Raynor scrubbed his face with one hand and not for the first time wondered just what the hell he was doing.
The bunk under him was as unforgiving as any he'd had since basic, but he hardly noticed. He needed sleep ... and feared it at the same time. She would be there, waiting every time he closed his eyes these days.
“Hey Boss, are you sure –.”
“Yes, Markum, I'm sure,” he said into the darkness, a smile on his lips in spite of himself. “If the Protoss wanted us dead, we'd be pushin' up daisies already. That's enough outta all'a ya. Get some sleep, that's an order.”
A few mutters of uncertainty and discontent, but the berth soon fell into the semi-quiet of slumber. And still Raynor couldn't sleep. The chainsaw snoring from Quin didn't help, but as long as he'd served with the man, he was mostly used to it, same as everyone else.
“Commander,” an all too familiar voice spoke in his ear bud, “telemetry suggests you are the only member of your team unable to sleep.”
“Gaia,” he muttered, scowling at the ceiling even though he was mostly sure his commandeered battlecruiser was actually berthed somewhere aft. And below. “What have I told you about spying on me?”
“Monitoring protocols cannot be disengaged without authorization from Central Command,” the AI replied blithely. He could steal a heavy cruiser right out from under the Dominion's nose, convert the on-board computer to accept only his authorization at the highest command levels, but if he wanted to turn off the nanny cam, that was hardwired to require Confederate authorization. In other circumstances, it would almost be amusing.
“And leave Morales alone, Gaia, that's an order.”
Funny how easy that was, but if it would buy him a few hours of something like peace, he would take it. He didn't really want to sleep, but between Quin's snoring and the sounds of the ship, it was probably inevitable. Just as long as he didn't wake up screaming. He had an image to maintain, after all.
Ex-Dominion Marine Commander James Raynor jerked back in his harness, more than a little surprised to find himself in his powered armor with the helmet sealed. How the hell had this happened? Hadn't he just been asleep? Surely that battlefield had just been another dream. And yet the aches in his shoulders and hips felt like he had just been through a live combat wringer. Checking the displays, he sighed and forced himself to relax as best he could in his armor. He still wasn't sure what had happened, but his sensors said he was aboard the Gantrithor, his armor parked in an empty compartment.
He scanned the HUD, but the room still read as empty. Had it been his imagination then? Doors silently whisked open, an unarmored Protoss looking almost timid as it stepped into the room. It - he? He still couldn't tell gender in those guys, if they even had any - didn't say anything, just watched him with faintly glowing eyes. Unnerved, Raynor distracted himself with a systems check on his suit.
“That can't be right,” he muttered, scowling at the virtual readouts. “Gaia, run a level three diagnostic on this suit.”
Jim waited, trying to ignore the eyes that still silently watched him from the other side of his visor.
“Diagnostic complete,” the AI announced, results appearing in a green scrawl on his HUD.
“Diagnostic complete my ass,” he growled as he read the results. “Don't tell me everything's fine when ship time says I was asleep twenty seconds ago and this damn suit says I just spent an hour in combat, fired three hundred rounds, and yet still have full magazines!”
“It is the Nexus, friend Raynor.”
“Tassadar? What the hell is going on?”
“It is difficult to explain. If you will step out of your suit, the Khalai will tend your armor and I will do my best to make things clearer. And then I think it would be best to move all of your people back aboard your vessel.”
“Easier said than done,” he muttered. Confederate - and Dominion, for that matter - Marines' powered armor suits weren't designed to just be casually slipped on and off, though his model wasn't as bad about it as some of the newer units. Popping the seals on his helmet, he pulled himself up through the open visor to perch on the solid cowl. To his shock, it was Tassadar himself who lifted him clear and set him on his feet. The Protoss's face was still a blank to him, but there was something almost reassuring about seeing him. A nod and then Tassadar turned and moved to the door. What else could he do but follow?
When the span between takings dragged especially long, Jim Raynor would catch himself thinking of moving back onto the Hyperion, even of trying to use her jump drives in a mad scheme to break free of the rift in which they were all trapped. He would stalk the corridors of Gantrithor, trying to take his mind off things, and before long the silence would creep in again. Khalai workers went about their duties without a word. Templar warriors he passed in the hall would nod or ignore him, either way no words were ever spoken. And the silence would grow in his mind, like a living thing, until he felt certain it would consume him. Or drive him mad. If he wasn't already.
