"You're an idiot," Isobel said with a penetrating look. "An educated one, but still: idiot."
Michael's mouth dropped open as he leaned back in the chair he'd commandeered from his boss' office, so he didn't have to stand during his monthly video call with people back home. He was in Iraq as a heavy-equipment mechanic on contract. Michael stretched his arms up and gave his wrists a flick as he shrugged.
"You're not even going to deny it?" Isobel pressed as her eyebrows bent down sharply. "Michael, you could have been killed."
"I'm telling you because you're supposed to be the one who can handle my news and then inform Max in a controlled setting," Michael replied as he spread his knees and rocked the chair up off its front legs as the toes of his combat boots held him in place. "I thought you would be proud of me, saving lives and all…" He trailed off.
"You're not a soldier, Michael. Let them do their jobs so you can come home with your head on your shoulders." When Michael shrugged again, she let out a tight sigh and tilted her chin. "Was your coworker at least grateful for you pulling him into the vehicle?"
The question winded Michael. He dropped his arms from stretching, and his chair clapped to the concrete underneath him. "He just screamed as I held onto him, actually," Michael offered. He didn't want to tell her, but he was getting more and more used to helping people when hit by a stray bullet or something worse. Light pain suddenly trickled through his scarred left hand, and he rubbed the knuckle of his pinky finger to ease some of it away.
Isobel pursed her lips, and Michael rolled his entire head along with his eyes as he exhaled and sat forward to put a hand over his mouth before he spoke. "Okay, it scared me shitless, and I don't feel like a hero. I was helpless and only knew to hold pressure on the wound because they drilled that into our skulls during training. He's not dead, but they don't know if he'll ever get mobility back in the shoulder because of the shrapnel."
Isobel took a breath of her own and shook her head. "I can't tell Max this." Michael gave her a brow-raising look that said she must tell Max this. "No, Michael, he'll try to come and get you if he knows you're in combat zones."
Michael scoffed. "It wasn't a combat zone, Iz. Shit happens here, you know? Besides, doesn't he have training for the man to do since that English Lit degree got him nowhere and he decided to be a cop?"
"Michael, you have a master's degree in mechanical engineering, and you're in Iraq. Don't pretend that you have room to talk."
Silence fell between them, and Michael could tell that Isobel was trying not to demand that he come home. She and Max had done that countless times before to no avail from Michael. He wanted to be here. He needed to be. He would explain it to them, but they wouldn't understand. They'd probably both come after him if they knew he was in Iraq because of Alex Manes.
"Did you at least find out when you're coming back home?" Isobel asked. She sounded exasperated yet hopeful all at once.
Michael tensed in his shoulders and slid his hands together in his lap. "Well…"
"Again? Michael--" Isobel started in anger, but Michael interrupted her.
"It's just Christmas that I'm missing, Isobel. It's never meant anything to me. And I'll be back in Roswell in the new year, for longer this time."
Michael didn't mention that he would be spending Christmas with Alex Manes or that he was headed back to the States in February by order of his boss because he had been on the outskirts of Baghdad for nearly a year. He would stay here without going back home in February if he could, but he wanted to keep his job and keep seeing Alex, who was on his second tour. Michael was so sure of Alex's capabilities and terrified at the same time that something would happen. That Alex would get hurt, and the adrenaline-laced honeymoon part of this overseas relationship would be over.
Isobel sighed. "You know how much it means to Max," she said firmly.
"Mhm," Michael mumbled in knowing.
Isobel wasn't speaking for just Max. They'd always celebrated at least on holiday in the desert during their winter breaks from the University of New Mexico. Michael had a scholarship there. After everything that happened in Roswell, they all wanted out. For some unbelievable (to him) reason, Michael had been accompanied by Isobel and Max to UNM as he studied mechanical engineering and them, English Literature and Marketing, respectively. It was the time of his life even if he did pine every spare moment for Alex, who had enlisted. Alex, who got selected for the Air Force Academy. Alex, who had been deployed to Iraq for his first tour before Michael had even graduated.
