It’ll be fine, he’d said. Easy. We’ll be back in time for whatever terrible movie Liam’s picked out for tonight. Vetra, back me up here.
Vetra had, of course, done just that in that hedging way she had, like a part of her knew that even the easiest mission could sour at a moment’s notice but she still wanted to trust the odds, trust in the mission, trust, too, Scott’s irrepressible, indomitable spirit because it had never led them astray before. Much.
And Scott had been correct by the very strictest of definitions. They’d returned to the Tempest well ahead of the appointed time. Unfortunately, instead of cramming themselves into Scott’s quarters, the entirety of the crew was now crowded in the galley across the hall from the medical bay because Doctor T’Perro had insisted that they, “get out of my way and let me work. That means you, too, Jaal.”
If Jaal was being entirely honest with himself, this was not the sort of movie he wanted to watch. In fact, he could happily live the rest of his life without witnessing armor-piercing bullets slice through the imposing suit Scott wore on every mission and he would trade a great deal to avoid the sight of Scott’s blood as that shredded armor was removed piece by piece from his too-fragile body and he definitely wanted to forget the flash of Scott’s smile just before he walked into a kett trap.
Where they’d even gotten human weapons and why they’d decided to rig them up in that particular way, Jaal didn’t want to think too hard about. It was crude and terrifyingly effective and Scott had paid the price.
“He’ll be fine,” Drack said, his words hearty in their certainty, but he refused to meet Jaal’s gaze. Jaal tried to be heartened by the unexpected sensitivity of Drack’s words, but they only made his heart strum even harder, nervous energy twanging through him, leaving his mood taut and ready to snap. “He’s a tough kid.”
“Drack,” Vetra replied, shaking her head. She was trying to be subtle; she was trying to be kind.
Jaal hated it. And he hated the way the rest of them stood by, silent, useless. Peebee chewed at her lower lip and Cora stared into the middle distance as though that unreal place might hold the answers she sought and Liam paced, his eyes lit with the need to do something, anything; Gil and Kallo and Suvi sat huddled at the table, heads together, gazes darting back and forth and Jaal—Jaal didn’t have the capacity to care, to be around them, to confront everything they felt and everything he was feeling, too.
“Excuse me,” he said, turning sharply on his heels and leaving the galley altogether. The hallway felt cooler, less charged. He could breathe out here and, even better, it brought him closer to Scott. There was no way Lexi would let him back into the room, not until she was finished, but every inch felt like a victory, like his loyalty to Scott was that much more certain the closer he was to Scott physically.
He knew it for the nonsense it was; and yet, it comforted him all the same. Pressing his hand against the wall, he felt… better. He couldn’t see inside or hear anything, but—
But he was here still. Because of Scott. Because Scott was the Pathfinder and that, to him, meant always taking the lead, always barging headlong into risky situations, always doing everything he had to in order to keep the rest of his crew safe. Even when Jaal might prefer he didn’t—no, that wasn’t quite right. He never wanted Scott to be other than who he was. It might have been nice, though, if he allowed Jaal to share in the burden of protection once in a while.
That was an argument for another time perhaps.
For now, he tried to calm the raging storm in his chest, the crackle-sharp helplessness he felt in his head and in his heart.
It took a long time, long enough that he didn’t notice the door opening before him and Lexi stepping into the hallway, a kind, sympathetic smile on her face. “He’s asking for you,” she said. “I’ll let the others know, but go ahead and take some time for yourselves. They can wait a bit to see him.”
A lump climbed his throat and settled hard in the back of his mouth. “Thank you,” he said, struggling with the words. “He’ll be all right?”
She nodded. “He will.”
That was the only thing he needed to hear. With a nod of his own, he clasped her briefly on the shoulder and passed her. His gait grew tentative as he walked inside. It wasn’t just the dimness of the lights or the constant beeping of the monitors that made this place seem so different and strange, but neither of those things helped it look welcoming.
The only thing that managed to do that was the weary smile Scott gave to him as he approached. His hair fell into his eyes, freed from the slicked back coif he usually wore. It made him look so vulnerable that Jaal couldn’t stop himself from smoothing it back into place once he was close enough to do so. Scott’s eyes slipped shut as he tilted his head into the touch. There. Much better.
