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Alex stood frozen outside of the large church.   Red brick with beautiful green ivy making something old look slightly bright again.  He stared at the many broken concrete stairs leading to the imposing front door and let out a sigh.  He’d been working with his new prosthetic for a few weeks now but it was still uncomfortable and stairs were definitely challenging.     

Nothing like feeling small before he even began.  

He headed to the left where an iron rail was just visible through the overgrown weeds and slowly made his way up.  

Ignoring the slight discomfort in his leg, he paused just inside the doors, taking in the grandeur of the sight before him.  Gorgeous stained glass, wooden pews, lit candles, all with a slight musty smell permeating through the air.  Alex glanced around, hands dug as deep into his pockets as possible, looking for an indicator of where he needed to go.  

He had been seeing a therapist for months now, putting aside the voice that sounded suspiciously like the man who would always make sure Alex felt as weak as possible.  His therapist, a nice older gentleman named Mark who specialized in service members with PTSD, had recommended he attend a support group for survivors of child abuse.    

At first Alex had scoffed.  After everything he had seen overseas his childhood had seemed like  something  he should be able to put behind him.  But Mark was nothing if not excellent at his job.  Every time Alex thought they were beginning to unpack some burden he was carrying from the war, they always managed to take a detour back into his trauma as a child. After a particularly exhausting session, rehashing Alex’s unofficial coming out with his father at 13, Mark handed him a pamphlet for a support group  with  a  kind  smile.  

It took a few weeks but here he  made it .  He had decided that he wanted to live his life, not the life other people tried to set out for him, and moving past th e  shit still stuck in his head was the last hurdle he felt he needed to jump.  

He heard some murmuring to his left and noticed a door propped open with light streaming into a small hallway.  With a deep breath, he ran a hand through his hair and headed toward the room.  

It was everything he thought it would be.  Yellowing light bulbs cast an eerie, uncomfortable glow on everything in the room, including the people.  Folding metal chairs were set up in a circle in the center with coffee and a box full of  store bought  pastries stood in the corner.  Alex stifled a small chuckle behind his hand.  He really hoped this  cliché  would be worth it.    

As he stood absorbing his surroundings, a clearing of  a  throat to his right grabbed his attention.  A small, older woman with long grey hair and a bright smile stood before him.    

“Welcome.  I’m Lorna.”  She offered her  hand,  nails painted a bright purple and rings of all styles gracing her slim fingers.    

Alex took the offered hand, the simple feel of another person something he didn’t realize he’d missed over the past  few  year s .  

“Thanks.  Alex.”    

Lorna released his hand and tucked a loose tuft of hair behind her ear.  “First time at one of these things?”  

Alex smiled awkwardly and nodded, putting his hands back into his pockets.  “Yeah.  I’m not a big talker.”  

Lorna smiled, a warm, comforting thing.  “That’s no problem.  We’ve got plenty of talkers here.  You participate as much as you’d like.  Feel free to just take it all in today, see if this  group’s  for you.”  

Alex smiled at her and nodded his agreement.  She gently patted his shoulder and headed off to greet some other people. He sighed and decided a cup of coffee didn’t sound terrible.  Taking a sip, grimacing at how bitter it tasted, he turned to take in his fellow groupies.  Everyone looked like no one.  Men and women you would pass by on the street without thinking twice.  Many of them smiling and laughing, greeting one another like old friends.    

Alex couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever smile like that again, let alone in such a depressing environment.  He finished his coffee and scanned the room for the garbage when h e saw him .  

Sitting on one of the chairs was a man who looked to be about Alex’s age.  He was  of  slender buil d  but looked plenty strong.  A head full of golden, brown curls and a furrow to his brow as he looked at his cell phone.  His shirt was slightly open at the neck revealing just a hint of a strong chest decorated with hair.  He had on a tight pair of light colored jeans and black boots.  A matching black hat sat on the chair beside him.  

Alex had never seen a nything  more beautiful.    

Lorna announced to the room that they were ready to begin.  The gorgeous cowboy looked up at her words and glanced around the room getting more comfortable in his chair.  His gaze met Alex’s and time seemed to stop.  Neither man looked away.    

As Alex’s heart raced and his palms  sweat  he force d  himself to move.  He took a seat in the nearest chair where he’d be able to keep an eye on tight pants without being too obvious.  

He shook his head and ran a hand down his face.  He needed to get a grip.  He  was  there for his mental health.  To get better.  To move forward.  Thinking with his dick wasn’t going to help.  

“Well let’s get started.  I want to welcome some of you back and welcome some of you to the group for the first time.  I’m Lorna and I’ve been running this group for about six months now.  Since there are some new faces here  today  I’d love for us to quickly go around and just give your first name.”  

After everyone introduced themselves, Alex learning the handsome stranger’s name was Michael, they began.  Two of the members had had a particularly challenging week so they ended up using most of the time with other members chiming in to offer support or encouragement.  Alex surprised himself by finding he was nodding along to a lot of what people were saying.  The feelings of self-worth, self-doubt and low self-esteem seemed to be common amongst the group.  It was sad that he finally had a peer group but that the group was  united   by their  pain.  

Michael had been silent throughout the hour session along with Alex.  He was attentive and clearly empathized but hadn’t spoken.  Alex found his mind wandering at some points, wishing he would share something just so Alex could hear that smooth sound once more.  

He pinched the skin on the back of his hand whenever his mind wandered too far.  

An hour later, Lorna thanked everyone for coming, reminded them about the confidentiality of what was discussed, encouraged folks to finish the coffee and pastries and said she hoped she’d see everyone  again  next week.    

Alex released a small smile, wiping his hands on his thighs.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as he thought it would be although he knew showing up was only half the battle.  Eventually, he’d need to speak.  He stood and found Lorna, once again shaking her hand and thanking her.       

He wasn’t too ashamed to admit he had glanced around the room before leaving with the hope of catching one more glance at Michael but he was  nowhere  to be found.  

Alex headed back out the front doors and stepped into the now chilly night air.  He took in the still cracked stairs and the impressive lack of light shining on them.  Rubbing the back of his neck, he carefully made his way back to the railing and slowly made his way down.    

“Hey!” Alex took his car keys out of his pocket and turned toward the voice.  A smiling Michael was headed toward him looking like a model off a runway.  “Are you okay?”  

Alex raised an eyebrow in confusion.  “You mean because of the group?  Yeah.  I mean, I didn’t say anything so...”  Alex trailed off as Michael shook his head.  

“No that’s not what I meant.”  Michael adjusted his hat on his head, pulling it back a bit so Alex could see his hazel eyes just that much better.  “You really took your time with those stairs.  You got a bad knee or something?”  

Alex smiled.  Michael seemed genuinely concerned.  He was grateful for the relatively dark night in the hopes that Michael couldn’t see his cheeks burning up.  

“Or something,” Alex laughed a bit.  He lifted his pant leg up, revealing his prothesis.  “It’s a new one so  stairs  can be a bit of a bitch, even stairs that aren’t as shit as those.”    

Michael looked at Alex with a serious expression on his face.  “I have questions for you, sir, but it’s getting late and we just met so-” He put his hand out towards Alex.  “Michael Guerin.  I run a local scrapyard and work as a mechanic now and then.”  

Alex smiled and put his hand in Michael’s, ignoring the tingling sensation slowly making its way up his arm.  “Alex Manes.  Retired Air Force and no idea what I’m gonna do now.”  

Michael smiled  and it  left Alex breathless.  “Well Alex.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.  Get home safe and maybe I’ll see you next week.  I’ll write my questions down.”  He tipped his hat with a wink and headed towards his truck.  Alex walked towards his car, stupid smile stuck on his face.  He flexed and relaxed his hand, desperate to hold onto the sensation of Michael’s firm grip for just a few seconds longer.  

