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We Drag Ourselves Hand Over Hand

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Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back.

Maybe it would have been better if he had just let Mickey numb it, kill it, shove it down, only let it out in the middle of the night in the locked bathroom with a bottle of whiskey and a photograph, twist the feeling inside him until it turned from what it was into hate, crush it little by little until it was nothing but a memory and the constant but familiar urge to put his fist through a wall, and then maybe one day nothing at all.

Maybe it would have been better. If after six months he hadn't come home for those ten fucking days before getting shipped out to god knows where. If he hadn't managed to tear himself away from his clinging, tearful, insane family and tracked Mickey down to the abandoned warehouses again, like last time, what a surprise. Leaned against a pillar and folded his arms. He didn't yell this time, didn't say much of anything, just “I'm leaving next week,” and the stupid fatigues did the rest of the talking.

And Mickey just nodded, uh huh, what's that got to do with me and his shoulders twitched and then it was all the old Ian, all the Ian from back when this all first started, Ian with his eyes full of tears and his throat shaking because he knows what he wants but he doesn't know what he'll do if he doesn't get it. Ian crying and telling him everything. All the fear. Why he left, how he didn't know what to do. How he knew what he wanted but then it was gone in two short words and a ring and he wanted it back but it slipped through his fingers because even desperation and beer and a cigarette couldn't unlock the words that crowded together behind the fear in Mickey's throat. Maybe if Ian had pushed just that little bit further.

“That was your fucking chance!” Mickey yelled, shaking, swearing, eight thousand alarms going off in his head and under his skin but the loudest one was standing right there in front of him, tears streaming down his face but this time when Mickey shoved him, the only language he really knew, Ian shoved right back, and shit like that always brought him straight back down to earth, straight back to Ian's green eyes just looking at him and the way his stomach clenched every time he thought Ian's name.

Maybe it would have been better if Mickey had walked away. He didn't. Walking away was never his strong suit. So he moved instead, so he surged forward and grabbed Ian's face and the kiss was the same desperation it had always been only Ian's body had hardened and filled out with training and Mickey's body was so starved for anything at all it was like he was trying to rip them both apart. Like it was the only sensible thing left when he kissed Ian, shoved their bodies against the wall, turned around for him and didn't throw a grin over his shoulder like usual, just breathed a sigh of relief against the crook of his elbow.

Ian's dog tags jingled when he took off his shirt, hissing against the metal chain. Branded a cold promise against Mickey's spine.

He focused on the warmth of Ian in him, around him, blocking out the little stamp of cold metal against his skin. At least until they were shaking themselves down to the ground.

They sat on the edge of the roof and shared a cigarette and Ian talked. Mickey listened. Mickey frowned. Mickey complained about making idiotic decisions and complained about foreign countries and complained about shitty, death-wish ways of getting out of the south side. Ian listened. Ian smiled. Ian draped his arm across Mickey's shoulders and tried not to act surprised when it stayed there.

They talked about it. Ian talked about it to him, all glowing and sad on that roof. About how he got it now, how Mickey's hands were tied, how Svetlana didn't mean anything, wasn't anything but a sacrifice to keep death away, to ward off Terry's homicidal tendencies for a little longer. How it didn't make a difference because now they were both stuck, both had to live with it. Not in so many words and it's true that Mickey was always shit at talking to others but it wasn't because he couldn't form the words in his head. The lock of fear around his throat was always so tight. And he'd spent those six months trying and failing to ignore the way his thoughts seemed preoccupied with one thing only. So Ian talked for him and Mickey nodded because whatever this was, it worked, he wanted it, and if Ian was going to be thousands of miles away then fuck it, fuck all of them, fuck everything. He'd take any second he could get.

He'd always been comfortable with scraps.

Maybe it would have been better if he'd said no. Because they spent whatever time Ian could get away from his family at their old haunts, talking nothing, talking too much, skin buzzing where they touched. Because he wanted Ian to stay but couldn't say it. Because the day before he was supposed to fly back, the day before the last day they'd see each other for at least a year, Ian bought a night in a room in a shitty motel with a creaky bed and a shower that was more of a dribble and a television with seven channels on it, total and absolute shit but they were safe there. No one to bust in, no reason for Mickey to look over his shoulder. No reason for their thoughts to be about anything but each other, and the fire under their skin, and maybe the future. Nothing between them but their own skin and the intense pull of the sexual attraction that had gotten them here in the first place. And Ian promised to fuck him until he couldn't walk. It would have been fucking hot but for the obvious. They spent the whole afternoon and well into the night curled around each other in the cheap sheets, counting the varying shades of darkness with new positions and another layer of sweat. Sometimes it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. In the end they fucked face to face like lovers even though the word was never said much less thought.

Ian pretended not to notice the way Mickey would cling when they caught their breath. Mickey pretended not to notice the tears in Ian's eyes, the way his kisses and his smiles were elation with a hint of sorrow.

In the morning, Ian left the motel before Mickey did, to catch a ride from Fiona to the airport. He kissed Mickey and ran a hand through black hair and neither of them said anything but they both maybe thought hard at each other and hoped telepathy was real. Rolling the night's silences across their tongues, they both tried to find a way to make any of this bearable. Like there even was a way to make this bearable. In the end, Ian looked down at the toes of his boots and Mickey stumbled to the bed to sit down and stare at the ugly painting over the desk while his eyes prickled dangerously and neither of them had said anything at all. Ian stopped with one foot out the door, the overly bright sunlight pouring in, streaking his shadow across the carpet and into Mickey's lap.

“See you later, Mick.”

“Later, Gallagher,” he cleared his throat, shook his head, felt blinded. “Later, Ian.”

 


 

Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back.

Maybe Lip told them. Maybe Ian told them. Maybe they figured it out all on their own, what with Lip wandering over every so often even if Mandy was done with him. Either way, the Gallaghers know now. Ian's six and a half months away and his cover is blown. At least it's only made it as far as six Gallaghers and his own sister. He knows Gallaghers. They're idiots, but they're not evil. At least they won't rat him out.

It's almost worse. Now that dad's been hauled back to prison, they're over all the goddamn time. Sometimes the redheaded one wanders over like she's going to ask Mandy a question and then she's trapping Mickey on the sofa and telling him all about how Ian asked about him in his emails, how Ian's learning a lot but he misses everyone and he misses real, real food and how even the insanity of the south side and JROTC didn't quite prepare him for the Marines. Sometimes Fiona knocks on the door with her big sad eyes betraying the smile plastered on her face and asks him to help her fix the car because Lip's at college and Carl will just break it more.

It's worse because apparently the Gallaghers have decided he and Ian are really, really together, that Ian's letters and emails mean he's really, really in love. Or whatever.

Mickey's never really even had a friend before Ian came into his life. He has no idea what to do with someone who wants to hear about his day, who wants to learn about his dreams and thoughts and his life and everything. He doesn't know what to do when he wants the same thing from Ian.

Fear locks his throat but his head feels loose and free and he wants to smile when he thinks about Ian and that's never happened to him before, ever.

This weird fucking longing, this long-distance ache means a loose head and a tight chest and the stupid fucking thought popping up every day that Ian might be thinking of him, that Ian is out there maybe with Mickey on his mind like Ian's on Mickey's mind and they'll never know. And why the fuck is he worrying about that? When did he start worrying about shit like that?

He tries to shove it down, go numb like he used to. But every other thought is Ian out there in the world where he's not, out there in hostile territory, and he's not numb at all so he tries to wait it out. Wait until the middle of the night when no one's around, lock himself in the bathroom with a bottle of whiskey and a stolen photo. Only half the time he ends up punching the wall and the other half he's heaving into the toilet because at least if anyone hears they'll think he's vomiting instead of crying. A crack forms in the doorjamb. Mickey wonders if he's giving himself an ulcer.

And anyway, the Gallagher siblings seem to be convinced he and Ian are an item or whatever, and he can't get them to think anything else, and he's starting to believe it too or at least he really, really likes Ian, so he just lets his brain run with its decision and lets Ian's idiot brothers and sisters bother him at all hours just because apparently he has a soft spot for goddamn Gallaghers.

He doesn't think they know he lives his life letter by letter, nudging through the junk mail on the floor with his foot to see if there's something with a Marines insignia on it, checking his email obsessively even when it uses up data on his cheap-ass phone plan.

On second thought, maybe they know exactly how he lives his life.

But they have each other to cry on and cling to, lives and family to distract them. He has, what, robberies and an idiotic number-running scheme and stealing credit cards? Target practice? Svetlana's got that kid but Mickey tells her to fuck off about thirty times a day and he's taken to sleeping on the sofa now that his dad's back in the slammer.

The letters and emails are just a fucking tease, Ian's words without his voice, but Mickey replies every time, even if it is costing him a fortune in data and postage stamps.

“Does he tell you anything?” Fiona asks him one day, sitting down beside him on the trunk of the car, offering him a piece of her bagel. “I mean, about what he's doing or how he's feeling?”

“Nah, not really,” Mickey shrugs and waves off the offer. “Don't think they're allowed to. Or he doesn't want us to worry.”

“He's in the marines, fighting a war,” Fiona points out. “I worry anyway.”

Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back, because then Mickey wouldn't wake up gasping in the middle of the night, his chest aching like a heart attack, like he can't breathe, his thoughts this time not shaking back a nightmare-memory of fists or dead mothers or the sound of gunfire, but fixed on Ian in a desert somewhere, Ian in a tank somewhere, Ian getting shot at or bombed at or whatever they fucking do to marines in wars these days.

Not to mention how he doesn't want to think about the peculiar way his chest twists and aches when he sees Ian's name or reads his words or even thinks about him.

He gets used to it. Kind of. He tells himself he's used to it. Eight months, nine months in and he aches and every letter still makes his heart jump into his throat and his stomach hurt with something that isn't nausea, but at least he's stopped punching walls. He still wakes up gasping and biting back Ian's name but Svetlana doesn't look at him funny in the morning anymore, and he can usually go back to sleep after staring at the wall for fifteen minutes, and at least he's waking up panicking about something that isn't his own memories for once.

And fear is locked tight around Mickey's throat but its grip on his fingers isn't as strong, and even though his spelling is shit and his handwriting sucks and half his letters are scribbles because he doesn't own a printer and never knows what to say, they tell each other things they never would have said out loud.

Ian's letters and emails always start with Hey Mick, and always end with See you later, and the words in between are flushed with energy and a little bit of sadness and mostly some weird soft feeling of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” bullshit that Mickey doesn't like to think about.

He's not quite an honorary Gallagher, but the rat pack keep coming into his house, keep asking him to help them with shit, keep telling him how Ian asks about him, keep telling him about their lives like he cares, and Fiona's insistence reminds him of Ian, and Carl is irritating but funny, and he actually kind of likes Debbie, and aside from Lip he kind of can't say no to any of them, even though he grumbles and bitches whenever they're around.

Sometimes Fiona comes by and they don't say anything. He just hands her a cigarette and they stand on the porch and smoke and stare out into middle distance, into nothingness, into their own thoughts that contain much of the same words but in a different order.

Ian calls him once, in August, to tell him happy birthday and sing to him off-key and too loud but Mickey is grinning anyway.

“This call is going to cost me so much fucking dough, Firecrotch.”

Ian snorts. “Ah, you don't care.”

Mickey clears his throat, thumbs his lip and shrugs, even though Ian can't see it. “Guess not.”

“I sang happy birthday to you, you should be grateful.”

“Sure I am,” Mickey rolls his eyes. “You, screeching in my ear. Not really how I wanted to hear your voice.”

“Aw, you wanted to hear my voice!” Mickey can hear the delight.

“Fuck off, Gallagher.”

“You said it, not me.” Ian is laughing in his ear. It makes Mickey's stomach clench. He presses the phone tighter against his ear. “No one ever sings happy birthday to you, remember? Thought I'd treat you.”

“If anyone tried they'd get a fist to the teeth,” he grunts, half serious. His shoulders twitch. “You're lucky you're out of reach. I don't need that gay shit.”

Then there's silence. There's still fear clenching Mickey's throat and they can't think of anything else to talk about so they just listen to each other breathe. Mickey can hear random noises and voices on Ian's end, hears Ian swallow, hears a beep and Ian's gasp as he shifts the phone and then huffs a sharp sigh into the receiver.

“Shit, my time's about to be up.”

“Got you on a short leash there, huh?”

“Yeah. Shit, Mick, I gotta go.” The line goes quiet and for a moment Mickey thinks they've lost connection. Then Ian's breath is a shaky rush in his ear. “I miss you.”

Mickey's heart twists. Mickey's eyes do that prickly thing. He knuckles his nose awkwardly. “I, uh, I miss you too, man.”

“See you later.”

“Later, Ian.”

When he puts the phone down the silence is deafening, even though the baby is crying in the living room and Iggy has his shitty music blasting and the L is rumbling by.

Mickey's always made do with scraps, but this time it's like a quiet personalized torture. These are not bits and pieces he can take and use and forget about. This is not stripping wires, or robbing strangers, or credit card fraud, or beatings. This is tiny morsels meted out for him to worry over, and think about, and cling to. This is someone else handing him the smallest pieces so he crawls back begging for more, and he knows he will. Hearing Ian's voice makes him want to laugh. It makes him want to cry.

He's started to be civil with Svetlana, have actual conversations with her. It helps that she and Debbie have apparently become friends, which means the redhead isn't just coming over to yap at him about Ian and pretend she doesn't see his lungs trying to leap away from him. He's kicked Svetlana out of his room, told her to pick one of the rooms his brothers no longer occupy. He's not about to help with the kid, and just looking at the thing makes the bile rise in his throat, but it doesn't seem like Svetlana is expecting much from him, considering the long line of dead beat dads he comes from. Svetlana, for her part, doesn't seem to actually give a shit about him, or whatever relationship with Ian he has or doesn't have or whatever. They've entered the stage of no longer hating each other or threatening each other with fathers or hammers or streets or immigration or what the fuck ever. Mickey is very okay with this.

At some point, he's sitting at the kitchen table flipping Ian's latest letter over and over in his hands, staring off into middle distance, and she's staring at him, hard, like she's just figured something out, like she's realized some secret, and he hates that look so he glares up at her.

“What?”

She raises one thin eyebrow. “You love him, yes?”

“I dunno,” he shrugs, getting up, getting a beer. “Who fucking cares?”

“You do, asshole,” and she's smiling at him in that superior way of hers, even if there is something weirdly sympathetic in her eyes. “You care about orange boy.”

“Eat me,” he grunts, lost for a good retort, searches for something that'll sting, doesn't have anything, so he sneers at her and retreats to his room.

He tries not to think about what she just said. He tries not to connect it to the way his stomach flips and his heart twists and he's even become a pussy when it comes to Ian's fucking family.

But now he knows more about Ian than he ever intended to. And now Ian knows more about him than anyone in the entire world. He's never had a best friend before, and he thinks maybe Ian is that. But he thinks maybe you also shouldn't dream about fucking your best friend, or kissing them, and maybe you shouldn't feel like someone has a hook in your heart and is yanking painfully every time you think of their face or their name. And Ian knows stories about his life growing up, before they really knew each other. Ian knows the things Mickey wishes he could do, if he ever got out of this shithole, if he ever left the south side, if he ever was able to do anything but scrounge and fight for what he has. And Ian tells him about his family, his dreams, he jokes and complains and asks how Mandy is and even how the kid is.

A year of letters and emails and a single, giddy phone call and yeah, maybe Ian is more than just a best friend. Yeah, maybe there's something else in the way Ian signs off the ends of his letters with 'I miss you,' in the way Debbie tells him Ian asked about him, in the way Fiona talks to him, in the way his own stomach clenches.

So maybe Svetlana's right, but he can't make himself think it. And maybe Fiona's right when she says he's good for Ian. He doesn't know.

It's been so long and after fourteen months he sometimes wonders if Ian still looks like Ian. He doesn't think it would matter. The guy could be fat and bald and Mickey's pretty sure he'd still want to be around him. He could be anything. He doesn't think he's ever felt like this before. He's not sure if he likes to think about it.

He fixes Fiona's car and makes the garbage disposal that's been broken for years work again and they fix one of the rotting front steps together. He doesn't let her pay him for any of it. That's a first for him. But she's Ian's sister and somehow that matters to him now.

Ian's letters accumulate a prized place in a shoebox next to his bed. He rereads emails and squints at handwriting like a desperate detective. He can see Ian's impish grin in the scrawl of his words, can see his insane ambition in the press of his pen. Mickey spends extra money to send every one of his own letters priority so it gets to Ian faster.

He can't say it, he can't even really think it, but it's fucking there.

Almost sixteen months and Fiona is showing up at his door with a teary smile on her face and a spring in her step and a flight itinerary printed on a piece of paper. Almost sixteen months and Mickey is hyperventilating in front of Ian's sister and she's pushing him back inside mumbling “Hey, it's okay, it's okay. He'll be so happy to see you, Mickey.” Almost sixteen months and he spends the next three days in a stupor and everyone thinks he's drunk but really it's just shock and wondering if he should be excited.

Almost sixteen months and he's in the back of Fiona's ugly sedan with Carl on one side and Debbie on the other, Lip mouthing off in the passenger seat with Liam in his lap.

Almost sixteen months and O'Hare feels like everything.

Inside baggage claim, the wait feels fucking interminable. He knows Ian probably has to go through security and customs and whatever fucking other bullshit airports make you go through, but he's never been a patient person and he's not about to start now. Debbie won't stop yanking on the side of his jacket, breathless and excited with that adolescent energy Mickey almost wishes he could also be feeling. Instead he's just really, really fucking nervous.

There's a tiny gasp from Fiona next to him, then Debbie's shouting “Ian!” and letting go of his clothes, and the whole Gallagher clan is running across the baggage area, rushing their brother, who looks exhausted but upright, whose face breaks into the biggest smile Mickey's ever seen, who hugs them all so tight it looks like it probably hurts. Mickey hangs back. He's not a Gallagher. He's not even sure what he is.

And Debbie's arm is scooping the air, beckoning him, she's saying “C'mere, c'mere!” like she can infect him with her excitement. So he walks forward, a little nervous, a little reluctant, feeling like he shouldn't really be intruding like this.

But Ian is letting Carl go and standing up, stepping towards him and the Gallagher sea parts like some sort of weirdo romantic magic trick.

And Ian is fucking smiling at him like he's made some secret dream come true. Ian's got this look in his eyes that reminds Mickey of back when he would kiss him and Ian would look at him, surprised and delighted.

“Hey, Mick,” Ian says. Mickey realizes suddenly that he's been holding his breath this whole time.

“Hey, Ian,” he breathes, not sure where to go from here. Does he hug Ian? Wave at him? Shake his hand? Go for the dramatic and kiss him? He's not ready for that last one, no matter how much he wants it.

