Disclaimer: The characters and universe of Space: Above and Beyond are legal property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Production and 20th Century Fox Television and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement intended.

Thanks: Great thanks to Eggblue for beta, comments, support - and for being there :-) Thanks to Quinn for kindest response. Thank you both for putting up with me while I was writing these stories!

Feedback: juxiantang@hotmail.com and Juxian's stories Rating: NC-17 for slash m/m.



Juxian Tang

They got him from behind. The hands clutched his arms, twisting them back so viciously that he fell on his knees. He was stronger than any one of them - but there were too many of them and as soon as he shook off some, others had him. A hand grabbed his hair, bending his head down - as other rough hands parted the hair on his nape. The leering, triumphal voices let him know that they found what they looked for.

A kick under his ribs broke two of them and breathing became sharp pain immediately. Blood, hot and wet and coppery, rose to his throat and he spat it quickly. They hit him, on his head and back, stunning him, making him slow and awkward in his resistance.

"Fuckin' tank!"

He tried to get up - but there were so many blows that he kept falling on his knees, blood from the gash on his forehead coloring everything red. A heavy boot under his jaw threw him flat on the ground - and then they were over him, pinning him down, the graze of the harsh surface against the sensitive flesh on his nape agonizing. His arms and legs were stretched apart as the man leaned over him.

"You trash, it is the only thing you are good for!"

His cheap clothes were ripped easily and the heavy body settled between his legs. He thrashed in pain and violation, biting his lips to blood - and when the man closed the face to his, he suddenly saw in horror instead of blue blood-shot eyes of a junkie the white-on- white blank orbs of a Silicate.

He shook himself into awareness, dispelling the picture, focusing his eyes again on the underside of the bunk above him. It was not the first time when the images that rolled through his mind came out of his control. Dreaming as natural born knew it always mystified him. Maybe, this was the closest to dreams he could know.

The bedroom was quiet. He shifted carefully, casting a glance around to make sure he didn't wake anyone. The others slept, the various sounds and unconscious motions they made in sleep weirdly comforting.

The bunk in the next row was crumpled and empty - and he could see the line of light under the shower room's door. As always.

Every night - for three weeks since Cooper returned to his squadron. Maybe, for all two months since they escaped from the AI prison on Atreius.

They were lucky. To start with, if the planet had not been of such technologic interest, after the disastrous landing it would have been ordered to be left - or bombed down in the best case. It was believed he and West were dead - and the most amusing thing was that it was their last transmission that really saved them. Damphousse was on the verge of insubordination insisting to take a carrier and try to get them out - and eventually McQueen gave okay.

They had been sent directly to the hospital - Cooper didn't remember it well. What he remembered was how he begged them when they put him on the surgical table not to take off his arm. He was not sure they would listen to him, he even didn't know if he managed to say anything at all. But when he came round, his arm was still attached. A worthless, awkward appendage that seemed to be of no use all the same.

He was surprised with his sudden despair at the thought that he wouldn't be able to return to Marines. There was time when all he wanted was to be through ...

It was McQueen who brought a deck of cards one day, tossed them on the bed - and while Cooper gathered them one-handedly, said calmly, looking somewhere over his head:

"Sort them with your left hand - remember as you did it? Then we can talk about your return."

He tried to - tried again and again. Angry at everything, forcing his clumsy fingers into obedience - through pain, through the devastating thoughts of uselessness of his attempts. And he did it. He came back.

The 58th threw a party to greet him; it was when he saw West for the first time in over a month - and was shocked with the strange, almost wild look in Nathan's eyes, the intensity of his stare close to despair. He was surprised with his own violent, overwhelming reaction to it, too.

At the hospital there was enough time for thinking - enough time for his memory to turn over and over the moment in the carrier when the impossible closeness he felt with Nathan changed abruptly with the cold look of mistrust and rejection. He had kept the secret as West demanded him to - it was not difficult and their stories must have linked quite well since nobody asked additional questions.

Did he hope it would be enough? It was not.

It didn't take time at all to realize that West apparently tried to stay away from him as much as he could. Quietly amiable when someone else was around - maybe, more amiable than he had ever been - and string-like tense when they got too close accidentally - escaping the room if there was a threat to be left alone with Cooper.

Shit. He understood it all too well. An ironic thing was that he didn't have a difficulty to interpret it, unlike in so many other situations. Maybe, his new sensitivity was due to the amount of time he spent thinking - or to the remnants of that closeness he felt once and for such a short time - or to his own experience he never liked to recall. But he understood. And this understanding didn't make him happy at all.

What do you do about something you can't change? You walk over it and forget it.

Only it didn't work too well, did it?

West made the best imitation of stability he could make. Watching carefully the faces of others, putting on a smile when they did. Taking part in the games - even in the ones he had not ever been interested before. And carrying out his duties with excessive, almost flippant courage that made Vansen yell at him later asking whether he thinks he's the only hard-boiled man there.

And rushing out of the table after a few token spoons of food because he might not get in time to the toilet to throw up. And getting up at night to go to the shower room and stay there for hours, in absolute silence, alone.

Cooper was tired of this. Tired of watching West by day - tired of asking himself why he should have seen all this with such clarity when no one else seemed to notice. And tired of the nights when his memory or his imagination chose to take this grotesque, unbelievable form.

He couldn't let it go on. Life was hard enough without him watching how West turned in tighter every day - and wondering when he would snap at last - because it would happen eventually, Cooper didn't doubt.

