Like Pieces of a Puzzle
by Sandrine Shaw
There's a restlessness buzzing under Michael's skin like a tattoo artist's needle.
For so long, freedom used to be a mere concept, a desired state that he's made and discarded and remade so many plans to achieve. But now he's got there, he doesn't quite know what to do with it, unable to fully trust it. He keeps expecting the other shoe to drop – an anonymous caller threatening Sara or Linc, a hired assassin at his doorstep, an ominous message from the company: Did you really think you'd ever get rid of us? Did you actually believe you're free?
He doesn't want it to happen – who in their right mind ever would? – but if it did, at least he could do something. Come up with a plan how to fight the new threat, work out contingencies and fail-safes, focus on all the little details that could decide life over death. That's what he does. It's what he's good at.
"Michael?" Sara waves with the take-out fliers in her hands, amused rather than impatient at his lack of response. "Come on, you have to have a preference."
Pizza or Indian. Why are mundane decisions so much harder than the ones that actually matter? How is he supposed to shake off the crippling uneasiness when he can't even make a choice about what to have for dinner tonight?
Michael forces a smile. "It doesn't matter. You decide."
He doesn't miss the flash of worry on Sara's face, the moment of uncomfortable stillness before she shrugs and smiles back with a casualness he knows is fake. "Alright, pizza it is."
It's just past midnight when the doorbell rings.
Michael motions for Sara to stay in the bedroom, grabbing the gun from the drawer and clicking the safety off. The rush of adrenaline through his veins is so familiar it's almost comforting. He lets his hand rest on the handle for a long moment before he pulls open the door.
He doesn't know what exactly he expects, but it's not Alex Mahone on his porch, leaning against the brick wall of the entrance. His stance displays a well-practiced casualness Michael can tell is fake from the tense line of his shoulders and the way his smile is a little too sharp.
"Hello, Michael. It's been a while."
Just like that, Michael is thrown back into the past. He lets himself be distracted by the familiar smoothness of Alex's voice and the amused undertone for a second or two before his attention snaps to where Alex's left arm is wrapped around his midriff, hand hidden beneath his jacket. He thinks he can see Alex's shoulders become a little tighter in response, but when Michael looks back up to his face, the smile has turned wry.
"Alex." Michael keeps his voice neutral and the greeting casual, like it's nothing out of the ordinary to find his old nemesis-turned-ally on his doorstep, like his heart isn't beating up a storm underneath his ribcage.
He opens the door wider and steps aside in wordless invitation. Their eyes meet, and as the moment stretches, Michael's heartbeat speeds up a little more.
Alex is the one to look away first, turning his head in a way that makes the porch light illuminate his profile: new lines on his face, shadows under his eyes that betray his tiredness. He pushes himself away from the wall and walks in, his shoulder brushing against Michael's as he passes him. Michael can't help noticing how carefully he's moving, favoring his right side.
Once the door falls shut, Alex visibly relaxes, but it doesn't last when Sara steps through the doorway of the living room. She's thrown on one of Michael's shirts, her feet bare and her arms crossed over her chest.
"Alex. What are you doing here? I assume this isn't a social call."
His eyes flicker from Sara to Michael. Michael thinks he can see the impulse to run flare up, just like he can pinpoint the moment when Alex swallows it down.
"I need your help," he says, words dragging like they physically pain him. He pulls his hand free from under his jacket. It doesn't surprise Michael when it comes away coated crimson, even if the dark stain on Alex's shirt is larger than he expected it to be, certainly larger than he had hoped for.
"How —" Sara gasps.
She's been a doctor long enough that Michael knows that the panic on her face has nothing to do with Alex's injury.
Alex knows it too. "Don't worry. It's not the Company. Nothing like that," he assures her, and Sara's dread seems to give way to sharp curiosity, even if Michael can tell that the wariness doesn't quite ebb away.
Alex lets Sara lead him into the living room, flopping down on the chair she offers him. Michael follows behind, hesitant.
"After things settled down, the CIA approached me. Turns out my skills are valuable enough for them to overlook the more... colorful parts of my resume." He chuckles without humor, shaking his head. "Who am I kidding? The colorful bits are probably why they hired me. I've been on an assignment. Took me months to get an in, had it all worked out, and suddenly my cover's blown. I know I didn't give myself away, so there must have been a mole."
He rubs his forehead, grimacing when he remembers too late that his hand is covered in blood. He uses his sleeve to wipe his face, but only succeeds in messing it up further.
