Hideous really, the cries boys make when they're dying. Just hideous.

- 1 -

The first time Ian showers after coming home is in the middle of May, well past midnight. The house is so startling quiet that he can hear everything, and nothing at the same time, like his ears are clogged with static white noise. When he showers that first time, he keeps his head down and watches dirt and caked blood break apart and disappear down the drain. He scrubs until his skin is red and aching. Months old grime slowly comes undone and leaves his body and he stays in the shower for a long time. The water has gone cold by the time he shuts it off, and he's shivering, but he doesn't notice it because he's been shivering for years now.

The first man Ian kills didn't have a gun, but he was running toward Ian's unit and a lot of people have been tucking bombs under their shirts, blowing strangers apart and everybody was on edge. Nobody wanted anybody foreign too close to them; nobody trusted the unknown. Up until then, all these people, the enemies, had been figments of his imagination. They hadn't been real, they hadn't existed. They didn't have families, they didn't have jobs, they weren't needed for anything, they didn't matter because they weren't real. And when he shouted at the man to stay the fuck back, the man had ignored him, and Ian had fumbled to repeat that exact phrase, except this time in a language closer to the one that the man might recognize, emphasis on the FUCK, but the man still hadn't stopped. And when he shot, the bullet had gone all the way through his neck, and his blood had sprayed out of him. At first it had come out in one giant puff, like a smoke cloud, only red. And then it came out jutting, like a water sprinkler and the man hit the ground so hard, he kicked up so much dirt, Ian couldn't see his blood anymore. Not in front of his face at least, but every time he closed his eyes, he saw it again.

The first time Ian's unit is ambushed, Ian slipped in a pool of blood and hit the ground before he realized the man they'd position as their sentry had been killed. His neck had been cut so deep, his head was barely attached and Ian hadn't known it until he tried to get back to his feet and ended up groping the poor son of a bitch's face. He had gotten sick after that, kneeling in this dead man's blood, heaving up everything he had eaten that day until he was too sick an too dizzy to see straight, and then he had stuffed it back down and gotten back to his feet anyway.

In the movies, when they show you all the bad parts of war, it's always the famine and death. It's always the beds and beds full of sick and dying soldiers, who are losing limbs; who can't return to the fight because they have been irreparably damaged. But inside of the war zone, Ian learned that that isn't even close to the worse part, because he can handle sickness. He can handle pain so intense his entire body goes numb because even his instincts don't know what the fuck to do. It sucks, but he can handle all of that, and so they become almost normal, almost feels comforting even.

What he can't handle is the worst part of war. There is a feral brutality inside of man that comes out when people are inside of a war zone. People, fellow men he can remember knowing before deployment, so drunk on the fight, on the brutality, so intoxicated with it, that they'd gladly rip apart their own men because humanity ceases to matter; humanity ceases to exist; that's the part he hadn't expected to find. That's the part he can't handle because sometimes, it almost feels like he's gotten lost in the midst of all this chaotic disorder. Sometimes it feels as if he's lost himself amongst the cruelty, and that's what keeps him awake at night. It isn't the fear or the pain or the hunger, it's the lost sense of self.

He stays in the shower for a long time, almost as if he can find his sense of self there, but it isn't to be found. Not in the Gallagher house, because that's not where he lost it. He lost it on the field, while many men lost their lives. It was taken from him, shot out of him, only with different bullets.

- 2 -

The first time he cries after he returns home, he's down on the ball field, using first base to prop up his head, staring up at a sky full of already dead stars. The night is so silent he can hear the crickets, and the silence eats at him until he can't lay still, until he can't ignore it. It gets under his skin and unnerves and he cries because he can't handle that. Because that silence is more terrifying than the cries of men dying.

The first time he goes to Mickey, he walks in on somebody else going down on Mickey, and he quickly walks back out. Mickey doesn't follow him. Hours later, Mickey finds him on the baseball field, using the first base as a pillow again, and lays down beside him. He makes some muted comment about the heat and how it's pressing against them like a live thing. Ian makes a noncommittal grunt but he's sweating too. The heat is pressing against then like a live, writhing thing. He can hardly breathe; maybe it's tightening around his neck, like a noose; he can't tell.

"I'm not going to say I'm sorry," Mickey says after a moment of silence. Maybe the silence scares him too. Ian isn't sure. Mickey's hard to figure out, but Ian likes to think that he used to have him figured out, at one point. Like a fucking picture; maybe he didn't have the entire picture, not ever, but Ian likes to think that maybe he had more pieces of that broken picture than a lot of other people. "It sucks that you had to see that, but I'm not going to give you some bullshit apology. I'm not sorry."

