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He’s burning. His uniform is on fire, and his skin is melting. It’s far too much like being tortured, and that pulls up old memories, and recent memories, and all the loss and waste of another bloody war, keeping it together in front of his squad and falling to pieces in the privacy of his own ship, his ship which is spiraling down on fire because of a bomb that came out of nowhere…and his brain just freezes.
His teleport is in flames. He wasn’t up very high. He could just throw himself out, risk death by impact. It would be better than this, he’s burning to death, it hurts gods hurts so much so much so much pain. He tries beating out the fire on his left arm, and the clean knife of agony that tears through him makes him scream, and if he could think about anything but the smell of his own flesh burning like a roast, he would wonder how he made a sound like that.
The next thing he would wonder, if he could, would be what in the name the universe was that blue light, and why he was suddenly writhing on a different floor, watched by two pairs of eyes. The last thing he thinks before the dark at the edges of his vision wipes out his consciousness, is that even if this is the enemy (and he’s not so sure who that even is anymore), he will love them for the rest of his life for putting out the flames.
He floats out of the dark, fighting every inch of the way. He doesn’t want to go back, it will hurt. He finally hovers, just beneath a thin membrane, like a soap bubble, separating him from the rest of the world. From what he can see, in a disconnected sort of way, he’s in a peach-walled chamber that doesn’t look like any hospital room he’s ever been in. There is a comforting hum, an engine, vibrating through the room. He doesn’t think he’s dead, his body feels too strange for that, oddly numb and thick. It slowly comes to his attention that there are others in the room with him, a sleeping dark-haired girl, with her head on the shoulder of an older man with short-cropped hair and green eyes, watching him intently.
He drifted closer, bit by bit, until the shimmering film that had been separating him from the rest of the room collapsed, the bubble popped.
“What?” his lips shape, though no sound enters the room. The green-eyed man holds a long finger to his narrow lips, and reaches over for something out of his field of vision. Alyn feels a cool rushing in his veins, and the dark swallows him down again.
The next time he wakes up, he is immediately clear headed and alert, and he tries to leap off the narrow bed he had been lying on. Where is he?
He runs right into a long, slender pair of hands that oh are quite a bit stronger than they look and push him back to the thin mattress.
Starting upwards again, panic blooming in his chest, the hands come down once more, and stay, pressing on his shoulders. His eyes travel up from the hands on his torso, to equally long, slender arms, to a long, slender chest, to a face with sharp bones and an abundance of shadows in green eyes. They didn’t look particularly friendly. The enemy, then.
“Alyn Saracev, Wing Commander, O-7251255.” Name, rank, serial number, the time-honored method of telling enemy interrogators to politely toss off. He can only hope this man was of a species that recognized the format. It seems he does. The man’s lip curled, and he shook his head. He muttered something that sounded extremely uncomplimentary in a language Alyn doesn’t recognize. His Division symbiont must be on the blink.
“Right, soldier boy, up,” the man says in a commanding tone. He hoists Alyn’s arm over his shoulders and helps him stand, as Alyn tries to analyze his voice. He doesn’t recognize the accent, but it is certainly pleasant to listen to. As they travel slowly across the small room’s floor, he notices that, although he is weak, he is not in incredible amounts of pain, and, for some reason, he feels like he should be. He casts his mind back, to before he woke up, and runs into a blank white wall in his mind. Shrugging mentally, he puts it down to the shock he is most definitely in, and he and his guide are at a small door in the corner. The man reaches out a hand and turns the knob, admitting them into a small but functional bathroom, tiled in blue. Blue. The color tickles something behind that wall. He shakes it off, and lurches towards the sink, and the toothbrush lying on the lip.
The long, slender man is leaning, faux-nonchalantly, against the doorframe, tensed to catch him should he fall. Alyn keeps an eye on him in the mirror, as he washes his face and hands. Reaching for the toothbrush, he jars his left forearm against the white porcelain, and the thrum of the engine picks up a tad. Suddenly, he’s on the floor, retching, remembering the sick drop of his stomach as his ship dove towards the bloody ground, the smell and sound and feel of his own skin burning; he thinks he’s shaking all over, but he can’t feel it.
