been cause for celebration, in the way their wedding should have been, but sometimes he could still feel a pang of nostalgia for how it had been, a treacherous part of his brain whitewashing the awful circumstances and highlighting the day-to-day functionality of their past arrangement. Svetlana knew how to cook a good breakfast, if nothing else, and she’d made this pretty awesome soup whenever Yevgeny was sick. Mickey rarely fell ill, but he remembered being bowled over by the flu once. Bitching and moaning and swaddling himself with blankets on the couch in their living room, watching terrible day-time TV and thinking he’d not felt this physically weak since he was a kid and under Terry’s thumb. Svetlana had called him a pussy and told him exactly what she thought of his ’man-flu’, but she’d made him that damed soup and she’d picked up his slack without a word against him. No one had ever taken care of him that way, before or after.

”Remind me again why I got divorced,” Mickey mutters to the empty space above the sound of Etch unstacking and re-stacking pots.

”’Cause far as I know,” Mickey can’t help thinking that Etch doesn’t know much about it at all, ”you guys were never in love.”

But he does know some of it, that’s for sure. He pops back up into view, a small pot in hand, and grins cheekily at Mickey’s unimpressed silence. ”And both of you wanted to bone other dudes.”

”Can’t argue with that,” Mickey agrees and snorts at Etch’s too pleased smirk.

”Well,” he says thoughtfully and spins the pot around in his hand before pointing it at Mickey, ”one of you did, anyhow, Svet always was of a more openminded kind.”

”I tell you about Roger?” Mickey asks, brows raised at Etch who shakes his head while he walks over to the stove, ”Svetlana’s new guy. Don’t know man. Guy’s fucking harmless, but I really don’t get it.”

”She’s tough, Mickey,” Etch hums, measuring out oats and topping off the pot with milk and water, ”but she’s not stone, I think Tina really got to her.”

Mickey’s frowns at Etch’s turned back. ”The fuck do you know about it?”

”Svet and I get together and gossip about feelings over brunch on Sundays, you didn’t know?” Etch rolls his eyes and casts Mickey an exasperated look, ”don’t know? Maybe because I asked her how she was doin’ when you guys were over for dinner last year, you know, like a person and another person can get together once in a while and then maybe one can ask the other how they’re getting on, in their emotional life? Checking in, showing interest?”

”Sticking your big fucking nose in other people’s business,” Mickey quirks his head and smiles sweetly when Etch casts another look at him, huffing when he sees him.

”I think she feels more in control with men,” he says, like he’s thinking out loud, ”less vulnerable. Maybe this guy’s harmless, so what? Makes a whole lotta sense if you think about it.”

”Maybe.” It’s not that Mickey doesn’t care, but he’s never liked talking about people when they aren’t around. Especially not about Svetlana, all integrity and pride and possessive of enough insight to Mickey’s life to really hit him where it hurts, should she want to do so.

”Hey, the Professor wants to know if you’re coming for dinner this year,” Etch takes the pot off the stove and glances at Mickey while he wipes his hands on his apron.

”Sure,” Mickey straightens up and takes a quick look over his shoulder when Etch turns his back and opens the dishwasher to extract a clean plate, he knows Edna and Ian are the only ones in the room besides him, but he still checks, ”when?”

”We’re not doing anything on the 28th,” Etch suggests, pouring the light brown mass of sticky oats into a deep plate, ”all other dates are pretty much filled up, family obligations.”

”Mandy’s coming for Christmas,” Mickey suddenly remembers.

”Really?”

”Yeah, but she’s leaving on the 27th,” Mickey shrugs, ”so guess you dodged that bullet.”

”Too bad,” Etch walks up to the hatch and sets down Ian’s breakfast between them, ”she would have been more than welcome.”

”Yeah, I bet,” Mickey snorts and takes the plate, ”the four of you ganging up on me. No thanks, it’d be me, Yev, and the girls, sittin’ at the kids’ table, eatin’ spaghetti meatballs.”

Etch smiles and crosses his arms. ”Sounds like your kinda dinner party.”

”Yeah, actually,” Mickey cocks his head in consideration, he’d take Yevgeny and Etch’s two daughters’ conversation over Mandy and Svetlana trading Mickey-themed war stories with Etch and Ruth any day of the week, ketchup-drenched meatballs be damned, ”whatever. I’ll ask Svet and let you know about the 28th, alright? You talked to Edna?”

”Man, come on, she doesn’t like me,” Etch makes a face and glances over Mickey’s shoulder at the old lady, ”no way she’d wanna come for Christmas dinner.”

”Seven years and she hasn’t fired your mediocre burger flipping ass?” Mickey shrugs and takes a couple of steps back, ”trust me, if she hated you, you’d know. Man the fuck up and ask her.”

Mickey walks back out from behind the counter, leaving Etch to sigh in mock despair behind him.

”Hey,” Ian greets him with a big smile and leans back in his seat, taking off his headphones, when Mickey places his breakfast down in front of him, ”amazing, thank you. I’m starved.”

Mickey wants to smile back, maybe say something nice. Problem is, he doesn’t even know what that would be and he can’t help feeling like he needs to start keeping his face in check around this guy. Ian looks at him all the time, smiles at him, says nice things to him, but none of it seems weird or out of place. Ian’s a naturally friendly guy, even though he guards his privacy like it’s all he’s got sometimes. Mickey feels like he can’t help lighting up like a fucking Christmas tree whenever Ian looks at him, and even though he’s not entirely sure why, it still feels like it’s somehow getting too obvious. Like if he’s not careful, the tree’s gonna catch on fire.

So he grunts in reply and sits down, Ian peering up at him with narrowed eyes and a poorly disguised smirk pulling at his lips.

”Top of the morning to you too, Mick,” he says, his grin bright when Mickey glares back at him, ”everything okay?”

”Fucking fine,” Mickey sighs and rests his elbows on the table, face in his hands. He glances up at Ian through his fingers when the guy snorts at him, starting on his breakfast. ”Threw me off with that phone call man, haven’t had my morning coffee yet and I forgot to bring the pot. Just gimme a sec.”

Ian raises an eyebrow at him and leans forward a little, reaching a hand out to gently push his cup of coffee across the table until the edge of the saucer hits against Mickey’s elbows. Leaves it there without a word to grab his spoon and continue eating.

”It’s like, half drunk,” Mickey complains and makes a disgusted face to mask the flutter in his gut at the uninvited thought of Ian’s mouth closing over the slightly curved edge of the white porcelain, a slight smudge of brown marking the spot on the inside of the cup.

”You afraid of cooties?” Ian asks with his mouth full. Mickey makes another face and glances from Ian’s eager oat-mastication to the still warm and alluringly steamy cup of coffee in front of him.

”Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess,” he shrugs and picks up the cup to just hold it in front of his face for a second.

”Or you could get off your ungrateful ass and go get the pot,” Ian mimics his shrug and tags on a self-satisfied smile.

”’m good,” Mickey assures him and takes a sip, closing his eyes at the taste of it.

”Yeah, you’re great,” Ian agrees, voice dripping with sarcasm, causing Mickey to open his eyes when he feels the table shifting with the other’s movements. Ian’s hunched over the table, halfway out of the booth, shoveling in a large spoon of porridge before he heaves himself up completely, casually walking through the diner and in behind the counter.

”Come on, man,” Mickey complains, huffs and frowns in unwanted amusement, ”that shit’s not your job, sit the fuck down.”

Ian turns to face him, behind the counter, and makes a show of holding up his hands, wiggling his fingers a little. Then he takes a step to the side and with a touch of dramatic flair pretends to discover the coffeemaker, proceeding to carefully dislodge the pot from it. He turns again and holds it up for Mickey’s inspection, gesturing at it with his free hand like he’s performed some kind of magic trick. Mickey gives him the finger, and he gets a wide smile in return. Ian walks back out from behind the counter and slowly makes his way towards their corner, stopping briefly by Edna’s table to top up her cup, the old lady barely acknowledging him at all.

Mickey feels an unfamiliar lurch in his stomach, looking at Ian. Unable to look away, in all horrifying honesty. This is what Mickey does for Ian every day that he’s at the diner, this simple thing of getting up to fetch something from across the room, walk back to pour some coffee, to sit down, to make conversation. He never saw it as anything big or life-altering, it is his job. It is his pleasure. Ian stops by the table, the edge of it pressing into his thigh as he leans himself against it, bends forward to get one of the cups by the window, to turn it over. Mickey has to swallow hard over whatever this is that’s gripping him and keeping his eyes transfixed on the side of Ian’s face, on the upturn of his careful smile.

Ian pours coffee and the diner doesn’t feel like a diner anymore, it feels like a goddamned home.

”Refill?” He asks, meeting Mickey’s eyes with a cheeky smile and a raise of the half-full coffeepot.

”Sure,” Mickey tries to scowl, maybe just to shake himself out of the moment, and casts his eyes down on the cup as Ian pours.

”This is much easier than you make it look,” Ian decides before putting the pot down and once again taking his seat opposite Mickey.

”Ain’t rocket science,” Mickey protests and dares himself to look at Ian again, moment passed, ”never said it was.”

”Nope, you just bitch and moan like it is,” Ian smiles brightly, disarming as hell, before putting his new cup of coffee to his lips.

”Come on, man,” Mickey shakes his head but ultimately can’t help smiling back, looking away in vain attempt to hide it, ”I’m stoic as fuck, and you know it. Besides, you should try it with a full house, see how easy it is.”

”No need,” Ian leans his elbows on the table and resumes his breakfast, ”know what it’s like.”

”Oh yeah? How’s that?”

”Used to bus tables, for a while,” Ian tells him, stirring his spoon absentmindedly through the porridge, eyes down, ”waited too, before I quit.”

”Couldn’t deal, huh?” Mickey teases and kicks gently at Ian’s foot, telling himself that he’s doing it to antagonize but feels like he’s kidding himself when it causes Ian to look at him again.

”Something like that,” Ian winces and casts his eyes out the window before he looks back at Mickey again, that unspoken apology back in the tilt of his smile, ”you wanna know what being bipolar is sometimes? It’s like… every little thing, threading through every goddamned story, every detail. Makes me feel real pathetic.”

”Sounds like bullshit,” Mickey challenges and steels himself against Ian’s surprised face.

”Maybe,” he eventually chuckles, ”but come on, I can’t even tell you about my short career waiting tables without this tuning into yet another ’Ian’s got a disorder’ sob story.”

”Bullshit,” Mickey smirks when Ian snorts at him, shaking his head and looking down at his plate, ”it’s just fucking life, Ian, the thing’s all mixed up in there and so what if you gotta bring it up? Whatever, I don’t mind hearing about it.”

Ian doesn’t look up right away and Mickey winces at himself, he never was at his most eloquent in the morning but it’ll have to fucking do. For some reason, it does.

”Fiona got me the job,” Ian tells him, the slight tension in his voice from before gone, ”it was the first time I tried medicating it, didn’t go so well.”

”No?”

”No.” Ian takes a moment to finish his breakfast, chewing slowly and pushing the plate to the side before he meets Mickey’s silently prompting eyes again. ”Don’t know. Made me feel like a zombie, like I couldn’t feel. I’d been high and low by that point, but none of that was as fucking terrifying as not being anything at all.”

”But you stuck with it, right?” Mickey realizes that he’s picking at his nails, like some nervous tick, and laces his fingers together around his cup to get himself to stop.

”No,” Ian sits back, a hand scratching at the back of his neck, ”no, not really.”

Mickey sighs, can feel himself getting a little impatient with how hard he has to work to get Ian to open up sometimes. He doesn’t give a fuck if Ian tells him these things or not, but this middle thing where Mickey has to ask and coax, of this he’s not a fan. He thinks about getting up and leaving Ian alone when one look at the guy wipes all of those thoughts from his mind. This isn’t a guy who’s playing games, playing coy or hard to get. It’s a guy who’s genuinely struggling to open up, like he’s not used to it, but he tries. Mickey feels a kind of calm patience wash over him, not too different from how he feels towards Yevgeny when his son does or says something he doesn’t quite understand. Some kind of selective empathy, or whatever. It’s weird, but he’ll take it.

”Why not?” He asks.

Ian smiles, quickly, and wrinkles his nose as he crosses his arms over his chest. ”Jesus, alright.”

He looks up at Mickey and leans forward again to rest his elbows on the table and get a couple of inches closer.

”I’d been living with Monica for a while,” Ian’s voice is low, but certain, ”did a lot of drugs, self-medicated I guess. I was dealing, too, with Monica and her trash boyfriend, did things for money I’m not proud of.”

”So you keep saying, you know I’m not gonna judge you for it, right?” Mickey assures him, quietly, and leans forward to mimic Ian’s position and get a little closer. ”I don’t care what you did, whatever it is.”

Ian hums and ducks his head, and it feels strangely intimate. The rustling from Edna’s morning paper and Etch’s clattering from the kitchen fading far into the background.

”Anyway, didn’t ask about that, did I?”

”No, you didn’t,” Ian furrows his brows and stills for a second before looking back up, ”thanks.”

Mickey sighs but nods his head, peering up to meet Ian’s searching eyes, only a few feet away now.

”I eh- I had my first real low, after a few months,” Ian continues after a moment’s silence, ”Monica left, left town. Left me, ’cause I didn’t wanna come with her. Couldn’t, I couldn’t move, get out of bed. Didn’t see the point of anything, I don’t know. It’s- it’s not the easiest thing to explain.”

”Bitch fucking left when you were depressed?” Mickey can tell that the disgust he’s feeling is clear on his face and in the harsh tone of his voice, by the way the nervous tension that lines Ian’s face slowly softens.

”Yeah,” he shrugs, ”we’d been squatting in this old house, Lip thinks I’d been lying there alone for two, maybe three days before him and Debs found me. He’d run into Monica before she left town, and he’d seen through her bullshit enough to understand that I wasn’t doing well. So they got me home, and then tried to get me hospitalized. I didn’t listen, didn’t believe I was sick.”

”Why not?” Mickey asks and raises his eyebrows at Ian’s tired shrug.

”Denial?” He guesses. ”Been living with that shit my whole life, with Monica. I wasn’t gonna do that to my family, all I ever wanted was to take care of them and do something, you know? With myself, be someone. All that stuff went to hell at the same time, and just the thought of being another burden… I don’t know, I couldn’t even think about it, I just acted out, pretended it wasn’t a problem.”

”Bet that went down real well,” Mickey mutters into his cup before he finishes the last of his coffee.

”’Bout as well as expected,” Ian concedes, ”pretending stuff isn’t going to shit is a Gallagher speciality, normally, but both Lip and Fi were on me about getting checked. I refused to let them tell me what to do, insisted I was fucking fine, under control. And then- and then I almost killed Debs with a baseball bat.”

Mickey knows that look of shame, he’s seen it before, felt it. ”This your kid sister?”

”Yeah, she was thirteen,” Ian nods, his fingers absentmindedly brushing over the side of his arm where his hand is resting, like he’s comforting himself with a loose hug and fingertips slowly moving up and down the tense muscle, ”and I nearly killed her, imagining things that weren’t there. Monica always was a reckless, useless fucking mom, but she’d never- this was-.”

Mickey keeps his eyes on Ian’s hand, moving slowly up and down.

”Yeah, anyway,” Ian clears his throat and his hand stills and clamps around his arm in a tight squeeze, fingertips digging into the pale skin, Mickey looks down at his own hands, annoyed with himself for not knowing what to say, ”got on my first cocktail, and Fi got me a job at the diner where she was working. And I really fucking wanna sit here and trade waiter war stories with you, Mick, but all I really remember of it is being tired and miserable.”

”Hey,” Mickey looks back up at him and offers him a cautious smile, ”tired and miserable pretty much sums it up.”

Ian huffs out a laugh and lets go of his arm so he can wipe a hand across his face, massaging his fingertips into the dark shadow under his right eye. ”Yeah?”

”Had a whole fucking mariachi band in here once, instruments and all,” Mickey grins when Ian skeptically narrows his eyes at him, ”dressed to the teeth, hats and all, ordered pancakes. Two blueberries, one chocolate chip, one bacon. Fifth one wanted half of a fucking full English, not fucking joking.”

”Asshole,” Ian smiles and shakes his head.

”I know, right?” Mickey gestures towards the yellowing menu board on the wall above the counter and to his utter fucking delight, Ian’s only a syllable behind when he joins in to recite it with him, ”no additions, no alterations.

”It’s right there,” Ian continues when Mickey’s too busy smiling to say anything else, ”mariachi bands these days, totally out of control.”

”What I was saying!” Mickey holds up his hands and points them at Ian like he’s a revelation, before he drops them to his sides, gripping at the edge of his seat. ”Argued with the guy for five whole minutes before I gave up and just ate half of his plate before serving it.”

Ian laughs at him; head hitting the back of his seat and throat bared fucking laughs at him, the sound sending a shiver down Mickey’s back and slaps a wide grin across his face.

”Ten fucking years man, I’ve worked here, that’s about as exciting as it gets,” Mickey shrugs, ”you and your toast were the fucking highlight of my week when you came in that time.”

”Yeah?”

”Yeah,” Mickey wants to tease the happy smirk off Ian’s face, but he likes it too much to even think of a smart remark.

”Maybe if I’d had you around to keep me company,” Ian’s tone is teasing, but his eyes are steady as ever, ”I’d never have left Patsy’s.”

Mickey picks up his eyebrows and shrugs. ”Doubt it. I’m an okay waiter but a fucking terrible customer. Would’ve made you quit sooner.”

”Monica came back,” Ian tells him, quickly, still smiling weakly and seemingly determined to get this out, ”it’s why I quit. She told me to go find people who’d love me for me.”

”She told you to go off your meds?”

”Didn’t need telling,” Ian admits, ”I hated taking them, so I took off, quit the meds, the diner. Left everybody behind again. Mom- Monica always looked for people that were like her, left you if you disagreed or challenged her. I think she was really happy that I was sick, that I turned out like her.”

”You think you’re like her?”

”No,” Ian smiles sadly, ”and yes. When Frank used to beat on me as a kid, all I heard was how I looked the most like Monica… but I was there when she died, when she jumped, and I knew I didn’t want to be like her, not like that. Selfish and unreliable.”

There is always choice, Mickey remembers Ian telling him, wind pulling and biting at them, slowly walking towards Mickey’s apartment.

”Bet this is exactly what you wanted, first thing on a Thursday morning,” Ian grins at him, ”listening to me unload all my shit on you.”

”Not complaining,” Mickey leans back in his seat, ”it’s no mariachi band, but it’s something.”

”Fuck you,” Ian huffs, his smile widening and finally reaching his eyes again, making Mickey painfully aware that it hadn’t before, ”I was here ’couple of months ago when you broke that guy’s nose, bet you deal with stuff like that all the time.”

”Believe it or not, Ian,” Mickey shakes his head and can’t help smiling, crossing his arms to balance it out a little, ”roughing up douchebags ain’t exactly my idea of exciting.”

”No?”

”No man, that shit’s like riding a fucking bicycle,” he snorts and thumbs at his nose, raising his eyebrows at Ian’s unimpressed smile, ”but just ’cause I remember how to do it, doesn’t mean you’re gonna see me ridin’ around like some doped up Lance Armstrong, dressed head to toe in fucking lycra.”

”Too bad.”

Mickey snaps his head up at the words, eyes landing on a young woman standing by their table, next to Ian, smiling wide and looking down at him.

”Yeah?” He frowns at her, cursing himself for yet again being too engrossed in conversation with Ian to notice what was going on around him, to hear the bell above the door tolling for him to get back to work. ”Can I help you?”

”Sure,” she says, her gloved hand tightening its grip of the strap of her bag, slung over her shoulder, ”you could get me a seat.”

Mickey frowns up at her and considers for a second to advice her to go find somewhere else for her breakfast. Her coat is nothing too fancy, but between her dark fucking billowing hair and carefully made up face, she’s looking like she’d be more at home on the cover of some magazine, than in some shitty South Side diner. Still, there’s something in the way she’s meeting his glare that’s telling him she’s probably more local than she appears at first glance.

”Lady,” he says, and he’d be lying if he claimed not to enjoy the way her eyes widens just a little when he does, ”the whole place is deserted, sit wherever the fuck you want and I’ll get to you in a second.”

To his surprise, she laughs and looks down at Ian.

”I like him,” she says and bends down, kissing Ian lightly on the side of his mouth, right on that damned line, marking his crooked stupid smile. ”Morning, sugar.”

”Morning,” Ian repeats before he turns back to Mickey with an apologetic smile, ”Mick, this is Stran. Stran, this is Mickey, he works here.”

”Nice to meet you, Mickey,” she says, like she means it, and holds out a hand for him to shake.

”Didn’t know you were waiting for someone,” Mickey mutters and gets up from his seat, ignoring the offered hand. He takes a couple of steps back but waits around until Stran has retracted her hand and held it up in defeat, slipping past him to sit down in his goddamned seat.

”Yeah,” Ian says and looks kinda embarrassed, and if it’s for the sudden and unceremonious sidelining of Mickey in favor of better company, or for getting caught fraternizing with the staff by his friend, Mickey can’t tell.

Mickey hated this kinda stuff when he was a kid and Mandy insisted on telling him about the seemingly endless drama of who got to sit with whom at lunch she’d got going on with two of her friends. The whole scenario sure hasn’t grown on him since.

So he pushes down the slightly territorial, and painfully childish, urge to insist that he was here first, reminding himself that he does also have a job to do, and mentally backs off. He looks down at Stran, settling in in her seat, shrugging out of her coat. ”What can I get ya?”

Stran keeps her eyes on Ian for a second before she looks up at Mickey, smile small and friendly. ”Just coffee, please, for now.”

Mickey nods and takes a step closer to the table, stacking up Ian’s empty plate with both of their cups before he turns over a new one and fills it up for her.

”You good?” he asks Ian, looking down at him with what he hopes is a blank expression.

”Yeah, Mick, thank you.”

”Alright,” he says and taps the table lightly with his knuckles before he picks up the dirty dishes with his free hand and leaves them to it, Stran’s melodic voice immediately filling the silence behind him.

He walks in behind the counter to slot the coffeepot back in place, reminding himself to brew a new one before the breakfast crowd starts trickling in. He should definitely go out for a smoke while he still has the chance.

”Hey man,” he says when he walks into the kitchen, pulling open the dishwasher, ”why is this still full?”

Etch looks up at him from his chair by the door, lowering his book enough to level Mickey with a blank stare.

”’Cause I haven’t emptied it yet,” Etch knows that it’s usually about something else when Mickey starts questioning his ability to do his job right, and that it’s usually useless to ask what that something else really is, ”put it in the sink, Mickey, Jesus.”

Mickey makes an annoyed sound but does as he’s told, the porcelain clattering when he drops the dishes into the sink with less care than he really intended, letting the tap run over them for a second before turning it off and walking past Etch and out the back door.

”Smoke,” he mutters, instead of ’thanks’, ’sorry’, or ’fuck off, asshole’, and leaves a small gap in the door, hoping Etch won’t mind it and shut it all the way after him. It’s a small thing, but he doesn’t like the sound of the deadbolt clicking into place behind him, locking him out.

It starts to rain, not a lot, just small annoying drops drizzling down the dirty alleyway, accentuating the smell of garbage and wet dog that lingers there. Mickey ignores it and fills his world with white smoke, blocking out the smells and the cold bites of the scarce drops landing on his bare arms. Doesn’t entirely block out his thoughts.

It’s nice that Ian has friends, or girlfriends, or whatever. It’s good. It’s really fucking annoying that he keeps brining them to the diner though, and Mickey doesn’t know exactly why that is. It’s just as well, probably. Mickey can’t sit in that corner and chit-chat all day, he has a fucking job to do. Occasionally. He really needs to get back in there and brew some fresh coffee, there’s a small group of construction workers that’s been sending a guy in with a group order at about this time every day for the past week. Holds up the whole operation if Mickey has to start a new pot in the middle of all that.

He sighs and sucks the last bit of life out of his cigarette, before he flicks it down the alley and slowly exhales a great cloud of smoke, taking a moment to stand in it and just breathe until it gives way to the wet trash and dirt once more. When he steps back into the kitchen he finds Etch leaned over the hatch, head halfway out the diner, his book dangling from one hand by his elbow.

Mickey shuts the door behind him and walks over to the sink to wash his hands, sees in the corner of his eye that Etch tosses a quick glance at him over his shoulder before turning back to peer out at whatever’s caught his interest in the diner.

”Coffee’s almost out,” he tells Mickey, back still turned.

”I know,” Mickey frowns at the unusual sound coming from the other room, ”the fuck’s going on in there?”

He walks up next to Etch and follows his lead, leaning his elbows against the sill and poking his head out through the hatch. Closer to the source, he realizes that someone’s singing, softly, the pitch low and the words foreign, but someone’s definitely singing and it’s coming from his diner.

”What the fuck?” he groans, because the diner doesn’t have music on for a reason, and that reason is Mickey. Doing a quick survey, he registers the man in the booth by the door, nose deep in his newspaper and his cup of coffee and cheese sandwich no doubt served to him by Etch while Mickey was out back. In the corner, Ian’s got his laptop back up, fingers gently tapping at the keys, headphones resting around his neck. Opposite him, Stran is rifling through a pile of loose papers, a slight frown creasing her forehead as she eyes the sheet in her hand, her dark auburn lips absentmindedly forming around the mournful sound of her song.

”You’re screwed, man,” Etch tells him, and Mickey tears his eyes from the girl to glare at him, ”no way you can compete with that, the guy’s girlfriend’s a freaking siren.”

”Unbelievable,” Mickey clicks his tongue and considers for a second stomping out there and putting an end to this nonsense. This is not how you act in public spaces.

”It’s nice,” Etch nudges at his elbow with his own, ”I know all your instincts tell you to go out there and Grinch it up, but, you know. Take a deep breath and enjoy the show, man. We’re getting, like, a free concert here.”

Mickey scoffs and stands up straight, but he doesn’t leave Etch’s side, he just turns around and leans back against the edge of the kitchen counter, folding his arms across his chest. ”What is this shit anyway? Someone die?”

”It’s an old Yiddish folk song,” Etch tells him and sounds so certain Mickey has to snort and turn his head to stare at the side of his face, to figure out to what extent he’s talking out of his ass. Etch glances at him and smiles wide, before leaning his chin in his hand and once more turn his attention out on the other room.

”Bullshit,” Mickey challenges him, ”like you’d know.”

”Oh, I know stuff,” Etch insists, his head bobbing up and down when his jaw works against the palm of his hand with the words, ”I know you think I only know how to ask for the restroom in Arabic-”

”Because that’s all you know,” Mickey slips in, matter-of-factly.

”-and while that might be partly- entirely true,” Etch admits, not missing a beat, rolling his eyes, ”my understanding is excellent, and my insight into a culture beyond your glossy American grandstanding sensitizes me to other cultures. I understand them in a way you could only dream of.”

”You’re so full of shit,” Mickey tells him, smirking to cover the fact that he can’t help admitting to himself that the melancholic singing in the other room is slowly growing on him, ”I don’t know shit about anything, but even I know Arabic and Yiddish are two very different languages.”

”Yes, but I-”

”No fucking buts, Etch,” Mickey chuckles, ”it’s like, a fucking Germanic language, and you have stronger cultural ties to fucking Rockford than you’ve got to the Middle East, let alone Eastern fucking Europe.”

”Yev’s doing geography in school, huh?” Etch asks and snickers gleefully when Mickey hits at his shoulder with his fist.

”Fuck off,” he scowls, but can’t quite stop a slight chuckle slipping out before returning to his point, ”and you forget that I was there when you tried to talk to Edna about Hanukkah your first year here. Painful, Etch. It was painful. You don’t know shit.”

Don’t look for me,” Mickey snaps his head to the side, staring at Etch’s calm profile as the man quietly, but clearly, sings along with the melody, ”where birds are singing, you will not find me there, mayn shats.

Mickey just kinda gapes at him when he turns his face and raises his eyebrows at Mickey.

I am a slave, I think,” he hums and screws up his face in thought when he hesitates, falling a couple of syllables behind Stran and speaking rather than singing the rest of it, ”with chains… a-ringing? Something like that.”

”Did you just make that shit up?” Mickey would have fucking known if Etch was fluent in Yiddish, and he’s two seconds away from looking for the hidden cameras when Etch hides his face in his hand and shakes with suppressed laughter.

”You believed it for a second, though,” he smiles widely at Mickey, who’s settled back to shake his head and glare at him, ”I’ve heard it before, man, Professor’s got a CD with this Canadian Jewish dude who sings it in English. She plays it all the time, it’s good.”

”Asshole,” Mickey laughs softly, suddenly feeling like he’s done a full 180 on the singing, keeping his voice down so he won’t disturb the delicate sound of it, ”knew you were full of shit.”

Etch shrugs and returns his attention to the impromptu a cappella performance in the other room.

”She’s got a damned decent set of pipes, though,” he mumbles, ”damn decent.”

”It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” Mickey admits, but in nothing louder than a noncommittal mutter. At the same moment, he hears a second voice carefully joining in with Stran’s vocals, causing her to further wind down the already pretty slow tempo. He turns around and hugs his arms tighter around himself, refusing to lean in closer like Etch when he once more peers in at the diner. Ian’s still got his attention on the screen of his laptop, fingers tapping at the keys, but now his lips are carefully moving with the foreign words, too, albeit with considerably less confidence and obvious skill than that of his partner. Mickey sees her smile, and seamlessly repeat a section of the lyrics when Ian stumbles and falls silent.

They go through the same section a couple of times, before Stran stops and makes a noise like she’s clearing her throat, like she’s got something stuck in it. Mickey feels himself stand to attention, a voice at the back of his head wondering if he remembers how to do the Heimlich, and is about to run out there when Ian laughs and looks up at his companion. Chuckling he tries to mimic her guttural sound, only managing a low squeak.

”No,” Mickey can hear her say, and she looks like she’s fighting a losing battle, trying to remain serious in the face of Ian’s mirth, ”no, you need to really commit, Ian. Back of your throat, real nasty. Engage your uvula.”

She makes the sound again, and it’s worse than it was before. Ian laughs and shakes his head at her, glancing around the room and holding up a hand as if to silence her. She remains undeterred, however, and repeats the line they’ve been singing, louder this time and really making sure to accentuate the guttural consonants.

”That’s it,” Mickey announces, ”no, just- no.”

Ian’s laughing when Mickey walks up to them, but he has enough composure to look embarrassed when he sees him approach.

”Fuck- sorry Mick,” he huffs, ”we’ll be quiet.”

”You better,” Mickey scowls and tries to pin Stran with a glare, but she’s shuffling through her papers with feigned urgency, biting her lip to keep from laughing. ”People are trying to fucking eat in here, you know.”

”I know,” Ian promises him, holding up a hand between them, ”we know. I’ll kick her if she tries anything, promise.”

Mickey shakes his head at them and ignores Ian’s fond smile, aimed straight at him. ”You good?”

”Yeah, yeah?” Ian turns to look at Stran who nods, and actually looks like she’s fallen back into being genuinely preoccupied with the paper she’s got in her hand. Ian shrugs and looks back up at Mickey. ”We can leave if you want, get it if you don’t want us working in here.”

”No, man,” Mickey tries not to smile back when Ian shoots him a relieved grin, but it’s not easy, ”you can stay.”

Ian nods, and even though he’s completely forgot to brew that fresh pot of coffee, Mickey’s strangely relieved when the doorbell chimes and a vaguely familiar construction worker ambles inside, counting through the collection of change he’s got in his one ungloved hand, quietly mumbling the numbers as he’s adding it up, his second glove secured between his teeth.

”Work,” Mickey mutters pointlessly and gestures over his shoulder. Ian gives him that look again, like he’s apologizing for something, and it makes even less sense to Mickey now. So he just nods and watches as Ian puts his headphones back on, before he turns and retreats in behind his counter.

The rest of the morning is uneventful, but a steady flow of diners keeps him busy enough to stay on his feet throughout it. Etch has obviously started on a new book, because he takes every opportunity he gets to sit down and disappear into it, leaving Mickey to his own devices when no one calls for his services. Even when Ian isn’t there, he usually ends up sitting down in the corner booth when there’s a lull in his day, but now he’s either banished to sit somewhere else, or stay on his feet. He stays on his feet, and if he occasionally finds himself casually observing the couple in the corner booth, then what of it?

Stran is beautiful, Mickey decides after some internal debate. Like, clear as day, even Mickey gets it, stupidly beautiful. She’s short, and she looks strong, and she twists her face into ridiculous grimaces when she speaks, like she doesn’t give a fuck if it makes her look crazy, as long as it gets her point across. Like her whole life is a stage, and she naturally steals the show wherever she goes. She’s got one of those shiny fucking personalities, and Mickey gets it. He doesn’t necessarily like it, but he gets it.

They work, mostly, the two of them. Sometimes they talk, hunched over Ian’s laptop or a sheet of paper, and Stran more often than not abandons their hushed conversation to burst out in a hearty, pearly fucking laugh Mickey really wants to hate, but can’t, because she invariably snorts and makes herself laugh harder from it, shaking in her seat. And it’s ridiculously adorable.

They leave before lunch, Ian leaving enough money behind to cover both his breakfast and her cup of coffee. Mickey’s wiping down a table when he looks up to see them step out the door, Ian holding it up for his friend and taking a second to search the room, smiling when his eyes land on Mickey.

He puts his hand up in a kind of wave, and then he leaves, the door closing on a gust of cold wind pushing into the diner and running a shiver down Mickey’s spine.

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 11.
Friday.

 

Mickey leans his head against the cool tile and breathes out through his nose, as though he’s smoking and if he just wants it enough, his breath will to come out white and soothing. Mickey likes smoking on the toilet, does it all the time at home. Well, he used to anyway, when he lived with his family in a house where no one gave a fuck about yellowing walls or second hand smoke. Now he lives in an apartment with an adamant anti-smoking advocate for a landlord, and a kid coming over to stay every other weekend and holiday.

He flicks his lighter pointlessly and stares at the flame blazing to life and dying out, again and again with his thumb setting the pace. The faint chime of a bell shakes him from his meandering thoughts. He straightens up and gets off the toilet, pocketing his lighter after he’s pulled up his pants and buckled his belt, draping the apron back down across his thighs. He pulls the string to flush and washes his hands.

Turning off the water he grips the sides of the sink and stares into his reflection in the dirty bathroom mirror. Nostalgia never was his thing, and feeling it over getting to smoke while he’s taking a dump feels like a new low.

”Pretty fucking pathetic, man,” he mutters and makes a face at himself.

Mickey’s always, for as long as he can remember, locked himself up in the crapper with a magazine and a smoke, with the pretense of nature calling. Nature did call, of course, but it was never just that. House full of yelling, angry Milkoviches, often drunk and ready to fight, having a room you could legitimately lock and escape into without immediate challenge was worth its cubic feet in fucking gold. Still, that was no reason to wax poetic over it. There was no longer any need in his life for that kind of holy sanctuary. No reason to run or hide.

Staring into his own eyes, clouded over by the poorly cleaned mirror, he wills himself not to acknowledge the real reason why he’s letting his thoughts go haywire.

”The fuck’s it to you, anyway?” He asks and scratches at his chin, gauging how many days away he is from needing to shave, presses his fingertips into his cheek and pulls down to stretch out the lines around his eye. ”Looking old, Milkovich.”

He doesn’t though, he looks the same. Besides, the lines around his eyes are good, they’re new, but they speak of a decade doing something other than just scowling. The permanent lines between his eyebrows he had stuck there before he even hit his twenties. It’s like faint scarring, marking a significant split in his life. Pre-Yevgeny, post-Yevgeny. Having a reason to smile never was something he went looking for, but there it came anyway.

Life is finally good. Last thing he needs now is excess drama.

”Fucking stupid,” Mickey decides and leaves the tiny restroom, turning off the light behind him and stepping out into the diner. He notices Ian first thing, sitting in his regular spot across the room, again bent over his computer. He’s alone.

”Red hot breakfast special,” he calls out as he rounds the counter, noticing in the corner of his eye that Ian’s looking up at the sound of his voice. He ignores him and instead turns to Etch who’s already pushing a steaming plate through the hatch.

”10 steps ahead of you,” he announces and disappears out of view once more. Mickey takes the plate and grabs the coffeepot before making his way over to Ian.

”Morning,” he says as he serves him up, ”coffee?”.

”Love that you still ask,” Ian reaches out for a cup and turns it over, ”join me?”

Mickey’s eyes flit over to Ian’s and back to monitoring the cup he’s pouring when he realizes that the guy is staring up at him, intently.

He clears his throat and fills up the cup before he speaks. ”Sure.”

He glances around the room for good measure, it’s yet another dry morning for the diner. So he settles into the booth and pours himself a cup of coffee. Senses more than sees the way Ian returns his attention to his laptop, absentmindedly eating his breakfast on the side.

Mickey can’t help humming contently to himself and sit back a little, take a sip of his coffee before cradling the cup in his hands, resting them in his lap. He takes a moment to look at Ian’s focused work, one hand slowly typing while the other alternates between shoveling porridge and joining the first to speed up the writing. He’s got a drop of milk stuck in the corner of his mouth and Mickey shivers ever so slightly as he suppresses a strange urge to lean across the table and sweep it up with the pad of his thumb. He closes his eyes, instead, and leans his head back against the wall behind him. Lets the gentle tapping of Ian’s fingers join the soft whirr of cars passing by in the sludge outside, the distant clatter of Etch emptying the dishwasher in the kitchen. He thinks about the comfort of this moment, these moments. He doesn’t understand it, but he’s not about to complain.

”Hey Mick?”

When Mickey tilts his head forward and opens his eyes, he’s got a strange feeling that Ian’s been looking at him for a while. He can’t remember when the sound of his typing stopped, or if he even registered the scrape of porcelain across the table, his empty breakfast plate pushed to the side now. He looks down at the precarious angle of his coffeecup, half an inch away from spilling its contents all over his lap, and quickly levels it out and places it back on the table in front of him, fingers lacing around it.

”What’s up?” He asks and looks up at Ian in time to see that soft smirk hide in the corner of his mouth, the drop of milk long gone.

It looks like he’s got something to say, but already decided not to. ”Tired?”

”Slow morning,” Mickey admits and looks out the window, it’s started snowing again, slow dusty flakes lazily falling down on last night’s precipitation, already darkened by fumes and feet, ”gonna be a long winter.”

Ian hums and by his blurred reflection in the window, Mickey can see him turn his gaze out to the street. Mickey feels like a creep when he jumps at the opportunity to trace the guy’s profile with his eyes, like he’s trying to etch it into his brain.

”So, your friend,” Mickey asks out loud before he manages to stop himself, and for a second considers pretending that he doesn’t remember her name even though, for some fucking reason, he really does, ”Stran.”

Ian’s got this knowing smirk going when he looks at him, eyebrows slightly raised. ”What about her?”

Mickey clears his throat, suddenly uncomfortable. What about her? ”Unusual name. Jewish?”

”Nope,” Ian frowns and plants his elbows on the table, the way he’s crossing his arms almost looking defensive. ”Kurdish. Why would you think she’s Jewish?”

”I don’t know?” Mickey usually avoids being insensitive about people’s cultures and religions by being indiscriminately disinterested, but for some reason he had to stick his nose in this one, and he already feels like he’s sailing deep waters. ”How often do you get fucking gentiles sittin’ around having public sing-alongs of Jewish folksongs?”

Ian smiles at the frustrated pitch creeping into Mickey’s explanation, and Mickey thinks he can see his shoulders relaxing a little.

”And since it clearly isn’t you,” he continues, eased by Ian’s reaction, ”seeing as you’re the damned ginger, pasty-assed poster-child for Irish immigration, Jesus, fuck. I don’t know. Don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume your girlfriend’s Jewish, man. You think I’d have some kinda problem with her if she was?”

”Don’t know,” Ian cringes when Mickey sits back, eyebrows hitched high, ”fuck, no. I don’t think that. Get kinda defensive about her, that’s all.”

”I can tell,” Mickey looks down at his coffee as he continues, ”you guys been together long?”

He looks up when Ian doesn’t reply straight away, he’s staring Mickey down like he’s assessing him or something.

”We’re not,” he says, ”together.”

”Is it because of the singing?” Mickey grins in victory when Ian gives in to a reluctant smile. ”I imagine that stuff gets pretty fucking old real quick.”

Ian looks away when he laughs, like he’s trying not to, and Mickey can’t get himself to stop his eyes from following every inch of movement, eyes wandering down his jawline, the strained twist to his neck.

”It’s nice,” Ian shrugs, still smiling when he meets Mickey’s eyes again, ”I could listen to her all day.”

”You could, huh?” Mickey leans back and crosses his arms, as he nods at Ian. ”Are you gonna make me ask about the fucking singing, man, because I don’t even know where to start with that shit.”

Ian huffs and folds his arms across his chest, casting his eyes heavenward for a second before landing them back on Mickey, leaning his elbows on the table. ”It’s a thing she likes to do, learn songs in different languages. She’s trying to teach me this one, but it’s not going very well. Won’t stick.”

”Sounded pretty good to me,” Mickey says, fairly certain he had meant to say something else, meant to poke fun.

Ian huffs and shakes his head, and Mickey can swear he’s got something of a blush crawling up his neck. ”Don’t think so. Apparently I need to sound more like I’m clearing my throat, or something.”

”Fucking un-American,” Mickey grins.

”Right,” Ian chuckles, ”it’s my goddamned constitutional right to slur my consonants all I want.”

”Right,” Mickey echoes, and he can feel his smile slipping a little, ”you guys do that kinda thing often? Just sit around and sing like that?”

”Me? No,” Ian huffs and shakes his head with a fond smile, ”Stran on the other hand, she’s fucking fearless. Like she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. Doesn’t give a crap what people think. I’m not like that.”

”Who cares what other people think,” Mickey frowns, he hadn’t imagined Ian as the self-conscious type. Ian pulls a face and looks out the window as he rubs his neck with his right hand.

”Yeah,” he says, ”guess not. Just don’t like the attention.”

Mickey thinks he knows this by now, what it means when Ian sounds like this, when he isn’t looking at him. It’s like this black hole in his past, and Mickey’s made to tiptoe around it still. Whatever, Mickey’s got a black hole of his own, and for all he knows Ian’s gotten just as good at tiptoeing. Fucking ridiculous, really.

”She’s very beautiful,” the words feel strange in his mouth, doesn’t think he’s ever said as much about another person before, no fucking clue why he’s doing it now, ”Stran, I mean. She’s- you know, whatever.”

Ian narrows his eyes at him and that damned knowing smirk is back again. ”Interesting.”

”What?” Mickey wants to face-plant the table at the involuntary panic undermining his voice.

”You like her,” Ian states and raises his eyebrows in challenge when Mickey’s mouth falls agape.

”What?” he repeats, this time not even trying to hide his fluster.

Ian falls back in his seat and scratches at his chin, ostentatiously eyeing what he can see of Mickey, sweeping his eyes up and down. ”She likes tall men, generally. But for you, I’ll try.”

”What the fuck,” Mickey groans and pinches at his eyes before holding up his hands, ”no, absolutely not.”

”Why not?” Ian insists, ”You’ve got a million questions about her today, clearly she left an impression. She’s single, you’re… single?”

Mickey levels him with an evil glare in lieu of an answer. Ian grins and shrugs. ”So, give me your number and I’ll pass it on.”

”Fuck you, man,” Mickey is one small push away from throwing his own private pride parade right there in the diner, anything to get Ian to stop this matchmaking madness, ”I can’t ask about your fucking friends for two seconds without you thinking I want to bone ’em?”

”Romance, Mickey,” Ian corrects him, his stern expression marred by the way he’s barely able to keep from smiling, ”romance my friends, bone sounds so crude.”

”Not interested,” Mickey tries his damnedest to sound like there’s no room for negotiation, ”just curious, fucking sue me.”

”Oh, just curious,” Ian nods slowly and grins widely, eyes on Mickey for a couple of seconds of silence, like he’s waiting on Mickey to change his mind. Mickey presses his lips together and raises his eyebrows defiantly, intent on putting a very definite stop to this. When Ian speaks again, it’s prefaced with a determined breath. ”She’s one of my best friends, we work together. Met her about five years ago, went to the same college.”

”College?” Ian snaps his mouth shut when Mickey interrupts the flow of information to fish for details, and nods.

”Community college, yeah,” he says with a lopsided shrug, ”just the one year, after I’d been on my meds for a while and I’d gone back to take my GED. Dropped out of high school when I went with Monica.”

”What did you study?”

”English,” Ian smiles when Mickey pulls a face, ”yeah, I know, it gets worse. Minored in music theory.”

”Hey, I’m not judging,” Mickey holds up his hands in a show of goodwill, and to keep himself from accidentally blurting out a ’you do you’. There has to be a limit to all the wrong ways Etch rubs off on him.

”Did you ever go?” Ian asks. ”College?”

”Fuck no,” Mickey huffs and rubs at the ink above his knuckles, ”no, not exactly what they call ’book smart’.”

”Bullshit,” Ian meets his warning glare dead on, not waiting for Mickey to shut him down before continuing, ”you’re sharp as fuck, Mick. You’re Shakespeare.”

This is officially the dumbest thing anyone’s ever said to him, and he wants Ian to know this. Wants to tell him to shut the fuck up and spare him the outlandish attempts to do whatever it is he’s trying to do, saying something so amazingly stupid. Mickey can’t say any of this, his throat entirely closed off in the wake of the terrifying sincerity in Ian’s voice.

”I mean,” Ian stumbles, like he’s got any claim on being the one to feel uncomfortable right now, ”that’s- don’t know why I said that.”

”Yeah alright, College,” Mickey’s voice is ragged and dry when he finds it, but it works, ”whatever. I like words, and I’m good at numbers. But Shakespeare I fucking ain’t, did my senior year twice and I failed it both times.”

”Doesn’t mean shit,” Ian tells him and Mickey kinda hates it, because it’s the first time he thinks Ian sounds like he’s pitying him.

”I know that,” he frowns, ”don’t need you telling me that.”

To his surprise, Ian smiles, tentatively at first and soon so wide Mickey doesn’t stand a chance.

”You like it here?” He asks and Mickey can feel himself relax at Ian’s curious tone, he’s not looking for Mickey to defend his, as it would probably appear to most, crappy life, he just wants to know if he’s good.

”Never thought I’d have it so good,” Mickey answers honestly and nods for emphasis, ”had my money on locked up or dead, by now.”

”Same,” Ian says like it’s the truth, and Mickey kinda believes him, ”I mean, for a while I thought like… medal of honor, maybe, or lost somewhere in Iraq. Or dead in Iraq, if you asked anybody else.”

”Stupid fucking dream, anyway,” Mickey mutters, not caring if he stomps all over a sensitive area, ”glad that one didn’t work out. Thank fuck for timely mental disorders.”

Ian looks shocked for a second, then he huffs out a laugh and raises his empty cup in a mockery of a toast.

”Thank you, Mr Positive Spin.”

”Happy to help,” Mickey smirks and shifts his focus to the door when he hears it open, ”thus endeth today’s session, I guess.”

Ian twists around to look at the man entering, stomping off most of the snow-sludge stuck to his boots by the door before he moves further inside and sits in one of the booths there. Ian turns back and something in his eyes stills Mickey in his movements, hands flat on the table as he’s about to heave himself out of his seat.

”Hey Mick,” he says and sounds like he’s going to say what’s on his mind this time.

”What’s up?” Mickey asks and leans back in his seat, work can wait another minute or two.

”Gonna sound fucking weird,” Ian starts with an apologetic smile, ”but I wanted to say sorry about yesterday.”

”What about yesterday?”

”I don’t know,” Mickey can’t really remember seeing Ian this flustered before, he pulls a hand through his hair once and it’s quickly covered up by his usual calm, but it was there, ”felt weird, having her here. Kinda invited herself and I didn’t think much of it, until she was here and it just-, don’t know.”

”This isn’t some private club, Ian,” Mickey tries, tries to cover up the dozen or so pangs of childish possessiveness he’d suffered since yesterday, embarrassed by how alone he felt in his discomfort at having their bubble invaded.

”I know that,” Ian sighs and glances quickly out the window before leaning in closer, ”’this is Mickey, he works here’? I mean, come on. What a fucking douchey thing to say.”

”True, though,” Mickey shrugs, because he doesn’t know what else to say to that.

”Yeah, but not-,” Ian starts and stops, ”you’re-, I don’t come here for the fucking cuisine, Mick, you gotta know that.”

”I’m deeply wounded,” Mickey grins, ”you should know, The Tribune thought we were, and I quote, ’adequate, considering the price’, once. May fourth, 1998. Got the clipping of it and all, if you want proof of our culinary prowess.”

”Please don’t tell Etch I implied your food is shit,” Ian is shaking his head, but his smile is relieved and genuine, ”it’s amazingly adequate.”

”Better,” Mickey beams, and allows himself a second to really relish in the implications of what Ian’s trying to tell him, even with Mickey holding him at a steady distance with his inability to accept barefaced sincerity without resorting to teasing or swearing, or both.

”This is our space,” Ian soldiers on, undeterred by Mickey’s defense, ”I like it like this.”

And Mickey takes a moment just to stare at him, because it’s a nice sentiment but Mickey really doesn’t know what to do with it. Kinda feels like there’s something too big for him to contain, pushing under his skin. Like his insides have been turned into a giant Mickey-balloon, and it’s inflating by the second.

”Just,” Ian shrugs, ”wanted to say that.”

”Alright,” Mickey nods and slowly gets out of his seat, lingering for a second by the table, ”yeah.”

He grabs the coffeepot and manages to take a couple of steps away before he stops and turns, and he doesn’t know why this is the first thing that comes to mind when he scrambles for something, anything, to offer in return. ”Do you need to use the wi-fi?”

”What’s that?” Ian looks up, his hands are already on his laptop, falling still on top of the closed lid.

”Wi-fi,” Mickey repeats and shifts his stance, as far as heartfelt sentiments go it’s pretty crap, but maybe Ian will see the gesture for what it is, ”you keep tapping away at that thing, figured you probably could use the internet?”

”You’ve got wi-fi,” Ian sounds like he’s having a hard time processing, ”you, this diner. Wi-fi.”

”Yeah?” Mickey frowns. ”Why not?”

”Mick, you’ve still got a damned landline,” Ian’s wide-eyed amusement should annoy Mickey but it doesn’t, it’s infectious, ”I’d expect carrier pigeons, or fucking dial-up, before I’d expect to see a ’free wifi’ sign in here.”

”Fuck off, free,” Mickey rolls his shoulders, the coffee still in the pot sloshing around a little from the movement, ”we’re not a fucking public library, I’m asking you. You want the fucking thing or not?”

”Don’t know,” Ian smiles, ”been enjoying the sense deprivation chamber that is this diner as it is, so far. Not sure adding tumblr to it is gonna help much.”

”Don’t know what that is,” Mickey scowls at Ian’s widening grin, ”but if it’s more advanced than sending an email, doubt you’ll be able to use it. Connection’s shit.”

”Gotta be frustrating,” Ian sympathizes as Mickey takes the couple of steps back to stand by his table.

”Not really,” Mickey shrugs, ”don’t use it much, it’s not for the diner. I installed it upstairs for Edna so she can watch Netflix. But with some small acts of animal sacrifice and a quick prayer, you can reach it from here.”

”Alright,” Ian nods, ”guess being able to send the occasional email without having to type it out on my phone wouldn’t hurt.”

Of course the guy’s got internet on his fucking phone, same as the rest of the world. Mickey can imagine few things worse, in terms of useless insignificant fucking things, but for some reason he still feels like a schmuck for being such an overt Luddite.

”Actually, I’d fucking love it,” Ian admits, ”thank you.”

Mickey nods and clears his throat, putting the coffeepot back down on the table and shuffling to his left to gingerly lean in over Ian’s shoulder as he opens the laptop and navigates through the list of available networks. Mickey indulges himself for a second and leans a hand on the table, getting just a little too close to Ian, feeling his bony shoulder graze against his t-shirt, hanging loose from his chest. Mickey almost stops breathing, stuck in a limbo of wanting to press down against him, and wishing to collapse his lungs to get further away. He takes his hand off the table to hitch himself up a couple of inches, pointing at the screen.

”That’s it,” he mumbles, resting his other arm on the back of Ian’s seat, tips of his fingers nudging against his shoulder blade. It’s like his whole fucking body is rebelling against his every directive, drawn to this guy like metal to a magnet.

”Password?” Ian asks, his voice not betraying even a tremor of inner chaos to reflect Mickey’s, and it’s like a bucket of ice water to the face.

Mickey straightens up and folds his arms across his chest. ”Segal1, capital S.”

Ian hesitates with his hands over the keys and glances over his shoulder at Mickey before he turns back and types it in. ”Remind me to ask you about that one later.”

”Sure, I’ll do that,” Mickey lies and picks the coffee back up as he glances at the customer waiting across the room, not looking to be in too much of a hurry with his gaze out the window on the angry whirl of wind and snowfall. ”I’ll be right back.”

Despite his best efforts, combined with those of the inhospitable weather, Mickey doesn’t manage to find a quiet moment to sit back down with Ian throughout the rest of the morning. The door dings once, then twice in short succession, and before long he thinks half of South Side’s chosen his diner to shelter them from the storm. Ian leaves again before lunch, shooting Mickey a small smile and a noncommittal shrug before shouldering his way out the door. Mickey’s taking someone’s order and shouldn’t be staring at the guy’s hunched back, his pale hands flipping up the hood of his coat while he walks across the road.

He doesn’t apologize to the frowning man at his elbow, but does ask him to repeat himself.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 14.
Monday.

 

Ian comes in sometime in the afternoon, Mickey’s eyes on his slow movements through the diner, folding himself into the corner booth. Mickey flips the switch on the coffeemaker and runs his hands under the tap for a second before making his way around the counter, wiping the cold water off on his apron.

”Hey,” he says and offers a brief smile when Ian looks up and echoes his greeting, ”want anything?”

Ian looks down at his laptop and then up at Mickey again. ”No, thanks. That okay?”

”Sure, yeah,” Mickey frowns, hands settling at his hips for a second before his self-awareness kicks in and he thinks he’s looking too much like some overly concerned mother hen, so he folds his arms across his chest and retreats to a more appropriate stance, ”you sure? I can get you some water or something, on the fucking house if that’s your problem.”

”I’m good,” Ian’s careful smile twists into something bordering on wistful, his hands absentmindedly rubbing together over his laptop’s keyboard, ”could do with something warm, but think I’m feeling too wired for coffee today.”

”Got some hot cocoa if you like?” Mickey offers.

”Seriously?” Ian asks and fixes Mickey with an astonished glare. ”What- seriously?”

”What?” Mickey can’t tell if Ian’s joking, or if he’s for some reason actually offended by the suggestion. ”It’s not some fancy ass hot chocolate, just this cheap powder stuff, like all sugar.”

Ian’s still staring at him, mouth hanging open just a little, seemingly in a tug of war between outraged and amused. Mickey shrugs when he doesn’t say anything. ”But hey, ’tis the season and all that shit for stuffing your face and gettin’ high on sugar, right?”

”Mick, green tea,” Ian shakes his head at Mickey’s dumbfounded expression, ”our whole friendship is built on a foundation of lies.”

If the poorly disguised smile wasn’t enough of a giveaway, Mickey can hear the mirth in Ian’s voice now. Besides that, he seems a couple of dramatic cues away from putting a hand to his chest, clutching at invisible pearls.

”Endless cups of tea,” Ian ostentatiously laments with a heavy sigh, ”and I could have been having hot chocolate the whole time, is this what you’re telling me?”

”Fuck off,” Mickey huffs, ”you drank that stuff for a week before you caved, you’ve been slurping coffee like it’s fuel since. You’re fine.”

”Yeah, alright,” Ian concedes with a guilty grin, ”you got me.”

”And for the record,” Mickey adds, ”tea is not the foundation of our fucking friendship.”

”No?” Ian looks up at him. ”What is?”

”You callin’ me a sexy waiter that one time,” Mickey decides, ”spoke volumes of your character, admitting that. This is an honest, stand-up, observant fucking guy, I thought. Knows his shit.”

”Yeah?” Ian crosses his arms and narrows his eyes at Mickey, ”don’t think you remember that right, Mick. Believe the words used were ’dreamy’ and ’waitress’, but whatever.”

”Pretty sure the ’sexy’ was implied,” Mickey grins and throws in a wink, just because.

Because Ian laughs and Mickey almost doesn’t catch the polite cough behind him, calling for his attention. He twists where he stands and casts a glance in the direction of the sound, nods at the mustached man at table 2.

”Alright dude, gotta wrap this up,” he says, turning back to Ian, ”where are we on the cocoa, yes, no? Yes?”

”Yeah, sure, why not?” Ian pulls a hand through his hair, fingers resting against the back of his neck. Looking down at him, standing by the table, Mickey thinks he’s close enough to count the freckles trailing down the digits. A guy could lose himself, doing that. ”’Tis the season and all that shit, after all.”

”Cool, coming right up,” Mickey confirms and takes a few steps back while he talks, eyes on Ian, before he turns to take table 2’s order.

”Number 3, over easy,” he announces when he gets back behind the counter, sticking the note to the side of the hatch.

He doesn’t wait for Etch’s affirmative grunt before he rounds back out again and makes his way into the kitchen, grabbing the kettle on his way and walking past Etch to fill it up in the sink.

”Seem like you’re in a good mood,” Etch notes, egg sizzling and popping when he cracks it over the grill.

”So?” Mickey flips the switch on the kettle and folds his arms across his chest as he leans his hip against the sink, raising his eyebrows at Etch’s profile.

”Nothing,” Etch looks up at him with a cheeky grin before turning his attention back to what he’s doing, ”just wondering.”

”Got an hour left,” Mickey shrugs, ”kinda seeing a guy after.”

”An actual guy?”

”An actual fucking guy,” Mickey nods and expectantly looks down at the kettle, but it’s still quiet.

”Mickey’s got a date,” Etch muses and moves the egg over to a cooler part of the grill to shuffle the bacon around, ”going out for dinner?”

”Yeah,” Mickey thinks he sounds about as convinced as Etch does, ”said he’d make a reservation for 6, which is straight up weird, right?”

Etch shrugs. ”It’s a Monday night, Mickey, maybe he’s got an early morning. Where did you meet this guy anyway? If you say Tinder I might just lose my shit entirely.”

”What’s that?” Mickey asks and figures it’s likely to be something to do with apps when Etch guffaws at his ignorance, quickly moving on before he’s subjected to any unnecessary technological insight, ”never mind, don’t wanna know. We hooked up before, while back, and I guess I gave him my number at some point. Texted me this weekend, asked me out.”

”So fucking cute,” Etch remarks and ignores Mickey’s pointed glare digging into the side of his face, ”at least you know he’s a good boink.”

”Gotta be,” Mickey states and pushes off the counter to rifle through one of the cupboards for a larger sized cup and saucer when the kettle starts boiling and clicks off, ”been trying to figure out why the fuck I’d give him my number like that, I never do that shit, ever. Gotta be a reason.”

”Nice dick?” Etch suggests.

”Think I liked you better when you were uncomfortable with this stuff,” Mickey casually notes and sorts through the dry storage in pursuit of the cocoa powder, stopping for a second with a hand on the tin as if to seriously consider the question, ”real nice dick is in short supply, so that would make sense.”

”You excited?”

Mickey shrugs and starts carefully measuring out three heaped teaspoons of cocoa powder into Ian’s cup. ”Kinda hate first dates, or dates at all. Awkward fucking things at best, and the rest… fuck if I know, just not my thing.”

”It isn’t?” Etch gasps, ”but you love getting to know new people, and you make such a good first impression.”

”The best,” Mickey agrees and moves over to the fridge to grab the canned cream. Thoughts once again drifting towards the evening’s impending event, he can’t help emitting a slightly pathetic groan. It’s a stomach-churning mix of dumb anticipation and annoyed dread, and he doesn’t even know the guy. ”Why the fuck am I doing this? And where the fuck is the Reddi-wip?”

”Door,” Etch tells him the same moment Mickey spots it, ”and you do it ’cause you don’t wanna be alone.”

”You don’t know that,” Mickey mutters, topping off Ian’s chocolate with a generous swirl of whipped cream, ”maybe I like being alone.”

”Maybe,” Etch points at him with his spatula, ignoring Mickey’s scowl when a drop of grease flicks across the kitchen, landing two feet away from his hand, ”or maybe you’re ready to find a nice guy-”

Mickey scoffs and rolls his eyes, focus on his hands as they screw the lid back on the cocoa powder tin.

”’Scuse me, a nice dick, hopefully attached to a nice guy,” Etch saves, smooth as ever, while plating up the food he’s been cooking, ”go on dates, hold hands, make out in the back row, meet the in-laws, settle down, adopt a dog. Couple of kids.”

”Definitely liked you better when you didn’t think you knew me,” Mickey decides and grabs the cup and saucer with both hands, ”good old days.”

”You hated me when we first met,” Etch protests with a laugh, glancing at Mickey as they’re both moving through the kitchen, Mickey headed for the door and Etch to place his finished order in the hatch, ”this is done, by the way.”

”I’ll be back,” Mickey promises, and steps out into the diner. Ian’s got his headphones back on and doesn’t look up until Mickey sets down his drink in front of him.

”That’s a lot of cream,” is his only comment before he swipes his goddamned finger through it, sucking the cream off with a mischievous grin and eyes fixed on his chocolatey drink. Mickey thinks all of that would have been perfectly acceptable if it’d been done as a seductive kinda thing, if he’d coupled it with a nasty noise and really stuck it in there, or whatever, but this, this is not okay. Because this is just Ian being Ian, mindlessly treating the diner and Mickey’s company as an invitation to just be, and it shouldn’t be this fucking distracting, and it definitely shouldn’t be this entirely fucking endearing. This deceptively intimate.

Humming contently, Ian takes a sip before he looks up at Mickey and some of that unguarded something slips away. Mickey feels like his whole mind has gone cursive, and he thinks that that was it, right there. Thinks that it’s the very thing he might be looking for, the kinda normalcy and intimacy he wants with someone and, fuck, the kinda thing that likely he’s gotta go through years of social procedure to get to. Dating. There might even be roses, fucking roses, and Valentine’s Day cards, and small talk.

Still, he has to try, right? It’s all anyone can talk about. Search and try and look, find that special someone. He has a well of distrust for the romantic machine and he genuinely doesn’t believe in the true love soulmate bullshit. But he wants to find someone, something, or before long he’ll be the sad creep showing up with a fuck-buddy at his son’s graduation, or wedding, and he’ll have finally convinced himself that he only ever had enough love in him to cover Yev, anyway, and he should consider himself so fucking lucky to get to have something so good. And asking for more would just be greedy and unrealistic. He also really doesn’t want to be alone, anymore, and maybe he wouldn’t mind believing in some of that romantic crap, just a little. Just long enough to scam the universe into landing him some fucking companionship, so he can put a ring on it and then go back to being a crass asshole. He’ll just have to find someone who’s into that sorta thing.

”What?” Ian asks, and Mickey realizes with a start that he’s been standing there for a few seconds, thoughts racing, scowl deepening. Ian’s looking at him like it’s only mildly curious though, so he’s probably fine.

”Nothing,” Mickey shakes himself a little, ”thinking.”

Ian looks like he wants to ask, but thankfully doesn’t. Maybe he senses that he’s not going to get anywhere with it, that it’s none of his business. ”It’s good.”

Mickey frowns and then scoffs when Ian picks up his cup a few inches to draw attention to it. ”Yeah, alright, don’t hurt yourself. It’s fucking adequate at best.”

”It’s good,” Ian insists and his smile is fond or teasing or both. It’s unsought, but Mickey has a flash thought of what it would be like if he wasn’t working, and Ian wasn’t paying, and maybe the small talk would just be talking, finding out what Ian’s favorite food is, what his first word was, what he did this morning when Mickey wasn’t around. What he’s doing for the rest of his life.

It’s gone as quickly as it came, and Mickey doesn’t dwell on it, there’s no point. Because he needs to get table 2 his late lunch before it goes cold, and because he has no desire to think of Ian that way, that pointless dead end way. Because Mickey’s starting to suspect he’s having some sort of early onset midlife crisis and toeing the boundaries of one of the precious few friendships he’s got, just because he’s on the brink of internal useless turmoil, isn’t going to be even a little bit helpful.

So Mickey lets a noncommittal thumbs-up speak for him, hoping it comes across as decently sarcastic, and fails to suppress a smile when Ian takes another demonstrative sip, smacking his lips and making an obscenely pleased noise just to fucking labour the point.

Mickey walks away with purpose, and for the next half hour manages to busy himself with aplomb, decidedly not thinking about pleased noises or, indeed, comfortable silences. Katie shows up at 4 as per usual, and Mickey’s about to take his stuff and leave when he catches a glimpse of Ian in the corner of his eye and feels his feet walk him over there quite on their own accord.

”I’m off,” he says as he gets up to Ian’s table, hands behind his back blindly untying the apron string, ”you want anything before I go?”

”No, thanks,” Ian’s fingers don’t still their movement across the touchpad, and he doesn’t look up, ”I can ask Katie.”

”True,” Mickey shrugs and turns around to leave with a muttered ’see ya’. He manages two steps before Ian’s voice pulls him back in.

”Hey,” is all he says and Mickey stops in his tracks and turns back around, raising his eyebrows at him, ”you got a minute?”