"I'm not mad."

"Bullshit." Mickey isn't looking at Ian; he's looking up at all the death in the sky too. Ian can't look away from it. He wishes he could pinpoint the exact moment a dead star stops shining and ceases to exist, but there's so many dying stars in the sky already, it'd be too easy to miss.

"So you recognize what that sounds like too? Just not when it's coming out of your mouth." His fingers dig grooves into the ground beneath him because he doesn't know what to do with his hands, and if he doesn't do anything with them, they won't stop shaking.

Mickey looks at him now, and he wishes he could meet Mickey's gaze. "You want an apology?" Mickey asks and Ian doesn't say anything because he doesn't know. They were never faithful. Mickey got locked up in juvie a lot and it wasn't like Ian waited around for him, saving himself for Mickey. He fucked around too. Ian left Mickey three years ago, and he'd have to be stupid if he thought Mickey would wait for him like some fucking virgin.

"Do you want an apology?" Ian asks, turning his head to look at Mickey. He can't look at his eyes, so he looks everywhere else; he looks at Mickey's chin and his neck and then the dirt ground beneath him.

Mickey shakes his head, and Ian watches the gesture move his entire body. "Fuck off," he says, dismissive, angry. "Apologize for what? You're fucking you up, man, not me. Going off to get yourself killed somewhere, that doesn't have a fucking thing to do with me."

Ian shrugs because he thinks Mickey's lying, because everything has to do with Mickey - doesn't he see that? - but everything Mickey's ever said is a lie and it's getting hard to tell the difference. "I'm not sorry either, Mick," Ian says and turns his head back toward the stars. "I got out of Chicago."

"Is it better?" Mickey asks. "Death? Is it better than Chicago?"

"I don't know," Ian admits. "It's scary. Sometimes people are more terrified of being terrified than they are of death. At least with death, you don't have to look like such a pussy, right? You know how in school, there's always some guy who goes on about the stupidest shit? That's what the war is. Kids worried about how badly they're gonna piss their pants when they get shot. Those are the people we've got fighting for our freedom. Sometimes that's more scary than being in a war."

- 3 -

Ian thinks that he wanted to get into Westpoint, into the Army, into the Marines, into something so badly that the dream had consumed him. It became too bright, he didn't even notice when it started burning him.

Mickey doesn't say anything while Ian talks, and sometimes they did this, before. Ian would talk and Mickey would be quiet for it, because Ian had always been a talker. Mickey wasn't a talker and he had never really been a listener, but he likes listening to Ian so he didn't complain much. Mickey shifts beside Ian and then lays still for a minute, before lowering his hand and taking Ian's. He smoothes Ian's trembling fingers out in his hand and clenches his fingers so tightly around Ian's, they stay still.

"Sometimes it's worst," Ian says when he can talk again. "Sometimes they're drunk on power. You don't get to see a person until you put him in charge, until you put somebody else's life in his hands." Ian shakes his head.

"I thought you signed up to kill people," Mickey says when he's sure Ian isn't going to go on, when he feels Ian's fingers spasming inside of his hand before clutching back just as tightly. "What did you expect to happen? The army's like a camp for people who want to kill other people."

"I'm a marine."

"Same fucking thing," Mickey snaps back dismissively.

"It's really not."

"Shut the fuck up, Gallagher, we're having a discussion. You don't gotta ruin it by being so damn anal about everything."

Ian grins slightly, but they always grin when the word Anal is used. It immediately turns them into twelve year old boys again, just for a second. "I don't know what I expected," Ian says and Mickey watches as the grin wilts. "I thought maybe I could do something. Like, matter, you know? For once. I thought I would go and make a difference. I thought, I guess, it hadn't seemed… I didn't know what it would feel like - they don't teach you that, when you're going through the simulations. They don't tell you that blood actually looks different at different degrees, and how warm it feels, even after they're like… even after they die. It didn't seem real before. I didn't know blood has an odor. I didn't know that when you die, your body actually starts to split open after a couple of days. Your skin actually starts to slip off of your bones and -"

"If I wanted to be a goddamn coroner, I would have gotten a job at a morgue, Ian," Mickey interrupted, because he didn't really want to know any of that. "Look, once you kill somebody, they stay dead," he says, quite helpfully, but he doesn't know what else to say. He hadn't wanted Ian to go in the first place. "You can't make them undead. Shit, Gallagher, I took you to see War of the Worlds, didn't I? Weren't you paying attention? Didn't you learn anything? You didn't consider the lessons learned in that film at all before enlisting?"