As Alex climbed in the car, he couldn’t help but think about  next  week’s session already.  He rolled his eyes at his own thoughts.  “Not what you should be focusing on,  ass ,” he said to no one but himself.  

He dreamed of cars, curls and a cowboy hat that night.  

:::  

A few weeks of sessions had passed without problem.  Alex saw Mark on Tuesdays and attended the support group each Wednesday.  He had managed to get a few jobs freelancing, doing coding for government agencies and private companies alike  and he found he was actually enjoying himself .    

He had decided to chat with Mark about Michael, the mysterious man at group who had grabbed his attention.  Although Mark said it was great that he was embracing attraction again, he also said that perhaps it was the wrong venue  and the wrong time .  

No shit, Mark.  

Then , sitting at group, cupping his now cold cup of nasty coffee, distantly hearing Lisa talking about running into her asshole of an ex-husband, but daydreaming about Michael.  

He  was  snapped out of his thoughts when Lorna asks the group if anyone else has anything they want to discuss.  Alex ha dn’ t yet had the courage or the comfort to begin sharing so he smile d  tightly, sh ook  his head no along with a few other members and look ed  down at the brown liquid in his hands.  

Michael shifted in his seat and cleared his throat, shyly raising his hand.  Lorna, huge smile making her seem younger than ever possible, encouraged Michael to share.  

“You ever have one of those sensory memories?”  He rubbed the back of his neck while looking around at the group, a few people “ mmm”ing  and nodding.  “Yeah, well, I was in the grocery store yesterday.  I’d had a pretty good day.  Nothing major happened, plenty of customers, everyone polite.  I’m standing, looking at the coffee when I feel someone right at my shoulder and smell this awful stench.  It’s like stale cigarettes and cheap beer.”  

“What crossed your mind when the smell hit you?”  Lorna leaned forward towards Michael, arms resting on her skirt covered  knees .  

Michael laughed, short  and  humorless.  “Reminded me of this one foster home.  The guy was useless.  Complete idiot, drunk all the time.  His wife was about twenty years younger than him and terrified.  He just liked a little extra cash around the house  so he collected kids .”  

Alex noticed that Michael had begun biting his nails.  He wanted nothing more than to reach over and hold  his hand  tightly in his instead.  To offer what little comfort he could.  

“Michael, it’s good if we can name our abusers.”  

He released a shaky breath and turned his head to the ceiling, nails still in his mouth.  

“John.”  

Lorna nodded.  “Do you want to tell us a bit more about John?”  

Michael’s hand moved to cover his mouth.  Alex thought he looked like he might be sick.  

“I-” he took a shaking breath.  “I just remember hiding a lot.  He’d get so hammered he couldn’t find his way around his own place so if I hid  well  he couldn’t beat me.”    

Alex couldn’t look away.  Michael looked so small and vulnerable.    

He roughly wiped at his eyes, glancing up through his lashes and making eye contact with Alex.  He offered him a small, encouraging smile which Michael returned.   

“I’m all good for tonight, Lorna.”  Michael sniffled quietly.  

“You did great, Michael.  Thank you for sharing.”  

A few other people shared with the group that night but Alex couldn’t focus.  He kept staring at Michael, probably too obviously.  Everything felt like too much.  The chair was too hard, the coffee too heavy, his feelings too much.  He started to feel the itch that made him want to run.  

He made it to the end of the meeting and practically ran out of the building, desperate for the cold air to jerk him out of his  mood .  He wasn’t sure what was wrong with him, why Michael’s story, one that wasn’t overly detailed, not very graphic, bothered him so much.  

As he leaned against the door of his jeep, he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.  When he opened his eyes, he noticed how clear the sky was.  As much as he really disliked Roswell, the   sky could be stunning sometimes.  It seemed endless.  Maybe for some people it was frightening, the idea of so much of the universe unexplored, unknown, so vast.  Anything could be out there.  But that reminder was always reassuring for Alex.  Knowing that he’s small in the grand scheme of things.  What he does doesn’t actually matter much.  

He started to regulate his breathing again when a “hey” caught his attention.  

Michael stood before him, no hat, allowing his curls to fly freely in the breeze.  

“You looked a bit upset in there and ran out pretty quick.  Just wanted to make sure you’re alright.”  

Alex shook his head.  “You just shared something really personal and painful but you’re checking in on me?”  

Michael laughed and rubbed the back of his neck.  He kicked the dirt with boot and looked up at Alex; thousand watt smile in place.  

“Sounds a bit stupid but yeah.  I didn’t like seeing that.”  Michael was so quiet Alex thought maybe he hadn’t heard right.  

In the last few weeks, Alex hadn’t interacted much with Michael.  He didn’t ask the questions Alex thought he was going to and he couldn’t get the courage to approach Michael before or after the meetings so he just watched from afar.  

Until now.  

“I’m okay, thanks.  Just a bit envious, I guess?  It’s great that you could open up.”  Alex dug his hands into his pockets and looked everywhere but at Michael.  He was so grateful for the  blown out  lights in the parking lot.  His blush could stay his secret tonight.  

“I barely said anything and it’s basically taken me  two  months to build up to that.”  

Alex just shrugged.  “Still impressed, man.”  

Michael laughed again.  “Um, would you  wanna  go get a drink or a cup of coffee or something?”  He ran his hand through his curls.  Alex wondered if they were as soft as they looked.  “I haven’t forgot about those questions I wanted to ask you.”  

Alex heard Mark’s words ricochet through his head.  Wrong place, wrong time.    

He could put aside his want.  He really could use a friend or two.  Being alone for so long was starting to lose its appeal.  

He had no indication Michael would be into him anyway and he seemed nice enough so...  

“Yeah.  Coffee sounds good.  Meet you at the Crashdown?”  

Michael smiled.  “Favorite place.”  

::  

So that became his routine.  Therapy on Tuesday.  Group on Wednesday followed by coffee with Michael.    

It was nice, easy.  They never discussed what came up in group.  They usually talked about superficial stuff like music, books, movies.  Alex did learn quite a bit though.  Like, for a cowboy, Michael hated country music.  He was also a next level genius.  He also learned that if you said that to Michael, you’d get the eyeroll of a life time and he’d change the subject.  Michael could play the guitar but never took it too seriously; just for fun.    

For a few weeks, Alex felt relaxed.  He even managed to participate a bit in one of the groups, offering a suggestion to Sarah who talked about her mom’s constant judgement, but always shying away from talking about himself.    

He managed to do that with Michael as well.    

Over their cups of coffee and occasional late dinner, Alex would ask Michael questions about himself.  He’d bring up recent news or asked if Michael had heard the most recent gossip in town.    

But eventually, that  was bound  to change.  

::  

There had been a new group member, Josh, who joined them.  He was young and angry and ready to talk about it.  

He was also gay.  

Alex hadn’t realized how unprepared he actually was to start opening himself up.  He thought he was getting ready to dive in, talk about his shit childhood and his father’s hate.    

Until he was practically looking in a mirror.  

Josh described coming out, the physical and emotional abuse he got for it, the bullying he had to manage in high school, the friends he lost.    

Alex couldn’t breathe.    

He could feel himself heading  into  the tunnel.  His leg seemed to bounce of its own will, his hands were sweating, he wasn’t hearing well and a bead of sweat rolled down his back.    

He couldn’t be here and have a panic attack.  He couldn’t.  

Alex abruptly stood up, hearing questions and concerned voices but not understanding anything they were saying.    

He moved as quickly as he could, desperate to get outside.    

