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so maybe he once thought (of her) then

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On the morning of the fourth day after their escape Peter brings her a meal bar for breakfast. There's still a ton of them in storage, because Aphelion meal bars can withstand anything and remain as nutritionally balanced as they were on day one. Chel is starting to think Aphelion has never produced anything she hates more.

Peter stays while she's eating. Chel looks at him every once in a while and he turns his eyes away, like he's embarrassed. He's been hovering for these past three days. It's almost sweet, a reminder from the better old days. He always used to look over her shoulder in the lab, as if afraid she'd mess up the sample they were working on.

His eyes are guarded, though. Afraid. There is more to fear now than there was back in the lab, given that she almost died (and might die yet, if the wounds did get infected and the wide-spectrum antibiotic doesn't catch whatever was down there, how's that for a prognosis), but it gets irritating after a while. Why is he afraid? He didn't almost die. He…

There's that.

They haven't spoken about it, apart from that short single try that was interrupted by a live gorgon in the lab. Everything about that is still sore and Chel cannot stop thinking about it, like it's an emptiness where an extracted tooth used to be and she's tonguing it in the days after.

There was a live gorgon in the lab. She dreams of it still, almost every night, the way it reared, the way it would have killed her, crystals all through her like that poor dog-thing in the caves. The unlogic of nightmares does not permit her to ever remember that she killed both the gorgon in the lab and the one before.

The night before, she dreamed about being dragged down to the caves, except when Peter let go and cried her name, his voice was inflected like a gorgon's, cold and metallic, and his face was encased in crystal. The things had got him, way before they ever got her. Thinking I killed them doesn't help at all here.

She makes herself eat another bite of the fucking oatmeal-flavored nutritionally-balanced meal bar. Her body needs it. It’s still awful.

"I want to go to the bridge," she says. She can continue her battle with the food somewhere with a view.

"Okay." Peter rises, intending to help her, and suddenly she's sick to the brim of it, of her own helplessness, of having to rely on him to move less than thirty feet from one end of the ship to another, of the way he's carried her most of those three days, the way he's now living on her schedule, going to sleep and getting up nearly a whole shift later than he would on his own, the way he doesn't complain about anything anymore – it's too much.

"I want to walk to the bridge," she says.

He stops. Looks at her. "You shouldn't," he says, a little helplessly. "You'll hurt your leg more."

"I know," she says, vicious.

"Chel –"

"When we get back to Earth, they're going to have to operate anyway." It was easy to get into the latest sick bay files about her. Her leg is not going to heal well no matter what she does, because the break was ugly and then she walked on it, ruining it further. There is no way of fixing it out here in a two-person ship. By the time they're near a hospital all those small errant fragments of bone will have fused to one another.

He keeps looking at her. She thinks she's going to scream if he insists on carrying her, but in the end he sighs and says: "Maybe we have crutches. Please wait a bit?"

They do. Strange that Peter hasn't checked for them so far. Or maybe not strange at all, given that he doesn't think she should walk just yet.

Chel takes them, gets on her one good leg, takes a step, then another. She makes her way to the bridge on her own and he's two steps behind her, a constant shadow. He makes an abortive movement to help her sit, but flinches back when she looks at him.

The space behind the windows is utterly black, the light of the twin stars blotting out everything else in the sky. They're still fairly deep in the gravity well of the system. Another three days until they can engage the mains, get the acceleration that will bring them back to Earth without risking the superstructure of the Adamantine. Another three days of feeling like there's nothing in the world other than the twin stars and the dwarf planet and the Adamantine on its escape vector.

Peter is looking at her.

Chel thinks of the way he said "I killed you" four days ago. The way he bent under the weight of it. The way he probably would not have said anything but I'm sorry if she hadn't said You let me go first.

All those years he has worried about her, vetoing her from any expeditions, and in the end he was the one who let her go. Chel knows it's something he'd never want to face. She doesn't want to face it herself. She likes Peter and always has, never mind his ill-grace about anything social, all his tendency to hover and fret, all the ways he doesn't fit anywhere but his quiet lab back in Aphelion headquarters. He's a good colleague.

And yet.

"So," she says and Peter's face goes still. To his credit he remains right where he's sitting, doesn't try to deflect it, doesn't even cross his arms to try to close himself off from what is coming.

"You let me go," Chel says.

"Yes," Peter says heavily. "I did. I'm so sorry."

"And you never were going to come to get me."

He breathes in and then out, the sound ragged in the small volume of the bridge. His eyes are closed.

He looks pitiful. Chel wants to say something kind. She wants to say: well? She wants to… she doesn't know what she wants any more. There's a sinkhole of he let me go and I killed the gorgons and lived in her heart. That changes things. She waits.

"I thought you were dead," he finally says. "That it killed you. That I had… allowed it to kill you."

Allowed it to kill you. But not I killed you. Not any more.

"That's a yes, then," she says and he flinches.

