Fission: Fusion

by Farad
Universe: Fission
Warnings: all of them, every warning you could ask for except death. Well . . .maybe . . .
Author notes: thanks to the wonderful people at WEC for all their help and suggestions, and to Jen and Jin for keeping up with my universe and 'fact checking' for me! All mistakes and inconsistencies are my own fault.

It was the blood that finally did it.

Bright red, it streaked across the fraying threads of the sheets, smaller dabs and blotches on one of the larger lumps of a pillow.

Blood wasn't new, but it was usually on the flesh, pink more than red, mixed with spit or come or the lube he used when he remembered to, when he had the control to take the time.

Chris stared at it, his brain supplying the rationales that came to mind as easily as his own name: 'He wants it. He always comes - always comes up and goes off like a firecracker, no matter what. He loves it. He loves me.' The same words that had rolled around in his head like a song, an endless, repeating refrain, those days before and after that night months ago, when he'd tied Vin to the bed, blindfolded him so he couldn't see the proof of those words in Vin's face.

This time, something in the color of it held his gaze as the words spiraled around in his head again. Vin had never said those words, but it was there in his eyes, it fairly glowed from them. Not when he was in the height of passion, though, nor before, when he was running from Chris, trying to fend off his hands, his touch. Those times, the glow came from anger, and fear, and sometimes hate. More hate lately, in the aftermath of the night Chris had taken from him what little choice Vin still had, the choice that Buck, an infinity ago, had tried to make them both understand and accept.

No, the love was there when they met in the in-between times, when the radiation that possessed them was quiescent. When Chris kept to his side of their small quarters, when they talked of things they shared, their friends, their team, the world outside that they thought they would never see again.

The crimson stains sparkled, more on the pillow than on the sheets, but it was darker there. Despite himself, Chris replayed the scene in his head: Vin, belly-down, his ass up, arms over his head, hands clenched in fists so tight that the knuckles were white.

He hadn't made noise - he hardly ever did, not once the fucking started. But he'd bitten his lips bloody trying not to.

Chris reached out, his fingers running over the darkest blotch. It was still tacky, smearing slightly where Chris' fingertip touched it. Vin's blood.

< p>His hand fell back to his side, and he closed his eyes. But even in the darkness, the deep red color chased after the sharp, glowing blue.

"What?" Vin's voice was hard, and even in the shadows, Chris could see the tension in him, the sharp line of his shoulders, the slight bend at his elbows as his arms locked, ready to lash out. "It ain't time."

"I know," Chris agreed, not moving into the room, not moving at all. "I . . ." He drew a breath, too many things crowding his thoughts.

Vin's head came up, his eyes bright in the darkness.

It was there - far back, behind a veil of fear and anger and a thick layer of distrust. But Chris saw it, that glimmer of hope. Of want.

"You want to play cards?"

Vin blinked, surprise coming to the fore, but not displacing the distrust. In the quiet, Chris heard the squeak of the turning wheel in the mice cages, and he registered the smell of synthetic shavings that lined them, the acrid bite of urine and the musk of the small creatures. The radiation hadn't altered everything about them - or perhaps it had but they couldn't tell. He'd never asked anyone outside their two-man jail if they'd noticed anything - but then, no one outside would know either, he suspected, not the people 'taking care' of them. He hoped, anyway. Everything that left their little habitat - whether his, Vin's, or even that of the damnable mice that had been caught inside the nuclear field with them - was kept in large shielded containers marked with bright 'bio-hazard' signed.

"You came here to ask me to play cards," Vin said evenly. Skeptically.

Chris shifted, not moving forward but just a little from side to side. Vin tensed and stepped back - not that he could go far; his back was against the shelves on the wall, bare metal slabs on which the cages sat.

"Yeah," Chris agreed, watching the other man, "I did."

"You didn't have to come here," Vin said, glancing to the terminal on the desk near the open door.

Chris nodded but kept himself still. "Yeah." He thought that he should say more, but there was no point. Vin would figure it out if he wanted to.

After a while, the two of them standing still, staring at each other, Vin relaxed a little. "You want to play here," he said, but there was a question in it. Or the edge of fear.

They didn't use his room often, only when Chris couldn't wait, when the radiation drove him to lose control.

"No," he said with a shrug, relieved a little when Vin flinched but didn't hold the tension. "Rather play out here, in the parlor."

It was a joke, or had been, in the early days of their joint incarceration, when they were almost joyous at the discovery that they could be in each other's presence. After a year of solitary confinement, they were both so starved for companionship that they'd been almost giddy, spending so much time together that they'd sometimes fallen asleep in the same room, the one that separated their bedrooms, which they'd jokingly taken to referring to as "the parlor".

It had been in "the parlor" that that giddy comfort they'd found in their friendship had been destroyed, in that first radiation-induced frenzy of lust, a compulsion to touch and then consummate that had shattered them both.

'Circuit completion' was what the engineers called it, the bio-engineers and radiation experts and all the people who studied them. The radiation they suffered was just different enough, for reasons that had spawned legions of dissertations and monographs, or so Fowler had bragged to Chris at one point, that it created attraction between them, an attraction that grew stronger the longer they denied it.

Vin's radiation was complementary, according to the studies, subject to Chris'. It was why Chris was the one in control of things between them; all he had to do was touch Vin and Vin was powerless to resist him.

Even when he didn't want it, his body was subject to the current that dominated it. Before this mess, before that day in the reactor, Chris and Vin had been the best of friends, they had trusted each other implicitly. Now, they couldn't trust themselves, much less each other. The radiation seemed like a demon, jumping up to possess Chris with little warning and then summoning forth a lesser demon in Vin.

"They're restructuring the unit," Chris said casually, pushing off the door frame and turning away. "Team's staying together but they're going to be doing medical and supply transports."

He could feel Vin's gaze as he walked away, heading for the small table where the cards sat. "Josiah's still flying but Nathan's in charge of the transport with Ezra working procurement." He sat down, not looking at Vin but he heard the whisper of Vin's bare feet on the metal tiles of the floor, slow and hesitant but moving.

"What about the others?"

'The others.' So polite, but Chris knew what Vin was really asking, who he was really asking about. "JD's going to be ground-bound - he's still recovering, anyway, so it's a good shift. He'll handle all communications and relays, making sure the shipments are what they're supposed to be." He picked up the cards and shuffled them, keeping his voice even and his eyes on what he was doing, not on Vin. "Josiah says Buck's getting command of the squad."

Vin hesitated and Chris waited. They'd known each other too long and were too much alike for Chris not to know the shape of this conversation.

"Josiah?" Vin finally asked. "You ain't talked to Buck?"

Chris listened to the question, not for the words but for the emotion under them: curiosity and surprise - Vin hadn't known how completely Chris' life was fucked because of this damned thing between them. But there was also the hollow sound of worry, that something was wrong and Vin was the cause of it. And under it all, a touch of hope.

