No one ever locked the doors to the tiny guest cubicles on Moonbase. In fact, for safety reasons the doors wouldn’t lock although privacy was always respected. The unwritten rule was to knock on a door and wait for a moment before entering. It would have been easy to just walk in, but he respected the rules, and the man, too much to just barge in unannounced as if it was an emergency.
He tapped. No answering voice which meant one of two things; either the room was empty, which was unlikely, or else the occupant was in the bathroom. He opened the door, the single light set to its dimmest, dark shadows pooling in the corners of the tiny bedroom before spilling across the floor. They reminded him of bloodstains. An unnecessary and unpleasant reminder of the last twenty-four hours.
The bed was unmade, the additional blankets, those sole concessions to personal comfort, lay crumpled and askew on the narrow mattress. There was nothing else out of place, no other sign of habitation apart from a black bag on the shelf above the tiny sink and a neat pile of clothes folded on the single chair.
Foster could hear water running in the adjacent wet room. Only a brief shower, the restrictions on resources, even with the efficient recycling systems, were rigidly enforced even for the boss, and anyway the occupant was not someone who squandered his time on trivialities. Paul visualised the scene; Straker washing with quick economic movements, massaging shower gel through his hair, letting the thick suds run down his sparse body, brisk hands rubbing to remove sweat and sleep, and all the time the water pouring down over that blonde hair and the angelic face. He wondered if Straker had already shaved. He hoped not.
The waterfall died away, the pumps ceased their work and, after a moment, the door opened. Straker came out, the fine curls of hair on his chest catching the light. He pulled the towel from around his back to dry his arms and shoulders and gave a single swipe of the thin material over his upper body. He looked up. ‘Foster?’ He took a moment to wrap the towel around narrow hips, his fingers tucking it into place before stepping into that pool of light in the centre of the tiny space.
Paul’s gaze was drawn to the fine tracery of slightly golden hair running down that flat stomach and disappearing beneath the edge of the pale blue towel, the hip bones prominent beneath pale skin. The thought came to him that Straker needed to take more care of himself, maybe gain a few pounds. Even take more than the couple of days’ furlough that was sometimes ordered by Jackson, although that was a rare enough occurrence.
‘Problems?’ Straker waited.
‘Just wanted to check the final details. I’m heading back on the next module in half an hour.’ He glanced in the mirror, averting his eyes from the lean body, glistening with the residue of water droplets, the hair still wet, the thin towel somehow more revealing, more enticing than he had anticipated. Paul was no stranger to seeing Straker like this. It was, after all just one more business meeting and there was no time to spare in waiting for the boss to get dressed. Not after the last couple of days.
‘No changes. Tell Alec I’ll need his report ready when I return.’ Straker opened one of the small drawers, casually tossing briefs and a pair of socks onto the bed. He stepped towards the mirror and Paul retreated a couple of paces to sit on the single bed as the other man ran fingers through tousled blonde hair. Liquid sparkled on the very tips of those damp strands and a stray drop escaped, trickling down one cheek until a casual finger brushed it out of existence without a second thought
Paul’s finger twitched. ‘How long are you planning to stay on?’
‘Depends. Things should be back to normal in twenty-four hours, but I’d like to run a full systems check. Just to be sure.’
‘Good idea.’ Paul stood up. ‘You look tired.’
‘I’ll live.’ As Straker reached across for the black bag, a sharp hiss of discomfort broke the silence. He winced, rubbing his shoulder.
‘Still sore?’ Paul moved closer, one hand outstretched now in support.
‘Just stiff. It’s easing up.’ Straker reached out again, but with a touch of hesitation.
‘You need a massage. That might help. I could…’ Foster shrugged, raising an eyebrow in question.
‘Ask one of the girls?’ Straker stared in the mirror, a skull-like reflection peering back at him from the gloom. ‘I can imagine Joan Harrington’s face. I don’t think she’ll forget that ‘cream and two sugars’ comment for a while.’ He fumbled in the bag, pulling out a razor and a can of gel while hot water filled the sink.
Foster grinned and perched on the edge of the bed again, hands twisting the thin sheet, one fingertip stretching out to connect with the personal items waiting there, on the bed. ‘If looks could kill you’d be …’
‘Dead? She nearly got her wish yesterday didn’t she? But sometimes it’s important to remind people exactly who is in charge. Jackson suggested it; and it worked. Better than the alternative.’ He concentrated on rubbing shaving gel onto his skin. A soft, almost delicate scent. Paul breathed deeply. Relaxed. Straker continued. ‘So. What’s the current status?’ He lifted the razor up to his throat.
‘Damage control?’ Paul waited as the blade slid up Straker’s neck, eradicating the almost invisible growth. Soft bristles, not the harsh coarseness of his own beard. The faintest scrape of the blade. Loose and supple skin left clean-shaven in the aftermath of its passing. There was a slight pulse in the jaw. ‘On target. Should be finished in a couple of hours. Only minor stuff now.’ He watched as the blade traced around that defined jawline, before being rinsed in the hot water. He rubbed his own cheek, regretting his earlier insistence on an electric razor. The sensuous contact of steel on skin. That indefinable smell of soap. Smoothing away the roughness. The touch of a hand towel on freshly shaved skin, patting it dry; such a delicate caress. He shifted his position slightly.