Ian makes the choice for him while he's still trying to breathe properly again. Strong arms pull him close and he finds himself wrapping his own arms around Ian's body, tucking his face into Ian's neck, breathing in the smell of Ian and feeling Ian's muscles move under his hands. He can feel the chain of his dog tags pressing against his cheek. Over Ian's shoulder, he can see Fiona grinning, her hands clasped under her chin. He can feel Ian's breath sliding over his ear, thick and warm with emotion and jet-lag. He wants to stay here, just like this. He also wants to run from the way his chest expands and his throat feels like it's trying to contain a yell or tears or he doesn't even fucking know anymore.

Ian pulls away only to slide his arm across Mickey's shoulders, hitching his backpack higher before holding out the other arm for Fiona to duck under. Lip and Carl each take a bag, while Debbie is tasked with Liam. The fucking entourage, ready to take on the world. Ian looks from Mickey to his big sister and back again, pulling them close, squeezing.

“Take me home,” he tells them. Fiona laughs, a little teary-eyed. Mickey knows exactly how she feels.

Ian is home for two weeks. He spends the first with his brothers and sisters, doing little civilian things, little Gallagher things, being home. Mickey sometimes tags along, at Ian's insistence and Debbie's wheedling, but he's not a Gallagher and most of the time he begs off. It's hard enough sharing Ian with the Gallagher clan as a single concept. Sharing him with each one of them, and each one of them having to share Ian with Mickey, it feels messy and strange to him. Still, he tags along to the movies, where he and Ian hold hands in the dark and snicker at the movie even if it is age-appropriate for Carl and Debbie. He tags along to a baseball game, where the roar and shove of the crowd makes both of them flinch now and they follow each other past the rows of seats and down into the passageways to some dark, safe corner by a trash can and a water fountain, where Mickey catches his breath before Ian does and presses his hand gentle but firm against Ian's shoulder, steadying him, staring into his eyes and muttering nonsense but Ian is listening and Ian's breathing is slowing and then his head drops onto Mickey's shoulder when he can finally breathe again and they laugh breathlessly together at the horrible stupidity of it all.

Mostly, though, he lets the Gallaghers have him. They came first. He stays home and he lets Fiona's instincts pull Ian close. He lets Lip have all those heart to hearts he's been looking forward to. He lets Debbie show Ian all the things she's made and Carl ask all the stupid curious questions that probably won't have straight answers and he lets Liam get smothered in kisses. Because they came first. They're Ian's brothers and sisters, and they probably love him more than Mickey does.

But on the morning of the second week Ian knocks on his door, standing on the porch with a grin on his face and duffel bag in hand. And suddenly fear unlocks itself, just for a moment, because they're home alone, because it's Ian. He doesn't even get all of a “Hey, Mick” in before Mickey is yanking him inside and kissing him the way he'd wanted to in the airport.

“You cleaned up in here,” Ian comments later, after they've had sex twice. Naked, he's all muscle, and he looks a little ridiculous sitting nude at the dirty kitchen table with his hand buried in a tub of cheese puffs.

“Yeah, all my brothers left. Took their shit. Fucking finally.” Mickey sits down across from him. He's wearing boxers, feeling a little self-conscious. He lights a cigarette and offers it to Ian, who shakes his head, pauses, nods. “Just me and Mandy now, since dad's in the can for real long this time. Even Iggy found a girl and fucked off to her place.”

Ian exhales smoke through his nose, a redheaded dragon with its scales all peeled away. “Where is she, anyway?”

“Mandy?” Mickey shrugs, taps his cigarette over an empty beer can. “I dunno. Probably with her asshole boyfriend. Some guy named Kenyatta. She wanted him to come live here, take Joey's room. I told her fuck no.”

“And Svetlana?”

“I told her to get lost for the week. She took the kid to that other whore's apartment.” He snaps his fingers in the air, grasping for a name he's only heard once or twice and never really bothered to learn. “Uh, uh— Nika or Nita or whatever the fuck.”

“Wow,” Ian grins, “When you said we're alone for the week, I didn't think you actually meant alone-alone.”

It's the first time they've been alone-alone probably ever. Or at least since—since the morning that's just a blur of blood and fear and bile that Mickey shakes off every time he wakes up.

It's the first time they've really been alone and they have a week so they don't need to be fucking every second of every minute, so instead they play Mario Kart and Smash Bros and pretend they don't see all the military fighting games stacked up by the DVD player. They eat at a fucking restaurant, just the two of them, because Ian wants to. They fuck and then they lounge together on the couch or in bed, just sitting, just existing together, holding hands and breathing together, something Mickey had never really thought of but finds he really really likes. They go to the mall so Ian can buy a watch to replace the one that's been scuffed and beat up and half-cracked during the course of his duty. They touch each other deliberately, like they're trying to ignore all their nerves and cover them with fingerprints. They talk about nothing, about south side gossip from the last year and a half, about Mickey fixing up the Gallagher car, about stupid shit. Mickey sees it every time Ian's eyes get that faraway look. He sees the way Ian scans a space and catches everything.

Ian sleeps on his side, knees curled, one hand tucked between his knees, the other a fist beside his own face. Or he sleeps on his stomach, one hand pillowing his head, the other shoved under his own torso. Mickey knows this from waking up with a gasp trapped in his throat, stifled enough to keep from waking the man asleep beside him for half a second before Ian is stirring and asking him what's wrong. He knows Ian knows how he sleeps, too, because Ian wakes up gasping even more than he does, and Mickey is startled awake, his mouth asking Ian if he's okay before his brain is coherent.

They both know the answer to the perpetual question, so they never actually say anything in response. They curl into each other when they're awake, but sleep makes them pull away, vulnerable, defensive.

Mickey clings to the scraps that he's getting, lets Ian lead, and yet he surprises himself that he wants to feel more of Ian's touch, hear his voice even more. Like all that back and forth shit in emails and letters and that one single phone call made him an addict. Like he's trying to get as much in now as he can before he's aching for it again.

And he notices when Ian presses their shoulders together, or kisses him and then just hovers there, just a little too long, or brushes a hand against his back as he passes, and he's pretty sure Ian's doing the same thing. That they're both stocking up reserves for when they're starving. That Ian grew up hugged and loved and Mickey discovered it suddenly when someone touched him gently for the first time when he was sixteen, and now they're both touch-starved and clinging to the smallest crumbs.

Ian's lying with his back propped up against the headboard, sheets kicked down to somewhere around his knees. Mickey's chin is balanced on Ian's stomach, his right arm curled around Ian's middle. Ian's fingers slide into Mickey's hair and comb backwards. He munches on a pop tart, uncooked, the package pulled halfway down in a futile attempt to prevent crumbs.

“I can't believe you're eating that,” Mickey grumbles, shaking his head, nose rubbing against Ian's bare belly. “If I were you, I'd be treating myself to every nice fucking piece of food I could think of. Pop tarts are, like, a step away from a fucking MRE.”

“But at least they're not an MRE.” Ian shrugs, stuffing the rest of the breakfast bar into his mouth, chewing and swallowing noisily. “And I grew up on them. I'd rather have them than the same fucking dinners over and over again. After a while it's like living in the same aisle of the supermarket for a year, y'know?”

“Sounds like a fucking blast out there.”

Ian laughs, but it sounds hollow. Ian's fingers clench a little in Mickey's hair and he gets that faraway look and when Mickey hums questioningly at him, Ian opens his mouth and it just falls out.

He tells Mickey about a night raid on a house, about how they were commanded to destroy it, told it was a place where the enemy was hiding, planning. How they shot on sight. How in the morning, it was just a civilian's house, and the tip had been a lie, a fake from who the fuck knows to throw off the scent. How the family of the people they killed launched a guerilla attack, a little ambush that they quashed in minutes. How he has no idea how many people he killed because everyone was firing at the same time. How the not-knowing haunts him—did he kill anyone that night? Did he kill some innocent twelve year old with a machine gun trying to avenge his cousins? Was that the right thing to do, when he knows he'd kill anyone who'd hurt his family, too?

Mickey thinks about his dad disappearing for two weeks when Mickey was nine, coming back looking fat and satisfied, with clean new guns and a flat screen tv. He thinks about a week later, when someone drove past his house, screaming his father's name, accusing him of murder, bullets blasting through the dirty windows. He knows if he went out into the living room and pulled back the rug the grooves would still be there. He hid next to his bed, hoping Mandy was doing the same. He remembers hearing Jamie lean out the downstairs window and shoot back. One bullet grazed the back of Terry's arm. The flat screen didn't survive.

By then, Mickey was already terrified of his father.

“There was this man,” Ian mumbles, fingers clenching and unclenching almost painfully in Mickey's hair, but Mickey doesn't make a sound. “This guy from a different squad. And we were all being moved as a company somewhere else, camping for the night, two squads to a tent. Anyway, uh, I guess his platoon was stationed near a local market before he got there. I don't know what he saw or did somewhere, or how long he'd been serving, but he was all fucked up. Like, freaky fucked up. Held it together when any superiors were around, but he was a fucking mess. Shit, I mean, we're scared all the time out there, but he was always shaking, saying weird things sometimes, always doing shit that could have gotten him killed, or gotten us killed, or what the fuck ever. We always just told him to shut the fuck up and get in back, so he wouldn't bug us. One morning I woke up early to take a piss and he was just there, half outside the tent like he had tried to crawl out. Vomit all over his face. His hands were like this—” Ian curls his fingers into painfully arthritic-looking claws. “And there was a fucking needle stuck in his arm. Fucking dead. Some sort of crazy bootleg speedball, I think. No idea how he managed contraband like that. Or where he thought he was fucking going.”

Mickey thinks about that summer when he was seven. About following some strange mammalian instinct early one morning, out of his bed, out of his safety, into his parents' bedroom. His father had been gone with Jamie and Tony for a day or two. It was quiet and warm and Mandy and Iggy were still asleep. Mickey thinks about how his mother had been staring up toward the door like she was expecting someone. Only there was a small rivulet of blood that slid out of one nostril and into her mouth, which was half-coated in the vomit that had mostly landed on the bedspread. One leg of a pair of pantyhose was wrapped around her upper arm, and a needle pointed the drugs' path down her veins. Mickey thinks about how he'd stared at her body for a long time, and by the time he walked away to tell Colin, it was like she was a stranger.

“I saw a woman on the side of the road. Her body, I mean. She was all blown up or shot up, I don't fucking know. I could see all of her teeth from the truck. I mean all of them.” Ian's hands vanish from Mickey's hair to press at his eyes. “Her shirt was torn off but she was still wearing her skirt. Her hand was missing. We saw it in the road a few minutes later and somebody laughed. I wanted to fucking throw up.”

Ian pinches the bridge of his nose, breathes. The hand that secures itself back in Mickey's hair is shaking. “I saw a kid on the side of the road, too, with his legs gone. Surrounded by other men's bodies. IED gone wrong. Everyone else in the humvee was yelling at him out the windows while he cried and waved at us for help.”

Mickey remembers being sixteen, not too long before he chased Ian in the Kash And Grab, half-drunk in the dark with a gun in the back of his jeans. He remembers tripping over something in a barely lit alley, feeling fingers brush against his feet. Thinks of the jolt in his stomach as he wrapped his own fingers around his gun and pointed it, jumping back. Whatever it was hadn't moved. He looked closer, then nearly leaped out of his skin as a rat triggered a nearby motion-sensored security light and flooded the alley with a clarity that almost made him sick. A man with three fingers gone from his left hand, chunks of scalp missing where dreadlocks had been ripped away. His leg was zig-zagged in almost impossible angles. His eyeball was lying loose in a blood puddle on the pavement in front of his own face, staring up at Mickey. Now completely sober, he stumbled out of the alley and back to the Alibi, got shitfaced and went home and didn't sleep until the sun was up.

And he remembers how Terry beat the shit out of him the next day for sleeping through his alarm and missing some fucking pickup he'd forgotten about anyway. How he'd worried at his split lip for days and tried not to fuck with his probably broken nose or his father's temper.

He's sure there's so much more he no longer remembers. He's sure his brain has buried so many bodies to keep him from screaming in the night.

He's sure there's some stories that Ian won't ever tell him, that maybe one day his brain will bury to keep him from screaming in the night. But he hasn't gotten there yet.

Ian tells him about one of many firefights, about shooting blind into buildings or clumps of jungle. Ian tells him about his squad member almost thirty yards away, screaming and screaming and Ian running blind, running to a light that turned out to be a human torch, his squad member on fire and screaming but the screaming stuttered out into nothing as Ian skidded to a stop, watching skin bubble and blacken and the man's face freeze in a grimace of agony. How he could only stand there helplessly. How he'll never forget the smell of burning human flesh.

He tells Mickey about a mission well done, no civilian deaths, an actual enemy encampment ambushed, equipment destroyed, people detained or killed. He felt proud when his sergeant commended them on a completed job, on the lack of unneeded deaths. But he couldn't fall asleep for four nights. In the end it felt the same as anything else they'd done.

He tells Mickey about killing a man pointing a gun at his face. He tells Mickey that he kind of wondered if he deserved it instead of the man.

He tells Mickey about a rocket hitting base camp. About watching a woman drag herself out of the rubble by her hands until he and a few other soldiers got close enough to help her. Her leg was broken in three places. She had a gash in her side so deep he could see the glint of a rib.

He tells Mickey that boot camp prepared them for the sounds and the smells and the aches and pains and the sleeplessness and the stress, but it didn't prepare them for seeing the bodies of the dead, wondering Is this bullet wound from my bullet? Is this death from my weapon? Is this what it feels like to kill another person?

He tells Mickey that the worst part is actually the fear. Not always the killing or the fires or the mutilated bodies on the road or anything like that. Just the constant alertness, the humming wire in the skin, the need to be constantly on guard, the tension that floods the veins with fear and fury just to keep the brain awake.

Mickey knows fear, too, and fury.

There is a long silence. The L rumbles past. Mickey presses his nose against Ian's stomach and inhales the scent of his skin. He feels it when Ian takes a deep breath, letting it out in a rough sigh.

“I hate this.” Ian rubs his eye with a fist, his other hand smoothing out the earlier pull on Mickey's hair.

Mickey nods, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah, the military sounds like it fucking sucks.”

“No, I mean, I hate that I can talk to you about it.” Ian shakes his head, letting his hand stroke through Mickey's hair, down the back of his neck, following the curve of his spine. “I can tell you all this shit and you don't even fucking blink. I mean, you get it, Mick. They don't, not really, but you do. All the Gallagher shit is Gallagher shit, not south side shit, you know? Awful, but not like that. You didn't even have to leave the country to see shit like what I saw.”

“Yeah, Ian, I know.”

“It fucking sucks.”

Mickey is quiet for a long time, chewing on his lip. He hadn't quite thought about it like that before. He grew up seeing shit like this. He knows what it's like to walk into a room and scan it for danger or stuff to steal, to see everything in one look. He always thought it was normal to never sleep through the night, to flinch and lash out, to count scars like tree rings, to blink and see blood or bodies or his sister's tear-stained face behind closed lids, to live life either terrified or pissed off. He's learning that apparently it's not normal at all.

He curls his arm more tightly around Ian's body. “It fucking does.”

That night Ian wakes up every twenty minutes, twitching and panting like there's a scream stuck in his throat. Mickey doesn't sleep. He watches, and he lets Ian wake himself up because he knows what happens when you wake someone else up from a nightmare like that. Still, he doesn't feel insulted when Ian lashes out half-asleep, punching him in the jaw. His instinct is to haul off and hit him back and he takes that thought and shoves it down, lets Ian shudder awake and wipe sleep away and take Mickey's face in his hands and kiss him. Lets Ian curl up on his side on the edge of the bed and doesn't touch him.

“You should desert,” Mickey says when they wake up around noon the next day. They fell asleep on opposite sides of the bed, but now that they're awake, Ian's head is on his shoulder, his cheek rubbing against Mickey's bare skin.

“Mickey, I'm not going to fucking desert,” Ian scoffs. “It's illegal—”

“That's never stopped a Gallagher before.”

Ian rolls his eyes, playfully smacking the center of Mickey's chest with the back of his hand. “It's illegal, and I went through boot camp for a fucking reason. Look, the south side would have fucked me up if the military didn't.”

“You could have gotten out.” Ian gives him a look. A square of sun spotlights his bare knee. Mickey elbows him in the ribs, shrugging. “C'mon man, I'm fucked for life, you weren't."

“This is me getting out, Mick.”

“You know what I fucking mean.”

Ian sighs and closes his eyes. “Can we just drop it? I have like three days before I leave. I don't want to fight.”

“Shit,” Mickey's shoulders twitch. “Yeah. Sorry, Firecrotch.”

“A Milkovich saying sorry,” Ian teases, grinning up at him. “Fiona won't believe it.”

“Fuck off, Gallagher,” Mickey laughs, planting a hand on Ian's face and pushing him away. Ian wrestles Mickey's hands to the bed and pins him there, kissing him, warm and solid and pliant.

Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back. Because Mickey's always made do with scraps, he's always been perfectly fine taking what he wants in bits and pieces, or fucking someone up for it, or just going without. He grew up with the feeling of his belly scraping itself empty.

Maybe it would have been better if Ian hadn't come back, because Mickey can't fuck up the US government for what he wants, he can't steal from the military, and this time he doesn't just want the scraps. He wants all of it, every single piece. Whatever he can dream up, he wants Ian beside him. He wouldn't have known that if Ian hadn't come back. He wouldn't have realized just how much he actually wants.

Mandy comes home to hang out with Ian for the afternoon, and Mickey fucks off to the Alibi to avoid wanting to lock Ian in his room. Mandy loves him, too. She deserves to see her best fucking friend. She deserves some guy that isn't her shitty ass boyfriend or Lip fucking Gallagher paying attention to her. He plays pool for hours and is surprised that he doesn't get as drunk as he thought he would. When he gets back, Mandy's gone back to her douchebag boyfriend and Ian has his nose in a sports magazine and it's the most domestic thing he's ever seen, Ian in a pair of sweats on his couch, reading.

“Have fun with my sister?” he asks.

“Uh huh,” Ian hums, reaching out to pull him down onto the couch beside him. “But I'm glad you're here. Mm, you taste like beer.”

“Only had a few,” Mickey replies.

“So responsible.”

And then he does lock Ian in his room. They lock themselves in, because even though they have the house to themselves, it's about keeping everything else out for as long as possible. Hiding from the world. Hiding from the future. Hiding from everything. They try not to think about Ian leaving in two days, even though every touch and every action is tinged with the knowledge that their time is limited.

But distraction is easy, Mickey's mouth on Ian's cock and Ian's fingers chasing the sweat across Mickey's skin. Ian thrusting inside him with a desperate, frantic speed. Mickey's thighs aching from riding Ian slow and sweet. Kissing Ian like it's fucking breathing, like he'll never get to do it ever again. Kissing Ian like it's all he was ever born to do. Sweeping fingertips across his skin just to memorize the susurrus between them.

