* Portable breather – a small device used to measure oxygen, and to help an individual breathe and improve oxygen levels in the body. It holds approximately thirty minutes’ worth of pure oxygen for someone to breath in, usually until they can be put onto a steadier oxygen supply if needed.
It was actually two nights of poor sleep for Corbin. It was hard to think of anything besides Kel’s request of him, although somehow he managed to pay enough attention to their surroundings to work on the map and collect samples of possible building materials. Still, his mind was spinning with questions and what-ifs.
If he and Kel started seeing each other, could he still call Kel a friend? What if things didn’t work out and they broke up? Was he attracted to Kel? They were so different from each other. What if all they did was get on each other’s nerves? What about Seren? Would being in a relationship with Kel mean that he was giving up on getting Charge Seren to notice him? If they decided to stick together, who would end up being the third in their Trio? He couldn’t think of any woman among the Travelers he was particularly drawn to. Did Kel have a woman in mind?
He and Kel said very little to each other over the next day or so, and with all the questions already in his mind, Kel’s silence just confused Corbin more. At first he appreciated the lack of pushing for an answer. He needed time to think about things.
But then that same silence made him anxious. Did it mean their relationship was already changing? He’d been able to converse and be with Kel so easily, now he worried that Kel was taking his lack of answer as a “no” and pulling away from him, and Corbin dearly didn’t want to lose his friend.
On the heels of that emotion, he began to get mad. How dare Kel suddenly drop this on him! What kind of friend was that?! Kel knew he was interested in Seren. Why’d he have to go and make things complicated?!
These thoughts were whirring through Corbin’s head on the morning of the last day of the trek. Later that day they’d be arriving back at the ship, and Corbin had somehow convinced himself that Kel would need an answer by then. He and Kel were packing up the last of their items before the group would start out when something snapped in Corbin and he spun to face Kel.
“Why?!” he asked abruptly.
Kel looked momentarily surprised, and then Corbin saw that look of affectionate comprehension come into his eyes. “Why do I want to have a relationship with you?”
“Yes!” Corbin confirmed with more heat in his tone than he meant.
Kel put his bundler on the ground and sat on it, looking up at Corbin with honest sincerity. “Because I like you a lot, Cory. Because you’re fun and interesting and you make me feel worthwhile—like I can be good for you just like I feel you’re good for me. Because I think we make good friends and that’s a great place to begin a relationship, and because I’m so attracted to you that every night of this trek I’ve fantasized about curling my body around you and falling asleep with your warmth against me.”
The heat of frustration left his head and Corbin’s eyes got big. “You have?” he squeaked out.
Kel nodded, his look briefly intense before it softened into a muted sadness. “I have, and also because I got afraid of losing you to Charge Seren without ever getting a chance to see if we could have something special together.”
Corbin sat rather clumsily down on the ground. He was silent for a while, not being entirely sure of what to say. Kel’s words had made him feel special and valued, and he was tempted to agree to a relationship just because of them, but a part of him held back. A whir of emotions flooded his stomach that he didn’t know how to handle.
“It’s all right, lad,” Kel spoke quietly when Corbin remained mute for several minutes. “You can tell me you don’t feel the same. It will hurt, but I won’t break.”
Pulled from his confusing reverie, Corbin looked into Kel’s face, not entirely sure that he wasn’t capable of breaking the other man. “It’s not that I’m not interested, Kel,” he finally managed. “Part of me would like to see if things could work out like you’ve said.”
“But…” Kel pushed gently.
“But,” Corbin sighed. “If I’m with you, then that means I’d be giving up on something with Charge Seren,” he admitted, revealing the thing he was struggling with the most. “And I know it’s unlikely, but I’m not ready to give up the possibility of being with him.”
Kel nodded, looking both thoughtful and a little sad. “Well,” he said after a very long minute, “what if you didn’t have to give up on him?”
Corbin’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. “What do you mean?”
Kel looked like he wasn’t entirely certain of what he wanted to say, but he still spoke the words. “We marry into Trios, lad,” he reminded. “I always assumed I’d find a man and a woman as most Arlytians do, but I’m not against pursuing something with two men. I may not have the type of feelings for Charge Seren that you do, but I like and respect the man. Perhaps, while you and I see how we do in a relationship, we could also see if Seren might be a good third match for us.”
Corbin’s expression became mildly hopeful. “Really? You’d be okay with that?”
“Well…” Kel hesitated, and that hesitation took the hope right out of Corbin’s face.
“You’re not really ok with that, are you?” the younger man questioned.
Kel ran a hand through his hair, a gesture of nerves that Corbin had never seen the man do before. “I’m not against it,” he tried to explain. “But,” he sighed and there was clear unhappiness in the sound. “I don’t want to be second-pick either. Do you have any interest in me, Corbin?”
