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Mao woke up slowly.

He opened his eyes, and wasn’t too surprised to see it was still late, or as the clock suggested- early. Adorabat was snoring peacefully above him, and her soft breathing was almost enough to lull him back to sleep, what kept him awake was that he couldn’t hear Badgerclops’.

Past experience suggested he was getting a late night snack, or playing video games after Mao explicitly told him everyone needed to be rested for morning patrols, and Badgerclops being an adult didn’t exempt him from the rules. Oddly, Mao didn’t feel quite rested himself, or particularly tired. He didn’t remember what time he fell asleep, or how much he slept. He was just awake.

Laying still started to bother him. his fur itched from the lack of movement, and his toes tingled like there was static in them. Looking for Badgerclops was a preferable excuse to staying in bed, and the overwhelming numbness he would inevitably feel if he did, and like a spring he shot up. Something poked his side, and he looked down to see the outline of his book tangled in the blanket under him. He forgot he was reading. After scrambling and pulling at the blanket some, he fished it out, cursing the sticky notes that tore and slipped from the pages. He gathered the colorful paper, and along with the book, slipped them under his pillow to rearrange later. Right now he wanted to get up and move. The itch in his legs was becoming unbearable.

He dragged himself to the edge of the bed, and felt something drip onto the tip of his ear. It wasn’t water bleeding through the ceiling, or a loose pipe dripping. He swiped the liquid from his head and rubbed it between his gloved fingers- it had a jellylike texture, and came from Badgerclops’ bunk. Mao groaned in frustration, don’t eat in bed was another rule his friend ignored, and jam was annoying to get out of whites.

Mao made sure to close the door behind him when he left the room, Adorabat still needed her rest after all.

He looked around the living area and was surprised to see it empty, there was no light from the kitchen, and Badgerclops wasn’t much of an outdoor person, even if it was their front lawn. With no other place to actually look since HQ wasn’t all that big, Mao wondered what he could do with his new found free time.

A round in the dojo was a good use of time, though he’d be lying if he said it actually interested him. Laying down and forcing himself to sleep sounded absolutely awful right now - he could still feel that prickling in his legs. There was of course, one other place to look, though he was hesitant to enter.

Every now and again, rarely, rarer than nights when he couldn’t sleep and Badgerclops couldn’t either, his friend could be heard in the garage of HQ. Tuning the aerocycle, or working on a personal project, Mao could hear him, and right now he could see the light from the hole in the floor. It illuminated the dark house.

He didn’t know what it was about the garage at this hour of night, on nights like this that made it so unapproachable, but there was definitely something telling him it was a place and time for Badgerclops alone, and he wasn’t welcome.

He knew it wasn’t. Badgerclops never asked him to leave, or made any kind of notion he minded his presence ever during the daytime and they were there together . He lingered and prodded his larger friend with questions about what he was doing or what this thing did, or that, and Badgerclops always humored him with answers even if he’d told him already. Then Mao would defensively insist he knew already, badgerclops would hold something up and ask him what it did, and Mao would yell at him, maybe throw it, and sulk in the corner until Badgerclops apologized, laughing the whole time.

Mao’s face felt warm thinking about it. He knew he had a delicate pride, but Badgerclops had the patience and humor to balance it. Balance him. He shook the thought away when he felt his cheeks get warmer.

Going back to bed was better than intruding where he felt he didn’t belong, and mindlessly distracting himself in the dojo was better than both. Yet he couldn’t move. The exit to the veranda was open, as it always was, but he just… didn’t want to go outside. He looked to the sliding poles that led down into the garage that was also always open. Maybe he was tired, maybe he should just go back to bed with Adorabat and pretend like he wasn’t here at all, like he wasn’t scared to go into the garage, or ever felt the warmth in his face.

Yet he moved. Over to the hole, and down the pole. He did it slowly, quietly, and tried to hold his breath when his feet touched the floor, and he saw Badgerclops’ back to him. He was sitting at the worktable, metal arm removed from it’s socket, while his other worked on it. He didn’t know Mao was there, and it was a relief to know he could still leave without being spotted.

He moved one leg forward, but pulled it back when it touched something wet on the ground. Mao bent down to wipe it off, and when his fingers rubbed it, he realized it had the same texture as what dripped onto his head before he left the room. With badgerclops down here, arm off, and goo left lying around, he quickly figured out why his friend couldn’t sleep.

He walked up to his friend still facing away from him, and watched him work. Badgerclops was silently trying to suppress curses as he tugged at the tangling of wires and built up lubricant, his fingers were coated with the purple fluid, and his grip was suffering for it. The table was a mess and badger had only managed to pull out a fraction of what Mao knew was still jammed inside.

“Need help?”

Badgerclops jumped and fell off the chair, hand pressed to his chest like it usually was after a scare from Mao, staining the fur there with purple goo.

“Dude, seriously?”