They don't spend the last two days fucking the whole time, but it's practically that. They lie on the bed, pressed together, hands soft and sweet, talking about nothing. Stretched out with their fingers tangled together, soaking in each other's touch and just talking, talking serious, talking shit, filling the silence just to enjoy each other's voice. Talking about what they'll do in four years like maybe they're serious. Where they'll live together, how Ian really wants a dog and Mickey thinks it's dumb, how they could build a life together. Mickey likes to pretend they're not serious. Ian sounds utterly sincere.

In the spaces between conversation, between afterglow, between distractions, Mickey stares like he can burn an image of Ian onto his goddamn retinas if he tries hard enough. He catches the way Ian looks at him, too, longing and a little fear and a lot of guilt.

In the afternoon light Ian lies on top of his chest and traces his face with his fingers, over and over. At some point they both start crying, and then the crying turns to laughter at how fucked and stupid this all is.

“I'll be back, you know,” Ian whispers to him later, the bedside lamp lighting his hair into fire. “Six months, this time, I think.”

“I hate this,” Mickey whispers back. Ian decodes what the lock in Mickey's throat won't let him say, leans down and kisses him.

And it's already eleven-thirty at night and they both have to be up at seven to bring Ian to the airport in the morning but they've always been better at communicating with their bodies than with their words, so they fuck face to face like lovers, slow and sweet and Ian whispers beautiful, dirty things in Mickey's ear and Mickey's breath hitches but he's not sure if it's from the pleasure or the tears he's holding back.

This time they fall asleep holding each other and even though Ian wakes up a few times in the night, he clings even tighter, curling his limbs around Mickey's body like he could climb inside his ribs if he really tried. Mickey kind of wants him to.

It hasn't taken Mickey long to realize he fucking hates camouflage. He fucking hates watching Ian put on his uniform, slow and deliberate like a ritual for preparing to die. He fucking hates the labels and patches, like Ian's just some fucking cog in a machine, just something to label and sacrifice. He wants to rip Ian's camo to shreds and show them Ian, not Gallagher or grunt or whatever the fuck it is they call him over there.

He also hates mornings. Any and all, but especially this morning. Especially the way Ian pulls himself upright, the way he turns into Private Gallagher instead of just Ian. The way he looks at Mickey with guilt in his eyes, with almost the same faraway look, like he's looking at something he's remembering instead of Mickey's face right fucking there in front of him.

And in the back of Fiona's car, seven-thirty a.m., Ian's got his elbows on his knees, his hands wrapped around Mickey's fingers, unmoving lips pressed against the knuckles of Mickey's left hand.

“Gross,” Carl comments once, glancing at them. Debbie smacks him, hard, and he shuts up after that. Mickey slowly tilts until his head is on Ian's shoulder. The hour and a half drive feels like a million years and not enough time at all.

The airport is already crowded, but they all walk Ian to the security gate, until they can't go any further, and then they're piling Ian's bags by a pillar and gearing up to cry.

Ian hugs each of his siblings, going up the line starting with Liam, who giggles and tugs at Ian's collar, not fully understanding what's going on. Ian jangles his dog tags at the little boy, who laughs even more, and kisses him on one chubby baby cheek.

Carl's still trying to be a tough guy, but the facade breaks as soon as Ian gets to his level, and they throw their arms around each other. Ian's mumbling something in Carl's ear, glancing back at Mickey, and Mickey isn't sure he wants to know. He's not equipped to mentor some little kid, if that's what's going on. Then Carl looks at Debbie behind him and Liam at his side and nods solemnly at Ian before hugging him again. He lets Ian kiss his cheek, too, but wipes at his face with the back of his fist as Ian moves on to Debbie.

He sits back down against Ian's luggage with Liam in his lap, stretching his feet out until they nearly reach Debbie's heels in front of him.

Debbie doesn't even try to hold back her tears, but she hugs more gently than Carl, and watches Ian's face intently while Ian talks. She nods, but doesn't manage to hold it together, and her face crumples into child-sobs as she throws her arms around Ian's neck and wails a tear-stricken chant of, “I love you Ian, don't go” into his ear.

Mickey can agree with the sentiment.

He turns away from Lip and Ian's goodbye. Sure, he thinks Lip's an asshole, and sure he wants to fight the guy half the time he opens his smartass mouth, but seeing him all emotional like this feels weird. The airport has lots of signs and things to stare at and remind him that they're going to be back on the road in less than twenty minutes and Ian will be waiting to fly thousands of miles away. Fuck. Shouldn't have looked around, then.

Ian and Fiona are whispering conspiratorially, and her eyes are huge and shining, tears ready to fall. She shakes her head at a whispered question and they do, sliding down her face as she pulls Ian to her, cupping his head with one palm like he's a little kid again. He says something in her ear and she laughs a little, shakily, and squeezes him again.

Then Ian looks at him, and it's Mickey's turn. Someone drops a dumbbell into his stomach. Ian looks at him and he's already half-crying but he has to knuckle the tears away when he gets to Mickey.

Mickey smiles, big and fake. “Don't come back with more stories, okay, Red?”

“Sorry, Mick. Can't help it,” Ian shrugs. Mickey drops the grin.

“Shit, you know I had to try.” It feels like someone is squeezing his insides to a pulp. He swallows. “You gotta come back at least, okay?”

Ian's arms engulf him, and Mickey pushes his face against Ian's neck. The dog tag chain presses against his cheek. He inhales Ian's smell, tries to memorize the heat of his skin. Finds himself pressing a small, secretive kiss to his neck.

They hold on too long, longer than Ian held on to any of his siblings, longer than men are supposed to hold on to each other, but Mickey doesn't give a fuck. They're in public, in the middle of the airport, but he's not going to see Ian for six months. So who fucking cares if he hugs Ian for longer than thirty seconds. Who gives a shit. If he could, he'd never let go.

“I'm gonna fucking miss you so much,” he hears himself whisper, pressing his forehead against Ian's shoulder. Ian's hand is in his hair and he's squeezing Mickey so hard he kind of wishes they'd just fuse together.

“Jesus, Mick, I'm gonna miss you.” Ian sounds breathless. “I love you.”

His fingers tighten on Mickey's hair, like maybe he didn't mean to say it, like he hadn't meant for it to slip out. Mickey's stomach swoops. Not with panic. With the seizing movement of desperate realization. That fear locked around his throat can go fuck itself. He tightens his grip on the back of Ian's jacket. Ian's fingers loosen just a little.

“Yeah,” Mickey mumbles, bringing his head up to look into Ian's tear-streaked face. “Me too.”

Just saying that is a big thing for Mickey. He knows Ian knows this. They don't kiss, it's too public, and it was hard enough for him to get those words out, but Ian nods and pulls him close one more time, lips brushing the top of Mickey's head. Mickey catches the time on Ian's watch out of the corner of his eye.

“You gotta go, Ian,” he says. “Don't wanna be late.”

“Group hug!” Debbie yells as Ian pulls away from him, nodding. Everyone else crowds them, pulling at Ian's body, pulling at each other, and Mickey starts to back away from the family crush until Fiona grabs his sleeve, jerking her head back towards the pile.

“Get the fuck in here, Mickey. You're family, too.”

So he's added to the group hug despite his instincts, all of them squeezing closer to Ian's body in the center like he's got some weird gravitational pull. Then they're breaking away, and Ian is shouldering his backpack and picking up his bags and walking away, determined, disciplined, straight-backed. And Mickey is standing there, deserted, staring at the glowing torch of Ian's hair drifting away into the sea of passengers gathering near the security check.

He shoves his palms into his eyes, grinding the sockets with the meat of his hands, watching sparks fly up behind his lids instead of tears.

“Okay, guys,” Fiona sniffles, looking exhausted and not a little devastated. “I told the school I'd get you back by eleven. Let's head out to the car, okay?”

“But—”

“No 'buts' today, Carl, okay? Please? Alright, let's go.” The rest of the Gallaghers trail after their big sister like a parade of ducklings. Mickey's legs feel like stone. It's only when Debbie gives his jacket another yank that he starts to follow.

Lip drives instead of Fiona. She keeps glancing back at her siblings, a sort of desperate longing on her face. When she catches Mickey's eye she looks away, like there's something in his expression she doesn't want to see.

The kids get McDonald's before they go back to school. Mickey and Fiona and Lip don't get anything. Mickey feels like he's going to throw up. He doesn't think he imagines Fiona's little heave in the front seat, either. She rolls down all the windows so the air pounds their ears until they reach the school.

When they drop Mickey off at home, no one has anything to say. He can't even say “thanks.” Thanks for driving to the end of the world. Thanks for taking me to say goodbye to the love of my life again. Thanks for not saying anything about the way we touched each other in the airport. Thanks for not trying to talk him out of this death trap either. Thanks for helping the government take him away so I can be alone. Thanks for standing there next to me and watching him walk away. Thanks for dealing with this like I'm dealing with it, only probably better and with less drinking. Thanks for being the only one who gets it. Thanks. Yeah, right.

He squeezes Fiona's shoulder when he gets out of the car. Inside, he says nothing, and doesn't even comment on the crying baby perched against Svetlana's shoulder. His ears are buzzing too loud to hear it anyway.

 


 

Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back. Because six months is easier than sixteen, but at the same time it's so much fucking harder.

Letters and emails are easier to write this time around. But it doesn't make up for not hearing Ian's voice, or seeing his smile, or touching his skin, and it's so much fucking harder now that he's had a taste, even if it was barely a week long. Or maybe because of it.

He never used to think about the future. It was always one foot in front of the other, always just trying to figure out where he's going to get money or his next meal or who needs an ass-kicking this time. Never more than a few days or maybe a week ahead if there was a run coming up or someone owed him money.

Now, though, he's worried about August. He wishes he could shut off the stupid little calendar in his brain that crosses off the day each morning—you have this long until you get to see him again. Now he feels even more listless, like there's things he wants to be doing but he keeps thinking about August instead, about when he's going to get to see Ian again.

He keeps waking up in the night, heart pounding, and he can never remember if the dreams are about Ian or the shit he's seen that Ian pointed out. The crack in the bathroom door frame gets a little longer.

Half the time Ian's letters are written on the backs of scribbled ideas or doodles, or they get home to Chicago with dirt crusted on the edges of the paper. Mickey doesn't mind. It's like an extra little glimpse into Ian's weirdo brain. He kind of fucking loves it. Sometimes Ian's little scribbles are about the two of them and it makes Mickey's heart thud painfully in his chest. He's kind of a huge fucking sap.

Ian calls him, sometimes, brief, short little calls that are not nearly enough and are usually just hello and how are you and a quick life summary and goodbye again. Just to hear each other's voice. Mickey clings to those seconds.

Life continues. Ian is a constant thought in the back of his mind, but life in the south side doesn't ever fucking pause. So he just keeps going. Fiona has apparently claimed him as one of “her kids” and invites herself into his life on a regular basis. It used to annoy him but now he kind of likes it. She brings him food or makes him come over and fix something and then she makes sure he's doing okay and noses her way into all aspects of his life. Maybe two years ago he would have chewed her out and stormed away, but now he doesn't mind. It's Ian's fucking sister. She's a part of him, sort of. He likes her.

“You're family now,” she tells him one afternoon when he rolls his eyes and asks her why she's always bringing food over or offering to watch his fucking kid. “Get fucking used to it.”

“You could at least use the goddamn phone first?”

She shrugs, grinning. “Nah. Gallaghers don't give notice. We just show up and bug you. Family privilege.”

Even he and Svetlana are on good terms, which kind of freaks him out. He still can't really look at the kid without feeling a vague wash of hurt, but at least he can talk to Svetlana, at least they can live in the same house without his skin crawling. Yevgeny is babbling little half-words and crawling around and somehow that makes it hurt less. They're actually kind of making this work, somehow.

In April he dreams up a moving truck scam that lasts only a little while. In April that Nika chick moves into Svetlana's bedroom. In April Mandy is single again, some nights drunk and bitching about Lip Gallagher, some nights stoned and crying a little in front of the television, some nights gone, probably partying it up who the fuck knows where.

In April, Ian calls him. Mickey answers, surprised, even though it's past two pm and he should be out bugging Kevin.

“Ian, hey.”

“Hey, Mick,” Ian breathes. He sounds exhausted, stressed, fucking beat. He sounds awful.

“You okay?”

“I just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Bad day?” Mickey asks.

“Bad day,” Ian agrees. He laughs. It sounds angry. “Bad fucking week.”

“Can you talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“You, uh, you just want me to talk to you?”

A sigh flutters past from Ian's side of the line. “That would be nice, Mick.”

“There's not a whole lot going on around here to talk about.” Mickey grabs a beer from the fridge and sits down on the couch. The crows picking over trash outside are fucking loud, he wonders if Ian can hear them. He tries to remember what's been going on that would be even remotely interesting to Ian. “Oh, Mandy kicked her dickhead to the curb. Guess I, uh, kind of did it for her. Took a leaf out of Svetlana's book and threatened him with a claw hammer. Then with a gun. I kinda had to shoot the fucker in the leg.”

“Nice.”

“Oh, and your dumbass brother got in trouble at school again.” Mickey lights a cigarette and tosses the lighter back on the table.

Which dumbass brother?”

“Carl. Stupid little fuck.” Mickey chewed his ass out about it too, once Fiona and Lip were done with him. It doesn't mean he's not proud of the little idiot. “Almost talked his way out of it, though. Not quite. Kid's getting smarter, finally.”

Ian laughs a little. “Attaboy.”

“And I stole whores from Svetlana's pimp.”

“You what?”

“Yeah, they were being paid, like, fucking nothing.” Mickey shrugs like Ian can see it. He mangles his empty cigarette pack with one hand. “So I stole 'em all. Kev has the space above the Alibi open and we struck a deal. My whores, his bar, fifty-fifty on the goods. And they'll actually get paid, like, enough money for food and shit. They're still whores at the end of the day, but that's on them.”

Ian laughs, incredulous. Mickey can imagine him shaking his head in amazement. “You're unbelievable, Mickey.”

He can't think of anything else to say. They listen to the crackle and static between them for a moment. Mickey continues to tear the Marlboro pack to shreds. In the silence, Ian's breath rasps past the receiver. It's obvious he's thinking about whatever's happened this week. Mickey clears his throat.

“Mandy says hi. She's at work right now, otherwise I'd give the phone to her.”

“Tell her I love her.”

“Sure.” A loud beeping noise interrupts what he was going to say and Ian sighs. “You gotta go?”

“Yeah. Shit.”

“Hey, it's okay. We'll see each other in a few months.” He pauses, inhales too fast like it's gonna do anything but make him fucking lightheaded. But he's gonna say it since Ian probably can't, not over there. “I love you.”

He can hear Ian shift on the other side of the phone, probably trying to act casual even though it's the first time those words have come out of Mickey's mouth. “I love you too, Mick.”

Panic seizes his heart, he knows it comes out in his voice. “Ian, what the—”

“Relax, Mickey.” Ian huffs a breath through his nose. Mickey can't tell if it's laughter or annoyance. “Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed ages ago and anyway I don't give a fuck. Anyone who has a problem can kiss my ass. If I'm going to have to deal with bullshit like this goddamn week, I should be able to say your name and tell you I love you.”

Mickey laughs weakly. “Damn, Gallagher, you all pissed off and macho's getting me hard. Too bad phone sex ain't allowed.”

Ian's laugh is a rush in his ear. “Jesus christ, Mickey. I'm glad I called you. I needed to laugh. I needed to hear your voice. I have to go now. I love you.”

“Love you, Ian. See you later.”

“Later.”

The same ringing silence follows him out the door and down to the Alibi.

It's not enough, but at least it's something. Four months left. His brain scratches off the days.

He and Mandy have never been terribly close, not really, not unless one of them was being fucked with. Then the other would stop at nothing. But they never talked to each other, they didn't hang out, and it probably never helped that Mickey knew what his father had done when they were younger, and that there was nothing he could have done about it. Still, it's weird that Mandy is drifting away while Fiona edges closer. Mandy disappearing for days with nothing but an “I'm fine” text every so often, Mandy going out with guys who treat her like shit and ignoring the way Mickey glares if they come over, Mandy shrugging like she's trying not to think about it whenever he talks about Ian.

And Fiona is the opposite. Inviting him over for dinner on the nights all the Gallagher siblings can be together. Inviting herself over to his house to chat about Ian or Carl or whatever, just to make him feel included. Encouraging him to get a real job, something that's not scams or pimping, to which he scoffs and shakes his head, because who would hire a guy who's never passed sophomore year, who's been in and out of juvie, whose family and first name are notorious, who's a pimp and a scammer and a piece of shit and not good for much but dispensing beatings when need be. Fiona smacks his arm and tells him he's better than that. He tells her he's not so sure. She plays dirty with an “Ian would disagree,” and he tells her to fuck off and then that he'll think about it.

Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back. Because Mickey's always been a mess of anxiety and hyper-alert tension, but he's never been worried. Not like this.

No one talks about the fear. Maybe Ian never really told his siblings what he did or saw overseas. Maybe they heard a story or two and deliberately put it out of their minds. Maybe they're terrified, too. Maybe they know exactly how scared Mickey is every day.

Because it doesn't end. Every fucking day he wonders if Ian is safe. Every day he wonders if he's sleeping in a cot or on the ground, if he's scared or not, if he's going to be attacked today or tomorrow or if it's already happening. Every letter or email is a rush of excitement, but also a rush of fear that this might be the last one. Every phone call could be from Ian and sometimes it is but usually it isn't and every time it's not, Mickey's stomach drops down miles.

Mickey wonders if Ian worries about those things, too.

But Ian never says anything and Mickey doesn't ask. Not because he doesn't want to know, but because he doesn't really know how. Not when he's thousands of miles away and he can't see Ian's face or the way his body shifts when he's upset or avoiding the question.

It's fucking frustrating, this waiting, this worrying, this weird life in limbo. Mickey sometimes wants to throw everything out the window. Sometimes he boils over and wants to punch something. Sometimes he drinks himself to sleep. Sometimes he goes out just to find someone to fight.

Six months isn't sixteen. But it's still a long time to wait.

Fiona and Debbie corner him, ganging up on him until he promises he'll at least try to get his GED once summer ends and he can take night classes at Malcolm X or something. Debbie keeps telling him he can do anything once he's got a high school diploma. Fiona gives him that look of sad familiarity and tells him it's a way to pass the fucking time.

First they have to get to—and then past—August.

 


 

Mickey's filing serial numbers off a pile of guns, cigarette practically paying rent in the side of his mouth, and it's fucking hot as balls, and his phone is ringing. He wipes his oil-sticky hands on his jeans and glances at the number, then fumbles to answer.

“Ian?”

“Hey, come pick me up.”

Mickey grinds his cigarette out on the table. Feels blindsided. “You're home? Why didn't Fiona tell me? Where is she?”

“She's short-staffed, couldn't get the time off work. And Lip has college.” Ian's voice has a smile in it. “And I wanted to surprise you.”