He didn't know what he was going to do - didn't know if he was going to do something, after all. It was almost a surprise for him when he just got up soundlessly and walked to the shower room between the bunks.

The floor was warm and smooth under his bare feet. He pushed the door and was amazed how quietly, noiselessly it opened. And it was probably what allowed him a split second of seeing the reflection of West's desperate face in the mirror in front of him. West was doing nothing. Just standing and looking - maybe, even not seeing. But he must have felt Cooper's presence behind - and turned back abruptly - almost lashing like a scared animal - backing into the corner immediately.

The light in the showers was uncompromising, too sharp, showing with appalling clarity the huge shadows under West's eyes. How thin he is, Cooper thought with astonishment - well, no wonder, taking into account his recent eating habits.

He knew he needed to say something - wasn't it strange how they both didn't say a word - just looking at each other, standing in the opposite ends of the bright lit shower room. The silence was accumulating, becoming something palpable. Cooper drew in a breath, trying to start - but it was too late.

"Feeling like showering, Hawkes?" it was West who started talking - a lame attempt in sarcasm and Cooper knew better than to appreciate it. But the thing was he could find nothing else to say, to do. He didn't answer at all - and after a pause West started again - his voice so tight that it sounded almost metal-like monotonous. "Then I would appreciate you to leave me alone."

Oh sure. That was what he would certainly appreciate. Every minute of those twenty one day. As if Cooper was the only thing on his way of forgetting, as if without him everything would go all right again and at once. As if.

"Why?" he asked.

A stupid question. A patent tank-like blatant question - but he asked it all the same and didn't look away when West stared at him with almost hatred seeping from his eyes. So, answer that if you can, he thought with a whirl of sudden fury.

Because you can't stand the thought that I saw you weak and helpless? Because every time when you look at me, you are reminded about it - about being used? Because you would feel better if I drowned there, on Atreius? You didn't have to reach your hand for me, then, it would solve all the problems.

"Because I failed," West said almost lightly - and for a moment Cooper thought how disjointed this answer was - and yet he understood its meaning perfectly. These words reminded him about something - who else said exactly the same? Then he recalled. "I let it happen. I couldn't defend myself."

And even dozens of Chigs you kill and another Montgomery Star won't make you forget it as long as you look in my face.

"Oh come on," Cooper frowned helplessly; he had the answers - the arguments - only somehow, despite their obviousness, he knew that it would make no difference for West. "I couldn't defend myself, too! I don't remember that I did something to make them leave my arm alone!"

"It's different," Nathan's smile was almost haughty - 'you stupid tank' smile if there was no this fey in his eyes. "There is nothing for you to be ashamed of."

Really? What do you know? But telling him wouldn't change anything.

Alexander would be satisfied, Cooper thought grimly.

"I think I failed twice," Nathan added almost conversationally. "Once then - and now when I can't leave it behind."

"Don't, Cooper..." he heard again the desperate, anguished voice - in the cell as he clung in fever to the warmth of Nathan's body.

He didn't know what constructions West built in his mind since then - what ideas - but he knew he clung to them now desperately - because no matter how shaky they - if he let go one thing, everything would fall down.

Well, everything would fall down in any case.

Cooper didn't say anything. He reached his arms and put them around West's shoulders. His body was like a taut string - and incredibly, devastatingly thin; smooth skin so warm to Cooper's touch. He tried to convince himself that his hold was not oppressive, that all Nathan needed was to move away. And if he didn't, if he stayed...

It was not like Cooper held him there, in the cell on Atreius - and yet he thought about it now - how they both must have needed each other then and how little they could give.

Then he breathed in a full chest of West's smell and it was his mistake - because something told him that he could do what he wanted - not in the right way but the instinctive way - as he found West's mouth with his lips and pressed his tongue into it.

He didn't know how much he wanted it before he actually did it. The sensation was so overwhelming that he felt the little hair on his nape stand up. The warm wetness of West's mouth was absorbing, the soft core opening to him readily, letting him in as he lapped his tongue against West's.

His hands locked on Nathan's face automatically, holding it, not letting him go - as he felt he was engulfed into this kiss. There seemed to be so little else that could matter.

Then he was pushed away abruptly - stumbled, nearly sitting down on his ass - as West looked at him fiercely, the intensity of his stare scalding but the expression incomprehensible. Cooper wanted to say something - and couldn't - and it was too late and he never had the right words, anyway.

"You are mistaken," Nathan said and it was like a spit and Cooper didn't know what it had to mean. Mistaken in what? In thinking that he could want to accept him? In thinking that Cooper could give him something? In hoping that West would forget about him being an In-Vitro?

But whatever it meant, he knew he was wrong about it.

The door didn't slam - it was adjusted to slide shut soundlessly - and left alone in the empty room he suddenly felt so sick that it doubled him over, even though nothing came off, even dry heaves.

Were they both mistaken? He knelt on the tiled floor for he didn't know how long, cradling his left arm in the crook of the right one. It was very quiet around when he returned to the bedroom, going past West's bunk - with him neatly on his place, sleeping or pretending to sleep. He surely was good at pretending lately.

Next morning, returning from the inspection piloting, West delayed too long, checking something more. Or, maybe, just wanting unconsciously to stay away from others, Cooper thought. In the earphones he heard Shane's voice, trembling with fury, demanding West to go back.

"You'll get under the magnetic surge!"

And then West's answer came, suddenly very soft and kind of baffled:

"Shit... Seems like I've already there."

