Chapter 1: deep in a corner of the night
Max Evans, leader of the Nova Prime Corps, has had better days.
“Isobel, you can’t be serious.”
His sister has been a chancellor with the Xandarian government since she first realized that she could use her powers to integrate into the society. They’re not natives of Xandar, but Antar is in alliance and has accepted their help in the time of need. Isobel has been working with the Xandarians for years and Max, her devoted twin, had gone along with her, earning the respect of his group as he fought in the Corps.
Now, she wants to blow it all up with this risky mission.
“Earth requires help,” Isobel says. “It’s come to a vote and we have decided to offer our support in a limited capacity. The planet is on the cusp of greater things and we want to ensure that should they venture out to our galaxies, we will begin our relationship on warm terms, where the Earthlings owe us a favor.”
Max has always hated the grey world of politics. He wants to give an order or a directive and have it followed. Instead, they’re being sent out into the furthest reaches of the universe to help a planet simply because they might soon become developed.
“I’ll get my best team together,” Max allows. “I can lead the operation from here and…”
He trails off when he sees the way everyone is avoiding his gaze. That is, everyone except for Isobel, who’s meeting Max’s eyes with an apologetic look, mouthing, ‘I’m sorry,’ to him.
“Unfortunately, though the problem is dire,” the counsel speaks, “we cannot risk the full force of the Nova Corps. Isobel has assured us that you would work with her to procure a ship and a non-Corps Captain to travel to Earth and assess the threat.”
“Captain?” Max shoots Isobel a confused look. “We don’t know any…”
Suddenly, this has gone from being an actual mission to looking like Isobel’s attempt at making Max face his issues.
Politics, he thinks derisively, and wonders if he’ll be able to get away with faking an injury or maybe even death to get out of the next few months of whatever mission Isobel has in mind for him and Michael to repair their issues. He’s in front of the whole Council at the moment, so he needs to comport himself with dignity.
“We’ll send an initial report once we’re in the sky,” Max says, saluting the group before he storms out, waiting in the long sunlit hall for what he knows is coming.
It takes two minutes, but then he hears the frantic clacking of Isobel’s heels on the tiles, rushing after him. “Max, hear me out…”
He's had two minutes to try and control his anger, but he’d need two days. Turning, he levels Isobel with his angriest look, which she has the audacity to not even look impacted by. “How could you walk me into that situation?” he demands. “This is basically some kind of suicide mission on Earth because…why?” That’s what he’s trying to figure out. “Is it a feather in your cap? Promotion? Or are you that desperate to get Michael and I to talk to one another?”
“I can’t multitask?” Isobel replies coolly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Max, I know you don’t think much of politics or my place in them, but this is the right thing to do. Are you going to let a whole planet suffer just because you don’t want to see him?”
Max presses his lips together so tightly that they all-but-disappear and he hates that she knows him so well. He slams his palm against the nearest wall to try and bleed out the last remnants of his anger.
“You really think he’s going to agree to this?”
“I think I know how much we need to pay him to,” Isobel counters. “Don’t remind me that I have to throw in extra pay for him to tolerate you.”
Max digs his fingers through his hair, not having bothered to take his gloves off, and half wishes that he had so he could channel some of his anger through his powers. Instead, he sags down onto the nearest bench, seeing Isobel coming to join him out of the corner of his eye.
“Why us?” he wonders, tired. “Haven’t we managed to get ourselves in enough trouble? I thought when we came here, we’d leave all that behind us. I know Michael didn’t want to stop exploring the universe and having adventures, but you and I agreed to settle down, try to have real lives. There’s a shelf life on space adventurers and doubly so on outlaws.”
“What about space heroes?” Isobel jokes. “I know you, Max.” She taps at his chest with two of her fingers. “Even without our connection, I know you. The minute you heard that Earth was in this kind of danger, you would have insisted that we go, breaking every single rule. This way, you get to go, we get to help, and no one gets into trouble.”
Max turns to give her a dubious look.
“You want me to take a weeks-long journey to Earth with our brother, who I haven’t spoken to for more than ten minutes in the last five years?” He gives Isobel a pointed look, even though Max knows that there’s no winning this fight with her. “And you say no one is going to get into any trouble? There’ll be a fist fight within the first hour!”
“I’m sure there’ll be plenty of fights,” she guarantees. “Between you and I, I’m sure we can keep ourselves out of trouble. Besides, you know deep down, Michael will want to help them just as much as you do. He’ll just refuse to admit it because he’s as stubborn of a bastard as you are.”
Max crosses his arms as he looks at Isobel, wondering if she’s actually thought this through.
“Who’s bankrolling this?”
“I am,” she retorts, as if she’s been waiting for him to ask. “Look, if this gets you two idiots talking to one another again, I’m willing to dig into my savings account. Besides, this is serious and it won’t stop at Earth.”
As much as he doesn’t want to be led around the universe on a wild goose chase, he also knows that he wouldn’t have been summoned unless the situation was truly serious. He also knows that Isobel wouldn’t dare risk her reputation if she hadn’t looked into the information and decided that it had been worth going after.
“Okay, fine, I’ll bite. What’s so important that you’re willing to try and repair a half-decade feud for?”
“We’ve detected that the Tesseract is back in play,” Isobel says. “The sources we have on Earth tell us that it’s been weaponized against alien life and it’s gone off the grid.”
Max feels the ice push through his veins. The stones are something that they’ve kept an eye on very carefully and for years, the location of all of them has been kept secret. While the Tesseract has been far from them, it’s been inert and the least dangerous thing. If they’ve lost eyes on it and it’s become weaponized, they have bigger problems than what it might do.
He starts walking towards the comms center where they can hail Michael. “Come on, we’ll talk strategy on the way,” he snaps at her. “How could they have lost it?”
“Questions we can ask when we get to Earth,” Isobel promises. “Let’s go find our ride.”
“You’re still counting on him taking us.”
“You know Michael. Enough credits and he’ll do anything and I’m willing to make him a very comfortable man.”
It just so happens that by giving Michael the money and comfort, Max is definitely in for some of the most uncomfortable weeks of his life, all to save the universe. They do tell you that you have to be ready to make sacrifices when you serve the Nova Corps.
He’s pretty sure the person who said that also never met Michael, though.
Alex Manes wakes up in a room outfitted to look like the 1940’s, but something is wrong.
His head aches and he tries to remember what happened when the plane went down. He thinks he remembers Carmen Ortecho’s voice on the radio, telling him that he needs to get home because she needs someone to dance with and Alex is the only one who knows all the steps and the only one she trusts.
“I know, querido, that you won’t do anything inappropriate, so come home and you and I can…”
Then, fuzziness. Both in his head and on the radio in his memory.
Alex sits up and stares at the clothes he’s been dressed in. They look like the pajamas he might wear from before his time in the army, but he hadn’t dressed himself in them. With a quick glance around the room, he notes that it’s completely sterile in its decoration. He’s fairly sure that the only splash of color is a desert flower in a nearby pot, yellow against all the stark white walls.
Is he dead? Is this the afterlife?
He grimaces as he looks down to the IV running into his arm, and when he tries to wriggle it out, there’s a blinding hot pain. He groans as he collapses back on the bed, deciding that he’s absolutely alive, because death shouldn’t hurt this much. He needs the serum to kick in and help him heal from whatever this is, but even that’s foreign to him.
What happened to him and why is he so cold?
Alarms start to go off as soon as Alex manages to get the IV out, which means he’s done something they don’t want him to do. That’s not new, but he’s expecting armed guards to come rushing in.
Instead, he gets a doctor without any backup, ambling in casually.
“Captain Manes,” the man who just walked in says, studying a chart and not really paying much mind to Alex at all. “My name is Dr. Kyle Valenti.”
Alex stares at him suspiciously. He’s wearing a doctor’s lab coat, but his fashion sense is either incredibly eclectic or he’s wearing some kind of costume. He’s wearing denim jeans that are far too fitted than anything he’s seen and a sweater that’s made of a material he can’t place.
“Where am I?”
“New York. You were brought here from where we found you.” Alex is prying at the monitors attached to his chest, which gets Valenti’s attention and his panic, quickly washing away that calm exterior. “Hey, don’t do that,” he protests, even as Alex rips out the last of them and gets to his feet – bare, the tiles cool under both feet. “I really don’t think you should…”
“I’m late for a dance.”
Valenti looks at him with a sympathetic look.
“Captain, it’s not 1945.”
Alex feels the dread starting to sink in his chest. The evidence is piling up the more he looks around the room, even if he doesn’t want to admit to it. The technology is nothing like what Carmen had been fiddling with back then, and everything looks sleeker. It looks colder, too, as if they’ve sucked the warmth out of the room.
He closes his eyes tightly and tries not to think about the people that had been waiting for him back in ’45. There’s Carmen, who’d promised to dance with him at the Stork Club because Alex couldn’t dance with any of the young men that he’d wanted to, and as much as he sometimes differed in opinion, his brothers had been his allies in the fight against the enemy.
The one person he won’t miss is his father and his denigrating voice telling him that Alex will never be enough, because he’s not a real man simply because of who he chooses to love.
“What happened to me?” he finally asks, even if he feels like some of the fight has bled out of him. It’s one hell of a sucker punch to find out that your entire world has vanished, only to be replaced with something he can’t even begin to recognize.
Valenti drags the visitor’s chair over to the side of the bed. “It’s 2019,” he says. “Our agents found you in the arctic, entombed in ice. When we found you, we picked up a trace heartbeat. That was three months ago. You’ve been slowly warming up here in our facility. Welcome to SHIELD, Captain Manes.”
“Alex,” he insists, distracted.
“Not Captain America, not Captain Manes,” he says, because he’d been a private before he’d undergone that transformation that had taken him from the slip of a young man that had been his father’s punching bag and made him into the man he is. He hasn’t earned that title and it feels wrong to hear it, even from a stranger’s lips. “Call me Alex, please.”
“Alex,” Valenti says, with a nod. “I’d like to run some more tests and make sure that you’re functioning properly, but…” He glances to the door as alarms beep and buzz, allowing someone access to the room. “You’ve got a visitor.”
If it’s 2019, there’s no possible way that Alex would ever know them, so he doesn’t have much hope for who it could be. It turns out, he’s wrong.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories about you, you know.”
He knows that voice, but when he looks to the door to search for Carmen, he finds someone that looks somewhat like her, but not like her at all. It’s distracting enough that he stops thinking about how cold he is or the fact that he’s somehow lost over seventy years of his life while being frozen in time in the arctic.
It’s like seeing a ghost.
“You’re Carmen’s family, aren’t you?”
“I’m Elizabeth Ortecho, her granddaughter,” she introduces herself. “You can call me Liz, or the Iron Maiden,” she quips, even as Valenti sighs and rolls his eyes, muttering something under his breath about hating that name. “We didn’t want to wake you up this suddenly, but we found ourselves in a difficult situation and we need your help.”
“Help with what?” Alex asks, slowly sitting on the edge of the bed.
As far as he’s concerned, he just saved the city from being destroyed. He might have been frozen alive for decades, but he thinks that earns you at least a century off.
Liz gives him a wry smile. “Last time, you prevented New York from being decimated. This time, we need your help to make sure it doesn’t happen to the galaxy.” She turns the strange device in her hands towards him and presses a few buttons to show a very familiar glowing blue device. “I think you already know what this is.”
Alex stares at the device and wonders if he’s going to have to help save the world on a regular basis from the very same problems.
“Are you telling me that it’s been seventy-four years and it still hasn’t been contained?”
Liz presses her lips together. “It’s a very long story and it involves your father. How would you like to get a cup of coffee, Alex? I’ll introduce you to the future.”
He doesn’t think that his day could get any stranger than discovering that his (likely dead) father had a hand in creating a crisis that they need his help for. Still, waking up in the future after being thawed and still in the same state he’d gone into the ice seems like a pretty good challenge to that oddness. Add in the fact that everyone he’s known is gone and Carmen’s granddaughter wants to take him out for coffee and it’s a good thing Alex has the serum in his blood.
The Alex Manes of long ago would have passed out knowing only one of those things.
Lucky for him, he’s not that man anymore.
“I take it black,” he says, and seeing as he could use something to warm him up, it feels like the perfect time for a cup of coffee to go along with the explanation.
“Hey boss,” comes Noah’s voice, from the pits of his ship. “You got an incoming call.”
Michael glances up from where he’s been plotting a new course, sifting through all the potential jobs they could take on, when Noah calls up to him. He knows that it’s a risk, taking on a convicted murderer, but beggars can’t be choosers, and the guy’s resourceful, not to mention seems to be on the up and up. So long as Michael lets him finish off the assholes in a fight, Noah lets himself get off on a bar brawl instead of a murder and Michael gets someone on his ship to help out.
Win-win, he figures, though he knows his family doesn’t feel that way. Well, one member of his family, seeing as he knows all about Isobel’s arrangement with Noah.
He needs to get down to the engines and make a few tweaks to help with their lightspeed, but he doesn’t usually get calls, unless they’re from a pissed one-night stand who’d wanted something more. “If it’s that guy I picked up on Kitson, I don’t need to see any of those piercings again.”
Noah smacks him lightly in the shoulder to get Michael’s attention as he drops into the main flight deck of the ship, gesturing to the screen. “I think you might want to take this one.”
Then he sits down behind him, looking delighted as he presses a button and then Max Evans’ face fills the screen in front of him.
Michael plasters on a fake smile, raising his brows. “Max,” he greets, shaking his head. “Is it already the third Saturday of the month? Are they finally letting you Nova men get their allotted fun time and you decided to call and check up on me to make sure I’m not arrested? It’s a step up from the sobbing masturbation about how you’re not the good clone.”
Usually that at least gets some kind of quip in return, but this time, he only gets a glare. That glare is followed by a groan, followed by words that Michael never thought he’d hear in his lifetime. “We need your help,” Max says, on the screen.
Michael shoots a glare at Noah, who should have just told them not to call. “Sorry, Max, can’t hear you…” he starts pausing, freezing in place. “You’re … breaking up and ….connection must … broken.”
“Idiot, we can see you,” Isobel snaps, drifting into frame beside Max. “This is important. We need your ship and we need you.”
“You’re not exactly in a position to disagree, Michael,” comes Max’s stern voice. “There’s at least two outstanding warrants for your head and I know we have fourteen for your first mate. We’re just asking for a ride, you don’t have to get involved.”
Noah’s come up to stand beside him, leaning his arm against Michael’s chair. “Price?”
“Excellent question,” Michael agrees with a nod of his head. “What are you paying us?”
From the look on Isobel and Max’s face, they’re clearly not pleased that he’s putting a price tag on this little mission of theirs, but from the sounds of it, he’s going to have to take some hoity-toity politician on a milk run, which means that he’s about to become a glorified taxi driver. The least they can do is make it worth his while.
“Your usual rate,” Isobel says.
“Double my usual take,” Michael counters, ignoring the way Max splutters and waves him off. “You two seem desperate. Double, and you tell me which of your politician friends I need to give a ride to. If we’re going into dangerous territory, we might have to negotiate going triple. Danger pay,” he insists.
“Isobel, I will fly us...” he hears Max off-screen, which makes this suddenly very interesting.
This isn’t for one of Isobel’s ambassadors or Max’s Corps men.
Michael puts them on hold on the screen, glancing back to Noah with a raised brow. “What do you think?”
“I think that they barely drop by to talk to you unless it’s required and they’re offering to pay you so you’ll take them somewhere,” Noah’s clearly thinking about this for himself, his hungry gaze fixed on Isobel on the screen. “I think if we accept it, we get a good payday out of it and you get something to hang over their heads.”
Michael glances to the screen where his siblings are paused, then back to Noah. “If we do this, I don’t want to see my naked sister anywhere on this ship,” he warns.
“You know, if you’d let me hook you up with one of my buddies, you wouldn’t be this tightly wound.”
Michael grimaces, because the last few one night stands he’s had haven’t worked out so well and he's starting to feel this weird gnawing, even when he’s spent the night with someone else. It’s like no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to fight the encroaching loneliness. Why else would he keep Noah around, if not for that?
That still doesn’t mean he’s ready for Noah to set him up romantically. That way lies trouble.
He leans on the button that takes them off hold, taking a good moment to bask in how distressed Max looks at the prospect of a journey with him. That’s what makes him smile and focus on Isobel. “Double my usual rate and you’ve got a Captain and a ship.”
“Good,” is all Isobel says.
She hangs up on them. Seconds later, there’s a hard clanging at the loading dock door. Michael glances to Noah warily, hauling himself out of the Captain’s chair and slinging himself down the ladders to get to the bottom of the ship. He grabs the cord that has the open button, watching as the slow descent of the ramp reveals Max and Isobel with their bags.
“So,” Michael says, taking them in, “This is one of those emergency situations, huh?”
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t,” Max mutters, walking past him and giving Noah a wary look as he passes. “I’m assuming the rooms aren’t clean?”
“Didn’t give me much warning to call in the cleaners!”
He turns to give Isobel an amused look, shaking his head. He doesn’t get a chance to greet her before Noah beats him to Isobel’s side to bend and pick up her bag. As he straightens up, he waggles her brows at her and bites his lip, a silent question that’s practically screamed given the fact that Michael knows his sister and his first mate way too well.
“Later,” is all Isobel says, winking back at him.
Noah toddles off with the bag to get her things settled in, which gives Michael the opportunity to close up and head to her side. For a long moment, he doesn’t say anything. He twists up his lips and tries to decide how he wants to tease her mercilessly.
