Everything hurt, like every bone in his body had been pulverized and imperfectly cemented back together, and every muscle pounded out like minute steak. Quatre was smiling anyway as he pushed away from Sandrock's cockpit and floated across Peacemillion's hangar to the gangway where the others waited, each looking as exhausted and sore as he felt: Duo winced as he stretched to make his spine pop; Trowa massaged his own right shoulder with a grimace, and Wufei slumped against the guardrail, head sagging. Miss Noin, exhaustion creasing her face, was speaking to the bridge at one of the wall consoles. The hiss of the verniers' final shutdown sequence sussurated throughout the hangar, and the Gundams, their exteriors frigid from space, creaked and popped and pinged as the pent up heat of the weapons and propulsion systems bled out.
The usual rush of the engineers scrambling to repair, refuel, and rearm the Gundams was absent. Not even Howard was in the hangar. The damage to Peacemillion from the Libra's main cannon had looked minor from outside the ship, but it was probable her engines would require immediate repair. She wasn't a warship, after all. She had exceeded her design parameters to dodge the blast from Libra. Meanwhile, that cannon was recharging. At least they would have a respite from the MOBILE Dolls.
"Everyone did a great job." Quatre said, swinging over the rail and landing lightly. "We've bought ourselves some time." The shape of ZERO clung, a luminous matrix, in his mind. Despite the physical battering of the recent battle, he felt a pulsing preternatural clarity glinting yellow behind his eyelids with every blink. It was not entirely pleasant: an alien scaffold propping up a deeper mental fatigue. His mind kept skipping forward into flashes of future possible instants: Duo announcing his hunger, Trowa turning to look at him expectantly, Miss Noin telling him about the engines, Wufei walking away without a word, the airlock alarm to announce the return of Wing ZERO. He looked back over his shoulder at Sandrock, saw the Gundam flicker between battle scarred and whole. He squeezed his eyes shut tight to banish the flickering, but it didn't help. ZERO had left neon wires twisted through in his brain: afterimages of the past and imaginings of the future skittered along potassium and sodium ions.
"We couldn't have done it without you," Trowa said. His words tugged at Quatre, compelling him to turn back around and open his eyes. Trowa was looking at him, not quite expectantly, but there was some unspoken tension in his gaze. Wufei was several paces away already, drifting toward the hangar exit. Quatre kept smiling but resisted the urge to blink as long as he could. His eyes were tired, so it wasn't that long.
"We'll need the extra time," Miss Noin said, "The engines are overheated. They had some fires in the engine room."
Duo twisted his neck, ear to shoulder, and said, "Man, I'm famished. Let's grab some grub."
Quatre pressed the heels of his hands into his closed lids until he saw the arcane patterns of background neuronal firing, and blindly, pushed off toward the exit to trail after the others.
Behind them, the airlock claxon whooped.
After he'd eaten (if one could call sucking down a skunky tasting protein shake eating) and showered in water hot enough that Duo called him a strawberry afterward (Quatre hated the communal shower room, but at least there were partitions between the stalls) Quatre decided it was bedtime. Ship time, it was only mid-afternoon, but he still ached, inside and out, and it didn't help that he'd known that Duo was going to tease him, known that Trowa was going to drop his shampoo bottle with a terrific bang! He'd known how Wufei was going to swear about it, and how he, Quatre, was going to jump like a timid deer at the sound, even though he knew he was going to be startled, and he'd even known that Heero was going to come into the shower room just as the hot water was turning lukewarm.
He floated like a stray balloon down the dim metal corridor to his quarters, bumping against the rail, trying to empty his mind of the flickers and the nausea crawling in the pit of his stomach, threatening to give him a second encounter with his liquid dinner. He wanted to be alone; then he might stop seeing the flashes, but already, he had glimmers of Miss Noin, worried for him, meeting him around the next corner, and he could already feel her concern fluttering into his heart, gentle, soothing.
And there she was, leaning against the viewport near his quarters, looking refreshed in her civilian clothes, but still weary. "Hello, Miss Noin," Quatre said.
She smiled. "Quatre, you were very brave out there today. It's what they needed."
But her concern wasn't enough to banish the nausea. He smiled weakly, and swallowed hard. "Thank you."
"What you went through before, with Trowa? You mastered the system today. Our victory may not have been decisive, but it was important. You've given everyone hope again. I wanted to thank you for that."
Quatre blinked: glimpse of a sense of Trowa coming up behind him, a ghost of balance and warm fingertips on the back of his neck. He shuddered.