Cooper looked helplessly at the disoriented Hammer so far away from others - and knew it was all over - and couldn't believe it. He had already lost one friend; he couldn't lose Nathan now. And not like that. It didn't make sense. To die just by accident. Not for West. Not for anybody.

Then there was McQueen's cold, deadly tranquil voice, telling them to get back on the ship immediately - and Cooper protested... he had to try - he might have tried to guide Nathan's jet visually...

"I don't have time to argue with you," was all McQueen said and then Cooper heard him talk to West, his instructions precise and unfailing.

They were back on the Saratoga and watched intently for next half an hour how the disabled Hammerhead approached the ship excruciatingly slowly. At last its cabin clicked into the hatch and West staggered out, paper-white and looking sick - and then McQueen stepped to him and almost hissed through his teeth:

"In my room, Lieutenant. Now."

He would kick him out, Cooper thought sullenly, sloshing his fork through mashed potatoes. The mess was buzzing with the morning event, shushing abruptly when West appeared at the door. He didn't seem to notice it, however, his eyes like tinted glass and the same expressionless. He took a plate of cereals that nobody in his sane mind ever ate and didn't even went through the usual routine of spooning the food in his mouth before getting up and leaving.

He looks like a trapped animal, Cooper felt something shrink inside him. He wanted to do something - and saw Phousse get up and make a few steps after West - and him look at her as if she was a stranger and probably a dangerous one. She stopped abruptly, stepping from foot to foot a few times, and returned to her place.

If McQueen threw him out, he would be packing his things now, Cooper thought. He would be leaving... everything over... his chances to find Kylen... everything.

He threw the fork angrily and walked to McQueen's room even before he let his mind register what he was going to do.

Oh yes, McQueen could be frightening when he found a reason. Well, the truth was that Cooper knew it was fair - had known it already for a while, that the word he had given to West was a mistake. And he knew also that McQueen could do much worse - which he deserved, of course.

He stood and listened, thinking for some reason about Nathan who must have stood here just a little while ago - unrelenting in anything that could mitigate his sentence. He knew he should have been ready that West would hate him now. But it was what he would have to live with. It didn't matter - if telling McQueen would make him change his decision.

"You think we are playing games here? Then what do you think the stakes in this game are? Your own life. Life of your friends. Can you imagine how much something like this can affect our strength? Do you think it was for nothing we dragged you and West through that de-briefing when you returned?"

He felt a bit dizzy. McQueen's anger was painful to endure - he always tried hard not to cause it, maybe, most things he did were to make McQueen be proud of him, not angry.

"Information like this, Lieutenant - if you need me to tell you about it - anything that touches a soldier personally - it can be a weapon against him, a chance for blackmail. Were you ready to endanger everyone out of the false loyalty? In fact, you already endangered everyone."

He will kick out West and he will kick out me, he thought forlornly, bending his head lower. Right. Should have thought about it before. But all he had thought about was Nathan and the raw patch in Cooper's heart that the closeness with him left.

"Dismissed, Hawkes," McQueen's voice was tired and disheartened - and Cooper wanted to ask what now - but he didn't dare. Not because he was afraid of McQueen. He was afraid to hear the final word - already.

He walked back to the recreation room, preparing himself to whatever had to happen, the time dragging incredibly slowly. He knew McQueen called for West again - so, maybe, there was some hope, after all.

He must have wanted to believe in it too much that he allowed himself to be deceived. He looked at West who came up to him - with a frozen smile because there were Shane's eyes on him - but Cooper preferred not to notice it. Even when he looked in the dark eyes and there was a wall of blackness behind them, no expression at all - he didn't notice.

"I need to move that box in the machine room. How about giving me a hand?"

Did he mean it? Cooper was almost unable to believe the luck.


Stupid. He didn't guess anything even while he followed West in silence along the empty corridor. He kept thinking only how he could start the conversation neatly to ask about McQueen's decision. Then they were in the machine room - empty, just with the reserve lights flickering dully. West stopped and turned to him - and he didn't find anything better than to ask:

"So, what is this thing you wanted to move?"

The blow was unexpected. The red sparkles exploded in front of his eyes as West's fist smashed in his nose - and at once the huge stunning heat spread behind his eyes.

"You shit!" he couldn't believe it was Nathan's voice - like a hiss, almost without sound at all. "Couldn't keep your mouth shut?"

He tasted the warm salt of blood in his mouth, pressing his arms along his sides as he looked at Nathan who took the attacking pose. He dodged from another blow instinctively, backing away towards the cold humming cubes of the mechanisms. West's face was white, the nostrils flaring, with the dark eyes seeping disgust that more saddened than frightened him.

"I did it for you," as Nathan lifted his hand again, Cooper caught his wrist - astonished with the raw, furious strength of it beating in his grip. West's other fist caught his jaw - not bad enough to crush the teeth but still bad; he seized it, too. He knew it wouldn't be so easy to cope with Nathan - and saw West's eyes blur with tears, he must have not seen anything.

"Don't do me favors any more, okay?" there was something harsh in West's voice and desperate in his resistance. Cooper let him go, pushing him away to let himself a bit of slack. He didn't want to fight; he was afraid his body could react to the attack as it was supposed to. "Hypocrite! Still hope to put me down - that's why you did it? As if it would do any good to you!"

I didn't do it, don't you see it? It was them who did it - why do you blame me, not them?

"Did you tell everybody about it? How about group therapy? Do they already know?"

