Lyrics to get you started:
A desert road
From Vegas to nowhere
Someplace better than where you’ve been
A coffee machine that needs some fixing
In a little cafe just around the bend
-Baghdad Cafe (Callin’ U)
I find the map and draw a straight line
Over rivers, farms, and state lines
The distance from 'here' to where you'd be
It's only finger-lengths that I see
-Set Fire to the Third Bar
Holding pictures in my hands now
Of the places we have been
Thinking about all the plans now
We were gonna live the dream
Clean up the dead you leave behind
Let’s hold here
Let’s just stay here
I'm watching you, watching you bluff
I'm watching you bluff, watching you bluff
You’re trying hard to figure out
Just exactly how you feel
Before you end up parked and sobbing
Forehead on the steering wheel
Alex pulled her helmet off and swung her leg off of her bike. She set it on the gas tank, ran a hand through her hair and wiped at the sweat on her forehead before unzipping her leather jacket. Glancing back to the road she had just driven, she could see the heat wafting up, blurring the horizon. The wind on the bike had kept her cool, but now that she was stopped, the sun was almost unbearable.
The diner was the only building she had seen for miles as she had cruised the dusty two-lane, caught somewhere in the desert between Vegas and nowhere. A little green alien graced the sign, promising the best coffee this side of Mars, and she grimaced. It was a good thing J’onn hadn’t come with her. He would have been offended by the stereotype.
In the distance, she could see a glimmer of the salt flats of Groom Lake nestled against rolling hills. As she watched, a silver dust mote sparkled and grew steadily larger as it descended from the sky into what was now a small spaceport that had sprouted up in the shadows of Area 51.
Things sure had changed since the Alien Amnesty Act had been signed over two years ago. Aliens had slowly come out of hiding and started creating their own communities, like the one thriving out in the desert, just a few miles from where she stood.
Alex rolled her shoulders and rotated her head on her neck. It had been a long three hours on her bike to get to the location, and all she wanted was a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, and to find her contact from the Las Vegas Police Department who was supposed to meet her here.
A bell rattled on the door as she entered, and the smell of bacon grease and coffee hit her nose. The blast of ice-cold air conditioning raised goosebumps where sweat had yet to dry.
After initial, disinterested glances, the locals turned back to what they had been doing, reading newspapers or sticking quarters into ancient slots that lined the back wall. They looked like leftovers from the golden age of Vegas, back when gangsters and thugs ran the town, the people and slots alike.
“Grab a seat anywhere, hon,” called the waitress from behind the counter. The cash register dinged as she finished ringing up coffee for another patron. There was something familiar about the woman scooping up her change, her long dark hair paired with her short stature, tanned, muscular arms…
Maggie Sawyer swung around, her smile wide and dimpled, but it didn’t light her eyes. “Hey, Danvers. I was wondering when you were going to show up.”
“What?” All her breath left her body in a rush at the affectionate way Maggie said her name. She hadn’t heard that in months. Regrouping, she muttered, “I’m supposed to meet local law enforcement... wait, are you my contact?”
Maggie’s nose crinkled and she tilted her head to the side. “Yeah, dispatch didn’t tell you who you were meeting?”
“What are you doing here?” Alex asked as panic started to make her heart race. She felt like she had stumbled into one of those stupid romantic comedies Kara always made her watch, except that the secondhand embarrassment was hers and hers alone.
“Waiting for you.” Maggie caught Alex’s puzzled look and chuckled. “You mean in Nevada?” She tapped the shiny, 7-point shield on her belt. “I came over to LVMPD a few months ago. They needed someone to work the Area 51 beat.”
“I, I didn’t know.”
“It’s no big deal.” Maggie waved it off before grabbing her cup from the counter. “I’m going to grab a seat.” She indicated a booth off of the corner. “You want to join me after you get some coffee?”
Numb, Alex watched as Maggie walked away until the waitress cleared her throat. “You want something to drink, honey?”
“Oh, yeah, coffee. Coffee would be great. And do you have any donuts?”
Maggie was glancing through a case file when Alex made her way back. She had her hair tucked back behind her ear to keep it from falling forward and she nibbled on the end of her pen as she read. The late morning sun angled through the blinds to warm her skin, bringing out a smooth honeyed glow and the hints of mahogany in her hair. She was still breathtakingly beautiful, and Alex paused by the table, unsure of what to say or do.
“I’m glad you found the place,” Maggie said as she scribbled a note in the margins. “Some of the back roads out here can be a little tricky.”
Decision made, Alex slid into the booth across from her. “I’m,” she shook her head, “I’m sorry. I’m just surprised. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
“Yeah, I got the heads-up and I figured they did the same for you.” Maggie dropped the pen and toyed with the cream-colored diner mug. Another alien driving a flying saucer grinned at her from the cup. Ganymede Coffee Roasters. Our Coffee is Out of this World it proudly proclaimed. Alex tore her gaze from the mug to Maggie, forcing herself to take a good, hard look at her ex-fiancée for the first time.
“You look good.” Alex blurted out the words without thinking and wished she could take them back seconds later.
But Maggie did, in her simple black v-neck t-shirt and worn, bootcut jeans, with a pair of sunglasses perched on her head. Alex couldn’t remember her having those jeans, or even that t-shirt, and she would have remembered them. She looked amazing, and a pang of loss hit Alex squarely in the gut.
Maggie’s smile widened, amusement glinting in her dark eyes. “Thanks, Danvers. You too.”
Her demeanor threw Alex; the last time she had seen her, Maggie had been leaving their apartment, a duffle slung over her shoulder and tears in her eyes. She wouldn’t have expected this. Maggie was relaxed, cheerful, almost… happy. Worse, it didn’t seem forced, and she didn’t seem to be uncomfortable to be seeing her ex for the first time in over eleven months.
Concern darkened her eyes. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just, thrown, I guess.” Alex nibbled on her donut, her appetite gone.
Maggie nodded. “Someone should have warned you. Sorry about that.” She tilted her head to the side and smiled, soft and soothing. “And speaking of warning,” she leaned forward and Alex did the same. “The coffee is terrible,” she whispered. “I think the coffee pot is busted.”
Alex snorted, feeling a little bit of the tension bleed out of her shoulders. “Some things never change. You always were a coffee snob.”
“I prefer the term connoisseur.”
“Of course you do.” For a moment, the awkwardness faded, and Alex had a flash of the easy friendship they had had, even before they had become lovers. Fiancées. There were so many questions Alex wanted to ask but they all led to personal topics so she refrained. “So what’s the story?”
“Well, you know Area 51 had seen a rapid increase in interstellar traffic in the last three months? We’ve heard some rumblings from a small contingent that seems to think that they don’t have to register or obey the ‘Earth’ laws. Kind of like the sovereign citizen movement, they think that they have extra jurisdictional rights, only these aliens say it’s because some interplanetary laws supersede ours.”
Alex nodded. There had been variations of this used before, but not usually by a large group of aliens, just an individual here or there. “So what’s the problem?”
“We’re concerned that it might be the beginning of more.”
Maggie frowned, her gaze focused on something off in the distance. “We have intelligence that indicates they are planning on establishing an outpost out here in the desert, by force if necessary.”
“Intelligence? What’s your source?”
“Classified,” Maggie snapped. “Sorry, but I can’t divulge that information without endangering people. It’s credible. I’ve verified it myself. We just don’t have specifics as to when or where or how.”
Maggie’s fingers slid absently over her cup, and Alex glanced away, a tickle of something starting in her chest. How could just sitting across from her affect her like this? She had dated, kissed, even slept with a couple of women, but nothing made her body react like Maggie caressing the smooth porcelain of an absurd alien coffee mug.
“The idea or movement or whatever you want to call it is not popular with most of the residents, humans and aliens alike,” Maggie continued, all business. “So if stuff kicks off here, it’s going to get real dicey, real quick.”
Business. That’s good. Alex could do business. “So what can the DEO do?”
“We’re local, so first, we wanted to get this on your radar so you can see if there’s any chatter at the national level. Would hate to take down a cell here and miss the bigger picture.”
“Of course. Second?”
“If we have to move in to stop something, we’re going to need more than a police presence. We’re going to need a tactical force used to dealing with aliens.’
Maggie took another sip of her coffee and grimaced, her frown so disappointed Alex grinned. Seeing the expression on Alex’s face, she rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah.”
The diner was filling up, mostly humans but a few aliens, and Maggie watched the crowd carefully. “Let’s take a drive.”
“I have my bike.”
They stepped out into the baking midday sun, the dry air sucking the moisture out of Alex’s lungs. She wasn’t sure she was up for more time on the bike, exposed to the sun, and she started to say something when Maggie started walking around to the back of the cafe.
“Bring your bike.” She led Alex to a shipping container, one of three lined up behind the diner, and unlocked a heavy padlock, swinging a door open so Alex could push her bike in. She parked it by a gleaming Triumph and looked at Maggie in surprise.
Maggie shrugged. “I keep it here since I have my police vehicle in the city. It's cheaper to rent this unit than paying for parking. I just drive out here and get it when I need to take off and clear my head.”
