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strings between the stars

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Removing the breathing tube is supposed to make you vomit. It's even more unpleasant waking up for the first time without a friendly hand tight on your shoulder, without an expert to grin down at you as you blink the Broth out of your eyes.

 

Martin doubles over, gasping and still mostly submerged in the fluid that has been keeping him alive for . . . For how long? Wait. The prolonged unconsciousness has made his mind numb and sluggish. Where's Tim? He stares down at the pale shadow of his body through the green gel, utterly confused. He appears to be on a shuttle, a cramped white box instead of the breath-taking row upon row of chambers in the Institute.

 

He jumps at the raspy breath to his right.

'Martin! Martin! Oh, please.'

 

And it all comes flooding back.

 

'Oh! F-!' The Broth spills over the sides of the chamber with a wet splat in Martin's haste to get to Jon. His slick feet slip on the smooth panelling but he manages to grab onto the side of Jon's chamber before he falls. Jon's mouth hangs open, downturned with bewildered fear. His thick eyebrows bunch together over his empty sockets. It's still a shock to see those fleshy, empty holes in his face and Martin swallows his instinctual revulsion. Jon's hands land on his chest, immediately searching upwards to feel the curve of Martin's cheeks.

'Martin!' He confirms, 'Oh, oh, sorry - I -' Jon is mumbling endlessly, leaning out of the chamber to get as much physical contact as the glass will allow.

'Sh, shh!' Martin wraps his arms around Jon's shoulders a little awkwardly. They may have escaped the end together, have defeated an evil, have slept side by side for years and years, but their relationship feels as young and delicate as the shaky sigh from Jon's lips that cools the Broth clinging to Martin's bare skin.

'I thought, when I woke up -' He clears his throat, 'I thought maybe I had been re-uploaded.' Martin feels the shudder rattle down Jon's spine and shivers himself. Protective, as though his body is warming up to take on whatever might try to steal Jon from him next. He slips his fingers into the matted and squelching mass of Jon's hair.

'I'm not going to let that happen.' He promises. Jon's fingertips dig into his back. Please, don't, they beg.

'Why are we awake?'

'I don't know - it's, uh, it's always been me asking that question.' Martin pulls back a little, twisting his head to try and read the alert on the computer screen. It's hard to concentrate for the bounding delight of his heartbeat. One of Jon's hands slips from his cheek to rest on the pulse point beneath his jaw. From the hitch of Jon's breathing, he's equally thrilled at the unlikelihood of having his love alive in front of him. 'I should check what these alerts are. Will you be okay staying put for a second?' He asks, a touch breathlessly. Jon's face crumples into a scowl of irritation at having being asked an obvious question. 'I'm just checking!' He admonishes teasingly and bites back a laugh as Jon smooths out his expression immediately, the lines on his forehead disappearing. Martin stares down at the shiny brown skin and yearns to smooth the Broth away and kiss him. They haven't . . . They haven't talked about that yet. Martin isn't sure if Jon will have different opinions about being kissed now he's in this body.

'What?' Jon asks suspiciously.

'Can I kiss your forehead?' Martin blurts and Jon must be able to feel his cheeks heat and his pulse gallop underneath those smooth fingertips of his. Earth below.

'I - ah, yes - I think you should.'

 

Martin cradles the bristly line of Jon's jaw, trying to give the man as much information about their relative positions in space as possible. Inhaling quickly, he closes the gap between them and Jon's forehead is right there, pleasantly warm under his lips. Of course he trembles just a little, there are fireworks exploding in his chest and warm aftershocks rippling through the rest of him. Someday, he will know what Jon actually smells like beneath the salty blandness of Broth.

 

Jon is a fool if he thinks Martin doesn't catch the way his hands twitch, or the soft and contented hum he tries to cover with a cough.

'Alright?'

'I - well - yes, Martin. That was . . . Adequate. Good! Good.' Jon's hands slide lower to his shoulders, thumbs pressing into  the muscle in what Martin thinks must be a tease or some kind of embarrassed distress. Martin is about to laugh, about to ask him if he'd want to give Martin a kiss in return but Jon says: 'Will you read me the alerts?' and Martin's stomach drops cold at the reminder of why they're here in the first place.

'Yeah.' He nods, 'Yeah.' Jon's hands fall back into the Broth reluctantly.

 

It's strange, using a computer again when Martin has gotten so comfortable just asking Jon to help him with what he needs. The screen blinks with a blue message alert and Martin smears it with green as he accepts it.

'It's,' Oh. 'It's a warning from the Board.' He hears the slosh of fluid as Jon sits up straighter in anticipation of the news. 'The Intergalactic Peace and Security Board report a missing ship, The Magnus Institute, which has disappeared from its approved flight course. All -' His throat closes up, 'All attempts at communication with the ship have been unsuccessful. The Board are currently treating this disappearance as suspicious and demand that anyone with any information about the ship contact The Board immediately.'

 

For a moment, they are silent. Martin reads the message over and over until the letters scramble and he has to scrunch his face up against the pain of it.

'Martin?' Jon asks very quietly.

Martin shakes the image of Tim - his blue eyes frozen with determination and the only cold thing in a sea of roaring flames - out of the forefront of his mind. They both know what the message means.

'Heavens, I hope it was worth it.' Is all he can whisper.

'Me too.' Jon says with just as much feeling. Then, warily, 'No word from Daisy or Basira?'

 

Martin presses the screen experimentally and the message disappears.

'No, I - I don't think so.' A glance over his shoulder confirms the presence of a disappointed moue shaping Jon's angular features. He tries tapping the screen again. There's a lingering distrust between himself and this computer that he can't seem to shake, like any second he'll press a button and Elias' hand will reach through the screen to grab him. With this fear coiled like a snake in his lungs, Martin flinches and lets out a soft sound of shock as another message pops up on the screen.

