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the universe I'm helpless in

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Jon taps the Broth-slick surface of the shuttle floor twice with his foot before daring to step down from the short ladder which connects to his Broth chamber.

'That's it.' Martin encourages him softly, voice hovering somewhere close. His hands are warm where they wrap gently around Jon's forearms, as though he daren't brave the intimacy of holding him by the wrists. Of feeling Jon's pulse beneath the fingerprints that Jon could draw from memory.

 

Martin could hold his wrists. Or his hands. Or wrap an arm around the small of his back to steer him along by the hip. A memory surfaces. Jon is still unused to the cognitive redirection involved with remembering, it takes up so much of this limited human mind. He remembers a cat. It steps indelicately over a keypad to jump into Jon's lap and flicks the ginger tuft of its tail underneath Jon's nose as it rubs up against him. Purring. Jon thinks he might do that with Martin if it weren't for the fact that the man is freshly showed and suited, and Jon is still very much covered in Broth.

 

'Thanks.' He mumbles, voice still rough from the breathing tube. As the Archivist, his voice had never cracked, never wavered. It would take time to relearn how to modulate his speech with nuance again. Martin's grip tightens as they start towards the shower cubicle. The ex-Archival Assistant had even gone as far as to put boots on, and the steady thump of them against the panelled flooring seems even more measured against the arrhythmic slaps of Jon's bare feet as he tries to coordinate his body. The floor feels like a long way down, Jon thinks, distantly. Martin's guidance is almost definitely the only thing keeping him from hitting the deck.

Jon's breath does something funny as it passes down into his chest as, without fear or constraint, he allows himself to think that there is no-one else he would rather have holding him up.

 

Aboard the Institute, Jon had gotten rather good at giving instructions - endless commands in streams of brilliant code - but he lifts his foot obligingly when Martin tells him to watch the step and grins at the flustered garble that follows as Martin remembers that Jon might struggle to watch the step with his eyes tucked away inside a breast pocket. His stomach jolts as he is released to step into the shower cubicle without thinking that the floor would be sunken to prevent flooding. He hisses, reaching out for the walls and Martin's hands are back on him, righting his balance before he slips.

'Careful! You okay?'

Jon hums, heart racing with the shock of the near-fall and the delight of large, warm hands on his shoulders. 'Sorry, I hope I didn't get you messy.' His fingers slip through the water droplets on the walls, remnants of Martin's shower, until they catch on the unmistakeable glass screen of the shower controls.

'Ah, don't worry! Towards the right of the screen is on, left is off.' Martin prompts, 'I'll close the door, okay?'

'Okay.' Jon feels around the edges of the panel, orienting himself and listens to the snick of the door as it closes.

 

The thin sheet of plastic muffles Martin's voice just enough to be a detectable difference. It reminds Jon of the times Martin would whisper to him late at night, voice dampened by his pillow, nothing but the coppery tangle of his hair visible to Jon's cameras. Distracted by memory again. Jon shakes his head silently. But he can't resent the warm tingle in his stomach as he remembers. Not even slightly.

 

Martin is still talking, he realises guiltily. That's new too, the limit to the amount of sensory input he can process at once. New and frustrating. Jon presses the screen quickly in an attempt to focus on the task at hand.

'Remember, the water is going to be -'

'AH!' He yells as a blast of freezing water hits him from above. 'BLOODY HELL!' He gasps, clutching his own frame uselessly and already starting to shiver. He feels the congealed Broth on his shoulders start to slip away.

'- cold.' Martin finishes. A peal of genuine laughter rings through the door, charming enough for a little heat to bloom in Jon's cheeks despite the frigid water dripping down them.

 

How different - how wonderful - it is to hear Martin's voice without the interference of microphones and wires. The Institute's hardware had taken a lot from Martin, including the upper and lower frequencies of his speech as it relayed it to Jon. But he could hear it properly now. Could he feel it, if he pressed his ear to Martin's chest?  His closed mouth to Martin's throat? Jon's appetite for knowledge supersedes his time as Archivist, and it has not been lost in transmission. He wants to know everything.

 

'Shut up.' Jon huffs despite the fond skittering of his neurones. It makes Martin laugh again, louder, and Jon swipes his fingers over his own crooked grin. This is a positive feedback loop he could get lost in. 'It is freezing, Martin.'

'It'll warm up soon.' The affection in Martin's voice makes some forgotten part of Jon's centre seize with emotion. He desperately wants to be out of this shower, learning how this body he has nearly forgotten fits against Martin's, and it's with this thought that he finds the courage to release his hands from around his chest to start squeezing the Broth from the weight of his hair.