Ridiculous... yet he knew for Nathan it was not. Cooper recalled the wild look he had given Phousse today. And West still thought he could help himself?

"You tank asshole!"

It was not the words - he knew what they were supposed to do - to push his buttons, to make him go off - but when West plunged with his fists on him again, he couldn't stop himself.

With strange, distant sadness he thought that nothing worked - as his knuckles split against West's teeth. His body knew too well the mechanics of fighting; once he had defeated five of them when they had got to him; West was no match for him.

He regained control only when they both were on the floor. West was under him, with his wrists in a tight grip at the sides of his head, his body bucking under Cooper's weight. The too bright eyes looked into his as the drops of blood dripped from Cooper's nose on West's face. Was it hatred? Did these eyes look the same when he held this face last night in his palms? Now the way he held him was so different.

He was suddenly very aware of the heat emanating from Nathan's body under his, of the place where their bottom bellies connected. It scared him how primary his reaction was. The fight - the victory always affected him this way. He couldn't believe how close he was to taking what he won - the instinct, they put it in In-Vitros not putting in the inhibitors that would make him stay away from that.

He wanted to let Nathan go - now, when it was not too late yet - and at that moment West's body arched under him convulsively - and he spat blood and saliva in Cooper's face.

Ooh you!.. At that moment he was pretty close to killing West - it was as much as it took. He backhanded West, again and again, surprised how warm and soft Nathan's face felt under his hand. And he knew what he would do next - would plunge his tongue into this bleeding mouth... and then nothing would stop him.

And, maybe, after he would take what he wanted - they both would wind up dead.

The thought was sobering. His arousal was gone so quickly that it hurt. West's blood-smeared face was just in inches from his - but it was not maddening him any more, the bleeding mouth not like an enthralling flower demanding to be crushed. Cooper panted, feeling how every breath burnt his lungs.

There was strange understanding in their stare at each other - almost the same as it had been there at that moment when the transport picked them up on Atreius. Only hurting more this time.

Because since then Cooper had opened enough for it to hurt.

He slowly unclenched his fingers from West's wrists - the grip had been so tight that the fingers uncurled unwillingly now - and got up on his knees, leaving West free, crawling away, wishing to put as much space between them as possible.

"I hate you," he muttered tiredly.

"I hate you, too," Nathan said.

He saw Nathan gather himself, sitting up slowly, wrapping his arms around his knees. Cooper waited for him to leave - what else could there be? - and was kind of amazed when he didn't move any more but sat hugging his knees snuffling blood back into his nose - or, maybe, it was not only blood. But he hid his face well enough for Cooper not to know - and he didn't want to guess.

"What did McQueen tell you?" he asked quietly and without hope.

"That I need to get through the hypnotherapy," West's voice was reluctant and kind of embarrassed - and Cooper blinked at these words, not able to trust the relief that washed over him.

"That's all? That's all? I thought he..."

"He said it will help, the last program was a great thing, really," West said in a sullen voice. Cooper shook his head in disbelief. All this was just over it?

He couldn't stop himself - pushing West's hunched shoulder slightly, the touch to mollify the flippancy of the words the same as the tone:

"You stupid... stupid... little baby... do you ever grow up?"

In the darkness West made a loud gasp, as much of a sob as Cooper had ever heard from him - and then his shoulders trembled violently, the choking sounds escaping him and stopping abruptly. But it was laughter.

"Ugh, these hypnotherapy tapes - they are much like brainwashing," Cooper said without enthusiasm, getting up at last. "A quick fix when they need someone back to functioning at once."

"Whatever," West shrugged. "If it works..."

"Vansen will be furious," a few minutes later they stood at the door and looked at each other, Cooper's swollen nose and West's split lips the undeletable marks of what happened.

"Ran into a machine box in the dusk?" West suggested blankly and they both smiled again - no matter if the joke was worthy of it.

Actually Vansen didn't ask anything. Her eyes checked them both intently as they returned - but she kept silent. Others were not so tactful and till the end of the day they answered the same question about three dozens times.

The cards separated so easily in the deft fingers of his left hand. So flexible that he barely could remember the agony it had been once. Cooper sat on his bunk, alone in the bedroom, laying the fifteenth patience game in last two hours. The choice of cards didn't require the participation of his mind. Free to think as much as he wanted - about anything he wanted.

And he thought.

The things were going okay. Not worse than before. With his arm. With everything. Maybe, even better than before.

Three days ago West stopped him as they passed each other on the way in and out of the showers - looking straight in his face with these unblinking, terribly serious dark eyes:

"Thanks for what you did for me."

Was it the therapy that did him good? Or was it McQueen-therapy - McQueen said it had to help, so, it did? Cooper didn't know how deep the improvement was - maybe, not deep at all. But it was there. West became calmer, his habits back to normal, the nightly visits to the shower room stopped.

And now he thanked him.

It was a kind of soft, bitter happiness Cooper felt at that moment - maybe, even pride - that for once he made a right choice - not in a fight where he was always good but in human communications. And yet there was a tiny bit - no, not of disappointment - of strange sadness - as he let Nathan past himself, feeling briefly the warmth of this thin body reaching him. Now when everything was truly over... there was no reason, no even chance for Cooper - to hold him again. To touch him. In unwelcome comfort or in a violent quarrel. They became just like they had been before. And there was no way to step over that.

Then yesterday he was here, in the bedroom - the same way, having chosen for some reason to listen to the music instead of a pool game. He didn't hear the steps with his earphones on - the door just opened and there was Nathan, a brief friendly smile on his lips as he walked past Cooper to his bed, started looking for something in his things.