”Sure,” Mickey doesn’t hesitate, he bunches up the apron in his hands and walks closer, ”what’s up?”

Ian’s closing his laptop, and cringes off his headphones, glancing up at Mickey. ”You wanna sit down?”

”Why?” Mickey can’t help the suspicious tone, but Ian’s careful smile doesn’t waver.

”Just ’cause,” he says.

”Just ’cause, huh?” Mickey repeats with a smirk and throws in his apron on the seat before he sits down, ”you got some shocking news for me, Red?”

”Nope,” Ian gives him a lazy smile and settles in with his chin in the palm of his hand, elbows on the table, ”just thought we could talk.”

”About what?” Mickey asks and narrows his eyes when Ian shrugs, ”this is just you fucking procrastinating, ain’t it?”

”Come on,” Ian smiles in a way that makes Mickey think he’s right on the nose about that one, ”let’s chat.”

”Go back to work,” Mickey sighs and shakes his head, putting his hands on the table to pick himself back up.

”Come on,” Ian repeats with a quiet laugh and something more determined in his voice, ”please.”

”Chat?” Mickey questions with an eyebrow in a doubtful arch, but he sits back down none the less.

”Shoot the breeze, catch up,” Ian shrugs again, ”maybe not get cut off mid-flow for once by one of your other customers.”

Ian presses his lips together and shoots him a dirty, accusatory look before he continues. ”Why, you got somewhere to be?”

”No, no I don’t,” Mickey says and doesn’t listen to the nagging suspicion in the back of his mind telling him he’s most likely forgotten something.

”So,” Ian starts, his tone slow and official, ”how was your day?”

Mickey snorts and sits back in his seat, properly, comfortably crossing his arms. He takes his time and scratches at the barely-there scruff under his chin before he refolds his arms and lands his gaze back on Ian, who locks his hands together on the table and rolls his shoulders. He looks like he’s in no hurry, ready to employ whatever stoic nonsense ROTC beat into him as a kid, waiting for Mickey to reply.

”Fine,” Mickey eventually concedes, ”how was yours?”

”Terrible morning, average midday,” Ian says and his left shoulder lifts in something of a shrug, ”looking up.”

”Oh yeah?”

”Yeah.”

What Mickey really wants to ask about is Ian’s mystery job, but it’s starting to feel like a secret and part of Mickey wants to wait for Ian to just fucking tell him already, without being pushed or prompted.

”What was so bad about this morning?”

”No coffee,” Ian replies with conviction, unclasping his hands so he can stick his thumb up in the air, quickly joined by his index finger, ”one, two; fucking slipped on a patch of ice, right outside my door.”

”You okay?” Mickey frowns before the visual of a lanky, bundled-up Ian falling flat on his ass, banana peel style, sneaks into his head and mercilessly pulls at the corners of his mouth.

”Your concern is touching,” Ian deadpans, but quickly breaks into a small smile and rolls his eyes when Mickey openly grins at his misfortune, ”kinda twisted and landed on my side, gonna bruise up real nice, but didn’t break anything.”

”They don’t sand that shit? You should sue,” Mickey suggests and suddenly remembers every cringeworthy story he’s ever heard about Frank’s crazy benefits schemes, when Ian makes a face and kind of shudders at the thought, ”what else? Come on, get it all out.”

”Zombie apocalypse?” Ian tries, his middle finger uncertainly joining his previous two points.

”Really?” Mickey shakes his head at him, trying his very best not to grin like an idiot. ”No coffee and a fucking boo-boo and you’re gonna sit here and bitch about it?”

”What can I say?” Ian lowers his hand and shrugs. ”I’m an artist, we’re sensitive people.”

Mickey takes a second to just stare at the guy, who doesn’t seem to really notice. ”You’re a what now?”

”And I’m not bitching,” Ian protests, disproving his own point by bitching about it, ”I’m being amusing and self-deprecating by telling you an embarrassing story, you know, being vulnerable and stuff. Showing you I trust you.”

”Very nice,” Mickey dismisses with a frown, ”what’s this about you being an artist?”

He blushes, the guy fucking blushes. It’s not in a cute, bashful way either; it’s like an allergic reaction creeping up his neck and ears, burning red, and Mickey imagines it slowly blending in with his hair at the back of his neck.

”Well, wouldn’t say-,” he starts, eyes darting out the window and then back at Mickey, or rather a fraction to his left.

”But you did,” Mickey insists, and he’s smiling so wide now, thinking the Germans really got it right having a word for this very pleasing feeling coursing through him, ”is it something really embarrassing? Is this why you’ve never told me?”

Ian frowns and his eyes shifts that small increment back at Mickey.

”It’s not performance art, is it?” Mickey asks him in his most concerned dad-voice and leans forward a little, uncrossing his arms so he can place a hand on the table and slide it a couple of inches towards Ian, ”because there is help out there for that kinda stuff, first step is realizing you’ve got a problem.”

”Fuck off,” Ian snorts and waits until Mickey leans back again, hands up in surrender, ”not like that, anyway, I was joking. I don’t usually walk around calling myself an ’artist’ and meaning it, you know that.”

”Hey, I only know what you’ve told me,” Mickey shrugs, ”and you’ve told me shit, for the record.”

Ian picks up his eyebrows again, and Mickey starts to suspect that he’s genuinely surprised by this conversation. ”Mickey Milkovich, you saying you’ve never googled me?”

”Why?” Mickey swallows, thoughts racing through months of casual conversation, searching for something he could have missed. ”You worth googling, Gallagher?”

”Not particularly,” Ian admits, ”but it’s like standard procedure these days, isn’t it? When you make a new friend.”

Mickey doesn’t dignify that with an answer and lets his pointed glare speak for him.

”Guess not,” Ian chuckles, ”this explains a lot.”

”Like what?”

Ian’s grin is quick and wide, as he leans forward and the muscles in his arms tense up like he’s gripping the edge of his seat. ”Like why you’re not on Facebook?”

Mickey can feel his eyebrows fly up, reaching new heights. ”You’ve been cyberstalking me, Red?”

Ian laughs and leans back again, crossing his arms. ”Yeah, ’cause I’m the weirdo in this situation.”

Mickey merely widens his eyes in response, mirroring Ian and folding his arms across his chest.

”Come the fuck on, Mick,” Ian laughs, ”this is not an argument you can win.”

”Whatever,” Mickey magnanimously concedes, if only to move on to what’s really interesting, ”what’s your fucking job, man?”

”I’m in a band?” Ian says and sounds so uncertain Mickey has to ask.

”You’re in a band?”

”Yes?” Ian clears his throat and tries again, ”yes.”

”That’s kinda awesome, Ian,” Mickey knows he sounds cautious, but he figures he’s got good reason, ”why the fuck would you hide that from me?”

”Wasn’t,” Ian insists, ”you never asked.”

”I gotta ask?” Mickey knows he does, he respects that, even kinda likes it. But Ian’s actual job is music, and Mickey imagines most musicians to be all too ready to speak of their trade, often, and at length. And Ian’s told him fuck-all.

”No, I-,” Ian sighs and rolls his eyes, his next sentence coming out in a quick mumble, ”kinda thought you already knew.”

Mickey’s face can’t decide if it wants to frown or smirk, so it does both. ”You famous or something?”

”No,” Ian protests, quickly, pulling a hand over his eyes before smiling warily at Mickey, ”no. But we’re doing okay, and we’ve got a website and everything, and you never asked, so I figured-”

”You figured you were famous,” Mickey teases, unabashedly gleeful.

”Figured you’d at least googled me,” Ian rasps, ”like a normal person would’ve.”

”Well, I didn’t,” Mickey thinks he sees something soften in Ian’s eyes at that, a small smile that could be seen as fond, if one was looking for it, ”you gonna tell me now, or do you want me to go home and google your ass? ’Cause I probably won’t, if you do.”

”You’re something else, Mick,” Ian tells him and even though Mickey knows for sure he’s teasing, he can’t help the eerie sense of deja-vu insisting there’s more to it, ”what do you want to know?”

Mickey fights the urge to say ’everything’. ”Whatever the fuck you wanna tell me, Ian, how about that?”

Ian smiles and scratches at the back of his neck, like he’s thinking it over. Mickey takes the moment to silently watch him, note that the redness is gone from his pale skin, and the tense line by the corner of his mouth has softened into something more amused.

”So, everything?” He says with a shrug, like he’s admitting something against better knowledge, and then leans his elbows on the table and turns his head to look out the window when Mickey doesn’t say anything, waits for him to follow through. ”Don’t know, it’s nothing special.”

He frowns at his own words and turns back to look at Mickey.

”Fuck, no, I mean,” he sighs and shoots Mickey an apologetic smile, ”it’s like, my whole life now. It’s good. Real good.”

”You make any kind of money out of that sorta thing?” Mickey asks, deciding to help him out.

”Yeah, do now,” Ian nods, ”we’re doing alright, the four of us. Told you I met Stran in college, and she knew Jon from before. We advertised for another member, but ended up meeting Anne through friends anyway.”

”Stay Puft?” Mickey vaguely remembers the girl from some time ago, huddled up in close, quiet conversation.

”Stay what?” Ian asks, eyes blank.

”Puft,” Mickey repeats and gestures at his head in a generally spherical sort of way, ”Stay Puft.”

Ian only frowns and ever so slightly shakes his head.

”It’s a Ghostbusters thing, man,” Mickey insists, ”you know? Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?”

”Never saw Ghostbusters,” Ian admits, like it’s nothing.

Mickey reels back and puts up his hands. ”Hold it right the fuck there, you haven’t seen Ghostbusters? Who the fuck hasn’t seen Ghostbusters?”

”Don’t know, me?” Ian laughs. ”Lip told me it was too scary, must have been like 6, 7 at the time? Told me after it wasn’t any good anyway, and I believed him.”

”Yeah,” Mickey feels deeply offended on Ian’s behalf, ”that asshole was lying.”

”Yeah?”

”Yes,” Mickey points at Ian with determination, ”this needs rectifyin’, Ghostbusters is on the list.”

”We have a list now?” Ian questions with a wide smile. ”You’re gonna sit me down and force me to watch?”

”Not asking you out on a fucking date, man, you can watch it in your own time if you want,” Mickey shrugs, and ignores the flutter in his gut, ”but it’s on the list.”

”Wait,” Ian seems suddenly confused, ”why are we taking about Ghostbusters?”

”’Cause your friend came in, I called her a marshmallow, and your brother deprived you of pivotal fucking cultural knowledge,” Mickey lists, ”keep up.”

”Anne?” Ian miraculously actually seems to keep up, and seriously think it over when Mickey nods. ”When you mention it, there is something sorta marshmallow-y about her.”

”So you’re in a band,” Mickey sums up, trying to get them back on track, ”with a chick, a marshmallow, and a dude named Jon.”

”Right,” Ian nods, ”been playing together since 2010, made a couple of records, do a lot of gigs. Quit my other job a while back, testing it out as a full time thing, now.”

”That’s good, right?” Mickey can’t shake the feeling that there’s something Ian’s keeping from him, a reluctance in his voice, in his slightly hunched frame. To his relief, Ian laughs and rubs at his neck, rolls that tension out of his shoulders.

”You know how it is, growing up with nothing,” he says, ”started working when I was fourteen and that was all I ever saw for myself, you know? Work hard, really do something, something hopefully worthwhile.”

”Like getting shot at?” Mickey questions wryly, earning himself a less-than-amused smirk in reply.

”It’s something,” Ian says with a shrug, ”thought it was, anyway. This is better in so many ways, but I still feel kinda, I don’t know… fucking uneasy just saying it, sometimes. ’I’m in a band’, sounds so pretentious.”

”You know that’s a thing, right?” Mickey tells him. ”Feeling guilty about success? Sign of common sense to me, says you have some fucking humility, ’s all, so don’t worry about it.”

Mickey thinks Ian probably doesn’t believe him, by his soft smile and they way he’s eying him.

”And ’pretentious’ isn’t the word I’d use,” Mickey grins when Ian’s raises his eyebrows with a curious ’no?’, ”nah, ’hopeless’ maybe. Borderline hipster.”

Ian’s laugh is something between a snort and a cackle. ”Being a musician puts me right in the hipster-huddle, does it? Automatic process, no appeal?”

Mickey purses his lips in consideration. ”Depends, what genre?”

”Ehm,” Ian starts, which really doesn’t bode well for his case, ”indie kinda folk rock-,”

Mickey makes a sound like a klaxon, cutting him off. ”Calling it, we’ve got hipster.”

Ian opens his mouth as if to protest but only a strangled, affronted noise comes out.

”Gonna have to confiscate this while your case is being reviewed,” Mickey reaches out to grab the ’reserved’ sign, yelping out a startled ’what the fuck?’ when Ian’s hand shoots out and grabs him by the wrist and twists his arm uncomfortably, the back of Mickey’s hand hitting the table with a thud.

”Over my dead body,” he threatens lowly, leaning in closer, ”I will physically fight you on this, Milkovich, and you will lose.”

Mickey gasps at the searing pain shooting up his arm and tries to twist his body to ease out of some of the pressure.

”Alright, alright, I give, Jesus,” he says with a laugh and taps out, groaning when Ian lets go of his wrist, ”damned, army. Remind me not to piss you off.”

”Will do,” Ian settles back with his arms crossed, looking mighty pleased.

”So, how does a guy go from stacking shit at the Kash And Grab to reluctantly calling himself a musician?” Mickey asks, absentmindedly rubbing his released wrist, his skin tingling in the wake of Ian’s calloused fingers. ”Far as I recall, the music program wasn’t exactly a priority at our school.”

”Didn’t have one,” Ian points out.

”Really?” Mickey is genuinely surprised. ”Then what did I not go to on Wednesday afternoons?”

”We had home ec?” Ian suggests, ”Mrs Gampp used to sing a lot, mostly out of tune.”

”Maybe,” Mickey tentatively agrees, no memories of ever going to that either, ”so what, then? A manic episode brought you all the way to Broadway?”

Ian laughs and Mickey fucking loves it, that he gets to do that. Crack really bad jokes about that stuff and get away with it.

”Close,” he says and leans his elbows on the table, something Mickey’s starting to think he subconsciously does when he’s about to say something more personal, ”closer to home. My sister married this guy, Gus. It was a train wreck, known the guy for like a week, none of us even knew about him at all, and she shows up married. At the time, I wasn’t doing so great-”

He stops himself, hesitates.

”No, actually, I was feeling awesome,” he says with a dry smile, ”came out of my first real depressive episode and shot right up there, hundred miles a minute. Gus was a musician, and I got him to teach me the basics. Usually, mania doesn’t involve a whole lotta follow-through, but for some reason this really stuck. Gus didn’t, but he did give me one of his old guitars before he left. Fucking useless broken thing changed my life.”

”It helped you get better or something?” Mickey asks, thinking that the musician’s lifestyle hardly is one known for stability and sobriety, and maybe not one best suited for someone with Ian’s condition. Realizing that this probably is a concern people voice around Ian all the time, he reminds himself that Ian’s doing fine and that he needs to trust that, for his own peace of mind if nothing else.

”Well,” Ian starts, thinking about it, ”remembering words, lyrics or stupid movie quotes, whatever, it’s-, it helps me focus, focus on something other than the kinda impulses I get when my brain swings this way or that. It’s not magic, and back then nothing I was doing was healthy, including music. My first band was during a manic episode that lasted for months. I was fucked up for most of it, got lost in it, got into heavier drugs because they were around and no one gave a shit. There are some amazing, passionate, caring people in the music industry, but it took me a few years of bad decisions and wrong crowds to find them.”

Mickey wants to tell him he doesn’t need to know this stuff, if it’s uncomfortable to talk about, but there’s determination in Ian’s eyes, in his straight brows and squared shoulders, hunching a little closer.

”The first thing they tell you when dealing with bipolar is the importance of routine, to stabilize yourself,” he says with a dry smile, ”it’s not exactly what you want to hear when you think you’ve discovered your passion in life, when you think you need to live a certain way to write songs, to have something to say. Went off my meds several times, thinking it was worth it.”

Ian rubs at his neck, a gesture that seems to relax him, and shrugs.

”But it’s helped, too,” he continues, nodding, ”going back on my meds, realizing that I could work with more focus and intention when I was stable. It’s not as exciting as being on the edge, but at least I’m in some semblance of control now, you know?”

”Why haven’t you told me any of this before?” Mickey asks, his words like an exhale of breath he didn’t know he was holding in. He didn’t mean to ask, but he wants to know. If Ian had turned out have some kind of conventional job with unconventional hours that he didn’t really want to talk about in his spare time, Mickey wouldn’t think twice about being kept in the dark. But this, this is Ian’s whole life, what seems to have gotten him through his absolute worst, what probably will end up being his future best. He wants to know.

”Don’t know,” Ian says, and sounds like he’s telling the truth, leaning back in his seat to somewhat expand on their bubble of privacy, ”didn’t come up.”

Mickey makes a face. ”Really?”

Ian huffs and dips his head before he looks up at Mickey again, something warm about his careful smile and slightly narrowed eyes. ”You know I don’t have a lot of friends?”

Mickey scoffs and opens his mouth to call bullshit when Ian winces and stops him.

”I don’t,” he says, shrugging one shoulder, ”not whining about it, what I’ve got is quality. My band, management, my family. Probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. But with half of them it’s all shop, we talk work, we talk music. And my family, they’re understandably hung up on health when it comes to me, and if we’re not talking about my mental stability we’re usually talking about their stuff, ’cause they’re a dramatic bunch of people and I’m a classic middle child, I guess. Like keeping myself to myself.”

”I’ve noticed,” Mickey drawls, nodding wisely.

”Yeah, know you have,” Ian grins and lowers his eyes for a quick moment, like a micro-nod of appreciation, ”Mick, talking to you… it’s different. I get to be all me, you know?”

Mickey didn’t know, he likes to think he had an inkling, but he really fucking didn’t know. His palms are sweating and his heart is hammering against his chest and he wants to say it back but the words aren’t there. He swallows and licks his lips, eyes fixed on the pepper-shaker on the side of the table like it holds the secrets to unlock his tongue-tied state.

”So you can ask me about my job,” Ian continues, and he doesn’t sound like he’s perceiving Mickey’s silence as anything other than slight discomfort in the face of his sincere display, ”and I’ll tell you all about it, but you should know that I like it, like that you don’t push, that you don’t really care.”

Mickey wants to say he’s wrong, that he’s starting to scare himself with just how much he might care, his clammy palms pressed together under the table. But looking at Ian, he thinks admitting to it scares him even more.

”Well,” he says, voice steady, ”lucky for you I’m musically illiterate, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

Ian narrows his eyes at him, pupils darting around like he’s taking in Mickey’s whole face to see if he’s hiding anything. ”Don’t think that’s true, Mick.”

”Hello boys,” Katie’s voice is like a stone through glass, and looking up at her standing by their table Mickey is suddenly made aware of his surroundings again. There’s a kind of bustle of the evening crowd that he never has in the mornings, and rarely at lunch, and Katie is looking down at him with a knowing smile he really could do without. ”Sorry to interrupt, but Erdetch tells me you’ve got a dinner date at 6?”

”Shit, what time is it?” Mickey looks at his watch before Katie has time to answer, almost 5. ”Shit, fuck, sorry man, I gotta run.”

”Yeah,” if Mickey didn’t know better, he’d say that Ian looked slightly unnerved, ”need to get back to work, anyway.”

Mickey wants to stay, but he nods and gets up.

”Thanks,” he says, nonsensically, and reaches back into the seat to snatch up his apron.

”Have a nice date,” Ian tells him and Mickey doesn’t know what else to say but another ’thanks’ before he hurries out of there, glaring daggers at a widely grinning Etch looking at him through the hatch, echoing Ian’s well wishes when Mickey walks past.

Not fucking likely, Mickey thinks, and hugs his coat around himself tightly against the snow-flecked wind outside.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 17.
Thursday.

 

”What the fuck is this?” Mickey complains loudly, but can’t help smiling when Ian looks up at the sound of his voice and cringes, adjusting his snow-dusted collar. ”It’s like I don’t even know who you are anymore, man.”

Ian chuckles and stays by the door for a moment to stomp the packed snow out from underneath his shoes and brush some of it off his sleeves, before he looks up at Mickey again and walks closer to the counter. Mickey rests his hands on the countertop and subconsciously bites at the inside of his lip to keep from giving Ian a very obvious once-over, there are still flecks of white in his hair and he comes with an air of the outside cold. Asshole’s like a literal gust of fresh air, stepping into the diner.

”Why, what?” he says, putting up his hands in a defensive gesture. ”What’ve I done now?”

”This new afternoon thing, Red,” Mickey raises his eyebrows disapprovingly but ruins it with another helpless smile, ”it’s throwing me for a damned loop.”

”Really?” Ian grins back, rubbing his reddened hands together in front of him, shiny lazy eyes stuck on Mickey like they’ve got nothing better to do. ”For a loop?”

Mickey huffs through his nose and crosses his arms. ”Yeah, it’s a hard life, anticipating your comings and goings.”

”You just want company in the mornings,” Ian guesses with a raised eyebrow, ”bet ya hate having that first cup of coffee on your own, huh?”

”Wrong, asshole,” Mickey swallows nervously and smirks to cover it up, ”happen to love it, and have it on excellent fucking authority that I’m terrible company in the morning, anyway.”

Ian frowns, like he’s ready to argue. ”Says who?”

”Like you wouldn’t,” Mickey quirks a small smile at Ian’s innocent expression, maybe he really wouldn’t, ”Yev has gone as far as calling me ’disagreeable’ once or twice and, you know, choice of word aside, he’s not fucking wrong.”

Ian hums and leans against the counter, fingertips tapping out an absentminded rhythm over the worn veneer. ”He lives with you?”

”Weekends,” Mickey doesn’t even hesitate and it almost startles him a little, ”some weekends, should be all of ’em but school’s closer to his mom’s so he’s got all his friends over there and, whatever, shit happens. Get a lotta time with him in the summer though, so that’s cool.”

”And Christmas, right?” Ian asks and looks back in earnest when Mickey narrows his eyes at him. ’What the fuck do you care?’ is what he thinks he should say, but it’s not at all what comes out.

”Yeah,” he says and clears his throat, ”um, Christmas dinner at his mom’s and all, and Mandy’s gonna be here, but… yeah, mostly it’s gonna be me and the kid.”

Ian nods, like he’s pleased or some shit. ”Good. He’s lucky, you’re a good dad.”

He is, he knows he is. But the thing is, Ian doesn’t, he doesn’t know shit about what kind of dad Mickey is, or what kind of lucky Yevgeny is.

”Disagreeable,” Mickey reminds him, swallowing hard. It’s like he’s got something stuck there, dry and unyielding and in direct correlation to Ian saying stupid fucking nice things to him.

”Pretty sure he only calls you that ’cause he likes the way that word makes you roll your eyes,” Ian points out and Mickey has to fix his eyes on the bridge of Ian’s nose to keep them from summersaulting and effectively proving his point. Ian shrugs and smiles. ”It’s what I’d do.”

”Yeah well,” Mickey grumbles, scrambling for a comeback, ”if you like it that much why don’t you fucking marry me.”

”Tried,” Ian puts up his hands and grins wider, ”nope, you’re gonna have to be the one asking this time, man, if you want that kinda commitment. Only so many times a guy can recover from heartbreak, you know?”

Mickey is suddenly very aware of his jaw hanging slack, he snaps it shut and rolls his shoulders, furrowing his eyebrows as he tries to make some sense of all that. He thinks he should be laughing, or cursing, but he has an embarrassingly clear memory of the last time Ian joked around about this and he really didn’t expect Ian to remember it too, at all.

”You’re a very special brand of fucked up weirdo dick, you know that?” Mickey shakes his head but can’t help huffing out a laugh when Ian gives him a dopey smile and shrugs.

”So you’re saying Yev’s not gonna get another dad for Christmas?” Mickey raises his eyebrows at him in a wordless reply, and Ian presses his lips together and tilts his head back a little, like he’s turning to some higher power for strength. ”Tragic.”

”Yeah,” Mickey says and lets his gaze linger on Ian’s exposed throat for a second before the guy rocks his head back down and pulls him back in with his tractor beam eyes. ”guess he’s gotta make do with old disagreeable here.”

”Could be worse,” Ian grins and leans his weight on his palms, pressing against the countertop.

”2 and 5,” Mickey blinks and twists at the sound of Etch’s voice, he’s setting down two full plates in the hatch and leans against it when he glances past Mickey, ”oh, hey Ian.”

”Etch,” Ian nods and smiles and Mickey wants to kick himself in the jewels for thinking it doesn’t look the same as when they’re in their corner and the sparkle-beam seems turned up to eleven and aimed straight at him. Sentimental, delusional bullshit.

”You hungry?” Etch asks. ”I can fix you up, bypass this one all together.”

Mickey shoots Ian a warning glare when he chuckles. ”Thanks, but I’m good with going through the proper channels.”

”Too bad,” Etch sighs, ”could have been the start of a really beautiful friendship, you and me.”

”Ey, back off,” Mickey scowls and blocks Etch’s view of Ian for a second when he moves over to grab the two plates, ”rebel scum.”

”Oh, reference!” Etch exclaims, taking a step back and pointing gleefully at Mickey who promptly walks away and pretends he can’t still hear him, ”not the one I was going for, but close enough.”

Mickey walks out from behind the counter and glances at Ian when he moves past him, he’s got his face screwed up in thought and eyes on the kitchen.

”Casablanca,” Mickey hears him say and there’s a sound like he’s snapping his fingers.

”Yes! Classic.” Etch’s voice is distant, but distinct, and Mickey casts the pair at table 3 a look he hopes is sufficiently apologetic. ”You, good sir, are a treasure amongst men.”

”Just a simple guy who’s spent too much time watching daytime TV,” Ian insists, and Mickey catches the tail-end of a humble shrug when he turns around. He takes half a moment to stand there and stare at Ian’s back, really indulge in a second or two of straight up just looking at the guy; the melted snow on the hood of his coat, the relaxed slope of his shoulders. It’s stupid, but suddenly feels really fucking happy that he knows stuff about this guy, that he’s kinda starting to understand some of the things he isn’t saying out loud.

He lets out a slow breath through his nose and is about to return behind the counter when the bell jingles and the door opens.

”Hi dad,” Yevgeny greets him with a wide grin, and it’s like everything else kinda melts away to the background when his kid quickly walks up to him and grabs his arms around his middle, pressing the side of his face into his chest.

”You’re early,” Mickey says and wraps his arms around his son’s shoulders, his statement directed more at Svetlana who’s trailing in after Yevgeny.

”Principal called me,” she says and rolls her eyes at his immediately disapproving frown, ”picked him up early.”

”The fuck didn’t that douchebag call me?” Mickey vaguely registers Ian moving in his peripheral vision, migrating around him and towards the far corner.

”Because he called me first and I deal with it,” she sighs and smirks as she gets close enough to grab him by the neck and pull him in for a kiss on the cheek. ”Besides, you have work, and whole weekend to discipline our son.”

Yevgeny, sandwiched in between his parents, starts to squirm out of Mickey’s firm grasp so he can escape behind the counter to steal a donut and disappear into the kitchen.

”Something happen?” Mickey asks, more worried than anything else, crossing his arms and pinning Svetlana with a glare. Yevgeny never did anything at school that warranted their presence besides one or two minor discrepancies, none of them worth mentioning as far as Mickey’s concerned.

”He skipped class,” Svetlana tells him and fucking licks her thumb to reach over and scrub at where she just kissed him. He lets out an annoyed grunt and swats her hand away.

”What class?” he asks and rubs at his cheek with the heel of his hand to get rid of Svetlana’s fucking saliva, and what he assumes are traces of her red lipstick.

”PE,” she raises an eyebrow at him and follows when he starts walking around the counter and into some semblance of privacy, moving their domestic squabble away from center stage.

”You saying I have to ground the kid for not wanting to play fucking soccer?” Mickey sighs and starts to reload the coffeemaker with annoyed, jerky movements.

”Dodgeball,” Svetlana corrects and smiles when Mickey grumbles out a low ’what the fuck’, ”he knows he did wrong, just talk to him and let him know he can’t do it again.”

”Don’t think I really got much ground to stand on with this shit,” Mickey points out and picks up his eyebrows at his ex-wife, widening his eyes to underline how fucking stupid it is to discipline someone for having a basic sense of self-preservation.

”You will find way,” Svetlana tells him, and Mickey swears it’s like she thinks she’s narrating reality sometimes, saying shit like it’s all the universe needs to hear in order to align and make it so, ”in this instance, I trust you.”

”Yeah, because you leave in like four hours,” Mickey huffs, moving around her to fill up the pot with water from the sink, ”not like you got a whole lotta choice.”

”There’s always choice,” she states, and Mickey thinks it sounds really familiar, ”I take my adopted citizenship very seriously. Land of the free and brave, of choice.”

Mickey makes a noncommittal face and moves back around her to pour the water into the coffeemaker’s tank.

”Except for some,” she redacts, ”like people with fertilized uterus.”

”Uteri,” Mickey hums, just ’cause, ”and don’t fucking start, alright? Heard ya the first hundred times, consider me convinced.”

”Just so we’re all clear,” she nods sharply but not without a small smile softening the corner of her mouth.

”Abort away, women of America,” he says and flips the switch on the coffeemaker before he leans back against the counter and gives Svetlana a small nod, ”come on then, do your thing.”

”No thing,” she says and Mickey scoffs at her, eyebrows trailing up his forehead.

”Bullshit,” he decides, ”but you ain’t gonna hear me complainin’. I gotta work though, so you got three options; nag away and watch me work while I ignore you; sit down and have some pie; get the fuck outta here.”

”I like it when you wait on me,” she admits and taps a finger against her chin in consideration, ”and could sneak in some nagging with pie.”

”Nope, no,” Mickey says and shoos at her to at least get her to move out from behind the counter, ”right answer was three, get the fuck outta here.”

She tuts and sighs, but lets herself be bullied into stepping out of Mickey’s comfort zone. ”Yevgeny doesn’t work, he has homework for tomorrow. Math and English.”

”Fuck’s sake,” Mickey sighs, the sound coming out more like a resigned laugh, and pulls a hand over his face as he watches Svetlana move over to the door to pick up Yevgeny’s backpack. One day she might feel comfortable with leaving their son with him without heavy-handed instruction, but today is obviously not that day.

”You spoke to Edna about tomorrow morning, yes?” She interrogates him while stepping back up to the counter and heaving the heavy book bag over it.

”Yeah, I spoke to her,” Mickey confirms and grabs the bag to tuck it in with his coat, ”don’t fucking worry about it.”

”8:45, very latest,” she continues, ignoring his exasperated sigh, ”8:30 is better.”

”It’s taken care of,” Mickey tries to assure her, thinking it might be a better method to get her to lay off him, ”we’ll be fine, Jesus.”

”It’s his last day before break,” she reminds him, like he’d forget, ”and after today it’s important he’s on time.”

”He’s fucking ten,” Mickey tries to remind her in turn, only earning himself a scowl and what’s sure to be another two rounds of increasingly dictatorial instruction, ”we’re not gonna be late! I’ve got the morning off, we’ll be there at 8:30, what happened to all that blind trust you were aimin’ at me earlier, huh?”

”That was then,” she says and narrows her eyes at him, ”now is now, don’t be late for school or I will find out about it and I will hurt you.”

”Yeah yeah,” he mutters and turns his back to her to grab the freshly brewed coffee and a disposable cup, ”we’ll see about that.”

He pours her a cup to go and she lets her face fall for a moment into a thankful smile matched with something like a concerned frown. It’s looking like something more than her usual overbearing mothering and Mickey has it on the tip of his tongue to ask her if she’s okay.

”You two done?” Etch asks, steering a smiling Yevgeny out of the kitchen by his shoulders.

”Are we?” Mickey challenges, with his eyes still on Svetlana. She ignores him and leaves her coffee on the counter to reach out and pull Yevgeny towards her.

”Be good, my love,” she tells him and kisses his face, once, twice, three times until he giggles and tells her to stop. She turns him around and holds him against herself, one arm around his shoulders and one hand combing through his newly cut hair. They both smile up at Etch and Mickey thinks they look so much alike it almost hurts.

”Have a nice trip,” Etch says and leans down to kiss her cheeks in that cringeworthy European way Mickey thinks they’re only doing to annoy him, despite being told more than once that he’s wrong (’Yes, center of fucking universe, my only purpose in life is to annoy shit husband; child, work, personal growth, these things mean nothing to me.’), ”see you on the 28th?”

”Yes,” she confirms, hands squeezing Yevgeny’s shoulders in front of her, ”tell the Professor I will call her from Boston, we’ll strategize.”

”It’s fucking dinner,” Mickey grumbles, ”we do it every year.”

”And every year would be shit if we left planning to either of you two,” she says and points to Etch when he shrugs, ”he knows.”

”Whatever,” Mickey shakes his head and smiles despite himself, ”now would you fuck off before you miss your flight, or you know, smother the kid to death?”

He raises his eyebrows and points to Yevgeny with his whole hand when the boy fakes a noise like he’s being choked and only ruins it a little by looking at Mickey and laughing.

Svetlana mumbles something in Russian, causing Yevgeny to groan and roll his eyes, and smiles when she presses her lips to his temple. She likes to act tough, mostly because she’s tough as fuck, but Mickey realizes she’s probably nervous about leaving this time. Not because she’s leaving Yevgeny with Mickey, she does that every other weekend without all this excessive fussing, but because she’s leaving. It’s just for a few days, but she’s getting on a plane and she’s leaving Chicago, and it’s a first for all of them. Having come to this country in what Mickey imagines to be a fucking crate, she probably doesn’t have a whole lotta positive memories associated with travel either. He wouldn’t know, though, she never talks to him about her life before they were first introduced. More accurately, she never speaks to anyone about her life before Yevgeny. ’Irrelevant,’ she told him once, eyes on the infant at her breast, ’there is only this, now.’

She steps up to the counter and looks at him expectantly, and he sighs out of his nose and shakes his head at her. Not having any of his bullshit, she leans over and grabs him by his t-shit so she can pull him closer and plant another kiss on him, most likely balancing out his face with a matching smudge of red to his other cheek.

”See you Christmas day,” she says and lets go of him to pick up her cup of coffee and take a step back.

”Travel safe,” he says earnestly and smirks when she looks at him like he’s professed something she didn’t know. He kinda likes it.

”Bye mom,” Yevgeny says and she grabs his face gently and stares at him for a second, before they share a fond smile and she leaves.

”So fucking dramatic,” Mickey mutters and puts his hands on the counter, leans his weight on them while he studies his son’s face, ”c’mere kid, you look like you’ve got chicken pox or something.”

Yevgeny grins and makes his way around the counter so Mickey can grab some tissue, run it under the tap, and carefully try to scrub the evidence of Svetlana’s affection off his squirming face.

”Mother Russia told me you’ve got homework?” he asks when he’s almost done, balling up the wet tissue to wipe it one last time over Yevgeny’s temple, and then swipe it down his nose just to annoy him. Yevgeny tries to grumble but it comes out more like a squeak, swatting at Mickey’s hands and taking a step back.

”Yes, but I can do it later.”

Mickey tosses the tinted ball of tissue in the trash and points at his son. ”You do it now, so we can pig out on pizza and a movie tonight, how ’bout that?”

”Fine,” Yevgeny relents with a groan, his surrender a little too quick for his reluctance to be wholly believable, and glances around the room before he perks up a little and turns back to Mickey, ”can I sit with Ian?”

”What?” Mickey frowns down at him and crosses his arms, leaning back against the counter, edge of it digging into his ass, ”why?”

Yevgeny shrugs and looks up at him, eyes blue and wide. ”He’s cool.”

”Yeah, alright,” Mickey scoffs, ”shows how much you know. You’ve met the guy twice, and already he’s ’cool’? Meanwhile I’ve been working my ass off for ten years and I get nothing?”

”You’re cool too,” Yevgeny scrambles, smiling wide, ”coolest dad I know.”

”Too little too late,” Mickey shoves lightly at his son’s shoulder, making him snort out a giggle, ”starting to think this guy is like fucking catnip to Milkoviches, or something.”

”What’s catnip?” Yevgeny asks and Mickey instantly regrets saying anything.

”Like, weed for cats?” he guesses, realizing that he’s never really had reason to look into it before.

Yevgeny frowns, thinking it over. ”Cats smoke weed?”

”No, fuck, I don’t know, they eat it?” Mickey flits his eyes around the diner to make sure no one’s listening in on this train wreck attempt at home schooling. Table 3’s engrossed in their pancakes and omelette, respectively, and Ian’s got his headphones on, profile sharp and focused, bent over his open laptop.

”Do they get giggly?” Yevgeny asks, smile bright and expectant when Mickey looks back down at him.

”You ever seen a cat giggle?” Mickey questions him, one eyebrow arched at his son’s disappointed shrug, ”such a weirdo, man, what are we even talking about right now?”

”Mom says smoking weed makes you giggly,” Yevgeny insists on explaining himself, clearly miffed at being called a weirdo in the middle of what he seems to think is a fairly standard conversation.

”Guess so,” Mickey tries to confirm with enough room for denial to cover his ass, ”’course, I wouldn’t know.”

”No?” Yevgeny sounds skeptical. ”Mom said it makes you giggly.”

”Son,” Mickey says after he bites back an instinctive ’your mom doesn’t know shit’, putting a heavy hand on Yevgeny’s shoulder, ”I haven’t giggled since I hit puberty.”

Yevgeny glances up at him and somehow Mickey manages to keep a straight face, even when his kid smiles wide enough to melt a fucking glacier. ”I don’t believe you.”

”Me and cats,” Mickey starts and draws three circles between them, indicating the Venn diagram of giggles, felines, and him, ”and things you ain’t likely to ever see happen.”

”Can we get a cat?” Yevgeny tries, Mickey’s eyebrows shooting up at the sudden turn.

”Hell no.”

”Why not?”

”’Cause you’ll be there to cuddle it on weekends and then you’ll both be miserable when you have to go to your mom’s and I’ll be stuck with a pooping fur-ball scratching up my already crappy furniture,” Mickey lists, ruffling up Yevgeny’s hair in an attempt to remove the disappointed look from his face, ”ask your mom, she’s got the house and everything.”

”I did,” Yevgeny says, dejected, ”she said no.”

”So you thought you’d ask me?”

”Well,” Yevgeny shrugs, ”thought maybe you’d like it, so you wouldn’t be alone when I’m at mom’s.”

Fucking kid, Mickey can’t even tell if he’s being heart-wrenchingly adorable, or a sneaky little shit trying to manipulate him into getting him a pet. He sighs and turns his head at the sound of the door opening.

”Don’t you fucking worry about me, kid,” he says and looks back at Yevgeny, ”go do your homework, I need to get back to work.”

”Can I sit with Ian?” Yevgeny asks again.

”Why you askin’ me for, buddy, I ain’t his keeper,” Mickey says and grabs his son by the shoulders to usher him out from behind the counter, ”ask him.”

”You think he’s gonna say no?” Yevgeny turns around and looks genuinely concerned, Mickey shrugs and picks up the kid’s backpack from the floor and hands it over.

”Not likely,” he says and gives Yevgeny the eyebrows and points him in the right direction, lightly shoving him out into the diner. He watches his son for a moment, as he straightens up a little and shrugs his backpack higher up on his shoulder before walking over to Ian’s corner. What Mickey wants to do is stay right where he is, ears strained and eyes on Yevgeny for the remainder of his shift. He guesses it’s a dad thing, but he finds it very amusing to observe his son with other people. The kid’s polite, charming, generally adorable as fuck, all things Mickey has no idea where they’ve come from but still fill him up with this pure sense of pride. He wants to go over there, hear Yevgeny ask to sit down and see more of Ian’s face as he gestures towards the empty seat across, but he’s also quite happy to just let them be and by proxy make Mickey’s day a hundred percent better simply by being in the room, swaddling it in fuzzy fucking feelings. He’s used to Yevgeny having that effect on him, it’s a given, and he’s started to warm up to the idea that maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Ian kinda did it for him too, in a very different, but slightly similar, way. The two of them in the same room might be a bit too much, in theory. In practicality, it’s like the whole place has been lit up with Christmas lights and padded with cotton candy and it’s pretty fucking awesome, whatever it is.

He grabs the coffeepot and does the rounds, takes a new order, fills up a couple of cups, takes the long way around. Ian’s got his headphones hung around his neck, his laptop half closed in front of him. Yevgeny’s got his books out, but he doesn’t seem too invested in what they’ve got to say.

”Hey,” Mickey mutters, narrowing his eyes at his son’s widened smile and glancing quickly at Ian when he turns in his seat to look up at him, ”did you want anything today, man?”

”I’m good,” Ian nods and reaches across the table to grab one of the cups, turning it over and setting it down in front of Mickey. Mickey takes the hint and starts pouring.

”This guy bothering you,” he says and nods at Yevgeny when the cup is full, ”you let me know, alright?”

”Will do,” Ian promises with a serious nod and a conspicuous wink in Yevgeny direction.

”And you,” Mickey scowls to ward off his son’s infectious smile, ”homework, now.”

Yevgeny sits up straight and salutes, making Mickey sigh and roll his eyes. Ian’s grinning like an idiot, looking at Yevgeny with obvious appreciation and then up at Mickey with something Mickey couldn’t name even if he tried, picking up his steaming cup of coffee and hiding whatever it is behind a quick sip.

”Whatever,” Mickey shakes his head at the two of them, like peas in a fucking pod in that booth, ”shout if you need anything.”

”Thanks dad,” Yevgeny smiles and Mickey can’t help thinking it looks a little like he wants his old man to make himself scarce.

”Thanks dad,” Ian parrots and his cheeky grin earns him a one-fingered salute, Mickey halfheartedly trying to hide the gesture from his son with a strategic angle, walking away and holding up the coffeepot with his other hand just so.

”Classy,” Ian comments and shakes his head when Mickey merely grins and shrugs in response, turning around to get that order in for table 2.

”1 with bacon,” he says and rips the order off his pad to pin it up, before slotting the coffeepot back in place.

”Comin’ right up,” Etch affirms, getting up from his rickety chair. Mickey turns around and folds his arms over his chest as he leans back against the counter, the warmth of the coffeemaker behind him slowly trailing up his spine. He lazily surveys the low-key bustle of the place, listening to Etch rummaging around behind him, his eyes inevitably landing on the corner booth.

Yevgeny’s got his nose in a textbook, most likely math since the kid has this crazy strategy of starting with the thing he likes the least and work his way up to the good stuff (same thing with food, Mickey doesn’t get it, always having been the kinda guy to fill up on sweets before eating his greens), Ian’s working his long fingers over his laptop’s touchpad, occasionally picking up a hand to cup his headphones over one ear for a moment or two before letting it drop to hang around his neck once more. It’s darkening outside, it’s been pretty glum all day but it’s almost like Mickey can sense the late season and early sunset creeping in over the street outside, illuminated to a degree by a fresh layer of snow. By the time Yevgeny and him are trudging their way home through it, it’s bound to have turned grey from the commuter traffic.

He feels himself smile when Yevgeny looks up, end of his pencil tapping against his textbook and chin resting in his free hand. Ian leans forward a little, placing his elbows on the table and folding his hands together. Ian’s talking and Yevgeny’s grinning happily, nodding an enthusiastic response. Fuck, if it doesn’t tug at something in Mickey, something he thinks is better left alone.

”Looks like someone’s made a friend.”

Mickey starts out of his thoughts and shifts his weight off the counter, turning around to raise his eyebrows at Etch placing a plate in the hatch.

”Can you tell me what’s up with this guy, man?” Mickey complains, scratching at his temple. ”Keeps tellin’ me he’s this friendless recluse, or whatever, but look at that. Fallin’ like fucking pins around him, every single one of you.”

”Got me there, Mickey,” Etch chuckles and folds his arms against the hatch, gaze stuck somewhere over Mickey’s shoulder, most likely on the pair in the corner. Mickey fully expects him to fire up the innuendo-squad and get in attack formation, so it’s something of a surprise when he shrugs and sounds cautiously sincere in his reply. ”Maybe he just fits.”

”Okay, whatever,” Mickey mumbles and grabs the plate between them, cringing slightly when Etch looks at him with a knowing smile and walking away before it gets any worse. He delivers the plate and makes sure table 2’s got everything they want, before pulling out the rag he’s got tucked in his back pocket and slowly starts cleaning his way through the diner, one already sufficiently tidy table at a time.

”You are?” he hears Ian say by the time he gets started on his second table, which does have a couple of crumbs on it thank you very much.

”We’ve got tickets and everything,” Yevgeny states proudly, making Mickey’s lips quirk up in a small smile.

”Yeah, you gotta,” Ian sounds impressed, ”thought about going yesterday, but it was all sold out.”

”Really?”

”Well,” Mickey gathers the crumbs into a small pile and wipes them into his hand, casting a quick glance at the pair in time to see Ian shrug, ”there was an afternoon showing that felt kinda weird going to on my own, I guess. And ’couple of seats way off to the side at some late night 3D screenings.”

”3D’s the worst,” Yevgeny announces, making Mickey nod and mentally pat himself on the back.

”Yeah?” Mickey can hear the wide smile in that one word alone. ”Why?”

”Just is,” Yevgeny shrugs and Mickey has to look away to keep himself from butting in, discreetly letting the crumbs in his hand fall to the floor when he realizes he didn’t bring anything to gather them into, ”it’s a gizmo.”

”A gizmo?” Ian asks, one eye on Yevgeny and one on his laptop when Mickey glances over at them again, moving on to the next table, carefully busying himself with rearranging the condiments.

”Like a joke?” Yevgeny sounds a little uncertain now but quickly catches himself. ”A gimmick.”

”That’s a good word,” Ian agrees, voice warm and carefully amused.

”And it’s expensive,” Yevgeny continues, encouraged, Mickey nodding along in silent support, ”and counterintuitive.”

”Huh,” Ian hums and Mickey catches his gaze for a split second, Ian already discreetly eying him with that crooked lovely fucking smile when Mickey throws a quick look their way, ”how’s that?”

”Not sure,” Yevgeny shrugs, ”but it is.”

Mickey smiles to himself when Ian focuses on Yevgeny entirely and leans in a little closer, ”I don’t like it either.”

”No?”

”Nope, way too fucking flashy and in your face and- shit, I-,” Mickey turns his back and pretends not to listen when Ian sheepishly lowers his voice, ”wow, please don’t tell your dad I cursed at you.”

Mickey can feel his eyebrows wanting to hitch all the way up his forehead and recede into his hairline, because seriously? Yevgeny matches his reaction with a pleased snort.

”Have you met my dad?”

Mickey can’t see it from where he stands, but thinks he’s got a clear enough inventory in his head of Ian’s non-verbal responses by now to pick one that fits the silence. He imagines that goddamned Mona-Lisa smile he likes to whip out when Mickey least expects it. The conversation seems to be over and when Mickey’s back behind the counter, absentmindedly cleaning surfaces and rearranging sandwiches, he glances back at them to see their necks bent in concentration. A couple of minutes later he’s waved over by the lady in the booth next to Ian’s, so he adds up her bill and slowly makes his way over there.

”Anything else?” he asks, mostly for procedure’s sake, and lays down her check on the table when she shakes her head with a polite ’no, thank you’. She’s already got her purse out and quickly takes out a couple of notes, telling him to keep the change. He nods his thanks and takes a small step back to let her collect her things and get up to leave, before he pockets the money and starts clearing her table.

”You need any help with that?” he hears Ian ask, his voice a low mumble under the clatter of porcelain.

”No, thank you,” Yevgeny’s voice comes through clearer when Mickey stops stacking dishes in order to wipe down the table, ”I’ll ask dad later.”

Ian takes a moment to answer, and Mickey frowns and exhales a quiet ’fuck’ when he realizes that he’s fucking holding his breath not to miss anything. ”Alright.”

Alright. Mickey checks his watch, he’s got another 35 minutes on the clock and after that he can go sit down with his son, tackle some 5th grade multiplication. Maybe bring that last piece of blueberry pie over, and three spoons. He throws the rag over his shoulder and picks up the small pile of used dishes, taking them with him to the kitchen, stacking them up in the dishwasher. Etch is back in his chair, reading, so he gets through it and back out again without interruption. He tidies up his workspace and brews some fresh coffee, preparing for Katie’s evening shift. He’s just slotting in the pot and flipping the switch when he hears someone shuffle up to the counter behind him.

”Hey,” Ian says when Mickey turns around, ”just lettin’ you know I’m leaving.”

”Okay, sure,” Mickey scratches at the back of his neck and then gestures vaguely in the direction of Ian’s table, a quick glance telling him Yevgeny’s still there, hard at work, ”look, if he’s distracting you I can make him sit somewhere else, no big deal.”

Ian’s brows furrow in a slight frown for a second before something seems to click and one corner of his mouth quirks up. ”Seriously think I’ve got a problem with a Milkovich sitting at my table, Mick?”

Mickey huffs and folds his arms across his chest, leaning back against the counter behind him to steady himself some. He shrugs.

”He’s great,” Ian tells him, like he didn’t already know that, ”you did good.”

”Got lucky,” Mickey quips back like a reflex, and Ian smiles and looks away like he sees right through it. He readjusts the bag slung over his left shoulder and looks at Mickey again, and Mickey really doesn’t want him to leave.

”What do I owe you for the coffee?” Ian asks after a moment’s silence, a moment of Mickey trying to think of anything useful to say to get him to stay. Ian puts his hands in his deep coat pockets and he’s looking at Mickey now like he’s got all the time in the world to wait him out.

”Nothing, man, on the house,” Mickey clears his throat, ”I get off in 10, you could stay? Have some pie with me and the kid.”

Ian opens his mouth as if to answer and then snaps it shut, frowning at himself and pulling out his phone from a hidden pocket inside his coat, unlocking the screen and making a face at the time. ”Really gotta go, Mick, sorry.”

”Short and sweet,” Mickey blurts out, but all thoughts of embarrassed regret dissipate when Ian looks back up at him in surprise, parted lips pulling into a wide smile.

”Yeah,” he agrees and takes a small step forward, the zips of his coat tapping softly against the counter, ”hey, you got something-”

He reaches out a hand towards Mickey and despite the fact that there’s at least 4 feet of space left between it and him, Mickey can’t help himself flinching backwards at the gesture. It’s stupid, so fucking stupid, but Ian doesn’t seem offended, instead he quickly turns up the palm of his hand like some kind of goddamned apology and reels it back in to vaguely gesture towards his own cheek.

”Right there,” he says.

Mickey unfolds his arms to pick up a hand and roughly rub at his cheek where Svetlana kissed him before. He can’t believe he’s been walking around with this stuff on his face for this long, he can’t believe he just flinched like some goddamned virgin at the prospect of Ian touching his face. Not even a fucking prospect, just a concept.

”She’s beautiful,” Ian says when Mickey stays quiet, and nods towards the door at Mickey’s confused frown, ”Yevgeny’s mom.”

Mickey groans and moves his hand from his cheek to the bridge of his nose for a second, pinching at his embarrassed annoyance before he lets it fall and he shakes his head at Ian. ”Don’t you got somewhere to be?”

Ian grins and his hand is resting on the counter, his stubby nails tapping against the surface. ”Pretty sure I’m late already.”

Mickey gnaws at the inside of his lip and is about to blurt out a low ’so blow it off’, when the guy takes a couple of steps back.

”Tomorrow?” he suggests and Mickey finds himself nodding, not sure to what exactly he’s agreeing. ”Morning, this time.”

”Yeah, sure,” Mickey smirks, ”believe it when I see it.”

”Tomorrow,” Ian repeats, his back hitting against the door with one last step, ”morning.”

”Just leave,” Mickey laughs and pretends to ball something up in his hands to lob at Ian, who ducks and grins, shoving the door open with his shoulder and disappearing through it. It takes about five seconds before Mickey remembers that he’s not gonna be opening the diner in the morning, and they might miss each other. Some completely unreasonable and instinctual part of him wants to scramble after Ian and let him know, but the rest of him is never in a million years running after some dude, in the snow, just to tell him something. This is not a romantic comedy, and ’tomorrow, morning’ is not a date. It’s a joke, not malicious or mean-spirited or anything, but still a joke. Mickey calls Ian unpredictable, Ian teases and facetiously makes plans. The truth of the situation is still that Ian can come and go best he pleases, and Mickey has no say in the matter.

Doesn’t make the fucking butterflies go away though. Guess he’ll just have to let them flutter.

He plates up the last piece of blueberry pie and grabbing two spoons he makes his way over to the corner booth, where his son is still nose-deep in his textbook, sitting in Mickey’s usual seat. Mickey sets the plate down and ties off his apron before he sits down on Ian’s side, sighing like an old man.

Yevgeny titters at the sound but doesn’t look up from his book.

”Take a break,” Mickey says and pushes the plate further in between them, closer to Yevgeny to compensate for his lesser reach, and holds up the spoons for Yevgeny to choose. Yevgeny rests his pencil in the fold of the book and carefully picks one of the spoons, like they’re not exactly the same, and leans his elbows on the pages as he reaches over to dig in.

”Good week?” Mickey asks after a few minutes of silent eating, waiting for Yevgeny to wrangle a stray piece of blueberry onto his spoon, staining his fingertip a deep purple.

”Yeah, I guess,” Yevgeny shrugs, all of his focus on getting the heaped spoonful into his mouth.

”And what about today?” Mickey takes another bite when Yevgeny winces and pretends to be too polite to answer with his mouth full. He tries to wait him out, but the kid can chew really slowly when he needs to. ”You know you can’t just skip class, right? Even if it’s PE and you don’t wanna go.”

Yevgeny shrugs again, eyes on his hands.

”I know you know that, ’cause you’ve never tried to pull this shit before,” Mickey continues, dipping his head a little to try and catch Yevgeny’s guiltily averted eyes, ”there somethin’ goin’ on at school?”

”No,” Yevgeny sighs, ”didn’t think it’d be such a big deal, people do it all the time. You did it.”

”Yeah, but,” Mickey doesn’t care for how blatantly hypocritical this is gonna sound, but it’s nothing new, ”thought we were in agreement that you never- never follow my example, kid, that’s like one of our constitutional pillars.”

”Didn’t think you’d be mad,” Yevgeny mutters, poking at what’s left of the pie with his spoon.

”Ain’t mad, Yev, come on,” Mickey sighs and smiles, completely unnecessarily since Yevgeny still isn’t looking at him, ”mostly surprised.”

”Me too,” Yevgeny agrees and seems to struggle not to grin when he finally meets Mickey’s gaze again.

”Stops being cool if you do it too much,” Mickey warns him, hoping that’ll work as a sufficiently efficient deterrent, ”and try not getting caught next time, huh? Jesus.”

”Okay dad,” Yevgeny promises and smiles widely as he carefully divides the last crumbs of pie into two piles and shuffles one onto his own spoon.

”Okay,” Mickey says and scoops up the other pile, smiling back at his son before he shovels it into his mouth.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 18.
Friday.

 

Mickey takes one last deep drag from his cigarette and throws it in a nearby pile of dirty snow, imagines the embers fizzing against the wet cold. He puts up his hands to his mouth and tries blowing some heat into them, smoke and breath coming out white through his fingers as he quickly steps up to the back door and firmly raps his knuckles against it.

”Come on, Etch,” he mutters, not bothering to raise his voice knowing full well it won’t make any difference, ”cold as balls out ’ere.”

There’s the click of the lock and the door is pulled open to a surprised-looking Etch, recognition and curiosity quickly overpowering his face when he lands his eyes on Mickey.

”Mornin’ sunshine,” he hums merrily and takes a step back when Mickey grunts out a barely audible ’morning’ and walks past him, ”sneaking in the back door, huh?”

”Sure, whatever,” Mickey sighs, parking himself in the middle of the kitchen and turning to look at Etch, unwinding the scarf around his neck, ”get ’em all in now, while you can.”

”Not sayin’ anything,” Etch grins and closes the door, ”and when can I not joke about ass-play, for future reference?”

”You telling me I got a say in this?” Mickey picks up his eyebrows, twisting the scarf in his hands.

Etch pretends to think it over, walking over to the grill. ”Not really, no.”

”Didn’t think so,” Mickey nods and leans back against the fridge, feels it kick into gear, buzzing and humming behind him.

”You’re early,” Etch comments, picking up his spatula to flip the pancakes he’s got slowly cooking on the griddle.

Mickey hums and unzips his coat, but lets it hang on his shoulders, stuffing his scarf into his right pocket. ”Smooth sailing at Yev’s school.”

”So you thought you’d come in early for work?” Etch flips another pancake and glances over his shoulder at Mickey, eyebrow raised in surprise.

”Fuck you, I’m always early,” Mickey tells him, ”and what else was I supposed to do? Hang around and chit-chat with the carpool parents?”

”Aw, so you came here to chit-chat with me instead?” Etch preens, ears moving with what Mickey assumes is that impossibly wide smile of his.

”Well, would’ve had another smoke,” Mickey says, slowly moving over to the door to peek out into the diner, ”but I was starting to freeze my balls off out there.”

He smirks a little when Etch tries to sound offended and leans against the door frame, lazily scanning the other room, left to right, leaving the best for last. He hears Edna working the register just around the corner, just out of sight, and he spots two construction workers, still in their hi-vis vests, silently eating their breakfast in the booth by the door. A bespectacled man is reading the paper at table 3, most likely waiting for Etch to stop socializing and get those pancakes out. Ian’s in his booth, no earphones, no laptop. No breakfast, not even a cup of coffee. Mickey’s been low-key annoyed with himself for not telling the guy that he had Yevgeny this morning and would be late because of it, but now he kinda feels like an idiot for even thinking about it at all.

”He’s got company,” Etch says behind him and yeah, Mickey can see that. Well, he can’t actually see it, because of that useless section of the wall sticking out a couple of inches and obscuring the sight of the person sitting in Mickey’s seat. But his hands are resting on the table and Ian’s completely engrossed in whatever he’s saying, eyes firm with intent and that stern line cut deep framing his lips, pressed together.

”You saw ’em come in?” Mickey asks and moves to carefully lean against the other side of the door, uncovering parts of a face. Chatty guy, by the looks of it. Good looking, in an obvious kinda way Mickey thinks he finds more grating than appealing. Fucking shiny umber skin and soft features, sharp eyes and a friendly smile that’s hard to fault.

”Nope, they were here when I arrived,” Mickey takes a step back into the kitchen and turns to look at Etch in time to see him walking up to the hatch with a finished stack of pancakes, ”Number 1, to serve.”

There’s a flash of Edna’s hand showing and the plate disappears from the hatch. Mickey hangs back for a moment until he’s certain she’s had time to move out into the diner before he steps out of the kitchen and in behind the counter. He shrugs off his coat and stuffs it into the cubbyhole under the till, keeping his gaze low as he turns his back to the diner to check on the coffee. The pot almost full he gnaws at his lip and puts his hands on his hips, looking for something to occupy him. Not a single thing, Edna has always been infuriatingly efficient.

”Coffee, to go?” He turns around and nods at the big guy blocking his view of most of the diner, all but the far corner and the tail-end of a bright smile. He doubles back to grab the freshly brewed pot and a paper cup, pouring and putting a lid on it before he sets it down in front of his customer. He’s taking a real long time digging out the exact change and Mickey couldn’t help blatantly staring at Ian’s companion over the guy’s rounded shoulder even if he tried. And he’s pretty much done trying.

At long last, big guy holds out the money for him and Mickey takes it without really looking, throws the coins uncounted into the tip jar when the guy has taken his coffee and left. Mickey sinks down to lean his elbows on the counter, resting his chin in one hand, and owns the fact that this is what he is now. Full blown Peeping fucking Tom.

He’s not entirely sure what it is about this guy that he can’t shake, why even when Edna moves in behind the counter next to him he still can’t look away from the pair in the corner. It’s like there’s an itching suspicion at the back of his mind and he doesn’t recognize it at all until Ian’s saying something, his hand moving towards his companion with a fraction of an inch, stilling on top of the table. Mickey frowns when the strange guy in his seat quickly covers Ian’s hand with his own, squeezing it for a second before Ian self-consciously looks around the diner and pulls his hand away. Ian leans back in his seat and it’s over so quickly it could have been nothing, but Mickey knows it isn’t. He knows the look flashing across Ian’s face, the apology in his friend’s eyes and the exasperation in his slight frown. Ian is gay as all hell, and he’s at Mickey’s diner holding hands and making eyes at some guy that isn’t Mickey.

A guy who’s nodding, the shock of unruly wispy curls on top of his head swaying with the movement, and turning away to gather up his things. Ian seems to follow his movements intently, mouth still in that firm line when he turns his face enough for Mickey to see. His friend gets up and puts on a worn leather jacket, stands by the table for a moment with his back to the diner. Mickey can see Ian pull a hand through his hair and frown, listening to whatever it is the guy’s telling him. Ian nods and then his friend is leaving, sailing past the counter and out the door without so much as a glance in Mickey’s direction.

”Number 2, ready to serve,” Etch says behind him, the habitual announcement accompanied by the scrape of unglazed porcelain against wood.

”Table 1,” Edna chimes in and calmly meets Mickey’s eyes when he tears his attention from Ian’s corner to glance at her. Frowning he stands up straight and quickly checks his watch.

”I’m not here for another 15, alright?” he says and tries to avoid her stern glare as he squeezes past her, ”you didn’t see me.”

”Youth,” Edna mutters behind him, but he doesn’t care. They said 9 and it ain’t 9 yet, she can honor their agreement and do another 15 minutes of shuffling food around the diner, Mickey’s got stuff to do. Stuff like walking across a room that’s literally no more than 25 feet wide and still manages to feel fucking infinite. Ian’s turned away, looking like he’s aimlessly staring out the window at the darkened and snowy Chicago morning, hands folded and still on the tabletop.

Mickey doesn’t have a plan, he only knows he needs to get to Ian, needs to sit down and stare him down. Because he saw what he saw and he knows what he knows, there’s no room for doubt and this isn’t the kind of thing that can be unseen or explained away. It’s a lifetime of being on edge mirrored in another human being, it’s body language and vibes and whatever the fuck else you want to call it; fucking crappy as shit gaydar. People choose to tell you who they are all the time, but Mickey usually doesn’t put much weight on it. People can be who they wanna be, present themselves as someone completely different, lie or hide or adapt, he doesn’t care. People change, people grow. People let you infer and assume and come to conclusions, and they’ve usually got solid fucking reasons for it. It’s all fucking fine, Mickey does it too, with everybody, every day.

But Ian’s been keeping things from him, keeping this thing from him, and Mickey only knows he wants to look the guy in his goddamned big fucking stupidly honest eyes and make sure he isn’t kidding himself, here. Because, and the realization is as startling as it is obvious, if Ian’s gay, then perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world that Mickey maybe kinda wants to get all up in that.

”What’s up?” he says and sits down abruptly enough to apparently startle Ian out of his pensive mood, eyes slightly wide when they move from the snowy Chicago street tableau to Mickey’s half-a-smirk half-a-frown, his face landing somewhere in-between the plethora of reactions he’s got waring for center stage.

”Hey,” Ian recovers himself quickly and rakes a hand through his hair, combing it back to his neck and leaving a strand of it to pretty fucking adorably fall down his forehead, ”when did you get here?”

Mickey sits back and folds his arms across his chest, shrugging one shoulder lightly whilst intently studying Ian’s face; he looks same as he always does, but there’s tension around his mouth that speaks of something. Nervousness, perhaps. Mickey doesn’t really want to make the guy nervous, he just wants to push the boundaries a little, find out just how far he can take things with him, see if there’s a stronghold around the diner or if pushed enough he could be backed all the way past the barricades and into some kind of real life.

”Boyfriend seemed in a hurry,” he notes and deliberately holds Ian’s blank stare, willing him to deny it, ”shot outta here like his ass was on fire.”

Ian frowns and juts his chin out just a fraction, enough to make Mickey want to push further. After a few moments of stubborn silence, jaw working like a physical representation of the gears grinding inside his head most likely scrambling for a way out, he sighs and blinks, eyes darting away from Mickey and landing somewhere on the wall over his left shoulder.

”Not my boyfriend,” he insists, staring the wall down like it’s done him personal harm. Mickey resists the urge to glance over his shoulder to see if there’s anything there and feels himself flash a quick smirk when he thinks Ian looks like a soldier being reprimanded for falling out of line. Back straight and shoulders square, eyes dimmed and steady. Mickey isn’t sure if Ian’s trying to deny the guy’s presence completely, or just nitpick at the semantics of Mickey assuming him a ’boyfriend’.

”He dump you or something?” Mickey pushes further and Ian wavers long enough to meet his eyes for a split second, before falling back to glare at the wall, ”sorry man, don’t know what to tell ya. I’m not fucking blind.”

Ian huffs and frowns, dips his head as if to hide the pained expression on his face as he shakes his head. He looks kinda defeated when he finally looks up at Mickey again, eyebrows raised in question and lips pressed firmly together.

”That it?” he asks, and it sounds an awful lot like a challenge. ”You want me to leave? Or you wanna take this out back, maybe? Fuck me up a little before you kick me out?”

Mickey takes a second to simply gape at Ian’s defiant face, this guy sitting in front of him like a fucking puzzle slowly clicking into place. That’s what this is all about? Ian thinks Mickey’s likely to shun him, to bash him over this? It’s with a shadow of regret and tinge of embarrassment stinging his cheeks when he thinks of words he had with Etch not too long ago, voicing these exact concerns. Never in a million years did he imagine Ian to harbor the same kind of fears.