But for the past two years, Michael hadn't been home around Roswell for the holidays. He'd been in Iraq. He'd gotten the gumption to follow Alex into the military, but he knew he couldn't go through all those physical screenings without someone discovering that his body was different. So, after a couple of insane thoughts about jobs for Americans in war zones and one Google search later, he was filling out an application to be a contract engineer overseas, specifically in Iraq. The training had taken months, but he'd come out on the other side with the determination to be there, in the flesh, for Alex, who already had one purple heart from a battle that left him with a scar on his forehead.
"You'll be fine without me," Michael added as he gave Isobel a look that said so much about how he felt about being left behind in the group home. "You've always been fine without me."
Isobel pursed her lips before firing back. "Sounds fake, and you're too old for teen angst," she quipped and then drooped, "but fine," she relented, still sounding hurt by Michael's answer. "I'll tell Max that you're not coming, and then we'll call you together so he can at least see you."
Michael nodded and shifted his feet on the ground. "Tell him I'll make it up to you guys. I promise."
Isobel huffed a laugh. "You are not the type to keep promises," she reminded Michael.
Thinking back on the promise he'd made before Alex left for Iraq, a promise that Alex would never be alone, Michael refused to look at Isobel when he said. "I know I'm not reliable most of the time, but I swear I'm going to try next year."
Michael was elbows-deep in an engine as he fished out a wrench he'd dropped when a hand collided solidly with his ass. He didn't even flinch before his upper body shook with a knowing chuckle. "Spank me, Lieutenant!" Michael crowed over his shoulder as he wrapped his fingers around the wrench and pulled himself out of the Humvee to jump off a step stool. He tossed the wrench into a toolbox and came back around to Alex with a smile. Alex gave him a toothy grin, and Michael wanted to melt in the rays he felt warming his body. Being with Alex was peace or something like it.
Michael couldn't believe he deserved this man.
All breathy laughing and sparkling hazel eyes, Michael was a happy mess as Alex moved in on him. When their eyes met, he felt a crackle run through his body, and Alex seemed to feel the zap, too, because he immediately went for a less-than shy kiss. Alex nearly sucked off Michael's face from his lips to his jaw, and Michael was delighted. He wasn't even surprised anymore how Alex introduced himself when he was on a two-day leave.
Alex was the one to break the kiss because Michael was already slipping his hands underneath Alex's shirt and losing control, which was easy to do around the airman. "You're going to get grease on me," Alex was saying as Michael tried to get a grip on sanity. "Look at you, grease everywhere," Alex said with a laugh. "Let's at least get dinner before you get me filthy," he added with a knowing smirk that made Michael all the more attracted to the assertive man.
"One more kiss," Michael growled as he went for Alex's mouth, and Alex's hands found the back of his head of curly hair. They'd gone weeks without this, and Michael wasn't letting moments go to waste. Dinner? They could eat microwave burritos back in his apartment and have sex until Alex had to return to duty. Michael wanted to feel Alex's hands on his body. He wanted light scratches from Alex's blunt nails and nimble fingers digging in so hard they left marks. He wanted Alex's tongue, which was in his mouth until someone barked Michael's last name.
Coming up for air, Michael found himself unable to pry his hands from Alex's hips as Alex's hands stayed firmly planted in the back pockets of his jeans. Michael's expression was wild as he breathed and looked around for the source and saw his boss shaking her head at them. Michael also had gum in his mouth, now. He hadn't even noticed Alex was chewing any, but it tasted like mint. He struggled to make a sentence and instead just had a word. "Yeah?"
"Make sure you clock out this time," his boss said before turning and waving him off. "Have a nice night. Happy holidays."
"She seems nice," Alex said without even looking in her direction. He was breathless, and Michael could hear the smile in his voice. "Dinner?"
Michael reluctantly untangled himself from Alex and shook his head as he unabashedly jogged over to a computer to clock out. "Do you want me eating before sex?" Michael asked incredulously and also winded.
"Michael, I haven't had a real meal in weeks," Alex said as he put a hand on Michael's shoulder and massaged the tight muscle there.