“Well, fuck, you fucking got me.” He looks around for his keys, wallet. Thinks about maybe changing out of his dirty clothes and then thinks fuck it, Ian's not going to give a shit what he looks like. “I'll, uh—I'll be there in like an hour I guess.”

“I still gotta go through customs and all that shit, so that should work. Love you.”

“Yeah, I love you. See you soon.”

He gets there in an hour twenty and Ian's still not out so he parks and waits at the baggage claim, shoulders twitching. He leans against a pillar but it doesn't stop his fingers from tapping. He fucking wishes smoking was allowed inside airports. This shit's fucking stressful, they should be considerate to all the poor fuckers who just want a cigarette to get them through.

He's half-considering texting Ian and stepping outside for a smoke when he catches a flash of red on the other side of the baggage claim area. Ian, carry-on bag across his shoulder and grin on his face, is striding toward him with a speed of almost terrifying determination, but Mickey's grinning so wide he thinks he probably looks maniacal, so it probably doesn't fucking matter, two excited crazies going straight for each other.

Ian drops his bag to throw his arms around him in a bear hug that's so tight it hurts. Mickey wants it to hurt. That means it's real. Ian's wearing a uniform with short, rolled-up sleeves and his skin brushes the back of Mickey's neck and it's real. His cheek brushes Mickey's and it's real. Mickey pulls back just to look at Ian's face, tanned and smiling. It makes him fucking impulsive. He grabs hold of the dog tags that have come loose from under Ian's shirt and doesn't even look anxiously around before he pulls him in for a kiss.

Ian's hands on the back of his head are fluttering and nervous, like he's forgotten how to be gentle. Mickey cups the back of Ian's neck and presses one hand to the center of his chest like he can remind him. Ian kisses him hard and he hasn't forgotten that part.

And Ian is all muscle and tension and a hardness to his smile like he's still somewhere else but the kiss is so familiar it's like Mickey didn't ever really know how much Ian was his home.

“You're not supposed to do that,” Ian scolds when they break away. “With the dog tags. Fuck. Shit. Kiss me again.”

Mickey does.

He offers to let Ian drive, when they've found all the luggage and made it to the car, but Ian shakes his head and drops into the passenger seat with something like relief. An hour and forty-five later and they're in Mickey's bed and Ian is freshly showered and on his way to passing out.

“C'mere,” Ian tugs at Mickey's shirt, pulling him closer.

“You sure?”

“Uh huh. If I wake up and hit you I give you permission to hit me back.” He curls a hand against Mickey's shoulders and nuzzles the hollow of his throat. “I haven't held anything that's not a gun or my fucking FILBE in six months.”

Mickey kisses him on the forehead. “Go to sleep. I'll be here.”

“Better be,” Ian mumbles with a drowsy smile.

Ian sleeps with a frown on his face and Mickey knows what it's like to fall asleep trying to convince yourself that you really are safe, so he settles down to watch over him, concentrating on the feeling of Ian's breath warm against his chest and counting all the freckles that have burst to life across the bridge of his nose.

Ian wakes up after half an hour, fingers clenched around Mickey's biceps, eyes wide. Mickey crushes his own fighting instinct and shushes him, peels his fingers away, kisses his temple, asks if he wants some of Mandy's old Xanax. Ian rubs his eyes and nods gratefully, takes two and curls back around Mickey's body with a frustrated sigh. Mickey watches his eyelids flutter and droop and his body slowly pulse back into relaxation. When two and a half hours have gone by uninterrupted, Mickey slides out of Ian's grip to smoke a cigarette and finish filing down numbers. He hopes Ian won't wake up from a nightmare and have no one there to help.

He doesn't need to worry. Ian sleeps for ten hours.

And when Ian wakes up, Mickey's there like he promised, sitting up in bed playing a game on his phone because he's not an asshole. He's not going to leave Ian alone, not when he's home for two fucking weeks and Mickey has him practically all to himself.

Not when Ian smells like sleep and soap and summer sweat beside him.

“Hey,” Ian mumbles, cotton-mouthed. “'Time is it?”

“'Bout one-thirty.” Mickey watches Ian yawn and rub a hand across his face. It's fucking cute as shit and Mickey's still not totally used to the way his heart squeezes so painfully when he sees Ian's face.

“Fuck. AM?”

“Yeah.”

Ian rolls onto his back and lets out a breath of air. “Fuck.”

Mickey shrugs in his direction. “Obviously you needed the fucking sleep.”

Ian yawns again, huge and jaw-cracking. “Ten hours. I'm still tired.”

“Wanna eat some dinner? You can go right back to bed after and I'll join you.”

“Sounds nice.”

Mickey swings his legs out of bed, looking back at the sleep-rumpled redhead behind him. “Grilled cheese sound good?”

Ian's stomach growls noisily as if to answer and they both laugh. “Fuck yeah.”

So Mickey makes grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for the both of them and watches unabashedly as Ian swoons at the “fucking real food” even if it is made in a pan with a cracked handle and bread that's probably a little bit stale. But when Mickey says this, Ian rolls his eyes and tells him at least it's not made in a bag, or bland crap mass-made for a couple hundred soldiers in camp. At least it was made in a real pan, with real food, just for him.

And when they go to sleep Ian curls around him even though they both know they'll end up on opposite sides of the mattress, but the fact that Ian feels comfortable enough to fall asleep close to him makes Mickey's heart pound like he's a cheesy little bitch.

He can't even describe to himself how fucking happy he is to have Ian back in his bed, in his home, in his fucking life.

Ian spends the first five days at Mickey's, which he is not complaining about, not at all. A routine doesn't form, that would be too fucking easy, and they're both too jumpy for it. Ian twitches at everything now, sometimes seems to find the world too weird and unfamiliar to totally relax. Mickey's just never in his life had routine, not really. Things change too fucking fast around this house. They find some way to dance around each other and make it work.

Mickey fucks off for the day to run errands and let Mandy have some time with Ian, and when he gets back they're half-stoned on the sofa with Ian sprawled across Mandy's legs and Ian is making grabby hands in his direction and they're both begging him to join and it's free fucking weed so he does. Ian shotguns a hit between his lips and Mickey doesn't forget to shoot his giggling sister a glare across the cushions. He cuts Ian off pretty early despite the puppy-dog eyes, because he's pretty fucking certain more weed will make him paranoid and not fun.

But the rest of the night is nice and when Ian comes down from his high and then comes down from his orgasm and they're both crawling into bed, Ian grins and tells him this definitely better than staying at the Gallagher house for two weeks.

“Why don't you go home?” Mickey asks, realizing suddenly that Ian's only gone back to his childhood house for an afternoon or for dinner, and never stayed overnight.

Ian shrugs. “I like it better here. You don't expect as much.”

He doesn't know whether to feel insulted or sad. The fuck? No expectations? Does Ian think he doesn't care? “I don—”

Ian sits up quickly, hands outstretched between them. “No, Mick, it's a good thing.” He sighs low and slow and drops his hands, fingers clenching and unclenching the blankets at his knees.“When I go back home, y'know, it's like I'm expected to entertain or interact or whatever. I used to love how crazy and messy it was at home but now, uh, now it just freaks me out. It's fucking loud over there and everyone wants to talk or, I dunno, ask for advice and shit. They want me to help out with chores and all that and it's not that I'm lazy and don't want to do it, it's just that I feel like I forget how, I guess.” He gestures helplessly into the air, pinches his eyes closed and grimaces like it'll help him find the words. “They have this routine and these habits that I used to be a part of and now I don't really remember what I'm supposed to do. I get fucking frustrated and then I want to scream or something, I dunno.”

“Shit, Gallagher.” Mickey sits up, too. “That's fucking—That fucking sucks.”

“It's easier over here. You just let me do whatever, and we come and go without really anything else in the way of expectations. You, uh, you just let me figure shit out.” Ian looks at him again, sliding across the bed to settle his head on Mickey's shoulder, tangling his fingers with Mickey's. “It's nice. I love Fiona, I love everyone, but it's hard having them breathing down my fucking neck and watching me and asking me to do stuff when I'm not really used to shit like that anymore.”

“Well, I'm not asking you to do shit.”

Ian presses a kiss to Mickey's bare shoulder. “I know. Thanks, man.”

It's not fair that there's only a little more than a week left, that Ian has divided his time between Mickey's and home, going back to the Gallagher house whenever Mickey has to leave to move guns or drugs or to bug Kevin about the rub 'n tug money or what the fuck ever, and a week doesn't feel like enough. It doesn't feel like anything.

And Ian sometimes comes home from the Gallaghers' and stares at Mickey dumbly, a sort of confused disbelief crawling across his face, before he shakes it off and smiles and moves in for a kiss.

And sometimes Mickey watches him walk into a room and scan it for danger. Sometimes he watches Ian struggle to do something and hold back muscles with an instinct to destroy. Sometimes he watches him step outside into the hot air and the smell of pollution and stop dead for a moment, flashing back to something Mickey knows he might never hear about or understand. But he does know this. He knows smelling metal and seeing blood that isn't there, he knows hearing a sound or a song and gasping for breath, he knows constant unfocused anxiety, he knows someone touching him at the wrong time on the wrong day and seeing red, he knows overwhelming rage and wanting to pummel everyone and everything to the ground to just to get it all out of the itching veins. He just doesn't know how to help, not really. He's always just shoved it away and ignored it all. He's not sure what to do except sit there and listen, sit there and kiss Ian when he shakes awake at night, sit there and watch him and love him.

Maybe that's all he can do. Who fucking knows.

It's the end of August and still fucking hot out and Ian always looks amazing in his muscle shirts, even if Mickey can sometimes see the outline of dog tags against Ian's skin. A reminder of what's coming too fucking fast. A reminder that Mickey only gets him for two weeks at a time, while the government gets him for four fucking years. Four years is too long. Hell, one year was too fucking long.

Random Gallagher siblings have been showing up at his door since Ian was shipped out the first time, but it's like they all go into hiding when he's home. Maybe they assume all he and Ian do is fuck. Maybe they just want to give them alone time. Maybe they figure Mickey's only a miserable grumpy bastard when Ian's not around. He's not sure. But even Svetlana asks why Debbie hasn't been around lately, or where Fiona's been, and Ian gives him an odd, lingering look at her questions.

And at this point it's hilarious, that he never thought he'd ever be like this. When it all started, Ian had just been a way to get his rocks off that wasn't sticking his dick in some girl he couldn't even stand to talk to much less actually want to fuck. At least at the beginning. And then there was juvie, and weirdly a new friend in this redhead he'd been fucking, and juvie again, and every time he got out it was like he was falling for Gallagher a little bit more and then suddenly it was like Ian filled the entire frame of his life from top to bottom and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He never predicted this. The falling. This angry waiting for four years to be over, this alliance with Ian's brothers and sisters, the way his breath catches in his throat when Ian is home, the way his skin is on fire when they touch, the way his brain chants Ian's name and makes his stomach flood with a warm feeling like he wants to laugh or scream or something.

Only now he looks back at it all and the fucking sunshine that apparently comes out whenever he thinks of Ian is tempered by the knowledge that it all has to go away again so fucking soon. So it comes out watery sunshine, a little grayed out, a little weak, but shit, it's more than he's ever had in his entire life so he'll take it. He'll take whatever.

Except now. Now, it doesn't feel fair that it's the happiest he's ever been when he and Ian eat dinner on the sofa and play Mario Kart and laugh and throw half-melted M&Ms at each other despite the inevitable ants because it's just for tonight. Because in a few days Ian's going away again for who the hell knows how long and then Mickey has to wait some more. Again.

He hates this. The waiting and worry. But it doesn't ever even cross his mind to get out.

They're still catching their breath and basking in the afterglow, and maybe it's that feeling, maybe it's the weird emotional vulnerability that comes with sex, or maybe Mickey's just tired, or maybe his brain has decided fuck it, no filters, no nothing anymore, because he curls around Ian with his head tucked under his chin and kisses the warm skin of Ian's chest. There's a week left and it's so much time but it's also only a week and Mickey's brain is having a hard fucking time grasping whether he should feel happy or fucking devastated.

Ian's fingers land in his hair and Mickey's mouth makes the decision for him. “I fucking hate the army.”

“It's the marines, Mick,” Ian reminds him gently.

“I don't care what it is. I fucking hate them all.”

Ian's silent, but he wraps his arms around Mickey's shoulders and kisses his forehead and clears his throat and Mickey can tell he kind of agrees. Mickey can tell that right now, they both fucking hate the marines.

And then it's two days later and it's gone by too fast and they're sitting at the kitchen table watching Svetlana gather her things to go to the rub 'n tug and Ian has volunteered himself and Mickey to watch the baby meat for the day, much to Mickey's chagrin. So Svetlana is showing him where they keep the baby's things and Ian's nodding he knows, he knows, he's helped raise three other kids before this in his own house and Svetlana gives him a look and tells him she knows he knows but he's also been away for almost two years and two years is a long fucking time so he better be careful.

Then she's out the door and Ian is looking at the floor with Yevgeny wiggling and babbling in his arms like maybe she's right.

So Mickey spends the morning and most of the afternoon watching Ian watch Yevgeny and thinking about the future, watching Ian play with him and decode the sort-of sentences constructed from babble and confusing child half-words and watching Ian look like the old Ian and watching Yevgeny giggle and squirm and waddle around the house. He screeches Ian's name as “Een” which makes them both laugh.

The toddler stumble-runs through the living room, Ian's name on his giggling lips. He grabs Mickey's knee and holds himself steady, pointing into Mickey's face. “Papa!”

“Yeah, little man, papa,” Mickey replies, watching Ian watch Yevgeny.

“No, Papa!” He points to Ian and then back to Mickey. “Een! Papa!”

“Sure, kid.” He shrugs, giving Ian 'help me what the fuck is he talking about' eyes but Ian is just fucking laughing at him and his shitty attempts at parenting. “Yeah. Ian and papa.”

They entertain the toddler, letting him run and play and screech until his eyelids start to droop and they put him in his crib for a nap.

“He's getting so big,” Ian comments as he shuts the door to Svetlana's room and sets the baby monitor on the kitchen table. “It's fucking crazy.”

The microwave beeps and Mickey pours the tupperware of leftover beef and vegetable soup into two bowls and hands one over. He thinks about how small Yevgeny was at the beginning, before he started actually paying attention to the little guy, about how he really has grown.

Mickey follows Ian and perches on the arm of the couch while the redhead settles into the cushions. He shrugs one shoulder. “Yeah, I guess he is pretty big.”

Ian looks pensive, stirring his soup in slow, random whorls. Mickey is about to ask what's up, but Ian exhales slowly and looks up at him. “It's weird coming home and everyone's changed so much.”

Mickey frowns. “Hey, I haven't changed.”

“You have.” Ian shakes his head and pokes Mickey's knee with two knuckles. “Not in a bad way. I like it. It's just weird. Like I'm getting snapshots instead of seeing the whole thing happen.”

“I mean, you haven't missed much.” He shrugs, leans over Ian's lap to put his bowl down on the table. “Just me, living with my sister and a whore.”

“Mickey, come on.” Ian pokes him in the ribs.

“What?” He grins, sitting back up. “No whores in the army?”

“They're not allowed. And you know what I mean.”

Mickey sobers. “Yeah, yeah. I know. Your kid sister comes over to bug me all the time. Fiona, too. Always talking about how they hate that you're missing out on shit. Fucking worrying about you. They think for some reason you're gonna come back and want to fuck off after four years of not being at home. I told them they're both full of shit. You're a Gallagher. It's impossible for any of you to go any-fucking-where without the rest.”

“That's what I mean,” Ian mumbles, putting his soup down on the coffee table and tilting slowly until his forehead rests against Mickey's knee. “It's like I'm not there so they've picked you as the new brother.”

He tugs Ian's hair gently until the man looks up at him, all sad eyes and shit. “That's fucking bullshit, man. They're over here all the time because I miss you as much as they do. Probably fucking more.”

Ian shrugs playfully and looks up at him. Grinning, this time. “Probably not.”

“If that's a challenge, I plan on fucking winning.”

Ian's kiss takes Mickey by surprise, and he only stays upright by clinging to Ian's shoulders as he overbalances and nearly falls backward off the couch. Ian wraps an arm around his back and tugs, once, and suddenly they've fallen backward onto the couch and Ian is kissing his face in a genuine, childlike way and Mickey kind of wants to laugh and kind of wants to cry.

Then Yevgeny wakes up and starts whining for attention. Ian takes Mickey's face in his hands and kisses him, long and sweet, presses his nose against his cheek and whispers, “Hold that thought.”

Mickey's holding on. He's holding on with everything that he has.

Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back, because then Mickey wouldn't have to watch him leave. There are two days left. He doesn't want to think about it. No one does. They pretend it's not in the front of their minds, that it's not every other thought, that it's not there. But it is. Two days.

They have dinner at the Gallagher house and Mickey watches all the siblings give each other little looks, like they all know they're staring at Ian, trying to memorize his face and his voice and his smile. And like a good brother, Ian pretends not to notice. Mickey pretends he hasn't been doing the same thing for days.

It's loud, and messy, and crazy, and Mickey can see Ian fighting not to flinch or glance around the room for danger and exits in the house he grew up in, the house he should know like the back of his hand. He knows now that everything feels strange and overwhelming and almost foreign to Ian despite the childhood familiarity of every room and corner and decoration on the walls. But Ian lets his brothers and sisters stare at him and holds the tension at bay through his vice grip on Mickey's hand under the table.

Fiona's a good cook, and the dinner is good, even if it is flavored with their looks of grief and waiting.

When the kids are in bed, they stay up with Lip and Fiona and drink beer and stare in different directions into middle distance and try to find a conversation that doesn't start or end with “I'm going to miss you.” Mickey and Lip both chain-smoke without looking at each other. Ian ends up leading the conversation, asking questions about the kids, about how Lip is doing at college, and Fiona looks at him gratefully. It doesn't get any easier. Nobody really knows how to keep living through this.

When they get back to Mickey's, Ian takes a Xanax to help him sleep past the jitters being home has brought on, and Mickey stays up watching him breathe, slow and steady. It's barely eleven at night and they're already in bed, already trying to pretend they can hold on to this softness if they just make the night a little longer.

There's two days left, and Mickey hates that it already feels like the beginning of the end.

“I don't want you to leave,” he whispers in the middle of the night, even though he knows it might wake Ian up, and it does. He blinks instantly awake but focuses almost immediately on Mickey beside him and reaches out, beckoning him into his arms. Mickey curls against him, stroking his chest, focusing on Ian's lips in his hair. “I don't fucking want you to leave. Stay. Stay here with me.”

Ian pushes the bridge of his nose against the top of Mickey's head with a soft sigh. “I gotta, Mick.”

Mickey's thumb sweeps back and forth across the smooth skin of his shoulder. His lips press against Ian's collarbone. “This is bullshit. I hate this.”

“I know.”

