Ian has been contemplating his boxer shorts for more than a minute. It’s not a good sign.
He’s trying to pay attention to the signs. To read them. For six weeks now, he’s has a system and it’s a good one. When he comes home, he pulls off his boots and leaves them on the back step. Crosses the kitchen and washes his hands. After that, he pulls off his uniform and puts it straight into the washer. Starts the cycle before he heads upstairs to shower. Hot water. He uses soap and a loofah. Rinses thoroughly, then towels off. Checks his temperature, brushes his teeth, rinses with mouthwash. Then, since he’s been on evening shift for the last three weeks, he pulls his boxers back on and heads to bed.
But lately, he’s noticing he’s making little changes. Washing his hands takes longer and he never feels confident about it. He’s stopped throwing his clothes in with the wash with other stuff. The water in his shower is getting hotter. He’s has to stop himself from rubbing his skin raw. And now… now he’s spending more time than necessary contemplating whether or not his underwear is a biohazard.
It’s not. He knows that. At this point, the only thing he brought into the house that he has to worry about is himself. He could be a hazard. There’s no way of knowing.
God, he needs to get some fucking sleep.
He turns off the hall light before he nudges the door open, revealing Mickey, asleep on his side, curled nearly into the fetal position. He’s got that that cherubic thing going on when he sleeps, sometimes. And when he smiles. Whenever he lets his guard down, really, which means Ian’s very nearly the only person on earth who ever gets to see it. To this day, when Mickey smiles at him — really smiles, smiles like he can’t help it — he can feel his heart swell.
There’s a part of him, not insubstantial, that wants to wake him up. Mickey always has to sleep on the side of the bed nearest to the door, which means Ian has to navigate his way along the narrow space at the foot of the bed to slide into bed on the window side. Coming off late shift, he used to just crawl over Mickey when he got home, not caring that much if he woke him up, taking the opportunity to annoy him with kisses and other forms of harassment. The idea of doing that now makes his heart clench in his chest. He tries to ignore it as he steps into the room, and instead the panic just sweeps through him. So sharp and cold it takes his breath away.
Years ago, Mickey told him some shit about how, when he was kid, he’d sometimes just catch Terry’s bad mood on the air. Blocks from home, he’d start to feel it, like old people feel rain in their bones, and he’d know he couldn’t go home. Back before he had Ian, he didn’t always have a place to go. When he’d talked about it, Mickey had been casually destroying an abandoned shopping cart so Ian hadn’t said much. But he remembers viscerally understanding the dread that Mickey was describing. He has his own version and he fells an echo of it now. He doesn’t want to go in. He does not want to get into bed next to his husband. But he has to. Mickey will have his balls if he doesn’t.
He closes his eyes and forces a few deep breaths. Tries to do all the things he’s been advised to do when he feels this unsteady. Feel the air in the room. Feel the floor under his feet. Listen to the sound of Mickey’s breathing. He tries to match his own to that steady rhythm and finally feels himself calm. Just a little.
Anxiety had never been one of Ian’s significant issues, but Jesus, he was making up for it now. If you can even call what he’s experiencing anxiety, because right now, worry is normal. Hyper vigilance is normal. Being basically a newlywed and flat out terrified to lie down next to his husband… probably not as abnormal as it should be.
When he makes it to the bed, his heart is still thundering in his chest. He slips under the covers, eyes trained on Mickey’s back. He’s quiet and careful, and Mickey doesn’t stir. He watches a minute, taking slow breaths, until he finally decides he feels enough fatigue to at least let his eyes close… only to be jolted a moment later when Mickey’s arm flies out and smacks Ian’s hip.
To people who don’t know Mickey as deeply as he does, it might look like he’s being swatted away, but it’s the opposite. If Mickey didn’t want him in bed with him, he’d be on the floor right now. No, Mickey is awake just enough to know Ian is home and is irritated that he isn’t being spooned. Even 10% more conscious, he’d be charming about it in his gruff sort of way. The swat is more sloppy affection than it is aggression and it makes Ian smile.
But he can’t bring himself do what Mickey wants. He just can’t.
Instead he reaches out and runs what he hopes is a soothing hand down his husband’s back. Mickey grunts, and rolls over, his arm thrown over his eyes as if he has to protect them from light.
“What time is it?”
“Dunno. After two.”
“Kept you late again?”
“It’s not exactly a normal situation out there right now.”