“Sorry,” Mao answered, and quickly tried to switch back to the subject, pointing to his friend’s mechanical limb still sitting on the table. “Just wanted to know if you needed help.”

Badgerclops sat back down and waved his good hand, accepting the apology, but didn’t answer Mao’s offer. Instead he looked curious, and a little concerned.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

“No.”

“Yeah, me neither. Tried though, just couldn’t get comfortable with all this… gunk coming out of my arm. Then it started to drip everywhere...” badgerclops trailed off, still not giving Mao an answer.

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

Badgerclops didn’t say anything, just shrugged his shoulders. He looked away for a moment, then back to Mao. “just didn’t want to bother you, I guess. I dunno, man…”

Mao knew. He knew exactly why, and he hated why. Badgerclops already apologized, and Mao already forgave him. Not that he needed to, it wasn’t his friend’s fault to begin with. No, what happened at the festival was completely on him.

“Well, I’m awake now, and it isn’t a bother.” Mao patted Badgerclops’ good arm- an order to scoot over, and stood in the space between Badgerclops’ legs to have better access to his detached arm. “Reconnect it, I need you to hold it still.”

“Hey, dude, you really don’t have to-”

“Reconnect it.”

Badgerclops did as instructed, lifting the limb and realigning it’s end with his shoulder socket. It clicked, and he placed it back in front of Mao who got to work immediately. The prosthetics in his gloves made grabbing easier, but his height was proving a problem. The table was fit for Badgerclops’ stool, and not Mao Mao standing on the floor.

Mao placed a foot on Badgerclops’ thigh, and lifted himself to sit on his lap, and cleaning became much easier. Neither said anything about the close position, neither minded. It was something they’d grown accustomed to after years together as pride and awkwardness were replaced by familiarity and companionship. It was practical, and as long as Mao ignored the warmth he felt in his chest, that’s all it would be.

He finished, and grabbed a nearby towel to wipe his gloves on, then another to clean the rim of the arm’s opening, and rub away any lubricant staining the nice steel of the rest of the arm. There was some stuck on the joint of Badgerclops’ wrist, it would cause problems if simply wiped. Mao reached over and grabbed a bottle of cleaning agent, dumping a fair bit onto a new towel, and rubbing at the coagulated gunk. He pressed a hand on the arm to stabilize himself, and scrubbed aggressively at the stubborn clot.

A bit more cleaner and the stain loosened enough to be rubbed away easy. Job finished, Mao was about to give Badgerclops the clear when he noticed his own hand resting lazily in Badgerclops’ much bigger palm- he must have placed it there when trying to get the clot. The metal fingers twitched slightly, sharp tips grazing his gloved ones like they wanted to hold tighter, but didn’t know if they could. Without meaning to, Mao dragged his claws along the open hand, brushing over the many shallow scratches that decorated it. Some Badgerclops got in battle, others while simply trekking through bramble and gnarled trees, some Mao gave him due to his recklessness. When he realized what he was doing, he stopped. Then continued. Then stopped again and didn’t restart.

He didn’t want to turn around, he didn’t want to look at Badgerclops and see what he’s been trying to avoid for too long now. Yet he did. He stared straight at his friend, and couldn’t tell if he was wearing the brave face he hoped he was. God he hoped he was.

“Mao…”

Badgerclops spoke softly, and it made Mao Mao’s ears twitch. He felt those metal fingers close slowly around his hand, and didn’t pull away from his hold. Badgerclops thumbed each finger delicately, turned over the hand in his and pressed gently the palm under the leather glove. Mao still didn’t budge.

With Badgerclops so focused on his glove, Mao felt a little left out from the ministrations. He tried to look elsewhere on badgerclops, but his eyes only trailed down to the spread of purple fluid still left on his friend’s chest. Mao still had a rag in his other hand, and with careful movements, rubbed away the offensive stain. He felt Badgerclops jump slightly, then relax, and continued his cleaning. It had been there a while, and as such started to harden and stick to the hairs, whatever Mao could wipe away he did, then put down the towel. With a now free hand he centered in on one clot still left behind, and plucked at it. It broke off in pieces, and he went back in again and again to make sure every piece was successfully removed. He felt something on his back, and froze, badgerclops’ flesh arm was resting on his hip, warm, and nervously combing through black fur.

Mao got so lost in the feeling he didn’t realize the hardened lubricant was already cleaned away, and he was now just tugging the fuzz on Badgerclops’ chest. The warmth came back full force, in his chest, on his face, and he so badly wanted to bury it in the soft white fur in front of him, but it was also the last thing he wanted to do.

Everything was warm, warm, warm. His hands, his face, his chest, Badgerclops around him was warm, from his body heat to the metal arm Mao had been feeding heat from his own palm. It was hot, too hot, he couldn’t breathe, he needed air. He’s greatly overstayed his welcome in Badgerclops’ lap, and he wanted to get out, jump through and from the waterfall in hopes the water and wind whipping past him on his way down woud cool him off enough before he slams into hard rock. Cold rock. Winter was barely ending, the air was cool at night, and of course the rocks and stone would be cold to the touch. Being buried under freezing rocks sounded much better than being suffocated by pleasant warmth that made him feel guilty for wanting it, and hate himself for enjoying it.

