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Closer

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When Max first comes back, he sleeps in his car.

It takes her a few days to figure it out. The Citadel has guest rooms, and she offers him one, only to walk by it on the first morning and find the door open and the bed untouched. She smothers a flash of panic—he just got here—but when she makes her way to the garage he is there, leaning into the engine of his scavenged vehicle.

Two nights later she wakes up sometime past midnight, shaking and drenched in sweat, her heart pounding from a vague terrifying dream of being held down. Her limbs are buzzing with adrenaline, demanding she move, so she tugs on her boots and trousers, wraps a blanket around her shoulders over her thin sleep shirt and goes out to pace the Citadel.

Without conscious planning she finds herself in the garage. When she passes his car she notices the tangle of blankets on the driver’s seat inside. Oh. After a moment she spots Max, his figure outlined in the moonlight coming in from the maw of the lift. He’s sitting with his back against the rock wall of the platform by the lift brake, fully dressed and huddled in his jacket.

“Hey,” she says. He startles, but only a little.

“Couldn’t sleep,” she says.

“Mm. Me either.” His gaze flicks away from her for a moment, out to the wasteland. “Bad at sleeping.”

“Yeah.”

He inclines his head toward the bare rock next to him. She sits down by his side, and for a moment they just stare out at the desert together.

It’s cold on the platform. She shivers and inches closer to him. His body is a ribbon of heat and she presses into it before she can stop herself. He doesn’t flinch. After a moment, she feels his arm slide around her back.

He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look at her, but the steady rhythm of his breathing is comforting. She tries to match it, letting the nightmare adrenaline slowly leech out of her body. At some point she leans her head on his shoulder, and after a moment she feels his temple come to rest against the top of her head.

The next thing she’s aware of is morning light.

She groans, flexing muscles gone numb and stiff from sleeping against the stone. It’s daylight, but early still. Next to her Max utters a confused grumble.

“Sorry.” She rolls her shoulders with a grimace. “Fell asleep.”

“Me too.” A flicker of confusion on his face. He flexes his bad knee with an audible pop.

In the golden light of sunrise she can see the shadows under his eyes. “Have you been sleeping in your car?”

He shrugs. “‘S…familiar.”

“It’s cold.”

“Mm.” He’s busy fiddling with a part of the brace he wears on his left leg, adjusting a strap. With his head bent, the edge of the Citadel brand just peeks out above the collar of his jacket.

(She remembers him sleeping in the Rig, against the door where he’d pointed a gun at her not twenty-four hours before, during the long day when she drove past dune after dune telling herself the Green Place must be beyond the next one…or the next one…)

“You could. Come sleep in my room,” she says. “If it would help.”

His hands stop moving on the strap. He makes a noncommittal grunt.

She mostly expects him to keep huddling in his car. But that night he shows up at her door with hunched shoulders and a bedroll.

 

She would have shared the narrow mattress with him, but he spreads his bedding out on the stone floor next to it before she can offer.

“This okay?” His gaze flicks to her.

“Yeah.” She gives him a soft smile, and he looks away quickly.

She’s already in her sleep clothes. He just takes off his boots and jacket, unstraps his brace and lies down fully clothed. She extinguishes the lantern and climbs into bed.

In the morning she wakes up to discover that she’s rolled over toward him in the night, her fingers just brushing his back where he’s curled up under the blanket.

 

She tugs off her sleep top in the corner by the water pitcher, and it’s only when she hears his hiss of breath and looks over her shoulder to see him staring at the opposite wall that she thinks anything of it.

He has so many strange Old World qualities, like modesty.

“I’m finished,” she says when she has washed and dressed. “You can wash if you’d like.”

His cheeks are still a little flushed when he trades places with her. She makes sure he sees her turn her back to him before she starts strapping on her arm.

 

She hears him wake up in the dark. No sound other than a gasp of breath and a frantic rustle of blankets, but enough to pull her out of the gray haze of sleep. When she rolls over she can just make out his form in the moonlit room, hunched over with his head in his hands, chest heaving.

“Max?” she whispers after half a dozen breaths.

He jumps, and her eyes have adjusted enough to see him blink rapidly a couple of times before focusing on her. “Sorry,” he mutters. “Didn’t…mean to…” He scrubs a hand over his face.

She folds back the blanket. “Come here.” And then, when his brow wrinkles in surprise: “If you want.”

For a moment he’s frozen. Then he crawls into the bed next to her.

The mattress is big enough for two, but just barely. She’s been close to him before, but lying down is somehow different, and he’s solid and undeniably male, and some deep instinct twitches at the bulk of him in her bed even though it was her idea. She quashes it ruthlessly.

There’s only one pillow, and their faces are very close together on it. She can feel his hot breath on her cheeks, smell his sharp scent, old sweat and leather and dust. Perhaps it’s too much for him too, because after a moment he rolls over and curls up with his back to her.

He’s hunched up, as if he’s trying to take up the minimum amount of space. But when she scoots over to close the inch of space between them, he doesn’t pull away. She drapes a careful arm over his ribcage. He lets out a shuddery sigh, and she can feel some of the tension drain out of him.

“Is this okay?” she whispers.

“Yeah.” His voice is rough. He clears his throat. “Yeah.”

He is incredibly warm. She presses a little closer. “Good,” she breathes.

They both sleep better than they have in ages.

 

The next night there is no discussion. He climbs into bed with her and this time they shift around so that she is the one with her back to him, his body curled around her and his breath warm on the back of her neck.

When she jerks awake some time later she nearly headbutts him. Under the blaring terror she feels a bitter wash of disappointment. Of course it was stupid to think his presence would somehow smother thousands of days’ worth of nightmare fuel.

He makes a sleepy hum from somewhere behind her shoulder. When he puts a cautious hand on her arm she realizes how much she’s shaking.

“Hey,” he mumbles. “‘S okay.” He’s nudging at her shoulder, and finally she gets it through her panic-scrambled brain that he wants her to roll over. She turns to face him, carefully not meeting his gaze, and his arms wrap around her and fold her against him, her head resting on his shoulder. One of his hands runs slow soothing strokes over her back.

Even now, some two hundred days after the road war that upended the Citadel, she is not used to being touched. Not outside of the infirmary and the sparring pits. Not like this. She realizes she’s clenched her arms instinctively in front of her torso, shoulders hunched up, protection against a threat that’s not coming. She forces herself to relax a little, makes herself unfold enough to rest her hand on his chest.

“‘S okay,” he repeats, already halfway asleep again by the sound of his voice. His hand is stroking the same repeated line up and down her back and it’s almost hypnotic. She can feel his heartbeat under her cheek and under her hand on his chest, a steady counter-rhythm to her own hammering pulse, and he is warm, like always, radiating heat like the desert stones hold on to the sun. She can’t remember when she got used to being so cold all the time.

His other hand lands gently on the back of her neck, and when she doesn’t flinch, he kneads at the tension she didn’t even realize she’d been holding there. A jagged breath escapes her. There’s a sharp ache in her chest that she can’t identify, but now that the fear of the nightmare is receding she is too tired to puzzle it out. She lets her arm slide around his ribcage and her eyes drift closed.

 

In the morning they are still in the same position. She wakes up to find that she’s drooled on his shirt a little.

“Sorry,” she mutters, wiping uselessly at the damp patch on the cloth. When she looks up he’s got a strange expression on his face, but he blinks it away as soon as she catches it.