Mickey snorts. Then, just as Ian thinks he might have drifted off again, he asks, “You’re still off the next four, though.”
“Yeah. That’s the deal.”
“Hmm,” Ian lets his eyes close again and they lapse into silence that slides into minutes, until Mickey speaks up, his voice both soft and rough.
That makes Ian smile again. God, he wants to touch him. And there’s probably no point in not touching him, right? Like four days, just in the house, if he HAS anything, Mickey is going to get it and if he can’t do anything else to prevent that, then what’s the point of not—
“Something on your mind, Gallagher?”
“I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”
“Mmm. Like I can’t hear the gears grinding from here.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I’m….” Fine. He and Mickey have never been great at picking their moment, why start now? “I’ve just been thinking about something.”
“Whole time I’ve know you, nothing good has ever started with you tellin’ me that you’ve been thinking about something.”
Ian exhales. “I’m thinking… Since Lip and Tami have moved out, the trailer is empty.”
“Jesus Christ, Ian. I am not living in a trailer.”
“No,” he hesitates.“Not… you. Me.”
There is just the briefest moment of silence. Just long enough that Ian thinks maybe, maybe, they’re going to be able to talk about this. But then.
“What?” Mickey bolts upright, brought immediately to full alertness. “The FUCK are you saying to me? No. No, fuck that. No fucking way.”
Ian is slow, compared to Mickey, in struggling up to a sitting position. He’s already reaching for his husband as he starts to placate. “No, I know. But a lot of front line workers are isolating so that they don’t—”
“Yeah, I’ve seen the news, Ian,” and he can feel the fury coming off Mickey in wave as he gets out of their bed and starts pacing. “That’s a terrible idea. It’s a really fucking terrible plan.”
“And what the fuck IS your plan here, exactly? You’re going to work all the time and when you’re not, you’re going to board yourself in that fucking tin can where no one can get at you and you’re just… What? Gonna to ride this out alone? For months?”
Ian scoots over to try to reach for Mickey, but he’s moving like a possessed pinball, so Ian ends up sitting on the edge of the bed. “I don’t know, Mick. For now. Ok? Just for now.”
“Let me paint a little picture here, which is you stuck in there with no human contact. The next four days, all alone with your phone and a book and, you’re gonna, like wave at people through the window? Live off shit food that comes in a can? You miss prison that much?”
“I don’t miss prison at all.”
Mickey stops pacing, but his breathing is still heavy. He moves over to the dresser and flips on the light they have perched on the edge. Ian flinches at the sudden burst of light, but Mickey just peers right into his face like it’s an interrogation.
“Are you tryin’ to get away from me?”
“What? Mick, that’s insane.”
“Insane?” Mickey gets that sort of De Niro look on his face, as he narrows his eyes at Ian. It’s unnerving. “You think that’s insane? You wanna go back through everything we’ve been through and tell me that me thinking you’re about to take off is INSANE?”
“I’m not trying to take off! We’re fucking married, remember?”
“I DO remember that. Glad to hear you do.”
“I’m SCARED, Mickey! Do you GET that?” Fuck. He’s yelling and Franny is right next door. He tries to force the boiling sensation in his head to just…. stop. “I’m fucking terrified, ok? All I think about when I’m not at work is that maybe I’ve brought it home. Maybe I’m passing it on, right now. And how, if I have it, you’re gonna get it, and then you’ll get sick and you’ll die, and—”
“Why the FUCK am I dying in this scenario?”
“Because people are dying. Because that’s what’s happening!”
“I’m twenty-five!” Mickey looks appalled and he’s not exactly wrong.
“I know. But… you smoke.”
“So do you, asshole.”
“I’ve been cutting back.” It’s weak, but at least it’s true. You can’t smoke while you’re masked, and the fear is a pretty decent motivator. “Look, I’m not trying to say all of it is rational. I’m saying it’s fucking me up. I mean, if you really think about it, the worst thing we have going for us right now is me, doing my job. I’m the most dangerous person in the house.”
“The most dangerous person in this house is Frank.”
Ian’s stomach lurches. “Was Frank here?”
“I mean, not lately, but we had to chase him off a couple of weeks back. Like having our own personal plague rat.”
Jesus. “Didn’t get close to him, I hope.”
“Didn’t have to. I scare the shit of out him.”
