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Header, digital art bearing the title

It wasn't anything as cliche as love at first sight. Not that Kirell had any experience on anything like that. (There were books, alright?) But there was something, something strong and instant, even over the patchy transmission, garbled sound and voice, that had him desperate to answer to the demand – plea – for help from the space station. He wanted to, well, he wanted to help of course, save them – but... he wanted to be the one helping them, if that distinction made any sense. He wanted to be their hero. His hero.

And seeing the commander's face clearly for the first time did. Not. Disappoint. Holy flaming hell he was hot. The tanned skin of his niiiicely sculpted arms, the way he filled that gray shirt... And the voice. Oh yeah.

Unfortunately then there were the actual words he was saying. Their surprise and awe over their ride was gratifying, but... somehow... the words ”slave shield” made the red glow of their fabled home planet even more horrifying. He'd known it wasn't exactly going to be anything good but... Slaves.

His mission was one of hope but... apparently he wasn't going to find hope here. He was the one who'd have to provide it.

To be the hero. To be their hero. And despite his ship, despite his bravado... he was a kid in an alien ship. He felt so young next to this seasoned officer, could see the doubt in his eyes, regardless of what he'd – they'd, he wasn't alone in the ship, he wasn't – already done.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

The thing was, Kirell was never supposed be in charge of this thing. He was the pilot, he was the tech help, he was… the only unexpendable member of the group. He knew that. There was no conceit in admitting the truth. Without him, the rest of the group would be sitting ducks in the vastness of space… and what were ducks anyway and why would them sitting somewhere be a bad thing?

He’d ask Hayes. The commander wasn’t yet exasperated with his questions like the people back home. Or on his ship. His ship. Their only hope, but he was the only one who could make it move.

It wasn’t because he was smart. Well, okay, it wasn’t just because he was smart. He secretly suspected it was something in the very air he’d lived in, took his first breath in. Maybe because he grew up in a place so alien that despite the years, the Earth scientist could never truly call it home, stuck in the thought patterns learnt in the old world.

There was something too intuitive about his use of the technology, too… natural. But maybe it was just that he was the first child of the new land, born where there was no room for a traditional childhood, where the very everyday existence was an adventure, where he lived and ate and breathed science and exploration. Maybe any child of the expedition could have done it, if they were as willing to break the rules as he was, sneaking into the project site. Or maybe not. They had tried, but even if he explained what he was doing, no one could repeat it. And it wasn’t like he actually understood the language either, just… had the sense of the form, of the meaning. It was hard to explain, was it pattern recognition or something else.

The truth was, he could fly the ship, he could make sure it functioned, and their captain was supposed to lead them. But now she was dead, and Kirell was all they had.

May the gods of the old world be with them all.

Digital drawing of a clam-like alien called Spathi

The young captain was laughing by the time he got to the end of his explanation about the “tactical retreat” of the last Spathi standing but then he sobered up.

“Can you even imagine?” he asked. “I mean, you guys are stuck here, not able to go to Earth or leave, but at least there’s more than one of you. There’s someone to talk to, to share your worries. He’s been there alone, with only his fears for company. I can’t even imagine.”

Hayes nodded. “We occasionally feel lonely, looking at the shield, knowing our families, friends, leaders are all down there, unreachable for us. But we have each other.”

“How about you? You’re their commander, do you… can you just go and socialize with them?”

“It can be… isolating. But yeah, I can still go and… socialize. We’ve given up on a lot of hierarchy here, partly due to the circumstances, partly… well a form of rebellion.”

“A polite fuck you to our benevolent alien overlords?”

“If you will. Still, in the end, I’m responsible for everyone here.” Hayes didn’t know why he was admitting all this to a kid, but the kid in question was taking the leadership position of his own crew -- was going to be responsible for the lives and safety of some people Hayes considered his, and he needed to know the kid knew what to expect. A sign he was taking it seriously.

He’d lost people on that first attack against the Ilwrath avenger, after all. Real people, whose names he probably knew. Was he ready to deal with that, or was it all a grand adventure? The empathy he felt towards the cowardly little clam shell was positive, as long as his soft heart didn’t stop him from doing what must be done.

Then again, the Ilwrath ship had blown up very nicely.

“It sounds like a metaphor,” Hayes said. “We were afraid of him, and he was afraid of us.”

”And now we can work together after listening to each other? Yeah well. I think that Spathi would go with anyone who had a big enough ship to protect him.”

”Yeah, but would they all care to?”

”There's that, I suppose.”

They sat in silence for a while, Hayes studying the kid in front of him before getting back to the basics.

”We can provide you with crew, but that's about it,” Hayes said, wanting the kid to realize winning their support wasn't that big a deal. “We have the facilities to construct ships but we don't have the materials. We don't have the blueprints for more than the cruisers.”

”How many... I mean...” the kid looked away when he realized his question might be a bit insensitive, obviously not quite comfortable viewing humans as expendable resources. Good. Hayes felt better about the decision to work with him.

”Well, not infinite,” is what he actually said.

”I already lost so many...” The young captain looked down.

And that was the moment Hayes started to believe this guy could do it. That he was someone he could entrust his crew to.

”That's good. That means you won't take them for granted.”

”I suppose you know them all by name.”

”We don't get out much,” he said, shrugging, and the younger man stared at him for an awkward period before he laughed.

”Nice one. Yeah, nice. What do you do for fun around here?”

”Play chess. Screw.”

The captain almost fell off his chair and started coughing. Hayes had to laugh. ”Guess you didn't have many movies on that rock of yours.”

”Blazing Saddles! Holy shit that was from Blazing Saddles. Don't do this to me, man. So what you're saying is, you watch a lot of movies here.”

”I wasn't kidding about the chess.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Kirell kinda enjoyed mineral collection. Sure, the highest rewards were always on the riskiest planets (of course, otherwise other crews could have collected their resources) and it wasn’t like it was his life on the line if they made the wrong call, took a wrong turn.