With seconds to spare he pushed the doors open, moved to the side of stoop and heaved over the side.  When he was done, the shaking started along with the tears.  He needed to get home.  He had a routine when he panicked, a way to calm down.  But it required his  apartment  and everything he had there.  

He turned and looked at the stairs.  With how violently he was shaking and how little he could see through his tears he was sure he was going to fall.  

And then there were hazel eyes .  

“Breathe.  Just breathe.  You’re safe.”  

He searched Michael’s eyes for the judgement, for the mocking, but found nothing.   H e let out a small sob  as he  desperately t ried t o match Michael’s even breathing.    

After what he imagined were a few minutes, he felt like he could speak.    

“I need to go but-” he coughed through his dry throat. “The stairs.”    

Michael looked behind him and said something  like  “slow mother fuckers  taking their damn time ” then turned back to Alex.    

“Okay.  I’m  gonna  walk right in front of you.  You’re  gonna  keep taking nice, deep breaths and put your hands on my shoulders.  Then we’re  gonna  walk down together.”  

Alex nodded.  He really didn’t want to be touched but at least this offered him so me  sense of control.   

Michael moved ahead of him and stood on the stair making him a head shorter than Alex.  With shaking hands, he held onto Michael’s shoulders and they slowly made their way down.  By the time Alex landed on solid ground, he had managed to slow his breathing and stop crying.    

He had never been so embarrassed.  

Alex sniffed and kept his eyes on the ground.  “Thanks.”  

“No problem.  I’ve been there.”  

That made Alex look up.  He didn’t see pity or discomfort in Michael’s eyes, just honesty.  

“Are you feeling up to driving home?  If not, I don’t mind taking you or waiting with you until you’re up for it.”  

Alex took a deep breath and gave his best imitation of a smile.  “ Thanks  but I’m okay.  Just looking forward to going to bed.”  

He took his keys out of his pocket and headed to the car.  He turned as he opened the door.  “Thanks again, Michael.  I appreciate it.”   

Michael smiled and nodded and headed off towards his car.  

::  

Alex didn’t go to group  anymore.  

::  

Therapy had been a mess.  He had cried and yelled, refused to speak.  Alex had actually walked out when Mark started questioning whether or not he was taking his meds.  

Of course  he was taking his fucking meds.    

He left the office in the evening, shaking like a leaf and spiraling.  

He needed a drink.  

The Wild Pony was the local dive bar where he was pretty sure he’d be able to drink in peace.  He headed in, order a shot, then one more, then a beer.  He took his drink to a corner booth and downed it almost instantly.  Alex’s vision swam as he looked at his phone, swiping through photos.  He knew other people had hundreds of pictures.  Family, friends, travels, art, all kinds of things.  Alex had three photos.  A picture of a dog he had hoped to adopt but couldn’t get the balls to go through with from 3 years ago.  A picture of a guitar he had seen in Albuquerque that he loved but  never bought .  A picture of a cabin he had seen for sale that seemed perfect for him.  Again.   Lack of balls .  

By the time he looked up, he was good and messed up.  His tongue felt huge and his mouth was incredibly dry.  He wanted another beer but as soon as he stood, the bar shifted and he lost his balance.  After grabbing hold of the table to reorient himself, he laughed and headed off toward the bar.  

It took some convincing but the bartender gave him one more beer and closed his tab  out .  Alex had loudly thanked the man and took a sip of his drink, less out of a desire to take it slow and more out of a desire to not wear it down his front.  

He was zoning out, staring at the sports memorabilia behind the bar when he heard his name.  

He turned to come face to face with Michael.  

Michael.  

The beautiful man who made sure he was okay after his first session.   

The rugged cowboy who made him laugh and relax over a hot cup of coffee and greasy burger.  

The sensitive  soul  who literally helped him stop spiraling in the middle of a church parking lot.  

The guy who had suddenly stopped returning texts.  

The dude who didn’t answer his phone when he called.  

The man who had shut him out when Alex couldn’t get the courage to go back to group .  

The seeming stranger who had a beautiful red-headed woman hanging around his neck.  

Alex thought he was either going to throw up, cry or pass out .  

Instead, he laugh ed .  

“Michael!” He was having a bit of a hard time controlling the volume of his voice and he was squinting since nothing seemed to be willing to come into focus.  

“Alex, what the hell?  Are you okay?”    

Michael took hold of his bicep as he got up from his stool far  to o  quickly and almost fell over.  

“Am I okay?” Alex slurred.  “You care now, huh?”  

Alex could just make out the look on Michael’s face.  He couldn’t quite read it but he could  see  Michael wouldn’t meet his eye.  

“You,” he turned and poked the red-head in the shoulder, “are very beautiful.  Michael’s a lucky, lucky, guy.”  He tossed a few bucks down on the bar and decided that was enough excitement for tonight.  “Have a fabulous night ,  kids!”  

He was moving towards where he thought the door was and was struggling to get his keys out of his pockets when a strong hand on his chest stopped him in his tracks.  

“Oh no way in hell are you driving, Manes.”    

Alex jerked back.  It was like taking a hit.    

“I’m Alex. Not Manes.  Alex.”  

Maybe it was the cold snap in his voice made Michael pay attention but he took a step back from Alex and lowered his hand.  

Alex went to move around him, noting Michael pulling his hair slightly.    

It pissed him off.  Why the fuck was Michael upset?  He had been MIA for weeks and now he cared?  That’s not how it works.  

Y’know ,” Alex slurred as he turned back to Michael, “I think this is my fault.  No  I really do.”  

He put his hand on Michael’s chest, mimicking the other man’s move  from  a few moments earlier.  “I thought I finally had a friend, y’know?  I mean, that’s stupid, now that I’m saying  it  out loud.  Why would you give a shit about me?  The sad, gay vet, right?  Who’s gonna want me around?” He laughed.  How pathetic was he?  

“What made you cut me out, hmm? Was I too quiet?  Was it the panic attack?  Sorry about that! I should have planned that better.  Didn’t mean to make  you  uncomfortable.”  He could hear himself, how loud he was and the sarcasm dripping from his voice but he couldn’t stop it.  

“Or did you figure out I was into you?  Don’t  wanna  catch the gay?  I don’t think it’s possible  for me  to be any further in the closet but I can try if it makes  you  happy!”  

At some point he’d begun to cry.  He roughly wiped at his face and sniffled.  He noticed he had the attention of the few other bar-goers there.    

When he turned back to Michael, chest heaving from the drink and unloading everything he’d been carrying, he finally saw what he’d been waiting for.  

Pity.  

Alex bit his lip, determined to push the bile back down.  He already showed enough weakness tonight.  No more.  

He took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes once more.  He made eye contact, as painful as it was, and simply said “bye Michael.”  

He headed outside, unsure what to do.  He knew he couldn’t drive, not that he could figure out where the hell his car was anyway, but he was out of cash.  He went around the side of the building where it was dark and out of sight.  He sat down on the ground, his prosthetic rubbing badly causing pain all the way up to his hip, and put his head in his hands.  

The last thing he remembered was sobbing and being overwhelmed with humiliation.  

::  

Alex woke to the sun shining on his face and the worst headache of his life.  He groaned and then held onto his head as the sound made him feel like a railroad spike was being pounded into his skull.  

As he carefully stretched himself  out  he froze.  He heard a noise and realized he wasn’t alone.  

In fact, he realized he had no idea how he got where he was.  

Alex was in his own bed in his own apartment but he didn’t remember how he got here.    

Again, he heard the noise.  

He carefully got up discovering he’d need his crutches since his prosthetic was off and finding them leaning against the wall next to his bed.  He was in his comfy sweats and a t-shirt, too.   

Did he manage to do this by himself last night?  