It was an awful moment, but only because Corbin could see that he was hurting the other man. He didn’t want to hurt Kel, and he realized as he saw the distress in the other man’s face that if it hadn’t been for his rather consuming crush on Charge Seren, he may have already fallen for his friend. Kel was so kind, and Corbin knew that Kel treated him far better than he deserved.
Tentatively reaching out, Corbin intertwined his fingers in one of Kel’s hands. He saw Kel study their locked hands for a moment before meeting the other man’s eyes. Corbin spoke honestly.
“I would like to see if things could work out with Charge Seren, but I want to explore a relationship with you too. You’re already my best friend and the nicest person I’ve ever known. You could have anyone, Kel. Everyone likes you. Are you sure you want to try things with me?”
Keeping their fingers together, Kel lifted his free hand and very lightly cupped Corbin’s cheek. “Very much, Cory. I want to try and succeed with you.”
Corbin felt a smile pull at his lips. A matching one appeared on Kel’s face before the man leaned in and lightly brushed his lips across Corbin’s mouth.
The touch was light and gentle, but Corbin felt the affection and warmth of it spread throughout his body.
There was no rest for the weary when the Travelers returned to their ship’s landing site. Charge Seren had the group gather as a whole as he issued orders; some directives were given to groups, and a handful of Travelers were given personal tasks as well. The people quickly set about their assigned tasks, thankfully still running on adrenalin and excitement despite the fatigue of the trek. Tests on purification were started, samples were sorted, the Recorders amongst the group began comparing notes, and supplies and clothes were set aside for washing or mending.
Seren selected a small group of Travelers to walk with him and confirm that the land around the ship was still safe and suitable for the Travelers to begin living on, while Pilot Sabik took charge of the ship.
Kel had his assignment to return to his leadership in the ship’s kitchen. The Travelers would need a solid meal after the week of hard hiking, and more than likely his services would be needed late into the evening, but he was regretful to leave Corbin. They’d been side by side for days, and Kel was reluctant to be without the other man’s enjoyable presence, especially at this vulnerable start of their new relationship.
As the dozens of Travelers began separating to work, Kel took a few minutes to capture Corbin’s hand and bring the smaller man to a mildly private place in the shadow of the back of the ship. Corbin went willingly, but his eyes were unsure—almost guarded—as he looked at Kel.
“Is something wrong? What are you doing?” he asked.
Kel squeezed Corbin’s hand, and on impulse brought it to his mouth to lay a gentle kiss on the warm fingers. “Nothing’s wrong. I know we have to get to our duties, but I wanted to say that I’m going to miss you.”
Corbin’s look of uncertainty eased and was replaced with an embarrassed look and a small smile. “Really?”
“Really,” Kel confirmed.
“I’ll miss you too,” Corbin admitted. “I liked having you around when I was drawing in the evenings. It will be strange to work on the last of the map without you there tonight.”
What he didn’t say because he hadn’t quite recognized it himself was that he found Kel’s presence comforting and relaxing, and that atmosphere had helped his art turn out better.
“I wish I could be with you tonight, but I know it’s not possible yet…for a lot of reasons,” Kel acknowledged. “But if you’d be willing to rise a bit early tomorrow, would you join me for first meal?” He winked at Corbin. “I’m cooking.”
Corbin laughed. “You better because I’m not. What time?”
“The sixth hour? I’ll have Backers working the earliest shifts tomorrow morning, but I’ll still need to be there no later than the eighth hour. It would give us at least little while together.”
Corbin grimaced at the time, although he really didn’t mind being up that early on occasion. “Should I come to your stateroom?”
Kel nodded. “I don’t want to disturb your roommate, and my roommate is one of my culinary backers, so he’ll be part of the first shift in the morning.”
“Okay. I guess I’ll see you then.”
Kel watched Corbin walk away, wishing the young man could stay with him. His heart fluttered in anticipation of the next morning while his stomach rolled with the anxiety that he might do something to push the young man away.
Cay turned from the work he was doing. He had innumerable tests to run and the responsibility of beginning the set-up of a medical facility on Neveah, but considering the urgency in the young woman’s voice who beckoned him, he knew those things could wait.
“Yes, Backer Celeste?” he responded, recognizing the woman who worked on his wife’s purification team. She looked clearly distressed.
“Sir, it’s Charge Amrynn…”
Cay immediately felt his stomach clench.
“…she passed out in the Purification Wing and we haven’t been able to bring her around.”
Cay automatically reached for his medical bundler as he headed for the door, calling out behind him to one of his subordinates, “Eli! I’ve an emergency. You’re vice leader until I return!”
A surprised but competent, “Yes sir!”, was heard as the door shut behind him.
Backer Celeste fell into step with Cayson. “What happened?” he asked as he moved quickly toward the Purification Wing.