Maybe. It was faint, so buried in other sounds that he wasn't certain - which was probably good. The idea of anyone being happy that he and Buck were finished - the idea of Vin, of all people, gloating -

The cards spewed across the table top in an arc of color and light; because of the damnable radiation, paper of any kind barely lasted two days, so they played with a set of thin metal cards, painted to look like traditional ones. They made soft chiming sounds as they hit against each other and the table and, for some, the floor.

"Buck's been busy," he answered, pleased that his voice was as even as it had been before. "You want to hand me those cards?"

Vin still hesitated but not for long. After a few seconds in which Chris gathered up the cards on the table, he heard the soft scuff of Vin's feet on the floor as he drew near.

He wasn't angry at Vin, not when he made himself think about it. Technically, Vin had lost more than Chris - Charlotte had left him early on, too selfish to wait even for an effort to try to correct the radiation. Vin had lost her, then soon after, he'd lost his heterosexuality, and with it, his sense of identity.

If what he felt for Chris was, indeed, love, it was so wound up in the radiation and the isolation that they shared, this artificial world that was just for the two of them, that it was not real.

Peripherally, he saw Vin bend over, reaching to pick up the cards on the floor. His clothes hung on him, his weight down, just like Chris' was. Neither of them were eating.

Neither of them were really living.

As Vin straightened, holding out the cards, Chris saw the long, jagged scars that ran down the inside of his arms. They were reminders of just how far Vin had been pushed by all of this, and how little distance he'd gained on his return from that fall.

Vin put the cards on the table, but as he set them down, his fingers remained on top, resting lightly. "What do you want to play?"

Chris shuffled the cards in his hands, then he looked up, meeting Vin's eyes. "Hearts?"

Vin's eyebrows rose and the corners of his lips twitched. The amusement flickered in his eyes, building slowly to overcome his distrust. After a few seconds, he shrugged and his hand drew off the table to catch up the back of the chair across from Chris. As he pulled it out, he said, "You ain't gonna cheat, are you?"

Too late for that, Chris thought but didn't say. Instead, he gathered up the cards from the table and shuffled the whole deck together. "No more than usual," he answered, but he grinned, surprised a little at the relief he felt when Vin sat down.

The next few nights were much the same, Chris showing up at Vin's door and asking him to come out. They played cards, the classic games they'd always played. They talked some, laughed every once in a while, and Chris found that for whole minutes at a time, he forgot things outside of their prison.

On the fifth evening, he got tied up with a call from Josiah, asking him questions about protocol. They talked longer than Chris realized, the duration of the call showing as it ended and the automatic information about it appeared on the screen. He was late, by almost an hour, except that they hadn't determined a regular pattern, just a habit of meeting in the evening.

So he was surprised, then pleased, when he heard the tentative knock to his closed door; after all, it wasn't hard to figure out who it was. But as he got up and walked to the door, he had a few seconds of debate on how he wanted to act - surprised, or coy, or even flattered?

Vin looked nervous. If Chris had needed confirmation of the other man's feeling for him, he had it now. Before all of this, he'd rarely seen Vin unsure of himself, and even in here, after the surprise of discovering the physical attraction and running the range of emotions, Vin had settled into anger and defensiveness, fear and frustration, but rarely ever had he been unsure.

Not like he was now, standing at the door, clasping his hands tightly together and biting at his lower lip.

Some part of Chris, the evil, angry part, thought for an instant about slamming the door in his face; Vin had no right to feel nervous, no right to expect anything from him other than what he was already giving.

But even as he thought it, he remembered the blood on the sheets, remembered exactly what Vin was giving.

"Josiah called," he said instead, stepping up to the open door.

Vin stepped back, but it wasn't as far as he had been. His hands fell to his sides as he asked, "Everything all right?"

"Just administrative bullshit," he said with a shrug. He eyed Vin, feeling the usual tingle in his belly that came with being near him, but it wasn't as strong as it had been last night. Vin had taken the edge off, as it were, and Chris wondered if he'd played a part in Vin's fantasy. The thought heated him a little, and he wondered how much of it was radiation and how much of it - wasn't. "Cards?" he asked. "Or something else?"

He hadn't thought about it as flirt, but Vin stiffened and stepped back again, putting more distance between them. "Just checking," he said shortly, and Chris mentally kicked himself. This wasn't about sex. That, they had even though they didn't want it - even though they did. It was an undercurrent in this other, more complex emotional game between them, and as much as it was of interest, it was also the thing that was 'wrong'.

"Hey," he said, reaching out but catching himself and drawing his hand back before Vin moved further away, "I didn't mean anything. Cards or a movie or - ?" He left the question hanging, and crossed his arms over his chest, burying his hands.

Vin stood for a second, watching him. Then he sighed and nodded, shrugging away his tension. "Cards," he said as he turned away. "Feel like my luck's changed."

Chris watched him walk away, trying not to grin.

Two nights later, they kissed.

It was slow and careful, as tentative as if they were both virginal.

They were watching some of the movies in their queue, historicals set before the wars, a few even made before. They'd started out sitting on the couch, but Chris had eventually moved to the floor, finding that the thick rug over the metal tiles was more comfortable than the degrading pillows of the couch. Vin was half-reclining, his long legs stretched out on the cushions where Chris had been sitting, his head and shoulders resting against the frame.

The second movie was ending, and Chris shifted, looking up at Vin. He was half asleep, his eyelids low, his features lax. His hair was tousled and his shirt, though large, was frayed and the collar was torn so that it hung off one shoulder.

Chris had seen him naked, had fucked him more times than he wanted to count.

But looking at him now, Chris saw a sort of innocence that he knew was closer to the man Vin was, the man he had been before they were trapped in this nightmare.

Erotic, too.

It wasn't the radiation, not now. It would be soon, they both knew it; the compulsion to complete the circuit was building. It wouldn't be more than a day or so before the radiation would take over, taking their free will. Now though, at this moment, his attraction was his own. The familiar tingle zinged through his belly and groin, but it hadn't come first. The flush of desire had come first, and it was still strongest as he stared at Vin in a stage of relaxation he hadn't seen in a very long time.

Desire, real desire. He didn't want to think about the last time he'd felt it, didn't want to flip the switches that would remind him of the past and the things he had lost.

"We got some other things in the list," Vin said, his voice raspier than usual. His arm fell forward as he shifted, levering himself up.

Chris didn't think or give himself time to hesitate. He caught Vin's wrist, holding it just tight enough to feel Vin's pulse under his fingers. It fluttered at the initial contact, and Chris felt the tightening of Vin's muscles as he started to pull away.

"Wait," Chris said, surprised at his own hoarseness. "Give it a second."

Vin's eyes were wide now, awake and anxious. Fear flickered in the back of his gaze and Chris loosened his grip.

"It ain't time," Vin said, his nostrils flaring as he spoke.

"No," Chris agreed softly, "it's not. Is it pushing you?"

Vin swallowed, his gaze never leaving Chris, but the fear faded and the muscles under Chris' fingers relaxed a little as Vin's brow scrunched together and he concentrated. After a few seconds he asked slowly, "Is it pushing you?" He looked at Chris and his face was open and vulnerable.