“Stay. We could get the fuck out of here.” He feels like he's holding onto Ian for dear life. “We could find some other shitty apartment to live in instead of this hellhole. And Yevgeny could come over on the weekends. You could get some other job for your 'gotta-save-the-world' complex. Firefighter or some shit. Just stay here.”

“Mickey. You know I can't.”

“I fucking hate this.”

“I know.”

He knows Ian has to go. Of course he knows. He keeps being reminded every time he wakes up in the morning with no one beside him, when he startles awake in the middle of the night terrified of something he can barely remember, when Debbie or Fiona or even Lip wander over to sit on his couch and monologue at him even though he can't possibly be a good listener. He fucking knows Ian has to go and he fucking hates it and it makes him want to scream.

It's not the idea of Ian leaving that scares Mickey, although it fucking sucks. It's the idea that one day Ian is going to wake up somewhere out there in the desert, and he's going to go out with his gun and his orders, and for some reason or another, he's not going to come back. The leaving is horrible because it means waiting. The waiting is horrible because it means worrying, and thinking of every single worst case scenario, and flashing back to every murder, maiming, beating he's ever seen and putting Ian's face over the face of the person in his memory.

And even without the fear of death the waiting still fucking sucks. Because Mickey's always been shit at waiting.

When Mickey wakes up, Ian's already awake, and Debbie is over, and the two of them have pushed the coffee table out of the way and are splayed out on the living room floor, entertaining Yevgeny and giggling to themselves.

Mickey grabs himself a breakfast beer and a pop tart and stations himself on the couch with his knees pressed against Ian's shoulder. Debbie gives him a wave and goes back to making faces at Yevgeny. Ian grins and leans up for a morning kiss and Mickey obliges even though the kid sister is here. Debbie's not going to call them gross or swoon over them. By now she's walked in on most of her siblings in compromising positions. By now maybe she's even been in a few herself. The girl barely reacts with shock towards anything these days.

Debbie stays most of the day, and Mandy appears halfway through to join them, and that's when it hits Mickey that there's barely a day and a half left. Barely anything. They're all just clinging to the little pieces, clutching at the dregs and trying to make sure to see Ian smiling and laughing before they have to sob their goodbyes into his shoulder.

One more day.

Shit.

They spend that last day together, just the two of them, pretending the world doesn't exist. Playing video games and curling around each other on the couch, trying not to think about the fact that in less than twenty-four hours they will be hundreds if not thousands of miles apart, watching another year fly past. Ian's skin is warm and calloused and Mickey wishes there was some way to save his touch. Some way to keep his laugh and his eyes and the taste of his smile and the way his fingers cup the back of Mickey's head with a gentle steadiness.

If he could, he'd lock Ian in his room and never let him go. If he could, he'd stand in front of his own goddamn father and scream his love for Ian right in his face, if it only kept Ian from going. He'd do anything.

He knows he won't. He knows it won't. He knows Ian is still going to go, no matter what he hopes or wishes he could do.

Svetlana comes home and takes the kid from them and Mandy gets dressed up all slutty to go out and suddenly they're basically alone and Ian is leading him into the bedroom with an expression that can't seem to decide between horny and grieving.

And Ian still somehow has the energy to fuck Mickey so hard he'll feel it for days, sucking bruises into the join of his shoulder until he has Mickey bucking and swearing beneath him. In the afterglow, they lie in the dark and try to talk about stupid shit but just end up talking about what they're going to miss. Mickey's legs are tangled with Ian's and Ian shoves his face against Mickey's armpit, inhaling slow and deep and grinning almost sadly when Mickey shoves him away, pretending he's annoyed and not ticklish. Then Mickey's climbing on top and riding him, their foreheads pressed together, kissing like they can breathe each other's breath, Ian's fingers on his hips, on his back, in his hair. Ian makes the stupidest, most beautiful face when he comes. Mickey fucking loves it. They fuck instead of sleeping, lying on their sides, Ian's chest flush with Mickey's back, Ian's nose pressed into the nape of Mickey's neck, whispering things into his skin that Mickey can barely understand even when he tugs Ian forward by his hair to kiss him. In the back of his mind, he wishes they could just crawl inside each other and never be apart.

They fall asleep clinging to each other. Mickey buries his face in the crook of Ian's shoulder, feeling his eyelashes brush closed against a warm pulse point. "Just come back safe," he mumbles into Ian's skin, even though Ian probably can't understand the muffled words, "Just come back to me, man."

In the morning, Mickey wakes up with the sunrise to watch Ian sleep. Rays turn from blue to white and light the freckles on his cheeks and the purpling bruises on his chest and the callouses that accent the bottoms of his feet. Ian shifts, stirs, blinks half-awake at Mickey's stare and smiles a little, softly. In the warm light of too-early and not fucking early enough, Mickey presses his face into Ian's armpit and inhales, slow and deep, the warm, musky scent of sex and morning sweat and Ian-pheromones and sleep.

He dozes with his head on Ian's chest and Ian's fingers in his hair until the alarm on his phone goes off and it's time to face the inevitable.

Ian has been slowly packing for a day or two now, random items into suitcases as he sees them, so now it's only a matter of packing away a few little things and pulling out his uniform. Fuck the uniform. Mickey fucking hates camouflage. He sits on the bed and watches Ian slide the uniform on like a second skin, like he's been doing it all his life.

Ian buttons his last button and joins Mickey on the bed, sprawling them both out, covering Mickey's body with his own body, his fingers carding through Mickey's hair and he leans down and kisses him slow and deep. Mickey's hand finds the warmth at the back of Ian's neck and clings there.

This time it's just the two of them and Fiona and the kids. Lip's an RA and it's the first week of college and there was no way he could get out of it. So Debbie sits in the front seat with Liam in her lap and Mickey and Ian are in the back with Carl and Mickey's glad he's stuck in the middle because he can't stop staring at the side of Ian's face, trying to memorize his profile. Pictures will never be enough.

It feels like his heart is in his fucking toes. This part will never, ever get easier.

Ian's flight is soon so their goodbyes are quicker this time. He hugs the kids and kisses their cheeks, even Carl's, and tells them he loves them; Debbie doesn't wail this time. Mickey almost wishes she would, because he fucking feels like he wants to. Ian's goodbye to Fiona is a long, long hug, and he's rubbing her shaking shoulders, and she takes his face in her hands and gives him a watery smile and Mickey knows she's seeing her boy all grown up and leaving again and it hurts, he knows it does.

Ian hugs him, rocking, his breath shaking under the uniform. Mickey shoves his face into Ian's neck, inhaling, fists a hand in Ian's collar for just a moment. The dog tag chain digs into the back of his hand hard enough to leave a little line of red circles. Then he's pulling back enough to look at Ian, whose eyes are shining with tears. He runs a hand across Mickey's cheek, his eyes everywhere, probably trying to memorize him, too. Probably wishing they could just crawl inside each other, too. He kisses Mickey, slow and sweet, his fingers cupping the back of Mickey's head with gentle strength.

“I'll be back,” he whispers against Mickey's cheek. “I will.”

Mickey kisses him again, wishes he could hide him away and never let him go. Already feels bereft. “I love you.”

Ian grins at him, bright and sad. “I love you, too. I'm gonna miss you.”

“Yeah.” Mickey knuckles his nose awkwardly. Then he's pulling Ian in for one more kiss and shoving him away with a little smile. “You gotta go. I'll see you later.”

“Later, Mick.”

And he's ruffling all the kids' hair and kissing Fiona on the cheek and shouldering his bag and rolling his suitcase away towards the security gate and the world is sad and small and Fiona is tugging on Mickey's arm as he stares out into the crowd of people even though he can't really see Ian anymore, and then the world turns on again and Mickey follows the little gaggle of Gallaghers out to the car and spends the ride back from O'Hare staring out the window but seeing nothing and pretending his eyes aren't stinging and his chest doesn't feel cracked open because it never gets any fucking easier.

Fiona drops the kids off at school and invites Mickey over and they both sit on the sofa in front of the TV and watch some shitty reality show and get a little drunk. What the fuck else is there to do?

But they're both sober by the time Debbie and Carl and Liam get home and Mickey helps her make dinner through tears and sits and eats with them and he's not sure why he doesn't feel awkward or strange but he doesn't at all.

He falls asleep and his bed feels too big and he wakes up gasping over and over and every time his arms feel empty and he wishes he could bury himself in Ian's skin but all he's got is the pillow from Ian's side of the bed but two weeks isn't enough to really hold onto to Ian's scent and anyway he has no idea how long the wait will be this time and he kind of wants to hold onto it. He wakes up gasping and he folds his arms around himself and he's never felt more pathetic.

“Just keep going, I guess,” Fiona had slurred to him that afternoon. “Get your GED, do whatever illegal shit I don't want to hear about that you do to get money, take care of your kid, help me with my kids, what the fuck ever.”

So he gets up in the morning and every morning his first thought is Ian and every other thought is Ian—is he safe, is he sleeping, is he in one place or being moved, is he scared, is he okay, is he okay, is he okay.

He gets up in the morning and he worries about Ian and he feels like he's just fucking waiting. He's doing what Fiona said, he's going forward, but every morning he wakes up expecting Ian there and he's not. Every day he glances over his shoulder, Ian's name on the tip of his tongue, wanting to make a comment or ask a question, and the room is empty. Every day he checks his email but it's not the same. It's weird to keep going with an absence so loud beside him.

The world has shrunk down to the day by day. It felt small before but now it's even smaller. He should have never gotten himself this kind of mess with a fucking Gallagher.

He clings to emails like lifelines.

Debbie has become an unofficial babysitter for Yevgeny, inviting herself over whenever she feels like it just to play with the toddler, or rescuing him from Mickey's awkward and only semi-capable grip to the relief of all involved.

Life goes on, and it's small and sad and violent and he goes back to living his life letter by letter, rereading emails and caressing papers, scratching off days in his head with no end in sight.

“You know, when we fucking started this, I didn't think it would end up this way,” he'd told Fiona that afternoon after Ian left. “Now I can't get the fuck out of it, even if I wanted to. He fucking got me. Shit.”

He borrows Fiona's GED textbook, reading it on the sofa with a beer and a bag of chips tucked into one side and his sleeping kid tucked up against his other side. He reads it waiting for his pop tarts to toast in the morning. He doesn't think he's going to get very far with this. Hell, he doesn't even think he's going to pass the fucking test, not on the first try, probably not on the fifth try either. But he promised, sort of, and he doesn't back out of promises, even if they're peer-pressured, half-assed ones. Fiona's right. It's a way to pass the fucking time.

 


 

Mickey is drunk. Mickey is absolutely and completely black-out wasted. He thought maybe it would be easier this time, third time's the charm or something, but two months have gone by and everything still fucking sucks and when he realized it he just collected all the bottles his house and laid them out in rows on the coffee table and commenced drinking them all one by one. So he's fucking drunk as shit and it's not helping him feel any less miserable and he's gotten to the point of lying on the couch with one hand in reach of the bottles and his pack of cigarettes crumpled on the arm of the couch and his phone shoved somewhere under his body. He's thinking maybe he'll stay here like this for the next week. He's thinking about how his eyes feel so tired and his arms don't want to work and if he gets sick at some point, someone else is going to have to deal with it, because he's not planning on moving any time soon.

Someone's fumbling with his front door. If he's being robbed right now, he's not sure he actually cares. The guns are all illegal anyway, and the only other expensive things in this house are the television and the broken down refrigerator.

“Jesus, Mickey,” Fiona's voice filters into his brain. “You look like shit. You can't do this.”

Mickey looks up at her through the watery beer goggles fixed firmly on his vision. His head feels wobbly and sore. “You know you're not my sister. It's not your job to worry about me,” he sneers, but it comes out pathetic instead of mean.

Fiona sits down next to him, physically shoving him over so there's space on the couch. “It should be somebody's job.”

“Ian.”

“Ian's in the desert somewhere. I'm here.”

Mickey flings an arm over his face. “You Gallaghers suck.”

“So I've heard,” She leans over like she's about to tell him a secret. “But you're basically a Gallagher at this point so you suck too, asshole.”

His head is spinning. He misses Ian. The Gallagher siblings are all too much alike. “Thanks for kicking a drunk guy when he's down, Fiona.”

“No problem. It's time for the drunk guy to get off his miserable ass and take a shower. You smell.” She pats his leg and he flinches involuntarily, but it's delayed as his reflexes wade through the alcohol swimming in his veins. “Come on. Do you really think Ian would want to see you like this?”

“You fight dirty.”

“Yeah, it's the Gallagher way. Come on, Mickey. I know it sucks, but you have to keep going. You know, keep going like before.” She points a finger at his face before he can even open his mouth. “That doesn't include getting shitfaced on your couch.”

“You fucking suck.”

“And you're repeating yourself.” She shoves at his shoulder until he's sitting up. “Go take a shower. You're gonna have one hell of a hangover tomorrow.”

He flips her off and shuffles to the bathroom and manages to land on his knees in front of the toilet before he throws up what his body hasn't already absorbed. Fiona knocks on the door, calling out and asking if he's all right but he just tells her he's fine and starts the water. He showers very, very slowly, so slow a year or two have probably passed before he's done, but when he steps out Fiona has filled a glass of water and found him some painkillers, real ones and not weird knock-offs that fuck you up more than they help with your headache.

“Thanks, Fi,” he mumbles, crawling into bed. She pets his head and he doesn't even flinch.

“Sure thing, Mickey.”

When he wakes up, she's gone, but his kitchen and living room have been cleaned and all the bottles on the coffee table have vanished from his house entirely.

He spends the afternoon bent over the toilet. The crack in the door frame gets a little bit longer.

He doesn't drink like that again. He studies for his GED test, whenever the fuck that's gonna happen. He works on dreaming up different scams, so if there's too much heat on one, he can start working with another. It helps that Iggy's in on it so long as he gets a cut, and Mandy and Svetlana are down to help, too, if they can.

It's weird, life going so steadily forward when Mickey still uses the thought of Ian like a crutch, when his heart still leaps into his throat at every letter, when he wears Ian's shirts and ignores the looks Fiona and Debbie give him if they see, when he's still worried every second of every day.

It's weird because Debbie comes over and helps him study with the kid running in circles around the couch. It's weird because he's over at the Gallaghers' every other day, making dinner or unloading groceries from the back of the car or fixing the fucking car or offering to give one of Fiona's guys a beat down if she wants. It's weird because he gets used to the way he aches every day and he gets used to being worried all the time and he gets used to the way Fiona looks at him sadly and he can't tell if she's feeling sorry for him or feeling sorry for them both or what, and it's weird because he kind of feels sorry for her too but he doesn't say anything about it.

It's weird because he looks at his phone one day and realizes five months have passed since he watched Ian walk away in the airport, and it doesn't feel like it at all. His chest still twists and aches like it's been five days. He writes to Ian constantly and his brain scratches off the days and it still doesn't seem like it's been that long.

He hears down the strange, warped family grapevine that his dad's sentence has been extended for contraband and fighting and he and Mandy celebrate with those gross, sickeningly sweet sprinkle and icing-covered cookies stolen from the grocery store.

“Don't know why they don't just keep the asshole in there forever,” Mandy grumbles, pink icing clinging to the corners of her lips.

“Fuck knows. Would save them a lot of trouble. Us, too."

They cheers with the last bits of cookie and then Svetlana and Yevgeny get home and the rest of the sugar is sacrificed to grubby, thieving two-year-old fingers.

Mickey fucking hates the beginning of February because it's still too goddamn cold and no one wants to do anything and it's hard as hell to get money. Nobody wants to fuck when it's freezing, so the rub n' tug is crawling along on its hands and knees, and nobody wants to go outside or even fucking talk to anyone else, so scams are a fucking fight to find. He spends most of his time trying to scratch some goddamn money out of the frozen ground and any down time reading the fucking GED book to get Debbie off his back. He still hasn't worked up the nerve to take the test. He's a Milkovich. He's pretty fucking sure he's gonna fail.

But Chicago and its idiotic citizens start to thaw and it's a little easier to keep the lights on and food in the fridge and the girls above the Alibi aren't complaining about frostbite every five minutes, so at least there's that. At least there's that and at least there's letters from Ian and even a phone call while Mickey's in the middle of threatening some rub n' tug customer who didn't pay, shoving the guy up against a wall with his knee a threat away from the sleazy crotch, but when his phone rings with the ringtone he assigned to Ian's calling number, he knees the asshole anyway and walks away from the alley as fast as he can.

He shoves the phone against his ear. “Hello? Ian?”

“Hey, Mick. Are you okay? You sound out of breath.”

“You called me in the middle of dealing with a customer.” He kicks at a chunk of brick on the sidewalk in front of him and watches it skitter away into the gutter. “Fucker thinks he can take shit from me by not paying my whores. Douchebag.”

Ian laughs. It floods Mickey's chest with warmth, and he finds himself breathing easy again, slowing his walk from an angry stride to something slower and calmer. “How's it going, Firecrotch? You all right?”

“Yeah, Mick, I'm doing okay. We had some down time the past few days and I couldn't get you out of my head so I figured I'd give you a call. I didn't mean to interrupt your heroics.”

“You're more important than me kicking some asshole in the balls, Ian. They tell you yet when you're gonna come home?”

“Nah. They like to keep us on our toes.” He hears Ian shift. “Anyway, I'm thinking it's going to be a longer one this time."

“Shit. I fucking miss you, man.”

“Mickey Milkovich, saying those words in public!” Ian teases, “I feel special.”

“Shut the fuck up, Gallagher.” He feels bold, feels charged with Ian's laugh and his voice and the thought of his eyes glinting with his smile. “I'm not afraid to tell you I love you on the street either.”

The stutter of an excited inhale and he swears he can feel Ian's grin when “I love you too, Mick, so much,” gushes down the line.

“I'm, uh, thinking of taking my GED test soon,” Mickey announces, abruptly making the decision on the back of Ian's breathless adoration.

“That's great! You're gonna do amazing, Mick. You fucking got this.”

“I fucking hope so. I been reading that stupid book for months. Your kid sister's been helping me out. She's a thousand times smarter than me, the shithead.”

“You're gonna kill it dead, I know you will. I know you don't believe me, but it's true. If you actually want something, you always manage to get it, Mick. You're so fucking smart, it baffles me. It's, like, not fair at all. I bet if you took a few classes you could beat Lip in a heartbeat.”

Mickey is blushing on the sidewalk outside his house. He's so glad Ian can't see him. He shrugs one shoulder, still not great at taking compliments. “I can already beat Lip, he just needs to put his face in range of my fist.”

“Hardy-fucking-har. You know what I mean, Mick.”

“Yeah, I do, Firecrotch. Thanks.” He lights a cigarette and perches on top step of the porch. “Hey, uh, for what it's worth, you're a fucking badass.”

Ian laughs. “I know, Mick, I'm in the marines.”

“No, I mean, you're in the marines and your fucking gay and you're out about it? Badass. Shit, you were gay and out about it in the south side and that's just as fucking ballsy. Random towelheads out there don't know you're a fag, they're not trying to fuck you up for that shit. But people out here sure as fuck will and you walked around and didn't give a shit. That's fucking badass, Ian.”

