Mickey gets the call at around 6am, and he's still fucking awake from the night before, nursing a flat bottle of beer and waiting for Mandy to come home from her date. At first he thinks it might be Mandy and he answers by rote, "Where the fuck are you?"
A shuddering breath comes from the other line. "Hi."
"Oh." The sound escapes him before he can swallow it whole. "Shit, hey."
He's been deployed for almost two years now and Ian Gallagher's fucking voice still makes Mickey's heart seize up, and he fucking hates himself for the hopeful note of his voice when he says, "Are you coming home?"
An intercom announcement crackles through the phone and he can hear Ian's slow smile. "I'm home right now."
Mickey swears under his breath and Mandy chooses that exact moment to walk in the door, quiet and sneaky, her mascara smudged and her clothes rumpled. The walk of shame. Mickey waves at her, ignores her guilty look, and says, "Ian's home."
He should've known not to mention the love of Mandy's fucking life, because her eyes light up like a Christmas tree and her voice cracks when she mumbles, "Really?"
"Come pick me up." Ian's voice is soft with something like affection and Mickey resists the urge to tell him to shut the fuck up. Two years.
"Yeah," he says, and pulls on his shoes.
Two years is a long time to be apart from someone, and Ian has filled out in ways that Mickey never thought possible, and his eyes are hardened with something that screams war, scars appearing where there weren't any before. Mickey is still pale and pasty and kind of short, and he bites the inside of his cheek when he sees Ian lumber towards him with one small suitcase trailing behind him.
"Hi." Wherever he was — Mickey never asked, never really wanted to imagine Ian getting blown up in a desert or a jungle or wherever the fuck — it must've been sunny, because his freckles stand out as prominently as ever. Mickey breathes out a sigh of desperate relief that at least that hasn't changed.
"What the fuck happened to you?" he says in lieu of saying hello. Ian grins at him, his smile still warm and familiar and genuine, and Mickey has to stop himself from doing something dumb like smiling back or, shit — hugging him.
Ian shrugs a little. "The army?"
And Mickey doesn't ask where he was, doesn't ask what he was doing when he was there, if he ever aimed his gun to miss, aimed his gun to kill, because there's still a look of fresh horrors in Ian's eyes, a whole new shade of green. "You should go away more often," he says instead.
Ian gives him a look that — okay, it's been two years, and Mickey can't really compare anything to Ian Gallagher, and it's been mostly drunken fucks with guys who talk too much or his own hand, biting onto his thumb to keep quiet, thinking about the last time when Ian slammed him against a wall and whispered that he was sorry he was leaving and he was sorry that he wouldn't be able to call and when it was over they stood there staring at each other, refusing to move even an inch closer.
Anyway, Mickey can't wait until they get home; they pull over behind the gas station and Ian bites his neck and rubs his cock and Mickey touches the scar marring the skin on Ian's back, making Ian hiss in a way that's more pain than pleasure, but he doesn't ask him to stop.
Mickey's dad is in the slammer again, and this time they say he might not get out, which leaves Mandy and Mickey alone in the too-small house; their brothers have long since scattered, drug trafficking or whatever the fuck it is they've decided to do.
Mandy can't stop talking. It's been long for her, too, and maybe somewhere in the back of her mind, Ian is still her first love and he's super important to her in a way he shouldn't be. Mickey grits his teeth in a way that makes the whole thing entirely too awkward, and she rambles on about this and that and her best friend who got knocked up over the summer and Mickey notices that she never mentions her boyfriend, not once.
Ian is polite, which Mickey can't understand. Growing up in a house like the Gallagher's didn't seem like it would instill much of a politeness policy, but he eats the overcooked pasta Mandy made in a fit of excitement and doesn't complain once, even looks like he's paying attention to her prattling, laughing and making comments here and there. Mickey watches him with a sick, rapt attention, hating the way his voice got a little deeper and the way his shirt fit him a little tighter.
It's a quarter to seven when Mandy inexplicably decides to stop talking, and she still doesn't mention her boyfriend even when she slips out and promises not to be home until late late. Ian washes the dish she dirtied without saying anything and Mickey hates him for changing too much but not at all. He's still kind of the same, but there's something else there, too, something that makes Mickey angry and worried.
Mickey lights a joint and passes it wordlessly to Ian, who looks like he hasn't smoked up in a million years. He coughs a little and Mickey feels a fresh wave of longing. "What, no weed in the army?"