'What have you done now?' Jon asks, fond amusement evident in the musical slide of his vowels.

'I -'

'Honestly, Martin, you do love to put computers through their paces, don't you?'

'Oh - shut up!' He blushes, trying to figure out the correct configuration of buttons to press to get the damn think to open. It looks important and the awful anticipation isn't helping the tremble in his fingers. 'You're still here aren't you?' He mutters.

Jon's chuckle is truly a wonder, a burst of noise that settles back quickly into a much quieter sequence of happy-sounding huffs as though it is trying not to take up too much space. Martin is thinking about how he longs to lure that laugh out of him, to let the peals of it fill the whole fucking galaxy when he suddenly stumbles upon the right sequence of keys to open the message and he freezes.

'Jon.' The cold rush of adrenaline chills him from the crown of his soggy, overgrown mop of hair down to the soles of his bare feet and is immediately thawed by a rush of ascending warmth which tinges his skin pink as it climbs. His body doesn't know how to react to this new information. He reads it again just to be sure.

'Martin? What is it? Is everything okay?'

'Oh my - hah!' He lets out a sharp laugh, a wave of relief shattering the sharp spikes that had grown in his chest at the news from The Board. Feet slapping on the slippery panels, he half-runs back to Jon and lays his hands atop Jon's where they curl around the edge of the chamber. They twitch beneath his palms, tendons pulling taut to lift those long fingers up close against Martin's skin. 'We've been found!'

The expression on Jon's face pinches tight then falls slack in understanding. Martin squeezes his hands and a hesitant smile breaks across Jon's lips. 'Really?!'

'Yes!' The floor is too slick for much more than an excited jiggle, but Martin imagines Jon must be able to feel his rapid sway through their joined hands. 'That's why we've been woken up - they're coming for us!'

'We're - hah -' Jon's smile flickers. The light of hope and the shadow of caution. 'We're really going home.'

 

******

 

The shuttle judders as it approaches the hulking form of their rescuer. Martin holds onto Jon's hand tightly and checks that Jon is still clinging onto the wall to steady himself against the unpredictable turbulence. He takes a moment to admire the way Jon's freshly cut hair brushes against the collar of his spacesuit, the carefully neutral set of his jaw and the way he has tilted his head just slightly in Martin's direction, as though listening for every breath.

 

'Tell me what you see.' He repeats and Martin blushes, feeling caught. He averts his gaze back out through the glass doors. In truth, he had been too wired with an ecstatic anticipation to really take in the ship's appearance as they approached. A gnawing apprehension chews at his insides even as his mind reels with thoughts of being able to curl up with Jon in the tight, safe space of a sleep chamber for the night. The eyes, safely stowed back in his pocket, buzz and Martin thinks they get it. The plan is to tell the new crew that Jon lost his eyes in a freak laser accident. Martin is an exceptional liar. It's going to be fine.

 

'Uh. It’s a normally shaped ship, kind of off-white, like it's recently passed through an asteroid belt or something -'

'A normally shaped ship? Martin.' Jon's exasperated tone doesn't quite match the playful stroke of his thumb over the back of Martin's hand.

'You know what I mean.' He blushes, eyes drawn to the way the light bounces off Jon's skin, casting ethereal smudges of white across his cheekbones, nose and forehead. Martin had taken great care when shaving off Jon's beard and now he can see the occasional freckle and mole against his otherwise unmarked skin. He wants to press his lips softly against each one in turn until he feels the man's cheeks heat up with embarrassed pleasure. He wants -

'You're not looking at the ship, are you?' One of Jon's eyebrows quirk. It's hopelessly endearing.

'Hm? Ah. Actually . . . Um. No.'

 

They each grab hold of the walls and each other as the shuttle grinds to a stop, magnets seizing the side of the ship like an oversized metallic barnacle. Jon turns to him, face unreadable, and his fingers squeeze Martin's tight enough to be almost painful.

'Whatever happens,' He murmurs, voice dark with the weight of their shared horrors. Martin swallows. 'We have each other.'

 

Martin opens his mouth but can't find the right words to respond to this promise. The very opposite of a goodbye. Instead, he clasps Jon's hand firmly between both his own and, as the glass door finally slides open, they step out together, leaving the last vestiges of The Magnus Institute behind them.

 

The air on this new ship is crisp and cold. Martin vows to think of it as refreshing even as he huddles a little closer towards Jon. With a death rattle of pressurised air, the shuttle door closes behind them. Martin sees the pool of white light on the floor dim in sections as the shuttle lights blink out one by one.

 

We have each other. He holds the thought tight to his chest. Whatever happens.

 

The interior of the ship appears to be much older than that of the shuttle, a muted grey chamber lined with benches and a circular window in the only door that looks positively antique. They're clearly in some kind of quarantine. It's very quiet. Almost too quiet to be truly peaceful.

 

'Mar-' Jon starts but is cut off by a synthetic chime.

 

Starting decontamination procedure. A cheerful robotic voice wafts from the small speaker set into the wall - Heavens, this place is old - and Martin holds onto Jon as tightly as he can. They both flinch as a sharp hiss announces the arrival of a stream of frigid mist from the vents near the floor. Please stand still as you listen to this pre-recorded message. There follows a high-pitched rush of sound that has Martin fighting the urge to flinch.

 

'Hello,' Something about the voice doesn't sound pre-recorded. Martin can't shake the feeling that, if he were to look over his shoulder, the genially-toned gentleman would be mere inches away. 'Welcome aboard the Starship Tundra. This is your Captain speaking: Captain Peter Lukas.'