by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)
Xander had favoured his left leg all along his journey though the spaceship, but now that he had reached the commons he forced his gait to quicken and even out, disguising the limp as best he could. When a couple of men walking opposite him jolted his injured arm, he clenched his teeth and kept going, ignoring their demands for excuses. There was only one thing he was interested in right now, and that thing was sitting on a couch about three meters away. Nicholas hadn’t noticed him yet and that was just what he was banking on.
Annie spotted him before anyone else did. She frowned and raised her index finger toward him. Nicholas had just started to turn around to check what had attracted her attention when Xander reached them. The angle was perfect. Xander’s clumsy left hand landed right on Nicholas’ cheek with a slap that reverberated throughout the room. That, in combination with the pure shock and pain that registered on Nicholas’ face, filled Xander with dark satisfaction. The way Nicholas’ head snapped the other way didn’t hurt either.
The satisfaction stayed despite Annie’s manhandling his arm, grabbing it without any consideration for the cast around his wrist, and through the press of someone’s arms clutching at his sore ribs, pulling him back. Not even their shouts could distract him from the ferocious joy of watching a red hand print bloom across Nicholas’ otherwise livid face. As they dragged him away, Xander hoped that this mark would bruise.
It took a particularly painful shake jolting his arm to get him to finally turn his head and look away from Nicholas. Annie flinched when he glared at her and he wanted to grin at that but, before he could, whoever was behind him pulled again, straight on his fractured ribs this time.
“Shit—let go! Let go, you asshole!” Fighting against the grip quickly proved to make it worse, so Xander went limp, making the pain slightly more bearable.
Nicholas was finally back on his feet, hand cupping his cheek and trying to reassure Annie while ordering Xander’s aggressor to let go. Annie protested, but he silenced her. “It’ll be fine. I think Xander made his point.” The way he said it was cool and collected, like he was talking about a child throwing a tantrum. “You can let go, Peter.” Xander was almost grateful when the arms around him let go.
Xander decided it wasn’t worth the risk of having those arms come back, so he kept a wide berth from both Peter and Nicholas: Nicholas, whose eyes were still scanning him, catching on the split lip, the blackened eye that Xander still couldn’t open all the way, the cast peeking out of his sleeve. No doubt he had seen the way Xander’s breath caught in pain each time he inhaled. No doubt he had noticed the limp when Xander moved. “You look like shit,” Nicholas said.
That was as good an opening as any. “Yeah, I wanted to thank you about that. Here’s a message for you: next time I tell you to fuck off? Just. Fuck. Off!”
An outraged Annie stepped forward, putting herself between Xander and Nicholas as if to protect the later should the former attack again. He would like to see her try. “He was trying to help you!” she all but shouted in outrage.
“Yeah, well I didn’t need his particular brand of help!” Xander scoffed. How the woman felt entitled to a part in the conversation was beyond him. She hadn’t been there; she didn’t know shit about what had happened. Hell, even the actual spectators didn’t.
Nicholas put a hand on Annie’s shoulder and the look she turned on him made it clear that she believed he was made of gold, kittens, sunshine and rainbows—actually, Xander agreed wholeheartedly with the rainbow bit. It was revolting. Clearly, the poor girl really had no idea of who she was looking at. “Xander, that armour was smacking you around…” Nicholas said, no, clarified really, like he was explaining it to someone particularly slow or otherwise deluded.
“So, what? Everything was under control until you decided to put your nose in what was none of your business.”
The long-suffering sigh Nicholas managed was worth another smack of its own. “You don’t really believe that.”
“If that was the case then I wouldn’t be saying it.” Xander all but shouted. “He wasn’t hurting me, everything was fine.”
Nicholas looked at him with pity. “Do you even hear yourself talk? What’s next? ‘It’s not what you think officer, I just tripped down the stairs, is all’? Or will you go straight to, ‘it’s not his fault, I was asking for it’?”
This conversation wasn’t going in the direction Xander wanted at all. He wasn’t here to be made into an abuse victim—not that Nicholas would even care if he was. And he sure as hell hadn’t come to have simpletons like Annie look down on him with pity in their eyes. Maybe that was what Nicholas was after, turning him into a victim that needed saving. Nicholas was nothing if not very conscious of his image. “Forget it,” Xander spat, “and for the last fucking time, stay away from me.”
As he limped back towards the hallway, he heard Annie mumble angrily, “Forget him, obviously he deserves everything the Berserker can do to him.” He didn’t hear Nicholas’ answer, if he gave one.
They were wrong. The ‘Berserker’ hadn’t been trying to hurt him. Because the Berserker was just an armour and it was still the guy inside who called the shots. All the stories about armour users and their insane moods and infinite thirst for violence was bullshit. Tarim—when he was just Tarim and not Special-Unit-Tarim-Pumped-Full-of-Enhanc
Xander knew, without a doubt, that Tarim hadn’t been trying to hurt him. Then Nicholas had stuck himself in the middle of it all, and really, how dumb did you have to be to walk up to a giant metal combat suit, bark out “back off”, and expect to be obeyed? When had something like that ever worked? Never, was when.