Ian grins but doesn't answer. It's a taboo subject, he realizes, talking about the army, talking about the war or whatever it was — Mickey doesn't pay attention to the news. Ian is out there doing something dangerous and exciting and he comes back looking like he can't remember what real life is like, like he can't remember how to smoke or talk anymore.
Mickey presses a palm to Ian's shoulder in a stupid gesture of a feeling he can't give a name. Ian smiles a little, leans back against the wall with their shoulders touching and their thighs brushing together. "Have you heard from Lip?"
"No," says Mickey, which isn't a lie. He hears vague things from Mandy, who was always closer to the Gallagher's than he was (in a sense), about how Lip finally decided to go to college last year and hasn't been around much since. Fiona is still taking care of Liam, Carl, and Debbie a few blocks down. Everything's changed.
Ian twists towards him and, in some massive wave of estrogen, presses his face into Mickey's shoulder for just a heartbeat of time. Mickey hardly breathes, trying to remember the last time Ian was that affectionate; realizing that he can't, he panics a little more.
"I missed you so fucking much," says Ian, and there's something in his voice that Mickey pretends he doesn't hear.
"Fuck off," he says, which is close enough to what he really wants to say, and Ian smiles wide and big and kisses him hard, biting his lip, tasting stale cigarettes and beer, and when he pulls away he looks so different that Mickey could throw up.
Ian spends most of his time at Mickey's, although he goes home every couple days to check in on his siblings. Lip comes down, once, from upstate to see Ian before he gets deployed again, in two weeks' time. But most of the time, Ian is curled up on Mickey's couch or in Mickey's bed or cooking packaged ramen in his kitchen. Mickey doesn't think about him leaving, not really, not if he can help it.
They easily fall back into a routine pattern — Mickey is fervently glad that it hasn't changed much. Ian still fucks like the Energizer Bunny and still makes that ridiculous fucking face when he comes, Mickey's mouth on his cock and his hands on his thighs. The only thing that changes is the way Ian looks at him when they're both done, giving him side-glances full of guilt and premonition, ones that Mickey ignores deliberately and hopes they stop coming.
But they don't, and a week before Ian leaves, they're both panting and heaving for breath on the living room floor, and Ian gives him that fucking look and Mickey says, "Don't fucking leave," and he knows that he has to, that it's not a choice anymore.
Ian takes his hand and ignores the way it trembles with protest under his palm, laces his fingers into the spaces between Mickey's and doesn't say a word. There's a stinging like salt in Mickey's eyes and on his lips and he fucking hates Ian Gallagher and his fucking American patriot shit and the way he fucks like it's the last time, every time.
Mandy bakes Ian a cake that tastes a little too much like butter and not enough like flour, and the frosting is sloppy and a bit of a puke-green. She tells him she doesn't want him to leave again, puppy pout and all, and when she looks at Mickey from across the table, she finally tells Ian about her boyfriend.
And Mickey doesn't say anything but stares at Ian and stares right through him, stares at the space that he would no longer occupy in four days' time, and Mandy whispers low and sweet about Dave, who really, really likes her, and doesn't just wanna fingerbang her all the time.
Mickey hates feeling like this. Powerless and waiting for something that's inevitable. He hates knowing that Ian's going to be gone soon and fuck if they know when he'll be back. He imagines that Ian comes back in a couple years, and he's different every time he comes home, and the scars have started to wear him down and his eyes are dull with the reality of war but he still carries around the title of Officer like he's proud.
And maybe he is, maybe he's proud of everything he's done, and Mickey can't take that way from him, can't ruin it for him, even if Gallagher has ruined everything about Mickey.
Mandy stares at Mickey across the table and in the flash of ice-blue eyes, he knows that she knows, and for the first time, he hates her, too.
On his last night home, Ian insists that they go out to the abandoned lot down the street, the one they used to hide away in and fuck in the dark hours of the night when no one was around. It feels like a million years ago, now, and nostalgia tastes bitter on the inside of Mickey's cheek. On the way, they pass by where the Kash and Grab used to be, now occupied by a new 7-11 with an empty parking lot, and Mickey knows that if he doesn't walk a little faster, he's gonna end up vomiting on the pavement, because this is too much, feeling like the last time.
The streetlight just above the lot is still flickering and buzzing uncertainly when they arrive, and that hasn't changed a bit. Everything else has. The grass is a little overgrown here and there, but they sit among the tall weeds and don't say a word for a long time.