Cooper should have kept listening to the music - he didn't know why it seemed such a good idea to switch it off and take off the earphones. The most possible reason was that it simply happened like that: his mind flipping out of control with West around. Talk about self-composure.

"So, why are you not with others?" he must have seen Cooper putting away the earphones, must have deciphered it as a clue that he wanted to be talked to. Cooper writhed in awkwardness. Yet Nathan's voice was not conversational - kind of too quiet instead, almost gentle. And he stopped rummaging through his things, coming up to Cooper's bunk, looking down at him with his dark eyes that could seem like soft chocolate but gleamed bright black at the same time.

"You can go. I don't want to delay you."

Perfect. He didn't have an idea how it came off. That's what happens when you answer your own thoughts. He saw Nathan's eyes getting big and cursed himself for being such a tank. Then, to his amazement, West sat in the bottom of his bunk.

"I would like to see it if you tried to delay me."

It was wretchedness. He almost pulled the earphones back on his head out of anger at his own inability to come up with anything civil. He knew it would help him - West would leave and that would be it. He couldn't believe he was doing it when he suddenly tossed his legs off the bunk, freeing more place for Nathan - even less believed it when West moved closer after a tiny pause. Cooper hoped desperately that his erection that even this far from intimate closeness made him sport immediately was invisible under the pants.

He remembered West asked something - maybe, about music - and he must have been answering - feeling vaguely surprised at the same time how something could be so pleasurable and painful at once as this sitting on one bunk was.

The pressure built inside him so steeply that he didn't realize it until it was almost too late, until he was ready to snap.

"Oh, go away, West, go away!" and he jumped up himself, hitting his head against the upper bunk, feeling strong thin fingers capture his wrist, support him. Just like then, in the river on Atreius.

If the things can get worse, they do, right?

"Why?" West asked blankly.

A good question. Once Cooper used it the same blatantly to get the things moving - and the memory of this moment made him answer with perfect sincerity:

"Because I want to bed you," not that West didn't know it, right - after everything else. "And I am not sure I won't try to do it."

"But try."

Cooper eyed him and West looked at his hands - but the words were clear, the trace of them still there, in silence.

"I mean... if you want it..." now West looked at him - in his unnerving manner to look straight in the eyes - the manner that must have been painful even for himself and, maybe, that's why he kept doing it. His voice was almost trailing away. "I thought... maybe, I want it, too."

The choice of words was strange and Cooper's mind registered it - but he switched it off in favor of what he saw - the slight melting of Nathan's body as if there were the points for them to link together. He raised his hand and touched Nathan's face - imperfect smoothness of a few hours without shaving, the warmth of his cheek that every time felt different and every time Cooper couldn't forget how it felt. His fingers lay on West's nape, strangely amazed with its unblemished feel, and he pulled Nathan's head towards himself, meeting just the slightest resistance. He felt the hand on his hip, closer to his straining cock than he could ever imagine - the light touch, barely having any weight at all. Then he claimed Nathan's mouth with his - lips and tongue and all wet accepting warmness of it.

He pushed West on the bunk and got over him - and in an insight thought that it was not a good position - rolled together so that it was Nathan on top, his hands under Cooper's shoulder-blades while Cooper wrapped his arms around his ribcage gently.

Their mouths unlocked - and for a moment they looked at each other, Cooper reveling in Nathan's face above him, the startling dark eyes so close, the length of the thin body and its warmth along his. He kissed West again, now little quick pecks over his lips and cheek - and then he asked, unexpected even to himself:

"How did you?.. I thought you would never want to have it with me."

Oh no. Already as the words were leaving his mouth, he knew it was somehow a wrong thing to say. His hands became stiff around West's body - and he felt the warm, alive weight over him become dull and somehow temporarily.

"You mean a lot to me, Coop," West's voice was soft and serious - and yet there was no - what? No easiness? Cooper felt it even though he wished he didn't. "I don't feel like a liar with you."

"What... what does it what is that supposed?" the tension made him sound resentfully, with silly anger at sounding mystified like that in his voice.

"You are the only one who is willing to do it with me... knowing," there was deadly quietness in Nathan's words - and Cooper wished he stopped - but it was too late. "And I know I don't deceive you. It is your choice that you do it."

Oh shit. Shit? The word was stupid, not giving any idea of what he felt. But the words usually were like that. The words Nathan chose to use, for example.

"So, you think you can't get it on with anyone else?" how leisurely his voice sounded - almost amused. No broken glass in it. "That's why me? You don't want to slip them damaged goods without them knowing?"

He knew it was nasty. He felt West's hands jerk minutely under him. He wanted to hear a denial - a justification - whatever. But he only saw how Nathan looked away. The hands slid out from under him and Nathan sat up with his arms on his knees. He didn't cover his face but somehow Cooper felt he wanted to.

Too bad if he always thinks he should face it!

There were cruel little vices of pain in his chest - crushing so badly that for a few moments he felt disoriented. The he asked - mildly, almost insidiously:

"And what are you going to do about Kylen? When you find her?"

He saw the linked hands clasp tighter - but the voice was almost unfaltering:

"I'll tell her. She will understand."

Would she? With sudden sarcasm that was only a part of pain he thought that there was too much certainty in West's voice. Did he believe in Kylen so much? Was she really like that? Or was she a myth - an icon - and this Kylen West created to believe in would understand for sure, this Kylen he could tell anything to? This Kylen would heal him and make him feel whole again.