All that Nicholas managed with that little stunt was pushing Tarim over the line that separates upset from pissed off. Then Nicholas—stupid oblivious, self-righteous Nicholas—had put his hand on Xander’s shoulder in that condescending manner of his. Tarim had gone straight from pissed to rage-blackout in a heartbeat after that.
Okay, so, maybe he was making Tarim out to be slightly more harmless than he really was. Tarim had already proved that he was dangerous. But Tarim was a really okay gay whenever he was out of his suit long enough to flush the T-protein out of his system. He was Xander’s best friend on the whole damn ship. Hell, he was his only friend and—well that was Nicholas’ fault, too.
When you got to the root of the matter, all the wrongs Xander had experienced since stepping foot on this ship three months ago had been directly or indirectly Nicholas’ fault one way or another. Being picked to play Grounder to Tarim’s Berserker? Nicholas’ doing. Being outed to the whole ship? Nicholas’ again. Being alienated by his whole platoon? Three guesses and the first two don’t count.
It was tiring to stay angry. Too tiring to keep up for much longer, truth be told. Xander knew that. He also knew that, when his anger faded and adrenaline dropped, he would be regretting his earlier stunt.
He started back for the room he shared with Tarim: Tarim, who had been ordered out of his armour by the Captain—or had it been the doctor? Xander had been a bit high on painkillers when Grant, the Captain’s attendant, had explained it all to him. Point was: Tarim physically couldn’t go out of their room without wearing the armour and, as it was, he was forbidden from wearing it until things got sorted. Ergo, Tarim would be in the room when Xander got there. Predicting what mood he would be in was an entirely different matter.
Tarim was laying on his bed when Xander pushed aside the heavy curtains that separated the door from the rest of the room. Those curtains were a safeguard against light. Whatever had been done to Tarim to make him Combat-suit material had fucked with his skin and made the poor guy allergic to white light. As a result, the room Tarim lived in was kept in a red-tinged darkness that barely permitted a normal person to make out the furniture. The same applied to the bathroom. Xander figured its not having been built for fifty persons just barely made up for always having to shave in the dark. Barely.
Tarim, however, was easy to spot because his skin was white, not pale or creamy, but white. So were his hair and the three pairs of shorts that comprised the entirety of his wardrobe. The lighting of the room made it all seem a bit pink though, and his eyes looked more reddish-brown than their actual red. Sometimes, Xander wondered if Tarim would look weirder in proper light, where all that whiteness would pop out even more and where his eyes would show properly.
Tarim’s eyes followed Xander’s journey across the room but, other than that, he made no other moves to acknowledge that he had registered Xander’s return.
The first thing Xander noticed was two beds—which had recently been pushed together— now standing apart. The silence was heavy, full of wanting for things Xander wasn’t sure he could deliver. He hadn’t seen or spoken to Tarim once during the three days he had spent in the infirmary. He had to remind himself that it wasn’t his fault. He had nothing to feel guilty of.
Xander raised a hand to gesture at his bed and at the gap that now separated it from Tarim’s, asking, “You redecorated?” Tarim didn’t answer, but did turn his head so that Xander was fully in his line of sight.
Xander was at a loss for what to do. Should he ask for the beds to be pushed back together? He couldn’t afford to mess this up. If he did, his stay in the dark room would become unbearable.
“I’m glad to be back; the bed was all right but I missed my own blankets. And they were all talking about me like I wasn’t right there. It was all getting a bit annoying near the end,” Xander babbled, trying to fill up the silence and bring back a bit of their usual normalcy. Maybe he should have started with hello? Tarim liked his rituals; usually Xander would have started with a hello. It was too late now wasn’t it? Dropping a greeting in the middle of a conversation was about as far from normal as it got, especially in a one-sided one. “I can’t wait to get this cast off. It itches like hell and I just barely got it, I can’t imagine it’s going to get better.”
Tarim’s face twitched. Was that good? Maybe the cast wasn’t the best topic of conversation. If Tarim felt any guilt about the injuries it wouldn’t do any good to rub his nose in it. On the other hand, ignoring what had happened wouldn’t make it go away.
Xander’s limbs were heavy and aching, the cast not only itching, but dragging his arm down, pulling on his shoulder and throwing him off balance. And Tarim wasn’t moving, wasn’t talking, wasn’t doing that thing where he opened his mouth to share a blunt, child-like truth that made things better. Right now Xander just didn’t know how to do this.
Well he could always try again the next day. After sleeping in a proper bed without people poking at him constantly. Xander walked to Tarim’s bed. He knew that pushing Tarim never went well, but that had never stopped him before, so he lay down on what little space wasn’t taken by Tarim himself and made himself as comfortable as possible. This finally prompted a reaction from Tarim, his breath hitching in surprise as he spurred himself into motion, moving back to give Xander more space all in one jerky movement. Xander moved closer to him, really able relax now that he wasn’t hanging off the edge of the bed, and let sleep claim him.