”Ian, I- I’m-,” he starts, mouth working around words that jumble and disperse as he tries to figure out the best way of doing this. On a scale of ’I’m also very gay’, to ’Dude! You like sucking cock? I like sucking cock!’, there’s gotta be something he can say that’ll lay all the cards on the table as well as dismantle Ian’s line of defense, while all the same maybe also leave Mickey with some dignity. ’I’m gay’ would be the obvious thing to say, but the thing is that Mickey’s pretty damned sure he’s never actually said the words out loud and it’s getting embarrassingly obvious that this is the case for a reason. That he’s not entirely certain he actually knows how.

”I’m-,” he says again and makes a face when Ian’s frown only grows deeper, staring at him with hurt and disappointment clear as day on his features, ”I’m not Terry.”

”No?” Ian says like he doesn’t believe him, a mocking tone to his voice Mickey’s heard all his life but for some dumb reason really didn’t expect to ever hear from Ian. It must have shown on his face, because Ian’s defiance immediately falls into a regretful scowl and he screws his eyes shut for a second, sighing deeply before he looks back at Mickey again, ”shit, Mick, that’s- fuck. I know you’re not. Sorry.”

Mickey settles on something between a nod and a shrug, not particularly interested in talking about Terry’s approach to the sexually deviant, nor too keen on telling Ian about the things he’s been through; the things he kinda thought he was well over by now but still seem to lock up his throat and fuck up his game. Does he want to ask Ian out? Is that what’s happening here? It’s a definite possibility, now, and that’s all Mickey can tell for sure. Before this morning it was a non-option, and now it’s an option. Before this morning, Mickey didn’t give a flying fuck about where Ian stuck his dick because it was none of his concern, same as his own preferences were none of Ian’s concern, but now… Now what? He likes Ian, that much is blindingly fucking obvious, and the guy’s kinda firm and sharp in all the right ways; pale and fucking smooth and magnetic in a way Mickey rarely would describe anyone. He’s hot as fuck, keeping it short and sweet and to the fucking point, and he’s nice, and funny, and he’s good. He’s confusing the fuck out of Mickey, looking at him now like all he wants is a sign that they’re okay, that he didn’t fuck things up by simply being honest about himself, or by lashing out in fear of being judged. He’s a friend; it’s the most solid conclusion Mickey’s got and he clings to it like a lifeline. As a friend, Mickey knows his lines.

”You want me to kick his ass?” he offers, clearing his throat and raising his eyebrows a little when Ian looks confused. ”Your not boyfriend. Bet I can catch up with him if I run, if you need me to.”

Ian looks confused for another nerve-wracking second before he snorts out a short laugh and shakes his head, rolling his eyes. But when he looks at Mickey again, Mickey feels relief flood through his tense arms and shoulders, hands loosening their death-grip, fingertips digging into the soft skin over the crook of his elbows leaving white marks behind when he unfolds his arms and rolls his shoulders.

”If he needed his ass kicked I’m sure I could’ve done it myself, thanks,” Ian assures him drily, holding up a hand as if to calm down a wild beast, ”besides, told you he’s not my boyfriend.”

”Sure about that?” Mickey smirks, raising an eyebrow in what he hopes comes across as decently suggestive.

”Yeah,” Ian huffs, his head shaking slightly like he’s barely aware he’s doing it, eyes searching Mickey’s like he’s some big mystery, ”that was Jon.”

The name rings a bell, because there’s apparently not a single little stupid fucking thing Ian’s told him since they first met that Mickey’s able to forget. ”Band member Jon?”

”Bass,” Ian confirms with a curt nod and makes a face when Mickey says nothing, ”been hooking up, I guess, and yeah, kinda broke it off with him last night.”

”Why?” Mickey asks.

”Don’t know,” Ian says a little too quickly, like he does know but needs a second to get it out. He leans forward some and plants his elbows on the table, a hand slowly scratching at the short hairs on the back of his neck as he looks out the window like he’s searching the street for answers. ”Not always so good at the casual thing, you know? He’s one of my best friends, felt stupid to risk it.”

”You like him, he likes you,” Mickey swallows uncomfortably and doesn’t even try to smile when Ian looks back at him curiously, ”what’s there to risk?”

Ian narrows his eyes at him and leans back in his seat, crossing his arms. ”You really wanna talk about this?”

”Why the fuck not?” Mickey scowls, ”I can be fucking sensitive, when I want, be a sympathetic ear or whatever, I got shoulders.”

Mickey closes his mouth to keep more stupid from falling out. Ian grins and bites his lip to cover it, only making the whole thing infinitely worse.

”Not if you’re gonna be like that, though,” Mickey throws up his hands and makes a scene of getting up from his seat, ”forget it.”

”No, stop, please,” Ian laughs and leans forward again to hold out a hand and keep Mickey from getting up, ”don’t leave.”

Mickey couldn’t stop the pleased smile from spreading across his face even if he wanted. He settles back in his seat and shows his hands in a gesture of surrender.

”So what,” he picks up the thread, ”this dude got a small dick or something?”

”Nah, I like to pitch anyway so I’m not too fussed about size,” Ian denies with a dismissive wave before he kinda freezes in spot, eyes widening slightly like he for a second forgot who he was talking to and just now realized Mickey might not be ready yet for the full monty.

”I don’t know,” Mickey tries his best to keep his tone serious, enjoying the flash of relief in Ian’s eyes when he doesn’t get the reaction he probably expected, ”known my fair share of pitching size-queens, man.”

”Oh, you have, have you?” Ian smiles, and Mickey can swear he’s looking a bit hot around the ears. ”How progressive of you, man.”

Mickey shrugs and holds out his hands in humble acceptance of the sarcastic praise.

”So what?” he asks again and kicks out a foot to nick Ian’s shoe.

”So what, I don’t know,” Ian stumbles, and Mickey would think he’s uncomfortable if Mickey hadn’t seen uncomfortable on Ian before. Now he’s avoiding Mickey’s eyes and kinda hugging his arms across his chest like he tends to do when he’s having a hard time speaking earnestly about something he’d usually keep to himself, but he’s also smiling a little, and cringes like he’s embarrassed or something when he almost meets Mickey’s gaze. It’s fetching as fuck and Mickey kinda wants to see him like this more often, the guy usually very calm and held back whenever he’s at the diner. ”Guess it would easily turn serious, and I’m not looking for serious right now, you know?”

Mickey feels like the smile he’s got on freezes in place, quite against his will. Like he has to swallow over the strange lump in his throat to get himself to nod like he does know, like he fucking agrees or something. There might be something unspoken between them but Mickey is suddenly certain that whatever it is, it’s best left alone. Finding out that Ian plays for his team opened the floodgates and let out all these feelings, muddling the waters and blurring lines, nudging and winking at previously crystal clear intentions. Mickey thinks the best policy right now is to build that dam right back up and hold it all safely at bay, because Ian isn’t looking and Mickey thinks that he’d probably end up drowning if he let himself swim those waters alone.

”Never would’ve worked, anyway,” Ian smiles disarmingly and finally, properly, meets Mickey’s eyes again.

Mickey lets himself grin back and take the bait. ”Why’s that?”

”Well,” Ian sighs dramatically and leans back in his seat, ”he’s kinda rude to waiters.”

Mickey barks out a surprised laugh, shaking his head a little and sounding disgustingly fond when he shoots back a quick ’fuck off’.

”No really,” Ian sounds absolutely sincere when he smiles at Mickey’s reaction, ”some things are like, sure, you’re my friend and I can’t really do anything if you’re a bit of an asshole sometimes but, nah… couldn’t date someone like that. It’s, I don’t know. Fundamental, or something.”

”I treat staff like shit,” Mickey lies.

”Lucky we’re not going out, then,” Ian decides, ”and I don’t believe you.”

Mickey quirks an eyebrow and tilts his head a little.

”Not for one second.”

”Whatever man,” Mickey chuckles and averts his eyes to forcefully eject the goddamned butterflies invading his stomach despite his new, strict, no-nonsense policy against that kinda thing going on in present company.

”Been meaning to tell you,” Ian says quietly, and Mickey makes a small noise and gives a noncommittal shrug instead of saying anything, lest he inadvertently breaks his new accord and tells the guy everything right then and there. Ian looks down at his hands for a second and then back up at Mickey, something slightly apologetic in his crooked smile. ”No, that’s a lie. Kinda hoped you’d never find out.”

”Not my business,” Mickey agrees, but it comes out like more of a mutter than he’d really intended.

”Feel like I should apologize,” Ian grimaces a little and falls back in his seat when Mickey snorts, ”no, not about that. Really isn’t your business, like you said.”

”’Cause you thought I’d fucking kill you over it?” Mickey guesses and nods when Ian winces his silent response. Nods because he’d been thinking the exact same thing, and he’s not likely to apologize for it any time soon.

”And for joking about stuff you might’ve taken the wrong way,” Ian continues, ”I say stupid shit sometimes, not thinking how it could sound to a straight guy suddenly finding out I’m gay.”

And there it is, Ian flat out calling him straight and every part of Mickey calling out to just fucking correct him, wrongful assumptions having been turned into blatant lies by Ian labelling him and Mickey letting it slide. It kinda feels like his last window of opportunity, too, not seeing a whole lot of frank conversations about their romantic and sexual leanings on their horizon again anytime soon. And then it’s passed as soon as it arrives when Ian’s words suddenly distract him from his internal debate.

”What?” he says and quickly scans through the last months’ worth of bad jokes and mindless banter in useless effort to find anything Ian’s said that could appear even a little offensive to him, now.

”All that stuff about gettin’ married,” Ian fucking blushes, he clears his throat and looks determined to will the signs of his embarrassment to go away by squaring his jaw and furrowing his brows but his cheeks are suddenly a lot more freckly than Mickey ever remembers them and it’d be enough to make even the most strong-willed of men grin helplessly, and Mickey’s only moderately strong-willed at best, anyway. ”Didn’t mean anything by it.”

”Jesus, fuck,” Mickey grins wider when Ian rolls his eyes at him, ”how fucking fragile do you think I am?”

”Lost friends over less before,” Ian shrugs.

”Gotta tell ya they probably weren’t worth your time to begin with, man,” Mickey tells him matter-of-factly, ”if I could take your piss poor sense of humor when I thought you liked pussy I can take it knowing you like sticking it to dudes.”

He sounds crude even to his own desensitized ears, and he thinks he might be trying to coax some kind of reaction out of Ian one way or another. Completely ineffectively, ’cause it seems like Ian’s all done being modest and all he gets in return for his efforts is a wide, cheeky grin.

”Got it,” is all he says before looking like something suddenly occurs to him, ”hey, you were late. Everything okay at home?”

”Yeah, no, it’s fine,” Mickey assures him and glances at his watch, it’s five past nine already and it’s only a matter of time before Edna starts throwing him looks he can’t ignore, ”Svetlana’s gone on holiday with her new guy so Yev’s stayin’ with me, had to get him to school this morning ’s all.”

”Mickey Milkovich on a school run,” Ian grins and sits back, ”gotta be very different from the kinda runs I imagine you used to do back in the days, huh?”

Mickey snorts and tilts his head a little as he pretends to think it over. ”Yet I think I preferred the dirty junkies to the divorcées in yoga pants.”

”I imagine the general air of desperation isn’t too different.”

”Actually, they’re not that bad,” Mickey feels like he has to admit, he’s seen some stereotypes hanging around the gates at pick-up time but the moms of the kids in Yevgeny’s class are mostly too busy with their own crap to give him any grief, ”the dads are worse.”

Ian’s already way too delighted grin widens and he comfortably crosses his arms. ”Yeah?”

”Much, much worse,” Mickey nods, ”I mean, I know I got issues, growin’ up with Terry it’s a fucking given, but I still think I do a better job at this dad thing than some of these douchebags.”

”Don’t doubt it,” Ian says like a fucking reflex. Mickey picks up his eyebrows and chooses to sidestep the guy’s attempt at being complimentary by antagonizing him a little.

”Tryin’ to butter me up here, Gallagher?” he asks, smirking when Ian looks ever so slightly like he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. ”Is this about the distinct lack of coffee in this corner? You fishin’ to get me fetchin’?”

”Well, I have been here for an hour and a half already,” Ian puts a hand to his stomach to pat at it, the thin, worn fabric of his white t-shirt billowing against his chest and abs with the movement. He’s looking pretty fucking shapely under there and Mickey has to remind himself not to grin and leer. Ian looks infuriatingly clueless and carefree when he meets Mickey’s eyes and smiles. ”Could do with some breakfast?”

”You’re just waiting for me to shut up and get back to work, aren’t ya?” Mickey sniffs and looks up at the ceiling as though to ward off his crocodile tears.

”Pretty much,” Ian admits, ”didn’t actually come in here to come out, you know.”

”And here I threw this whole parade for your gay ass,” Mickey laments and gestures towards the spectacularly mellow diner behind Ian, Edna and the two other patrons there paying them little to no mind, ”an’ still you’re not satisfied.”

”Feel like a cup of coffee would go a long way towards mending a lot of bridges between our people,” Ian suggests with a hopeful smile.

”You seriously haven’t been served?” Mickey drops the bit to indulge in a moment of rare professionalism, he does have some kind of twisted sense of pride in his work at least being done, if not done particularly well. Guy’s gotta be starving by now.

”Wanted to wait for you,” Ian simply admits with a one-shouldered shrug, ”and then Jon kinda ambushed me, wanting to talk about- well, whatever. Things pretty much spiraled from there, and here I am. Outed, sexless and jonesing for a cup of joe.”

”You two good?” Mickey asks before really thinking it over, worried that Ian’s being so cavalier about his not-a-breakup for a reason other than not actually caring.

”Yeah,” Ian sighs, glancing out the window before giving Mickey a tightlipped smile most likely meant to reassure, ”he was worried, but we’re good.”

”Alright, I’ll take your word for it,” Mickey says, nothing but respect for the guy wanting to keep private shit private, and scoots over in his seat to get up, ”the usual?”

”Please and thank you.”

Mickey grunts and heaves himself all the way out of the booth, turning back to look down at Ian when he makes a low sound, like a hum, sounding like he’s got something more on his mind.

”Hey Mick?” he says and Mickey thinks he’s a goddamned vision sitting in that worn-ass booth, soft winter blues and grays outside framing his muted skin and flaming hair.

”Yeah?” Mickey croaks out and hides what essentially feels like the stumble before a very heavy fall behind a half-assed scowl.

And Ian fucking smiles, side of his mouth quirking up in that way Mickey’s starting to think he’ll never really get over. ”Thank you.”

”Yeah, whatever,” he mutters and looks down at his shoes for a second, flexing his fingers aimlessly, hands hanging down his sides, ”don’t gotta be a big deal if you don’t make it a big deal, Red.”

”Uh-huh,” Ian says and only seems to smile wider when Mickey looks at him again, ”next time it’s your turn.”

”We’re keeping score now, are we?” Mickey smirks and takes a slow step backwards, wants to run away and really, really doesn’t want to leave.

”Uh-huh,” Ian repeats, sitting back a little, ”pretty sure you owe me a couple of real doozies.”

”Not my problem your issues got issues, man,” Mickey shrugs, ”me, I’m the very definition of well-adjusted.”

He throws in a cheeky wink with the lie, just ’cause, and grins when Ian narrows his eyes at him, lips pressed together in a thin, doubtful line.

”That’s one red hot breakfast special, with coffee,” he recites, taking another step backwards, ”and one piece of personal information on yours truly, coming up.”

”Make it a big piece,” Ian calls out after him when he turns to walk away, ”and don’t skimp on the details.”

Mickey waves dismissively at him over his shoulder and nods at Edna when he passes her table. She’s been sat at her post for the last ten minutes at least, looking only moderately interested in the needs of her patrons. Mickey knows different, knows that there’s very little that gets past her within these walls, and that there’s no force short of nuclear that could keep her away from doing what she’s always done, every day for 40 years. That said, they did say 9 and she doesn’t pay him to socialize. ’This isn’t one of them hostess clubs’, she’d muttered under her breath a couple of weeks ago when Etch had shared some of his more farfetched and romantic notions on what was going on between Ian and Mickey. Mickey had wholeheartedly agreed with her, and enjoyed a moment of reprieve when Etch’s curiosity got sidetracked by Edna’s unexpected reference to this obscure aspect of Japanese culture. There’d been a documentary, apparently. Now she glares at him over the brim of her coffee cup and while that could mean pretty much anything from ’you’re one discrepancy away from extremely fired’ to ’you and that young man over there would make a really cute couple’, Mickey chooses to interpret the look as simple acknowledgement of Mickey clocking in.

He digs out his apron from under the counter and sticks his head through the hatch as he ties it around his waist, searching the kitchen for Etch only to find him overtly clattering through pots and pans directly to the right of the window, like he hadn’t just very obviously been spying on his co-worker’s private conversation. Not that Mickey is in much of a position to judge.

”Enjoying the show?” he asks, eyebrows high up his forehead for a second and then furrowing into a decently threatening scowl.

”Not really,” Etch grins sheepishly and puts back the pots he’s been aimlessly juggling for cover, ”gonna need to instal some kind of live subtitling system if the actors don’t start projecting their voices better.”

”Guess we’re not classically trained,” Mickey drawls, leaning his elbows against the hatch and adjusting his stance a little.

”Mumblecore is a problem,” Etch agrees, ”the Professor would blame Marlon Brando.”

”Yeah, well, she’s insane,” Mickey says, because it’s Mickey’s firm opinion that Etch needs reminding of this fact every once in a while, likely to believe his better half’s got fucking rainbows and sunshine coming out of her ass whenever he’s left to his own devices for too long at a time.

”She’s the leading expert in her field,” Etch protests, pride transparent in his dopey smile.

”She’s insane,” Mickey reiterates, ”you send her my regards and tell her I think she’s batshit crazy. And wrong about Marlon Brando.”

”She’s not sayin’ he ain’t pretty, you know,” Etch laughs, and steps further into the kitchen to move over to the stove, ”no offense meant towards your personal tastes.”

”The usual,” Mickey confirms Ian’s order before quickly returning to the topic, ”and I’m not fucking hot for fucking Brando.”

”Coming up,” Etch hums as he starts on Ian’s breakfast, not turning to look at Mickey when he continues, ”and dude, the torch you carry for that guy is as flaming as it is blind.”

”I’ll never understand how I’m a fucking minority in this with you two nerds,” Mickey turns around and leans back against the counter, twisting his head a little to speak over his shoulder, ”guy was a goddamned award-winning American icon, never met anyone this stubbornly wrong as you and your lady when it comes to Streetcar.”

”Stellaaa!” Etch quietly yells at the slowly cooking porridge in front of him, balling up his fists and shaking them at the pot for emphasis. ”And don’t drag me into your little feud.”

”Guilty by association,” Mickey shrugs.

”No way, I’m incredibly neutral, I’m Brando Switzerland,” Etch insists only to undermine his point in the next breath; ”you realize if it weren’t for my lovely wife you’d never even seen that movie, right?”

”Apocalypse fucking Now,” Mickey ignores him, ”The Godfather.”

”Cotton balls, man,” Etch laughs and takes two steps to his left to grab a plate, ”taking it too far.”

”What kinda psycho recommends something they don’t like, anyway?” Mickey wonders, massaging his neck a little and rolling his shoulders as he turns back to survey the diner. The guy at table 2 is getting up, putting on his heavy jacket and gesturing towards the money he’s left on the table when he meets Mickey’s eyes across the room. Mickey nods his okay and leaves the guy to disappear out the door unsupervised. The woman at table 4 is reading, appearing to be in no hurry to finish her cup of coffee. Ian’s got his laptop back up, headphones hanging around his neck. He does the thing he did when Yevgeny was sat opposite him, where he’s occasionally picking up one side to hold against his ear instead of just leaving them on the whole time. Mickey imagines that maybe he does it because he only wants to hear very specific details of whatever it is he’s working on, or that maybe he likes the background murmur of his and Etch’s bickering too much to cut it off entirely. Can’t hate it, anyway, or he’d long since plugged his ears for sure.

”Is this year’s Christmas dinner gonna be another Brando-gate?” Etch asks behind him, causing Mickey to step away from the counter and turn around in time to see the cook shove a plate through the hatch.

”Promise to behave if she does,” Mickey shrugs and draws a quick cross over his heart before reaching out and grabbing the plate.

”Didn’t know that word was part of your vocabulary,” Etch grins when Mickey flips him off with his free hand, before reaching it out to grab the coffeepot, ”oh, behave.”

”I’d flip you off again but I only got so many hands,” Mickey mutters and raises the coffeepot in Etch’s general direction, middle finger struggling to get some of the sentiment across while still holding on to the precious cargo as he walks past him and back out the diner.

”Groovy baby,” Etch calls out after him and Mickey thinks he manages to roll his eyes so wildly it can be seen from behind when the sound of Etch’s pleased laughter rings through the kitchen.

He silently offers the girl at 4 a refill, which she accepts by pushing her half-empty cup towards him by a couple of inches. He tops her up and gives her a knee-jerk kinda nod she doesn’t notice, focus back on the page the second he started pouring. Ian folds away his laptop when Mickey gets there, and looks up at him with something unnervingly inscrutable in his blank face as Mickey stands by his side and serves him his long awaited breakfast, carefully pours his coffee. He keeps his eyes trained on him, Mickey more senses it than sees it in his periphery, until Mickey eventually sits down opposite him once more, pouring himself a cup before he carefully meets his steady gaze. Ian says nothing but seems satisfied enough with Mickey’s silent company to relax and turn his attention to his breakfast. Mickey watches him eat for a couple of minutes, slightly longer than he probably should, and then settles in with his elbows on the table, cup of coffee cradled close to his face and eyes on the slow commuter traffic outside, slightly blurred by another spell of snowfall.

It’s nice. So many things could have changed this morning, but right now it feels very comfortably the same. Mickey isn’t ready for any of this to change, or to go away.

”Gotta tell you something,” Ian says and scrunches his face up in pain when Mickey groans and looks at him. No more than 10 minutes of peace at a time is what he gets, being friends with this guy.

”Jesus, fuck,” he sighs and sits back, unwrapping his hands from his now as good as empty cup to scratch his worn nails through his weak-ass stubble, ”don’t think I’m deep enough to even out the scores if you keep this up, man. Got two, maybe three doozy-level secrets lined up for you but then that’s it. I’m spent.”

”Was only kidding about that,” Ian admits, like it hadn’t been perfectly obvious already.

”Like fuck you were,” Mickey grins, ”and don’t you fucking worry man, I’m sure you’ll end up knowing more about me than my own self at the rate you’re going.”

Ian narrows his eyes like something just became clear to him. ”You think you’re an open book.”

”I think I answer the questions I get asked,” Mickey says and thinks it comes out more like a challenge than he intended.

Ian stares at him for a few seconds before his head dips in a hint of a nod and he averts his eyes, paying careful attention to his own hands as they shove his emptied breakfast plate to the side and wipe briefly at invisible crumbs on the table.

”You’re really okay with this?” he then asks, voice low, and once again seems to pin Mickey in his seat with his steady gaze.

Mickey feels the bones in his shoulders shift in a suppressed shrug, the corners of his mouth dipping in a quick show of apprehension. ”’Course.”

Ian huffs and nods, breathing out a quiet ’’course’ as he folds his arms across his chest and leans forward a little. His smile’s got that hint of regret to it when he sits back and looks up again, and Mickey thinks it’s one of very few things about the guy that makes him lose his nerve.

”What?” he says and frowns. ”Tell me, don’t fucking tell me, whatever. Just don’t pull this crap, Ian.”

Ian nods and hunches forward, arms folding on top of the table, wiry muscles stretching under the short sleeves of his t-shirt.

”Wasn’t entirely honest with you and Iggy,” he says, voice strong and certain once he gets going, ”about your dad.”

”He do something?” Mickey asks, mouth dry at the thought of Terry getting to Ian in some way, in any way even remotely resembling the way he got to Mickey.

”No,” Ian frowns, ”no, I mean. No. I just- I remember what happened, that’s all.”

Mickey slowly releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding on to and mirrors Ian’s frown. ”So?”

”So I said I didn’t remember it, but I do,” Ian elaborates, ”he was at the bar, he was being an enormous homophobic prick, and guess I kinda flipped. Hey, don’t-”

Mickey grins, he can’t help it, wider by the fucking second.

”Don’t do that,” Ian tries to reprimand, his own lips pulling at the sides as he shakes his head, ”it’s not funny.”

”It’s a little funny,” Mickey insists, his raised eyebrows finally breaking Ian’s resolve, ”bet he would’ve loved to know he got his ass handed to him by a giant-ass homo.”

”Oh, he knew,” Ian looks halfway between proud and embarrassed, eyes widening for a second and shifting guiltily, ”I was pretty vocal about it, before they got the drop on me.”

”Fucking poetic,” Mickey sighs blissfully but doesn’t offer to explain himself even though the question is clear as day in the curious look on Ian’s face.

”Yeah, well,” Ian says instead of asking, ”that’s what happened, anyway, and now you know. Should’ve told you straight away.”

Mickey raises a shoulder in a dismissive shrug.

”You try an’ pick who gets to know and who don’t, ain’t nothing wrong with that,” he says and fuck if he isn’t trying to convince himself more than Ian with this shit, ”grew up same as you, Gallagher, know what it’s like.”

To his absolute credit, Ian only nods like he accepts what Mickey’s saying, like he fucking appreciates it. If a straight dude ever tried telling him that he knew what any of this shit was like, Mickey’d not hesitate for a second to bring out the hellfire and burn his ass to the ground. But Ian, Ian just sits there and looks at him, shoulders visibly more relaxed than before, big eyes steady and piercing, corner of his mouth quirked in one of the most stupidly fond expressions Mickey’s ever been the target of.

”Apparently,” Mickey says, cringing at his clumsy attempt at shifting the conversation, ”I carry a torch for Marlon Brando.”

”Who doesn’t?” Ian questions with a frown, not even blinking at the change of topic.

Mickey slaps the edge of the table and points at him. ”Exactly.”

”If this is one of your top three doozy-level secrets,” Ian says with a disappointed bend to his lips, ”I’m not sure I’ll even bother with the other two.”

”Nah, this is just a teaser,” Mickey says with a quick wiggle of his eyebrows, ”appetizer to the main course. And I said two, maybe three, don’t get greedy.”

”I’ll take what I get,” Ian humbly accepts and then grins wickedly, clearly not done with the offered piece of information despite his early review, ”so, Brando, huh?”

”I mean,” Mickey starts, gesturing aimlessly at nothing with one hand.

”Classic bad-boy,” Ian hums, nodding thoughtfully and tapping at his chin with a finger, ”broody, dark. Explosive. Got himself some issues, usually.”

Mickey is less than impressed by this dime-store shot at psychoanalysis. ”You done?”

”Black and white Brando or like, Godfather Brando?” Ian is clearly not done. ”’Cause one I get and the other- I mean, I’m no stranger to getting fucked over by daddy-issues but-”

”Please,” Mickey cuts him off, screwing his eyes shut like it’ll shield him from wherever Ian was going with that, ”just, don’t.”

”Nothing to be ashamed of,” Ian sounds like he’s still grinning, ”can happen to the best of us.”

”Black and white Brando, definitely,” Mickey says quickly and opens his eyes one at a time, ”and I don’t think I can handle hearing about any daddy-issues you got right now so save it for another day, alright?”

Ian looks a little put out and Mickey feels a pang of guilt. If Ian’s into old dudes then that’s his prerogative, but Mickey’d really rather not hear about it. Not ever, frankly, but especially not now; so soon after tapping into his own apparently budding feelings towards the man. Not about to explain any of that, his reaction to Ian’s joke about daddy-issues probably comes out more like your everyday homophobic disgust and unease than anything. You’ve used up today’s allocated gay time slot, thank you, come back again tomorrow for a ten minute presentation on the wonders of consensual spit-roasting. Whatever, Mickey thinks it still feels like a better option than the alternative.

”How about Guys and Dolls Brando?” Ian asks, smiling slightly as if to let him know it’s fine. ”All singing, all dancing, technicolor Brando?”

”Wise guy Brando,” Mickey tries to sound confident when he corrects, but quickly winces when Ian looks unconvinced, ”never actually seen it. But sure, why not?”

”Why not,” Ian agrees.

”It’s not really true, though,” Mickey reveals, ”might’ve exaggerated my feelings some. He’s a great actor or whatever but mostly I just enjoy gettin’ a rise out of Etch’s wife, who for some reason can’t stand the guy. We’ve got something of a cold war goin’ on and I think at this point I’d rather go back in time and suck Brando’s black and white, all singing all dancing, geriatric viagroid godfather dick, before I let her win.”

”Can’t fault your dedication,” Ian looks slightly impressed, casting a quick glance in the direction of the kitchen, ”you know Etch’s wife?”

”Uh,” Mickey pretends to object, ”probably better than my own before I even met the woman, Etch never shuts up about her.”

”You like her,” Ian guesses with a knowing grin.

”Hard not to,” Mickey admits, ”huge nerd, enthusiastic and kind. Clever as all hell, too, and not afraid to break a guy. Good mom. Could probably have done a lot better than Etch, so they’re like… they’re really lucky. Got tenure at U of C now but things weren’t always stable, they got married really young, Etch supporting her and two babies while she got her degree. So she could’ve done fuck of a lot worse, I guess.”

Mickey’s not sure why he’s telling Ian all this like some gossiping pensioner, talking about Ruth like he’s got any right to her story. Mickey doesn’t talk about other people, partly because other people rarely interest him enough to warrant a mention and if they do he’s rarely asked about them anyway, but it’s also because he’s got this rigid sense of privacy that always seems to draw a very firm line around what’s personal. Talking to Ian about it somehow feels different though, it doesn’t feel like he’s ratting out his friends or breaking their confidence. It feels like he’s expanding on a circle that already has an Ian-shaped hole in it, just waiting to pull him in. Its feels natural, easy, and Mickey isn’t entirely sure he likes it.

”She’s a teacher?” Ian prompts, probably sensing Mickey’s hesitation.

”Yeah,” Mickey frowns at himself, thinks it probably wouldn’t be so bad to try and be a little more open, ”yeah, film theory, shit like that. Media studies. Met Etch at some kinda function as an undergrad, she’s a good 5 years older than him.”

Ian looks genuinely interested, which Mickey finds kinda odd and fascinating in equal measure. The guy’s never met the Professor, and barely knows Etch, yet here he is, soaking up every detail like it’s some kind of epic love story. ”Etch went to university?”

Mickey snorts. ”Fuck no, worked as a busboy for the caterers, strapped him up in a bowtie and handed him a plate of canapés when one of their servers called in sick last minute.”

He’s heard this story more than once, but he never thought he’d remember it enough to one day be the one telling it. It’s fucking weird, and it kinda feels like a first.

”If you want the gory details, you gotta ask Etch,” he says, glossing over the more overtly romantic section of the story, ”it’s sickeningly sweet and pretty fucking great.”

Ian smiles wide and nods before quietly observing Mickey like he’s trying to figure something out.

”How come you never talk about Svetlana?” he suddenly asks, frowning slightly as he watches Mickey like he might disappear into thin air rather than have this conversation. Well, fuck that. Mickey did basically promise to answer whatever Ian decided to ask, and Mickey’s not the type of person to lay down a gauntlet only to step back when he’s getting slapped.

”’Cause there ain’t nothing to tell,” he tries not to look too uncomfortable, but the scowling and tightly crossed arms can’t be helped, ”got married, had a kid, got divorced. She’s the mother of my child, she’s family. Not my place to tell anyone her business though.”

”No, but you could tell me your business,” Ian suggests, calmly meeting Mickey’s annoyed glare.

”Told you all I want to tell you already,” Mickey sounds angrier than he really means to, so he takes a moment to reel it back, cursing under his breath, ”don’t talk about her because she’s not- she’s not a factor. I got no input in her life, like she got none in mine, we just relieve shifts with our kid and occasionally meet in the middle. She’s a good mom, end of fucking story.”

”I think one of your secrets is about her,” Ian says and Mickey can tell he knows he might be pushing it, ”it’s fine if you never tell me, Mick.”

Mickey nods, honestly both annoyed and strangely moved by this sudden tangent.

”But I’m here, and I got ears,” Ian continues, smiling brightly when the reference to Mickey’s earlier bumbling attempt at being supportive receives the flustered ’fuck off’ he most likely aimed for, ”and shoulders.”

”No,” Mickey decides, stuck halfway between angry exasperation and helpless goddamned adoration.

”Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow,” Ian says solemnly, face set and dead serious, ”but if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.”

”No,” Mickey repeats and shakes his head, bracing for what’s to come when Ian sucks in a deep breath.

”Lean on me,” he starts singing, closing his eyes and holding his hands out towards Mickey, ”when you’re not strong.”

”I really hate you,” Mickey sighs.

”And I’ll be your friend,” Ian serenades him, undeterred, balling his fists up and clenching them close to his face in passion, biting his lip and slowly bobbing his head to an imaginary rhythm, ”I’ll help you carry on.”

Mickey wants to kiss him, just to fucking shut him up. Instead he sits there and listens to him sing the whole fucking song. The whole song. Before he gets up and leaves without a word, Ian cackling silently behind him. Mickey had every intention to sit back down after a short timeout, but the diner-gods seemed to have a different plan for him and for the next hour or so Mickey finds himself with one thing leading to another keeping him on his feet. Ian doesn’t seem too bothered, he goes back to work and keeps his head low until he packs up and leaves just before lunch.

He smiles at Mickey when he walks towards the door, but says nothing since Mickey’s in the middle of taking an order. Mickey doesn’t smile back, but his stomach fucking flips and his thoughts are a chorus of mindless expletives.

Fuck fuck fucking fuck. This is not gonna end well.

 

 

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Chapter Text

December 23.
Wednesday.

”Merry Christmas,” Thin Santa mumbles with a nod in Mickey’s direction, wrapping his clearly homemade knitted scarf another time around himself to almost completely cover his head as he walks out the door and into the whipping snow-laced wind outside. It’s not actually snowing, but it’s cold enough for yesterday’s crop to freeze into a flaky powder, easily whirling up and blurring the streets with every gust of wind. Mickey’s never been a season’s greetings kinda guy, so he keeps quiet and just watches the old man leave before he returns his attention to cleaning out the coffeemaker. He’s taken it apart best he can and rinsed all the individual pieces and now he’s quickly drying them off on a clean rag before carefully slotting everything back in place. He opens up a new packet of grounds, making sure to inhale deeply through his nose as the vacuum releases when he cuts his knife through the plastic, the scent of fresh coffee wafting up his face.

The machine loaded and the coffee slowly dripping away, he quickly washes his hands and makes his way over to the corner booth.

”All good here?” he asks and grips the back of Ian’s empty seat.

”Yep,” Yevgeny barely answers, eyes glued to his newest toy, cradled in his hands on top of the table.

”Ey, turn that thing off for a second,” Mickey prompts and sits down on Ian’s usual side, eying the spanking new and shiny tablet with due suspicion. Only been a couple of days and he’s barely had a conversation with his kid since that didn’t start the same way. He truly dreads the day when Yevgeny might not feel inclined to do as he’s told, and poor dad will be left having conversations with the back panel of a machine, that damned apple silently mocking him throughout. Or maybe that’ll never happen, because Yevgeny fiddles with the thing for a second before he safely tucks it away in his backpack and turns back to look at Mickey like he’s perfectly happy to do so.

”Is Roger gonna regret gettin’ you that thing?” Mickey asks, like a roundabout way of figuring out if he’s gonna end up regretting allowing the guy to get it for his kid in the first place. Yevgeny smiles and shakes his head. ”Uh-huh, that right? Bet the guy ain’t looking so bad now, is he?”

”Guess not,” Yevgeny admits and bends his head like he’s embarrassed about that fact.

”Don’t worry about it,” Mickey is quick to reassure him, knowing full well that the kid’s got an unusually strong sense of integrity for someone his age, and that he essentially just accepted his first bribe, ”he’s a decent guy and he gave you a nice gift, it’s okay to change your mind about people.”

Yevgeny looks a little sheepish when he shrugs, and Mickey can’t help thinking he’s pretty much to blame for this particular personality trait; the moral codes and rigid set of principles Yevgeny seems to build his 10 year old life around are so familiar you’d think they were somehow ingrained in their shared DNA.

”Makes you a better man than me,” Mickey says, smiling a little when his kid looks at him like he’s said something amazingly stupid, ”I’m dead serious kid, you see the good in people and that’s not something you should be ashamed of or try gettin’ rid of, tryna be some kinda badass, alright?”

Yevgeny doesn’t look entirely convinced, but the flushed pride he appears to get from Mickey’s judgment of his character eventually seems to win over, his gentle smile undeniable as he dips his head and silently nods.

”Good,” Mickey grins, secretly pleased that his son’s finally started to warm up to Svetlana’s boyfriend, ”just don’t forget who feeds you, son.”

”Dunno dad, Rog does make a mean lasagna,” the damn kid says and tries to sound casual about it, but the devil’s twinkle in his eyes betrays him.

”My own flesh and blood,” Mickey scowls, ”ey, you better think twice before coming to my house with this sorta high treason, Yevgeny Alan Milkovich, reasonable fucking cause for exile, that shit.”

Yevgeny puts a hand over his heart and the other up next to his face, eyes on the ceiling as he solemnly recites; ”I swear allegiance to camp Milkovich, all hail dad’s awesome lasagna may it reign supreme forever and ever, amen, inshallah, please and thank you.”

”Punk,” Mickey mutters and thinks it might yet turn out that he’s raising some kind of drama geek with this kid, because he sure as hell ain’t afraid to turn to theatrics when it pleases. In a split second Mickey sees a future of recitals and school production premiers, and can almost physically feel it changing him. If it turns out Yevgeny wants to do fucking musical theater, Mickey’s gonna be there and he’s gonna fucking like it. He thinks that every day of getting to know his son is like walking through door after door and finding each and every new room a pretty fucking pleasant surprise.

Yevgeny flashes him a wide smile and shakes his head, and Mickey is helpless to do anything else but grin back.

”What’s this?” Yevgeny diverts the attention from his borderline mutiny and picks up Ian’s reserved sign, flashing it at Mickey before studying it closer himself.

”It’s a reserved sign,” Mickey deadpans and resists the urge to poke his tongue out like he used to do when Yevgeny was small enough to think it was the funniest, naughtiest thing he’d even seen.

”Thanks dad, I can read,” Yevgeny sighs and rolls his eyes, ”but what’s it for?”

”It reserves the table,” Mickey’s grin is wide and pleased when his son groans and slumps back in his seat, brows furrowed as he traces the engraved letters with his fingertips.

”So annoying,” he mutters before he soldiers on, ”who’s it for? Not even Edna’s table has a sign on it.”

”That’s ’cause Edna’s ass is planted in that chair enough hours of the day to be her own reserved sign,” Mickey doesn’t bother lowering his voice, but shields his mouth like he’s talking shit and only wants Yevgeny to hear. Yevgeny smiles like he can’t help it and sneaks a peek at the old lady, who without missing a beat glares back at him over the edge of her paper, one pencilled in eyebrow raised in judgement.

’So much for poisonous Milkovich family traits,’ Mickey thinks when Yevgeny wordlessly meets Edna’s eyes and points at his father, ratting him out without a cloud of doubt before sinking back in his seat again, presumably to get out of her line of sight. Edna shifts her heavy gaze to Mickey and Mickey can tell there’s a hint of a smile hiding behind the newspaper, the slight crinkling of her left eye a dead giveaway. Her one soft spot has always been Yevgeny, the closest thing she’s got to a grandchild. She probably wouldn’t admit as much if you asked her, though.

Mickey uncrosses his arms and leans forward, elbows on the table, and scratches absentmindedly at the hairs behind his ear, buzzed short just the other day. Yevgeny likes to do it for him, saving him the cost of a professional cut and getting him a result infinitely more even than he would if he done it himself. There has been one or two botched jobs over the years, but more often than not it’s a clear win.

”It’s Ian’s,” he tells Yevgeny and is a little surprised at himself. Not because it means anything either way, but the sign has been this private joke so far and he never really expected to be asked about it. It feels oddly personal and, saying it out loud, unexpectedly meaningful.

Yevgeny frowns and looks down at the sign again. ”Really?”

”Yeah, really,” Mickey shrugs, ”you know… tall, pale fuck. Ginger. Not a big fan of 3D, apparently.”

His eye roll worthy daditude is obviously firing on all cylinders today, and Yevgeny’s exasperation seems to reach new heights.

”I know who he is, dad,” he says, the ’duh’ very much implied, and puts the sign back on the table, ”but he’s been in here like twice.”

Mickey hitches up his eyebrows real high and gives his son a pointed look. ”Yeah, alright, Mr Center-of-the-fucking-Universe. You know this is a fully operational diner even when you’re not around, right? Red does the morning shift, usually, when you’re too busy educatin’ yourself to hang out here.”

”Yeah, but,” Yevgeny sounds far from convinced, scrambling for an argument, ”like, Thin Santa’s here all the time, for years, he’s got to be here more often. Why doesn’t he have a sign?”

Mickey had never thought of it like that, securing Ian’s table never was about that. It was never really a joke either, come to think of it.

”You seriously want Thin Santa around more than he already is?” Mickey circumvents the truth with a challenge, the old man is harmless enough and Mickey values his custom, or whatever, but he’s definitely got some off days when his BO is one ill-advised sniff away from biological warfare. Yevgeny’s worked the tables on enough days with the guy in the house to be well aware of the stink. ”That what you want?”

”Don’t be mean to Thin Santa,” Yevgeny frowns like he’s the parent reprimanding his child, because Mickey’s kid is nothing if not a little rebel and generally takes his school’s anti-bullying lectures to heart, ”and you and me always sit here, anyway, this is our table.”

”Oh, that’s what this is about,” Mickey tilts his head back a little with a satisfied smirk, ”I gave away one of your toys? You wanted the special treatment and the little sign, huh?”

”Well, I am your first and only son,” Yevgeny shrugs, ”and this will be my land, one day.”

”Everything the fluorescent light touches,” Mickey pontificates and gestures grandly with a hand to showcase the diner.

”Wow, all this?” Yevgeny says in pretend wonder before carrying on with his complaint, ”not if you’re gonna give it all away before I get the chance to us- use up-”

”Usurp.”

”Right,” Yevgeny throws up his hands in mock frustration, ”not if you keep giving tables away willy nilly, I won’t.”

Mickey raises his eyebrows at his choice of words, and Yevgeny mimics the gesture perfectly. Does a father proud, that shit. Kid’s got the eyebrow game down pat, and if Mickey never taught him anything useful at least he did him right on that front.

”It’s not like you’ve been banished or whatever, you still get to sit here, don’t ya?” Mickey argues and nods wisely when Yevgeny shrugs. ”And Ian’s been generous as fuck with his rightfully reserved space, lettin’ you invade as you please and bein’ real graceful about it.”

Yevgeny grins wide and doesn’t seem to have a comeback, all pretense of being upset falling away. Mickey’s loath to break Ian’s confidence, but he thinks his kid should take every chance he gets to understand things that may be difficult and complicated and maybe too adult, or whatever, but are part of life same as everything else. No one ever encouraged Mickey to try and understand this stuff, when he was a kid.

”When Ian started coming here,” he starts and frowns at himself for hesitating, ”he wasn’t doing too good.”

Finally getting a real answer Yevgeny looks at him so earnestly that Mickey can’t help wincing; at what he’s about to say, at his own serious tone of voice.

”I didn’t know him then, but, you know,” he looks out the window and gestures vaguely with his hand, sucking at his teeth before turning back to his son, ”guy looked like he could use a place to go, like, a home away from home kinda thing. ”

”Is he sick?” Yevgeny asks, eyes big and concerned.

”No, Yev, no, he’s-,” Mickey swallows and tries again, tries to sound reassuring, ”he’s got something called bipolar. It’s a mental disorder, kinda fucks with your mood, with your mind.”

Maybe he should’ve let Ian explain this. Maybe Ian’s gonna take Mickey’s absolute honesty with his son as a betrayal of his confidence. He shakes that thought off soon as it arrives, he can’t believe Ian would have a problem with this.

”So he came in here, looking like a-,” he catches himself right before ’strung out homeless junkie’, ”like a kicked puppy, right? And thing is that sometimes people struggle with shit you can’t see on the outside, but they live with it, and deal with it.”

Yevgeny frowns. ”Is he gonna be okay?”

”Yeah, kid, he is okay,” Mickey nods, unable to keep himself from simplifying this part of it, just a little, ”it’s just something he’s been dealt and it’s fine. It shouldn’t change anything on our end, alright? How we see him or treat him.”

Yevgeny mirrors his nod, but still looks concerned.

”Look,” Mickey sighs, ”I know you think he’s Captain Awesome, or whatever, and I’m not sayin’ he ain’t. But sometimes even the strong ones get down and need a little help, ’s all this thing should be far as we’re concerned.”

”Like you with the new couch,” Yevgeny grins.

”Like me with that fucking couch,” Mickey agrees with a groan, happy not to labour the point he’s trying to make, fucking normalize it to some extent by going with Yevgeny’s random, but oddly fitting, comparison, ”fucking Superman would’ve needed to call in backup gettin’ that heavy-ass thing up 3 floors.”

Yevgeny makes a doubtful face at that. ”I don’t think Superman would’ve called Uncle Iggs, though.”

”Probably not his first choice,” Mickey admits with a grin and twists around in his seat when he hears the doorbell chime. José is standing with his back to the diner, halfway through the door, shouting pleasantries at someone across the street. Mickey immediately feels the diner drop a couple degrees in temperature.

”Crap or get off the pot!” he calls out to the delivery boy and gets up from his seat, José shooting him a friendly smile over his shoulder before readjusting the bulky cooler in his arms and stepping all the way into the diner, door finally clattering close behind him.

Mickey turns back around while José takes the time to de-snow himself by the door, and looks down at Yevgeny who’s already rummaging through his bag to no doubt reunite with his tablet.

”Hey,” he says to get his kid’s attention for a second before he disappears back into whatever cupcake candy nonsense he’s got going on that thing, ”you don’t worry about Ian, okay?”

Yevgeny looks up and nods like he’s on a mission. ”Okay.”

”Good,” Mickey takes a step closer and cards a hand through his son’s hair, ignoring the embarrassed wincing when he bends down and plants a light kiss on his head, ruffling his hair and causing him to smile despite looking like he’s really trying not to when Mickey straightens back up, gently pushing away against the side of his face, ”besides, he’s got like a million siblings lookin’ after him, helping him carry his couches, alright?"

”And he’s got you,” Yevgeny says like it’s a fact. One Mickey really can’t dispute.

”And he’s got me,” he mumbles to himself, because Yevgeny’s already moved on, his focus once more entirely on his tablet.

Turning back around he sees José making his way through the diner with a big smile on his face, so Mickey leans back against the partitioner between Ian’s booth and the next and folds his arms across his chest, giving the guy a small nod in greeting.

”The fuck, man?” he says and feels his face fall into a comfortable scowl, ”I talked to Dante about this on Monday, that’s two fucking days ago.”

”This isn’t a delivery,” José positively beams and stops a few feet away to set his cooler down on a nearby empty table, ”just here to spread some delicious seasonal joy.”

Mickey can’t help taking a curious step forward when José opens the lid and lifts out a nice-looking cherry pie.

”Sure fucking looks like a delivery,” he points out as he reluctantly accepts the complementary pastry.

”Feliz Navidad,” José chuckles, obviously not taking no for an answer, ”it’s your favorite.”

”Feliz Navidad, huh?” Mickey repeats and looks from the pie in his hands to José’s expectant face. ”And what the fuck do you know about my favorites?”

José scoffs and gives him a look, as though 5 minutes of bare minimum pleasantries a day for 6 months somehow’s made him privy to Mickey’s innermost thoughts and feelings. ”I see that hunger in your eyes on Wednesdays, Goloso, and it sure isn’t the potato-leek calling your name.”

Mickey tilts his head in slight admittance, because the kid ain’t exactly wrong. José grins like he won something and starts packing his cooler back up.

”Got nothing for you,” Mickey decides to be upfront, ”unless you want a fucking sandwich or something. Cup of coffee on the house?”

José laughs. ”This look of humble gratitude and joy on your face is gift enough for me.”

Mickey rolls his eyes.

”Wait here,” he mutters as he walks past him, striding over to the counter to set down the pie in his little preparation area. This beauty is not going in the display for just anyone to come in and have at, no way. He crouches down to rifle through a box stashed under the counter, pretty sure he saw a half-empty pack of envelopes there the other day.

”Hey Yevy,” he hears José try to make conversation, because of course he does.

”Hey.” Yevgeny’s voice is low and a little brittle.

”How’s school?” José doesn’t seem to mind Yevgeny’s reluctant response. ”Lia giving you grief still?”

Mickey frowns and finds a loose envelope, stuck to the side of the box. He picks himself up and absentmindedly presses it against his thigh with his palm, trying to flatten out some unattractive creasing. He glances over at Yevgeny and José before turning around.

”No,” Yevgeny replies uncertainly and Mickey tells himself to remember to ask who this Lia person is, later, and what kinda grief she’s been giving his son.

”You having a nice Christmas so far?” José carries on and Yevgeny’s reply is either too quiet for Mickey to catch, or maybe he’s just nodding. ”Is that a new iPad?”

Mickey opens the register with a loud ding and clattering of coins, almost cutting off the end of José’s sentence. He grabs a couple of bills and stuffs them in the envelope, sealing it up as he shoves the till close with his hip. For a Christmas tip it’s definitely on the measly side, but he doesn’t have much of a margin to work with ever, and especially not this year what with their decision to close the place down for a couple of extra days over the holidays.

”Mom’s boyfriend gave it to me,” Yevgeny says as Mickey rounds the counter and walks towards them.

”No shit?” José approves. ”Upside to divorce, right?”

”That and getting divorced,” Mickey agrees as he joins them, the split second of worry that he might have stepped his foot in it disappearing from José’s face with Mickey’s dry comment.

”Right,” he says with a knowing grin, and Mickey scowls just to keep from smacking himself over the head. His and Svetlana’s mutually celebrated divorce is a fact, but he also knows what he sounds like to people who don’t really know him when he passingly refers to it like this. He sounds like one of those douchey straight guys who hate women but for some reason keep marrying them. Whatever, misconceptions like that come with the territory of having an overbearing sense of privacy, and not giving a flying fuck what anyone else might think of him and his business helps too.

Whatever urge Mickey’s got to explain himself has always been weak and easily ignored. He holds out the envelope, but quickly snatches it just out of reach when José tries to accept it.

”Dante does not see a dime of this, got that?” he warns, narrowing his eyes at José’s patient smile. ”I pay that muffin man more than enough already, this is for you.”

He holds out the envelope again and lets José take it this time.

”Got it, Mickey,” he says and nods his head a fraction in gratitude. He pockets the envelope without opening it and grabs his cooler as he steps backwards towards the door. ”Happy holidays everybody. Yevy, stay cool little man.”

Mickey says nothing but folds his arms over his chest and glances down at Yevgeny over his shoulder.

”Merry Christmas, Jo,” Yevgeny smiles and lifts his hand in a small wave. José grins and winks at him before he turns around, shouting out a loud greeting for the benefit of Etch still in the kitchen, and waits for a beat by the door until the cook sticks his head out through the hatch with a cheerful ’happy holidays’ and a thumbs up.

Mickey turns all the way around as the bell chimes and the door clatters behind him. He sits back down in Ian’s seat and carefully examines Yevgeny’s focused features, lit up slightly by the screen back in his hands.

”So,” he says and probably fails to sound casual, ”who’s Lia?”

Yevgeny frowns a little but doesn’t look up. ”You know who she is.”

”Would I ask if I did?” Mickey argues, a little tersely. ”Humor me.”

”Jo’s sister,” Yevgeny makes a face when something apparently doesn’t go his way, fingers tapping gently over the screen, ”Evelia? She’s in the year above me.”

”She’s been giving you trouble?”

”She gives everyone trouble,” Yevgeny says dismissively, furrowing his brows in concentration, ”she’s just loud.”

”And she’s my pie guy’s little sister?” Mickey tries to piece together some kind of complete picture, even though he doesn’t care at all about any of this beyond ’who’s hurting my kid?’ and ’what can I do about it?’.

Yevgeny smiles faintly, eyes roaming the screen. ”Yeah.”

Expecting a little more than that, Mickey presses his lips together and sits back, settles in with his arms across his chest. When Yevgeny seems to pick up on his pointed silence and spares him a quick glance, Mickey arches his eyebrows some and eyes his son’s tablet with purpose. Yevgeny huffs but takes the hint and pauses the game to push the device aside.

”You met the Carreras at the barbecue last summer,” he reminds him and grins when Mickey gives him his best ’the fuck?’ face, ”José’s parents, they all live like a block away from mom’s.”

”I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask for the whole family history,” Mickey tries to move things along, ”just tell me if I gotta punch someone.”

”Dad!” Yevgeny sounds a little shocked, even though he’s well aware that Mickey’s violent brand of problem solving is mostly empty threats these days. ”It was over a year ago, anyway, and she was just being stupid, it was no big deal. José was still a senior then and I think he must’ve talked to her, she’s better now.”

”My pie guy went to your school?” Mickey doesn’t bother asking why he didn’t know about any of this, the answer is always the same. It’s not that he doesn’t care enough to properly pick up on these things, but he also really doesn’t care.

”Before he was your pie guy he was a normal boy,” Yevgeny reminds him, tone careful and teasing, ”and yeah, they all do. Jo, Lia, Dani, AJ’s in my year, sits behind me in English. Something you would’ve known if you’d actually talked to Mrs Carrera instead of gnawing ribs and shotgunning beers.”

”I was not shotgunning anything, I -,” Mickey huffs at Yevgeny’s wide grin, he doubts the kid even knows what the expression really means, ”I was enjoying the food and casually downed one or two cold ones like any card-carrying, star-spangled, born-on-the-fourth-of-July American would. So what if I wasn’t socializing like some housewife, it’s a barbecue, not a fucking AA meeting.”

”People talk about their kids’ school dramas at AA meetings?” Yevgeny’s got that genuinely curious tone now that Mickey kinda loves, when his kid doesn’t worry about looking stupid for not knowing and just expects Mickey to tell him the truth.

”Guess not,” Mickey admits, ”but they share, don’t they? Not my thing, ’case you forgot.”

”You share with me,” Yevgeny points out, looking at little pleased with that fact.

”Sure,” Mickey quirks an unimpressed eyebrow, ”but I live with you, so I don’t think that counts. Gotta talk about something, right?”

”So you’d tell Mrs Carrera all your heart’s secrets if she was, like, your roommate?” Yevgeny proposes conversationally.

”Exactly,” Mickey hums, ”we’d be eatin’ ice-cream and gossip like two queens, every night.”

Yevgeny glances at him skeptically. ”You’re in a weird mood today.”

Mickey is usually good at leaving his son alone; they can spend hours in comfortable silence together with Yevgeny’s nose in a textbook or a novel, or with things progressing as they are; his tablet, and Mickey channel surfing or reading a newspaper, or tidying their small apartment and lazily cooking something up for them to eat, or stealing Yevgeny’s book and displacing his bookmark when he gets caught up in the YA fantasy page turners the kid usually reads. So Mickey is starting to suspect that he’s trying to distract himself today, sparking up random conversation with his son over and over again since they opened up the diner this morning and Mickey had his transformative first cup of coffee. It might have a little something to do with this dumb-ass thought that keeps pushing its way through his emotional Maginot Line whenever he thinks about the impending holiday break, and it’s no Ian. That’s it, that’s all it is, but it kinda feels like the tip of a really massive iceberg just waiting to tear a big fat hole in his metaphorical hull.

”I think I’m being my usual charming self,” he says with all the lazy conviction he can muster, ”how about you, huh?”

Yevgeny’s casual smile falters a little. ”What about me?”

”I heard you talkin’ to José,” Mickey tries to prompt, he’d really prefer to let the kid come to him on his own volition if there’s ever something bothering him. This situation of having to prod and pry is still relatively new and pretty awkward for both of them.

”So?” Yevgeny sits back and eyes his tablet like it’s a lifeline. ”What did I say?”

”Not much,” Mickey says, scratching lightly behind his ear before gesturing vaguely in the air next to his face, ”kinda the point I’m tryin’ to make here.”

Yevgeny groans and pouts like he’s five and Mickey just told him he couldn’t have another lolly. It’s not particularly cute.

”What?” He frowns, and tries in vain to get his son to meet his searching gaze. ”The fuck did I say now?”

”I’m not stupid,” Yevgeny mutters and sullenly crosses his arms, still refusing to look at Mickey.

”Did I say that?” Mickey challenges with a fair amount of incredulity tinting his voice. ”I’m just sayin’ that you used to talk circles around whoever had enough patience to listen, and now you barely say two words to anyone who isn’t your mom or me. Or Marcus. Maybe Etch if he gets ya riled up enough.”

Yevgeny lets his gaze fall down, like there’s something severely interesting about his knees. He looks really small, all of a sudden, and Mickey feels himself soften entirely.

”Hey, ain’t complainin’,” he says, ”alright?”

Yevgeny nods, but the doubtful twist of his mouth tells a different tale.

”Guessin’ there’s gonna be a lot of ’he’s a smart kid, but too quiet’ next time I get the pleasure of talking to Miss Atwood, huh?” Mickey predicts with a smirk, blooming into a friendly scowl when Yevgeny glances at him through his eyelashes, ”can tell you right now where I think she can put that load of crap, man.”

”Yeah?”

”Yeah,” Mickey raises his eyebrows meaningfully when Yevgeny finally tilts his head back up and looks more like himself again, ”yeah, don’t worry about that shit. You got something to say, say it, you got nothing to say, be quiet. Ain’t nobody’s fucking business but your own.”

Yevgeny sighs a little, like getting the pep talk is only moderately better than the lecture. But a vague sideways smile betrays him.

”Just keep me in the loop, alright?” Mickey tries, and then mimics his son’s quick eye roll. ”Yeah, alright, I get it. I’m done, it’s fine.”

He twists in his seat and looks over his shoulder when the door jingles, the lady previously sat at table 2 gives him a bit of a wave before stepping outside, pausing there for a moment to wrap her coat around herself more soundly against the whipping snowy wind. He curses under his breath and glances at Yevgeny, who’s yet again lost to the analogue world, before he heaves himself out of their booth. He’s not used to sitting with his back to the diner, and must’ve missed any and all attempts of hers to get his attention. She’s left enough money on the table to cover her bill, however, as well as a small tip, so chances are she wasn’t too upset about Mickey forgetting her.

He frowns at himself as he practices some DIY mindfulness and lets go of his introspective annoyance (fucking forget about it, it’s done, it’s fine) and secures the money down his apron pocket. He stacks up her dishes and wipes his hand across the table once or twice, brushing off the few crumbs into his other hand and gathering them on the empty plate. Seeing as the diner is empty now, save for staff and family, he takes a detour on his way to the kitchen and flips the sign on the door.

”Officially closed for the holidays,” he informs Etch as he steps into the kitchen.

”About time,” Etch hums and moves his lanky legs out of the way when Mickey tries to get past him and to the dishwasher. He carefully folds a page down to mark his spot and sets the book aside to watch Mickey stack dishes.

”You could help,” Mickey suggests with a quick glare over his shoulder, smirking a little when Etch smiles sweetly but doesn’t move.

”Mandy’s gonna be in town today, huh?” he asks instead, his rickety chair creaking as he settles in to more comfortably not help Mickey out. Mickey snorts and rinses off a half-eaten pancake from a plate before wedging it into the already packed machine.

”Yeah,” he sighs, but can’t help smiling a little at the thought, ”probably in the air as we speak. Fucking hitchhiked the whole way last time she came home.”

Etch chuckles lightly behind him. ”I remember.”

It’d probably been one of the first times Mickey’d really opened up with Etch, walking circles in the kitchen and cussing up a storm when Mandy had called him out of the blue from fucksville Pennsylvania just to tell him she was on her way in some stranger’s goddamned pickup. Mickey generally has the utmost confidence in Mandy’s ability to take care of herself, but that shit’s just asking for trouble. Take the fucking bus for fuck’s sake.

”You need to borrow the Professor’s car?” Etch asks, bringing Mickey back to the present. ”Pick her up?”

”Fuck no,” Mickey scoffs, ”I can tolerate her staying at mine but there will be no fucking taxiing to and fro the damn airport.”

”Just offering,” Etch doesn’t sound upset by Mickey’s unnecessarily harsh tone, ”don’t want her hitching a ride with just anyone, do you?”

”Nah, she’s got it covered,” Mickey assures him, readjusting a couple of stray plates before closing the lid on the machine, locking it shut, ”pretty sure she’s got Iggs signed up to chauffeur her around all week. He’s the one with the car and a much harder time tellin’ her to fuck off.”

He hits the button and turns around to lean against the bulky machine, feels it vibrate behind him as the water starts sloshing through it.

”Like you’re any better,” Etch says and grins once he’s got Mickey’s full attention.

”Lifetime of practice, I never give in or agree with her on anything as a principle,” Mickey crosses his arms and casually raises his voice a little when the washer kicks it up a notch, ”she packs a decent punch, and she’s deadly with a stick, but I haven’t lost a fight to her yet, so.”

”How did we go from principled disagreements to fistfights?” Etch seems to be a little taken aback by the sudden turn of the conversation. Mickey’s met his two sisters, briefly, and guess he can see how the thought of physically fighting either of them would be a stretch; one wafer thin with a dash of mysophobia, the other shorter, kinda soft around the edges, and one spontaneous song and dance number away from actually being a cartoon character.

”You never punched Farrah in the boob?” he asks and grins wider when Etch winces and rubs at his chest.

”Jesus, I’m suddenly very thankful for my passive-aggressive family,” he says, ”no, I never punched my sisters anywhere. That’s really pretty bad, man.”

”You don’t wanna know where she’d just kicked me,” Mickey casually defends his stupid teenage self, arching his eyebrows at the painful memory.

”I’m sure you could have sucked it up and not punched a girl in the boob,” Etch argues, the pitch of his voice climbing higher with every word, ”kicked nards or not.”

”Uh-uh, that ’don’t hit girls’ crap doesn’t fly with my sister,” Mickey doesn’t even try to hide the obvious pride in his voice, ”and you don’t know my sister until you’ve fought my sister.”

Etch seems to already be letting go of his shocked outrage, he always does eventually when it comes to Mickey and some of his more fucked up stories. ”And you don’t know my sister until your cinnamon bun stuffed kid has projectile vomited all over my sister, and her pristine living room.”

”Think I’d prefer a kick to the balls,” Mickey winces and laughs when Etch widens his eyes and nods enthusiastically.

”No kidding,” he chuckles and grins as he suddenly turns his head, ”hey, look who’s here!”

”Etch,” Ian greets him from the door, ”hey Mick.”

Mickey’s face almost hurts he’s smiling so wide when he turns to lean his shoulder against the dishwasher and sees Ian standing in the doorway, the soft winter light of the diner framing him like some goddamned full-body halo.

”Hey man,” he says with a small nod, squeezing his arms closer to his chest for a second in an effort to force his smile down a little, ”when did you get here?”

”Just now,” Ian shrugs and lightly leans a shoulder against the door frame, ”couple of minutes.”

”Uh-huh, and the sign on the door sayin’ ’closed’ didn’t, like, deter at all?” Mickey tries and fails to sound like he really disapproves.

”Your son took pity and waved me in,” Ian says and raises his free shoulder in a lopsided shrug, ”should really lock the door if you don’t want company.”

”Pretty sure Yev still would’ve let you in,” Mickey mutters under his breath, but judging by Ian’s pleased smirk it doesn’t go by unheard.

”He sent me to tell you he’s hungry,” Ian says and looks up at the ceiling like he’s trying really hard to remember, ”and that he doesn’t want anything with tomatoes in it, please, even though they’re gonna go bad soon.”

”But they are!” Etch exclaims with excessive passion, gesturing pointlessly towards the fridge.

”Don’t know what to tell you,” Ian sighs, ”got my orders, they’re very clear.”

Mickey rolls his eyes and pushes off the dishwasher to walk towards Ian and the diner. ”Make a salad or something if they’re gonna go bad,” he tells Etch, ”sure one of us will eat it.”

He eyes Ian meaningfully and the guy looks like he agrees for all but two seconds, then he frowns.

”I don’t-,” he says and swallows when Mickey gets so close the guy almost goes crosseyed, but still isn’t moving out of the way. Mickey’s nearly managed to squeeze past him and through the doorway when he finally seems to snap out of it and flattens his back against the frame to leave better passage.

”You don’t have to, um-,” he tries again to stupidly turn down the unspoken invitation, while Mickey walks in behind the counter and starts counting out plates. Mickey glances over his shoulder to see him carefully lean against the doorway once more, back to the kitchen this time and eyes on Mickey.

”You’re here, we’re having lunch, it’s on the house,” Mickey more or less declares and puts the stack of clean plates up on the counter, ”don’t argue.”

Ian holds his hands up in defeat and crosses his arms in a vaguely uncomfortable way, eyes following Mickey’s movements warily as he moves around the cramped area behind the counter, turning his back to the diner to unwrap José’s cherry pie from its saran prison.

”Alright,” Ian says and fuck it if that cocky little smirk isn’t back when Mickey glances at him, ”tell me what to do.”