 

Jon twitches as a matted clump of it falls free and hits his back, the sensation too much like a pat on the shoulder from an overfamiliar stranger. He guesses his hair must reach the middle of his back. Clearly, he was in a rush to get out of the Broth chamber the last time he was woken up. No time to spend hovering in front of the mirror trying to get the lengths equal. In fairness, he hadn't anticipated that there would be Martin to impress one day. There was a lot he hadn't known. No. Jon's hands still in his hair, as frozen as the water which hits them. There's an icy feeling in his stomach too. I was in a rush. Elias told me - Elias was there and he -

 

Jon reaches out to steady himself and his palm meets the cold panels in front of him and, to the left, the rougher plastic of the door. Martin is on the other side . . . He knows that. But, does he? How can he be sure? Blind and naïve as he is. He can picture it so clearly: Elias' smile as he holds up a fresh suit for Jon to step into, as he assures Jon that, yes, a fault had been detected with his chamber, but not to worry, they had a 12th Generation AciurgyAssist-0410 for this kind of thing. It wouldn't hurt at all.

 

'Martin!' He croaks. Then, louder, 'Martin!'

'Jon?! Everything okay?' Martin's voice sounds closer, as if he's pressing himself against the door, ready to open it and flood the shuttle at Jon's request. Jon's breath whistles past his numb lips.

'Yes - ah - I'm okay. I just -' He breathes again. Elias pats him smartly on the shoulder as Jon eyes up the medbot with distrust. Trying to clear a mental image is much harder without new visual stimuli.

'Jon?'

'Pleasecanyoutalktome?' Jon asks, quick and quiet. 'Keep talking to me.'

 

Barely audible over the pounding water, a sound of shifting fabric, a hollow tap as though Martin has laid a hand against the door.

'Of course, Jon. Of course I will. I'm right here.' The words seem to dry up anyway. He can almost feel Martin's self-consciousness. 'What - hm - what would you like me to - ah - talk about?'

Jon returns to his hair. 'I don't know.' He supplies. Honest, but unhelpful. Martin's pondering hum is very sweet.

'Oh!'

'Yes?'

'Did I - ? Hah. Did I tell you that we met once? Before?'

'You certainly did not.' Jon pauses again. He knows every angle of Martin's face in exquisite detail in his mind, but he has no recollection of seeing him through the limitations of binocular vision. 'No - I - I don't recall -'

Martin chuckles, the ring of it a touch more rueful than before. Jon bites his lip. He tastes of salt.

'I'm not surprised you don't, I looked different at the time.'

'Oh. Of course.' The Broth. Tim made changes -

'Yeah. But I'm sure it was you. We were in the queue to board the ship and I was panicking that I didn't have the right paperwork, staring down at my computer to check and -' He huffs a laugh, 'I bumped into you. You -'

'What?'

'You're kind of cute when you scowl, Jon.'

'Excuse me?' Jon can feel his face shifting into one now, eyebrows sinking to meet the sudden flush of his cheeks. Martin's giggle is much brighter than before. 'I - What did I say?' Earth below, was I awful? He wants to ask. Martin hadn't been the only one struggling with anxiety during the slow procession onto the ship. Even as a human, Jon's stress presents itself as tetchiness.

'Look where you're going!' Martin affects a passable impression of Jon at his haughtiest. The shower temperature has only heated up incrementally, but the man inside it still feels like he's on fire. He groans, mortified, and Martin shushes him. 'Don't worry, I deserved it, clipping your heels like that.'

'I'm terribly sorry.' Jon says. He is. 'I'll have to make it up to you.'

'Jon,' Martin sighs, voice heavy as though he wants to force his meaning right through the door, 'You already have.'

 

****

The damp weight of Jon's hair rests in one of Martin's hands. He stares down at the length of it and, darkened by water as it is, it looks as black as the Space on the other side of the airlock. Twice as beautiful, though, Martin thinks and is immediately grateful that Jon can't hear his thoughts. He glances at the scissors in his other hand almost ruefully. It seems a shame, to cut it before he gets a chance to see it dry. Jon shuffles impatiently on the chair in front of the computer and Martin bites back an exasperated smile.

'Ready?' He asks.

'Yes!' Jon straightens up, his hair slipping over Martin's palm as he does so. 'Actually,' He spins a little. There's something mischievous in his face. In his lips. It’s a good look on him. 'Let me feel yours first, see how good a job you've done.' His hand finds Martin's chest first, sliding up to curve around to the nape of his neck. There was no mirror except for his reflection in the glass of the airlock. Martin had tried. 'Oh, Martin.' Jon chuckles as his long fingers brush over Martin's scalp, feeling the imperfectly shorn strands of hair curling there. 'You'd make a terrible aesthetobot.'

