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Only in the Night

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He’d been in space for far too long.

There was no other explanation for why Joel had begun looking Mike up and down in recent days. Or noticing things about him.

Like how Mike’s eyes glimmered whenever he was looking right at him.

Or how tousled Mike’s hair got whenever he woke up in the mornings, almost like the “freshly fucked” look. There were days Joel wished Mike wouldn’t comb his hair.

Or the hand that sometimes touched his thigh when they were in the theater.

The last one unnerved Joel the most. He always needed to remind himself that Mike didn’t mean anything by that, and it was only because the seats were jammed so closely together and there were no arm rests. After all, they had to put their arms and hands somewhere. It was just an involuntary thing, for comfort…right?

But perhaps Mike’s presence was what was had altered his state of mind to begin with.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like Mike. Quite the opposite. He finally had another human to hang out with, and Mike was extremely helpful when it came to keeping the ‘bots in line, even if he wasn’t exactly the greatest example for them to be following. He also helped with cooking and his share of the chores.

The real problem was that they had to share a room.

That in itself wasn’t an issue. Prior to being shot into space, Joel had had roommates, many of them in one-bedroom apartments where they were both stuck in the same sleeping space due to being broke.

But, they were alone in space, and Joel, well…he’d been horny as all hell, and it had been way too long since he’d been with anyone. At least when he’d been alone, he could have taken care of himself. But with Mike always around, that was nearly impossible. The shower wasn’t really an option, as Mike would eventually need to use it, and Joel would catch holy hell if he used all the hot water. That had already happened once, and boy, had Mike been pissed.

So maybe Joel was just projecting. But it didn’t exactly help matters to have an attractive man prancing around the SOL, especially since they’d often catch one another in various stages of undress when they were getting dressed or turning in for the night.

Then again, if Joel was projecting, why did Mike touch him so much? Or look at him with such an adoring expression as frequently as he did?

It was best not to think about it.

***

Just once, Joel wanted to wake up without a raging boner. Apparently today was not that day.

He couldn’t remember any of his dreams, but judging by the state of his nether regions upon waking up, he could figure out what at least one of them had entailed.

At least Mike was still asleep. He always went to bed and got up later than Joel did.

There was no reason to try and recall any of his dreams, however. It was already 7 AM, and Crow and Tom would be awake soon. Being robots, they had normal sleep/wake cycles, even though Joel hadn’t meant to program them in. It just sort of happened. Those cycles could be a blessing or a curse, depending on the situation.

On a day when Joel could have headed to the shower to take care of his little problem, it was definitely a curse. He got dressed and headed to the bathroom to clean up, trying to remember all the details of the Packers’ latest roster. That usually bored him enough to go soft.

Thankfully, it worked. He was clean, flaccid, and already cooking waffles by the time Crow and Tom rolled out of bed and headed to the bridge. And sure enough, they'd decided to continue the argument they’d been having the previous day.

“You’re a big, stupid, doo-doo head!” Tom snapped at Crow.

“Yeah?!” Crow shot back. “Well, you’re a big, fat, smelly dumb-dumb brain!”

“Boys…” Joel rolled his eyes. “Can’t we all just agree that Godzilla and Ghidorah are both awesome?”

“No, you don’t understand, Joel!” Tom retorted. “Ghidorah is evil! Godzilla at least helps people depending on what movie you’re watching!”

Crow glared at Tom. “Then why does Godzilla always destroy monorails and buildings, huh?! Would a good guy destroy infrastructure?”

“He’s not evil, he’s just misunderstood! And if he were evil, why would those scientists be able to summon him?”

Crow’s joints squeaked as he lunged forward, bumping his beak against Tom’s dome. “That’s a cartoon! It’s not canon!”

“Yes it is!” Tom insisted at the top of his nonexistent lungs.

“Mmmrrrgh…” The argument faded off as Mike shuffled groggily into the room. Joel’s heart stopped the moment he laid eyes on Mike.

Mike had chosen to wear his green jumpsuit, and was clearly still tired; judging by the unevenly fastened snaps on his jumpsuit and the dark circles underneath his eyes, which he began rubbing with his left forearm. But apparently Mike had slept commando the previous night. Joel could tell because Mike had accidentally left the bottom snaps on his jumpsuit undone, and his dick was hanging out.

“Uh…” It was rude not to say anything, but just how was Joel supposed to politely point that out?

“What?” Mike lowered his arm and blinked in confusion when he saw the look on Joel’s face.

“Y…” Joel lifted his arm and timidly pointed a finger towards Mike’s crotch.

“What? There something on my face?”

“N-no…Um…” Joel thrust his finger forward, hoping Mike would get the hint.

“What?!” Mike sounded annoyed at this point. “Seriously, is there something on my face or what?!”

“Your…” Joel swallowed the lump in his throat. “Your…fly’s down.”

“Huh?” Mike frowned, taken aback before glancing down and staggering backwards. “Oh, shit!” Joel had never seen anyone run as fast as Mike did away from the bridge and towards the back hallway.

Joel heaved a sigh of relief as he suddenly remembered to breathe. Crisis averted.

Or maybe not. Now he could smell the waffles burning.

“JOEL!” Crow cried at the top of his lungs. “Mike said the S word!”

“Yes honey, I heard him.” Joel tossed the now-blackened waffle batter onto a nearby plate and dumped it into the garbage before reaching for the bowl where he still had some fresh batter left. He’d have to start over.

“You know that that means, right?!” Tom sounded far too excited about what Mike breaking the rules meant.

Joel held back a sigh. “Yep. We have to punish him.”

“So…” Crow began with a pleading tone. “Can we do it?”

“Yeah!” Tom chimed in. “Please? Please? Pretty please with a bushel of cherries and maybe a couple of trees on top?”

“Eh…” It was against his better judgment, but Joel wasn’t in the mood to argue. “Sure. Why not.”

“YAY!!” Crow and Tom both rushed off.

Joel couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. At least Crow and Tom’s punishments weren’t too severe. Most of them involved tickling or comically large objects. But when it came to Mike, they always wanted to tie him up for some reason.

Whatever. Mike could deal with them for the time being.

But in the meantime, Joel had to deal with his own unsettled thoughts and emotions.

Which included all the feelings that rushed into his brain after seeing Mike that exposed. Sure, they’d changed in close quarters before, but Joel always looked away. So did Mike, as far as he knew. It would be creepy for either of them to be looking for too long.

Because of that, this had been the first time Joel had really gotten a good look at Mike. And what did he know, Flat Stanley wasn’t really that flat after all.

A sudden cloud of black smoke shook Joel back to reality. He’d once again burnt the waffles beyond all recognition and would have to start all over.

“Goddammit!” Joel began scraping the hardened batter out of the iron with a butter knife.

Joel stopped in his tracks when he heard something behind him. He turned to see Crow and Tom with the rope and a giant cartoon hammer, eyeing him intently.

“…Oh crap,” Joel muttered as he felt his stomach sink.

***

At least the ‘bots had picked Joel and not Mike to execute their punishment on after that slipup. As far as Joel was concerned, he had taken one for the team.

Somewhere along the line, however, they had become really good at tying knots. It was bad enough they’d repeatedly whacked him with the hammer and poured maple syrup on his head, but having Mike there attempting to undo all the knots was just downright weird, if not slightly awkward.

Eventually, Mike gave up and grabbed a pair of garden shears (where did he get those, anyway?) and cut Joel loose. Apparently the knots were also beyond his ability.

“Thanks.” Joel pushed himself up off of the floor and headed into the back to take a shower.

“Don’t mention it,” Mike called after him.

Joel discarded his jumpsuit into the laundry basket in their room before heading into the bathroom and turning on the water. Hopefully the maple syrup would come off in short order. Mike had already been in the shower that morning, and the last thing he needed was to run out of hot water.

Fortunately, he was in luck. There was plenty. Joel stepped into the stream of water and began soaping up, allowing himself to zone out.

Then the door opened.

“Mike?!” Joel recoiled in shock. “What are you doing in here?!”

“I used all the towels this morning and forgot to put some clean ones in.” Mike placed a stack of towels onto the closed toilet lid. “Here.”

“…Oh. Thanks.” Joel felt a sense of relief, but another sensation soon made itself known. Was it…disappointment?

“You’re welcome.” Mike cocked his head and smiled at Joel before pulling the door closed.