“It’s a three-week ride,” he says.
“Hmm,” is Isobel’s thoughtful reply.
“Just don’t break his dick. I know he used to be a little murder-happy, but I’ve come around to him as a first mate,” Michael says. “Also, never in my line of sight,” he warns. “Ever. Or I’m putting one or both of you in space.” Isobel looks at him like she might deign to consider the warning, but when she walks off with her chin held high, he already suspects that he’s not going to even get close to getting his way.
He knows that he should ask more questions about where they’re going or what the plan is, but that’s not what he’s been hired for. They want him to shuttle them to some backwater planet to do some charity work, then he’ll do it for the price they’re paying him, but he has absolutely no intention of getting involved beyond that.
Once upon a time, Max and Isobel had been content to think the same way as him, but then they’d grown up and developed morals. It’s deeply annoying to have lost his compatriots in crime, especially when they’d been such a good team, and he knows that it’s immature and stupid to miss something that he hasn’t had in years, but he does.
He misses when they travelled the galaxy, an unstoppable trio fighting against the expectations put on them.
Bending down to heft up Isobel’s second bag, he closes up the bay door and starts programming in the launch sequence to get them moving. Within the hour, they’ll be up in space again, together for the first time in years.
Maybe he’ll ask for an extra incentive pay to make sure that neither him or Noah ends up “accidentally” killing Max during the journey. Or maybe he’ll be a grown-up for once, do the job he’s been hired to do, and not sulk about the life they used to have.
Chapter 2: we were lying in the middle of the road
Thank you to el_gilliath for the beta on this chapter!
It's another stressful day on the job because Kyle Valenti is looking at yet another unpromising set of test results that he really doesn’t want to talk about, if only because he knows it will go like every other time he brings them to his patient. He’ll give his warnings, they’ll be ignored, and then they’ll be right back here again.
“Liz, I know you don’t want to hear this, but your blood pressure numbers aren’t looking good,” Kyle reprimands his boss, removing the cuff.
Liz, of course, is barely paying attention to him. She’s flipping through something on her Ortech tablet, dismissing Kyle with a wave of her hand. “You know I pay you to be my personal assistant and doctor, that doesn’t mean I pay you to be my mother,” she says, heading through her lab with Kyle sighing as he wanders in tow.
When he took the job with his ex-girlfriend, his friends had asked if he was thinking properly. He'd developed the helpful tactic of loading up Liz’s net worth on his cell phone to answer that question, but the actual answer has nothing to do with her funds. She’s brilliant, but she’s also trustworthy. They go back a long way and when someone tells you that when they’re around you, they feel safe…
Well, it’s definitely difficult to turn that down, especially when you still have some unresolved feelings for them. It had been his fault they broke up, all the way back then, but he’d been an idiot teenager trying to fit in. He’d said things that he regretted, did things that were even worse, but he’d grown up.
Now he’s working for a woman he’s in love with and she won’t even listen to him about her basic health.
His eyes slide to the scars on her chest, hidden behind her technology and barely peeking out from her v-neck shirt. Two shots to the chest and Kyle had lost her, at least until Liz had managed to build herself a solution that saved her from the grave. It had been an impossible feat, but it also means that she needs to start listening to her doctor’s advice.
“Liz, you can’t keep doing this,” Kyle protests as he follows her.
She might have managed to stop herself from dying, but Kyle spends every day thinking that she’s going to give him a heart attack.
“How?” Liz demands. “Tell me how I’m supposed to stop? There’s something out there that could kill billions of beings, all because of one person’s hate. Do you know the worst part about all of this, Kyle? We didn’t even know,” she says, sounding helpless and frustrated. “Aliens hailed us and told us about the threat. I know it’s not to me or you, but if we can’t protect the universe, then what?”
“We’re going to fix this, Liz,” Kyle insists. “If anyone is going to figure it out, it’s you. Do you know what you won’t be able to do if you pass out from exhaustion?”
Liz gives Kyle an amused smirk. “Save the universe?”
“There she goes, got it in one.”
“That’s why we’re recruiting help,” Liz insists, and she’s back to her tablet, typing furiously as she ignores all of Kyle’s concern. “I got the confirmation that we’re getting a delegation sent to us from the aliens who pinged the threat. I need to understand their system of warning better so that we can develop something similar.”
Great. Yet another project that Liz will throw herself into that will take up absolutely too much of her time. It means that there’s only going to be more of these tests and these results, which means he isn’t going to be able to do anything about it.
“I need to brief Rosa and your Mom,” Liz says, which makes Kyle cringe, because he hates being reminded that they technically report to her, with this new SHIELD structure that Liz had accepted. “I know that you hate this,” she says, gentler than before. “I’m just trying to protect everyone,” she insists, cupping Kyle’s cheek as she stares up at him, the tablet a forgotten thing. “Especially you. You’ve always made me feel safe, would you let me do the same for you?”
Kyle will give her this. She absolutely knows which buttons to press to make him fold. He’s still so desperately in love with her that Kyle thinks he’d let her do anything if she continued to give him even a flicker of hope that something might happen again.
“Fine,” Kyle relents. “I understand why you think you need to do this, but Liz, when this is all done, we’re taking a vacation,” he warns her. “I will bribe Maria and she will take over the protection duties, you’ll pack a swimsuit, and I’ll get my trunks and we’ll do Tahiti. Okay?”
She’s already sliding the tablet back to its charging dock, on her way out of the room, but it looks like she’s considering it. “Maybe,” she says, which is closer to ‘no’ than ‘yes’, but it’s also not a ‘definitely not’. She’s on her way out before Kyle can try and convince her further, but she pauses at the door. “Kyle,” Liz calls over her shoulder, a thoughtful look on her face. “I do need something from you.”
“If it keeps your stress levels down, absolutely,” Kyle vows.
“Brief Captain Manes on the situation. I want him ready to go when our visitors get here.”
“He prefers being called…” Liz is gone before he can finish. “…Alex.”
Kyle sighs as he brings up his own tablet to check on Alex’s vitals, weighing whether the man can handle the full weight of the situation he’s been thrust into. He dismisses her test results and deliberately doesn’t even think about testing himself.
He already knows that those will come back showing that he’s wildly, massively, and absolutely overstressed and underpaid for what he puts up with.
Liz gets the text at one in the morning when she can’t sleep. She debates ignoring it, but she knows she can’t. It’s Maria, after all. She could try and pretend she missed it, but she also learned her lesson years ago about what happens if you ignore Maria. The point being that if Liz doesn’t go see her, then she’s going to end up with a visit from Maria anyway, only at the most inconvenient time, since that’s her deliberate act of revenge.
She goes to the rooftop of the Ortecho tower and finds Maria sitting on top of the scaffolding that overlooks the city, dangling her legs over the edge with her armoured suit sitting beside her and posed to hold a bong in its hand.
“Really?” Liz deadpans. “I put hours of work into the bio-organic structure that powers your suit, the government gave us millions to create it, and you’re Weekend at Bernie-ing it?”
Maria lights up the joint in her hand, smiling proudly. “Come take a photo with it, you know you want to.”
Liz does, is the problem.
She heads over to pose with her fingers in a peace sign right beside the suit, then remembers that she’s meant to be a mature adult woman and mature adult women aren’t meant to embarrass themselves like this, especially when the world might be ending. Well, not for them, but for pretty much every other planet in the galaxy, it’s not good news.
Besides, Liz doesn’t trust that there isn’t some secret and terrible stage two of this plan. “What are we doing?” she asks Maria as she settles down onto the roof and reaches out for the joint. “I started this company to help people, but now I’m coordinating with aliens, living this superhero life, trying to be someone that I’m not!”
“Are you seriously telling me that you don’t see yourself as someone who can save the universe? Bullshit,” Maria says firmly. “You might not get the ego rush when you put on the suit, but you do it to help people, Liz. You built me one because I wanted to feel like I could do something too,” she says firmly, glancing skywards. “Now you’re going to save the whole damn universe.”
“I don’t even know where this thing is, what it can do, and who knows how many people they have on their side.” Liz feels like she’s only making excuses at this point, but she can’t help herself. It really does seem ridiculous and impossible.
Funny how she’d felt the same way when she’d created her first suit.
“Let’s take it a step at a time, then. Help the handsome captain adjust to our time first,” Maria says, reaching for the joint with a devious smirk. “He’s hot. You think I have a shot?”
Liz laughs and shakes her head. “I don’t think that’s the right pond to be fishing in,” she warns, even though she doesn’t actually know for sure.
Maria gives a thoughtful noise. “Shame. He’s got an incredible ass.”
That gets a loud laugh from Liz, so maybe the pot is hitting her fast, because the sound echoes in the night. “Maria,” she says firmly. “There’s other hot guys around to look at. Kyle, for one?”
“Kyle Valenti is still in love with you. I’ll take my chances with the gay guy before that,” is her firm proclamation. She reaches for the joint and settles back, her attention on Liz. “You summoned me here saying that the world might be ending. It’s not even Friday, we’re ahead of schedule.”
“I need all hands on deck,” Liz admits. “We’re so in the dark here. I’ve got Jenna out there doing recon and we have actual aliens flying in.” She gets why they are, though, considering that it’s their lives at risk. Liz wants to prevent a psychopath from the past from getting his way, but for the aliens that are coming, it’s their existence that’s on the line.
She knows that she has a stellar team here to deal with whatever danger is coming.
What she needs is information on how to stop it. Also, she needs Maria to stop busting her chops. Cheeks flushed, she gives Maria an annoyed look. “Kyle’s not in love with me, we broke up years ago.”
“No man would tolerate the working schedule and dismissive comments if he weren’t in love with you,” Maria counters. “You really sure you’re done with him? He’s a doctor, he’s handsome, and I think you could grate cheese on his abs.”
When they’d been dating, her favorite thing had been to worship those abs, but, “I don’t love him like that, Maria,” Liz admits, staring as she flexes her hands, feeling like she can see the moonlight drifting in between them (okay, so the pot has definitely hit her). “He makes me feel safe and I love looking at him, but it’s never more than that,” she admits. “I want more. I want to feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff, that adrenaline in your stomach,” she shares, and she knows it’s out there.
Staring up into the stars, Liz gives a long-suffering sigh. “I wish Kyle could give me that feeling, but he doesn’t. I feel bad that he thinks there’s a shot, but I’ve tried to make it clear that things between us are over.” Leaning back against the low wall behind her, she gives Maria a wishful look. “Honestly, he’s incredible. My heart just never got the memo.”
Maria gives her a considerate look and Liz almost tells her to give it a shot, but Liz also knows that after the last Chad, Maria had sworn off guys for a while. There have been a few women leaving the Ortecho tower at all hours of the night, so she knows better than to push. Maybe they’ll get lucky and one of the visiting aliens will come break up Maria’s dry spell.
Then again, they have a universe to save. It’s the best reason to ignore their love lives.
“Where do you get this stuff?” Liz groans when she starts feeling like she’s floating. Back when Rosa used to do this (before the sobriety days), she’d do her best work while high, and when Liz is on Maria’s stash, she can begin to see why.
Maria taps the side of her nose and raises her eyebrow. “You have your government-held secrets, you need to leave me with some of mine.” She sits back and Liz curls into her, drawing the blanket tighter around the both of them as they stare up at the stars. “When do our extra-terrestrial buddies get here?”
“Last communication said another week,” Liz sighs and stares up at the stars, wondering if any of them are a ship hurtling towards the Earth. “I just hope we have a week.”
Maria turns the joint this way and that, studying it. “New side effect, completely crushing pessimism,” she says with a snort. “Good to know.” She lets Liz curl into her and does what Maria does best. She distracts her by letting Liz ramble on about men, about Rosa in the field, about Arturo and the fact that she’s been sending Kyle to give him new meal plans, only to find that he’s eating churro pancakes.
“He’s being a pendejo about this diabetes diagnosis,” Liz complains. “I have more money than I know what to do with, but I can’t spend a single dollar to make my stubborn father follow instructions.”
“Sounds like someone else I know,” Maria quips.
Liz rolls her eyes, wishing that Maria didn’t have her number like that. She pushes away from the blanket when she checks her watch, noticing that it’s late, and she has trials set up for the morning for the next round of suits. She’s got a team that works on the engineering part of it, but she powers them with her own bio-chemical fuel that she’d invented (along with a whole new element), and she wants them in the best shape.
“No,” Maria protests, when Liz is on her feet. Reaching out, she tries to tug Liz back down. “Don’t leave me.”
“Don’t pass out up here again,” Liz warns, and tugs at Maria to bring her towards the elevator. “Come on. I made you a beautiful penthouse suite, the least you can do is use it.” Maria might grumble, but she trudges along and lets Liz put her to bed in that beautiful plush king-sized mattress. Liz swears she smells someone else’s perfume on the pillowcase, so Maria must have had a visitor here recently.
She gets back to the hallway, but rather than going to her penthouse across the way, she travels down to the kitchen, intent on a little snack before she gets her much-needed rest.
Maria’s weed always gives her the munchies, so she’s not surprised that she needs a bite. What she is shocked to find is the someone else in her kitchen. Alex is wrapped up in a blanket, his head poking into the fridge, clearly searching for something specific. Liz clears her throat, trying to stand up dignified and tall (as tall as she gets) and to look far from intoxicated.
Then again, that’s probably ruined when Alex backs away and she sees that the blanket he’s wrapped himself up in is the cat quilt that Maria had given to her last Christmas. She bursts into laughter, making an apologetic face.
“Sorry,” she insists. “Sorry, it’s just…it’s a ridiculous blanket,” she protests.
“I know,” Alex sighs. “It was all I could find down here. I’m freezing,” he complains, “all the time. I have no idea if the serum is trying to catch up from being frozen alive or if it’s just decided to give up on me.” He tugs the blanket tighter around himself before heading to sit down at the breakfast bar with yogurt and a spoon.
Liz knows from her own subtle glances that Alex has definitely benefitted from the serum. It hadn’t made him gigantically tall, but he’d filled out from the pictures she’d seen of him before, and he’s certainly got a body worth appreciating. With that blanket wrapped around him, though, he looks like a teen boy trying to evade the world and not a superhero from the golden days of America.
Liz grabs a bag of chips, then the ice cream, plunking herself down right beside him. While Kyle’s been dealing with the professional conversations (thank god, she sucks at those), she’s been meaning to talk to Alex one on one.
True, she hadn’t counted on doing this while she was stoned, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. She might be a little out of it, though she doubts she’ll do anything too wild that has Alex wanting to run away.
“So, I always heard these rumors,” Liz admits, tapping her spoon into her bowl of ice cream, eyeing Alex as she licks it off the spoon, “but I never knew whether I believed them. We have all these pictures of you and abuela when she was young and you two look great together at all those dances and functions. Were you in love with her?”
Alex is staring down into his yogurt, not really touching it.
“Do you know the story of why they picked me?”
Liz shakes her head. “I mean, Carmen told us that it was because of how brave and good you were,” she admits. “I figured you were the chosen candidate because of something innate. I know she was the scientific liaison for the program,” she says proudly, seeing as Carmen Ortecho had been her role model. “Was that not it?”
“I was the youngest of four brothers,” Alex says. “All three of my older brothers were stronger, fiercer, braver. At least, according to my father. I was the weakling son, the sick one. I was riddled with physical ailments when I was young, before my mother passed. When I got my spot in the program, my father came to see me the night before. The doctor who had chosen me said he chose me because of my personality, of who I was.” He pushes yogurt away from him, a sour look on his face. “My father said it was because they could cure me of my illnesses, including the one inside my soul.” He turns his gaze upwards, towards Liz. “I’ve never loved a woman. I never will. I’m gay and my father saw that as a disease he thought the program could cure.”
Liz feels the pain of that confession go through her, because, “What happened when your father realized that you weren’t wrong for loving other men?”
“I never told him.” Alex looks ashamed, and he drags the ice cream towards himself, trading yogurt for something sweeter. “There was never a man back then that I felt enough about, so I let Carmen flirt with me and dance with me. She was my best friend and my father presumed she was something more. I should have corrected him, but there was a war on and it didn’t seem as important.”
Liz watches him and she doesn’t know him well enough to comment on the way that he has a yearning look on his face, as though he desperately wants to know.
“Maybe I’ll meet someone in the future,” he says, and it’s sweet that he hasn’t given up. “Kyle was telling me all about these dating apps, where you can meet multiple people with the click of a few buttons. Maybe that’s for me.” He doesn’t sound so convinced, but he’s also trying to figure out his life now that seventy years has passed.
“Don’t rush it,” is Liz’s advice. “When you meet the right one, you’ll know.” That’s been her motto and while it hasn’t exactly yielded any passionate soulmate romances, it’s also kept her hopeful that one might come along.
Besides, romance has had to take a backseat these days what with the universe needing saving.
“If you want, I can call up some more blankets for your room,” Liz offers. “Will you let me run a blood panel to see if there’s a physical reason why you’re still so cold?”
Alex looks wary of testing, which she gets. He’d been a science experiment and he doesn’t really know her, but they have a connection, if only familial.
“Carmen wouldn’t want you dealing with this on your own,” Liz adds, knowing that it’s close to dirty play. “If I can help you understand why you’re always so cold, maybe I can come up with something suitable to help you deal with it.”
She doesn’t intend to tell him, but she knows she had him at the mention of her grandmother.