"I didn't know where else to go. Who else to trust," he says, and the implication of the words distracts Michael from the blood and the adrenaline rush of danger for a moment. They have a long, messy history, Alex and he, and sure, they've had to rely on each other more than once to make it out of a tricky situation alive. But there's a difference between that kind of alliance of necessity and this free, unasked-for affirmation of trust Alex is offering now.
If Sara's at all shaken by Alex's implicit admission, she doesn't let on. Her voice still has an edge to it when she asks, "Does that mean we can expect your fellow agents at our doorstep soon?"
Alex averts his gaze. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have — I'll get out of your hair." He's moving as if to stand up, sluggish and with some difficulty.
Michael is about to protest, but Sara gets there first. With her hand on his shoulder, she pushes Alex back into the chair before he can even make it to his feet.
"Don't be stupid. You know that wasn't what I was saying."
She's adopted that no-nonsense doctor's attitude Michael remembers from Fox River, enough authority in her voice that Alex doesn't bother to argue or fight her when she pulls his shirt out of the way to look at his wound. It looks messy, blood smeared all over his stomach like a horrifying abstract painting. Alex winces when Sara gently puts her palm against it. "You need to lie down so I can get a good look and clean the wound," she tells him.
"Michael?" She turns to him. "Get me the first aid kit and a few towels."
He nods, but doesn't move, watching Alex stand on shaky legs and make his way to the couch, his blood dripping down on the floorboards. Michael's always been able to count on his ability to keep a clear head under pressure – he doesn't freeze up like this. So why won't his feet obey him now?
He snaps out of it when he feels Sara's hand against his arm. Her smile is grim, but the warmth in her gaze makes him want to reach out and cling to her.
"He's going to be okay," she says quietly, cutting through the fear clouding his mind with a surgeon's precision.
Michael nods jerkily, and Sara lets her fingers trail down his arm and gives his wrist a comforting squeeze. "Don't worry. I got this."
After Sara's cleaned Alex's wound and patched him up, she disappears into the bathroom to wash off the blood.
Michael hands Alex a glass of water. "I'd offer you painkillers, but..."
The sound Alex makes could almost be laughter. "Yeah, maybe not."
He reaches for the water, though, his fingers brushing Michael's when he takes the glass. He downs it all at once, and Michael can't look away from his throat working, Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows.
"You should get some rest."
The noncommittal hum Alex gives him in response raises alarm bells. "Alex."
Alex raises an eyebrow and turns to him. "What is it, Michael?"
Suddenly that frighteningly intent, hawk-eyed focus is fixed on Michael, and it's only now, feeling the full weight of Alex's attention, that he realizes how much he missed it before.
"Will you still be here in the morning?" He makes it a question because he knows Alex would balk at an order or even just advice. The mocking curl of Alex's lips makes him aware of how his words sound, and he huffs out a small chuckle. "Don't. I'm serious."
There's a long moment when Alex just looks at him, like he's gauging Michael's intentions.
Michael forces himself not to shift under Alex's stare, not to hide himself away, because he knows Alex is bound to jump on any reason to question that trust he placed in him.
"Every minute I'm staying here, I'm putting you and Sara in danger."
Michael knows better than to contradict him or deny the possibility that Alex's presence puts a target on all their backs. "We can handle it."
He calmly holds Alex's gaze and tells himself it shouldn't feel like victory when Alex is the one who averts his eyes first. But, well. Old habits.
In Sona, Alex was always in Michael's space. Always pushing, pushing, pushing, until something had to give.
Michael remembers feeling cornered, the weight of Alex's gaze heavy on him and the harsh, heat-soaked wall of his cell scraping against his back. He remembers Alex standing so close that Michael could smell his sweat and feel his breath fanning against his neck, so close that all he had to do was angle his head a little to the left and the distance between them would melt into nothing.
He needed to get out of his head for a while and Alex needed to cling to something to get through the withdrawal, and it was just the kind of distraction that served them both. Skin on skin, kisses that felt like blows, and rough touches that left bruises in their wake. Alex's callused, shaking hands were like brands against Michael's skin, and the hunger in his eyes would have scared Michael if his fear hadn't been all used up already.
It was calculated, like everything Michael did – or at least he convinced himself that's what it was. Part of some greater plan to keep Alex off his back, keep him sane, keep him on a leash.
Sona was like an endless fever nightmare that dulled Michael's sharp mind. Maybe, if he'd been able to think clearly, he would have stopped to wonder how his own need played into that thing between him and Alex, would have realized that reducing it to manipulation didn't negate the churn of desire, would have remembered that he'd never been good with casual sex.
