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Like a Wheel Within a Wheel

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The moon was casting a weak light into the master bedroom when Randus turned in for the night. He was disappointed, if unsurprised to see the bed empty. Randus undressed slowly, drawing out the time, hoping he might not have to go to sleep alone. When he finished Randus was left only in a light pair of cotton trousers and the sole occupant in the room, save for Assistant. “Assistant, protocol sleep well.” Assistant clambered around Randus quickly, disabling his robotic arm. Locking joints, powering down sensors. When they completed their task, Assistant settled onto the bedside table. Randus was left at the large bed alone. With a resigned sigh, Randus slipped under the blankets and stared at the empty half of the bed. Gradually, Randus fell into an uneasy sleep.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Something was dripping on Randus. It was cold and spattered across Randus’ face and chest. He was lying on his back the bed beneath now him felt like stone. Randus tried to sit up, but he was frozen in place. He did not want to look.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Randus opened his eyes and looked up slowly, dreading what he might see. It was Smith, hung lopsided and sallow, impaled on three spikes above Randus. The liquid was Smith’s blood. One spike skewered Smith’s right wrist between his ulna and radius, the second went through the center of Smith’s left pectoral, and the third was driven through the rectus femoris of his right leg. He was bleeding everywhere and Randus could do nothing to stop it. As Randus stared in horror, Smith’s dark eyes snapped open, wide and unfocused. Smith’s lips pulled back into a pained grimace and he let out a choked cough. Randus could not to look away as blood, dark and thick, began to ooze from Smith’s mouth. Desperate, Randus tried to wrench himself away, but he could not move. He could not yell.

Poke. Poke. Poke.

There was a new sensation at his ribs. Something was prodding Randus, firm and insistent. It was pointy, not quite sharp. Randus felt panic rise in his throat like bile. There was a spike trying to grow into his side. Smith’s blood continued to fall and it was all too much.

POKE.

Randus came awake. Assistant stopped poking his ribs immediately. Randus’ heart hammered away in his chest. He still felt frozen and his breath came out in harsh bursts. There was an impossibly heavy weight on his chest. It seemed to Randus the specter of a bleeding Smith still loomed in his vision.

Assistant made their way up near Randus’ head and began to boop. Their intonations were gentle and rhythmic. Randus focused on breathing in time with Assistant’s sounds. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and breathe out for a count of eight. The weight on his chest began to ease.

After Assistant determined Randus’ was able to breathe along properly, they gingerly made their way back down Randus’ left arm and encouraged him to wiggle his fingers. Randus also moved his toes, concentrating on his breath the whole time. The haunting image of Smith dissipated. Bit by bit, Randus felt more like himself, no longer felt frozen. He looked to his side, Randus could not avoid disappointment at the sight of an empty bed. With Assistant’s gentle insistence, Randus sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed. His bare feet touched cool hardwood floor.

“Assistant, re-engage all mechanical capabilities and sensory feedback” Randus said, in the steadiest voice he could manage.

Assistant skittered up Randus’ right arm and undid the manual override they had initiated before Randus went to sleep. A couple of weeks ago Randus had discovered his mechanical arm had aberrant reactions to his sleep paralysis, he had woken up to his right arm attempting to put Smith in a stranglehold. Randus had no desire to repeat the experience, and so disabling the arm every night had become a part of his routine. Randus flexed each point of articulation carefully. The override still caused glitches on occasion.

“Perhaps, we shall have to look into reprogramming or otherwise modifying your emergency distress wake up protocol in some fashion. The current procedures, while effective at waking me up caused further mental distress. The sensation of you poking me made the night terrors worse in tonight’s case. I could maybe come up with some kind of attachment?” Randus rambled to Assistant. Assistant simply continued booping, settling onto Randus’ right shoulder more securely.

“You may cease your audio signal.” Assistant’s gentle boops stopped. “What data do you have on tonight? What time is it? Where is Smith? How much sleep did he get?”