He was still off kilter. Quatre gripped the hall rail tightly and tried to angle himself perpendicular to the bottom edge of the viewport. "It's..." No, not nothing, it was far from nothing, but he didn't want to say what it was, because the fear, even defeated, left an aftertaste, and it wanted to come bubbling up his throat. It was one of the hardest things he'd done, to have that much faith in himself, but he wasn't ready to revisit it yet. "It's why I'm here," he said at last.
Miss Noin frowned, her worry sharpened into something prickly instead of soothing. "Are you all right?" She drifted near, and raised her hand to brush his damp hair back from his face. "You feel hot, and your pupils are dilated," she said. "Do you want to see Sally?"
Her hand was cool on his forehead. That was nice; it seemed like forever since anyone had touched him. "No, I'm fine," he said, wishing he was at ease now as he had been in Sanq. It had been such a comfort to confide in Miss Noin then, when he hadn't felt like he had to be strong for her too.
And then he was fine. Sort of. A real sense of balance, not its ghost, but a true and steady centre, trickled into him, dulling the prickles of Miss Noin's worry, easing the disquiet in his stomach. Quatre smiled with more strength. "I took my shower too hot. That's all."
Miss Noin let her hand fall from his forehead and smiled at him before raising her gaze and looking past him. "Hi, Trowa. Good work out there today."
"Thanks, you too."
Discreetly, and most likely accidentally, Trowa's fingertips brushed the back of Quatre's neck as he moved his hand past and behind Quatre to arrest his forward momentum against the wall. Predictably, Quatre couldn't stop his shudder, and turned his head enough to catch Trowa's profile in his peripheral vision. "Hi," he said.
"Hi," said Trowa softly. Quatre glimpsed a trace of a smile curve Trowa's lips. Blink; flash; Miss Noin humming as she departed toward her own cabin. Blink; flash; a stuttering blurring double image refusing to resolve into a single state; Trowa saying good night and leaving too, and or, Trowa accepting Quatre's invitation to come in.
"You two should try to get some sleep," said Miss Noin. "I'm going to check on things in engineering and then get some shut-eye myself."
Quatre nodded, yawning around his agreement.
"Sleep well," said Trowa to Miss Noin. Then he swung around so he was hanging in the air before Quatre, one arm up to catch himself on one of the ceiling rungs, and close enough Quatre could feel his body heat radiating into the space between them and smell his recent shower. He asked Quatre, "How are you?"
Quatre shrugged. "Tired," he said, "but kind of not. ZERO feels like it's still in there," Quatre tapped his temple. "Even though it's not." Quatre tugged on the rail to stop his slow straying from the wall. His leg bumped against Trowa's. "Sorry," he said.
Trowa cocked his head, "Don't be," he said. "Do you want to talk about it?"
His first impulse was to shrug off his friend's concern. As much as Trowa's proximity soothed the nausea and disquiet in his brain, it also sparked a different, giddy twinge deep in his chest. Maybe that's what ancient people mistook for Cupid's arrow, but the feeling wasn't quite so straightforward. He blinked slowly, this time looking for the most likely outcome of saying yes. In the yellow light, he saw himself sitting on his bed behind Trowa, his hands on Trowa's shoulder, thumbs pressing into tense muscles, Trowa saying something about the newly installed hydraulic systems in Heavyarms. That seemed safe enough.
Quatre bowed his head and looked down at their feet, hanging just above the brushed titanium floor plates. The scuffed leather uppers of his shoes were starting to split along the creases across his toes. Trowa's boots looked supple and recently polished. When did he have time? "Sure, if you're not too tired," Quatre said.
"No. I can't sleep this soon after a battle." Trowa drifted even closer to Quatre. Maybe the touch on his neck hadn't been accidental after all. "It takes my brain a while to settle down, too."
"Then." Quatre took a deep breath and looked up into Trowa's clear gaze, their bodies and faces too close to pretend this wasn't something more intimate than simple friendship. "Do you want to come in for a bit?"
"I'd like that."
Inside his cabin, Quatre sat on the edge of his bed, enjoying the return of full gravity, how he sank into the mattress, and how the aches and fatigue of his body settled in on themselves, comfortable in repose. With only a skeleton crew, each of the pilots had been billeted in one of the spacious cabins meant for senior crew. Although unfinished (particularly the plumbing in the en suite bathrooms), the rooms' appointments were generous and a welcome respite. Soft and organic textures replaced titanium and glass. Even the lighting had been tinted to duplicate the warmth of antique incandescents, to contrast with the chill glare of halogen outside the cabins.