By the time they were out, Alex was already under Michael's skin, like a persistent thorn he couldn't pull out without hurting himself even worse. And he didn't realize it, not until he heard Alex's voice on the other end of the phone, calling from a prison cell, telling Michael to leave him behind. He meant to do it, he really did. Except he couldn't.
Sara had taken one look at Michael and he knew she'd put it all together.
She never said anything. Neither of them did. They saved Alex and they brought down the Company together and then they went their separate ways, and none of that should matter because the past is the past and they're different people now. Michael has his life with Sara and his freedom, everything he wanted.
But that thorn is still buried deep under his skin.
Sara finds him in the bathroom, standing under the spray of the shower with lukewarm water raining down him, his arms braced against the wall and his head bowed. His mind is thousands of miles away, back in the dusty heat of Sona, but all it takes is Sara gently putting one of her hands between his shoulder blades and he's back in their safe suburban home with its picket fence and the clean wooden floors and Alex Mahone sleeping on the cozy couch of their living room.
Shedding her ruined clothes, Sara steps into the shower cubicle behind him, her arms coming up around him. She presses a kiss to his shoulder and rests her forehead against his neck.
"Are you okay?" she asks, lips brushing against his skin, the words so quiet that he clearly hears them but could still pretend that the sound of the running water drowned out her voice.
He inhales deeply until his lungs are burning and turns around in Sara's embrace. She has given him a million outs since Fox River and he hasn't taken one yet. He's not gonna start now.
"I'm glad he came to us. I know I shouldn't — I shouldn't be happy he's here, but ..."
He frowns. Just because no-one is actually saying it doesn't mean it's not true. "We fought so hard to be free from all of it. Leave the past behind and move on."
It's a brittle little smile that Sara turns on him, and he knows the past still has its claws in her, too. "We don't have to leave everything behind, Michael. Only the bad parts." She puts her hand against his cheek. "You didn't leave me behind, did you?"
"Is it really?" Sara pushes, eyebrows raised. Wet hair frames her face, bringing out the challenge in her expression all the more for it.
That's the question, isn't it? The one he's been avoiding since they got Alex out of that courtroom. Michael swallows and looks away, watching the water run down the milky glass of the shower door. He doesn't notice that he's biting his lip until Sara's finger brushes against it. She turns his head back to face her.
"Hey, it's fine. I'm not trying to put you on the spot. I'm just saying... you've been through hell. We all have. I know you and Alex have a connection, and I'd never ask you to give that up. Even if it means I have to share you."
It's overwhelming sometimes, how well Sara understands him. How much she cares. How much she's willing to give, even after losing so much. Michael closes his eyes and lets his forehead rest against hers. The water pouring down on his back is getting cold, but he barely notices the chill.
"I love you," he says quietly.
"I know. And I love you." She steals a brief, not-quite-chaste kiss from his lips. "Nothing about that's going to change."
The certainty and conviction in her voice shames him. He clings to her, as if trying to soak up some of that assuredness through the touch of her skin against his, just enough to chase away all the self-doubts and the guilt that keep him awake at night.
He doesn't get much sleep. He didn't expect to.
He lies awake, curved around Sara's sleeping form, and listens out for sounds from downstairs. It's less the crack of the door being kicked in or the shattering of window glass that worries him and more the soft padding of footsteps and the click of the front door falling shut.
It doesn't come, not when the first digit on the clock shifts from three to four, nor when five creeps around and the first rays of sunlight peek through the window.
Michael finally gives up on sleep around six, carefully shifting out of bed so he doesn't disturb Sara. He feels drowsy and sluggish. All those sleepless nights at Fox River, when he was digging a way to freedom from lights out until the early morning, count a distant memory of his younger days. He's not thirty-one anymore, and his body keeps reminding him.
That Alex is already awake and alert is hardly a surprise. Finding him still here, drinking a coffee in the kitchen while using Michael's laptop, is. It's a startlingly unexpected image of domesticity. Unexpected, but not unwanted. Far from it. It's only when Michael feels the tight knot in his stomach loosen that he realizes how certain he was that Alex had sneaked out in the dark of night, not to be seen or heard from again for another half-dozen years, if Michael's lucky, or perhaps ever.
You stayed, he almost says, but there's no point in stating the obvious, and Alex isn't going to explain his choice unless he wants to.
Instead, Michael silently pours himself some of the coffee Alex made. It's bitter and almost too strong, hitting Michael right between the eyes and driving his sleepiness away like a bullet train. Alex gives him a wry, amused look at the grimace he pulls.
He sets the cup down. "How are you feeling?"
"Like someone put a bullet in my side and I had it dug out without anesthesia," Alex deadpans, the dry, matter-of-fact tone belied by the minuscule twitch of his mouth that Michael would have missed if he didn't know what to look for.