There's a silence. Chel stares into the dark. Earth is somewhere out there, but not directly ahead and it wouldn't be visible from here, anyway. Two hundred light years and then some is a formidable distance.

She wants to go home.

"Would you have?" Peter asks after a while.

"Would I have what?"

"Come to get me. I'm certain you would have let me go," he says, bleak and certain.

"Peter," Chel says.

"Please listen to me. You should have let me go, in my place. I'm heavier than you. There's no way you could have held on to me without being dragged down as-"

"Shut up!" she snarls.

Peter shuts up. He blinks at her like an owl. Vaguely confused and entirely academic.

"Why are we discussing what I would have done in an imaginary scenario? I don't know. Neither do you. We can't know because we weren't there, because it didn't happen."

He's quiet for so long that she starts to calm again and then he has to say: "It would have made sense."

Chel takes the crutches and heaves herself up. It strains her arms, because she's not used to the crutches and she cannot lean on her bad leg, but there really is no alternative.

"Chel –" he starts.

"No. We're done here."

Chel avoids Peter for the rest of the day, electing to stay in her cabin with her crutches and her screens and her goddamn half-eaten meal bar and her data. There's science to be done, even if the Adamantine's scans only picked up so much and little of it is going to be useful to Axel once Chel adds the neon "native life hostile and extremely dangerous" warning.

Her first mission and it's a disaster. She'll never get out of the lab again.

The next morning she's hungry enough to venture to the kitchenette in search of something that isn't an Aphelion meal bar. There are boxes in the fridge, neatly labeled in Peter's handwriting. Pasta and cheese sauce. Cheese-flavored chemical sludge, probably, but Peter is a good enough cook to make anything taste good. This is no exception.

She can hear him down in the lab. Peter has to hear her, too. He remains in the lab nonetheless, out of shame, out of fear, or maybe finally having gotten a clue, and she's grateful for it.

Things settle down, in a mutually avoidant way. He cooks and leaves leftovers in the fridge, she eats them. She makes the grand simulations, he sifts through the data and etches in all the small details. She makes logs, occasionally he accesses them. It's almost normal, except for all the ways in which it is not. They don't speak. He has no comments about her additions to the reports he writes. For an outsider, her logs would look the same as always, but there's a sunless chasm in them now, an absence of two gorgons and one near-death experience.

Peter reads all the sick bay logs, so he knows she's figured out a way to handle her own cast. That there was no infection and her leg wound is healing. That the bones are healing too, all wrong as she expected them to. She can manage with painkillers and a brace, but it still fucking sucks.

Days pass, then weeks, then a month, and another, and yet another. The bones of Chel’s foot keep healing, or attempting to, and at this point stopping at an outpost hospital isn’t worth what little could be done there. Easier to race towards Earth.

Chel makes a little note about it in the sick bay logs. Peter reads it. They reach the edge of the settled space without decelerating and the scattered frontier outposts fall past the Adamantine like sparks in the endless night.

Chel thinks they might make it. She doesn't want to think about what will happen when they're finally back on Earth. Aphelion will pay for all the belated surgeries she needs, but will it allow her on another ground mission after this one failed so spectacularly?

One morning not too long before the end of the trip she comes to the kitchenette and finds Peter already there.

He's sitting by the fold-out table, cradling coffee in his hands. He looks – kind of like she expected him to look, to be honest. Thinner, paler, older, sadder. The whole package.

"Peter?" she asks.

"Chel," he says. After a while he adds: "I drank all the coffee. Meatloaf is in the fridge, if you want it."

"Too early for that." She gets a package of instant porridge from the cupboard.

"Wouldn't call it early," he says, something like a smile in his voice. It's gone when she looks at him, waiting for the kettle to finish.

"Eleven hundred is pretty early," she says.

"I've been up since five hundred."

"That's obscene."

"No, it isn't. I call it disciplined."

"Disgustingly morning-person-like."

"Is that a word?"

"Is now." The kettle beeps and switches off. Chel pours it over the porridge powder and crosses over to the table. Peter looks at her, out of the corner of his eye. Not much to see, yet. She generally doesn’t start limping before the afternoon.

The table is standard two-person shuttle edition, barely large enough to fit them both. Their knees brush and Peter quickly draws back. Things are… not okay, then. Not on his side, either. He's never been a touchy-feely person, but back in the lab he would not have been so quick about it.

Chel wants to fill the silence with something. She talks when she's nervous, always has, but what the hell would she say? So she swallows it all down and concentrates on her damned porridge.

"Do you want to change labs?" Peter asks a few minutes later. "When we're back."

There it is.

"I want to go to more planetside missions, but not –" not with you. But that'd be too harsh to say, since Peter would never want to do another mission anyway. "– not sure if they'll let me, with that leg. Aphelion is the best at what it does and it doesn't really have another lab like ours, so..."

She didn't answer the question. He does notice it.

"I could quit," Peter says, quietly.