“Fine. On the condition that I watch you destroy it when the tests are done,” Alex insists. “I don’t want my blood getting in anyone else’s hands. It’s too dangerous.” He stares down at his hand as he flexes it, and Liz has to wonder who it was that convinced Alex that he was nothing more than a weapon (and a dangerous one, at that).
Watching him head off to bed, she suspects she knows exactly who.
It’s the same man who set the current dangerous race to destruction into motion. It looks like Jesse Manes’ dangerous reach goes further than she could have even imagined, but somehow it hurts more to see in the face of the son he’d twisted up and tortured into thinking he was somehow less than, even when he’s the epitome of the human race.
Michael’s had trouble sleeping since he was a child.
When you’re abandoned by your parents as an unwanted set of clones, you can do two things. You can take the route that Max and Isobel have gone down and become legitimate citizens on another planet. So what, you’re not the ruler of your planet and your clone is? That shouldn’t stop you from serving your duty.
Or you can go down Michael’s path. Steal, beg, borrow, and run. Isobel and Max had been on that path with him when they were younger, but then something had kicked them into being responsible (and boring) adults.
Not in all things, though.
Max had turned over a new leaf and had gone straight towards the law, but Isobel, oh Isobel. His darling sister still has a wicked side, which Michael is getting an earful of as he heads down the hall, hearing her moans coming from Noah’s room. It looks like they didn’t take very long getting back to that old arrangement.
Michael situates himself opposite Noah’s room, leaning against the wall and waiting. The romance might be dead, because it isn’t very long before Isobel tries to slink out of Noah’s room with her boots in hand, her hair a disaster, and a guilty look on her face.
“You know, if he saw your face, you might actually shred his ego for him to see how guilty you feel after you fucked him,” Michael opines.
Isobel jumps at his voice, her eyes going wide as she steps forward to let the automatic doors on the ship close behind her. “Michael,” she hisses, glancing around like she’s looking for someone. Max, he’d put money on. “What are you doing?”
“What am I doing walking around on my ship?” Michael asks her with an overly pedantic tone, his face scrunched up in disbelief. Maybe sex with Noah did scramble her brain and that’s why she’s asking stupid things.
She gives him a pointed look, which means that his answer isn’t good enough.
“What are you doing out at this hour?”
She might have a point, there. Normal people (and normal aliens, even) would be in bed. The autopilot is driving them where they need to get, which means that technically Michael should be in bed dreaming about counting his money. Instead, he’s out here pacing and running into Isobel, which means she’s definitely not going to leave well enough alone.
One of the perks of avoiding your siblings is that they don’t get on your case. When you’re trapped with them on an intergalactic journey, that doesn’t work so well.
“Come on,” Michael sighs, resigning himself to his fate. “Let’s get a drink.”
He leads them into the little kitchen, reaching up for mugs and drinks, hearing Isobel’s yawn as he does it. That’s a good sign. If she’s this tired, maybe she won’t pester him for that long, which would be a miracle, because once Isobel gets her hooks in you, it’s not so easy to escape.
“When’s the last time you had someone?” Isobel asks, pouring them each a shot of acetone in his shitty chipped coffee mugs, tugging her shirt to straighten it. Great. They’re jumping right into the relationship probing. “I don’t like thinking of you out here all on your own. You know there’s so many things you could do, any planet would kill to have you as a scientist.”
“Yeah, and how’d that work, the last time I had an authority figure in my life?” There’s a reason he and Max don’t talk that often. “There was a guy on Kitson, he was fun for a night, but vapid and boring.”
Isobel looks at him with pity and that’s more than Michael can handle right now.
“Quit it,” he snaps at her. “I don’t want to settle down. I’ve never met anyone I liked well enough to even think about it, and don’t even try and sell me on some bullshit that you and Noah are settled. You like him for his body and what he can do for you, but you already know he’s not husband material.”
“He’s so hot that I want to fuse my body to his,” Isobel overshares, and it’s not that Michael doesn’t have eyes. He can see how objectively hot Noah is. Does that mean he wants to think about sexily fusing with his first mate?
He absolutely doesn’t.
“Michael, I know tons of hot guys and girls. Say the word, and I’ll set something up for you.”
“Which is just what I need, right?” Michael scoffs, as he practically inhales from the cup of acetone. “My sister to fix my dating life, because she has opinions about it.” She opens her mouth to chime in, which means Michael needs to put a stop to that. “Iz, no,” he says sharply. “I don’t know if you’re frustrated because Max won’t let you meddle in his pathetic relationship status, but I’m happy. I’m fine,” he says, maybe a bit too aggressively, but he is.
Isobel doesn’t believe him, given the look on her face.
“Michael, ever since our clones…”
“Oh, fuck, do I not want to talk about this,” Michael cuts her off, because the less they talk about their shitty past, the better. He doesn’t need to think about being the unwanted set of clones who got tossed aside while some genetic copy of him is out there being a dignified General of Antar.
Fuck Zan and Vilandra and Rath. They can have Antar all to themselves, because Michael has the open sky and no one’s going to take that from him. “You can fuse all you want with Noah,” Michael says with a dismissive wave of his hand, angrily stomping away from her to gulp down the last of his acetone, shoving the cup in the sink. “Stay out of my love life.”
Isobel leans back and gives him an arch of her brow, clearly far from ruffled by his little temper tantrum.
“You’d need a love life for me to stay away from,” she counters.
It’s exactly the type of older sister bullshit he’s missed for so long and fuck, Michael hates that it’s making him so nostalgic for the bad old days. “I missed you,” he says, instead of retorting back with a barb to try and hurt her. Isobel looks somewhat stunned by it, too, but when she abandons the fight to wander over and pull Michael into a hug, it looks like they’re both going off-script.
Once upon a time, they were genuinely feared space brigands and bandits.
Now, they’re hugging in the kitchen of Michael’s spaceship because Isobel’s still kind of a bitch and Michael’s absolutely an asshole (with no love life to speak of). “You still can’t sleep, can you?”
“Are you reading that off me or do you actually still know me?”
Isobel shrugs, like she doesn’t want to admit to the answer. “Little of both,” is her confession. “I know something that’ll help.”
Which is how he and Isobel end up curled up together in Michael’s bunk, Isobel big spooning him as tightly as she can, as if she can hold him in a vise and protect him from the world. Before, when Max and Michael were talking, he’d be on the other side and they’d both protect their little brother from the universe.
Seventeen is a stupid age to bolt out into the universe and try and prove that you’re not something. Yet, here Michael lies, missing Max’s warmth on the other side of him because they’d figured one decent thing out back then.
“Thanks, Iz,” Michael mumbles, when he thinks she might be asleep and he can get away with offering a sincere burst of gratitude. Maybe she didn’t hear him and he’ll actually get to live it down.
Has he ever been that lucky?
Of course not.
“Shut up and sleep,” she orders. “And you’re welcome. Next time, just ask.”
Chapter 3: counting the planes as they flew by
As ever, thank you to el_gilliath for the beta!
Alex has been summoned for yet another gathering of the minds.
He’s beginning to wonder if they want him for anything other than bureaucratic meetings where he sits around and listens to facts and figures. This time, there’s someone new in the conference room, deep in conversation with Kyle. From the looks of her, Alex deduces very quickly that there’s a family resemblance, but why she’s here in a planning meeting is beyond him.
Luckily, Kyle catches sight of him quickly and steps back. “Alex, this is my mother,” he says, and when she clears her throat, he reacts like a chastened boy. “Agent Valenti,” he corrects himself, “current head of SHIELD, an association that was put together by Carmen Ortecho and some of your old unit.”
“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” Alex says, dutiful now that he remembers to use his manners.
She looks at Kyle with an amused look. “He behaves better than you do.”
Kyle flushes with humiliation, but he doesn’t argue back. Alex only watches the byplay; he doesn’t think it’s his place to interrupt, especially when he’s still trying to figure out modern culture, never mind the complicated intricacies of family dynamics when it comes to saving the world.
After all, his own tricky family dynamics are the reason they have to worry at all.
“We need your help, Captain,” Valenti says.
He’s still not sure about this, but what else is he going to do in a future he doesn’t understand, surrounded by people he doesn’t know. Alex hasn’t worked up the courage to use the internet to see how far the world has come, but he’ll get there. He needs to see if he’d be accepted for wanting what he does.
Valenti needing his help puts a pin in those plans and it only gets worse from there.
Every other thought in his head comes to a screeching halt the moment Agent Valenti puts up a picture of his father on the screen and Alex’s stomach bottoms out, even though he’s known for days that his father is involved. There’s a difference between knowing and seeing his father for the first time since he woke up from the ice.
The memories hit him like an onslaught. The abuse, the names, the reason that he’d been put into the Project Rebirth tank in the first place. Jesse Manes had needed a test subject and hadn’t wanted to risk any of his other sons, so he’d used Alex. He just hadn’t been expecting it to work as well as it did.
“Tell me everything my father has done,” Alex insists, his voice rough.
“While you were in the ice, your father’s xenophobia turned violent. His worry that aliens would attack us grew fiercer and he decided to use their own technology against them. You had boarded that plane in order to save the country, but what you didn’t know, what none of us did, was that even though you stopped the plane, the Tesseract had already been removed, by your father.”
The fury is starting to build in Alex’s stomach and it’s a good thing he’d spent his youth learning repression, otherwise he fears he’d blow.
“He began to build a bomb, using the Tesseract. If deployed, it would destroy all life that wasn’t human.” Agent Valenti gives the group a wry look. “Over the years, though, there are more aliens in our midst than we’re free to discuss, which means that this has become a problem not only for other planets, but also for Earth. We don’t know where the bomb is, we don’t know the plans to use it, but the Tesseract has been noticed as active again by Liz Ortecho,” she continues, gesturing to the billionaire in question. “We’ve also been hailed by Nova Prime. They’re sending a small delegation to help.”
There are aliens out there and his father had been trying to kill them all. Here Alex thought that his father’s hate could only go so far.
“Just think of them as more people in the group project,” Liz quips, nodding her thanks to Agent Valenti. “We’ll regroup when they arrive, figure out our next steps.”
“I’ll be staying until they arrive,” Agent Valenti reports, eyeing Alex like she’s worried about how he’s taking the news. He’s not sure he blames her, seeing as right now Alex feels completely unmoored and unsure of what to do.
He stays in the meeting room for a while, but he doesn’t really want to talk about this with anyone. Liz and Kyle start talking shop, but all that Alex can think about is the fact that his father stole Alex’s life from him when he’d taken the Tesseract off the ship and had actively, willingly, allowed Alex to go to his death.
The rescue mission, his sacrifice, it had all been a lie. For what?
Alex isn’t sure what to do with this news, but he knows he can’t be there with the others. He pushes himself up from the table and mumbles an excuse to get out of the room, bolting before Liz can ask what’s wrong. He hasn’t got any real friends in the future and he still isn’t sure he wants to wander the streets of New York, so instead of leaving, he goes to the Ortecho in-house shooting range.
Every time he learns something new about his father, he feels like it spins him out of control, but this is worse than ever. His father has done something so terrible and so awful that it could cause a mass extinction event. That’s the legacy he’s been born into.
When he’d been chosen as Captain America, he’d wanted to do better.
Better than his father, better than his brothers believed him to be, just better.
How hard is it to be better than them, when they’re willing to destroy whole planets? It’s a terrifying and awful thought he needs to silence, which is why he’s grateful to have a distraction. He grabs one of the guns, holding it tightly when he hears the door open behind him. His shoulders are tense and when he turns, he sees Maria DeLuca wander inside. “You mind some company?”
“Only if no one sent you down here,” Alex replies, feeling like he’s just on the edge of being the kind of rude and abrasive asshole that gets him in trouble. He shoves the clip into the gun, because despite not being familiar with the weapons, he’s a quick learner.
Maria joins him in the room, taking her time studying the weapons. Liz and Kyle had given him an overview of the tower and the people within it, describing Maria as an old friend who’d been dragged into Liz’s kidnapping as someone who’d felt powerless and unable to do anything. From that day forward, she’d vowed that she’d never be in the same position, enlisting Liz’s help to make that happen.
From that day forward, they became Iron Maiden and Metallica; there’d been a joke in there, somehow, because Kyle had laughed when he told the story to Alex.
Alex doesn’t get the joke.
His jaw is still tight as he stares at the targets looming at the other end of the gun range, not sure that he’s going to make himself feel better by resorting to violence, but what else can he do? His father’s long dead, so it’s not like he can take it out on the asshole. He can make sure that his father’s plan doesn’t kill a whole galaxy of people, but that still doesn’t have the personal “fuck you” energy that Alex is after.
“I think Liz was counting on you to give an enthusiastic speech up there,” Maria comments, perching herself on the stall beside Alex, reaching for a pair of headphones in case Alex wants to start shooting. Alex tenses at the implication, glad when Maria keeps talking. “From where I stand, I wouldn’t have been able to either. I never knew my Dad, that’s the kind of lowlife he was, but if he turned up on a screen as a genocidal maniac who lied to me and lead to my supposed death, I don’t think I’d be able to rouse the troops.”
“What would you do?” Alex asks evenly.
“Oh, drink a little tequila, smoke a lot of pot, find someone very attractive to sleep with,” she quips, giving Alex’s body a onceover that has him flushing and wondering if he has to give her the awkward speech. “Don’t worry. Liz filled me in,” Maria guarantees. “I know my father and yours aren’t in the same league, but I know a thing or two about them disappointing you.”
Alex wants to tell her that she has no idea how bad it had been with Jesse, but that she had it backwards. “I disappointed him,” he says, and pulls on his headphones, watching her do the same. He plugs six bullets into center mass in the target down the way, staring down the barrel of the smoking gun before he pries off the headphones to look at Maria again, taking a step back. “No matter what I did, I was his biggest disappointment, even after the serum.”
“No offense to your dick-bag Dad, but he’s an idiot,” Maria informs him. “You’re in every history book, Alex. Captain America,” she shares, “a man who represents a little bit of something in everyone.”
“I didn’t exactly do much good. I fought a few months and then I vanished, all because of him.’
“Maybe the world needs you now,” Maria suggests. “Did you ever think of that?” She takes the safety off her gun and nods for him to put the headphones on, which he slips on to stand behind her, watching her turn with the gun.
Six shots in a concentric ring around the heart.
When she pries off the headphones, her curls bounce with the motion. “I don’t know what the world was like back then, but right now, there are multiple galaxies facing down a threat that your father created. I don’t know who has the weapon, or what’s happening with it, but I think maybe the best revenge is to save the universe.”
When she puts it like that, Alex wonders how it can seem so simple.
“Besides, isn’t it the best ‘fuck you’ in the world if you foil your Dad’s plans?” she keeps going. “Imagine him, rolling in his grave, knowing that the son that he thought was a disappointment turned out to the best man of them all. Alex Manes.” She pats him on the chest as she lays her gun and the headphones down. “Captain America,” she goes on, kissing his cheek. “At least, you’re my Captain. What you stand for, who you are, what you fight for. I’d be happy to salute you any day, Cap,” she says, and heads off to leave him to his thoughts.
Alex puts his gun down on the counter, staring after her for a long while.
He's not sure that he believes that a gay kid from New Mexico could ever actually be something to represent everyone, so maybe it’s not about who he is, but rather what he does. He’s been given a chance to fight for the country and the planet.
It's one little thought that worms into his mind that sets his path. It’s the stubborn little reminder that if he did fight for every last person, regardless of what they are and who they loved, Jesse Manes would hate it.
That sets Alex’s resolve.
No matter how hard the days will be ahead, he knows why he’s fighting, and he knows it’s why he's going to win.
For a backwater planet that doesn’t get much praise in intergalactic circles, Earth’s a whole lot prettier than Michael expected it to be. When they break atmosphere and descend down through the clouds, he’s greeted by a world of blues and greens, lush and populated, but in a far more antiquated way than he’s seen in years.
“All right, ladies, gentleman, and Noah. We’re here,” Michael says as he flips a few last switches and lands them outside a training compound in a place called New York. Even though the planet might be beautiful, it’s also got a reputation for being stuck in the past and he doesn’t intend to stay very long. If he does have to be here, then he intends to keep his nose out of whatever Isobel and Max are here to do.
That’s how you stay alive. Keep your head down, stay out of trouble.
“Michael, stay,” Max says, and ooh, if that isn’t a reason to go, well, then Michael isn’t as predictable as he’d think.
Looks like keeping his nose out of trouble is going to be supplanted by the innate desire to do the exact opposite of what Max says.
“Noah, weapons,” he says, and he stares at Max, unflinching. “I’m gonna stretch my legs, see what Earth has to offer,” he counters, enjoying the way Max looks so disappointed to hear it, and ignoring Isobel’s eyeroll and her muttered comment about ‘dick measuring’. He grabs his jacket on his way out, though he leaves the cowboy hat behind for now.
Usually, he likes to lean hard into the whole space cowboy thing, but Isobel had warned him that they need to make a good impression. If Max had warned him, he would’ve worn the hat and sparklers out of his ears, but for Isobel, he’ll actually try.
Noah’s in the middle of preparing the weapons array as they open the bay door. He has an awful habit of playing the galaxy’s worst music when he does that, but today it’s tolerable synth music that pulses through Noah’s earbuds. “So, when’s the money coming in?” Michael asks, as he takes a small taser from Noah, just in case.
Isobel rolls her eyes. “Seriously?”
“I took this job for one reason and one reason only,” Michael says, glancing up from loading the charge, trying to work and sass at the same time. “I’m not a hero of the universe and I don’t want a shiny pin put on my lapel for doing a good job, like I’m a dog, I’m just here for the…”
“Are you the aliens?”