Xander woke with a hazy memory of dreaming Tarim’s arms around him only to find his favourite albino wasn’t actually in bed with him any longer. If the noises coming from the bathroom were any indication, he was taking a shower. Which meant it wasn’t 06:00 yet, as Xander really doubted that something so trivial as being out of commission would stop Tarim from his morning routine.
He watched sleepily as the numbers of the digital clock turned from 05:59 to 06:00, eyes snapping to the bathroom door as it opened and Tarim walked out, heading toward the bit of wall that hid his armour. Xander watched him put a hand on the pad that unlocked the door behind which held the insane machine that clothed him fully in black metal, allowing him to go outside. In the light.
Today, Tarim’s hand stopped a breath away from the pad. Xander had a feeling Tarim had, out of habit and maybe a bit of hope, done the same thing every morning since the incident. Had the Captain locked it somehow? Or was it solely Tarim’s obedience that was keeping him from the armour? Tarim’s hand fell to his side and he turned toward the bed as if to throw himself in it, stopping abruptly when he saw Xander. Something flickered in his expression, too faint and passing far too quickly for Xander to catch and decipher before Tarim was easing his features back in their usual blankness. Had it been annoyance? Shock?
Xander waved his good hand, faking cheer he wasn’t feeling. “Don’t stop for my sake,” he joked. Tarim stood still long enough to for it to be uncomfortable and then he deigned move closer. He sat on the farthest side of the bed and remained there, unmoving.
After that, Xander got up, showered and left. No more words were exchanged between them.
As Xander made his way through the ship, he noticed the fourth shift was still milling about, looking ready to go back to their quarters and enjoy some rest. Some of the first shift personnel were already walking toward the mess, some toward their assigned workplace.
To amuse himself on his walk to Grant’s office, Xander mused on this strange thing that was time on a spaceshift, where night and day was a matter of turning on a light. Of course the lights were kept constantly on in certain areas of the ship, which made them a place were time was stuck on the busiest hour. It made as much sense as Xander’s planet-bound idea that there was a time when things were supposed to slow down, when halls emptied and people kept to their rooms because they needed sleep, because the few hours before nigh-time were meant to be spent with— Well, no one really had loved ones to go back to on this ship.
Actually, Xander’s routine was a bit of an oddity on board, because he always went back to Tarim after his shifts. They would have dinner together inside their room, because Tarim couldn’t have dinner in the mess. After they ate, they would spend time together doing meaningless things before finally going to bed. Sometimes they would vary that up by fucking. Basically, they behaved like an old married couple. Xander planned to share this discovery with Tarim as soon as he got back, when Tarim decided to start talking again they could laugh together about it.
Xander was distracted when he reached Grant’s office, which was why he didn’t immediately register the man standing behind Grant’s desk. “Well, if it isn’t our grounder,” The tone pulled Xander from his thoughts and he looked up to find the captain. His jaw went a bit slack but he managed to salute the Captain before his lack of response could be considered impolite. The captain looked him up and down coolly. “Nice timing, soldier, I need to speak with you. Head on over to my office.”
“Sir, yes sir!” While the Captain rounded the desk, Xander tried to use Grant’s reaction to judge if he was in trouble or not. The fight with Nicholas couldn’t have gotten back to the captain already. Could it? Grant gave him a look and Xander’s heart sank down into his stomach. It wasn’t until the Captain disappeared inside his office and Grant’s eyes followed that Xander finally realised that the glare had been directed at the Captain and not himself. Grant finally turned to look at him, but there was resignation across his face, so he figured he shouldn’t get his hopes up yet.
Xander’s only other experience in being in the Captain’s office was when he had first been assigned as Tarim’s grounder. He had wondered if the stress of the situation may have warped his memory but now that he was there again he realized that it was just as creepy as he remembered, putting him ill at ease just to be standing in it. As soon as he set foot in there he could only think of one thing: getting out. Preferably before the Captain could scar him for life by off-handedly commenting on things considering Xander’s life that were private and potentially shameful. Like Xander’s sex life, for example.
“We have a bit of a situation,” the Captain said, turning the screen of his computer toward Xander—and didn’t that bring back memories of standing in that same room, just after having been outed by his best friend in the most humiliating fashion, only to find out that the whole thing had been secretly recorded.
Onscreen, a giant ball of computerised ice was moving on a map of the cosmos. “A comet is heading our way. There’s a seventy percent certainty that it’ll make contact,” the Captain explained. And, okay, that was a situation. And it didn’t involve anything embarrassing, so Xander figured he could handle it. “Our repulsors are still in repair, so I’m going to need Tarim to go back out there and do his job.”
Xander could vaguely see how that was his problem, but he wasn’t sure how this was his problem. Why wasn’t the question asked directly to Tarim?
As if reading his mind, the captain continued on, “I don’t need you to make a full report or anything like that; I just need to be assured that my Special Unit won’t go on another rampage if I allow him back in his suit. Can you do it?”
Xander’s first thought was that this was a psychiatrist’s job, surely. The Captain looked intent on getting his answer, though, so Xander exed that thought before it could actually make its way out of his mouth.