Arms are around him, he can vaguely feel them, but he can’t stop heaving, even though there is nothing left to bring up; he’s shaking hard enough to think he’s going to fall apart, all he can think is fire. There is a prick in his arm, and out of the corner of his eye Alyn can see the green-eyed man pulling away an empty, old-fashioned syringe before it all goes black again.
The third time Alyn opens his eyes, he does nothing untoward. He allows the man to pull him into the bathroom, scan him, daub ointment on his left side, explain how his little ship’s medical capabilities had regenerated the damaged skin with no scars. He learns that the man’s name is Luke (he somehow doubts this), that the girl who he saw sleeping is Kal-short-for-Kalna, that they’re very sorry for accidentally bringing down his ship, would he like to stay? He agrees, although he doesn’t really have an opinion one way or another. He supposes he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, and Kalna had looked so hopeful that he’d hated to disappoint her.
He floats hazily in a blissful cloud of disconnection- his body’s way, he supposes, of protecting him. He still feels things, of course, anger and fear and guilt. One doesn’t just stop, no matter how much one wants to. So he wakes up, and gets dressed, and pays no attention to the color of shirt his body had chosen for him, and drifts through the day until he could start the cycle all over again.
And then, the nightmares begin. Night terrors are nothing new to him, of course, years as a flyboy for the Division, and a family environment like his, did not a good night’s sleep make, but these are especially vicious. Vivid reenactments of his near-crash, at first, and that was horrible enough, but soon old miseries began to blend with the new. His sister, painting on his skin with strawberry-red flames, his parents sitting on the console of his ship, watching in silence as he burned, his best friend, Jem, being tortured all over again, but with fire instead of knives. Even as he stops sleeping almost altogether, he makes sure Kalna and Luke don’t notice, for fear Luke will dose him with some more sedative. Sleep is not worth living through his nightmares again and not being able to wake up.
So he drifts through Luke’s ship at night, exploring, feeling, through his armor of unfeelingness, a faint sense of wonder at the miles of corridors contained in the mid-sized ship. Time passes, normally in a loud, messy manner involving a great deal of shouting, but his body doesn’t feel as though it is particularly important, and neither does his shrouded mind.
Alyn’s anodyne existence comes to an end, however, when he wanders into the main control room, which he tends to avoid, because it looks far too similar to the one on his ship, and finds Luke and Kalna sitting cross legged, waiting. His mind flashes to one of his nightmares, and he turns to leave, but Kal’s prettily-accented voice floats across the space too quickly for him to escape.
“Alyn,” she says. “We need to talk.”
˜ ˜ ˜
Luke leans wearily against the Pelican’s hull. He grinds the heels of his palms into his eye sockets, groaning. Life, he thinks, half-humorously. Stars, this has been a day. He hadn’t meant that shell to bounce from the Pelican’s shielding into that poor boy’s ship. Kalna had already screamed at him for it, and seeing the young soldier’s injuries had made him physically sick. In a morbid sort of way, Luke supposes it was good for him, seeing the consequences that his flitting (as Kalna called it) must sometimes have.
The boy had been settled, fast asleep, in the medical quarters once the Pelican had done her bit, healing the hideous burns all down his left side. Kalna hadn’t been able to watch, but was sitting with him now, keeping watch. They don’t even know his name; there had been no identification. He sighs and heads in the direction of Kalna and the soldier boy.
˜ ˜ ˜
When Luke enters the boy’s room, Kalna is half-lying on two chairs pushed together, legs tucked under her, head resting on her hand, eyelids drooping. He sighs again (he’s been doing that a lot, since he’d teleported soldier boy onto his ship), and moves her so she’s lounging, propped against his shoulder. He tilts his head towards the door on the wall behind Soldier Boy the Pelican had so kindly shifted (it was so nice to have a ship that was half-suspended in the ether) that led to their bedroom, and raises his eyebrows. She shakes her head, refusing to go and get some sleep on a surface that won’t kill her back, and resettles herself on his shoulder. She is asleep in minutes.