It was instantaneous, so Joel couldn’t really get a good look, but had Mike just winked at him?

No. He was imagining things.

But he’d seen that pinkish flush in Mike’s cheeks before. That most certainly wasn’t his imagination.

And Joel remembered exactly where he’d seen it. He’d crept into bed late one night after staying up way too late working on an invention. He’d been so preoccupied with not making too much noise that he barely caught a glimpse of Mike on the other bed before he turned out the light.

But he remembered that flush all too well.

Mike was stripped down to his boxers, and was lying spread-eagled on his back, semi-hard and, judging by the whimpers in the back of his throat as he slept, having a very nice dream.

Joel certainly wouldn’t have minded seeing that face once again, looking straight up at him; eyes brimming with lust as he balanced himself on his forearms and buried himself deep inside of Mike; absorbing every last sensation inside and out as he felt Mike’s arms and legs clutching him tighter and their bodies slick with sweat.

Joel’s eyes fluttered closed as the image emblazoned itself into the center of his mind. His essence floated away as the blood left his extremities and rushed down to the junction of his thighs.

His fingertips whispered down his skin as they sojourned further down, eventually finding their way between his legs.

Then suddenly, as quickly as it had left him, his consciousness came surging back.

No. He couldn’t. Mike had already been in the bathroom once. Since he’d forgotten to lock the door, there was a very high possibility of being discovered.

Joel reached for the right faucet handle and cranked it all the way open, making the water as cold as he possibly could.

***

Mike had recently taken to standing at the full-length glass window in the middle of the SOL and staring into space during the evenings, and tonight was no exception.

This time, however, he didn’t speak or even acknowledge Joel’s presence. Between that and the contemplative look on Mike’s face, Joel figured Mike had something on his mind.

Joel stepped over to the window and took a spot next to Mike. If it were anyone else, Joel wouldn’t have wanted to stand so close. But with Mike, his sense of personal space tended to vanish.

“You look like you’re thinking about something,” Joel commented before frowning. What a stupid thing to say. Of course Mike had been thinking about something. Why else would he have been there staring off into space?

Mike took two steps away from the window before turning to Joel. “What do you miss most about home?”

“Huh?” Joel initially wondered whether Mike was just deflecting the question, but Mike’s inquisitive look soon told him that he really did want to know. “Hmm…I’d say family.”

“Even if your mom always bugged you about getting a girlfriend?”

“Yeah, well…” Joel shook his head as he remembered one of their previous conversations. At least there was no relationship harassment out here in space. “Eh…it’s complicated.”

Mike nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I was just thinking about. Hell, even Eddie. I wonder if he ever quit smoking. Last I saw him, he was trying.”

Judging from their earlier conversations, Mike’s relationship with Eddie had been mixed. Or perhaps Joel and Jim were the only brothers who hadn’t solved their differences with fistfights. “Did you and Eddie get along?”

“Well…” Mike shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “Sure, we fought, but who didn’t? I mean, I don’t hate him or anything. I just…” Mike slumped against the window. “Right around the end there, he seemed like he was in trouble. I think the divorce really messed him up.”

Joel cocked his head in concern. “You never told me about that.”

“I don’t even know what happened. He and Tanya had been really close, but then, suddenly…I don’t know.” Mike stared down at his feet. “I should have asked him what was going on.”

“You’re not the only one with regrets.” Joel crossed his arms across his chest as he turned his head to look at Mike. “Jim and Laura had their brand new baby, and they invited me to come see him, but I didn’t take the weekend off work because it was a holiday and I was getting time and a half. But then I went to work that weekend and never came home…”

“You can see him once we get off this thing. Besides, he was a baby. It’s not like he would have remembered you.”

Joel nodded. That made him feel a little better. “Well, once we escape, you can call Eddie and ask him how he’s doing and what happened.”

Mike looked up at Joel and smiled; eyes gleaming as he looked right at Joel. “Sounds like a plan.”

Joel smiled as well before remembering the reason he had been looking for Mike in the first place. “You didn’t put Crow and Tom to bed yet, did you?”

“No.” Mike shook his head. “It was still early last I checked. But now that you mention it, it probably is time…” Mike ran off without another word.

Joel barely had time to register Mike’s sudden absence before hearing Mike raise his voice.

“Crow!” Mike had fully transformed from wistful younger brother into hard-nosed disciplinarian. “Stop hitting the control panels with a wiffle bat!”

Yep. It was definitely time to put them to bed. Joel took off into a sprint and went to help Mike.

***

“God, yes, harder!”

Mike lowered his head down onto the bed between his forearms when Joel tightened his grip on Mike’s hips and slammed forward, impaling him in one stroke.

“Nnnngh…” Mike lolled his head to the left as Joel increased his pace, then pushed back against the movement behind him; matching every thrust with one of his own.

“Ungh, don’t stop, don’t stop, I’m so close…” Mike’s voice trailed off into a low groan as he grabbed fistfuls of the comforter. “God, I’m gonna, I’m gonna come, come inside me, baby—“

The metallic clang against the floor woke Joel with a sudden start. He sprung upright into a seated position with his arms behind him the sheets tangled around his waist.

Mike muttered something to himself as he retrieved his hairbrush from the floor and put it back on his dresser. His back remained turned towards Joel as he left the bedroom.

Joel heaved a long, ragged sigh. Even if Mike had been facing him, at least the sheets would have hidden his massive hard-on.

Judging by the fact that Mike was already up and dressed, Joel had slept in late. He was on breakfast duty again this morning, so he couldn’t sleep in any longer.

Joel took a few long, deep breaths before pushing himself out of bed. It was best not to analyze that dream too much.

***

They’d watched some godawful movies before during the experiments, but this was the first time Joel had ever been truly concerned about Mike. The pale glow of the screen betrayed Mike’s body language and facial expressions, and Mike wasn’t stoic or bored like he normally was. He was downright uncomfortable.

Mike would occasionally flinch or squeeze his eyes shut. The attempted rape at the beginning of the movie had also disquieted Joel, and he didn’t feel too bad when Chip tumbled over the cliff. Mike’s reaction, however, was cause for concern—especially the whimpering that Mike desperately tried, yet failed, to keep down.

It wouldn’t have bothered Joel so much if it had only happened once. But Mike kept recoiling in disgust whenever the bread delivery guy touched Silver in the nightclub. And Mike was right, the guy was a disgusting pig.

But Mike’s reactions were incredibly visceral. Something had to be going on to cause them. It was something Joel would need to discuss with Mike sometime after the movie. Alone.

Apparently Mike was still anxious, as he wasn’t in their room around his normal bedtime. The ‘bots had already gone to bed several hours ago, and even Cambot and Gypsy were in sleep mode.

Sleep could wait. Joel needed to find out what was going on.

At least he knew where to find Mike. Sure enough, he was in his new favorite spot by the full-length window. Even though Mike was slumped up against the window, his shoulders were incredibly tense.

“Hey.” Joel kept his voice low and gentle, not wanting to disturb Mike any further. “Is everything okay? I mean, that movie seemed to really bother you.”

Mike nodded. “Yeah, it just…I dunno. It did bother me. Especially that couple that didn’t even bother to help and just kept making out.”

Joel stepped over to the window, but was careful to keep his distance. “You wanna talk about it?”

“I just…” Mike took a deep breath and stared down at the floor for a few moments before speaking again. “I feel so stupid because I never had anything happen to me like that, but…it all just disgusts me so much.”

“Well, yeah. It means that you’re a decent human being.”

“But—”

“We all have triggers. Girls Town just happened to have yours.”

“That’s the problem!” Mike squeezed his eyes shut and pounded a fist against the glass. “The Mads saw me like that. And now that they know what triggers me…”

Joel nodded sympathetically. No wonder Mike had been so worried. “I won’t let them hurt you.”

Mike slowly and silently opened his eyes before gradually turning his head to face Joel.

Even with Joel’s growing astonishment at the words that began sliding out of his mouth, his resolve burned inside him; sweltering like a blast furnace. “I don’t know how yet, or what I’ll do, but I’ll think of something. I’ll protect you. I promise.”

What in the hell was Joel saying, and why? It was crazy, but right then and there, protecting Mike became the most important thing in the universe. Joel couldn’t bear to see him so distraught ever again.