”You could lock the door,” Mickey suggests, balling up the plastic wrap to throw it in the trash, ”sein’ as the sign seems to be malfunctioning.”

Ian huffs and Mickey catches a glimpse of his soft smile before he walks off. Mickey does absolutely not smile to himself, at all, as he grabs a larger plate and carefully slides the pie onto it, turning around to place it on the display right in time to see Ian coming back towards him. He picks up his eyebrows in silent question and holds the plate further out over the display instead of setting it down. Ian lengthens his stride for the last couple of steps to reach him insignificantly quicker than he would have, and takes the pie with both hands. Eyes on the pie he maneuvers it to one hand and carefully grabs the awaiting stack of empty plates with the other.

Mickey watches him walk away, Ian raising his pie-hand up in the air in celebration when Yevgeny cheers at his approach, and he could pretend he’s worried the guy’s gonna fumble and drop something, or whatever, but that’s not it. Not even close. Ian’s washed out jeans are equal parts snug and loose, hugging his legs like they couldn’t care less if Mickey was staring or not. His t-shirt is a pale blue, maybe the one he’s worn before with the logo on the front that Mickey doesn’t recognize, or maybe it’s just a pain tee, it doesn’t really matter. The diner is in no way freezing or anything, but it’s cold as fuck outside and Mickey barely takes off his fugly winter sweater to shower or sleep these days, and it’s pretty much a permanent fixture at work. It’s his very best friend when the temperature starts dropping, and while he knows it’s not particularly fetching or what the fuck ever, it’s pretty much comfort above all else as far as he’s concerned. Ian comes in the diner and on more days than not his hoodies and sweaters end up piled up next to him on his seat, along with his coat. It’s fine. You got hot blood, you got hot blood; good for you. Mickey’s not gonna be the idiot telling this guy to put his clothes back on.

And Mickey’s not some kinda fashionista, when it comes to guys he usually prefers them better out of their clothes than in, if the purpose is to get him going. But this, he can admit, tearing his eyes off Ian’s retreating back to sniff and pick out five forks from the utensil drawer, this he likes. Casual, no-nonsense, complimentary as fuck. And maybe it helps that the guy wearing the clothes looks the way he looks. Is who he is.

It’s Ian, he reminds himself and unceremoniously sticks the stack of forks in his back pocket, grabbing the bowl of tomato-laden salad Etch places for him in the hatch with one hand and the now full coffeepot in the other. It’s such a deeply set habit he doesn’t even realize that he’s doing it until Etch is sauntering out from the kitchen and getting in his way.

”Ey,” he says and sticks the bowl out to effectively stop Etch in his track, ”take this.”

Etch hums and grabs the bowl, he probably stuck it in the window on autopilot anyway, and whistles happily as he walks through the diner, Mickey picking up his trail. He stops by Edna’s table to refill her almost empty cup while Etch delivers his salad to noisy protests and then goes to find himself a chair.

”We’re closed,” Mickey reports, ”I’ll do the books later and then we’ll be outta your way by 3.”

”Yep,” Edna doesn’t look up from her paper. Mickey silently notes that she’s doing the crossword, so one worded replies are most likely the best he’s gonna get right now. She’d flat out refused the idea to close the place down for the holidays when it was first brought up, she doesn’t take days off, even though she technically doesn’t do all that much work anymore. She eventually gave in though, reluctantly, and only after Mickey had bullied her into accepting his invitation to dinner on Christmas Day when Svetlana’s back from Boston. She likes Svetlana, that much is obvious even to someone who isn’t paying attention, as is Mickey’s wont. She still remains unconvinced about the 28th, however.

”Pie?” Mickey asks, and interprets her soft grunt as a ’yes’. Ian’s plating up a piece for Yevgeny when Mickey comes up next to Etch, who’s taken a seat in the chair he’s pulled up to the end of the table.

”You’re not having any?” Yevgeny asks as he takes his plate back and Ian forgoes his own in order to transfer the next piece to the odd plate out.

”Sure,” Ian says and without asking offers the piece to Mickey, who trades it for the forks from his back pocket and a small nod, ”just gonna have some of Etch’s tomato salad first, I think.”

”It’s just ’salad’,” Etch insists defensively. Mickey eyes the overwhelmingly red salad bowl and quickly meets Yevgeny’s eyes before he turns around to get Edna her piece.

”Think there’s gotta be green in it to make a salad,” Yevgeny titters behind him. Mickey tunes out their bickering as it turns botanical, judging by the pitch of Etch’s voice they’re probably about two steps away from arguing over the difference between fruit and vegetables, and whether or not bananas are berries. It somehow always gets out of hand, that particular conversation, and he’s not ever entirely sure why.

”Don’t forget about dinner on the 28th,” he reminds Edna as he delivers her piece of pie, she pauses her word-puzzling long enough to eye the plate and then Mickey, and her intense scrutiny would be unsettling if he wasn’t so used to it by now, ”we’ll set you up with your own little table in a corner if that’ll make you more comfortable.”

He smirks with childish pride when she cooly flips him off.

”I’m taking that as a yes,” he says and gently taps his knuckles against her table.

”You do that,” she sighs and shakes her head as she pulls her piece of pie closer and disappears behind her paper.

”Don’t care what your science says,” Etch argues intelligently when Mickey returns to their table, ”it still doesn’t make any sense.”

Yevgeny scoffs but doesn’t counter, distracted when Mickey shoos at him to move over in his seat. He carefully places his backpack on the floor and scoots closer to the window, taking his half-eaten pie with him. Mickey sits down, purposefully bumping shoulders with his son, and immediately grabs himself a fork to have at his own piece. He meets Ian’s eyes across the table as he looks up, and hums and smirks at him through his pleased chewing.

”Mickey tells me I need to ask you about how you met your wife,” Ian says and turns to Etch, who looks genuinely surprised at that.

”He does, does he?” He asks with a delighted grin and Mickey shrugs, too busy eating to bother arguing with what’s technically true anyway. ”Too right, it’s something of a post-modern Cinderella story.”

Yevgeny is already going for a seconds, digging into the remaining half of the pie.

”Make sure to save some for Ian,” Mickey quietly reminds him, completely unnecessarily judging by Yevgeny’s decidedly teenaged ’yes dad’.

”Everybody settled?” Etch asks with a pointed look at Mickey, who holds up a hand and goes back to eating, hunching over his plate. ”Good. The story begins one fated eve, seven years ago. Our young, handsome hero is fresh off the bus from Rockford, Illinois, working part time for a catering company to pay for his new glitzy lifestyle in the big city.”

Mickey looks up from his pie and his eyes kinda stick to the side of Ian’s face. Ian stretches across the table to stab at the salad and skewer a couple of halved cherry tomatoes to his fork, face open and curious after Etch’s initial pitch.

”On this particular evening, however, our hero has the night off,” Etch continues, waving his fork around for emphasis and completely neglecting his food in the process, ”and was looking forward to playing video games in his underwear, since his two stoner roommates where elsewhere for once, somehow having scored tickets to a Cypress Hill cover jam.”

Mickey shrugs when Ian raises his eyebrows and glances at him.

”Different times,” Etch dismisses the unspoken question.

”Seven years,” Mickey mutters, in case Ian needs reminding, and hides his pleased smirk behind another mouthful of pie when Ian presses his lips together and turns his attention back to Etch, trying not to laugh.

”Stoners,” Etch reiterates as only explanation, which Mickey has to admit is fair enough, ”however plans were changed when our hero’s incompetent boss called him last minute to get him to cover for three of his useless co-workers who’d all separately decided they didn’t wanna work and made up really dumb, transparent reasons for not being able to show up.”

”What did our hero do?” Ian asks and avoids Mickey’s warning glare, trying to tell him not to encourage what is already looking like it’s gonna take a while.

”Ah,” Etch pauses dramatically and hands over his plate to Yevgeny, ”heart chockablock with work ethic he rushed to the scene, eager to help out.”

”That an’ a wallet chockablock with nothing but lint,” Mickey ads, and passes Etch’s plate back to him once Yevgeny’s loaded it with a big piece of pie.

”Thank you,” Etch remembers his manners but ignores Mickey’s input, ”turns out, the Souperfly team had been hired to cater this black tie event at the University of Chicago.”

”I’m sorry,” Ian interjects, ”Superfly?”

”Soup,” Etch enunciates, ”Souperfly, yeah, no joke. A terrible pun and a terrible name befitting a pretty terrible business, one which mere weeks later would face bankruptcy and thus leave our hero unemployed and desperate. But that’s jumping ahead.”

”Wouldn’t want that,” Mickey mutters and purposefully doesn’t meet Ian’s eyes when the guy looks at him with that soft, crooked smile of his.

”May 4th,” Etch continues, undeterred, ”2008. 7:45 PM. Our hero arrives at the University, and while he may be late for work due to being called in last minute and the bus getting stuck in traffic, he’s just in time for his date… with destiny.”

It’s not easy, but Mickey eats his pie and holds his tongue.

”And there, standing by the gates arguing wildly with one of the guards; a vision in black corduroy,” Etch turns his gaze heavenward, amping up the theatrics, ”there she was. Ruth Maisie Robinson, doctoral candidate, currently writing a thesis on feminism in early exploitation cinema and getting a little carried away in her efforts to get the guard to ease up and let her in.”

”She party crashing or something?” Ian sounds confused and Mickey doesn’t blame him.

”She’s not dolled up properly, or whatever,” Mickey is quick to explain before Etch launches into what’s sure to be excruciating detail, ”dress code.”

”Right, black tie,” Etch points at Mickey with his fork, ”and like a gentleman, I stuck my big nose right in there and ended up giving her the black tie from my uniform to get her in on a technicality, because if your only argument is to repeat ’but ma’am, this is a black tie event’ you’re beggin’ to be taken literally and you only got yourself to blame. It was a great victory for us, although the guard was probably just really sick of arguing at that point, lettin’ us in so he wouldn’t have to deal with our crap anymore.”

”Then what happened?” Yevgeny asks, even though he very well knows what happened. Etch grins at him.

”Then she disappears,” he announces dramatically, wiggling his fingers in the air and making Yevgeny snort out a delighted laugh, ”one second we’re laughing and running inside, and the other I’m being shouted at by my boss, the evil King of Court Souperfly, and when I turn back around; she’s gone, lost in a sea of bearded academics. And I think; ’fuck’, right? ’I’m pretty sure that girl was the love of my life, and I didn’t even get her name’.”

Mickey serves himself another moderate slice of pie and sneaks a glance at Ian’s amused face.

”You did not think that,” he finally seems to question Etch’s bullshit, although he doesn’t sound all too certain in his objection, ”did you?”

”As God is my witness,” Etch swears and holds up his right hand.

Mickey scoffs and accidentally meets Ian’s eyes, the guy’s hesitant smile turning a shade more brilliant when he does.

”Like there’s a God alive that knows what’s going on in your head,” Mickey says, if only to distract himself, and rolls his eyes when Etch puts two fingers to his lips and then solemnly holds them up towards the ceiling, ”this rom-com sucker probably entertains ten different stupidly romantic thoughts like that before breakfast, on a slow day. Big fucking deal one of ’em happened to coincide with meeting some chick he’ll- and cover your ears ’cause fucking spoilers -’ve knocked up before the year is over.”

”It’s romantic,” Ian says with a grin, and when he lightly touches Etch on the shoulder it’s only a little devastating for Mickey to watch, ”Mick thinks so too, he told me.”

Etch has got something slightly dangerous in his eyes when he smirks at Mickey. ”I know.”

Mickey leaves the silent challenge hanging. There are a lot of things Etch could be telling Ian that Mickey rather sees he doesn’t. He wouldn’t, Mickey’s sure of it, but he’s also sure he’s not willing to test him on it over something as pointless as this.

”So you’ve met the love of your life,” Ian prompts, not looking like he notices Mickey’s uncharacteristically quick surrender, ”and now she’s gone.”

”And our hero is left to face the wrath of the evil king,” Etch dives right back in, gently nudging the toe of his shoe against the side of Mickey’s foot, his smile decidedly sweeter and decently reassuring when Mickey spares him a quick sideways glance, ”and man, the evil king is livid, because his best server kinda gave away his only tie and forgot to ask for it back and now the king has to banish said server to the kitchen to wash dishes and hide his shame.”

”This story has a lot of strict tie rules,” Yevgeny offers helpfully, because this is something that had confused him greatly when he’d first heard it.

”Could say it’s all tied up,” Ian quips back with a pleased quirk to his lips, but Mickey only shakes his head when the dork glances his way for approval. Yevgeny giggles like the sorry excuse for a pun actually had been funny.

Mickey can feel Etch’s heavy gaze on the side of his face, sees the cook’s knowing smile in his periphery as he busies himself with picking his plate clean, picking up crumbs one by one by wedging them in between the prongs of his fork.

”So Cinderella spends his night at the back of the house, hidden away,” Etch continues, ”and by the time all the canapés have been served and all the dishes have been washed, and our hero’s finally set free, all the guests have long since left the building.”

”You missed her,” Ian commiserates.

”I missed her,” Etch nods, ”and two weeks later I’m freshly fired from the inferno that once was Souperfly Catering, and I’m roaming the streets of Chicago looking for employment. And what do you know, it’s kismet. I stumble in here the exact same day their day cook is in a freak accident, breaking both her arms.”

Mickey doesn’t interrupt, because they’re so close to the end now and he doesn’t want to jinx it, but he easily catches Ian’s eye and kinda mimes two fingers walking down a staircase before tapping his left arm and holding up one finger. Because Sonya fell down some stairs and broke one arm, for fuck’s sake. Ian grins and rests his chin in his hand, and he looks at Mickey for a beat too long before turning back to Etch.

Up until now, Mickey has found this whole situation easy and naturally comfortable. One lingering look from this guy and he feels the whole dam buckling under the pressure of his unwanted goddamned feelings.

”And this is where I’m found,” Etch sighs happily, spreading his arms out, ”flipping burgers in the kitchen, when Ruth tracks me down through one of my old co-workers. This guy nearly kicks her out when she asks about me.”

Mickey snorts when Etch nods at him. ”Thought she was here to beat your ass, man. I’m no snitch.”

”She was giving back my tie,” Etch tells Ian with a sappy smile, ”and it fit just right so I asked her out, and that was that. For me anyway, the Professor claims she was still on the fence until our third date when we went to the movies and I somehow passed all her little tests.”

”No talking, no texting, no hobbies,” Yevgeny volunteers, ”and you stay seated until the credits are over.”

Etch taps his nose and points at Yevgeny, and Ian takes the opportunity to lock eyes with Mickey and mouth a perplexed ’hobbies?’. Mickey shrugs, because he bets Ruth has a lot to say on the subject, but fuck if he knows what.

”Wait,” Ian suddenly seems to think of something, frowning at Mickey like he’s trying to figure it out, ”so you were in the room when this happened?”

Mickey shrugs again. ”Where else would I be?”

”Just-,” Ian starts and crosses his arms, glancing sideways at Etch, ”you made it sound like this is a story Etch had to tell you, at some point. But you were there?”

Etch grins and nods at Mickey. ”Oh, we weren’t friends at the time. I’d only been here a couple of weeks and it took this one at least two years to say anything to me that wasn’t ’number 1, banana’, or ’said sunny side up, numbnuts, get a grip’.”

Mickey shakes his head but can’t help grinning a little. ”You did get a grip though, didn’t you?”

Etch winces like he isn’t too sure about that, but holds up his coffee cup in a quick gesture of gratitude before taking a sip.

”So yeah, I was there,” Mickey admits, ”but I wasn’t keeping tabs on the guy or anything. By the time we’ve got any kinda rapport goin’ he’s already married with two kids, and I gotta listen to his damn Cinderella story over and over. And I’m tellin’ you it gets longer and more annoying every time.”

”Everyone’s a critic,” Etch shrugs, ”but not everyone has an actual fairytale meet-cute lined up when asked about how they met their SO.”

”Uh-huh, and I bet Disney’s Cinderella had a director’s cut endin’ with a shotgun wedding,” Mickey comments drily, not missing Etch’s not-so-subtle jab at the origins of his own marriage. Etch would probably hesitate to joke if he knew the whole story, which honestly might be part of the reason why Mickey’s never gonna tell him.

”Lacking contraceptive integrity might’ve sped things up some,” Etch easily admits, clearly phrasing things as to keep Yevgeny in the dark, ”but whatever, no point wasting time when you know it’s right, right?”

”Mom and dad didn’t even know each other when they made me,” Yevgeny announces to the table and Mickey leans back in his seat, tilting his head and making a slight face of admittance as he eyes his son’s carefree expression, ”’m sure there was some pretty crappy contraceptive integrity going on there too.”

Yevgeny barely knows what he’s talking about, in terms of biology, but Etch should really have known better than to underestimate his vocabulary.

”Thank fuck for store-brand rubbers,” Mickey jokes, even though bad latex hardly is to blame for this one, and flashes a grin at his son who’s instantly looking a touch embarrassed.

”Scandalous,” Ian says and blinks knowingly when Mickey looks at him.

”Yeah, well,” Mickey sniffs and scratches at his left eyebrow, landing his other hand heavily on Yevgeny’s shoulder and shaking him slightly, playfully, until he lets out a stuttering laugh, ”not sure it’s something you need to sound so proud of, kid.”

Yevgeny shrugs and looks up at him. ”It’s what happened, isn’t it?”

It is what happened, and while Mickey isn’t exactly happy about it he could never get himself to be sad about it either. Confused, traumatized, overwhelmed, embarrassed, angry, sure, all of the above. But none of it ever had anything to do with Yevgeny. And what he’s got now is Yevgeny, and none of that shit matters. He hopes his kid feels the way he does now because he and Svetlana taught him to, taught him to not worry about it, and that he’ll never feel like he needs to dig any deeper; that he’ll never feel haunted by something that can’t be changed but also has no real bearing on his life. Mickey feels the familiar flash of anger and hopelessness at the thought, quickly overpowered by the relentless need to protect. He smiles weakly over the lump in his throat and gives Yevgeny’s shoulder a light squeeze. What the hell, where the fuck did this come from?

”Hey Yev,” Ian says, and it’s like Mickey can breathe again at his light tone, and at the shift of focus away from his split second internal fucking emotional breakdown, when Yevgeny looks across the table with an expectant smile, ”how was the movie, man?”

Mickey’s hand falls off his shoulder when Yevgeny slumps back in his seat, groaning loudly and slowly sinking down the worn vinyl. Mickey shoots Ian a grateful look, but suddenly isn’t so sure he even diverted the conversation away from Mickey’s unspoken past on purpose when he seems too busy grinning at Yevgeny to notice.

”Uuuuuuugh,” Yevgeny articulates further, head almost level with Mickey’s elbow at this point, and Ian laughs.

”Really?” he says and finally cuts himself a piece of pie while he grins at Yevgeny’s theatrics. Mickey’s been sitting on his damn thumbs for the last twenty minutes to keep himself from fussing and forcing the pastry on him like some clucking mother hen. ”’s that good or bad?”

”Sooo good,” Yevgeny groans, ”when-”

”No!” Ian protests quickly, ”don’t say anything!”

Yevgeny goes back to just groaning, and the whole display is ridiculous and pretty fucking charming, even though it really shouldn’t be.

”Yeah, alright,” Mickey mutters in an effort to make him stop, hiding his detrimental amusement behind his cup of coffee.

”And dad,” Ian asks, and now the guy looks at him, eyes fucking sparkling, ”what did dad think?”

Mickey sighs and closes his eyes, and shakes his head at the sound of Etch sniggering next to him.

”C’mon dad,” Yevgeny prompts as he excitedly slaps the back of his hand against Mickey’s shoulder, ”do the face.”

Mickey continues to shake his head and opens his eyes to level his son with a look he hopes is a firm ’no’, but probably ends up looking a lot more like ’anything for you, kid’. Whatever, so he’s not gonna win this one. Besides, the movie had been awesome.

So he grabs the edge of the table, vaguely registering that Yevgeny is mimicking his every move, and reels back in his seat with the exaggerated face of childish excitement and stupefied wonder he and Yevgeny had worked out as shorthand to express their feelings in the days following last week’s trip to the movies. He only holds the face for half a second though, because enough is fucking enough, and relaxes back into a blasé scowl as he points to his still reeling son for further reference.

”Aw man,” Ian puts down his fork for a quick one-man ovation, ”wanted to see the thing before, but now- I mean, that face. That can’t be bad, right?”

”Just go see it, man,” Mickey tells him, ”it’s fucking Star Wars, it’s good.”

”Alright,” Ian concedes and Mickey would lie if he said it didn’t do something to him when he does. It’s over a stupid, insignificant thing; but it looks a lot like trust.

”Alright,” Mickey echoes dumbly, but is mercifully saved from having to think of anything else to say when there’s a distinct buzzing coming from Ian’s coat. Ian mumbles a quick ’sorry’ and starts rifling through the bundled up fabric in search for his phone.

”Smoke,” Mickey mutters and gingerly grabs Yevgeny’s head to press a quick kiss to his temple before he puts one hand on the table and the other on his kid’s shoulder, pretending to put all his weight on him as he heaves himself out of the booth. He heads for the counter at first, but then reminds himself of the almost empty pack in his back pocket by absentmindedly patting himself on the ass, checking that it’s still there. So he changes course and heads straight for the door, regretting the decision to not get his coat the second he steps outside. He should’ve at least gone out back where the wind is more forgiving.

”Eh,” he dismisses his own thoughts and stays where he is, tapping out the single, sad-looking cigarette left in his banged up pack. It’s slightly crooked, he really needs to stop sitting on his smokes.

He puts it to his lips and lights it up, and for a second everything falls away; the cold, the snow, the commotion of cars and people up and down the street. The itch at the back of his mind. He slowly fills his lungs with smoke and breathes it out his nose, watches it billow down in front of him and disappear on the wind. Yevgeny has been trying to get him to stop, lately, and while that isn’t likely to happen Mickey tries not to smoke too much when the kid’s around. It’s not entirely easy.

The door jingles to his left, and Mickey throws a quick glance over his shoulder to see his son still sitting inside, in animated conversation with Etch. When he turns back Ian’s standing next to him, his pale hands zipping up his coat and his slightly narrowed eyes already on Mickey.

”Leaving?” Mickey asks, redundantly.

”Yeah, back to work,” Ian says and frowns a little, ”finally got their shit sorted and now they need me again.”

”Oh yeah?” Mickey asks, grinning slightly around his cigarette when Ian huffs.

”Yeah,” he says and picks up his chin just a little, defiantly, as he takes one, two steps closer. Mickey barely breathes but thinks he’s doing a pretty good job keeping his face in check when Ian reaches out and gingerly takes the goddamned cigarette right from his lips. He tries to think of something to say, ask about work, about holidays, about family. The only thing he can think of is the way Ian steps into his space and takes what he wants, and that it’s not the first time it’s happened.

”This is how it’s gonna be now?” He quirks an eyebrow when Ian puts the cigarette to his mouth and closes his eyes. ”I’m gonna need that back, ’s my last one.”

Ian breathes out, his crooked smile barely visible behind the white smoke. Then he takes the cigarette between his fingers again and holds it out between them, embers up. Mickey snorts but takes it back, holds on to it for a second, thumbing the side of it, before sicking it back between his lips and letting it dangle from his smirk. He tries not to think of the slight moisture on the filter, of Ian’s lips or tongue or fucking anything.

Ian looks like he’s about to say something, but moment after moment passes and he doesn’t. The silence is nice, though, as Ian watches Mickey smoke, and Mickey watches him exist.

”PSA,” Mickey breaks the silence, and for some reason it feels more awkward to finally say something than it would’ve been to just keep staring. He takes the cigarette to tap some ashes off to the side, and slowly runs the tip of his tongue along the inside of his teeth. ”Closing down for a couple of days.”

Mickey can swear there’s a slight dip in Ian’s smile, before it quirks right back up again.

”Then I guess I’ll see you on the other side,” he says and takes a step back, and it’s like the cold creeps back into the space between them and up Mickey’s back. He looks at Mickey expectantly, twisting a little this way and that like he’s reluctant to leave.

”Just fucking say it,” Mickey sighs, waving his hand impatiently, ”c’mon.”

”Nope,” Ian grins and takes a threatening step backwards, ”not saying anything unless you do.”

Mickey rolls his eyes and presses his lips together, takes a long, pointed drag off his cigarette and lets the curling smoke speak for him. Ian shrugs and takes another step back, and quirks an eyebrow as he slowly starts turning away.

”Merry fucking Christmas, asshole,” Mickey surrenders, almost desperately, and pairs the seasonal greeting with a middle finger just in case the profanity hadn’t been a sufficient buffer for the sincerity when Ian turns back around with that devastating smile of his. Mickey swallows and makes a point of not lowering his one-fingered salute.

Ian spreads out his arms and cocks his head to the side, still walking backwards and away from Mickey.

”A for effort,” he says and points at Mickey like he’s some kinda gameshow host, ”Merry Christmas, Mick.”

It sounds good, and Mickey can’t stop himself from smiling. He stands there like an idiot for a good while after his cigarette has died out, and his hands have gone numb from the cold, and Ian has left.

And he should be freezing but he really isn’t, blame the cigarettes or the season or the effect of Ian fucking Gallagher, but Mickey stands in the biting Chicago winter and he is just fine.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 26.
Saturday.

 

”Hold up,” Mickey mutters and stops right outside his building to pat himself down looking for his lighter, a cigarette already wedged between his lips and the door closing heavily behind him. Mandy huffs but stops and turns to wait him in all the same, that smug look of judgement on her face she’s been throwing his way the whole short week, whenever he’s been desperate enough to smoke in her sanctimonious presence. Ex-smokers are the fucking worst, like they’re somehow superhuman in comparison to his weak-minded ass, not being able to kick his habit at the drop of a hat.

Well, not all ex-smokers are the worst, Ian’s alright. Ian kinda looks at him like Mickey’s being the smart one for sticking with it, and even though that’s some prime bullshit right there, it’s still nice. Mandy looks at him with all the glee of a younger sister being better than her brother at something, like that’s such a big fucking feat.

”Can’t go two feet without lighting up, huh?” She judges him happily, with her judgmental face, just like he knew she would.

”Fuck off,” he mumbles around his cigarette as it finally catches the flame and he can suck in a lungful of smoke, pocketing his lighter and removing the cigarette so he can set her straight, holding it between two fingers as he points them at her, ”have you know I’ve been doing real fucking good.”

Fuck off,” she mimics, none too kindly, and falls into step with him when he takes off down the sidewalk, ”every second we’ve been outside this week, you’ve been sucking the things down like you’d die if you didn’t.”

Mickey inclines his head and catches his bottom lip with his teeth for a second before he sticks the cigarette back and takes another deep drag. ”Been cuttin’ down from almost a pack a day to a pack a week lately, so that’s how much you know I guess.”

Mandy scoffs and Mickey can see her glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.

”So maybe it’s been more like two or three packs this week,” he admits, not missing the irony of the smoke billowing out his mouth with the words as he’s trying to make his case, ”been a fucking nightmare having both you and Yev here full time, so what if I take my chances for some relief when they present themselves?”

”Gee, thanks,” Mandy scoffs, but sounds a little hurt all the same, ”real nice, assface.”

Mickey shrugs and then swerves his step just enough to bump his shoulder into Mandy’s, causing her to lose her steady stride for beat with the light impact. She’s wearing heels and he tries not to flinch whenever her feet hit the pavement, how chicks can walk in those things without having the noise alone drive them nuts is beyond him.

”Not like that,” he placates, even though he’s pretty sure she’s aware, and rolls his eyes in an effort to trivialize his complaint, ”tryna cut down when the kid’s around, is all, which makes for a situation when he ain’t got school and he stays at mine. And it’s not helping with you here, yammering on about how you quit cold turkey and how easy it is, Mick,” he waves his hands in mock hysterics, to put some life into his unflattering, high-pitched impression, ”you should try it. Bitch, I’m trying.”

He’s got a feeling he might just as well’ve been punched for it, but she laughs at him.

”Know you are, big bro,” she says lightly and then punches him in the shoulder anyway, hard, before she steals his cigarette right off his lips despite his best efforts to dodge her attack and swat away her hands. She smokes it down to the filter in 10 seconds flat, like it hasn’t been years since her last hit, and throws the still glowing butt over her shoulder as she turns to Mickey and grinning blows a big cloud of smoke into his scowling face.

He’s not surprised. He’s never once seen her hack or cough on any kind of smoke, not when she was eleven and helped him lift some off the Kash and Grab so he wouldn’t argue with her bumming off of him later, and not when she was fourteen and got into Iggy’s weed the first time, sharing it with Mickey in exchange for his silence when he found her guilty and giggling under the L. Would’ve been nice if she’d learned to buy her own, by now, but whatever.

He ignores her pointed snort when he digs out his pack and lights up another one, not really because he feels like he needs it but, childishly, because he’s not gonna let her force his filthy habits in one direction or another. He doesn’t like being told what to do, even if he’s perfectly aware that the thing he’s being told is right, and maybe he wanted to do it anyway.

”The fuck are we going?” Mandy complains, looking around the dark intersection as they stop for a red light. The street is almost eerily lit up, lined with dirty droves of week-old snow and the streetlights painting everything in a sickly yellow-orange. ”Are we heading for the diner right now?”

”Past it,” he confirms and starts walking when the last car has passed, ignoring the red man across the street, ”and just how fucking long have you been gone, Mandy, you used to live here.”

”Ten years ago!” she defends herself, glancing around at the buildings like she’s never seen them before. ”Lots of things change in ten years.”

”Like shit it does, everything’s exactly the same,” he argues, and leaves the cigarette between his lips to point at a couple of bums huddling together around a burning trashcan in the alley they’re passing, ”even Dirty Pete and the Hummers, they’re still in the same fucking alleyway, harassing people with their soul-crushing attempts at barbershop whenever they’re not tryna hustle you. Haven’t even introduced new songs to their repertoire.”

”Still butchering Baby Got Back?” Mandy sounds almost nostalgic.

”Mash it with SexyBack sometimes, so guess there’s your sign of progress,” he hums and hides his pleased grin with his hand, sucking at his cigarette, when Mandy cackles at the idea, ”though it sounds more like a sign of the apocalypse, you should be grateful you got out when you did.”

”Doubt the apocalypse is gonna be local to South Side when it comes,” she says and shrugs, like she can take it or leave it.

”Maybe not,” Mickey admits, muttering around the warm, tacky filter of his cigarette, stuck to his dry lips, ”hundred bucks it’s here it’ll start, though.”

Mandy says nothing but glances at him in a way that tells him she’s probably got a thing or two to say. She seems to decide against it, after a moment, and Mickey’s not likely to insist she speak her mind. She does that enough without hesitating, so shudder to think what’s on her mind when she does.

”That was not there when I lived here,” she suddenly accuses the hairdresser across the street, gesturing at it with her whole hand. Mickey sighs and shakes his head, smoke curling out in front of him like a lazy snake with the movement.

”Did you lay down the groundworks with the entire 6-pack in my fridge before we left, or what?” he asks and smirks when she looks decidedly guilty. ”Don’t know what to tell ya ’cept that place’s been there all the while you’ve been alive, for sure.”

Mandy grunts but doesn’t argue, which tells Mickey with fair certainty that she didn’t actually drink all his beer before they left his apartment, six bud Mandy never misses an opportunity to argue something she’s got all wrong. In fact, the more wrong she is, the more she will argue, until up is down and light is dark and her word is absolute, drunken law.

”Edna always cut my hair herself, when I lived with her,” she remembers with a soft little sideways smile.

”Doesn’t surprise me,” Mickey finishes off his cigarette and flicks it away on to the sidewalk a few feet in front of him so he can step on it and grind it into the slushy snow with the sole of his shoe without unnecessary pause, ”looked like it.”

”Like you know anything about style, I was fly as fuck,” she says and flips her hair, and he allows himself a split second to think he likes that it’s back to black, ”it’s fucking freezing, where are we going and why are we walking?”

”It’s fine, stop whining,” he says, but shoves his hands deep inside his pockets because it really is fucking freezing, ”New York’s made you soft.”

She looks away from him and he catches the tail end of a hostile sneer. ”Fuck you.”

He frowns at the insecure pitch to her voice, she always tried to mask that shit with annoyance and anger, lashing out if she felt even a little bit attacked. Who she is now is miles from the confrontational teenager she’d been when she moved out of the house. Between Edna’s no-nonsense care, Cal’s unconditional friendship, and just getting the fuck away from Terry, Mickey thinks she finally found some kinda space to heal and grow, and be her own person. She’d never really talked to Mickey about it, but only getting to see her every other year since she was fifteen the difference had been remarkable every time they got together.

He remembers her as she was at fifteen, letting any loser with a bad attitude and a dick get to her, one way or another. He didn’t judge her for it, all too ready to treat her personal business with the same kinda nonchalance and disinterest he only ever could hope for himself. He’d been busy practicing his denial at the time, banging chicks like he was trying out for the closet olympics and only driving it home more and more with each squishy tit he grabbed and wet pussy he sank into that he was just so fucking gay. Despite his best efforts all it ever did for him was push him further towards the alluring anonymity of the backrooms and restrooms of the clubs on Halsted, out of sight, far away from his father. Not far away enough, as it would turn out.

He’d defended her fiercely, back then, even while pretending he was too cool to care about his little sister. He hadn’t known how to defend himself, not when it really mattered, but he’d sure as hell known how to take a bat to any fucker thinking they could mess with Mandy. He never took a bat to Terry, even though their father had it coming from the moment he even so much as looked at Mandy wrong. But they got her out, and while he knows from experience that there are some things you never really get over, he thinks she might have managed to put them behind her by now, same as he has. And if New York’s somehow helped make her soft, despite all the fucked up shit she’s been through promising to make her hard, then New York did good.

He puts an arm around her shoulders and rubs his hand up and down the smooth fabric of her coat a couple of times, in a weak attempt to warm her up a little and maybe steal a second or two of casual closeness.

”It’s not far,” he says and clears his throat as he lets go of her. She gives him an annoyingly knowing look and bumps her shoulder into his.

”It’s my last night here,” she reminds him, redundantly, her voice verging on slightly too chipper for comfort, ”why don’t we take the L, go somewhere different?”

She lights up and pretty much skips a step ahead of Mickey, turning to walk backwards and hit him excitedly in the chest. ”Let’s go to Boystown!”

Mickey warily watches her steps, hands out and ready to try and catch her if she and her damned six inch heels slip on the snow. He snaps his eyes up to her face when she hits him again. ”C’mon, Mick, I’ve never been.”

”Dumbest fucking reason I’ve ever heard,” Mickey huffs, ”why the fuck you wanna go to some fairy club, huh? That shit ain’t for you.”

She rolls her eyes and turns back around to walk next to him again. He reminds himself to chill the next time he feels like questioning her ability to walk in her own goddamned shoes. ”Kinda the point, fuckhead. Anyway, we wouldn’t really be going for my benefit, now would we?”

”That shit ain’t for me either, Mands,” Mickey shrugs and can’t help running his eyes over the closed security blinds of the diner as they walk past it, making sure the place is still unscathed despite having been there just this morning.

”Since when?” Mandy asks and frowns. ”Cheesy platonic dancing for me, a good poking for you, piss drunk and home in time for Iggs to pick me up in the morning, bada bing, bada boom.”

Mickey groans at the idea alone, perfectly content with the kinda relationship he’s already got with his sister without adding some sorta creepy wingman dynamic to it. ”The fuck Mandy? Not gonna leave you alone on your last night here to go home with some dude.”

”Go ho- ew, what?” Mandy recoils in exaggerated horror. ”Talking about getting your dick wet in a public bathroom somewhere, or a quickie out the back door, pun very much intended. Go home with someone, fuck Mickey, who are you and what have you done to my brother?”

Mickey grins, despite himself, and shakes his head to hide it. ”Fuck you is what I’ve done to your brother.”

”Whatever, okay,” Mandy puts up her hand in surrender, even though Mickey knows she’s not done, ”how long have you been divorced now? Never fucking mind, the number of guys you’ve bothered introducing to me is still zero.”

Mickey says nothing, because like it or not she’s not entirely wrong. Even though there’s definitely been guys, he’s never gotten far enough with any of them to give his sister a call and announce anything.

”And I’m pretty sure you’re not like, ace,” she assumes and snorts when the blank look on his face probably exposes his ignorance of any and all letters beyond the G, ”or willingly celibate?”

”Why are you so fucking interested?” he complains, to deaf ears it would seem.

”And you can’t be on grindr,” she continues, like the world’s worst detective, ”'cause up until now your phone's been prehistoric. I have no other choice than to deduce that you must be spending your child-free nights in a mesh tank top, dancing it up at a Boystown discotheque, Queer As Folk style.”

Mickey dismisses her conclusion with an impatient wave of a hand, not looking to give her any opportunity to remind him further of the weekend she came to visit after the divorce and somehow convinced him it was a good idea to marathon four seasons of that gay mess, the two of them together with Svetlana. He’d left them to it after half an episode, announcing with feeling that no man should watch shit like that with his sister, or his ex-beard for that matter, much like he’s not ever gonna go fucking clubbing with either of them. And if he kept Mandy’s DVDs to watch the dumb show on his own, at a later time, then that’s a whole different, personal matter, much like his various tried and tested ways to get laid.

”I do just fine,” he says, hoping it’ll be enough.

Fine,” she repeats, ”what does that even mean?”

”Means there are bars that don’t pander to the jacked up glitter-fantasy, you know, where a man can go cruise himself some strange without blasting an eardrum or compromising his carefully crafted persona,” he feels like he’s already telling her too much, but it’s like he can’t stop, ”and maybe I used to go to those clubs and got where I needed to go behind fucking dumpsters or over, like, dirty as shit toilet bowls, or whatever…”

He cringes a little at the thought of some of the things he did before Yevgeny was born, to scratch an itch, to try and remove it all together.

”And it was alright, but it was never me,” he concludes and shrugs, ”it’s too-”

”Gay?”

Mandy smirks when she says it but almost looks like she wants to take it back when Mickey glances at her, not being able to hide the sharp sting of her words. He hates to be accused of being ashamed, or have people insinuate that he’s some kinda homophobe, just ’cause he’s not announcing himself at all times. Or ever. And fine, sure, maybe he didn’t use to be so good about his more limp-wristed, lisping brethren, but he’d like to think he’s gotten a lot fucking better in that respect, with time. People can be whoever the fuck they want, whoever they are, and he never wants to be the guy to beat them down for it, not ever again, not even with his own residual self-hatred pulling at him when he thinks he sees some hidden part of himself reflected in someone else’s soft voice, or careful hands, or love. That’s the shit he doesn’t want staining his life anymore, as a man, or a father, or as a card carrying part of the goddamned queer community, or whatever. His aversion to bad music and worse dancing shouldn’t be evidence of anything other than him being a self-satisfied grump who knows what he likes, and what he very well fucking don’t.

”Loud,” he offers, eventually, when Mandy looks away from his pointed glare, ”fake.”

Mandy says nothing, but he thinks he sees her nod a little, in his periphery.

”Anyway, finding someone to bang isn’t the hard part,” Mickey admits and immediately regrets it when Mandy goes strangely still next to him, as though she’s waiting on him to elaborate. He doesn’t.

”Mickey Mantle,” she says after a long moment and sounds way too happy when she does, the nickname only a dull reminder at this point of when he’d just got married and she’d been really hurt and disappointed in his decision, using the name to try and invoke the Yankee center fielder as some kinda cautionary tale while still adhering to the strict don’t ask, don’t tell agreement the whole family had settled into at the time, ”are you telling me you’re looking?”

Mickey resists the urge to shoot her down immediately, because this is Mandy and she never bugs him about this stuff, normally. She understands things without ever having to be told, she’s happy to listen if he’s got something to say, and she sometimes offers her, usually unwelcome, advice, but she never pries. And if Mickey wanted to stay a crabby bachelor for the rest of his life she’d probably be the last person to give him a hard time over it. She’s safe, they’re both safe, there’s no one but himself standing in his way these days.

”Maybe,” he says, ”I don’t know.”

Mandy just hums lightly, but Mickey can hear in that low sound alone that she’s smiling.

”I- eh,” he clears his throat awkwardly and makes a face at himself for being such a wimp about this shit, ”went on a date.”

”A date,” she’s still smiling when he glances at her, ”an honest to God, sit down, have a conversation, white tablecloth and utensils, dinner date?”

Mickey rolls his shoulders a little in something of a shrug, sucking thoughtfully at his teeth for a second to skirt past the flash of discomfort running through him at the memory. ”Didn’t even fuck him after.”

”Not sure that counts, then,” Mandy says, and now she’s full on grinning when he looks at her.

”Ey, fuck you it doesn’t count, it was a date,” he assures her, ”little faggy candle on the table and everything.”

”So what? You’re doin’ some kinda third date rule now?” she challenges and bats her eyes at him in mock innocence when he raises his eyebrows at her. ”Playing hard to get?”

”Nah,” he says and silently directs her around a corner and down another street, ”pretty sure I just lost the ability to get it up ten minutes in, listening to the guy yammering on about wine. I’m sitting there with my fucking bud, right, and he goes on and on about the roundness of the motherfucking bouquet or whatever, Jesus-, it got so bad at the end of the night I couldn’t even imagine doin’ him just get him to shut the fuck up for a sec.”

She sniggers lightly at his distress. ”Maybe he was nervous.”

”No shit,” Mickey snorts, ”that does not excuse it, I gave him every chance to nervously ramble on about literally anything else, at one point I even hear the words ’so what’s up with the fucking Sox?’ falling outta my mouth and he’s still not picking up on it maybe being time for a change of topic.”

He glances over at her when she says nothing. She’s smiling, wide and happy with her eyes trained far down the street.

”What?” he asks tersely and wants to light up another cigarette but decides against it. They’re almost there, anyway.

”Nothing,” she clearly lies, ”really sounds like dating is just your thing, huh?”

Mickey groans dramatically, but can’t help matching her wide grin when she looks at him.

”It’s pretty much the worst,” he sighs, ”point is I’m fucking trying, alright?”

”You’re too picky,” she tells him, frowning when Mickey scoffs derisively.

”I’m the united fucking colors of getting laid, all types welcome,” he insists, exaggerating only a little, ”think I should be allowed to be fucking picky when it comes to-, you know, whatever.”

Fuck. He dips his head and scowls, tries his best to hide the way his cheeks seem to flare up with heat against the cold December night. Love. He can’t even say it. Not because of the word itself, love, love, love, whatever, the concept of it isn’t what’s troubling him right now. It’s the unwanted fucking full on slide show presentation his mind’s treating him to when the word pops up and gets stuck at the back of his throat, of smiles and looks and that way he sounds when he’s telling Mickey something private, confetti cannons blasting through his subconscious with each flash of memory.

”Didn’t say it’s bad,” Mandy agrees, snapping him way the fuck out of his micro-meltdown, ”just saying there might be a lot of duds before you get it right, having high standards like you obviously got.”

”Hey, my fucking standards are not the problem here,” he says with a frown, ”it’s the part where shit’s gotta be mutual for more than just one night to a couple of months that’s been tripping me up so far.”

”Yeah, alright, but I bet it also doesn’t help that you hate people,” she laughs and pokes her tongue out at him, like a fucking child, when he gives her the finger, like an adult.

”Pretty sure we’re done talking about this,” he tells her, ignoring her disappointed sound of protest as he directs them around another corner. She’s right though, he doesn’t like a lot of people, which probably is why he has such a hard time letting go of the ones that manage to burrow their way under his skin.

”You gotta be fucking kidding me,” Mandy complains, suddenly, and gets Mickey’s attention by slapping him in the shoulder with the back of her hand, directing his eye to their destination when he looks at her, ”fucking Paddy’s?”

He should’ve known she’d throw a fit. ”So?”

”So of all the fucking bars in all of fucking Chicago,” she rants, but doesn’t show any sign of wanting to slow down or continue walking somewhere else, ”you take me to fucking Paddy’s?”

”It’s nice,” he tries, unsuccessfully judging by her unimpressed snort, ”kinda reminds me of the Alibi.”

She looks at him like he’s sprouted a second head. ”And that’s good how?”

They stop in front of the door and he turns to her with his eyebrows hitched up high. ”Because it isn’t the Alibi.”

Mandy grins when he pushes the door open and stands back for her to get in first. She leaves him hanging for a moment, presumably to make some kinda point, but he knows he got her the second he feels the toasty heat from inside folding over them through the open door. She steps through it, and he follows closely, making sure to shut the door firmly after them.

Once inside, Mandy changes her tune. ”Holy crap, this place has changed!”

Mickey looks up and takes in the previously low-key, bordering on unpleasant, bar with a sense of deep-set regret. He hasn’t been here in almost a year and just a quick once-over tells him he’s not likely to ever come back again. First strike is the blatant pandering to crass commercialism and garish good cheer; Christmas lights in all colors hanging from the ceiling and a fucking tree crammed in behind the bar, of all places. Strike two is the jukebox. And not even a moderately tacky jukebox gathering dust in the corner, for the sake of some kinda decor, but a flashy massive thing, hooked up to proper speakers and playing what’s bound to be an endless queue of populist crap at the hand of grossly misguided democracy. Which leads to the third and final, devastating, strike; the dancing.

”I was wrong,” he deadpans, taking half a step back towards the door, ”everything’s changed, there goes the neighborhood in a mushroom cloud of tinsel and dubstep. Let’s go get some cheap booze from Al’s and drink it in silence at mine.”

”Nope,” Mandy tells him and practically spins out of her coat before she dumps it on Mickey and boogies over to the large group of people having a party by the jukebox. They all nod and smile at her when she barges right in there and her dancing takes on a more suggestive nature, to a chorus of whoops and cheers from her new friends.

Mickey takes off his own coat and hangs it up with Mandy’s on some already overflowing hooks by the door, making sure to transfer his wallet to his back pocket and stuffing his keys down his front left, so he won’t accidentally sit on them. Then he pats Mandy’s coat down, too, just to make sure she’s got everything of worth on her, and then quickly circumvents the dance floor in order to retreat to the furthest corner of the bar.

The whole place is full of people, though, so he doesn’t get very far. The people problem had been shortlisted for the Top Three Offensive New Changes at Paddy’s lineup but it didn’t make the cut in the end, mostly because he’s been on the other side of a low turnout enough times to know that while it’s nice with a bit of peace and quiet sometimes, it invariably makes for a depressing annual report. This doesn’t change the fact that there’s a whole happy crowd between him and a stiff drink, making him wish he was home on his couch, in his boxers, with a cold beer in his hand and something vaguely interesting on the TV.

He’s busy trying to shove his way through a group of freakishly tall people when he spots an empty high stool by the bar, catching sight of it as a couple of laughing guys in suits move out of the way. He quickly squeezes past them and swings himself up on the stool before anyone else claims it, tapping the bar in celebration as he settles in. He catches the bartender’s eye and holds up two fingers.

”Scotch,” he says, not loud enough to make himself heard over the music but the guy seems to get the message, nodding back at him, ”double.”

He glances quickly over his shoulder to check if Mandy’s alright but he can’t see her, he’s effectively blocked in at the bar by a wall of sweaty backs, the place is so packed and slightly too warm in overzealous effort to defy the cold outside. He turns back around again in time to see the bartender drop a cube of ice into his drink without asking, and slide it towards him. Mickey picks himself up from the seat with half an inch or so to maneuver his wallet out of his pocket, and slaps a couple of notes on the bar.

Then he settles in to quietly nurse his drink, not looking to waste money or what precious little time he’s got left of his sister’s visit on getting plastered for no good reason. He doesn’t drink to get piss drunk anymore, anyway, hasn’t in a long time. Guess life’s not been half bad lately and the need to forget, to lose himself, hasn’t been there at all. Slow and steady is his new, solid approach to drinking, and it’s been working pretty well for him so far.

He sips his drink and focuses on his hand, slowly turning the glass, watching the amber liquid gently slosh around the ice and catch the light from the seasonal decorations, when he feels the person next to him shift, close enough that they almost brush elbows.

”But at night he walks the streets,” Mickey turns at the sound of the familiar voice to look at the guy, only to find himself no more than two feet away from Ian’s smiling face, ”like an ordinary man.”

Mickey swivels on his barstool to more fully face the guy and leans back a little to create some semblance of space between them as he can’t help a small, pleased smirk and a quick once-over. Ian looks good, a little dressed up maybe but otherwise relaxed and comfortable. He’s got two bottles of beer in front of him, one empty and one looking about halfway drunk, neither any of Mickey’s concern.

He picks up his eyebrows and focuses on Ian’s smiling face instead. ”You callin’ me a prostitute, Red?”

”No,” Ian huffs, and looks like that really hadn’t been his intention at all, ”calling you the Phantom.”

”Of the opera?” Mickey asks with enough incredulity to make Ian cringe.

”I wish,” he says, a little sheepishly, ”would’ve made me seem kinda cultured, at least. No, uh-, the Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks?”

Mickey shakes his head.

”Guardian of the Eastern Dark?” Ian tries, sounding a little less hopeful with each nonsensical statement, coming out like questions, ”the man who cannot die?”

”Sorry,” Mickey grins at Ian’s slightly distressed frown, ”guess you’re still more cultured than me, man, so there’s something to comfort your bruised ego if nothing else.”

Ian cocks his head and smiles. ”Hardly, the Phantom is this kinda jungle superhero in purple spandex, think Tarzan meets Zorro and dress him up like early Batman, and you’re pretty close. Don’t think anyone would consider it either cultured or cool to know that.”

”Don’t know,” Mickey says, ”seems like it’d be just the ticket, these days, with all the mutants and robots and radioactive shit going around. Surprised I haven’t heard of it before.”

”I’m not,” Ian snorts and then grins when Mickey tries to look hurt by it, ”I only know about it because I once found a five dollar note on the ground when I was in preschool and for some reason decided to buy a whole stack of old comics from a thrift store, most of them from the seventies I think. Read them until they fell apart.”

”That where you got your hero complex?” Mickey can’t help but tease. ”Itty-bitty Ian Gallagher sitting under his bedcovers reading comics with a flashlight, aww, thinking he’s gonna go out and save himself some jungle people when he grows up?”

Ian laughs and Mickey’s heart kinda stutters at the sound of it, even with the chatter from the crowd behind them and the jukebox playing fucking a-ha, of all things.

”Maybe,” he admits, ”but I’m pretty sure I got enough issues backing up that particular complex even without Kit Walker’s influence.”

”Middle child,” Mickey offers and Ian inclines his head in agreement.

”Crippling poverty,” he adds, casually, ”absence of a strong father figure.”

”That’d probably do it,” Mickey hums and sips his whisky.

”Oh!” Ian suddenly seems to think of something, snapping his fingers once, sharply, ”there was a really awful movie based on the comic, too. Mid-nineties, I think. With that guy… Billy Zane!”

”You say that like I should know who it is,” Mickey says, not at all convinced by Ian’s enthusiasm.

”You do, you must,” Ian insists, but flounders for a second before he seems to recollect something and points at Mickey like it’s a done deal, ”he was in Back to the Future.”

”Oh yeah?” Mickey frowns, trying to remember the last time he saw it, likely to be close to twenty years ago since he’s certain he hasn’t gotten around to do the mandatory re-watch with Yevgeny, yet. ”Who?”

”Flame?” Ian tries, but then shakes his head. ”Sparky? Something like-, Match! There it is. You know him, Biff’s friend.”

Mickey shakes his head, but can’t rid himself of the permanent fucking smile he’s got plastered on his face since Ian decided to materialize next to him outta nowhere. ”If he’s not Michael J Fucking Fox or got white hair and serious issues with volume control, I got nothing.”

Ian seems to mull it over, taking the whole thing a little too seriously in his efforts to get Mickey on the same page as him. But Mickey isn’t about to complain, quite happy to just sit there and look at the guy while he’s scanning his brain for useless movie trivia. Suddenly he slaps himself on the forehead and looks at Mickey like they’re both idiots, spreading his hand out in a sweeping motion as he announces; ”Titanic.”

Mickey rolls his eyes. ”Again, probably not gonna help me nothing unless he ended up changing his name to Leonardo DiCaprio or fixed himself a pair of tits and an English accent.”

”He was the fiancé,” Ian refuses to let it go and even though that kinda does ring a bell, Mickey holds his ground and shakes his head, ”asshole with the big stone, the whatever- heart of the ocean. Ran around shooting and yelling towards the end? Really, nothing?”

Mickey shrugs. ”Think the more pressing question is why you know so much about this guy, he gets you goin’ or something?”

Ian mirrors his shrug and leans an elbow on the bar, his knees knocking lightly into Mickey’s as he turns more fully towards him. ”Don’t think so. Got nice eyebrows though.”

Mickey imagines for a second that Ian looks a little embarrassed, but who wouldn’t after a statement like that? He hasn’t been around the diner for a couple of days, most likely because Mickey told him they’d be closed and like an idiot forgot to say for how long, or because of it being Christmas and all, and family obligation with a family like Ian’s is probably a never-ending affair.

Nevertheless, Mickey can’t help thinking that maybe the guy’s been staying away. Maybe they crossed some kinda line, last time. Maybe Ian’s uncomfortable with Yevgeny being around so much, and he’s decided to stay clear until school starts up again. It’s a weird thought, especially since Ian’s been nothing but wholly great with Mickey’s kid, each and every time they’ve met.

”Peter Gallagher,” Mickey blurts out, in an attempt to steer clear of his own thoughts and grabbing on to the first thing floating by. Ian looks about as confounded by it as Mickey feels.

”No relation,” Ian offers uncertainly, narrowing his eyes at Mickey. ”But we’ve got a Patrick, if that works?”

”Nah, Peter Gallagher,” Mickey insists, tossing back the last drops of his whisky and setting the glass down on the counter before looking back at Ian’s confused, but still carefully amused, face, ”he’s an actor, when you said eyebrows, he’s the one I thought of.”

”Ah,” Ian nods wisely and then grins, like he can’t stop himself, ”good eyebrows?”

Mickey nods and then shrugs, because not really. ”Kinda massive. Imposing.”

”There’s definitely a tipping point,” Ian agrees, ”between expressive and just ’oh God, I think they’re gonna come to life and attack me in my sleep’.”

”Pretty sure his are from the second category,” Mickey says and feels his own eyebrows creep up his forehead as he tries to remember what this guy looks like, when something clicks into place, ”hey, he was also in Titanic.”

Ian looks like he’s about to argue, obviously he’s seen this movie enough times to know better and Mickey carefully stores that piece of information away for a rainy day, since he doesn’t have the time right now to tease him properly.

”Not Titanic Titanic,” Mickey corrects himself, quickly, ”there was like, a mini-series? The kinda thing that’s on at 3 am on a Tuesday.”

”Prime time to watch tragic boat-sinking fare,” Ian comments drily, ”did it have a class-defying love story going down with the ship?”

”Not so sure about that,” Mickey admits, ”but plenty Irish dancing, and Tim Curry.”

Ian nods thoughtfully, clearly impressed. ”Not too shabby.”

”Doing an Irish accent,” Mickey feels he has to caveat and laughs when Ian winces, ”but still, hey, doin’ the whole Tim Curry schtick like no one else does Tim Curry.”

Ian rests his chin on his hand, leaning closer to the bar, and he looks at Mickey like he’s something worth looking at. Mickey lets him, kinda likes the attention if he’s being honest, likes the warmth of the whisky settling and the slight shift in balance between them, out here in the real world and with Mickey not having to worry about work. He doesn’t know why Ian’s here, alone, drinking, but he doesn’t want to ruin the moment by asking.

”And how come you’re up at 3 in the morning on a Tuesday to watch Tim Curry pretending to be Irish?” Ian asks, his crooked damned smile all calm and confident, his narrowed eyes firmly on Mickey. He doesn’t seem troubled, neither up nor down or off the rails. Maybe he allows himself a drink or two for the right occasion, Mickey doesn’t know.

”Yev was an easy kid, or so I’ve always been told, anyway,” Mickey says with a small shrug, trying not to focus on Ian getting something almost fucking wistful stuck in his eyes as he listens, ”but he had a hard time sleeping, first couple of years, so I used to walk around the living room with him at night, kinda had to rock him in a certain pattern, like-,” he holds out his arms and can’t help going through a toned down version of the way he used to do it, the motion stuck deep in his bones, and he only feels a little stupid for it as he counts out the rhythm; ”one two three, one two three.”

”Like a waltz,” Ian hums, and smiles like he hadn’t meant to say it out loud when Mickey scowls at him.

”Sure, whatever,” Mickey lowers his arms and clears his throat, ”and um-, he liked the noise of the TV, so guess I ended up watching a lotta weird crap at the time.”

”Sounds kinda nice,” Ian says and laughs when Mickey rolls his eyes.

”Sure,” he says, a little tersely, and feels something flip inside him when Ian bites his lip over his smile, trying to keep it down, ”never fucking mind all the body fluids flyin’ and the diaper changes and walking around in a sleep deprived murderous haze for three years.”

Ian looks like he wants to say something stupid, or reiterate that it sounds kinda nice, but he doesn’t. Instead he angles himself away from Mickey again, just a little, and reaches out to wrap his long fingers around one of his forgotten bottles. Mickey stares at his hand for a little too long, tracing the lines and curves and sharp angles of it as Ian absentmindedly picks at the bottle’s damp label. Then Mickey shifts his gaze away, only to end up staring at the side of his face, they’re sitting so close he imagines some of the warmth of the room is coming directly off of Ian, and Mickey can almost feel his blood pumping through his body when he thinks he kinda wants to rub his face against the slight sheen of sweat on the back of Ian’s neck, down his throat, staining the collar of his sun-worn t-shirt a shade of darker green.

His mind is a mess of headless worry and plain old stupid desire fighting for his attention in Ian’s intoxicating presence, enhanced by the alcohol and heat of the bar. Mickey shifts a little awkwardly on his stool, trying to hide any outwardly evidence of his emboldened, tipsy, feelings for the guy next to him. Considering his options, he thinks worrying about Ian’s health is probably the safer route right now.

”You-, eh,” he starts and winces when Ian looks back at him, face open and curious, ”you drinking?”

Ian stares at him and Mickey tries to keep himself from retracting his question. It’s a reasonable thing to ask, isn’t it? The guy’s on some pretty heavy medication and yeah, maybe it’s none of Mickey’s fucking business if he’s drinking but fuck him for caring, right? Fuck, it really isn’t any of his goddamned business, what a fucking ass, asking Ian to explain himself like Mickey’s got any right to know.

Mickey opens his mouth to try and smooth the whole thing over, somehow, when something seems to click in Ian’s mind and the confused frown kinda flips into a wide smile. He shakes his head and lets go of the bottle, twisting back towards Mickey.

”Not mine,” he says.

”You’re with someone,” Mickey states, pretty sure he also meant to say ’here’. Of course he’s here with someone, this should not be surprising, or disappointing. Of fucking course he’s with someone, guys like Ian don’t stay single for long.

”Yeah,” Ian sounds almost apologetic, which is just stupid, and then he dips his gaze in a pointed sorta way. Mickey follows, looking down at himself like he’s expecting to find egg on his metaphorical tie, but realizes just as quickly what Ian’s trying to tell him.

”I’m in his seat,” Mickey nods and quickly gets up, bumping into one of the guys standing behind them. He doesn’t really want to leave but he probably should, and it doesn’t look like Ian’s about to try and stop him, either.

”Yeah,” he says again, rubbing slowly at the back of his neck and following Mickey’s movements closely, ”went to the bathroom a while ago, maybe he’s fallen in.”

”Well,” Mickey sniffs uncomfortably and rubs at his bottom lip, a little annoyed at being booted from the only corner of the bar he’s likely to tolerate, and from Ian’s company too, even though he’s not really looking to stick around to meet this date of his, ”I’ll get outta your hair, just gonna get another drink while I’m here.”

Ian nods, looking a little uncertain, and Mickey turns towards the bar to try and get the bartender’s attention. Before he does, the group of guys behind them sway and part to let out a flurry of blond hair and flailing limbs, landing against Ian’s side and settling in with an arm draped across his shoulders.

Mickey can feel himself tense up and without thinking it over decides to stick around and see if Ian’s fine with this guy, who’s obviously had one too many already.

”Might’ve fallen asleep for a sec on the toilet,” the guy says and looks very pleased with himself as he leans in heavier on Ian, ”sorry.”

”At least you didn’t drown,” Ian sighs but then smiles, like he can’t stop himself, and the way it twists him up on the inside tells Mickey it’s time for him to make like a tree and get the fuck outta there.

Unfortunately, his careful attempt to turn and leave unnoticed pulls the guy’s attention right to him. ”Mickey? Hey, Ian, look. It’s Mickey fucking Milkovich.”

Mickey looks over at Ian who seems very preoccupied with trying to steady the guy draped over him, now staring right at Mickey with his dim, slightly distant eyes. He looks very familiar, now that Mickey isn’t actively ignoring him.

”Lip,” Ian says, voice hard and eyes flicking over at Mickey and then back to the guy. Mickey isn’t sure if Ian says the name as an introduction or a warning, but it still confirms Mickey’s vague suspicion. He definitely recognizes Ian’s brother now, looking pretty much the same as he did in high school, only now he’s dressed up in a tailored shirt and a blazer that’s looking practically lined with money, and he’s got slightly better hair.

Lip grins, swaying a little and grabbing Ian’s t-shirt to steady himself. ”Mickey the Menace!”

”Philip,” Mickey acknowledges him curtly, but smirks when Lip’s face falls into a confused frown.

”You on sabbatical from your incarceration, or something?” Lip asks, almost getting through the whole sentence without slurring, Ian sighs and bows his head next to him, but otherwise seems suddenly struck mute.

”’Scuse me?” Mickey feels transported back to his teenage years, as by the flip of a switch, the same kinda frustration and anger simmering inside him like it had then, muddling shit up.

”Didn’t you eh-,” Lip says and looks Mickey up and down as he straightens up a little all on his own and points lazily at Mickey, ”didn’t you knock some whore up and got hitched, flunkin’ outta your second attempt at getting through senior year? Thought for sure you’d followed in your dad’s footsteps by now, breedin’ your own little army of dirty criminals between tours in the big house.”

”Lip,” Ian says again, and this time it’s definitely a warning.

”Hey, just joking,” Lip says and grins at Ian’s unamused glare, ”kidding, joshing around, uh- busting balls. Mickey can take it, can’t you?”

Mickey shifts his stance a little, crossing his arms and scowling to compensate for his brain deciding to shut down. ”Fuck off.”

Lip jerks his upper body back and throws out his arms, narrowly avoiding hitting a stranger in the face when he loses his footing a little and sways forward again. ”Ouch Mickey! That really hit me where it hurts, man. You’re uh-, you’re a regular Shakespeare, aren’t you? A bard for the ages!”

Mickey thinks it’s probably okay that he’s feeling tongue-tied, not really interested in getting into a dumb, drunken argument with Lip Gallagher of all people. The asshole knows exactly zilch about Mickey’s life, and his opinions and measures of Mickey’s person carry no weight for him what so ever. On the whole, Mickey’s happy enough to realize that even though it’d feel fucking amazing to clock the snooty little waste of space in the face, somewhere along the line it’d seem that he’s managed to procure enough self-control to refrain from getting into an all out bar brawl over some entitled, know-it-all bully who can’t hold his liquor. All mature and shit, and not half bad if he gets to say so himself.

He rolls his shoulders and keeps his hands sandwiched between his arms and ribs and he revels a little in feeling like the bigger man for once, blankly facing Lip’s derisive sneer. He tries to think of Yevgeny and drown out the tiny, unreasonable, treacherous voice inside telling him Lip might have a point, despite the last decade of Mickey’s life promising otherwise. The only thing really getting to him right now is the way Ian’s looking more embarrassed by the second, silent and evasive and refusing to meet Mickey’s eyes, like he too might think Lip’s got a point.

Mickey knows he’s just some guy working at a shitty diner, and that his ’getting out’ has consisted of little more than moving something like twenty blocks away from the place he was born and simply refusing to become his father. He’s not someone worth bragging about to your family, or whatever, but he thought he’d at least be worth a proper introduction, and maybe even a word or two of defense against some drunken idiot’s mindless slander.

But Ian’s still not looking at him, and he’s not saying anything, as Lip laughs to himself and leans across his brother to grab his beer.

”Don’t think so,” Ian sighs and moves the beer out of his reach, ”you’re done.”

”Fuck off,” Lip frowns and goes for the other, empty bottle, tipping it back over his mouth to catch anything that might still fall out.

”Really hit you where it hurt, huh?” Mickey asks Ian, subtly mocking Lip’s earlier jab in an attempt to break the tense mood a little, letting out a low breath when Ian looks at him again, a small smile coming on. ”You gonna need some help with Prince Charming here? Getting him home, or something.”

Ian gives him a thankful smile but shakes his head as he opens his mouth to answer, only to be interrupted by Lip looking between them sharply.

”You’re friends with this guy?” he asks, looking like he doesn’t know if he wants to laugh or rant. ”That’s Mickey Milkovich, you know that right?”

”Sure,” Ian sighs and gets up off his stool, grabbing on to Lip’s fucking navy blue blazer to keep him steady while he maneuvers them around. Lip leans closer, like he’s about to whisper something.

”He’ll kill you if he finds out about you,” he says, speaking even louder than he had before. Ian grabs his arm and ducks under it to lay it over his shoulders, getting ready to walk his brother out. He glances up at Mickey.