(He’d tried, okay, but the crew agreed vehemently that he was not going to be allowed on any landing team on any planet. Which, yeah, without him the Ship would kinda be the metaphorical sitting duck - he really had to ask someone about that - so yeah. But he still kinda wished he could.)

Still, he enjoyed following their progress on the view screen. The distance made it easier to forget there were real people dying too, when nature rebelled against their flash mining. The hunting trips were especially amusing, when the ship chased a jumping palm tree or a shrubbery with tentacles. Not all of those creatures were harmless, though, and he felt bad for laughing, afterwards, when it turned out not everyone came back alive from the trip.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Goddammit, the kid came back. The Ship a little banged, his face a little older, his eyes a little colder, but he came back. With raw materials, with ship plans, with potential allies. They might actually have a shot here.

Well, maybe not. It was a hail Mary pass on a game that was practically lost already. They might all die in a flaming ball of fire but, hell, they were going for it. They wouldn't starve to death in silence, in touching distance of their home. They might have doomed them all, but fuck it, it was better than choking to death, forgotten.

But their nascent hero wasn't bursting with confidence befitting his strong start. He looked almost fearful when he exited the air lock and walked to where Hayes was waiting.

”I... I need more crew,” he said, like a confession.

”I figured. Not a problem.”

”I lost... we, there were so many fights... we lost so many...”

”Captain,” Hayes said, because damn kid, not in front of the crew. ”They all volunteered. They believed in what we're doing here. Don't cheapen their participation into pure figures.”

”That said,” he said, after steering the young man into his own quarters. ”I am really happy you are not viewing them as mere figures.”

”They were people, scientists, soldiers... people whose names you probably knew better than me...”

Hayes was running his eyes over the list on the handheld he was given. Yeah. Names he knew, faces he knew. Barrett, with whom he trained. The first to volunteer. Haavisto, from... geology department, wasn't he? He wouldn't have been able to match all the names to all the faces had he not looked through their records after they'd left.

”...played chess with...” the effort at humor was accompanied by a wan smile, and Hayes replied with his own, appreciating the effort nonetheless.

”No chess,” he said, quietly. No, he hadn't lost a friend or a lover in that bunch. But that was going to come too.

Damn that kid was transparent. There was relief in his eyes before he averted his gaze. Was it just because he hadn't had to tell him that he'd lost someone close to him.

”To be honest... not much chess in my life,” he admitted.

”Isolating, being in charge.” It was not quite a question, not quite a statement. The kid was growing up.

”Even here,” Hayes admitted. ”As low pressure as this place is to run. The tempers can run high, and that means I have to be in charge. Have the authority. That does limit my involvement in the social circles here.”

”What do you do?”

”Exercise. Read. When we can spare the energy, I watch films. Listen to music.”

”I understand there's a bar.”

Huff of laughter. ”We're soldiers. We're human. Of course there's a fucking bar. And some of the stuff is even drinkable.” At the kid's look he explained. ”Not considered an essential by our overlords. They brew it in the labs.”

”Moonshine. You're drinking moonshine.”

”You saying there was none on Vela I?”

”I... wasn't old enough to drink it.”

”They upheld age limits?”

”You have to remember, they all saw me grow up. I was one of the first kids there, and this was a science mission, they weren't settlers, they hadn't planned for it. So it was one of those, takes a village things. It wasn't just my parents, it was all the adults. And I was... I was never so into all that. I was sneaking into the ruins and talking with computers.”

”What's it like? The thing you have with the ship – you're not just flying it, you're... communing with it.”

”It's... I don't actually know much about regular space flight, except for what I've read and seen in the films. What the elders told me. But I understand this is more... involved. It's... a bit intimate.”

He seemed almost embarrassed about it so Hayes shelved his curiosity.

”Well, I think, being in your position now, one drink won't hurt you.”

He went to his desk and dug up the bottle his crew would have mutinied to get their hands on.

”That does not look like moonshine.”

”Nope. Wouldn't be worth much down on Earth, but up here – Jack's the best you're gonna get. I had actually been about to open the bottle when you first showed up. The supply ship was late, our life support was failing. I was about to drink our last moments into oblivion.”

”Hayes...”

He shook his head slightly and could feel the left side of his mouth attempting rise to a smile. ”Better this way. Rather go down fighting than boozing.”

He poured them both generous amounts of the golden brown liquid in the plastic cups he had lying around. This didn't feel like a moment to go in search for better glasses.

”Now, you don't tell me how old you are and I don't need to mind.”

”I'm... older than I was.”

Good answer, and no doubt true. ”Bottoms up.”

”To the New Alliance of Free Stars.”

That didn't end up being their only toast.

”To the Ship.”

”To humanity.”

”To the Spathi.”

”To the Pkunk. And the Zoq Fot Piq.”

”That was... more than a drink.”

”Worth it.”

Digital drawing of a bird-like alien called Pkunk

They stood by the window, looking at the red glow of the slave shield around Earth for a long time without a word before Kirell broke the silence.

“They called it the blue planet,” he said. “The people who grew up there.”

“Yeah,” Hayes said noncommittally.

“I’d ask what it’s really like but… words can never do it justice, right?”

“I suppose.”

“I mean… we had this flower on Unzervalt that doesn’t exist on Earth they said. I could tell you about it, even show you a picture… but you’d never know what it smells like, or experience the tingling sensation it gave you when you touch the leaves.”

“That’s surprisingly deep,” Hayes said, deadpan, and Kirell shot him a quick look with a smile.

“What, you’re saying I’m not deep?”

“Well… far be it for me to call the potential savior of the human race shallow…”

Kirell laughed, and Hayes found himself smiling. The kid was growing on him.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Maybe it was the fact that there were so few children on Unzervalt -- Kirell was always comfortable surrounded by adults, treated like a small adult. There was not much room for pampering and sheltering on a survivalist colony -- the science expedition was never supposed to be self sufficient for this long.