“Does that happen often?” They had only done it a handful of times when they were together, escaping the city for back roads where they could really open up their bikes. It had always been something they were going to do more of, but they rarely made time for it.
The drive out had reminded Alex of those times, and she had enjoyed being on the open road with nothing but her bike and her thoughts for company.
“More often than not,” Maggie said with a shrug, and Alex was struck again by how little she knew about Maggie now. Once, she would have known what was on Maggie’s mind or what would drive her out into the desert to clear her head.
Alex’s eyes adjusted to the dark, and she saw duffel bags and boxes in the container, and she wondered what else Maggie stored there. Before she could ask, Maggie ushered her out and locked the door.
Maggie’s police SUV was parked right beside the shipping container, in a patch of shade cast by the building. Maggie fished in a cooler behind Alex’s seat and handed her an ice-cold bottle of water, and Alex sipped it gratefully as Maggie slipped her sunglasses down and started the car.
There was something different about Maggie, but Alex couldn’t quite tell what or how she was changed. She was more guarded, her emotions more concealed. Alex had learned to read her when they had been together, but whatever Maggie was hiding under her calm composure, Alex couldn’t tell.
She pretended to pay attention to the road, but her eyes were drawn to her ex-fiancée again and again. Maggie looked good, relaxed, comfortable in her own skin, and a pang of something that felt a little like jealousy, a little like resentment, wormed its way into Alex’s gut.
The sound of tires on asphalt filled the car as the silence between them dragged. Questions Alex had no right to ask welled up in her throat. Are you happy? Are you seeing someone? Do you miss me?
Finally, she asked, “Where are we going?”
“There’s a good spot to overlook what we think is the camp of some of the troublemakers this way. I wanted to show you what we might be up against.”
“Good call. I’ll get coordinates and we can have Winn get some satellite surveillance on it if you think we need it.”
“Probably couldn’t hurt. We don’t know what they are up to, but the chatter from some of our informants is… troubling.”
Alex missed this, missed Maggie’s sharp mind and keen detective skills. She missed brainstorming with her on a case late at night over pizza or Chinese food and the way Maggie would get lost reading a case file at the kitchen table. She missed Maggie, but she couldn’t tell her, as much as she wanted to.
For all their talk of a mutual decision, Alex had broken up with Maggie, shattering both of their hearts in the process. She wasn't allowed to be the one hurting in this scenario.
The moment the door had closed behind Maggie, Alex knew she had made a mistake, and the months apart had only reinforced that. Seeing Maggie now, seemingly content, maybe even happy, made the loss she had been mourning for months so painful she could barely breathe.
“What kind of chatter?” she asked after she let the silence stretch too long again. Work was acceptable. Work was distracting. Work was safe.
“Anything from trying to establish a sovereign state to a violent overthrow of one of the towns out this way. We don’t think the locals know the extent of the talk, which is good, cuz they wouldn’t take it well.”
They drove for a while in silence, until the SUV jerked to the side and slowed. Maggie turned onto a dirt road leading toward a rocky hill in the distance. The ride got bumpier, and Alex grabbed the handhold.
“I keep thinking I should get a dirt bike so I can ride some of these roads at speed.”
“That would be fun. Is there somewhere to rent around here?” The image of the two of them racing over the hard-pack and up twisted hills took hold in Alex’s imagination. She glanced at Maggie, but the sunglasses obscured her eyes, and she couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
“I dunno. I might have to look into that.” Maggie pulled off the road and parked in the shadow of the butte. The instant the air turned off, the heat seeped in, and Maggie frowned. “Hot one today.”
“Yeah. Early afternoon probably isn’t the best time for a hike.”
“You’re right.” Maggie tapped the steering wheel for a second before starting up the SUV again. “Let’s wait out the heat for a while.” She leaned over, crossing into Alex’s space, and Alex froze. But she was just reaching behind the seat for another bottle of water and an isolated lunch bag. “We should probably eat something anyway.”
She pulled a thick deli sandwich out and offered it to Alex. “Bacon and ham on wheat, right?”
“Of course.” Alex accepted the sandwich and bag of chips, watching as Maggie grabbed her own. “What are you eating these days?”
“Turkey bacon BLT with avocado.” Maggie held it out to Alex. “Wanna try? It’s delicious.”
“Turkey bacon shouldn’t be allowed to be called bacon,” Alex taunted with a shudder. She opened her chips and dug into her sandwich. Her appetite returned with a vengeance and she focused on eating. An apple appeared on the armrest near her elbow, and she glanced up to see Maggie smirking at her.
“You still eat like shit, Danvers.”
“Yeah, yeah.” But once the chips and sandwich were gone, Alex picked up the apple, ignoring Maggie’s snicker. She glanced over the desert landscape, the crags of the stone rising beside them thrown into stark relief by the afternoon sun.
“So how’s the family?”
“Oh, yeah, good.” Alex cleared her throat and tried again. “Kara is, well, Kara, and mom’s good. Keeping busy with her research. She has a new article coming out next month, and she keeps threatening to retire so she can spend more time in National City. She makes it sound like she wants to keep an eye on us, but I think she wants access to the equipment at the DEO.” She was rambling, and she could feel Maggie’s eyes on her.
“How are you doing?” Maggie’s tone was inquisitive but non-committal, the cool voice she used to put witnesses at ease or disarm nervous perps. Alex wondered which she was.
“I’m… good. You know, work. Work keeps me busy.” Busy enough that she barely saw her empty apartment, busy enough that she had an easy excuse when her mom asked if she was dating anyone. Nobody had stuck around for very long. Between work and Kara, her life had gone back to what it was before Maggie, except now she knew how empty that existence was.
After a couple of weeks of trying to fill the emptiness with bourbon, she had eased off and found other outlets, to the relief of her sister. She and Winn had finally managed to reverse-engineer her alien gun and they had put together an early prototype. If the power source would stop catching fire, they might be able to replicate it. Sister nights were every night there wasn’t an alien rampaging in the streets of National City, and some nights, when the thought of her cold, empty bed was too much, she slept on Kara’s couch.
It was a routine, if not a life.
“And you? How are you?” Alex gazed out the windshield at the brush and scant vegetation, trying to imagine living in such a desolate place, seemingly miles from nowhere. “Do you like it here?”
“Well, I haven’t developed a gambling habit yet. So that’s good.” Maggie seemed lost in thought and she tapped on the steering wheel absentmindedly. “I like the department, and I have a lot of freedom in the role. I probably spend about half of my time in Vegas and the other half out here, working with the community.”
“What’s that like?”
“Pretty good. Most of the policing stuff is minor, so I spend a lot of time doing community relations. It’s a good gig. I’ve always liked community policing over enforcement, and there’s a lot of that out here.” Maggie crumbled her sandwich wrapper and stuffed it into a bag before holding her hand out for Alex’s trash.
It was a small thing but it was all Maggie. Memories welled up, sad and sweet. Maggie making a beeline to the coffee maker every morning and fixing her coffee just the way she liked it. Maggie staying up hours after she should have been asleep to make sure Alex made it home okay. Maggie giving her the news section of the paper first even though it was the section she liked to read.
Always giving. Always taking care of Alex. Always putting Alex first.
Maggie shrugged and took a sip of water. She stared out ahead, in quiet contemplation of the horizon. “I like this, the quiet. When I drive out here at night, I can see the stars. The brass is thinking about a station out here, if the alien population keeps expanding. They want me to run it.” There was a soft satisfaction in her voice, a hint of pride that she usually kept hidden. “If I do that, I’ll probably buy a house and put down roots.”
Buying a house had been their plan, and Alex couldn’t stifle the flash of hurt that shot through her guts. Maggie was moving on and having firsts without her. She wondered if that meant Maggie was dating someone new, was making plans with someone else, but she was afraid to ask.
The answer might shred the last of her composure.
So she didn’t ask the questions she really wanted to and stayed on relatively safe topics, like work, while the sunlight crept across the hard pack and the shadow of the hills lengthened.
It wasn’t as awkward as Alex had imagined, but it wasn’t comfortable either, and Alex kept sneaking glances at Maggie. Her eyes hid behind the dark glass so Alex couldn’t read her thoughts. She wondered what her own eyes betrayed. Too much, probably. Too much of her sadness and loss and disquiet, still lingering after all this time.
Finally, after about an hour, Maggie stretched and glanced at her phone. “You ready, Danvers? It’s still hot but it’s about 45 minutes to the overlook and we’ll want to get out and back before the sun goes down.”
Alex finished her last sip of water. “Yeah, I’m good.” She stowed her leather jacket behind the seat and stepped out into the heat. Her legs were stiff after sitting for so long after the drive, and the sun beat down on her head. This hike was gonna suck.
“Here.” Maggie handed her a broad-billed straw cowboy hat, similar to the one she had donned. “It’ll keep the sun off your head and out of your eyes.”
Her lips twisted into a smirk at the sight Maggie presented, the jeans looser and laying lower on her hips than the tight, high-waisted ones she had worn in the city. A silver belt buckle with an ornate relief pattern winked in the sun, Hiking shoes and the cowboy hat completed the look. There was even fraying at the knee of the jeans that was the start of a hole.
She looked so different and yet still adorable, and Alex wanted to tell her so. “You went country on me.”