”Sure,” he says again, and lets Lip hang off him while he gathers up his things, both their coats draped over the stool he’d been sitting on. Lip recoils a little, as though something’s suddenly struck him.

”Fuck, Ian,” he slurs, ”you sure know how to pick ’em.”

Ian sighs and turns back to stare down at his brother.

”And you sound like Frank right now,” his voice is quiet but Mickey can still hear him, is still close enough to see the real concern stuck in his slight frown and the worried line down the side of his pursed lips.

Lip looks like he wants to throw a punch, but instead he tries to push himself away from Ian. Mickey follows their movements closely, ready to intervene if he’s needed, as Ian secures his hold on his brother and picks up their belongings with his free hand. He starts walking them through the crowd, and only stops once to turn his head and lock eyes with Mickey.

”See you later?” he asks, and Mickey can feel himself nodding before he’s really thought it over.

”Yeah, sure,” he says, and keeps his eyes on the back of Ian’s neck as he moves away and then disappears.

Mickey stares after them for a moment, until he’s unceremoniously shoved out of his thoughts by a guy trying to get at the two now empty stools behind him. He glares at the guy until he backs off, and then sits back down.

He orders and pays for another double and the fruitiest drink on the menu (the Very Pink Raspberry Cosmopolitan), in anticipation of Mandy dancing herself thirsty and seeking him out. He’s halfway through his scotch when she does, sitting down on the still empty stool next to him. She groans when she sees her drink, but grabs it gently by the foot, anyway, and gives it a cautious sip.

”Gross,” she says and wrinkles her nose at it, before taking another sip, ”why do you always do this to me?”

”Fuck you, you love it,” Mickey smirks and makes a show of enjoying his whisky, straight, irony notwithstanding, and winks at the bartender who hasn’t looked in his direction once since their last transaction, ”and I kinda like seeing what reaction I’ll get, cracking my fuck-knuckles and like, earnestly ordering a Slippery Nipple or something. Can’t do it when I’m on my own, ’cause then I’d have to drink the thing, too.”

”You have a very strange set of pleasures, dear brother,” Mandy chuckles and touches the foot of her glass to the side of Mickey’s tumbler, ”fucking cheers to that.”

”Salut,” Mickey mutters and drinks.

”Hey,” Mandy starts and grins like it’s her birthday when Mickey looks at her, ”saw you talking to a guy, looked real chummy.”

Mickey rolls his eyes, well fuck. ”Just a regular from the diner, Mands, he was here with his alcoholic brother.”

”That’s what the regulars look like these days?” Mandy lets out an impressed whistle. ”Maybe I should’ve stuck around, huh?”

”They went to our school,” Mickey says, ignoring her comment, ”Gallagher?”

”Gallagher,” she repeats, like she’s trying it out, eyes slightly wide when she turns to face him more fully, ”you’re friends with fucking Gallaghers?”

”Gallagher,” Mickey croaks, after he almost chokes on his drink at her sudden outburst, ”er, singular, as in one, as in Ian, and yeah, sure, as in friends.”

She hits him again, his shoulder starting to get real fucking sore. ”That was Ian Gallagher? I remember him, he was in my year. Shit Mick, why the fuck didn’t you introduce me or something?”

”You were busy,” he says with a shrug, ”he was leaving.”

”Useless,” she laments his lacking social skills and settles in to sip and grimace at her drink, before slowly letting a suggestive grin spread across her face, ”sure as fuck grew up nice though, didn’t he?”

Mickey says nothing, but inclines his head and picks up his eyebrows in silent agreement.

”Ho-ly fuck,” Mandy’s smiling like the fucking Cheshire Cat when Mickey braves another glance in her direction, ”you like him!”

”Shut the fuck up,” Mickey grumbles and hides his face best he can behind his drink.

”Is this what all that crap was really about, before?” she guesses, which isn’t at all right but close enough, he’s not gonna go into personal detail just to correct her. ”You got yourself a crush and, what? The guy doesn’t play for your team?”

”Oh, he’s gay,” Mickey huffs and regrets it almost immediately, but whatever. It’s Mandy, and maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to talk to someone about this who isn’t ten years old, or privy to a first row seat to his every interaction with the guy, from the diner’s kitchen.

Anyway, trying to just ignore it until it goes away sure as fuck hasn’t worked out for him, so far.

”So?” Mandy prompts, her voice unusually soft. ”What’s the problem?”

Mickey winces, because he knows how this is gonna sound and he knows there’s nothing Mandy can say that’ll change his mind about it. ”He’s not interested, Mands. Don’t wanna fuck up what we’ve got by getting all invested when he’s not.”

”Sounds like you’re already pretty fucking invested,” Mandy says, pretty fucking astutely.

”Yeah, whatever,” Mickey sighs, ”that’s my problem. If I make it his problem, he’s gonna shoot me down or humor me for a little while, either way I’ll be the one left worse for wear and I don’t got time for that. Got Yev, and the diner and shit, it’s enough.”

”Bullshit,” she says, and this time he fucking flinches when her fist hits his shoulder, ”don’t be such a fucking limp dick, bro, gotta risk some to win some, right?”

”Yeah alright, Dr Phil,” Mickey chuckles and rubs at his sore shoulder, ”the fuck is a limp dick anyway?”

”Exactly what it sounds like,” she says with a pleased smile, teeth stained slightly pink from her cocktail, ”I know it’s been a while since you’ve been around one, but pussies are fucking powerful, Mickey, so I’ve decided to start calling wimps what they really are instead; soft and droopy sad sacks of meat.”

”Charming,” Mickey says but can’t really argue with her logic, ”congratulations on becoming a man-hating shrew.”

Mandy shrugs. ”Better than a chick-hating bitch.”

”I eagerly await my invitation to your lesbian wedding,” Mickey drawls and grins when Mandy laughs out loud. He didn’t even mean it as a joke, not entirely. By the way she talks sometimes he’s pretty sure she swings any which way, sexually, and anyway just generally prefers the company of other women, given a choice. He’s not about to call her out on it, though, she can tell him if she wants him to know, or don’t if she prefers he doesn’t.

”I really like him,” he admits, quietly, and frowns as he hears the words coming out of his mouth. It feels like it’s the first time he lets himself even think it, let alone say it, and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. He doubts it’s gonna make much difference, admitting to it.

Mandy says nothing, but she wraps an arm around him and leans her head on his shoulder, only narrowly avoiding the bruise she’s been working on all week, her dance-ruffled hair tickling the side of his neck when she sighs and squeezes him a little closer.

He’s gonna fucking miss her when she’s gone back home to New York.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

December 28
Monday.

 

Mickey flips the switch and takes off his still snow-dusted coat as the diner’s fluorescent lights stutter alive behind him. He stuffs his coat into the cubbyhole under the counter and unearths his apron, suspiciously eying the slight flicker of the far left lamp as he blindly ties the apron string behind his back. Changing the ceiling lights is a fucking nightmare if he doesn’t get someone in to do it for him, and he’d really prefer not to do that. Paying some dude to literally come over and change your fucking lights is not only embarrassing, but outrageously expensive considering the task. Every damned time one of the lights die out he ends up on top of Edna’s rickety stepladder, swearing up a storm while he’s trying to get the thing down and start the hunt for a suitable replacement, usually ending up giving himself permission to just fucking call in the electrician next time. It’s their job, after all, and Mickey’s job is taking orders and serving coffee, and looking darn cute in an apron.

He smirks at himself and rubs at his eyes, pinching at the slight tension over the bridge of his nose. He’s pretty sure he hasn’t actually been hung over since that week he found out Terry died, but yesterday was a real close call. He hadn’t been drinking all that much on Saturday, and he hadn’t felt like he was dying or anything when Sunday rolled around. He just felt old, and heavy, and like he could have cut his dink count down by three and he would have been so much better off. In all honesty, the surplus drinking was all on Ian and his dumbass brother, stirring up shit that made him toss his whisky back rather than sip, like he was seventeen again and knocking back a bottle of Jack didn’t do more than serve as groundworks for the hard stuff.

Today it lingers like a dull whisper of a headache at the back of his mind, and an unnecessary reminder of shit he’d rather not think about. Like he needs reminding.

”I like him, Mandy,” he mocks himself out loud for the umpteenth time since Saturday night, and can feel his face contracting with increasing embarrassment, ”idiot.”

But he also can’t help cracking a small smile to himself, because he really is an idiot, as he loads up the coffeemaker and flips the switch, rounding the counter and walking through the quiet forrest of upturned chairs, metal legs poking up around him and shining in the pale white fluorescent light. It’s finally stopped flickering, and the diner feels like the only bright spot in the world, waiting for the other shops and people on the street to wake up, for the sun to peek over the rooftops. He moves through the diner, slowly, flipping the chairs one by one and wiping off the tables, checking the condiments.

It’s by pure chance that he glances out the fogged up windows the moment Ian’s decided to stand right there on the sidewalk and stare back at him. Or maybe Ian’s been standing there for a while, like a creep, and it’s no coincidence at all when he shifts his stance and lights up the bleak December dawn with what looks like an automatic smile, slight and warm and fucking heart-stopping. Mickey’s lips are practically twitching to mimic the guy’s silent hello, but instead he puts down the half-empty ketchup bottle he’s got clutched in his left hand and crosses his arms, picking up his eyebrows in a wordless question.

Ian’s shoulder moves in a tiny shrug and he inclines his head towards the door, but he doesn’t make a move until Mickey’s rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated and incredibly fake sigh, turning to walk along the windows. He glances out to see Ian walking with him, if not looking at him but down the street, down at his feet when he stops by the door and waits for Mickey to unlock and swing it open for him.

”We’re closed,” Mickey says in lieu of a greeting and doesn’t move out of the way so Ian can step inside.

”Good,” Ian says, something like a challenge behind the word, behind the amused smirk, ”here on personal business.”

Mickey allows himself a slow moment of looking the guy over, raising a judgmental eyebrow as he rakes his eyes down Ian’s body and then up again, taking in the tight black lycra pants and worn shorts, hanging off his hips like they’re a size too big, the garish, colorful windbreaker and skinny, black gloves. He ends his tour of silent judgement on the top of Ian’s head, surveying the dark blue beanie only barely covering his ears. Fuck knows why, but the way his red hair seems to curl ever so slightly around the knitted edge of the cap flips something stupid and warm inside Mickey. He wonders if Ian’s hair looks different in the mornings, and if the guy spends a lot of time straightening and changing it. Wonders what it would be like to see him disheveled and curly, to be privy to some kinda private version of Ian, unguarded and pliant. Not to mention naked.

He blames his un-caffeinated brain for all of it, and takes a step to the side so Ian can walk past him.

”Morning run,” Ian explains, hand scratching at the back of his neck and knocking the beanie out of place for a second before he quickly smoothes it back down. Mickey lets the door swing shut after him and follows him into the diner, walking around him as he stops by the counter and waits for Mickey to round it and settle in on the other side.

”Coffee’ll be done in like two minutes,” Mickey says and pointedly eyes the corner table when Ian doesn’t make a move, ”sit down and I’ll bring it over.”

But Ian shakes his head and leans in against the counter, hips pressing against it and knuckles tapping gently on the edge of it. ”No, I gotta run- literally.”

Ian smiles at his own lame joke and this time Mickey doesn’t even bother covering up his own quick grin.

”So, what brings you here at,” Mickey picks up his left hand and spins his watch around, pressing one of the side buttons to light up the display, ”ten past seven in the morning, if it’s not the promise of coffee?”

”Got a busy day and I wanted to catch you for a second before-, I don’t know,” Ian sighs and takes a small step back before leaning against the counter again, the zipper of his windbreaker tapping against the glass, ”before too much time passes and shit gets weird between us.”

”Shit about to get weird?” Mickey asks, pretending like he hasn’t got a clue what he’s talking about and smiling wider when Ian groans and tips his head back, eyes closed for a second before he straightens up again and lands them back on Mickey.

”I’m about to make shit weird, I can tell,” Ian admits, like he’s forced by some other personality to be there, to trudge stuff up that could just as easily have been left to sink out of sight, ”was kinda embarrassed the other day, sure you noticed.”

”Sure,” Mickey agrees, because that much had been obvious. He’s just not sure he wants to hear a bunch of excuses as to why, right now.

”Didn’t expect to see you there,” Ian continues with a low sigh, ”an’ then I tried to avoid you and Lip meeting, but I think I just messed it up and I’ve been feeling kinda weird about it.”

Mickey frowns and leans against the counter behind him, the coffeemaker puffing out steam against the back of his neck, sounding like it’s almost done.

”If you didn’t want me to meet your dumb brother all you had to do was say so, Red,” he says and folds his arms over his chest, tries to push back against the unpleasant feeling rising up his gullet.

”It’s just-, he’s going through some stuff, right now,” Ian frowns too, eyes shifting a little uncertainly, ”and he always gets really weird about coming home, you know? Like he tries too hard and doesn’t always wanna see how things have changed.”

”Sucks for him,” Mickey sighs and scratches at his cheek, before gesturing vaguely towards Ian, ”that it?”

”Yeah,” Ian’s frown deepens and he really doesn’t sound done, ”no, I-, I was really embarrassed ’cause he said all that stupid shit about you and made an ass of himself, you know? I knew he would, and I didn’t want you to have to deal with that, but I guess-”

He’s not looking at Mickey anymore, and when he picks up his hands in a hapless shrug Mickey notices the plastic bag hanging from his right wrist for the first time. It’s got something fairly small and heavy inside, bumping against the counter with a dull thud when Ian drops his hands back down his sides.

”Guess I just wanted to say sorry,” he says with a tightlipped smile, ”but I get it, shit’s already weird.”

Well, it’s official. Mickey is a certified idiot. But it’s also becoming clearer with every word passing Ian’s lips that he’s in very good company.

”Nah,” he says and smirks at Ian’s doubtful expression, ”we’re good, man, don’t worry about it.”

”Really?” Ian asks and sounds so confused Mickey decides to take pity on him.

”Look, Ian,” he says, wincing at himself for making a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be, ”he said some shit that kinda hit a little too close to home, you know? Felt like I was fucking seventeen again, and while that might sound good to some-”

Ian shakes his head, wide-eyed. ”Nightmare.”

”Right,” Mickey huffs and scratches at his eyebrow with the side of his thumb, really only a nervous tick and a reason to not look directly at Ian, ”so I’m standing there tryna remember that I’ve made myself more than the south side loser thug your douchebag brother thinks I am, and you-”

Mickey pauses to worry at his lip, teeth almost scratching through skin. It’s too early for this, and what looked like just another day of light banter and healthy repression has very quickly escalated into something he’s too tired to reign in. Fucking Monday mornings.

”You weren’t exactly fightin’ him on it,” he mutters and watches as Ian’s eyes widen even further.

”Didn’t fight him ’cause he doesn’t know shit, Mick,” Ian says, firm and certain and with a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, ”seriously? You- you’re amazing, you know? Like… I met Terry maybe three times and one of those times I tried to beat him to death he pissed me off so bad, you grew up with that asshole and look at you.”

Mickey’s not entirely sure what’s worse, thinking Ian’s embarrassed to know him or the way he’s looking at him now, gesturing at him like his whole being is some kinda impressive feat. While he doesn’t necessarily think Ian’s wrong in what he’s saying, he’s actually pretty much right on the fucking money, spelling it out like this has Mickey practically squirming with some kinda stupid, bashful discomfort.

”You’re raising your son right,” Ian goes on as though the words are falling out of him, sincere and almost like he’s pleading with Mickey to believe him, ”and this place, this place is so great. So many people depend on this place, and you could turn it into some kinda overpriced coffee, cupcake, bullshit café but you don’t.”

”I really couldn’t though,” Mickey tries to protest, weakly, because he’d probably have to be dead for even the thought of cupcakes to safely enter his diner.

”Point is Lip doesn’t know anything, alright?” Ian says and leans in a little against the counter again, his warm eyes like tractor beams, ”and you really don’t need me standin’ up for you.”

Mickey takes a second to let that sink in. Ian doesn’t think he needs defending, Ian chose not to say anything the other night because he thought it was obvious that Lip was talking out of his ass. The other night, Ian had more faith in Mickey than he had himself and Mickey isn’t sure how to process that.

”Maybe I should’ve,” Ian interrupts his thoughts, frown back and shading his worried eyes as he nervously shifts his stance again, ”he makes me feel like a kid too, sometimes, he’s good at that. But for me I’m like, fifteen-”

Mickey groans and lets his head fall forward, covering his eyes with a hand. He wipes it down his face and looks back up at Ian when he hears him huff, and he’s happy to see him smiling again.

”Yeah, exactly,” he says, head tilting to the side by a fraction, ”and it’s just easier not standing up for myself, you know? And it’s alright because now I know when he’s wrong, like when he thinks he knows what’s best for me-, for my mental health. Or thinks he knows what kinda guys are good for me, or bad for me. He wants control, he wants to be the one with all the answers, because really his life is shit right now between the divorce and the drinking and guilt trippin’ over making disgusting amounts of money-”

”If you’re trying to get me feeling sorry for they guy,” Mickey cuts in, shaking his head.

”I’m really fucking up, I know,” Ian admits, holding up a hand in defeat, ”I’m not, I’m trying to apologize, ’cause you don’t got reason to put up with his crap like I do, but you still did and I should’ve said something. I should’ve stood up for you.”

”Look,” Mickey says, uncrossing his arms and standing up straight so he can turn around while he’s talking, ”you sure you don’t want any?”

”No, I’m sure,” Ian reaffirms behind him, while Mickey’s picking out a cup from the pile next to the coffeemaker and pulls out the full pot, ”thanks.”

Mickey nods and pours himself a cup of the fresh coffee, steam billowing up his face as he slots the pot back and turns around again, locking eyes with a distinctly nervous-looking Ian over the edge of the cup. He knows it’s bullshit placebo, or whatever, but one careful sip of the scalding liquid seems to instantly make everything a little less difficult. Like he’s had shackles on his limbs and weights on his words, and they’re all falling off and drifting away on a wave of bitter goodness.

”You’re alright,” he starts, because Ian’s looking like he could do with some reassurance, ”and I’m lucky, my life could’ve been a fucking disaster but it’s not, it’s good, and you’re right, I don’t need defending. You’re not responsible for your brother and fuck knows why I decided to be such a sensitive bitch about what he had to say, right? I mean, I wasn’t-, I really didn’t care.”

He really hadn’t cared about what Lip said, but he’d cared about what Ian thought. And he can’t really tell Ian that without having this whole situation turn a bit too maudlin even for coffee to fix.

”It’s fine,” he says instead, ”don’t worry about it.”

Ian kinda looks like he wants to argue, or insist, but then he seems to think better of it and nods, the plastic bag dangling from his wrist when he brings up a hand to rub at the back of his neck.

”Hey,” he says and catches the bag with his other hand, pushing it off his wrist and holding it up by whatever’s inside it, ”got you something.”

”No,” Mickey says and shakes his head, stopping only to take a sip of his coffee and wincing as it goes down, ”absolutely not.”

”You can’t just say no,” Ian laughs, holding up the thing for a second before he lays it down on the counter when Mickey doesn’t move to accept it, ”it’s a gift.”

”I get that,” Mickey leans back against the counter in protest, shifting his feet and crossing his ankles, ”it’s still no.”

”Come on, Mick, it’s Christmas,” Ian insists and grins when Mickey rolls his eyes, clearly he knows that Mickey doesn’t stand a fucking chance, ”it’s a Christmas present.”

”It’s December 28,” Mickey reminds him, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

”It’s for Yevgeny,” Ian tries, and the asshole smirks when Mickey can feel himself surrendering completely, feels the corners of his eyes twitching with a denied smile, ”and for you. Come on, it’s nothing, it’s crappy.”

”Oh, so you got me a crappy gift,” Mickey nods, not sparing on the sarcasm, ”gee, that’s much better. Thanks.”

Ian rolls his eyes and takes half a step back when Mickey pushes off the counter behind him and walks up to the glass display, setting his cup down so he can grab the floppy sides of the plastic bag and pull them taut, peering down at its content.

”It’s stupid, it’s nothing,” Ian starts to backpedal, because he just gotta be an adorable dork like that, ”I just saw it when I was out getting stuff for my nephews and nieces and, I don’t know. I thought of you. It’s not, you know- it’s nothing.”

”It’s wrapped,” Mickey notes, glancing up at Ian, ”there’s teddybears wearin’ Santa hats on it.”

”That was an accident,” Ian defends himself, a little desperately, wincing at Mickey’s raised eyebrow.

”You, what?” Mickey grins. ”Dropped it and it rolled itself into some already taped up wrapping paper, just lying around, minding its own business?”

”Almost,” Ian smiles and crosses his arms, muscles flexing nicely under the thin fabric of his windbreaker, ”Debbie got her hands on it, she was doing all the presents for the kids, and it got all mixed up in the pile.”

”Uh-huh, sure,” Mickey believes him, but likes teasing him too much to admit it, ”what is it?”

He picks up the awkwardly wrapped, bulky square present and gives it a quick shake, even though he knows it won’t make a sound. Ian seems like he’s not even considering to insist that Mickey have to open it to find out.

”It’s eh-,” he says instead, ”it’s one of those word-a-day calendars, you know?”

Mickey raises his eyebrows and turns the thing around in his hand. ”This your way of telling me something?”

He looks up at Ian in time to see him frown in genuine confusion, so Mickey just lets the suggestion hang between them for a second, widening his eyes and pressing his lips together.

”Shit, Mick, no,” Ian sighs and shakes his head when it seems to click, but he’s smiling all the same, ”I don’t think you need help with your vocabulary, fuck. You getting off on purposefully misunderstanding me today, or something?”

”Gotta get off on something,” Mickey shrugs and then grins wide when Ian seems stumped by the comment.

”Yeah, well,” Ian hesitates, eyes narrow and lips slowly pulling into a smile, ”pretty sure you know I don’t think you’re stupid.”

Mickey tilts his head to the side a little in agreement, carefully placing the wrapped calendar back into the plastic bag.

”It’s just something I thought I noticed,” Ian says, and there he goes again sounding so fucking sincere, almost making Mickey regret being an ass and giving him a hard time, ”that you and Yev kinda have this thing you do, with words? But maybe I got that wrong.”

Mickey doesn’t know what to say to that. Yevgeny had been only two years old when Mickey started reading to him. Before that he’d sit by the kid’s crib and talk to him about whatever, but when Yevgeny started understanding the shit he was saying, Mickey decided to switch to something a little more age appropriate. By the time Yevgeny was four, they used to go to the library all the time, especially if Mickey had a day off from work and wanted to get away from home, but still spend time with his son. Mickey stopped reading out loud when Yevgeny could sprint through two books in the time it took Mickey to finish one, and between school taking up a lot of Yevgeny’s time and thirst for knowledge, and the divorce successfully quenching most of Mickey’s urge to get away, the long days spent at the library together became few and far apart.

But some things don’t change, and playing around with words has stuck with them through it all, so far. Thinking about what words actually mean, what they can do if you use them right. Understanding the way they connect. Aside from his math homework, English is the only subject in which Yevgeny naturally wants to involve his father, still bringing home his weekly vocabularies so they can read through them together.

Having Yevgeny changed everything for Mickey, his priorities and reasons and daily life. But more than anything else, learning how to talk to his son somehow made him understand himself better. A fucking miracle for someone who’d decided he was fucked for life at thirteen, letters freshly carved into the skin on his knuckles.

And Ian thinks he got it wrong.

”It’s great,” Mickey says, snatching up the bag and grabbing the gift with both hands, just in case Ian should decide to take it back, ”Yev’s gonna love it.”

Ian’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise, and just like that he’s looking all pleased again. Fucking happy.

”Cool,” he says, and Mickey has to bite his lip to resist the urge to call him out on it, tease him about it, pull his fucking hair and call him a doo-doo head, Jesus, fuck this stupid-ass crush already, he’s getting real sick of it.

He shrugs it off and bends down to shove Ian’s gift in with his coat, so he won’t forget it when he’s packing up to go home. When he straightens up again, Ian’s slowly moving towards the door.

”Should go,” he says, gesturing vaguely towards the cold and still glum outside.

”Right,” Mickey leans his elbows on the counter and peers out the windows, ”careful not to fall on your ass, man. Icy this morning.”

Ian nods and smiles like he’s about to say something stupid. ”See you next year, huh?”

”Ugh,” Mickey groans, resting his forehead in the palm of his hand until he hears Ian’s pleased chuckle and he kinda can’t resist glaring up at the guy again, standing over by the door in his ridiculous getup and grinning like a fool, ”you keep this up man, I’ma make like a little list of all the stupid shit you say, and when you reach ten that’s it, banned for life.”

”What?” Ian laughs, spreading his arms out in a wide, innocent shrug. ”It will be next year.”

Four days. With the weekend it’s bound to be at least seven, seven days before Ian thinks he’s gonna be back next time.

”Platitude bingo,” Mickey announces and points a menacing finger at Ian’s smiling face, ”that’s what I’m gonna do, make a little card and everything. Laminate it.”

”It is what it is,” Ian sighs, eyes on the ceiling as he shoulders the door open, ”shit happens, when life gives you lemons.”

He’s made it all the way out the door when he turns and snaps his fingers, pointing at Mickey with both guns. ”Make lemonade.”

Mickey bids him adieu with a one-fingered salute, and waits until Ian’s jogged out of sight before he rounds the counter and walks up to the door, turning the ’we’re open’ sign around.

”It’s a brand new day,” he mutters to himself, and goes back to work.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

January 2
Saturday.

 

Mickey wipes down the last table and nods at Big Guy, who’s shooting him a small smile and a discreet wave as he disappears through the door. Checking the time, Mickey sighs and walks over to Big Guy’s table, quickly clearing it and wiping the crumbs down on the floor. He’s gonna have to sweep it before he leaves, anyway, which hopefully will be within the next half hour. The floor can be a little crummy until then.

Grabbing the small stack of plates and hanging the dry towel off his shoulder, he makes his way in behind the counter, placing the dishes in the hatch before he settles Big Guy’s money. He kinda recognizes the hook in the song just barely flowing out from the kitchen and can’t help humming along as he grabs the plates again and steps in there, smiling at Sonya’s smooth dance moves, scraping the griddle clean of burnt grease and hamburger meat while swaying her hips along with some funky little sideways steps.

”Good day?” she asks and flashes him a smile when he walks past her, over to the sink to start stacking the last of their dishes in the washer.

”Good enough,” he says with a shrug, ”always forget how calm Saturdays can be.”

She mimics his shrug, and he’s like ninety percent certain she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it.

”New Year’s weekend, babe,” she says, ”at least my hangover’s grateful. How’s yours?”

”Awesome,” Mickey smirks and makes a little more noise than strictly necessary, rummaging around the dishes in the sink, ”ain’t got one.”

Sonya groans and tips her head back.

”You’re a god amongst men, Minerva,” she says and returns her attention to her hands when the scraper catches on something, ”how do you do it?”

”Spent the night with my ten year old kid, that’s how I do it,” Mickey admits and glances at Sonya just to see her smiling brilliantly at her greasy griddle, dragging her scraper over it even though it seems clean enough at this point. He rolls his eyes and pulls down the top of the dishwasher, hitting the button to turn it on.

”You’re the one playin’ music and insisting on yammering on about shit,” he grouses and sits down on Etch’s chair, something that never would have gone down well on his usual shift, ”can’t be that fuckin’ bad.”

”My hangover is a peculiar mistress,” Sonya admits, setting the scraper aside and turning around to heave her ass up on the counter, settling in on the cleared space between the hatch and the griddle, ”today it’s music and a little bit of vitamin M that does the trick, it would seem.”

Mickey barely even winces at her increasingly outrageous nicknames anymore, she did learn from the best after all, instead he settles on frowning at her when she readjusts herself on the counter and gets some crumbs stuck to her palm, mindlessly brushing them off on the floor. She’s so cleaning up tonight, he decides, even though he kinda did the same thing not five minutes ago.

The door jingling in the other room derails his plans to start delegating, and he spreads his knees and crosses his arms as he demonstratively sinks down on Etch’s chair, the rickety construction squeaking in protest. Sonya rolls her eyes at him and leans forward a little so she can peek out the hatch.

”Hey handsome,” she greets what hopefully will be their last customer of the night, ”the usual?”

”Yes please, ma’am,” a familiar voice hums, barely audible over Sonya’s music, ”thank you.”

”He calls me ma’am,” Sonya laments, to the ceiling more than anyone else, before she heaves herself off the counter and leans out the hatch, elbows on the sill, ”you know there’s such a thing as too polite, right?”

”Don’t think so, ma’am,” the disembodied voice teases her, and there’s no mistaking the slightly pitchy, deep drawl. Sonya laughs and straightens up, taking a step back.

”Want fries tonight, hon?” she asks, moving over to the griddle to heat it up.

”Nah, ’m good.”

Sonya hums and crosses the narrow kitchen to dig out a bag of frozen patties from the walk in freezer. Mickey takes the opportunity to get up and stalk over to the door, leaning on the doorjamb to peek out at the diner. Ian’s got his back turned, staring out the dark window at the wind gently stirring up the powdery snow under the street’s dim yellow lights.

He’s got his big, dark green parka on, hands clasped behind his back and feet steady, like he’s standing vigil in the empty diner. Mickey tears his eyes off the patch of near luminous skin of his neck, showing between his unevenly knitted scarf and blue beanie, when Sonya suddenly walks past him again, supplies in hand.

Pushing off the door frame, Mickey circles her and makes sure to keep out of her way when he leans against the dishwasher, crossing his arms.

”You know he’s gay, right?” He doesn’t know why he says it and he could smack himself when Sonya frowns at him. But somewhere between finding out that Ian has some kind of rapport going with someone at the diner, other than him, and Sonya calling the guy ’handsome’, all common sense and reason seem to have pretty much jumped ship.

”Who is?” Sonya asks, flipping the burger with unnecessary flair.

”Ian,” Mickey says with an annoyed sigh, cursing himself out for opening his big, dumb mouth.

”Who?” Sonya repeats, and fuck if it isn’t both a huge relief and a whole new level of embarrassing to realize that she probably hasn’t given Ian any more thought than any of their other regulars. Until now.

”Tall, handsome,” Mickey gestures towards the diner, ”standing in the other room.”

”Oh,” is her only comment on his ridiculous fit of poorly concealed jealously, ”is this your infamous gaydar talking, Moo?”

Mickey lets out an annoyed puff of air and then grins, uncrossing his arms so he can release a hand and scratch self-consciously at his eyebrow, shielding his smile a little.

”Retired that malfunctioning fuckin’ bust up thing years ago,” he says and grins wider when Sonya laughs, ”as per your Highness’ instructions.”

”Good,” she says and smiles brilliantly at him, ”I’m glad to hear it. It was only causing trouble.”

”Yeah well, this is not that,” Mickey crosses his arms again and shrugs the shoulder not pressed against the gently sloshing dishwasher, ”he’s a friend. Old neighbor, actually, growing up.”

Sonya only reacts by raising her eyebrows in surprise, eyes not leaving her hands as she peels off a slice of cheese from the pack and slaps it down on the browning patty.

”Well, I didn’t know,” she says, turning away a little to start preparing the bun, ”but then I never asked to see his credentials when he started coming in, very remiss of me.”

Mickey scoffs and turns to lean his back against the dishwasher, eyes vaguely on the lists taped to the fridge doors across the narrow room.

”And you know, just ’cause I know how to appreciate a fine thing,” she continues and leans over, one foot lifting off the floor for balance as she glances out at Ian, ”doesn’t mean I’m interested. You know I’m in a very fulfilling, committed relationship.”

”Yeah,” Mickey says and smirks, ”’cause you’d get in so much trouble if you cheated on Mr Happy.”

”Don’t talk about my life-partner like that,” Sonya warns, turning back to her assembly and menacingly waving a piece of lettuce at Mickey, ”and that’s Miss Happy to you, Moo.”

”Oh, oh, sorry,” Mickey apologizes with all the sarcastic snark he can muster, fingertips to his chest and the other hand held out towards Sonya, ”did I- did I misgender your dildo?”

”It’s okay,” Sonya sighs magnanimously as she returns to the griddle, ”I did too, for a while. But it’s definitely a her, that little egg has taken me places no Tom, Dick or Harry ever has.”

Mickey snorts and watches her assemble the burger, layering the prepared vegetables with sauce and the cheesy patty.

”Funny,” he says and can feel the corners of his mouth twitching up into a mean smirk, ”fucked an egg-sized dick or two in my day and they never got me where I needed to go.”

Sonya cackles, head tipping back with the force of it, before she returns her attention to the half-assembled burger, shaking her head.

”Watch it,” she says and tops the burger off with the second bun half, squashing it down a little with the palm of her hand, ”nearly spat all over your friend’s dinner.”

”Not my fault you find me hilarious,” Mickey dismisses her, even though he’s just gonna go ahead and take that as a compliment, ”good thing we don’t share shifts anymore, huh? Get the CDPH in here to shut us down when they find your gross fuckin’ germs all over the food.”

”Very true,” Sonya says and deftly wraps up the burger in a square sheet of parchment paper, shooting Mickey an easy smile, ”is this what Etch has to deal with? Mickey Moo Part Two, semi-colon Saucy and Hilarious?”

”Pretty sure Etch is the fucking problem,” Mickey grins, crossing his arms, ”him and the Professor have it too damned good and his fuckin’ melodramatic bullshit keeps spilling out on me, turning like half of our conversations into this Sex and the City garbage. I’m just an innocent victim.”

”Please stop, I can’t handle this,” Sonya chuckles as she bags the burger, ”I’m so scandalized, Sex and the City? You know about Sex and the City?”

”Oh, okay, sure,” Mickey sputters and walks up to her just as she closes up the brown bag by rolling down the ends, ”you got me, Son, I had eyes and ears in the late nineties, I know about the Sex and about the City. But please, go ahead and fuckin’ shame your boss’ guilty pleasures some more.”

”Wow, you went from innocent victim to guilty pleasures real fast,” Sonya says with a wide grin, not commenting on it when Mickey takes the bag from her the second she’s done wrapping it up, ”and doesn’t matter how many times you say it, Mussolini, you’re not my boss.”

”It’s kinda sweet how you’re still so naive after all this time,” Mickey shrugs, stopping in the doorway to turn and look back at her, ”would you mind closing up tonight?”

”Since you ask so nicely,” she says without turning to face him, already busy cleaning up after herself, ”your wish is my command, Il Duce.”

Mickey flips her off even though she can’t see it and walks out into the diner, turning immediately in behind the counter. Ian is still standing stock still in the same position by the window, like some royal palace guard, and doesn’t react until Mickey sets the bagged burger down and rings it up on the register.

Mickey has to press his lips together to keep himself from mirroring him when Ian spins around and his whole face splits into a wide grin.

”Hey Mickey,” he says, still smiling brightly when he walks up to the counter and Mickey raises his eyebrows at him in an attempt to look casually unimpressed, ”didn’t know you’d be working tonight.”

”Shit happens,” Mickey shrugs and can feel his walls crumbling when he looks at Ian again and feels like an idiot for continuing to be so fucking obtuse in the guy’s easy company, ”Katie wanted the weekend off to go see her kids, so, here I am. That’s three fifty, man, want anything else?”

”No, thanks,” Ian says and gives him the money, pocketing his wallet and rubbing absently at his neck as Mickey counts out his change, maybe that new lumpy-looking scarf he’s got is itchy on top of being visually offensive, ”would’ve tried to get here earlier if I’d known.”

Mickey isn’t sure what to make of that, picking up his eyebrows and choosing not to comment on it as he hands over Ian’s 1.50 in change. Guess it shouldn’t really be all that surprising, Mickey thinks to himself and smirks when Ian drops the change in the tip jar and shows off that cocky little smile of his as he picks up his bag and takes a step back.

”Sure,” Mickey settles for sarcasm, it usually works out, and reaches back to untie the knot on his apron, ”I’ll let you know first, next time we decide to switch our schedules around.”

”Thank you,” Ian says and sounds so serious Mickey has to pause for a second, bunching up his apron in his hands and looking up at the guy only to see him smirk right back, chin out and eyebrows giving him attitude, ”that’d be helpful.”

Mickey scoffs and shakes his head at him when Ian looks pleased with himself, backing away and turning towards the door, holding up his bag in a kind of goodbye.

”Hey,” Mickey mutters and is vaguely aware of that Ian stops with a hand on the door when he grabs his coat from under the counter and throws his apron in there, ”hold up.”

Quickly cringing on his coat he feels the pockets for his stuff, remembering the cigarette behind his ear the same second he feels his hand clutch around the unfamiliar shape of his new lighter. He’d tried to sneak in a break about half an hour ago, but’d only come as far as putting his very last cigarette to his lips and tossing the carton towards the bins when Sonya had called him back inside. Dislodging the cigarette he lets it hang from his lips as he does one last check and then rounds the counter to join Ian by the door. He’s got his eyebrows hitched high in a silent question, but he doesn’t say anything when he nods and opens the door, letting Mickey out first before he follows.

”Thanks,” Mickey mutters around his cigarette, zippo sparking and lighting it up before Ian’s had the time to close the door behind them. The bell jingles faintly on the other side and Sonya’s music is completely cut off, replaced by the muffled sounds of snowed over streets and distant traffic.

Leaving the lit cigarette hanging, Mickey tucks his new lighter into one of his hidden inner pockets and then pulls out his fingerless gloves, puffing out smoke as he peers over at Ian. He looks like he’s about to leave but maybe also like he wants to stay, and Mickey realizes that he’s all here for encouraging the guy to go with the latter option.

”That gotta be the ugliest fucking thing I’ve ever seen,” he comments and nods at Ian’s new scarf, loosely knitted in a garish combination of striped orange and blue, ”did you lose a bet?”

Ian looks down, like he’s somehow managed to forget that he’s wrapped up in the bastard lovechild of Fozzie Bear and the Cookie Monster.

”Is this a cry for help?” Mickey continues, grinning when Ian snorts. ”Do you need me to call someone? Are you down on your luck? You can tell me, are you going through other people’s garbage just to clothe yourself?”

”Fuck you,” Ian grins and tugs at one of the ends of the scarf, hanging down his open parka, ”it’s nice.”

”Oh, no,” Mickey wrings his hands and holds them out towards Ian, looking around the street in mock desperation, ”he’s going blind! Someone help!”

”Shut the fuck up,” Ian laughs, swatting at Mickey’s hands and looking around himself too, probably making sure no one’s taking Mickey seriously, ”just ’cause I’m not a clotheshorse like some.”

Mickey raises his eyebrows in what he hopes is equal measures challenge and threat, but by the looks of Ian’s confident grin he’s straight up failing. ”You callin’ me stylish?”

”If the shoe fits,” Ian says with a shrug, hands spreading out his sides even though he’s got one down a pocket and the other’s still holding his brown bag.

Mickey can’t help it, he glances down at his own worn pair of Docs he’d been given for a birthday present a few years back by Etch and the Professor, his so-called friends insisting that the leather boots were ’totally him’. Well, he found out that it was most definitely ’him’ to wear the fuck outta some expensive-ass shoes given to him for free, and somewhere along the line he guesses he accidentally acquired himself some kinda style. That’s what happens when you wear the same shoe/jeans/t-shirt/hair combo every day. It may start out innocently convenient, but before you know it you’re gonna wake up to people calling you a clotheshorse, right to your face.

”You tryna say something?” Mickey insists, smirking a little when a quick look of regret passes over Ian’s face.

”Yeah,” he huffs, ”tryna say I like your style Mick, didn’t mean to be offensive or whatever.”

”It is when the guy sayin’ it ’s looking like a fuckin’ rag doll Bronco fan,” Mickey teases and puts his cigarette back to his lips, smirking around it as it dips and bobs with his words, ”I mean…”

Blowing out a great plume of smoke he gestures towards Ian’s scarf with both hands, the corner of Ian’s mouth quirking up in a crooked smile as he rolls his eyes and takes half a step back. It’s like he’s stuck to Mickey with a bungee cord, though, when his head tips forward and his eyes fall back on Mickey, and he immediately steps just that little bit closer than he was before.

”Come on, Mickey,” he complains, smirking and shaking his head like Mickey’s being ridiculous, ”be nice, it was a gift.”

”Oh,” Mickey nods, touching his fingertips to his lips as he fits them around the cigarette and angling it away scratches absently at his chin, ”so a little kid made it? Well, isn’t that sweet.”

Ian huffs and tips his head back, but when he looks at Mickey again he’s smiling. It’s wide and unstoppable, even while he’s pressing his lips together and jutting out his chin to hide it, and it fucking just does it for Mickey.

”No,” Ian admits, smoothing his free hand down the scarf, ”Fiona made it.”

Mickey raises his eyebrows and blows out a steady flow of smoke through his nostrils. ”A grown-ass woman knitted you a scarf for Christmas?”

”Uh-huh,” Ian’s still smiling, and Mickey might be starting to believe that he actually likes the ugly thing. He can’t help thinking it’d be just fucking like him if he does. ”She’s pregnant again and you know how it is, always strapped for cash.”

Mickey makes a doubtful face, sifting out smoke between the gaps in his teeth. ”Never been so strapped for cash to start knittin’ crap and force it on people I supposedly care about.”

”She’s just learning,” Ian defends his sister’s lacking skill, ”she got into it when she was put on bedrest for a while last month.”

”The baby okay?” Mickey asks, dropping the teasing act for a second.

”Yeah,” Ian nods, shrugging a little, ”they’re both fine, things weren’t… uncomplicated, last time. Doctor’s just bein’ extra cautious ’cause of that, I think.”

”It’s her second?” Mickey puts the cigarette back to his lips and nods when Ian holds up three fingers. ”And what’s like, the appropriate thing here; congrats or condolences?”

”Oh,” Ian says with a proud smile, his body twisting a little from side to side, ”it’s definitely congrats this time.”

Mickey raises his eyebrows at the ’this time’, but doesn’t ask. Honestly, he tends to be more surprised when he hears about pregnancies being planned and longed for, but maybe that’s just residual pangs from his own experience still haunting him on some unconscious level. He purses his lips around the cigarette, some built up ash falling off when the stick dips along with the movement, and he watches as Ian unrolls his brown bag and takes out his burger, clutching the paper bag under his arm while he unwraps his dinner with both hands.

Mickey feels like he should apologize for interrupting Ian’s routine like this, making him stick around the diner when he obviously was on his way home with his food, but the urge doesn’t even get past impulse before it’s gone. He thinks about suggesting that they go back inside the diner so Ian can sit down and eat with some fucking dignity, or whatever, but Mickey’s still got half his cigarette left and glancing in through the windows he sees Sonya silently dancing around on the other side, flipping chairs and sweeping the floor. He kinda wants to stay out here, where it’s just the two of them. It’s probably a pretty fucking stupid thing to want.

But Ian doesn’t seem to mind standing out on the cold, dark street with Mickey, judging by the way he digs into his burger and makes a content noise, nodding a little as he chews. Mickey watches him eat like a fucking creep, while Ian appears blissfully unaware with his eyes steadily on his food as he takes another big bite. Mickey licks his bottom lip and clears his throat for no reason at all, plugging his mouth with his cigarette to keep himself from doing something he shouldn’t.

”So,” Mickey starts, stopping for a second to suck on his cigarette and then absently use his tongue to move it towards the corner of his lips, making it a little easier to speak around it, ”you come here often?”

A piece of lettuce falls down Ian’s scarf when he snorts, screwing his eyes closed and pressing his lips together to keep from laughing up all his food.

”From time to time,” he starts speaking with his mouth still pretty full, swallowing before he continues, ”but for breakfast, usually.”

”This is a weird fuckin’ time for breakfast,” Mickey comments, raising an eyebrow when Ian licks some stray ketchup from his bottom lip and grins at him, Jesus fucking Christ, asshole manages to look fucking sexy even while shoving a greasy burger into his face. It’s not fair.

Ian picks up one shoulder in a lopsided shrug. ”Guess weekends’re different.”

The statement is innocent enough, and it’s not like it’s a fucking secret at this point that Ian likes the diner just that little bit more when Mickey happens to be in it, but it’s still stupidly exciting to take whatever it is Ian’s insinuating and run with it. It’s 8 PM takeout on Saturdays because Mickey isn’t there to make the mornings a more favorable option, this is clearly the only reasonable interpretation of Ian’s laconic explanation.

While Ian’s just eating his burger, casual as all fuck. Mickey seriously needs to chill.

Pulling in deep off his cigarette, Mickey takes it between two fingers and drops it to the ground, carefully crushing it into the slightly melted snow at his feet. He looks up in time to see Ian push in the last of his burger into his mouth, chewing slowly and quickly sucking the crumbs and grease off the pads of his thumb and pointer finger. He nods again when he sees Mickey looking at him, like he’s trying to show how much he’s enjoying his food even while it’s keeping him from voicing it out loud.

He’s got a blob of mustard stuck in the corner of his lips, smeared over that line by his mouth that cuts into his cheek like a dimple with every smile he throws Mickey’s way. Mickey is one away from stepping forward and sucking the mustard straight off his magnetic fucking gorgeous lips when the diner’s door opens and the bell jingles, the sound breaking him out of his trance half a second before the door is about to hit him square in the face. He sidesteps it just in time and scowls at Sonya when she walks out on the street and straight into the first act of Mickey’s imaginary porno. Redhead eats burger and barebacks slutty power bottom in dark alleyway, a million views, 100%, all thumbs up.

She’s Mickey’s guardian fucking angel, she’s the absolute worst.

”Oh, hello boys,” she says, turning her back on them to get on her toes and insert the crank at the top of the windows, working it to unwind the diner’s security blinds, ”didn’t realize you were still out here.”

”Mick’s been insulting my new scarf,” Ian explains, still chewing on that last big bite as he takes a step back and hides his no doubt freezing hands down the pockets of his parka, ”how am I supposed to walk away from that, you know?”

”I get that,” Sonya says as she padlocks the shutters and turns around with a wide grin, eying Ian appreciatively, ”oh, but don’t listen to him, that’s a great scarf!”

”Yeah?” Ian almost seems a little embarrassed, mixed in with how ridiculously pleased he looks.

”Made with love, clearly,” Sonya decides, blanking Mickey when he scoffs, ”Mickey’s just jealous, honey, ignore him.”

”Fuckin’ right I’m jealous,” Mickey says and holds out a hand, snapping his fingers impatiently when Sonya looks unimpressed by his silent demand, ”ten years and not one ugly scarf, Son, what’s up with that?”

Sonya rolls her eyes when he doesn’t give up, only letting up on snapping his fingers to beacon with his hand at her until she digs out an unopened pack of smokes from her three layers of sweaters and cardigans she insists on wearing instead of a real winter coat. She keeps saying she’s quit smoking but whatever, she always seems to be packing and Mickey considers himself a goddamned hero for taking them off her hands whenever he can, thus delivering her from temptation. He catches the carton two handed when she lobs it at him and it hits him square in the chest.

”Want me to knit you something, Moo?” she asks, and Mickey doesn’t need to look directly at Ian to see his eyebrows flying high in surprise. ”Is that it?”

”Yeah,” Mickey says, puffing out smoke around his fresh cigarette as it’s lit, embers flaring and flickering when he flicks his zippo shut and pockets it, ”’s exactly what I want.”

Sonya says nothing about her smokes disappearing down his deep pockets but looks him up and down, pursing her lips in thought.

”I’m thinking some nice Aran Merino wool,” she says, cracking her knuckles and stretching her fingers like she’s about to jump into a fucking fistfight, ”double knit, maybe denim to match those baby blues, yeah, alternate it with like, a spicy pumpkin in bold, horizontal stripes.”

Mickey removes the cigarette from his lips and sucks on his teeth, brows furrowing in concentration as he picks through the bullshit to try and decipher what she just said.

”Think it sounds great, Mick,” Ian says and nods when Mickey looks at him, ”really nice.”

”It’s gonna be fuckin’ blue and orange, won’t it?” Mickey groans, looking between them and maybe smiling a little when they both grin back at him. ”Yeah, okay, real fucking funny.”

”Well, I think so,” Sonya sighs happily and hitches up her shawl on top of her head to loosely wrap the long ends around her neck, pulling her clothes tighter around herself against the sneakily chilly wind, ”don’t worry, Moo, I’ll knit you something you’ll like, I know what works on you.”

”Sure,” Mickey smirks around his cigarette, removing it and blowing out smoke as he turns with her when she steps past him, ”hey, when are you gonna come around for dinner again? The kid misses you.”

Sonya turns around and walks a couple of steps backwards down the sidewalk before she stops, looking like she’s giving it some serious thought.

”Next week?” she suggests. ”I’ve got Thursday off, I could bring stuff and cook, like old times.”

Mickey can feel old memories tugging at the corners of his lips, of countless evenings when Sonya saved his ass, when money was tight and he found himself alone with Yevgeny and little to no clue of how to do anything after the divorce.

”Yeah, you should do that rice thing,” he says with a little nod, wetting his lip so he can stick the cigarette back as he talks, ”pillow whatever.”

”Kabuli palaw,” Sonya corrects him, looking really excited by the suggestion.

”Yeah, that,” Mickey waves his hand dismissively and smirks behind a steady exhale of white smoke, ”but stick to fucking chicken this time, wouldya?”

”You’re so picky,” she says, shaking her head and looking over his shoulder at Ian, ”grown man who won’t eat lamb, he was fussing more than Yevy over it the one time I get them to step out of their comforts a little.”

”I wanna wear the fuckin’ scarf,” Mickey shrugs, ”not eat it.”

”Yeah, alright,” Sonya chuckles and throws up her hands in defeat as she turns around and starts walking away, raising her voice to still make herself heard, ”and don’t smoke that whole thing, I’ve got a spy in your house, I know you’re supposed to be quitting!”

”Bitch please-, don’t worry about it!” he grins and yells after her, maybe a little louder than necessary just ’cause he knows she’s still shook from her New Year’s celebrations, and turns to raise his eyebrows at Ian’s mildly amused smirk. ”And you shut up, I’m cutting down, never said I was fucking quitting.”

”No,” Ian agrees, shaking his head in ernest and Mickey’d believe him if only that little smirk didn’t give his mockery away, ”’course not.”

”I swear the kid’s been emailing with everyone we know, turning ’em against me,” Mickey complains in a mutter, ”I’ve raised a snitch, my own flesh and blood.”

”He cares about your health,” Ian says, like Mickey needs reminding, ”it’s sweet.”

Whatever Mickey meant to say to that slips way completely when Ian, without so much as a friendly warning, suddenly reaches out his hand towards Mickey’s face.

In a perfect world, maybe Mickey would have let the guy take the cigarette right off his lips, maybe ’accidentally’ leaned in a little when he did it, too, to feel Ian’s calloused fingertips against his mouth or whatever, like they’re in some cheesy romance novel. But Mickey is far from fucking perfect, and forget about the world, so instead he’s leaning back and before he’s really thought about what the fuck he’s doing he’s swatting Ian’s hand away.

”Forget it,” he scowls, sucking on the cigarette and grinning when he blows out a lungful of smoke and strangely feels like he’s done the right thing, Ian’s hand falling down his side and his smirk dipping into something decidedly dejected, ”dude, you’ve most definitely fucking quit.”

Ian huffs, clearly trying to look annoyed but pretty much failing. ”Yeah, but-”

”Nope, nuh-uh,” Mickey smirks, moving the cigarette from one corner of his lips to the other, just to show off, ”I care about you, man, it’s sweet, right?”

Ian shuffles his feet and his eyes are so intently on Mickey he thinks he probably wouldn’t be able to look away even if he wanted when Ian smiles like he can’t help it.

”You know why it’s blue and orange?” Ian asks, grinning wider when Mickey blinks and puffs out smoke to kinda hide behind it for a second while his brain’s playing catchup. Right.

The ridiculous scarf is charming as fuck and looks really good on Ian. It compliments his personality or whatever, and Mickey teasing him about it is probably not as sly as he’d like to imagine.

”’Cause your sister’s colorblind?” he teases anyway, raising his eyebrows when Ian shakes his head and looks like he knows something Mickey doesn’t.

”They’re my old team colors,” Ian finally lets up, absently rubbing his hands together against the cold, ”from Little League.”

”Oh shit, yeah,” Mickey huffs, grasping at vague memories from when he can’t have been more than ten, maybe eleven, ”Coach Simmon’s fucking knee high socks-”

”And sandals with those khaki shorts,” Ian adds and smiles when Mickey looks at him, ”yeah, didn’t have any official gear or anything, but he kept insisting on everyone wearin’ blue and orange for games, to match his damned socks.”

”That guy was nuts,” Mickey concludes, blowing out smoke and giving Ian a small nod, ”how the fuck do you know any of this?”

”I’m hurt,” Ian sighs, rolling his eyes and tipping his head back, but not managing to hide his persistent smile, still there when he looks at Mickey again and shakes his head, ”Mick, we were on the same team.”

”Fuck off, no we weren’t,” Mickey says, voice a little muffled around the stub of his cigarette still hanging off his lips, ”no way.”

”Yes way,” Ian huffs, shrugging and hiding his pale hands down his pockets, ”we played for the same team almost a whole season, Mick, I swear, seen evidence and everything when Fi got hormonal on Christmas Day and bust out the family photo album. You were front and center in the group shot after our first game, remember? We lost so fucking bad, couldn’t have guessed it from looking at that photo though.”

Mickey blinks at him, trying his best to remember the other members of his team and if one of them in any way could’ve been a match for a tiny version of Ian. But Little League isn’t exactly a happy memory for Mickey and, for one reason or another, not one he’s paid any mind to for a long time. For the first time in fucking forever, he kinda wishes he remembered more of it.

He’s smoked his cigarette down to the filter, so he pulls at it one more time and then flicks it out into the street, the embers still burning and painting a slow curve through the air until it drops into the sludge collected along the curb on the other side, and dies.

”Those assholes had it in for me from the start,” he mutters, not looking at Ian when he pockets his hands and pulls up his shoulders against the cold, ”kicked me off the team halfway through the fucking season for no reason at all.”

He looks up when Ian huffs out a laugh, and Mickey’s pretty sure he knows what’s coming when he sees that damned smirk.

”You pissed on first base,” Ian reminds him, quirking an eyebrow, ”as reasons go, you gotta admit it’s pretty solid.”

Mickey grins and thumbs at the side of his mouth, like he’s feeling it out. Smoothing it out, this helpless fucking feeling he keeps getting around this guy.

”Maybe,” he reluctantly admits.

”Not sayin’ it wasn’t funny,” Ian says, holding out a hand towards Mickey as though to reassure him, ”’cause it was very funny.”

”I’m a funny guy,” Mickey agrees, picking up his hands in a wide shrug, ”what can you do?”

”What can you do?” Ian echoes and mimics Mickey’s exaggerated shrug, laughing and taking a step back when Mickey kicks out a foot in his direction, even though they’re not even near close enough for Mickey to get in a good hit. Mickey stands still and just watches Ian through narrowed eyes as he bungees back in, one step, two steps. Three, four more and they’d be nose to nose. Mickey’d have to tip his head back a little, Ian’d have to lean in-, fuck.

”What’re you doin’ here, anyway?” Mickey shuts down his racing thoughts and rolls his eyes when Ian unearths the balled up and flattened brown bag from under his arm, holding up like it’s sufficient answer. ”Yeah, but why the fuck do you come here for food, it’s a Saturday night, there’s no family dinner you should be at or like-, a preppy guy in a ’kiss the cook’ apron icing a princess cake somewhere, ass out and just waiting on ya to show up?”

”You done?” Ian asks, an eyebrow raised an the corners of his lips twitching once he’s stopped rolling his eyes.

”I could go on,” Mickey threatens, grinning when Ian holds up his hands, one still lightly gripped around the paper bag ball.

”Been doing this songwriting seminar for a few Saturdays this winter,” Ian explains with a shrug, glancing at Mickey before he aims and shoots the makeshift ball across the street in a wide bow, landing neatly in an open bin, ”nothing but net!”

”Show off,” Mickey accuses him, smirking when Ian turns back to him with a proud bend to his lips, chin all the fuck out, ”you taking lessons in that shit? Here I thought you were a full-time music man.”

”No, I-,” Ian starts and makes a face, scratching self-consciously at the back of his head, ”I kinda teach it.”

Mickey is both impressed and a little embarrassed, but he’s not gonna tell Ian that. ”How do you kinda teach something?”

”I’m not-, you know, actually a teacher,” Ian winces, ”I just show up and tell people what it is I do, and then we spend the rest of the day writing songs and then I go home with a little extra cash.”

”Sounds like a nice scam you got going,” Mickey genuinely compliments him, ”good for you.”

Anyone else would probably be pissed to have Mickey call any aspect of their craft a scam, but Ian just gives him a quick grin and a shake of his head.

”They got money, they wanna listen to me,” Ian shrugs, ”not gonna turn ’em down. It’s a lotta fun actually, it’s good for me too.”

”That’s good,” Mickey says and thinks he sounds pretty lame, folding his arms across his chest and shuddering a little when the movement opens the front of his coat and lets in a gust of chilling air.

Ian grins at him for a second, but then it screws up into a quick frown.

”You cold?” he asks, taking half a step closer and pushing up his sleeve just enough to glance down at his watch, ”shit-, I’m keepin’ you from going home, aren’t I?”

”Yeah, that’s what’s happening right now,” Mickey scoffs, picking up his eyebrows at Ian’s dumbass concern, ”but it is fucking freezing, so I guess…”

”Can I walk you home?” Ian asks, smirking a little when Mickey stares at him.

”You think I need protectin’ or some shit, Red?” Mickey challenges his offer, eyebrows trailing even higher when Ian shrugs.

”Yeah,” he says with a small nod, ”that’s what I think, Moo.”

”Hey!” Mickey tries to sound serious but it comes out in a laugh. ”I will fuck you up.”

”What?” Ian feigns innocence and starts walking past Mickey, glancing at him when they’re shoulder to shoulder as though he wants to make sure that Mickey follows. ”What did I do?”

”You know what you’ve done,” Mickey refuses to take the bait.

”Oh,” Ian says and Mickey can tell he’s nodding even without really looking at him, ”so callin’ you cute shit’s like, exclusively a Sonya thing?”

”Well, she’s ridiculous enough to do it,” Mickey sighs and rubs absently at his eyebrow, attempting to explain the inexplicable, ”and it’s not like I can’t beat her up over it ’cause, you know, she’s a chick and she would kill me.”

”Uh-huh,” Ian says and looks sideways at Mickey when they stop for a second by a red light, ”sounds like you’ve got something going on there.”

”Fuck no, no way,” Mickey huffs and shakes his head, using the excuse of checking the dead empty street for traffic to not look at Ian as he starts walking again, ”she’s like my sister, man, besides… she’s not my type.”

”Right, ’course not,” Ian hums, and Mickey thinks the guy’s still smiling a little when he glances sideways to take in his calm profile, slightly obscured by the evening glum, ”’cause sweet, pretty girls aren’t your type?”

Mickey grins and looks down the darkened street, remembering the last time they were walking this way together. He feels light. Fucking free.

”Don’t so much mind the sweet and pretty,” he admits, kinda hoping what remains unsaid doesn’t pass by unnoticed. Ian huffs, like he thinks Mickey’s being funny or something, but it doesn’t look like he’s got much of a fucking clue about anything when Mickey braves a glance his way. It’s infuriatingly endearing, what a fucking doofus. It’s kinda comforting for Mickey to imagine Ian being this bad at picking up on the kinda signals Mickey can’t help but send his way, all of a sudden. It’s less comforting to imagine that it might just be Mickey’s unwanted signals that don’t register.

Mickey shrugs to himself and digs out Sonya’s cigarettes, tapping one out and putting it to his lips more as a distraction than anything else, plugging his trigger-happy pie-hole and occupying his busy hands with the zippo, struggling a little against the wind even at their leisured pace.

He stops walking after three tries, so he can bend his head and cup his other hand around he flame, flickering and dancing wildly around the still unlit tip of his third goddamned cigarette, already making tonight’s count at least two too many. He almost doesn’t flinch at all when Ian’s steady hands suddenly appear on each side of Mickey’s, adding to the makeshift shelter. With their fingers brushing and Ian’s breath warm and visible between them, replacing the biting wind and mingling with Mickey’s, Mickey feels like he’s going fucking crosseyed he’s staring at the flame so hard as it stops messing around and finally catches on to the thin paper and dry tobacco, embers flaring up when he sucks in a lungful of smoke and leans back a little.

”Thanks,” he mutters and peers up at Ian when their hands part, Ian kinda running his fingertips down the back of Mickey’s fingerless gloves when he drops his hands, the touch light and brief and not nearly enough. Ian just smiles and shrugs a little, hands disappearing back into his pockets as he turns and starts walking again, slowly until Mickey’s caught up and fallen into step with him.

They walk a whole block in silence, Mickey smoking and Ian with his eyes on the dark sky whenever Mickey glances his way. He can’t help it, every damned time Mickey finds himself following Ian’s line of sight and frowning up at the winter sky, dark clouds silently sailing across the midnight blue. He can’t imagine what it is Ian’s finding so fascinating about the overcast city night sky, there’s nothing there.

”Hey,” he says and clears his throat a little, removing the half-burnt cigarette so he can worry at his bottom lip with his teeth for a second, swiping his tongue over it, ”thanks, for the gift. Kid loved it.”

”Yeah?” Ian looks at him now, eyebrows arched and lips pleased, and all Mickey can do is nod.

”Yeah,” he echoes, putting the cigarette back, ”yeah, got a little space for it on the wall in the kitchen.”

Smiling around the cigarette he sucks at it and slowly lets the smoke billow back out through his nose and mouth. He hesitates to go on, but he gets over it real quick.

”We like, read the words together in the mornings, when he’s with me,” he says, stopping just short of admitting that it’s a whole new favorite moment of the day for him, ”even calls me every morning he’s with his mom, gets me to tear the thing off and read the new word over the phone, it’s pretty fuckin’ stupid.”

”You love it,” Ian sees right through him, a warm, knowing grin all over his face when Mickey shoots him a sideways glance.

”That I do,” Mickey mumbles, smoke swirling around his words. It’s a morose, useless thought, but he thinks he needs to treasure what he’s got while he’s got it. Make the most of the company he has with his son at every stage he’s growing up and changing. No one’s fucking dying, though, so he kinda hates himself for treating the passing of time like someone is. It’s good that Yevgeny’s growing up, it’s right. He’s an amazing kid and he’s only gonna become greater, much better than Mickey ever was, and if Mickey has his way he’ll still be getting phone calls at seven in the morning from his kid fifteen years from now, calling just to giggle over ’muckrake’ and ’thaumaturgy’, or whatever the fuck the English language will think of in the future.

”Grow up fast,” Ian says, still fucking smiling that nice little smirk when Mickey looks at him, ”don’t they?”

Mickey shrugs, kinda almost like he wants to shake Ian out of his fucking head. ”’m not complaining.”

”You love being a dad,” Ian decides, looking straight ahead with a knowing nod, ”you don’t want it to end.”

”Love it or hate it, doesn’t matter, you know?” Mickey tries to explain, waving a hand dismissively when Ian makes a face like Mickey’s talking outta his ass. ”He’s my son, man, I love my son. I’d do anything for him, that’s all there is to it.”

”Bullshit,” Ian says and chuckles when Mickey glares at him, ”you love being a dad. You should, you’re good.”

It’s not the first time Ian says as much, but it’s still weird as hell to hear. Mickey knows, Mickey knows he’s good, but he doesn’t know if he’s all that used to other people agreeing with him without first requesting the written evidence.

”You ever want kids?” Mickey asks, pulling in a deep drag off his cigarette before taking it from his lips and tapping off some of the built up ash behind them. When he turns back to look at Ian he’s got his eyebrows hitched high in thought and eyes way down on the street ahead of them.

”Yeah,” he says, smiling a little uncertainly when he meets Mickey’s eyes for a second, ”yeah, I think I do.”

”Yeah, you’re all pretty and no brains, huh?” Mickey concludes and grins when Ian makes a face.

”Shut up,” he huffs, but looks a little too pleased to really seem all that offended by Mickey’s words, ”been taking care of my kid brother since I was fourteen, so I know some of what it’s like. It’s nice, c’mon, tell me you wouldn’t do it again?”

Mickey really wants to say no, ’cause he’s honestly never thought he’d do it again, not in a million years. Yevgeny was a fluke and a mistake and a fucking blessing. A guy like Mickey doesn’t get given that kinda gift twice in life.

”Maybe,” he says, mumbling the word around his cigarette as they step to a halt outside Mickey’s building. His feet must have walked them here on their own, he can’t remember the last three blocks at all.

Ian turns to face him and takes a couple of steps back, shoulders twisting gently from side to side as he looks up at the damned sky again, and then straight at Mickey.

”No one’s ever asked me that before,” he says, nodding when Mickey raises his eyebrows in doubt.

”Bullshit,” Mickey calls, scrunching his nose up when Ian shrugs, ”never?”

”Don’t know if it’s the gay thing or the crazy thing,” Ian says with a sad, dismissive smile that Mickey doesn’t fucking like at all, ”or maybe people just don’t think I’d make a good dad.”

”Yeah, well,” Mickey frowns, flicking away his burnt down cigarette and watching it sail through the air, ”people are fucking idiots, they don’t know shit.”

Ian’s got his eyes on him and an easy smile dancing on his red fucking delicious-looking lips when Mickey glances his way.