He was loved, true, and protected from physical danger and labor, he’s not saying he wasn’t, but he wasn’t protected from the realities of the life there. He knew not to touch anything unconfirmed edible, knew not to touch anything without a permission.

Of course, he broke that rule all the time. When the factory first sprung to life around him, he thought he was going to be in so. Much. Trouble. Luckily it was a good thing. And Dr Franks was the first person to find him. Old Frankie Franks was just happy to take the credit and keep Kirell working on the down low on the machines.

And the machines! It was like magic -- he didn’t understand the language but he felt it. Nothing supernatural about it, he was just… somehow, on the same wavelength as them. Which, seeing as they were built and designed by giant worms, might be considered slightly worrying.

Franks kept up the deception until the decision to try to fly the ship was made, and by that point, even as the truth came out, it was too late to start scolding him for his misdeeds.

Then suddenly he was made crew, was trusted, treated like an equal member of the expedition and the Captain Burton spoke to him often! He maybe sorta kinda had a bit of a crush? And was probably way too obvious about it. But at least he was so important to the whole effort they didn’t mock him to his face.

Which turned out to be a good thing soon.

The wreck of the Tobermoon just a little off from Unzervalt was a shock. The hope of contact, of rescue, had never been possible, and they hadn’t known.

It was soon followed by a bigger shock when Captain Burton died, and suddenly Kirell was looked to for answers, for direction. For authority. And he had to appear certain as to not panic anyone and he wasn’t trained for this! Sure, he was the child of a scientist and an officer, but they didn’t impart their training and wisdom in their genes!

Surprisingly, he realized he knew more than he’d have thought. The calm determination that came over him was something he’d never expected. This was his ship now. His crew. His mission. And they would succeed. Because if they failed, all of Unzervalt was doomed.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

The kid -- for he was a kid, despite the mantle of command hanging heavily around him -- looked too young to be entrusted with a speeder, much less a giant alien ship of undetermined power. But there was something about him, in the quiet determination to succeed, that made Hayes believe in him enough to stake his life -- all their lives -- on him.

And even if they failed, even if it meant all of humanity dying… who was he to make that call for all of them? But surely, surely just the effort to resist was better than this fragile peace of submission?

When Kirell was around, there was something compelling in his conviction, something that sucked you in, and he rarely doubted when he was present. But when he was away, as he mostly was of course, the doubts would rise.

But Hayes only needed to take one look at the busy shipyard for the doubt to fade. They had a mission, a purpose again. The people who had been apathetic and listless were buoyed with hope again. They were working toward something again, instead of spinning in place.

And even if Kirell and his flagship were to perish… they’d had this. They’d felt this sense of purpose again. It had to be worth it.

And every time Kirell flew back he had new things to offer -- more raw materials, tales of new allies, descriptions of fights and near misses… it was electrifying for the crew. And even if friends and partners sometimes didn’t return… the list of volunteers never got shorter.

As for Hayes, he knew there was more at stake for him here. He didn’t just care about this kid as the leader of this new alliance, there was… more. He had a personal interest in this. Him. Because damn it if the famous charm that was winning over all those aliens didn’t work on him too.

Digital drawing of a arm chair-like alien called Melnorme

“It was like a miracle -- the last fight had surprised us off course enough that I wasn’t sure we’d get back with the fuel we had left -- and what an ignoble end would that have been for our mission, one for the history books surely…”

“And we would have never known,” Hayes said quietly.

“Well. Maybe not ever…” Kirell was quiet for a time before explaining about the cruiser they’d sent for help from the colony.

“That must have been… a shock.”

“Yeah… I mean, not just all those people who’d been dead for so long without us knowing, but all that futile hope… Anyway! This one is a much lighter story, I swear. So there we were stuck in the cursed system and this ship flies to intercept us and I’m cursing and praying that they’re not about attack and then they hail us. Then an image of this… this armchair fills the screen and starts talking. It wasn’t a tiny creature on a chair, the creature was the chair! And they turned out to be the intergalactic supermarket.”

“Run that by me again?”

“Did I not use the term correctly? Wasn’t a supermarket like the quartermaster’s office where you could go buy things?”

“Yeah, yes, that’s correct but… what did they sell?”

“Everything! Well, fuel for a start which -- phew -- but information, history of galactic affairs, maps, schematics -- they promised they could make the landing craft stronger, able to withstand more damage, and that could mean we could go back to collect minerals from places too volatile to risk people’s lives in at the moment. Not cheap, mind -- and I was wondering what they’d accept as payment -- but they traded information. Exotic materials we found and didn’t find use for, and they promised to trade stuff to any biological samples I find.”

“Biological as in…” Hayes sounded suspicious.

“Oh, no no no, not like crew members. Animals and other non-sentient creatures we collect from uninhabited planets. They pay for those.”

“Okay. That’s… better.”

“Yeah, no… I might have been tempted to give them anything for the fuel but not that.”

“If you really had been out of fuel, and no other way to pay… You might have to think about it. One life, against all those who would perish without,” Hayes reminded him, his voice quiet but steely.

“I know. I… I know. The joys of command. I never envied Captain B for those kinds of decisions and me? I was never trained for them.”

“You can’t really train for them. You just have to train for the possibility.”

“Well, I’m rather on a crash course on leadership as we speak.”

”Well, as long as you don't crash and burn, we'll be fine.”

”Oh come on, that wasn't even a decent pun. I'm sure you can do better.”

”I could.” Hayes smirked. ”But you wouldn't recognize half my cultural references.”

”Gimme a drink already, old man.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

”The Pkunk... reincarnated?”

”Simultaneously. Apparently brings back the ship too. Told me it's a thing that happens.”