Chris' stomach knotted but he answered honestly. "No, it's not the radiation this time."

Vin stared at him, and Chris could see the doubt on his face. But it was at war with hope and with that other thing that Chris still didn't want to name. Vin licked his lips, and when he spoke, his voice was pitched low. "Then what it is?"

It was a stupid question, one that Chris didn't answer with words. Instead, he rolled to his knees, his hand still holding onto Vin's wrist. He felt Vin's heart beat pick up, felt Vin's body tighten and his breath catch, but Vin didn't move.

He was scared, but he was willing to trust. It was stupid; so far, Chris had demonstrated little reason for Vin to trust him, but here he was, letting Chris get this close. Letting Chris get in his face, literally.

Chris leaned over him, staring into the eyes he knew better than his own, almost as well as he knew the eyes of -

He shut that thought down by leaning lower, closing his eyes as his lips found Vin's. They'd kissed before, hard, cutting kisses that ended with Chris' tongue in Vin's mouth as his radiation overpowered Vin's resistance, forcing him to physical submission. But this was different. He didn't push this time, taking it slow not just for Vin, but for himself. It'd been years since he'd kissed anyone other than - well, years since he'd kissed someone new, and for a few seconds, he felt the flutter of uncertainty, the thrill of not knowing.

It was like kissing for the first time, full of tension and awkwardness and anticipation that he'd forgotten. Vin's lips were warm and a little dry, but soft and pliant. Without thinking, Chris slid his free hand into the thick strands of Vin's hair, stroking through it and back, relishing the sensation of the cool threads tickling his skin.

They broke apart to breathe, but it seemed natural. There was no resistance on Vin's part, and as they looked at each other, Vin smiled and lifted his arm to drop it around Chris' shoulders. "Wanna do that again?"

They did. Longer this time, less nervous, but the anticipation was still there. As was the arousal, building low and deep, spreading out from his belly into his groin. He didn't know at what point he became totally erect, but as the kisses began to blend together, he found himself on the couch beside Vin, pressed against him, and he discovered that he wasn't the only one aroused.

He knew the feel of this hardness, knew what it felt like in his hand, in his mouth, knew the beat of its pulse, and the control that it wielded when it was at its fullest. The control it wielded over Vin. He shifted, arching his back slightly so that he pushed harder against Vin's groin.

Fire sparked in his belly, the radiation building as his arousal did. But it wasn't in control, and he wondered suddenly if they could have sex without it taking over. He pushed up onto his arms, staring down into Vin's face even as he rubbed their erections together. "Look at me," he said, concentrating on what he was doing, not the pull of desire that wasn't his. "Vin, look at me."

Vin's eyes blinked open slowly, the pupils dilated so wide that they were almost black. They glowed but not as brightly as they did when the radiation controlled him.

"Do you - do you want this? You, I mean?" Chris swallowed, his mouth dry even though his palms seemed sweaty suddenly.

Vin started to speak then stopped, catching himself. He looked away, thinking, evaluating, before answering very carefully, "Yeah. I do."

That was the end of it. Chris caught him by the back of the neck, pulling him into a kiss that was harder than before but not hurtful. His tongue slid eagerly into Vin's mouth, and Vin welcomed it.

They made love - Chris knew it for what it was, not the radiation, not anger, not grief at what they had both lost - but actual love. He could feel it in the way they touched, the gentleness with which Vin touched him, the awkwardness with which he touched Vin. The care that they both gave to pleasing the other person, not taking.

And it was in the slowness. There was need and demand, they were both men, but there wasn't the rush to completion that came when the radiation was in control. When Vin's legs tightened around Chris' thighs, pulling their groins more closely together, the friction was good - not enough to get either of them off, but it felt good in and of itself, especially coupled with the kisses and the touches. When Vin's hands slid up under Chris' shirt, touching his bare skin, Chris shivered; it had been a long time since he'd felt this level of arousal, of sensitivity.

Eventually, Vin groaned. "Need . . . " He pushed at Chris, trying to put space between them. He was breathing hard, his lips swollen and his hair spread out beneath him.

"What?" Chris said, even though he had an idea. He pushed up onto his arms, staring down at the other man. Vin's shirt had risen, exposing his chest and belly. The loose pants he wore were riding low, bunched under him so that his erection was outlined clearly.

Without waiting for Vin to answer, Chris shifted his weight, freeing one hand which he eased down Vin's body. Vin's breath caught and Chris watched as goosebumps broke out in the wake of his touch. It was good, nice to be able to do this, to give Vin pleasure.

But as he reached the waistband of the pants, he hesitated. Things were great so far, between the two of them. Different. But this would cross the line into the forced intimacy of the times before.

He realized as his fingers rested on the line of fabric that separated this time from the past, that he'd been expecting this to end as most others had, with his cock buried inside Vin, Vin doing what Chris wanted.

But Vin had submitted to Chris' demands because of the radiation, not because it was what he wanted. He had made it clear that he didn't want what he was forced to do. Which now begged the question of what Vin did want.

If he wanted to do to Chris what Chris had been doing to him . . . the memory of the blood on the sheets, on the pillows, the image of it left him cold, ice settling in the pit of his stomach and spreading lower. He'd hurt Vin, caused him pain and humiliation - even when he knew that the act could be pleasurable.

That stirred a second set of memories, ones he tried to shut down. He could refuse to think about Buck, about what he'd lost, but he couldn't deny the memory of him inside Chris, the things Chris had let him do, the things Chris had wanted him to do.

The things he was nowhere ready for Vin to do, not now, maybe not ever.

"Chris?" Vin's fingers combed through Chris' hair then his hand cupped Chris' face. He pressed a little, enough to force Chris to look into Vin's face.

Chris swallowed, not sure what to say - not that he could say anything. The full import of what he'd done to Vin, what the other man had endured because of him, settled in his mind. Right now - hell, any time, even with the radiation was controlling them, he could say no to Vin - and he could enforce it. But no matter how often Vin said 'no', he had no control, no power.

Now, though, in this, Vin had the right to say 'no' - and worse, he had the right to ask for reciprocity.

Chris hadn't said anything - he knew that, knew he wasn't cognizant enough to form the words, but Vin's lips quirked a little, familiarly, and the touch to Chris' face stroked, soothing. "Touch me," he said, his voice a whisper. "Just - just touch me."

The relief made him lightheaded and almost giddy. It made him realize how much he wanted this. How much he wanted Vin, how much he wanted to make up to Vin for all he had done.

From there, it was touch and heat and sensation, the things they each knew. Vin's cock was familiar and welcome in his hand, and his, in turn, was gripped perfectly and stroked the way he liked, the way that drove them both past the slow build into a frenzy of want.

Vin came first, his long body locking, startling Chris with his sudden stiffness and the short cry in Chris' ear. The splatter of wet heat over Chris' fingers and the back of his hand actually let him know what was happening, but before he could enjoy the control, or the relief, his own body gave way and he was lost in the bliss of climax.