'I couldn't see what I was doing, okay?' Martin grumbles, cheeks burning. Though he suspects that might have something to do with Jon's hand in his hair rather than genuine embarrassment. 'I promise I'll do a better job with yours.' Jon reaches Martin's uneven fringe and he gives the strands a gentle and entirely pleasant tug before dropping his hand to a rosy cheek.

'Hah.' He smiles, soft and amazed, as he presses his palm more firmly against Martin's skin. 'I always wondered what your blush would feel like.'

Martin opens his mouth and closes it again. A fresh wave of delighted mortification makes his face flush hotter. Jon beams at the feel of it.

 

'You know what,' Martin says and allows Jon's hair to slip from his grasp. 'That's quite enough from you, Jon.' Martin punctuates his threat by wrapping his free hand around Jon's wrist and pulling his hand away. He's not yet had time to admire the lines on his palm, the way they stand out so beautifully against the lighter skin here. Without thinking, he kisses the centre of it. It's nothing, no more than a dry press of lips. But if he blushes again at the sound of Jon's sharp inhalation, at least the other man can't feel it this time. He thinks Jon is smiling as he spins the chair back around so that Jon's hair is facing him.

'Short but not too short.' He instructs and Martin has to try to assemble the fact that this voice, this consciousness, is the same one that talked him through all of the horrors they have escaped. If someone had told him that they'd one day be an hour away from the start of a life together, Jon's hair resting heavy in his hands . . . 'Martin?'

'Yes! Sorry, I - Short but not too short. Lovely and vague, thank you.'

'I trust you.' Jon says it simply enough. Martin's mouth is suddenly very dry.

 

The scissors make a harsh purr as they shear through the hair and it's the only sound above the hum of the shuttle for a while. Martin makes a mess of the first straight line he attempts and he begins to feel grateful that 'short but not too short' gives him such a wide margin for error.

'You're very quiet back there.' Jon comments after a few minutes of consistent snipping.

'I'm trying to concentrate.' Martin debates squeezing Jon's shoulder but he decides he can do one better and strokes down the side of his hair and neck. Jon leans into the gesture like a particularly affectionate cat. 'What's your excuse?'

'I'm thinking.'

'Oh, yeah?'

'About . . . after.'

'After what?'

'Well, when we get my eyes back . . . what we do from there.'

Martin stops to admire his handiwork. Jon's hair now falls to his shoulders in waves that are becoming more prominent as it dries. The grey hairs that peak though at the roots look like the movements of comets as seen from Earth. He brushes his fingers up the back of Jon's warm neck, just because he can.

'There's -' Martin puts the scissors away in the drawer he found them in. He's aware that Jon is waiting for an answer, but he stalls a little more by poking the cleanbot into action to clear up their hair from the floor. The words roll around his tongue like dust around a nebula. 'I want to be able to say that it doesn't really matter as long as we're together . . .' He watches Jon twitch at this. 'But . . . we did make a plan.'

'The Highlands?' Jon sits forwards, stressed, like he desperately wants to be right.

'Yeah, I mean . . . I know things have changed and we're pretty much on the run and -' 

'I'd love to, Martin.'

 

****

Jon spins on the chair idly, marvelling at how his vestibular system still manages to keep him steady without any visual input. When Basira had taken his visual feed on the ship, it had felt like an assault on his very operation. But, listening to Martin shuffle about at the other end of the shuttle, rummaging in the shelves for some sustenance for their growling stomachs, muttering softly to himself; feeling the tickle of his new haircut at the back of his neck; the pinch of his boots around feet that had been allowed to soften in Broth for too long. It wasn't so bad. When he was the Archivist, he had thousands of lanes of processing available to him, even without the use of the ship's cameras. Perhaps it was the relative lack of input that made it easier to cope with? More likely, it was that he no longer had an entire crew in immediate danger. But he did think that sensing fewer things at once made each feeling more intimate, more . . . 

 

Jon thinks back to the immediate moments after they were woken up from Broth. Martin had kissed his forehead. He'd felt it all the way down to his toes.

 

'Martin?' He calls. Even to his own ears, the name sounds suspiciously protracted. Martin will be able to tell that he's nervous.

'Yeah? You okay?' See.

'Yes, yes, I'm fine. I just . . .' He can tell that he has Martin's full attention from the sudden lack of rustling at the other end of the shuttle.