”And the... shofixti?”

”Don't ask. Seriously, please, don't ask, I can't laugh any more or I'll vomit.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Kirell was getting used to coming back to the starbase, to the sight of Hayes in his viewscreen but this time was... a little different.

There was the expected crew to take care of their arrival and to meet the crew members (to see who came back alive...), and as always, Hayes was there. Commander. Hayes. With whom he had a very professional relationship. Even if the other man made it hard. So. Very. Hard. And yes, there was the expected joke there but holy shit this time it was kinda literal?

Because one of the first things Kirell noticed when leaving the air lock was the heat. It was way too fucking hot. And Hayes... Hayes was way too fucking hot too. He was wearing nothing but his uniform pants and a sleeveless shirt, damp from sweat, and Kirell had never seen him in anything but his uniform shirt... and you wouldn't think it would make such a difference? Seeing at it was a short-sleeved uniform shirt. But damn. Those were some very fine arms. Bare, glistening with sweat and yeah, Kirell was sweating as well, but didn't know if it was the heat or the... heat.

”Don't say a word,” Hayes admonished him, which, yeah, good, not like he could have come up with something intelligible to say that moment to save his life...

”Heating issues?” is what came out, and maybe it wasn't the wittiest thing to say, but at least his voice didn't sound as strangled as he'd feared.

”Nah, we do this for fun on Fridays.”

”It's... a Tuesday?”

Hayes shrugged and grinned. ”Must be heating issues then.”

”Anything we can do?”

”I have people working on it, doubt they even need more material. But thanks. You sure you wanna come abroad? Your ship is bound to be cooler.”

”Yeah, well, also designed for giant worms, okay? I want a real bed with,” he nearly choked on his words, struggling not to say 'with you in it, oh my god this is torture!', ”and some human-specific food. Please.”

”Fine, come on, let's head to the bar. It's marginally cooler there. Although I've forbidden all alcoholic drinks for the time being – too easy to drink too much.”

”Not with the swill you guys serve.”

”Oh, trust me, after ten minutes of this, you'd chug down ship fuel.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Kirell survived that stop over too, and with his dignity more or less in tact. He was more proud of that achievement than most space fights they'd been in.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

So, yeah, Kirell was starting to get used to something being wrong when he docked back at the starbase. After all, the first time he ever arrived there, everything was going to hell.

”Permission to come on board, Captain?”

Did Kirell imagine it, or was there something.. hurried about Hayes's voice? And why would he want to... no, more importantly, why was there a bunch of people making out – no, straight up having sex behind him? And why was he covering his face?

”Yeah, yeah do, what...?”

”Your crew might not want to disembark right now – or hell, maybe they do, but I don't actually recommend it.”

”What the hell is going on?”

”Remember that last batch of biological samples you left here? Well... turns out humans have a bit of a reaction to one of the plants...”

”Let me guess?”

”No points for getting it right. But at least it seems to be short in duration. Those afflicted first are coming out of it already. Embarrassed, tired, but otherwise okay. Problem is, it's airborne so...”

”So you decided to hide in the airlock?”

”Sounded like a good idea at the time.”

”Mi casa es su casa,” Kirell said, making a sweeping gesture towards the innards of his ship.

”Giant worms, you say?” Hayes said, taking in the cavernous innards of the Enterprise.

”Giant worms.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

It was... gratifying, if slightly nerve-wrecking to have Hayes in his space. He was so used to being in the Commander's quarters, his space station, his territory. His room, which, yeah, did also serve as his office, just like Hayes's but... hell, what did he have a need for an office for? It was a bedroom. With a messy pile of blankets on a pedestal like outcropping that would fit a giant worm. And that was the only place to invite him to sit and... no. Just. No.

He also couldn't stop thinking about everything that was going on at the starbase. About what might have happened if... Well, if Hayes hadn't been able to protect himself from it he might have been... busy, by the time Enterprise reached the base and yeah. So it could have been worse. Not that this was bad. No, Hayes in what was to all intents and purposes his home was not a bad thing.

But what if... Still, as much as Kirell cursed the cruel fate he was kinda happy – he didn't want his first time.. first time with Hayes! He wasn't that innocent... okay, fine, his first time be caused by a stupid plant. So he wanted it to mean something, call him a fucking romantic. Or a non-fucking romantic, in this case.

Ha-fucking-ha.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

“Do they teach officers how to deal with stuff like this?” Kirell asked as they made their careful way through the surprisingly empty corridors of the usually pretty busy star base. (And he had a sudden, painful flash of a potential future where most of the crew had died in space, during endless space battles in the Enterprise and no, no, he refused to go there. Also, maybe the... stains wouldn't be there if that was the cause for the emptiness. He refused to consider the stains.)

Hayes laughed. It was a wonderful sound Kirell was fast getting addicted to, if only for its rarity. Or the fact it made his eyes crinkle at the corners, and made them sparkle in a way Kirell had thought only happened in books, and... yeah, alright, it wasn't for the rarity, okay? It was because it made the devastatingly handsome man even more handsome, and there was just something so infectious about his good mood it made Kirell smile even when he was half a second from picturing horrors.

“Not as such, no. You learn to adapt.”

“Shucks. I was kinda hoping not everyone was flying by the seat of their pants in these situations.”

“The secret is to write it down in your report in the driest, most official language you can produce. If we were reporting to anyone, that is. In this case? Downtime, and hope for a minor catastrophe that doesn't risk too many lives but forces people to work together.”

“Oh, is that it. Well, I'll know to prepare to that the next time we dock in.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

This... wasn't what he had had in mind, really.

“Why is it so dark? Are you out of resources again?” Surely that wasn't it, the picture was clear as anything.

“It's a long story,” Hayes said in a long-suffering voice. “How are you doing?”

“We found more allies. And a planet that looks like a rainbow. Are you... stalling me?”