A sharp pain in his lower abdomen jerked him out of his stupor and he shifted - and felt nothing behind him. As he teetered, sure he was going to fall, a hand clutched at his upper arm, jerking him back.

"You running away so soon?" Vin's voice was rough but amused and very close, right in Chris' ear.

Chris let himself relax against the other man's body, but he was on his side now, the pain dull and passing. His hand, he duly determined, it had been his hand, trapped between the two of them and pressing into his own pelvis. He flexed the fingers, feeling the itch and pull of the drying semen on it. Then, he slid it around Vin's waist, pulling their bodies together. "Not this time," he answered.

Vin stiffened for a few seconds, then his hand stroked up Chris' arm to cup his face, as he had done before. He didn't force, but he urged Chris to look at him. "You mean that?" he whispered. His eyes looked sleepy, post-climax languor, but there was an energy in his voice - hope, mixed with a wide wash of fear.

Chris had meant it when he'd said it, meant it more than he'd realized. Now, though, caught in it, he thought about it, about Vin, about the blood, about never seeing Buck again. "Yeah," he said, trying to smile. He knew it didn't make it, but it must have been enough, for Vin stretched the short distance between them, kissing Chris easily.

They drowsed for a time - or Vin did. Chris lay with him, holding him, but his mind wandered. He felt guilty, but not as much as he thought he should which made him more guilty. Buck was the one who had left, he reminded himself. Chris couldn't hold on to the anger, though, only the sadness and the growing sense that that relationship was gone. Their love, no matter how deep and true, couldn't withstand the physical separation and, worse, his own body's betrayal.

The betrayal continued, too, his body heating up the longer he was beside Vin. He didn't notice it so much in the temperature, but gradually, he noticed the glimmer around them, the brightening of the room, the little flashes in the periphery of his vision when he looked at Vin or even at himself. The radiation was growing, as it did when they were around each other.

Part of him was amused at the irony. Before that first time, when the radiation had snuck up on them, drawing them together before either of them understood what was happening, they'd not been physical with each other. A periodic slap on the back or a quick clasp to each other's wrists - a hug when the adrenalin was high, those were about the most physical they had been. Now that they might actually want to touch each other outside of the bonds of sex, they couldn't, not for long, anyway.

The radiation liked sex - 'circuit completion'. But it didn't like or allow for affection, or long-term touch.

Vin grunted and turned onto his side, wiping at his forehead. He was sweating, enough so to wake up. He blinked, staring at Chris. "What's - " Then he stopped, his face clearing. "Are you all right?" he asked instead, his voice low. He pushed up on one arm, forcing Chris to roll a little away and back. His lips twitched, as if he would smile, but he caught himself, swallowing instead. "Chris?" he asked, the word tentative. Scared.

Chris was still pressed up against him, enough so that he could feel the tension in Vin's body as he wound himself up. It hadn't been more than once or twice that he had been gentle with Vin, but those times - those times had ended badly. Vin was expecting it now.

The assumption was confirmed when he lifted his hand, reaching for Vin's shoulder, and Vin flinched away.

Chris waited a second then let his hand continue, cupping over the curve where the muscle of Vin's arm met the hardness of the bone. "Come here," he murmured, drawing Vin down to him.

Vin didn't resist but he was still stiff. Chris kissed him, a slow touch to his lips, and eased his fingers into the tangles of Vin's hair. "We can't sleep together," he whispered, leaning his forehead against Vin's. "The radiation - "

"Yeah," Vin interrupted. He tried to pull away, but Chris held his head, forcing him to be still.

"Vin," Chris said, closing his eyes. "I don't regret what happened tonight. I meant what I said, and what we did. That's not going to change in the morning."

Vin didn't move for a time, but eventually, the pressure against Chris' hand eased. He turned his head slightly, enough to stroke the tip of his nose against Chris'. "I know you think about him - you'd have to be, he was - "

"Hush." He hadn't meant for it to be harsh, but he wasn't ready for this.

Vin tried to ease back, but Chris held him, aware that he was holding him too tight. With effort, he loosened his fingers, but he didn't let go or give Vin any room to move.

"Not - not now," he said, forcing himself to say something. "I can't talk about that. Not now." Not ever, if he had his way.

But Vin didn't argue. Instead, he nodded, a spare movement that brushed their noses together again. "Reckon we should get to bed," he said. "We didn't overload the circuits, at least, but we should probably give the grid a rest."

Chris snorted, irritated at the thought - not at Vin, but at the reminder that what they had done, everything they did, was watched and recorded, and that what they had shared with each other, they would also share with the rest of their planet in the form of usable energy. And that someone out there had known what they were doing, that they were doing it together, and that tomorrow, everyone involved in their program would know. And they would know the implications, that it was something more personal than the radiation driving it this time.

"I - I ain't ashamed," Vin said. The words were so soft that Chris had to sort them out in his head. When he did, he smiled.

"No, I'm not either," he said, squeezing Vin's head where he held it, then he let his hand slowly move down Vin's neck to his back, freeing him.

Vin pushed up and away, awkwardly crawling over Chris and staggering as his feet hit the cold floor. Chris rolled into the space Vin had vacated, ending up on his back so he could watch Vin totter away. The collar of his shirt had torn even more, a triangle of fabric flapping as he moved. One shoulder was exposed, bony ridges under skin that glowed in the dimness of the room.

So different from Buck. Chris' breath caught, the pain of loss like a blade in the pit of his stomach, bringing tears instantly to his eyes. He closed them, as much to catch the moisture as to block out the image of Vin. He tried to breath, but the pain seared into his lungs. It was a relief when he heard the door to Vin's room close, and he could gasp, letting out the pain to be replaced by air.

He didn't sleep, not deeply. His dreams kept cycling back to Buck, to the days long ago when they'd lived together, loved each other, the comfort of their love. Of their friendship. He had ignored his feelings, the loss - had ignored the pain because he wasn't ready to accept that it was real. What he and Vin had done tonight, what he felt about it and what he felt for Vin, those things could no longer be denied, nor could the loss of Buck.

When he awoke from the nightmare of the night Buck had helped him and Vin have sex, reliving it again but this time with his attention on how he'd treated Vin, how he had wanted Buck so desperately and not been able to touch him, he pushed himself off the couch and stumbled to his own room. It was dark but familiar, and better, it was a room Buck had never been in. A room where everything between Vin and him had been -

He dropped onto the bed and closed his eyes - then opened them immediately when the image of Buck's gaze, haunted and hurt, reflected on the back of his eyelids.

He turned his monitor on, keying up another documentary, in hopes of finding anything that would distract him.

Chris wasn't the only one who slept poorly. It took him a while to realize it, though; when he finally roused himself and made his way out of his room the next day, Vin's door was closed. He had a vague memory of hearing Vin in the shared space earlier, so he was pretty sure he'd been up, but he was in his room now with the door closed.