“I was already country. Nebraska, remember?” Maggie smiled, looking a tiny bit smug at how aware Alex was of her outfit. “Just dressing for the locale.” She looked pointedly at the hat in Alex’s hands and waited until she put it on.
Sunscreen followed, and Alex made sure she got her arms and the back of her neck, almost forgetting the tips of her ears and nose until Maggie reminded her.
Hoisting a small backpack on her shoulders, Maggie led the way along a small dirt path leading to the base of the butte, pointing out flowers and trees along the way. Alex was glad she had her combat boots as they scrambled up a small rise to reach the switchback trail that zip-zagged up the side.
Halfway up, Alex paused to catch her breath and take in the expanse of desert and sky. “Wow.”
Maggie had backtracked a few steps so she was standing by Alex, the incline of the trail equalizing their heights. “Yeah, pretty, isn’t it?”
Alex glanced at Maggie, her dark hair fluttering in the breeze and her smile dimpling her cheeks in the mid-afternoon sun. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I don’t remember you being so outdoorsy.”
Maggie frowned. “Huh, yeah. I guess I am. Circumstance. It was hard to be in National City. Even though the desert was all around us, it seemed like such a chore to get out to it. We…” she stumbled over the word before correcting herself. “I never made the time. Now, it’s kinda my beat, you know?”
“It agrees with you.”
“Yeah, I think it does.” She shaded her eyes as she glanced up the trail. “We’re almost there. You think this view is good? Wait til you get to the top.”
True to her word, the view from the top was spectacular. Groom Lake winked and sparkled in the distance, ringed by hills, and a mountain range broke the horizon. Everywhere she turned, the world stretched out in a dazzling array of textures and colors, and Alex took it all in for a few long minutes.
Her legs ached from the hike, but it was worth it, if only for the wind blowing to dry the sweat on her skin and the clean smell of juniper reinvigorating her.
For the first time in months, Alex felt like she could breathe. She hadn’t felt this much like herself since Maggie had walked out the door. As she watched the woman in question kneel to mess with her backpack, Alex almost imagined it was a date, and her heart jumped at the idea.
God, she missed Maggie.
She hadn’t even realized how much until right now, with Maggie sweeping her hat off her head to let her hair blow in the breeze and handing her a bottle of water. All the reasons, or rather, the singular, heartbreaking reason, that they couldn’t be together was like mountains on the horizon, vast yet so far away, and for a moment, Alex wanted to forget and just lose herself in Maggie.
“Told ya.” Maggie laughed as hair swept across her face and tangled, and before she could stop herself, Alex ran her hair through the silken strands and tried to tame them. The memory of the gesture froze her breath in her chest. All she had to do was curl her fingers, frame Maggie’s face, and bring their lips together.
Maggie pulled away, carefully but firmly, and Alex remembered the smile on her lips. It was the one she had given Alex after their first kiss, when she had tried to let her down easy. The one that said she was uncomfortable but pushing it down so Alex wouldn’t feel bad.
Brushing her hair back, Maggie put her hat back on. “Thanks. Gets windy up here.”
Alex nodded, letting the moment go although her fingers ached to touch Maggie again. “So, ah, you wanted to show me the base?”
“Yeah. Come on.” They threaded their way through the brush to the northern edge. Maggie handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed out a small enclave of buildings. “We think the ringleaders are setting up shop there.”
There was a lot of activity; surplus military trucks and jeeps drove around the perimeter and a group of aliens were shooting at targets on a makeshift range. Tattered camouflage netting obscured the middle of the camp.
“They would seem to be up to something.” Alex dropped the binoculars from her eyes. “Have you gotten a look at what they are hiding under that camo?”
“No. I’m under strict orders to observe only right now. The brass doesn’t want to blunder into some kind of Waco incident until we know what we’re dealing with.”
“Well, I’ll definitely have Winn position a satellite over this, and maybe have Supergirl swing by and see if she can see anything with her x-ray vision. Might get a better idea of what we’re up against.” She snapped a few pictures, although her phone was not really up to the task. She was sure Maggie had better high-rez images for Winn.
Maggie nodded. “We would appreciate any help. I have aerials and pictures of most of the ringleaders, and ID’s on some of them. You might be able to ID more, or at least figure out the species. I’ll send those along with the coordinates.”
“Sounds good.” Alex glared down at her phone. “No signal out there, huh?”
“Not up here, no.” They stood, and Maggie led them back the way they came. “Down near the road, you’ll be able to… Damn.”
“What?” Alex tried to follow Maggie’s gaze, but all she saw was dirt and dust stretching in all directions.
Maggie pointed to a small spot of dust moving toward the main road. “Someone’s driving away from our vehicle.”
Alex was suddenly aware of how exposed they were, how vulnerable they were to an attack. They were sitting ducks for a sniper or a flying alien, and the expanse of emptiness now seemed threatening.
Maggie cast a worried glance around them as well. She took back the binoculars and scanned the surrounding area. “Coast looks clear. It might be nothing,” she said as they headed for the trailhead and hurried down.
“Well, I guess it was something after all.” Alex examined the curved talon embedded in the tire of Maggie’s SUV before extracting it. “Not sure what species this is from,” she muttered as Maggie held out an evidence bag.
“This is a troubling escalation.” Maggie pulled a Bowie knife out of the front tire and bagged it. “They obviously want me to know they are watching me the same way I’m watching them.”
“Do they know you called the DEO?”
“They shouldn’t. Only my captain knew I was contacting you because I needed her okay.” She sat back on her heels and sighed. “I’ve gotten a few… notices. Not quite threats, but indications that they are aware of my suspicions. I guess this is more of the same.”
Protective instincts roared to life, and Alex frowned. “Not quite threats? Have you reported them?”
Maggie shrugged. “Kind of. I guess I’ll have to be more direct after this.”
The stubborn cast to Maggie’s features told Alex any lecture on being careful or taking care of herself would fall on deaf ears. Instead, she pulled out her phone. “Still no service.”
Maggie sighed. “There should be spotty service out here, even this far from the road.”
“You think they are blocking us?”
“I don’t know.” Her teeth worried at her bottom lip for a moment before she glanced up at Alex with a wry grin. “I guess we’ll have to hoof it. There’s a place not too far away, but it might not be up to your standards, Danvers.”
Alex arched an eyebrow, not sure she loved the hint of amusement in Maggie’s voice. “What do you mean by that?”
“Let’s just say it’s a local attraction. The important thing is there will be a landline if we don’t have cell service, and their burgers aren’t bad.”
“A burger sounds good right about now. Lead the way.”
“Hold on.” Maggie grabbed Alex’s leather out of the SUV along with a few other things, filling her backpack. When Alex frowned at her jacket, Maggie just smiled. “It gets cold at night. You’ll want it once the sun goes down.”
With that, they headed out, in the opposite direction they had come. As they struck out across the desert with no trail to lead the way, Alex was even more happy she had worn her tactical boots. The terrain was criss-crossed with cracks, and the loose sand and gravel made footing treacherous. Maggie seemed lost in thought, and Alex was focused on making sure she didn’t turn an ankle, so they didn’t speak as they trudged through the brush.
As they reached the road, Maggie perked up. “Another mile and I’ll buy you a beer.”
“I’ll let you.” Alex rummaged in her pocket and pulled her phone out. “I have a signal, at least.” Kara’s cell went to voicemail, though, and so did J’onn’s. Finally, she reached Winn. “Kara and J’onn are rounding up a flock of rogue velos and it may take all night. So no super-powered rescue for us.”
Maggie nodded as she hung up her own phone. “Dispatch can send a tow truck.” She glanced at Alex and sighed. “Tomorrow morning.”
Alex groaned. Her feet hurt, she was covered in dust and sweat, and she was desperately looking forward to dinner, a shower, and a bed, in that order. She must have looked particularly pathetic because Maggie chuckled at her expression and shook her head.
“Cheer up, Danvers.” When Alex narrowed her eyes at Maggie, Maggie’s lips quirked into a grin. “The good news is that this place not only has burgers and beer, but also a small hotel. If nothing else, we can hole up for the night.”
They rounded a corner, and Alex stopped short. “Are you kidding me?” The long, low building was lit up like an amusement park in the dusk and surrounded by beat-up trucks, cars, and motorcycles of all types, from gleaming Harley’s to dusty Kawasaki dirt bikes.
Looking like something out of old Vegas, the 60s-era blinking green-and-white fluorescent sign washed the 10-foot green effigy of a martian in a sickly light. What looked like half a flying saucer crashed into the roof fashioned out of aluminum and Christmas lights completed the look. “The Lil’ Green Mart’Inn?” She gave Maggie a sideways glance. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Maggie bit her lips, holding back the laughter that sparkled in her eyes. “Told you it wouldn’t be to your taste. Come on.”
They started walking again, and the monstrosity loomed larger and larger. The sides were plastered with drawings of martians from popular culture, from War of the Worlds to Mars Attacks. “It’s not to anyone’s taste.”
“You just don’t appreciate the classics, Danvers. It’s a cheesy tourist trap left over from the Area 51 days. Now it’s becoming the local hangout for the community in these parts, alien and human alike. The owner is talking about expanding.”