"How long?" Mickey asks, already too soon to be demanding an answer. In a flash he remembers dirty handprints and pressed fingertips against thin glass, and whispered words and harsh lighting. He bites his tongue and tastes blood.
Ian is staring up at the sky, but the city lights are so bright he can hardly see the stars anymore. "Dunno. However long they want me."
It's such a fucked-up, shitty answer, like he's a fucking pawn in their millions and millions of pawns, nothing more than something they grab when they want and throw away when they're done. He hates it, he hates them, almost as much as he hates Ian for falling victim to it.
Mickey doesn't ever cry, like a little pussy. He never has. But there's a particular pricking in his eyes right now and his heart weighs heavier than stone, sinking into the bottom of his stomach. "God, I fucking hate this."
Ian doesn't speak for a long moment. "I'll be back," he says, and it sounds like a trembling promise, even if he can't really make one.
"In what, two fuckin' years?"
The answer doesn't come.
Mickey swears once and moves a little closer, realizing that if there was ever a time to act like a faggot, it's now. He wraps both arms around Ian's shoulders and — fuck, he's hugging him, and he hates this, he hates everything, he hates the way Ian's feelings are always on his fucking face so that he knows he's going to cry, too, and he hates the way it feels when the clock ticks to midnight and Ian is leaving in six hours.
He hates that Ian came bursting into his life, giving color where there was monochrome, giving meaning when there was none, and then ripping that away from him every chance he got.
And Ian says, "I don't want to go," and for the first time Mickey hears him cry but doesn't dare fucking look.
The night is old when they walk back home, and their eyes are still sticky with the memory of the tears they didn't cry, and their lips are thin and stoic and Mickey thinks that if they talk, it'd ruin everything.
It starts to rain, the first storm of the season, and Ian fucks him in time to the thunder, slowly and rhythmically and bittersweet, and Mickey doesn't close his eyes once.
Ian complains the entire ride to the airport that he left a sock somewhere at Mickey's house, and he inexplicably hates having a mismatched sock, and maybe somewhere in between the mindless whining Mickey realizes that if he doesn't talk about something irrelevant, he's not going to be able to breathe properly.
The first lights of morning are edging along the horizon, hidden by skyscrapers from the city, the sky turning shades of pale blue and pink. The airport is almost completely empty, aside from several people sitting in the plastic chairs near the terminal, bundled up in too-heavy coats for the fall.
Mickey opens his mouth to say something but the words escape him; he's saved by a woman's nasally voice on the intercom, announcing that they were boarding, and Mickey's entire being just deflates.
Ian looks so fucking tired, so exhausted, and in his eyes is the shade of green that means he's thinking of the war, of wherever-the-fuck he's going where people are being killed. And he looks like he hates it. He carries around the title Officer like he's proud, but when he's home he's scared and when he's away he's terrified.
"Shit." This is the worst part, when two people who are horrible at words have to somehow find the right ones, an impossible task with a shitty outcome either way.
Ian gives him a smile that touches his lips but doesn't reach his eyes. "I'll be back." He repeats it like a mantra, like he's scared that it might not come true if he doesn't.
And Mickey swallows his own tongue, managing to nod a little, like it helps.
Ian shifts his weight to one side and clutches at Mickey's jacket desperately like it means something and maybe it does, so Mickey presses his palm to the small of his back, touches the scar that makes Ian wince with pain. And Ian whispers, into the hollow of his ear and the thin air, "I love you."
Mickey fucking hates him.
"Fuck you," he says in response, and Ian bites his lip and laughs stupid and weak and then he's walking away, leaving, leaving, leaving, like he's always fucking doing. He ruins Mickey's life every fucking day and he swears he doesn't love him back.
Two years was kind of the waiting period.
But the letters stop coming after one, and soon it's Lip at his doorstep blowing a ring of smoke in his face, saying something shitty like, "Mind if I come in?" but walking in anyway.
And it's Lip who says that he's sorry and says that Ian was stationed at some camp in some desert in Africa or wherever the fuck, and there was a bomb, and all that's left of Ian is his fuckin' title, Officer, and some engraved name on a memorial someplace Mickey's never heard of.
Mickey shrugs him off, says he's sorry right back, and Lip calls him an asshole and leaves without saying anything else, and Mandy's eyes are wide and looking straight at him, straight through him, and he looks at her like he's seeing her for the first time.
Ian's mismatched sock miraculously turns up in the laundry sometime a few days later, and Mickey doesn't cry at all, his back against the wall and his breath coming in short little gasps, and he sits there for hours hating each beat of his heart.