Chris puttered around, ignoring most of the messages on the comm unit - ignoring anything that demanded him to concentrate. He made tea, as strong as he could stand it, and drank it while watching a newsfeed. It seemed far away, almost not real, or not real to him. He'd never seen the post-war world, smelled the air of it, heard its noises. Everything he knew of it came filtered through the newsfeeds and the intel he was allowed to have. Locked away in here, it was as imaginary to him as the fictions they watched or read.

He found himself avoiding the couch, but it took him a while to realize it. It made no sense; what they'd done there had been something he wanted. And something he still wanted. Because it was real - more real than the world outside, more real than the life he'd had with Buck. It was here and now, something he could touch and taste and smell and hear.

He set his mug aside, forcing himself to sit down on the couch. It felt no different from the last time he'd sat on it, when they'd been watching the documentary last night, before they'd made love. It felt more real than the memory of the bed he'd shared with Buck.

It was pointless to dwell in the past, in the things that were done. Any future he had was behind the door across the room.

The door that was closed. He glanced at the time, noting that he'd been out here for several hours, and that he had yet to see Vin.

For a few seconds, he wondered if Vin was finally getting even with him, if he was playing Chris, setting him up to be rejected.

But even as the fear knotted in his belly, he knew better. Vin wasn't like that. He didn't have it in him to do to Chris what Chris deserved. To do what Chris had done to him. Vin was in there scared, putting off what he thought Chris was going to do to him again.

He pushed off the couch and walked the short distance to the door. But as he raised his hand to knock, he hesitated. What had happened last night had been a step away from everything he'd been holding onto since this had started. He'd thought it was the break point, the decision. But right now, he could walk away - again. Vin was expecting him to, his own guilt would let him -

To do what? Wait for things to change? For Buck to come back and wait for a miracle to happen, for that fucker Fowler to solve the problem his people created? For a miracle to happen so he and Vin could get out of here? For the world to change and things go back to the way they had been?

He'd held on to that fantasy for too long. It hadn't happened and despite Mary's determined optimism, it wasn't going to happen.

He had to accept that, to hold onto what he could have. He rapped twice on the door, the sound sharp.

There was a few seconds of silence, and Chris frowned. Vin was in there - there was nowhere else for him to be.

But as he started to knock again, Vin called hesitantly, "Yeah?"

"You okay?" Chris asked. "Been waiting for you."

He heard the soft thump of Vin's bare feet on the tiles then the door opened and Vin was standing there, his face deliberately bland. He looked good, though, his hair pulled back and tidy, his face clean-shaven. He was wearing a newer pair of pants, ones that hadn't yet started to fray, and a shirt that matched. He smelled good, too, a soft musky smell that Chris had always associated with him but which had been missing for a while now.

"What's up?" Vin asked, his tone casual. He was waiting for the worst, still, and as Chris realized it, Vin's arms crossed defensively over his chest.

"Nothing special," he answered, leaning against the door frame. "Wanted to make sure you were all right. You having second thoughts about last night?"

Vin blinked. "Are you?" he countered, but there was a waver in his voice as he asked.

Chris smiled. "No. Had a few worries and some bad dreams," he admitted, playing as straight as he could. "But, like you said, I don't regret what we did. And what I hope we're gonna do. Do you?"

Vin stared for a few seconds, his gaze searching, then he smiled, a slow, easy movement of his lips that was mirrored in the softening at the corners of his eyes. "I . . . " He swallowed, still watching Chris closely. "Yeah," he said after a time, "I do."

Chris nodded, breathing easier. He reached out, catching one of Vin's hands. "What you want to watch?" he asked casually, pulling Vin close.

Vin shrugged, but he was still smiling, even as Chris leaned in, brushing their lips together. As Chris drew back, pulled him into a hug and whispered in his ear, "I want to watch you while we're . . . "

"Yeah," Chris agreed, finding his own smile. "I'd like that, too."

It was like a honeymoon. He wasn't aware of time passing, only that time ceased to have real meaning, even in the strange way that it had defined their imprisonment. Now, it seemed not to exist at all. With nowhere to go, nothing to have to do, they spent their waking moments lost in the reality of each other.

With the pleasure of sex, the actual passion that they felt for each other, the cycle of compulsion was gone. The slow build of pressure that had erupted regularly with violence and rape was gone, replaced by a cycle that was more familiar to them both - by a cycle that made them feel human again. At random moments, Chris found himself forgetting that there had ever been anything else between them, that there had ever been anything else before them.

And he could tell that Vin did, too. Things between them were as relaxed as they'd ever been, the intimacy of their friendship returning with a strength and depth that made Chris understand that part of the loss he'd been feeling these past years was for the man he'd valued like a brother before all of this had happened.

"You look good, Chris," Terry said one day, smiling at him. She was a beautiful woman, soft and gentle with them. She was closer to Vin, as she'd been the one to help him after his attempt at suicide. The memory of that was like ice, the thought of what his life would be like now if Vin had died. "I'm glad that things are better for you, and for Vin. You deserve some happiness, especially after all you've done for the rest of us."

He tried to be stoic, but despite his efforts, he couldn't hold her gaze. The energy that he and Vin created when they climaxed together had been the saving grace in the war with the Albies, and now, in the aftermath of the war, as their devastated civilization struggled to recover, the same power was the fragile thing that kept their society from complete collapse.

In the hated cycle, they had produced enough energy to wipe out Albie space cruisers, to power hospitals all over the planet, to keep the most basic survival services in operation.

Now, the sex was not as intense but it was far more regular. Fowler, the bastard, had gloated of the need to add more containment reservoirs, reminding Chris of the attempts to force the very thing that had developed naturally between him and Vin, natural desire. At one level, it galled him that the son of a bitch had been right, that their affection for each other was being used, even if it was for something with which he agreed.

It didn't mean he wanted his life, or Vin's, on display for others, certainly not any more than it already had been.

"Chris?" Terry was watching him, her eyes sharp, too sharp.

He nodded. "Sorry," he said, sighing. "Thanks."

She shook her head even though she was still smiling. "I know it's hard for you, for both of you. You're such private men. But for what little it's worth, it is good, Chris, and I don't mean because of what you're doing for the rest of us. For now, until we can find a way to get you both out of there, this is the best way for both of you to make the most of it. You're both good men - damned good men. There's so little that you can find pleasure in, and none of us begrudge you this."

He agreed with her, sincerely. But some small part of him, a part that always seemed to get him into places he knew better than to go, asked the one thing he didn't want to know, the one thing he had been trying, desperately, to forget.

"Have you heard from Buck?"

She held his gaze, didn't change her breathing, didn't change her expression. But he knew, with no true reason to, that she was suddenly both sad and anxious. "He's well," she said, not answering but answering. "He's doing all right, too."

Chris swallowed, looking away from her. "Good," he said, or thought he did. The voice that spoke didn't sound like his.

"Chris," she said softly. "For now, it's better this way. You know that, and so does he. I know it's hard for both of you - for all of you."

He didn't want to go there. "Vin's all right?" he asked, even though he knew she couldn't talk about Vin except in the most general terms.