Raynor groaned as he slumped in his harness. The rush from combat didn't last long, it never did. A moment or two of shared relief at their success and then reality would distort around him and he would be back on Gantrithor. The armor protected him from a lot, his quick thinking from even more, but the long sieges always left him feeling battered and bruised all over. At least this last time the field of combat had been somewhat familiar, if filled with faces he didn't know. Sometimes you just had to be grateful for the little things.
“Do you need assistance, friend Raynor?”
“What I need is a goddamn beer,” he muttered, his gauntlet thunking against his helmet as he unthinkingly tried to scrub his face. Right, had to get out of the monkey suit first. He could almost feel Tassadar's eyes on him, judging him. A deep breath and somehow he found the focus to step back into the docking port the khalai had fashioned for him. The dock was constructed so he could get into and, more importantly lately, out of his armor on his own, not that he ever did. The Nexus always deposited him in his armor as part of stealing him away and Tassadar was always there when it brought him back, a silent strength and comfort. As much as he wanted to know how and why - surely even in these conditions, the Executor had better things to do than babysitting an ally he had never even wanted - Raynor didn't have the guts to actually ask. He wasn't even sure which scared him more, the possibility that his question would be met with silence or the thought that the Protoss might actually explain.
:I will see what I can do.:
“Thanks,” he mumbled, slowly shambling his way towards his head. A hot shower and then bed, that's what he really needed. And a meal in there somewhere. He wasn't even sure anymore when the last time was that he'd eaten real food.
It wasn't until hours later that he realized he had heard Tassadar's voice only in his mind the second time, not through the comm.
Raynor watched the last temple guardian turn to dust, rocking back in his harness with a sigh of relief as the last of that temple's energy pulsed out over his head.
“You have a strong heart, friend.”
“Tyrael, wait!” he shouted, pushing himself to catch the angel. “I gotta ask. This Nexus ... do you understand it?”
“Yes,” Tyrael said simply. He waited a beat, but apparently the scion of heaven felt that was enough. Sigh.
“Okay, well, how long is this gonna keep happening? What's the point?”
“That I could not explain to you, my friend,” Tyrael said, dropping to his feet for the first time Raynor could ever remember seeing, his sword set at rest. “Time in the Nexus is too fluid, even you and your people do not have enough knowledge to understand.”
“But can't you stop it?” he countered, frowning at the glowing entity that his brain still sometimes had a hard time accepting as an angel. “You and the other angels, I mean?”
“Stopping it would not resolve what the Nexus is here to do. I am sorry, my friend, but to break the Nexus in that way would be to damage the Aspects and the very fabric of existence. Its purpose must be fulfilled. In time, it will be. Until then, have faith. Do not despair, for you are indeed blessed.”
A flash of light and Tyrael was off again.
“Don't feel blessed,” Raynor snarled, snapping his visor shut and glaring at his HUD. At least this time he wasn't facing Sarah around every corner.
Pain. Everything was pain. Why wasn't his damn armor doing its damn job and giving him the med injections?
:You are not in your armor.:
Tassadar's mental voice was a cooling mist in the haze of pain, but the words made no sense. He was injured, he had to be in his armor, that was how this worked. He didn't go into combat unarmored and nothing short of serious combat could hurt like this. But the suit or a medic or something should be doing something about his pain levels about now, goddammit.
Cool, leathery hands cupped his head and the pain immediately faded into background noise. He blinked, surprised to find the templar had been right. He was laying on his back, on his bed, in his personal stateroom aboard the Gantrithor, the templar standing over him. He didn't know how this could be, but there was no arguing with reality. Glowing eyes seemed to see right through him and Raynor hesitated to think what the Protoss was seeing just then.
:You humans are so young, have so much to learn. So much hate and fear within you. But perhaps that is why you are now here. With the Khala's strength, you will see....:
A thousand questions rushed through his head at once. Jim Raynor didn't ask even one of them.
For two days the Nexus ignored him and for two nights Raynor's dreams were nothing but nightmares. Kerrigan laughing as she killed him again and again. A twisted version of Artanis slamming his twin psi-blades into his gut. A mindless wave of Zerg separating him from Tassadar, drowning him in their sheer numbers. A shadow version of Zeratul appearing from nowhere to cut off Sarah's head. Being grabbed and flung across a courtyard by a demonic terror. And of course, in between the rest, revisiting the horror of Tarsonis and being forced to leave Sarah behind, again and again and again.