Unfortunately, the fleeting sense of intimacy from the corridor had vanished, as if being cloistered alone with Quatre in his cabin made Trowa suddenly timid. He gripped the back of one of the room's upholstered armchairs, seemingly indecisive about whether to sit or stand. Quatre thought about inviting him to sit on the bed, but it sounded wrong in his head as he rehearsed it. Quatre closed his eyes. The flashing was less frequent now, so it offered him no immediate insight of how to get there from here.
"Is it bad?" Trowa asked.
Quatre opened his eyes. "It's better when you're near. Either that or it's fading."
"If it were me, I wouldn't have used it again," Trowa said. "But then I never have been much of a leader." This Trowa stated simply as fact: there was no hint of self-deprecation.
Quatre reassured anyway. "You have a good tactical mind, Trowa."
"Not like yours." Trowa smiled behind his hair. "And you know there's more to leadership than tactics."
"Yeah, I guess."
"Will you use it again?"
"I don't know. I don't know if I'll need it again."
"You don't. You never did."
Trowa shook his head. The silence that followed was not uncomfortable. Quatre slipped off his shoes, and Trowa gingerly rotated his right shoulder in its socket. Of course, that was what ZERO had shown him.
"Is your shoulder bothering you?" Quatre asked.
"A bit. I'm still getting used to inertia without weight on the beam Gatling. It doesn't help that's it's twice the mass it used to be. My muscle memory is off, I've been overcompensating."
"I could..." Quatre started, but it was coming out too obliquely. He should be more direct. "Do you want me to massage it? Would that help?"
"Yeah, it might." Trowa's smile was relieved. "I can't get a decent angle on myself."
"Okay." Quatre scootched back on the bed and folded his legs beneath himself to kneel, legs splayed. He patted the mattress before him. "Come sit down."
Trowa complied, sitting just on the edge at first and leaning forward to take off his boots. When he straightened, Quatre reached for his shoulders, folding his hands over the tense muscles and tugging a little to coax Trowa to sit closer.
"Thanks for doing this," Trowa said.
Quatre tentatively pressed his fingertips into the hard tension of Trowa's upper trapeziuses, then slid his hands down, probing into Trowa's shoulder-blades with tentative pressure, finding the shape of the muscles beneath the cotton of Trowa's turtle-neck. "Where does it feel the worst?"
"Still mostly on the right, across the blade, into the socket and radiating up my neck and down my arm."
"Okay." Quatre started by pressing his thumbs either side of Trowa's spine and began working his way out, with extra attention on the right side. He concentrated on the task and ignored the way Trowa smelled so clean and uncomplicated, and how nice the contact between their bodies felt, his knees to Trowa's hips, his hands upon his shoulders.
"The new hydraulic system in Heavyarms is different too," Trowa said. "It gives me a little more precision than the pneumatics we used on Earth, considering. But it's sluggish."
"Yeah, I've noticed that in Sandrock too, after the adjustments for space. It's not been too much of a liability for me though," Quatre said. "The shotels are pretty light, so I barely notice the extra resistance." His thumb found a large, dense knot, and he moved moved both hands to work on it. "They give me a little more power. Which is good."
"Ow," Trowa said.
"No, it's good pain."
Quatre bit his lip. "You know, I can do a better job if you take your shirt off."
Trowa stiffened, but Quatre wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been touching Trowa.
"You don't have to," Quatre said, removing his hands from Trowa. Modesty wasn't a trait Quatre had observed in Trowa before. They'd seen enough of each other in the showers anyway, and other times when travelling together and when Trowa had stayed at the compound in Jordan. Not that Quatre had ever really looked -- that would have been a transgression -- but he'd certainly seen, and, he was sure, been seen in return.
Trowa twisted and turned his head, meeting Quatre's eyes over his shoulder. "I will if you take yours off too," he said.
Although curious, Quatre didn't ask why this was a condition. "Okay," Quatre said, and he began unbuttoning his waistcoat.
Trowa got up from the bed and turned to face Quatre. As he tugged his turtleneck free of his waistband his gaze rested lightly upon Quatre. There was a hint of the unspoken tension from earlier. He pulled off his shirt brusquely, tossed it to a chair, and stood before Quatre, his posture erect and unselfconscious. He brushed his hair back from his face with one hand. It wasn't modesty, Quatre realized as he shrugged his vest off and laid it aside on the bed. He was being invited now to not only see, but also to look – and to be looked at in return.