Which she did, thankfully, changing the conversation. "He's good, Chris, better than good." She smiled, her anxiety easing. "You two are good for each other."

He couldn't argue that, not when they were together and time was meaningless. But in the middle of the night, when the dreams came - less often, but no less intense - he wasn't so sure.

"Yes - yes - there!"

Chris grunted as Vin arched up against him, Vin's fingers clawing into his shoulders. Not that he minded the pain, not now; it was worth it to hear Vin's pleasure, to see how far they'd come in this. Vin moaned, loud and with no reservation, which was a far cry from what it had been just months before, when he struggled to make no noise at all, to show no vulnerability.

Chris leaned down, catching Vin's lips with his as he thrust again, harder but slower, working to find the spot once more, to brush the small bulge inside Vin that short-circuited Vin's control. He knew he'd hit when Vin cried out, the sound vibrating through Chris, tingling down his throat and into his cock, where it tried to erupt in an orgasm.

He held off by holding himself still, which wasn't easy to do, what with Vin rubbing against him, struggling to keep the rhythm, clutching and gasping and begging when he could find his voice. Begging.

They had come a very long way, Chris thought distantly, through the fog of his desire. They had come to a place where Vin trusted him enough to enjoy this, to want this. To demand of Chris what would bring him pleasure.

And Chris would - did - give it to him.

When he had himself under control, he gave in to Vin's pleas, speeding up but keeping his thrusts as deep as he could, to give Vin as much contact as he could stand. It was a struggle, but he managed to get Vin's climax first - and he managed, barely, to hold off his own long enough to see Vin's face dissolve into bliss, a bliss that Chris had created.

A bliss Chris wanted to create. That was the thought that chased him into his own release, and some time later, coaxed him back to awareness.

"You all right?" Vin asked as he shifted under Chris, struggling to position his legs.

Chris sighed, pushing himself up and carefully extricating himself. Vin winced as Chris pulled free, but he didn't hesitate to roll up onto his side, letting Chris lay on his back on the bed. "Yeah," Chris said, smiling up at Vin once he was settled. Without thinking he reached up and pushed strands of hair from Vin's face, tucking them behind Vin's ear. The gesture was intimate, more intimate than the sex they'd just had, and Chris realized he'd been doing it for days now.

Vin smiled at the touch, closing his eyes as he tilted his head into it. "I stopped wondering when we was getting out," he said absently. He lowered his head, kissing Chris' shoulder before turning his head to rest on it. One of his hands eased to rest on Chris' belly, the movement so familiar that it took Chris a few seconds to consider it. When he did, he remembered how often they had done this. It was a habit now, him tucking Vin's hair, Vin nestling against him. Both of them drifting into sleep until the heat that grew between them was uncomfortable.

And he didn't mind. In fact, he liked it. For a few seconds, part of him got caught up in all the reasons why that was wrong, how it was a betrayal, how he couldn't, shouldn't allow himself to feel good about this, to feel anything about it.

But that part of him, that voice, was getting fainter, and it had far less control. That voice had stopped sounding like anyone he knew or respected.

Vin shifted, tilting his head so that he could see Chris' eyes. Chris knew the silence had gone on too long, so he slid his hand up Vin's back, liking the way Vin shivered under his touch. Liking the way Vin felt.

"Me, too," he said softly, turning to kiss the top of Vin's head. "Me, too"

"We wanted you to know," JD said, staring at Chris from inside the monitor, his dark eyes direct. He looked older now - he was older now, but it wasn't just the years they'd been in here. The crash, JD's long convalescence, the war - they'd all aged the boy. He stood tall now, but it wasn't with the youthful determination he'd had when he'd been part of Chris' crew. Now, it was the determination of someone who knew the things the universe held and while he would no longer run to meet them in ignorant pride, he wouldn't shy away from them.

"We've set a date - six months from now," Casey spoke up, grinning wide. "Nettie wants us to have it at her farm, and we want to have time to plan it out. JD will be a senior controller then - he'll still set up and coordinate for the team, but he - they - won't be flying at all hours." She looked up at JD, and for the first time, Chris thought she might actually be looking at him as an equal. As a partner.

"That's great, Casey," Vin said, leaning closer to the monitor. "Congratulations to you both - that's great news."

"We want to run a feed, so you guys can see and be a part of it," JD said. "If we could find a way to have you there - "

"Thanks," Chris said, cutting JD off. Without thinking, he reached out and let his hand fall over Vin's shoulder, knowing that Vin wanted to be there and was feeling the unfairness of the situation. "If we could find a way to be there, we would. Don't go to extra expense, though, JD - you two are going to have enough to pay for, what with the ceremony and reception, and then living expenses and so forth."

JD frowned and Casey blinked, looking wary. She opened her mouth as if to ask something, then she stopped, unsure.

Vin was the one to save the moment. "We would be there - we'd love to be there. But we'll settle for seeing videos and pictures. There ain't no need in making us all feel bad 'cause we have to watch from a distance. Besides, after it's all done, we can have y'all all to ourselves while you show is everything and give us all the details. Hell, it'll be much more fun to hear all the stories that crop up afterwards. And Nettie can keep us posted too - she's good with that."

"Are you - I mean, we want you there - " Casey started, but Vin lifted a hand.

"Yeah, Casey, we're sure. We feel bad enough that we can't be there. Be harder to see all the fun and not be a part of it." His words were soft, and Chris glanced to him and saw that he was smiling, taking the sting out of the message. But Chris felt him tremble and he knew how much it was costing Vin to pretend that it was all right.

There weren't many of these moments, fewer and fewer all the time. The longer they were trapped in here, the easier it was for the rest of the world to forget about them. It was only things like this, 'big events', that seemed to remind anyone that they weren't dead.

Even communication with the team was tapering off, the missions less dangerous now that things were settling into a routine. Policies were changing, and what Chris had known before the war and during it was quickly becoming obsolete. Josiah still checked in regularly, but they talked less now about the ops than about random things: books, documentaries, and theories that Josiah studied and recommended - they shared a similar taste in some things. Ezra and Nathan also checked in less often but still regularly, but that, too, was more social now than professional.

This was the first time in a very long time that they had heard from JD. In his own mind, Chris had given JD over to Buck, and even now, he was certain that JD was working not to mention Buck's name.

Just like he, himself, was.

So it stunned him when Vin asked casually, "Buck giving you away, Casey?"

She flushed but she couldn't stop the smile that stretched across her elfin face. "Yeah, he is. He's already giving me advice on how to walk in my dress - like he's ever had one on!"

Chris saw it in his mind's eye, Buck - tall, long limbs, easy grace, decked out in a long dress with high heels, trying to keep his balance. It was not a memory, but an image, one that came so readily to mind that he couldn't stop the snort of amusement that choked him. For a few seconds, he was the only one and he felt all of them looking at him, until they, too, started laughed at the idea.

The call ended soon after that, Casey promising to keep them informed of events and to have videos. JD nodded, making no promises, and Chris thought again that JD wasn't a kid anymore.