Was Tarim fit for work? Well, he was eager to go back in that suit, that was for sure. Wanting it more than Xander’s company, even, if his behaviour was any indication. Would he snap a fuse if he went back in the suit? There wasn’t any reason for him to. Tarim dealt with stress that came from his role on the ship every day.
Yet Xander still had the vivid memory of Tarim in his black suit, hurling a metal-encased fist at his guts, compete with sound and a memory of pain so sharp it had frozen the breath out of him. Okay, so maybe he didn’t deal with it too well lately. Could Xander honestly say that this wouldn’t happen again?
Well, no. He still didn’t know what it was that had put Tarim in a bad mood in the first place. Nicholas had been the catalyst, sure, but Tarim had been behaving strangely even before that happened and Xander couldn’t be sure that something else wouldn’t lead to the same result. Normally he would give Tarim the benefit of the doubt, but he was still acting strangely even now. If he gave his go-ahead now he knew it wouldn’t be in good conscience. “I’m sorry sir,” Xander said, “I can’t.”
The Captain furrowed his brow and it was suddenly as if the whole room had darkened. A shiver ran down Xander’s spine. He had never seen the Captain look quite like that. His words were dry and cool when finally spoke. It couldn’t have been more than a second’s pause, but it felt like the longest second of Xander’s life. “Then you better start working on it,” he ordered.
Xander snapped to attention like it could protect him. “Sir, yes sir!” The Captain gestured toward the door and Xander was relieved to go.
Grant wasn’t at his desk when Xander exited the room, so he didn’t bother loitering around just to make pleasantries. The safest place was his room and maybe he should try having another talk with Tarim. Tarim loved talking and interacting with people too much; surely he would soon shake whatever it was that put him in his mood.
Tarim had barely moved while Xander was gone, simply moving up from the foot of the bed to the top of it. That seemed to be the extent of his activity. Xander had somewhat expected to find him listening to music or reading one of his books.
The books were actual paper things with thick pages covered in raised dots. Tarim read them by caressing the pages with the pad of his fingers. Of all the old techs Tarim liked to surround him with, those were the one that made the most sense. It was certainly easier to read the reports Tarim’s doctor gave him once a month in the dim light by touch than it ever would be when squinting in the non-existent light. Xander couldn’t read that book, but still. It made sense.
Once again, Tarim watched Xander cross the room without otherwise acknowledging him.
On his way back from the Captain’s office, Xander had considered his options. It was stupid, but the closest thing he had to a plan was to try jumping Tarim and see where that led him. It wasn’t all that great of a plan. Xander was acutely aware that it was the equivalent of putting a painting on a wall to fix the crack underneath. It was only a temporary fix. Or some such shit. But fuck, he was no psychiatrist; he was the ship’s grounder, after all. Sex was what he was supposed to be about. So he went for it.
Tarim went easily in his arms, a stark contrast to the disinterest he had shown earlier; it was such a total one-eighty that a spark of unease lit within Xander’s chest. Instead of commenting on it he kissed Tarim’s collarbone, noticing for the first time how Tarim never seemed to wear a shirt. He could have done with some clothes to peel away now, just to give his hands something to do. He wished he had something else to occupy his mind other than his current line of thought. A little voice at the back of his head seemed adamant that idea wasn’t a good one. Tarim kissed him back aggressively and pulled him closer just before Xander was really able to consider listening to that voice.
Tarim pulled Xander down on the bed and rolled on top of him in an uncharacteristic display of dominance and with absolutely no care for Xander’s tender ribs. Despite Xander’s pained gasp, the kiss resumed, this time with a lot of teeth. Either Tarim had been holding out on Xander or he wanted to punish him for something because he was nipping and biting and it wasn’t all play. Did he get off on this stuff?
They hadn’t exactly talked about what they liked in bed. Granted, they hadn’t talked about much and certainly not about anything that could be considered important. Actually, aside from living right next to one another for three months, they hadn’t done much at all. No exchange of personal information or sharing stories of their childhood which—probably wasn’t the best thing to think about when Tarim was grinding his hips down Xander’s. Though Tarim did suddenly remind Xander of a cat he had had in his youth when Tarim grabbed his shoulder and dug his nails in painfully.
“Ouch, easy there,” Xander protested. Tarim looked up in response, brows furrowed, mouth tight. For someone whose erection was pushing hard against Xander’s stomach, he sure didn’t look very amorous right now. After a moment he let go and leaned down to gently mouth at the marks he had just left.
Xander relaxed a little and was enjoying things again when a sudden bite made him tense and push Tarim away. “What’s wrong with you?” That got a response—at last!—but Xander couldn’t say that the thin smile now stretched on Tarim’s lips was a comfort or in any way the response he had been looking for.
Intent on taking control of things before he had to visit the infirmary again, Xander took Tarim’s mouth in another kiss and tried to coax Tarim into that slow and deep kissing that he had seemed content with before all of this happened. Strangely, the kiss wasn’t all that Xander remembered it to be, but Tarim accepted it. After a while he slowly began to deepen it, making it wet and messy, their lips making slick noises as they moved together.