:You cannot change the past, talandar.:
“I don't feel strong,” he said, sighing heavily. A neural tendril, then three more, slid cool and soft against his arm. He could feel Tassadar's emotions now as well. The regret for being too late, always too late, to stop the Zerg infestations of the Terran colony worlds. The sorrow for the lives, both Terran and Protoss, lost in their war against the Zerg. And something more, an unexpected fondness for the small and fragile human Fate had put in his care. A feeling that shook one James Raynor to his core.
With a jerk, the tendrils snapped away, the bond between them breaking, and a wall of silence slammed down between them once more. Raynor watched, words caught in his throat, as the Protoss Executor simply, silently left. He didn't understand.
“Hey, Artanis, got a sec?”
“But of course, friend Raynor. Always for you.”
It still felt strange to find himself in the Nexus with a version of the young templar who came from Raynor's currently unreachable future, but then he knew the templar felt much the same. And amused that their friendship was reforming anyway.
“Are all Protoss ... male?”
“What?! ... ah, I forget, you are still from the time when our alliance is barely formed,” the templar said, a laugh coming through his suit's comm. “No, some of the most savage zealots I know are female, though they are quite rare. You would not see them on the flag decks of Gantrithor, where you are staying, but they do exist. But most of our females choose to stay at home, nurturing our few young.”
“Battle commencing in ... ten seconds.”
“Then bonds are male-female, like humans.”
“Some,” Artanis agreed, and again that chuckle. “Love and mating are separate sacraments, my friend. For love to be true, only the soul matters, not the body. Not when we see all of each other through the Khala!”
Raynor wanted to ask more, but they were out of time. Until a momentary lull found him beside the young templar once more.
“I sense there is more you had wanted to ask, my friend,”
“Yeah, there is, I'm just ... not sure how without sounding like an ass,” he confessed, huffing a sigh. This was ridiculous, and yet....
“I have known you too long and too well to still be so easily offended by Terran bluntness, James Raynor. But you forget, my friend, we are a telepathic species and the human mind is all too open to us. We have no taboos against males finding love and comfort with each other. But if you wish to know what Lord Tassadar, may his name be honored forever, thinks, then you should ask him.”
It was sound advice, but by the time Raynor was returned to the Gantrithor, he was too tired to do more than dock his armor. As always, Tassadar was there, lifting him free and then going so far as to carry him to bed. It wasn't normal, but he was almost afraid to ask about this sudden change.
:Sleep, talandar. We will speak when you are rested and whole once more.:
Now that was the best advice he'd heard all day.
:She is not here, talandar.:
The jerk back to reality was always like this, it seemed. Raynor let himself go slack in his harness, forcing himself to take deep if still somewhat shaky breaths. That had been an especially long and hard one, filled with shambling horrors his military mind hadn't wanted to accept. And everywhere there had been Kerrigan and other enemies who had previously been friends and allies. And Tassadar, who had stayed by his side the whole time.
:Yes, it was real. It is always real. All too real.:
“It felt like a nightmare.”
:The true nightmare would be if you were unable to return.:
There was a softness in Tassadar's mental voice that Raynor was afraid to face. He wasn't sure how long it had been since he had talked with Artanis. Right then, it felt like at least a week, but it had probably only been a couple of days at most. Maybe even only a few hours of outside time, though this had definitely been his second match since then.
:You are worried.:
“I'm exhausted, Tass. When I signed on as a colonial marshal, my fighting days were supposed to be behind me. A nice, quite posting out at the back of beyond, a clean slate. And then the Zerg came and in the span of what, a couple months? I'm right back to where I was before, fighting for my life, constantly watching my back. Mar Sara, the Sons of Korhal, Antiga, Tarsonis, the Dominion, and now with this Nexus business ... I've been fighting all my life, Tass, but I'm not really ... this isn't who I am.”
:You have become more than what you were, it is true.:
“I'm not a warrior, Tass,” he said, shaking his head and fishing out a battered pack of cigarettes. That was one nice thing about the Nexus calls - he always came back with full ammo, full stims, and a full pack of smokes. And that first hit of nicotine was almost better than sex, not that he'd had any of that since....
The cool touch of Protoss skin was always a surprise. The way templar in particular seemed to almost glow from within with energy, Raynor always expected them to be warm, even hot, and yet Tassadar's touch was always cool, soothing. Just what he needed.