The lights were giving Alex a headache. “They should blow it up and start again.” She glanced to the side to see the grin spreading across Maggie’s face. “I bet you spend a lot of time here.”
Yanking open the door, Maggie held it and waved Alex in. “It’s a good place to get intel on the populace.”
Alex blinked to clear the spots out of her eyes. More than one customer was looking at her curiously, but when Maggie joined her, they smiled, nodded, or waved. Of course. It wouldn’t be Maggie without her alien bar and community of misfits. A familiar sound overtook the dings of slots, and Alex glanced to the corner to see a couple of threadbare pool tables.
“Your kind of place, huh?” Alex asked as a rare feeling of comfort washed over her. A dive bar. Maggie. A pool table. Maggie handing her a beer. It suddenly felt a little like home, a little like something she thought she had lost.
Maggie guided her toward a booth tucked back in the corner. “It’s a lot better than the hipster bar near my apartment in the city.” Sweeping her hat off, Maggie hung it on one of the racks that ran along the row of booths. After a second, Alex followed suit.
A waitress came and took their order. After a minute, a tall, thin woman emerged from the kitchen. Maggie stood to greet her with a hug, and she slid in beside Maggie in the booth. She was older, her greying hair cascading down her back in loose, graceful dreads behind a colorful headband. Grease burns pockmarked her hands and arms. “Mikki, this is Alex. Alex, this is the owner, Mikki.”
She crushed Alex’s hand in a handshake before returning her attention to Maggie. “I hear you need a place to stay for the night.”
“Word travels fast.”
“Not a lot to talk about out here. You and your new woman getting stranded out by the butte was the talk of the bar a while ago.”
Alex started at the words and her eyes flicked to Maggie. Your new woman. She wondered how many women Maggie had brought before, and she suddenly realized she didn’t want to know.
“Alex is my work colleague.” Not her girlfriend, not her fiancée, not her wife. The demotion, spoken aloud from Maggie’s lips, caused an unpleasant roll of Alex’s stomach. She hadn’t expected it to hurt so much. “You could’ve sent someone to pick us up if you knew.”
Mikki gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Nah. I wanted to make sure you worked up an appetite.”
Maggie shook her head with a wry smile. “Anything else I should know of?”
“He stopped by. Said you should take the hint and stick to the affairs of humans.”
“He knows I can’t do that. I’m responsible for the community, both the human and the alien community.”
“I’m sure you know your business, Sawyer, but this… is troubling. The Inn has been a spot for everyone, but some of these guys are starting to push people around. I don’t like it. And they are singling you out as a target because they know a lot of folks, on both sides, respect you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I know you do.” Mikki pushed herself up from the booth. “I gotta get back before they screw up too many orders. Just watch your back, okay?”
“Will do. Thanks.”
Mikki nodded and took a step toward the kitchen before swinging back to them. “Oh, only one vacancy for the evening. You and your, ah, work colleague will have to share. I hope that won’t be a problem.”
The look of amusement in Mikki’s eyes made Alex uneasy, but Maggie waved it off. “We’ll manage.”
“I’ll send the key out with your burgers. Ladies.” She mimed tipping a hat as she left.
Alex knew the expression on Maggie’s face well. The worried scrunch of her forehead, the troubled, contemplative light in her eyes. Fear squeezed Alex’s heart painfully. “You didn’t tell me you were being targeted.”
Maggie shrugged and took a long drink of her beer. “Comes with the job, you know that.”
“Maggie, it’s like the wild west out here. They slashed your tires, but they could have done a lot more.” Images of Maggie, alone and defending herself from attackers, alien attackers, on the top of a mesa or in one of the vast open fields with no protection and no backup flooded Alex’s head.
“Gee, I didn’t think you cared.” The comment was barbed in a way none of their interactions had been up until that point, and the hint of anguish in Maggie’s tone cut deep.
Alex caught her gaze and held it. “You know I do.”
Maggie’s eyes narrowed as she met Alex head-on, some inscrutable emotion rising to the surface from those dark depths. It looked a little like anger, a little like sadness, and a lot like pain, but it vanished quickly. “You used to.”
Alex opened her mouth to speak, to defend herself, but the waitress interrupted, setting a plate with the biggest burger Alex had ever seen and a heaping mound of french fries in front of her. Maggie started in on her dinner, and Alex followed her lead with a sigh.
She knew Maggie knew she still cared, Hell, just because they decided they couldn’t be together didn’t mean she didn’t still love Maggie. Didn’t still wake up in the middle of the night and reach for her. Didn’t still ache when she looked down at her finger and remembered the promises they had made to each other. Promises they had made and broken.
Alex missed Maggie so much it hurt.
Sneaking glances at Maggie, Alex couldn’t help but be struck by how different she seemed. She was more like the woman Alex had first met on that airport tarmac, friendly yet guarded, professional yet prickly, composure and sarcasm hiding a deep, abiding passion. It had to be a front, carefully constructed and maintained, and Alex wished she could peel it away, worm her way through the layers to find her Maggie again.
But Maggie wasn’t hers anymore.
Eyes squeezing shut, Alex hoped Maggie couldn’t read her emotions. She only wished she could project the outward appearance of calm. Maybe, if she could, she might believe it herself. But Maggie gave no sign of noticing Alex’s roiling emotions. Her gaze was fixed over Alex’s shoulder, into the interior of the bar, and she chewed mechanically at her food.
Alex’s beer gave her something to hide behind, and Alex finished it and ordered another. Maggie was only halfway through, and she gave a tight smile and shook her head when Alex indicated the bottle. Likewise, she barely ate half of her burger and the mountain of fries was still on her plate. Turning in the booth, Maggie slid so her back was against the wall with her feet on the bench. She played with the beer bottle in her hands and watched the crowd that swirled around the bar.
“You okay?” Alex asked as the silence started to wear.
“Yeah. Just... thinking.”
Her gaze cut to the side to fix on Alex for a timeless moment, and Alex sucked in a breath, bracing herself for what Maggie might have to say. But this was Maggie, and she didn’t talk about herself. So her gaze shifted back to the bar patrons and she raised a hand to signal the waitress. “It’s not important.”
The waitress set the bill, another beer, and a key on the table. Alex reached for the bill but Maggie got there first. “The department will handle it,” she explained as she tossed a handful of bills down.
Sighing, Alex sipped her beer and watched the assorted variety of aliens and humans mingle in the bar. There didn’t seem to be any dividing lines or delineations that separated different species or factions, but a low-level tension vibrated through the room and set Alex’s teeth on edge.
Maggie felt it too, and Alex noted the individuals Maggie pegged in the crowd, wishing she could take pictures to send back to Winn. The dinner crowd seemed to be clearing out, and, by degrees, the stiffness in Maggie’s shoulders eased and the hard set of her jaw loosened. A nod and a single finger raised was all it took for the waitress to bring a tumbler of Scotch and set it by Maggie’s hand.
Even in the harsh blinking lights, Maggie was still the most beautiful woman Alex had ever seen. She was still the woman Alex loved, with all of her heart, and an ache started in her gut and enveloped her heart.
“I’m worried about you.”
Maggie shrugged her shoulder and took a small sip of her drink. “It’s under control.”
“How? You seem to be out here all alone, Maggie. Where’s your backup?”
“I’ll be okay.” When Alex started to argue the point, Maggie cut her off smoothly. “It’s been eleven months, Alex. You don’t get to swoop in after months without a word and dictate safety procedures.”
“I didn’t think you wanted me to call. I didn’t…” Alex sighed and shifted her eyes to the side before meeting Maggie’s again. “I didn’t want to make you relive anything. When I didn’t see you around, I figured you were avoiding me. I was trying to respect your need for space.”
Nodding, Maggie’s voice softened. “I appreciate that. And I appreciate your worry. It’s just... not your concern anymore.”
“Like hell.” Maggie perked up at the display of anger, her eyebrow raising. “We may not be together anymore, but I still care, Maggie. I will always care.”
Maggie’s gaze was impenetrable, lit by alternating white and green flashes, but her jaw clenched and her throat bobbed as she swallowed. Finally, she gave a small, measured nod and reached out to snag the key from the table.
She stood without a word, grabbed her hat and backpack, and headed out of the bar. Alex hesitated a moment before following.
Pebbles crunched underfoot as Maggie walked the length of the gravel parking lot, finally pausing in front of a unit at the very end. An ancient air-conditioning unit wheezed and sputtered as she fiddled with the honest-to-god key in the door lock. The solid blast of frigid air hit them both in the face as the door swung open.
Maggie flicked the light on to a weird, art-deco-meets-space-invaders decor. Heavy mahogany and cherry wood, all rounded edges and gold insets, clashed with the ancient arcade game and the life-sized alien in a silver space suit propped up beside it. Even the bedspread was silver.
But what drew Alex’s attention most was the bed, a single queen bed that took up most of the space in the room. Compared to the bed they had shared in Alex’s apartment, this one looked like the size of a postage stamp.
Maggie’s expression was one of grim resignation and wry amusement. She always did find the humor in absurdity, and this was starting to feel a little like a comedy of errors.