For a while, things were good and like he remembered, and Xander finally felt like he could enjoy it. Then he tried to roll them over. Tarim was all hard muscles and Xander knew the guy was stronger than Xander could ever hope to be, but he was still surprised when Tarim pushed him back against the bed and pinned him there by his wrists. Hard. In fact, the wrist that wasn’t in the cast felt like it might have been sprained by the force of it. Xander moaned and tried to make his discomfort known but Tarim swallowed the sounds straight from his mouth without missing a beat.
The unpleasant realisation that Tarim could really hurt him, even without his armour, had been made a long time ago. It wasn’t an issue. At least Xander had been so sure that it wasn’t. He had never had to think about it while in bed, at least. Never had to admire Tarim’s restraint, because Xander hadn’t even considered that it might take effort on Tarim’s part to not bruise him when they embraced, to not hurt him when they play-wrestled. Was Tarim always tiptoeing around him? Yielding before they got carried away and someone—Xander—got hurt?
That he still managed to be aroused while considering all that was something that Xander didn’t want to look to deeply at. Instead, he concentrated on the kiss, focused on the sudden sting of Tarim’s teeth and the taste of blood that welled from Xander’s lower lip when he bit down too hard. A groan rose from deep in Tarim’s throat as he backed down just far enough to gaze down at Xander.
Tarim’s pupils were blown wide. He considered Xander’s mouth for a second, let go of one of his wrists to bring a finger to Xander’s lips, smearing the blood there. Xander watched, fascinated, as Tarim brought this finger to his lips and licked the blood off it. The red, smeared on Tarim’s white skin, looked wrong, but the move itself was familiar. Something Tarim had done on occasion, finger covered by his or Xander’s come. “Tarim?”
Tarim seemed uncertain when he moved down Xander’s body to sit on his lap, though his movements were slow and deliberate. Xander might have gone so far as to describe it as seductive. Which was okay, Tarim did seductive sometimes, but usually only when he was unsure of himself.
All the thinking had been steadily putting Xander off this crazy thing they had started but this uncertainty was what finally broke the spell. “Stop,” Xander pushed Tarim off the rest of the way so that they weren’t touching any longer. “I don’t want this. Stop.”
He was relieved when Tarim didn’t put up a fight — relieved but worried because, really, Tarim was acting strangely and Xander had no idea what might have caused it, whether it was something he should worry about or not. And now Tarim looked clearly displeased. “You started it,” Tarim said.
“Yes and it was obviously a bad idea.” Tarim frowned but didn’t say anything else. Eventually his features evened and he rolled on the bed until he was facing the wall, his back to Xander. There was no way to make him utter a single word after that.
So sex had been a terrible idea. What was next?
Xander’s self-preservation kicked in and he figured that it would be in his best interests to leave the room for the rest of the night. Better late than never he supposed. After consideration though, Xander didn’t want to give Tarim the impression that he might be scared. Well, not scared enough to run, anyway. Instead he plopped down on his own bed and stared across the way, making out Tarim’s body in the dim light.
So sex hadn’t worked and now Tarim wasn’t talking to him at all.
If this had been like any other of Xander’s past relationships he would have tried begging. Xander was actually good at making insane promises to become a better person, even had the ability to keep them in fact. The surprise usually gave him a few weeks’ respite before whoever he was with raised another argument of “why this relationship cannot be” and left anyway —hey, it had once bought him a whole six months, Xander really was good at this.
This was the first time that skill became necessary so soon, though. Especially in a relationship where there had been no previous complaints about his dreadful personality or boring appearance. Thankfully, his skills in bed were never an argument in his disfavour.
The problem with that approach was that he didn’t know enough about Tarim. Tarim had never complained about Xander before, so Xander had truly believed that Tarim was just so easygoing that he wasn’t bothered by anything Xander did. Well, aside from the Nicholas thing. Too bad that now that he really needed to talk, Tarim wasn’t open to talking at all.
Other sources for information on Tarim were few. Xander had never heard anyone else have anything much to say on Tarim—the general consensus was that he was okay as far as Special Units went and that it was safer to keep away.
The Captain knew things, but Xander made it a point never to speak to him unless requested. Ever.
Grant had told Xander that Tarim was a good guy. Now that Xander thought about it, that discussion had sounded a lot like a “don’t hurt him or else…” kind of talk. Which was a bit creepy, because if anyone was getting hurt in this relationship, it was him, both in the literal and figurative senses.
And then there had been the list on the special techbook, the ten things that were maybe specific to Tarim in particular. There was still a slim possibility that it was just a scam, but it was getting slimmer as items on the list checked true. Xander took the special reader from his shelf; it had a synthetic backlight that made it compatible with Tarim’s allergy to normal light. He wasn’t sure all the files on it should be there, like the file on T-protein, for instance, a file that, no matter how much Xander thought about it, was something Xander suspected he didn’t have a clearance for. It was also the reason why Xander hadn’t asked anyone anything about that file.
The author of the list had obviously been another grounder: Xander’s predecessor, most certainly. Who had he been? Why had he written that list down at all? It had been cryptic, not necessarily something that could be linked to Tarim but once you got to know the guy it was obvious the list was about him in one way or another. So had it been written just for the previous grounder’s use? Had he tried to erase it when he… disappeared into the nether? Travelled back in time? Was beamed to Transylvania?