Mike’s blank expression flourished into a tight-lipped smile. “Thanks, Joel. I’m gonna go to bed, OK?”

“Good. You should get some rest after all that. I’ll be in a little later. I’m almost finished with my next invention.”

“Sounds good,” Mike hollered as he began walking away. “Good night. See you tomorrow.”

“Good night.” Joel remained silently in place and watched Mike disappear down the corridor while his mind reeled from all the new thoughts and emotions.

What was coming over him all of a sudden?

***

“Ungh, don’t stop, don’t stop, I’m so close…”

Joel gasped as his eyes snapped open. It was bad enough that he’d already had that dream once, but two nights in a row was a bit much.

Especially because he was now hard enough to cut diamonds.

Joel heaved a few heavy, centering breaths in an attempt to calm his rapidly fraying nerves. It only served to magnify the sensations surging throughout him.

It suddenly occurred to Joel that he was alone. He turned his head to look at the clock on his nightstand. 8:30 AM. The ‘bots had to be up by now. But Mike had let him sleep in. Perhaps Mike was feeling charitable after the previous night’s events?

Whatever. Mike’s reason didn’t matter. What did matter was that Joel was now alone. Maybe if he finally jerked off, he could banish that pesky dream once and for all.

Joel shifted on the bed as he pushed his sleep pants and boxers off before kicking them aside. He inhaled deeply as he closed his eyes and slid a hand between his legs.

However, once he zoned out, the very first thing that came to mind was Mike.

He could picture it perfectly: Mike sleeping on the other bed as he crept in after another one of his late nights, laying on his left side with his knees bent and his arms perpendicular to his chest. Joel’s gaze had traveled up and down the contours of Mike’s body many times, admiring the perfection sprawled across the mattress. Mike really did have gorgeous skin and an amazing figure on top of those boyish good looks. It was a damn shame he had to conceal it underneath those jumpsuits.

No. He had to stop this. Joel lightly bit his lip as he tried to think of something else.

But all that came to mind was Mike’s pointed gaze as those fingers trailed up Joel’s thigh in the theater.

Joel opened his eyes and rolled over before opening the top drawer of his nightstand. The contents were the same as always: a travel-sized package of tissues, a bottle of lube, and three magazines with dog-eared photo spreads of his longtime favorite pinup girl, Lillian Sapphire.

Lillian would do nicely. Joel pulled out the closest magazine and flipped right to the section containing her pictures.

He had whacked off to several of her pictures thousands of times as a teenager, especially whenever he pictured her legs wrapped around him. Christ, that woman had an amazing pair of legs. Joel had always been drawn to them, even more so than her modestly sized yet beautifully rounded tits, or the strawberry blonde hair that cascaded down her shoulders, emphasized by her azure eyes and porcelain skin.

Joel stared intently at the shot of Lillian sitting on the arm of a leather sofa, letting his eyes meander up and down her white garter belt and stockings. She was threading her bra straps between her fingers as she smiled mischievously at the camera, clearly aware that her nipples were peeking out of the cups and not minding one bit.

Perhaps that was why he had always been drawn to her: she never had to fake it. No matter how little she wore or what pose she was in, she was clearly enjoying herself as opposed to just doing it for the money. Here was a woman who knew how to use her beauty; who knew of the power she held over mere mortal men (and women, Joel was certain) and not only reveled in their arousal, but got off on it as well.

Lillian would slowly remove her bra, then discard it on the floor before standing up, turning around, and bending over the back of the sofa with her legs spread.

The garter belt and stockings faded away as Joel’s mind replaced the image of Lillian with that of Mike, who would turn his head and smile in anticipation.

Fuck. This was not what Joel needed to be thinking about. His heart seized in his chest as arousal suddenly gave way to panic.

There had to be a reason he kept thinking of Mike so much, even wanting him. Probably because they were stranded in space. Didn’t this kind of thing happen to people stranded on desert islands? Maybe that’s how they all stayed sane until they got rescued, by just taking care of one another’s needs.

Wasn’t that all it was? It wasn’t like it meant anything. Besides, Joel wasn’t doing anything for real. It was just a fantasy…right?

Fantasy or no, whatever it was sent all the blood surging back to Joel’s cock. He tossed the magazine back into the nightstand drawer and lay back down, closing his eyes as he wrapped all of his fingers around the base.

Even as he bent over the back of the sofa, Mike couldn’t help but smile as he gazed up at Joel in admiration. “I’ve wanted you for so long…”

Taking Mike’s admission as permission to continue, Joel placed his hands on Mike’s waist, gripping him gently as he positioned himself.

Desire flushed over Mike’s face as he inhaled sharply. “God, yes, please…”

With that, Joel began pushing in, moving slowly until he felt his pelvis fully flush against Mike.

“Unh, fuck…” Mike clenched his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. “You feel so good inside me…”

Joel began rocking his hips gently, losing himself in Mike: his skin, his movements, his ragged breaths, his voice. Mike whimpered with every thrust, panting whenever Joel would retreat.

Mike eventually started pushing his own hips back to meet Joel. “Please, harder…”

Joel tightened his grip on Mike, denting the skin of Mike’s waist with his nails as he increased his pace; slamming harder and harder once he had a rhythm going.

“Harder!” Mike shrieked deliriously. “More!”

Now Joel was plunging in and out of Mike like crazy, drinking in the gasps and moans as he met every last one of Mike’s thrusts with three times the force. Mike was clawing at the edge of the sofa now, stiffening as his core began to shake.

“God, yes, I’m gonna come! Don’t stop, don’t stop, I’m gonna come, yes, please, I’m gonna—”

Joel’s breath was coming in short spurts as he felt the pressure building in his gut. He clenched his fist around his cock, jerking furiously for those last few strokes he needed to get over the cliff. “Oh God, Mike…”

He was coming so hard he almost didn’t notice when the door opened and Mike walked in. An inhuman shriek escaped him as he spilled all over his thighs and stomach, mortified that Mike seemed to be drawing all of the come out of him.

Mike took a quick step backwards as all of the color drained from his face. “Shit! Sorry!” With that, he immediately closed the door. Joel heaved a sigh of relief when he heard Mike running down the hallway, away from the bedroom.

His mind flailed wildly between annoyance at Mike and self-flagellation for having timed it like an idiot. Why didn’t he have the foresight to lock the door? But couldn’t Mike have at least warned him he was coming in? And oh God did Mike hear him earlier?!

Then again, what else could Joel have done? There weren’t any doorknobs on the SOL. It wasn’t like he could put a tube sock there.

Whatever the case, he and the sheets were now drenched. At least today when the chores changed hands, it would be his turn to do laundry that week. Which was a godsend, because the last thing he needed was for Mike to be cleaning up his mess. Being discovered was bad enough. And getting vocal, well…If, in fact, Mike had heard anything, hopefully he was tactful enough to keep it to himself.

If he thought about it anymore, he’d trigger a panic attack. Joel reluctantly rolled out of bed and trudged over to the bathroom for a shower.

***

Joel realized that he must have slept in longer than he thought once he was fully dressed and dragging the bedroom laundry hamper, soiled sheets and all, through the hallway to the laundry corridor. Judging by the fact that Crow and Tom were not on the bridge and were instead racing butt scooters through the hall, they had finished breakfast quite some time ago.

Despite the SOL Butt Scooter 500 occurring nearby, Mike was still in the kitchen washing dishes when Joel passed by.

“Hey there,” Mike called when he heard Joel approach. “Your breakfast’s on the table. I switched out the chore chart already. Once I’m done in here, I’m gonna go help Tom scrub the floors.”

“Helping” Tom scrub the floors involved attaching scrubbers to his base and allowing him to zip around at top speed. It turned out to be a surprisingly fast and efficient way to clean, and Mike was right: they might as well put Tom’s hyperactivity to good use. Joel had to hand it to Mike. He never would have come up with that himself. Plus, on days when Tom burned up all that energy, he always went to bed that night without a fight.

Sure enough, there were home fries and an omelet waiting for Joel on the table. Joel began slicing up the omelet and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was still hot. Mike must have waited to cook Joel’s breakfast; another indication that he had decided to let Joel sleep in that morning.

Mike was no Anthony Bourdain, but he was a surprisingly good cook. Joel couldn’t even flip an omelet without everything falling apart, but Mike had melted some cheddar and thrown the leftover bacon bits in there for Joel. The home fries were also nice and crispy, just the way Joel liked them.