Michael frowned. "So, my ass is not the first real meal you want?" he asked and stood up to look at Alex with disapproval.
"Michael, I'm trying to make this a surprise," Alex said firmly and held out his hand.
Alex's explanation didn't make Michael more lenient. "There are non-military surprises in Iraq? Haven't you had enough surprises in general?" He took Alex's hand but not without a pout.
"Michael, there are more fine things in life than alcohol and sex."
"Going on the record as quoting Isobel, but this sounds fake," Michael pointed out as they walked. "And I thought you were over teenage declarations of love."
"It's not a teenage--"
Michael interrupted as he put on a stern voice. "We should stop saying we love each other like star-crossed teens, Michael. We should have sex and leave it at that, Michael. We're both too fucked up for love, Michael."
"I never said that," Alex retorted, which was true. He'd never said the last one, but Michael had felt like the tension was just there and never going to be clear unless he said the words.
Alex let go of Michael's hand and hopped in a jeep that was sitting outside the repair shop. Michael stood there, dumbstruck.
"You have to be shitting me," Michael gasped in wonder and disbelief. "You, Alex Manes, stole a jeep. And it's for dinner?"
Alex smirked and started the engine. "It's Lieutenant Manes, and no, I went through the proper channels." There was a beat where Michael still stared at him. "Get in, Michael. We have to be at the airstrip in thirty minutes."
Michael's mouth dropped open, and he got so excited that he was at a loss for words as he rounded the front of the vehicle. "You're fucking perfect," Michael managed to say as he slid into the passenger seat and grabbed Alex's face for a kiss.
Alex was all rosy-cheeked smiles as they headed back towards the base.
"This is some Pearl Harbor shit," Michael half-shouted and half-laughed into his face mask as Alex flew them over the desert as the sun began to set, and the sky was a beautiful rosy orange.
"What?" Alex asked with Michael behind him in the stealth aircraft.
"You know, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale. We're having sex after this, and then I'm having your baby, flyboy."
Alex laughed, and Michael swore it was the laugh where Alex rolled his eyes but still smiled at him like he was the shiniest rhinestone in Alex's world of dull uniforms.
"With the parachutes hanging around us?" Alex asked.
"Damn right," Michael replied.
"Happy holidays, babe. Get ready to lose the lunch I know you didn't have."
Then, Michael howled as they shot forward and spun a loop toward the horizon.
"Excellent flying, Maverick," Michael breathed as Alex pulled out of his ass and flopped over to the side of the bed as they both tried to catch their breath.
There was that eye roll in Alex's voice again when he exhaled, "Michael, you've never even seen Top Gun."
"True. I've seen Meet the Parents, though. I figure if I call you Maverick enough, you'll get the hint that tonight was amazing." Michael said all of this while leaning over to nudge his nose into the hollow of Alex's collarbone and putting little kisses to Alex's chest.
"Well, if you state it outright, you're not dropping hints," Alex replied with a smirk that Michael caught sight of as he pushed up on the arm closest to Alex and reached his free hand over to massage Alex's upper arm.
Michael sucked on his lower lip and pushed his palm over the light marks his tight fingers had made on Alex's skin. "Maybe I'm all out of hints," he said in a rough whisper as he watched Alex's mouth, unable to lift his eyes to meet Alex's. "I love you, and I always want to be where you are, even if it's a war-torn country overseas. Wherever you go, I go, and I want you to know it's because I can't stand the thought of being away from you like I was before."
"What about Isobel and Max?" Alex bluntly asked, and Michael's eyes lifted to meet his gaze. "Come on. You can't tell me this isn't hurting all three of you. You never talk about them anymore. Honestly, I'm worried that you're spending too much time away."
Michael scoffed. "From Roswell?"
"From your family."
With a heavy sigh, Michael laid down, draping his body over Alex. "Are you calling me dependent?" he asked in a mumble when his lips found Alex's jaw.
"I'm calling you human," Alex replied with a hum as he stretched his neck to kiss Michael's forehead.