“Thanks, Mick.” Ian sounds a little choked up. He clears his throat. “Fiona emailed me a photo she took of you and Debs and Yevgeny. It's really cute. He looks like a tiny version of you.”

“Yeah. Kid's a nightmare.”

“Two year olds are kind of like that. You're wearing my shirt in the picture, Mickey.” This catches him off guard, and Mickey stutters out some sort of excuse he doesn't even hear himself say because Ian is laughing in his ear all gentle and sweet and saying, “Nah, man, I like it. It's nice.”

Mickey clears his throat, tells the truth. “Smells like you.”

“I wish I had something here that smelled like you.”

Mickey grinds out his cigarette and heads inside, ducking his head from Svetlana's gaze and bee-lining it straight to his room. “I could, uh, I could send you something, if you want."

“Yeah, Mick, that would be—I'd like that.”

“Okay. Yeah. I'll do that. Oh, Mandy and Yevgeny both say hi, by the way. I—” The dreaded obnoxious beeping interrupts him and he sighs. “Never mind. You gotta go.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. Listen, Mickey, I love you. I miss you so much.”

“I'll send you something, promise. I love you too.”

“Later, Mick.”

“Later, Ian.”

Mickey still hates the silence that trails on for too fucking long after he stops hearing Ian's voice.

He tells Debbie and Fiona that he told Ian about the GED test, just so he can't fucking back out of it like he's been doing every time they ask him. He wants to punch himself in the face when they yell and hug him, but he just rolls his eyes and shoves them off, grumbling about Gallaghers and personal space.

Soon as he finds the time, he picks one of his cut-off shirts and rolls it up in a ball to shove in a ziploc bag and then in a big padded envelope and then in a fucking box and he writes the address extra big and careful and at the post office pays extra to have it shipped priority and it fucking wounds his wallet but he doesn't give a shit because it's fucking Ian.

He gets an email almost two weeks later. His heart thuds painfully as he reads it. Hey, Mick. Got your package. I think I almost cried when I opened it. Fuck I miss you. Your shirt smelled like you. It was so strong. I sat there with my face in it for a while and I think the guys thought I was losing my mind. Fuckers have no right to judge. Half of them are going on and on about their wives and girlfriends all the time. I'm allowed to miss my boyfriend. Anyway, I'm going to keep it in the plastic baggie so it stays smelling like you for as long as possible. Hopefully it won't lose its scent before I get out of here. If it does, you'll have to send me another shirt, okay? I'm real fucking happy I have this, you have no idea. I love you. See you later. Ian.

He can't help imagining Ian with his face buried in the shirt. It makes his chest twist and ache and the backs of his eyes prickle threateningly.

And two days later Debbie and Fiona team up against him, side by side with matching expressions and matching 'you don't get to say no' poses and matching lectures all loaded up and force him to sign up to take the GED test, telling him he's been studying since November and it's almost fucking March and he's got this. So he signs up to take the test in two and a half weeks and then he goes to the Alibi and gets a little drunk just to shake off the nerves.

He gets a nice chunk of change off the newly resurrected moving truck scam and pays off the overdue bills and buys Yevgeny a couple of toys and kind of wishes he knew what teenage girls liked so he could buy Debbie something for helping him study every fucking day.

He knocks an ashtray behind his dresser and shoves the entire thing away from the wall to clean up the mess. Crumpled and full of dust in between the wall and the flimsy cardboard backing of the dresser is Ian's ugly green jacket from years ago, all brownish grey from lint and now ashes, but Mickey picks it up and shakes it out and puts it through the wash without any soap because even though he's sure it smells like his room and not Ian, and even though he's got a ton of Ian's clothes already, he wants to pretend. He's always liked how innocent that jacket made Ian look, even if it was a horrible color.

It reminds him of that summer when he really, really fell in love with Ian.

Fiona has work, but Debbie—ironically—skips school and rides the L with him up to the ugly gray and black box that is Harry S Truman to take the stupid GED test. For moral support, she tells him, even though he keeps telling her he's a big boy and doesn't need a fucking chaperone to go take a test. She's not allowed in the room, and he's not even allowed to take a break to smoke away the jitters, so he smokes three cigarettes in quick succession before he has to go in, leaning uncomfortably against a weirdly-shaped cement post while Debbie yammers reassurances at him, hopping on and off the little stone wall surrounding some ugly foliage.

Stepping into the testing room is weirdly terrifying. It feels like his life is on the line. He wishes he didn't suddenly care so much about this.

The test is fucking hard, and by the end of it his fucking head hurts and he wants to go home and drink like eight beers and he thinks he's going cross-eyed and maybe he might need some fucking glasses or something but he finishes before the proctor or whatever the fuck the guy calls himself says time's up, so Mickey guesses that's probably a good thing.

He's not supposed to know his results for another twenty-four hours, so he promises and then (awkwardly) pinky-swears to Debbie that he'll come over to the Gallagher house to find out so they can all see.

“Even if you don't make it this time, you can always retake it, you know,” she reassures him yet again before they split off in opposite directions to go home. “There's no waiting period.”

He does indeed go home and drink a few beers, sharing with Mandy when she gets home from work and throws herself down on the couch next to him, her eyes already glazing towards the mindless, comfortingly boring shit on the TV. She doesn't mention the test, but he doesn't expect her to. Even though they don't talk, they still know each other. Mickey's sure she can tell he's nervous as all hell. And she knows not to mention anything. He's fucking grateful.

The Gallaghers are the exact fucking opposite. Carl and Liam are having some sort of fart-noise fight in the living room and Fiona is in the middle of deep-cleaning the fridge for the first time in months while Mickey and Debbie post up at the kitchen table with the family laptop and Debbie won't stop telling him how great he's going to have done. Mickey enters his login information slowly, as if it could delay anything.

“Come on, Mickey, it'll be fine,” Debbie prods him. He inhales, holds his breath, clicks the link.

The page loads and Mickey's not really sure what he's looking at. A list of numbers that stares at him as blankly as he's staring at it. Then Debbie screams so loud he jumps about three feet in the air and she's hugging him, oblivious to the flinching tension in his body, and then Fiona is circling the counter to look over their shoulders at the screen and then she's hugging him too and everybody's yelling and it's too loud and he still doesn't know what's going on but Debbie and Fiona are smiling at him huge and wide and bright so it must mean he passed. Mickey Milkovich. High school graduate, years late but fucking finally.

“You did it, Mickey! You passed all of them!” Fiona pats his back, congratulating him, smiling so wide her face probably hurts. Debbie finally lets go. They both look so proud of him, like he's actually, really part of their family and not just a Milkovich that's wormed its way into the Gallagher world. Mickey blinks a couple of times and stares at the screen.

“Holy shit,” he grins, a little shell-shocked. “Fuckin' A.”

“Ian's gonna be so happy,” Fiona tells him. Mickey's pretty fucking sure that's an understatement.

Something in his chest feels buoyant and excited. Like he's a little kid again wanting to run around showing people something he made. Like he's proved something to the world, even though that world doesn't give a shit and probably won't change how it sees him. Maybe it's just that he's proved something to himself.

He goes to the library and pays thirty cents to print a copy of his results. He speed-writes a letter on scrap paper sitting there at the computer station and stops at home for an envelope and stamps so he doesn't have to spend more money on shit he already has and then walks down the block to the post office and sends the whole thing to Ian as soon as he fucking can because now all he can think of is the look on Ian's face when he opens the letter and sees that Mickey's got his GED. That massive fucking grin, like the little things Mickey does are just the best in the entire world, and the big things he does are the greatest most valuable treasures. Like he's everything in the goddamn universe.

Mickey's pretty sure he looks at Ian the same fucking way. So who's he to judge.

Three days later he realizes he forgot to send it priority and kicks a kitchen chair so hard it crashes to the ground, the back rest cracking. Ian will get it eventually, he knows. But he still hates having to wait an extra week or two. And he doesn't want to email Ian about this. He wants it to be a surprise. He wants Ian to call him just to say congratulations and I love you and hear the absolute fucking pride and happiness in his voice. Mickey knows getting his GED is a big fucking deal, especially after all the bluster he put on about being fucked for life and not wanting to go back to finish school. But he also knows Ian has always, always cared more about this shit than he ever will, and he wants Ian to be happy. He wants Ian to be proud of him. He wants Ian to laugh in his ear and go all soft and sweet and fucking sappy because he secretly and maybe not-so-secretly fucking loves it.

So it's getting to be spring, so it's starting to get warmer, in that disgusting Chicago way where “warmer” means “still like fucking winter” everywhere else. But it means sleazeballs are warming up and the rub n' tug is pulling in cash again and more than once Mickey has to dodge Kevin's questions when he shows up wearing one of Ian's shirts. Damn the Gallaghers for choosing the Fisher-Ball couple as the nosiest best friend-neighbors on the planet.

So it's getting to be spring, and it's April, and next week is spring break for the Gallagher kids and for Lip, too, and Fiona's been bugging Mickey about joining them in doing something together “as a family” and he's probably one more session of wheedling away from cracking and saying yes. It's crazy hearing the word “family” come out of Fiona's mouth in reference to him. It's still crazy to see the Gallaghers so lovingly tight-knit, every sibling having every other sibling's back. It's something that still baffles Mickey after a lifetime in the Milkovich house of horrors.

Mandy's got a guy that so far doesn't give her black fucking eyes and Svetlana and Nika have taken up permanent residence in Svetlana's room and Yevgeny is so big. He's babbling longer and longer sentences, even if half the time Mickey has to tell him to repeat himself about three times in order to understand anything at all. He still hasn't gotten an email or call from Ian about the GED test. Every morning he kicks himself about not sending it fucking priority.

Mickey's brain scratches off the days. Mickey's brain scratches off the months. Mickey tries not to actually think about it. The snapshots.

He's been getting a little too bold, so it's time to lay low with the moving truck scam again. Mickey's resorted to posting fake listings online, trying to see if he can scam money out of old people. There's a pile of swiped credit cards Iggy dumped on the coffee table, but that shit's always hard because most of the time you need the fucking pin number to activate, and ones swiped from people's stuff get canceled real quick. And the problem with owning a business is that you still need to pay your whores and that means you don't get all the fucking money. He really needs to get back into pick-pocketing like he would do for fun as a kid.

So he's stuck with a piece of paper and his phone in front of him, making scam listings. He's smoked six cigarettes in the last half hour but downed only one beer. This shit's boring. Not nearly as fun or interesting as any of his other endeavors.

Someone knocks on his door and he hopes Svetlana will get it. He waits, but she doesn't come out of her room and the knock comes again and he sighs. It's probably not important. Gallaghers don't even bother knocking now. They just come right the fuck in like they own the place. Knocks mean strangers, or something for Svetlana or Mandy. Mandy's not home. It's probably some idiot newbie solicitor who decided he was brave enough to ignore his coworker's warnings and try the south side.

He drops his cigarette in the ashtray and sighs again. Another knock. Okay, okay. He opens the door with a hostile sneer halfway on his face and everything inside him freezes.

Fiona and Lip are standing on his front porch, looking lost. Fiona's eyes are red and shiny, her nose is running, her shirt's all wrinkled. Lip's state isn't much better, and he looks like he's been hitting the bottle.

Mickey feels like every muscle in his body has lost its strength. He grips the door frame with one hand. “What.”

He knows. Before Fiona has even opened her mouth it's like every inch of his body knows. He knows, but his brain can't think it. He can feel the blood whiz around his head, his chest growing tight. He wants to collapse on the ground. He wants to hurt something.

“It's Ian,” Fiona twists her fists in her shirt and doesn't bother wiping her face. “He—They said he—”

Lip's expression collapses. Mickey's head feels like it's very far away, like it's going to explode.

“Fuck. Shit. No. Fuck you. Fuck you!” he spits. He can't do this. This can't be happening. He can't let Fiona say the words, he can't let himself hear them. He slams the door in their faces and locks it and covers his face with both hands and rakes his fingernails down his forehead, feeling a cold, clammy sort of sweat there. Suddenly it's like someone's punching him in the solar plexus and he can't catch a breath, tears flooding his vision as he pulls in desperate, shaking gulps of air.

Distantly, he hears Fiona and Lip's footsteps as they retreat off his porch and back home, and part of him wants to scream at them to come back but mostly he just wants to scream. Mostly his head is just a rush of white noise and the word “no” and a thought that gets shut down before he can think it, before he can comprehend it, a thought whose wings he clips before he can even touch it, a thought that he refuses to think, a thought he refuses to know, he refuses, he can't. He can't. It's not fair, it's not happening, it can't be. No. No no no. No. It's not fair. It's not true.

He punches the wall, knows almost instantly that he's broken his fingers, but it doesn't fucking matter and he keeps hitting as hard as he can, his hand screaming with pain, until his arm starts to shake and then his whole body starts to shake and he drops, sliding down to the floor to hold his hand limp in his lap.

No.

No.

No.

Something is wailing, far away, somewhere. Mickey's ears are ringing.

Svetlana appears, frowning and angry until she sees how he's slumped against the wall, mangled hand cradled against his stomach. Mickey realizes distantly that the wailing is Yevgeny in her room, startled by the angry sounds. He doesn't give a fuck. Not right now. He can't think. He can't see. His face is numb. He feels like his entire brain is filled with white noise. With nothing. With emptiness. It's not fair.

The wailing stops. Svetlana walks away. Good. He's not sure he can deal with people. He's not sure he can deal with anything. If someone touches him he might crack. He can't even think. He can't move. Nothing fucking matters. Nothing. He thinks maybe he's going to black out or something.

Svetlana appears again, purse over her shoulder and car keys in hand. “We go to the hospital.”

“Fuck off,” he manages dully.

“No. Hospital. Get up.”

What's the fucking point. He should have been getting a call from Ian about his GED results today. They should have gotten there by now. Did he get to see them? Are they still in some plane somewhere being flown across the Atlantic? Does it take that long to fly across the ocean or do they have to sit in some military base for ages before they go to the right person? How long between Ian getting a package does he get to email or call him about it? Maybe it's sitting there in the mail room right now, waiting. His head is buzzing. Thoughts don't finish themselves. He blinks, drifting.

Svetlana is a lot stronger than he expected. She hooks his left arm over her shoulder and heaves him up, manhandles him down to the car and drops him in the passenger seat. He's no fucking help. His head is all static and white noise. His can't feel his lips. He can't feel his cheeks. His hand hurts. Why does his hand hurt? He tries to move his fingers and gasps sharply.

“Don't move them,” Svetlana glances at him as the light changes and she turns the corner. “Your hand is broken. Fingers too, maybe.”

He nods, mute, foggy, distant. He understands her tone but not the words. She might as well be speaking Russian to him. But he doesn't try to move his hand again.

Normally Mickey hates hospitals. He hates waiting. He hates the smell. He hates strangers staring at him and judging him. He hates all the questions. All the hows and wheres and whys. All the staring doctors and overly friendly nurses. He hates it. He'd rather just patch himself up at home. Today it doesn't even matter. Nothing matters. He's barely there. He sits in the uncomfortable chair and stares at his feet. Svetlana balances his phone on his knee for him.

“Unlock it. I call Fiona Gallagher for you.”

“No. Don't.” It's a wonder he manages two words.

She sits back, taking his phone with her and tucking it into her purse. His hand hurts. His head hurts. It's not fucking fair. What's not fair? His hand hurts.

“Mikhailo?” A nurse calls his name from across the room. Svetlana prods him until he stands and maneuvers him across the room until they can follow the nurse through the door and into the maze-like hospital hallways and into a room where they sit him down on a paper-covered exam table and his head is still buzzing and far away and he can't really do anything but wince even when the nurse looks between them and looks at his swollen and mangled hand and asks, “So, what do we have here?”

“He punches a wall,” Svetlana answers for him, all calm civility. “I think broken hand, broken fingers.”

“Sounds about right. I'll have them schedule an x-ray in a minute and then we'll clean up those cuts and get a cast on that hand once we know if it needs setting.” She looks between them, then pointedly toward Svetlana, but Mickey hardly registers the concerned expression. “Anything else I need to know about? Was there an altercation? Any other injuries?”

“No,” Svetlana shakes her head. “I am fine. He gets bad news from family. I just drive him here.”

That seems to satisfy nurse-lady and she leaves them to the silence. Svetlana looks around them at the room instead of at him. The paper under Mickey's butt crinkles loudly and it might have been awkward or even funny if he was able to feel anything other than numb. How long since Fiona and Lip were knocking on the door? He has no idea. There are no clocks in hospitals.

A doctor comes in and they follow him to a room where Mickey gets his hand x-rayed and then they follow him back to their exam room where he stares at the ghostly white pictures of the broken bones and then turns Mickey's hand this way and that and resets it and cleans the cuts on his knuckles even though they stopped bleeding a while ago and anyway who gives a shit. A little blood doesn't matter now. It's not like he can feel any of this, he's light years away from his body and he can't fucking think. The doctor praises Mickey for barely even flinching through the entire process and then almost his entire right hand gets wrapped up in a massive cast and they're sent on their way. Mickey walks robotically back to the car and sits robotically in the seat and stares out the window and doesn't see a thing.

Svetlana drops him on the couch and shoves a water bottle and some painkillers at him and he takes them automatically. His entire body feels like it's full of pins and needles. The sound of Nika and Svetlana talking to Yevgeny in the bedroom is far, far away. Even through the sheets on the windows the light outside is too fucking bright. His head hurts. It's not fucking fair. His hand fucking hurts. He can't even move it in this giant fucking cast. It's not fair. It's not fair. It's not fair. It's not fair.

Ian's dead.

And suddenly his entire body is being wracked with massive, lung-jerking sobs and he's shaking and it feels like every part of him is falling apart, like he can't control the bawling that's ripping him apart and his face hurts and his eyes hurt and his head feels like it's full of shit and he can't stop fucking crying, spasms ripping gasps out of him and making his back ache and his face is covered in tears and snot and he bends until his nose is almost touching his knees but it doesn't help even when he clenches a fist in his hair and squeezes his eyes shut and bites painfully at his lips. Something under his skin feels like rage but emptier and he opens his mouth to try and breathe and a choking silence comes out instead, wet and hurting. His body is in mutiny. Nothing works. He shoves his fingers into his eyes but it doesn't stop the flood or the pain. Why. Fucking why. It's not fair.

His body stops shaking only because he's exhausted. There has to be some way to stop the screaming pain in his head and his chest and the throbbing in his hand.

He knows Mandy's vodka stash is in the bottom cupboard behind the cereal and she's not gonna be mad if he drinks it now. Three bottles in a row on the coffee table, new-ish and barely used, and Mickey uncaps the first one even though it's some dumb flavored thing and drinks straight out of the bottle. Fuck it. Fuck the fact that he just took a bunch of extra-strength painkillers. Fuck what Fiona told him last year. He doesn't have to keep going anymore. He doesn't have to anything.