He hadn’t eaten this well before Mike had joined their motley crew aboard the SOL. Between the cooking, cleaning, and companionship, Mike really did take care of Joel. Sure, he’d had the ‘bots, but Joel began to wonder: how had he managed all this time without Mike?

Joel continued to ponder the question as he placed his dishes in the now-empty kitchen sink. He peeked at the dry erase board that Mike had set up on the fridge. The board contained a hand-drawn spreadsheet with all of the chores, someone’s name next to each chore, and two columns next to the name labeled “WIN” and “FAIL,” with an “X” drawn in the “FAIL” column by default for most of the chores. The ones that had already been completed that day had the “X’s” erased from the “FAIL” column and redrawn in the “WIN” column instead.

According to the chart, Joel’s duties were laundry and ironing. He erased the “X” in the “FAIL” column next to the laundry listing and redrew it in the “WIN” column before heading back to the laundry room.

No matter how many times Joel looked at that chart, he never ceased to be amused by Mike’s organizational style. But it did make it a lot easier for everyone to mark down what they had finished, as well as to check what still needed to be done. If they ever got off the SOL, Mike would make a perfect dad.

Joel stopped in his tracks as the musing suddenly made him think of Jim and Laura. That kid had to be at least five years old now. And at some point, he’d be asking where Uncle Joel was.

And what about Joel and Jim’s parents? They had to be wondering what happened to their oldest son. Joel pictured all of the Christmases that had passed by since he last saw them, all of the untouched place settings, the unopened presents, and all of the incomplete family photos.

Gypsy had always said that they were all a family. Come to think of it, he was technically her father. Sure, Joel had kids now, but would he ever be able to introduce them to everyone?

Yes, Mike and the ‘bots were now his family…but it would never be the same.

***

Mike had never shown any previous interest in tinkering, so it was a complete surprise when he asked if he could use Joel’s workshop space for a bit.

Joel didn’t mind. Instead, he was wondering what brought on the sudden curiosity. But he was afraid to ask, as he didn’t want to pry.

Other than asking Joel a few technical questions here and there about wiring, Mike was actually quite proficient. When Joel would occasionally pop in while Mike was working, everything was going really well. Unlike Joel, he never had to reach for the fire extinguisher whenever a project exploded.

Finally, two weeks later, Mike unveiled his secret project.

Joel walked onto the bridge to discover Crow and Tom marveling over the blue robot that Mike was putting the finishing touches on. Crow was right: it was cute.

Then everything went horribly wrong.

Mike had the wherewithal to shut down his suddenly homicidal creation, despite his obvious disappointment at what had happened.

But then Crow and Tom had to start piling on Mike. Again.

Why Mike was always a convenient punching bag for them was beyond Joel. Normally Mike let the insults roll off of his back, but this time was different.

When Mike said that he couldn’t build robots, he was absolutely devastated. The Mads did them a favor for once with their timing.

But Tom refused to drop the subject. “And don’t go building a robot while you’re pressing the button, you moron!”

Joel’s fists were clenched so tightly that his nails were digging into his palms. “That’s enough!”

The outburst was met with several confused stares. Joel recoiled in shock upon realizing what he had just done. After all, he never raised his voice at the ‘bots.

Everyone seemed to have forgotten about it by the time they headed into the theater. But Joel hadn’t forgotten.

Especially not when he saw Mike staring forlornly at the remnants of his robot after the movie. Joel could only imagine how painful it had to have been for him to be forced to destroy his own creation.

It was best to leave him alone for the time being. Joel could check on him in the evening.

But when robot bedtime rolled around, Mike was nowhere to be found.

Putting Tom and Crow to bed by himself wasn’t all that difficult for Joel. After all, he used to do so all the time before Mike showed up. But Mike not helping out was highly unusual.

Mike wasn’t at his favorite spot, either. Joel forced himself to brush aside his growing concern for a few moments to focus on pondering where Mike might have gone. Maybe he was in their room?

Even though the lights were off, that was exactly where Joel found Mike, sitting on the floor with his arms wrapped around his bent legs and his back against the side of his bed. Mike didn’t even flinch when Joel turned the overhead light on.

“Mike?” It felt like a stupid question, but maybe he could get Mike to talk.

Mike stared blankly down at the floor. “I can’t build robots.”

“Sure you can.” Joel crouched down on the floor next to Mike. “You did. You know Tom and Crow can be real jerks sometimes. They didn’t mean it.”

“But they’re right.” Mike sighed as he released his legs and straightened them out. “I don’t even know why I bothered.”

“Are you kidding? You needed almost no help. Do you know how hard it is to build robots?” Now that Mike had brought it up, it was worth asking what Joel had been so curious about. “But what made you interested in building a robot all of a sudden? I was surprised when you asked to borrow the workshop for a bit.”

“I…” Mike turned his head away from Joel. “I wanted to be like you.”

Joel’s eyes widened in surprise. “…Me?”

Mike nodded, but kept his gaze averted from Joel. “I…I don’t know why I tried. There’s no way I could ever measure up to you. I was working at a temp company, for chrissakes. It’s not like I could—”

Joel hushed Mike with a gentle hand to his shoulder. “Mike, look at me.”

The anxiety on Mike’s face was plain as day as he slowly and reluctantly turned his head to face Joel.

“Like I said, you needed almost no help building that thing. Do you know how difficult it is for anyone to build a robot, let alone a beginner?”

“But—”

Joel could tell what Mike wanted to say, and he was having none of it. “You’re not useless or a burden or whatever it was you were about to say. None of that’s true. You know I’ve gained a few pounds since you’ve been up here since I’ve been eating so much better? The ‘bots are happier with the meals, too. I just barely learned how not to burn water right before you arrived.”

Mike gazed at Joel questioningly as his features softened. “…Really?”

Joel nodded. “Not only that, you’re a huge help taking care of the ‘bots and the SOL. I used to run myself ragged trying to keep this place running while making sure they didn’t destroy it. And that chore chart? Absolutely genius. I never would have thought about it myself.”

This time, it was Joel’s turn to look confused when Mike chuckled in bemusement. “The guy who built four robots and can fix damn near anything is calling me a genius?”

“Yeah. Honestly, I’d have either gone crazy or we’d have all been dead by now if you hadn’t come along. Maybe both. So yeah, we do need you here.”

“What, to cook and clean for you?” Mike asked with a mischievous smile.

“No!” Joel shot back defensively. “I mean, I…” His speech and train of thought screeched to a halt as he realized he had absolutely no way to express it properly. “I…” Hell, was there even a way to say so? “I just like having you around, is all.”

The wide grin on Mike’s face was genuine. “I like having you around, too.”

“Good.” Joel nodded in relief before suddenly getting an idea. “Now that I think about it…you still have the pieces to that robot, right? I could help you with it.”

Mike seemed taken aback. “You would do that?”

“Yeah. You’re still interested, right?”

Mike pondered the question for a moment before nodding and smiling. “Okay, tell you what…you teach me how to fix that thing, and I teach you how to cook. Sound good?”

“Deal,” Joel replied with a mutual grin.

***

It was still taking some effort, but Joel was actually able to help Gypsy and Mike out with Thanksgiving dinner that year. He played it safe and stuck to fairly easy side dishes for the first try, and the stuffing wasn’t half bad. Chopping all those vegetables took way too much time, though. Surely he could come up with some sort of contraption to make it easier.

The cranberry sauce, however, was another story. Tom and Crow’s reaction was to be expected, but at least they were slinging the insults at Joel instead of Mike for a change. Even Gypsy refused to touch it, although she was nice enough to be polite about it. Cambot just pretended it wasn’t there.

Mike, however, took seconds and even thirds. Even though he had to gulp down wine after every bite of turkey (which was replaced with water once he started feeling too lightheaded), he ate every piece of turkey that he covered with the glaze and insisted that it was good.

Although Mike was still having his own difficulties with the finer points of tinkering, he had less trouble with it than Joel had in the kitchen. They were spending a lot of time together in the workshop now after the ‘bots had gone to bed, simply fiddling with some of the parts as they held random conversations.

Mike was asking more questions now, and still needed Joel to show him how to do some things. He was still having issues with wiring and circuits.