“We’re not entirely sure, sir. She was sorting and logging samples we’ve collected from Neveah with the rest of us since we returned. I noticed about an hour ago that she seemed a little pale and wasn’t moving as quickly as she had been, and I asked her if she was all right. She said she was fine, just tired, but…”
Cay looked sharply at the woman. “But what, Backer?”
“It’s just an observation, sir, but I thought she looked like she was in some discomfort. She kept squinting at the samples and once or twice I thought her hands were shaking.”
A dozen diagnoses entered Cayson’s head, but he grabbed onto the most likely—a flare-up of Amrynn’s headaches—except that she’d never passed out from one before. He wracked his brain to determine what might have caused this.
All the potential causes he considered were no help when he saw his wife unconscious on the floor with a cushion under her head. “Step back!” he ordered brusquely in his need to get to Amrynn. He knelt at her side, his hand quickly and carefully checking her vitals: warm but no fever, hands colder than they should be, eyes dilated but unseeing under her lids, slow yet shallow breaths, and a thankfully normal heartbeat were all quickly noted.
With one hand he gripped her chilled fingers while the other expertly opened his bundler and pulled out a portable breather. He quickly fitted the mask portion of the device over her mouth and nose and turned it on, impatiently waiting the few seconds it took to tell him what Amrynn’s oxygen levels were before setting the apparatus on the necessary level.
With the small machine situated correctly, he moved his hands gently around her head, checking to make sure there were no bumps or injuries while softly calling her name.
“Rynn? Wake up, dearling. Come on.”
He saw her eyes flutter under her lids, but they didn’t open, nor did she make any sound in response to his voice. His chest constricted. He didn’t like this. He was tempted to give her a shot he’d had to administer a few times in the past when her head would pain her beyond bearing, but without talking to her, he couldn’t be certain his hypothesis on what was going on was correct. He could arrange an emergency head scan, or even a body scan if necessary, but he was loathe to move her right away.
“Rynn, honey, please wake up,” he begged in a whisper. He cupped her face in his hands, then moved his fingers up to lightly massage at her temples and along her hairline. Almost a minute passed with him performing the tender ministrations, but then he watched her take a deep breath and a faint moan could be heard through the mask. His heart rejoiced when her eyes fluttered, although they still didn’t open.
“Am, honey, it’s Cay.” He took a strong but delicate grip on her hand, his other hand still sensitively massaging her head. “Don’t strain yourself, love. Just squeeze my hand once if you can hear me.”
A light squeeze caressed his fingers and Cay breathed a little easier.
“Wonderful, sweetheart. We’re going to find out what’s going on. Just squeeze my hand if the answer is ‘yes’ to any of my questions. Does your head hurt?”
A squeeze and Cay nodded to himself, grateful to know he was already on the right track.
“Is it bad?” Another squeeze.
“Do you hurt anywhere else?” Squeeze.
“My poor girl,” he murmured. “I’ll fix it. I promise. Do you know where you are right now?”
Nothing, which Cay assumed meant she wasn’t sure or couldn’t remember. “That’s all right, honey. It’s not important, but you aren’t in bed and that is definitely where I want you when you feel like this. Do you think it will be too hard on you if I pick you up?”
No squeeze, which meant she was willing, and Cayson was bound and determined to be as gentle as possible, although he was going to need some help. He looked around at the Travelers gathered nearby, watching with concern but trying not to get in the way. He appreciated them and was about to ask for their assistance when the doors to the unit opened and he saw Oz hurry in. His husband wasted no time getting to their side.
“Cay? What happened?!” His eyes looked with worry and a tinge of fear at their wife’s prone form and he took the hand of hers that Cayson wasn’t holding into his own grip. “Amrynn?” he pleaded to her softly, clearly hoping she’d look at him.
Her eyes still didn’t open, but Cay saw her fingers flex briefly in Oz’s hand.
“She’ll be fine, Oz,” he said firmly for all their benefits. “But I want to get her back to our stateroom.”
Oz looked at him, his face questioning. “Not the medical wing?” he asked, barely loud enough for Cay to hear him. Cay understood his quiet. Oz didn’t want to scare Am any more than she likely already was, and neither did he.
“No,” he whispered just as quietly. “It’s quieter in our room. I can bring anything I’ll need there.”
Oz nodded once before focusing his gaze on Amrynn. “Is it safe to move her?”
“I think so,” Cay assured. “Can you carry her to our room? That way I can have access to the things in my bundler if it’s necessary, and I can trust you not to jostle her.”
Oz nodded even as he tenderly slid his arms under Am and lifted her against him, cradling her to his chest as she moaned once, yet remained limp in his arms.
Cay frowned, but took a minute to locate Backer Celeste and stride to her. He made a quick request for her to deliver a message to the Medical Wing and have someone deliver several specific items to his stateroom. Then he fell into step with Ozias, the two of them making sure no more harm could come to their wife.