He carefully made his way into the kitchen, convinced that if someone wanted to rob  him  they would choose a better time than daylight hours.  He p oked  his head around the corner to see a familiar head of curls fighting with the coffee maker while humming .  

Jesus Christ, Michael was beautiful , but what the fuck was he doing there?  

He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.  Did they sleep together?  Did he just drive him here?  How would Michael know where he lived?  

He had so many questions.  But they could all wait until coffee.  

A bit sheepishly, Alex rounded the corner with a “hey.”  

Michael jumped a bit and smiled Alex’s way.  

“Hey.  I thought I heard you moving around so I figured I'd make you some coffee.  Get that down and then I’m  gonna  cook all the bacon you have.  I’m guessing you don’t feel your best?”  

Alex chuckled, which he instantly regretted,  h o lding o nto his head with a groan.  “ Gimmie  the coffee.   Gimmie .”  He wasn’t above grabby hands.  

He took a seat at the small table he had in the kitchen and looked around.  At least the place looked good.  

He actually liked his apartment.  It was really bright with beautiful hardwood floors.  It was small but comfortable.   It would do.  

Michael joined him at the table, his own cup of coffee cradled in his hands.  When Alex looked up, he took in the serious look that met his.  

Alex sighed.  “If we’re  gonna  have this talk, I need to finish this coffee, have some Tylenol and then have more caffeine.”  

Michael smiled this beautiful, reassuring thing.  “Sounds fine with me.”  

::  

Once Alex had a few cups of coffee with some painkillers and they had made some idle chit chat, Alex started.  

“How did I get home?”    

Michael slouched in the chair a bit, one arm out straight, pushing his cup around the table a bit.  “What’s the last thing you remember?”  

Alex leaned his chin on his hand, taking his nails into his mouth.  

“I remember sitting at a booth at the Pony.”  

Michael squinted at him and tilted his head.  “That’s it?  Seriously?”  

Alex nodded, eyes on his coffee.  He felt his cheeks flame with shame.  

“I’m sorry.”  

Michael shook his head.  “No apologizing.  Just talking.”  

Alex let out a shaky breath and nodded.  “Okay.”  

“You were really fucked up, Alex.  Like bad.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone that hammered before.”  

Alex blinked rapidly, determined to hold his tears back.  He considered Michael a friend, his only friend.  He really wanted to be honest.  He just didn’t want to break open in the process.  

“Um, I’m not really supposed to drink.”  He scratched his eyebrow, again unable to meet Michael’s gaze.  “It interacts with my meds.”  

Michael nodded.  “That makes sense.”  His eyebrows lifted.  “That’s why we always got coffee instead of a beer?”  

Alex nodded.  “Yeah.  I’m usually really good about it.”  

So  what happened?  What made you change your mind?”  

Alex moved his cup in circles, pushing the handle around.  Some people had mugs that showed off something about themselves.  Places they’ve gone, things they like d , funny sayings.  

Alex’s mugs were all plain white.  

That meant something, right?  

Alex sighed.  Maybe he was thinking about this all wrong.  Maybe he needed to face facts.  Michael was here but he wouldn’t be for long.  He had cut Alex out for weeks.  If he’s  gonna  leave anyway, at least let the truth be what puts the final nail in.  

“Do you remember that guy, Josh, who came to the group?”  

Michael nodded.  “After that one session he didn’t come back.”  Alex looked up at that.  Michael just kept going.  “I think a lot of us were okay with that,” he shrugged.  “Group’s supposed to be a safe place but not just for one person, you know?  He made a lot of people uncomfortable and I think Lorna ended up having a hard time reining him in.”  

Alex nodded.  That made sense.  

“Um, well, that guy’s story, almost like verbatim,” Alex took a deep breath, “is mine, too.”  

Michael’s eyes got impossibly big.  Alex felt a tear move down his cheek but quickly wiped it away.  

“I thought I was dealing with it, moving forward.  I was having so few panic attacks and I got to the point where I could work through them totally on my own.  I was planning for  the  future.  I looked at a house and thought about adopting a dog.  I was going to therapy and attending that group.  I met you.”  

He couldn’t hold the tears back.  He just need ed  to get  it  out.  Each word out of his mouth felt like a weight lifted from his chest.  He couldn’t stop now.  

“And then Josh talked about his childhood and he was clearly so  d a maged a nd angry.  And I just couldn’t handle it.  Hearing someone else went through what I did and seeing how fucked up they still are?  It was a mirror.”  

Michael shook his head and whispered a soft “no” but Alex nodded and powered through.  

“It was.  I have no friends, Michael.  I haven’t dated pretty much ever.  I got pushed into the military as punishment for being queer by my dad and then stayed cause as a grown fucking man I was terrified to come home.  Now  I‘ m alone, disabled and fucking terrified of my own shadow.  But I had managed to convince myself that I was better , y’know?   That maybe I could cut back on therapy soon.  My doctor might start pulling back on my meds.  Until fucking Josh.”  

He wiped roughly at his eyes and then put his head in his hands.    

“The meds are for PTSD, anxiety and depression.  I’m on high doses so drinking can be dangerous.  But I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I wanted to be numb, just for a little while, and I thought that might be how I could get there.   Now look at me.”  He let out a humorless laugh.  “ I’m still sad and anxious, just with  a massive side of  embarrassment.”  

He moved his hands into his hair and pulled slightly, the brief hint of pain reorienting him.  HIs throat hurt from talking and crying, his stomach rolled with leftover booze and too much honesty and his eyes felt swollen and sore.  He just wanted to go to bed and stay there.   

He heard Michael let out a shaky breath and dared to glance up through his lashes.  

Time to say goodbye.  

Alex wiped his eyes and took a deep breath in and out.    

“You’ve been nothing but really nice to me and I liked spending time with you.  But it’s not your responsibility to take care of me.  You’re going to group, too, you’ve got your own shit to focus on.  You definitely don’t need my shit, too.  And I don’t want pity,” he shook his head resolutely.  “I just want peace.”  

They stared at each other for what seemed like hours although only a few seconds must have ticked by.  Alex needed to get away.  

“Thank you for whatever you did last night.  I’m assuming you figured out I lived here and drove me home, took care of me.  I’m really grateful.  But I’ll be okay.”  He gave a small smile and grabbed his crutches.  

“I’m  gonna  take a shower.  I’ll see you around.”  

::  

When he got out of the shower Michael was gone.  

He was relieved .    

A nd absolutely fucking devastated.  

::  

Alex had sat on the edge of his bed in nothing but his towel for about an hour, just thinking about the events of the last 24 hours.  He tried desperately to remember anything he may have said to Michael at the bar but kept coming up blank.  He knew he could be an asshole when he drank but he didn’t know what he was like when it mixed with his meds.  

After a bit of self-loathing he got dressed and had something small to eat.  He called his psychiatrist and made an appointment for the  afternoon,  grateful they could fit him  i n on such short notice.  

He called a cab and got a ride back to the Pony to collect his jeep, keys found suspiciously easy on the kitchen counter.  

His appointment went pretty well.  He was honest about his downward turn and his drinking the night before.  After a lengthy discussion  and a small lecture , they increased the dose of one of his meds with the promise that he shouldn’t feel any additional effects.    

He filled his new prescription and called Mark’s office.  He couldn’t fit him in until his next regularly scheduled appointment but Alex knew that would be alright.   He decided to take it easy, his leg still sore from too much use the day before.    

Sleep   and oblivion still sounded good.  

::  

The next morning, Alex was awoken by a knock on the door.  Literally no one visited him so he figured a neighbor needed something and would eventually give up.  

When the knocking persisted, Alex groaned.  Not bothering to put on a shirt, he grabbed his crutches and got to the front door, pulling it open with an unfriendly “what?”  