He glimpsed himself leaning forward on the bed, shirtless, reaching to rest his hands lightly upon Trowa's body, reaching further to press his mouth to Trowa's skin, worshipful. He didn't think it was a probabilistic precognition from ZERO though. It was his own wish.
The invitation to look he accepted. He looked at Trowa, his face revealed in artless symmetry. He looked at his body, how different muscle groups were tense or relaxed, how they smoothed together over the bone, beneath the skin, forming Trowa, like some cosmic sculptor had shaped the clay of his flesh so precisely onto the frame of his bones, taking extra care for grace. He had fewer scars than Quatre expected. But then, the kind of injuries that would leave a scar in MOBILE suit battles also tended to be the sort that killed you. The rest weren't so likely to scar: bruises and strains and other deep tissue trauma. Trowa didn't even have scars from Vayeate.
The light was behind Trowa, limning his edges in a warm soft glow. Quatre was glad he was kneeling already. But he had to kneel up to untuck his shirt before he began to unbutton it. Beneath Trowa's scrutiny, his fingers were clumsy upon the small plastic buttons, but soon he had his shirt undone. He tugged his arms free, letting it lie upon the bed with his vest.
Trowa lowered his hand from his hair, and it tumbled back down to partially veil his face. He brought on knee up to the edge of the bed and reached a hand to Quatre's shoulder. His thumb brushed warm over Quatre's collarbone. Quatre shuddered. Trowa's hand was warm upon his skin, and the scuff of his inquisitive touch, electric.
"Where did you get this scar?" Trowa asked.
So he hadn't been the only one looking for scars. It was the scar from the first time he'd met the Maguanac Corps and Instructor H, but Quatre didn't want to tell that story; he'd already told Trowa parts of it anyway, a million years ago on a ship crossing the Atlantic ocean on their way to the tragedy at New Edwards. The last time they saw each other before ZERO. The time when they had become friends. "Bullet," Quatre answered. "Grazed me," he clarified.
"We're still friends, aren't we?" Trowa asked. His thumb pressed more firmly along Quatre's scar. The uncanny way Trowa often seemed to read Quatre's mind – or at least his anxieties – was all the more disconcerting accompanied by that callus roughened caress.
"Yes, Trowa. We are at least that," Quatre said.
Stilling the movement of his hand upon Quatre's shoulder, Trowa moved further onto the bed. He raised his other hand to brush Quatre's hair from his eyes. It was a strange echo of Miss Noin's touch, but not at all cooling or soothing.
"Trowa?" Quatre asked. He tried to whisper it, but his voice broke into volume. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to see what else we are." Trowa's bottle-green gaze was clear and piercing, and though Quatre wanted to close his eyes against it, he found he couldn't. He could barely take a breath.
Quatre wanted to say, 'what about your shoulder?'. He wanted to break the tension of whatever this was that was trying to happen between them. It wasn't the guilt. They had talked about that: how the decision and action had been Trowa's choice and his choice alone, how Quatre's guilt was misplaced, and how entertaining it rewrote the history of the event and stripped Trowa of agency. Soldiers had to respect each other's agency, otherwise they'd go insane with guilt for fallen comrades. So it wasn't the guilt. It was, instead, the awful disparity between them that made things, despite the strength of any mutual desire, nearly unthinkable for Quatre. So he said something he hadn't really intended to say, but that perhaps he needed to say, so Trowa would understand his reticence, "I'm the sinner, you're the saviour." Trowa deserved at least this much.
Trowa's hand in his hair stilled too. His eyebrows knotted together in confusion. "What?"
Quatre said. "You saved my soul."
"I don't understand." Trowa's confusion reformed into wariness.
"You died for my sins. Then you came back, you came back to me, and you forgave me everything. That's salvation." Quatre finally cast his eyes down. "World religions are founded on less than that, Trowa."
"Quatre." Trowa drew away from him, twisting to fall to his side on the bed, canting his neck and peering up to reacquire eye contact. "That's not right. I'm not. I don't even believe in souls, or sin and salvation."
"It doesn't matter. I'm still unworthy." It felt strange to give voice to the thoughts that had been lurking and lurching about the back of his mind, disquiet and persistent.
"Unworthy?" Trowa's mouth opened and closed a few times without words. He grimaced.
"You have no idea, Quatre, how wrong you are. I can't even-" Trowa frowned in his incredulity. "Frankly, it's nonsense. Don't put me on that kind of pedestal, or leave yourself on the floor. I'm no better than you. You know some of the things I've done, I've told you. If anyone's soul has needed saving, it's mine."