With that thought, inspiration struck. Surely Grant would know about his predecessor. Xander got to his feet and finally noticed Tarim’s gaze on him.
Tarim quickly turned his head away, looking displeased. It was certainly the first time he had shown anything close to embarrassment in as long as Xander had known him. Tarim didn’t get embarrassed.
Tarim could say truly embarrassing things without blinking, could admit to being emotionally stunted like he would comment on the weather. Actually, he probably didn’t even realise that people didn’t go around talking about their feelings to people they barely knew. Even people whose job it was to be their friend-slash-sex partners.
Suddenly, the idea that it might be another side effect of the T-protein popped in Xander’s mind and he couldn’t shake it. Would Tarim become “normal” if he could stop wearing the armour? Would he start hiding his feelings then, or there lack of? Would he tell lies? Create a social mask to hide his true self behind?
Did it make Xander a bad person that he really hoped Tarim got back in the armour—got back on his drugs—before Xander could really find out that Tarim was actually a complex person who had been drugged to the point that he was rid of his humanity?
Of course it did. Nothing new though. Others might delude themselves to think otherwise but Xander had knowingly embraced his inner asshole a long time ago.
Grant watched Xander limp across his office with a wince of sympathy about his face, the one that people used to make you think they understand the pain you’re going through. As far as Xander knew, Grant was a paper pusher and had never suffered more than scratches, maybe not even that, since the advent of techbooks meant that paper cuts weren’t even a threat anymore. There was no way in hell he had ever experienced something close to what Xander went through. “Do you have a few minutes?”
“I guess you’ll want to be put on light duty for a few weeks.” Grant said it with a tone that implied he understood and sympathized.
It amused Xander to think that Grant would probably become far less understanding once he learned the real reason for Xander’s presence. Steeling himself against the reproachful look that would soon be coming he asked, as nonchalantly as possible, “I want to know about Tarim’s previous grounders.”
The statement made Grant visibly uncomfortable, just as Xander had expected. “That’s something you should be talking to Tarim about, isn’t it.”
“I’m asking you,” Xander insisted, provoking the glare he had predicted as well. When Xander just stood there, not saying anything else, Grant schooled his expression into bland politeness and raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Listen, I know you’re upset but—”
“I’m not upset,” Xander interrupted, “I’m worried. Tarim’s acting weird. The Captain asked me to make it better, but I don’t know what to do and I just realised that no one ever really explained just what it is that I should do in situations like this. So, please, save the bullshit for somebody else and talk.”
Blankness turned into irritation and maybe even a little bit of disgust. “You do realise that you’re acting like an ass.” Okay, a lot of disgust.
“That’s because I am an ass. Now spill. There were people doing this job before I arrived and I would love to know what happened to them.”
“You can’t. What you’re asking is a violation of several rules on protection of personal information. Really Xander, leave it be. Tarim will get over himself soon enough.” He said it like he truly believed it to be the case. Just as if—remarked the voice at the back of Xander’s mind snidely—it had all happened a million times before. Xander was tired of not knowing what had happened before he had shown up.
“Grant, I’m not asking about these people’s fucking addresses or their security numbers, I just want to know how they coped while they were doing my job. Or how they didn’t cope, as it were, so I can know what to skip over.”
Softly, sneakily, the door to the Captain’s office opened. The Captain appeared on the threshold. “Grant, give him the files.” Grant looked just as startled as Xander and that made him feel better for nearly jumping out of his skin like he had.
The Captain didn’t stay long. Xander had barely had time to salute before the man had locked himself back inside his office. Xander couldn’t really say he was sorry that the interruption was so brief. The more time he spent time in the man’s company the more wary he became.
Grant pulled a techbook from his desk—making a face like this was the hardest, more put-upon thing he had ever done in his life—before he shoved it into Xander’s hands. A brief read-through was enough to understand why Grant hadn’t wanted to give the document in the first place.
Dead, dead, moved from the ship, honourably discharged for injury, dead, honourably discharged—Xander paused as he watched a picture of a pretty little blond woman who looked like a breeze could have bowled her over. She had been a grounder? Who had been insane enough to think that this was a good idea?
So all of them were gone. And some had mentions of some pretty nasty wounds. Several mentions of wounds, actually. The blond had apparently had her arms broken three times, and from the looks of it, every other bone in her body at least once. Xander winced in sympathy—he was actually able to understood just how much of a bitch broken bones were.
The last guy was listed as ‘transferred’.
“Is that all?” he asked Grant who just shrugged in answer. “What happened to the last guy?”
“The year was up.”
It took a second for Xander to understand what Grant was talking bout. “What, you mean he just left? Didn’t he get along with Tarim?” It was possible, he supposed. Even Xander and Tarim had a rough period towards the beginning, so it wasn’t like Xander couldn’t begrudge a guy for not liking Tarim on first sight.
“No, from what I remember they went along perfectly well. Probably the best Grounder/Special Unit relationship I witnessed.”