Ian smiles. Sorta nice to know he can, the way his insides are churning. “I just don’t like that there’s even a chance, you know?”
Mickey chews his lip, contemplating Ian in his no-doubt dishevelled state. “I mean. I could get hit my lightening tomorrow, if you really want to get into it. Or shot. Honestly, way better chance of that.”
“Can we maybe not talk about all the ways you could die?”
“I’m not going to die.”
“Because you say so.”
“Yeah. Because I say so.”
Ian opens his mouth to push back but his throat closes like a vice and suddenly he can’t stand this conversation. He can feel the tears pushing their way out as he struggles to speak. “Just. Don’t wanna lose you, Mick.”
“Oh, Christ.” Mickey looks agonized, but his expression softens. “You’re not going to.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Yeah, well, neither can you.” Mickey pushes out his breath, looking like he’s at a loss. Finally, he takes a few steps to close the distance, and puts a hand under Ian’s chin. Ian lets him search his expression, looking back, sad and exhausted. “You know, you’re not doing so great yourself here, hotshot.”
“I feel like I’m losing it. I’ve been wondering if it’s… Like I can’t tell, I know I’m too wound up, but—”
“Nah, you’re not manic. You’d be a lot more cheerful if you were manic.”
Twisted, but probably true. A sign of how jumbled his thoughts are right now that he needed Mickey to point that one out. He’s not scared of much when he’s having an episode. A wave of exhaustion hits him hard and he leans forward, pressing his forehead into Mickey’s belly. He feels his husband’s hand come down on the back of his neck. Warm and firm and sure.
“Look,” Mickey sighs, heavily. “I get why you’re worried. You don’t think I’m worried about you? Fucking front line worker. It’s like somehow you still ended up in the army, and I was never in love with that plan. I just… I thought we were done with this shit.”
“What shit?” Ian can hear a slight slur in his voice.
“This…” Mickey sighs. “You know. You solving things by taking off.”
“I’m not taking off. It’s right there.”
“Whatever. You really wanna go back to having our whole fucking relationship through a glass partition?”
Ian looks up, cautiously. “We’ve done it before.”
Mickey raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t say what Ian can feel is on the tip of his tongue. You never fucking visited me. Instead he points out, “Last time I put myself in a barrel of medical waste to try and get OUT of that situation, so, you know. Can’t say I’m a fan.”
The back of Ian’s neck prickles at that, and he lets his arms drop as he sits up. Mickey had told him about that after he got home. They hadn’t gotten into it, but it had really gotten under Ian’s skin. Because what was that plan? What was Mickey doing? Going back to being a fugitive? Making another run to Mexico, where Ian couldn’t follow? Because they’d fucking talked about that and Mickey knew why Ian got out of the car.
“What the fuck was that about, anyway?”
“Come on, Ian. We weren’t gonna survive three, four, five more years of that. You know that.”
He didn’t know that. “That’s why you tried to escape? Because you thought I wasn’t gonna…” He can’t even really come up with the word. Mickey had told him to take parole, but they’d had an understanding.
“I don’t know! I just… I knew you were here and I was there and I couldn’t fucking stand it, ok? I don’t know what the plan was. I just… I couldn’t be in there if you…” Mickey shakes his head and Ian gets it. He wishes he didn’t. He wishes he could fight him about it. Instead he just feels kinda sick.
“You thought I’d change my mind.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Maybe. Mickey turned on a cartel and put himself back in prison for maybe. Fuck.
“I wanted to go with you. I got in the car, because I wanted to go with you.”
Mickey does know. He knows Ian felt unsure, leaving everybody. He knows Ian wanted both things. Wanted to stay and be with this family, and have his career. Wanted to be with Mickey, just so, so much. He wanted to split himself in two, and couldn’t figure out how it was going to work, so he just focused being there, on trying to get Mickey to safety. The whole time, he’d expected to cross the border. He figured, ultimately, the hard pull he felt towards Mickey Milkovich would trump everything else. And Mickey knows why it didn’t, in the end. He knows that Ian had 18 days of pills. And that wasn’t something he could work around. 18 days was not enough. And after 18 days, he didn’t know what was going to happen, but he knew he wasn’t going to be great company for a wanted man trying to establish a new life. But Mickey knows all that, so he’s not going to rehash it. Instead… Instead he takes a deep breath and tells the other part. The part that always felt so fucking obvious to him.