 

Spit it out, Jon. 'Earlier,' He starts. It's comforting to press his hands together, but he has to resist the temptation to curl them into frustrated fists at this sudden drought of language.

'Ye-es?' Martin prompts. He sounds as anxious as Jon feels.

'You, erm, kissed me. On -' He clears his throat, 'You kissed me on the forehead.'

'Ah - Oh.' Martin's voice darts up the octave in an impressive swoop. 'Right. Yep. I did. Ah, sorry, if you didn't -'

'No!' Jon cuts him off quickly. Earth below, this should not be so difficult. 'No, I did! I did.'

'Right.' Martin takes a step forwards then seems to think better of it.

'I - hm - realised that I didn't return the favour and I was . . .' He grinds his teeth, skin aflame. 'Hoping. That you might want me to.'

'Oh.' Martin sounds like the wind has been knocked out of him. 'Hah. Um. I was hoping that, uh, you would be hoping that too, to be honest.' Jon takes a second too long to wrap his head around that and Martin continues in a hurried stream, 'Not that there's any pressure - if you - you know, you have a lot to get used to and I don't want to -'

'Martin.'

'Yeah?'

'Please, will you come here?'

 

The stomp of boots on the shuttle floor and he can feel the shift in the air as Martin comes to stand in front of him. Jon reaches out and catches his upper arms, orientating himself as he smooths his hands up to the man's shoulders.

He smiles, 'You might have to line yourself up.' Martin huffs a laugh and the fabric of his suit rustles as he drops to . . . a squat? No. He's too steady for that. His knees. Jon's fingers catch on the stitching off the collar on his suit and he marvels at the feeling of Martin swallowing underneath his fingertips as he makes his way up the other man's neck, to his jawline. Then, Martin's fingers are on his own jaw, tilting his head a degree to the left and curling around the angle of his jaw to pull him forwards.

 

There's a second where he moves through nothing but the space between them, lips pursing in readiness, the adrenaline coursing in his arteries making him think that this could be a cruel joke, that he'll never meet Martin's glorious, freckled skin and will instead be falling towards him forever, never quite making contact.

 

But, of course, his lips meet Martin's forehead and, after that long second of panic, he ruins it with a startled inhalation. It can't have been anything compared to the tender, lingering kiss that had sent something a lot like love tingling down Jon's spine earlier that day.

 

'Let me try again.' He insists. He feels Martin's mouth open beneath his hands and uses the proprioception to guide himself forwards again, more slowly. The kiss he plants on Martin's forehead this time is much more considered. Jon imagines pouring the tangled wiring of his feelings for Martin straight through the point of contact and into his skull. If the way Martin's cheeks bunch into a smile is a reliable indicator, he understands.

 

Jon pulls back but Martin's grip holds him close enough to hear the shaky exhales that follow. He feels Martin tilting his face upwards, until he can feel those same breaths on his own lips. Martin is close enough to -

 

He wouldn't be able to say who moved first.

 

Their noses bump together, heralding the delicate brush of lips to follow. Martin's lips yield much more easily than Jon would have expected from the kiss in the control room, but the slight drag of the chapped skin on his bottom lip makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up in a way that seems entirely predictable in retrospect. It's bizarre. Before, he could feel the ripples of electricity in Martin's muscles, knew that his palms had started to sweat from the chloride concentration on his screens. Now, there is just the touch of their skin and, stars, this feeling in his chest like the very matter of his heart is scattering itself through the cosmos.

 

'No.' Jon breathes as he pulls backwards. Martin's fingers go slack on his face and make a dejected slapping down as they fall into his lap. Jon is already moving, up, out of the chair, reaching clumsily behind himself for the lip of the control panel in front of the screen.

'Jon? Jon? What are you -? Be careful!' He hears Martin shifting underneath the confusion in his voice. There are hands on his knees of all places, uncertain but steadying, as Jon shuffles back until he's pressed against the flat surface of the computer screen. The static from it prickles against the plastic fibres in his suit as though the computer is reaching out to Jon as an old friend.

 

He spent so long agonising over the points of contact that Martin made with his control room, it would be impossible for him to forget exactly the distance between Martin's hands and his lips. For the first time, he really wishes he could see the look on his love's face as he lifts his hands up to press them against the screen, palms facing Martin and begging to be touched.

'Like this.' He whispers, 'Please.'

Martin says nothing, but his breathing has accelerated. Jon's toes curl as his knees are pushed firmly apart, spreading his legs wide enough for Martin to crowd closer.