Quatre stared down at Trowa, his typical placidity so corrupted by uncommon emotions. It was like seeing him again for the first time. Lying there, so evidently bewildered and disheartened; Trowa was no spiritual saviour, plugged into some greater voice of the universe. He was simply human, a confused boy who had been thwarted horribly in his search for a greater intimacy with his friend. The nonsense, as Trowa had called it, the illusion evaporated.
Once voiced, rather than kept in the fretful echo chamber of Quatre's anxieties, it all did sound rather ridiculous. Quatre wasn't sure how he had managed to cultivate this particular insecurity so carefully and for so long. It was like those shapes behinds his eyelids when he pressed too hard; it was nothing visible to anyone but him, an abstraction of nothing, a pattern without meaning. Random neuronal activity, attached to anxiety, perceived as something significant as the brain tried to make meaning out of something that maybe meant nothing more than Trowa was his friend. And maybe both of them wanted something more than that now. And maybe that was okay.
Quatre began to laugh.
"What now?" Trowa asked, but his consternation visibly eased.
"Oh, god," Quatre said between breaths. "You're right. It's completely mad. I just didn't know it until I said it out loud."
"Yeah?" Trowa smiled tentatively and reached up to touch Quatre lightly on the arm. "You're okay then? We are?"
"I think so," Quatre said. He looked at Trowa, shirtless and smiling, leaning back on his bed, and when he felt the thrill this time, he didn't try to quash it. He felt it sweep up his spine and swoop down into his belly. He let it reach into his smile and fill up his gaze, and he looked at Trowa, thrilled and thrilling.
"I'm not your personal messiah. We're the same. You understand that, right?"
Quatre nodded. "You drop your shampoo in the shower. I can't imagine real messiahs do that."
Trowa chuckled, but his amusement did not linger. He soon sobered and said, "If there's anything of either of us to save, maybe we save each other. Not because we're better than each other, but because we're not. We do our best anyway, knowing that. All of us do, here on this ship. It's why we're here."
When Quatre felt the impulse to touch Trowa, he didn't try to deny it. He unfolded his legs and bent near to place his open hand upon Trowa's chest, felt Trowa's heart beating steady and sure beneath his palm. "You're right," Quatre said. Then he smiled. "You almost always are, you know."
"You're still giving me too much credit." Trowa moved his hand from Quatre's arm to lay his hand over Quatre's, where it rested upon his skin. He wrapped his fingers around Quatre's and squeezed.
"I don't think I am. You say I'm a leader, with all that entails. Maybe you're a sage. You help me see more clearly, so I know where we all have to go. So I'm not blinded by my own fears or limitations. So I can be confident out there and have faith in myself and what we're doing."
Trowa didn't say anything immediately. He glanced away from Quatre for several heartbeats. When he looked back, his gaze was unshuttered – bright and vulnerable in a way Quatre had never seen. "For right now?" Trowa whispered, "At least for now, Quatre? Can I just be your friend?"
Quatre eased his hand from beneath Trowa's, let it travel up his skin, across his collarbone, up the line of his neck, to brush the backs of his knuckles along Trowa's cheekbone, to boldly skim the pads of his fingertips over Trowa's lips, and finally to cup Trowa's jaw with his palm. "Just my friend, Trowa?" he asked. He felt Trowa's shudder, saw how it made his eyelashes flutter and his lips tremble.
That was answer enough. Quatre planted his other hand upon the bed and leaned down until his bangs brushed Trowa's forehead. He looked into the wide open green of Trowa's eyes, blurred by proximity, and then he bent nearer still until their lips touched.
He didn't close his eyes, neither of them did. Trowa's lips were supple, warm, and completely yielding. Quatre had never kissed anyone before, not remotely like this, but it seemed perfectly natural to deepen the kiss, to slip his tongue between Trowa's softly parted lips, to try to inhale the strange yearning whimper that came up Trowa's throat, to lower himself to lie with Trowa. The warm slide of bare skin on bare skin as their bodies met and Trowa's arms slipping around his shoulders, incited an ache deeper and more primal to eclipse the aches of battle. Quatre eased out the kiss just long enough to ask, "Do you want to sleep here tonight?"
Trowa murmured his answer, "Yes," against Quatre's smiling lips. And in the next kiss, and the next, Quatre let himself succumb to the honest simplicity of shared affection and acceptance.
The next day, he removed the ZERO system from Sandrock's cockpit. Trowa was right; he didn't need it.