“I got in the car because I missed you so fucking much and I wanted to be with you just as much as—” Now the tears aren’t just coming. Now they are fucking here and he just lets them fall. “I was never really happy again, after you went to jail. You know that? Have I told you that? Because it’s true. Last time I felt, like… hope — like real hope — was the night the MPs came. And I know, it’s not like it was all bad, and it sure as hell wasn’t like being stuck in a fucking cell. But I missed you. I kept trying to gaslight myself out of it, but it just never went away. So yeah, figuring out I could be an EMT, like that… that was the closest thing. Once I had that, I could feel like things were ok and I had a plan, you know?”
“You had your shit together.”
Ian wipes at his eyes impatiently. “I was stable. That’s what that meant. I was being good and taking my meds and keeping everything… Like maybe getting to a place where I felt like I could breathe a bit. Get clear on some stuff. But the second I saw you…” God, he remembers how that felt. He’s felt that more that once, that sudden rush of Mickey blowing back into his life. “I am not trying to get away from you.” He swallows hard. He has to say the next part. Every time he tries to talk about it, Mickey shuts him down, but Jesus. He’s gotta say it. “When we were living together. At your Dad’s.”
“Ian, I don’t—”
“I know you don’t, but just listen. Ok? After you came out and we were living together with Yevgeny… I loved that. Like, deep down, the most real part of me. I was so happy with you. And I know I was sick and maybe you think that’s why, but—”
“No,” Mickey’s voice sounds choked and Ian raises his eyes. Mickey’s face is conflicted. Like Ian just said something he isn’t sure he can believe. “We were, right? We were happy.”
And Ian can see it, now— why he never got to tell Mickey that part. Mickey’s never wanted to talk about it, never wanted to introduce the question of that whole period before Ian had this breakdown. Because it was full of so many good memories that he didn’t want taken away. Didn’t want to be told it was a lie, it was brain chemistry tricking them into thinking they were happy. It wasn’t real. It was just the disease.
That doesn’t feel true. The joy, the way he’d look at Mickey and feel like the love was just shooting out of his fingers and toes and the top of his head. Feeling so happy it was like he couldn’t contain it. He remembers that with so much clarity it’s like he can touch it… and then he remembers everything else. How many other things felt like they couldn’t be contained. How it looks, when you realize what was really going on.
But he still feels like that. Not the same way. Not quite that hot, burning, too-much energy feeling. But the love that fills him up like nothing else ever has… Ian knows that part was real. It’s been with him for too long not to be. And it fucking breaks his heart to see Mickey look at him like that was lost.
“I was a shitty boyfriend, you know.”
“Yeah, no. I was. You know I was. I was all over the place. You put up with a lot.”
He doesn’t spell it out. Mickey knows that part, too. Insists he doesn’t care, but never — NEVER — wants to talk about it. And the way he’s shifting his weight, his eyes darting anywhere but Ian’s face, he doesn’t want to talk about it now, either.
“Wanted to,” Mickey clears his throat, hard. “I’d never… Never had that before, you know?” He sniffs, tellingly, his eyes fixed on a spot over Ian’s shoulder. “Kinda hoped we were getting back to that now.”
Ian feels a surge of energy — excitement, connection — because yes. Yes. His hands reach for Mickey’s and he manages to grabs one. He squeezes it, tight.
“We were, though! Before this started? It was that good. It felt that kind of good. But better, because… I’m not going to run off and do something that will blow it all up this time….” He ducks his head trying to catch Mickey’s eye, but he doesn’t get them until his husband is ready. “Mick. I promise. I’m trying real hard not to ruin it.”
“You’re not gonna. What the fuck is there to ruin?”
“Other than our entire relationship? Like, our fucking marriage?”
“No,” Mickey looks annoyed, suddenly. “If you went manic again, like bad, and did something stupid, that wouldn’t RUIN anything.”
“My parole officer might disagree.”
“Ian.” Mickey pulls his hand free so that he can run it down his face in sheer exasperation. “I don’t care that you’re bipolar. I mean, it sucks, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just a thing, ok? Like high blood pressure or… I don’t know, herpes.”
“It’s a thing we gotta pay attention to. And I do. Pay attention. I know when you’re not ok. It’s not fucking subtle. No fucking Gay Jesus bullshit is going to happen on my watch.”
“Yeah, Mick. I know.”
“But you gotta let me. Watch.”