Neither of them thought anything of it when Joel would stand behind Mike while he was crouched down over the workbench and lean over to guide his hands. Joel’s hands would only be on Mike’s arms and hands for a brief time, but somehow, everything would fall into place at his touch.

Whenever Joel powered up Mike’s robot for a test run, it was no longer homicidal, but was still malfunctioning. He still wasn’t sure exactly what the problem was, but at least had it narrowed down to a few possibilities.

Mike didn’t seem to mind that it was taking Joel forever to diagnose the problem, since trial and error was really the only method available. But neither did Joel, once he realized it was an excuse to spend more time alone with Mike.

And if Mike noticed, well, he didn’t seem to mind either.

Joel was considering calling it a night now as he stood at Mike’s favorite spot and stared at the Black Eye Galaxy looming large over the SOL. They would only be in its proximity for another week, and had only gotten really close to it during the past few hours. Now that they were close enough for Joel to see the dust lanes spiraling around the inner disk, Joel wanted to stare at the mesmerizing spectacle for as long as possible.

He had been so spellbound that he hadn’t even noticed Mike join him until Mike’s arm brushed against his shoulder when Mike leaned over to get a better view.

“No wonder you were so quiet.” Mike spoke in a hushed tone, as if he were afraid of ruining the sight. “I didn’t see you in bed, so I wondered what you were doing.”

Joel shrugged. “Well, I was planning on going to bed earlier, but I got preoccupied here. You done in the workshop?”

“Yeah, I put everything away already.”

They both stood silently at the window, simply gazing at the spectacle in the distance. Joel wanted to get a good long look so that he could remember what it looked like. As much as Joel sometimes missed Earth, he would never be able to see things like this there.

Not only that, but here he didn’t have to worry about bills, rent, work, or his family getting all up in his business. Not only was he free from all of that up here, but he had the ‘bots, so he wasn’t alone. He also had Mike. Mike had blended nicely and they were all one big happy family at this point.

The Mads had intended for the SOL to be a prison, but for Joel, it had become a sanctuary.

“What’s up?”

“Hmm?” The sudden question shook Joel out of his reverie.

“You looked like you were thinking about something. What’s on your mind?”

“Well…” Joel glanced down at the floor to collect his thoughts before turning to face Mike. “Thinking about home.” Now that he really thought about it, the SOL wasn’t that bad. “Do you want to go back to Earth?”

“What?” Mike drew back in confusion, gawking at Joel as if he had three heads. “Of course I want to go back. Why are you even asking me that? Do you actually want to stay up here?”

“I…” Mike was right. It was a stupid question. “I don’t know, I mean, we don’t have to pay rent or utilities and do any work beyond watching terrible movies, and we get to see things like this…” Joel gestured towards the window. “How many people can say they’ve actually seen this sort of thing in person? Besides…It’s not like I’m alone.”

“That’s true,” Mike replied with a shrug.

“I have you, and I have the ‘bots...and besides, I told you about my mom. I’m an adult, but she still nags me from time to time. She seems to think I’m still a kid. She doesn’t get on Jim’s case like she does mine…” Joel stared down at the floor again. “Probably because he’s married. ‘Joel, when are you going to find yourself a girlfriend? Why don’t you go out more? Quit playing with machines all the time. Women don’t like that.’ I don’t need Mom, I just need a recording that repeats that over and over.”

“Yeah.” Mike kicked idly at the floor. “For me, it was always ‘how do you expect to support a family on that salary’? You know, like I actually had anyone to make long-term plans around.”

Joel nodded. “Yeah. I mean, sure, I do want to go back home, but…there’s none of that to worry about up here.”

“Right.” Mike took a few steps away before pausing to turn his head and look back at Joel. “Well, if I don’t go to sleep anytime soon, I’ll sleep in way too late and miss the experiment tomorrow. I’m going to bed.”

“Yeah, good idea.” Joel had long since lost track of time. It was probably well past midnight. He stepped away from the window and began heading towards their room, with Mike following a few steps behind him.

Mike chuckled and shook his head. “Whaddaya mean, ‘do you want to go back to Earth’? You’re really weird sometimes, you know that?”

Joel shrugged in chagrin. “…Yeah, I know.” He stopped in his tracks and stood in the middle of the hallway, pondering the conversation they’d had.

It was stupid. He didn’t even know why he’d brought up the subject. Did he really want to stay on the SOL instead of going back to Earth?

Mike was right. He was weird. So weird that he often didn’t even understand himself.

***

Gypsy’s sudden obsession with fire drills was bad enough. But then she decided to hold one first thing in the morning.

To make matters worse, Joel had finally had some time to himself, and he had remembered to lock the door this time.

Then the alarms started blaring right when he was starting to get into it.

With his morning ruined, Joel was now in the workshop trying to fix his latest project in time for the invention exchange. Mike had been nice enough to volunteer for cleanup duty in the kitchen, even after he had cooked breakfast.

As good as Mike was with domestic chores, the workload was starting to get quite unbalanced thanks to Joel’s late nights in the workshop. Perhaps he needed to take over the ironing and laundry the following week, even though it was Mike’s turn then to do both. Mike never complained, but Joel was beginning to feel like a slacker.

The invention was almost finished. Joel picked up the saw and began carving around the edges of the wood. Hopefully this time he had the right shape. He’d tried several times before, but no matter what he did, it wasn’t coming out right.

At least it was looking halfway decent, though. All he needed was to get that last edge and—

Joel fell forward as his hand slipped and the sawblade slid off of the wood and directly over his right forearm. It only took a split second for the pain to register once the sleeve of his jumpsuit ripped open and the blood began gushing from the four-inch gash in his skin.

Then panic set in as he screamed at the top of his lungs.

“JOEL!” The distance of Mike’s voice indicated he was either at the end of the hallway or around the bridge.

“FUCK!” Joel flung the saw away from his arm and onto the workbench.

“Joel, where are you?!” Mike shrieked between heavy footfalls. He was clearly running, but Joel wasn’t sure exactly where to or from.

“I’m in the workshop!” Joel called out as he began to retract his arm. He immediately abandoned the effort once the pain seared throughout his nerves.

Almost immediately, Mike flung open the door before recoiling in horror. “What happened?!”

“My hand slipped,” Joel replied between gritted teeth.

Mike sprang to action and grabbed the first-aid kit from the shelf by the door before running over to the workbench and leaning over Joel. Joel grimaced to himself as he remembered why he had put that first-aid kit there to begin with. He had a tendency to scrape or cut his hands, and had just wanted to have Band-Aids somewhere convenient so that he wasn’t running all over the place trying to find one. The possibility of an injury like this never crossed his mind.

Once Mike finished rolling Joel’s sleeve up around his arm, he tore open an antiseptic wipe packet and began cleaning the wound. He ignored the sudden stream of profanity from Joel in response and tossed the bloody wipe aside before rolling the gauze around Joel’s forearm.

Mike paused at Joel’s wrist and held the gauze down with his free hand. “Can you hold that there for a minute?”

Joel nodded absentmindedly, doing as he was told as he watched Mike cut away some of the medical tape. Mike wrapped it just below Joel’s elbow, leaving some of the edges of the gauze exposed.

“Lift your arm up, okay?”

Obediently, Joel raised his arm a few feet off of the table as Mike cut a second piece of tape. He moved his hand as Mike rolled the second piece of tape just below his wrist. Mike pressed down on the tape a few times, making sure everything was firmly attached.

Joel stared at the makeshift bandage in admiration. “Not bad.”

“I hope that’s good enough,” Mike said as he grabbed a nearby towel and pressed it down on Joel’s forearm. Joel knew that Mike was just applying pressure to stop the bleeding, but he couldn’t help feel a twinge of something else as Mike held both of his hands firmly in place.

“Really? That looks good to me.”

Mike scowled as the yellow light above the door began flashing. “We can check on it later. It’ll have to do for now. Come on, the Bobbsey twins are calling.”

***

Mending the jumpsuit sleeve would have to wait. Even though Mike was now the one doing laundry by default until Joel could lift things again, he still required the use of both hands to sew anything. Until the gash scabbed over, it would hurt too much to do fiddly things with his right hand. Fortunately, it didn’t need stitches.