“I can sleep on the floor or something,” Alex said into the shocked silence. “We don’t…”
“The carpet won’t give you any cushion, and you need to sleep, Alex.” Alex noticed the name change, and she glanced at Maggie in surprise. “It’s not like we haven’t shared a bed before.”
Alex sucked in a sharp breath. Visions of the last time they were together, in bed, making crazy, mad love before collapsing and cuddling, trying to put off the inevitable. Even now, every moment of that day, that night, was burned onto her brain. Tequila on her tongue, Cindy Lauper crooning until urgency overtook them and they barely made it to the bed, barely got half their clothes off, before losing themselves in each other one last time.
Her fingers trembled, and Alex clenched her hand to hide it. She could do this. She could be an adult and share a bed with the woman she still considered the love of her life.
“Yeah,” Alex agreed after a long moment. “Like you said, we’ll manage. I just hope the shower works. I feel gritty.”
“I’m sure it will work just fine. Mikki has a certain, um, flair for decoration but she keeps this place ship-shape.” Setting her backpack on a small table in front of the window, Maggie unpacked a few essentials, and Alex eyed the t-shirt in Maggie’s hands.
“Don’t suppose you have a spare? I have a change of clothes with my bike, but that’s a few miles that way.” Alex waved vaguely in the direction of the diner.
Maggie frowned. “Damn, I forgot about that. You need anything else? Toothbrush? There’s a gift shop. I can grab you what you need.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s my fault we got caught out here. It’s the least I can do.” Maggie pulled out a red-and-black flannel shirt and tugged it on. “It’ll only take a minute.”
“If you’re sure, just a t-shirt so I don’t have to wear this one to bed and a toothbrush would be great.”
“Gotcha. Be right back.”
As soon as the door swung closed, Alex flopped back onto the bed. It was comfortable, at least. Not that she anticipated sleeping, not with Maggie in the bed with her. Closing her eyes, Alex tried to process the whirlwind of events and emotions from the day.
It was exhilarating being with Maggie after all this time, exhilarating and excruciating. The familiarity, the small things, the way Maggie swept her hair behind her ears, the restless way she fidgeted with the steering wheel while she drove, all that was edged with dull pain and aching distance.
Maggie was both the woman she loved and the woman she left, and, for not the first time, Alex faced a single, simple, devastating truth.
She was not over Maggie. She would never be over Maggie.
No woman, no matter her intelligence, her beauty, even her stance on children, had provoked the breathlessness, the absolute awe, Maggie had. Kara told her it was because she hadn’t found the right one yet, or because Maggie was her first real love, but late at night, in her haunted bed, Alex knew. She knew. No woman ever would be able to fill the hole Maggie had left in her life. In her heart.
Maggie was it. Any other woman, any other relationship, would feel lesser, would feel like settling.
And to add insult to injury, she had to spend the night with her. It would be like sleeping with a ghost, if said ghost assumed corporeal form to haunt her with the one thing she most wanted and would never have.
This was going to be fun.
The key turned in the lock and Alex sat up in the bed, steeling herself. She met Maggie’s mischievous grin with a raised eyebrow, knowing no good came from that expression. “What?”
“I got you a t-shirt, a pair of sweats, boxers, and a toothbrush.”
“Uh huh.” Alex took the bag from her and dumped the contents on the bed. She held up the black t-shirt with a dull rainbow and a flying saucer. “1st Annual Area 51 Fun Run? They can’t stop all of us?” A dull red pair of sweats, with the words, “Let’s see them aliens” across the ass, completed the outfit.
“It could be worse. I could have gotten you the t-shirt that says Area 51 in green glitter. If you’ve added glitter to your wardrobe, then things really have changed. Besides, when the ‘Storm Area 51’ thing came to a screeching halt after everyone found out we had aliens living among us, the merchandise became cheap and plentiful.”
“Classy. You couldn’t find the ones that say Juicy instead?”
Maggie chortled, and Alex joined in with a laugh, and for a brief moment, it felt like old times.
“So are you going to take a shower or something?”
“It’s kinda early, don’t you think?”
“We could play Space Invaders or watch a movie.” A VCR, possibly more ancient than the video game, sat beneath a small, sad, cathode-ray-tube TV with a few dog-eared VHS boxes beside them.
“I didn’t say it was modern, just functional.”
“It’s a classic.”
“I’ve never even heard of Salute of the Jugger.”
“Now that, that’s an experience. Rutger Hauer, Joan Chen, and Vincent D'Onofrio at their best.”
Maggie always did have a thing for awful B-movies. “Is it better or worse than Cherry 2000?”
“You can find out.”
Alex looked between the TV and bed, the only logical place to watch the movie. Eighteen months ago, they would have already been curled up together, laughing and making fun of the absurd movie, a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of wine on the bedside. Alex would have given anything for that. “Maybe another time.”
The levity between them dissipated, replaced with a quiet tension. “Yeah, another time,” Maggie agreed in a subdued voice.
“We could go back to the bar and play some pool,” Alex suggested, suddenly needing to be away from close proximity to Maggie and a bed.
It turned out, the bar wasn’t any better. Bottles of beer, a pool table, and Maggie taking her time to line up a shot was like old times, too much like old times. An ache, a familiar nostalgia tinged with regret, wrapped around Alex and weighed her down.
After Alex flubbed a shot, Maggie gave her a quizzical look. “You okay there, Danvers?”
“Yeah. Just not on my game today.”
“Or maybe I’m just that good?” Maggie asked as she sank the 8-ball with a smirk.
“That’s definitely not it.” Alex leaned back against the pool table and surveyed the room. Nobody seemed to be giving them undue attention, but a couple of folks glanced away when her gaze swept by them.
“The community here is pretty small and close-knit.” Maggie sidled up to her and rested her hip against the table, close enough that Alex caught a whiff of her shampoo. It would have been a small thing to wrap an arm around her waist and pull her close, nuzzle her neck… “Nothing nefarious in the people taking stock of you.”
“Curious to see your, what was it your friend said, ‘new woman’?”
Maggie’s laugh was low under the click of utensils and the drone of conversation. “I don’t know where she got that.”
“You’ve brought women here before.” It wasn’t a question.
Maggie shrugged, her hair falling forward to hide her face. “A date or two.”
Jealousy roared as Alex imagined Maggie with some blonde, sharing fries and a laugh, her eyes sparkling, not dull and guarded like they were now.
Maggie cast her a sideways glance. “Alex, it’s been almost a year. Are you saying you haven’t been dating?”
“Yeah, I mean, yeah, of course, I got asked out. Like you said, it’s been almost a year so of course I’ve been dating. A lot.”
“That’s good, you should be getting out there.” Maggie’s words of approval felt like a knife through Alex’s heart. Had she really expected Maggie to be jealous? Hoped, even? Alex dipped her head, trying to catch Maggie’s eyes, but Maggie was already moving away, digging in her pocket for change. “You want to play another game?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Maggie racked the balls and Alex signaled the waitress to order a double bourbon.
Two games and another double later, Maggie brushed by Alex to line up a shot. Alex caught her wrist and spun her so they were face-to-face. Emotion flashed on Maggie’s face, surprise, alarm, and just a hint of anticipation. Her eyes flitted to Alex’s lips for a timeless moment and her tongue darted out to moisten her own. “Maggie, I....” Alex caressed her skin, feeling Maggie’s pulse thunder under her fingertips, and Alex could feel the electricity crackling between them as their bodies drifted closer. “I… I’m really glad, I mean, it’s really good to see you. I’ve missed... having you… in my life.”
The ghost of a breath tickled her skin and Alex leaned in. Heat pooled in her stomach and her whole body throbbed and ached. But Maggie eased away, gentle in her rejection, always so gentle.
It only made the humiliation worse.
“Alex…” Maggie said quietly, pausing for a moment to study Alex’s expression before shaking her head sadly. “I’m glad you’re… doing okay. That we’re both okay. It’s just… I… all this...” Her fingers slid up and down the cue nervously. “I get it. I do.”
“Do you? Maggie, I…”
“I do. You and me, seeing each other, it’s going to feel like old times. Like…” Her throat bobbed as she swallowed whatever words she was going to say. “It’s going to feel like we’re still… friends.”
Friends. Alex could still hear the words, I’m here for you, but as a friend, and it felt like a really fucked-up funhouse full circle. A clumsy pass. Maggie trying to let her down easy. The only difference is Alex had nowhere to run except to their shared hotel room. Would she ever stop making a fool of herself when it came to Maggie?
She was still talking, and Alex quickly caught up with her words. “And maybe, someday, we can figure out a way to get back there again. To be friends again.”
“Yeah. Maybe. That, that would be nice.”
“It would.” Maggie’s smile was still gentle as she indicated the table. “We should finish this game. Mikki will be closing up soon.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay.”
Maggie leaned over to make her shot and caught her bottom lip between her teeth as she concentrated, and the habit Alex had once found adorable now felt like a stab in the heart.
Luckily, the game ended quickly. Maggie shouted a goodbye to Mikki and they trudged out into the day-glo green light, back to the room. Back to the bed.
“You want the first shower?” Maggie offered, and Alex accepted, grabbing the sweats from the bed and bolting into the small bathroom.