“Mao Mao? Are you alright, man? Mao-”

Mao couldn’t understand him, he was saying something, but what. No someone else was talking now, it came from upstairs. Loud and demanding. He was on the ground, why was he on the ground. The concrete was cool, it was cold. So cold it felt like tiny bugs had crawled into his cape and were biting, eating him alive, but he didn’t care. He wanted to be cold right now.

Someone was talking, then someone else, they were calling him. Asking him something. Adorabat. Adorabat was talking to him. He could see the little blue blur in his vision, but why was she a blur, he was looking right at her.

“Mao Mao!”

“Ye-yeah… ? yes! Yes, Adorabat?” he heard himself say, and the haze the enveloped him felt like it was fading with a distant ring in his ears.

“I said I’m hungry! Are you guys gonna make breakfast?”

Mao blinked some more, trying to clear his head. He needed to get up.

“Yeah, Adorabat, we’ll make you something to eat, just give us a minute,” Badgerclops told her, though she still huffed.

“Aw come on. You two already left me by myself in the room, what were you even doing down here? I was lonely!”

Badgerclops stumbled over what to say. “Uh, we were- um-”

“I was helping Badgerclops clean out his arm!”

Adorabat turned her attention to Mao Mao, who got up and gestured to the mess of purple gunk that still stained the table and floor. The girl made a sour face and stuck out her tongue.

“Oh- oh yeah!” Badgerclops followed up. “You can stay here with us, Adorabat, if you want to help us clea-”

She was already gone. Badgerclops felt pretty good, it was now two for two that he could get Adorabat to flee a room on command. He looked back to Mao Mao, and found his friend on the floor, actually cleaning like he said he would.

“Dude, you don’t actually gotta clean that stuff up, I’ll take care of it later-”

Mao Mao put a hand up. “Now now, Badgerclops. This place is a mess, and if we both get to work we’ll be done with plenty of time for breakfast.”

“Mao…”

“I’m thinking pancakes!” Mao scrubbed the towels he had into the floor, and avoided Badgerclops’ eyes.

“Mao Mao…”

“Blueberry, with some banana to top it off! Adorabat loves Bananas!” he gathered more towels, and struggled to hold the damp ones he already had.

“Mao Mao!”

He stopped his wiping, and dropped everything, sitting hunched over on the floor, still refusing to turn around. Badgerclops only sighed, and Mao Mao knew his anxiety was painfully obvious. He should have just stayed out of the garage.

“listen man, we need to..." Mao really didn't want to listen. Badgerclops sighed. "Dude, do you really want to make pancakes all covered in dust, and goo. Let’s go man, I’ll clean it later.” Mao Mao wasn’t expecting that. “It’s not monster jelly man, it doesn’t taste that good.”

There was silence for a bit as Mao contemplated a million ways to respond. He could go along with it, ignore him, or bring them back to the page Mao desperately wanted to come back to and run from at the same time. Badgerclops was giving him an out, Mao hated being pitied, but right now it was like a lifeline.

He really should have just stayed out.

“No, yeah, you’re right,” Mao finally responded, dusting off his gloves, and stopping himself from doing the same to his legs. He didn’t want gunk in his fur, and there was still plenty of it on his hands. “I’ll go get washed up, you get started on those pancakes.” badgerclops wasn’t as dirty as him, and leaving gave him time to collect himself.

“Alright man, see you in a few.” badgerclops put a fist out, and Mao responded without hiccup, bumping it with his own as he left for the bathroom, eager to wash his gloves of the purple mess sticking to them.

Mao never minded solitude, small spaces, darkness, and silence. They were with him all his life, and he’d developed an enjoyment for them as an adult. Here in the bathroom all were plentiful. He removed his gloves and threw them in the sink, running hot water over them with plenty of soap.

What he could never get used to was what he’d never had before. Comfort, warmth, Badgerclops’ fingers brushing over his much smaller ones, other hand on his hip, almost big enough to fully hold him. Unconsciously he’d been mimicking Badgerclops’ previous movements over his now bare hand, from the gentle touches, to the pressing of his palm to make the claws come out. It wasn’t the same as when Badgerclops did it, but still Mao felt his chest tighten and a pleasant heat spread over his face, and suddenly the bathroom started to feel too small.

He didn’t exactly want to go out and face Badgerclops, who would either act awkward about what happened earlier or go along pretending it didn’t. Mao didn’t know which was worse. Regardless, he’d been in the bathroom long enough. With a sigh of acceptance, he grabbed his gloves from the sink, wiped them off on a towel, and replaced them on his paws.

The others were waiting for him, and so was a nice stack of pancakes.