Michael bristles at the voice asking them that, but when he looks towards the noise to start picking at the human until they’re ready to cry, he stops short. Waiting for them now that the bay door is on the ground, staring at them with an amused curve of his lips, is the most beautiful thing Michael’s ever seen in his life. The human man has messy brown hair, warm eyes, and is wearing jeans that do nothing to hide how incredible the thighs beneath them are. With any luck, he’ll turn around soon and give Michael a look at his ass.
“We’re meeting up in the conference room.” His eyes land on Michael and stay there for a long moment, like the rest of the universe has decided it doesn’t need to exist. “I’ll see you there. I hope,” he adds, and that last bit is said specifically to Michael.
His skin looks sun-warmed and Michael finds himself aching to touch. When the man turns to walk away, Michael gets a good look at how perfectly sculpted his jeans are to his ass, which drags a pained sound from his throat because he so desperately wants to touch that even more.
Michael can feel the looks Max and Isobel are giving him, from behind his back. “Fuck,” he hisses, and tries to catch his breath and his thoughts before they run too far away from him.
“Still want to hide out on your ship and actively not help us?” Isobel asks, sweetly, as she tucks away a small pistol and begins to head inside the training compound.
“You should be more careful, or I’m telling Max about your arrangement with my first mate,” Michael hisses at her, following after them like a duckling, just so he can find out more about whoever that man was.
Isobel raises her brow, not appearing threatened at all. “He hasn’t murdered a single person since you took him on board. Why should I get upset that I like a reformed bad boy?”
Michael isn’t sure what he’s about to do, but the hot guy is walking away from him. He knows that if he leaves the ship and actively goes after him, there’s every chance that he really will get dragged into this whole disaster. While he’s not sure he’s ready for that, maybe he also thinks that the alternative is shitty.
It's either he walks out there to spite Max, he stays on his ship to feed his own self-preservation instincts, or he goes with option number three where he gets off the ship and instead of spiting Max, he goes after the Hot Guy. Unfortunately, Michael suspects that last option is going to be the one that gets him into the most trouble.
Still, that one-man welcoming committee happens to be smoldering hot and Michael’s weak for a pretty face.
“Michael,” Max says, already across the hangar bay. “I mean it, stay here!”
“Or we can talk about your little crush?” Isobel teases, still at Michael’s side (though in her case, he can tell it’s because she’s lingering to watch Noah stretch and haul the equipment away, so she shouldn’t be throwing stones at glass houses and all).
Michael decides that he’d rather chase after the human than deal with Isobel’s prodding or Max’s disappointment. He gives Noah an order to stick behind (just in case they need to get out of there fast, because Noah’s a good escape driver), and then takes off jogging after the other man. He passes Max on the way, glowering at his brother, because he’s not about to get into a squabbling match when he has better things to do.
“Hey!” he calls after the guy, hauling ass out of the hangar bay, seeing him walking down the hall. Michael picks up speed so he can catch up without actually running because he still has some dignity. Besides, the slower he goes, the more chance he gets of seeing that ass again.
He can confirm, the view is just as good on the second sighting.
The human stops and turns, arms crossed over his chest which highlights a set of toned biceps that Michael also wants to touch (he’s beginning to think there isn’t a single part of him that Michael doesn’t want to get his hands all over). “Did you need something?” he asks politely.
“Yeah. Your name,” Michael replies, hauling out all that charm he usually uses to get men and women into his bed when he’s picking up his one-night stands. It really would be a shame to visit Earth and not put a notch in this planet.
The other man looks at him with incredulous disbelief, but Michael can see past the way he’s rolling his eyes. The corners of his lips are curving up just enough for Michael to see that he's actually somewhat amused by the line.
Michael extends his hand. “Michael Guerin,” he replies.
Alex stares at the hand, then looks at Michael like he’s been expecting something else. “Wait,” he says. “You don’t know who I am?”
With his hand out, Michael’s starting to feel like an idiot, but then, it’s not like he’s ever run into anyone this hot on the last five planets he’s been to and since Noah isn’t around to witness this (or record it for humiliating posterity), he thinks he can tolerate it a little while longer. “Why the fuck would I know that?”
Weirdly, that’s apparently the right answer? Alex looks stupidly pleased with Michael’s response, so he guesses he’s doing okay.
Alex shakes his hand and steps in a little closer, a step further into Michael’s personal bubble than most people would get for an introductory handshake. He takes Michael’s hand, sliding slightly cooler fingers against Michael’s warm skin, sending his pulse racing as he brushes his thumb over the outside of his palm to shake.
Michael has absolutely no idea why he should know him, but suddenly the only thing that matters in the entire world is learning every last thing about this man. “Maybe you could show me to the conference room?” Michael asks, noticing that they’re not really shaking hands anymore, but he’s refusing to let go of him.
Alex’s mouth is half-open, staring at Michael, and fuck, he told himself that this would be an uncomplicated run to Earth. Michael breathes out raggedly, and finally pries his hand away, telling himself that developing a crush on some earthling is a bad idea.
“Yeah,” Alex says, and nods his head down the hall. “Follow me.”
Michael waits to do exactly that, because the longer he delays, the more of a view he gets of Alex Manes’ ass as he leads the way. He’s only just met him, but man, does he like to watch him go already.
Maybe Earth’s more promising of a planet than he’d ever expected.
Chapter 4: inconceivable, imagining them go
As ever, el_gilliath is a superstar beta!
Liz is in the middle of mixing up an antidote for their new alien friends in case the bomb is deployed when she hears the door sliding open. “Not the right time, Kyle,” she calls, her goggles firmly fixed to her face.
“Is it ever the right time with Kyle?”
Liz pries the goggles away and steps back to see Rosa standing there with a tablet, wearing a suit and looking annoyed. Then again, she always looks annoyed because as the assistant director of SHIELD, she and Liz have frequent disagreements about the right way to approach things.
Ever since Rosa sobered up and got her life together, Liz has been so proud of her. She’s also so frustrated, because the whole big sister act gets annoying when it interferes with her work.
“I’m here for an update. Agent Valenti gave me the report, but I wanted to hear from you what your plan was.”
Liz isn’t sure when she became the de facto leader of this rag tag little group, but if it means that she gets to keep some modicum of control, then she’ll take it. “We’re letting the aliens settle in before we have an all-hands meeting,” she says, “though not entirely all. Jenna’s still in the field to find out who has the bomb and some schematics on how it operates. Once I have those, I’ll work with the team on plans to dismantle it. The aliens are powered, from what I hear, so they’ll be able to help fight. We take the Tesseract back for ourselves, we dismantle the bomb, and the aliens go home knowing they’re safe. I sleep better knowing that there won’t be a galaxy-wide genocidal event,” Liz says, and gives Rosa an expectant look. “Is that all you wanted?”
Rosa scrunches up her nose and instantly, Liz knows what’s coming.
“So serious,” she mocks, and sets the tablet to the side, sitting on top of the counter. “Elizabeth, you have aliens coming from another universe to come meet you, but all you want to do is meet them, get some artifacts back, dismantle a bomb. What happened to that scientific brain of yours? Your curiosity?”
“You want me to tell our new alien allies that I want to dissect them?” Liz counters, pushing past Rosa to get another agent to add into the mix. “Think about that one.”
Rosa eyes what she’s doing but doesn’t say anything.
She also doesn’t apologize for maybe being insensitive to their new friends, which tracks. It’s not like they’ve met them, and they have no idea what they’ll be like. For all they know, they might have to keep them an arm’s length away to stay safe. Hell, they might just be assholes who none of them get along with.
“What is that?” Rosa finally asks, gesturing to the vials in Liz’s hands.
Liz lifts up the vial and watches as the agent she’s added to the solution begins to bubble up, which means that this is a no-go. She doesn’t even know if this will work, seeing as she hasn’t got any real alien DNA on file. The best she’s got are government archives from Alex’s time and she’s not entirely sure how helpful those are.
She doesn’t doubt that Jesse Manes had aliens at his disposal, but she’s not so sure what so many decades of storage does to the genetic samples.
“You know I’m not the genius of the family, right? I need more than ‘plan B’,” Rosa echoes. “Come on. This isn’t just so I can go back to Agent Valenti and show off, though it’s definitely going to be a nice perk. Tell me about your work. You always used to, back before you got all fancy and rich and famous.”
“Plan B is that if the bomb manages to go off, I’ll have an antidote for any alien that’s in the vicinity.” She stares at the solution, which has now begun to corrode the top of the glass, forcing Liz to drop it into a storage container that will dispose of it by crushing and imploding it. “Clearly, I’m not doing a great job yet.”
“Jenna will find something so we don’t get to that point,” Rosa guarantees. “She’s our best.”
“You have a crush on her,” Liz retorts. “You think she’s the best at everything.”
“So I like hot blondes.”
“And hot brunettes, and the occasional hot redhead,” Liz replies. “Even if you never make a move, you’re always appreciating.”
“Oh, like you’re any better? How many times have you appreciated Kyle lately in bed, even though you two aren’t dating?”
Liz doesn’t sputter, but she does feel her cheeks flush with the embarrassment of being confronted with the fact that she absolutely has been relying on Kyle to let off some steam even though she probably shouldn’t. It’s been brought to her attention more than once that he still has feelings for her and Liz can’t honestly say that she feels the same back.
The honest thing to do would be to put some distance between them, but Liz’s life is stressful and the ‘rich and famous’ part means that it’s hard for her to let anyone into her life without worrying about compromising her personal and professional security.
“He still loves you, Liz,” Rosa warns. “You’re going to hurt him.”
Liz tips her head to the side and gives Rosa a wary look. “Are you genuinely worried that I’m going to hurt him, or do you just not want your half-siblings to date?”
Rosa shrugs, taking it in stride. “Why can’t it be both?” She leans forward to see Liz’s notes on the antidote because despite Rosa’s insistence that she doesn’t understand it, she likes to try and learn as much as she can. “You should send copies of this to Agent Valenti, speaking of the Step-Mom.”
“You know she hates when you call her that.”
“It’s not untrue,” Rosa retorts. “I’m serious. If we can’t find the Tesseract, we should come up with something proactive,” she says. “Maybe stop thinking antidote and start thinking vaccine?”
With that easy little revelation, Rosa leaves Liz alone in her lab.
Her sister’s always been the creative one of the two of them, but Liz will always be envious of how she can just do that. Ideas come so easily to her. Liz has been so focused on the potential disaster and apocalypse scenario that she never stopped to think about doing something that could render the threat null and void.
Muttering a curse in Spanish under her breath, Liz drags her notes back in front of her to get back to the drawing board, already knowing that Rosa has the better idea.
Somehow, even though she hasn’t got the science brain, she’s still figuring out creative solutions to all of Liz’s problems. It’s only a shame she’s unwilling to give her an answer to the complications in her romantic life.
They’ve been summoned for a “team meeting”.
Michael doesn’t do teams. He has a crew of two and he and Noah usually manage to get along because they rarely interact. Max, Isobel and him, they used to be a team, but then he got fed up with all of Nova Corps’ rules when they’d gone legit and the fact that they never listened to him when he was right; that led to his less-than-legal adventures.
Now, he’s expected to play nice with the humans.
There’s a lot more of them in this meeting than he’d expected, though maybe a part of him had just been hoping for some more one-on-one time with Alex. That’s who his eyes have stuck on all meeting, but it’s impossible to ignore the rest.
There’s Kyle, who’s some kind of doctor. When they’d turned up for the meeting, he’d been taking Alex’s temperature (and Michael would have been happy to tell him that Alex is very, very hot – no thermometer needed). There’s Liz, who’d apparently been the one in contact with Nova to coordinate the mission. Then, there’s Maria, who’s been sitting at Liz’s side, assessing the group of them.
There are also two women in suits lingering nearby. They’ve both got tablets, which means they’re ready to take notes. From what Michael understands, the young one’s Rosa and is related to Liz and the older one is Kyle’s mother, so apparently, you have to be related to gain entrance to this super special club.
At this point, he’s waiting for Alex and Maria to dramatically announce themselves half-brother and sister.
“So,” Liz says, clapping her hands together as she pushes herself off the table she’s been leaning against, clearly ready to kick things off. “Where do we start?” Michael knows a control freak when he sees one (he’s lived with Isobel long enough) and it’s obvious that she has plenty of ideas, but she wants to seem polite by not immediately grabbing control.
It's almost amusing the way her eye twitches slightly when someone actually has the audacity to clear their throat to begin. Rosa clearly also finds it funny, given how she coughs and hides her smile behind her hand. It's Kyle who’s daring to poke the bear, but Liz lets him get away with it.
Interesting, thinks Michael, and files that away.
“I want to get an assessment of everyone’s abilities,” Kyle says, prying the blood pressure cuff off Alex’s arm.
He seems content with the reading, seeing as he nods and moves away. Meanwhile, Michael’s arms are crossed over his chest and he’s trying hard not to be jealous of a blood pressure cuff for being so tightly wrapped around Alex’s arm like that.
“Thanks to Liz’s reports, I know what Cap can do and his recent physicals have given me a baseline to operate on,” he says. “I helped work with Liz on the armor for both herself and Maria and so I understand how much damage it can withstand, but you four,” he says, glancing to the aliens in the room. “You four are the anomaly.”
For a moment, none of them answer. Michael’s never been prouder of both Max and Noah for their mistrust of the humans. Of course, his diplomatic pain in the ass Princess sister has to go and ruin that.
“Noah’s a bit of a jack of all trades when it comes to his powers. Telekinesis, energy manipulation, mental manipulation,” Isobel speaks up for them. “I can influence people’s minds, and Max can both heal and destroy. Michael…”
“Can’t do anything,” he interrupts before Isobel can give him away. He fixes her with a pointed look. “I can feel when they’re in pain, but I’m a ship captain. That’s it,” is his insistence, because he doesn’t want to get dragged into this whole mess and trotted around like some kind of weapon. They’re not paying him, and this isn’t his fight. He might be stuck here until Max and Isobel are done with their little defenders of the galaxy act, but that doesn’t mean he has to get dragged into it.
He wishes that Alex weren’t looking at him with such sympathy, but Michael steels himself as he lifts his chin, because he won’t be looking at him like that if he finds out that Michael’s been lying to him.
“Show me,” Kyle says.
Michael snorts, and gives the room a disbelieving look. Isobel looks faintly amused, too, because asking them to go on display like some kind of traveling act is a bit audacious, even for a human. Still, the opportunities are endless.
Yeah, Isobel, Michael concentrates and sends through their connection. Show him.
“Okay,” Isobel replies, though Kyle might think it’s in response to his demand, but Michael knows that it’s for him.
He hides his smirk in his hands and settles back into his chair. For the first time since the meeting began, his attention has finally moved off of Alex, because he refuses to miss the show when he knows Isobel will never fail to disappoint.
She closes her eyes and focuses intently, her attention fixed on Kyle. Well, it is only fitting, seeing as he’s the one who asked for the demonstration. She tips her head to the side, and her gaze grows a little more narrowed and focused. Then, a moment later, she snaps out of it, smiling politely.
“I don’t get it,” Maria says warily, looking at the room. “I can feel something in the air, like charged energy, but…”
Sometimes, Isobel’s powers work on a delay, but they always work when the thought is there.
Kyle starts to strip off his shirt and okay, maybe Michael spoke too soon about the doctor not having any redeeming qualities, because those abs are definitely enough for him to stare at and enjoy. He’s not the only one. Isobel’s humming with delight (to Noah’s clear annoyance) and when Michael glances to the side, he sees Alex’s eyes widen.
“I told you,” Isobel says proudly, buffing her nails. “I influence people, though deep down they have to either be willing to go along with the suggestion or have wanted to do it.”
Rosa laughs loudly, clapping her hands. “You’re telling me that Kyle always wants to take his shirt off? Liz, I love them, the aliens can stay.”
Isobel puffs herself up, looking intensely proud of herself. Kyle grabs his shirt from where he’d dropped it on the floor after his impromptu striptease, the tips of his ears furiously red. He reaches for his files and scribbles furiously, keeping his head down.
Aw, thinks Michael. It looks like the doctor’s embarrassed.
“That’s Isobel,” Kyle says, “now the others.”
Michael gives Noah an amused look, but flatly says, “You kill anyone, you don’t get to come back on board the ship.”
“You’re no fun,” Noah grumbles.
There’s a wary half-titter of laughter around them, which is cute except for the part where Michael hadn’t been joking. Noah does a good job these days of not doing anything like that with his powers, but there are still a lot of outstanding warrants on his head. His usual go-to with his power involves body-hopping, but no one is unconscious, so instead he closes his eyes and fixes his attention on Kyle to share his mind.
It’s a good way to prove it, but it’s not exactly very interesting for anyone outside the connection.
“Is he doing something?” Liz asks.
Kyle’s gasp when Noah releases him is palpable, so obviously he’s done enough to prove his point. Michael smirks as Noah settles in beside him, sitting on top of the table. Elbow to elbow, he feels comfortable hanging out with his first mate, and besides, he’s curious what the hell he showed Kyle to make him look so unnerved.
Michael raises a brow, mentally asking that question.
“I showed him our little run-in with the black hole,” he supplies helpfully.
Michael laughs ruefully. “You’re so lucky we found that healer. You were messed up from the gravity forces,” he recalls, thinking of how it had basically taken Noah from the good-looking man he is to someone who could give Methuselah a run for his money. His gaze slides to Isobel with a teasing smirk. “He was ugly as shit.”