Settling in for the long haul, Luke leans forward slightly, studying the unconscious man in front of him. Handsome, he thinks, rich russet hair, classic features, lovely jawline (he always was a sucker for a nice jawline), tall. He will, Luke thinks, look much better when I’ve seen him in some state other than burning to death or unconscious. As if his thoughts have roused him, Soldier Boy’s eyes drift lazily open. He does not appear aware of his companions’ presence, staring dopily at the room around him. His gaze, a deep shade of blue, slowly meanders over to him and Kalna, although Luke can discern no apparent interest. Probably a side result of the ship’s healing processes, he supposes, and lays a finger across his lips to shush the other man. He reaches over to the button controlling the intravenous drip of painkillers, careful not to dislodge Kalna, and sends another dose through the tube. Soldier Boy’s blue eyes flutter shut, and he’s out like a lamp.
Reaching out again, Luke grasps the edge of Soldier Boy’s bed, and concentrates hard. He links up with the Pelican, and accesses her mainframe, filling in the mental commands that would allow her to create a new suite for Soldier Boy, to be materialized upon command, in much the same way she had materialized Soldier Boy’s new skin. The layout and contents of the new rooms would be saved to her massive hard drive, and she would materialize them when needed. He backs out of the mental link with the AI, and rests his head on top of Kalna’s. With the dose of drugs he just pumped through his veins, Soldier Boy won’t wake up for a few hours yet. Plenty of time for a catnap.
˜ ˜ ˜
By the time Soldier Boy bolts upright in bed, Luke has been awake for a half hour, and -thankfully- taken out the IV. Kalna was asleep in their bed, Luke having carried her out of the room five minutes after he woke up. No use in having her in pain when she woke up. He presses Soldier Boy back into his mattress. The man had been on the “good side” (that is, the side he agreed on) but he was still a soldier, and Luke (rather hypocritically, Kalna told him) didn’t much like soldiers.
“Alyn Saracev, Wing Commander, O-7251255.” Oh, a good little soldier then. He probably wouldn’t try to hurt either of them, although his body language was wary. Luke’s lips twitched, and he shook his head.
“And a very polite way that was to tell me to shove off, too,” he muttered in his native language. He stood, and gathered Sold-Alyn’s arm around his shoulders. “Right, soldier boy, up,” he commanded, switching to Esperanto. Alyn seems to understand, so he decides to go with that until he can find a translator like Kalna’s.
He half-supports Alyn all the way to the bathroom, where he seems to regain some control over his legs, and lurches forwards to the sink for a perfunctory wash. Leaning against the doorway, he watches the man’s every move like a hawk, waiting for him to stumble. When he does go down, it is in a rather more dramatic way than Luke had expected, keening in between heaves that look as though they might tear him apart. Diving after him, Luke gets his arms around his torso, trying to calm him down, but it appears Alyn’s beyond hearing him. When he begins to shake, Luke swears and dashes out of the room to grab another self-disinfecting syringe of sedative. He jabs it into the man’s arm, and catches him when he collapses.
Kalna dashes into the room, pale, demanding to know what happened.
“It all just hit him, I think,” Luke tells her, trying to hoist Alyn into a position comfortable for carrying to the bed. “Give us a hand here, please,” he grunts, when Kalna flutters, unsure of what to do. She reaches down and takes Alyn’s feet, and together they are able to maneuver him back to the bed.
“Tell me again why we don’t bring him to a hospital?” Kalna grunts, trying to figure out how to heave Alyn gently onto the mattress.
“‘Cause we have better equipment here,” Luke tells her. More quietly, he says “And because this is my fault. I need to make it better.” Kalna reaches out and gently caresses his shoulder.
“If he relapses, we’re taking him to a doctor,” she informs him, in what he’s privately labeled her business voice.
˜ ˜ ˜
When Wing Commander Alyn Saracev regains consciousness for the third time, Kalna is there. Luke watches in amusement, and then with growing apprehension, as Alyn flirts, playing the perfect patient for him, submitting to his scans and Kalna’s interrogation. The boy deflects her questions neatly, turning them into an innuendo or diverting the conversation, sending their questions back at them. Kalna is charmed, even telling Alyn to call her Kal (something she only allows those closest to her to do), but Luke can see the flicker of worry behind her lovely chocolate eyes.
A few days after he woke up for the final time, Kalna drags him to see his quarters, explaining how his rooms have been saved as a virtual template, and the Pelican will form it from the electronic guidelines whenever he requests it. Luke sees the flicker of admiration and wonder in Alyn’s eyes, but when he makes a flirtatious comment about the bed, his light tone doesn’t reach his brilliant smile, which doesn’t reach his eyes. Luke worries.