Cooper wanted to stay alone - with seldom experienced before sharpness. And he didn't want to ask West to leave. He got up and walked past him, to the door - and the ground was not going away from under his feet, you know. With his peripheral sight he saw Nathan looking at him, his face seeming very young and lost and desperate - but Cooper didn't stop.

Then the childish part of him kicked up in him and he said, even before he could control it:

"It looks like you still have a whole lot of therapy in front of you," before slamming the door.

It was the utter truth, wasn't it? But it didn't help at all.

The pain got so bone-deep into him - that even when at night McQueen sent them on another mission, in the carrier his fists gripped not with the usual frenzy of a forthcoming combat but with the residual memories.

How little he always understood about things! Even when he thought he understood all. Really, he deserved it to be put this clear to him. A stopgap - how about that? Because with any other male or female West would have to keep his secret - and Cooper knew it, by default? Not even second best - the only one possible. Some sex - why not? West wanted it the same as Cooper did, there was no mistake - his body wanted it.

He felt so tired of this existence on the level of bodies! It was how he was created to be - an anthropoid death machine. Was he never going to get away from it?

He felt his skin stretch on his face, so hard he clenched his jaws. The faces of those on the opposite bench of the jet blurred in his eyes - and it was good because he couldn't see Nathan's face somewhere among them.

And you wanted... a tiny voice, a derisive voice in his head - impossible to shush and maddening in its ironic intuitiveness. You wanted him to say that he cared for you... that he wanted it to happen the same as you did... that he fell in love with you? When? On Atreius? When did you fall in love with him? As if you know what humans call love.

Pressing the knuckles of clenched fists to his temples he tried to expel the voice - and saw Vansen's disapproving gaze. Bad, Hawkes, bad... Should have thought about the mission. It would get him killed if he went on like this.

Getting killed for Nathan? It was more than one could demand from him.

But the things worked out right as soon as it started. Hunting the Silicates was a good distraction, one had to admit. And when he was stuck alone behind the rusty bulk of an old land-rover, emptying a magazine after magazine into three AI who drove him there, he didn't think about anything else. He knew there were three of them against him. And yet he knew he would win.

He got them eventually - the shooting stopped. It was quiet, dead quiet in their hole. He got out of his shelter cautiously, approached three sprawled bodies. The hot wind tousled a strand of flax blond hair of one of them. Cooper knew who he was.

Getting on his knees, he reached his hand to Alexander's half- destroyed face - and suddenly the Silicate moved - not to attack but in half-agony already, one white-on-white eye focusing on him slowly.

"Little In-Vitro. See we didn't mess up you so badly, after all."

Cooper started back, pointing the gun at him, his finger fluttering on the trigger.

"It is a curious thing to meet you again."

Hatred and disgust choking him, he squeezed through his teeth at last:

"Oh shut up!"

"You will make me, won't you? I am not afraid," the Silicate said, whitish slime of his inner liquids leaking from his mouth and from the wound on his cheek. "You know I am not. You will remember me. I did my best for it to make you, didn't I?"

He shot and looked with a frozen face how the body quaked under the bullets. Then he made his finger uncurl, stopping the fire.

The AI's head was split in two, the wires and chips falling on the ground. He bent again - and, incomprehensible for himself, picked up a flat sharp-angled plate from there. Alexander's mother board.

I can give it to Nathan, he thought with sudden savageness. A gift from an old friend.

Then there was Paul running to him, shouting:

"Don't you have anything else to do, Coop?" and there was no time to think anymore.

He fought and they won and nobody died and they returned to the ship and had fun till the morning. And he tried not to look at Nathan, no matter how close they happened to be - and almost succeeded in it.

He knew eventually it would pass. After days. Maybe, after weeks. It would; he just had to wait out.


He whirled around, the cards falling from his hand - having no doubts whose voice it was - but so un-wanting unwilling to accept it that if his wish had a power, there would be no one behind him. Of course, West was there, staring down at him, his arms folded against his midriff protectively.

"I am sorry."

Oh? It was not what he expected. But, come to think about it, what else could he expect? Fair as always - West, wasn't he? Not afraid to apologize when he was wrong. Cooper looked at him through the curtain of his fringe, not raising his head - seeing mostly the pale long-fingered hands, not able to look higher and see Nathan's face.

Sure, whatever. Everything was over. Stuff it into another can with the label 'unrequited love # ... - Lt. West' and put it on the farthest shelf in your memory. It is not the last one, by all means.

"It was crummy what I said then."

Enough, okay? What was the point to in standing here - when Cooper didn't even answer him? Or did he wait for an answer? Something that would make him feel alright - like: 'Never mind, friends again.' Friends. What did Alexander say about it?

"You are not friends, are you?"

"It was like I wanted to use you... like I didn't feel anything. I didn't mean it."

What did you mean? He wanted to snap but, strangely, it was not so difficult, after all, to restrain himself. Perhaps he was just too tired.

He stuck his hand in his pocket and found the cold flat bit of metal there. Alexander knew. Squeezing it in his palm, feeling as the sharp angles stick deep into his skin, he tried to make the bitterness go away and couldn't. How much did Alexander matter in everything, after all? Would he feel about West what he felt without that week on Atreius? How to know? He felt it now. And was what Alexander had done the only thing that stood between them?

"I didn't use you," use, use... it always hurts most of all, right? "I was... serious."