Michael's expression stayed soft, but he tensed and swallowed hard at the remark. Thankfully, he was too busy tucking himself into Alex for Alex to notice the change.
A year had passed since Michael promised Isobel that he would be home for the holidays, and so where was he? He was standing on Max's patio in Roswell while he nonchalantly drank his way through a fifth of Jack. Michael wasn't bundled up but should be. He couldn't feel his face or his fingers, yet he had no desire to go inside with the Evans family and entertain Isobel's new husband. Michael liked the guy, but he couldn't deal with happiness over a relationship now when he was here, and Alex was in Iraq.
"Mind if I join you?" came Max's voice from behind Michael, who sighed before turning.
Turmoil in his eyes and wry look on his face, Michael shrugged and then sniffed. "Your place, your rules," he said.
Max took a breath and shut the patio door. "That wasn't necessarily a yes," he said as he stepped out to the side of Michael. "You are always welcome here. You know that."
"I know that, yeah," Michael huffed. "Yet, I was more or less strong-armed into coming home because you couldn't handle me being away another Christmas."
"We're not even from Earth, Max, and you have a plastic tree decorated with ornaments for a childhood that I never had like we fit in, we're supposed to be here, we're human."
Max tightened up his smile. "I suppose this isn't the time to tell you that I know a guy who can get you an engineering job at the Air Force Base here in Roswell, hmm?"
Michael scoffed. "Hmm," he mocked. "No, I don't think it is."
"Just keep your voice down," Max warned. "I know you wanted to go camping, but we're adults now, Michael, and Isobel and I are not you. We can't just run off into the desert because we're still in love with a guy from high school."
"Oh, I'm just an open book, huh?" Michael spat. "Good thing I have you to read the pages."
Max sighed. "You said you spent the holidays with an officer and that you couldn't remember his name," he replied and looked in Michael's direction with a soft smile. "I'm not that thick, Michael."
Michael was quiet and watching the town in the distance. He swallowed thick and tried not to get too upset. "Does Isobel know?"
"Nah. Isobel's been too busy with Noah and buying their house to give it much thought. Plus, I figure it can just be between us for now."
"Secrets," Michael huffed and then took a swig of whiskey off the bottle. He shook off the sting of it on his throat and tongue. "Fucking hate them."
Max was silent for a moment before he asked a more invasive question. "You want to be with him right now, don't you?"
"Who, Captain Manes?" he rhetorically asked with a pained chuckle. "More than anything."
Max carefully put a hand on Michael's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Look, if you don't come home for a while, I understand."
Michael hiccupped a laugh. "He's on his third tour. He's never coming home with me unless he's in a box. So, I have to go back."
"Michael, there are other people you could love."
A snort. "Not even on my easiest day could I love someone the way I love that man. He's my ocean. Leaving him would leave me gasping for breath that never comes."
"Just don't do--" Max began, but Michael interrupted.
"I'm already a mechanical engineer in Iraq, Max. I think that's pretty stupid of me to do for a man who has a career that is always going to be more important than me."
Max exhaled nasally and roughed Michael's shoulder with his palm. "You're stronger than you know, Michael. Not everyone can do as much as you have for someone they love. Plus, he could surprise you."
"Surprises, huh?" Michael murmured. "Are you trying to read empathy into someone through me?"
"That's not how it works."
"Of course not, but I'd like to know when it would be a good time to propose to him."
Max blinked, seemingly stunned before he smiled. "Want me to take you to look for a ring?"
"Nah, I just need to figure out what to have engraved on the inside."
"And they call me the romantic," Max said with a chuckle, and Michael joined in with a smile, feeling some of the loneliness leave him. At least Max understood why he was full of angst.
Back in Iraq, Michael was biding his time to propose to Alex. The plan was to ease into the question at the end of November because they were both, strangely enough, going to be on leave for the holidays. At least, that was what they were planning now that the Battle of Mosul was over. Michael had held his breath and somehow survived the holidays at home while Alex was at war, but a month after the Allied victory, Michael was working at a constant hum because he knew Alex was coming back to Baghdad.
