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there's a rhythm to the noise in xcom headquarters like the steady breaths of a gargantuan beast that has swallowed every pitiable soul locked within its impossibly solid walls.

no one could be blamed for thinking the walls were anything but the usual. they were presumably steel plates with some hollow space between, as the walls of most military bunkers are typically constructed these days. you certainly never once had a reason to think about the walls, not until you started kissing your head of research in the halls between the labs against them.

the first time you kissed dr vahlen there was the first time you really noticed this about the walls at all. if anyone was really keeping count, they might call it the third time you kissed her overall or the first time she kissed you. you hope no one's really keeping count, and that your kisses will run limitless and infinite in a moment that never ends.

the score had been effectively zero to none when you first entered the cybernetics lab that night. on your way down to the barracks from the situation center, you'd paused on the stairs. it was as though you could feel the weight of the door on the third floor landing behind you. a peculiar kind of numbness that's become all too familiar a sensation had seized you, the sort of numbness that you can't shake just by noticing it or thinking it away.

as commander, risk management runs like a series of calculations through your racing mind. every variable is converted into numbers, success and failure into rough percentages. the calculations get a little easier with time; but you think you may never get used to seeing the real consequences of the decisions you make based on these utterly imaginary numbers.

the past five days have been eerily quiet on the global front. mission control was filled with a tense silence when you left it, each operator quietly thumbing their keyboards, preparing to receive calls that never came. the satellite network was complete, and yet-- nothing. no cries for help from any country, no ufo sightings, not even a blip of unusual energies to be found anywhere. the finalization of a new generator had finally given you a little something to do, and the additional power supply was certainly appreciated throughout headquarters, but you'd spent the whole inspection tour with the engineers distracted, ears straining to hear an alarm blaring with that steady announcement: "Commander to Mission Control, Commander to Mission Control."

there is also guilt involved. it isn't that you want danger. every mission might prove lethal to any unit. sending your soldiers in blind could always have the potential to go disastrously wrong, and it definitely wasn't that you wanted to send them into combat. there's a knot that sits in your throat when you eat in the mess hall and look out at the soldiers and staff who are there, the ones who remain. you try not to notice the spaces where people used to be. you try not to notice the tension or the choked-back sobs you hear sometimes. you do what you can: memorize every soldier's face and name, congratulate them when they earn their nicknames, praise their resilience and resourcefulness. but when everyone is gone, a weight settles on your shoulders, heavier every time.

you're beyond tears, mostly, at this point. instead, you face it all with an enforced stoicism, establishing numb as the norm to center yourself. you wonder if everyone knows that they're just numbers in your head and pixels on your screen when you send them in to bleed and die. and knowing that the fight isn't over yet, and knowing the extraterrestrials certainly weren't sitting around twiddling their thumbs while xcom only makes everyone quietly afraid of always being 2 steps behind. but you're tired of numb, and tired of pushing down your fear. how is this anyway to live? something like exasperation starts to take over you. why shuffle quietly back down to the barracks to sleep blankly and wait for an alarm? you think of central, of chief engineer shen, and above all, you think of dr vahlen.

you think of her lips, red above that dull green turtleneck that hugs her throat so closely. you think of her eyes, bright and sharp and stormy gray that lock on in a challenge to everyone she speaks with. you think of the veins on the backs of her hands and the fraying threads on her cuffs, and you think of the tablet she carries everyday and the pages and bundles of notes she has written on and against it.

you think of the neat regular notes that she must make with every autopsy, writing out in objective terms about the sudden and total organ failure that leads poisoned soldiers to die suddenly in their own waste, in so much pain that they transcended mere misery and died with their faces locked in indescribable fear. you think of her noting for the council’s occasional interested perusal the extent of damage to the human body that the extraterrestrials’ increasingly devastating weapons can wreak. even when mission control is quiet, there is a backlog of bodies that the labs must process carefully. you know without needing confirmation that she must be down there, working herself to silent, ragged exhaustion, with the deep bags that no coffee or nap can erase her only reward from the exercise of discipline.

for every autopsy she does not complete herself, she checks the reports herself for accuracy and completion before submission to the council’s databases. her proposal for the augmentation program sits in limbo with the rest of xcom’s base; the council unsure of whether to approve or deny her these facilities in light of the mixed results xcom has been turning out lately. you don’t push either way on the proposal, not that they’ve asked for your opinion on the matter. but you can see the benefits she proposes clearly, and fear the consequences for your soldiers, your human, fearful soldiers. you are afraid, you think, that if you think of how much better they will fight, that you are only improving the numbers that you see them as without remembering who they are.

but if you did say something to the council, your advice would likely be heeded by the members who approve of your recent activities and could tip the scales in her favor. moira vahlen is as shrewd as she is unyielding, and you know she knows that you haven’t voiced your support to the council yet. she hasn’t been petty; she’s far above that. but you know, and she knows you know, that she’s locked herself away in her labs far more these past few days than usual. the last time you sat at your usual place in the mess hall this morning, the whole table of ranking officers sat in a heavy silence, everyone’s thoughts wandering elsewhere, small talk exhausted in the scant few days of downtime. you couldn’t bring yourself to break the ice with inane small talk (can’t talk about the weather when everyone lives together in a giant metal base underground), and let it all go to just focus on your stringy stroganoff and noodles.