And that’s the hell of it. All Ian wants right now is for Mickey to be safe. It’s only really been since their wedding that he’s felt any good at that. He couldn’t protect Mickey when they were kids. Not from Kash, not from Terry, not from the cops, or fucking Sammi — Sammi! — and sure as hell not from the shit his own brain came up with. Mickey had stood there and just taken the infidelity and the suitcase hoarding and the paranoia. He’d let Ian exhaust him and then he’d hung around while Ian spent days in bed, never speaking except to tell Mickey to go away.
But since the wedding, he’d felt something shift, and settle between them. There was no more questions about what they doing. Mickey wasn’t as hostile to future talk. And Ian was able to keep Mickey away from the family that didn’t give a shit about him, just by never giving him a reason to think he had to keep that connection open. He made money that gave Mickey breathing room without his having to knock over a liquor store. But to really feel safe, Mickey’s gotta be able to keep eyes on him. And he gets it. It’s just that right now, that’s honestly dangerous.
“I don’t want you to get sick.”
Mickey sighs. “Yeah, I don’t want to get sick, either. But we’re not like some millionaire doctor couple where you can just go live in the east wing, you know? These are our cards. You’re an EMT. We’re both ex-cons, and you’re bipolar. It’s a shit hand, but I promise you the best play is not you going into hiding all by yourself for however long this takes to work itself out.” Mickey shifts forward and cups Ian’s cheek. He holds it a moment, just looking at him. Eyes finally losing that hunted look he’s had since he jumped out of their bed. “It’s a literal recipe for disaster, you working like this, sleeping like shit, and then no one is around to give you a reality check, or just help you out. You get that, right?”
“Yeah.” And he does, suddenly. It’s in how bone-deep tired he is. He can’t keep doing this. It’s a fucking nightmare.
“And, like… I signed up for this. We take care of each other. It’s better that way.”
Yeah, ok. Ian reaches out and wraps his arms around Mickey’s waist, pulling him into a tight hug. He feels Mickey’s hands in his hair, as a kiss is pressed to the top of his head. God, this feels unfair, like there should be another choice. A better way to get through this.
“I love you so fucking much,” Ian breaths, tipping his face up to look Mickey in the eye. “I just really need you to know that, because I don’t think I’m so good at showing you. I. Just… the only think I’ve ever wanted as much as I want to be with you, is for you to be ok. And a lot of the time, it feels like we can’t… we can’t have both.”
Mickey smirks at this. “Fuck that. We have both. We have both. But it’s my fucking choice if I take a chance, ok? If I want to be with you, even if things might maybe go off the rails, I get to decide, just like you do. If you want to be with me, then fucking be with me.”
“I wanna be with you, Mick.”
“Good.” Mickey’s thumb brushes against Ian’s chin, then across his cheekbone, and then touches, lightly, on his bottom lip.
“You’re touching my face.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna be touching your face. That’s a thing that’s going to happen, so wear a God damn mask.”
“I am,” he reaches his long arm up to wrap around Mickey’s neck, then lets himself fall back on the bed, bringing his husband with him. And Mickey is smiling now, that sweet, heart-melting smile that no one else gets to see.“I wear the hell out of that mask.”
“Washing your hands?”
“Like a boss.”
Mickey laughs, and dips his head down to rest on Ian’s sternum for a second, before lifting up again to give him a warm, affectionate nod. “Then we’re doing what we can.”
Ian plays a little with the hair at the nape of Mickey’s neck, which is getting a just a bit long. They’d promised each other to try and do something with the clippers before Ian has to go back to work, but for right this second, he just enjoys how soft it feels. He lets his eyes roam over Mickey’s face, still feeling that little spark of fear zipping through him.
“You sure about this?”
“Pretty sure, yeah.”
“I’m gonna do everything I can not to bring this thing home.”
“I know you will.”
And that’s pretty much it. His best is going to have to be good enough, because Mickey isn’t going to let go. And Ian wishes he wanted him to. He wishes he wasn’t also scared of what might happen to him without Mickey. But he breaths it down, and just lets himself look at his husband. And it fells like it did three months, six months, a year ago… like every other time that his world had been spinning out and he’s just stopped and looked at Mickey Milkovich and felt himself still.
He raises his head up and kisses that smile. Because you gotta be fighting for something, and this was what it would always be for him. Ian and Mickey, together, even as the world burns around them.