Xander wondered if that included he and Tarim. “Why did he leave then?” he asked instead.
“Because his year was up. His platoon was leaving, so he went back with them.”
Xander thought of his own platoon and the way he was more or less kicked out of it when he was picked as Grounder. Maybe the other guy hadn’t gone through the same thing. Maybe he hadn’t been interested in Tarim beyond friendship so the sexual aspect had been a non-issue.
Still, something felt off. One of the entries on the list had read a single word: tease. Sure, it could be used in a context that had nothing to do with sex, but Xander doubted it. Still, that wasn’t something he should focus on at the moment. “So he just up and left? Just like that?”
Grant gave him a weird look. “Yes. What’s so strange about that?”
Indeed, what was strange about a guy leaving once his job was done? “How did Tarim take it?” Xander wanted to know.
“Quite well. You know how Tarim is.” Xander had thought he knew, but maybe he didn’t known Tarim quite as well he thought. Maybe nobody on the ship did. “I think he was just happy to see him go before things became complicated,” Grant tacked on, absentmindedly. Suddenly he looked contrite and pressed his lips together, as if he thought he had said too much.
“Who?” Xander pressed. His brain was straining to make a connection, but he was missing a piece, a very important piece, something that tied it all together.
Grant made a show of looking annoyed at having to repeat himself, hemming and hawing. “Tarim. I think he was happy to see the guy go out alive, truth be told.”
“That’s not how you said it before.”
“Wasn’t it? Well, close enough.”
No one had ever warned him about Grant’s hidden acting talents. It didn’t matter though. Grant had unknowingly given him the missing piece when he had finally answered without using a positive spin on everything.
Grant had been happy to let Xander go. In fact, Xander could tell their relationship had gotten strained enough that Grant wouldn’t miss Xander for a good while. Xander promised himself to send a note of excuse with a full essay on why he needed to know all those things, complete with snark and unapologetic accusation of incompetence. Really, people these days!
Xander composed the opening on his way back to his and Tarim’s room.
Xander spent a whole five minutes standing outside the door, just looking at it and wondering if it would be enough to walk in there and accuse Tarim of being a big softy.
“Oh well,” he said to himself, “Only those who never do anything never make mistakes.”
He pushed the door open and went in.
It was starting to be a thing of Tarim’s to be sulking on his bed whenever Xander entered the room so Xander ignored it and went straight to his own bed. Tarim didn’t react until Xander pushed his bed against Tarim’s in the position they had been before all this mess started. That got a reaction and even—finally!—words.
“What are you doing?!” Tarim’s voice contained faint traces for alarm.
Xander didn’t stop his rearranging of the furniture but he looked up and announced “I’m putting this room back to right.”
Tarim immediately got to his feet to stop him. Xander dodged his attempt to grab him and moved to the side to rearrange the pillows and comforter. This was actually entertaining. Tarim looked properly distressed and it filled Xander with manic glee that bubbled from a part of Xander that was dark and full of anger.
Xander felt slightly drunk actually. He had to stop to ward off a wave of dizziness. While he got a grip on himself, Tarim took advantage to round the bed and catch his hands. He pulled the comforter from Xander’s hands as if he were afraid it would bite them—no, not them, afraid the bedding would hurt Xander. Though Xander knew that wasn’t it either. Tarim wasn’t worried the bedding would hurt Xander, wasn’t even really worried about Nicholas or anyone from Xander’s platoon—though maybe he should have been a little. No, Tarim wasn’t worried about other people’s hurting Xander; he wasn’t even worried about Xander’s hurting himself. Wasn’t that a strange feeling, dealing with someone who didn’t think Xander was the one who would screw things up? Even Nicholas, who had been his longest and what he considered his healthiest relationship, had somehow feared Xander would screw things up, that he would say something—do something—by accident or on purpose, that would tip the others off. Nicholas had been so afraid of this that all of Xander’s other flaws had been overlooked in favour of his potential to out them both.
In the long line of mindscrews Xander called relationships, Tarim was the first guy to worry that he had been—and would be—the one hurting Xander.
Something must have been wrong with him because Xander found that idea heart-warming—hot, even.
Tarim pulled the last pillow from Xander’s fingers; then his hands hovered on Xander’s, waiting for his next reaction. He jumped when Xander turned his hands palms-up and linked their fingers together. The cast made it a bit weird but Xander managed.
“What are you doing?” Tarim asked again, clearly uncertain this time.
“I’m not leaving.”
Tarim just looked back without answering—and okay, it had come kind of out of nowhere.
“You can stop whatever you were doing,” Xander explained, “because I’m not leaving.”
Hope flashed briefly through Tarim’s eyes before he squashed it down. “You’ll have to, eventually.”
“I will not. I’ll stuck to you like a leech.”
Tarim’s face was carefully blank, which was the way he usually expressed most negative emotions. The positive ones were an upward tilt at the corner of his mouth.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Then you’ll die.”
“Not even for that. I’m not leaving you for that. You don’t know me, I’m tough. I don’t kill easy, just put me to the test, you’ll see for yourself.”