As long as Joel wasn’t trying to do anything too strenuous, the pain actually wasn’t all that bad. Once Mike had cleaned and rewrapped everything, the Neosporin and the Tylenol were actually working quite well. But he wouldn’t be picking up Tom for a little while, so he limited himself to getting Crow to bed that night and let Mike take care of Tom.

It was late enough that Cambot and Gypsy may have gone to bed on their own, but Joel wasn’t in the mood to check. That would require getting off the couch.

Mike sighed as he came in and sat down next to Joel. “I had to try and explain to Tom and Crow why you’re allowed to use all those words and they’re not.”

Apparently Joel had been much louder than he had realized after cutting himself open. “Wait, they heard all that?”

“Well, you were pretty loud.”

Joel shook his head. “I still don’t know what happened. I’ve done woodworking since I was a kid. You’d think I’d know what I was doing.”

Mike nodded in understanding. “How’s the arm?”

“Actually not as bad as I thought it would be. The way it was bleeding though…” Joel winced at the mental image.

“Yeah.” Mike propped his feet up on the coffee table before changing the subject. “How old were you when you started woodworking?”

“Seven, probably. I don’t exactly remember. Maybe I was eight. Hell, maybe if I’d have known what I was doing before—”

“Before what?” Mike turned his head.

Joel pulled away and stared down at the floor, embarrassed that he had even brought up the sudden memory. “Never mind.”

“No, come on!” Mike pulled his legs off the coffee table and returned his feet to the floor before turning his entire body to face Joel. “I wanna hear.”

“This is really stupid, but…”

“No, it’s not.” Even though Mike spoke gently, Joel could detect an adamant tone in his voice. “Come on, you were a kid. I’m not gonna laugh at you.”

Joel paused for a few moments before slowly raising his head and turning to face Mike. “…Promise?”

Mike nodded earnestly. “I promise.”

“It was summer, right before school started. I was going into first grade that year. Mom took me to the school I’d be going to, and I didn’t want to go for some reason. I don’t know if I was scared or what, but I just didn’t want to be there…so I decided I’d run away from home.”

Much to Joel’s surprise, Mike wasn’t amused by the story at all. Instead, he looked concerned. “Was it because it was so different from kindergarten?”

“Maybe. I’m not really sure. Jim walked in on me throwing things into a backpack, and I didn’t want him telling on me, so I convinced him to go to Canada with me. I thought maybe if I went to live in Canada, nobody would make me go to school.”

“He didn’t try to stop you?”

“Not when I told him they’d try to send him there too, when he was old enough. The only way I knew to go to Canada was over the lake…so I had him help me build a raft. We grabbed logs from the woodpile and tied them together with rope from Dad’s workshop. Then I put a stick in the middle and tied a blanket to it. I figured it would work as a sail. Well, it didn’t.”

Now Mike was beginning to look slightly incredulous. “You do realize that you never would have made it to Canada even if that raft could float, right?”

Joel couldn’t help but laugh. Mike was right: it was funny, now that he wasn’t actually living through it. “Like you said, I was seven. I didn’t realize Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was in the way.”

“To be fair, it might as well be Canada.”

“True.” Joel had to give Mike that one. “We made it out past the buoy, and then the ropes came undone and the raft fell apart. I didn’t know that Jim couldn’t swim.”

Mike’s face turned white as a sheet. “But…But he’s…?”

“At least I picked a launch point where we could be seen. I thought I was being stealthy, but the Hoeffels had that cottage they always rented in the summer, and Dave’s mom saw us out the back window. I guess she called his older brothers over, because they pulled us out of the water.”

“Could you swim? Can you?”

“I could, but once I realized Jim couldn’t swim, I was so busy trying to save him I almost drowned myself. We both ended up in the hospital for a couple of days. Then once we got out, I got the belt.”

Mike remained silent for a long while before speaking again. “Nobody knew you were afraid of going to first grade?”

“I never told anyone, and they never asked. I’d been doing so well in kindergarten and everywhere else I’d been, I guess they figured I’d just automatically fit in.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I don’t know.” A sudden thought occurred to Joel. “Now that I think about it…it’s kind of ironic I ended up stranded in space, after all that.”

Now it was Mike’s turn to laugh. “Yeah, but you’re not here by choice.”

“Hey, there are worse things than being stranded in space with talking robots and a handsome stranger.” Joel immediately regretted the words the second he let them slip. He’d said far too much.

“What handsome stranger?” Mike scoffed. “I don’t know of any other humans on the SOL besides us.”

Joel’s careless admission was setting off alarm bells in his head, but if there was one thing to override them, it was Mike being down on himself. Joel may have hated his big mouth right then, but he hated Mike’s low self-esteem even more. Even so, he still tried to maintain a lighthearted façade. “I meant you, silly.”

“Yeah, right.” Mike shook his head and waved his right hand dismissively. “I think you’ve been in space for too long.”

Suddenly, making Mike understand just how handsome and amazing he truly was became the most important task in the entire universe. “No, I’m serious. I mean it. You are handsome.”

Mike stared blankly at Joel for a few moments, clearly taken aback. “Dude…Now you’re calling your roommate handsome, out of nowhere? That’s…kinda creepy. What’s gotten into you?”

Joel’s nerves burned red-hot as he tried to swallow the bile forming in the back of his throat, which only made the sudden queasiness in his stomach even worse. Fuck. He’d said far too much. “I…” He took a few steps back, desperately searching for an out. “I’m gonna go check on the engines.” Not that he needed to; Gypsy took care of that. It didn’t stop him from running out of the room as quickly as he could. He thought he heard Mike calling his name, but he was already long gone.

Joel didn’t stop running until he reached the full-length window where they’d had so many conversations. Tonight, the Black Eye Galaxy looked far more menacing—almost as lethal as the mental and physical maelstroms pulling Joel under. In his rush to escape abject humiliation, Joel had pushed himself much too hard, and the nausea now felt like a millstone in his stomach, weighing him down.

If the Black Eye Galaxy were to swallow him up right then and there and rip him asunder, it wouldn’t matter. How could he have been so careless?

All of his feelings were gushing to the surface and ready to burst. He’d had so many impure thoughts of Mike, but he’d also been drowning in so many other emotions that were now spilling over the levee of his psyche. These were uncharted waters; so much deeper than his previous lust and infatuation with the fair-haired stranger who’d shown up on the SOL one fateful day.

Was he actually in love with Mike?

No…he couldn’t be. It was crazy. He was crazy. That had to be it. The SOL had finally broken him. Or so he wanted to say, but he’d been broken long before he’d even been sent into space.

And yet, Mike had somehow awakened something deep inside of him, something he never knew existed. Why else would he want to protect Mike so badly, or have exposed some of his most personal secrets to him? He’d told Mike things he’d never told anyone else, not even the therapists or his own family.

This wasn’t some stupid boyhood crush. This was different. Joel had lost all control and had long ago surrendered to the chimera of love and desire; and was only realizing it now—far too late.

If Mike freaked out…he didn’t know what he would do.

But Joel could think about it now. Any further contemplation would trigger a panic attack. Maybe if he just went to bed, he’d wake up in the morning, and it would turn out to be just another bad dream. If not, he could always apologize and just hope for the best.

Mike was already asleep by the time Joel crept back to their room. He gazed at Mike’s features in the pale glow of the nightlight Mike had plugged into the wall by the door, simply basking in the boyish complexion, tousled blonde hair, and outline of his figure hidden by the bedsheets.

Joel felt a sudden twinge of warmth when he remembered that Mike had plugged in the nightlight for his benefit. Joel frequently kept late hours working on his inventions, and had often snuck into their room late at night trying not to wake Mike. Eventually, Mike plugged in the nightlight, explaining that he didn’t want Joel to hurt himself when trying to maneuver around the room late at night.

Had Mike actually been concerned about him? Or was he just trying to keep Joel from waking him up?

It was too late to ponder that now. Joel stripped down to his briefs and tossed his jumpsuit into the hamper before crawling under the covers.

***

Joel was floating in limbo between sleep and consciousness, shifting his head to the left and sliding the soles of his feet down the bed as he felt all the blood rushing straight to his nether regions. Although he couldn’t remember any of his dreams, he could guess what they had been about.

His senses sprung to life as the sensations magnified. They traveled up and down his cock, sliding in time with the pressure and movement along the skin.

He suddenly realized: that was a hand on his cock. And both of his hands were lying on the bed.