Strange choice of words. Of course, he was serious - as someone about to have sex could be. He didn't need West to tell him about it. Over, over, make him go away. Maybe, days, maybe, months later everything would be back the way it was again - and then it wouldn't hurt like this to be so close to him and yet to know how much he was mistaken.

Mistaken. This word again. Now he knew what it meant.

"Anyway, Cooper, I just wanted you to know it," there was something sad and final in Nathan's voice - as if he did everything he could and it didn't work. Cooper felt a little quiver inside - and got angry with himself for feeling it.

What was it all about? He should have tried to put it behind as soon as possible, not to put questions to himself that could bring him to the conclusions he wanted... and he wanted hope.

"I don't feel like a liar with you."

Was it so little? There was safety in trust, wasn't there? Any safety was a great deal for them - when any of them could die every day without saying good-bye. Maybe, it was what Nathan meant. Maybe, there was still some chance.

I'll give him this chance, Cooper thought suddenly. No, I'll give myself this chance.

"Are you still serious?" he said quietly.



"Because if you are... I am about to accept the offer."

He pushed away the long strands of hair, looking up at West with the open face. He could stand doing it. For a moment or two, anyway - he had been through worse things, after all. And then...

But it turned out that he needed no more than a moment or two. Because West's face was suddenly very pale and eyes on it very dark - no pupils visible. He nodded slowly.

"Then let's meet in the gym's locker room at 23:00," Cooper said quickly before anything else could happen, got up and rushed out of the room past Nathan.

He was sure they wouldn't meet. It was a stupid panicky feeling - after all, what could happen? Like another mission, for example? But the day rolled to its end steadily - and then the real fear started: that nothing would happen but Nathan wouldn't come.

He was there. The locker room was unlit - but there was enough light for Cooper to see him sitting in a Turkish manner on the bench. He heard the slight rustle of the clothes as West unfolded his legs and stood up. He made a step forward and stopped for some reason - and saw that Nathan stopped, too. They looked at each other - standing in just a few feet from each other and unable to move.

It was awkward. It couldn't be otherwise, Cooper thought with amazement. Not when two men agreed to meet in a distant place with the sole purpose to fuck... whatever was going to come out of it in the end. And the funniest thing was, he realized with a nervous smile, that he was not hard at all.

But it changed somehow without him even noticing it as soon as Nathan made a step towards him and he opened his arms. West's smell was meticulously clean, of soap and toothpaste and after- shave - and he smiled at the thought of how West must have been preparing to this meeting... but hadn't he himself done the same? Nathan's own smell was under this - warm and cozy and something that Cooper must have got used to on Atreius, despite everything, because it kept haunting him since then. He wrapped his arms around Nathan's shoulders and absorbed almost feverish heat coming from him, the hardness of the thin frame. He felt West's hands lie on his flanks carefully, too carefully - but it was okay, everything was okay to him. Just to hold him like this.

Then he felt West duck his head slightly forward and felt his smooth, fresh-shaven cheek against his own. How much he could give for the moments like this, warm skin against warm skin... and they even didn't do anything but Cooper wasn't in a hurry, no matter how hard his cock was. He felt Nathan's breath on his cheek. Then there were lips. Soft and warm and tentative, exploring his cheekbone slowly - in wing-like touches. Suddenly he wondered if it was how West made love to Kylen - but he knew at once it was not. Maybe, for the first time. He and Kylen knew each other so well. He and Cooper only started to know each other - and the forced intimacy of Atreius couldn't help there, it could be only forgotten.

He felt Nathan's hand sliding up his chest slowly - not directed caresses but the same weird kind of exploration - and he let him do it. He sensed the moment unmistakably when West's kisses became bolder; he moved not to his lips but kissed Cooper's jaw and down to his neck - and then Cooper kissed him, too - the soft smooth hair over the temple, his hands stroking around Nathan's shoulders, the same as West's hands caressed his chest and arms messily. He let Nathan go just to take his face in his hands, turning it to himself, for one second looking straight in Nathan's eyes, dark and wide - and so strangely vulnerable as he had never seen them, not even on Atreius.

He vowed fiercely - but he really didn't need to vow because he knew - that he would never be able to break this trust, no matter what would happen later. Whether it took much or too little to tie him - he was not free any more.

He didn't want to kiss West's mouth first - he willed Nathan to do it - and somehow, a moment later, he understood - linked their mouths together, dry lips at first - then softly, slowly meeting Cooper's tongue with his own. West's hands moved on Cooper's shoulders, his back, his head. Then Cooper took his hand and put it on the circle on the nape under his hair.

The touch was very light - and Cooper tensed momentarily, thinking what if it would be ruining for them, this slight difference in physiology. With sudden bitterness he thought that people were always so quick to use it to punish him - how could he expect someone would touch him there to please him? But he was made this way - he couldn't undo it for West - so, if he...

Nathan's mouth reassured him: not letting Cooper's go - and there were these little gasps he made that Cooper could feel in his mouth. He sensed Nathan's fingers, warm and thin, started stroking the bud of flesh on his nape gently - as if petting a cat.

He smiled in the kiss, reached for the clasps of Nathan's shirt and pulled them apart. He felt how Nathan went rigid suddenly - not pulling away but with his lips getting dry and unresponsive at once. He broke the kiss and looked in his eyes and saw the reckless determination there - to overwhelm himself, to make the things go on.

No, forget about it, please, Cooper thought miserably, it's me with you, not them. He pulled West closer, almost violently, tightening the embrace - and at last felt the body in his arms slacken little by little.