Michael stood before him, smile fading, with two cups of coffee and a takeaway bag.    

Alex immediately softened.  “Oh. I’m sorry.  I thought you’d be some pushy neighbor or something.”  

He could tell Michael wasn’t really listening as Alex noticed his eyes scanning his chest.  When a war takes your leg, that’s not typically the only scar it leaves behind.  Alex had  made some peace with  his scars.  A sign of survival , he figured .  And he was proud that the scars lay on top of strong, unmoving muscle.  He may never do a successful squat again but he could do crunches and pull-ups all day, every   day.     

It didn’t mean he was ready for people to see him, though.  

“I’m sorry.  Let me get a shirt.”  

Michael shook his head.  “No apologies, remember?   And I’m not bothered, really. ”  He looked around a bit awkwardly and then laughed.  “Can I come in or should I just give you these and run?”  

“Shit, yeah of course, c’mon in.”  He moved out of the way letting Michael come in.  He noticed it was a gorgeous day, his tightly closed blinds keeping away the light.  He shut the door and opened up the living room windows, a soft breeze and gentle light illuminating the room.  

That  felt better.  

“So.” He turned to find Michael sitting comfortably at the kitchen table.  “What are we doing today?”  

Alex chuckled, pulling on a t-shirt that had been thrown over the back of his couch.  “I thought I’d start with a triathalon, then watch Saving Private Ryan and end with a bender at the Pony.  You?”  

Michael laughed.  “I think I’ll stick with you, living on the edge like that.”  Both men laughed.  As much as Alex was happy to have Michael here, being greeted with kindness and soft eyes first thing in the morning, he had to ask.  

“Michael, why are you here?”  

Alex just received an eyebrow raise in return.  “Seriously.  I appreciate it, coffee’s great by the way, but you vanished for like three weeks and then saw my shit storm of a life so-.”  

Michael just leaned back in his chair, smirk firmly in place.  “You really don’t remember anything from the other night, do you?”  

Alex’s brow furrowed.  He hesitatingly shook his head with a drawn out “no.”    

Michael nodded absentmindedly, looking as though he was lost in thought.  He suddenly stood up and moved right into  Alex’s  space.    

Alex’s breath caught in his chest and he felt himself lean  toward  Michael like a magnet.    

“There’s only about three more group sessions happening.  Are you  gonna  go back?”  Michael asked with a tilt to his head.  

Alex looked down at the ground.  Shame quietly crawled up his spine.  

“No.  I don’t think I can.”  

Eyes firmly on the brown and blue cowboy boots before him, Alex couldn’t look up.  He started memorizing the pattern when a  quiet  “good” made him look up,  

“Good?  Why good?”  

Michael just smiled.  “I’d like to pick you up at six tonight.”  

Alex was confused.  “Okay but for what?”  

Michael’s smile grew, making him look so young and carefree.  “For a date, dumbass.”  

Alex’s jaw dropped.  “What?”  

The eyebrow  raise  returned, making Alex feel like jelly.  “A date.  I want to spend one on one time with you because I’m attracted to you and want to get to know you better.  I’m pretty sure that’s why most people go on dates.   And group therapy sessions don’t tend to be conducive to romance.   He wiggled his eyebrows for emphasis.  

“Well, yeah, but me?  You got a  first row  seat to this  disaster .  Why?”  Alex was in shock.  He figured he’d secretly pine for Michael until eventually the feeling vanished or became so  quiet  he could ignore it.  He never thought it could be mutual.  

“God you really have no idea, do you?”  Alex just shook his head, confusion still written all over his face.  

“I’m picking you up at six and then we’ll go from there.  Dress comfortable.”   

Michael started to move toward the door when he stopped and turned back.  The look in his eye made heat rise in Alex’s face but he stood still, eyes never leaving Michael’s.  As he got closer, Alex’s heart rate picked up.  Michael leaned in, giving him the smallest brush of a kiss to his cheek and said “see you soon” with a wink.  The door closed behind him and Alex was still frozen.    

Holy shit.  

He couldn’t stop the smile.  

::  

The nerves had kicked in about five o’clock.  He’d never been on a date before.  Ever.  He wasn’t sure what the expectations were.  What he was supposed to do.  He dressed comfortably like Michael had said.  Black jeans, boots and a blue t-shirt.  It was the middle of summer now and he didn’t want to be sweating like a pig if they were outside.  

He had been moving around the house for an hour, cleaning things that were already clean, pacing, siting then standing, just trying to calm the anxiety.   

When the knock on the door finally came, five minutes early, Alex could hear his pulse in his ears.  But for the first time in a very long time, it wasn’t caused by panic.  

He was excited.  

He opened the door and thought he might pass out right there.  Tight jeans and a plain white t-shirt were all Michael Guerin needed to look like sex on legs.  Alex cleared his throat, trying to calm the wave of pure want that had moved through him.  

“Hey, you look good.  You ready?”  

Michael sounded so relaxed and casual.  Alex hoped he could learn.  

“Um, yep.  Yeah.  I’m ready.”  Alex practically giggled.   Get your shit together  ran through his head.  

They got into Michael’s truck, an old beat up bruiser that was the most comfortable thing Alex had ever sat in when he asked “where are we headed?”  

Michael smirked.  It really shouldn’t have been as attractive as it was.  “Are you alright with surprises?”  

Alex nodded.  “As long as they’re reasonable, sure.”  

Michael smiled.  “Then it’s a surprise.”  With that, they headed out.  

::  

Turns out, Michael Guerin is a big ole soft romantic.  They started in their usual place, ordering their usual coffee and burgers, which helped Alex to relax.  He felt the tension easing off the further into the meal they went.    

When they were all done, they climbed back into Michael’s truck and drove into the desert.  By then, the sun had set and left a slight chill in the air.  They kept driving and making small talk, Alex really enjoying Michael’s company.  There was nothing he’d discovered about Michael so far that he didn’t like.  

He was so intelligent and really empathetic.  He had a great sense of humor but knew when to use it and when to back off.  He was aggressive and brutally honest when needed but he could be sensitive and soft-spoken, too.  

Alex was head over heels.  

Eventually the truck came to a stop and Alex  realized  they were literally in the middle of the desert.    

“You kidnapping me, Michael?”    

Michael just laughed and made his way out of the truck.  He headed toward the truck bed and vanished.  Alex had been tracking him in the rearview mirror and figured he was meant to follow.  So he hopped out and went to the back.  

He found Michael laying in the truck bed on a blanket, hands behind his head revealing a trail of hair headed below his belt buckle.  Next to him was a paper container that looked to ha ve  the Crashdown’s famous churros and a bottle of Dr. Pepper, Alex’s preferred drink.    

“Michael?”    

Alex got a muffled “hmm” in return.    

“Um, would you help me up?”    

Michael sat up,  small  smile and  offered his hand like the fucking Disney prince he was.   “ O f course.”  

A little wiggling an d grunting  and Alex  was  lying next to Michael looking  up  at the stars.  

“This is amazing.”  Again, Michael gave a content ed  noise of agreement.  

After some comfortable silence Michael spoke.  “When I was little, I always came here.  One foster home after another just proved to be shit so, when I’d inevitably run away, I always came to the desert.”  

Alex turned to look at Michael, the other man’s eyes trained to the skies.  He thought he saw a glassiness take over that hadn’t been there a minute ago.  

“It was always comforting,” Michael continued.  “I like to believe we aren’t  alone,  you know?  That there’s so little we know about the universe, maybe there’s something better out there.  I think it’s fascinating now, as an adult.  The possibilities seem endless.  But as a kid, I kept hoping something would come save me.  That there was someone out there who loved me.  Who could look at me and realize I was loud and combative and difficult because I was so  lonely.   I just wante d someone to  love  me .”    