but maybe just one on one. when you think of talking to her, it’s like your heart has started to beat again after 5 long days of aching stillness. your legs feel a bit distant, a little trembly, and you almost want to laugh. commander of xcom, leader and tactician of the last line of defense between humanity and an endless legion of homicidal aliens, and the thought of talking to one (1) tired scientist has you quaking in your boots.

you do a sharp turn on your heels on the stair you’ve been standing stock still on and march yourself over to the door to the third floor. it takes you one deep breath and a dry swallow to steel yourself enough to open it. a gust of cool air from the climate-controlled halls pushes heavy strip door flaps towards you as your step in and let the metal door slam shut with a bang behind you.

- - - - -

you find her just about where you expected.

your keycard gives you access to every facility in the base, and she must have heard the metal latches clicking back into the door. she must have seen the door swing open as you came through, and absolutely must have heard the loud shrill beep that informs every soul inside the labs when the door has been opened. and yet, when you enter, though she hasn’t had time to turn away from you, you see that her eyes are locked onto that tablet, turned down towards the table she’s working at.

behind her and past a thick pane of missile-proof glass, you see a sectoid lying face down in the containment chamber. it shows no sign of movement or struggle, and the only sound in the entire lab space is the scratching of dr vahlen’s pen against her paper. there are brief pauses as she stops to think, but as the seconds stretch into minutes, she never seems to look up in your direction.

you take the time, then, to look her over. her hair is a mess, falling out of its bun and into her eyes every time she leans down towards her papers. you can see those bags under her eyes, see the hardness in her determined stare in her fight to stay awake. she never brings coffee or anything into these labs, for safety reasons, and you know the mess hall is inconvenient for her to go back and forth between. the pen darts across the page in a hand clenched tight, left to right and left again. the tip of her tongue pokes out when she wets her lips, pen nearing the bottom of the page. you hold your breath without thinking, eyes straining to watch as the tip of her pen halves the distance between itself and the very bottom of the paper, nearer and nearer until she must be writing microscopically to fit in her every thought before she must finally, at long last, peel her laser-focused stare from her report up and onto... you.

you feel as though a jolt of electricity runs through you when your stares connect. she says nothing at first, and neither do you. her gaze says enough, because it says very little. she’s being reserved, controlling her every facial twitch as she scans you over with the slightest movements of her eyes. but you, you hold your gaze as steady as you can, poring over her tired face and reading the lines of exhaustion written in her faint wrinkles and dullened skin.

“you’re not taking care of yourself,” you say. your tone is not accusatory, and you try to keep it purely observational.

she doesn’t react, not at first. just looks at you, shifts her weight to her back foot as she straightens up properly to stare back at you properly.

“it’s nothing I haven’t done before,” she retorts without venom. her voice cracks from disuse, like ice over a lake splitting, weakened by the coming of spring. she doesn’t move when you step forward, as cautious as though you were crossing that frozen lake.

“that doesn’t mean it’s any good for you.”

“it’s good for everyone if I stay here, if I finish more studies.” her eyes flash now, that spark of a challenge igniting the space left between you as you cross the lab faster to her bench. “all the information I take down here could change the tide of the next battle. you should know this better than anyone else, Commander. this paper could be worth the life of your men, you know.”

when you’re right there across the workspace from her, you stop, your hands resting light on the spotless counter. your gentle touch is belied by the fire in your voice. “if it’s not good for you, then it’s not good for everyone. Moira.

she’s not a tall woman by any means, but by god, the way she half squints and half glares at you with an aura like a king makes you feel tiny by comparison to the roiling impasse you both know you’ve reached. neither of you are technically wrong, and further discussion would only be petty. but your advice—if you can call it that—is difficult to deny the universal application of, and she lowers her stare first.

“fine. I will sleep. is that good enough for you, Commander?”

you reach over and rest your fingertips on the edge of her tablet. “if it is good enough for you.”

her eyes flick back to yours, and then down to your hand. she reaches over too, and flips the board over with a defeated sigh.

“fine, fine! I will.” her accent is growing more pronounced with her growing exasperation. there’s some minor warmth to it, though, as she shoots you a little sidelong glance in the middle of her tidying up. this mostly seems to consist of stacking all her sheaves of paper on top of each other and then pushing them to one side. “I vill sleep and do no research and be unproductive as everyone around here seems determined to accomplish until the aliens attack again.” she gestures towards the door with a little mock curtsy.

you respond in turn with a little mock bow and sweep your hands in a grand ‘you first’ movement. “if I can convince you to sleep, I will consider it a day of great productivity on my part.”

she leads the way out of the lab, stopping only to shut off most of the lights and check that the doors and containment units have been secured as regulations stipulate. the heavy door thuds shut behind you on the way out with a ringing finality that fills the silence of the hallways.

she waits for you there, arms crossed and head turned away from you. her voice is soft with some slight hesitation. even the great dr vahlen has some uncertainties in her.

“did you come to ask for something?”

