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Vital Signs

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The area where scarred skin met tech felt desensitized and one step removed from his body, which made contact all the more strange. For Galen, all touch seemed complicated; more often than not it felt invasive, undeservedly familiar, or like something that simply had to be endured. Nonetheless, he had agreed to this uncomfortable scrutiny. On the edge of the bed in dimly lit quarters, he allowed Matthew's appraising touch to fall upon the topography of his back.

Carefully monitored within Galen's mind's eye, Matthew's heartbeat remained steady while his temperature and perspiration levels indicated relative calm. This oversight helped assuage the fear that had almost kept Galen from allowing him to look at all. The visible remnants of Shadow tech interwoven with his organic form could easily have symbolized over three hundred lives pointlessly terminated right before Matthew's eyes. It could have served to remind him that Galen always prioritized secrets when given the choice.

Though he was still sworn to uphold secrecy and mystery, it wasn't just the Code occupying the space between them. The instinct to offer nothing and take nothing in return was still so ingrained, but if he never tried then this chance with Matthew would slip through his fingers. This stage of their relationship only began earlier this evening in a rush of physicality and the release of long-held emotions. Now Galen vowed that he would not be the one to destroy this. But sitting here, in contrast to earlier, felt so confrontingly intimate.

"These look…" Matthew's voice cut through the low hum of the starship around them. He paused and slowly withdrew his hand, gathering his thoughts. "Do all techno-mage implants look like this?"

As an Earthforce officer, Matthew was familiar with different varieties of wound and scar. The ones he observed now were recognizable only where skin met tech because Galen's organelles had taken care of all sealable wounds. The textured, taut skin surrounding the visible implants still indicated burns that had healed poorly. If Galen chose not to answer, it would be easy for Matthew to imagine that searing tech into skin was part of the techno-mage implantation process.

"No, they don't."

"No?"

Galen was ill-prepared for this. At the height of the damage, he always made sure the raw, scoured flesh of his body remained hidden beneath long sleeves and high necklines. It wasn't self-consciousness, he reasoned, when the main objective was preventing anyone from imposing their concern upon him or, worse, trying to stop him. The mild discomfort as he leaned against a hard surface or the pull of his skin as he bent at a certain angle barely registered after all these years. In his short-sighted misery, he had never imagined intentionally showing someone the result.

"They should be barely visible beneath the surface of the skin," Galen stated. He unconvincingly told himself it was enough that these curt and deflecting answers were true.

"What happened?"

Galen immediately forced himself to bite back a sarcastic comment about Matthew's tact and people-reading skills. He reminded himself that there didn't always need to be a barrier between himself and everything else. But without it, what was he meant to say or do? The novel conclusion was that he should respond with the unobscured truth.

No matter the answer it would lead him to, Galen also needed visual data to gauge this conversation.

Shifting to look Matthew in the eyes, he said, "It was self-inflicted. For the purpose of causing myself harm." He spoke without emotion and, to his relief, his words projected steadily.

Matthew had a remarkably inscrutable face, often deliberately, but he allowed his eyebrows to pinch into a troubled frown. In his mind's eye, Galen observed a minor jump in heart rate and saw the small matching increase in muscle tension. This indicated surprise, but luckily no trace of the revulsion Galen hadn't actually expected but had feared nonetheless.

Matthew briefly glanced away and narrowed his eyes as he summoned all the questions he wanted to ask into one word. "Why?"

"A few reasons," Galen began in an implausibly light-hearted tone. "At first, it was the only way to stop myself from hurting everyone around me. The choice seemed an obvious one."

Memories of trying desperately to control himself remained but the accompanying emotions seemed nebulous and inaccessible. There was a distance between himself and his own words, as though he were recounting a story he'd read. Intellectually, he knew that the depth of sorrow he'd felt then had been unbearable and frightening, but it was hard to put himself in his own shoes.

"I also needed a way to control the type of pain I felt, even if I had little control over the amount," Galen continued. "And of course, it was to punish. I'm sure I don't have to explain that last notion to you."

He'd deliberately omitted the final reason but it wasn't to protect himself. Memories of raking his skin with flame well beyond the limits of his known tolerance buoyed to the surface. The vague hope that he might not wake from that peaceful inertia. It was the possibility of death without the commitment of actually killing himself. Those feelings too felt far away now, but mentioning them to Matthew carelessly might still trigger his obsessive need to save everyone from death.

"I'm sorry," Matthew said simply.

It was funny that he should be sorry when he was unwittingly one of the few sources of comfort during those dark days. Perhaps sometime Galen would tell him of the years he'd spent fondly watching.

Matthew's physiological responses were gradually smoothing out after the small spike of acute distress. "I can't even imagine what you must have been through to make you…"

Though it would be difficult for a non-techno-mage to guess the method, the result was plain. Layers of skin stripped down far enough to uncover the tech beneath. Untreated wounds left to form twisted scars against his implants because the power of his healing alone wasn't enough to close them over and treatment seemed irrelevant.

"Perhaps I will tell you about it some time," Galen heard himself say sincerely.

He wouldn't freely hand out all the pieces of his past, but he could surely spare a few. How much would he be able to give away before dismantling his own core? The one he'd just shared left only a hollow in its place. To Matthew though, he vowed, he would give as many pieces as he could stand.

A reassuringly firm grip closed around Galen's arm in that moment, tethering him to the present. Matthew wasn't the embracing type, not in this situation anyhow, and Galen was thankful for that. It was a small area of steady pressure, paradoxically distracting himself from himself while pulling him into a state of embodiment. In that moment, he was in a dimly lit room that smelled of comfort and home.