Michael broke after the last word and Alex couldn’t stand it anymore.   He moved in closer and lifted his arm as an invitation, unwilling to invade Michael’s space without his permission.  To his relief, Michael moved in and put his head on Alex’s chest.  

Alex could feel the material of his shirt getting wet.  He wanted nothing more than  to  comfort Michael, to  make  him feel just an ounce of the peace Michael had brought to him.  Alex held him tight and rocked a bit, whispering what he hoped were words of acceptance and kindness in Michael’s ear.  

Eventually, Michael pulled away and sat up, pulling his knees to his chest.  He wiped his eyes and looked sideways at Alex.  

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean for that to happen.”  

Alex just smiled and shook his head.  “No apologies, remember?”  

Michael smiled at that.  “Besides, I know I’m not the only one with some baggage.  We have to be able to unload it from time to time.”  

“Yeah,” Michael grimaced, “but maybe not on our first date.”  

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Isn’t this how all dates go?”  

Both men laughed.  Alex sat up, grabbing a churro and a soda and leaned back against the cab.  “This is still amazing.  Thank you for bringing me here, Michael.”  

Michael moved back, Alex’s side heating up where Michael’s body touched his own.    

First date down.  Alex hoped there was an endless number left to go.  

::  

Each day for a week Michael came over in the morning with coffee and some food.  They talked a little about their pasts but mostly about what they would do that day.  Sometimes they were brave enough to discuss their futures.  

Michael continued with the group  until it wrapped up , getting along well with some of the members and  finally  feeling comfortable sharing some personal history.  He still worked at the yard but had cut back on his mechanics hours once he realized it didn’t bring him joy.  

Alex admired that about him.  If something didn’t make Michael happy, he cut it loose and went from there.  Alex tended to do the opposite.  The thing that hurt him or brought him down was the thing he clung to and analyzed to death.  

After about five dates, Alex was starting to wonder what they were.  He loved every second he got to spend with Michael but he wanted to know how casual this was.  Or how serious.  

So he decided to take a risk.  

On a Saturday morning he texted Michael ,  asking if he could pick him up for a drive.  Michael, always up for an adventure, quickly agreed.    

Alex brought him a coffee and they headed out, windows down and music blaring.  Every two miles Michael asked if they were there yet earning him a pinch from Alex each time.  

About forty minutes later they pulled up outside of a cabin, secluded from the main drag.  It had a space cleared in the front with a small lawn and a front porch that could easily fit some chairs.    

“Well this is romantic.  Motel 6 not good enough for you?”  Alex stuck his tongue out at Michael which Michael gave right back.  

“Actually,” Alex pulled a set of keys out from his pocket, “I’m thinking about buying this place.”  

Michael stopped where he stood.  “Seriously?”  

Alex nodded and went up the few stairs to the front door.  Once inside he couldn’t help his smile.  He hoped it would look as good in person as it did in the photos.    

There was one large room, kitchen, dining room and living area.  Tons of windows that made it feel bright and airy.  As they moved further into the house, they found one bathroom with a tub which Alex would have to rip out and a huge bedroom that overlooked the woods that surrounded the house.    

“Wow.”  Michael leaned over the railing on the porch, taking in the surroundings.  “Alex this place is amazing.”  

“Yeah.  I knew I’d be able to relax out here.  Plus,” Alex continued as he moved toward Michael who had now stood up straight and turned toward him, “I  think I’m  ready to look to the future now.”  

Alex raised his hands to Michael’s waist once they had moved themselves close enough together.  He paused, giving Michael time to back away if he wanted, but he only got a smile in return.  As he leaned in, Michael’s hands came up to cup Alex’s cheeks.  

As first kisses go, Alex didn’t think it could get any better.  Soft lips, callused hands, the scratch of stubble.  It went on and on, neither man wanting to stop.  

When they eventually pulled away, the smile on Michael’s face was blinding.  Alex  had  never felt so  fantastic  in his life.  

“So,” Michael sighed out.  He leaned his forehead against Alex’s.  “You  gonna  buy this place? Cause I have to admit, I’m pretty partial to it.”  

Alex laughed and brought his hands to Michael’s face.  “Yeah, I think I might.”  

No one was around to judge them making out like teenagers.  

::  

The day Alex moved into the cabin, Michael had shown up with coffee, pizza and a ready to work attitude.  There wasn’t too much to move in but Alex had ordered a bunch of furniture online that needed to be assembled so they spent most of the day arguing about whether or not Michael needed to read the instructions and redoing half the work because he  had  insisted he didn’t.  

At the end of the night, exhausted but proud of the amount of work they’d done, they sat on the couch, feet up on the  brand new  coffee table, in companionable silence.  Alex had his head resting on the back of the couch and turned to look at Michael.    

The last few weeks had been a whirlwind.  Trying group therapy, spiraling, rebuilding, buying a home.  But through it all was one perfect constant.  

Michael.  

Michael, who brought the quiet, the peace, the calm.  The hope of what his future could hold.  

He brought happiness.  

“Michael?”  

He swallowed the last of his coffee and stretched out a bit more on the couch with a “mmm.”  

“I love you.”  

Michael turned to face Alex and the look of shock would make Alex laugh usually, but the longer the silence dragged on the heavier the fear in Alex’s gut grew.  

After Michael made no attempt to move or say anything, Alex smiled and tried to escape.    

He moved to push up from the couch, struggling a bit with how much he’d sunken in.  “It’s been a really long day, I think I might-”  

But he was stopped as Michael climbed into his lap, strong thighs holding Alex in place, hands coming to either side of his face.    

Michael leaned in so he was just a breath away from  Alex’s   lips  when he said “I love you, Alex.”  

Without any hesitation, Alex pulled Michael as close to him as he could.  Eventually, clothes were shed and they some how made it to the bedroom.  

Alex had had sex before.  Never with anyone he cared about, sometimes even with people whos e  names he didn’t know  or couldn’t remember .    

He couldn’t believe how amazing it could be.  

He felt himself fall into  Michael,  feeling as though they were one.  Michael knew exactly what Alex needed and when he needed it.  Michael had him begging and falling apart with almost no effort.    

He never wanted it to end.  

But ,  of course ,  it did, with warm, strong arms, a steady heart  be a t a nd soft breaths in his hair.  Alex held tight to Michael’s waist, thinking that being held by Michael for the rest of his life would be just fine.  

He fell asleep with hope and excitement  and an “I love you” in his ear .  

::  

Alex jerked awake.    

The room was still covered in darkness and Alex was f ound  he  was   struggling  catch his breath.  His heart pounded in his chest and he realized he’d dreamt of  fists and slurs and hate .    

He fell back onto his pillow and reached out, hoping for some comfort from Michael, but found  emptiness .  He stilled and listened, hoping Michael had gone to the bathroom or was in the kitchen.  When he heard nothing, he reached over to check his phone but it  was  slippery  so  it fell to the floor with a thud.    

That’s when he realized his hand was wet.  

He sat up quickly and turned on his bedside table.  His right hand was a mess.  The skin that covered his knuckles was broken and bleeding.  He looked down and his chest was marked with bruises and scratches, some of those bleeding as well.    

No.  No no no.  

He reached over the bed and grabbed his phone.  He called Michael.  When he got no answer ,  he tried again. And again.  And again.    

He checked his texts and found exactly what he was afraid of.  

I couldn’t wake you up.  I can’t help you.  I can’t do it.   I’m sorry.  

Alex leaned back against the headboard.  The only sound was his rapid breathing.    

How long had he been lashing out?  He’d never shared a bed with anyone so he didn’t realize.  He’d woken up a few times to his pillows or blanket on the floor but never anything to show violence like that.  