Alex stood under the stream of hot water and allowed herself a few moments to wallow. Not for the first time, she wished she had never met Maggie. Maybe if her first had been someone lesser, if the love had been tamer, maybe it wouldn’t still hurt so damn much.
Might as well conjure up a unicorn to ride a rainbow back to her bike while she was at it. At least that fantasy had more of a possibility of becoming real.
And Maggie, despite the occasional flashes of emotion, was being ridiculously hard to read. She didn’t seem to be suffering the same turmoil as Alex, and that made everything even more difficult.
Those questions plagued her. Was Maggie over her already? Had she already moved on? Had their relationship, their almost marriage, meant so little that it was so easily forgotten?
What was Alex to Maggie now?
Unanswerable except by the woman in the other room, Alex sighed and reached for the tiny bottle of shampoo on the ledge.
Steam bellowed out of the room when she stepped out, in the silly but comfortable sweats and t-shirt. Maggie glanced up from the news and a flash of… something lit her eyes for just a moment.
“Your turn.” Alex kept her voice light and tried to stick to the mundane. “I left you some hot water. I think.”
“Appreciate it, Danvers.” Maggie grabbed a bundle off the dresser. “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
The newscaster droned on about new funding and jobs coming to the Proving Grounds while Alex tried to figure out the best way to avoid any further embarrassment. Should she lie down and pretend to be asleep when Maggie came out? Or pretend to be playing something on her phone?
She staked out her side of the bed, deliberately picking the right side, opposite of where she used to sleep with Maggie. Maybe that would help. Make it less familiar, less reminiscent, less fraught.
But then Maggie stepped out of the bathroom in a long t-shirt and boxer shorts, her hair pulled up in a messy bun, exposing the sweep of her neck, and Alex’s heart lurched. What had she been thinking, letting this woman go?
Maggie appeared unaware of Alex’s gaze as she hung up her flannel and slung her jeans over the back of the chair. She let her hair down and fluffed it out and turned to the bed, only to pull up when she saw Alex sitting in the bed. Recovering quickly, she tilted her head to the side and gave Alex a quizzical smile. “That’s new, Danvers.”
Alex shrugged. “Like you said earlier, it’s been a while. Things change.”
“Yeah, I guess they do.” She snagged the remote and the bed springs creaked as she settled on the other side. Thumbing through a few channels, she settled on a baseball game, the players tiny on the small screen.
“The Aviators. Local minor league team. I go to games sometimes.” Maggie shrugged. “Keeps me out of the casinos.”
“What else do you do for fun?” Alex asked, bracing herself internally to hear about dancing or shows, anything that indicated Maggie was going out on dates.
“Not much. Splitting time between here and Vegas keeps me on the road a lot. My lease is up in a couple of months and I’ve been thinking about moving up here, even if I don’t buy a house immediately. If I do that, there’s a softball league organized by Mikki and some other folks I can join.”
“Let me guess, named after Venusians or something like that?”
Maggie smiled but didn’t deny it. “There for a while, Area 51 tourism was the only thing that brought a steady stream of money into the towns out here. That and the Air Force base. So of course they played it up.”
“Our new intergalactic neighbors help make up the shortfall in the local economy. It’s one of the reasons that, except for a few of the more prejudiced humans and this small group of aliens I’m keeping my eye on, the community is coming together pretty well.”
Clicking off the TV, Maggie pulled her legs up to her chest and rested her arms on them, her expression serious. “It could be a really good deal, for everyone in the community, but the process is early and frail. That’s why I’m worried about a few bad apples spoiling it. It wouldn’t take much to set something in motion that would blow everything up.”
“What about the military? I mean, I’m surprised you didn’t look to them to provide backup. They’re right here and there’s probably a lot of firepower at the base. More than enough to take down an alien uprising, if it came to that.”
Maggie sat quietly for a while, weighing what to say. “Yeah, there is. I just… the Air Force guys are pretty insular, and they’ve gotten even more so in the last few months. Staying on base more, not mingling with the community as much. And the few of the brass I’ve met, I just…” She sighed. “I just don’t trust them.”
“But you trust the DEO?”
“No. I mean, I don’t trust the DEO, exactly. But I trust J’onn, and... I trust you.”
“That’s something, I guess.”
Alex didn’t even try to keep the bitterness from her tone, and Maggie cast her a sideways look, not missing the implication, but ignoring the comment.
“It’s a pretty hairy situation,” Maggie admitted. “My leadership lets me do my own thing because they don’t really care all that much. I’ve heard at least one of them suggest it would be best if we just ‘let the rednecks and little green men’ kill each other.”
“Damn. Is that why you don’t have any backup?”
“Yeah, kinda. There’s a few officers who have expressed interest in helping, but I can’t tell if the interest is genuine or…” She paused, absently rubbing her fingers under her lips. It was one of her few tells, and Alex knew there was more she wasn’t saying.
“I dunno, something else. Voyeurism? Morbid fascination? A couple of them struck me as cowboys who wanted to be in the middle of a shootout if something went sideways.” She sighed again. “It’s easier if it’s just me right now.”
Just Maggie. Sitting on a powder keg, being targeted by a hostile alien group while her leadership seemed indifferent, if not actively negligent, to the situation. Alex didn’t like it one bit, but she tamped down the impulse to offer more help. That would only trigger Maggie’s stubborn side.
“Well, now you have me. Us, I mean. The DEO, you know, me, J’onn, Winn, and Kara,” Alex stuttered out, feeling a blush heat her cheeks. Well, she almost made it fifteen minutes without embarrassing herself.
“I appreciate it,” Maggie replied, the sincerity in her voice defusing the rising tension. Alex caught Maggie’s contemplative expression reflected in the dark TV screen, the fear she wouldn’t admit to evident in her eyes. “Thanks.”
Alex wanted to say more. Hell, she wanted to wrap Maggie in her arms and hug her until the darkness lifted, like she used to when Maggie’s demons got the best of her.
Once, that had been in her place. But now, Alex wasn’t sure she wasn’t numbered among those demons, or that any attempt to comfort would be misconstrued.
Or correctly construed, Alex admitted to herself. Her fingers itched to touch Maggie, to hold her hand, to play with the ends of her hair where it curled from the humidity of the shower. It was hard to keep from falling back into old habits.
At least they were talking, and Maggie was sharing more than she had all day. But before Alex could figure out a way to keep the conversation going, Maggie yawned and checked her phone. “We should probably get some sleep. The dispatcher promised to get the tow out early.”
“Yeah, I guess we should.”
Sliding down on the bed, Alex rolled to face the wall as Maggie clicked the light off. She punched the pillow a couple of times, trying to mold it into some kind of shape before giving up and flopping onto her back.
Faint light came from Maggie’s side of the bed as she read on her phone, some mystery or true-crime novel if her pattern held. It shut down her brain and allowed her to let go of the day, she said, but Alex had always teased her about the habit, wondering how reading about crime helped her unwind from her job as a crime investigator.
Alex could use something to unwind right about now. She was as far away as she could be in the bed, her leg skirting the edge, yet there were mere inches between them. Maggie’s heat was faint but discernible, and even though the air conditioner kept the room chilled, Alex burned.
Lights from the big rigs on the highway penetrated the edges where the curtains couldn’t cover and flowed across the ceiling at irregular intervals. Over the drone of the AC and the murmur of the TV in the next room, Alex heard engines rumble on the downshift.
She could hitch a ride, Alex thought idly, get away from this impossibly awkward situation. There was apparently some clown motel right beside a graveyard not far from where they were; that might be somewhat less terrifying than sleeping beside her ex-fiancée.
Like clockwork, Maggie’s phone darkened and she settled onto her side a few seconds before her breathing slowed and deepened.
Maggie had always been a good sleeper, able to sleep in the most uncomfortable circumstances. Once, when she got locked in the DEO with Alex during a false alarm, she had settled onto a concrete slab with her jacket curled under her head and taken a nap. Afterwards, she joked that it was still more comfortable than her aunt’s couch. Alex had been afraid to ask her to explain, afraid to probe into the circumstances of Maggie’s past.
Still, Alex marveled at her ability to sleep now.
More lights drifted across the ceiling, and Alex followed them with her eyes until they faded and died. They were too sporadic to lull her into a mindless stupor, so she tried to count backwards from a hundred. She got a few numbers in before her mind was dragged back to the woman at her side.
She wondered if she would ever stop feeling torn, between her love for this woman and her desire for a child. While she had ostensibly chosen her future family over Maggie, lying in the dark, she questioned whether a child, her child, would fill the gaping void left in Maggie’s absence. So many sleepless nights, and she still had no answer.
Some nights, she chastised herself for losing happiness at hand for an imagined future. Other nights, she saw a little girl opening Christmas presents and getting her first hit at T-ball.
The problem was, the girl’s pigtails were a deep mahogany, almost black, and the woman sitting beside her on the couch or bleachers was always, unmistakably Maggie.
She couldn’t imagine any future without Maggie.
Gathering the pillow under her head, Alex rolled onto her side, her usual side, facing Maggie. In the light of another passing truck, the blankets rose and fell in a comforting rhythm. It would be so simple to ease closer, slip her arm around Maggie’s waist, and sink into her curves. Reclaim her happiness, reclaim what she abandoned.
