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It took almost exactly one week for Michael to cede to her own internal arguments for why she had to talk to Ash properly, and not in brief asides and lingering looks. The conversation itself was anticlimactic: She pulled Ash aside as they were leaving the cafeteria, and told him, “We should discuss Stamets’ information about our emotional states,” and he said, “Yes. That would be—nice.” And then they stared at each other—briefly, awkwardly—until Michael nodded decisively and said, “Very well. When and where shall we talk?”

It took almost another week to make their schedules align such that they were both off-shift—and not exhausted—at the same time, though the agreement of where to talk was easy enough. Ash’s room was the best choice—Sylvia was wonderful but couldn’t be trusted to stay out and not gossip, and other rooms on Discovery where they were both comfortable (the armory, the bridge, the cafeteria, the training rooms) were, by definition, not private spaces.

Michael knocked on Ash’s door at precisely 16:00, as they had agreed. The sound rang, hollow, in the halls, and Michael folded her hands at the small of her back, falling into the officer’s familiar almost-relaxed waiting stance. She didn’t expect Ash to take long to respond, but— this way, she knew what to do with her body, and the tingling of her nerves could be banished and ignored. Michael wasn’t sure what emotion they were from, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know just yet.

Ash opened the door wearing casual off-duty clothing, his hair wet and slicked back; he’d clearly just been cleaning himself. “Hey,” he said, and his smile at least looked genuine, even if the skin around his eyes was tight and his gaze kept flickering around, alighting on her for bare moments before sliding off again. “Come in.”

Michael inclined her head in acknowledgement and followed him, letting the door slide closed with a sense of finality she almost never thought of the soft sound as having. Ash looked around his sparse room and then shrugged and perched on his bed, right on the edge where he could grip the corner with both hands as if his life depended on that contact. He nodded at his desk and said, “You can have the chair.”

Michael nodded, and sat on his standard-issue chair by the little desk that was too neat to be regularly used. She bit her lip, reminded herself that she wasn’t bound by Vulcan customs anymore, especially not here and now, and focused on Ash’s face. Once he was looking back at her, she admitted, “I am unsure what to think.”

Ash snorted, eyes bright and voice a little too fast and loud. “We admitted our feelings to each other in an alternate timeline and got told about it by our resident mad scientist who happens to be constantly high on weird space mycelium. Yeah. I think being unsure what to think is about par for the course.” He raised a hand, brushed a single dangling strand of hair out of his eyes, continued. “I wish— fuck, Michael, can we agree to be honest and straightforward about this?” He looked up at her, eyes big, lips twisted with some emotion that Michael couldn’t name.

She hesitated. Her heart was pounding, fast, strong; she could usually feel it if she tried but she wasn’t making any effort right now. Methodically, she counted to seven, a prime large enough to satisfactorily calm her most days and small enough that the count wouldn’t cause an unwarranted gap in conversation. Her heartbeat slowed, but it did nothing for the unsettling sensation in her stomach that she had heard described as “butterflies” by Terran media and which Sylvia assured her really did feel pleasant to most people. It did not feel pleasant. It felt like the precursor to nausea.

But she met Ash’s eyes, and said, because she was stronger than her body, “I prefer honesty. Being straightforward is an excellent way of accomplishing this goal.”

“Great, great.” Ash smiled, and then pressed his lips together before letting out a harsh breath. “I do like you. Stamets isn’t wrong about that. I just—” He ducked his head, twisted his fingers in what had been regulation-straight edges of his blanket. “It’s been a while, you know?”

“I have never pursued a relationship,” Michael said evenly. She could feel pinpricks of sweat collecting at the small of her back. She straightened her spine and added, as an attempt at humor, “Whatever experience you may have, I assure you, it is more helpful than mine.”

“I mean, more, like.” Ash tilted his head back, looked up at the ceiling. “Torture isn’t conducive to close relationships of any kind.”

“Neither is being a human among Vulcans. Or being the Federation’s most famous mutineer.” Try as she might, Michael couldn’t keep the emotion out of her voice. Bitterness, mostly. The anger that coiled beneath her ribs stayed there, at least. She looked down at her lap and laced her fingers together. The pressure of thumb against thumb steadied her, as it always did. “I have few friends. Even those I have had in the past did not pursue more... intimate relationships.”

“Michael, do you find me attractive?”

Ash had to have blurted it out almost without thinking, from how rushed the question was. From how disconnected it felt from what they had just been saying. Michael’s head snapped up to look at Ash, and he looked back at her, eyes focused and clear and hands clenched so tight that his the skin over his knuckles was stretched pale. That one strand of hair dipped over his forehead again, and another cluster threatened to join it.

For a moment, Michael felt like she couldn’t breathe.

I have asked myself that every day for the past month, she wanted to say, but her tongue sat heavy and unmoving in her mouth. I have wondered what it was like to have danced with you and kissed you, in that other time, and realised that to dream of another’s skin against mine is intriguing. I have looked at your face as you stood across the bridge from me and looked away before you could feel my eyes tracing the line of your nose, your cheeks, your jaw. And every time I have had to believe that the answer must, by undeniable evidence, be yes.