“Like you were any better,” Noah huffs. “We both needed the genetic reset.”
Okay, point taken.
Michael glances up to prod Max to show off, and when his attention slides back towards the other side of the room, he catches Alex staring at him, a hint of curiosity in his eyes, like he wants to know just how bad it got. Interesting, because he’s never flirted with anyone before by showing himself off at his worst.
Maybe Earthlings operate differently than the rest of the universe.
Max clears his throat to get everyone’s attention, but he looks nervous. The awkwardness of this silent pause is drawing out and Michael groans when it keeps going, because he knows why. “For fuck’s sake,” he grumbles and reaches into Noah’s utility belt for his knife, holding out his forearm to slash the skin in a shallow mark.
“Whoa, what the hell?”
Michael glances to Alex, who had been the one to yelp out his name with such caring concern. He raises his brows at him, but then turns to Max, gesturing for the lightly dripping wound. “My brother’s too shy to ask for a volunteer,” he explains, as Max leans towards him, his hand beginning to glow. “His power doesn’t do much if you’re in perfect health.”
Michael can feel everyone breathing down his neck as people creep in to see exactly what Max is doing. It’s been ages since Max has done this for him and true, the prospect of a connection forced on them for a day or so will suck, but it’s not like Max would ever ask anyone to do this. It’s why Michael will suck it up and do it.
It’s not like Isobel or Max would ever admit it, but sometimes you need someone who’s impulsive and stubborn and maybe kind of stupid on your crew.
“Are you kidding me?” Liz demands, grabbing Michael’s forearm when Max is done with it.
“Hey,” he snaps. “Boundaries!”
She doesn’t let go, only turns his arm back and forth, like she’s looking for a single little remnant of the wound, but he knows that’s not how Max’s power works. It’s healed, fully. “This is incredible,” Liz raves, staring at Max with an intensity that has Max clearing his throat and flushing.
Clearly, that’s Michael’s cue to take him down a peg.
“Yeah, well, I’m not helping to demonstrate when his power works the other way,” is all he says.
Max clearly doesn’t want anyone knowing about that, which is why Michael intends to keep going until he tells the truth. He knows that either Isobel or Noah will give it up, too, because Max is the only one who’s ashamed of the sheer power that runs within his body. It’s a waste, is Michael’s opinion, one that he knows Noah shares.
“I go both ways…”
“Not in the fun way like me,” Michael interrupts with a smirk and a wink at Liz, trying to ignore Alex because he doesn’t want to see his reaction (because he’s too desperate to see a good one). It gets a rise out of Max the way it always does, getting the glare from him.
Max sighs. “I can heal,” he says, “but if I let my power go the other way, I can also kill someone.”
He doesn’t elaborate, which means that he doesn’t mention what Michael already knows. When Max kills someone, it feels right, and when he heals, it’s like a poison in his system. It had been a confession Max had whispered to him when they were eighteen and first out in the universe. Max had killed a bounty hunter after them, thinking they were the royal children of Antar, and he’d been on a power high for days. Deep down, Michael thinks that Max’s shame for enjoying it so much had been what sent him off to be a dutiful little boy for Nova Prime, but it’s Max. Any number of moralistic little nudges could have sent them there, for all he knows.
Kyle’s deep in thought, rapidly pressing keys over the tablet.
“Good,” he’s saying. “This is good.” His eyes flick up to Michael, but then down dismissively. “I guess we don’t need you, other than support,” he says absently.
Michael’s the one who wants to keep his nose out of this. He doesn’t need a power fix like Noah and he doesn’t need to do this to sleep at night like Max does. Isobel’s here for the political clout this will get her, but he wants the money and he wants to get out of this alive. Now that there’s a really hot guy in tight pants with an ass that inspires love letters, he’s more interested in the mission, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to drop everything and put his life on the line for them.
And yet, doesn’t it just fucking sting to have Kyle dismiss him so easily.
Michael swallows his pride and a few angry retorts, forcing himself to play nice. “You need a ride into space, I’m your guy,” he agrees, because that much, he can do. “No better Captain around.”
He knows he’s right about that one, which at least makes him feel somewhat useful.
Kyle begins a verbal summary of the humans’ abilities, but Michael’s stopped paying attention. Something about being dismissed aside has struck a chord, even though he’s the one who set it up that way. He bows his head down and tunes out Kyle’s explanations about Liz and Maria, he’s even in such a sulk that he doesn’t listen when Kyle talks about Alex, only tuning back in when he hears his name being called.
When he looks up, he catches Alex staring at him with concern. Michael bristles, but feels the butterflies in his stomach swoop and dive to have his attention on him so fixedly. It had been Kyle who called his name, though.
“I asked if we could do a few test runs with the ship so I can see the systems. Once we get our intel back about where the bomb is, we’ll need to get there quickly. I want to understand how fast you can get us there, since we’re not entirely sure we trust the government right now,” is his wry comment. “Borrowing their planes seems like a bad idea.”
“Yeah, sure, fine,” Michael says dismissively, but he’s still staring at Alex while he says it with a flip of his hand.
His cheeks burn with the attention, but also with the awareness that he still feels useless and hating that he’s the one who did this to himself. The meeting is far from over, but Michael’s on his feet because he needs to get the hell out of there. Isobel reaches out for his hand, but he ignores it, shaking his head minutely.
“You guys keep having your human-alien relations seminar,” he says. “I’m gonna go grab a drink and some air.”
Max rolls his eyes at him, but what’s really intolerable is the concern that Noah gives him. Sure, Noah knows him better than pretty much anyone else given how much time they spend together, but when the former murderer is looking at you like you’re the one who’s a little off, something’s definitely up.
He didn’t come here to hold hands and fight. He’ll shuttle them wherever they need to go. It’s not like he needs to show them how powerful he is or how smart and capable. This is Isobel and Max’s problem to solve and when they back themselves into a corner, then they’ll come and actually ask for more help than just a ride across the universe.
Until then, Michael plans to settle down in the kitchen on his ship and enjoy the all-you-can-drink acetone buffet it offers on a daily basis.
Kyle startles awake in the middle of the night to an alarm that there’s an intruder on the premises. He rubs his eyes as he leans over to try and turn it off, which is when he realizes that it’s not the premises that’s triggered the alarm. It’s the one in his bedroom.
He sits up with a jolt when he sees the figure sitting in a chair in the corner of his bedroom.
“Fuck,” he hisses, trying to calm his racing heart. “Jenna, what the hell?”
She’s sitting in the corner of Kyle’s bedroom in the dark, her hair neatly braided to the side. There isn’t a light on, which means that she’s illuminated solely by the moonlight creeping through the window in a small sliver between the blackout curtains. “Did you know you snore in your sleep?”
“As far as nighttime habits go, snoring is a little more normal than creepily lurking,” he retorts, his heart still frantically beating in his chest. “What are you doing here? I didn’t think you were getting back for another day.”
“I heard we had guests,” Jenna replies, rising to her feet as she starts to pace at the foot of Kyle’s bed. “It’s rude not to come back and say hello.”
He really wishes that she wouldn’t pull this creepy shit on him. He’d been there when his mother had recruited Jenna from the other side and given her a chance. She’d vowed up and down that Jenna Cameron could be trusted, no matter her reputation. Kyle’s always suspected that his mother is keeping her enemies closer with the Black Widow on their team, but Kyle gets it.
That level of dangerous is something you want defending you, not gunning for you.
Kyle leans over to turn on his nightstand lamp, rubbing both hands over his face as he tries to settle his careening heart. He’s exhausted, but if she’s back and here with him, that means she has something to say that she doesn’t want either Liz or SHIELD knowing about yet. He’s not sure when he became her most trusted ally, but he’s also not going to argue it.
There’s something about Jenna that makes Kyle feel alive in a way that feels dangerous. It’s not the safety he feels with Liz, but something else completely, but it’s also something he doesn’t dare chase down unless he’s sure.
Right now, he’s not sure.
“Did you find the bomb?”
Jenna nods, but Kyle doesn’t like the apprehension that’s in her face. “We were right not to trust the government. It took me a while to figure out the paper trails led right back to our own Air Force. Ever since 1945 when Cap’s plane went down, there’s been a fringe sect of the Air Force run by Jesse Manes, whose sole purpose is to ensure that the alien threat to humanity is dealt with.”
Kyle isn’t totally surprised about that, but he’s not sure what that has to do with today.
“His sons took up the mission when Jesse passed in the late seventies. They kept quiet, but they gained as many loyal followers as they could, had their own children that they could indoctrinate into this hate for aliens.” She takes out her cell phone and turns it to Kyle, showing him a picture of someone that he already knows.
There’s an icy chill creeping down his back.
“Your father was one of the men they recruited,” she says.
“My father died in an accident when he worked with the Air Force,” Kyle says numbly, trying to somehow acclimate to this idea that his father could’ve been wrapped up in this whole mess. “He crashed his car while he was on a mission, the massive head trauma couldn’t be fixed.” It had been the whole reason he’d become a doctor, because he hadn’t wanted to feel that helpless ever again in his life.
Jenna takes the phone back, giving him a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, Kyle.”
He’s never Kyle to her, always Valenti, which is why he knows how bad she must feel for him. “I don’t understand.”
“I think your father was trying to get out. I think he was trying to bring secrets with him, and I think the Manes boys did something about that.” Kyle feels a sinking sensation in his stomach, wondering how the hell he’s going to tell her mother about this. “The bomb’s still with the sect that Manes created. It’s an underground organization within the military called Shepherd. They’ve managed to take the Tesseract and create something with it. It’s not activated, but it’s ready.”
Kyle knows he should be focusing on the intelligence, but his mind keeps going back to his father. He keeps thinking about the fact that his father had been wrapped up in this. What else about him doesn’t he know? What other family secrets are lying around?
Here he’d thought cheating on his Mom and giving Kyle a half-sister had been the big one, but it turns out that’s small potatoes compared to what’s been lurking in the dark.
“Don’t tell my Mom about my Dad?” he requests, staring up at Jenna, handing back the phone. “Not yet.”
“She needs to know,” Jenna says firmly. “If you want to be the one to tell her, you can, but you need to let her into the loop,” is a warning that says that if Kyle doesn’t comply, then she will move forward.
“Fuck,” he snaps. “Just not yet, Jenna!” He gives her a pleading look and knows he’s about to cash in on whatever favor he’s got with her. “For me, please?” he begs, and stares at her with more desperation than he’s felt in a long time. “Please, for me, let me figure this out, look into it. We’ll keep digging into the bomb, Liz will work on the backup plan, but now we can try and get it away from Shepherd, disarm it…”
What else did his father hide from him?
Why can’t he focus on anything else? His Dad’s been dead for years, but here he is, meddling in their latest mission because he’s managed to drop a bomb of his own on Kyle’s life.
“I’ll bring the schematics to Ortecho and brief the SHIELD girls on locations,” Jenna promises, squeezing his hand gently, her thumb sliding over the back of his palm. “We know where and what this thing is, Valenti. It’s a huge step forward.” She’s so close that Kyle can smell the cordite and leather clinging to her clothes, all hints of how the last mission went. “I’ll give you a few days to think about how you want to tell your mother about your Dad’s involvement in Shepherd. You are going to tell her.”
It's a command, he can hear that much.
Kyle knows what happens when people don’t respect orders in SHIELD, and as much as he hates it, he knows that Jenna’s right. “Give me two days,” he says, which is respectable and not pushing the limits, he feels.
“Two days,” Jenna agrees, even if she looks deeply unhappy about it. “Fine, but only because it’s you.”
There’s that feeling again. Kyle breathes out shakily as he stares at Jenna, wondering if there’s something else he should be saying in the space and silence between them. He feels like the moment slips by him to say anything else, and so he leans back on what he knows.
He watches her expression for anything – disappointment, irritation, anger – but she’s a blank slate as always. “Anytime, Valenti,” she replies, and by the time Kyle reaches over to turn out the lights, she’s gone.
She’s left a tsunami of news in her wake, but she’s gone as quickly and quietly as she came. Kyle feels even more adrift than before, and he’s not sure what happens next, but he knows it’s not going to be pretty.
Chapter 5: and drunk we set the world to rights
They’ve been on Earth for a whole week and Michael hasn’t spent nearly enough of that time with Alex, as far as he’s concerned. Luckily, today’s the day that changes.
Michael follows Alex into the hangar after they’re released from their standing morning meeting. Instead of his usual morning drink, today he intends to learn more about Alex from the source versus hinting around to the others and collecting stories about him like treasures. He waits, lingers behind Alex, and watches the way that Alex stares at Michael’s ship. There’s a fascination in the awe and wonderment of how he looks at it, which instantly makes Michael like him more.
Michael can’t blame him, considering he’s duly entranced watching Alex as he slides his fingers along Michael’s ship. He breathes in sharply when it’s like he can feel the touch, even though he knows he’s only imagining it. The sound catches Alex’s attention and he jumps slightly, pulling his hand off the hull. The shimmering ripples die down, and if Michael’s ship were a living, breathing thing, he’s pretty sure that it would feel bereft to have lost that touch.
“Sorry,” he apologizes quickly. “I’ve never actually seen a spaceship before.”
“You wanna see inside it, go up into the atmosphere?” Michael hears himself offering before he thinks about whether that’s a good idea to take a human up into space for the first time.
The morning drink can definitely wait. Now that he’s thinking about it, he thinks getting Alex in private is the best idea. There are always people lingering, either interfering aliens or meddling humans.
Right now, they’re all occupied with their post-briefing tasks, so there’s no one else around.
“Really?” Alex sounds shocked that he’s offering, which only stings a little. He might be a ne’er-do-well, but that’s not the impression of him that he wants Alex to have. “It’s not going to burn too much fuel or send up warnings that the government might come investigate?”
Michael shrugs. “And if it does?”
He's beginning to get the feeling that Alex cares a whole lot more about things than Michael does – or at least, more than he says he does. He’s cultivated a reputation that banks heavily on people thinking that he doesn’t give a shit.
If people ever learned the truth (that Michael cares so much that it aches and burns him up inside), he probably wouldn’t get half the jobs he does.
He nods towards the ship, letting his gaze slide over Alex’s body. He’s not in the ridiculous spandex suit that Michael had first met him in, and while it’s true that he still looks excellent in the red plaid shirt and jeans, Michael kind of misses the skin-tight one. It’s a lot better of a view. This isn’t so bad either, especially not when a strand of Alex’s hair flops into his eyes, which Alex pushes away with those long fingers.
“Come on,” Michael insists, biting his lip as he nods to the ship. “Let’s go for a ride.”
He’s serving his best game here, bedroom eyes and all, but Alex doesn’t seem to be giving anything back. He’s not shutting him down or anything, but he gets a polite and friendly smile in return after a painful beat where Alex gives him no reaction at all.
It’s almost like he genuinely doesn’t know what to do with Michael’s flirtations.
Shit, maybe he’s pushed too far. Michael’s intending to head up into space anyway, because he needs some time to calm and center his thoughts. He doesn’t like lying and he hates secrets, but telling the truth to a bunch of humans he doesn’t know (and definitely doesn’t trust) means he’ll get dragged into their plans. He knows that there are alien lives at risk, but it’s not like he’s sitting back and doing nothing. He’s just not doing it their way.
He’s taking in all the information he can, working the problem himself. He doesn’t need a team for that, he just needs his own genius brain and whatever information the earthlings have.
When the humans aren’t looking, he’d snapped photos of the schematics and his personal lab has everything he needs to solve the problem. He hasn’t been able to figure out the biological components of the bomb, but the engineering behind it has been a snap. He can disarm it with no issue, so long as he gets close enough.
“Where do I sit?” Alex asks as he steps inside Michael’s ship.
Michael grins lasciviously and settles into the Captain’s chair. “Best seat in the house,” he says with a wink, but then to have mercy on Alex, he gestures for the seat to his left instead of his own lap. Noah’s seat to the right has a giant axe on it, because he doesn’t want anyone sitting there, even when he’s not on the ship. He’s touchy, but Michael can’t blame him. You take what you can and then you fight like hell to make sure no one steals it from you. Alex gives Michael an amused look as he buckles in, even though there’s a wary look on his face.
“You scared of flying or something?”
“Or something,” Alex replies darkly. There’s a story there that he’s not telling and one day Michael intends to hear it, but for now, he’s got a start-up sequence to run through.
He flips the communication switch to open up his speakers to the hangar bay. “Attention all earthlings and any nosy aliens in the immediate vicinity. We’re going for a ride, don’t miss us too much,” he teases, flipping switches and buckling himself in as he hits the switch for the roof (which he’d programmed an opener into the ship the first day he got here, because it hadn’t been hard and it’s come in real handy).
Considering the state of his ship, it really is a miracle she runs as well as she does, but she hovers in place before Michael has her shoot up with a vertical jump, hitting the upper levels of Earth’s atmosphere with ease.
Alex laughs suddenly, like it’s been pulled from him, and it’s uninhibited and gleeful, a start contrast to the way his hand shoots out to grab hold of Michael’s forearm with mild panic. It could be that he wants any excuse to touch Michael or it could just be that there’s nothing else to grab in the vicinity of the seat Alex has picked.
Michael’s going with the former.
He doesn’t do anything stupid like flip the ship or do a bunch of evasive flying maneuvers (even though he could). He’d be an idiot to even try, especially given the hesitation that Michael can see in Alex’s eyes. Something about being up in the sky is making him nervous. Instead, Michael gently coasts them up until they’re far enough away from the planet that he’s got the artificial gravity on and they’ve got a bird’s eye view of the Earth below in all its gleaming glory.