They sat for a minute or so in front of the blank monitor, both of them staring at it to keep from looking at each other.

Then, in a show of acceptance or bravery, Chris wasn't sure which, Vin said evenly, "You should talk to him. We can't be there - hell, we'll probably die in here. But there are still a few things left that are between the two of you, and this is one of them. JD - JD looks up to you both. So does Casey. The way things . . . " He hesitated, drawing a breath, and Chris knew he was looking for words.

'Ended' was the one on his own tongue, but even as he tried to say it, his throat closed and his jaw locked. Fortunately, Vin wasn't looking at him, his eyes were still glued to the dark monitor, his attention focused.

"The way things are," he said, "they feel torn apart. Reckon you do, too, you and Buck both." He swallowed, then he turned and looked at Chris. "Y'all need to talk about it, if not for you, then for JD and Casey. They're the last ones, Chris, the last ones clinging to what we were. Set 'em free - it's the best wedding present you can give 'em."

He smiled, not one of his happy smiles, but a soft one. He pushed himself up and stepped in close, kissing Chris quickly on the cheek. Then he left, running away before he could take back his words.

Part of Chris - a big, angry part - wanted to scream after him that this was wrong, that talking to Buck would solve nothing for anyone. But he knew that wasn't true; talking to Buck would solve things for Vin, it would put the last fear out of his mind, dashing any hope that Chris had that Buck was still out there, forcing Chris to accept that what he felt for Vin was real and long-term, maybe permanent.

It was a testament to Vin's own confidence, that he would put Chris in this position. Or perhaps Vin was tired of living with the last doubts of his own - doubts that Chris knew were valid. He knew his secret heart, and he knew his secret hopes. He knew how long he'd been avoiding exactly what Vin was asking him to do.

He sat for time, staring at the monitor in the same way Vin had. But his thoughts were far away, trying to work out what he would say to Buck, what he could say. The angry part of him threw up lots of words - 'betrayal', 'abandonment', 'avoidance', 'lies'. Those words and more kept rolling through his thoughts.

But there other words, too, the ones that Vin expected and didn't want to hear - 'loss', 'desire', 'love' - those competed with the words of anger, countering it with the want of Buck. Those were the words that made him pause, made him lift his hand to hover over the keyboard of the monitor. Made him punch in the connection code.

He hesitated, though, trying to think it through. Trying to get past the roiling of the anger and hurt and hope. Nothing was going to come out of this that he wanted, he knew that. He was in here and Buck was out there, and nothing that either of them wanted was going to change that.

Concentrating on that truth, he hit the 'send' button.

The screen cleared as the computer tried to connect. Every second or so, a small image would flash in the lower right corner, letting him know that the system was still trying. After a minute or so, Chris frowned, sitting forward to check the code he had entered. It was the right one - the one he's known for far longer than he'd been trapped in here. But no one was answering, and the recording wasn't picking up.

A dark thought flashed through his mind, that Buck had changed the code. But that didn't make sense, he told himself, ignoring the stir of fear. Buck had made no mention of doing that, not the last time they'd talked or any of the times before. The last time they'd talked had been months ago, but it had been cordial. Friendly. Just distant.

No reason for Buck to change the code. Unless this woman he'd been dating . . .

He reached out, planning to terminate the contact, but as his fingers neared the keys, there was a flash on the screen just before it cleared, coalescing into an image.

His first thought was that Buck had, indeed, changed the code and someone new had it. But even as he grasped at that idea, he looked at her, really looked at her. Dark red hair, lots of it, long and in loose, lazy curls that fell around her face and over her bare shoulders. She was barely awake, her eyes more closed than open, but he could see the long red lashes that rested on her pale cheeks - pale and lightly freckled. Full lips, turned in a frown right now as she struggled through sleep and into awareness. "Perkins," she said, the word raspy and low. Seductive, but not contrived.

Louisa Perkins. The name burned through his mind, one he had heard mentioned a few times by the others, by Mary and Josiah. The woman who Buck . . .

Fury nearly blinded him - the thought that Buck had another person in their house, in their bed - because it was clear that she was in the bed, her hair in the disarray of sleep, her body covered in a familiar light-blue sheet bearing an imprinted pattern even though her shoulders were bare - pale and splattered with freckles, just like her nose and cheeks and -

"Oh, fuck." The words were barely a whisper, but as he looked at her, her eyes were wide and awake now, almost comically so. It calmed some of his rage that she knew who he was, and that she knew that she was trespassing.

Before he could find any words, though, there was another sound, a sound he knew well. A voice calling from out of the camera's range.

"Did I hear the comm? Did someone - who are you - "

Louisa turned away from Chris, giving him a view of the side of her face - high cheekbones, small, rounded ear over which strands of her hair fell and curled, a slender neck that looked too delicate, too fine.

Too feminine.

"I'm sorry," she said, the words rushed, "I wasn't awake, I forgot we weren't at my - "

Then the scene was moving, fast enough to make him dizzy. He closed his eyes instinctively, catching his breath against the momentary flare of motion sickness.

"Chris?" It wasn't the word so much as the sound of Buck's voice, the surprise. As if he couldn't believe Chris would call him.

He opened his eyes, the anger simmering but not out of control. "Buck," he said, the word feeling strange on his tongue, even though he'd used it with Terry recently. Then more words came out, ones he he hadn't planned. "Sorry to interrupt."

Buck's face dominated the shot, but Chris could tell that he, too, was at least shirtless. There was no beard stubble though, and his hair looked the way it usually did right after he'd finished styling it. "No no," he said quickly, smiling a smile Chris knew well.

It used to make him happy to see that smile, used to make him feel wanted. Now, it just hurt.

"JD and Casey let us know about the wedding," he said shortly, sharply, cutting off anything else Buck had to say. He opened his mouth, ready to say more - but suddenly the words were gone.

Buck's smile was gone, and in its place was an expression Chris couldn't stand: pain. Not the fleeting, momentary pain that Chris' words sometimes brought, but the deeper pain, the one that lined his forehead and put wrinkles in the corners of his eyes, the one that thinned his lips so that the space between his mustache and upper lip was distinct.

But worst was the look in his eyes, those deep blue eyes, ones he could get lost in. As he did now. He'd loved those eyes since the first time he'd seen them, the blue of the sky just before the moon rose, the blue of the ocean when no land was in sight.

The blue of laughter and warmth and a shared past with all its pains and pleasures.

For a space of time that seemed to be forever, he lost all the time, all the things that separated them.

And in Buck's face, he knew the other man had, too. They stared at each other, and without effort, Chris relived memories of their life together - the brawl that put them in the brig together, where they got to know each other; their first mission together; their first double dates; their first time together.

All the things they'd done together after, at work, and at play. And then both.

As the memories played through, he stared at Buck, straight into his eyes. He knew that the memories weren't his alone - that they were both bound together, in this second, by everything they had been together. And that they both knew that any word, any action, would break the very fragile thread.