“No... well, maybe? Is Doctor Martinez still... with us?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure, what...?”

“Could you please ask her to come in? We're having a bit of a situation here and she knows how to... contain it.”

“Is it another biological sample gone wild?”

“Not... quite.” Hayes paused, and seemed to jump and bit down a... yelp?

“What the hell?”

“Tell her to hurry, okay?”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

“Space ghosts,” Kirell said, and he knew he had to both look and sound incredulous because... space ghosts?

“Space ghosts,” Hayes said, and nodded for good measure.

“Because those are totally a thing.”

“Shut up, colony boy, and tell me when you see a shimmer.”

“And here I thought my story was gonna be weird.”

He had been sure the Ariloulaleelay were going to be the wtf moment of his visit. Shows what he knew.

“Tell me, Commander, do you come up with this stuff to entertain me, or is this place really always this full of shenanigans?”

“Less snarking, more ghostbusting.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

”Let me guess, the environmental system is on the fritz again?”

”What ever gave you that idea?” Hayes asked, his voice misting out of his mouth.

Kirell blew out some air, and it also turned into mist. ”Cool!”

”No winter on Unzerwalt?”

”Not like this.”

”Then we have to get you something more to wear fast.”

”Whatever you are wearing is... umm... fine?”

”Shut up, we don't actually have that much need for sub-zero gear so this is made out of a spare blanket.”

”I really meant fine! It looks... warm. Cozy.”

”Good, we'll get you one. And then I fear you have to get back into the ship because our sleeping arrangements are... what's wrong?”

”There was a... containment issue with one of the animals. They want to sanitize the entire ship. And apparently the chemicals need at least ten hours to evaporate and are not good for human consumption?”

”Brilliant. Well, I assume survival 101 is familiar to you, colony boy. We're doubling down on bunks. Everyone gets at least one bunkmate. Body heat is the only way we can assure everyone's survival during the sleep cycle.”

Sure, Kirell was familiar with it. But last time it had been necessary had been when he was maybe five, and had been kept warm by his parents. He'd never shared a sleeping space with another adult after growing up. This was going to be... embarrassing. And awkward.

Hayes was sighing. ”I guess I'm drawing you then, because hierarchy is hierarchy. I'll let Simmons know they need to draw another lot of names because we need to accommodate your crew. Are we... how many came back this time?”

The matter of fact nature of the question helped Kirell. He wasn't about to go to pieces about every death anymore, but it was still tough. Hayes made it easier.

”We lost a few on a fight against one of those probes. And there was a sudden earthquake during a mineral collection mission. I have the names here.”

”I'll look at them later, don't want to take my gloves off right now. Do you need anything else besides food and sleep? We can look at the production numbers while we eat.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Hayes was so matter of fact about the sleeping arrangements too that Kirell didn't have much room to be embarrassed or awkward. Besides, sleeping in his clothes would help in case any... awkward physical reactions occurred during the night.

He should have remembered his survival 101 better, shouldn't he?

”You want me to what?” His voice did not break, or get squeaky, or anything embarrassingly teenagy, no sir, never ever.

”You must know the best way to share body heat is by wearing as little as possible.”

”Sure. Sure I know. I just... shit. Yeah, I can totally do that.”

”No need to be embarrassed. This happens. In the fleet you usually get rid of any body shyness by the time you finish basic training. I suppose I should remember you're practically a civilian with your training.”

”Or lack thereof.”

”Hard to remember when you're doing such a great job.”

Huh, he looked like he meant that too, and wasn't just blowing smoke up his ass, and that was also a really, really weird saying he'd learned from one of the crew during the last trip and had meant to ask Hayes about it but this was not the time for it.

Not when Hayes was shedding his blanket-coat, and his gloves, and the shirt, and the other shirt, and then the uniform shirt he wore under, and then the sleeveless little number Kirell had so adored to hate during the previous heater malfunction and... and that was a naked chest. And the cold air was doing its thing by perking his nipples, and Kirell was not looking, no sir, not ever, he was concentrating on getting out of his own blanket coat and... shit shit shit shit shit. This was going to get really, really embarrassing when – if – he got warm enough for his dick to do anything besides trying to hide inside his body.

And to crown the unfairness Hayes did not seem to suffer from cold shrinkage – or if he did, he was super endowed normally and how exactly had his eyes found the other man's crotch for fuck's sake? He wasn't doing a very good job of this not looking, not making things awkward thing.

He hid inside the shirt he was stripping off. Taking off. Taking, no room for words like ”stripping” in this situation, please no.

Hayes was already in bed, drawing the blankets towards himself, adding the blanket-coat into the pile.

”We should really be all huddling in one room of course,” he was saying. ”That would be most efficient heat-wise, but the oxygen generation couldn't keep up with that so... Get in, Captain.”

”Is that an order?” Well, his words came out more like ”ii-i-is th-a-a-th an-nn ord-eeerr” due to severe teeth shattering.

”Sure, emergency override of the chain of command. Get. In.”

Kirell got in.

He did not find the other man's command voice attractive. Not at all. Also he totally did not jump when Hayes moved closer, and pulled him closer.

”Back to back or cuddle, what's your preference?”

He should say back to back. He should. But that would not warm them nearly as much...

”Hug it out!”

”Damn, you're freezing,” Hayes said, pulling him even closer, until his side was against his, and Kirell's cheek was against a... pectoral muscle. A very nicely formed pectoral muscle. And a sweaty armpit, and damn, he would not find that arousing. He. Would. Not.

He wormed his freezing arms around the other man's torso. In for a penny... in for a ...pounce? That can't be right. That reminded him...

”Hey, do you know where the saying 'blowing smoke up someone's ass' comes from? Is it an actual thing or was Dugan pulling my leg? Is that an actual saying?”