CThk, thk, thk, vrrrrr, vrrrr, ch, ch, ch, chhhhh. Ding.

When Assistant finished printing the requested data, Randus hurriedly ripped off the sheet of paper. He strained to read it in the moonlight. Assistant provided data about Randus’ amount of REM sleep, heart rate, breathes per minute, and Randus’ reaction times to the various stimulus Assistant was programmed to administer. According to Assistant it was 2 hours, 15 minutes until dawn. Smith was in the workshop. Smith had slept for just over three hours, with less than two cycle’s worth of REM sleep. Perhaps Smith had made it to bed at some point after all. This was a marked improvement considering Randus had not dragged Smith to bed that night himself.

Randus stood up. Still feeling jittery and off kilter, he was not in the mood to go back to sleep. Certainly not alone.

“Assistant, light.” A faint click and light spilled out from his right shoulder.

Randus made his way out of the bedroom. The house still felt too big. Upon their return from the Moon; Randus, Smith, and Torq were all awarded knighthoods, the title ‘Moon Hero’, and a generous purse. The King frequently requested their presence in Diamond Throne in various capacities. Torq had been eager to continue to “chop stuff in half and uh, stuff”, while Smith and Randus had not been so eager to continue immediately adventuring. After all the ceremonies and celebrations had concluded, Smith and Randus pooled their resources and purchased a manor with about a two hundred acres worth of land just north of the capital.

Slowly, they were learning what it meant to be Diamond Throne’s Moon Heroes in indefinite retirement. Randus doubted he would be able to live out the rest of his days in quiet relaxation. Still, an extended vacation would not be remiss. He was not sure how Smith felt on the matter, not ready for that conversation besides. Not least of his problems, Randus felt the nightmares as a physical obstacle before him every time he seriously considered adventuring again.

Trailing his left hand along the wall as he walked down the gently curved staircase, Randus did not bother to avoid creaking steps. He made his way down the hall, and took a moment to survey the workshop from just outside the open stone archway. Randus felt flush with relief at seeing Smith healthy and whole. Not three times stabbed and bleeding out. Smith was hunched over one of their many work tables. The nearest forge was lit casting light and warmth, but did not seem to be operating anywhere near capacity. Smith was sitting relatively still and quiet, without his heavy smith’s apron on. Randus supposed he was doing detail work. Most likely in deference to Randus’ sleep. Randus watched Smith’s muscled shoulders shift slowly under roughspun cotton. Randus tapped Assistant with his left hand, the light shining from his shoulder shut off.

Randus forced himself to turn toward the opposite wall, away from Smith. Here were shelves of books, mostly Randus’. They were full of his most critical reference material and Randus’ personal records. Randus carefully filed away the data Assistant had provided earlier about his interrupted sleep.

Randus turned towards Smith again. Randus let his footsteps fall heavy as he made his way across the workshop. Smith gave no indication that he had noticed Randus at all, and remained bent over his work. Even when Randus was close enough to hear Smith’s shallow breaths and feel the heat of the lit forge Smith did not acknowledge him.

Randus knew better, but he forgot. So, Randus crumpled forward. His forehead came to rest at the nape of Smith’s neck, while his left hand wrapped around and splayed deliberately over the breadth of Smith’s left pectoral. Randus wondered if he could feel Smith’s heart speeding up or if he was just imagining it. Randus let out a ragged breath, pressed closer, and waited. Smith shifted side to side. Randus imagined pointed ears twitching. Then Smith became absolutely still as his heart hammered away, Randus was certain he was not imagining it.

“Sorry, sorry”, Randus said, pulling back. He had forgotten, in his tiredness, how Smith was still getting reacquainted with physical closeness. Was uncomfortable with it at times. In many ways, Smith still expected to explode in fire as he channeled excess moon energy at any moment. Smith had made his personal boundaries clear. Those boundaries did not permit Randus’ clutching him like a drowning man in the middle of the night without warning.