Chel laughs. Peter blinks at her, so she says: "We both know Axel wouldn't let you."

"I could give my notice and walk. What would he do, drag me back physically?" He grimaces. "He would, though. I see your point."

"I think I can manage," Chel says.

"You should not have to manage."

Chel doesn't answer. How very interesting her porridge is this morning.

"The thing is," Peter says and then falters. He draws a deep breath and says: "The thing is that I'm in love with you."

Chel looks up. He's looking at her, earnest and resigned.

"It's not mutual, is it," he says. It is not a question.

It… could have been, once. He's unbelievably intelligent, graceful, handsome underneath that pinched look he tends to default to. Not as charismatic as his brother, but he does have something of Axel's presence, in a colder, more quiet version. Back when Chel first started in Peter's lab she did have to remind herself he was her supervisor. More than once.

Chel looks down, at Peter's hands around his coffee mug and for a split second she remembers how it felt when he let her go.

"No," she says, and then: "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," he says and leans back, eyes closed. "I'm the one who fucked up."

"How long?" she asks.

"Since the Christmas party, your first year in Aphelion. The one Axel made me go to."

"I thought you hated it." Chel had liked the party. Peter, not so much, exactly as could be expected. He had excused himself early and before that he had done nothing but sit in the corner with his glass of water, surly and alone.

"I did. But I saw you dancing and – well."

"So you've been, what, pining after me for years?"

He shrugs, a small self-conscious movement.

"Was that why you vetoed all the planetside missions until I literally went over your head?"

"I… don't know. I was worried about you." He slides his fingers over the handle of his mug. "I have underestimated you for a long time. You killing that gorgon underlined by how much."

"The first one, or the second?"

"The second. I saw that one myself."

"You saw me coming out of the caves."

He hesitates and suddenly Chel thinks she can see energy vibrating under the surface of his skin, all the charm and drive of his brother buried in this quiet vessel. It's – not quite terrifying, because they've been stuck in a tin can together for eighteen months, if he wanted to hurt her he already could have, but it is – unsettling.

"For a while I wasn't sure it was you," he says, very quietly. "I see monsters in the dark, whether they're actually there or not, so… for a while I was afraid one of those things had figured out mimicry."

"What the fuck."

"It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense. Those things were dangerous enough to kill an entire world and I let – I – one of them dragged you into the caves somewhere and then there you were again. I was afraid."

Peter is looking at her. His eyes are almost luminous. Chel is suddenly eerily aware that this is a very small ship and she is a rather small woman and Peter is not. He's only kind of fit, tending towards height and grace instead of muscle, but he's still stronger than her and would have every advantage if it came to – something physical.

"Peter," she says.

He draws back again, closes his eyes again, very consciously relaxes his hands on the table. "It seemed impossible that you had survived. I loved you and I had… I had pretty much killed you and there you were again. So I convinced myself you would have let me go, if our positions were reversed. That it was the logical thing to have done. It – kept me sane, I suppose."

"What would you do if I told you I would not have let go?" she asks. Her throat is dry. "Academically speaking."

Peter’s mouth twists joylessly. Then he smooths out his face. "Academically speaking… then I have been wrong. A coward. I did not make the logical choice." He exhales. Chel wonders if he will take the leap. He does. "Then I – I almost killed you because I was afraid of the gorgons more than I feared for you."

That’s something. A lot, to be precise, and Chel could leave it at that, but she is not feeling merciful. She asks: "Are you still afraid I might be a mimic?"

He shakes his head. "No. A mimic would have allowed the second gorgon kill me. I would be a liability, since I saw what they could do. And my death would have been a good cover for any missteps on Earth. I saw Peter torn apart, I’m not okay, alright."

Chel’s breath catches at his impression of her voice. He’s a baritone and she’s not, but other than that it’s pitch-perfect. She might have said this, in some other world.

Peter continues: "It was a foolish conjecture in the first place. There’s no evidence those things have camouflage abilities. As I said, I see monsters in the dark."

"Okay," she says.

"Academically speaking," he says. "Would you have let me go? I… I suppose I must know."

Would’ve she?

She remembers the cold cave floor again, only this time it's Peter's narrow wrists in her hands, Peter's brown eyes full of mortal terror, Peter's blood on the ground, and her leg is not a mass of pain, but the gorgon is dragging Peter backwards.

He outweighs her by a lot. He said it himself. A rational choice.

Chel is still not sure what she would have done back then. The past is a different country. But the Chel she is now knows that he did let her go.

"Back then, I really don’t know," she says. "But if we were in this situation right now? I would."

Peter sighs. His shoulders slump. Some terrible luminous flame goes out in him, and it’s the opposite of unsettling.

"Thank you," he says.

Chel nods and eats her porridge.

"Can you forgive me?" he asks.

"Maybe," she says. "Not yet."

"Okay," he says.

Neither of them says anything else.

There’s something like an ephemeral peace in the Adamantine. It will have to tide them over for the time being.