When Hayes laughed his whole body shook with it, and Kirell grinned. He could totally do this.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Kirell woke up. So he must have fallen asleep first to achieve that, even if it felt like he'd only slept a few minutes, and even if he'd been convinced he'd never manage to turn his brain off enough to fall asleep cuddled so close to another human being. Especially someone as... stimulating as Hayes.

Why was he awake? He was warm, so very toasty warm, sweat-slick skin against his not even uncomfortable, just nice, and Hayes was breathing evenly and still and calm in the way only sleeping people ever where and Kirell's face was smushed against his smooth back, arm around his waist, and he'd totally be the big spoon but his lower body was actually angled away from the other man in a way that saved him from further embarrassment because – yep, warm enough to react to the stimulating presence. Or just morning. No one could ever say Kirell wasn't able to rise to the occasion. He nearly snorted out loud at his stupid pun.

Damn he needed to piss. Well, that would solve two problems. The side of his face not resting against Hayes's back, practically under the blankets, was still cold – getting up in his underwear should get rid of his erection pretty handily. He'd also get to the head to take a piss. That was also a bonus. Maybe he'd get some more sleep after.

It was gonna suck. A, it was going to be fucking cold and b, he'd have to get up, leave Hayes's bed not knowing if he'd ever get to get back in it. But he really needed to pee. In the end he waited for so long there wasn't much room for fine maneuvering and he pretty much just slithered out and dashed to the attached head.

Hayes had curled up in the time he'd spent out of the bed and that was... that was pretty adorable actually. And then he growled. Growled. “Get back in.”

Yes, sir!

“Fuck, you're cold,” Hayes muttered, but straightened up from his curl and turned to curl up around Kirell, no hesitation, no pausing, just pulling him closer like a human hot water bottle (had they those on Earth? Or were they just a thing people at Unzervalt came up with?), and sighed when their shared cocoon started warming up again. Sighed. Kirell was fucking doomed because this was not just about his hot (literally, ha, he was on the roll here) body, this was an aching feeling of tenderness in his heart, in his belly, and he pulled the taller man closer, awkwardness somewhat forgotten in the moment of discovery.

Hayes needed his body heat. His adorable, half-asleep, supporting Commander needed and wanted his presence, and Kirell thought he would really have given him anything in that moment. He was already saving the goddamn galaxy for him, he could be a teddy bear, like the one his parents made for him back home. It was hollow so that you could fit the hot water bottle in. Just something to cuddle and keep you warm, without intrusive sexual thoughts. Wait, no, that was disturbing in the context of the teddy, but hey, never mind, maybe he should just sleep more.

He wanted to kiss the tousled head resting against his own on the pillow but couldn't risk it. So he just snuggled closer with a smile. He could totally do this, and fuck his body's reactions. If he woke up in an awkward state again and Hayes noticed – he'd live with it. It wasn't as important as this.

Maybe that's what this whole love business was about.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

“I went back home,” Kirell said, like a confession, eyes on the glass and something dark and worrying in his voice.

“Vela?”

“Yeah, I... I figured, we were in the neighborhood, there would be minerals in the surrounding planets, we already knew the area...” Now he was definitely babbling with his justifications.

“You don't need to justify it to me, Captain. You went to check on your family – and that's okay, it's fine, they should know what's going on.”

“That's just it. The Ur-Quan made it before me.”

Dread filled Hayes and suddenly he recognized the darkness in his voice. Despair. He'd never seen the younger man so down, so... dejected, not even when he first confessed to losing crew.

“Were they...”

“Slave shield. So I don't even know if... but surely they'll be fine, right? Why bother shielding a dead planet?”

His eyes looked so young when he looked up, pleading for him for answers.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, because what the hell else could he do? “They could all be alive down there.”

“How do you do it?” Kirell almost shouted his question. “They're all right there but you can't ever... You can't reach them, can't talk to them, can't even see them, and you're here, day after day after day and... Who do you have? Who did you leave behind?”

“Besides my whole world?” Kirell opened his mouth as if to apologize but Hayes went on so he closed it. “I have a family. Parents. They were still alive at least when I... left. A little sister. A boyfriend, although we... parted ways. Couldn't really ask for someone to wait, and for him... it must have hurt I wasn't willing to stay for what we had. But I considered being stuck on Earth for the rest of my life, thought about not flying, never seeing space again... I volunteered. We're all volunteers.”

He got up to look out of his viewscreen, the holos hidden in a drawer because it was too much, some days, to remember they even existed.

“Yeah, it was hard,” he said. “They're still there... or they aren't, and I'll probably never know.”

“Unless this damn fool plan works.”

“Yeah, unless.” He wanted to believe in it, believe in freeing their world of the conquering aliens, but somehow, when thinking of Earth and his family, he could never see it happening. Or maybe he dreaded thinking about it in case it didn't work... but at least they'd be dead then. Death and oblivion would make losing easier to handle.

“I'm sorry,” Kirell said, and he just sounded contrite now.

Hayes shook his head but didn't turn. “Not your fault. I do understand. We all do, here, so if you ever need to talk, to vent... I'm here.”

He turned. Kirell looked determined now, no darkness or dejection on his face. Funny, he looked less and less like a kid, even though his face didn't really change.

“We just have to win, then. For both of our families.”

“I'll drink to that.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

“...and as funny as it was, as fascinating this new life form, as sincere their thirst for knowledge, and sadness for what it had cost... I couldn't still... Fuck it, those damn probes have killed so many of my crew, so many people lot their lives because of a stupid, fucking probe searching for knowledge, and I just... Fuck!” Kirell shot up from the couch and started pacing the floor hands pressed into tight fists.

He looked like the epitome of frustrated anger and Hayes was just impressed he had kept it all in until they'd made their way into the privacy of his rooms. The kid was becoming more and more like a good officer every visit, even if the price was atrocious.