He needed to get out of his own head and remember it was not just about what he wanted, Randus berated himself silently. He was ready to turn back to the bedroom alone. Randus was surprised out of his thoughts by Smith reaching up to cover Randus’ hand with his own. Randus stopped moving away, and waited. Smith turned on his stool to face Randus. He leaned back against the work bench and Randus felt the distance keenly. Smith interlaced their fingers and opted to stare at their joined hands in lieu of saying anything. Randus waited looking at Smith’s downturned face.

“Nightmare?” Smith asked gruffly after what felt like an eternity. Randus let out a shaky breath.

“Yes. We, we were back in the tower.” Pause. “With the skeletons”, he added. As if there was any other tower. “You, were bleeding. Quite a bit.” Randus wished Smith would look him in the eyes.

“Same old, same old then?”

“Unfortunately.” The grip on Randus’ hand tightened. The forge flickered, cast shadows over Smith’s tense frame.

“Would it have helped… would it have been better if I had been there?”

“Assistant’s protocols proved sufficient…if somewhat imperfect… just need to make a few adjustments…” Randus trailed off, he did not want to start rambling. Still Smith did not look him in the eye.

“But, it would have been better if I had been there,” Smith sounded frustrated. Randus wished he could reach forward, brush his hand along Smith’s stubbled jaw. He did not think that would help.

“Indeed.” Randus was not disposed toward lying. Lying to Smith was unthinkable. Smith grew tenser, though that should not have been possible. It was like Smith was trying to hold in his frustration. Like he was remembering the times stress meant painful shifts and hurting with uncontrollable magic. “Smith”, Randus’ voice cracked, and finally Smith looked at him. Smith tried to keep his face blank, but Randus could see the anger and fear. Smith must have seen something in Randus’ face as well. With a new look of resolve, Smith tugged Randus forward. Randus stumbled into Smith’s broad chest and Smith’s arms settled around him firmly. Randus let himself sag forward in relief. The remnants of his nightmare were chased away by Smith’s warmth and heartbeat that had settled into a steadier beat.

“This is alright?”

“Indeed. More than sufficient.”

“Indeed,” Smith mocked, Randus’ could hear the smile in his voice. Randus simply turned his face into the crook of Smith’s neck, letting Smith feel his answering smile.

“What are you working on?” Randus did not bother moving his head, so his query came out muffled.

“Doing some leatherwork on the sword hilts. Your parents’ caravan should be here any day to pick up the new stock, we’re behind.”

“The soonest they will arrive is four days from now. We have time, and you know it. You did not get nearly enough sleep. Come back to bed with me.” Randus was beginning to feel tired again, lulled in Smith’s arms.

“I suppose there isn’t a way to fool Assistant when it comes to analyzing my sleeping habits.” Randus felt horribly awkward in the following silence, not sure if Smith’s tone was bitter.

“I could tell them to stop monitoring you, if you are uncomfortable.” Randus forced himself to say as he felt his throat grow tight with worry at the thought.

“Nah” Smith replied easily. “It’s okay. They need to earn their keep somehow.” Assistant reasserted their presence on Randus’ shoulder with a series of indignant clicks. Randus chuckled, and Smith joined in. Randus pulled back slightly, only to push up and forward for a kiss. A low hum of contentment rumbled in Smith’s chest. Barely more than a firm press of lips, the kiss was everything Randus wanted in that moment, except... Randus gently broke the kiss.

“Come to bed, James.” Smith shivered at the use of his given name. Fingers carded themselves through the hair at the back of Randus’ head, they gently pressed him back into the kiss. Smith stood up, his other arm wrapped around Randus’ waist, and Randus was dipped back ever so slightly. The kiss became more heated, their lips moved with purpose. Randus’ hands gently cradled Smith’s face. This time Smith pulled away first, panting slightly. Randus was entranced by the sheen on his lips.

“Alright, let’s go sleep,” Smith gave Randus a wolfish grin.

“Sleep.” Randus agreed firmly.