”Guess not,” he says and takes another step back, spreading out his arms, ”but look at this, you have arrived safely at your destination.”

”My hero,” Mickey deadpans, pressing his lips together to maintain his unimpressed expression even in the face of Ian’s brilliant smile.

”At your service,” he says with a slight bow, still stepping backwards and holding a hand to his chest.

”Yeah, but who’s gonna be protectin’ you, now, you thought of that?” Mickey only half teases him, raising his voice as Ian moves further away and starts to turn. ”I’ma have to walk you back, and then we’ll be yoyoing the fuck back and forth all night.”

”Goodnight Mick,” Ian laughs, his calm voice nicely contrasting the casual middle finger he’s throwing over his shoulder, ”see you around.”

”Yeah, sure,” Mickey mumbles and turns to walk inside, biting the persistent smile still pulling at his lips as he opens the gate, ”guess so.”

 

 

.

Chapter Text

January 8
Friday.

 

Mickey slots in the filter and flips the switch, absently wiping down the counter around the coffeemaker where he might have fumbled with the measurement earlier and spilled grounds all over his station. He ignores the light crunch under his feet and moves over to the sink to brush off his hands and wet the washcloth.

”There something wrong with the broom?” Edna mutters behind him, glaring at him when he turns his head and picks up his eyebrows at her champion use of sarcasm. ”Can get you a new one if that’s the case. New Year’s bonus kinda thing.”

Mickey sucks on his teeth and considers arguing with her, just to have something to do for a couple of minutes, but then holds up his hands in quiet surrender and crunch, crunch, crunches his way into the kitchen to grab the broom and dustpan. He doesn’t do a perfect job, sweeping the grounds up, but at least she can’t complain about the way he very pointedly does it, even brushing the bristle of the broom under the soles of his boots and putting on a nothing short of acrobatic show for her disinterested benefit.

He stows away the broom back in the kitchen and when the coffee stops hissing and dripping, he grabs the pot and walks over to Edna’s table to pour her a cup.

”You’re doin’ good, son,” she mutters and almost makes him spill over the whole table, eyebrows climbing up his forehead as he stops pouring in order to look at her worn face, her eyes steadily on her morning paper and her countenance completely void of any emotion, ”don’t forget callin’ sanitation about the extra pickup.”

Mickey scoffs at the warmth flaring up inside him from her no-nonsense, sincere approval, and happily follows her lead and hides any deeper sentiment behind some good old literal trash talk.

”When did I ever forget to call anyone about anything?” he complains with a smirk and tops up her only half-full cup of coffee. ”Ten steps ahead of you, Ed, called ’em yesterday.”

Edna doesn’t even look up from her paper. ”Call me ’Ed’ again and you’ll find yourself at the back of the unemployment line.”

”Please,” Mickey smirks, ”like you’d last a day without me.”

She glances up at him and Mickey thinks he might detect the smallest hint of a smile, pulling at the set lines of her stern face.

”Yeah, what I thought,” he says with a grin, but walks away before she really does fire him.

The door opens, a gust of wind sweeping through the diner and the bell clattering. Mickey gets behind the counter and tries to ignore the way he subconsciously holds his breath for that split second before he’s looking over at the door to see Etch close it and brush himself off with one hand, eyes on his phone and a deep frown crowing his forehead as the snow cascades off him and melts before it even hits the floor.

”Morning,” Mickey greets him, raising his eyebrows in surprise when Etch walks over to the counter but doesn’t look up from his phone, ”what’s up, man?”

”Sonya keeps texting me,” Etch says and kinda looks like a confused kid when he finally tears his eyes off the phone long enough to acknowledge Mickey’s presence.

Mickey scoffs and leans forward, resting his forearms on the counter. ”So?”

So… look at this,” Etch steps closer and holds out his phone for Mickey to see while blindly scrolling through the conversation with the tip of his pointer finger, a little too fast for Mickey to really read any of it, ”that’s like, two solid years of her asking me to switch shifts or-”

Mickey squints at the phone and scowls when Etch pulls it away to continue scrolling to himself as he keeps talking.

”-telling me to restock something, or do a better job cleaning the edge of the griddle,” he winces at the screen, just a flash of guilt before he scrolls back up the conversation and finds something to grin at, ”sure, there’s this one argument about hummus, but aside the chickpea debacle of 2014 she’s never seemed very interested in talking to me before, kinda thought she didn’t like me.”

Mickey scoffs. ”You don’t think anyone likes you, man, and I keep tellin’ you it’s ’cause no one likes you.”

Etch lets out a shocked noise and lowers the phone to glare at Mickey, cheeks twitching as he clearly tries his best not to smile.

”Excuse you,” he huffs, ”I happen to be very lovable, not my fault some people are tougher to charm than others.”

Mickey raises an unimpressed eyebrow at Etch’s pointed, brilliant smile.

”You’ve got the subtlety of a donkey on fucking rollerblades,” Mickey surrenders, leaning back to cross his arms and shake his head, smirking at Etch’s pleased expression.

”Rollerblades,” he guffaws, ”you’re such a nineties kid, Mickey, it’s adorable.”

”What-ever,” Mickey says and makes a show of rolling his eyes, putting his hands up and linking his thumbs and pointer fingers together to form a W, before he turns both hands around and flips him off when Etch laughs out loud, ”so make it a fucking hoverboard or something-, yeah, you heard me. I’m down with this shit, I know what’s happening.”

”Sure, Gramps,” Etch teases, even though he’s got Mickey beat by a couple of years.

”So,” Mickey tries to circle back to the start, ”what does she want?”

”So far,” Etch shrugs, ”nothing? Started texting me on… Tuesday, maybe? That time she asked about your favorite color?”

Mickey groans and holds up a hand, gesturing at Etch to hold that thought for a second as he leans over and pulls out his new scarf, stuffed into the sleeve of his coat.

”Holdin’ you responsible for the purple,” Mickey complains, balling it up and throwing it over the counter. Etch catches it with both hands and grins as he takes in the intricate pattern running through the long scarf in purple, blue, grey and black.

”Look at that!” Etch laughs, wrapping it around his neck a couple of times to try it out. ”This is great.”

”Yeah, sure,” Mickey agrees, making sure to sound sarcastic even though he really kinda means it, ”could’ve just said ’black’, though, couldn’t you?”

”I did!” Etch insists, throwing one of the ends of the scarf over his shoulder with some flair. ”’Black, like his mood’ were my exact words, I can show you if you don’t believe me, got the whole convo on the old cellular record.”

”Okay,” Mickey agrees and holds out a hand. Etch freezes in spot and stares at it, before grimacing nervously up at Mickey.

”Maybe I threw around a couple other suggestions,” he admits with a sheepish grin, ”anyway, don’t pretend you don’t like it! Think I’ve seen you wear every color imaginable over the years, not forgetting that one time you were rocking the whole rainbow at once with that Hawaiian floral number.”

”One time,” Mickey scoffs, ”try all the time, I’ve pulled some decent dick wearing that shirt.”

”Oh, I believe you,” Etch clearly lies, smiling when he looks back down at the scarf around his neck, ”did Sonya make this?”

”Yeah, she’s a knitting wiz,” Mickey shrugs, ”it’s like her day job, man. Don’t imagine it’s the most lucrative business though, which is why she’s still picking up shifts here. You never knew that?”

”She knits?” Etch looks surprised, absently rubbing the soft yarn of one of the ends between his palms, his knuckles still red from the cold outside.

”Yeah, sure, I don’t know?” Mickey gestures pointlessly, fumbling for whatever detail Sonya might have told him that’s managed to stick. ”Weaves and shit, too. Why do you think she was working the evening shift when you started? Got accepted to SAIC, she’s got some kinda online thing going now, I guess.”

”For future reference,” Etch unwinds the scarf and hands it back over the counter, ”this is the kinda thing you could just tell me ’cause it’s interesting, and not only when I ask, you know?”

”Or you could just talk to her yourself,” Mickey suggests, shoving the scarf back in under the counter and raising a pointed eyebrow at the grown ass man on the other side of it.

”True,” Etch admits, his lips forming a small, pleased ’o’ when his phone notifies him of a new message and he holds it up as though it’s evidence of something.

Mickey shakes his head and turns to pour himself a cup of coffee. The first one of the day. He’d been holding on to the slim chance that he might be here today. They haven’t sat down to just hang out in ages, seems like there’s always been something else going on whenever he’s been around in the past few weeks.

”A smiley!” Etch relays the text message to Mickey, a little triumphantly, his voice slightly muffled as he walks into the kitchen. ”Aw, now I feel bad for thinking she didn’t like me!”

”Jesus,” Mickey mutters and pours Etch a cup too, not that he really needs the extra energy, and sips his own as he puts Etch’s up in the hatch.

”I didn’t even invite her to our Christmas dinner,” Etch complains from inside the kitchen, raising his voice a little to be heard as he disappears into the small scrub where he likes to stow away his winter clothes, ”she turned me down the first couple of years so I stopped asking, why did you let me do that?”

Mickey sniffs and leans his elbows on the sill, peering through the hatch and waiting for Etch to reemerge from the scrub before he even bothers to reply.

”Don’t worry about it,” he says when Etch steps back into view, eyebrows in a concerned arch, ”seriously, chill the fuck out, Son spends her holidays with her dad, no exceptions.”

”She South Side?” Etch asks, grabbing his cup of coffee and sipping it as he walks away again.

”Nah,” Mickey says and yawns, absently spinning his cup around and following Etch’s habitual movements through the kitchen, ”Dunning, I think. ’s where her dad’s at now, anyway.”

”Hey!” Etch suddenly seems to remember something, grinning in a way Mickey finds pretty much less than comforting. ”Jonah asked about you, wanted your number.”

Mickey frowns and recoils a little. ”Who?”

”Oh no,” Etch chuckles and clicks his tongue, ”oh, that’s really tragic, poor guy. Jonah! You know, the Professor’s administrative assistant-, whatever, colleague.”

”Who?” Mickey repeats, like a fucking owl, scowl deepening as he really tries to remember the guy this time.

”Unbelievable,” Etch shakes his head, ”he was all over you at dinner, Mickey, come on, sat right next to you after Edna left?”

”That guy?” Mickey feels his eyes widen with realization as the pieces fall into place. ”Thought his name was Paul.”

Etch laughs out loud, slapping a hand over his eyes and switching out the amused outburst for a pained groan.

”Poor guy,” he repeats, before letting his hand drop so he can throw Mickey an admonishing glare.

Poor guy,” Mickey mimics him and frowns, ”what’d I do? Just ’cause the guy can’t introduce himself, why’s that ’poor guy’?”

”It implies he’s not memorable,” Etch argues.

Mickey scoffs. ”Ain’t implying, man. Straight up don’t remember the guy which I’m pretty sure means he’s at least less than fucking memorable.”

”Right, poor guy,” Etch insists, pointing a stern finger at Mickey when he rolls his eyes, ”he was trying so hard, and apparently he really thought you guys hit it off considering how he’s dropping hints all around the office for the Professor to hook him up with your digits.”

”Yeah, okay, whatever,” Mickey says, cringing a little at the whole conversation, ”slow the fuck down, Cupid, the guy was just being polite, why’d he be flirting with some dude he’s never met before? At a Christmas dinner? My kid was in the room for fuck’s sake-, nah, don’t fucking think so.”

”Not just the ladies that dig the single dad schtick,” Etch shrugs, grinning when Mickey’s face contorts into a disgusted grimace, ”it’s one of your better cards, Mickey, you should maybe think about using it.”

”Fuck off,” Mickey scoffs, ”like fuck I should.”

”Okay,” Etch sips his coffee and obviously pretends to give up for a second before he narrows his eyes at Mickey, laugh lines crinkling his skin and betraying his mirth, ”possible kinks aside, he was definitely flirting and now we’ve got one hot, available dude asking for your number and really only one relevant question; you interested?”

Mickey sighs and rubs at his eyes before pinching over the bridge of his nose.

”Wasn’t that hot,” he mutters, ignoring both the question and the look on Etch’s face when he drops his hands to glare at him.

”But just a little bit memorable, after all?” Etch proposes with a slightly victorious grin.

”Nope, nu-uh, not gonna go out with some guy I barely fucking remember,” Mickey shakes his head and gestures at Etch, ”case in point, almost can’t stand bein’ around people I like, so-”

”Hey!” Etch protests, trying his best to look offended when Mickey dismisses his complaint with the wave of a hand.

”-why would I wanna date someone I don’t got any kinda chemistry with? Like, none at all.” Mickey argues, raising his eyebrows when Etch’s shoulders slump in defeat. ”I’m sure this Jonas guy is nice and all-”

”Jonah!” Etch interrupts him again, his insistent reminder laced with both exasperation and amusement. ”Jonah, his name is Jonah!”

Mickey snorts and shrugs. ”Close enough.”

”Who’s Jonah?”

Mickey feels his eyes bug out when he instantly recognizes the voice behind him and Etch barks out a laugh, escaping further into the kitchen as Mickey turns around. He hadn’t heard the doorbell chime, but Ian’s standing on the other side of the register all the same, fucking rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed, rubbing his reddened hands together as he smiles faintly at Mickey and raises one questioning eyebrow.

”No one,” Mickey huffs and shoves off the counter behind him to walk closer to his customer and cross his arms over his chest, ”just some guy… was hittin’ on me at our annual bullshit Christmas dinner, apparently.

Ian’s second eyebrow joins the first one in surprise, but his crooked smile doesn’t falter.

”Yeah?” he says, flashing Mickey a quick grin when he doesn’t say anything. ”Shit… gotta be awkward, right?”

”For him, maybe,” Mickey shrugs, ”I didn’t notice, so. Not like I give a fuck.”

”Right,” Ian repeats himself, still looking a little bit surprised and like he’s forgotten what he came in for in the first place, as he stares at Mickey for a couple of seconds too long.

”Right,” Mickey parrots him and smirks when Ian kinda flinches out of his thoughts, ”you hungry, Red? ’Cause if you are then; hey, well done. You’ve come to the right fucking place.”

”Shit!” Ian slaps himself on the forehead and drops forward half a step, putting a hand down on the edge of the counter to support himself as he sags against it. ”Must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, was actually looking for somewhere to work out, you know? Build some muscle.”

Mickey nods, raising his eyebrows. ”Yeah, I get that, I can see that.”

”Fuck you,” Ian grins, fingers drumming gently over the glass countertop, ”you know somewhere I can go?”

”Sure,” Mickey says drily, ”could drop and do hundred right here, I’m real good at being all motivational and shit.”

”Oh yeah?” Ian doesn’t sound like he believes him, doesn’t look like it either judging by the cocky twist to his lips.

”Oh yeah, I’m like one of those badass cowboy douchebags, you know?” Mickey says and holds up a two-barreled finger-gun. ”Shootin’ at the ground to make you dance.”

Ian puts up his hands in mock surrender and then gestures magnanimously at Mickey.

”Should quit your day job, Mick, become a personal trainer,” he says and lights up when he seems to think of something, ”or like, a life coach!”

He laughs when Mickey pretends to aim the finger-gun at his face and shoot, but then narrows his eyes and shakes his head when Mickey cocks back the gun and blows at his smoking barrels with a smug smile.

”Oh wow, you know what?” he says, ”I just realized you’re a massive dork.”

”Nah,” Mickey spins his gun around before shoving it down an imaginary holster, ”I’m the coolest guy you know.”

”Uh-huh,” Ian hums, his smile small and crooked again as he nods and still doesn’t look like he’s buying any of the shit Mickey’s selling, ”pretty much.”

Mickey feels his already dopey smile turn a shade too genuine, rubbing it off with his hand before scratching at his cheek, like a domino effect of gestures scrambling to cover for each other.

”Gonna stick around today?” he asks, trapping his hands as he folds his arms across his chest and picking up his eyebrows when Ian frowns.

”Can’t,” Ian says with a quick grimace, before he turns his head to glance out the windows, ”gotta run again, actually.”

”Got the cops on your ass, Red?” Mickey asks, actually serious for a second before he remembers that they’re not exactly delinquent teenagers anymore and Ian’s not likely to have someone chasing after him to arrest him or beat his ass, or whatever. Mickey bares his teeth in a quick grin when Ian looks at him again, attempting to pass the question off as a joke.

”Worse,” Ian probably exaggerates, ”van-full of caffein-deprived musicians.”

”Oh, okay, now it’s becoming real fuckin’ clear,” Mickey says and clicks his tongue in an attempt to seem annoyed while Ian waits for him to continue, ”you’re just here to score a hit, aren’t you?”

”Uh-huh,” Ian gladly admits with a proud nod, and clears his throat before taking out a crumpled piece of paper, smoothing it out a little and holding it up so he can read it out.

Mickey scowls and shakes his head at the whole production. ”What the-”

”Hello good sir, how are you?” Ian interrupts, looking over the edge of the paper like he’s making sure he’s not lost Mickey’s full attention. ”Good, I am also fine. I would like-, ready? To go, please, I would like one tall latte, extra shot extra foam, one grande soy latte, one tall cappuccino with extra sugar, and one small Americano, black.”

Mickey snorts at Ian’s little performance and rolls his eyes when the guy lowers the piece of paper and grins expectantly at him.

”Then go find yourself a fucking Starbucks, or something,” Mickey suggests and thumbs at the side of his nose, ”’cause I’m not your guy.”

”Really?” Ian sighs, his hands still holding on to the wrinkled paper when he drops them back down on the counter and frowns. ”Well, shit, Mick, my bad. It’s just, we’re heading out on tour this morning-”

”Yeah?” Mickey cuts in, unable to keep from latching on to the small insight to Ian’s life when it flickers past, like some kinda rare fucking firefly.

”Yeah,” Ian grins, dropping the charade, ”just ten days, couple of small gigs, lotsa driving.”

Mickey thinks that sounds pretty fucking cool, but since Ian’s not normally particularly forthcoming with this stuff, he’s not entirely sure how he’s supposed to react.

”That’s eh-,” he says and clears his throat, ”sounds pretty fucking cool, man.”

Ian makes a face like he might disagree, or maybe like he’s trying to be fucking bashful about it or something, bending his neck in a botched attempt to hide a pleased smirk and peering back up at Mickey through his pale goddamned lashes for a second.

”Yeah, um,” he says and he’s definitely smiling when he tilts his head back up again, ”we decided to stop for coffee before leaving Chicago and I spoke very warmly of your skills as a barista.”

”Motherfuckin’ artiste,” Mickey admits and spreads out his arms in a modest shrug, ”best of the best, goddamned espresso ninja master.”

”I know!” Ian agrees, gesturing at Mickey with his whole hand. ”This is exactly what I told them!”

”But-,” Mickey stops and sucks at his teeth, as though reluctantly resigning himself to breaking some bad news, ”you know I can’t help you with any of that shit, Ian. I got too hot, retired a long fucking time ago… you know I’m all about the drip now.”

”Filter,” Ian nods solemnly.

”Medium roast,” Mickey sighs.

”Bummer,” Ian says and balls up the paper with his extravagant coffee order, before he grins and looks Mickey dead in the eye as he lobs it over his shoulder, ”make that four coffees to go then, please. Got milk?”

Snorting at the perfectly pleased look on Ian’s face, Mickey turns around to dig out a stack of paper cups from under the counter and line up four of them in front of the coffeemaker as he speaks. ”Milk, sugar, even got a carton of soy.”

”Perfect,” Ian hums behind him as Mickey starts pouring, ”make it one with milk-”

”Yeah, yeah, I got it,” Mickey interrupts in a mutter, bending down to take out two open cartons from the fridge under the counter, shoving it shut with his foot, ”one milk and sugar, one soy, one black, I got it, Red, used to deal back in the day, you know? Don’t gotta spell shit out for me to catch the drift.”

”Tough guy, huh?” Ian comments, smirking like he isn’t bothered in the least by Mickey’s colorful past when Mickey puts down the milk to shoot him a quick glance over his shoulder.

”Uh-huh,” Mickey scoffs, fishing out the Sharpie he’s got stuck down the pocket of his apron and, clamping the cap between his teeth, speaks around it as he starts putting lids on the coffees and marking them with the pen, ”fucking right.”

”I want a motivational message on mine,” Ian casually demands and clearly doesn’t take Mickey seriously at all when he answers the request with an unamused scowl, grabbing a coffee in each hand to move them over to the register, ”don’t gotta be an essay or anything, just something short and sweet like-”

Going back for the last two cups, Mickey’s facing Ian again in time to see him pause for a second to think it over.

”Break a leg,” he prompts, before wincing at his own suggestion, ”kinda uninspired.”

”One dot for milk,” Mickey ignores him, touching the lids one by one to make his already overabundant walk-through extra clear, ”two dots for milk and sugar, ’s’ is for soy.”

”And?” Ian grins, eyes following his every move when Mickey picks up Ian’s coffee, still unmarked, and quickly scrawls out a sprawling ’fuck you’ on the side before turning the cup around.

”And this is for you,” he says and smirks when Ian rolls his eyes but still huffs out a laugh, ”sincerely.”

”Thank you,” Ian deadpans and leans back a little to glance out the windows at the sudden interruption of two quick honks, sounding like they’re coming from the beat up van parked slightly illegally on the other side of the street, ”shit-, that’s me, how much?”

Mickey gives Ian’s question an annoyed wave as he bends down to dig through a box under the register, pulling out a short stack of trays and prying one off so he can start fitting the four full cups into the snug cavities.

”Forget it,” he dismisses Ian’s already open wallet, ”feel like I should be payin’ you for making me use that soy milk before it goes off and I gotta throw it out, man, keep your money.”

It’s a flimsy excuse at best, but Mickey doesn’t think he should really need an excuse if he wants to treat a friend to a complementary cup of joe. A friend, and a friend’s three other friends. Not like the diner’s gonna declare bankruptcy over it, anyway.

And Ian’s smiling, so there’s that, and he’s digging his long fingers into his pocket to pull out a small handful of assorted coins, indiscriminately dumping all of it into the tip jar.

”Ten days, huh?” Mickey asks and frowns when there’s another insistent honk from outside.

”Yep,” Ian nods and picks up the coffees by the tray, starting to back away, ”see you then?”

”Guess so,” Mickey says, even while he holds back the bitter thought that it’s not like it’s ever up to him if they will or won’t.

”See you then,” Ian insists as he shoulders the door open, giving Mickey a quick nod.

”Hey,” Mickey calls out after him, before he has time to turn out on the street, realizing a little too late that he doesn’t really have a clue what the fuck he wants to say when Ian looks back at him. He kinda wants to tell Ian not to go, but that doesn’t make any sense at all.

”Later,” he says and it isn’t the worst thing he could’ve settled on, even if it is pretty fucking close. But Ian doesn’t seem to think much of it, he just smiles and nods and disappears out through the door. The bell jingles wildly behind him and Mickey watches him as he cautiously jogs across the street and jumps in the back of the awaiting van when someone slides the door open.

Mickey keeps his eyes on it until the door is shut and the motor revs and the blinkers indicate for a second before it turns out on the street and drives out of sight, skidding a little on the icy surface. Staring at the slow morning traffic, it takes a moment or two before he snaps out of it and moves around the counter to walk through the diner and mindlessly wipe off a couple of already clean tables.

”Fucker,” he mutters when he spots Ian’s balled up piece of paper, sighing as he bends over to pick it up, ”comin’ in to trash the place, won’t even stay for fucking breakfast.”

Absently juggling the paper ball, he makes his way back behind the counter to throw it in the garbage, changing his mind last second and chucking it in under the counter to land in a box of assorted crap instead. He’s not exactly sure why, or why he feels a strong need to throw a quick glance through the hatch to check the kitchen, and make sure Etch didn’t see him doing it.

”The fuck?” he complains, instantly distracted from his own erratic behavior as he steps up to the hatch and raises his eyebrows at whatever it is Etch thinks he’s doing, holding up his t-shirt to bare his midriff and poking a finger into his slightly protruding belly.

”Food baby,” Etch announces without so much as a shade of shame, hand flattening out to cup around his stomach in a more tender fashion and upping the weird with about twenty-five percent, ”you ever think about what’d be like to be pregnant?”

Mickey widens his eyes and frowns, releasing his eyebrows to travel further up his forehead when Etch looks at him.

”No-, Jesus,” he declines emphatically, ”absolutely fucking not, no thank you.”

”Think it’s amazing, I wouldn’t mind,” Etch says, keeping his hand on his stomach even as he straightens up a little and lets his t-shirt fall back down, nodding at Mickey, ”think you’d make a real cute baby.”

Mickey frowns and sips his abandoned and already cold coffee before he winces at equal parts the bitter taste and Etch’s nonsense. ”Fuck you talking about? I already made a cute baby, no fucking speculation needed.”

”No,” Etch says and grins, ”not you and Svet, you and-, you know… Mr Sparkles.”

”Who?” Mickey sputters, even though he’s got a vague sense of dread telling him he very well knows who.

”Mr Tall Glass of Sunny D,” Etch elaborates and indicates his head in the general direction of the door, grinning wider when Mickey groans, ”Mr Red Hot Breakfast Special.”

”Mr Not Fucking Likely,” Mickey tries to argue.

”Mr Stops By With Flimsy Excuse Just to Let You Know He’s Leaving Town For A While,” Etch counters with a smug smile, ”huh? Yeah. How’s that?”

”Sure, okay,” Mickey crosses his arms, ”more like Mr Haven’t Once Expressed Any Kinda Interest to See Me Outside of My Place of Work, how’s that?”

”Touché,” Etch admits, his teasing grin slipping a little, ”but we’re talking male pregnancy right now, Mickey, so could you please suspend disbelief for a moment and allow me to make like, the hypothetical point that you and Mr Model Quality would make one objectively adorable baby?”

”Don’t think so,” Mickey denies, but doesn’t necessarily disagree, as he tops up his cup with some fresh coffee and levels Etch’s exasperated look with one of cold indifference, ”hypotheticals are bullshit.”

”Palest baby ever born,” Etch daydreams, lack of consent notwithstanding, ”your eyes, his hair, right?”

”There’s something seriously wrong with you,” Mickey casually notes and sips his coffee. Etch smiles and shrugs, but more importantly doesn’t argue. ”Okay, rewind, is there something seriously wrong with you?”

”Not wrong, but-,” Etch says and hesitates, and he suddenly sounds solemn in a way that immediately has Mickey tensing up, ”you can’t tell anyone, okay?”

Mickey recoils and makes a face. ”Who am I gonna tell?”

Etch stares at him for a second, a disbelieving smile pulling at his lips.

”Yev,” he then says and rolls his eyes like it’s obvious, ”Svet, Edna… Mr Fabulous. The Professor! I’d be in deep shit if you told the Professor.”

”The fuck did you do?” Mickey asks, not liking the sound of that at all.

”No, no! Not like that,” Etch backtracks, waving his arms and turning around to tinker with the griddle while he talks, ”she knows, of course she knows, kinda impossible for her not to know… it’s just not the right time yet, it’s too early, and we agreed not to tell anyone until we were in the clear this time.”

”Etch,” Mickey leans in closer to the hatch and lowers his voice to an urgent hiss, ”she knocked up?”

Etch doesn’t answer, but he looks over at Mickey and he smiles like his face is about to split in two, hiding it briefly behind a hand before he lets it drop.

”Pretty sure that’s not the way I want you talking about the mother of my soon to be three children,” he says, smile not faltering for a second, ”but yeah, we’re knocked up!”

”Well, fuck,” Mickey huffs and takes a second to simply grin at his friend, before he takes a step back and sweeps his eyes over the still empty diner, Edna huddled up at her usual table, back turned and bent over her newspaper. It doesn’t exactly look like they’re gonna get overrun by business anytime soon.

He walks into the kitchen so they can talk a little more privately.

”Congrats, man,” he says, ”how long?”

”Seven weeks,” Etch nods and leans back against the cold griddle, crossing his arms like he’s trying to contain himself, ”almost eight, went for the first ultrasound yesterday.”

”Wow, you really held on to that secret, huh?” Mickey ribs him gently, shaking his head.

”Guess not,” Etch admits, ”Ruth’d be happy not to tell anyone until the kid pops out, but I feel like I’m bursting already.”

”Look like it, too,” Mickey tells him and grins when Etch groans and rubs a hand over his face.

”We went off the pill last year, I almost forgot about it!” he chuckles. ”Then Christmas fucking Eve she comes home with a test and it’s positive, can you believe that?”

Mickey huffs and shrugs, not entirely sure what to say.

”But of course it’s too early to be sure, and with what happened last time,” Etch sighs, but then he’s back to smiling again, ”thought for sure you’d figure something out when we weren’t drinking at the Christmas dinner!”

”Etch,” Mickey frowns and folds his arms over his chest, ”you don’t drink.”

”Yes, no, sure, but still,” Etch rolls his eyes, ”the Professor does… sometimes. And Svet has that third eye for shit like this, I would’ve cracked and spilled the beans for sure if I hadn’t been so distracted by your blossoming romance with Jonah.”

”Fuck off,” Mickey bites his lip over an involuntary grin when Etch cackles, and gives him the finger until he stops, ”have you told the kids yet?”

”No,” Etch says with a grimace, ”not until we know for sure it’s gonna stick this time, Ruth wants to take them for the next ultrasound.”

”She good?” Mickey asks, trying to tread lightly.

”Yeah-, yes,” Etch nods and crossing his fingers holds his hands to his chest, crossing his wrists over his heart, ”she’s really good, it’s good timing with her job and we’re trying to play this as chill as we possibly can. It’s weird, you know? The other two just happened, and then when you start trying it all goes to shit. It’s weird.”

”Gonna be fine this time,” Mickey promises, even though he knows fuck all about it, ”know it.”

Etch looks like he believes him, smiling as though Mickey alone has got the power to predict the future. It’s ridiculous.

”Alright,” Mickey huffs and takes a step forward, uncrossing his arms to thumb at the side of his nose and then gesture impatiently at Etch, ”come here.”

”Ooooh,” Etch coos and doesn’t waste a second before bounding over to Mickey, eying him suspiciously, ”are we having a moment?”

”Fuck you think?” Mickey mutters and just waves him closer, grasping him by the shoulder and pulling him in to a warm embrace. Etch locks his gangly arms around Mickey’s chest and fits his chin over his shoulder, shaking them both a little when he chuckles.

”Thank you,” he says and squeezes Mickey a little closer before letting go, patting him kindly on the shoulder as he steps back, something knowing and mischievous glinting in his dark eyes. Mickey leans back against the fridge behind him and crosses his arms again, raising an eyebrow.

”What?”

”Nothing,” Etch insists with a shrug, even though there’s clearly something and they both know he’s gonna go right on and say it, ”you’re different.”

”What is this?” Mickey groans and cradles his face in his hands before glaring back up at Etch. ”I’m not allowed to hug people now?”

”Not talking about that,” Etch says and waves his hand dismissively, ”there’s just something, the last couple of weeks. I don’t know-, a lightness, maybe? Just, you know, something like a-”

”I will kick your ass if you even so much as fucking think the word ’aura’,” Mickey threatens and points a warning finger at Etch’s unreliably innocent face, ”but you’re not wrong.”

Etch leans back against the griddle and looks like he thinks Mickey’s petty problems actually deserve his full attention. ”Did something happen?”

”Nah,” Mickey sighs and sucks on one of his back teeth, glancing out the door at the empty diner for a moment before scratching at his cheek and then gesturing pointlessly towards the other room, ”I like him.”

”Yeah,” Etch grins, a little too fucking kindly for Mickey’s tastes but whatever, he’ll take it, ”I know.”

Mickey huffs and nods, not really sure what kinda reaction he’d expected.

”You gonna do something about it?” Etch asks, sounding genuinely curious and not at all like he’s pushing for anything, one way or the other.

”Don’t know,” Mickey grunts, but can’t help a quick grin when Etch raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him, ”don’t get me wrong, I wanna climb the dude like a fucking tree-”

”Oh, I’m so happy right now,” Etch chokes out, eyes wide as he flattens his hands over the sides of his face.

”-suck his dick like a popsicle,” Mickey continues, really pushing his point, ”slap it, wrap it, and sit on it.”

Etch is shaking he’s giggling so bad, hiding his face in his hands for a second before straightening up and reaching out to gesture at Mickey.

”So do that!” he says, like it’s a done deal.

”Nah,” Mickey says with a shrug, smirking when Etch throws up his hands in exasperation, ”he eh-, he kinda makes everything… I don’t fucking know, just… better.”

Mickey winces when Etch looks like a dopey schmuck about to open his trap and sound like a fucking fortune cookie.

”Just-, no,” he quickly shuts him down before he’s even tried to say anything, ”I don’t really fucking know him, do I? He comes in here and I don’t know what the fuck happens half the fucking time, and it’s bullshit.”

It’s like he’s still trying to convince himself to ignore something that won’t be ignored, and it’s getting kinda old.

”We’re friends and I like him,” Mickey sums it up with a sigh, scowling at how he sounds when he does, ”and I don’t think he’s interested and I don’t want him to go away, the math ain’t exactly hard.”

”What are you gonna do?” Etch asks, not flinching or taking his sympathetic eyes off Mickey for a second when the door jingles in the other room and the diner is filled with the noise of people stepping inside, at least three of them by the sound of their indistinct conversation.

”Nothing,” Mickey decides as he moves to leave the kitchen, ”I’m gonna do nothing.”

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

January 18
Monday.

 

Mickey’s only been at work for half an hour, tops, and literally nothing has happened, but he still feels pretty much done with this day already. He fell asleep reluctantly and uneasily last night, for no reason at all, and he woke up unrested and stiff all over, every sour thought and aching limb encouraged by the damp, dreary weather and whipping wind working against him the whole short trek from his apartment to the diner.

But point is he’s here all the same, doing his goddamned job even while he’d rather be home drunk in his boxers or asleep under a pile of blankets or busting out the Ben Was and treating himself to a day-long lazy orgasm. Wishful thinking aside, there’s a certain monotonous comfort in letting himself fall into the habits of the diner; setting up the tables and preparing the sandwiches, taking his time to clean out the machines before he puts them to work, silently serving Edna her breakfast when she eventually shuffles inside and takes her usual seat. The unyielding familiarity of every single step following the last and preceding the next is strangely meditative, leaving his brain on standby until he’s done everything he strictly needs to do and the only things remaining are shit he abso-fucking-lutely does not need to do. Like think. About Ian. And how fucking nice it’ll be to see his freckly ass again.

Maybe even think about arranging for a face to face with his actual ass, this time. Hell, don’t even gotta see it, Mickey’s not unreasonable; he’d be just fine with a formal introduction. A firm handshake kinda deal. Really get in there and mingle.

He accidentally slaps himself a little harder than he intended, but it does the trick and snaps him out of what he knows from experience is a very slippery slope to severely inappropriate daydreaming. Rubbing at his cheek and sighing at his bullshit escapist mind, he ends up pouring himself a cup of coffee and retreating to the furthest corner of the diner, absently sitting down at Ian’s table.

Warily observing the street as people start waking up and heading outside, heads bent and shoulders drawn against the inhospitable wind pulling at their clothes, Mickey feels himself sink into the booth’s plush seats and his brain slowly, and unfortunately, kick back into gear.

”Ten days,” he mutters and scowls down at the shiny black surface of his coffee, rippling slightly when he scoffs at himself. Losing sleep over a guy is definitely taking this whole crush bullshit a good few steps too far. Especially considering how there’s no guarantee that Ian’s gonna show up today, just ’cause this is the day he’s supposed to be back in town.

”Fuck,” Mickey chuckles and kinda groans at the same time, placing his elbows on the edge of the table and pinching his fingertips over the bridge of his nose before holding up both hands and pressing the cold heels of his palms onto his heavy eyelids.

He lets his hands drop when he hears the door open, the insistent bell breaking the silence and drawing his attention to it.

It’s Ian, because of fucking course it’s Ian, and seeing him stepping through the door Mickey kinda expected himself to suffer fireworks, or a complete intellectual and emotional meltdown, but that’s not what he gets. Instead here the guy is and the world feels like an off-brand game of Tetris; and Ian steps into it like that one, long-awaited, perfect piece sliding into place and clearing the whole screen of every little bullshit problem Mickey might have had before. Before Ian decided to walk into his life, before Ian looked around the room and smiled at him, the bell jingling wildly as the door falls shut behind him.

What a load of crap, Mickey thinks but holds up his hand in a curt wave all the same when Ian nods at him. And then he doesn’t even consider stopping the guy as Ian saunters in behind the counter like he owns the place, to help himself to one of the washed and stacked cups next to the coffee machine.

”Ey!” Mickey calls out and smirks as Ian spins around and looks decidedly guilty, his wide eyes and concerned frown instantly relaxing when Mickey just shakes his head and gestures at him to move to the left. ”Go for the other one-, the little guy.”

Ian looks confused for a second but then does as he’s told, turning back to grab the pot off the new, smaller coffeemaker, squeezed in next to the regular one, and pours himself a cup before he moves through the diner to join Mickey at their usual table.

”Hey,” he says with that familiar crooked smile, and his voice is low and kinda breathy in a way that does absolutely nothing to help Mickey wrestle down the heat spreading through his body, starting at his toes and cramping up his calves.

Mickey settles on a casual scowl as he watches Ian set down his coffee and start shrugging off his parka, shoving it in next to himself while he sits down and shoots Mickey a small grin across the table.

”Shit Mickey,” he says with a mockingly wistful sigh, ”gone a week and I barely recognize the place.”

”Fuck off,” Mickey scoffs and stoically refrains from pointing out how ’a week’ and ’ten days’ decidedly isn’t the same thing, ”it’s one small machine and it’s not even new. Got that baby second hand, half price.”

”Yeah, but-, you know, one small discount machine for man, and all that,” Ian starts, pausing for dramatic emphasis as he picks up his cup to take a careful sip, ”one giant leap for this diner.”

”Sure, that’s how that saying goes,” Mickey humors him, refraining from rolling his eyes only so he can study his face for any kinda adverse reaction to the coffee, ”but how does it taste?”

Ian looks a little surprised at the question and glances down his cup before he takes another quick sip.

”Good,” he says, and he sounds like he really means it, ”great, it’s nice.”

”You sure? Got any more nondescript superlatives you wanna get off your chest before we move on?” Mickey can’t help teasing Ian’s nonplussed praise, smirking gleefully when Ian rolls his eyes and gives him the finger. ”Uh-huh, and what’s that, like-, a solid three middle fingers outta five?”

”Five outta five, dude, don’t sell yourself short,” Ian says and holds up his cup to absently sniff the light steam wafting up his face, ”you make good coffee, Mick, this isn’t news.”

Mickey considers for a second not telling him, but quickly decides against it. Placebo might be a very helpful and powerful effect to prove some kinda point about whatever, but can’t help feeling that lying like that isn’t only manipulative as shit, but also really fucking unpleasant. He might be an asshole, but at least he’s an honest asshole.

”It’s decaf,” he says and can’t do much but grin when Ian’s eyebrows climb up his forehead in surprise.

”No way,” he seems to instantly react, taking another focused sip, ”really?”

”Really fuckin’ really,” Mickey promises and shakes his head at the whole situation, he’s not really sure how the hell he ended up like this. It’s a far fucking cry from anything he could have imagined, growing up.

”No shit,” Ian huffs and glances down at the coffee like he expects it to look different now that he’s been informed of its true colors, ”I was just being an ass about the big step thing, but guess I kinda nailed it, huh?”

”Yeah, okay,” Mickey drily dismisses his small victory, clicking his tongue, ”it’s on trial basis only, not like I’m gonna reprint menus or start steaming shit, calm your tits.”

”I’m starting to think you got kinda inspired by my last visit,” Ian says and sits back in his seat, hands still wrapped around his cup as he rests it on the table, ”thinking you should put up like a sign or a portrait of me somewhere. Just letting people know who to thank for all this positive progress, give me some credit.”

Ian’s obviously teasing, but he also happens to be dead wrong. Maybe it’s crossed Mickey’s mind once or twice that he’d like to see Ian watch his caffein intake a little better, but that is in no sense the same thing as claiming that Ian in any way inspires him to do anything.

Mickey smirks and flips his hand around to lazily give the guy the finger. ”Here’s your credit.”

Pressing his lips together Ian tilts his head to the side and gives Mickey an admonishing glare, but he can’t quite hide the way he’s very obviously losing the fight with the small smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.

”Thanks,” he says and leans forward a little, ”was that so hard?”

Mickey is mid eye-roll when he realizes that they’ve been sitting here chit-chatting for maybe five minutes already and all they’ve fucking talked about is coffee. He frowns and gives Ian a slight nod.

”Okay, it’s time,” he decides and steels himself against Ian’s wide-eyed innocence, ”no fucking way coffee’s the most interesting thing we could be yakin’ about right now, man, don’t think I can’t tell what you’re tryna pull here.”

”What?” Ian chuckles and sits back. ”I’m not tryna pull shit, thought we were having a nice conversation.”

Mickey impatiently waves off his excuses. ”Whatever, man, tell it to someone who don’t know your slippery ass.”

Slippery ass,” Ian repeats in a mutter, and he sounds offended but he looks fucking radiant. Mickey’s just trying to ignore the fact that he’s once again back on the guy’s ass, desperately grappling at the wheel to veer away from that whole area.

”Tell me about this tour business, Red,” he complains, raising his eyebrows at Ian’s obvious reluctance, ”fuckin’ enthrall me with tales from the road, or whatever, I want the whole play-by-play.”

Ian clicks his tongue and shakes his head.

”There’s not really-,” he starts and winces, absently pulling a hand through his hair, ”don’t know, not much to tell.”

”Bullshit,” Mickey says and raises his eyebrows when Ian huffs and nods, looking back at Mickey like he might wanna tell him shit, even though he thinks there’s nothing to tell.

Mickey decides to be honest about what it is he wants.

”Tell me,” he prompts and quickly worries his tongue over his dry bottom lip, wishing he had a cigarette to go with his coffee and this moment, whatever it is, ”c’mon, I wanna know what you’ve been up to.”

”Well,” Ian says and frowns, but it doesn’t look like he thinks Mickey’s being a nosy fucker for asking, ”it was good. It’s nice being on the road, you know? You get wrapped up in it, being with the same people cooped up like that, having that kinda narrow focus on the next city, the next gig.”

”Where did you go?” Mickey asks, holding up his cup close to his face so he can focus on Ian and still drink his coffee.

”Uh-, Detroit,” Ian says and nods, making a face like he’s trying to remember something in the right order, ”Toronto-”

”Canada?” Mickey interjects, defensively flexing his eyebrows when Ian grins at his dumbass question.

”No, the other Toronto, not in Canada,” Ian taunts him with a kind of childish glee, biting his lip over a wide smile when Mickey pretends to throw a punch at him, not nearly close enough to even disrupt the air around his obnoxiously pretty face.

”Fuck you,” Mickey laughs and crosses his arms over his chest, clutching his hands between his ribs and upper arms so he won’t lunge across the table, grab the idiot by the shirt and eat him up, lips first, ”there’s a Toronto in Ohio, smart-ass.”

”No, there isn’t,” Ian straight up denounces reality, frowning when Mickey raises his eyebrows at him, ”is there?”

”You tell me,” Mickey shrugs, trying his best to sound serious, ”you’re the one who’s been there, apparently.”

”Fine,” Ian relents and throws up his hands with an annoyed huff, quickly betrayed by a wide grin, ”guess you were right the first time.”

Mickey releases one of his hands to ostentatiously slap it to his cheek, letting out a small, shocked gasp.

”Yeah,” Ian agrees with a smile, even while he’s absently shaking his head at Mickey’s opulent sarcasm, before moving on, ”Toronto to Ottawa, and then we stayed in Montréal for a couple of days.”

”Decent stretch to drive in a week,” Mickey notes, momentarily indulging this fucked up reality where ten equals seven and stupidly attractive ginger men come to his diner to explicitly smile at him for no discernible reason.

Really, there is no reason. But Ian is smiling and Mickey’s not gonna turn it down. It’s like basking in sharp sunshine after a long winter and Mickey’s whole body is screaming for a shot of vitamin D, pun very much fucking intended.

”Montréal to New York,” Ian continues, shrugging a little, ”and then from there back home, got back late last night.”

And here you are. Mickey bites his lip over the thought, watching Ian use the brief lull in their conversation to drink his coffee. Rubbing a hand over his lip, Mickey lets it go and doesn’t say what he’s thinking.

”And what do the Canucks throw at the stage when they think you suck?” Mickey asks instead, smirking happily when Ian laughs. ”Like, just bottles of maple syrup? Horton’s donut holes or whatever the fuck they call ’em?”

”Timbits!” Ian supplies and leans forward in his seat, pointing an encouraging hand at Mickey. ”Have you tried that shit? It’s delicious.”

”Never been to Canada,” Mickey shrugs, ”fuck, never been anywhere.”

Ian nods at that.

”First time I ever left Chicago-, Jesus,” he says, leaning back in his seat and glancing at the ceiling like he’s trying to remember something, ”must’ve been fourteen, I’d just started working at the Kash and Grab and had my own money for the first time. Not much after the bills were paid and everything, but I stashed some away so I could go orienteering with my ROTC squad, over in Busse Woods.”

”Where’s that?” Mickey tries to imagine Ian as a fresh-faced cadet, running around the trees like a loser. He would’ve given him such a hard time over it if they’d been friends back then. ”Upstate?”

”Yeah,” Ian says and grins at the memory, ”kinda. Past O’Hare, on Route 90.”

”That’s barely out the city,” Mickey argues, narrowing his eyes at Ian when he frowns.

”Still counts,” he says, his defensively set jaw highlighting his slight underbite, ”could’ve been a trip to Mars if you’d asked me then, it felt like a whole other world.”

”Oh okay, well if that’s how it is,” Mickey holds up his hands and surrenders to Ian’s more lenient rules for what apparently counts as getting out and seeing the world, ”guess I’m well fucking travelled.”

”Yeah?” Ian clearly wants him to go on, leaning forward in his seat and wrapping his long fingers around his cup of coffee.

Mickey never talks about his childhood for a lot of very good reasons, but looking at Ian now they suddenly don’t seem all that great. He takes a second to remind himself that Ian is someone he can trust not to pity him, or look down on him, not for any of the pitiful things he went through growing up. Shit that seemed normal when he was a kid, but look real fucking ugly the older he gets and the more he finds out about the world and what kinda man he wants to be in it.

”Sure,” Mickey admits, feeling himself relax under Ian’s unnervingly interested, kind gaze, ”had to go with Mandy and our mom to Joliet a couple of times when we were real little and she didn’t want to leave us at home.”

”Welcome home Terry,” Ian quotes, spreading his hands to indicate the worn banner that always used to don the Milkovich house whenever their patriarch got released from his most recent stint in the big house, ”I remember.”

Mickey snorts. ”Pretty sure the whole fucking neighborhood remembers.”

”Probably,” Ian agrees, flashing a quick grin before his face falls back into a slight, concerned frown, ”what was it like?”

Huffing out a quick sigh, Mickey takes a second to figure out where the hell to even start answering that question.

”When we got older, Terry gettin’ outta prison got a lot more, uh-, nuanced,” he starts, making a face at his own delicate description of the absolute shit-show of his teenage years, when he’d learned to be aggressive and take his place as Terry’s main man, ”but back then, you know… Mandy and me, we’d look forward to it ’cause we got to go on a trip, forgetting why and what it was gonna be like later. Driving back and like, just having him back in the house again.”

He nods and looks down at his hands, the blunt nail of his right thumb scratching at a chip in the less-than-delicate china of his coffee cup. He hasn’t thought about those trips in a while.

”But, yeah,” he says and clears his throat, not sure he was gonna say anything else until he started talking, ”we’d leave at the ass crack of dawn and take the 171, so we could stop in Willow Springs.”

”Sounds like a nice place,” Ian guesses, raising an eyebrow when Mickey scoffs.

”It was a shithole,” he reveals and feels stupidly pleased about it when Ian grins, ”but there was this coffee house right off the highway, with a small patch of trees and shit behind it. We’d get ice cream and then we’d chase around the place like a couple of brats while mom sat with her coffee on the terrace, smoking like-, a whole pack, before yellin’ at us to get back in the car.”

”Sounds kinda perfect,” Ian says and looks like he means it, ”guessing the ride back wasn’t as nice?”

”Yeah, no,” Mickey sighs and smirks at himself, ignoring the voice at the back of his head yelling at him to stop running his mouth, telling this guy shit that’s none of his fucking business, telling Ian shit that might make him start seeing Mickey for what he really is, ”like day and night when he got in the car, the whole mood would just, like… shift. Always in the passenger seat, so he could drink the whole way home and tell us every little fucked up thing he done inside.”

Ian snorts, his mouth twisting with resentment for Mickey’s old man. ”Lotsa fun stories for a couple of kids, I bet.”

”Oh yeah, he was a real hoot,” Mickey confirms, focusing on a cluster of freckles on Ian’s right hand as he wills the bile back down his throat, ”never told anyone this.”

He frowns and glances up at Ian’s face, and it’s probably stubborn defiance more than anything else that drives him to continue. Terry would’ve fucking hated Mickey’s whole life, not to mention whatever it is that he’s doing here with Ian.

”I was like five, maybe six, and I could feel myself changing that second when he got in the car,” Mickey cringes and looks away from Ian’s sternly set face, ”couldn’t help it, was mean and talked shit and followed his every fucking lead. I was six and I knew I was being a real fucking cunt of a kid, but I couldn’t help it.”

”Bet you weren’t that bad,” Ian tries, like he knows anything about it, and it’s kinda sweet, ”bet you did what you had to do.”

”Yeah, not sure that excuses it,” Mickey says with a shrug, smirking a little when Ian seems to almost absently mimic the noncommittal gesture, ”could’ve tried better with mom, backed her up and shit, taken her side, like-, she was pretty shitty too, not gonna lie, but I kinda get why, now. Bet it didn’t help that me and my brothers fuckin’ lined up behind dear old Pops whenever he was around, saying nothin’ about how he was treatin’ her.”

He sniffs and rubs at his itching nose, frowning and silently berating himself for wasting Ian’s time with this bullshit. Stuff that’s been long since done, and can’t be changed now with any amount of self-flagellation. But Ian is so easy to talk to, and he’s compelled by this unfamiliar urge to share some of his more personal baggage. Like somehow it might get a little easier to carry around all the time if Ian knows about him.

It’s probably pretty fucking selfish, but Ian doesn’t seem to mind.

”I was mixed up,” Mickey says and shakes his head when Ian makes a small sound like he wants to disagree, ”nah, I looked up to the bastard, you know? Whatever he did he was always the biggest guy in the room, he had this presence… I wanted to please him, wanted to fucking be him. That shit didn’t go away until-, fuck, guess not properly until my kid was born.”

He doesn’t remind Ian of where Terry was at when Yevgeny joined the world, or of the beautiful coincidence of Ian’s direct hand in why, considering how poorly the topic went down last time it came up. Ian looks like he doesn’t need reminding, anyway, bending his head for a second before looking up at Mickey through his pale lashes. Mickey offers him a smile he hopes comes across at least decently reassuring.

”Was he locked up a lot?” Ian asks, voice careful and his big eyes searching Mickey’s face for traces of whatever, like Mickey’s gonna have a problem with anything he has to say or wants to know at this point.

”Yeah, mostly short stints,” Mickey nods, ”but a lot of them. Damned idiots kept letting him out early ’cause of overcrowding or some bullshit excuse like that-, sure as fuck wasn’t on good behavior, anyway.”

”Seems to me like they would’ve saved a lot of people a lot of trouble by keeping him locked up full time, huh?” Ian says, quirking an eyebrow as he brings his cup to his lips and Mickey huffs out a laugh.

”The fuck are we taking about Terry for, right now?” Mickey asks, an involuntary shiver shaking through him as he snaps out of the weird kinda intimate vibe building between them, the real world slowly seeping back in with the gentle tap of wet snow against the diner’s big windows. ”How about we switch this bitch around and have a nice, long chat about Frank, huh? Yeah, see how you like it.”

Ian grins at Mickey’s gleeful teasing and just barely manages to screw his face up in mock concern. ”Ah, see, Frank’s not actually my dad, so… no go, I’m afraid.”

”You wanna talk about the other dude?” Mickey offers, and he knows he sounds like he’s joking, even though he really kinda isn’t. ”’Cause we can talk about the other dude.”

”Clayton,” Ian confirms, really enunciating the name as he leans his elbows on the table and nods, ”Frank’s brother.”

Mickey nods. ”Yeah, you mentioned… when did you find out?”

”Uh,” Ian winces at the memory, ”think I was fifteen? Mom tried to take Liam away and we thought it would help if we could prove he wasn’t Frank’s… it was a whole thing. Lip and me did the DNA test too, not sure why. Waste of money.”

”Why’s that? Mickey asks, curiously raising his eyebrows when Ian makes a face like it’s complicated and he doesn’t know what to say.

”Lip’s always been real angry with Frank,” he explains, anyway, ”me too, I guess, but not in the same way. When Lip said he wanted to get checked, hoping to luck out of Frank’s genetic pool or whatever, I pretty much just tagged along. Kinda didn’t think, always just did whatever he did back then.”

”I’m guessing Lip didn’t luck out, huh?” Mickey says and can’t help smirking when Ian winces again. ”Doesn’t surprise me, seeing him at Paddy’s last time was kinda like stepping through time and space, running into the alcoholic mist of Frank back at the Alibi.”

”That’s not fair,” Ian disagrees with a slight frown, but he sounds more sad than offended and it has Mickey instantly regretting what he just said, even though he’s pretty sure nothing he said was technically untrue, ”Lip was an asshole to you when you met him, yeah, and he struggles with alcoholism… but at least he struggles and doesn’t just embrace it like Frank’s aways done, caring more about his next fix than his own kids.”

”Hey,” Mickey says and holds up his hands, palms out, ”sorry.”

”No,” Ian sighs and his hurt frown smoothes out into a sad smile, which does nothing to ease Mickey’s unfamiliar flash of guilt, ”it’s fine. Just trying real fuckin’ hard not to think of him like Frank, you know? The drinking isn’t helping his case, but he isn’t Frank. He took care of Liam when Fiona and I fell short.”

Mickey nods, ready to back down but unwilling to cut Ian off if he’s got more he wants to say.

”He-, uh,” he continues with a sigh, scratching at the back of his neck, ”his wife of five years is divorcing him over it. They never had kids, which in hindsight is a good thing, I guess, but I know he’s always wanted ’em. Can’t help thinking he believes he’s Frank. It’s, ah-”

Ian shrugs and waves his finger through the air in a downwards spiral. ”It’s not a very constructive self image.”

”At least you dodged that bullet, huh?” Mickey suggests, attempting to bring the conversation back to Ian.

”I don’t know,” Ian says and sits back, his lips quirking up in a more genuine, lopsided smile, ”Lip got so excited about me not being Frank’s kid, pushed me to go see Clayton and maybe even demand shit from him, like… go live with him, or whatever. Stupid.”

”Was it though?” Mickey asks and rolls his eyes when Ian screws up his face, like the mere thought is nothing but laughable. ”I mean, you don’t gotta tell me about familial loyalty, but you could’ve at least squeezed the guy for something-, money, or a car, maybe? Season Cubs tickets.”

”White Sox,” Ian insists, laughing when Mickey makes an exaggerated gagging noise, ”sure, I could’ve done that, but truth is I didn’t want to. I liked my life, never really had a problem with it back then. As long as Frank and Monica kept themselves out of the picture, the rest of us were a good team. We took care of each other.”

Mickey tries for a second to imagine what he would have done, if he’d found out that Terry wasn’t his real father. He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have done shit, fully immersed by then in this persona he’d created for himself. One where he fit right in, was exactly where he belonged. He’d pushed down anything likely to get him in serious trouble, and found control in getting mixed up with every other kind of trouble he could find. He hadn’t hated it, not at all. He’d had power; his brothers’ unwavering loyalty, his father’s aggressive approval. He wouldn’t have traded that for anything, back then.

”Finding out about Clayton wasn’t what I wanted,” Ian continues, obviously urged on by Mickey’s silence, ”was just pissed at Frank for being an ass and-, I don’t know. Never talked to the others about this, but sometimes I think we broke something, finding out about that shit. Not that they stopped caring about me or anything, but I feel like I kinda became a side note to everything else going on with them, even when I first started showing signs of bipolar or when shit went down with the army, all that stuff.”

He stops just to make a face, like he thinks he’s been talking too much already. Mickey doesn’t think so at all, so he keeps his trap shut and eyes on Ian until he takes the hint and carries on.

”They didn’t wanna deal with it, and I didn’t want their help,” he admits, sounding almost embarrassed as he absently rubs a hand over the back of his neck, ”so it wasn’t anyone’s fault, really… but ever since that stupid DNA test, it kinda felt like I fell out of step with them, if that makes sense?”

”Yeah,” Mickey nods, frowning at the way his voice sounds when he does, ”yeah, man. Makes sense. Sorry Frank isn’t your dad.”

”Well, that gotta be a fucking first,” Ian chuckles and smiles like he finds it fucking endearing or something that Mickey sucks at this whole ’saying the right thing’ deal, ”thanks.”

”You know what I mean,” Mickey mutters and clenches his jaw over the urge to grin right back, ”sorry your family decided to be dickheads about it.”

”So sweet,” Ian snorts, still fucking smiling, ”thanks.”

He keeps thanking him for stupid reasons and Mickey catches himself almost starting to believe he means it when he does, jackal grin and teasing eyes be damned.

”So,” Ian says, his voice abruptly jovial as he’s clearly looking to ease up on the heavy stuff, ”Joliet, that it?”

Mickey scowls at the question, forgetting for a second what they’d been talking about before.

”Your extensive greater Chicago area travel experience?” Ian prompts, quirking an eyebrow. ”Exclusively Willow Springs and Joliet, or..? I’m picturing like-, weekend trips to the lake with Yev when he was smaller, maybe a couple of totally legal runs for the family business before that?”

Rolling his eyes at the suggestion, Mickey tries to remember the last time he left the city.

”Oh shit, yeah,” he says, lightly slapping the edge of the table when it comes to him, ”Rockford, three years ago for Etch’s thirtieth, he’s got family there and dragged us out for a weekend.”

”Pretty sure the term is ’invite’,” Ian interjects.

”Pretty sure I got dragged,” Mickey insists, sucking his back teeth and cocking his head to the side, ”his family’s a bunch of painfully middle-class, passive aggressive neurotic types, the whole thing was more like a prolonged headache than a vacation.”

Ian groans and closes his eyes as he shakes his head, no doubt picturing the whole ordeal with crystal clarity.

”Yeah,” Mickey huffs and takes the opportunity to blatantly stare at him, take in every line and spot of his unsuspecting face, ”but hey, who am I to fucking complain, huh? Was a time when a party wasn’t a party until someone was bleeding, takes all fucking kinds, right? And I guess Rockford wasn’t the worst place to go for a weekend.”

To his surprise, Ian suddenly starts to hum on a slow, unfamiliar tune. Eyes kept closed, his brows furrow in a focused frown as he leans back in his seat.

”And I miss old Rockford town,” he starts to sing, his voice even lower and raspier than usual, ”up by the Wisconsin border.”

Mickey is getting strangely used to this type of shit coming from this guy, and he might even be lying at this point if he claimed he wasn’t at all charmed by it.

”But I miss, you won't believe,” Ian continues, the words slowing down until it sounds more like a poem than a song, ”shoveling snow and raking leaves.”

He tilts his head like he tries to remember the next part, before opening his eyes again and fixing them right on Mickey with a pleased smile. ”And my plane will touch down, on the day after tomorrow.”

Mickey doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say to that, so he shakes his head and says at least half of what he’s thinking. ”You’re such a fucking weirdo.”

Ian huffs and gives Mickey a slight nod.

”You ever think about going further out?” he asks and his crooked, curious smile doesn’t falter for a second when Mickey scowls at him. ”Come on, no dream destination?”

”Where would I go, huh?” Mickey says and shakes his head at the thought before he takes a sip of his long-forgotten coffee, grimacing a little around the increasingly bitter and cold drink.

”Milkovich-, what’s that?” Ian starts and leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. ”Russian?”

Wincing at the suggestion, Mickey sets down his cup and can’t help but mimic Ian’s posture, narrowing down the distance between them to just a couple of long feet.

”Svetlana would skin you alive for suggesting that,” he says, smirking when Ian looks surprised, ”Ukrainian. She loves to hold that shit against me, apparently it’s a whole thing.”

”Okay, so maybe that’s not the most obvious dream destination,” Ian concedes, ”but it could be cool? Connect with your roots?

”Yeah, alright,” Mickey snorts, ”’cause my family really strikes you as people in touch with our cultural roots, do we? Pretty sure I’d never given’ it any thought at all if I hadn’t married an angry Russian who liked to spit my last name like an insult, like I give a shit about any of that. Jesus, the fuck would I wanna go to fucking Ukraine for?”

”C’mon Mick, I said dream destination,” Ian huffs, chin out, ”doesn’t have to make sense, what’s wrong with dreaming a little?”

”Yeah,” Etch agrees, sidling up by Mickey’s elbow and stepping into their bubble, wielding a half-full pot of coffee, ”dare to dream, Mickey! Refill?”

”Sure,” Mickey humors them with a shrug, but pointedly doesn’t indulge them or their pointless call for dreaming as he sits back in his seat and glares up at Etch’s calm face, as he steps closer and absently puts a hand on Mickey’s shoulder while carefully pouring him his coffee, ”when did you get here?”

”A while ago,” Etch clearly lies, he always was useless at lying, ”I wasn’t late at all and didn’t just sneak in through the kitchen.”

”Whatever, man,” Mickey dismisses the cook’s poor attempt at covering his ass, ”ain’t no one here, not like I missed you or anything.”

”Can see that,” Etch observes, a little too obviously for Mickey’s liking, and turns to Ian, ”refill?”

”Not for me, thanks,” Ian declines, holding up a hand, ”how’s everything?”

”Good,” Etch smiles brilliantly at Ian, hand still gently squeezing Mickey’s shoulder, ”excellent, couldn’t be better man, thanks for asking. How are you?”

”Hard pressed to follow that,” Ian huffs and gestures at Etch and his ill-contained joy, ”but good, real good.”

”Awesome,” Etch declares, and he’s really starting to sound a little too much like a teenage mutant ninja turtle for Mickey to keep from rolling his eyes. The hand on his shoulder squeezes him tighter and Mickey is bracing himself for whatever ’wicked’, ’radical’, or ’cowabunga’ might come next, when the door opens and a group of people amble inside.

”Guess that’s good times over,” Mickey mutters and moves to get up, when Etch’s firm grip holds him still.

”Sit,” he says and grins down at Mickey, ”relax, I got this.”

Mickey holds up his hands in a quick show of defeat, and only barely refrains from flipping him off when Etch backs away with an unsubtle wink.

”He’s in a good mood,” Ian comments as they watch Etch turn to the now seated group of people to enthusiastically take their orders.

”Gruesome, right?” Mickey sighs, but grins to show he’s joking when Ian looks at him. ”They’re expecting another baby.”

Ian lights up at the news, like he’s genuinely excited. ”Yeah?”

”Yeah-, fuck,” Mickey catches himself, wincing when he realizes what he just said, ”guess it’s supposed to be a secret or some shit, so don’t tell anyone.”

Laughing, Ian sits back in his seat and holds up his hands in a wide shrug. ”Who am I gonna tell?”

”That’s what I said when Etch first told me,” Mickey admits, ”and he very astutely predicted that I might tell you, so…”

”What goes around comes around,” Ian offers, before making a doubtful face, ”no, that’s not right is it?”

”Either way,” Mickey says and sighs, like he’s got no choice, as he leans forward to wedge a hand down his back pocket and pull out a folded up piece of paper, ”gotta take it down, man.”

”What?” Ian chuckles, crossing his arms as he watches Mickey unfold the paper and flatten it out on the table.

”Sorry, them’s the rules,” Mickey mutters as he scans over the drawn out grid of boxes on the paper, looking for the right one to cross out while he digs through his apron pocket after his trusty pen. It’s not there, fucker’s been behind his ear the whole time.

”What is that?” Ian asks, and Mickey can feel him lean closer in an attempt to see what’s written on the crumpled, square piece of paper.

”This, my friend,” Mickey starts, dramatically pausing to draw a big ’X’ over the box labelled ’what goes around comes around’, ”is what you get for comin’ here and swinging all those painful fuckin’ platitudes around, I warned you.”

”What?” Ian groans and unfolds his arms to reach across the table. ”Give it to me.”

Mickey shrugs and pushes the paper towards him, leaning back in his seat to take in the show when Ian throws him a suspicious glare as he picks up the paper.

”Platitude bingo,” he reads and frowns for a second, eyes darting across the paper as he takes it in, ”what the fuck, Mickey?”

”Warned you,” Mickey reiterates, pretty fucking pleased with himself, ”you should watch yourself, I’ve almost got a whole row already.”

”That’s ’cause you’ve put all the ones I’ve already said in a row, you fucking cheat!” Ian splutters. ”And ’got milk?’, seriously? Why the fuck’s that on here?”

”It’s there ’cause you said it, babe,” Mickey explains, happy to see that Ian seems too preoccupied with pretending to be outraged about the set-up of his bingo board to notice the teasing, slippery term of endearment, ”my bingo, my rules.”

”You didn’t invent bingo, Mick,” Ian argues and looks up from the paper, only to roll his eyes and hold out his hand, inclining it for Mickey to give him something, ”pen.”