Joel gasped at both the awareness and the contact as his eyes snapped open. Mike was crouched over Joel, balancing on his knees and left forearm as he grasped Joel’s length with his right. Somehow, Mike had managed to get the sheets and Joel’s briefs off of him so that they were both naked.

Mike paused as Joel recoiled in shock and tilted his head to the left, making immediate eye contact.

Joel shuddered as he realized just how vulnerable he really was now. “M-Mike—”

“Shhh.” Mike released Joel’s length and placed his right forearm on the bed before lowering himself and silencing Joel with a deep kiss.

Joel eagerly returned the kiss, reaching up to embrace Mike before searing pain shot down his right arm, causing him to slam his upper arm down on the mattress.

Mike pulled away and reared back onto his shins and ankles before gently clasping Joel’s right hand in both of his. “Take it easy.” He bent over and planted a kiss on Joel’s fingers. “Let me.” With that, Mike trailed kisses up and down the back of Joel’s hand for a few moments before lowering it onto the mattress. He wasted no time in getting back down onto his forearms and diving down for another kiss.

Joel cursed his injury, wishing he could use both hands as he slid the fingers of his left hand through Mike’s hair. He parted his lips at the gentle insistence of Mike’s tongue, remaining motionless and letting the electricity spark across his nerves as Mike’s tongue gently caressed his.

Mike’s hands began traveling up and down Joel’s skin as Mike relaxed his weight on top of Joel, triggering a moan. Joel idly traced his fingertips through Mike’s hair and across the back of Mike’s neck as Mike’s hands traveled up and down his skin, discovering every spot that turned his insides into molten lava.

Joel was sliding into delirium as Mike kissed winding paths up and down his neck before briefly returning to his mouth; then meandering back down his neck before nibbling and kissing Joel’s shoulder. Those cobalt blue eyes were clouded over with arousal every time they glanced up at Joel as Mike slithered up and down, kissing lower and lower down Joel’s chest before pausing to arch up and press his lips against Joel’s; practically devouring him every time their mouths found one another.

Even the faintest tinge of Mike’s hot breath whispering against the skin at the junction of his thighs intoxicated Joel, leaving him powerless to do anything but rest his good hand on the back of Mike’s head. The gesture elicited a low groan of arousal from Mike, prompting him to part his lips and brush them from the base to the tip of Joel’s cock before taking it into his mouth. Mike was really good at this; which led Joel to wonder if Mike had ever done this before.

Joel gasped and squeezed his eyes shut as the sensory overload jerked his head back and snarled his fingers in Mike’s hair. He immediately straightened them, fearing that Mike might stop if he pulled too hard. Mike slowly slid back and forth, occasionally caressing the underbelly of Joel’s length with his tongue before pulling back and tightening his lips around the head.

Their gazes met the moment that Joel finally dared to open his eyes. The earnest glimmer was back in Mike’s eyes; which shone brighter than ever before.

Before Joel could react, Mike pulled away and rose into a full kneel before lunging over to the nightstand and pulling the top drawer open. Almost instantaneously, he closed the drawer and returned to his previous spot between Joel’s legs, smiling wantonly as he popped the cap on the bottle of lube.

A twinge of panic surged throughout Joel as his heart stopped. How had Mike known that was in there? Had he seen everything that morning? Did he…hear Joel moaning his name? Not that it really mattered at this point, but it was still incredibly embarrassing.

Joel’s train of thought screeched to a halt as he felt and heard Mike’s lubed hand slicking up his cock. Mike was deliberately drawing it out, moving excruciatingly slowly as he tightened his grip and rubbed his thumb over the slit, causing Joel’s hips to rise from the bed.

Mike released Joel’s shaft and poured some lube on his fingers before replacing the cap and tossing the bottle aside. He rose once more into a full kneel, placing one hand behind him for support as he arched back, gasping and moaning quietly as he slid his fingers in and out of himself.

If Mike kept it up, he could get himself off with his fingers alone. Joel suddenly realized: Mike had done this before. He was fingering himself far too quickly and eagerly for this to have been his first time.

Mike noticed Joel’s astonished arousal and smiled before climbing up onto Joel’s lap and lowering himself until Joel was fully encompassed inside of him.

Now it was Joel who moaned as Mike began to move, rocking his hips and placing his hands on Joel’s chest. Joel couldn’t remember how it felt with any of the women he’d previously been with, but was certain it felt nothing like this—the warm, gentle grip stroking his length like a carnal embrace as the pressure built, almost sending him over the edge with every jerk of Mike’s hips.

Watching Mike magnified every sensation. Mike was rock-hard and staring intensely at Joel until he closed his eyes and threw his head back, moaning as he allowed his mouth to fall open and stay that way.

It was almost enough to make Joel come right then and there. Forget Lillian. This was the hottest thing he’d ever seen.

Mike’s balance and movements became unstable, signaling that he was close. He moved his hands up and down Joel’s chest, trying to steady himself and push himself over the edge at the same time, but without much success.

Joel cursed his injury once more as he placed his left hand on Mike’s right hip and pushed down, squeezing firmly as Mike immediately took him all the way to the hilt.

Had Joel not been holding on so tightly, Mike would have keeled over as he shot all over Joel’s stomach and chest with a strangled groan. Joel raised his hips and gripped Mike’s hip firmly enough to bruise as the spasms clutching his cock tore his own orgasm out of him.

Joel couldn’t remember when he returned his hips to the bed. All he saw and felt through muddled senses was Mike slowly climbing off him before lying down on Joel’s left side.

Mike rolled over onto his right hip and leaned over to kiss Joel before drawing back slightly, remaining less than a hand’s length away from Joel’s face. “You know, for such a sleepy-looking nerd, you’re fucking amazing in bed, you know that?”

Joel stared at Mike in blank silence, simply wrapping his mind around the fact he’d just had the best sex of his entire life. With his…friend? Roommate? Fellow prisoner? What were they, exactly?

Even with that epiphany, Joel couldn’t shake the nagging doubts from what had happened earlier in the evening. “I thought I freaked you out.”

“I figured you were just messing with me. I had to make sure you weren’t.”

Mike’s words suddenly snapped Joel’s focus back into place. “When have I ever lied to you?”

“Everyone else has.” Mike placed his left hand on Joel’s chest and rested his head on the pillow. “But I want to believe you.”

“Mike.” Joel turned his head to face Mike and placed his left hand on top of Mike’s. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes.” Mike nodded solemnly.

“Good. I trust you, too.” Despite the tenderness of the moment, Joel just had to ask. “How did you know I kept lube in my nightstand drawer?”

“Remember when I walked in on you by mistake?”

“Shit.” Joel winced in embarrassment.

“And I heard you say my name…so I ended up running to the bathroom to jerk off.” Even though Joel’s eyes widened at the sudden admission, Mike continued spilling all of his secrets, now that the sluices were open. “I was too chicken to act on my feelings then…But when you told me that I’m handsome, I knew it was now or never.”

“You are handsome,” Joel insisted.

“I know you mean it. I know that now.” Mike scooted closer to Joel and closed his eyes.

Joel suddenly became hyperaware of the mess on their bodies and the sheets, which he would have to wash yet again. “Yeah, well, what I know is that I need a shower.”

“Later, okay? You wore me out.”

Joel couldn’t help but smile as he looked over at Mike. He hadn’t been lying. Mike was already asleep.

The shower could wait. Joel was also exhausted.

But other feelings soon made themselves known as Joel closed his eyes.

If it had been anyone else, Joel would have felt awkward and ashamed. But with Mike…he felt strangely content, as if he’d found the missing piece of a puzzle that he’d been working on his entire life.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had been so happy.

***

The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

Even though Joel and Mike now shared a bed and had been intimate for the past seven months, nothing really changed on the SOL. They still took turns with the chores, still corralled the ‘bots, and still had to sit through crappy movies.

And nighttime after the ‘bots had gone to bed was still their time. Joel still spent his late nights in the workshop, but he also began spending more time alone with Mike, both in and out of bed.

Tonight, however, wasn’t exactly romantic. They were finishing repairs to the paneling of the cargo bay where Tom and Crow thought it would be a great idea to light Roman candles. At least the fire extinguisher there still worked.

“OW!” Mike lifted his foot and winced in pain as he glared at the crate of Hamdingers that he just stubbed his toes on. “Wait a minute…Nobody told me we had Hamdingers down here.”