Then Nathan kissed the hollow of his collar-bone and Cooper could breathe normally.

He loosened the grip slowly, putting his hands on Nathan's sides. The skin, stretched tightly over his ribs, was like silk against the tips of Cooper's fingers - but warm, with living warmth, he couldn't even imagine that it would feel like this. He felt Nathan's sides quiver minutely under his touches - and then he slid down and took one of West's dark soft nipples in his mouth.

He felt light-headed for some reason, pressing his lips tightly against the hardening nub, lapping his tongue over it smoothly and insistently. West's body trembled in the ring of his arms, the little signs of passion that were not necessary to puzzle out, even if Nathan's hands didn't pull his head closer.

"What are you doing..." it was not a question. Said in this low, almost unrecognizable voice - it was almost like a plea - and suddenly Cooper thought that to hear West say it like that, in this voice, was making him happier than he had ever been in his life - even if he didn't know it before. That he would want to hear this voice again and again.

He licked the other nipple while his hand moved down, finding and pulling down the zipper. He kissed to the place where Nathan's ribs joined, listening to the beating of pulse there with his lips, then the navel and lower, freeing the way for his lips from the clothes - sinking on his knees smoothly in front of West.

"You..." there was almost fear in Nathan's voice as he looked down at Cooper's upturned face, the dark eyes questioning, worried. "You don't have to..."

Don't you know, stupid human, can't you see that it makes me happy?

He pressed his lips to the fine trace of down that went on Nathan's belly from his navel to the darkness of soft fur. West's cock startled him with how hot, how silk-smooth its skin was - and he cradled it between his palms for a moment before enveloping his lips around the crown.

It tasted warm and slightly salty and he lapped with his tongue, trying to get more of this taste - almost surprised when Nathan's hands in his hair clasped convulsively. It must have been the right thing he had done, he thought with contentment, sliding his mouth down along the shaft. He moved with perfect smoothness, speeding up as he read the slightest urge in the tiny, reserved motions of West's hips. Nathan's palms lay on his head, not pulling him closer, just being there in a weird kind of warm lock, the fingers running occasionally through his hair, playing with his nape.

"Cooper... Jesus... no..." bucking his hips, with his words nonsensical - West was coming - his sperm filling Cooper's mouth as he froze in Cooper's arms.

He swallowed, lapping around the head of West's cock at the same time. He missed no sigh, no sound - like a moan coming from West and Cooper knew it was him who elicited them. He felt proud. He felt contented. He wanted almost nothing else.

Then West pulled him up on his feet and closer to himself. Cooper kind of fell against his body, the sensation of his hard cock touching against West's, now soft, separated only with one layer of cloth, was electrifying. He shivered. West's arms enveloped Cooper, pressed him closer in a totally welcoming gesture - and he felt Nathan's lips on his, the warm tongue in his mouth, licking for a few moments.

"Let me..." it was the softest whisper - and Cooper was not even sure he heard it right. But Nathan's hands were unmistakable, pulling his t-shirt up and over his head. He tensed minutely when West's fingers ran along the thin ropes of the scars over his left arm - and then he was kissed again, his throat, the pit between his collar- bones, his chest.

He didn't realize how it happened - a moment before Nathan kissed him - and then he was already on his knees in front of Cooper, his hands pulling at the belt of his pants.

"Now you..." he wanted to say 'don't have to' - but it seemed funny, this exchange of politeness - and would Nathan do it if he didn't want to?

"It won't be too bad," West said in a high voice, taking the head of his cock in his mouth.

It was not bad.

Minutes later, both spent, they sat side by side on the floor, barely touching but for their knees and hands. But even like that Cooper felt the warmth that came from Nathan, almost burning sensation at the points of touch.

Then West threaded fingers through his quietly.

"Do you want to tell others about it?"

The question made him blink - and he wondered mildly how even after all that had happened West never stopped bewildering him. Did they need to tell?

He looked at West - and saw these serious, strangely unguarded eyes - and then the understanding slowly descended on him.

It was not about the others - it was about him. His readiness to commitment. He felt his breath caught in his throat - and tightened his hand on Nathan's.

"But they will know all the same," he said quietly.

And what about Kylen? It was not a good moment to think about her - and yet he let the thought slip in. And didn't he know the answer? Nathan would never stop trying to find her. If wouldn't be him if he did. And Cooper was not going to think, to hope that she might never be found. Let it be how it would be. So far he was sitting with Nathan shoulder to shoulder, their fingers linked, their mouths still feeling the taste of each other.

In the shower he looked at Nathan through the wet strands of hair clinging to his face - and he thought that he was somehow absolutely certain that they had so much in front of them. They would be able to do so many things together, would do it in another way, Cooper would show that it didn't necessarily have to hurt, they would know how exactly to make each other happy.

And yet he knew so well how deceptive this certainty was - that, maybe, they had nothing together in the future, not even one day - that, maybe, one of them or both would die in the next mission.

So it will be.

Back in the locker room, dressing, he felt something heavy and metallic pulling at his pocket and stuck his hand there. Alexander's mother board. He recalled how he wanted to toss it on Nathan's bed - a cruel souvenir - and it seemed to him to be such a long time ago, as if it was not him at all. He took out the chip, hiding it in his palm, and threw it into the waste disposal hole. He heard it rattle against the pipe until somewhere far away it disappeared in the open space. He knew Nathan looked at him - and turning to meet his eyes, he said shrugging with a short smile:

"You can't imagine what litter I have in my pockets."


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