“And I couldn't take it out on them! They were so... so... earnest, it would have felt like, I don't know, hating a baby for spitting on you.”

“Kicking a puppy.”

“Yeah, maybe. Puppies look pretty awesome in films.”

Still, he was vibrating with anger, and something needed to be done about that before he could send the young man back out there.

“Come on,” he said. “We have a gym.”

Maybe a round or five with the boxing gloves and a heavy sack would do something good.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Kirell was surprisingly light on his feet, and his hitting technique was good. Maybe it shouldn't have surprised him, he had been raised by a bunch of soldiers. He also seemed to revel in the physicality of it, using his body to fight instead of a huge ship – or sending other ships to fight.

He was grinning now, the light returning to his eyes. With the grin and his hair sticking up from the sweat and grazing blows, he looked like a kid again, but... so much more. There was that something about it, the charisma of a true leader. And his joy was contagious.

That he was gorgeous didn't hurt.

“Getting tired, old man?” he asked, dancing in place and keeping his fists raised at the level of his neck, ready to raise them to the proper position.

“Bring it,” Hayes said, and raised his own fists.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

“Stop being a baby,” Kirell said, dabbing the wet towel against Hayes's split lip. He'd feel sorry about the injury if his own eye wasn't turning black even as he spoke.

“I said I was fine,” Hayes said, even though it sounded more like “fun” from behind the towel. “You should see to youw own injuries.”

“I'm okay, it can wait, it's not like I'm bleeding.”

“Yes, you are, you're just doing it under your skin.”

“Yeah well, who cares.”

“I do. And you should too, it won't look good if you return to your ship more banged up than you left it.”

“Who cares about what it will look like?” Kirell demanded.

“You should. Being an officer demands a level of... decorum.”

“You're just worried they'll think you're abusing me.”

“And what if I am?”

And damn if the man didn't sound serious about that too, maybe a little worried. What was that all about?

“You're just worried to lose my dazzling company. Not like we have many choices for... companionship.”

“Companionship? Is that what they're calling it these days?” Whoa, that was an abrupt mood shift to lighthearted and... flirty? Was he flirting? Oh damn, Kirell was blushing, wasn't he? His face was flaming, he could feel it.

“Cut it,” he said breathlessly.

“Hey, if I make you uncomfortable...” Fuck, he hadn't meant to discourage the flirting, had he?

“Yes. It makes me uncomfortable. In my pants. So stop it.”

And then the bastard opened the lip again by laughing.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

After that it all seemed to happen so fast – Kirell dashed around the galaxy brokering peace, collecting allies, enemies, battle plans, and nightmares. He hardly had time to banter... flirt... talk with Hayes when he made his stops for crew, always more crew, but also to drop off materials and blueprints, and the other man was buried under trying to build them as fast as he was burning through them.

Months flew by, weeks of it stuck in hyperspace, behind a scanner, talking, talking, talking, and before he knew it their timeline was rushing towards the end, and fuck it, it was happening. Suddenly it all seemed too real. Too fast, too big, too much, too everything.

And they were going to sacrifice his beautiful ship to end it, his hulking Enterprise, never as sleek as her fictional namesakes, but a direct descendant of her Earthly ancestors. His home for years now. And was there any chance of him outliving her?

It was choking him, the responsibility, the trust put into him, the cost they had already paid. He needed, he needed... he needed companionship. One perfect image to take with him. He needed Hayes.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

It had taken the distance and the worry but the changes in the young man were so obvious now, compared to the kid who’d first blazed into their lives.

A man now, not a boy tasked with an impossible task. He was even taller, but where he had been lanky, his body had filled out. The constant physical exercise that was flying the ship designed for beings much larger than human, the workouts to make sure they kept their body in working order despite the effects of the long term space travel… He wasn’t as buff as Hayes himself, but he also didn’t have as much time as Hayes to exercise.

But maybe the biggest difference were his eyes. He’d seen the way responsibility had aged Kirell, how each loss had steeled his resolve.

He was beautiful. Well, his looks were handsome, and the strength of his spirit was awe-inspiring. His mischievousness had matured into sparkling charm, the sign of an inspiring leader. There was never a shortage of volunteers to serve aboard the Enterprise, even as the lists of casualties got longer and longer. Part of it was the hope. But a large part of it was this man.

This man, who was looking at Hayes like he’d finally come home.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

“So... this is it.”

“If you believe in your bird brains, yeah.”

“You don't?”

“They're growing on me,” Hayes admitted with a smile and a shrug.

“I keep thinking is there something more I should have done, someone else I could have reached out for...”

“Kirell – Captain – you got the damn Syreen to ally with us, and we abandoned them in the last war. You've met alien races no one else has even heard of, what the hell else do you think you could have done? We have a veritable fleet of ships, allies coming out of our ears...”

“I said I was sorry about the Shofixti!”

“...and the Talking Pet.”

“We agreed not to talk about the Talking Pet!”

“Kirell,” Hayes said, and something in his tone made Kirell to actually stop fidgeting. “You've done all you can. You've prepared the best you can. We humans have done all we can, given all we can give – all you can do is give it a shot tomorrow, and... and do your best.”

“My best.”

“Yes, your best. Like you've been doing for years now.”

“Can't believe it's been so long. Then again, I can't believe it's been such a short time either. I feel... I feel older, you know? A few years doesn't seem enough to explain it.”

“It's not the years, it's the mileage.”

“Yeah, I guess. I just... It was simpler in the beginning, when everything was so huge and so seemingly impossible. There was always something else we could go look for, another ally to try to find, more materials to collect – more tech to trade for with the Melnorme. And now... now it's just so... real. This is all going to end soon, one way or another, and I... I'm not as afraid as I should be.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“That depends, am I just being cocky? I got this far, the rest will be smooth sailing as well?”

“Or maybe you're beyond scared, and have looped back to calm.”

“Or maybe you give me strength.”

