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Tic sets drinks down on the counter in front of Garal. He never hands anything to em. Just sets it down and waits for Garal to pick it up.

That could be a coincidence, or just a quirk. But there’s something deliberate about the way Tic keeps his hands in his lap when they're talking over breakfast, or clasps them behind him when they're walking. It’s as if there’s a bubble around Tic, and he has to be careful not to let Garal breach it.

Garal realizes that’s not quite right when e watches Tic negotiating with a dockmaster. Tic shakes her hand without hesitation, doesn't wince when she claps him on the back. When Garal steps outside of the ship to look at the docks, Tic hovers at eir side. He never seems to do it on purpose, but he always seems to be in between Garal and everyone else, bumping into people so Garal won’t have to.

The bubble’s around Garal. Garal wonders if e should be offended.

The spider mechs do touch Garal, all the time. Not just for special occasions, like haircuts and rescues. Garal practically trips on them as e walks through the corridors of the ship. They crawl up eir chair when e sits down. It’s like having a pet, or a particularly friendly guard animal.

Garal often doesn’t sleep well, for reasons e’d prefer not to discuss. At first e’d wake up in the night and wander the corridors of the ship, looking for something to distract em. Sometimes e’d sit in the galley and wait for a spider mech to find em. It never took more than a few minutes. It would crawl onto the table and Garal would stroke its oddly warm back until e felt that it might be possible to go back to bed. Now e often wakes to find a spider mech already sitting on eir leg. If e reaches out to it, it reaches back—strokes Garal's cheek and lulls em back to sleep.

All right, Garal’s not offended. E still wants to know what’s going on.

Garal is drinking Serbat in the galley when Tic walks in eating something orange and slimy out of a packet. He isn't talking to the ambassador yet, Garal thinks, but he is accepting packages from her. As long as they contain snacks.

"Do you want one?" asks Tic. "Now that you're Geck, maybe you'll like them."

"What is it?" asks Garal.

Tic hesitates. "Good."

If Tic won't say what it is, Garal probably won't like it. E reaches out for the packet anyway, and deliberately lets eir knuckles brush against Tic's hand.

Tic shivers, just a little. Garal bites off a tiny piece of the snack and then has to fight not to spit it out.

"Not for me." E hands the packet back. "Should I not touch you?"

Tic looks at em with dark eyes. "You should touch me as much as you like."

"But you don't want to touch me?"

Tic makes a face—at least, the corner of his mouth quirks, which is as expressive as he gets. "Do you want me to?"

"I don't care what you do," says Garal, which of course is a lie, and of course Tic knows it. Garal takes a long drink of serbat and tries to decide what e actually wants to say.

"Sit down," e decides. "Put your hands on the table."

Tic sits. "Palms up or down?"

"Down," says Garal.

Tic's face is impassive (good), his breathing is steady (good), and his hands are still (very good). He trembles a little when Garal reaches for one, but Garal thinks that's mostly from excitement.

Garal takes the hand in both of eir own. E turns it, examines it, threads eir fingers with Tic's. Tic's palm is sweating a little, but he doesn't clutch at Garal's hand or try to pull away. His other hand is still flat on the table.

Garal presses Tic's hand to eir cheek, then to eir lips. E sets it back down on the table and then has to push eir chair away from the table, breathing hard and trying not to panic.

Tic's hands are flat and unmoving. "Thank you," he says. "Do you want me to go?"

Garal shakes eir head, still trying to control eir breathing. A spider mech climbs the chair and reaches out a claw to Garal's hair, combing through the strands and brushing against eir scalp. Garal closes eir eyes and, miraculously, begins to relax.

It's easier if e doesn't look at Tic. "When I was in Compassionate Removal—"

"You don't have to tell me," says Tic. "I'll listen, if you want to tell me. But you don't have to."

The spider mech is still playing with Garal's hair. Garal thinks Tic's trying to change eir hairstyle again.

Garal opens eir eyes. "I don't want to."

Tic nods. He still hasn't moved his hands.

"You're being very patient with me." Garal tries to sound grateful, but e thinks e's lost the knack.

"I like you," says Tic. "Which I hope you know. If you don't ever want to touch me again, I'll be fine. I'll still like you"

Garal looks at Tic until Tic slowly colors, warmth spreading across his cheekbones. "But you want me to touch you," e says. "Just so we're clear."

"I'd like that," admits Tic, still flushed. "I'm sorry, please excuse me."

Tic stands up, clasps his hands behind his back, flees. Garal leans back in eir chair and tries to figure out why e feels in control of the absurd situation. Why e feels pleased, instead of stressed.

The spider mech drops two of its claws down to eir shoulder, lightly pressing down in an imitation of a hug. Garal strokes it without thinking, hand brushing over prickly-soft hair. The spider mech hums wordlessly in eir ear.

"I think this can work," says Garal, surprising emself with how certain e sounds.

"Good," says the spider mech, in its odd thready voice that somehow still sounds like Tic, and hugs em again.