He does a telepathic check on Alyn three days after he’d been given his own room, under the pretense of checking for cranial swelling, and takes a peek behind the frighteningly well-defended walls Alyn has erected around his mind. He looks, and discovers a dreadful mess; everywhere covered with shards of glass. Broken, he thinks to himself, broken into so many pieces. It is no wonder he’s drifting around like a ghost, only really taking an interest in his surroundings when Luke offers to let him tinker with the Pelican. The poor girl had never been toyed with so much in her life, he was sure of it. So for weeks, they just…drift.
The Pelican takes them to the most beautiful, peaceful places in the universe. Kalna takes him to clubs, dances where sweet (and not so sweet) young things approach Alyn in droves, and he flinches infinitesimally and flashes that skin-deep film-star smile, never taking up on their offers. Luke, for his part, takes him deep into the engines of the Pelican, or spends hours teaching him her code. And Alyn just floats about in his battered, impenetrable armor, and during the night Kalna hovers outside his door, listening to him scream or sob or beg, until he awakes with a harsh gasp. She thinks listening to him weep quietly is worse than the screaming. And in the morning, he gets up, dresses, greets them with a salacious comment, and spends the day wandering, trapped behind glass barriers in his eyes.
So, one day, they organize themselves on the control panel of the Pelican, and lie in wait. Alyn walks in, does a double take, and tries to back out before they notice him, but Kalna’s soft voice snakes out across the room and reels him back in.
“Alyn,” she says. “We need to talk.”
Alyn tenses minutely, then flashes his most fake, toothy smile, and cocks his head questioningly.
“We don’t think you’re…you’re quite right,” Kal tells him. “You keep having nightmares-” Alyn tries to interject but is cut off- “We can hear you, sometimes, don’t try and deny it. And you’re walking around like you’re separated from your body, and it’s scaring us a little, ‘cause we sort of think you’re in shock, still, or maybe it’s post-traumatic stress, and we’d like to help.” Alyn shakes his head mutely, ready to deny that there’s anything wrong, but Luke preempts him, and his next words pierce through his comfortable numbness.
“I took a look inside that pretty head of yours, you know. Want to try and repair all that broken glass?” Alyn gapes, stunned. He’d been inside my head? He started to shake. Not again, I don’t want anyone in my head again… It breaks the barrier around his mind a little, and he recognizes the emotion. Anger.
“What- what right did you have to do that?” he hisses. “You just waltzed in there, then, when I was injured and couldn’t do anything about it, took what you wanted, got back out? What else did you do? Did you see-” he cuts himself off; if Luke hadn’t seen something that made him angry enough to toss him out, he wasn’t going to tell him. “I don’t want anyone in my head again,” he tells him, off balance, reeling from all the sudden emotion battering at his shielding. He turns and almost runs down the corridor, slamming the door behind him.
He reaches his room and staggers through to his en suite, turning up the water on the shower so it is uncomfortably hot. Stripping off and stepping in, he leans against the pale blue tiling, ignoring the sting of the steaming water dripping down his back and legs. It hurts, but he ignores his body; what does he care? That was just life, wasn’t it, one hurt after another, another injury, another death, another betrayal. He’d trusted them.
Footsteps thud gently outside the door, and he ignores them. He just doesn’t care anymore. The feet echo off the tiles, and he twists around, but the water is in his eyes and he can’t see.
“Alyn Saracev,” Luke says, and his tone is almost chiding, like one of Alyn’s parents looking at him in his muddy clothing. Such a mess you’ve made of yourself, Alyn.
He turns his head back under the spray, letting the water rush over his head, making him blind and deaf and drowning. When Luke touches his neck, he starts, but doesn’t move, even when Luke moves forward, turning off the water. His body has a definite opinion on that, but he’s through listening to his body; it’s gotten him this far, and now he’s more than ready for a good, old-fashioned mental breakdown. Luke takes his hand and pulls him gently out of the shower, making sure he steps high enough to avoid the lip of the tub; Alyn follows without protest, standing mute and docile as Luke towels him off, and slips on a pair of soft pyjamas onto him. Leading him into the bedroom, Luke pushes him down on the bed and covers him with a blanket.