In the morning he wakes up in a dazed, hungover panic before realizing that someone moved him to his own bed. He coughs, retches but doesn't vomit. His head hurts. His stomach hurts. His hand throbs painfully. Someone knocks on the door and then opens it before he can tell them to fuck off.

“You okay, Mickey?” Fiona asks, tear-streaked but sober. Already doing better than him. “Need help getting to the bathroom?”

He wants to scream. He doesn't. His throat is dry and scratchy and his head is killing him. “Who let you in here?”

“Svetlana came and got me,” Fiona leans against the open door, staring down at him with her big sad eyes. “Told me you broke your hand. I'm sorry Mickey. I know you loved him, and—”

It's all too fucking much. Mickey retches again, fumbles one-handed with the blankets and manages to get halfway down the hall before Fiona catches him and helps him drop in front of the toilet. She stays with him, petting his hair while he hunches miserably over the bowl and he wants to shrug her off but he just can't.

And when he's slumped at the kitchen table with a glass of water and Fiona in front of him, there's not really anything to say. They stare at each other, both puffy-eyed and exhausted and lost.

“Why? Why him?” Mickey manages to grit out. Feels like he's drifting, abandoned. Incomplete.

Fiona shakes her head and doesn't stop shaking it. “I don't know, Mickey. I just don't know.”

“It's not fucking fair.”

She reaches out and takes his good hand in both of hers. “I know.”

“Did they—” He stops, sniffles, presses the side of his cast against one eye, steels himself. “Did they tell you how?”

“Yeah. Um. They said, uh, they said it was a bullet to the head. Said it was a sniper. Someone on a fucking roof somewhere.” She already looks like she's repeated these words too many times to too many people. It still looks like every single word hurts. “They told me it was quick, y'know. That he wouldn't have felt very much pain.”

Mickey feels a sob swelling in his chest and tries to swallow it down but ends up convulsing a little in his chair, curling in on himself. “Jesus christ. Fuck.”

Fiona moves around the table to sit beside him, curling an arm around his back and pulling him against her and normally he'd flinch away, running, ready to shove, but he doesn't have the strength.

"I just want him back," he rasps out, shoulders rounding until his forehead is near his knees and he's biting at his lips to keep from crying again. His throat hurts, his stomach hurts. His fucking heart hurts. "I just want him back so fucking bad."

It's a very long time before either of them say another word. And then Mickey's sitting up a little, wiping his face, asking questions. Ian's body has to be flown to Dover first for an autopsy, even though they know what killed him. A week and a half at least until his body gets back to Chicago. Another half week before the funeral. No burial. Just ashes, like he wanted. So he can be at home and not in a field somewhere in Virginia. Mickey takes this all in with the sort of slow, dawning comprehension of the severely sleep deprived or the severely drugged. He feels more present than before, but everything is still so skewed and strange. The two most obvious emotions vying for position in his chest are fury and despair.

It's bullshit. Complete bullshit. Shipped to the middle of nowhere when he could have died from a bullet to the head right here in the south side and at least Mickey would get to see his body. At least Mickey would have had him here, for a year or two or maybe even more instead of just two weeks at a time.

And because he's an absolute pathetic mess, Fiona brings Mickey back home with her so some Gallagher sibling will be around to make sure he doesn't drink his way to oblivion or something. He feels like a child, sitting on the couch with Liam on one side and an unnervingly quiet Debbie on the other, the TV on and family photos lining the mantel staring down at him. At least this house smells like Ian. At least this house is filled to the brim with traces of Ian.

Maybe it would have been better if Ian hadn't come back that first time. Then it wouldn't be like this.

Fuck it. Maybe it would have been better if Ian hadn't ever left in the first place. If he'd chickened out or something. If he had stayed.

Stay. Stay here with me, Mickey had said. He fucking wishes he'd said it louder.

The Gallagher house feels smaller. Or maybe larger. He's not sure. Everything feels so closed-in, so strange and sideways, but it feels like everyone is miles away from each other even when Fiona is just on the other side of the kitchen and Carl is upstairs and Lip is smoking outside on the porch and the three of them are sitting on the couch like they're waiting for something.

Sometimes he walks into a room to find Fiona and Debbie in a silent hug, or Carl staring at Liam with one hand on his hair, or Lip and Fiona leaning shoulder to shoulder, heads resting together. Everyone holding each other up. Maybe they're just miles away from him.

Mickey becomes a silent, half-angry, half-numb fixture on the Gallagher couch for three days. Barely moving, barely eating. He snaps at people when they talk to him, can't help feeling pissed off and frustrated with every little thing. People flinch from him like they used to, like he's going to bite, or implode. Maybe it's because the Gallaghers have always had each other to lean on that they're still able to walk, still able to go to school and work and leave the house. Who knows. Mickey doesn't really know how to lean on other people. Not really. Not like that.

But after three days, as he watches Debbie make Liam breakfast, he decides he needs to get off his ass. Help out. So they can somehow navigate the space where Ian used to be.

He's still dazed. He still flinches when people talk too loud, move too fast, move towards him, he still goes straight to anger for a reaction, like for some reason all his old walls and instincts and anxieties have reset to their original state. He holds onto control with ragged fingernails. There's still a few days left before Ian comes home. Not Ian. His body.

It's worse at night, sleeping on the Gallagher sofa with photos of a younger Ian staring down at him. Before, he weathered the long lonely nights because he knew he could count the days and months until Ian was home again. Now what? Now he lies awake on the overused cushions and stares at the ceiling and tries not to think about how Ian is never going to be any older than that photo of him at boot camp graduation almost two and a half years ago.

And he can't sleep in Ian's bed. He just can't.

At least it was quick, Lip offers. At least it was a sniper to the head and not getting blown up somewhere. At least there's a fucking body to ship back home. At least they get his ashes.

Mickey wanted everything. He never wanted 'at least,' not with Ian.

He helps out. He cleans up, he makes pancakes or sandwiches or whatever simple thing he can think of for the kids when Fiona or Lip are out. He fixes the leaky bathroom faucet upstairs even though it takes him two hours longer than usual and twice he just wants to smash the whole thing. He talks again, has conversations with Debbie and Carl and Fiona, tries desperately to be civil with Lip even though he still thinks the guy is an asshole, even if he is Ian's brother.

Maybe he's learning to lean on other people. Maybe he's standing again. He's getting there, kind of. Slowly.

“Hey, mornin',” Fiona shoulders through the front door, laden with grocery bags. Mickey takes some from her in one hand and starts towards the kitchen. They unload the bags together. Fiona holds up a six pack. “I got you some beer for Sunday. If you promise not to over do it, yeah?”

“Thanks.”

Somewhere in all this Fiona and Lip have been busy, calling military offices, doing research, making plans. Apparently because he died overseas, Ian gets the whole fucking nine yards, with the flag and the guns and even a fucking priest. Mickey's not sure he'll be able to handle it. No, that's a lie. He knows he can't handle it. He's still fucking pissed off, rage twisting in his veins along with the grief. He doesn't give a shit what Ian died fighting for. He shouldn't have fucking died at all. He's pretty fucking sure if he goes he'll end up freaking out, punching some random marine in the face or screaming at the preacher guy or just having a full-blown fucking panic attack somewhere. He probably shouldn't go.

Saturday passes in a strange sort of blur. The Gallagher house is a rush of preparations and confusion and Mickey feels in the way, awkward, a weird sort of obstacle, so he heaves himself off the couch and in a sort of daze wanders away, pointedly avoiding the Alibi, wanders off to the abandoned warehouse and a makeshift target and a pistol and spends hours shooting blindly, left-handed, at the wall instead of the target. Anger boils in his gut, mixing with despair and hurt. His shoulders twitch. He fires until every clip is empty and then he leans against a pillar and sucks in great lungfuls of air. He's lightheaded. Been holding his breath the whole time. Waiting for a flash of red hair in a doorway, a laugh, the echo of familiar footsteps, even an accusatory shout. Anything.

He feels like a fucking idiot. He goes back to the Gallaghers', back to the couch, ignores the look Fiona gives him when he tucks the unloaded gun back into his duffel bag.

And Sunday is horrible. He stays prone on the couch while all the Gallagher siblings get dressed up, Fiona herds cats through the upstairs hallway, Lip runs around looking for his nice shoes and finally finds them under the stairs, Kev and Vee appear out of nowhere to help, and then Mandy is standing there above him, dressed in a conservative black outfit, her hair swept out of her face even though her expression is still lined with grief.

“You're not going?” she asks, frowning down at him.

“Nah,” Mickey shrugs one shoulder, thumbs his lip. “Bad idea. Thinking I might fuck it up. Get all...you know.”

“Yeah,” she moves his legs and sits down under them, shifting until he tents his knees over her lap. “How's your hand?”

“Still fucked. Still kinda hurts. Not as much though.”

“Good.”

Silence, then, there in between the chaos of the Gallagher house. Voices upstairs and Vee and Kev in the kitchen and the usual bullshit outside but in the living room between the Milkovich siblings it's silence and stillness. They both stare forward at the photos on the mantel, past the mantel, past the wall, past everything into their own thoughts. Past the family photos and into their own memories of Ian Gallagher.

“Alright, guys, shoes on, let's go,” Fiona's voice breaks the quiet. Her feet tumble down the stairs behind Liam and Carl. “Hi, Mandy. You ready to go?”

“Hey,” Mandy stands up, gives a small nod towards Lip. “Yeah, I'm ready.”

Shoes on, coats on, and they're all filing out of the house. Fiona stops at the back of the line and leans down to kiss Mickey's cheek. “There's beer in the fridge. Don't go too far, Mick. Drink water.”

He nods. “Yes, ma.”

“I mean it.”

He gives her another nod. “I know. Good luck.” She starts to walk away but a thought scratches at the back of his head and he looks up again. “Hey, Fiona? I'm real sorry.”

Fiona's face crumples into dawning sympathy and grief. She brushes a hand through Mickey's hair, gentle and sad. “Oh, Mickey. It's okay. Really. You know of all people he'd fucking get it.”

Another kiss on the cheek and she's out the door and he's alone in the silence again with Ian's childhood staring down at him. He stays there, like that, in the static empty for a while. Just sitting. Just remembering to breathe. Just remembering.

Ian, young, freckle-faced, staring at him across the hall at school. Ian threatening him with the tire iron, the rush of rage that suddenly turned into lust. Ian smiling nervously at him on the other side of the glass. Ian, taller, filled out, grinning at him in the dugout, warm hand on his shoulder. The way Ian looked at him out of the corner of his eye, how it made Mickey so fucking nervous and under that, made him warm. Ian racing with him down an alleyway, the feeling of jealousy draining from his veins when Ian put his hands on him, laughed with him. That weird, scared, barely-there first kiss. The night before that horrible, horrible morning after, when they fucked until they could barely move and Ian fell asleep with his nose buried in the back of Mickey's neck and one leg between Mickey's and Mickey had been too tired and comfortable to shove him away. Ian sitting on the bed in the hotel, naked, smiling at him all gentle and sad, and they way he had looked when they fucked face to face like lovers. Being lovers with Ian, kissing Ian in the airport, the electric feeling of touching his skin, the warmth of his voice, the way he'd never felt like this with anyone before, the way he's never ever going to feel as good as he did with Ian, not ever.

An hour and a half later he's smoked about a thousand cigarettes and he's only had two beers and is mostly just staring blankly at a third when Mandy texts him saying they're on their way back home. Steel yourself, he thinks. Fucking get ready.

But everyone is surprisingly dry-eyed when they arrive, faces swollen and stained and streaked with makeup and Debbie's expression is all pinched and sad and Mandy's got that familiar look on her face like she doesn't know whether to sob or punch something. Fiona drifts inside, holding a plain silver urn, a folded American flag tucked under one arm. Lip and Carl each hold two black plastic boxes, and Debbie's clutching a cardboard one, and Mickey opens his mouth to ask what the fuck but Lip shrugs at him and says, “They gave us his personal effects.”

The boxes get stacked on the coffee table, a five-man standoff across from the lame sentries of his two and a half empty beer cans. No one seems to know what to do with themselves. Fiona slowly, carefully shifts picture frames and drawings until there's space in the center of the mantel. They all watch her put the urn there, the flag tucked behind it. Ian. That's Ian.

Jesus. What the fuck.

In a sort of daze, Mickey walks around everyone else and stands next to Fiona. He can feel her shaking. Or is he shaking? Who fucking knows. They probably both are. That silver jar is all that's left of Ian. No more red hair. No more laughing eyes. No more stupid jokes. No more impish grin or grabbing hands or that look that always seemed to say You're a fucking idiot and I love you. No more touching his warm, freckled skin. No more pressing his nose into the crook of Ian's neck to catch the scent there. No more picking up the phone and hearing him say “Hey, Mick,” no more letters, no more feeling Ian's arms solid and strong at his back, no more waking at night to watch him sleep, no more waiting for him to come home, no more anything.

That's it. A life reduced to ash and boxes.

“Shit, I need a fucking drink,” he hears Lip mutter, and the moment crumbles. Everyone starts moving, crowding into the living room and Fiona's joining Lip in the kitchen to grab beer for everyone and Vee's going back out to the car to grab the pies brought from Fi's work and then they're sitting on chairs and the couch and the floor staring down at the last pieces of Ian's life and wondering where and how the fuck to start going through his end.

The boxes are labeled numbers one through five, so it seems logical enough to start there. Mickey fucking hates how stupidly monumental it feels when Fiona reaches over and lifts off the lid of the first.

It doesn't smell like Ian like he expects it to. It smells like cleanliness and a little like dirt and only just barely like Ian. He might be imagining it. Fiona's arm brushes his as she reaches into the box. It makes him jump a little.

In a plastic bag at the very top are Ian's dog tags. Fiona lays the little bag on the table. Mickey can't stop staring at the stamped metal in front of him, catching the afternoon light just a little. He reads the name over and over, until it barely makes sense.

Ian Clayton Gallagher.

Ian Clayton Gallagher.

Ian Clayton Gallagher.

Beneath the dog tags, in a plastic bag of their own, are pictures. Photos clearly sent by Fiona in the mail, photos of all the Gallaghers, of Liam with his face covered in spaghetti, of Debbie grinning up at the camera from the porch, of Lip hunched over a book, of Mickey and Debbie and Yevgeny and Mickey is wearing Ian's shirt. One photo of Mickey, sneering, flipping off the camera. It's creased like maybe it was in a pocket or something.

The next layer, Ian's watch, Ian's scribbled-in, doodled-on notebook, Ian's beat-up Vince Flynn paperback, Ian's wallet.

“What is this?” Fiona pulls out a plastic bag with another plastic bag inside it, and suddenly Mickey can't breathe.

His shirt, folded neatly inside the ziploc bag he sent to Ian. His shirt, and when Fiona takes it gently from the two bags and shakes it out he can see a patch of the shoulder near the collar that's been rubbed whitish and threadbare. His ears are ringing. He barely hears Fiona's small “oh,” barely registers the way he takes it from her loose grasp and stands up and walks quickly into the kitchen and stands there by the fridge, breathing ragged. Rigid, shaking. Clenching his own shirt in his fist, almost angry at it for getting to touch Ian instead of him.

“Mickey?” Fiona's standing in the doorway. “You okay?”

He laughs, shallow and wet. “What do you think, Fi?”

“Yeah, I know, stupid question,” she shakes her head and slowly moves to stand in front of him. To stare into his face as he gazes sideways out of the dirty window above the kitchen sink and clenches his jaw. Her expression is open and sad and so fucking gentle.

"Fuck the fucking military," he grinds out, even though it sounds more desperate than angry, feeling the shirt twist in his fingers. "He didn't have to fucking go."

“Mickey,” she starts softly, her hand reaching out to rest on his shoulder and he almost goes to shake her off, but something about her touch breaks some sort of dam inside him and suddenly his shoulders are shaking, his lungs shuddering, and he pushes his chin towards his chest but he can't reign in the sob, the wet tremor of his breaths, the tears that squeeze out of his eyes even when he clenches them shut.

“Shit,” he breathes, sounding pathetic, feeling pathetic. “Fuck.”

Fiona's arms go around him, pull him into her shoulder and somehow he's hugging her back, sobbing against the crook of her neck and it feels nothing like Ian, smells nothing like Ian, is nothing like Ian, but it's something and it's someone that fucking gets it and here they are crying together in the middle of the kitchen with the rest of the family in the other room and Mickey's clutching his own stupid shirt in his left fist, pushing the fabric against Fiona's back and wishing his right hand fucking worked too so he could hold on to something.

Mickey's gasping, shuddering breaths turn to hitches and hiccups and he pulls away from Fiona with an awkward little squeeze. He blows his nose with some toilet paper and splashes water on his face all clumsy and one-handed. His head hurts. His eyes hurt. When he rejoins everyone in the living room they're trying not to look at him. He's not sure if he appreciates that or hates it.

The rest of the boxes contain Ian's uniforms, his personal clothes, a backpack, some blankets and other equipment, letters and drawings from the kids, letters from Mickey and Fiona and Lip, a stupidly old Gameboy with a Pokemon game in it, and other bits of clothes and things. They sort through all the pieces of paper, make piles of letters from each person, a pile of drawings, a pile of other miscellaneous things.

There's no GED letter.

Mickey's stomach feels like there's a hole in it.

They pile the empty boxes in the corner of the living room and their contents on the coffee table and the floor. This isn't one of those weird Gallagher moments, where grief mixes with coping mechanisms and a need to escape and turns into a wild sort of forgetting party. This is stillness and silence and shock and a weight in the pit of the stomach and Ian's ashes staring down at them from the mantel. This is nothing to say. This is a hole in the middle of the brain, a tangible empty space. Everyone just sitting and looking at the nothing through blurred vision. Mickey stays until it's late. Sits with Lip and Fiona on the couch with beers and stares off into middle distance, like last time. Only unlike last time, they're not thinking about how long they'll have to wait until Ian comes back home. They're thinking about how he'll never fucking come home again.

Mickey's always been comfortable with scraps, with taking the dregs and the leftovers and the things he could snatch up for himself and forging something with them, stretching everything as far as it could go. He's used to making do with what he has, with the smallest of crumbs. But this isn't even scraps. This is barely even an essence. This isn't anything.

Fiona lets him take some of Ian's shirts, gives him back his letters, gives him the photo of himself with Debbie and Yev. He goes home and sleeps with Ian's shirt under his head, jerking awake every hour or so, gasping, half in tears. He wishes his lungs weren't collapsing.

Sometimes he daydreams about destroying the local recruiting station, about finding every last person that took Ian from Chicago to boot camp, from boot camp to infantry training, from training across the Atlantic to who the hell knows where, and just beating each and every one to a bloody fucking smear. Ian's not a hero, he's not a fucking sacrifice, he's dead. Sometimes he can't tell if it's rage or sadness that chokes the breath out of him. Sometimes he can't tell if he wants to collapse on the floor or punch a wall again.