Mickey puts the pen back behind his ear and crosses his arms defensively, raising his eyebrows at Ian’s demand. ”Do I look fuckin’ stupid to you?”

Before Mickey really gets any chance to react, Ian’s heaved himself up on his feet and leaned across the table to extend one of his gangly arms and reach a hand towards Mickey’s face, undeterred by Mickey’s attempts to swat it away as he swipes the pen right off his ear and sits back down with a triumphant grin.

”Ey,” Mickey warns as he watches Ian clamp the pen between his teeth to pull the cap off, ”easy on the pen, Fido, I’m gonna need that back.”

Ian waves him off like it doesn’t matter, the cap still lodged in the corner of his mouth as he bends over the paper and gets to work, flipping it over from time to time to copy Mickey’s scribbly bingo board to the other side.

”This one here,” he mumbles to himself, absently rolling the pen cap between his teeth, ”spread these out.”

”You’re changing the whole board around,” Mickey complains.

”Mh-hm,” Ian just hums, ignoring him, ”there, almost done.”

Dotting the i:s and crossing the t:s, he flips the paper around one more time and aggressively starts blocking out Mickey’s old board. Then he folds it up and hands it over, grinning around the cap as he slots the pen back in and holds that out too.

”Thanks,” Mickey mutters sarcastically and gingerly accepts the pen, making a show of wiping the saliva off the now uneven plastic cap with the hem of his apron. ”Happy now?”

”No,” Ian admits, clasping his hands together and resting his elbows on the table as he leans closer and pins Mickey with an unusually serious look, ”I’m concerned. I accused you of being a dirty cheat, you’re clearly pissed I chewed on your pen… listen, Mick, I think this might have been our first fight.”

Mickey lets out an annoyed breath through his nose when he realizes that Ian is fucking with him, and having way too much fun doing it now that Mickey’s caught on to the joke.

”Jesus,” Mickey huffs and shakes his head, Ian’s wide smile immediately falling back into feigned concern.

”We might need counseling,” he states, nodding to himself, ”nip this thing in the bud, so to speak.”

”Fuck off,” Mickey laughs.

”No, I don’t think I will, I think you might’ve missed me,” Ian decides with a self-assured smile, only looking more convinced when Mickey flips him off, ”yeah, I think you’ve gotten addicted to my dazzling wit and conversation, and I’m thinking the withdrawals must’ve gotten to your head since I’ve been gone.”

”You just count your fucking blessings you haven’t been banned yet,” Mickey huffs, ignoring Ian’s outrageous theory, ”you want your portrait up in here? Easily arranged, though it’s more likely to come with a label saying ’do not serve this man’, than any kinda credit.”

”You missed me,” Ian asserts with a stubborn nod, cracking a wide grin when Mickey rolls his eyes, ”hey, I missed you.”

”Shut up,” Mickey absolutely fucking refuses to partake in this nonsense, ”no, you didn’t.”

”Uh-huh, but I did,” Ian insists, ”’cause, you know, home is where the heart is.”

Mickey thinks he might have gone deaf for a second while his brain goes into overdrive, trying to catch up and understand what the hell Ian’s saying. It’s not without some measure of disappointment that he suddenly gets it.

Narrowing his eyes at Ian’s widening smile, he reaches out for his bingo card and unfolds it.

”You get that bingo for me isn’t a win for you, right?” he points out as he finds ’home is where the heart is’ in one of the more isolated corners, and crosses it out. ”Just means you’re a grade A cheeseball and should seriously consider a fuckin’ personality transplant.”

”Think it means you missed me,” Ian persists, and it doesn’t matter how much he might be joking when he says it, he’s not wrong.

So Mickey doesn’t argue, he just smirks and folds up his bingo card so he can tuck it back down his pocket as he stands up and sidles out of the booth.

”You want anything?” he asks instead, looking down at Ian. The urge to sit the fuck back down spend the rest of the day hanging out with Ian is pretty overwhelming, but he does also have a job.

”Nope,” Ian shakes his head, looking up at him, ”should probably take off anyway.”

”Sure,” Mickey says, glancing over his shoulder when the door jingles with another group of customers, ”one sec.”

Giving Ian a curt nod, Mickey turns to go deal with the newcomers that are taking a seat in the center of the room. They’re indecisive as fuck and full minute later he’s still standing there with his pen and pad like some schmuck, waiting for them to get their shit together and make up their minds, when he suddenly feels the brief touch of a hand to his shoulder and something brushing past behind him.

Without really thinking about why, he twists to look back at Ian’s empty table before he turns the other way and spots him already by the door. Barely listening to his other customers, Mickey picks up his eyebrows and doesn’t even try to look away when Ian puts a hand on the door and half turns to smile back at him as he disappears out on the street.

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

January 19
Tuesday.

 

”The fuck,” Mickey groans and pulls in a quick drag off his cigarette before blowing it out the corner of his mouth as he cracks open the back door, ”ey, can’t you hear the fuckin’ phone ringing?”

Etch doesn’t move away from the stove when he glances over his shoulder and throws Mickey a quick grin.

”I can,” he says before turning back to the griddle, elbow moving with the well-practiced flip of a pancake, ”not likely gonna do much about it, though.”

”Fuckin’-,” Mickey bites out and sighs, taking another quick puff off his smoke before flicking the cigarette down the alley and stomping inside, closing the door behind himself and glaring daggers at the back of Etch’s neck while he strides through the kitchen, ”unbelievable.”

”I’m busy!” Etch defends himself, raising his voice so Mickey can still hear him even as he moves into the other room. ”Pancakes are like children, Mickey, they require constant attention and care!”

”Yeah, okay Mrs Lovejoy,” Mickey snarks back as he picks up the phone and holds the receiver to his chest, just so he can finish yelling at Etch without the risk of actually missing the call, ”you go ahead and coddle the fucking pancakes and I’ll just do every-fuckin’-thing else around here.”

”Coddle-,” Etch gasps, ”coddle?! I’ll have you know this family would be an emotional wasteland if it wasn’t for me!”

Mickey grins and picks up the receiver to put it to his ear, ignoring Etch’s dramatic bemoaning of his callous nature.

”Just endless, barren fields of blackened pancakes and neglect!”

”International house of horrors,” Mickey absently greets the caller, rolling his eyes and moving away from the hatch in an attempt to muffle Etch’s antagonistic wailing, ”this better be good.”

”Is this how you answer the phone, now?” Mandy asks, her voice sounding far away and only mildly amused. ”Seems kinda unprofessional, don’t it?”

”Bitch please,” Mickey huffs, but can’t help a quick grin, ”like you would know.”

”Hey, I worked at that diner way before you did,” she reminds him, ”and I killed it with the professionalism.”

”Sure,” Mickey agrees, letting that one word drip with all the sarcasm he can muster this early in the morning, which is a whole fucking lot.

”Bet I made better tips in three years than you have in ten,” Mandy really lays it on, and Mickey shakes his head even though it’s probably not that far off the truth. The patrons of Corner Diner are notoriously bad tippers, and Mandy has always known how to work her charms to get what she wants in a way Mickey’s never been able or comfortable doing.

”Whatever,” he huffs, pressing his lips together over another pleased grin when Mandy barks out a victorious laugh at his sullen concession, ”you know how many people still call this line?”

His sister makes a pretty fucking disagreeable sound. ”I don’t know Mickey, how many people still call-”

”Ain’t fuckin’ nobody still calling this line,” Mickey interrupts her, ”except telemarketers, wrong numbers, and now you. Congratulations sis, you’ve made it to the big leagues.”

”Real nice, assface,” Mandy complains, ”wouldn’t ’ve had to if you just answered your fucking cell, what’s the point of getting you a new phone if you’re not gonna use it at all?”

”You didn’t get me shit,” Mickey snorts, ”showed up with a fuckin’ Rockefeller Center snow globe balled up in some dodgy newspaper for Yev, claimin’ it was for the both of us once you saw me standing next to him like some sorry loser.”

”Yeah, ’cause I got you a new phone, Your Highness, Jesus,” Mandy insists, groaning when Mickey makes a doubtful noise, ”I pitched in!”

”Sure you did,” Mickey teases her, just ’cause it’s so amazingly easy.

”Ingrate,” Mandy mutters, but it sure fucking sounds like she’s smiling, ”just be a fuckin’ normal person for fuckin’ once and use the goddamned thing!”

”Pretty sure the point of cellphones hasn’t been makin’ or takin’ calls since texting was invented,” Mickey shrugs, sandwiching the clunky receiver between his shoulder and ear so he can empty the main coffeemaker and start measuring out fresh grounds, ”and fuck you, I’ve been using it. Angry Birds and that Candy Crush bullshit, fuckin’ word-feuding with the kid on the daily, got that app shit down.”

”Yet you still turn the sound off when you’re at work,” Mandy points out, and Mickey can practically hear the way she smirks and rolls her eyes.

”So?” Mickey scoffs and slots in the filter, before flipping the switch. ”You got me now, don’t you? You know where I am all day, you got the fucking numbers, did it kill you to try all two before gettin’ me to pick up and deal with your demanding tits?”

”How about you let Etch manage the phone from now on, huh?” Mandy suggests. ”You seem a little tense about it.”

”You think?” Mickey snorts and looks up at the hatch in time to see Etch putting out two steaming plates of pancakes. ”Believe me when I say I’ve fucking tried, apparently he’s busy being the nurturer or some shit.”

Etch winks at him, and laughs at Mickey’s disbelieving eyebrows as he disappears back inside the depth of the kitchen.

”What does that even mean?”

”Fuck knows,” Mickey mutters and squeezes the receiver between his ear and shoulder again so he can grab the two plates at once and move them over to the top of the display, ”yo! You, in the hat-”

The two middle-aged guys at table five look up at his raised voice, the one wearing a fucking backwards cap pointing uncertainly at himself when Mickey picks up his eyebrows.

”That’s right, rabbit ears,” Mickey nods, grabbing the phone with his hand but still angling it away from his mouth, ”self-service today, shake a leg.”

Leaving his slightly befuddled guests to figure that shit out for themselves, Mickey is only vaguely aware of them getting up and moving across the room while he turns his focus to untangling himself from the phone’s twisted-up spiral cord.

”So,” he says, spinning around half a turn and impatiently grabbing the loop of cord around his chest to lift the whole mess over his head, stepping out of it, ”you calling me for a reason, or just lookin’ to brighten my morning?”

”I’m brightening your morning?” Mandy asks, perking up. ”Aw, Mickey… that’s not at all why, not even close.”

”Mh-hum,” Mickey smirks and leans back against the counter, whipping the unruly cord aside so he won’t get any more tangled up in its business, ”didn’t think so.”

”Here’s the deal,” Mandy starts, and the more she preambles whatever request she’s about to make the more Mickey knows his answer’s gonna be an emphatic ’no’, ”the show’s been going really well, we’ve almost got a full house every other week now.”

”Congrats,” Mickey interjects in a quick mutter. He’s still not entirely sure what the fuck it is Mandy’s doing with her friends in their ’shows’, but he knows she’s happy doing it and he knows he’s proud of her. He really doesn’t need any more information than that.

”Yeah, well,” Mandy continues, speaking a little faster now, ”so, yesterday we found out that we’ve been selected to be in this comedy festival in the city, it’s a whole week of events and we got a great slot on the Saturday. It’s in May which is good for you seeing as that gives you literal months to bitch and moan and drag your feet, ’cause I got you two tickets and I want you and Yev to come visit.”

”Mands-,” Mickey starts.

”Pretty sure I’m not gonna take no for an answer, bro,” Mandy insists, ”I’ve been out here for close on a whole fucking decade, and you’ve never even bothered to so much as pretend that you’re gonna come see me.”

”I don’t-,” Mickey tries, scowling when he’s cut off again.

”And don’t tell me you can’t ’cause of money or work or whatever, it’d just be for the weekend, worst case scenario you gotta take Friday and Monday off, but the way you’ve got Edna and Katie both wrapped around your little finger I don’t doubt they’d leap at the opportunity to help you out.”

Mickey sighs, shaking his head. ”Listen-”

”No, you listen,” Mandy immediately shoots back, ”when have you ever been outta Chicago? You’re at that diner day in and day out, you need to go out and experience shit, Mickey, get some fucking culture.”

”Yeah, ’cause this is gonna make me wanna come see you,” Mickey argues, feeling his hackles rising even though he knows Mandy always gets on the offense when she’s really just feeling defensive and insecure.

”Just saying maybe you wouldn’t be such a lonely, miserable asshole all the time if you did some interesting shit once in a while.”

”Ey, fuck you,” Mickey weakly tires to defend himself, not entirely sure he’s got any evidence to convince her she’s wrong, ”I do what I do and I fucking like who I am, and it ain’t gonna change me for shit if I waste my money going to some hipster comedy crapfest like another fucking wannabe cultured poser asshole.”

”So you’ll come?” is, of course, what she decides to take from all that. ”We’ve got a pull-out couch in the living room, you know-, or Ethan can go stay with his boyfriend for the weekend and you guys can have his room. Ether way, all you gotta waste money on is getting here.”

Pursing his lips together, Mickey feels his will to fight slowly drain out of him at the sound of his sister’s enthusiasm. He really doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t want to put himself through the ordeal of travel just to get to a new place where he doesn’t know how things work and he doesn’t fit in. He fits in here, with his job and kid and very little else, but it’s enough. Just thinking about going anywhere else kinda ties him up in knots of anxiety and he hates it, it makes him feel weak as fuck.

”I’ll think about it,” he says, more or less just to get her to shut up about it, and angles the receiver away from his ear for a second when she lets out a piercing squeal, ”yeah, yeah, calm the fuck down, didn’t say I’m gonna come for sure.”

”You will,” Mandy promises, and launches into another tirade about all the different possible sleeping arrangements. He kinda tunes her out, thinking about how difficult it’s gonna be to keep saying ’no’ once his sister gets her claws in Yevgeny, getting his hopes up about going and turning him into a second prong in her plan of attack.

He looks up when the door opens, his worried scowl smoothing out and his lips quirking up in a pleased smirk when he sees Ian stepping inside, blowing on his hands as he tries to wring some warmth back into his pale skin. The idiot’s barely got any clothes on, just his old and worn – and open – hoodie over a flimsy-looking t-shirt.

Mickey rolls his eyes at him and waves him closer before he turns to the secondary coffeemaker that’s been brewing in decaffeinated hope since early this morning. Struggling a little with just the one free hand, he prepares a cup and fills it up.

”Hey,” Ian says, all smiles when Mickey turns back around and sets down the steaming cup in front of him.

”Hey,” Mickey echoes, without really thinking, and raises his eyebrows in an attempt to counterbalance the dopey smile slowly taking over his face.

”Hey what?” Mandy shatters the moment. Mickey’d somehow managed to tune her out so much he’d forgotten she was there, and then not noticed when she’d stopped talking.

”Not you,” Mickey frowns, eyes on Ian’s curiously raised brows, ”I do got a fuckin’ job, ’case you forgot. You want breakfast?”

Ian blinks, but to his credit only hesitates for about a second before answering. ”Yeah.”

”Okay,” Mickey decides and motions towards him to get moving, ”great, I’ll be right fucking with you, man, have a seat.”

”I’ve never heard you say ’hey’ like that to a customer before,” Mandy muses, in the background, completely ignoring all of Mickey’s valiant attempts at sounding more like his old, brazen self, ”don’t think I’ve ever heard you say ’hey’ like that to anyone, before.”

”The hell are you even talking about right now?” Mickey complains, all while counting his fucking blessings that Ian’s had the time to take his coffee and turn before noticing the tell-tale blush flaring up his face at being so entirely caught out. ”Don’t sound like anything special, I was just dazed from boredom having to listen to you running your mouth about whatever.”

”Uh-huh,” Mandy hums, ”very convincing. Who is it, though? Is it Ian?”

Mickey groans and bites back a long string of curses, turning to poke his head through the hatch and catch Etch’s attention.

”Ey, mother hen,” he says, bringing the receiver down to hold it against his chest and censor himself to his sister’s nosy ears, ”Red’s here, wants breakfast.”

”On it, chief,” Etch answers, getting up from his chair and resting his book on it, spine up.

”-so right, aren’t I?” Mandy sounds like she’s having a grand old time, her voice climbing as he steps back and puts the phone to his ear again. ”Have you done anything about it, yet? Huh, Mickey? Mickey!”

”Jesus,” Mickey mutters, announcing himself, ”was gonna say I’m not fucking deaf, but now I’m not so sure.”

”Stop whining,” Mandy dismisses his complaint, ”and tell me what’s going on with lover boy.”

”Fuckin’-,” Mickey sighs, pinching his eyes shut for a second before deciding to bite the proverbial bullet, ”ain’t nothing going on, alright? We’re friends, he’s here for breakfast.”

”Whatever,” Mandy snorts, ”what about me? What did you tell him about me?”

”Nothing,” Mickey easily admits and grins at her affronted gasp, ”what? You think I sit around talkin’ about you all day?”

”You’re the worst,” she tells him, like that’s something likely to get to him, ”put him on.”

”What’s that?” Mickey sputters, feeling his eyebrows climb all the way up his forehead at the request.

”Just put him on!” Mandy repeats. ”I wanna talk to him.”

Mickey looks over at Ian, sitting at his table and peacefully sipping his coffee, eyes somewhere far away on the pedestrian scene outside. ”Yeah, that’s not happening.”

”Come on, Mickey,” she honestly seems to think she can wear him down just by annoying him enough, ”I haven’t seen the guy in almost fifteen years, it’s funny! I just wanna talk to him, I’m not gonna tell him about your massive cru-”

Mickey hangs up on her. He lets the receiver drop from his ear and plonks it down on the hook, crossing his arms and reveling in the sweet relief of silence. The phone starts ringing again almost immediately and knowing there’s no point in trying to ignore it, he reaches out to lift the receiver with about an inch – just to let it hover for a sec in false hope – before decisively dropping it back down again.

He stands next to the phone for another minute just to make sure she’s given up on trying, waiting until he feels some of the subconscious tension seep out of his shoulders. He doesn’t really want to examine the psychological machinations behind why he’s reacting so strongly against the idea of Mandy potentially chumming it up with Ian, but it’s right there and near fucking impossible to ignore with nothing else providing any immediate distraction.

It’s not because he’s scared she’ll out him or actually tell Ian how he feels. In her own way, Mandy’s always been cool about Mickey’s dick-centric preferences, she likes to tease and threaten him with her limited insight to his love life, but he trusts her to never actually follow through with any of that shit. She knows better than anyone why it’s a touchy area for him and even though they’ve never really talked about it, they have a clear understanding between them of where those lines are drawn.

No, Mandy wouldn’t rat him out like that, it’s not that. There’s another reason.

Glaring across the room, narrowing his eyes as he absently catalogues the side of Ian’s face and the slope of his shoulder, the bend of his elbow and curl of his fingers resting loosely around his still steaming coffeecup, Mickey’s man enough to admit the real reason why he’s not letting his sister anywhere near all that. And embarrassingly, childishly, he thinks it’s mostly got to do with some kinda bone-deep, dumbass sense of sibling rivalry.

Mickey doesn’t like to share and the mere thought of Mandy taking any part of Ian to herself right now, with her fucking charms and interests and dubious success doing her cultured shit in New York, fucking pinches at that old nerve and triggers a flash of preemptive jealousy.

She would try and steal him away. He would like her better than you.

Well, tough fucking shit, Mandy can’t have him and Ian’ll just have to sit pretty and fucking settle.

”Red hot, coming through,” Etch announces, cutting through Mickey’s rapidly deteriorating thoughts and snapping his borderline creepy glaring off of Ian’s sharp profile.

”Yep,” he mutters, ”right.”

”Sit down,” Etch suggests, leaning forward to peer out at him through the hatch, ”get something to eat, man, I know you skipped breakfast.”

Mickey bites his jaw shut and swallows whatever snarky, knee-jerk response he’s got waiting to trip out and push off against Etch’s careful kindness. It’s been a hectic morning with Yevgeny unexpectedly staying with him since yesterday evening, and then the breakfast rush saw an unusual upswing that kept him busy from the second he opened up the place. But it’s calm now, and Mickey’s growling stomach reminds him of how Etch knows him almost uncomfortably well in some ways.

”Thanks,” he sighs and rolls his eyes at Etch’s pleased grin as he grabs himself a BLT and stacks it up with Ian’s plate on one hand, leaving the other open to get the coffee.

The regular machine is still gurgling away, slowly filling up the pot with the diesel fuel most of the diner’s guests prefer, but the quarter pot of decaf left after Ian is right there and ready to go. They say it’s good to try new things, and considering the fact that Mickey’s approximately 90% caffein at this point, after the morning he’s had, maybe today is as good a day as any to start living by a new creed.

Holding up the pot and squinting at the dark inch of liquid still sloshing around the bottom of it, he decides that it’s just enough to satisfy his needs while not forcing his penny-pinching ass to double back and return it to the plate once he’s done pouring. He’s gonna go sit down with Ian right now, and he’s not moving again for at least another twenty minutes, not for fucking anything.

”En-joy,” Etch sing-songs behind him, his voice carrying through the room and making Ian look up and smile at Mickey, eyes dipping to his loaded hands before snapping up again, calmly tracking his careful progression past the diner’s precariously placed furniture.

”Don’t get up or anything,” Mickey teases, once he gets close enough, and arches his eyebrows at Ian’s passive observation.

He can’t quite stop the smug smirk when it instantly gets Ian to sit up straighter and mindlessly reach out his hands, like it’s gonna help Mickey for shit to pass him any of his load, instead of just placing it directly down on the table. Mickey pointedly ignores Ian’s silent offer to help by swerving around his big Yeti hands and balancing the food for a couple of extra moments while he sets down his coffee first, then the sandwich, then Ian’s plate.

Ian looks at him the whole time, Mickey can feel his sharp eyes practically glued to the side of his face and he can see the amused quirk of his lips, dancing in his periphery. Maybe Ian saw him gawking earlier and now he’s retaliating in kind, or maybe Mickey’s actually got something glued to his face and that’s why he’s staring. After all, Yevgeny was elbow deep in a glitter-packed papier-mâché volcano this morning, so who knows how long it’s gonna be until Mickey stops finding tiny golden stars behind his ears and holographic flakes between his toes. What kinda science teacher is idiotic enough to actually encourage the use of glitter in their project assignments anyway?

Gotta hope the dude’s choking on it now, thirty wonky volcanoes ejecting hell-sparkle into the confined space of one slightly too-small classroom. Serves him fucking right, even though Mr Morris is Yevgeny’s favorite and one of those guys about whom even Mickey can’t say too many bad things. He’d even be kinda hot if Mickey was into that general goody-two-shoes horn-rimmed nerdy-chic schtick. Or if he was at all into banging his kid’s science teacher, which he decidedly isn’t.

Especially not lately.

Ever since his balls decided to drop and point his dick at whatever hard-muscled body they could find – which at the time unfortunately had meant a lot of his older brothers’ douchebag friends – Mickey’s come to realize that he’s got a pretty severe case of tunnel-vision when it comes to attraction. He considers himself an equal opportunity kinda bang most of the time, as long as the interested other party is legal, willing, and in possession of a satisfactory dong. But once in a blue moon it’s different, and it’s one specific dude that kinda centers himself within Mickey’s desire and won’t let up, and turns his libido into fucking Willy Wonka; sailing that funky-ass boat through the dark and singing like a damned siren about shit Mickey’s never even considered before. Like fucking carrot-tops, all pale and pink and on fire. Like freckles showing up in all sorts of unexpected places, or fucking underbites, strong jawlines and deep-cut dimples and the whole shebang. Or broad shoulders and narrow hips, big hands and big feet and an underlying promise of more. Of bigger.

Fucking crooked smirks and large, dopey eyes, blinking over at him with some kinda fucked up and deeply unreliable innocence.

Yeah, it’s likely gonna take him a while to get out of this particular tunnel. It’s gorgeous and ticks all the boxes he didn’t even know he had, so it’s gonna be a hassle and a half just convincing himself to leave it behind, not to mention actually paddling back out on the open seas.

Quickly shaking himself out of his freewheeling metaphor, Mickey sits down and takes the opportunity to covertly swipe a hand down his face, rubbing at his left cheek and hopefully catching any of Yevgeny’s potential shiny leftovers that might have caught Ian’s eye, before pushing his fingers back through his hair.

But when he looks across the table Ian’s got his lowered gaze fixed on his breakfast, hunched over his plate and elbows on the edge of the table as he eats, obviously no longer all that interested in Mickey’s presence; glammed up or otherwise.

Whatever. Guess this means Mickey can safely assume he hasn’t got a disco sparkling up his forehead, seeing as he’s pretty sure Ian never would’ve let it slide without at least a modicum of mockery if he did.

Mickey finds himself strangely disappointed, frowning down at his sandwich as he unwraps it and takes an obnoxiously big bite. He somehow thinks it would have been nice; Ian would’ve laughed and Mickey would’ve called him Liberace and said something snarky about glass houses and stones, and then Mickey could have told him about his morning. About last night’s arts and crafts project, about endless piles of torn up tissue paper and severely misjudged amounts of wallpaper glue. About having Yevgeny home, messing up his lonely routine and making every second of it just that much more precious.

Instead here they sit, in companionable fucking silence, Ian with his shoulders hunched and neck bent over his half-eaten, gross-looking fucking porridge, and Mickey stuffing his face with yesterday’s almost-stale leftover BLT. Turns out he really was hungry, and despite his mind going haywire on him – indulging in things he’d usually consider off-limits – he finally feels himself settling down. His tense body slowly relaxing and his mindlessly racing thoughts tapering down to a trot.

Smoking didn’t do it, the five consecutive cups of coffee didn’t do it, Mandy certainly didn’t do it. Ian puts part of him on edge, vibrating and humming in his presence, but another part turns into putty. Boneless and thick. He’s sure he’d melt and mold and run under his touch, if Ian ever got it in his head to reach out and put his hands on him. Fingers pressing, raking through hair and down his sides, tracing the insides of his wide open thighs. Lips pressing into his skin, breathing life into every inch, wetting a shiny trail down his ribs and the dips and curves of his belly, licking up the head of his stiff cock and slowly sucking it into his mouth, that fucking jaw dropping as he sinks down and buries his nose in dark pubes, bristling and caressing his pink lips and concave cheeks as he swallows and-

Mickey clears his throat and shifts his hips, the rising heat pulsing through his junk and quickly working on taking over his whole body instantly replaced by a kind of queasy annoyance. What kinda dickhead sits and fantasizes about their friend going down on them over fucking breakfast?

A sexually deprived dickhead with a humungous crush on said friend, that’s who. But Jesus fucking Christ. He could at least try and keep that shit decently confined to the privacy of his bed, or shower, or the embarrassingly wet dreams he’s been having lately. There’s an unspoken code of curtesy here, in Mickey’s mind, and this kinda gross behavior is crossing all the goddamned lines.

Ian looks up at him, a question in his slightly raised left eyebrow. What if Mickey told him? What if he just threw it out there? What if he told him about all the little moments and fantasies and eruptions, about all the relentless little things that add up to Mickey feeling like he’s losing his mind and putting himself back together all at once whenever they’re in the same room.

Ian frowns, and Mickey knows for sure he’s not gonna tell him shit about any of it. Maybe not ever but especially not right now, like this, embarrassing himself so completely with little to no chance of Ian feeling anything even remotely similar to what Mickey’s got cooking in his rusty old heart.

But he probably needs to say something, going by the look of Ian’s silent curiosity.

”You know it’s still fucking winter, right?” he croaks, pointedly widening his eyes and quirking a brow as he lets his gaze dip to Ian’s open hoodie and t-shirt for a second, returning in time to see the confusion giving way to a surprised smirk. ”You tryna catch a cold or something?”

”You don’t catch colds from being cold,” Ian states, shoveling in another spoonful of porridge and speaking around it, and it’s so off-putting it’s almost not sexy at all.

”Yeah, okay,” Mickey scowls, ”pretty sure it doesn’t fucking help, though.”

Ian swallows and grins, obviously amused by Mickey’s abrasive concern.

”You know I live close,” he says and shrugs, ”and I’m not going anywhere after this, except back home. Got Jon comin’ over to do some demo recordings.”

”That right?” Mickey feels his lips twist into a smirk as he struggles to suppress the instant rise of corrosive jealousy flaring up inside him at the mere mention of Jon. He’d almost managed to forget about that guy.

”Mh,” Ian nods, shoving the last of his food into his mouth like he’s not got a fucking care in the world.

And Mickey tries to keep his trap shut, albeit not very hard. ”That all the comin’ he’s gonna do?”

Ian snorts, firmly pressing his lips together to stop anything from spraying out over the table and lightly shaking his head as he chews down his food. Then he takes a slow sip of his coffee before he even tries to say anything.

”We don’t have studio time scheduled for another couple of months,” he very infuriatingly doesn’t answer Mickey’s very legitimate question, ”I just need to get some of this stuff outta my head so I can focus on what’s going on right now.”

”Anything good in there?” Mickey asks, opting to follow Ian’s lead and pretend that he wasn’t practically frothing at the mouth with jealousy just then, relaxing into a wide grin when Ian shakes his head again.

”Never know at this stage,” he says, ”could be alright, could be poop. Won’t know for sure until I can get Anne on board and we hash it out together. I can hear all the parts in here-,” Ian picks up a hand and softly knocks a knuckle against his temple, ”-doesn’t mean it’s gonna translate right, though.”

”Sure it’s great,” Mickey tries, but it doesn’t sound convincing even to his own ears.

For a split second he absently wishes he knew enough about Ian’s music to actually give him some kinda sound feedback, but he puts an abrupt end to that line of thinking with another slightly too-big bite off his sandwich. Chewing and frowning, he sits back and observes as Ian pulls out a paper napkin from the stainless steel container and wipes it over the visibly sticky corner of his lips, before dropping the crumpled tissue down on his empty plate with a content smirk.

And it’s not at all sexy or distracting or making Mickey think about coming on the dude’s pretty face and licking it clean, or reaching out to wipe the pad of his thumb over the smooth, thin skin of his bottom lip before leaning across the table to steal a kiss from the corner of his mouth.

Holy fucking shit, he needs to get a fucking grip, what the ever-loving fuck is going on with his fucking brain today; drowning in the nonsense pumping outta his heart and cock and tingling up his whole body. He’s pretty sure he’s never felt this utterly and stupidly gone on a guy before, and he’s torn between wanting it to stop messing with him and leave him the fuck alone, and wanting to grip on to it and never let it go.

He feels like it’s evidence of something, that it means he’s got at least the ability to feel shit he always suspected only ever happened to other people. It’s embarrassing and acutely uncomfortable, but he’s surprised to find that he doesn’t hate it, and he feels well beyond any point of trying to deny it.

But Ian has no idea and Mickey aims to keep it that way, anything to keep him around and looking at him like this; eyes warm and pleased as he pushes the plate forward with an inch and slouches down in his seat.

”You don’t gotta keep eating that nasty shit, you know,” Mickey points out, aiming for bored indifference as he talks with his mouth full and eyes Ian’s empty plate with a skeptical crinkle of his nose, ”could at least mix it up with some fuckin’ pancakes from time to time, just say the word and I can make it happen, won’t tell nobody either in case you’re working on some kinda image with all this granola bullshit.”

Ian laughs, flashing his teeth in a quick, wide grin.

”Sure,” he says, holding up his hands like he’s performing some kinda sacrifice, ”as long as you make ’em, Mick, I’m not gonna complain.”

”Alright, fuck off,” Mickey chuckles, ”didn’t say I was gonna make shit, did I? Contrary to how it might appear, Etch isn’t just here to look cute and like, model fuckin’ hairnets. He’s here to cook and he makes a mean stack of pancakes so you gotta know you’re missing out.”

”I’m sure they’re great,” Ian agrees in an overtly condescending way as he laces his obnoxiously long and perfect fingers together and rests his chin on top of his knuckles, ”but I’m also pretty sure my conditions are non-negotiable.”

”Fuckin’-,” Mickey huffs, ”yeah, okay, enjoy spending eternity waitin’ on that to happen.”

”I will,” Ian says and blinks, his slight smile teetering right on the edge between pleased and mocking.

Mickey shakes his head and continues eating, glaring at his sandwich as he tries to focus on keeping his fucking mind clear of anything that might get him in some serious trouble if he doesn’t, if his dumbass dick decides to camp out and pitch a tent under the table or his mouth decides to go rogue and rat him out.

But then Ian kinda absently checks his watch and it feels like he’s about to wrap this thing up so he can go home and do whatever with fucking Jon, and Mickey finds himself grappling after any kinda Hail Mary of a conversation starter he can find.

”Mandy says hi,” he blurts out between chews, swallowing down the dry sandwich with some coffee before he continues, pleased with the way Ian’s curious eyes are focused back on him.

”You told her about me?” Ian asks, a surprised grin spreading across his face.

Mickey winces and sets down his cup, running the tip of his tongue along his teeth to clean them while trying to make it out like he’s giving Ian’s question some serious thought.

”Don’t know about that,” he fibs, smirking at Ian’s exaggerated sad-face, ”but she’s been weirdly obsessed with you since she saw you at Paddy’s, thinks you’re ships in the night or some shit.”

Ian frowns. ”She saw me at-, when was this?”

”What do you mean, ’when was this?’” Mickey complains, scrunching up his nose at Ian’s genuine confusion, ”when do you think? After Christmas? You, me, Mandy, your charming ass of a brother.”

”Mandy was there?” Ian’s practically gaping at him now. ”You hidin’ her from me or something?”

”Yeah,” Mickey scoffs and rolls his eyes at Ian fucking jumping at the chance to turn the tables on him, ”I’m hidin’ my sister from you, Ian, come on.”

”I don’t know!” Ian defends himself and grins apologetically, but his eyes are still wide with confusion. ”You’re clearly a man who values his integrity-”

Mickey makes a face and shakes his head at the description, but Ian just nods like he’s got no say on the fucking matter and keeps going.

”-and you like to keep your neat little worlds separated,” he says, his hands absently dividing up the edge of the table into small sections as he speaks, ”and maybe you think I’d somehow embarrass you in front of your sister if I got the chance.”

”Christ,” Mickey sighs and sits back, laying it on thick with the exasperation so it won’t be obvious how much he likes to hear Ian talking about him like this; like he’s maybe thought of him at all when he didn’t have to, ”takes a lot more than your ridiculous ass to embarrass me, man.”

”Good to know,” Ian smiles, before schooling his face back into a serious frown, ”so why didn’t you introduce us? I would’ve loved to talk to your sister, haven’t seen her in-”

”Almost fifteen years,” Mickey supplies, wincing when Ian looks surprised at him knowing how long it’s been, ”Mandy’s already had my ass for fucking up and, don’t worry, next time I’ll make sure to step the fuck back and let you two catch up on who’s hooking up with who or what the answer to question five was on Mr Henson’s trig final, or whatever it is you two are so fucking keen on chatting about you just gotta give me all this grief over not properly facilitating your little high school reunion bullshit when I should’ve.”

Throughout his whole tirade Ian looks at him with a slight, amused smirk and patient tilt to his head, like somehow he thinks Mickey’s exhaustive ranting is funny and he doesn’t mind weathering it, only raising his eyebrows in a silent question when he seems to realize that Mickey’s done.

”Can’t believe you remember Mr Henson,” he says and smiles wider when Mickey most likely looks at him like he’s grown a second head or something, ”I fucking hated math, nearly flunked out so many times, but Henson was cool. Bet he liked you.”

Mickey eyes him suspiciously, looking for some trace of irony he can’t hear in his voice and scoffing when he finds none. ”Have you met me?”

”Yep,” Ian grins again, quick and sharp, ”and you’re a sarcastic asshole with a heart of gold, just like he was.”

Mickey should probably argue with him but he really doesn’t want to, because Ian didn’t know him back then and Mickey isn’t exactly itching to tell him about all the shit he used to do that ’sarcastic asshole’ doesn’t cover, and ’heart of gold’ doesn’t even begin to excuse. But also because, by some absurd chance, Ian isn’t that far off the mark.

”Guess I didn’t suck at math,” Mickey admits with a shrug, ”so maybe Henson was the only one there that didn’t explicitly hate me, whatever, doesn’t mean he liked me.”

”Think that’s exactly what it means, Mick,” Ian, on the other hand, seems to be both eager and willing to argue, ”bet he was dreamin’ of Good Will Hunting you all the way to MIT or some shit.”

”Fuck off,” Mickey laughs, ”pretty sure he never saw nothing but a passable high school graduation for me, if anything, and he didn’t even get that.”

”Would you have wanted that?” Ian asks, voice curious and judgement free. ”You think you would’ve done anything different if you graduated?”

”Probably not,” Mickey waves his hand dismissively before dropping it and crossing his arms with a shrug, ”shit happened the way it happened, don’t think a fucking high school diploma would’ve changed anything.”

”Don’t know,” Ian hums, glancing at the ceiling for a second like he’s trying to figure something out, ”could’ve been like-, a math teacher, gone full circle. Or a banker, or an accountant.”

”Oh yeah?” Oh god, Ian looks at him again with eyes and lips full of mirth, and Mickey wants to kiss him and never fucking stop. ”Who’s gonna serve your lazy ass if I’m a fuckin’ accountant, huh? You thought of that?”

”Fuck,” Ian sighs and snaps his fingers, ”forgot about that.”

”Yeah, you didn’t think,” Mickey chastises, tapping the side of his head, ”no fucking wonder you suck at math, man.”

”Hey,” Ian laughs, ”I did alright, or-, I would’ve, if I hadn’t dropped out.”

Mickey almost doesn’t react he says it so casually. It’s not the first time Ian’s mentioned dropping out, but that’s also all he’s ever done; mentioned it. Mickey doesn’t know how or why and while part of him protests and grumbles that it doesn’t fucking matter why, another part of him just wants to know.

”You dropped out?” Mickey repeats it like a question, not caring if he’s making it sound like he didn’t know when Ian looks ready to go into some more detail.

”Yeah,” he says and leans forward a little to wrap his fingers around his empty cup, ”you knew Kash, right?”

”Don’t know about ’knew’,” Mickey huffs and scowls when Ian nods and doesn’t quite look at him, ”only know his name ’cause the narcissistic dickhead wrote it in big fat letters on his fucking store.”

Ian doesn’t argue with him about how signs and stores usually work, which on it’s own would be enough to put Mickey on edge. Pair it with the way Ian’s looking at him now, eyes narrowed and mouth tense, and Mickey’s skin is practically crawling.

”You didn’t like him?” Ian asks.

”What’s to fucking like?” Mickey shoots back, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with wherever this conversation is heading. ”We’re talking about the guy who fucked off and left his wife and three kids, right?”

”He was gay,” Ian says, like it’s a fucking point of argument.

”Yeah, no shit Sherlock,” Mickey feels his eyebrows climbing up his forehead as he tries to figure out why the fuck they’re talking about fucking Kash right now, and why Ian is defending his deadbeat ass, ”Yev was born like two years after that, you think I didn’t wanna take off? That I didn’t have nights when I thought I’d rather shoot myself in the fucking face than stay stuck in some shitty marriage for the rest of my life, with a kid I never wanted that might not even fuckin’ be mine.”

He snaps his mouth shut and winces at Ian’s stony face, his jaw set and brows furrowed into a concerned frown.

”He made a fucking choice,” Mickey states, eager to bring the conversation back to Kash and maybe force Ian into ignoring his accidental reveal of this very tender spot in his past, ”and it was the selfish, wrong choice.”

”I know,” Ian agrees, catching Mickey completely off guard when his face kind of falls and he nods, ”he ended up taking off with some dude he met online, I think, but before that-, fuck. That wrong choice? It was supposed to be me.”

It takes a couple of seconds too long for it to properly sink in and make sense, and it takes Ian’s apologetic face for Mickey to actually believe it once it does.

”The fuck does that mean?” he sputters, because he’s pretty sure he’s gonna need this one spelled out, loud and clear.

”Means I was fucking Kash,” Ian deadpans, and then sighs as he nervously rubs at the back of his neck, ”means I thought I was in love with him, thought he meant it when he promised me shit.”

”Like what?” Mickey asks, the general righteous indignation he’s always secretly enjoyed feeling towards the runaway storeowner giving way to suddenly uncomfortable memories of the sweet, goofy kid Mickey’d sometimes seen around their school, or hanging around their old neighborhood.

Mickey’s been looking at himself in the mirror since he was twelve and felt like someone much older was glaring back at him, but the scrawny redhead down the street had always seemed so young and so painfully earnest whenever he’d crossed Mickey’s path.

”Like he was gonna get divorced,” Ian shrugs, obviously embarrassed by this whole conversation in a way Mickey doesn’t think he’s ever seen him before, ”like he wanted to be with me for real? Go with me to New York and help support me through college, I don’t know… everything.”

”Fuck,” Mickey mutters, at a complete loss for what else to say.

”But then the baby was born and I think he freaked,” Ian continues, ”left Linda, the kids, me. And obviously it’s much, much worse that he left his family but I was, what-, seventeen, when he left? We’d been together for almost three years and he just took off. I’d found out about West Point not wanting me and when I tried to find him to figure something out, he was gone.”

Falling silent, Ian makes a face and shakes his head, like he somehow thinks his story is real dumb, and not just deeply wrong.

”So, yeah,” he says and doesn’t look right at Mickey when he’s pressing his lips together in a forced smile, ”was the only person I had back then that listened to my stupid shit at all, who seemed to properly care about just me, you know?”

Mickey looks away, knowing for a fact that he’s got nothing but curses in store if he gave talking a try right now.

”Anyway,” Ian shrugs, ”all my plans with college and Kash down the drain, I dropped out.”

”Jesus, fuck,” Mickey starts, suddenly angry with himself for causing Ian to look at him like he is now; vary and nervous, even with the stubborn set of his jaw still there, ”always wanted to kick that fuckin’ pedo’s ass, kinda wanna kill him now.”

Ian seems to relax at that, if only just to roll his eyes.

”I know what you think,” he says, ”but it wasn’t like that, I wanted to be with him.”

”So?” Mickey recoils, crossing his arms and shaking his head at Ian’s surprisingly immature defense. ”You were fourteen, I don’t give a fuck about what you wanted, Ian. He’s the one who’s sick, wanting to be with a kid like that, obviously taking advantage and lying to you about what it was.”

”Sure, ’course I know that now,” Ian admits, ”I wasn’t even twenty-five when some fifteen-year-old hit on me and it made me wanna shower for like a whole week after.”

Ian kinda shudders at the memory and Mickey lets his shoulders drop as he feels himself relax a little. Ian grew up much like he did, and Mickey knows what it’s like to feel like you’re all grown up at fourteen, refusing to believe anyone still insisting on calling you a kid. But none of that matters when he can’t help thinking of his son, and how in three short years he might consider himself as an adult the same way Ian had, the same way Mickey always did, and leave himself open to bad influences and forty-year-old perverts looking for an easy lay, or for a young mind to own and bend.

Yevgeny has grown up different, though; he has grown up loved and supported and hopefully won’t have as many gaping holes to fill – with drugs or booze or drunken tattoos, or ill-fitting affection – as both Ian and Mickey obviously had at that age.

”I thought I was all grown up when I was with Kash,” Ian echoes his thoughts, ”but to him I couldn’t have been anything but a kid and that’s fucked up, I know that. I also know now that I just wanted someone to take care of me and notice me, and he did all that so I thought I loved him. And guess what?” Ian throws up his hands in a hapless shrug. ”Big fuckin’ surprise, I was wrong about that too.”

”Math and love, man,” Mickey says in a sad attempt at lifting the mood a little, sucking on his back teeth to hide his pleased grin when Ian is pulled into a reluctant smile, tipping his head back and searching the ceiling for strength, ”hope you took some extra courses in college, filled in some of those gaps in your education.”

”Oh yeah,” Ian assures him with a dry smile, making Mickey’s throat snare up with another flash of that unreasonable jealousy, ”still suck at math, but I minored in Love for Dummies and got an A for effort, so at least I got that one down pat.”

He’s obviously joking, but Mickey can tell there’s another story hidden under his dry tone and he has to bite the inside of his cheek not to demand he tell him everything about it. He wants to know about all the dickwads in Ian’s past, sailing past or breaking his heart, if only so he can call them out and promise to do better. But he also doesn’t want to hear a word about it, about the good times or the bad, about the men that managed to get close to Ian in a way Mickey isn’t.

His are some motherfucking complex feelings, especially for a simple Tuesday morning, and he resolutely shoves them down and out of the way.

”How is Mandy, anyway?” Ian asks, clearly happy to double back to an easier route of conversation when Mickey falls silent. ”That her on the phone?”

”Yeah,” Mickey easily follows his lead, ”yeah, she wants me and the kid to come visit for some New York comedy hoopla in May.”

”That’s nice,” Ian assumes and quirks an eyebrow when Mickey snorts, ”no?”

Mickey dismissively waves a hand, but feels strangely uneasy with Ian thinking he’s some uncultured oaf, with no aspirations or interests. That’s exactly who he is, though, and he’s not about to let some shiny fucker waltz into his life and make him feel like he’s gotta change to be good enough.

”It’s whatever,” he grunts, pushing down the pathetic desire to cock his plumage and make Ian think he’s better than he really is, ”not really my thing.”

”Hooplas or New York?” Ian asks, seemingly not at all bothered by Mickey’s grumpy reluctance to do shit generally considered exciting. ”Either way; don’t go if you don’t want to, Mick. Easy.”

”Right,” Mickey snorts, ”’cause between Mandy’s nagging and my son’s puppy face I’m gonna have a fucking choice.”

Ian grins, and just like that everything’s just fine. Past boyfriends and future worries eclipsed by Ian fucking Gallagher’s shiny fucking face, sitting there and smiling at Mickey of all people.

”Sit still,” Ian commands, out of nowhere, his wide grin falling into a focused frown as he suddenly leans closer, eyes fixed on the side of Mickey’s face.

And fuck, Mickey doesn’t move, frozen to his seat and his heart beating like crazy as Ian reaches out for him and gently touches two fingers to his temple, brushing up through the trimmed hairs above his ear. Then the warmth of his hand moves away from Mickey’s face and Ian falls back into his seat with a triumphant smile and one finger pointed up in the air. It’s got one tiny fleck of glitter perched on it, catching the diner’s tungsten lights and shifting through a full rainbow of colors. It’s almost fucking painfully poignant, as visual clues go.

”Shit,” Ian mutters, catching sight of his watch but completely missing all the flamingly poetic undertones of the whole moment, falling flat between them as he flicks away the fleck of glitter and pulls up the zipper of his hoodie, ”gotta go.”

”Really?” Mickey huffs, watching him gather his things, shoving his phone and wallet into his pockets. ”Not gonna ask me about that one?”

”What’s there to ask?” Ian answers with a shrug, as he gets out of his seat to stand up. ”You’re a parent, isn’t glitter more or less a part of that whole package deal?”

Mickey sits back and holds up his hands in agreement, eyes on Ian as he gets on his feet and stands by the table to adjust his sweater and pull at his sleeves.

”Gonna have to see some pictures next time, though,” he adds, smile crooked when Mickey raises his eyebrows at the odd request, ”poster or diorama?”

”Glitter volcano.”

”Oh, wow,” Ian chuckles and squeezes his eyes shut at the thought, ”what’s his teacher thinking with that one?”

”Been deciding between brave and stupid all week, jury’s still out,” Mickey agrees, ”but Yev likes him, so.”

Ian smiles at him, but it’s that tightlipped smile Mickey hasn’t gotten the hang of yet. The one that seems sad sometimes, but stubborn or just plain inscrutable at others.

”Right, almost fucking forgot,” he says, shaking his head like he’s trying to snap out of something, ”how much?”

Mickey doesn’t catch on until Ian pulls out his wallet again and starts rifling through it, pulling out a five dollar bill.

”This enough?” he asks, fishing out another one before Mickey’s even had time to answer. He’d honestly prefer it if Ian didn’t pay, at all, it tags on a weird end note to their time together. It reminds him of who he is to Ian and how confined their friendship is to the diner.

But he can’t keep refusing to be paid, and Ian doesn’t seem uncomfortable at all as he drops the notes down on the table and tucks his wallet down his back pocket.

”Sure,” Mickey says and pockets the money, easily shrugging off his ridiculous discomfort, ”later.”

Ian nods and starts backing away, before turning and walking through the diner, making his way out on the street with the door clattering closed behind him. Mickey half-heartedly finishes off his sandwich, eyes on Ian’s back as he picks up his step and disappears down the street.

 

 

.

Chapter Text

January 20
Wednesday.

 

”Are you sure about this?” Mickey asks, flicking his lighter and watching the tip of his cigarette as the paper flares up with the lick of fire. Pocketing the zippo, he squints through the smoke and takes the cigarette to point it at his son. Yevgeny is shivering, near drowning in his new winter coat as he shrugs and folds his arms tightly over his chest.

”Yeah,” he says, teeth clattering and his breath hanging on the freezing air like smoke, mirroring Mickey’s bad habit, ”I’m sure.”

”’Cause there’s still time to change your mind,” Mickey casually tries to tempt him, glancing back at the gate to their apartment building, ”could get Marcus’ mom on the line, get her over to pick you up right now.”

”No, thanks,” Yevgeny starts walking, as though to put a definitive end to the discussion, ”wanna go with you.”

”As you wish, bud,” Mickey shrugs and follows, letting his cigarette dangle from his lips so he can throw an arm across his son’s shoulders, attempting to subtly protect him from the still, biting winter cold.

Yevgeny relaxes into him a little and nods. ”Good.”

”Just-, a snow day is as close as you’re ever gonna get to divine intervention, ’s all I’m sayin’,” Mickey continues to argue anyway, just ’cause he’s got more to say, ”but sure, go ahead and piss it away hanging out with your old man at, let’s face it, what pretty much gotta be the worst diner this side of the Skyway. I’m not complaining.”

”Kinda sounds like you are,” Yevgeny mutters, but still burrows in closer against Mickey’s side, ”and here I thought you’d be happy that I’m taking an interest in your chosen profession.”

Steering them around a corner, Mickey absently starts rubbing his kid’s still trembling shoulders.

”Bullshit,” he says, using his fee hand to pluck the cigarette from his lips so he can properly scoff at the idea, ”you just wanna spend the whole day nose deep in your damn homework, and since Mother Russia won’t let me leave you home alone, the diner is just the next best thing.”

Yevgeny makes an offended, squeaky noise, but he doesn’t deny it.

”It’s not homework,” he obviously tries to defend his decision, ”and I just want to hang out and read, what’s wrong with that?”

”Nothing,” Mickey shrugs, ”but you could be on your merry way to the mall with Marcus right now, bum around and do whatever dumb shit you’re supposed to be doin’ your age.”

”There’s no bumming around with Mrs Lin,” Yevgeny reminds him, ”it’s like a military drill or something. Ten stores in two hours, getting Marcus to try on five hundred things only to end up buying like twenty different shirts that all look exactly the same. It’s weird.”

”Better than looking through the discount bin at the Outlet,” Mickey supposes, even though the mall always has been one particular manifestation of hell on Earth that he’s spent most of his life trying his best to avoid, ”sure it seems weird to us, but if we had money maybe we’d be out there with the rest of the bourgeois, getting one of each color of whatever, long as it looks expensive.”

”I like the Outlet,” Yevgeny says, uncrossing his arms for a moment to hold them out as an example, fingers barely sticking out at the end of his sleeves, ”I’m the only one at school who’s got a coat like this.”

”Some coat,” Mickey huffs and squeezes his son closer when Yevgeny folds his arms back up and shrugs his shoulders against the cold, ”you’re acting like I’ve forced you outside in nothing but your birthday suit.”

”I’m just cold ’cause I’m sleepy,” Yevgeny says and yawns, like some kinda pavlovian response, ”don’t blame the coat, it’s the best.”

Even second hand, the thing had cost more than Mickey’d intended to spend on the kid’s new winter clothes, using the post-holiday sales to bulk up his wardrobe in preparation for next year. But Yevgeny hadn’t found anything else he liked, and had then proceeded to use an unusual amount of his persuasive powers to get Mickey to rebalance their budget and fork out, like it or not. Yevgeny rarely nags him for anything, so Mickey’s weak immunity to his son’s puppy eyes always becomes pitifully obvious whenever the kid decides to really go for gold.

”Okay, sure,” Mickey decides to take him on his word, even though he doesn’t believe him for a second, ”and anyway, you think your old man’s a complete idiot? That brick-ass book you’re reading is definitely homework.”

He lets go of Yevgeny’s shoulders to pat the bulk of his backpack, the corners of the offending hardback obvious even through the coarse material of the bag.

”Nuh-uh!” Yevgeny denies it, squirming out of Mickey’s reach. ”It’s Adams, you know I’ve been wanting to read The Guide since you bought it for me last summer.”

”And that it’s on this semester’s extra credit reading list is just a happy coincidence?” Mickey asks, raising his eyebrows at his son’s useless poker face. ”Yeah, okay kid. Just embrace it, you’re a nerd.”

”I know, and I do,” Yevgeny frowns, ”since when have I not?”

”Nah, I’m not talking your hip, new kinda cool nerd, Yev,” Mickey pulls in a deep drag off his cigarette and sifts the smoke out of a pleased grin when Yevgeny looks mildly offended, ”I’m talking like, the kinda dweeby nerd I used to knock around for lunch money back in the day, you know? Too clever for your own damn good.”

Yevgeny looks a little sad at that, the corners of his mouth dipping before he hides his disapproval behind his scarf.

”You know I did all kinda bad stuff, growing up,” Mickey continues, nodding, ”fucked shit up and did everything wrong, ask anyone.”

Taking a last, deep drag off it, he flicks away the butt of his cigarette and shrugs.

”But I knew how I wanted to handle my shit,” he says and peers over at Yevgeny, trying to gauge if what he’s saying is making any sense at all to the kid, ”and even though I sure as shit was doing everything wrong, at least I didn’t let nobody tell me how to be or how to feel.”

Yevgeny nods, too, most of his face hidden behind his scarf as he stares down the street, the glum morning air still lightly dusted with gently falling snowflakes. They land on top of Yevgeny’s head like big polkadots of white against his black mop of uncombed hair.

”Guess we’re different,” he says, not looking at Mickey when he does.

”Nah,” Mickey smirks and reaches out to ruffle a hand through his hair, the snowflakes sticking to his fingerless gloves, ”I’m saying we’re the same, kid. Only you’re better than I ever was, ’cause you don’t gotta hurt nobody being true to yourself.”

”You don’t either, Dad,” Yevgeny says and squints up at Mickey, smiling when he raises his eyebrows at him, ”you’re not hurting anyone now.”

”Damn straight,” Mickey grins, pretending to correct an invisible tie, ”over a decade of respectability, right here.”

”Damn is right,” Yevgeny snorts and looks ready to run away when his face cracks into a mischievous smile, ”but I’m pretty sure ’straight’ has been off the table for a while.”

”What?” Mickey groans and kicks some snow after his son when he laughs and sprints ahead with a couple of steps. ”Is that supposed to be funny? Is my homo ass supposed to scratch the word ’straight’ from my vocabulary or something, is that what you’re saying?”

”It’s called observational humor, Dad,” Yevgeny says, like that somehow makes it funny, ”and hurry up, I’m freezing.”

”Oh, you are, are you?” Mickey mutters and slows down, throwing a quick look around himself before stopping completely and crouching down next to a big pile of freshly fallen snow, plowed up from the street to the sidewalk.

They haven’t met a single soul out on the street so far this morning, between the ungodly hour and schools all over declaring it a day off, and the cars they’ve seen driving past have been few and far between.

It’s kinda magical, if you’re into that sort of thing, how the snow blankets all the sharp edges and dirt for a short while, hides all the trash and mutes all the noise. Until there’s just the two of them, walking through the closest thing to fucking Narnia that Chicago’s ever gonna get.

Mickey grabs himself a handful of magic and chucks it at his son, hitting him square in the neck.

”Bullseye!” he hoots and quickly ducks behind a snow-covered car parked on the street when Yevgeny spins around, cringing and clawing at his neck, trying to brush away the snow before it slips past his collar and down his spine.

”You shot me in the back!” he sputters and dives in behind a post box when Mickey sneaks a look over the heap of snow on the roof of the car. ”You’re dead, old man!”

”This’ll get you warm!” Mickey yells back and cackles when he hears his son curse.

”I forgot my gloves,” he complains to himself but still loud enough for Mickey to hear, as though to state his disadvantage for the record. A suspicious silence follows and Mickey almost falls for it, about to risk another quick peek over the car when a large snowball sails past him, missing his head by mere inches.

”Missed!” he gloats, digging his already reddened fingers into the snow on the car and keeping low as he sneaks around the vehicle, squeezing the snow into a neat, fist-sized ball.

Crouching down and resting his weight against the side of the car, he cranes his neck to peer across the windshield, taking in the battlefield. There’s no sign of his enemy, other than the suspiciously still mailbox and the one set of tracks in the snow leading in behind it. Grinning, Mickey steps back up on the sidewalk and skulks closer to his target with the snowball raised high, ready to launch.

”Geronimo!” Yevgeny suddenly yells to his right, before he comes out of nowhere and throws his whole weight into Mickey’s side.

”Fuck!” Mickey yelps, panicking for a split second as he’s losing his balance but regaining his wits quick enough to hug his arms around Yevgeny and pull him down with him, sinking into the loosely packed snow piled up on the sidewalk after the plows have cleared the streets.

He’s completely buried in it at this point, getting it all over his clothes and in his face, but it’s all worth it to hear Yevgeny’s delighted laughter as he struggles to regain his balance and get on his feet, only for Mickey to grab him and pull him back down.

”Uncle! Uncle!” he laughs, holding up his hands to shield himself when Mickey tries to stuff some more snow down the front of his coat.

”Alright, alright, look,” Mickey grins triumphantly and throws the snow aside, showing his empty palms in a gesture of good faith, ”peace.”

Yevgeny laughs and nods, but then he sweeps an arm out and pretty much shovels a whole pile of snow over Mickey’s face.

”Now we’re even!” he squeals and puts a hand to Mickey’s stomach for leverage as he’s getting up, momentarily knocking the wind out of him and putting a stop to any kind of instant retaliation.

Mickey groans and shoves away most of the rapidly melting mess from his face, and then lies in his icy man-shaped hole for a second to catch his breath and listen to Yevgeny’s quick steps, creaking in the snow as he runs away. It’s a strange feeling, being proud of someone for knocking you on your ass and leaving you to your fate, but there it is. He’s Mickey’s son alright.

”Little snake,” he laughs and heaves himself out of the snow, his exposed fingers prickling and numb from the cold and his knitted gloves already soaked through and no help at all.

Getting on his feet, he sees Yevgeny already turning a corner down the street, so he decides against stopping to stock up on ammunition and takes off after him, carefully sidestepping any slippery-looking parts of the sidewalk as he runs.

He skids around the last corner just in time to see Yevgeny disappear into the open diner, too far away for Mickey to get in one final snowball to the neck. Embarrassingly out of breath, Mickey decides to slow down and walk the last few hundred feet so he can get himself in check and at least pretend that he’s still got it in him to give someone the slip – or hunt their ass down, depending on the situation.

Never mind the fact that he was just outrun by an eleven-year-old bookworm.

”I really need to quit smoking,” he mutters to himself and shoves his prickly fingers down his pockets before they light up another one, itching to feel the spark of the zippo and the smokey warmth at the mere idea of quitting.

The shutters are up and the lights are on inside the diner, and crossing the street Mickey gets close enough to make out the neatly shoveled path on the sidewalk, leading from the door and disappearing around the corner.

”The fuck?” he sighs and climbs over the little barricade of collected snow on the side of the path, glaring suspiciously at the cleared and sanded ground before making his way towards the door. He can see Edna in there, brushing off snow from a rosy-cheeked and grinning Yevgeny, ice melting down his hair in the relative heat of the diner.

”Ey,” he says as he opens the door, frowning when he nods at Edna, ”did you-”

”Stop,” she says, and between her immovable tone and the bony finger she points his way Mickey finds himself doing what he’s told without thinking, his mouth snapping shut and his feet planting him just inside the door, the bell jingling as it falls closed behind him.

Yevgeny grins at him when he raises his hands in an annoyed gesture, but remains in his spot without argument.

”You’re wet,” Edna says and grunts disapprovingly when all Yevgeny has to say for himself is a happy ’I know’, ”take this thing off, tsigele, before it soaks through to your bones.”

”Sorry, Edna,” Yevgeny says with a sheepish smile as he’s cringing off his coat and handing it over to her.

”You don’t gotta worry about this shit,” Mickey tells her, gesturing at the mess of melted snow and dirt leading from the door to his dripping son, ”I got it.”

”Yours too,” she ignores his protests, folding Yevgeny’s coat over her arm and walking over to join Mickey by the door, limping slightly on her bum leg.

He really wants to keep arguing, but considering his track record in the last ten years of fruitless struggle against Edna’s unyielding stubbornness he decides to save his energy for something that actually matters. So he shrugs off his jacket and holds it out, nodding his thanks when Edna grabs it and shuffles out the door.

”Newspaper,” he says and points Yevgeny towards the kitchen as he walks over to the counter and leans over it to reach blindly for the stack of rags he’s got stashed there for days just like these. Laying a couple of the rags down by the door and using a foot to push one around to mop up the worst of their melting mess, he keeps one eye on Edna’s slow but steady progression as she walks past the diner’s windows, rounding the corner and eventually disappearing out of sight.

”These are all I could find,” Yevgeny says, coming out of the kitchen with a small stack of old newspapers clutched in his arms as Mickey is busy peeling off his wet gloves.

”Great,” he says and points towards the soaked rags by the door, ”put some down, please, and try to make it look like we give a damn.”

”Aye-aye, boss,” Yevgeny says and almost drops his armful of newspapers when he tries putting two fingers to his forehead in a cheeky salute.

”Easy there, soldier,” Mickey snorts and leaves his gloves on the counter before he grabs the edge of it for support so he can crouch down and rifle through the junk stashed on the bottom shelf.

He wouldn’t normally make such a fuss about people dragging the crappy weather inside and leaving it on the floor, but the last couple of days’ worth of downright bonkers snowfall has forced him to bring out the big guns. Pushing another pile of rags aside, Mickey grabs the bucket and drags it closer, yesterday’s melted snow sloshing around inside it.

”Here,” he says, standing up and lifting the bucket to place it on the counter.

Yevgeny lays down one last newspaper on the floor and comes up to the register, leaving the remaining stack of papers on the counter before he grips on to the lip of the bucket with both hands, testing out the weight.

”Where’s the sign?” he asks, letting the bucket back down and twisting it around.

”Oh shit, here,” Mickey peers down the bucket and gingerly reaches inside it to pick up the scruffy notice announcing that the ’the floor is wet, genius’. It would have been soaked through if it weren’t for Mickey’s fit of craftiness last week, when he MacGyvered himself a wonky lamination with some transparent packing tape and quickly waning patience. The back is a mess of clumpy tape, folds and air bubbles, but at least the front looks alright and the text is still legible despite the impromptu bath.

So it’s not without some dumb sense of pride that he clips the rude, but essentially helpful, notice to the lip of the bucket with the plastic clothes pin he finds bobbing around in the grubby water.

”Good as new,” he says and flicks the edge of the sign, ”is it too heavy?”

”Nope,” Yevgeny grabs the bucket again and lifts it off the counter completely this time, only looking a little unsteady when the water moves inside the container, ”I can do it.”

”Sweet,” Mickey says and resists the urge to stay and supervise anyway, opting to instead let the kid fly solo while he gets the rest of the diner going.

It’s gonna be a chill as fuck day – pun very much intended – he can feel it in his bones. It’s the kind of weather that keeps people holed up in their homes all day, not out on the street looking for shelter. Mickey supposes he could’ve stayed home too, but it would take a lot more than a couple of feet of snow and the dwindling winds of a passing storm to keep the Corner Diner from turning on the lights and brewing some coffee. That’s just the way it is, and so that’s exactly what he does.

The feeling starts to slowly return to his frozen fingers as the coffeemaker gurgles and steams, the soothing scent of fresh coffee steadily filling the whole room. Mickey does his usual round through the diner, flipping the chairs and wiping the tables, before he moves into the kitchen to whip up a passable batch of banana pancakes.

He leaves them sizzling and half cooked to fill up the kettle and prepare a mug of hot cocoa, casually entertaining the most likely untenable idea to maybe start doing deliveries, for special occasions. He figures that some people less fortunate than himself might be stuck inside on days like these – ’cause of some injury or disability, or just age – and maybe it’d mean some well-needed extra karma-points in his favor if he could somehow extend the diner’s services to the homes of whoever might need it.

Won’t be long before Yevgeny starts demanding some kinda payment for his labor whenever he gets the chance to hang around the diner and pitch in, anyway, and getting him to run the occasional neighborhood delivery wouldn’t be the worst idea Mickey’s ever had. Or maybe the kid could get a hang of dealing with all of Mickey’s customer bullshit, and leave Mickey to get some exercise and fresh air, a change of pace and scenery, and maybe also a chance to get a sneak peek into the private lives of his clientele.

Mickey’s no busybody, but still. There are some places he wouldn’t mind poking his nose in, really snoop around, get the whole tour experience.

”Your pancakes are burning,” Edna says, walking into the kitchen and snapping Mickey out of his thoughts. The kettle is boiling wildly, his hand still on the handle and steam filling the air in front of his face, and there’s a distinct edge to the sweet smell of his abandoned pancakes.

