This is Issue #68 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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Nathan led Kieron belowdecks, and helped to guide the shivering young man into his own quarters. He latched the door to keep it from flying open while the ship continued to rock and sway, buffeted by the storm, and sat Kieron on a stool. Then he began removing his clothes. First, the coat came off, and hung from a peg. Next, each boot, then the socks, then sword and gun belt, next was his vest, and his overshirt. As nimble fingers began to undo the laces on his breeches, he looked up at Kieron and said, “What are you waiting for?”
Kieron hugged himself, teeth chattering as he perched on the stool. He stared at Nate with huge, pale eyes for awhile as the man disrobed, and precisely as Nathan asked him what he was waiting for, blurted out, “What are you doing?”
“Trying to not freeze, which you should join me in. Take off all the wet things. Hang them to dry,” Nate explained.
“I don’t keep my spares in your footlocker, Nate,” Kieron said blankly.
“You’re getting into bed, Brody. As am I. The sooner the better,” Nate said, peeling off his undershirt, revealing pale skin striated with numerous scars, indelibly marked with a score or more of tattoos. He shucked off his breeches and smallclothes and barked, “Out of your things, cadet! We’re at ten thousand and holding through a storm so we evade enemy detection. It’s not getting any fucking warmer!”
Kieron began to peel out of his uniform coat, numb fingers fumbling with brass buttons, but stared at Nathan for a long moment. He could see the man’s younger face, his rage and despair. It overlaid the present face, blurring out a scar or two, a wrinkle here and there, but the agony behind his eyes remained the same. He still carried that horror with him, so many years later. That, or he’d seen so much of it recently that it hardly mattered. His face was a mask that misery wore, and Kieron felt his heart tighten, and try to break.
Nathan noticed Kieron had stopped, and his expression grew concerned. He waved a hand in front of Kieron’s face. He snapped his fingers, frowning as he asked, “Hey. You’re not… you’re not going again, are you?”
“Slipping,” Kieron said, leaning back from the waving hand. “I call it slipping. And no. But I did. Earlier. A lot. I saw…” He stared at Nathan, pained, and the words wouldn’t come. Finally, he finished lamely, “I saw a lot.”
“Did you see me?” Nathan wondered bluntly.
“I–” Kieron’s expression grew briefly panicked, and he bowed his head and busied himself with undressing.
“Forget it,” Nathan said. “I shouldn’t’ve asked.”
Kieron was desperately glad Nathan dropped the conversation; he was soon down to nothing but his shivering skin — he jumped when Nathan took him by the wrist and pulled him into the cot, under several blankets.
“C’mon,” the Quartermaster said gruffly. “Sha’n’Jules are doing the same. As is anyone caught out in that downpour. This is the only way to get warm enough again before you’re in danger of losing hands and feet. You got nice hands. Be a shame to have to use stumps for anything fun, eh?”
Kieron squirmed under the covers, attempting to not touch Nathan, and cried out aloud, freezing as Nathan’s arms wrapped around him, pulling him close. “Oh–” he breathed, hissing air between his teeth. “I don’t–I’m not–“
“Brody,” Nathan sighed, raking long wet hair back from his face. “We’re cold. This makes us warmer. Get over yourself and curl up.”
Kieron closed his eyes and breathed in and out, trying to quell the trembling in his limbs. He edged closer to Nathan, almost wincing each time he felt the older man shift.
Nathan laid his long limbs against Kieron’s, and each of them hissed in turn at discovering which had colder feet–Kieron–and which had colder thighs–Nathan–as they settled in. Nathan held him firmly, his front to Kieron’s back, his arms wrapped around Kieron’s shoulders, his face tucked near Kieron’s neck.
Kieron tried not to tense as he felt Nathan’s warm breath on his skin; his own broke out in gooseflesh — his teeth chattered as he blurted out, “Y-you d-did the right th-thing.”
“What?” Nathan said, pulling the blankets closer, wrapping them both from head to toe in several layers of wool and quilted cotton.
“When you k-killed — you killed the man who killed the s-stowaways,” Kieron whispered. “That’s wh-what I saw. I saw you d-do that. I didn’t see how you die.” I don’t want to see that. I could go my whole life and never see that. I hope I never see that.
Nathan grunted, saying, “Got myself court-martialed for that. Sorry you had to watch.”
“He wasn’t sorry,” Kieron said.
“I was your age,” Nathan said lowly, “and I threw up for days, thinking about it.”
There was a long pause then, and Kieron felt the stirrings of warmth between them, finally, and realized his teeth had stopped chattering. “He was sick, and he would’ve done worse if you left him alive,” Kieron said, feeling as though Nathan deserved some sort of reassurance that he was not simply a murderer.
“Get some sleep,” Nathan said, after awhile.
Kieron thought to himself there was no way he’d ever get rest, curled up like that, naked and still wet, his back pressed to the stomach of his superior officer. It was all he could do to stay still; his muscles were quivering in chill and exhaustion, but his mind was racing, and he wondered if Nate could hear his heart as it thundered, nearly in his throat. He opened his eyes and focused on how he could see Nathan’s forearm laid against him, and he closed his eyes again, wondering what the tattoos meant.
He also wondered if Nathan had meant to lay his lips against Kieron’s skin in an unbroken kiss, or if the man had simply fallen asleep that way — but he fell asleep himself, before he could wonder too long.
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