Once he’s got them hovering, he unbuckles and heads to the computers to put the shields up so they don’t get knocked around by debris, putting the engines into a lower power mode so they don’t burn up fuel, and then once he’s done, he grabs a beer.
“You want a drink?” Michael offers, bending into the little bridge bar-fridge he and Noah had installed.
Alex looks at him warily, unbuckling and following after Michael. “Does space not have drinking and driving rules?”
“Alien metabolism,” Michael assures. “The nearest substance you guys have on earth to what would really mess me up is acetone,” he admits. “Beer might give me a buzz for a few minutes, but we’re not flying. I got the autopilot for that. You wanna say hi?” Michael quips, leaning back towards the main console. “Darling, say hi to Alex.”
“Hello Alex Manes,” comes the male robotic voice that Michael had programmed in after Noah got way too frisky with the female AI. Maybe it’s because he’d been uncomfortable, or maybe because he had his sister’s honor to defend.
Alex laughs in disbelief. “Hi?” he echoes, sounding puzzled and adorable, which isn’t helping Michael’s fledgling crush (which is unacceptable, because he’s not supposed to be the kind of man who gets crushes, not at his age and not with his reputation). “I guess I’ll take that beer,” he agrees.
“Thatta boy,” Michael praises and hands it over to him, heading to the viewing area at the front of the bridge to perch in one of the ratty couches he’d moved up here during one of his impulsive flights of fancy. Usually, he comes up here and sits on the couch atop a planet so he can think. Whenever he’s facing a problem he can’t solve or he’s spiralling with his emotions, he flies as high as he can and sits above it all, until he has the answer.
His gaze slides towards Alex and wonders what it means that he’s willingly allowed someone else into this spot with him.
“There’s something I’ve been wondering,” Michael says, and maybe this is why he’s allowed Alex into his space. Maybe he wants answers. He’d managed to charm the story of Alex Manes out of Liz and Maria the night before over a lot of beers, so he has a fairly good background on the man. Maybe he doesn’t know him inside and out, but he feels like he at least knows enough to ask the question on Michael’s mind. “I keep asking myself at every team meeting the same question, the one I can’t figure out.”
Alex steps forward and sits on the opposite end of the couch, perched on the arm of it as he picks the label off the beer.
“Why are you doing this? You don’t owe them anything,” he says. “You woke up and you lost decades of your life. The first thing you want to do outside of the ice is fight?” He doesn’t believe that for a second, and maybe it’s just that no one has given Alex any other choice in the matter.
If that’s the case, Michael intends to be the one to fix that. He’s all about choice, especially given his childhood when he’d been told exactly what and who they expected him to be.
“If you wanted,” he says, trying to sound casual, “you could leave with me. We could get out of here, go out into the universe. It doesn’t have to be your fight.”
It would mean abandoning the problem. He’d be leaving Isobel and Max for a little while, because he knows they’d never leave, but maybe he could find a nice little nook in the galaxy for Alex and come back to get him once Michael had worked out how to stop the biological component of the bomb. Should it be strange that even in this, Michael’s not abandoning the fight? He writes it off as his inability to leave a problem without a solution.
“It’s my planet,” Alex says, staring out at the Earth below them, bright and blue and beautiful. Even Michael has to admit that it’s something else to look at, from up here.
“Yeah, but this weapon isn’t targeted at your planet,” Michael feels compelled to remind him, sarcastic and more than a little irritated about that fact.
Alex looks haunted, which is stupid because Michael knows he’s right. The bomb won’t do anything to Alex, but it’ll kill Michael and everyone he cares about. If it’s genetically mapped to alien DNA, then he’s fucked the minute it goes off. So, why is it that Alex looks like he's so upset? He barely knows the four of them and he definitely hasn’t met any other aliens.
Michael tries to tamp down that stupid voice that asks him why Alex shouldn’t be so upset. It’s felt like maybe they’ve had a connection, even though he can’t explain how or why.
“It’s my family who made this bomb. They did this because they didn’t trust anything that wasn’t like them.” He spits out the words with bitterness and a rage that Michael can understand, because it sounds like the same anger he feels every day at being cast aside. “I wasn’t what they wanted me to be either, not even after the serum. My father hated anything he didn’t understand. Now he wants to kill whole planets with that hate, from beyond the grave.”
Alex gives a hollow laugh, shaking his head as he settles onto the couch cushion one space over, looking down at the planet.
“This is more than my fight. This is my family’s legacy that I need to dismantle. Besides, I know I only met my first aliens recently, but…I kind of want to see more of them.” His eyes flicker upwards from where he’s been staring at the Earth, lips parted as he looks at Michael.
Certain aliens in particular?
It’s what Michael wants to ask. If he were feeling suave and more confident, he even would, but he can’t. He’s stuck, like Alex’s stare is a tractor beam that’s got him in its sights. What is it with this guy?
“So, not running, huh?”
“Not running,” Alex agrees, and salutes him with the beer. He casts his head down to the ground, clearing his throat. Michael can tell that he’s got something else to say, so he keeps quiet to give him a chance. “But, uh…thanks,” he manages, sounding rough. “You’re the first person to ask me what I want in a really long time. They just assumed I’d be fighting this fight when I woke up. They didn’t ask what I wanted or what I even thought.” He’s staring at the planet below him and Michael wishes that this didn’t mean so much to him. “Thank you, for that.”
“I know what it’s like to have a planet’s worth of expectations on you,” Michael admits, even if he doesn’t want to get into the whole clone thing, because it’s a shitty past to have, especially once you’re written off as the rejects. “I know how much it means to be in control of your own destiny.”
Alex looks up at him, which makes Michael realize how close they are. While they’ve been talking, Michael’s inched even closer and their hips are nearly flush together. This close, Michael can see the scar on Alex’s forehead, the way his lips are somewhat chapped, and he can see the steady rise and fall of Alex’s chest with every breath.
“Thanks for coming up here with me,” Michael manages, heart pounding. “It’s nice, having the company.”
“You have Noah,” Alex reminds him.
Michael barks out a surprised laugh. “You’ve met Noah,” he says. “My first mate might be decent company in the black, but he’s not exactly my BFF. Besides, sometimes up here, it gets lonely. I never really thought I’d be the guy who wanted something like that, but I don’t know…”
Maybe recently, he’s started to think that it wouldn’t be so bad if he did have something serious, but who the hell would have him? He’s a space captain who dabbles in piracy and has a former murderer as a first mate. He’s not exactly husband material.
“You should never say never,” Alex replies, staring at Michael’s lips. “I never thought that I’d be up in space with an alien after being frozen in time for seven decades, but…”
Here he is. It’s also a reminder that he’s better than Michael. He’s a hero that’s going to save the world because he feels a personal duty for it, which means that Michael shouldn’t give in to his baser impulses to pin him to the couch and kiss him until neither of them can breathe. That’s a complication for Alex, not anything that could develop into something real.
Michael hates when his brain starts being sensible.
“We should get back, huh?” He nearly vaults over the couch to get back into the Captain’s chair, because they haven’t been up there too long, but he knows that people will start asking questions if he doesn’t deliver Alex back in one safe piece. “Buckle up!” he calls to him, stubbornly ignoring things like how close he’d been to kissing Alex or the way Alex had licked his lips as he'd stared at Michael’s.
He really needs to ignore how he’d opened up like that to him, because nobody gets that peek into Michael’s psyche, not even his siblings.
“I mean it,” Michael cuts him off, focusing on the landing sequence. “Buckle up. Re-entry can get bumpy.” He lets his gaze flicker up briefly to land on Alex, swallowing nervously because his emotions have a bad habit of lingering in his expression, and he feels like an open book to Alex right now.
This is all temporary. Once Max and Isobel are done playing hero, once Michael finishes actually solving the problem, they’re out of there. He shouldn’t be developing attachments beyond that.
He delivers Alex back to Ortecho Headquarters and tries not to feel guilty about refusing to meet Alex’s eyes. The last thing he needs is for another moment to happen that Michael doesn’t know how to feel about, so avoidance is clearly the best tactic. Given Alex’s soft huff of frustration, he doesn’t agree.
“I guess I’ll see you later,” he mutters, displeased with Michael from the tone of his voice.
The worst of it is that as Michael lingers in the lobby, he feels horrible for Alex’s reaction. It’s even got him debating whether he wants to head back to his ship and bunk there tonight or if he’s going to be a team player that stays in the quarters here. If he opts to stay here, he’ll be a lot closer to Alex, which is a huge perk, even if he doubts anything’s going to come of it. Given how Alex seems to be annoyed with him for Michael’s refusal to do anything about that moment, staying here probably wouldn’t do much.
He’s still thinking about it, though. That’s how messed up Alex has him.
“I approve,” comes Isobel’s voice, from the shadows of a nearby hallway.
Michael startles somewhat, not having expected anyone to be there with him. “What? Stop lurking,” he complains, when Max steps out as well. “The concerned sibling routine got old ages ago, when you two decided that being decent citizens meant we didn’t have to be attached at the hip.”
“You’re less of an asshole when he’s around. It’s almost like you’re the Michael we know you are deep down instead of the ruthless Captain you want everyone to think you are,” is Max’s opinion, neatly ignoring everything Michael said. “We definitely approve.”
“Shut up,” Michael mutters, flipping them off as he walks back towards his ship. It looks like he’s bunking in the ship, but only as a result of his unwillingness to let his siblings keep poking away at him.
Besides, there’s still a bomb out there and he’d rather focus on that instead of thinking about how his siblings would much rather meddle in his love life than actually be helpful in any way.
It’s only been a few days since Jenna gave him the news, but Kyle’s been putting off talking to his mother ever since. He tells himself that it’s because he has no proof, but he knows that he’s a coward. The more he thinks about his father working with the Manes family, the more it stings to know that his father had been a fallible man and the image in his mind has to crumble to allow for reality.
He’s not sure he’s ready for that to replace the image he has of his father in his mind.
And yet, what happens if they dig into the weapon and his Mom finds proof before Kyle gets a chance to tell her? Worse, what happens if Kyle doesn’t muster the courage and then Jenna has to do it for him. Then his Mom will be pissed at him and Jenna will be disappointed.
It’s weird that he’s not sure which is worse, right?
He just knows that both scenarios make him feel a pit in his stomach that he despises, which means that he’s gotta get a spine and talk to her. Luckily, with things getting more intense with the bomb and Jenna’s intel, he doesn’t have to go far to find her.
Liz has set her up in a temporary office where she’s working on two laptops at once, and even though Kyle knocks, she barely glances up. “Hi sweetheart,” she greets him, with far more affection than he usually gets in front of the rest of the team. Kyle only pulls a little of the recalcitrant son routine, enduring the kiss, but old habits die hard.
“Hey, Mom. How’s the world saving going?”
“Oh, you know,” she replies with heavy sarcasm. “I have schematics of a bomb, but no knowledge on how to disarm it. I know where to find it, but I don’t have the numbers to mount a safe assault.”
“I thought that’s a normal day in SHIELD,” Kyle jokes. “I bet you miss your days in the Air Force.”
He’s trying, very cautiously, to come across the topic of his father without seeming like he’s doing it overtly. Given that he’s a bad liar, he suspects that he’s not going to get very far without his mother figuring him out. Still, he’s going to try and ease his way into this, because it’s his Dad and he knows no matter how complicated their relationship had been, his parents had always loved each other on some level, even with the drinking and the affairs.
And now, this.
“That’s where you met Dad, right?”
His mother narrows her eyes at him, instantly suspicious. “You’re a terrible liar,” she informs him. “This is why you were never going to be a spy with us, I could always tell when you were up to no good. What do you want to know about your father, Kyle?” She’s put her reports down on the desk in front of her, letting her critical look land on him. Kyle does his best not to flinch, but it’s always been difficult with his mother, who’s always had the power to eviscerate him with a single look.
There’s no easy way to do this, but Kyle still wishes he had one.
“I know,” his mother responds, giving him a curious look. “Is there something that you wanted to tell me about you and her? I thought you were here to ask questions about your father.”
Kyle sputters a little, wondering if there’s something going on behind his back that he doesn’t know about. Yes, he has a crush on Jenna, and yes, they have a weird friendship where she acts somewhat differently with him, but he really doesn’t think it has anything to do with romance and more the fact that when she’d been new, Kyle had been the first one to really give her a chance.
They’d connected because of it, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything to talk about. Besides, Kyle still loves Liz. It’s becoming painfully obvious that she’s never going to love him back in the same way, though.
“She told me that I could tell you before it landed in a report, but when she was out looking for information on the bomb, she found details about Dad,” Kyle says, feeling like he’s hearing the news again for the first time. He’s not sure how he wants his Mom to react to this, but he feels like it’s not going to be good.
What are his options here?
Either she already knows and makes Kyle feel worse because she’s been lying to him, or she had no idea and Kyle’s about to destroy his father’s memory. If he doesn’t, then Jenna does it for him.
It’s time to suck it up.
“The bomb’s location, it’s with a group named Shepherd,” he says, which he knows she’s already been briefed on.
“Xenophobic and small-minded idiots, I know,” she says calmly.
Kyle winces, because she’s not wrong, but at the same time, that makes what he’s about to say even worse. “Jenna found evidence that Dad was part of their ranks,” he says, watching her face the whole time. “He was recruited and also killed while working with the group.” Now that he’s said it, it doesn’t seem as awful to get through, but at the same time, it’s not like he's getting into the gory details.
For one, he’d purposefully avoided asking Jenna for any of them, careful not to learn too much. He's not entirely sure he would’ve managed, if he had known.
Kyle waits for a reaction as he studies her expression. Her chin is tipped the smallest bit higher and he can see the turmoil in her eyes, but her lips are perfectly even and she hasn’t said a word, not even made a sound. When she does move, it’s so she can lean over to press the communications button on the internal phone system. “Cameron? Bring Maria in with you to see me,” she says, and sits back to look at Kyle.
Kyle isn’t sure what she’s going to do, which scares him slightly. It’s not like he’d been expecting her to break down sobbing, but he’d appreciate seeing something. It’s like Jenna all over again, with Kyle trying to assign some emotion to this and instead finding nothing at all.
Sometimes he wonders if he and Maria are the only ones in this building who have actual emotions.
“You rang?” Maria says, ducking inside with Jenna in her wake. Kyle tries hard to avoid her gaze, looking everywhere but at Jenna’s face, but he doesn’t need to worry. When Kyle does chance a look, Maria is giving him a look that asks if he’s an idiot and Jenna’s focused entirely on his mother.
“I have a lead I need followed,” Michelle says, scribbling it down on a piece of paper. “Take Cameron with you. I need all the files in this base that mention Jim Valenti,” she says, dotting the last word she’s writing before handing it over. “Be back in forty-eight hours for our siege on the bomb.”
Kyle should be dissuading this. It’s a terrible idea to split up their resources this close to a fight and there’s something that claws inside him at the idea of Jenna getting hurt in a fact-finding mission prompted by his father’s past sins.
Unfortunately, he’s also obsessively curious about what his father did in that organization and he’s clutching onto a painfully small hope that maybe things aren’t what they appear. Seeing as he’s too afraid to ask for more details, his imagination is doing the work for him.
“Forty-eight hours,” Jenna confirms, taking the piece of paper. “You’re sure you don’t want us to take Kyle?”
His mother shakes her head firmly. “No,” she says curtly. “We need him here. Go,” she instructs. “Make sure they don’t know you’re there. Do as much recon as you can in the process, for our attack.”
“Yes ma’am,” Maria and Jenna chorus together.
Maria squeezes Kyle’s shoulder on the way out (definitely the only other one with a normal emotional spectrum), and Jenna offers him the briefest of apologetic smiles, like she’s sorry that he had to tell his mother this and yet somehow she’s proud at the same time that he managed.
“There’s a lot of work for you, Kyle,” his mother cuts him off, shuffling her files as she opens them to begin reading through them again. “You were helping Liz run the blood samples to mix the vaccine, I believe?”
It's a firm end to the conversation, that much is clear. He’s not getting any blood from this stone.
“Right,” he says with a small scoff. “I’d appreciate you calling me when they get back,” he adds before he leaves. It’s one thing to learn so many years later that his father had a whole secret life. It’s another for his mother to cut him out from it now. “I want to know what they find.”
“You’ll be the first call,” she promises. “Go,” she repeats, though this time softer and kinder. “You have work to do, sweetheart.”
He does, but at least it’ll keep his mind off whatever Jenna and Maria might find out there. That’s got to count for something.
Liz has had the schematics for the bomb for two whole days.
She’s figured out a part of it; she understands how they’ve weaponized the alien DNA in order to target the aliens and destroy them, she even thinks she has a good lead on making a vaccine if they’re willing to give her more active samples. The problem is that she doesn’t understand how the bomb deploys. She’s been over the schematics ten times, and she’s still missing something.
Before she gets to her eleventh run-through, Liz folds.
“A tomar por culo,,” she grits out, and decides to take a page out of Rosa’s book.
That’s how Isobel finds her after the training sessions for the day are over. Her bottle of wine is half-empty and Alanis Morissette is blaring through the speakers in her lab. One moment she’s blasting the music and swaying around to the sweet sounds of Alanis, the next it cuts off sharply. Liz turns to find Isobel standing there with an unimpressed look on her face.