He runs long fingers through Alyn’s hair, and Alyn decides shock is responsible for him not pushing the other man away, for the whimper that breaks from his lips. Luke keeps silent, and lets him break down, and when he’s through, kisses him on the lips, and stays beside him as he falls into a drained sleep.
Kalna is sitting on his bed too, when Alyn wakes up; his right hand is in hers, her thumb stroking across his knuckles. Luke’s breath is ghosting across his shoulder like a kiss, and when he turns to look, he is too close to see anything but his lips and cheek, and a bit of his chin.
“Please talk to us, Alyn,” Luke says. It’s the please that breaks him more than anything. Could he kiss them right now? Would it change anything? He’s out of his numbness, but he can’t tell yet what has been left in its place.
“I-” he starts, then halts, surprised at how his voice sounds. Like a stranger’s, or like he hasn’t spoken in years and years. “What happens now?” he asks, finally.
Kal’s lips press against his temple. “Whatever you want. What would you like?”
He swallows. “I want to be fixed,” he whispers.
“Okay,” Kal responds. “We can do that.”
˜ ˜ ˜
The three of them are sitting on Alyn’s bed, which Luke thinks suspiciously is a great deal larger than it was when he first made the room. Alyn is facing him, and Kalna is watching them both, quiet and projecting calm the way she does so well.
“You know how this goes, right?” he inquires of Alyn. Alyn gives a tight nod, and closes his eyes as Luke reaches to touch his temples. “Right then. You know what to do. Give me a path to follow in, try to relax and not block me out.” He shuts his eyes and concentrates.
“Wait!” Alyn interrupts him. “If I say stop, I want you to stop, all right?” He sounds a bit panicky.
“Of course,” Luke replies. “Wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.” Closing his eyes again, he slips past that first barrier in the soldier boy’s head.
It is dusky in his mind, and there is a iron-grey gravel track. “I’m going to be heading down this path, Alyn,” he says. With agreement, he does. A few steps later, he finds a circle of shattered glass. The shapes are odd, and the fragments are of different colors. Some of the pieces would fit together, he can see, to make a picture. It’s odd, he’s never heard of a stained glass window being used as a door -or window, in Alyn’s case- to the mind.
So what; there’s an extremely broken, but still recognizable, copy of the Blue Virgin Window from the Chantres Cathedral, la belle France, Europe, Earth, set in a blank wall in the commander’s mind, futilely attempting to defend some area of his mind.
“When did you go to France, Alyn?”
“You’ve got what’s left of a stained glass window in here; from a cathedral just outside Paris.”
“Yep. You going to tell me?”
Alyn laughed, that fake laugh they heard so often. “Some time during my Division days. There were a lot of pretty people and a certain green fairy involved.”
“And a whole bunch of stuff that you’re not telling me. Like, why this particular window.”
“Yeah. Help me fix it?” Luke nods, and pieces begin to fly back into the frame.
“You know, you could make that a door, Commander. Might be more…helpful.” Alyn makes a vague sound of agreement, and the window slowly morphs into a sliding door of the type you see on underfunded colonies.
“Nicely done,” he tells him.
“Always.” Luke can hear the smile.
There’s another sound coming from outside, and Luke lets his attention drift to it. Zeroing in on the noise, he works out that it is Alyn’s heartbeat, racing. The commander’s scared stiff, and Luke thinks he should probably stop.
Still, Alyn’s left himself an out, and he hasn’t used it yet.
“Open your eyes, Alyn,” he instructs. “You want to keep going on ahead? See if we can’t fix another window?”
“Definitely,” the reply comes, and Alyn closes his eyes again.
When the next window (a plain vermilion glass rectangle) does, in fact, make the other man say “Stop,” they halt, and open their eyes. Alyn is looking extremely shifty and tense, like he’s going to bolt. Kalna, bless her, raises his hand to her lips, and starts stroking through his hair again. The commander relaxes in increments, and finally smiles, saying “Hello, beautiful.”
Kalna flicks him in the side of the head, and he laughs. It sounds genuine, and Luke resolves to do this bit by bit. If it takes a long time, it’ll take a long time.
After all, they have all the time they could possibly need.