"I'm sorry," a voice said, just loud enough to shatter the moment. Louisa. Her voice sounded sincere, and Chris suspected that it might be. But it didn't matter - he'd hate her forever, just for the act of destroying this moment.

The other stuff, being in his bed, being the one Buck replaced him with, those were minor.

Buck blinked, swallowed, then he looked away. To her. But his words were to Chris. "Chris, hang on a minute, would you?"

Before Chris could answer,the screen went dark for a half second before the screen-saver kicked in.

He reached out, his finger diving down to touch the key to terminate the call. But he couldn't bring himself just yet to press it. The memories, the want, were too strong. He was caught in a maelstrom of the past, of all the things he'd counted on, things he'd wanted, gotten, and felt secure in.

All the things that were gone now.

In the back of his mind, he heard his rationality, the voice that reminded him that his life was here now, with Vin, not with Buck. It was the same voice that chanted to him that he wasn't free to be with Buck, even if Buck wanted to be with him.

It was the same voice that sighed in relief that Vin wasn't here, that Vin knew that seeing Buck would do this to him. And that Vin - Vin didn't deserve this.

Just as Louisa, the naked bitch in his bed, didn't either. She was no more a replacement for Chris than Vin was for Buck.

Which was not fair to either one of them, not at all, but it was the truth.

"Chris? You there?" Buck was back, breathless, his hair mussed now but he was wearing clothes. He was staring at Chris, as if he needed to study him, to etch him into memory. As if he hadn't seen Chris in a lifetime.

Chris met his gaze, doing his own study. His tongue seemed stuck in his mouth, his thoughts muddy. "Yeah," he answered. The word 'thanks' rested on his tongue, but he caught it, not sure what he was thanking Buck for.

"I - I - " Buck stopped, drawing a deep breath, but he held Chris' gaze. "We don't stay here," he said, "not usually."

It was as close to an apology as Chris knew he would get. For a second, he felt the rage again, but in the heat of it, as it almost caught him up, he felt a second of cold, stark clarity: if Buck apologized, he would have to acknowledge that things between them had changed - not were changing, not were temporary, but were now and perhaps forever, different.

If he had to explain, it made it real.

He couldn't do that anymore than Chris could.

Chris stared as the thoughts went through his head, and in the same bolt of realization, he knew that any statement from him, any acknowledgment of what he understood, would be as terminal. Instead, he said calmly, "JD and Casey."

Buck nodded, his expression softening. "They're good together, Chris, real good. They've both grown up so much - you'd be proud of them."

As if Chris were dead - but then, in a way, he was. That was the point of this call, after all.

Chris swallowed. "I am. Glad they're getting married. But trying to set it up for a link, all that expense and the work - I don't want that, Buck. It's not worth it."

Buck looked at him, chewing on his lip. "You?" he asked finally, slowly.

Chris finally looked away, understanding the question. Hating that in the answer, he was the one, once more, choosing, even though he wasn't. "Vin wants it, too. It's not fair to anyone, to them or to the others. To us." He looked back, finding Buck's eyes again. "Probably not to you, either."

Buck looked away then. A thick strand of his hair fell forward, curling on his forehead, and Chris barely checked the motion as his hand reached out to brush it back. Habit, one that even now, after all this time, was so ingrained that he could feel the softness of it on his fingertips.

"You two . . ." Buck started, but he couldn't finish and Chris was glad he was looking away.

There were so many ways to answer - so many ways to avoid an answer. He knew, because he'd used almost all of them. He almost used one now. But as he started to speak, he heard Vin's voice in his head - 'They're the last ones, Chris, the last ones clinging to what we were. Set 'em free.'

"We're - " He started, stopped, then said as evenly as he could, "We're about like you and her, I guess. Getting by the best way we can."

Buck closed his eyes but not before Chris saw the hurt in them. "Reckon that's the best we can hope for," Buck said, and though his voice was as even as Chris' had been, there was rawness behind it. "Wish you - y'all," he corrected, "could be there, but I think you're probably right. It - well, it hurts."

"We'll see the videos after," Chris said softly. "It was good of them to think of us - good of all of you."

Buck swiped the back of one hand over his eyes, then he looked up. His eyes were bright, and his voice trembled a little as he answered. "Think of you every day, Chris. Every damned one of them."

Chris nodded. "Yeah," he whispered.

They stared at each other, not knowing what to say, not wanting to say anything, because they both knew this for what it was: the goodbye that neither wanted. But it wasn't up to them.

Chris' hand rose once again, of its own accord, reaching for Buck. But as he brushed the monitor, he felt the jolt as his radiation reacted to the monitor's static electricity. It was as a reminder of his reality, of his life, one in which Buck didn't play a part.

"Be safe," he said, finding the old greeting to be the only thing he could say.

Buck didn't answer, his eyes growing brighter. He shifted, nodded, and the transmission ended.

Chris stared at the afterimage on the monitor until it faded to black and his own vision grew blurry.

He wasn't aware of sitting, or of the passage of time; he let the memories run their course, flowing into and out of the great void inside him, the place that was so empty that he thought he would never be able to refill it.

When they ran their course, when he could feel nothing but emptiness and his eyes felt as if they were drier than the deserts that bordered quadrant three and his throat was so raw he couldn't swallow, he found himself moving. Some small part of him, a part that observed no matter when or where or what, was surprised that he had the strength to do it. His limbs felt limp, every movement a conscious effort, and his torso ached as if he'd been pummeled for hours - and perhaps he had been, pummeled by his own hands which were knotted into fists so tight that he couldn't open them and his knuckles were rough and scraped.

But he put one foot in front of the other, leaning on the walls when he could, forcing himself forward. He wondered where he was going, but he didn't concentrate on it, he couldn't; it was taking what attention he could muster to stay on his feet. And it seemed important, too important, as if his life depended on it, to keep moving forward toward his destination. It wasn't a surprise, really, when the knowledge of it bubbled to the surface of his brain. It wasn't as if there were many choices for where he could go.

He paused, though, when he reached the closed door. It was the final nail in the coffin of his relationship with Buck - not that Buck would ever know. But Chris knew. He stood, looking at the door and remembering the sky at moonrise, the empty ocean in sunlight.

The ache became a throb that took his breath, robbing him of thought. Which allowed his hand to touch the three-digit sequence on the keypad to open the door. It wasn't locked, opening smoothly and silently. The room beyond was dark except for the silver glow around the man in the bed. As the door opened, he sat up, the smooth movement of someone not sleeping.

Chris stood in the doorway, staring at Vin. In the light of the radiation, he could see Vin's eyes, the light blue of the sky. Pale blue, as if the true blue Chris wanted had been bleached clean.

One arm lifted, the palm falling open in invitation. Vin didn't speak though, the silence absolute. Even the damned mice were still, locking Chris in the echoes of his mind, in words that bounced around in his empty head.

His body moved, drawn to that open hand. Drawn to the comfort of the only person he could touch.

Vin welcomed him as if there had never been a doubt. And maybe there hadn't been, weren't, not anymore.