Alex sat up slowly, grabbed his crutches and moved to the shower, turning it up as hot as it could go.  Before he got in, he moved to the toilet and fell onto the floor, violently vomiting everything he’d eaten that day.    

He wiped the tears from his eyes and crawled into the shower.  He sat on the floor unmoving.  

How could he hurt Michael?  Why couldn’t he wake up?  What the fuck was he  gonna  do now?  

He sobbed and screamed until the water got cold.  

::  

The next morning Alex called Mark’s office and begged for an appointment.  He hadn’t had the courage to reach out to Michael past a voicemail where he just said “I’m so sorry.  I love you.”  

He had cried for another forty five minutes after that.  

Mark’s office had grown to be a place of safety for Alex.  The soft grey tones on the wall, the beautiful photos of landscapes, the comfortable furniture.  Alex took a deep breath.  He was desperate to figure this out.  

So  Alex, tell me what’s been happening.  The last I knew, you bought a home, you had a boyfriend you really cared about and you were thinking about adopting a dog.”  

Alex nodded.  “I’ve never been happier or felt so safe in my life.  The cabin is so perfect.  It’s quiet and peaceful.  I’m close enough to town so I don’t feel isolated but I’m far enough away that I can have the space I need.  And Michael.  I don’t think there’s enough words to describe how amazing he is.  He’s everything to me.”  

He wiped away the tear that escaped.  

“That’s wonderful to hear.  I have to assume something has happened?”  

Alex nodded.  

“Last night I had a nightmare.  I don’t remember all if it, just being pinned against the wall and being called names.  Getting hit.  I’m sure it was him.  Then I-”  

“It was who?”  Mark tilted his head.  

Alex rubbed his face.  “My dad.”  

Mark nodded.  “Okay.  Then what happened?”  

Alex cleared his throat and rubbed at his knuckles, the pain he felt grounding him.  “I was shaken, after the nightmare.  I hadn’t had one in a bit but I was so relieved to know I could roll over and have Michael there.  He’s been so supportive and understanding.  I knew he’d-” Alex just let the tears fall, his voice breaking over each word.  “I knew he’d just hold me and not ask questions.  At least not until it was light outside.”  

He put his head into his hands.  “But I reached out and he wasn’t there and I didn’t hear him moving around the house.”  

Alex felt the bile rising in his throat.  He stood up and started pacing, his tears quickly turning into a sobbing hysteria.    

“My knuckles were messed up and my chest was all scratched and bruised.  There was blood all around.”  

“You hurt Michael?”  

Alex sobbed and nodded.  

“Is Michael okay?  Physically, I mean?”  

Alex shrugged.  “I think so.  He sent me a text telling me he couldn’t do it.  He couldn’t be with me.  And his car was gone so he drove home.”  

“Okay.   So  let’s talk about a few things.  Are you taking your meds as prescribed?”  

Alex nodded.  

“Excellent.  Are you taking any illicit drugs or drinking?”  

Alex shook his head no.  

“That’s good.  And you didn’t finish the group therapy?”  

Alex shook his head.  

“Okay.  I’d like to talk about that.”  

Alex talked about Josh and his story and how much it had scared him, previously avoiding the subject with Mark.  He also talked about how Michael had been the one to pick him up and put him back together.  

“Michael found the cabin for you?”  

Alex furrowed his brow.  “No, I found it.”  

“Got it.  So Michael bought it for you?”  

“What? No, I bought it.”  

“I see.  Michael renovated it for you?”  

“Well he definitely helped me but I did a lot of it.”  Alex was getting pissed.  “What is this?”   

Mark smiled.  “Alex, Michael is clearly important to you and, from what you’ve told me, his feelings for you are obvious, but you’ve got to stop giving him credit for everything.”  

Alex bowed his head, pulling at the skin by one of his nails.  “Alex, look at me please.”  

With a sigh, Alex looked up.  “I want you to really listen to what I’m about to say.  You decided to call this office and start talking to a counselor.  You decided to go to the group therapy.  You decided to put effort into developing a friendship with Michael.  You decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to return to group after what happened with Josh.  You decided to buy a home.  You decided to try a relationship.  You decided to keep taking your meds.  You decided to keep your doctors’ appointments.  You decided to come here today to talk about this.”  

Alex wiped his eyes again.  He didn’t think he’d ever cried so much in his life.  

“You’ve got some things you need to work through, sure.  Alex, a lot of people do.  But you need to make an effort, every day, to remember the major leaps you have taken.  Michael is safe.  You did not intentionally hurt him.  You called me immediately so this can be addressed and it can stop.  You aren’t a bad man and Michael is not your savior.”  

Alex nodded.  “That’s a lot to take in.”  

Mark just smiled and nodded.  “Doesn’t make it any less true, though.”  

“So, Michael isn’t my savior.  I did some of this growth on my own.  But I still want him.  So much.  What do I do now?  How can I keep him safe or show him how sorry I am?”  

Mark smiled again.  “That’s what we’ll try to figure out.”  

::  

It took time.  Alex found a new group and forced himself to participate.  He didn’t like the leader as much as he’d liked Lorna but he found that he could open up and be a little vulnerable the second time around.  

He continued to see Mark weekly, working through not only his trauma from the war but discussing some of what would come up in group.    

Alex kept regular contact with his psychiatrist, balancing his meds and their side effects a challenge in and of itself.  

After his group therapy ended, Alex had to admit he felt lighter.  He missed Michael so much he felt he was drowning sometimes, but the dark cloud that had followed him for over a decade was starting to dissipate.  

His psychiatrist set up a sleep study for him, a way to monitor him while he slept.  Although it wasn’t a guarantee for how he would behave every night, Alex didn’t lash out at all.  

For maybe the first time in his life, he was proud of himself.  

::  

He stood outside the door, not able to move.  He wasn’t sure what he’d find or how he’d be greeted but it was time.  He’d walked through this scenario multiple times with Mark, a bunch of the possible outcomes that could occur.  Now he was here, he was terrified.  

With a deep breath and a quiet, “c’mon Alex” he knocked on the door and waited.  

When the door opened, Alex’s stomach erupted with butterflies and he couldn’t help the smile that spread.  Michael looked gorgeous.  His hair was just a bit longer and his stubble a bit more out of control but he was still Michael.  

Alex’s smile dropped when he saw the look on Michael’s face.  He needed to focus.  They hadn’t seen each other or spoken in a few months.  The last time they’d been in the same room, Alex had unconsciously beaten him.    

Alex cleared his throat.  “Hi.”  

Michael blinked rapidly, clearly shocked at Alex’s presence.  

“Um, I owe you so much.  The least of which is an explanation and an apology.  I don’t know what you’ve been up to.  I hope you’ve been happy and healthy, of course.”    

Jesus he was awkward.  

“Anyway, I’ve been getting a lot of help.  They changed up my meds and I went to a new group.  I see a therapist every week without fail.  I even had this sleep test last week and, I mean, I have a lot to still do but I wa-”  

Alex stopped  mid sentence  when he saw a man emerge in just a towel from behind Michael.    

How had that not been one of the scenarios?   Of course  Michael would move on.  He was perfect and it had been so long.  And, oh yeah, Alex had hurt him.  

He still couldn’t help the tears that sprung to his eyes.  

“Shit.”  Alex let out a humorless laugh.  He felt like a complete asshole.    

Michael looked over his shoulder and turned back to Alex, rubbing the back of his head.  

“Alex I-”  

“No Michael.  You owe me absolutely nothing.”  He gave a sad smile.  “Here.”  He handed Michael the two coffees and breakfast sandwiches he brought over.  “A peace offering.”  