 

Martin touches his right palm first, a sizzle of friction as he traces a line up the centre of it with the fingertips Jon knows so well, before sliding his fingers between Jon's to press their hands together. Jon's mouth drops open of its own volition, a bassy hum falling from his lips as the sensation is repeated on the left side. Martin's hands are roughly the same size as his own. He doesn't need to see them to know how perfectly they fit together.

 

'Jon.' Martin says.

 

Then he's kissing him. And, once more (as it should be), Jon's universe becomes the three places that Martin Blackwood touches him. But instead of a narrowing of his focus, Jon feels that everything is expanding out from those three points of contact, that his head, his hands, his entire body, is bursting with a brilliant golden light that threatens to blast the airlock open and become a new star. Martin has set him alight. He feels consumed and reborn all at once.

 

'Jon.' Martin gasps as they break for air. He's panting, hot against Jon's mouth. Jon aims to kiss his forehead again but ends up kissing his nose. He tries again and gets an eyebrow.

'Oh,' Breathless and exasperated, he goes for quantity over precision and scatters kisses all over Martin's face until the man is laughing and trying to free his hands from Jon's to hold him still. A steady hand on Jon's jaw, and the next kiss is a firm press of lips. It makes something in Jon's head light up as though there is still a computer screen inside.

'What?' Martin asks as Jon collapses forwards, chuckling into Martin's shoulder.

'I think I just malfunctioned.'

 

****

 

'Martin?'

 

Martin looks up from the tube of supplement paste he was currently struggling through to take in the creases between Jon's slanted eyebrows. There had been plenty of back and forth about who deserved to sit on the chair which ended up with the pair of them folding their long limbs up on the floor of the gangway, Jon sitting opposite Martin and resting his unexpectedly handsome haircut back against the curve of the empty Broth chamber.

 

'You don't like the quiet, do you?' Martin observes, a playful, bubbly feeling rising up from his chest and settling on his lips as a smirk. Jon's lips twitch in the way Martin is learning means that he's embarrassed.

'I just like the reminder that you're there.' He mutters. Martin shifts the leg that's been pressed against the length of Jon's for the past twenty minutes and the man's lips twitch again. A pang of sympathy cuts through Martin's amusement.

'I used to feel the same sometimes, back on the ship.' He admits.

'How so?'

'I'd always be waiting for you to talk to me so I knew if you were watching or not.' This time, the shift of Jon's mouth is more guilty than embarrassed. He clears his throat gently.

'A taste of my own medicine, then.' He sniffs. 'But, ah, Martin?'

'Yeah?'

'I was always watching.'

 

Martin doesn't know what to do with that. He makes a noise at the back of his throat, somewhere between indignation and a laugh. The flashing timer on the computer screen reflects blue and green on the white of Jon's teeth as he grins. A playful nudge and a soothing hand on Martin's shin.

 

'What were you thinking about?'

Martin bites his lip, watching the tendons shift in the back of Jon's hand as he starts to stroke Martin's leg in slow, soothing circles. There was a memory, one part of the horror of their escape, that he'd been turning over and over in his mind since awakening again. Each time, feeling a rising sensation in his chest, like the emotion was trying to claw itself out through Martin's throat.

'Ah.' He stalls. Just ask him, he tells himself, the thought quickly chased by a stream of others warning him of the consequences of such an action. Jon's fingers continue their purposeful journey over the new territory of his leg.

'Martin?'

'I was thinking about when you woke up. The first time.' Martin had been ready to pass out, blinking the stars out of his visual field, hanging onto Jon's Broth Chamber to keep himself upright. Just in case I don't get a chance to say it, Jon had said. But that was where it stung, had Jon only said it because he thought I wouldn't get the chance otherwise? Did he ever intend to - ?

 

Martin thinks of the kiss they shared, Jon trembling and electric, still, underneath him. Had Jon felt the same vast breaking of emotion at the feeling of their lips against each other?

 

Jon's fingers pause, poised like a scorpion preparing to sting. Martin hates the part of himself that has grown to expect pain.

 

'When I told you that I love you?' Jon, far more emotionally astute than Martin might have predicted, asks innocently. Martin's breath hitches.

'Yes. Actually.' Martin bites his lip. This is, objectively, the most safe he has been since boarding the Magnus Institute. Yet, there's a familiar pounding in his chest, blood roaring in his ears, a sudden sensation that his hands have been dipped in liquid nitrogen. Jon's smile really is something.

 

'I love you.'

'I - I love you too.'

 

He reaches out to catch Jon's hand and lace their fingers together. He doesn't squeeze or tug, just allows them to rest atop their legs. Their love has made them ferocious, made them survivors. It seems like high time it let them be at peace.