:Your heart is out of balance. Where do you find joy?:
“I'm not sure I remember what that even is anymore,” he confessed, savoring another long hit of nicotine. “This helps take the edge off,” he continued, gesturing with the lit cigarette, “but I wouldn't call that peace. I dunno, man. A beer, a thick steak, and an agreeable woman maybe.”
This wasn't the conversation he had been wanting to have with the Executor, exactly, but maybe this way was better. It was certainly easier. Sort of.
:Your heart is still set on the one you cannot have.:
A simple statement of fact, but there was something....
“I loved her, Tass, and I left her behind. I couldn't save her.”
:Neither could I.:
Neural tendrils like cords of cool silk curled around Raynor's wrist and once again he felt the templar's grief, the way it echoed his own. He shuddered under the weight of it, but Tassadar was there to catch him as he fell, a soothing presence that offered comfort without judgement.
In silence, his cigarette burned away to ash, but for once, Raynor didn't care.
The battleground was shrouded in silence, the gun turrets powered down. Jim waited, but nothing happened. It should have already happened, he had escorted the last payload - okay, all the payloads - himself, had heard Athena announce their victory over the comm. He should have been back on Gantrithor by now.
“Athena, what's the hold up?”
Still nothing. His link to Hyperion was blocked again, he was cut off. Fear nibbled at the back of his head as he snapped his visor shut and pulled up a full display of the Hanamura battleground. There was only him and....
“Tass? What the hell's going on?”
“Come back to base, talandar. I will explain.”
A huff and he stabbed the recall button, waiting out the teleport timer with growing agitation. Tassadar had not been in this match. And yet as he stepped down from the hearthstone ring, the almost glowing Executor was waiting for him.
:Arrangements have been made, talandar, you will not need your armor again until long after we are through.:
There was no armor dock in their castle, of course, but with Tassadar there to help, it didn't matter. Too many questions raced through his thoughts, he didn't know where to start, instead following his silent companion into another part of the castle. And stopping dead in his tracks. A low table sat in the middle of the room, flanked by cushions instead of chairs and covered in a colorful, even artful array of foods. At least he hoped it was all food.
:It is not the image you gave me, but Assassin Shimada assures me this will heal your spirit even more.:
“Tass, I don't even recognize....”
Cool hands directed him to a cushion as images and explanations flickered through his mind, a mix of Genji's cool and sharp Japanese with Tassadar's familiar voice to translate. A dozen foods from a world and time as alien to him as any he had seen since leaving Mar Sara the first time, so very long ago, though Genji's offered memories of shared family meals and the use of food as medicine helped somewhat. Still, he wasn't quite sure where to start, unused to the stillness around them. Or having to sit on the floor. Glancing over at his companion, he was surprised to see the templar seated beside him with closed eyes, completely unreadable.
“Still haven't explained what's going on, Tass. Why aren't we on Gantrithor?”
:You needed healing you would not, perhaps could not, get there. Arrangements have been made. We are quite safe here.:
:Eat. Drink. Rest.:
He supposed there was no point in arguing, they obviously weren't going anywhere for awhile. He shuffled through what he still remembered from the memory dump Tassadar had given him a moment ago, finding the small towel to wipe his hands before picking up a piece of fried vegetable. Sweet potato, his tongue said. The chopsticks were beyond him, he didn't even try, sticking to his fingers, the wide spoon that was probably only meant for the soup, and his knife. Tassadar said nothing as he watched him, but the silence wasn't uncomfortable, even with the background of chirping birds and rustling leaves instead of the workings of the Gantrithor. The cool sake tasted nothing like beer, but its alcohol was still a welcome change, steadily dulling his sense. Until a scaled hand pulled the bottle away from him.
:This is not the way of healing, talandar.:
“It's my way. Give me back my damn alcohol, Tass.”
:Burying the hurt does not heal it.:
“Maybe not, but it stops the pain. Now give me back the damn alcohol,” he growled, reaching for the bottle only to have it pulled away even further.
:I will not help you further hurt yourself, talandar.:
With surprising speed - that Raynor really should have seen coming, as often as they had stood together on fields of combat - the commander found himself pinned on his back, Tassadar's greater armored bulk covering him in shadows.