“no,” you say, a little surprised. the surprise is good. it’s easier to bite the bullet when you’re both a little off-guard. “I... missed you.”

you’re not entirely sure if you heard a little “oh” from her or if that was just a trick of your ears, but she suddenly starts walking away, her heels clicking sharp and echoing as she marches down the hall. you react too slowly, and have to half-jog to catch up with her brisk pace. “Moira...”

in no time at all, she’s at the door to the stairway. Her hands rest on the bar that locks it in place, but she’s not pushing it. you almost step on her heels, and stop yourself just short of her suddenly without bumping into her. the sudden arrest of your movement creates a small gust in the space between the door and the strip door, blowing warm air all around you. the scent of her is suddenly there, trapped in this narrow space between you, closeness without contact, another near miss in a long series of them.

you don’t push her, not verbally, not physically. she’s so close to you, though; it would take one slight movement to brush your hand against her back, to touch her waist lightly or to put your arm around her there and draw her in against you. you can see her light breathing, but you want to feel it against you, every vital breath she sucks in a vivid living motion against your own.

she murmurs something, so soft you miss it the first time.

you say nothing, move nothing. and she repeats herself, louder this time, head turned back a bit to help you hear.

“I thought of you... too.”

you move forward to wrap your arms around her waist, but before you can even reach forward, she turns herself around in that narrow, narrow space between you and her and the door to face you. her eyes are bright and clear, the wrinkles and droop of her eyelids vivid in your field of vision. they’re all you can see, a microcosm of beauty in light and shadow, staring into your eyes with that intelligent, knowing gleam that melts your worries into wordless understanding.

“you, commander. have been in my thoughts this week.”

as she steps forward, you take the smallest of steps back. her other foot, and yours. a staccato tango backwards takes the two of you through, past the strip door, until you feel the cold metal of the wall press up on your back, and then the warm form of moira vahlen leans in against you from the front. she presses her head to your collarbone as her arms slide around to meet behind your back and squeeze lightly. your arms fit naturally around hers, and you pull her in against you in a hug that feels as though you’re melting into her, there against the wall.

you can feel her every breath: the tautness of the inhale, the slackness of an exhale. her breaths begin to hiccup at odd intervals, rapid and light. you worry at first, that she is crying, but when she catches her voice again, you can hear that she is laughing there against you. you cannot feel the cold of the wall anymore when you realize this, because every inch of your being floods with warmth like you haven’t felt in your entire life until you held this laughing woman to your chest and felt her laughter run through your entire body.

“what’s so funny?”

“I cannot believe,” she says, voice muffled against your shoulder, “that we barely spoke at all for all these days for no reason at all.”

and with no preface at all, she unburies her face from your collarbone and kisses you deeply, mouth hot against yours and breath held.

you lean back, into the movement, and feel yourself ease against the wall, sinking deeper and deeper into the sensation of her soft lips locker there, her presence electrifying and warm and solid and stable all at once as her body presses the rest of you down too. the wall is thrumming there against you, and you think it is just your every nerve screaming fire and lust until some small part of your brain reserved for thinking of useless things while the rest of you is unified in only one desire notices that the pulsing of the wall might just be that new thermal generator they installed one floor down. it feels as though the base is there, breathing against your back while dr vahlen breathes ragged against you from the front, pulled back from her kiss to gaze deep into your own wild stare.

it is your turn to lean into her, to kiss her against the mouth with such speed that your teeth touch as your lips do, and you kiss her light and clumsy right against her mouth in peck after peck as she smiles in the form of the tightening of her cheeks against yours. “what are you doing?” she laughs, leaning her shoulders back even as you cinch your arms around her waist and hold her stomach tight against yours.

“I,” you say between your rapid-fire kisses, “am, making up, for, every, day, I, missed!”

and on the last word you move in fast as though to peck but suddenly, abruptly, hold yourself a millimeter, a micrometer away from her lips and sense her there against your skin. her tensely held neck, her breath caught in anticipation of the last kiss – you lose track of where she ends and where you begin. the last kiss transforms back into the slow, luxuriating kiss she gave you first, faces pressed togethers and her hands now at your jaw. her palms cup your face, the strength in her grip evident against the sides of your head. if you ever found religion in your time on the face of this earth, you think that its secrets would be mapped across every pore and face of moira vahlen’s face and in the taste of her mouth.

your foreheads touch when the kiss ends, and you two pause there, time hanging patiently aside as you both breathe hard, and then laugh softly against each other there. you’re leaning back against the wall, your feet much further in front than the rest of you, like a sloppy wallsit. your stance is wide, wide enough to let her stand between your aching thighs inside your open stance.

you slip your fingers into the space between the neck of her sweater and her throat and pull down gently, exposing the hot skin beneath to your kiss and your teeth and your tongue, tasting the salt and the bitterness and smelling the sweetness of her in your mouth. her head goes back, and you taste and feel the moan that she gives in your mouth. her hands slide down, clutching weakly at different spots as though she doesn’t know where to leave them.

“commander,” she murmurs weakly as she finally finds a place for her hands against the wall. her arms are flexed tight. they are her last method of support as she melts in against you. “commander.”