Tarim’s eyes were a bit shiny when he finally allowed that upward tilt to grace his pretty mouth. But that was okay because Tarim was allowed to be a bunny rabbit about things. Even if he turned out to be a bunny rabbit who liked to nibble bits of Xander.
Right now though, Xander was very aware that Tarim looked hot, wearing only a pair of short as was usual and not quite smiling at Xander. “Okay, here is what is going to happen now,” Xander warned, voice low and seductive. “I’m going to kiss you, and you’re going to keep the biting to a minimum while you kiss back—unless you’re really into sucking my blood, because then we’ll have to figure something out—then we’ll fuck. And later, much, much later, we’ll really need to have a talk about kinks and define what is okay in the bedroom. I don’t mind spicing things up a bit but I would rather keep the surprises to a minimum.”
Tarim hid his smile in Xander’s neck—which Xander decided to take as a yes. “What? We’re not going to talk?” he teased.
“We talked already. As a matter of fact, we talk too much. Come here.” Xander felt Tarim smirk against his neck, but Tarim complied when he tilted his head up for a kiss, so he forgave him.
Kissing was finally all it was supposed to be: slow and languorous—and intimate. Tarim let Xander dominate the kiss for a while. Then he took control. The power-shift was not aggressive, one second Xander was kissing Tarim, the next he was being kissed. The difference was in Tarim’s arms holding Xander close, mindful of the ribs but still possessive. It was in the way one of Tarim’s hands, large and gentle, cupped the side of Xander’s face to angle it just so, while the other rested lightly on the back of his neck. It was a warmth that seeped through Xander’s uniform and seemed to reach all the way to his bones, banning a chill he hadn’t even known was there until he was free of it.
Tarim was a cuddler. His hunger for contact had baffled Xander ever since he had become aware of it—because Tarim was also careful, mindful of any limit Xander might set, be it rational or not, and sometimes it wasn’t easy to tell what he liked. One day Tarim had stopped hiding and Xander had realised that Tarim was never happy with just having his arms around Xander. He needed to fit them together until they were touching from head to toe, burying his face in the crook of Xander’s neck and shoulder, rubbing every bit of Xander’s back and neck with his hands, tangling their legs together until standing wasn’t an option anymore. Tarim’s fingers were constantly kneading, caressing, tickling, seeking more skin, more spots that made Xander jerk and moan and just make a fool of himself. And Xander liked to indulge him, enjoyed feeling the warmth of Tarim’s skin envelop every available inch of him, enjoyed the attention and the closeness.
They got naked—their clothes disappeared, it was like magic—and they lay down on the bed. Not standing on his injured leg was already a relief for Xander, but with Tarim draped over his side, weight as much as possible off his ribs, relief turned into pure contentment. They kissed more, became purposeful in their caresses, foregoing the exploration to go straight for the spots they knew to feel good.
Tarim latched onto Xander’s neck where he sucked tiny kisses. It wasn’t meant to leave a mark, but the gesture made Xander take note that they would need to have that talk on biting after all.
Tarim was holding himself flush against Xander’s side, hard against his leg and maybe humping just a little. Xander himself was still enjoying a general feeling of well-being but slowly getting to that stage where he would need to do something about his erection. In the meantime, he was more than happy to let Tarim kiss and pet him.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Tarim chuckled. “You’re purring,” he said against Xander’s neck. Xander’s mind was preoccupied enough that the puff of damp air registered more than Tarim’s words. It felt a bit cool on his skin after Tarim’s lips and Xander groaned in protest.
“Mm, am not.” he said, not really sure what he was protesting against.
Tarim kissed under Xander’s jaw and pressed “Yes you are. You’re making little happy hums, just like a cat.”
Xander’s mind felt like it had short-circuited. It was sluggish and, apart from the knowledge that hums were okay, wasn’t providing much “Still not purring,” Xander answered eventually before pushing himself onto his elbows to check where Tarim’s mouth had left to. It dislodged Tarim, which in turn gave Xander the opportunity to push him the rest of the way until he had his back to the bed. If Xander couldn’t have Tarim’s mouth, he would get something else. Settling on top of Tarim, Xander began grinding down.
Tarim groaned and opened his legs. Xander positioned himself clumsily, trying to aim so that their cocks rubbed together. It was a bit awkward; Xander had his casted arm resting on Tarim’s chest and was holding himself upright with the other arm only.
Tarim looped an arm around Xander’s shoulder and snuck a hand between them taking both their cocks in his hand and squeezing gently, improving things grandly. From then it was a matter of moving along as best they could and enjoy the way the other bucked or moved closer for a kiss. It was all satisfyingly mind-numbing.
At some point pleasure turned into an orgasm that left Xander boneless and exhausted in Tarim’s grasp. Tarim rolled them on their sides and finished himself quickly. It was all a bit hazy at the edges, but Tarim had definitively tensed up and done that face where his mouth pinched into a thin line and his eyes closed and looked like they had rolled back in their sockets. Xander remembered thinking he looked really hot like that.
Once they relocated under the covers, there were several hours of blissful sleep.
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