The order made no sense and he blinked up at Tassadar's blank face in confusion. Blue eyes like twin gas flames gazed down on him, tinting his world in cool fire and shadow.
The mental order, so quiet and still, oddly unlayered, still made no sense. Ask ... what? His not-quite-buzzed-enough mind could tell Tassadar was waiting for something, but the what eluded him.
:You are not the only one to share battles with young Artanis. When we are in the Nexus together, the Khala joins us. Ask.:
Damn. He hadn't counted on that, hadn't considered that Artanis might not think to keep his questions private, might not feel the need. He could hear a clasp unlatching and then Tassadar's neural tendrils fell freely over the templar's shoulders. They were alone, in a place where no one could see or interrupt. No one else needed to know.
Raynor let that last thought in particular roll through his fuzzy mind a few more times. He was the only human here, cut off from his peers. No one else needed to know.
“I ... don't know how,” he admitted, surprised to feel a cool touch on his cheek.
:Then it is fortunate for you that I do not have your human reticence. When the Firstborn share pleasure, it is not as you are used to, but for you, I will be gentle.:
Raynor wasn't quite sure what that meant, either, though he could feel Tassadar's soft amusement. Silky cool tendrils brushed his skin in light caresses that felt almost tender, though his mind tried to dismiss the notion. This was a joke or maybe a dream. That would explain things so much better than the idea of –.
:You will not find peace so long as you allow your fears to consume you. Why should there be shame in this?:
“Tass, it's not ... you're not even human, for crying out loud!”
:And you are not of the Firstborn. And yet in you beats a heart of one I would call dear to me.:
Where tendrils touched bare skin, he could feel sparks of pleasure not unlike electric jolts. He tried to tell himself it was his imagination, those skitters of something not unlike lust. Or maybe it was the alcohol, he told himself, but it reminded him a little too much of the way Sarah used to do the same when they'd made love, teasing him with her fingertips.
Tassadar's tendrils stilled against his skin, the sparks melding into a cool, wordless flow of pure emotion. As much as he might have preferred his own lies, the skin to skin link between them made that impossible. Tassadar's emotions swept through him, the force of his feelings burning away the haze of alcohol. “Love” was too pale a word for what Raynor was sensing from the templar, though it was the only one his mind could find. It was something he could feel resonating from within him as well, and the truth of that terrified him.
A finger pressed to his lips, Tassadar's mental voice solidifying into words once more.
:You worry to no purpose, talandar. What lies between us is of no concern to anyone else.:
:You are too focused on words, labels. Here, now, there is no need. Still yourself to silence.:
Easier said that done, but Tassadar's touch, both mental and physical, warm and cool, was impossible to ignore. Certainly his body had discarded all care for who was touching him and he shifted as he tried to ease the tightness of his pants. Something like a chuckle echoed in his mind and claws he had never seen before flashed out, ruining his best pair of shorts. And his favorite shirt.
“Well that's gonna be a bitch to explain later,” he mumbled, but Tassadar's mental touch was warm with amusement and ... was that renewed lust? Raynor was moderately proud of his physique, not overdone like some of his drug-boosted marines, but neither had he gone soft with age like Duke had. Still, his human body couldn't possibly look attractive to a Protoss, they were too different, anyone with eyes could see that!
:You have been a telepath's lover and still you do not understand? Then she was indeed a poor teacher. When the mind is open, the body matters not.:
Even without his armor, Tassadar's size made Raynor feel small and vulnerable as he lay naked beneath him. It would be so easy, too easy, for the templar to kill him with those hands that touched him now with infinite gentleness. Hands that were too big went still as the templar leaned closer, filling Raynor's world with blue until their foreheads touched and his eyes closed.
:Be one with me in silence.:
Raynor wasn't sure he understood, his own eyes closing to keep from panicking at how easily the lean templar could crush him. But he could feel Tassadar in his mind, touching him in a way that was both familiar and alien, and the fire in his belly grew. Phantom hands and neural tendrils touched him in a way Tassadar's true hands could not. Raynor's breathing grew harsh in his own ears, the only sound between them. He tried to speak, but the templar had complete control of his body, forcing him into silence while bringing him pleasure not even Sarah had shown him. Wave after wave of shared pleasure, his body forgotten until, exhausted, he finally returned to it. He felt limp and sticky from sweat and his own release and only then did Tassadar allow him back his freedom. And yet he could find no words. Perhaps the silence was all they needed.