“Just as well,” Joel muttered as he went to change the bit on his power drill. “Those things are disgusting.”

“You kidding?! I love these!” Then again, if Joel had learned anything about Mike over the past few months, it was that he would eat damn near anything. “Hand me that crowbar?”

“If you insist,” Joel replied with a sigh as he handed it over.

Mike snatched the crowbar from Joel's hand and got straight to work prying the top off the crate. He tossed the top aside and peeked inside the crate before dropping the crowbar and recoiling in shock. “Holy shit!”

“Yeah, I didn’t think they’d still be good.”

“No, there’s something else in here!” Mike grabbed Joel’s left wrist and pulled insistently. “Look!”

“Huh?” Joel allowed Mike to drag him over to the crate and recoiled in shock upon catching a glimpse of its contents.

There was an escape pod inside.

“No way!” Joel cautiously set one foot inside of the crate for a closer look.

“I wonder if it still works,” Mike thought out loud as he followed Joel’s lead. “How do you open this thing?”

Joel crouched down and poked around what appeared to be a porthole of some sort before finding and pulling a lever that popped it open.

His stomach churned and his heart stopped once he took a peek inside.

There was only room for one person.

“Mmm.” Mike frowned upon noticing the lack of space. He cradled his left elbow in his right hand and propped his head up against his left hand, staring intently at the escape pod as he pondered the situation.

They remained silent for a long while, with Mike lost in thought and Joel flailing in the seas of panic.

One of them would have to stay behind. And the ‘bots couldn’t come, either.

Mike took a deep breath before dropping his hands to his sides and standing up straight. “You’ve been here for much longer than I have. You should go.”

Joel’s heart raced as he felt his throat tightening. He understood where Mike was coming from. Mike didn’t want him to suffer in space anymore. He wanted Joel to be able to return to Earth, even if he never could as a result.

The ‘bots would also be doomed to an eternity in space with little to no hope of rescue.

It would be so easy to agree and climb into the escape pod. Joel could finally tie up those loose ends with Jim, Laura, and their child. He could finally complete those family photos. Everyone would find out that he had been alive the whole time and could stop wondering whatever had happened to him.

He could decide on his own food rather than be limited to whatever came on the supply rocket. He could go outside instead of being confined to a manmade prison. He could swim in Lake Michigan and feel the earth under his feet once more.

And he would never see Mike and the ‘bots again.

He could reunite with his biological family…but that meant leaving the rest of his family behind.

If life on Earth were anything like it had been prior to getting shot into space, he’d be living in a crummy apartment with a crappy job and no friends. His mom would once again nag him about getting a girlfriend, especially since Jim had beaten him to the punch and given her a grandchild (if not more by this point).

Even if hell froze over and he did somehow manage to overcome his social awkwardness and ineptitude and find a girlfriend (or boyfriend, he wasn’t picky), there was absolutely no guarantee they’d get married. Nor was there any guarantee the other person would want children. After living with the ‘bots for so many years, fatherhood had become part of Joel. He couldn’t just cut that out of himself.

He would forever be worried sick about the ‘bots and feel like the worst father in the universe for abandoning them. Even if Mike stayed behind to care for them, it was still running away.

And whoever that significant other was, they would never be anything but a paltry facsimile of Mike.

Joel would live out the rest of his life on Earth wondering what could have been.

Wondering what could have been had he stayed long enough to modify the escape pod to fit everyone.

“…Joel?” Mike’s gentle yet concerned voice shook him out of his distracted trepidation.

“No.” Joel seized Mike’s wrist and clenched tightly enough to feel his thumb against his middle finger. “I…I can’t.”

Mike gawked at Joel in confusion. “But—”

“Mike…” All of Joel’s emotions were welling up to the surface and threatening to erupt, even though he still couldn’t really put them into words.

But he had to.

It was now or never.

If he didn’t vocalize them, he would lose Mike and the ‘bots for good.

“Mike, listen to me.” Joel squeezed Mike’s wrist and relaxed his grip when he felt Mike wince in discomfort. “Mike, I…I love you.”

Mike gasped audibly as his eyes grew wide.

“And if either one of us gets into that thing, we’ll never see each other again. And we’ll never see the ‘bots again, either. I love them, but it was really hard taking care of them by myself, and I don’t know if you could manage. I couldn’t, not after I’ve come to rely on you. I need you. Not just for that. I don’t want to lose you.”

“I…” Mike took several deep breaths and moved his mouth to speak, but no words escaped him.

“Look, I still want to go back to Earth. I want to see my family, and I don’t want to be a prisoner anymore. But I don’t want you or the ‘bots to be prisoners, either. I’m pretty sure I can expand that escape pod to fit all of us. So…let’s both stay here until then.” Joel took a deep breath and exhaled slowly and raggedly. “Please.”

“Joel, I…” Mike bit his lip. “I love you, too.”

“Mike.” Joel released Mike’s wrist and reached up to place his right hand on Mike’s left cheek. “Do you trust me?”

Mike took a long, deep breath before closing his eyes in silent contemplation. He remained like that for a few moments before slowly lifting his left hand to rest his hand on Joel’s. “…Yes.”

It was unclear how much time passed with them standing in silence, drinking in one another’s essence.

It didn’t matter.

Mike chuckled and shook his head slightly. “That question is what got all this started.”

“No, I distinctly remember you getting all this started.”

“That’s true.” Mike reached over and placed his right hand over his left before pressing down on his cheek, then lowering both of his hands. “But I do trust you. I always had a hard time trusting anyone. But I want to trust you.”

“Do you trust me enough to modify that escape pod?”

Mike’s smirk blossomed into a full-fledged grin. “You kidding? You can fix damn near anything.”

Now it is Mike whose emotions are welling to the surface and fully erupting in an explosion of euphoric laughter. Joel had heard Mike laugh several times since they’d first met, but never like this.

It was now one of the sweetest sounds he’d ever heard.

Mike beamed before cocking his head to the left, nestling it slightly in Joel’s hand. “Come on. We’d better seal up that crate before the ‘bots find it.”

***

Joel was still working on the modifications to the engine, but he’d made significant progress since he first started rebuilding the escape pod seven months prior.

He never regretted his decision to stay, not even once.

Life was still the same as it had always been: watch terrible movies, work on inventions, and take care of the ‘bots. The more he thought about it, the more Joel realized that they really were his children.

Maybe that technically made Mike his spouse. But there were far worse people he could have been married to.

Joel had come to love the nighttime. He and Mike spent time together during the day, but the ‘bots were always there. While their presence wasn’t unwelcome, it was completely different when it was just him and Mike alone, no matter what they were doing or talking about.

Never in his wildest dreams had Joel thought he could ever be so happy.

Mike was getting much better at tinkering now, and he was even able to help with some of the work on the escape pod. It was close to midnight now, and Joel figured they could just finish up their individual projects and call it a night.

Mike put down the circuits and cabling he had been fiddling with and reached for the toolbox before pausing. “What wiring should I add to the capacitor?”

“Hmm.” Joel admired Mike’s handiwork up to that point as he tried to remember which adaptor was next in the circuit. Mike was almost done with the guts of the control panel for the thrusters, and he this was the first time he’d asked for help on this particular part of the project. He hadn’t made a single mistake, either. He was getting pretty good at this.

Maybe Joel would someday get as good in the kitchen as Mike was getting at electronics and machinery. He’d been beyond thrilled when he managed to cook an Easter ham that actually tasted good. But for now, he’d continue to defer to Mike.

“Screened cable,” Joel replied. “Put a D-subminiature at the end of that one.”

“Thanks.” Mike grabbed the items from the toolbox and got to work.

“How’s that coming along?” Joel asked.

“One more row and I’m calling it a night. You?”

“Just need to get the power source running and I’m done.”

Mike nodded and focused once more on the wiring. Joel smiled as he grabbed the Philips screwdriver from the toolbox.

Whenever they finished their work for the night, they’d often spend time hanging out, just enjoying each other’s company. But they had a movie the next day, so they’d be going to bed after they cleaned up.

Maybe they’d fool around if they were in the mood. But given how tired they’d both been recently, it was more likely that they’d just snuggle.

Joel didn’t mind at all. He felt safe and secure in Mike’s arms as he drifted off to sleep

Nighttime really was their time.