“I thought you were supposed to be in here solving the bomb issue.”
Liz instantly goes into defensive mode, annoyed that some alien is coming into her lab and telling her how to work. “This is how I get my creativity going,” she says, even though she doesn’t think she should have to explain herself to anyone, let alone an alien whose life Liz is trying to save. When Isobel crosses her arms over her chest and waits for more, Liz folds. “I keep running into the same issue with the bomb,” Liz explains with a heavy sigh.
Isobel picks up a few discarded single-use wine glasses to throw them out. She’s still sweating, which means that she’s come from one of the training sessions that Agent Valenti had mandated for all those involved in the main assault. “What issue?”
“I understand the biological components, but the engineering…” She shakes her head, because even talking about it starts to build her frustrations and she’s not sure that she can cope with it.
Isobel raises her brow. “Is that it?”
“What, you know any mechanical engineering geniuses just lying around that are well-versed in alien technology?” Liz snaps sarcastically.
“Of course I do,” is Isobel’s instant reply. “Michael.”
“The man who’s been trying on cowboy hats all morning because he likes the way they make him look? The one with the dirty ship that looks like it has dents and scratches all over it?” Liz gives Isobel a long stare. “Are you screwing with me?”
“Trust me, as much as he doesn’t want anyone to know about it, he’s the smartest person you’ll ever meet and engineering is his forte. That ship shouldn’t be flying, but he keeps it in the air and traveling between galaxies.” Isobel drapes her towel around her neck and smirks. “If you make sure that Alex is in the room, he definitely won’t say no.”
There’s almost too much to process happening here and Liz closes her eyes to try and cut through some of it. “Go back,” she says. “The man who’s been avoiding any optional team meetings, that one, you want him to help me out.”
“He’s already doing it. He doesn’t want you to know, but I caught him in the middle of working on it.” Isobel smirks, leaning against the counter. “You know the funniest part about this? He can’t figure out the biological component of the bomb. You can’t figure out the engineering. You could solve one another’s problems if you both weren’t stubborn independent geniuses determined to do it yourself. You’ve both had the information for, what, two days?”
Liz doesn’t like the way Isobel is winding up with an accusation, so she stays quiet.
“Two days of meetings, but you never brought up the fact that you’re struggling. Michael won’t tell me either, I had to find it when I was on his ship.”
“Spying on him?”
“When I was on his ship,” Isobel repeats, like she’s determined to stick to a narrative. She snorts and shakes her head. “Honestly, no wonder everyone thinks we’re so much like you earthlings. The stubbornness definitely runs strong in both species.”
Liz might be stubborn, but it’s for good reasons. She’s been in the midst of corporate espionage so often that she’s learned to keep her friends close and her secrets closer, though in this case she doesn’t think she can be blamed.
“It’s not like I could have known!” she protests. “He’s been pretty adamant about not wanting to be involved.”
“If you need someone to crack the engineering of that device, your best bet is Michael,” Isobel says, and with that last bombshell, she grabs a glass of Liz’s wine and walks out of the room like her mission has been completed.
Liz isn’t sure what to make of that. Part of her thinks that Isobel is lying to her because she’s an alien wanting to mess with the humans, but of the delegation sent, Isobel seems the most on the level when it comes to helping them out. Max has been good, too, but he’s reticent, like he's nervous or something and it only seems to get worse around her.
Besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen if Liz decides to take a leap of faith?
She’ll get pretty heavily mocked, but if that’s the worst thing, she thinks it’s worth finding out if Michael can help save the universe.
One of them is going to have to reach out and unless Isobel is about to march over and tell Michael about Liz’s progress, she suspects that it has to be her. She collects all her dignity and reminds herself that saying you need help isn’t the worst thing in the world before she heads to the hangar bay (it also helps that she’s a little tipsy, which means she’s willing to do things that usually she wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole).
The ship door is open, but she still makes a point to bang a few times on the side of it before entering. The first person she sees is Noah, who’s polishing some of the weapons with a rag. “What do you want? Tours aren’t until morning,” he quips.
“I know Michael’s working on the bomb.” Here it goes: “I need his help.”
Noah raises a brow, almost like he’s impressed. “Guerin!” he shouts over his shoulder. “Dig yourself out of the lab, you’ve got company.”
“Is it Alex?”
“Nope,” Noah replies, smirking for the question. “Just as hot, though!”
Liz scowls, folding her arms over her chest. She can’t even focus on the part where Michael clearly is whipped by the prospect of impressing Alex Manes (between Isobel and now Noah’s comment). She hears boots on metal grating, then Michael drops down from the bridge into the bay, eyeing her.
“What do you want?” he demands, wiping his hands.
“I heard a rumor that you’re working on the engineering of the bomb’s distribution system,” Liz says, watching Noah warily out of the corner of her eye as he heads back to his task, sliding earbuds back into his ears.
Michael eyes her suspiciously. “What if I am?”
“I also hear that you’re struggling with the biological elements of the bomb.”
“Fucking Isobel,” Michael mutters under his breath. “Look, if this is some kind of human ritual where you come to rub it in my face that I can’t figure it out…”
“Hey!” she cuts him off with a shout. “Would you stop? I can’t figure out the engineering, but I know all about the virus,” she tells him. “I have three degrees, my company is founded on biological breakthroughs in the market. The bomb’s genetic makeup is not my problem.”
She can see the moment Michael gets it.
“The device itself is.”
“And I know how that works,” he says.
She feels it. The moment that everything changes, she can feel it. It’s funny how this morning, Liz had woken up and felt like she didn’t have a handle on the problems facing her. She hadn’t even gone looking for the solution, it just happened to cross her path and now here she is, facing down an alien genius who’s been hiding in plain sight.
“What the hell else are you hiding?” Liz breathes out as she shakes her head, because the more she learns about their alien friends, the more she thinks there’s other secrets hiding in the shadows.
Given the way Michael averts his gaze to the side, she doesn’t think she’s so far off.
“Let me get my things,” he says sharply. “I’ll bring them to the lab. You show me yours; I’ll show you mine,” he says with a deliberately flirtatious wink.
Before he can go and feel smug about flirting with her, Liz waits until he’s climbing up the ladder to sweetly reply with, “I don’t know if Alex is going to like hearing that you said that to me.”
Michael pauses at the top of the ladder and he doesn’t fully duck down, but he flips her the middle finger before stomping his way up towards his lab. Interesting, she thinks, because either alien culture is more like hers than she’d thought or Michael had gone straight to learning the dirty phrases and gestures the moment they’d landed.
Somehow, she suspects the latter.
He can be as rude and offensive as he wants, Liz decides. If he’s got the solution to help deactivate the bomb, she’ll put up with endless profanities and rude gestures because it means he’ll be alive to make them.
Chapter 6: as we fell and hit our heads upon the curb
Isobel can hear music coming from Michael’s ship.
It’s not Michael’s, because he actually prefers something with a melody. What’s playing now is discordant rhythms and harmonies that somehow blend together and create both an air of music, but also of screaming. It’s what leads Isobel down to the bay, because she knows two things. The first is that it’s Noah’s music and the second is that no one else is around because if they were, they’d have forced him to turn it off.
She checks her reflection in the mirror, adjusting the skinny jeans she’d bought during one of her Earth exploration trips in between meetings and training. She looks excellent as always, though she also knows that Noah’s never cared what she looks like. During one memorable incident that even Michael doesn’t know about, they’d fucked on top of the nearest flat surface while covered in dumpster debris.
Then again, what Michael doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
Isobel wanders forward, feeling like she’s prowling, and comes across Noah working on a weapon in nothing but his tank top and a pair of tight sweatpants, fidgeting with the power conduit. He’s sweating, his hair is in disarray, and she wants.
Isobel knows that she’s the one who wanted to come here and do good. She knows that when she’d turned the page in her book, being the good guy had been her desire to write on the next page. And yet, there’s something about being around Noah and Michael again that reminds her how good it had felt to fly around the galaxy for yourself – robbing, even using your powers for your own selfish purposes, and only caring about yourself.
Maybe the good influence Max had been hoping to have on Michael is being negated by her own backslide, but Isobel privately thinks even Max is struggling now that he’s playing by his own rules again and not just following orders.
“What’s that going to do?” she asks, leaning casually against the wall.
Noah hefts up the gun and shows her the place where there are marks for the pads of his fingers. “Pulse gun,” he says. “For me, or maybe Max if he stops being boring and uses his powers for what they’re meant to be used for.”
Funny how none of them had mentioned to Kyle that after Max’s little healing demonstration, he’d gone and puked for ten minutes, because of how off healing made him feel.
“It’ll discharge the energy from our powers. When Michael’s done flirting with the earthling, I’m gonna have him make it so it works both ways. Powers me up, if I need it.” He wiggles his fingers with a lascivious smirk in her direction. “You do know how I like to use my hands.”
Isobel steps towards him because she came here for those hands and to let loose a little steam. She slides her fingers up Noah’s palm, raising her brow. “What other weapons have you got hiding in here? Anything for me?” she asks, her gaze sliding towards Noah’s very tight pants.
He laughs loudly and then glances to the wall.
“I do have an actual weapon for you,” he says.
It’s annoying that he’s actually this focused on the mission. Clearly, she needs to take drastic steps to make sure Noah is focused where she wants him to be. It just so happens that Isobel knows exactly how to do that and she pulls off her shirt, standing there barefoot in skinny jeans and a navy blue push-up bra.
“Is it the one I want, Noah?”
His eyes flicker over her and he turns to fumble in his weapons chest, shoving things aside until he hauls out a pair of fuzzy handcuffs, which might not be the weapon he’s been making for her, but is absolutely the one they need right now. Isobel reaches for them and slides her fingers up his forearm.
“Have you been a bad boy?”
“The worst,” Noah agrees, breathing out the words as he stares reverently at Isobel above him, while she sinks into a straddle and cuffs him to the air conduction system behind him.
Should it be strange that this is what gets her going? Considering Isobel had been something of a space outlaw herself for years, she knows that there are worse things in the world than having a casual sex arrangement with a former murderer. Still, she knows better than to bring it up with Max, because he only makes that sour face.
She doesn’t want to sully these incredible moments with thoughts of that face, so Isobel strikes Max from her mind and enjoys herself.
She loves the way they have sex. Isobel has always made it clear that she’s the one in control and either Noah’s desperate enough for the intimacy that he allows it or he gets off on it, but either way she gets what she wants. She tests the cuffs one last time with a hard yank before moving her hand to open his pants, sinking down onto him.
It’ll be a quickie, she knows, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
Twenty minutes later, she’s uncuffed him to give Noah more range of motion (and his hands have important work to do), and she’s come three times to his one. The competitive and smug side of her is delighted with that. She’s panting as she bears him down to the ground, debating going for another round, but every time she reaches down to give him a few strokes, it looks like it’s not going to happen.
“Don’t wear me out like that,” Noah pants, “and maybe you’ll have a better chance.”
“Maybe I like wearing you out,” Isobel teases coyly, settling in.
The afterglow with Noah has always been a strange thing. Neither of them has ever stayed the night, but they’re both touch-starved just enough that they always indulge in a small post-coital moment before they go back to their respective lives and worlds. Isobel lets her fingers trace Noah’s sweaty skin, resting her cheek on his chest.
“What kind of weapon did you make me?”
“Something to concentrate your influence without taking you out of the fight and into your mindspace,” he mumbles. “Michael gave me the schematics, I’ve been putting it together. That way, you sort of point and shoot.”
She laughs wryly. “Michael’s inventing plenty lately, isn’t he?”
“He always gets productive when he’s sexually frustrated,” Noah agrees, shaking his head. “The scary thing, this time? I don’t know how this ends. Usually when he meets someone who interests him like this, they give in, Michael fucks them, and we move on. We’re never there long enough for him to catch a feeling.”
“Catch feelings?” Isobel mocks.
“You know what I mean,” Noah gripes. “I joined up with him because he lets me be so long as I stay within the lines and it’s a lot better than the prisons I’d be in otherwise. I don’t kill anyone, he lets me stay on board, but that’s the self-preserving Captain Michael Guerin who takes on the missions where I can let loose. What happens if he turns into a soft man in love? What then?”
“Is it that you’re worried about losing your Captain? Or worried about losing your rules?” Isobel wonders. “Aw, do you care about Michael?” she mocks, making a kissy-face at him.
Noah, rude asshole that he is, darts in and steals a kiss as she’s doing it, rolling them over so he can pin her to the floor. “If Michael stayed behind on this planet, light years away from you, you wouldn’t care? I know you Isobel, more than anyone,” Noah tells her with a bone-chilling certainty that Isobel’s not sure she can refute. “You don’t want him staying here either, even if you say you want him happy.”
The worst of all of this is that he’s right.
The last thing Isobel wants is Michael to be so far away. Her arrangement with Noah has been something of convenience, but she can’t ignore the helpful factor that means she gets to see Michael all the time.
“You know what happened to us,” Isobel says sharply. “You know why I don’t like him being alone out there.”
“He’s not.” Noah gives her a fierce look, as defensive as a man can get. “He doesn’t need some Earth superhero; he’s got me to look out for him. Your planet didn’t want the three of you because they had better clones to rule Antar, that’s fine. He’s my captain, and I’ll take care of him.”
Noah’s loyalty, while always too much, is still something that Isobel respects. After all, he's the one who’s steadfastly remained at Michael’s side throughout it all, even when Isobel and Max had gone looking for purpose and something to do with their lives. No matter what he might protest, or how he acts, Isobel knows the truth.
He cares about this ship and this life so much, and he’d defend Michael until the end.
She can feel the words stuck in her throat as she realizes that loyalty means the possibility of doing what’s best for Michael instead of respecting his decisions. “If he wants to stay here, are you going to let him?”
Noah says nothing for a moment, considering his answer.
“We’ll see,” is what he offers calmly. “Sometimes, a captain needs their first mate to do the things that they don’t want to.”
Isobel hears the warning between the words.
If Michael decides that he wants to stay on Earth so he can somehow try and be with Alex, there’s every chance that Noah isn’t going to let that happen, whether Michael is leaving against his will or not.
Isobel’s not sure how she feels about the fact that she’s not protesting, because there’s a part of her that’s on board with Noah’s plan. She pulls herself away from him to fix her hair, grabbing her shirt to shimmy back into it. The rules of their arrangement say that she doesn’t linger, doesn’t spend the night, and now Noah’s given her a lot to think about. Maybe Noah’s whole purpose is to do the things she can’t make herself do.
Tugging on her pants (with a lot of squirming, because they’d been tight to begin with and now she’s been sweating), she lets Noah brush her hair off her neck to place a few kisses there.
“If I need your help,” he murmurs, voice subdued and gentle. “Will you be on my side or against me?”
Isobel glances back, tenderly brushing a stray lock of hair from his forehead, putting it back in place with the rest of them. “I need to think about it,” she admits, because she does. She doesn’t go into things without thinking of how they’ll look or their consequences. “Besides,” she offers. “This could run its course like it does with the others.”
Noah and Isobel both know that this isn’t like that. For one, Michael hasn’t even made his move yet, which is so unlike him that she almost wonders if some other alien entity is possessing her brother.
“Before we go, I need to know if you’ll be in the way to stop it,” he warns, as she puts her shoes back on, tying her hair back into a low ponytail. “And you know how much it sucks being against me.”
“I don’t know,” Isobel quips, trying to bring some levity to the moment. “It wasn’t so bad an hour ago.”
Noah grins at her as he slumps back onto one of the chairs. It’s done the trick, because he doesn’t bring up Michael a third time. She’s not so sure she can have him challenge her once more and ask where she stands when it comes to Michael’s happiness, especially when it’s tied directly to hers. She leans down to press a peck of a kiss to his cheek.
“I’ll see you around,” she promises, and tries not to think about the fact that she hasn’t given Noah an answer, but it’s not because her mind isn’t made up.
It’s because she’s ashamed of the fact that she already knows exactly what she wants to do – and that means putting her happiness over Michael’s, telling herself that it’s for his own good.
When Liz finishes up with her latest bomb-diffusing session with Michael and heads to her lab to keep going on her end of the research, she’s surprised to find someone else is already there.
That’s not unusual.
Typically, Maria and Kyle have full access to the lab because they help her with her projects in various respects. What she’s not expecting is to walk in and find Max standing there, going over her digital files (that someone must have given him access to). He must be bored, because this isn’t most people’s first choice of entertainment.
“The whole planet out there to discover,” Liz says loudly to get Max’s attention, striding into the lab to join him, “and this is what you’re up to?”
Max looks guilty – which is ridiculous, because he’s sitting there reading her old notes about her projects, which is flattering and not something that requires an apology. “Michael’s been busy helping you with the bomb or trying desperately to get Alex’s attention and Isobel has been…” His face turns stormy, like he doesn’t like whatever he’s thinking about. “…occupied.”
Liz raises both eyebrows, wondering what it is that Isobel is doing that has his disapproval, but she presses her lips together to remind herself that Isobel isn’t her sister.
Rosa gives her enough grief. She doesn’t need another.
“So you thought that you’d come read my notes,” Liz says, sliding her hands into her pockets as she wanders closer to give Max a teasing smile. He’s been difficult to get a read on, but she can’t help looking to him every time they’re discussing a plan. While Michael makes a lot of noise about being a Captain, it’s not hard to tell that Max is their de facto leader.
It shows in the way the other aliens glance to him when they’re making decisions, even if it’s only for a split-second before they catch what they’re doing.