Michael licked her lips, coaxing her tongue back to life, and reminded herself that they had agreed to honesty. “Yes,” she said, quietly. “I find you quite attractive.”

Ash let out another breath, somewhere between a groan and a sigh, and closed his eyes. “I don’t know what’s attractive about all this.” He gestured at himself, and Michael watched his fingers flicker, long and graceful even when he was disparaging himself. “I feel like I’m a bundle of scar tissue held together by trauma, Michael; you could do so much better than me.”

She shook her head and leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees. He’d asked for straightforwardness, and so she’d give it to him. Michael opened her hands to him as she said, “And yet, Ash, you’re the first person I have admitted to myself I might desire.”

The sound that Ash made was—

Michael couldn’t tell if he was laughing, or on the verge of tears, or something else entirely. Ash was trembling, she was certain of that, and he had curled into himself. The expression she could see on his face seemed caught between a smile and the instinctive openness of any overwhelming emotion, and in the tension wracking his body she couldn’t tell whether it was a cry of laughter or pain.

He moved one hand, signing Sorry and Thank you in Federation Standard over and over until the shapes began to blur into unintelligibility.

Hesitantly, Michael said, “May I sit next to you?”

Ash nodded, and his hand dropped back into his lap, curling there in a position that seemed awkward but Michael suspected was related to his experiences in captivity.

Carefully, Michael stood and took the three steps across Ash’s floor to his bed. She slowly settled herself, keeping three inches between her thigh and his. He shifted slightly closer, but Michael kept herself still, save for looking at him. “May I put my arm around your shoulders?” she asked quietly.

Again, Ash nodded. As she lifted her arm and placed it around him, he sank against her. Michael let him, accepting his head resting on her shoulder, a warm and heavy weight. She couldn’t recall ever feeling something similar before: Amanda had held her as a child, and Spock had sometimes allowed himself to lean into her space, their shoulders touching, but everyone else had kept themselves at an arm’s length save for when they were practicing grappling—and that was entirely a different experience.

This, Ash’s body not just resting against hers but curling towards her as if she were a shelter he needed, made her feel—hot, and tingly, all along her spine and down into the pit of her stomach. The butterflies must have burnt away, or maybe they had just fled in the face of the slow molten roil now filling her.

She wanted to kiss him until his gasping breaths came from desire instead of distress. She wanted to hold him and tell him that the pain he had suffered in the past was immaterial: he was hers now, and she would protect him. She wanted to lay him open, find every single one of the scars the Klingons had left and trace them tenderly, until he was a wreck of love instead of pain, and his body remembered gentle touch instead of sharp blades.

But those desires were not for this moment.

Michael closed her eyes and let the heat fill her and pass through her. Tonight, she would be an anchor, and nothing more. She kept her arm solid across Ash’s back and her hand wrapped around his shoulder while he shuddered against her side. There will be time later to talk, she told herself. We can discuss boundaries, desire—what we are, what we want to be.

Aloud, she simply said, “It will be alright,” and breathed, slow and deep.

Ash’s head rose and fell with her breath, rocking against her. His hair tickled the underside of her jaw, and carefully, slowly, she smoothed it with her other hand. Ash let out a ragged breath at her touch, and Michael paused the contact. But Ash pressed closer to her hand, and Michael murmured, “Okay,” and kept slowly stroking his hair in time with her breathing.

Eventually, Ash’s body stilled, and he began matching his breath to hers. After a minute he said, his voice cracked from strain and dehydration, “I’m sorry.”

Michael shook her head and let her hand slowly trail away from his hair. “Are you feeling better?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t try and pull away. She had expected he would. Ash shifted, presumably finding a more comfortable position. “I didn’t—that wasn’t something I expected would happen.”

“Ah.” Michael squeezed his shoulder, experimentally. He hummed a little, presumably a sound of pleasure. “Displays of emotion cleanse one. Even among Vulcans, this is known. It may be impolite to show emotion publically, but—we are not Vulcan, and it is a display of trust I am honored by, to sit by your side during such a display.”

Ash didn’t say anything for a long time. Michael sat with him, contemplating how unexpectedly content she was with this situation:. When he finally broke his silence again, he said, “So, I take it you still want to try dating?”

Michael smiled. “Yes, Ash. I think I would find that a pleasurable experience.”

“Okay. Great.” He started laughing. “I’m sorry, this is a shitty first date.”

“Is that what this is?” Michael asked. She couldn’t see his face from this angle, or else she might be better able to tell if he was kidding. “I am not opposed, but—I thought dates were set up ahead of time, not arbitrarily declared.”

“Either. Both.” Ash sat up, and Michael let her arm slide off his shoulders. Her hand trailed along his arm as she pulled it back, but Ash opened his hand and she hesitated, her own hovering an inch above it. Ash glanced down at their hands, then up at her. “You don’t need to,” he said, so serious, but a soft smile on his lips.

“Some cultural things, you can’t escape,” Michael murmured, but she let her fingers brush his palm before returning her hand to her lap. Little hairs rose on his arm, and she felt an answering shiver along her spine. “So,” she said, letting the corners of her lips turn up. “Tell me, how do you recommend we go about dating?”