The razor finished its work, water swished, gurgling down the pipe to be cleaned and reused. ‘Good.’ Straker leaned on the edge of the sink instead of turning around, ‘We were lucky this time.’ He took a tube of ointment from the bag, unscrewed the cap.
‘No need to remind me. I’ll try to be more careful in future.’ He frowned at his reflection and then turned away, pulling the towel from his hips and folding it before slipping it over the rail. He opened the tube. Paul bit his lip at the bruises that marred the legs, the buttocks, the lower back.
Straker stood there for a moment, looking at his hands, at the line of ointment on his fingers, then he began to smooth the cream into the worst of the mottled and disfiguring marks down his thighs, twisting to reach those more inaccessible areas, his movements hesitant and cautious.
‘Want a hand?’ Paul’s voice was nonchalant. He swallowed.
Straker handed the tube over without a word, and stood in silence. There was the slightest shivering over his skin, nothing more than a quiver, a tremble, but after all, Paul reassured himself, the room was chilly. No energy to spare at the moment for heating rooms to a comfortable level. Not until all the repairs had been completed. He squeezed ointment onto his own hand, looking down at his fingers as if seeing them for the first time. Large hands, fingers thick and wide compared to Straker’s. He hesitated before reaching out to that pale skin in front of him. The light distribution of ash blond hair over chest and arms and thighs, the triangle of hair trailing down that slender body to …
Then Straker turned around, the long ridge of his spine now facing Paul, wide shoulders that seemed as if they were aching for a caress, a touch. Any touch. Lips, tongue…..
He shook his head, let his finger spread a thin smear of ointment over one of the disfigurements, the whiteness of the medication an obscene contrast to that darkling flesh, so bruised, so damaged. The skin was cool under his fingers and he let his hand lie there for a moment, feeling a quiver of muscles under his touch, aware of Straker’s slow exhalations as the medication eased away soreness, stiffness and memories of pain. Knotted muscles loosened their grip, his back arching just a fraction under the welcome release.
‘Shoulder as well?’ There was a pause, the slightest of shrugs, a mere twitch of muscles. He took it as consent, squeezing more of the medication onto his fingers before smoothing it into the skin, the slight roughness of goosebumps disappearing under the warmth of his touch. He was aware of the man leaning into the contact, a gentle pressure back against his fingers. His hand slid over the top of the joint and then across to the collarbone. A brief grunt of discomfort, of pain, quickly suppressed. A short intake of breath, muscles flinching away from that slight contact. ‘Sorry.’ Paul drew back.
‘No. I’m fine. Carry on. Unless…’
He was more careful this time, his fingers tracing with the lightest touch, grazing over the skin, aware of the closeness of the man standing there in front of him, his own breath falling on Straker’s back, that fine hair curling into the nape of the neck, the curve of one ear. He leaned forward for a last stroke. ‘Anywhere else?’
Straker rolled his shoulder, a tentative movement as if reluctant to test the joint. ‘That’s fine.’ Another pause. ‘Thanks.’
‘No problem. Anything else?’
‘No change. Forbes and Miller are fit enough to return on the next flight with me. Higgins is still in recovery. Won’t be ready to transfer for at least another twenty-four hours. He’ll probably be ready to travel back with you.’ Foster frowned, aware that the information had been sent to the Commander only a matter of minutes ago. Knowing Straker it was probably the first thing he asked on waking up.
‘Good.’ Straker stepped away, reaching out for underwear, stepping into briefs, easing himself into them. A simple everyday act, but Paul was aware of a sudden heat warming his face, a quickening of his pulse. He lowered his head, watching from hooded eyes as Straker dressed, socks covering the almost transparent skin of each slender foot. Then the plain undershirt drawn down, a snug fit over those broad shoulders, before Straker pulled on the lower half of the uniform jumpsuit tugging the roll neck sweater over his head. The younger man heard a hiss of discomfort as arms twisted to stretch down the sleeves. There was the long slow slide of a zip. Cooler now, his equilibrium restored once more, Paul held the jacket out.
‘Thanks.’ Straker slid arms inside, shifted his stance until the jacket was settled on his shoulders. Shoes next, then he slipped phone and gun into place and took one last look around the room. Someone else would be sleeping here shortly until the damaged crew accommodation was habitable. He had left nothing personal behind. He opened the door, heading down the corridor for the control room, well aware that he was not being followed now, a slight smile of understanding, tinged with sadness, on his face.
Foster let the door close behind Straker then he bent down, lifting the crumpled sheet and blankets from the bed to bury his face in the still-warm material. Straker’s warmth. He had slept here, under this sheet, these blankets. That familiar scent filled his nostrils. Faint and musky and masculine. Straker. A forbidden desire, and yet, and yet, the feel of that silken skin, the sound of that voice. …
It was enough for now. It had to be. Maybe one day, though. Maybe.
Until then, he would have to be satisfied with small pleasures such as these.