Not that it would be that easy. It never was.
Alex blinked, her eyes heavy, and let her mind wander into a familiar fantasy, the one she used most often to fall asleep. A beach, waves warm on her legs, and a dark-haired toddler laughing excitedly as Alex guided her in a circle on a surfboard. Nearby, Maggie watched, chuckling as a swell nearly pulled the board from Alex’s hands. The dream spiraled from there, from a family picnic on the beach to a post-beach shower, the images in her head moving in a decidedly non-PG direction. Heat pooled in her stomach, distracting her from the what-ifs and if-onlys swirling in her head.
Maggie shifted in her sleep, her shirt brushing Alex’s fingertips, and Alex pulled her hand back as if she’d been burned. Slowly, afraid a sudden move would wake Maggie, Alex rolled away to end up perched on the edge of the bed. Staring at the LED light on the bedside clock, she watched the minutes tick by, into the interminable night.
The clock rolled past midnight before Alex was finally able to sleep.
Her nose tickled. A stray strand of Maggie’s hair swayed in the slight breeze from the air conditioner and tickled her nose. Alex swept it aside and nuzzled closer, her arm tightening around Maggie’s waist.
She could just stay here, forever, as Maggie’s warmth lulled her back toward sleep. It felt so good to wake up wrapped around Maggie after…
Oh no. Oh no no no no no. She hadn’t…
But she had.
Alex froze, still comfortably ensconced in the covers, still comfortably wrapped up in a dream come true, still holding Maggie, but afraid to breathe for fear she would wake her. Her heart was pounding so hard, she was sure it would give her away.
She listened carefully, waiting for the telltale deep inhalation to tell her Maggie was sleeping. There it was, a long, low breath ending in a small snort, almost a snore. Winter nights, if Maggie got congested, she would snore and endure Alex’s gentle teasing about freight trains with grace, for about thirty seconds. It was all part of their competitions, the bets, the teasing, the gentle and not-so-gentle games of comeuppance.
Their relationship had always been one of challenge, but born out of deep trust and care. They hadn’t minced words or held back, not in love or work. Alex missed that most of all.
Maggie’s heat pulled to her, but Alex resisted the lure. She had to slowly, delicately, extricate herself before Maggie woke…
A phone buzzed, loud and insistent, and Alex felt her heart rate launch into the stratosphere. In her arms, Maggie started and stirred, rolling toward the bedside and fumbling for her phone. Her arm freed, Alex flung herself to the other side, nearly tumbling off the bed as she did so.
“Yeah? This is Sawyer.” Maggie’s morning voice, low and rough. “Yeah, okay. See you in thirty.”
The phone thudded back to the table and Maggie sank back into the pillow, her eyes already closed. She had done this often, back when they were together, turning her alarm off and falling back asleep without even realizing it. Alex often snuck out of bed and got the first shower to let her sleep. Sometimes, when she got out, Maggie would be up and waiting for her with a cup of coffee, but more often than not, Alex would find her still adorably curled in bed.
Of course, other mornings, Maggie woke early, and those were the days they were both late.
At least Alex got out of a compromising position and an uncomfortable explanation. But Maggie had said thirty minutes, and Alex suspected that being found in bed with her ex-fiancée was not something either of them wanted.
“Umm.” Maggie shifted but didn’t wake.
“Maggie, wake up.”
Alex was reaching to shake her when Maggie rolled over and slid her hand over Alex’s hip. Alex jumped, unable to stifle a surprised yelp.
That did it. Maggie bounced straight up in bed, her eyes wide as she realized where she was and who was with her. “What? Alex?” She took in the room, blinked and shook her head. “Oh, yeah. Damn.” She collapsed back to the bed. “Shit, Alex, I’m sorry.”
Alex gave a nervous laugh. “It’s okay.”
“No, seriously, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. You were disoriented and half asleep. It happens.” Like waking up and spooning your ex.
Sighing, Maggie scrubbed her face. “Something like that. I’m...”
“I get it. Old habits die hard.” Alex held up a hand to forestall any more apologies. “You told someone on the phone thirty minutes? So I assume we’re on the clock?”
“Thirty minutes? What?” Maggie shook the last of the cobwebs out, blinking as she concentrated. “Oh yeah, tow truck. It should be here soon.”
Maggie hopped out of bed, suddenly completely awake and all business. She grabbed her jeans from the night before and headed to the bathroom while Alex wrestled her way through the tangled mess of sheets and blankets.
Five minutes later, Maggie emerged, smelling of mint and her hair tamed into some kind of order, and indicated the bathroom. “All yours. I’ll go find us some coffee.”
Deciding against a shower, Alex cleaned up as best she could. She ditched her dusty shirt from the day before in favor of the Area 51 fun run t-shirt, pulling on her leather and zipping it up to hide the decal. The bag of spare clothes, she stuffed into Maggie’s backpack.
“You ready to go? Mikki’s making us a pot of coffee.”
The bite of the wind was surprisingly chilly but the sun was already topping the mountains in the distance and creeping across the parking lot. Her jacket felt good but it was going to be scorcher soon.
The to-go cups were old-school white styrofoam, and Alex took hers and wandered to the gift shop while Maggie exchanged town gossip with Mikki. She thought maybe she could get Kara a small souvenir, but she somehow doubted her alien sister would appreciate a three-eyed purple alien plushie, no matter how cute.
Alex was staring, half in amusement, half in horror, at a t-shirt with a UFO beaming a person up and the phrase, “Get in loser, we’re doing butt stuff” on it when Maggie sidled up behind her. “I told you there were worse t-shirts.”
“I guess I should be grateful.”
Maggie chuckled and indicated the grey shirt. “Scary thing is, I think that’s a best seller.”
“Of course it is.”
“Truck should be here in just a minute,” Maggie said as Alex wandered aimlessly in the shop. “I’ll have them drive us back to the diner where our bikes are so we can get on the road.”
A bellowing horn interrupted whatever Maggie was about to say, and she gave an apologetic smile. “I guess that’s our ride.”
The sun was too bright, and Alex wished she had picked up a pair of sunglasses at the gift shop. She was squeezed between Maggie and the truck door, and every bump pressed their bodies closer together. After the ‘episode’ in bed that morning, which was what Alex was calling it in her head, being this close to Maggie was pure torture. It didn’t help that the smell of her moisturizer seemed to have filled the cab, a olfactory affront to Alex’s senses, already attuned to everything Maggie.
In just a few minutes, she promised herself as they swung into the diner parking lot, she could hit the open road and leave this whole awkward situation behind.
Alex waited as Maggie checked, for the third time, that the operator had the correct directions to the SUV, even though she had pointed out the turn and mile marker as they had driven by. Finally, she relented and hopped out of the truck, kicking up a small puff of dust as she landed.
“Do you want to get breakfast before you go?” Maggie asked, tilting her head toward the diner.
Alex’s heart turned traitor and she nodded, abandoning her plan for a fast getaway.
Same booth, same lousy coffee, same oldies station on the radio, and Maggie sitting across from her once again. Alex couldn’t believe it had been less than twenty-four hours since her life had been upended.
The first few months after they broke up, Alex had expected to see Maggie every time she turned a corner, had expected to run into her at the bar or the post office or the grocery store that carried the vegan ice cream she liked. Not like Alex had deliberately driven fifteen minutes out of her way to go to that particular store on the day and time she knew Maggie liked to shop. Not like she had done that once a week for months.
It had taken time, but eventually Alex stopped looking, stopped expecting, and let the glimmer of hope fade and die.
And now? She got her wish, finally got to see Maggie again, and the longing and pain came roaring back, in equal amounts. The stolen moment from the morning, holding Maggie, made her arms feel emptier and her heart heavier than before.
Sleeping alone in her bed tonight was going to suck, and waking up was going to be even worse.
Maggie slopped up the last of her egg with a piece of toast before pushing her plate away. She slid back in her seat, meeting Alex’s eyes for the first time since they sat down. “Spit it out, Alex.”
“Huh? Spit what out?”
“Whatever you are trying really hard not to say. You’ve been giving me that hangdog look all morning.”
Fixing her gaze somewhere over Maggie’s shoulder, Alex toyed with her cup, afraid to open her mouth. All the things she hadn’t said yesterday crowded into her mouth and her heart thumped in her chest. I miss you. I love you. Take me back.
What came out was something else entirely. “I’m going to assign an agent to work the beat with you.”
Maggie bristled. “No. No, absolutely not. I don’t need a DEO babysitter—”
“—you can’t keep me from stationing someone—”
“—no. You would have to ask the LVMPD and I’ll make sure they deny any interagency—.”
“—the Air Force base is federal jurisdiction, not local,” Alex pointed out, right into the teeth of the stormy expression on Maggie’s face. “Maggie, you are out here all alone.” Alex sighed and softened her tone, skirting as close to her true reasons as she could. “I’m worried about you. Don’t say it’s not my place.”
“So I can’t care? Can’t worry about you taking on a militant alien—”
“—keep your voice down,” Maggie hissed, and Alex suddenly realized they were the center of attention in the diner. Even the waitress had looked up from her magazine to stare at them with unabashed curiosity.