Then, a little over a week after the other half of the Allied Forces were back in Baghdad, Michael caught wind that a pilot had been shot down on the return trip to Baghdad. He knew the tragedy had happened because they announced on the news that ISIL had taken credit for the deed. Michael was ready to walk onto the base with hands out and would push through anyone who tried to stop him from finding out what had happened to Alex, but doing that and getting himself killed wasn't an option. So, he waited.
Chewing mint gum and fingering the ring he'd gotten engraved for Alex, Michael couldn't stand the wait and had purposefully been evasive with Isobel on their next call and had even bewildered her when he said to have Max call instead. He was a mess and screwing up at work, but for whatever reason, he wasn't getting fired or put on leave. Somehow, his boss seemed to know the reason for his distracted.
But then came the day when Michael flat out quit.
A letter arrived for him, and it wasn't from America. It had stamps from Europe, notably the German stook out to him because he'd taken the language in high school. He had the envelope open before he could find solitude to read, and from the first line, he was scrambling through the letter which had redacted parts. He was suddenly out of breath and marching over to his boss's office to bang through the door. She scowled at him from where she was on the phone, but he didn't care. "I quit," was all he huffed before turning and leaving.
Michael was on the next flight out Iraq that could get him to Germany because Alex was there and had been since he'd been shot down between Mosul and Baghdad. Thinking, breathing, sleeping, eating, and drinking weren't things Michael did on his trip. By the time he arrived at the Air Force hospital, he'd gone through so many checkpoints that he couldn't think clearly. Somehow, Alex had gotten him in, and apparently that included saying Michael was his husband.
So much for the engagement. Michael barely had the brainpower to think through Alex's ploy as he marched through the hospital with guards. Michael got worried looks. He knew his appearance was hell, but he didn't care.
"Alex!" Michael hoarsely gasped as he came upon his new husband. "What the hell is going on?"
Alex's expression was flat, even when Michael appeared. There was no smile, no glimmer in his eyes, and no words spoken. Michael looked him over and immediately noticed that his leg was missing from his calf downward. Staring for a moment, Michael approached the bed and reached out to touch Alex's hand. Alex swallowed thickly and finally met Michael's eyes.
"I don't want to go home for Christmas," Alex said, hollowly like he didn't have the energy or courage for the words.
Michael nodded and sat down in the chair to the side of the bed, holding onto Alex and feeling strung out. "You want to stay here in Germany?"
Alex stared off for a moment, and Michael didn't know if he was thinking or if he lost himself to the morphine drip. Then, Alex focused on him and gripped Michael's hand in return.
"You're my family," Alex said.
Michael got a tight smile. "Yeah, I know you said I'm your husband--"
"No, Michael," Alex interrupted as his tone became firm. "We are never going to be apart again. Not on Christmas, not ever."
Michael vaguely understood though he found it hard to meet Alex's haunting gaze without tearing up. "Yeah, okay," he exhaled, and some of the tension released in him as Alex pulled his hand closer. "Christmas is still several months away, but I did get you something already."
"All I need from you is for you to forgive me for not taking us more seriously," Alex said quietly.
Michael suddenly sobbed a laugh and reached into the front pocket of his denim shirt. He pulled out a silver ring and held it up for Alex to see as he tried to calm down.
"What does it say?" Alex asked in a whisper, seemingly calm that Michael had been walking around with a wedding band in his pocket.
Michael sniffed and twisted it in front of Alex before he lifted Alex's hand. "Never apologize when you need to fly," he choked out and slid the ring on Alex's finger.
"That's what it says?" Alex asked with a cautious marvel.
Michael snorted and slid his knuckle under his eyes before he shook his head. "No, it says 'The Last Surprise, Holidays 2017,' but that would have been good, right?"
There was a hint of a smile in Alex's gaze before he reached over to take Michael's jaw with the hand without the IV line in it. "Merry Christmas in July, Michael," he said and nudged Michael's quivering chin.
Michael took Alex's hand and kept it held to his face. "Is this the part where they say my heart grew three sizes?"
"Only if our sleigh dog is a beagle."