“Hey,” Scott said. There was a rough edge to his voice, an aching tiredness in it that made Jaal’s own throat hurt in sympathy. When Jaal scanned his body for signs of trauma, Scott grasped him by the wrist. “I know what you’re thinking. None of that.”
A white bandage poked out of the collar of the surgical scrubs he’d put on, a stark contrast against the bright teal fabric he now wore. Jaal traces the fingers of his free hand around the visible edges of it. It was cool against his skin, far cooler than the heat of Scott’s own body.
“Is there anything I can do?” Jaal asked instead of responding directly to Scott’s assertion. It didn’t matter that Scott knew what he was thinking. The words would have spilled out of his mouth even if Scott hadn’t already known. It was so hard for him not to speak his mind anyway; the only thing that allowed him to refrain was the fact that Scott did know. Jaal was an open book to Scott in a way that Jaal sometimes found discomfiting. Humans were still so… alien to him, Scott especially, but he never seemed confounded in return.
Scott’s touch traced over his palm before he raised Jaal’s hand to his mouth. His lips, always soft, acted as a perfect counterpoint to the way his teeth lightly scraped that sensitive curve of skin.
“Keep being you,” Scott answered, light, but only a little teasing. “That’s enough for me.”
Scoffing, Jaal pulled away—and promptly settled himself against the bed. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable fit, and Lexi would throw a fit once she returned, but it was worth it for the blinding glint of mischievous good humor in Scott’s eyes as he so very carefully shifted over and the peaceful way he settled against Jaal once they were comfortably situated.
“That makes—I can’t not be me, Scott. It would be—”
“Terrible,” Scott broke in, light. His hand crept across Jaal’s torso and settled low on his abdomen. Warmth flooded Jaal’s body at the simply touch, but he ignored it in favor of focusing on the pleasant huff of Scott’s laughter instead. “I know.”
Angarans didn’t blush the way humans did, not exactly, but that didn’t stop Jaal from doing his very best impression of it. All his life, he’d struggled to be more than who and what he was. And here, Scott had always enjoyed and supported the reality of him, every bit of it.
“I came in here intending to offer comfort to you,” Jaal replied.
“Mmm. I’m plenty comfortable. Doctor T’Perro fixed me up good. And you’re here. Could be worse.”
“I’m hardly what anyone would call comfortable.” His frame was too wiry, with protrusions that never fit quite perfectly with Scott’s own. Not that it stopped Scott from shifting and shoving one or both of them around until he found something that worked.
Apparently being shot at wasn’t going to stop him from doing just that right now. Despite a few hitched breaths and a pained groan, he settled against Jaal even more closely, his neck cradled on Jaal’s arm. Scott adopted a husky register when he answered, appealing in ways Jaal wouldn’t think too closely about right now. “I beg to differ.” Then, more normal, “See? This is good, right? I’m fine. You’re fine. Vetra’s fine. I might’ve bungled the mission, but now we know more about what Cardinal’s kett are capable of and can prepare more thoroughly for them in the future. I’ve had worse days.”
“I’m not sure I have.” Jaal knew his answer was curt and far sourer than Scott deserved. Then again, Scott wasn’t forced to watch himself get shot or stumble backward with ragged holes in his armor or hear the quiet, surprised exhalation of his breath before all hell broke loose and the noises Scott made were entirely lost to the sound of weapons’ fire.
Though Jaal couldn’t see Scott’s face from this angle, he would have bet everything he owned that there was a skeptical cast to his features. Despite Scott’s ability to put aside reason and jump into every dangerous situation, most of the time, he was rational—and happily pointed it out when Jaal was being ridiculous. Given the price of life in Heleus, he’d had many days much worse than this. Scott probably wouldn’t even end up with a scar. And he was already in good spirits. “I love you, too, Jaal,” was all he said. Instead of teasing Jaal for his disgruntlement, he sighed, content. “I’m okay.”
Very carefully, Jaal tightened his arm around Scott’s shoulder.
Because of Scott, he was able to believe it. That Scott was okay. That he’d have the chance to stop this from happening to Scott again.
Scott didn’t need him to make a promise, Jaal knew that much, but Jaal did it all the same. Something like this, it would not happen again. Not if Jaal could stop it.
Scott would not be hurt again.
Jaal would make sure of it.