It should have been a cheesy line – yeah, let's face it, it was a little cheesy – but the look on Kirell's face made it painfully honest. Hayes couldn't help but be drawn into that honesty.

He sat down next to him. The moment felt heavy with possibilities, and where only a few short months ago Hayes would have shoved the mere idea away as ludicrous – the kid was so young, too young, too flashy, too earnest... too much of a risk, because he was just going to crash and burn and... But this was so very not a kid anymore. The man next to him had given and taken too much to be that brash kid he'd first seen.

Besides, it was the end of the world tomorrow, if he couldn't risk his heart on the eve of the apocalypse, when could he? He leaned closer.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

”Hayes, I... do you have a first name?” Smooth, Kirell, real smooth. Of course Hayes was laughing, but... he was also leaning closer, oh my god, cool don't leave me now.

”Sure. I'll tell you when you come back.” He grinned like he was proud of himself. Bastard.

”Can I at least get a kiss for the road?” he asked, and damn it, he actually managed to sound lighthearted and flirty instead of insecure and desperate and Hayes was leaning even closer, oh dear... and his voice was all husky now when he said: ”You can have several.”

Aaand those were lips. On his own lips. Dry, smooth – soft, should guy's lips be that soft and holy shit they were kissing.

Kirell got along with the program. Not that he'd ever kissed anyone before, and his head was spinning a little, but holy shit, this was kissing, kissing was like this, and he parted his lips because, hey, first kiss, first french kiss, go for the broke, right?

And hoooollly hell.

He pulled back a little to draw in gulps of air in gasping breaths. He was so fucking hard, just from this, just from kissing, and then Hayes pulled him into his lap and hello, that was an erection against his own. He ground down almost on instinct, his knees on the sofa on both sides of Hayes's thighs, and he widened his stance so that they were touching in all the right ways, and it was so good, too good, he was gonna...

”Is it always like this?” he gasped the words out against Hayes's lips.

”You're a horny teenage boy, what do you think?”

”Not so much a...”

Hayes was serious at that, but at least his hands were still on Kirell's neck, chest, skiiiiinnn...

”No, not so much a kid anymore, huh. No, it's not always like that. Hasn't been like that in ages. More?”

”Please.”

And then there was more kissing, and a hand, cupping him through his way too fucking tight pants, and then Hayes got them open, and Kirell was flying apart.

It was over embarrassingly soon and Kirell was going to apologize as soon as he got his breath back. He tried, but Hayes just kissed the words from his lips. ”It's okay... there are perks to youth too.”

”Oh?”

”Recovery time.”

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Kirell was so resposnive it was incredible, the way he reacted to the lightest kiss, softest touch, with sighs and moans, and when Hayes ran his nails down his back he arched up from the mattress.

Hayes had never considered himself that much of an expert in sex. He liked it, of course, and could make his partners enjoy it well enough, but nothing like this – Kirell's reactions made him feel like a sex god. And he wanted to give him everything, every experience they could fit into this one night.

And Kirell was right there with him, with the courage that had taken him to every corner of the galaxy, willing to try anything and everything, and that was heady on its own.

It had never felt like this before, not even the last night with Evan before Hayes left Earth, even though it had felt like he was leaving his heart behind. But his heart had been here, in space, in this cabin, in this bunk, with this man on top and under him, around and in him, and he luxuriated in the feeling as he made the younger man come again and again and again.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

It was fucking intense. Intense fucking, whatever.

Kirell now understood why it was such a big deal. But... if it was always like this, how did anyone ever refer to it so lightly? This was, this was... mind-blowing. Not just the orgasms, and gods knew they'd never felt like that when he touched himself, but the... the connection with another living being and Kirell felt like crying.

“Shh, slow down, we've got all night,” Hayes was whispering against his skin, then licked it, and how was he supposed to slow down when he felt like he was going to explode, go off like a space ship, hitting orbit in six seconds flat.

“Not if you kill me,” he said, gasped, got out somehow, whatever.

“Not into necrophilia, no worries there.”

The laughter was a revelation too, he hadn't realized they could bring that with them, too. He wanted to pledge his eternal soul to this man for making him feel like this, but probably luckily he had no voice left but for moaning.

He made sure he gave as good as he got, of course. He may not have much experience in touching other people, but he had similar equipment, and he'd touched that often enough to know what he was doing, right? That had to count for something?

Not that it didn't feel different to hold Hayes in his hand, squeezing the hot length of him, stroking, then scampering down the bed to lick, to taste, and oh yeah, he might not have much technique, but he got the other man's breath to stutter, his hips to jerk, and hey, it didn't even taste bad. None of it was, not licking sweat off his neck, not licking precome off his dick, not...

“Get up here,” Hayes said, and his voice was gratifyingly hoarse. “I'm not twenty.”

“Huh?”

“I don't have more than one time in me, and I was kinda thinking you'd like to try one more thing.”

Oh hell yes. Hell. Yes.

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Come on, he wasn't going to lose after that, was he?

Divider, the Precursor Ship

Epilogue

”I'm not a princess,” Hayes said the first thing when Kirell showed up in front of him, grinning.

”I am very happy to hear that, but would like to politely inquire what brought this on?”

”I'm not a reward.”

And the silly man sounded so damn serious too.

”No, you're my backbone. I couldn't have done this without you. I don't just mean the crew and the resources, just... support. Faith. Kisses! Kisses were encouraging like hell. But what I mean... maybe I'm your princess?”

Did that even make sense in the context? But at least Hayes was grinning. He looked... happy. Young. He looked... he looked like home, and all the good things.

”Sweetheart, you can be my princess any time you want.”

And after that Hayes swept him of his feet – literally! – and carried him off the hangar, to universal hilarity and hurrahs.

That was fine. He could be a princess. He'd pulled off Galactic Savior all right, hadn't he?

The End