He tries to keep going. Fuck the moving truck scam. Fuck the Craigslist scams. Fuck it. They can scrape by on the rub n' tug and Mandy's shit wages and maybe Iggy will pitch in if he's staying at the house instead of his girlfriend's. He wants to be drunk and drugged and nowhere every second of every day. But Fiona calls him every afternoon and maybe a month ago he'd tell her to fuck off, maybe a month ago he'd be passed out on the bathroom floor, maybe a month ago he'd be having a competition with himself to see whether he could get his alcohol or opiate level higher, but now she's family, now she's Ian's sister, all he has left, and they've cried on each other. He hasn't even cried on Mandy since they were children.

So Fiona calls him and they talk about their day and it's a little weird but after a week he gets it. They're in the same boat. Lip's got the distraction of school. The kids are, well, kids, and even though they love and miss Ian, it's fucking different. It's different when you need him to sleep, when you depended on each other, when he was a safety blanket and a warm hug and someone to lean on and someone to lean into and someone who shouldn't be fucking leaving you like this. It's different when him being gone makes the world feel like it's lightyears away and you're just floating in empty space. So they talk on the phone and sometimes he comes over. She tells him he should apply for jobs now that he's got a GED. Go to Malcolm X and go to trade school. Fucking something to distract him. Something. He shrugs, tells her he's not sure.

He gets a letter in the mail. It has his handwriting on it. Returned To Sender sticker on the bottom right hand corner. He knows what it is.

He doesn't open it. He puts it in the shoebox with the rest of his letters from Ian and he sits on his bed and closes his eyes and breathes. He didn't realize he'd been hoping he was mistaken. The disappointment is a knife to the chest. That Ian never got to see it. That Ian never got to open the surprise. That Ian never got to be proud of him, never got to see that he was doing something. To see that he wasn't really fucked for life.

For some reason that makes the grief feel fresh again, like he's back to raking his nails down his face and sobbing on the couch. Back to the shuddering pain in his chest and the hurt and echoing silence. Back to the bruise against his solar plexus. Like he can't breathe right. He hunches over on his bed and tries to stop shaking. He feels almost sick with it.

Eventually the world stops being so far away. He goes to the Alibi and the people there don't stare like they're waiting for him to explode. Kev stops tiptoeing. His veins aren't boiling every time he's out in public. Mickey takes Yevgeny to the park and watches him play. He thanks Svetlana for taking him to the hospital and they have real conversations. Mandy hangs out with him on weekends and they play video games and smoke weed and eat too much sugar and feel sick. Still, bright spots of pain flare up at the smallest, strangest things. He'll be fine one minute and the next he'll be up against the wall, breathing in little gasps and trying to hold back tears.

Sometimes he finds himself standing in the Gallagher living room, staring at the mantel. He doesn't knock anymore, doesn't call out. Just walks in like he lives there.

He stares and sort of thinks about taking the urn down and looking inside, or just holding it, or something. But he doesn't do that. He's not sure he'd be able to handle the disappointment.

“Hey,” Fiona kicks the front door shut and waves at him with her coffee cup, unfazed that he's standing in her living room staring at the mantel. She's texting with the other hand and stops to drop her bag on the couch and then drop down beside it. “How's it going?”

Mickey scrubs his hand across his eyes. Her phone's in her lap and she's looking at him. Shrugging is really the only answer he has. He shoves a cigarette between his lips and steps out onto the porch, doesn't look back because he knows Fiona's following him. They sit on the top step and watch the smoke pluming from their mouths and into the sun. Minutes of silence slide by as they pass the cigarette between them.

Mickey thumbs his lip, runs his hands over his thighs, lets a sigh rasp its way out. “When's it supposed to stop being like this?”

“I dunno, kiddo,” Fiona shrugs, hands the cigarette over. “I've never had anyone I loved die before.”

“Me neither. People I hate, sure. People I didn't give a shit about, or who, I dunno, fucked me up too much to actually like them. He's the—he's the first.”

“Shit,” Fiona laughs a little at how pathetic they both are. Mickey wipes at his eyes with his good hand and she pretends not to see.

They're silent. Mickey lights another cigarette and passes it over. Fiona gives him a look that says You're gonna fuckin' kill me, kid, but she takes it anyway.

She scrapes the toe of her shoe against the edge of the stairs, watching dirt slough off the wood. “I was thinkin', uh, since we have his ashes, you could have his dog tags, if you want? It's not a lot, I know, but...”

“Yeah,” Mickey replies, squinting up into the sky, like the clear blue air could give him something, could magic some adequate sort of comfort out of nowhere. “Yeah. I'd like them.”

Silence, again. Spaces that Ian used to fill, or that talking about Ian used to fill.

He wants to say I'm sorry, he wants to say Thank you for getting it, he wants to say I love him, he was the only good thing in my life, what am I supposed to do now?, he wants to say Why are we the ones who have to pick up the pieces?, he wants to say Maybe it would have been better if... But he doesn't say anything. He picks at a scab on his arm and scratches an itch where the cast crosses his thumb and watches some neighbor wander by with their dog. Fiona sighs and pulls at the cigarette and sighs again. Tosses her hair out of her eyes. They listen to the sound of Carl yelling down the stairs inside. Listen to the thump of feet as he thunders down. Listen to Debbie's annoyed yelp from the couch. Listen for Ian's laughter. It doesn't come.

“I fucking hate the marines,” Mickey mumbles.

Fiona's shoulder bumps into his, slowly. “Yeah. Me too.”

Before he goes home, Fiona goes back inside and gets the dog tags from Ian's stuff. Mickey clutches them in his hand the whole walk home. When he gets to his room, he puts them on. The chain is smooth and cool on his neck, the tags themselves a stamp of cold metal against his solar plexus. He doesn't feel any different. He's not sure why he expected he would.

When he goes to the clinic to get his cast off, Fiona and Debbie are annoyingly insistent that they come too. For moral support, apparently. He rolls his eyes and tells them to get lost and that he's a fucking adult you know but he doesn't say no and on the morning they're there on his doorstep, waiting to join him in the car.

His hand feels so weak when they cut him out of the dirty plaster. It looks small and atrophied and sad. The skin that's been covered for almost two months is imprinted with the pattern of the bandages, flakes of dried skin covering him with a rough white dusting. He pokes at his own hand and it feels unfamiliar and strange. The doctor has him bend and flex each finger, pricks his hand with a needle to make sure he still has sensation, x-rays him just to make sure, sends him home with a clean bill of health.

Fiona and Debbie insist on going out for pizza and ice cream at Costco, like he's twelve. It's exactly something Ian would do and he finds himself fumbling for his sunglasses at the next stop, pretending to be annoyed by the glare of spring sunlight.

“You got your GED, and now you have your hand back,” Fiona says through a mouthful of pizza and the perpetual echo of Costco's food court. “What are you gonna do now?”

Mickey shrugs. “Dunno. Probably just end up in construction or something. Maybe I could be security somewhere.”

“You should put in some applications.”

Mickey scratches at the newly exposed skin of his hand. “Fiona, I've never had a real job. I've been to juvie like five times. My last name is like a red fucking flag for everyone around here. I've fucked people up. I'm probably better off where I am.”

“You're so full of shit,” Fiona rolls her eyes. Debbie's nodding next to her and Mickey feels a little ganged up on. “We fucking believe in you, Mickey. Listen, a while back Ian told us he thought you could do anything you wanted if you really tried. He's fucking right. So try.”

Ian said that to his family? It wasn't just a little ego nudge to try and get him to get his GED? Ian really, actually thought that about him? He has to turn his head away, look out across the warehouse and away from the two people in his life most like Ian, who really actually believe in him, apparently.

“Maybe,” he says through the lump in his throat. “I dunno.”

Habits die hard, and maybe after almost five months he's supposed to be moving on, but he still wakes up gasping in the middle of the night, dreaming of Ian, and he still toes through the mail on the floor looking for a letter with a marines seal and he still checks his email every day and hopes to see something from Ian and every time it's like someone has dropped the bottom out of his world. Every time, he chokes on a breath and feels the punch to his heart and the rage and despair roll over him, not as thick as before, distant and sadder and more like resignation, but he still has to close his eyes and catch his breath and run his fingers through his hair.

He knows about fists and knives and guns and blood and the pain of parental abuse and the pain of the world against one man and the pain of scrambling to survive and what it's like to be on edge, perpetually angry and terrified of everything around him. He has no idea what to do with the unfamiliar, overwhelming pain of grief.

Even when it's aging, dulling over so his heart isn't twisting so hard every day, it's still there. It still aches. It still surprises him with twinges and stabs if something smells like Ian, or reminds him of anything Ian's ever done or said. But it's not stabbing him in the chest every second of every day. Is that progress? Is this dull, constant hurt progress?

He wears Ian's dog tags under his shirt, always hyper-aware of the name pressed against his chest.

He fills out applications. He tells himself it's to get Fiona off his back, but that's not totally true. He wants to try. Ian's name resting against his sternum brands you can do anything if you really want it into his heart. He sends off every application with a dream of Ian's proud grin.

Somehow it fucking works and someone actually wants him to work for them as an electrician. They'll train him and everything. Mickey kind of wishes he believed in heaven or something, that he could believe that Ian was somehow seeing this, but he doesn't. The Gallaghers throw him a little party and they all get drunk and Mickey finds himself sitting on the couch, twisting his fingers around the chain on his neck, smiling a little. The space beside him aches with its emptiness but at least he has this family.

The kids were quick to find distractions but he and Fiona are still learning to smile again.

It's weird fixing shit in people's houses and not being there to case the place. It's weird having a uniform, real working tools, a business card, a manager to report to that's not his dad and is nothing like his dad and in fact is about six thousand times cooler than his dad. It's weird edging his way into the sort of life he never ever thought he'd have. It's weird doing the things he talked about with Ian without Ian. It's weird that his heart just feels like a slow, throbbing ache instead of like it's being stabbed. It's weird that life just goes on.

He installs lighting fixtures in some ugly, remodeled bungalow whose landlord is a tall redhead that wanders around the house with the contractor, talking animatedly and touching all the walls. Mickey tries not to hyperventilate with his hands above his head, tries not to stab himself with wires, tries not to cry. The man is nothing like Ian, but it's close enough, and he gets done and out of there as fast as possible and stands in the street trying to remember how to breathe properly. The landlord doesn't really seem to notice that his electrician is standing on the sidewalk with his hands on his knees. Mickey gets a signature from the guy for his work and walks home on shaking legs.

Some nights he falls asleep and doesn't dream. Some nights he dreams about Ian and wakes up hard. Some he wakes up gasping. His least favorites are the nights he can't sleep, when he clutches a pillow and curls his body around its thin bulk and tangles his legs in the sheets and tries to ignore the way his every fiber seems to ache for a touch he's never going to have again. Nights when he doesn't try to keep from crying.

Some nights he sits up with the cold metal stamp of Ian's name against his lips, trying to make it as warm as his skin.

The night he realizes his favorite shirt of Ian's doesn't smell like Ian anymore, he bawls his goddamn eyes out and drinks until he pukes. He doesn't punch a wall. He's learned that lesson, at least. He hates that it's like everything's okay most days but the entire world can go to hell in seconds. He hates that the world going to hell means sobbing into his hands. He hates that the world has to go to hell at all. Mandy finds him on the bathroom floor in the morning and dumps him in the shower with the water on. He splutters awake and pukes again and when he tells her what happened they both end up sitting on the bathroom floor with tears dripping down their cheeks.

He still wears the shirt because it was Ian's, even though it doesn't smell like him anymore. He's got others. He can imagine its smell if he needs to.

Yevgeny is almost three and he doesn't really remember Ian and Mickey can never decide if that's a good thing or not. He doesn't have an empty space, doesn't have the confusion of someone there and gone. Sometimes he peers at Mickey and asks “Papa? Why no smile?” and when Mickey answers, “I'm sad, kid,” and Yevgeny asks “Why?”, he has no idea how to answer. How do you tell a three year old who speaks an incomprehensible combination of English and Russian that your lover died in an idiotic war in a desert somewhere and you miss him like a lost limb?

But the ache is a dull one now, still constant but a lot less sharp than before. He smiles more often, and for longer, and he doesn't ask himself why he's fucking smiling if Ian's dead. He's allowed to smile. He's allowed to be happy sometimes. He has to remember that. He has a job, which is fucking crazy. He has the kid, a distraction, a responsibility, a tiny human Mickey never thought he'd come to love but Ian loved the kid so much when he was home it's like he taught Mickey how. He has the Gallagher siblings and the weird comfort their house brings. He's never, ever had this before. Family. It's weird. It's nice. He likes it. It helps.

It's a weird fucking ache, but life just goes on.

Chicago moves forward, like it always does, into autumn, wind whipping leaves and water and trash everywhere. It's fucking cold and raining a little, and on the platform waiting for the L after work, Mickey stamps his feet against the concrete and tugs Ian's ugly plaid scarf up over his face. It hasn't smelled like him in a while, but it's warm. He looks up into the grey sky and rubs tiredly at the corner of one eye. The good thing about November is that there's more work. People keep blowing fuses and fucking up lights and killing their heating systems and that means getting paid. The shitty thing about November is everything fucking else.

But the ride from work to 47th isn't so bad. And it's even stopped raining, so he walks from the station to South Wallace, yanking his beanie closer to his skull from the cold. He sort of half-jogs the rest of the way when the Gallagher house is in sight, thinking about how it's warm in there and they have beer.

When he opens the front door, he's greeted with the sight of Fiona shoving awkwardly at a bookshelf at the foot of the stairs. It inches noisily along the floor and she smacks it with an open palm, grunting.

“Uh, Fiona? You doin' okay there?”

She sighs in relief at the sight of another person, pushes her hair back from her face. “Hey, Mick, give me a hand? No one else is home.”

“Sure.” He drops his backpack and beanie on the couch and positions himself on the other side of the piece of furniture. “Where are we going with this?”

“Upstairs, in Debbie's room. Ready? One, two, three, lift.” They lift together, walking it slowly up the stairs, careful not to overbalance. Fiona juts her chin up to the bedroom door. “She has enough shit piled on the floor and Liam's in the boys' room now so I figured I'd get her some shelves.”

“Good thinking. Ow, fuck!” He winces as the back of his left hand slams between the wall and the shelf corner. Mickey waves away Fiona's concerned expression and points towards Debbie's door. “No, I'm good. It's the left one, don't worry about it. Here, I'll stand, you turn.”

They turn on the landing and walk the shelves into Debbie's room, clear a space against one wall and shove it flush. They're both panting a little. Fiona puts her hands on her hips and looks around the room, apparently satisfied with the work they've done.

“Thanks. Carl helped me get it in the house but he had to go out. Once I started I had a feeling I wouldn't be able to do that by myself.”

“No problem. Shit, now I need a cigarette.” He fishes the pack out of his pocket. At the top of the stairs, he turns back. “You coming?”

Fiona rolls her eyes and waves a hand at him. “Yeah, yeah, don't get too excited, Milkovich.”

“Never do, Gallagher.”

They stop at the bottom of the stairs, both gazes pulled to the silver urn on the mantel. Seven months and their eyes still go there every time. Seven months and they still wait for the sound of laughter and feet stepping through the door. They smile at each other, feeling a little sad and silly, and Fiona shoves Mickey towards the front door. “I'll grab some beer and meet you outside.”

“Sure thing.”

He wraps the scarf back around his neck and sits down on the top step. Lights the cigarette and inhales deeply. Fiona parks herself beside him, beer offering held in one outstretched hand.

“Here.”

He takes it, cracks the bottle open on the edge of the stairs. They both cheers, drink. He hands the cigarette over.

Across the street, the neighbors are herding a group of children into a beat up minivan. Their voices echo across the wet street. Mickey rubs his hands together to warm them. “Hey, by the way, Svetlana was wondering if you guys could watch the kid for a while tomorrow. She's got some job interviews and I have work.”

“Sure. No Mandy?”

“Boyfriend.” Mickey shrugs, rolls his eyes. “Apparently when you've got one, they come before anything else.”

“I could've told you that.” They both wince, just a little. Someone's laughing too loud a few doors down. Fiona sighs, seems to swallow back the thoughts of red hair and laughing eyes. Mickey's never really been able to push that away. He clears his throat to try and stop the lump that wants to form there. She moves close enough to elbow him gently. “You doing okay, Mickey?”

“Better than before, I guess.” His shoulders twitch in a weird, awkward shrug. “I'm not—I'm not angry. At least, not like I was. And I'm, you know, it's not so bad now. It still hurts, and I'm sad, and I fucking miss him, but it's just kinda there. Um. It's not like—I don't want to punch a wall all the time like before.”

“That's good. I guess maybe we're getting there?”

“I dunno. I have no fucking clue how this shit works.” He starts peeling at the label of his beer, rolling the bits of paper into tiny pellets and flicking them out into the yard in frustrated little jerks. “Am I supposed to keep wearing his clothes, y'know? Am I supposed to feel like shit when something reminds me of him? When do I learn to stop waiting for his letters? When do I quit missing him? I don't fucking know, y'know?”

“Yeah, I get it. I dunno, Mick, maybe it's like a two steps forward, one step back sorta thing. We don't really know it's getting easier because the shitty parts still hurt. But maybe it is?” She's facing him, but he can't look at her. She hands him back the cigarette and nudges his foot with her own. “You smile now, y'know? You got yourself a job. I can get up in the morning and look at his bed when I check on the kids and I don't want to break down. I get through most of the day without thinking of calling him or something. But I think not missing him is a long fucking time away.”

“Sometimes I wonder, like, maybe it would have been better if he'd never come back to find me after boot camp, y'know?” Mickey mumbles, feeling like his confession is some sort of weird fucking sin. “Then none of this would have ever happened. But I guess that's bullshit.”

Fiona's expression is soft. “He loved you, Mickey. He probably would have come back some way.”

“I know. And at least I got him for a little while, I guess. But I hate how much I miss him.”

“Fuck the military?” She asks, monotone, bitter.

“Yeah, fuck the military. Bastards."

Mickey passes the cigarette over and they stare out together across the street, into middle distance. In the silence between them is the missing presence that pulls them together, the ache of emptiness, the space where someone should be but isn't. It bruises the air between them. They drift together into memories, into aches, into grief. Leaning on each other helps, but they've never done this before, not like this. They work around it, hyper-aware. Fiona rubs at her eyes. Mickey thinks about the gaping hole in their world, the way it makes them stutter and trip almost every day, the way his chest aches and his skin craves and his lips always start to form the beginning of Ian's name. The way there doesn't seem to be a way to stop missing someone who left such a massive empty space in all of their lives.

He fingers the dog tags under his shirt. “This isn't enough,” he jerks his thumb backward, inside, towards the urn sitting on the mantel in the living room. “I don't think that is, either.”

“No,” Fiona agrees. “I don't think it'll ever be enough.”