Sliding out of the booth, Maggie threw a couple of bills on the table, picked up her hat, and headed out the door without another word.
Alex caught up with her at the shipping container. “Maggie....”
“I told you last night, you don’t get to show up and start dictating how I do my job.” The lock snapped open in her hands and she yanked the chain through the clasp, the screech of metal stabbing into Alex’s ears.
“No, Maggie, now isn’t the time for you to be stubborn. You need help. Next time, instead of slashing your tires, those guys could slash your throat.” Alex choked at the image that sprang into her mind, and she blinked back tears.
Her knuckles were white where Maggie gripped the chain. She swung to face Alex. “You think I don’t know that? I called you, I called the DEO because I had no choice. I have to trust someone but…”
Taking a moment, Maggie sucked in a deep breath and composed herself. “But I should have known you couldn’t handle it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, I knew if I called the DEO, you would get involved and bring personal feelings into it.”
“I need your head in the game, Alex, as an agent. As a professional.”
“You’re my ex, Maggie.”
“No. Not in this situation. I’m a detective who asked you here on a professional consultation.”
Alex blew out an exasperated breath “It must be nice to have it be that clear-cut. That may be easy for you, but it’s not for me.”
“Easy? You think this is easy?”
“It sure seems that way to me. I mean, you don’t seem affected by any of this at all and I don’t understand.”
Maggie sighed. “Don’t understand what?”
“How are you so okay?” Alex finally put voice to the frustration that had been vexing her for the last day.
“I told you, I had advance warning of you showing up.”
“No, I mean, seeing me is one thing. But aren’t you feeling anything? For me? For us?”
“Us?” Maggie’s voice was incredulous. “Us?”
“I, I thought maybe… you missed me? That this would be hard for you?”
“What, you want me to be upset? You want me to be broken? Would that make you feel better?”
“Maggie, no, I didn’t mean….”
“Yes, yes, you did. You expected me to be sitting around, heartbroken and pining, just waiting for you to show up and save me.”
“Not like that. But did I expect you to miss me? To miss what we had? Yes, I guess I did.”
“What did we have, Alex? What exactly did we have that you think I’d miss? The communication? Somehow I don’t look back on that so fondly, you know, with all the lying you did about how important kids were to you. Or maybe—”
“—you lied to me too.”
“About stuff in the past. You lied about our future.” The pain in Maggie’s voice echoed the pain in Alex’s chest, raw and unbridled after all this time. Maggie was finally showing the emotion Alex wanted, but she took no pleasure in the victory.
“You want to know what was hard for me? You want me to detail the pain I felt having the…” Maggie choked on the word she was trying to get out, and she shook her head. “I lost my family again. Do you want to know how it felt to open myself up like that and have you reject me?”
“You kicked me out, Alex. Just like my father.”
“The breakup was mutual.”
“Yeah, sure, Alex. Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
“What do you mean? We both agreed…”
“I agreed because I had no choice. You stopped listening, you stopped trying. You just gave up, on me, on us. I stopped fighting because I was tired of being the only one.”
Tears sprang to Alex’s eyes at the naked hurt on Maggie’s face; she wasn’t sure if she had ever seen that kind of anguish in the other woman before.
“I walked away and after a while, I pulled myself back together again because that’s what I do. I get kicked in the teeth, I get thrown out, and I find strength somewhere to get back up again. I survive. I move on.”
Maggie steadied herself with effort, blinking away the tears as she drew herself up. “I move on. We broke up and it sucked but I got up, brushed myself off, and went on with my life.” She exhaled and the tension eased in her shoulders. When she spoke, Maggie almost sounded calm. “I’m sorry you can’t do the same.”
She turned and disappeared into the storage unit, only to reappear backing Alex’s bike out. “I need to head to my apartment and you should get on the road. It’s starting to bake out there.”
“—don’t say you’re sorry, Alex. I don’t need to hear it. Just… be careful.”
Alex nodded, Somehow, the quiet, understanding tone in Maggie’s voice was worse than the yelling. “I will. You stay safe too.”
Maggie just nodded and disappeared into the shadows again.
Roaring out of the parking lot, Alex opened up the throttle and sped down the open road. Miles passed and the sun beat down on her back as she crossed through Death Valley. The fight ran, non-stop, through her head.
Alex had provoked the proverbial tiger. Even angry, Maggie usually kept tighter control, her emotions coming out in quiet sarcasm and exaggerated hand gestures. She rarely if ever yelled.
You stopped listening.
You gave up.
Alex couldn’t deny the truth of the words.
Finally, she pulled off the road, stopping behind an abandoned gas station across from an ancient hotel. Yanking her helmet off, she scrubbed at her face, her sweat mingling with the tears that had started a mile or so back. Fumbling with her jacket, Alex unzipped it and got her phone free. “Kara? I’m, ah, I, can you…”
“Alex? Are you okay? What happened?”
“I’m okay, I just, I need my sister.”
“Of course. Where are you?” Alex could tell from the wind noise that Kara was already airborne.
Alex looked around, spying a road sign in the distance. “Death Valley. Junction of 127 and 190.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
And she was. Kara dropped from the sky into her three-point hero stance, the ground shaking beneath Alex’s feet from the impact. She barely had time to stand before Alex launched herself into her arms, knowing her Kryptonian frame could withstand it.
“Alex, what’s wrong?”
The only answer were Alex’s tears and thick, choking sobs as she clung to her sister like a lifeline over an abyss. Carefully, Kara wrapped her arms around Alex and held her up while she cried herself out.
Finally, the storm subsided, and Alex wiped at her eyes, feeling grit from the road on her hands against her heated skin. From one of her magic pockets, Kara produced a packet of tissues, and Alex scrubbed the last of the tears away.
Kara brushed Alex’s hair back to meet her eyes. “What happened?”
“Maggie.” It sounded pathetic, said aloud. How many times, both before and after their relationship, had Kara had to hold her while she cried about Maggie? Alex was willing to bet this wouldn’t be the last time either.
“Maggie? Your Maggie?”
Alex grimaced at the flash of pain that lanced through her. No, not her Maggie. Definitely not hers.
Kara must have noticed because she swiftly backtracked. “I mean, your ex, Maggie? What happened?” she asked again. “Did she call while you were…”
“She was there.” Alex sucked in a breath to stave off more tears. “She works for the Vegas police department now.”
“WHAT! You didn’t tell me on the voicemail you left last night. Did she lure you—”
“—no, no, nothing like that.” Even in the middle of a breakdown about her ex, Alex wouldn’t allow Kara to slander her. “There was a consultation request, you know we get them all the time.” Kara nodded. “I volunteered to go. It was close. I figured I would get a nice ride in, do the consult, and then spend a night in Vegas on the government dime.”
“But…” Kara prodded gently, her voice almost drowned out by an 18-wheeler roaring by on the road.
“But it was Maggie. And aliens slashed our tires and we got stranded and had to spend the night at a hotel together…”
“You had to spend the night together? Did… did something happen?” Kara asked cautiously, as if afraid of the answer.
“No. Not really.” Alex leaned back against her motorcycle and toyed with the zipper on her jacket.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means that I had to sleep in the same bed with the woman I…” Alex clamped her mouth shut on the word.
“The woman you…?”
“I love, okay? I still love her. And I woke up holding her—”
“—OH!” Kara’s eyes went wide as saucers.
“It was an accident but… it was Maggie and she felt so good and she’s still…” Alex couldn’t go on, hearing how pitiful she sounded. How many times would she be humiliated by her feelings for Maggie?
“She’s still what?”
“She’s still so beautiful. Just, seeing her again, I… I still miss her. I didn’t realize how much until I saw her again.” Alex sighed. “It’s been months but I can’t get over her.”
“Well, you broke up for reasons that really didn’t have to do with how you felt about her. So it makes sense, in a way, that seeing her again would bring back those feelings.”
“Tell that to Maggie.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Apparently, I’m easy to get over.”
“I doubt she’s…”
“She told me! She’s moved on. She said she got back up and moved on, like, like… I wasn’t important. Like I was just another one of her exes.”
“I doubt that.”
“I don’t know. I just… don’t know.” Alex slumped over, exhaustion overtaking her. “I don’t know what I’m feeling right now. Except pathetic.”
“I know.” Kara’s voice was surprisingly understanding, given how much she had pushed Alex to move on from her broken relationship. “Look, why don’t I fly you home? You can take a shower while I bring your bike back and pick up some ice cream. We’ll hang out and watch sad movies or something. Okay?”
A pity party, but it sounded amazingly good right about now. Sometimes her sister knew exactly what she needed. Alex nodded. “Thanks, Kara.”
“What are sisters for?” Kara’s smile beamed, and it brightened Alex’s mood a tiny bit. “I just have one question.”
“What are you wearing?”
Alex glanced down at the shirt Maggie bought for her. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you over ice cream.”
“Deal.” Kara grabbed Alex under the arms and took off. As they were climbing, Alex caught a glimpse of salt flats off in the distance. As much as she hoped she could say goodbye to that small patch of land that already seemed synonymous with Maggie, she knew, deep in heart, she would be back.
Now that she knew where Maggie was, she wouldn’t be able to stay away.