“Is there something else I should be doing?” Max replies, giving her an amused look.
“I wouldn’t mind hearing your life story.”
Max makes a face, turning back to the files that he’s been going over. She’s hit a sore spot, it seems, seeing as he keeps rifling through and pulling up one of her latest experiments that she’s been working on. When Liz comes closer, she can see that it’s her attempts into a healing polymer – her failed attempts, but it’s not like she wants to point that out.
“I’d rather talk about this. It’s incredible,” Max admits, staring at the test results like they’re amazing and not a failure. “With my power, healing isn’t necessarily what we’re supposed to do, so when I use it, it’s like a poison is in my veins. We need to drain it out or treat it with propanone.” He glances up to see Liz’s amused look. “What?”
“You drink nail polish remover to recover from healing someone?”
Max flushes as he sets the tablet down on the counter. “Where we come from, it’s mostly medicinal. Sometimes, Isobel uses it to remove her nail polish, so it has multiple uses.” He taps a few buttons to display Liz’s polymer at work – a mesh that can heal wounds when applied. “You’ve managed to do what I can, but without the side effects.”
She can’t help watching him. He’s like a magnet to her, drawing her in. “It’s personal for me.” She shifts her shirt a little so that Max can see the metal that protects her heart. “I was taken hostage a few years ago and shot, twice in the chest. Right now, my bio-technology is protecting me, but it won’t last forever. I need something that can heal me. And you didn’t read the whole thing. I’m trying to do what you can. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Liz,” Max says and steps towards her. “I’ve shown you what I can do. Let me help you.”
She turns away, her cheeks burning, because her technology is still in testing, but his powers aren’t. “You just told me that when you heal, it’s like poisoning yourself,” she says, to try not to think too long about his hand splaying over her chest, warm and radiant.
“I want to,” Max says quietly. His fingers are twitching as they hover by her shoulder, almost like he wants to reach out and splay his fingers over her breastbone.
Liz is startled with how much she wants it, but no matter how many signals she sends to him that he can, he doesn’t. “No,” she hears herself saying, even though she hates it. She hates the way that Max’s face falls, but it feels wrong to get an out like this. She’s been working on this project so long and that little stubborn voice refuses to let her do this.
It’s the same one that refused to ask for help with the bomb for so long, but she’s trying to ignore that part.
“Liz,” Max sounds like he’s ramping up to be stubborn himself.
“Why are we wasting time here? Come on,” she says, because she could use a break. “I’m taking you on a field trip.”
If she gets him in a public place, there won’t be any further offers to heal her. One thing that she’s learned about the aliens is that they want to remain somewhat private. Isobel and Max don’t flaunt their powers in public and while Noah seems to have fewer compulsions, she catches the way Michael and Max glare at him when he does it.
Max presses his lips together, not looking impressed, but she refuses to budge.
Reaching for his hand, she tugs him towards her. “I mean it, I don’t think you’ve actually set foot outside and there’s a diner on the block that serves the most incredible milkshakes.” She gives him a wary look. “Do you guys have milkshakes on your planet? Do you have cows?”
That gets a soft huff of laughter from Max.
“We do our research before we come to new planets and yeah, we have synthetic milk that simulates cows from all over the universe. White milk, purple, and there’s even a green variant that’s packed with nutrients that Isobel keeps trying to get me to drink, but it tastes like grass,” Max complains.
Liz instantly knows what they need to do.
“Come on. Get your things.”
“I’m taking you out!” She’s not taking no for an answer, which is why she ducks back to grab his hand and yank him along when Max seems frozen in place. It’ll be good for a lunch break, because Liz always appreciates the opportunity to reset her brain when it comes to problems that she doesn’t know how to deal with.
It feels like she’s been working around the clock on the bomb and Max had reminded her that her other projects haven’t vanished, they’re just on hold. She needs something else before those projects turn into a pile that weights her down.
Why not a milkshake and a conversation with a handsome man?
“This is the Crashdown,” Liz brags as she drags Max in by the hand to the diner a block away from her tower. She’s beaming the second she walks in the door, and she knows that it’s a stark contrast to how she’s been.
The reason is clear the moment the owner steps out from the kitchen.
“Perfect timing! You brought me a new dishwasher just when the machine’s starting to break down,” he says.
“Papi,” Liz scolds, pushing Max forward (even though he seems to have gone completely still). “This is Max,” she introduces him, pinching his side when she looks and sees his completely frozen look of fear. Should she have taken a few moments to realize that this is the equivalent of her bringing a boyfriend home?
Maybe, but Max really does need to try a milkshake.
“Why does he look so frightened?” Arturo demands as Liz takes a seat on one of the stools.
“Sorry!” Max blurts out. “Sorry, sir, I’m not. I didn’t realize that I’d be meeting any of Liz’s family,” he adds, with a sidelong look at her that isn’t so much mad as full of awe, like he can’t believe what she’s done. “I’m here to try a milkshake, because apparently the ones I’ve had can’t compare.”
On this, Liz feels confident. “They can’t,” she announces, and reaches for a menu to put it in front of him. “Anything you want, my treat.”
Max stares at the menu, clearly paralyzed by decision along with having to meet her father.
“Or,” she says, reaching to grab the menu back, “I’ll order us a bunch and we’ll see what you like.”
Max’s shoulders relax and Liz instantly knows she’s done the right thing. She leans over to ask the waitress for five milkshakes and some spoons, then leans back on her stool to turn towards Max, giving him a proud smile. “What do you think about my Dad’s place?”
“It’s an interesting theme.”
He'd noticed, did he? Liz smile wryly, seeing as it’s kind of hard to miss.
“The diner is something we used to have in New Mexico, but when my patents and inventions started to make a lot of money, I moved my Dad to New York with me,” Liz shares, giving the diner a fond look. “Dad rebuilt it piece by piece, as much as he could. He doesn’t say it, but I know he’s happier here.” There are less assholes trying to get him deported and they have an actual community. “Besides, alien kitsch has a place everywhere.”
“I was going to ask,” Max admits. “Little Green Man Shake?” He raises a brow, like he’s silently implying that if there’s anything he wants her to think about, it’s that he’s not little.
Liz huffs out a laugh. “There was a supposed alien crash in Roswell, where we grew up. It was proven to be weather balloons, but the myth took hold. And, funny, because it turns out that aliens are definitely out there, just not in New Mexico, which makes sense. There’s really nothing there to see.”
“We have records of visitors to Earth before,” Max says. “Nothing like…”
He gestures around to the little green men that adorn the walls.
Liz would make a joke that there’s nothing little or green about him, but given that he already looks plenty unnerved, she gets the feeling it wouldn’t go over very well. She still makes a mental note to remember it for later, because Max might not appreciate it, but she thinks Maria would.
“Think of it like you’re at a tourist stop,” she says. “We take what we think we know and amplify it a million times over. It’s fun. Totally inaccurate, as I’ve learned, but fun.”
She dips her straw into the chocolate shake near her when they arrive, sucking it off the straw and giving Max an amused look as he takes in everything around him, like he’s genuinely in awe. That’s not what they came here for, though. She pushes the green shake towards him, since the subject came up.
“Come on,” she encourages. “We’re not going until you try at least one. I’m sure even your system will be able to process it,” she teases.
Max takes the shake, but even when he leans over to wrap his mouth over the straw, his eyes never leave hers. She tries not to blush, but she can feel the heat in her cheeks. Awkwardly, she pushes her hair back over her ear, feeling the funniest flutter in her stomach, that dropping feeling that she’d always been waiting for with Kyle, but never came.
One date with Max, and there it is.
It obviously means that she needs to switch topics and get control of herself before she says something stupid.
“So, your power,” Liz quiets her voice so no one will eavesdrop. “Has it always been like that? It makes you feel wrong to heal?”
“Michael’s theory is that it’s because I don’t do it enough. Noah thinks it’s because we’re not meant to heal.”
“And what do you think?”
Max shakes his head, shrugging as he pushes the shake away to go for the vanilla with a spoon (though he keeps the mint shake near him and Liz makes a mental note to make sure she brings some to the next session). “I think that I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that I feel more powerful when I destroy, even though I never do it on purpose. I know that I don’t want to practice healing because it makes me feel sick, but I also know that I don’t do it enough and maybe if I did…”
“Practice makes perfect,” Liz points out. “After we deal with this bomb, would you consider sticking around on Earth?” She’s not sure if she’s asking him solely because of the science or because she wants to get to know him better, but she feels like it’s the right thing. It turns out that switching the subject didn’t really help much, in terms of not saying something stupid. “I don’t know how much time I have before my health goes on the decline and …”
Max reaches over to slide his hand over hers.
Liz feels herself light up, relieved for his promise, and she doesn’t move because she doesn’t want Max to get the idea that he needs to take his hand off hers.
“After all, how else am I going to get a chance to try all the milkshakes Earth has to offer?”
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years, it’s that Michael always forgets to eat when he’s in the middle of a project that absorbs all his attention.
It’s midnight by the time his stomach rumbles and reminds him that he hasn’t eaten today. Seeing as it’s not like he’s had time to hit up a market, there’s nothing on his ship anymore, so he has to make do with the overstocked kitchen at the Ortecho tower. His mood’s also taken a bit of a beating, because this last session had been full of Liz rambling on about Alex and the connection the man had with her grandmother. He likes Liz, he does. She’s a genius and she’s good with her science, and they work well together.
Still, the fact that her grandmother had been so close with Alex and the implied statement that she’s just as close because of family loyalties rankles him. He’s not jealous over it, it just annoys him, that’s all. It’s not jealousy.
At least, it’s not if he doesn’t admit it.
It’s a funny thing, though, because when he turns up to get some food, he finds Alex -- almost like he’s been summoned because Liz and Michael had been discussing him not even an hour ago. He looks exhausted and the bags under his eyes are so distracting that Michael forgets to check out his ass first, for once. Opening the fridge for a pudding cup, Michael drifts back and watches Alex sitting miserably at the table, his head in one hand.
“What are you doing here and not in bed? You look like you went ten rounds with an angry gorilla and didn’t even get the post-coital cuddle.”
Alex’s death glare should probably have been expected. “I can’t sleep,” he mumbles. “Usually, Liz will come and talk to me about her grandmother until I can drift off, but you and her have been working on the bomb at all hours, so she’s been a little preoccupied.”
Is it weird to feel relieved that Michael has managed to keep the connection between Liz and Alex from deepening? Maybe not weird, but it’s definitely an asshole move, he knows that much.
“I mean, I’m almost done for the night. I know she wanted to run some tests so she should be free, but uhh….” He drifts off, feeling his heart beating wildly. “Aliens like us, we tend to run hot. I’d be a pretty good heater to get you to sleep, even if I don’t know any stories about the good ol’ days.”
Alex stares at him with a hopeful look in his eyes. “It’s not too much to ask?”
Michael shakes his head, not trusting himself to speak right now. He’d been the one to offer, but the full consequences of what he’s offering to Alex hits him swiftly. Before he can walk it back, Alex nods his head and is on his feet, gesturing to the couch nearby. Michael’s relieved that at least this isn’t about to happen in a bed.
“Come on,” says Alex, “Don’t keep me waiting.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Michael quips in return, following after him.
For a few moments, there’s a confused fumbling about how they’re going to do this. Eventually, Alex shifts so that he’s in front of Michael, with the line of Michael’s back pressing against the couch behind him. It’s big enough that there’s plenty of room for the both of them, but Michael still refuses to let him drift too far.
Alex gives a soft little sound, half like pleasure. “Yeah, that’s perfect. You care if I put some music on?”
“Go for it,” Michael encourages.
Alex reaches for a device nearby and presses a few buttons. Classical music starts to play, slow and heavy on the brass and violins. It’s more Isobel’s type of music for when she’s focusing than what Michael usually likes, but he’s not about to criticize Alex’s choice of music, especially not when they’re curled up on the couch, cuddling.
“Ever since the ice, I’m always cold,” Alex says quietly, burrowing a little further back into Michael’s arms. He’s trying so hard not to think inappropriate thoughts, but it’s really fucking difficult considering Alex’s current position. “I don’t know if it’s because the serum isn’t warming me up the way it’s supposed to, or maybe I’m taking my time rebooting, but I’m freezing.”
Michael reaches around to take both his hands into his, squeezing and checking. He is cold, but maybe that’s just to Michael, who runs hot because of his alien physiology.
“We run hot, so you could be normal human temperature, even above it,” he points out. He’s still feeling strange about this, because he wants it. He wants it so badly, but it feels achingly intimate.
It feels like they’re seconds away from it taking a turn Michael’s not mentally prepared to deal with, which means he needs to do something to change that.
“You’ve only been out of the ice for a little while, right? How much time did you miss?”
“Seventy years,” Alex replies, sounding mildly disappointed, like he’d been hoping that Michael would bring up something else.
“How the hell do you make up for that kind of time?”
“I have a list,” Alex says helpfully.
It sounds a lot like someone else made a list for Alex, but he keeps his mouth shut. At least, for now. If this list turns out to be stupid, then he might have more opinions, but right now he’s willing to let Alex talk about his list. Michael shifts a little, enough that he can rub his hand on Alex’s back, attempting to keep him soothed and calm.
“And?” he asks, voice low. “What’s on the list?”
With the lights dimmed low, the music in the background, the warmth of the both of them curled up, and the lazy conversation, Michael knows he’s on the cusp of falling asleep. From the way Alex’s lashes brush his cheeks with every increasingly long blink, he suspects that he’s not going to hear much about it.
With a huge yawn, Alex mumbles, “Lots of music,” first, before he rubs at his eyes with the too-long sleeves of his sweater. “Movies. Books. There’s some films, Star Wars? They’re about space and there’s battles and people with abilities and alien creatures…” He gives Michael an almost shy smile, like he’s embarrassed to admit it. “I think they’re my favorite so far.”
Michael is an alien with an ability, but one that he’s been hiding. He’s pretty sure those movies of Alex’s don’t feature lying space brigands like him.
It’s not that he doesn’t trust them, but he’s been lying for so long that if he revealed that he’s been withholding his powers now, he can’t even imagine the shit that he’d be in. “Maybe before all this kicks off, we’ll get a chance to watch it together.”
“Maybe,” Alex agrees, but it’s barely more than a soft hum.
Michael’s not sure who falls asleep first, but he vaguely remembers them talking about music and then the next moment, it’s dark and the music has turned off. His nose is also buried in hair, Alex’s hair, and his arms are snugly wrapped around his waist.
When Michael attempts to move, Alex grumbles sleepily and pulls him back.
Okay. He guesses he’s staying, then.
It’s another thirty minutes before Alex makes it to consciousness, sleepily blinking awake. He doesn’t pull away from Michael, and he doesn’t shove his arms away. “Hey,” he greets Michael, his voice rough with sleep.
It’s probably the sexiest that Michael’s ever heard someone sound – but then, Michael usually doesn’t stick around to hear what anyone sounds like in the morning, so this is new territory for him.
He gives Alex a warm smile as Alex turns in his arms, to face him. “Hey,” he greets. “You sleep well?”
“Yeah,” Alex admits, sounding surprised that he’s saying that. “Thank you. For the warmth.”
Michael opens his mouth to tell him that it’s nothing, but he’s cut off by an announcement telling them that the briefing will begin in an hour. It seems to break the spell, with Alex shifting out of Michael’s arms. He sleepily makes it to his feet, muttering about getting ready for the meeting and putting himself together.
Michael thinks he looks great, but then, he likes the cushion imprint on Alex’s cheek and the way his hair is a mess.
Before Alex can leave, Michael calls out for him.
“What?” Alex asks warily, rubbing at his eyes.
Michael holds out his captain’s jacket, which he’s taken off in a hurry. The collar is lined with the warmest material in the galaxy for those cold nights on the ship. He already runs hot and Earth hasn’t been so chilly, so it’s no sweat off his back to offer it up. “Here, take it.”
Alex doesn’t, looking at Michael with confusion. “Why?”
“You said you’re always cold.” Michael shrugs, ducking his head down so it doesn’t look like he’s doing anything outside of the ordinary. “This stuff is the warmest in at least three galaxies. I think it might help.”
There’s a long moment when Alex looks at the jacket like he’s about to argue, which isn’t what Michael wants. He pushes the jacket out again, because he wants him to have it. His throat feels thick and he gives Alex a pleading look.
“Take it,” he says. “You need it more than I do.”
That seems to do the trick.
Alex curls his fingers around the fur and brings it close to his chest. “Thank you,” he says, with a nod of his head, ducking his face into it for a moment to smell it before he lifts his chin. “Really, this means a lot to me.” He keeps an arm protectively wrapped around it as he leaves, but Michael’s been stunned speechless since the moment Alex smelled the jacket, because there’s no getting away from the fact that he’d been smelling Michael.
He really needs to do something about this, before he does something incredibly stupid like let it slip away.
They have bigger priorities first and those have a tendency to keep popping up, getting in Michael’s way.
When Alex turns up to the daily briefing in Michael’s jacket, the feeling of joyful pride sings through him. They might have other things to worry about, but they also have these little small acts that fill Michael with hope that he’ll have time to pursue this.
Then, he notices the way Noah is looking at him, which means he clearly knows what Michael is feeling right now.
He’s going to have to do some first mate management if he doesn’t want to get blackmailed into giving Noah everything he wants in exchange for Noah keeping quiet about what Michael’s feeling.
Still, as he watches the way Alex turns his cheek into the fabric and takes in a deep smell, Michael thinks whatever price he ends up paying is worth it.