Michael smiles. "Fair enough."
He expects Alex to go back to whatever he was working on, but he doesn't, every ounce of his attention focused on Michael, his eyes mapping Michael's body like he's cataloguing all the changes, all the details, new and old. His gaze shifts from his face downwards, lingering on Michael's arms.
"Do you miss it?"
Alex doesn't specify the question, but the way he's scrutinizing Michael's bare skin, it doesn't take a psychic to realize what he means.
It's far from the first time Michael's been asked this. He's heard the same question from reporters back when he was still a headline, from friends – even from Linc once, when he had a few beers too many. His answer had always been the same: No, he doesn't miss the tattoo. It was always just a means to an end, a necessary part of his plan, and afterwards all that remained was a memento of an episode in his life he'd rather forget. And it's true, but it's also not, and even though a part of him wants to give Alex the same worn-out half-truth, he can't. The honesty between them has been too hard-fought to abandon it now, after everything.
"Sometimes," he admits.
Sometimes he catches a glimpse of the bare skin on his arm or his stomach and it feels like he's looking at someone else's body. The disconnect is startling, and every so often, the only thing that truly makes it go away is Sara's touch. Her hands against the empty skin of his torso, gentle and sure, grounding him.
His mind flashes back to Sona, Alex tracing the lines and curves with his fingertips and his tongue, and the question is out before he thinks about it. "Do you?"
"No." Alex's answer comes so fast that Michael doesn't quite believe it, and his doubts must show on his face because Alex levels a lopsided smile at him. "It was a masterpiece. But what truly fascinated me wasn't the tattoo, it was the mind that came up with it. That's the real puzzle I wanted to solve."
"And did you?" Michael teases. "Solve the puzzle?"
Truth is, he doesn't think he's that much of a mystery. His plans might have been, but Alex worked them out frighteningly fast, and beyond that, Michael doesn't believe there's much worth solving.
Alex laughs, and his eyes lock with Michael's. He reaches out and lets his finger trail along Michael's hairline down to his temples with a slow, pointed intent that reminds Michael of the day when Alex pushed him against the wall of his cell and traced his outline like a halo against the dirty bricks. Except this time, there are no walls caging him in. This time, Alex is touching him.
"Not even close," Alex mutters as he leans in and kisses Michael.
Sara doesn't join them until after they're decent again and the only traces that they weren't, a few minutes ago, are Alex's ruffled, unruly hair and the marks he sucked into Michael's neck that his shirt doesn't cover. Michael wonders briefly if Sara's timing is a lucky coincidence or calculated effort on her part.
She fixes Alex with a stern look. "You'd better not have pulled your stitches."
That answers his question, Michael supposes. He tensely watches as Alex turns a thin smile at Sara.
"I wouldn't ruin all your hard work," he says, stepping up to her and putting his hands on her shoulders. Michael's stomach gives a funny little flip when Alex leans in and presses a soft kiss to Sara's forehead. "Thank you."
Something about the weight of the words makes Michael think Alex isn't just thanking her for patching him up, and he wishes he'd been privy to whatever conversation they had last night when he wasn't in the room. It should bother him, maybe, that they clearly talked about him in his absence, but instead, his heart swells with gratitude and love for them, knowing how much this kind of compromise, this kind of understanding must have cost them. Both of them.
And he wants to keep it, wants to cling to it as long as he can.
"Can you stay?" he asks Alex, and unlike last night, it's not just worry about Alex's safety that drives the question. Unlike last night, it's openly selfish. Unlike last night, there's no time limit attached. He trusts Alex to hear the distinction and know that what Michael's asking isn't just can you stay? but also do you want to?.
Alex's eyes flit from him to Sara and back. "I have to find the mole first," he says. It's not a no.
"We can help."
It's Sara who makes the offer before Michael can. His head snaps around to her. "You don't have to —" he begins, but she cuts him off.
"Don't pretend you haven't been going stir-crazy without some plan to put your energy into, Michael." Her smile is wry and knowing. "It's not like we haven't been waiting for the other shoe to drop for years. And honestly, I'd rather it's this kind of puzzle than the Company rising from its ashes to hunt us down."
She's right. Of course she's right. And Michael feels it already, that old, familiar hyper-focus tugging at his mind, laying out the next point of action, and the one after that, plotting contingencies and exit strategies, twist and turn after twist and turn. From the other side of the kitchen counter, Alex and Sara are watching him with twin amused, indulgent looks, and Michael realizes that for once they're already way ahead of him and only waiting for him to catch up.
"Alright," he says. "Let's do this."