Michael took them slowly, looking horribly uncomfortable.  Alex regretted showing up.  Michael had his own life now and then there’s Alex to fuck it all up  again.   Towel guy came up behind Michael and wrapped his arms around Michael’s waist, leaning his chin on his strong shoulder.  

“What’s this?”  

Alex sniffed.  “I owed Michael a breakfast from a while ago.  I’m just getting to repay it now.”  

“Sweet.  I’m Jake.”  Towel man offered his hand.  Alex thought he was  gonna  pass out.  He shook Jake’s hand.  “Alex.”  

“Nice to meet you.  You guys friends or?”  

Alex nodded.  “I’ll leave you to it.  Enjoy.”  He offered up what he hoped looked like a genuine smile and headed back to the car.    

When he climbed  in  he turned to look at the apartment to find the door already closed.  Alex already forgotten.  Alex left behind again.  

But it was his own fault.  

He screamed in frustration, cursing the tears that fell down his cheeks and slamming his hands on the steering wheel.  

He couldn’t blame Michael.  Refused to.  But Alex didn’t think his heart would ever be one solid organ again.  

::  

But life moves on.  Alex kept attending therapy with Mark and kept his doctor’s appointments.  He kept finding DIY projects to do around the house, determined to have as much of his personal stamp in the cabin as he could.    

He ended up joining a  vets  group which he had told himself he’d never do.  Mark connected him with a guy everyone called Smith.  A couple of vets would get together a few times a month to just do stuff.  They’d go out for a drink, go hiking, volunteer, whatever.  Just stay busy but as a unit.  Alex had always avoided groups like that since he didn’t want to sit around rehashing his time overseas.  He was really happy to find they barely ever talked about the war.  It was usually about five guys and two women and they just hung out and got to know each other.  

Alex liked Jen a lot, one of the women who had done two tours.  They discovered a shared love of music so they’d go concert hopping around the area.  He met her friends and they were just as cool as she was.    

He finally had people.  

When Alex told her he always wanted a dog, Jen became relentless about Alex following through.  

To the point of kidnapping.  

Jen had shown up at the cabin on a Saturday morning with two coffees and a mischievous smile.    

“Get in, Captain.  We’re going for a drive.”  

They listened to music and talked about nothing, Alex just enjoying her company.   

When they pulled up outside of the animal shelter, Alex had to laugh.  “You’re so fucking sneaky, Jen.”  

She just smiled and dramatically got out of the car.  

Alex followed behind and was greeted by a really kind woman behind the desk who wouldn’t stop thanking them for their service.  She finally led them through a set of double doors to a seemingly endless hallway with cages lining either side.  

“Ah, Jen, I’m  gonna  want all of them.”  Alex mussed up his hair as he passed by a shepherd and then some kind of mix with the biggest eyes he’d ever seen.  

He glanced to his left and stopped.  Sitting quietly right next to the cage door, looking right into Alex’s eyes, was a small beagle.  He moved closer and then the dog shimmied closer, too.  

A bit awkwardly, Alex crouched down and put his finger through one of the cage holes.  The dog nuzzled up close and licked his finger.  

“Do we have a winner there, Cap?”  Alex smiled and nodded.  “Yeah, I think so.”  

After a quick trip to the pet store, Alex opened the door to the cabin and Obi made himself comfortable right away.  

The cabin felt like home.  

::  

The following weekend, Alex was in the yard, trying to clean up some of the overgrown crap that had taken over while he had been focused on the inside of the cabin.  Obi was checking the perimeter, always coming back to Alex for a scratch and a loving word.  

While Alex was on his hands and knees pulling at some weeds, Obi started barking and headed toward the front of the house.  Jen tended to come and go as she pleased, sometimes with a few friends in tow, Alex’s cabin becoming the place to  hangout  and relax.      

“What’s up, Jen?” Alex spoke when he heard the footsteps and had Obi back in his orbit.  

“Who’s Jen?”  

Alex froze.  He melted as soon as he knew who was behind him.  He took a moment to steady himself, refusing to burst into tears at just the sound of Michael’s voice.  

He slowly turned and looked up, bringing his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sun.  “Hey.”  

Michael shuffled on his feet.  “Hey.”  

They were frozen in their silence for a few minutes, neither man quite sure what to say.  

“You look busy but I was hoping to talk if you have some time?”    

Alex nodded.  “Sure.  Do you mind if I clean up a bit first?”  

Michael shook his head.  “Of course not.  I can smell you from here anyway.”  Michael smiled and Alex couldn’t help but laugh.  It was just so easy to be with Michael, even after all this time.  

After the fastest shower of his life, Alex came out in his clean clothes to find Michael with a beer in one hand and Obi’s head in the other.  He was loving the new person who was clearly good at giving scratches.  

“So, I don’t mean to be rude, it’s nice to see you, but what are you doing here?”  

Michael sighed and sat up a bit straighter but not letting Obi go.  He was clearly helping Michael relax a bit, the same way he did for Alex.  

“I saw you last week.”    

Alex made a face.  “Where?”  

“There were a few of you.  That new house over on Main, it looked like you were building it?”  

Alex nodded.  “Oh yeah.  I hang out with a group of vets.  Sometimes we volunteer.”  

Michael looked surprised.  “That’s really cool, Alex.  Um, but anyway.   So  I saw you and I couldn’t look away.”  

Alex smiled at the blush that was rising on Michael’s cheeks.    

“Maybe it was the distance, that we hadn’t seen each other for a while, but you’ve never looked so beautiful.”  

It was Alex’s turn to be surprised.  “You just looked so relaxed and happy.  And that made me happy, too, you know?  But, I knew, I wanted to share that with you.  Be happy with you.”  

Alex looked down, not wanting Michael to see the tears coming to his eyes.  He blinked to try pushing them away.  “Michael I-”  

“No wait, let me finish.”  He took a deep breath and turned toward Alex.  “You scared the shit out of me.  I knew you didn’t hit me cause you wanted to hurt me but you were screaming and so obviously scared and I couldn’t make it stop.”  

Michael rubbed his eyes as tears fell so Alex stopped fighting his own.  

“I couldn’t watch you be in that kind of pain and I just thought that I had done nothing but distract you from getting better, so I left.”  

Alex shook his head in  protest  but Michael kept  going.   “I missed you every day and I worried about you every day but I knew you’d only get better if you focused on you and only you.  But I got lonely so I dated.  You met that one guy-”  

“Jake.” The name was bitter on Alex’s tongue.    

Michael nodded.  “I’m not gonna apologize for being with other people, Alex.  Just like I wouldn’t expect that from you.”  

Alex’s started to chew his fingernails, wanting a distraction from hearing about Michael’s dating history.  But Michael didn’t let that continue, taking Alex’s hand in his own.  

“I dated other people but I never stopped thinking about you.”  He wiped away the tears that stained Alex’s cheek.  “After you stopped by that day, I was done.  I knew that I had my own shit to sort through and I promised myself that once I was in a better place that I would reach out to you and see how you were.  I was feeling pretty good and then I saw you at that house.”  

Alex smiled and sniffled, squeezing Michael’s hand a bit tighter.    

“I could tell that you had done exactly what I hoped you would.  You were glowing, like, you were a brighter version of you.”  

“So,” Alex breathed.  “we’re in a better place now, on our own.  What happens next?”  

Michael’s smile brightened the room.  “Well, if you aren’t seeing anyone, I was hoping I could take you on a date.  Start again.”  

Alex laughed.  He moved forward, kissing Michael with everything he had, hoping it conveyed how much his feelings for his beautiful cowboy never changed.  

He pulled away, his forehead keeping contact with Michael’s, “only if it’s for coffee and burgers.”  

Michael smiled and kissed him again.  

The future looked so fucking good.