”Shit,” he mutters and whacks the broken switch on the kettle, turning it off, before grabbing his spatula and bounding over to the griddle.

He manages to flip one over, sighing in relief when he sees that it isn’t too badly burnt, before Edna shuffles up next to him and maneuvers him to step aside with her whole body. He tries to shoo her off with an annoyed wave, but moves out of her way all the same and surrenders the spatula to her calloused, insisting hands.

It’s a recurring theme, between Edna and him. She somehow thinks it’s her job to keep him in line and correct him at every turn, and while it was cute (and begrudgingly welcomed) when he was eighteen and truly without support, it’s starting to get kinda old. Hell, they’re not getting any fucking younger either, and maybe that’s the whole point.

In fact the older Mickey gets, the more he’s gonna want to bitch and moan about Edna’s thorny codling. And the older Edna gets, likely is she’s only gonna amp it up and really put her back into getting on his nerves. He could tell her to cut it the fuck out, but he did enough of that when he was young and secretly wanted the complete opposite.

”You’ve been out there shoveling snow again?” he asks, deciding to bitch about an actual problem instead as he returns to the now gently steaming kettle, picking it up to pour the hot water over the cocoa powder in Yevgeny’s mug while he side-eyes his suspiciously silent boss.

”Fuck’s sake,” he sighs and slots the kettle back in place, ”keep telling you to knock that shit off, Edna, you’re gonna kill yourself thinking you can carry on like you’re still young and don’t got no one to fucking help you out-”

Edna flips another pancake and looks like she might have something to say, so Mickey plows on and shuts her down before she gets the chance to argue.

”I’m gonna get here one morning to find you dead in the snow, Jesus,” he says, picking out a teaspoon from a drawer and gesturing at her with it before plonking it down the mug and stirring it through the cocoa. ”Is that your plan? Go out with a bang, make my life as hard as you fucking can before it’s sayonara-time? Bye-bye, let Mickey deal with my frozen corpse and like, a fucking lifetime of festering guilt, no problem.”

”You done?” Edna asks, sounding real bored with Mickey’s genuine fucking concern. He snaps his mouth shut and holds up his hands in surrender, before folding his arms across his chest and raising his eyebrows at her as a silent go-ahead.

”Make it sound like I’m halfway dead already,” she mutters, more to the pancakes than to him, glancing his way with what can only be described as a mischievous twinkle in her eye, ”I was going to do it myself-”

She holds up a hand when Mickey opens his mouth to protest.

”How else am I gonna get to the diner?” she argues before he’s even said anything. ”Am I supposed to sit up there and rot until you decide to show up and dig me out?”

”That’s-, yeah!” Mickey breaks his silence, gesturing at her in an attempt to underline how ridiculous she’s being. ”Seven in the motherfucking morning! That’s when I show up! It’s not some kinda mystery, it’s when you pay me to show up!”

”Anyway,” she ignores his point with a offhanded wave, ”only got a few feet out the door before your friend showed up and insisted he take over.”

”My friend?” Mickey frowns, momentarily distracted from his indignation by the idea that Edna thinks he’s got friends milling around, helping old ladies shoveling snow willy nilly. ”What fucking friend?

Edna clicks her tongue and grabs a plate from the stack next to the griddle.

”Ian, isn’t it?” she says, but doesn’t wait for Mickey to confirm it. ”I see you with your heads together in your corner, faygele, getting along famously.”

Mickey rolls his eyes at the nickname and shakes his head.

”Can’t fucking believe this guy,” he complains as Edna starts to stack the heavily browned pancakes on the plate, ”fucking boy scout is what he is, running around in three feet of snow just to flex his goddamned hero complex.”

”A very nice young man,” Edna says as she turns off the griddle, ”and he was flexing a lot more than his hero complex, in case you’re interested.”

Mickey grabs Yevgeny’s cocoa and follows her out the kitchen, using all his might to ignore that last comment.

”Did you at least tell him I was gonna come do it later?” he asks. ”Or did you just let him believe I’m some asshole who likes to sit around and laugh, sipping tequila or some shit while you’re out breaking your back shoveling snow?”

”Thank you,” she says, leaving Mickey hanging when Yevgeny bounds up to her to take the pancakes off her hands. He’s already set Ian’s table with two plates and a fresh cup of coffee for Mickey.

”You don’t want in on this?” Mickey gestures towards Yevgeny, carefully placing the pancakes like a centerpiece on the table before sitting down on Ian’s usual side.

”I’ve already had breakfast,” Edna reminds him of the routine she’s stuck to every day since he started working with her, and most likely decades before that. Her chair squeaks and protests when she pulls it out and leans her weight on the back of it, sitting down. Yevgeny has prepared her table too, serving her coffee and laying out her newspaper, crossword puzzle facing up.

”You could still sit with us,” Mickey suggests, raising his eyebrows at her when Edna looks at him like he’s only now starting to get on her nerves, ”hey, just a suggestion.”

”I told him you’d be huffing and puffing about him stealing your job,” Edna holds up her hands in a show of surrender, as though Mickey’s been on her ass about cluing him in on her little early morning rendezvous with Ian, ”he said you could come do his sidewalk whenever, but that really he owed you one.”

”What?” Mickey scowls. ”The fuck does that mean?”

”You tell me,” Edna tuts and peers up at him suspiciously, obviously loving this whole situation, ”says you give him stuff on the house all the time.”

Mickey huffs and rolls his eyes, privately relieved that there isn’t some other bullshit happening between Ian and him that he’s missed.

”That right?”

”But that doesn’t sound like you,” Edna hums, unfolding her newspaper to lay it flat on the table and pointedly turn her attention to the crossword, ”so I recon he must be mistaken.”

”Yeah, sure,” Mickey waves off her passive-aggressive accusation and leaves her to her puzzles. It’s not like she actually gives a damn about him handing out freebees to whoever, so pushing this conversation any further is most likely only gonna end up getting him interrogated about his bullshit feelings. And he’s pretty sure neither of them wants that.

Between Etch and Mandy bursting at the seams, ready to press him for details about his situation with Ian at any given opportunity, it’s nice to know that Edna at least respects his privacy enough to leave that shit well enough alone. She’s not blind, after all, and she’s been witness to his falling from the get-go. She can probably tell that he’s up shit creek, feelings-wise, but most likely knows him well enough to also tell that he’s dead set on letting that shit fizzle the fuck out before actually doing something about it.

And so what? It’s his life, if he wants to pine in misery it’s his fucking choice. Right now, all he wants is to sit down with his son and eat some fucking breakfast in peace, without having to think about what a chicken-shit sucker he is for not owning up to what he actually wants.

It’s easy for him to ignore that kinda want, anyway, it’s so easy. He’s had a lifetime of practice.

Shaking his head at himself, Mickey looks over at Ian’s table. His boots placed neatly on a laid out newspaper on the floor, Yevgeny sits cross-legged with his feet up on the padded vinyl seat as he carefully divides the stack of pancakes between their two plates, before eagerly digging into his breakfast.

”Fanks,” he says through a big, syrupy bite when Mickey serves him his cocoa and sits down.

”Good?” Mickey asks, pulling his own plate closer and grabbing the squeeze bottle of syrup. Yevgeny nods and grins when Mickey adds some casual flair to his pouring, lifting the bottle up high and letting the thin stream of syrup dance down on his pancakes in a wide spiral.

”So,” he starts, carving out a mouthful through all four layers with the dull edge of his fork, ”you gonna help out today or just bum?”

”Bum,” Yevgeny decides, ignoring the way Mickey winces at him when he wipes his hands on his jeans so he can dig through his bag, ”hopefully put a decent dent in this thing.”

He pulls out the offensively large hardcover and heaves it up on the table with a heavy thud, their plates and cups rattling on impact.

”That thing’s a damned health and safety hazard,” Mickey says, skewering another layered piece of pancake and gesturing with his fork at the book, ”what’s it about, anyway?”

”Well,” Yevgeny’s eyes kinda light up in that way they do when he’s about to go full blown nerd on whoever’s willing to listen, ”it’s about a guy called Arthur who doesn’t want to be the main character, but he is anyway, and his friend Ford is an alien stuck on Earth because he’s like a kind of space Wikipedia reporter for hitchhikers, but then the Vogons show up outta nowhere and demolish the Earth like, spoilers, two seconds before it’s finished calculating the question to the answer to the meaning of life, and then of course there’s the Heart of Gold thing too-”

”Jesus,” Mickey interrupts him with a grimace, ”leave some boxes blank would ya? In case I feel suicidal one day and decide to pick it up.”

”Oh, that was just the first hundred pages or so,” Yevgeny shrugs, ”they haven’t even gotten to the restaurant yet.”

”That’s a big plot line, is it?” Mickey quirks an eyebrow and side-eyes the heavy volume. ”Lunch?”

”More like dinner,” Yevgeny says and nods, ”and yeah, it’s the whole second book, I’ve just started it. They never get there the movie, though, so I think the second book’s gonna be more about The Heart of Gold than about Deep Thought.”

”Yeah, sure,” Mickey gives up on even trying to keep up, ”you’re making perfect fucking sense right now.”

Yevgeny smiles at him. ”Pretty sure it’s not really supposed to make sense, Dad.”

”Good to know.”

”You should read it though,” Yevgeny decides, nodding, ”I think you’d like it.”

”Yeah okay, why don’t you read it to me, in that case?” Mickey bites his lip over a wide grin when his kid’s eyes bug out at the suggestion. ”When I’m old and half-blind and cranky as fuck, and this little getup we’ve got going here’s been all switched around.”

”Some switch,” Yevgeny teases him, picking up the book with a suppressed ’oof’ of effort so he can hold it up next to his head, cover facing Mickey, ”what does the blurb say?”

”Oh fuck off,” Mickey scowls, but still can’t help squinting at the blurry paragraph of text under the much more legible title and author’s name. If he’s honest, even the subtitle’s kicking his ass at this distance. ”I’m not doing this with you right now.”

”First, you’ve always been cranky,” Yevgeny puts the book back down so he can list this shit off on his fingers, ”and second; get some glasses, old man, you’re practically already blind!”

”It’s fine,” Mickey waves him off, ”I’m still legally allowed to drive, it’s the only test that matters.”

Yevgeny sighs, shaking his head as he returns most of his focus on his breakfast.

”You can get contacts, you know,” he says, ”if you’re worried about looking like a geek.”

”Ey,” Mickey snaps, fighting back a smile when Yevgeny only looks at him with all the doe-eyed innocence he can muster, ”ain’t fucking no one’s gonna touch my eyeballs, not even me, it’s not fucking natural.”

”But sucking on smoke is?” Yevgeny counters gleefully, two fucking weeks in his new little debate club at school and it’s already yielding some real troubling results. Questioning Mickey’s authority over his own damned health is most likely only gonna be the beginning.

”Hardy har har,” Mickey rebuts, like a goddamned genius, and sticks out his tongue to really drive home his point, ”think I need to have a word with your English teacher, ’debate’ my ass-, more like Anarchy 101.”

”I know,” Yevgeny agrees, a little too pleased with the whole situation for Mickey’s comfort, ”it’s great.”

The door jingles and two guys in high-vis jackets stumble in from the still glum outside, rubbing their frozen hands and stomping off the packed snow from under their boots. Mickey quickly shoves the last piece of his pancakes into his mouth and gets up, taking his coffee with him as he moves through the diner and in behind the counter.

”What can I get ya?” he asks, digging out his apron and tying it on while he looks the guys over. They seem like they might’ve come in more to escape work, than to explore the diner’s haute cuisine.

”Uh,” one of the guys says, stepping closer and sweeping his eyes over the menu above Mickey’s head, ”coffee?”

”Sure thing, man,” Mickey turns around and grabs a cup to start pouring as he speaks, ”should I make that two?”

”Yeah,” the other guy says, from the door, ”thanks.”

”Anything else?” Mickey asks, transferring the cups to the counter and carefully pushing them across.

”I could eat,” the second guy says, more to his friend than to Mickey, as he wraps his fingers around his cup and absently blows at the hot steam wafting up his face, ”is the kitchen open?”

Mickey glances at his watch, Etch should’ve been here by now.

”Yeah, sure,” he says, ”what do you want?”

”The bacon and eggs,” the guy more asks than orders, ”sunny side up?”

”Yeah, me too,” his friend nods, ”but scramble mine.”

”Got it, have a seat,” Mickey tells them as he heads for the kitchen, digging out his phone and searching through his contacts until he finds Etch’s name.

Sandwiching the phone between his shoulder and ear, Mickey listens to the dull tone as he takes the ingredients he needs from the fridge and lays them out next to the griddle, absently scraping off some of the mess left from his near pancake disaster as it heats up.

Giving it more time than really reasonable, Mickey eventually gives up on Etch answering and tries a different number.

”Mickey,” Ruth answers on the third ring, sounding less than surprised to hear from him.

”Professor,” Mickey grabs the phone and holds it to his ear, opting to maneuver the cooking with only one hand, ”you got the 10-20 on your man? He’s not here.”

”Yes,” she sighs, ”sorry Mickey, I’ve got a deadline this week and needed some space, he’s bringing the kids.”

”Don’t worry about it,” Mickey shrugs, absently relieved to know that Etch’s lapse in punctuality isn’t due to anything bad, ”Yev’s here, guess we’re doing diner daycare today, huh?”

”Is it very inconvenient?” Ruth sounds like she wants to worry about putting Mickey out, but can’t really muster the energy. ”I’m too frazzled to think right now, I kinda just bullied them out the house. I feel bad about it.”

”Don’t,” Mickey huffs, cracking an egg against the side of the griddle and twisting it open with one hand, ”it’s fine, enjoy some fucking guilt-free peace and quiet, Prof, and good luck with whatever nonsense it is you’re writing about this time.”

”Feminist spaces within the revenge horror genre,” Ruth groans, ”it’s really interesting and I am indescribably sick of it. Next time I talk about how much I love academia just fucking slap me, would you?”

”Nah,” Mickey clicks his tongue, hacking his scraper through the eggs to scramble the yolk and whites together, ”that’s not my style. Don’t care if it’s anti-feminist or whatever, I don’t hit women.”

”Guess I can’t technically complain about that,” Ruth complains, ”talk to you later?”

”Take it easy.”

Finishing up the order, Mickey vaguely registers the bell jingling another two times in the five minutes it takes him to fry up the bacon and get everything plated. He peers through the hatch to check if there’s anyone waiting by the counter, but whoever it is must’ve either sat down somewhere or left again because there’s no one there.

So much for his plans to spend the whole day checked out and off his feet, only occasionally pausing his inactivity to annoy his son or get them some food. Whatever, idle hands and all that bullshit. Guess he should welcome the distraction.

Wiping the contact grease off his hands with his apron, Mickey grabs the two plates and carries them out the diner. A quick check finds him a lady occupying table two, staring intently at the menu card in her hands, and Ian over by his table, shrugging off his coat and sitting down as he smiles at something Yevgeny’s telling him.

”Scrambled, sunny side up,” Mickey absently serves table five, vaguely registering how the two men silently switch plates with each other as he moves over to table two, ”ready to order?”

”Yes,” the lady hesitates, dragging out the ’s’ like an indecisive snake, ”can I get the, um- french toast?”

Mickey jots it down on his notepad, just in case he’ll have forgotten her order by the time she’s finished making it.

”Anything else?” he asks, fighting against the urge to smile when he hears his son’s pearly laughter from across the room.

The lady looks down at the menu again, forehead creased with a distressed frown. ”Um-”

”Think about it,” Mickey cuts her off, pressing his lips together in a passably polite smile.

”Thanks,” she sighs, but sounds genuinely grateful for the reprieve.

Mickey shakes his head and follows his son’s eager voice through the room, smirking when Ian glances his way and grins.

”-it’s a wholly remarkable book,” Yevgeny says as Mickey walks up to the table. Ian’s eyes flit from Mickey to Yevgeny and then back again, his smile turning a shade more sheepish as he seems to look to Mickey for some kinda context.

”Don’t ask me,” Mickey shrugs and lands a hand on his son’s shoulder, shaking him lightly until he both laughs and groans as he worms out of reach, ”lucky he’s so cute, huh?”

”Sorry,” Ian winces at Yevgeny, who makes a grossed out sound at Mickey’s comment, ”kinda lost track, my bad.”

”It’s fine,” Yevgeny says, huffing out a long-suffering sigh as he bumps his fist against Mickey’s side, ”I’m used to it.”

”Zip it, Cinderella,” Mickey mutters, gesturing at his throat in a slicing motion, ”ixnay on the neglect-ay.”

”That’s not-,” Yevgeny throws up his hands, ”you can’t just tack on ’ay’ to everything and call it pig latin, Dad, I keep telling you.”

”And I keep telling I don’t give a shit about your rules, so,” Mickey clicks his tongue and holds up his notepad, raising his eyebrows at Ian who’s watching their bickering with an amused smirk, ”you want anything, Roger Ebert, or are you just here for the show?”

”Well,” Ian starts and pointedly eyes the empty plates left over from breakfast, ”if you’re making pancakes..?”

He’s obviously joking, referring to last time he came by and spun Mickey around with his dubious charm and absurd requests. Yesterday, it was fucking yesterday, the whirlwind snowstorm between then and now making it feel like a lot longer.

”Pretty fucking sure I made it clear how long you’d have to wait on that one,” he points out, shaking his head in an attempt to look disappointed, ”what was it?”

Ian rolls his eyes when Mickey snaps his fingers, pretending to suddenly remember.

”Oh, yeah,” he says and points at Ian’s mildly amused face, ”an eternity.”

Ian sits back in his seat and narrows his eyes in thought. ”It hasn’t been already?”

”That’s it,” Mickey flips his notepad closed and drops it down the pocket on his apron so he’s got his hands free to pile up his and Yevgeny’s dirty plates, ”missed your shot.”

”Shit,” Ian sighs, but Mickey can see him smirking out of the corner of his eye, ”decaf?”

”Coming up.”

Mickey takes the dishes with him and leaves them to what he’s certain will be take two of Yevgeny’s book report. He loads up the new coffeemaker with decaf grounds and turns it on, gurgling and spitting behind him as he moves into the kitchen to dump the dirty plates and prepare table two’s french toast.

He’s no master chef, by anyone’s standards, but he’s dead serious about breakfast in general and he’s covered enough shifts for both Etch and Sonya over the years to be able to decently fake his way through a couple of orders. That said, and his close call with the pancakes still fresh in mind, he lucks out with a near fucking perfect french toast this time. Golden brown and crispy like a goddamned miracle.

Ian has his laptop out when Mickey finally gets around to joining them again, table two eventually deciding not to add to her order and the steam all dripped through the coffeemaker. He pours himself another cup of regular while he’s at it, and carries them through the room with his eyes steadily trained on the table in the corner.

Yevgeny’s got his nose in his monster space book and Ian is typing something on his computer, a slight frown crowning his forehead as his eyes scan the screen. They’re sharing headphones, the white cord hanging taut between their heads and connecting with Ian’s phone placed face up on the table. Yevgeny nods along to whatever it is they’re listening to and only looks up from his book when Ian stops frowning for a second to grin and point at his earpiece.

”This part,” he hums and makes an embarrassing guitar-solo face, his fingers absently moving and gripping the air as though they’re playing the chords, ”fuckin’ genius.”

They look like a couple of dorks and fifteen years ago Mickey would’ve kicked their asses for daring to enjoy something so openly and sincerely, he wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. He finds it nothing but endearing now, and he can’t wait to join them.

Which might be why he isn’t really thinking it over at all before he sets the coffees down on his usual side of the table and grunts out a quick ’shove over’ to get Ian to make space. It isn’t until he sits down that he remembers how the diner’s booths only technically seat four people each; when the firm warmth of Ian’s leg is suddenly pressed against his own, when Ian shuffles to make more space for him only to settle back in with their arms squished together shoulder to elbow.

Well fuck, what the fuck’s he thinking? He could’ve sat down on Yevgeny’s side but no, he let his muscle memory make the decision and this is where it got him; pressed up against Ian like it’s no big deal.

It’s not a big deal. This is a normal morning on the city bus, only they’re not on fucking public transport right now and Mickey doesn’t really have an excuse for packing himself up next to Ian like a goddamned wannabe sardine. It’s class A weirdo behavior, especially from someone who has thus far put a lot of effort into maintaining a certain amount of distance between himself and Ian’s magnetic fucking amazing body. He’s unexpectedly warm, even though he’s sitting there in his t-shirt like it isn’t 23 degrees out, and if Mickey wasn’t wearing his sweater they would’ve been skin to skin right now.

He should get back up, right now, no reason necessary. Just get up and sit down next to Yevgeny, right now, before it gets weird.

Or not, why should he? It’s fine, it’s not a big deal. And anyway, it would seem that he’s glued to his seat, relaxing into the closeness and goosebumps firing on all cylinders when Ian moves next to him but remarkably doesn’t try to squirm out of their physical predicament. He probably doesn’t even realize it’s a big deal, at all, because it isn’t. People sit next to each other all the time, casual touching is not a big deal, especially not to someone like Ian.

Someone who is warm, and inviting. Safe.

Mickey clears his throat and scowls.

”What’s this?” he says, reaching out to flick at the white cord dangling across the table, ”you two look like a couple of teenage girls sitting like that.”

”Shut up,” Ian scoffs, but Mickey doesn’t miss the way he shrugs away for a second before probably remembering that there isn’t enough space to move anywhere, not even to get in a little distance between them.

Mickey raises his eyebrows and sips his coffee, ignoring the slight pang of dumb hurt he’s feeling at the idea of Ian suddenly wanting to get away from him.

”Just saying,” he shrugs, ”you do.”

Ian doesn’t respond, and glancing at the side of his face Mickey thinks he can see his jaw tighten as he fiddles with the laptop, pushing the screen back only to pull it forward again.

”What’s that?” Mickey asks and smirks when Ian keeps quiet, clearly ignoring him. ”You pissed about something?”

”No,” Ian huffs, still staring intently at the screen as he frowns and the corner of his mouth dips.

Mickey would find the whole thing amusing if it wasn’t so instantly frustrating. ”Seriously?”

”No, I’m just-,” Ian snaps, sucking in a quick breath and lowering his voice when he continues, ”working. Trying to concentrate on this-”

He gestures vaguely at the screen and the empty Excel document open on his desktop.

”Yeah,” Mickey nods and rubs at his lip before pointing his hand at the clear lie, ”you look real fucking busy, man.”

”Whatever,” Ian mutters and contradicts his own claim by folding the laptop closed and grabbing his coffee, sitting back in his seat. Their shoulders rub, and Mickey thinks he can feel how tense the guy is now compared to a minute ago.

”Wow, okay,” Mickey refuses to let it go, like a dog with a bone, ”fuck’s your problem? Stop being a little bitch and just tell me.”

”Right, that-,” Ian bites off his sentence and sighs, clearly annoyed, ”it’s not my fucking place to criticize-”

”So don’t,” Mickey suggests, eyebrows raised in preemptive defense.

”But,” Ian continues only to hesitate again, taking out his earphone and handing it over to Yevgeny with what can only be the intention to block him out of whatever bullshit’s coming next, ”I’m trying to, like… expand your son’s musical horizon, or whatever-”

”That right?” Mickey sneers, fingernails digging into the jeans covering his thigh at what’s starting to sound a lot like the kind of shit he’s been hearing ever since Svetlana got knocked up. That he’s got nothing to offer as a parent except bad nature and worse nurture, let alone any kinda culture worth a damned. Jokes on him for thinking Ian would be different.

It hurts, more than he really cares to admit. But if he really thinks about it, it’s not just Ian judging him that’s getting to him. It’s more, it’s the suspicion that he might be right. Mickey really liked seeing Yevgeny and Ian together like that, exploring something that Mickey’s been doing a really bad job at bringing into his son’s life. And then he had to ruin it by crashing the scene and making comments, showing how little he knows about this thing Ian has managed to make a career out of.

Thing is, Mickey used to fucking love music.

He used to blast that shit on full volume in his room, growing up, posters covering the wall over his bed along with whatever else he thought was cool back then. He even had that useless old guitar he never got any good at, wrapping up his broken amp in electrical tape so he could fill his room with noise and drown out his thoughts.

He can’t remember the last time he fell in love with a song, thinking it was some kinda magic because it got him. Because it was saying all the shit he didn’t even want to acknowledge he was feeling.

”Yeah,” Ian sighs and rubs at his forehead, shoulders slumping a little when he seems to surrender to something, ”and I just-, don’t you think calling your son a girl is kinda-”

Mickey widens his eyes in surprise when Ian hesitates. That’s what this is about?

”A fucking joke?” he suggests, still thrown by the turn of events when Ian lets his hand drop and he finally glances his way.

”Reductive,” he says, rolling his eyes when Mickey makes a face, ”the kinda thing my dad would call me, you know? Bet your dad did that shit too, how did you feel when he called you a girl when you were a kid?”

Mickey snorts, but it doesn’t sound anything like a laugh even to his own ears.

”Didn’t,” he says, as a matter of fact, ”called me a faggot and tried to beat it outta me.”

There he goes again, not fucking thinking. He snaps his mouth shut and shakes his head, and gives the moment a chance to pass by unnoticed. But when he eventually glances sideways he finds Ian looking at him already, his lips pressed together into a thin line and his eyes concerned and searching.

”Tried?” he asks, and his low voice sounds so careful and free of judgment that Mickey doesn’t know what to say. It’s nice, he feels safe. Like he can say whatever or nothing, and it’s fine.

So he gets up, and dragging his coffee with him he twists himself along the short end of the table until he can drop down on the seat next to Yevgeny. He can feel Ian’s eyes on him the whole time, as he rests his arm on the back of the seat and gently tugs at the white cord of the kid’s borrowed headphones until one earpiece falls out and drops down his lap.

”What?” Yevgeny asks, without looking up from his book.

”Where did you get this?” Mickey wonders with a frown, suddenly realizing that the kid is wearing a wonkily knitted beanie he’s never seen before. Pinching at the gathered lump of yarn on top, Mickey pulls at the hat until it lifts off Yevgeny’s head, his hair ticking with static electricity and clinging to the wool.

”It’s mine!” Yevgeny finally abandons his reading to indulge his old man, the pages of his book falling back when he lets go of it to chase after the beanie, grabbing it and stretching it back down over his head. ”Ian gave it to me.”

Raising his eyebrows in surprise, and a healthy helpful of playful judgement, Mickey looks over at Ian who makes a face and lifts one shoulder in a half-assed shrug.

”Hope that’s okay,” he says, ”Fiona made it, it doesn’t fit me and I didn’t want to throw it away.”

Mickey waves him off and turns back to focus on his son, absently combing his fingertips through the ends of Yevgeny’s longish hair sticking out from under the beanie’s uneven hem. Ian’s stress-knitting sister obviously hasn’t gotten any better with practice, not yet anyway.

”Hey kid,” he says, ”you want me to stop calling you a girl when you do girly shit? ’Cause you know I will, right?”

Yevgeny rolls his eyes and leans forward again, leafing through the book in search of the page he’d been on when he was so rudely interrupted.

”It’s not a bad word, Dad,” he says, like it’s really too obvious to even warrant a conversation, ”there’s nothing wrong with doing girly shit.”

Mickey grins and pats the back of his son’s bent head, causing the beanie to ride up a little when he scratches at it affectionately.

”And that’s why they’re taking over,” he tells Ian, grinning when he catches the guy’s amazed expression, staring at Mickey’s pretty fucking remarkable son.

Then he blinks up at Mickey and snaps his mouth shut with a small, crooked smile, before his lips move around a deliberately silent ’sorry’. Mickey shakes his head, hoping Ian gets that it’s okay.

Ian looks like he might be about to say something when the door suddenly flies open and Etch bustles inside, half carrying his two daughters and what’s looking like it might be all of their earthly possessions.

”Uncle Mickey!” Sahra yells across the diner and doesn’t stop to let her father help take off her heavy winter clothes before she’s speeding through the room. Liz is a whole year older and takes great pleasure in her relative maturity, staying by the door and carefully removing her snowy boots so she can step out of her colorful coveralls.

”What’s up, squirt?” Mickey gets up to meet Sahra half way, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder when she grabs his thigh in a heartfelt hug. ”Hungry?”

”Yes!” Sahra grins up at him and lets him lead her to the empty booth next to Ian and Yevgeny’s.

”Alright, highness?” he greets Liz when she comes over and joins her sister at the table. ”Any special requests?”

”Sweets!” Sahra demands, fists in the air, and when Mickey looks to Liz for reason she seems hard-pressed to disagree.

”Sure, I’ll see what I can do,” Mickey says, holding up his hands, ”gotta run it past the fuzz first, though.”

”Please,” Liz smiles, ”daddy’s already promised us whatever we want.”

”Fair enough,” Mickey huffs, glancing over at the corner table before he follows Etch through to the kitchen.

”Sorry I’m late,” Etch immediately starts to ramble, dumping his daughters’ clothes and packed toys on the chair so he can shrug off his own coat, ”traffic was really slow and I was sitting on my phone, didn’t realize you’d tried to call until I’d parked and-”

”It’s cool,” Mickey stops him, grinning when the cook breathes out a sigh and seems to relax, ”I talked to your better half, I had it covered.”

”Oh, good,” Etch smiles, but it slips when he notices the state of his kitchen, ”what the heck happened in here?”

”Well,” Mickey amends his previous statement, scratching at the back of his neck, ”I had most of it covered.”

”It’s like a kid’s been in here,” Etch mutters to himself as he picks up one of the eggshells Mickey might have left in a sticky pile on the work bench.

”Think of it as an incentive,” Mickey says, crossing his arms and smirking when Etch throws him an unimpressed look, ”keep you from bailing on me again.”

”Smart,” Etch sighs and starts cleaning, dumping the shells into an already soiled bowl and picking up a dishrag to wipe it over the bench.

”Your kids want sweets, by the way,” Mickey informs him, ”and I’m not gonna be the one telling them they can’t.”

”It’s fine,” Etch throws him a quick thumbs up as he puts a pause on the cleaning to go dig through the fridge, ”got some fruit in here that’ll do the trick, I hope.”

”Your funeral,” Mickey holds up his hands, washing them of the whole deal, ”everything okay at home?”

Etch nods, eyes crinkling with a smile as he pulls out a knife and starts chopping.

”Absolutely,” he says, ”looming deadlines tend to make things kinda crazy, but it’s good. Glad I can help her out by bringing the kids here without it being a big deal, you know?”

”Yeah,” Mickey starts, turning his head at the sound of someone coming up to the doorway.

”Hey,” Ian says, stopping on the threshold and glancing briefly at Etch before looking at Mickey, ”gotta go, didn’t wanna leave without saying anything.”

”You’re not eating?” Mickey asks, disappointment washing over him. He’s getting real sick of these drive-by visits, most of them ending before they’ve properly started.

”I would,” Ian says and at least he sounds genuine, smiling like maybe he would have stuck around if he had a choice, ”Fi called, she needs me for something so I gotta run.”

”Tell her thanks for the fugly hat, I guess,” Mickey smirks when Ian narrows his eyes at the low-bar insult.

”Oh, come on, your son likes it,” he argues, gesturing out towards the diner with a grimace, ”for some reason.”

”He’s a sucker for derpy-looking shit,” Mickey shrugs, ”I’m the one who’s gotta look at the thing, though.”

”You’re welcome,” Ian says and then grins, like he tried not to but failed.

Mickey shakes his head, something kinda dropping inside his gut at the thought of Ian leaving.

”Thanks,” he huffs, relying on snark to hide the perpetually crushed dumb hope he’s got that one day Ian’s gonna show up and then never leave again, ”now piss off.”

”Will do,” Ian takes a step back, tipping his head in a slight nod, ”later, bye Etch.”

”Bye, Ian,” Etch sing-songs, throwing Mickey a knowing glance once Ian has disappeared out of view and they can hear the front door closing behind him.

”Don’t,” Mickey stops him before he’s even started, holding up a warning hand.

”I’m not saying anything,” Etch says, obviously trying to look innocent and failing spectacularly, ”I have no thoughts or feelings about this situation at all, I am all on board with your ’do nothing’ party line, Mickey, I think it’s a great idea.”

”Yeah okay,” Mickey mutters and decides to leave the kitchen before Etch gets the chance to change his mind about all that, ”I need a smoke.”

His coat is still upstairs at Edna’s, but he’s got an emergency pack stashed in under the counter. Grabbing them and stepping out into the relentless cold, he regrets every decision he’s ever made in his life that has lead him to become this; a sappy nicotine addict, losing his shit over shiny fucking boys and freezing his ass off for a chance to ruin his health.

Well, half of that stuff isn’t really down to his shit decision-making, at all, and ’regret’ isn’t exactly the word he’d use to refer to whatever it is he’s feeling for Ian.

”Fuck,” he mutters, fingers already stiff with cold as he cups them over his cigarette and lights up, ”I really fucking need to quit.”

Filling up his lungs and hugging his arms across his chest, he starts to slowly pace the neatly shoveled path around the diner.

 

 

 

.

Chapter Text

January 23
Saturday.

 

Sloppily flipping the burger on the griddle before it gets burned to a crisp, Mickey reaches over to the deep fry to hit the lever that will silence its incessant beeping, before grabbing the basket by the handle and pulling it out of the bubbling oil.

“Shit, fuck,” he grumbles when he sees the dark spots scattered through the bird’s nest of golden brown potato, but leaves the fries to drain anyway before turning his attention back to the griddle. Slapping some cheese on the patty, he feels like punching himself in the face when he hears the door chime as someone steps inside the diner.

“I got this,” he chides himself in a high pitched mutter he’d normally reserve for mocking one of Mandy’s harebrained Plans, or to wrangle a giggle out of his son after something hasn’t worked out the way the kid had hoped it would. After the decisions he’s managed to make today Mickey deserves all the mockery he can get, and since he’s the only one around to dish it out, guess it’s just another item in the long list of jobs he’s got to work through before the day is over.

A stray lettuce leaf joins the general mess on the floor when he reaches for the buns, trying his best to ignore the mounding chaos slowly eating up every clean surface of the kitchen. Quietly counting to ten, he slaps the burger together and dumps out a generous pile of fries next to it on the plate. Here’s hoping quantity makes up for sub-par quality on this ass-clincher of a day.

He’s gonna drink himself stupid tonight, that’s for sure, maybe go out and get himself some. He hasn’t done that in a long fucking while, and it feels like his itch is way past due a good scratch. No one ever told him a side-effect of catching feelings would be not getting dicked for months on end.

“Oh, yeah, you got this,” he scoffs, absently picking out the worst of the burnt bits on the plate and throwing them in the general direction of the sink as he walks over to the hatch to put out the order. “Burger, up for grabs!”

The guy at table 2 gets up so quickly he almost knocks his chair over, scurrying up to the counter and grinning uncomfortably as he steps around it to take his food. Mickey has already turned his attention to the lady unwrapping her scarf by the door, warily eying the menu board before shifting her gaze to Mickey below it.

“Self-service today, lady,” he explains, and resolves to go out and turn the damned sign to ‘closed’ the second he gets a chance. “What’ll you have?”

The lady glances critically at the scruffy burger sailing past her as the other guest returns to his table, and looks back up at the menu.

“Pancakes?” she asks, more than orders, catching herself when Mickey raises an unamused eyebrow at her. “Chocolate chip, please, and a coffee.”

“Money on the counter, coffee’s right there,” Mickey waves her off, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the coffee even as he turns back into the kitchen and out of her sight.

He makes it as far as the fridge and is pulling out the pre-prepared batter when she starts to talk to him again.

“Um,” she hesitates and coughs uncomfortably, but raises her voice a little to make sure Mickey can still hear her, “I think it’s out?”

“Of course it is,” Mickey mutters. The whisk rattles as he leaves the batter next to the burger-mayhem, and quickly wringing his hands through his apron he offers the lady a tight-lipped smile when he walks out into the diner.

There’s a five dollar bill and a neat stack of change on the counter, which Mickey sweeps into his hand and dumps in the register without bothering to count it out, nodding curtly at the lady before turning his back to her.

He can feel her hovering for a second like she might be waiting for him to say something, but then seems to take the hint and goes off to find herself a seat when he doesn’t. Mickey sighs to himself as he empties out the coffeemaker and fills it back up again with jerky, practiced moves.

“Don’t be fucking dicks and sneak refills without paying for ‘em, I’m looking at you,” he says and points at the twenty-something hipster in the corner still nursing a cup that should have gone cold a half hour ago. His patrons all nod or mumble in response, not one of them looking exactly at him when he glares through the room before flipping the onswitch and retreating back into the kitchen.

He’s sprinkling chocolate chips over the half-cooked pancakes sizzling on the griddle when there’s another distant chime from the door, reminding him of the sign that he absolutely didn’t turn when he had the chance.

“That’s it,” he mutters as he starts flipping the pancakes, raising his voice to be heard in the other room, “ey, we’re closed, fuck off!”

He can’t hear any more jingling from the door, but leaning back a little and glancing out through the hatch he can’t see anyone waiting for service (or robbing the till) either. The sound had probably been of someone leaving, not arriving.

Stacking up the pancakes he drizzles on some syrup and adds another handful of chocolate chips on top in a fit of generosity, and a little bit of flourish, before putting the plate out.

“Pancakes,” he announces, peering out through the hatch to make sure he gets a reaction, “get ‘em while they’re hot.”

The lady is at her table, at the other end of the diner, staring at him apprehensively and not moving to get up. Which is probably why Mickey almost jumps out of his skin when a hand suddenly comes out of nowhere and grabs the plate off the sill.

“Pancakes? Who ordered pancakes?”

It’s the sound of Ian’s voice that finally propels Mickey forward, leaning out the hatch to get a complete view of the diner. And there he is, the plate of pancakes balanced on the tips of his fingers and held high in the air as he weaves through the tables like some kinda French-ass wet dream of a maitre d’.

Mickey can physically feel the stress and tension of the last couple of hours drain out of his neck and jaw as he rests his eyes on Ian’s shoulders, and takes a minute to just enjoy the unusual view. The faded t-shirt stretching across his back, the jeans hugging his ass just so, one of Mickey’s fucking aprons tied around his hips when he turns around and walks back through the room, tilting his head back and quirking a pleased smile when he notices Mickey looking.

“The fuck are you doing?” Mickey huffs, and tries his best to scowl when Ian holds up a hand to silence him, stepping in behind the counter.

“Not now,” he says, his grin in full bloom as he grabs the now full coffeepot and starts backing away again, “can’t you see I’m working?”

Mickey doesn’t know what’s going on, but he can’t find it in himself to do anything but like it. Not even when Ian undos all of Mickey’s hard work of terrorizing his guests into serving themselves all day, first by making pancake-lady snort a giggle at something he says and then proceeding to top up cups left, right and center. The previously oppressing silence gives way to a happy murmuring, and hipster-boy with the magically refilling cup looks particularly pleased when Ian gets to his table, smiles, and pours him another one.

Mickey thinks he should at least pretend to grump and grouse about it, but today has been a really shit day and seeing Ian for all but two minutes has already tipped the scales into okay. Authority and a pot of coffee seems like a small price to pay for some internal equilibrium.

Realizing that he’s staring, and that this unexpected break from working both sides of the diner probably won’t last for long, Mickey reluctantly leaves Ian to it and steps back into the center of the kitchen, assessing the mess.

It’s not quite as bad as that time when Yevgeny wanted to bake cookies from scratch and Mickey had famously asked himself ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’, but it probably qualifies as a solid second. Then again, considering that Yevgeny had been three years old at the time probably qualifies the two incidents for separate leagues entirely. Yevgeny and Mickey Milkovich, winners of Cutest Toddler Mess ‘08 and Absolute Mess of a Human Being ‘16, respectively.

Huffing out an exhausted laugh, Mickey starts cleaning, beginning with the floor and moving on to filling the washer with the towers of dirty dishes growing out of the sink.

“So,” Ian says behind him, stepping inside the kitchen when Mickey throws a quick glance over his shoulder, “it’s Saturday.”

“Ey, don’t come in here,” Mickey complains, gesturing a soapy hand at Ian, who immediately stills and seems to take half a step back without thinking, “can’t have just anyone milling around back here, that shit’s a health code violation.”

Ian throws him a look like he thinks the whole kitchen is a health code violation in the state it’s in and, hell, he’s not fucking wrong, but at least the guy’s got enough self-preservation to not actually say it.

Mickey turns back to continue rinsing off his plates, but he can still practically hear the smile in the fucker’s voice.

“You sure about that?”

“Gotta be some kinda violation,” Mickey says, closing the washer and hitting the button before he turns around to cross his arms, shaking his head as he can’t help looking Ian over again. He looks good, shoulders broad and back straight and some of his usual severity rounded off in an easy smirk resting on his lips.

Raising his eyebrows and giving in to the unrelenting warmth bubbling up inside him, Mickey smiles back. “What’s up?”

“It’s Saturday,” Ian reiterates, slowly, “why are you working? And more importantly, why have you been left all alone to destroy Etch’s kitchen?”

“Hey, fuck you,” Mickey points threateningly at Ian, but can’t help huffing out a laugh when the guy grins, “it’s my kitchen more than Etch’s, and Sonya’s more than mine. And I’m a fucking culinary artiste, man, mess is part of the process.”

“Sure, okay,” Ian holds up his hands and shakes his head, “sorry.”

“Yeah, you look real sorry,” Mickey says and clears his throat as he turns to continue cleaning up his messy work surface, “Katie asked me to pick up her shifts this weekend, and since Yev’s with his mom it was a done deal.”

He sighs and puts the lids back on the containers of prepared vegetables, picking up the whole crate and stealing a glance at Ian as he carries it over to the fridge.

“Then Sonya gets a call from her dad around noon,” he continues, slotting the crate in on the right shelf and shrugs when he’s closing the fridge and Ian comes back into view, sweetly concerned frown and all, “and he’s been gettin’ kinda loopy lately so, I told her to go make sure he’s alright and that I’d call in Etch to cover for her.”

“Didn’t work out as planned?” is Ian’s guess, grimacing sympathetically when Mickey makes a pained noise.

“Sneaky fuck’s gone off to Rockford to dump his kids on his parents, gettin’ the Professor some r&r at home”, he says, moving back across the kitchen to start scraping at the griddle, “and I was like, hey, if I can prove that I can run this bitch all by myself, maybe I can get the traitor fired, make him think twice about leaving the city next time I need him.”

“You really miss him, huh?” Ian says, blinking innocently when Mickey turns his head to glare at him. “Well, it’s like Otis used to say… you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.”

Mickey groans when the damned door jingles yet another fucking time.

“Yeah, I’m never taking that beautiful idiot for granted again,” he vows, wiping off his greasy hands on a towel, “I’m done, time to flip the sign and take out the trash.”

He hesitates halfway through the kitchen, stopped in his track by Ian damned near filling up the entire doorway, shoulders almost nudging the narrow frame on each side when he seems to square up, rather than move out of the way.

“I’ll help you out,” he says, rolling his eyes when Mickey opens his mouth to protest, and profusely so given half a chance. “Listen, I got nothing going on today, don’t be an ass and let me do this.”

Mickey pulls a hand over his face, contemplating which part of that he’s going to complain about first, but has barely had the time to open his mouth again before he is interrupted.

“Hello?”

“Yes, hello, sir,” Ian says, turning out of the doorway and disappearing into the diner, “sorry about that, please have a seat.”

Mickey snorts at the sound of Ian’s professional ass-kissing, and walks up to the hatch so he can properly enjoy the show. The guy has chosen one of the booths at the far end of the diner, so Mickey can’t hear them, but he can see Ian writing down the order, nodding attentively as the guy speaks. Clutching the menu in his hands, the dude stares up at Ian like he’s the second coming of Christ.

“Jesus,” Mickey mutters, ignoring the ugly feeling squeezing his gut at the sight, “show some fucking restraint.”

Not taking his own advice for a second, Mickey schools his face into a casual scowl and keeps his eyes on Ian until he makes his way back to lean his forearm on the other side of the hatch and slap down the order between them.

“Two dots and a dash, and a mug of murk,” he says, in what he no doubt thinks is his best diner voice, “for the gentleman at table 2.”

“Alright, calm down, garcon,” Mickey says with a wince, holding up a hand before grabbing the order, “and that’s table 4.”

“Be nice,” Ian scolds him, grabbing the coffee pot with him when he leaves again, “I’m new!”

Mickey cooks up the guy’s order, and even resists the urge to douse it in hot sauce before handing it over to Ian, flipping him off when Ian fucking winks at him.

Ian laughs and it’s clear that he has no idea what he’s doing, but he gets the food out to the right people, more or less, and he accepts money in return. Mickey doesn’t expect any of it to add up at the end of the day, but it’s not like he did such a good job of that on his own, anyway.

There’s an even stream of customers in the following two hours, keeping them busy and continuously getting in the way of Mickey sabotaging his own increasingly good mood by telling Ian to go home. At some point, the first guy Ian served gets up and stands by the counter to pay, still staring at him in that vaguely creepy way.

“Do I know you?” he asks, after Ian has taken his money. “I feel like I know you from somewhere.”

Mickey flips a pancake and sharpens his ears.

“Don’t think so, man,” Ian says, the glossy friendliness not wavering from his voice, “got one of those faces.”

“Sure,” the guy sounds about as convinced about that one as Mickey’s feeling. Maybe not everybody’s likely to be so wholeheartedly invested in Ian’s dumb face as he is, but Mickey doubts there’s a soul alive who’d ever dare call it ‘ordinary’. “Okay. Whatever.”

“Thank you,” Ian sing-songs as the door jingles, “come again.”

“Ey, Mr Fabulous,” Mickey speaks up, and Ian turns around in time to see him set out two plates in the hatch, “center table.”

“Yes, chef,” he says with a cheeky grin, grabbing the plates and backing away, “we’re out of coffee.”

“That so?” Mickey huffs to himself, raising his eyebrows at the ‘we’ as he dries off his hands on his apron and walks out into the diner. “Would last longer if you didn’t give it up so freely.”

“But I want the people to like me,” Ian says, already coming back, and blinks innocently when Mickey stops emptying out the coffeemaker for a second to level him with a Look. He smirks and leans back against the counter, folding his arms. “Thought refills were on the house.”

Mickey snorts and turns back to fit in a new filter and start measuring out the grounds. “Don’t know where you got that idea.”

Refills are generally on the house whenever Mickey feels inspired to make them on the house, but Ian doesn’t need to know that. Nor does he need to know that he has become the exception to most of Mickey’s rules, anyway, and could probably get away with any manner of sin under Mickey’s watch if he looked good enough doing it.

“You could show me how to do that, you know?” Ian says, mercifully steering the conversation away from Mickey’s ethical crisis. “Teach a man to fish, et cetera.”

“And make you completely self-sufficient?” Mickey shakes his head and slots the filter back into place. “No thanks.”

“No, to make me a contributing member of the team,” Ian corrects him, “let me in on your grounds to water ratio and show me which buttons to press ‘cause, you know, maybe you don’t wanna hear it but I do actually already know how to make coffee.”

“Ey, what you do in your own home is your business,” Mickey shrugs and pretends to shiver at the thought as he fills up the watertank, “it’s bad enough when you run around with other baristas, I don’t think I can take hearing about what you get up to after hours.”

Busy being ridiculous, Mickey is wholly unprepared for Ian to suddenly step up behind him, so close he imagines he can feel the warmth coming off him and the air changing between them as Ian’s breath is brushing over the shell of his ear.

“Nespresso,” he purrs, and laughs as he stumbles back when Mickey tries to elbow him in the stomach.

“You’re a dick,” Mickey chuckles, rubbing at his ear and still tingling skin, trying to make his reaction to Ian’s general closeness less than fucking painfully obvious.

He is saved by the door, letting in a gust of cold wind and three new guests.

“Welcome to Corner Diner,” Ian greets them with unnecessary enthusiasm as he leaves Mickey and steps out from behind the counter, “can I take your orders?

Mickey flips the switch on the machine and escapes back into the kitchen, throwing himself into scraping bits of burnt pancake off the griddle as a distraction from the chorus of fucks harmonizing through the back of his head.

Ian is ineffective but charming as a waiter, spending too much time idly chatting with the customers and trying to explain the utterly self-explanatory menu to anyone who so much as hesitates before making a decision. Then he insists on relaying every order to the kitchen through some kind of made up diner lingo, before sticking his barely legible notes to the hatch and throwing Mickey an easy smile. And Mickey doesn’t know what to do with it but it’s like that the whole time, until his watch tells him it’s already half past seven and he hears Ian locking the door after their last customer.

“If I wear a hairnet,” he says, looming in the doorway when Mickey looks over his shoulder, “can I come in here and help you clean up?”

“First off; fuck you,” Mickey laughs and turns his attention back to the last two burgers he’ll be grilling for a long, long time, “and second, can you like, go sit down and just do nothing for a minute so I can finish up in here and we can eat?”

It’s a bit of a gamble, Ian might be tried and generally sick of him at this point, and might want to go home and salvage what’s left of the evening. But Mickey doesn’t want him to go, and isn’t going to risk giving him an out by asking him if he wants to stay.

“Okay,” Ian says.

“Okay,” Mickey huffs and flattens one of the patties with his spatula, “how do you like your burger, Miss Poppins?”

“Medium, and don’t skimp on the cheese.”

Ian leaves the doorway and Mickey can’t quite wipe the fond smirk off his face when he hears the sound of chairs scraping across the floor. And when he steps out of the kitchen five minutes later, a plate in each hand, all the tables have been wiped and the chairs have been flipped. Ian has turned off the bright tungsten lights and the room is cast in the dull yellows and whites from outside, moving slowly across the walls and upturned chairs as cars pass by on the street.

It leaves most of the room in darkness, but there’s a street light positioned right outside the window by Ian’s table, narrowing down the diner to that one corner and the man sitting there.

Ian’s got his phone out, face up on the table playing a slow, slightly melancholic song, and his hands covering the notebook he most likely stole from behind the register when he dug out the apron and decided to play waiter for the day. The pen rests still between his fingers and his gaze seems fixed on something down the street, casting half his face in deep shadows.

He looks up when Mickey gets to him, appearing for all the world like he’s returning from somewhere very far off as he straightens up and cocks a crooked smile at Mickey setting down their food.

“You okay in there?” Mickey asks, sitting down and trying to catch a glimpse of what Ian’s been writing as he’s pushing the notebook aside to make room for his plate.

“Yeah,” Ian says and shoves a fry in his mouth, making a pleased noise, “thought I had thought, but-”

He waves another fry through the air and shrugs, before eating it.

“And I thought I told you to sit down and do nothing,” Mickey points out, not really thinking when he takes out his lighter and sets it to the half-burnt tealight candle Katie insists on putting out for the evening hours. The flame flickers for a second before taking hold. “Instead you do more of my job, and then you go squeezing in some of your own work when you get a second over.”

Ian takes a big bite of his burger and grins as he chews. “Sorry.”

“I’m not complaining,” Mickey says, a little surprised when he hears himself both say it and mean it. “This you?”

He points at the phone still playing the same song, and the question already in Ian’s raised eyebrow turns incredulous when he widens his eyes and shakes his head.

“No,” he splutters, once he’s chewed down his food enough to speak, “it’s a cover of a Bowie song.”

The harmonica gives way for the carefully sung vocals, and Mickey thinks he can vaguely recognize the lyrics now that he’s paying attention.

Let’s sway, under the moonlight, the serious moonlight.

Not that he’s much of a David Bowie fan, but he has been alive for the past thirty years and some things are almost impossible to miss.

“You know,” Ian says putting down his burger to pick at his fries while he talks, “Bowie wrote Let’s Dance as like, a folk ballad, before he teamed up with Nile Rodgers to produce a completely different sound. It’s got this great somber core to it, there-”

He closes his eyes for a second and smiles at whatever he hears.

“Gb major for just a beat,” he says, and opens his eyes, “back to B-flat minor. The melancholy is right there on the surface of this version, but I think it’s that layering of sounds and emotions that got me hooked on the original in the first place.”

Mickey says nothing, taking another big bite of his burger and hoping that it will encourage Ian to go on talking. He’s got very little to say about any of all that – Bowie or key changes or the barefaced sincerity of the crooning lyrics in the song playing – but he thinks he can listen to Ian ramble on about it for a very long time, and gladly call himself a fan by the end of it.

Because my love for you would break my heart in two,” Ian murmurs along with words, “if you should fall… it’s like he hopes he’ll get his lover to commit to him with this dance, give him the life he’s always wanted, but he’s afraid it’ll only last for as long as the song is playing.”

The song ends and another one starts, and Ian blinks as he seems to snap out of his revery.

“Anyway,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck and not quite looking Mickey in the eyes when he offers an apologetic grimace, “it’s Bowie’s biggest hit for a reason, I guess, not very original of me to be such a sucker for it.”

“Yeah, no, sure,” Mickey agrees, raising his eyebrows when Ian finally looks at him again, “I only listen to his early, really obscure shit, myself.”

Ian grins at him, his smile widening slightly when his gaze shifts up for a second.

“You’ve still got-,” he says, picking up a hand to touch it to his forehead.

Mickey mirrors him, cringing when he feels the elastic edge of his hairnet under his fingers. He takes it off and shoves it down the pocket of his apron, absently pulling his other hand through his hair at the same time, messing it up before trying to smooth it back down.

“Hot,” he mutters and rolls his eyes, but can’t help huffing out a laugh when Ian just keeps smiling at him. It’s slightly unnerving and he wouldn’t trade it for fucking anything.

“It’s a look,” Ian agrees, taking another bite of his burger before he offhandedly states: “wouldn’t kick you outta bed.”

Mickey almost chokes on his food, but decides to take the comment as a meaningless joke and ignore it, for his own sanity’s sake if nothing else.

“Kinda saved my hide today, Red,” he says, before pretending to think it over, “or kept me from closing up shop and calling it an early night, however you wanna see it.”

“Option one,” Ian says, “big damn hero.”

“Want me to pay you?” Mickey suddenly thinks to ask, because fair’s fair. “Could slide you some under the table right now, wouldn’t be much but you know what working service is like.”

“Jesus,” Ian huffs, wrinkling his nose like he’s almost offended by the suggestion, “no, thank you. Didn’t do this to get paid, Mick.”

“Work experience, I get it,” Mickey deadpans, pleased when it gets Ian to snort out a laugh, “yeah, gonna look real nice on your CV. Hope you lined your pockets with some of your hard-earned tips, at least?”

“Oh yeah,” Ian says and shakes his head, “actually couldn’t get the register to work so I just grabbed all of it. Lined the whole ensemble.”

“Fucking fair enough,” Mickey grins as Ian indicates his t-shirt and jeans combo with a sweeping gesture, “thought you looked bulkier than usual.”

“You feed me burgers and fries – and you definitely didn’t skimp on the cheese – and then you call me fat,” Ian says with a reproachful tisk, “isn’t that the kind of backhanded bullshit pickup artists do? What’s it called, negging?”

“Or,” Mickey proposes, holding up one of his fries to underline his point, “I’ve been busting my ass for the past few months tryna put some meat on your bones, and I just called you fit as fuck.”

“Option two this time, thank you,” Ian selects, and he’s probably still joking around when he does some lackluster jazz hands and puts on an exuberant announcer voice, “welcome to Things That’ll Never Happen: a gameshow about Ian Gallagher’s delusional fantasies.”

He chuckles at himself and picks up his half-eaten burger, seemingly not even a little bit aware of Mickey’s tongue getting tied up over the ten different things he could say to make it perfectly clear that all of Ian’s fantasies could come true, so long as they feature Mickey in any way.

“This is good,” Ian says, finishing his burger and steadily steering them away from the opportunity to broach the whole sexual genie subject. “Still waiting on those pancakes, but at least now I know you’ve got a good hand in the kitchen.”

“Used to cover shifts in there before Etch got hired,” Mickey tells him, clicking his untwisted tongue to test it out, “this isn’t the first time I’ve ended up alone in here, but it’s been a while and it’s really fucking clear I’m not twenty-five anymore.”

“Tell me about it,” Ian groans, “I mean, I have to keep a lid on the rock’n’roll lifestyle anyway, but even without all the bipolar bullshit I still think I’d rather have a good night’s sleep these days, than do the whole club scene like I did when I was twenty.”

“Old men,” Mickey laments, “downhill from here, isn’t it?”

“Nah,” Ian smiles and shrugs, “I like to think of it as leveling out, or a gentle slope. We’re going down, sure, but at least I’m enjoying the journey more now.”

Mickey hums and rolls his shoulders as he sits back, doing his best to set aside any and all lingering thoughts of Ian’s hypothetical fantasies.

“Sounds alright,” he says, and thinks it’s probably a minor miracle he’s here at all, nevermind sitting opposite a guy who makes him feel in any sort of way. Maybe it would be pushing it to ask for more.

They finish their food in companionable silence, Ian’s phone playing another three songs before they’re finished – Mickey picking his fries one by one towards the end, watching the cars go by the window as Ian scribbles on his notepad – and they pack up their corner and bundle up for the outside.

”Guess I should be off,” Mickey says, reluctantly stating the obvious just to break the settled silence after he’s padlocked the shutters and they’re standing on the freshly snow-dusted sidewalk.

”Yeah,” Ian hums, turning to him with that smile, the one Mickey can’t help thinking exists especially for him. “Me too.”

”Sure,” Mickey scratches at his eyebrow and for a moment they do nothing but stand, breathe and carefully watch the other.

Ian’s smile doesn’t falter and he doesn’t look away, and Mickey has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from jumping to conclusions about what it might mean. But he can’t stop staring right back, and he knows exactly what that means. Has known it for a while, and maybe this whole ‘not doing anything about it’ plan comes with one or two inherent flaws.

Like what if Ian’s waiting on him to make a move. They’ll stand out here and freeze to death before getting anywhere if that’s the case.

Or, Mickey could close the distance between them right now, tie his tongue up in something other than words and let his actions speak for him. Challenge Ian on all his jokes and warmth and long, meaningful silences.

And right there, right there is the thing. The mounding evidence that Mickey might not be completely delusional when he thinks he sees something there. Ian comes by the diner all the time – sometimes for no other reason than to see Mickey – and maybe Mickey isn’t the shiniest fucker in the world but he isn’t entirely unfuckable either, he knows this, it’s been tried and tested. Ian’s never expressed any outright interest in that respect before tonight, but that could also be because Mickey’s been an idiot about keeping his own leanings, as well as his steady descent into feelings, tightly under wraps.

But then there’s the other thing. The ‘not looking’ thing. The acute memory of how Ian looked when he said it, the sound of his voice on repeat in Mickey’s head whenever he dares to so much as think ‘what if’.

Ian isn’t looking, he said.

Which wouldn’t have been a problem if this was just some guy making eyes at him on the street, sending the kind of signals Ian is shooting off right now. But this isn’t some guy, it’s Ian fucking Gallagher, and Mickey can’t explain it but it’s gotten beyond obvious at this point that when it comes to Ian, Mickey wants it all.

But standing there, the evening cold biting at his cheeks and the streetlights casting Ian’s face in pale yellows and dark grays, Mickey feels stupid enough to take whatever he can get, whatever Ian is willing to give.

And maybe asking for it is going to get him a ‘no’, but jumping straight to groping might get him punched and not asking for it isn’t going to get him anything at all.

”You eh-,” he starts, eloquent as fuck, and shuffles his feet before he gives it another go, ”thanks, again. For today.”

”No problem,” Ian smiles wide, shoves his hands in the pockets of his coat, ”my pleasure.”

”Sure you don’t want me to pay you?” Mickey tries again, ”won’t hold that shit against you, if you do.”

”No, don’t want you to fucking pay me, Mick,” Ian huffs, shaking his head at the question, ”just accept the favor, will ya?”

”Oh, that how it is, is it?” Mickey grins and folds his arms across his chest, shifts his stance a little, feels slightly more confident as they fall back on the easy, teasing banter. ”Want me to owe you one, huh?”

Ian laughs and takes a step back, shrugs and angles himself away a little. Mickey has to will himself to stay still and not walk up to him and grab him by his coat. Dig his fingers into the fabric. Keep him close, keep him from leaving.

”No, man, no,” Ian chuckles, eyes on the sludge by his feet, the half melted snow black from fumes and yellow under the streetlights, ”don’t owe me anything. More like-”

Ian stops and Mickey thinks he knows by now what that means. What it means when Ian’s sentences start stalling, when the words become unwilling, when his eyes don’t quite want to meet his. An unspoken thing which despite everything they’ve got going against them – Mickey’s useless tongue included– might lead to something.

”You could come over to mine,” Mickey suggests, and keeps his eyes firmly on Ian when he looks up at him, keeps his voice level, his face unflinching. Open, inviting. C’mon.

Pressing his lips together he raises his eyebrows and lets the invitation linger between them, hoping the fact that he isn’t trying to explain or backtrack will be enough to make Ian really get it.

But Ian is still staring at him, brows slowly furrowing in a confused frown, and Mickey doesn’t blame him. Maybe this is out of the blue, maybe he’s actually never thought about it, thought about Mickey that way, despite all his joking. Mickey takes a careful step forward, so there is no mistaking the invitation this time.

”Could happen, if this is one of your fantasies,” he says, cringing at how fucking presumptuous it sounds out loud. ”Make us even.”

Mickey snaps his mouth closed after the words slip out. Even. That’s not even close to what he wants, and he finds himself wishing his tongue would tie itself back up again.

There’s always been a flippancy to his game, never any real stake in his intentions towards most of the men he’s been with. He can feel it taking over now, glossing over his nerves and the sincere fucking wildness of his feelings for Ian. Scrambling to not make any of it show, act like he’s not so far gone. Like Ian hasn’t somehow been given all the power to make or break him.

”Yeah?” Ian finally whispers, there only being a foot or two between them now, the noises from the main street down the block tuning out when Ian searches his eyes intently, tries to figure him out.

Mickey’s got nothing, doesn’t know how to make it clearer than that without retracting the stupid-ass glib about ’being even’ and getting down on his fucking knees, declaring things he’s sure he doesn’t even understand himself yet. So he picks up his eyebrows, slowly and meaningfully, and bites his lip. It’s not necessarily by design, more like an immediate response to the hungry look in Ian’s eyes, but he’s not sorry. It gets the message across.

Ian nods, quickly, Adam’s apple bobbing nervously when he swallows. He’s still looking a little startled by the sudden turn of events, but he’s nodding and he’s not leaving. He’s taking a step closer, and then another one. He puts his hands on Mickey’s chest, and there is no way he can’t tell that Mickey’s heart is trying its best to beat its way out of there. Mickey watches him as he lowers his gaze, following the movement of his hands as they slowly slide down the front of Mickey’s coat to stop right under his chest and dig long fingers into the fabric, bunching it up, gripping it tight. Pulling him in closer.

Mickey kinda forgets how to breathe when Ian slowly looks up at him again, face serious with intent and eyes darting quickly between Mickey’s, like he’s waiting for the go ahead. Mickey doesn’t know why, but suddenly he’s falling off that cliff. The emotional whiplash of his unexpected and complete surrender to this thing that’s been building between them over days, weeks, months, it hits him.

Ian has flipped another switch by closing the distance between them and Mickey feels like he won’t be able to ever recover from this. He’s never felt anything like it, blazing and overwhelming, and he can’t tell if it’s good. Ian’s breath is warm on Mickey’s lips.

If you should fall, into my arms, and tremble like a flower.

His heart is racing, and his thoughts are struggling to keep up with the desire and the sudden, blind panic misfiring behind his eyes. He didn’t approach it right, Ian might just want quick and easy, fuck and move on. Mickey isn’t sure he knows exactly what he wants, but it’s not that.

He’s never been so fucking desperate just to kiss someone, and it absolutely terrifies him.

Ian leans forward and Mickey can feel himself rock back, just enough to keep them separate. Enough to send a clear message.

He hopes Ian gets that it’s ’wait’. Hold on, just for a second.

And for a split second, Ian looks disappointed. But then it’s covered up by an ugly smirk so quickly Mickey thinks he must have imagined it, and Mickey does nothing to stop him when Ian lets go of his coat and takes a couple of steps back, not looking at him at all anymore. Eyes fixed somewhere to Mickey’s left.

”Don’t think this is a good idea,” he says, and shrugs like it doesn’t matter to him either way.

”No, yeah,” it’s not what Mickey wants to say but he doesn’t know what else there is, his mouth is still dry and useless, ”’course.”

Ian sighs and takes another step back, hands back in his pockets. ”Don’t owe me anything, man.”

”Yeah, alright, I get it,” Mickey forces a stale, tight-lipped smile, ”don’t have to, if you’re not interested. It’s–, whatever.”

Ian looks frustrated, pulling a hand through his hair and glancing down the street behind him before turning back to Mickey, mouth tense and brows furrowed. Mickey can tell he’s revving up to explain himself, but he doesn’t want to hear it. Doesn’t want to stand there and listen to why Ian isn’t interested in him.

”It was a bad fucking idea, Red,” he says, holding up his hands when Ian exhales an annoyed breath and looks ready to argue, ”forget about it, okay? Just–, just forget it.”

Not allowing Ian time to answer, Mickey turns on his heels and walks away. Not looking back he crosses the street, flipping off a car driving past when it honks at him. He mutters out a long string of fucks, timed with his steps, and tries to ignore the unrelenting tightness. The one in his pants he can deal with later, no problem. The one deep within his chest is gonna give him hell, he can tell.

 

 

 

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