"A possible alien invasion?" Ian asks slowly, meeting Mickey's eyes. "No. That was not one of my main concerns, no. This is why you shoved all those stupid war movies down my throat. To talk me out of it - you know you could've just used your words, like a big boy."

Mickey shrugs. "Never worked before. Besides, then I'd have to listen to another lecture about how trigonometry makes the world not sink or whatever."

"I'm not fucking me up," Ian says so abruptly, he nearly chops Mickey's sentence in half.

"What?"

"I'm not," Ian says firmly. "I'm not screwing me up. I can run a six minute mile, I can shoot a freckle with an M16 from -"

"Did you sleep last night?" Mickey interrupts, propping himself up on his elbows. He isn't staring back at Ian anymore. He isn't joking anymore, either."

Ian doesn't answer immediately because he knows the answer isn't going to be in his favor. "Did you?" he asks instead.

"Did you cry last night?" Mickey tries a different tactic because maybe insomnia really isn't the best way to prove his point, anyway. "Have you been eating? Do you have nightmares? Does the dark scare you? What do you see when you shut your eyes, Gallagher? How much do you fucking dread blinking? I don't give two shits how good you can shoot if you can't even eat without wanting to puke."

They lapse back into silence because Mickey shouldn't know any of that; he shouldn't be so right. Ian hasn't talked to him since he got back ,not before now. He stopped writing him a year after he was deployed because he couldn't think of anything to say. His head was full of words but they were all words that he knew he wasn't supposed to say out loud. Words that went on and on about how much he wanted to cry and how sick everything made him and maybe this had been a bad idea after all, except the sad part was that it really wasn't. He didn't regret it. It was just unfortunate. Everything was so goddamn unfortunate.

Mickey sits up so close to Ian that he doesn't notice he still has Ian's hand in his. "You know they have uh, therapists and shit for this?" Mickey says real low because the sentiment sounds stupid in his own head. He'd never go to a therapist and he has trouble seeing a Gallagher go. Nobody in the South Side would go to a therapist. His mother never did, and that was after all those times she tried to kill herself. Everybody had just collectively looked the other way because - well, what're you supposed to do?

Ian shakes his head and smiles but it isn't a happy smile. "I don't need a therapist," he says and his smile sticks to his face like aesthetic tape because it's the biggest lie he's ever said out loud.

"This is about your mom being crazy, huh?" Mickey asks tactlessly. He'd been in juvie the first two times Monica had blown back into town, and he'd been in juvie the first two times she'd left him too. But they weren't the only times. She continued to come back ,every year and a half. She was there for his graduation, drunk and incoherent and nearly naked. She had nearly outted him at the graduation party they'd had at the Alibi, but Lip had been there, shoving a shot into her hands and stringing together random words that only Monica seemed to follow. Monica had never seemed to need help either, according to Frank. Never needed a therapist or medication or a doctor. Mickey wondered if anyone had told Ian yet, that Monica had killed herself while he was gone. Did he get that letter? Or were they all hoping he'd never ask about it, when she never returned.

Ian shook his head. "No. I don't know. It's about how weird it feels to pay someone to listen to me talk about my feelings. Paying them to tell me how to go about behaving in a normal way? Do we even know what fucking constitutes as normal anymore? Have we ever been normal? I don't know if I want that. I just want things to go back to how they were, I guess, I don't know. The same fucked-up-ness that we had before, that's what I want. And a therapist won't be able to give me that, because he'll be too busy trying to make everybody normal."

Mickey turns Ian's hand over in his and stares down at it because he doesn't want to stare at Ian anymore. Ian's nails are dirty and bitten ragged and short. "When are you going back?"

"A month," Ian answers and the word comes out like a razor, cutting up his lips and slicing open his gums until he's swallowing so much blood, he feels like puking again.

Mickey doesn't say anything for a little bit because he's trying to think of what to do now. A month feels like forever, when you're locked up, in a cage, in a prison, but out here? Months are measured by minutes; they're nothing. It's not enough time. "Get up then," he says, dropping Ian's hand and getting to his feet. When Ian doesn't move, Mickey reaches down and pulls Ian to his feet, rough and hard but that's how Mickey's always been. He's a raw boy, his edges are jagged and sometimes they cut, but they never cut anyone as deeply as they cut Mickey. Mickey's never hurt anyone as much as he hurts himself, because Mickey's never hated anyone as much as he hates himself; Ian knows that now.