Dorks and Mutants
“That’s good, Alex; it’s looking really nice now. You’ve cleaned that set of data up, and these diagrams are fantastic now.” Bob was sitting on the sofa in his large, airy, white office, and had just handed Alex back the USB with his paper on, reaching over the name plaque on his desk 'Dr. Robert Wilson, Geophysics'. His white hair was tidy, as ever, and his blue and white checked shirt was only slightly crumpled. Grey-blue eyes wandered vaguely from Alex’s face and up to the clock on the wall. Alex wasn’t paying much attention either. He got the feeling that even if his legs weren’t beyond his control anyway, they’d be jumping in anticipation at that moment. Then Bob said the magic words, “If that’s everything,” and he didn’t really hear what came next about meeting some Americans for a conference.
Alex’s heart had leapt and he grinned, almost bolting from the room there and then. He liked Bob, but today he had other things on his mind. Like Sam coming over. Also, Bob could be truly infuriating at times. Alex’s PhD was more mathematical than geophysical, and Bob was most definitely a geophysicist. They had been at academic loggerheads during the past fortnight about the best way to represent the research and data, and finally, they had reached a truce. “No, that’s everything,” Alex said, stretching his shoulders out with a subtle roll. “Hope the meeting with the Americans goes alright...” He knew Bob’s stance on big oil execs and the dismissive way they often treated academics. He received a soft ‘hmmm’ in response, and smiled. “See you,” he said as he pushed his rims forward and glided smoothly from the office, leg bobbing impatiently on the footplate.
The lift was a long time coming, and he glanced at his watch. He just had enough time to get back home and change out of his rather gloomy black Airtex shirt and into something a bit more lively. Possibly even his geeky NASA t-shirt, with ‘what do you mean you don’t get...’ written above equations for things like escape velocity, thrust, and various orbital calculations.
As he wheeled out into the rain, he wondered why on earth he hadn’t driven to the faculty that morning. When he'd left the apartment, the sky had hardly threatened more than a light drizzle, and he'd fancied the exercise, but now it was falling steadily, and he was going to get soaked if he wheeled all the way home across town in this. Knowing he had to look after himself and avoid getting ill as best he could, he wondered crossly when the next bus would be.
The path to the bus stop was about as exposed to the rain as it was possible to get, and his jeans were already soaking up the water as he neared the stop. He cursed in frustration as he just glimpsed the tail lights of the green bus that would take him into town pulling away from the stop. Angrily spurring himself on, he shot as smoothly as a skimming stone across the waterlogged courtyard from the Earth Sciences department to the pavement, but it was already fifty yards down the road by the time he got there. The timetable informed him that the next bus to arrive was going somewhere else, and the one after that was in forty-five minutes’ time. “Bollocks,” he swore. Weighing up his options, he fished for his phone and dialling the familiar number from memory.
“Hey, Will,” he said sheepishly. “So... it’s still pissing it down, and the next bus into town isn’t for another half an hour...”
Will had already caught on, and Alex heard the shuffling of shoes being put on and a coat being grabbed.
“Sam’s coming over at two thirty, otherwise I wouldn’t ask...”
“Don't worry about it,” Will said. “Your timing is perfect - I was heading out in a few minutes anyway to go to the John Lewis pickup point. The new TV is there and ready to pick up. I can pick you up en route as well.”
Alex smiled, trying not to feel like a bit of hardware that needed picking up too because he was glad not to be the only reason to drag Will out of the flat on such a foul day.
Watching Will wrestle the enormous new flatscreen up the stairs was hilarious. Alex’s deep laugh boomed all the way up the stairwell as he waited at the bottom for Will to stagger up with the unwieldy box in his hands.
“Should have taken me up on the offer of my private cargo lift,” Alex chortled as Will got another few steps in before the box began to slither sideways again.
“It’s not heavy,” he complained, “Just bloody enormous...” He grunted something else which Alex didn’t catch, and set off again.
When Will was no longer in danger of dropping their small cinema screen on his head, Alex made the transfer to the stairlift and grasped the bar at the back of his chair, lifting it up beside him with a sharp exhale, gripping it, and the seat of the stairlift, tightly as he inched up the stairs.
He’d spent the past two days in his chair, encouraging his legs to relax and recover a bit after crutching so far around the grounds of Anglesey Abbey, doing some gentle physio exercises as well, but he still didn’t feel quite ready to go tall again. They had been gently spasming on and off all day. Hoping it wouldn’t put her off, he decided to stay in the chair. After grabbing a banana in the hope that the extra potassium would help, he dashed to the bathroom to do a final cath and take his afternoon meds, before heading back out into the living room, making a pit stop at his room to change shirts on the way. He glanced down at his stomach as he ripped the Airtex off his shoulders, and wondered if she would mind the way it melted from fairly solid into the softer, slightly rounded lower belly right above his jeans. Who knows if it'll ever even get that far? he thought sadly as he stuffed his head and arms into the NASA t-shirt.
The Swiss station clock had scarcely ticked two o’clock when the buzzer rang. Her voice sounded a little distant in more ways than one as she said, “Hey, it’s Sam. Can you let me in?”
“Just push,” he said, pressing the button to release the door.
Her soft tread on the stairs made his heart beat faster, and he ran his palms nervously down his jeans, bumping over the straps of his KAFO’s beneath. With the braces supporting his legs, he felt a bit less self-conscious about the thinness of his thighs and calves. They weren’t skin and bone, and he did have some sensation and a tiny degree of movement, but still, they weren’t exactly Chris Hemsworth’s legs or anything.
His hand was actually shaking a little he noticed, as he reached to open the door before she got to it. He couldn’t wait to see her, after all the unnerving minutes with Rachel, after all the doubt and the memories, he just wanted to hold Sam, to indulge in the blissful present, not the awkward past.
She was just walking through the gloom on the top of the landing as he swung the door open, the soft light from the apartment defining her figure in the dark like pale chalk on a black page. She had drawn back her luxurious hair into that incredible, thick braid which seemed to grow like a knotted sea serpent from her hairline and then weave and twist all the way back over her head and down to a little scorpion-tailed point somewhere in the middle of her back. It was wet and dark, with copper strands laced through it, and he immediately imagined undoing it, working his fingers through the heavy strands to loosen it up and send it quivering and trembling around her shoulders. He swallowed, smiled, and pulled back to let her in, offering a shy, “Hey,” in greeting as he did so.
“Thanks,” she smiled back. The front of her jeans were stained dark with rain, and her face was covered in diamond droplets. She shivered, slithering out of her waterproof jacket and looking for somewhere to hang it.
“Here,” he said, extending a hand and taking it from her. "Come in and warm up."
She thanked him and crossed the room, leaving a trail of raindrops behind her as she walked away from him. No, come here, I need to hold you, but she was already on the other side of the room, where Will was buried in a corner surrounded by the wreckage of all the packaging. “New TV?” she asked, standing in front of it with her arms wrapped protectively around her body. “It’s gorgeous...” Will’s response was muffled by half a ton of cardboard, Sam smiled, asking, “Sorry?”
He emerged, red-faced and slightly short of breath from behind the screen, and said, “It is gorgeous. My only worry is that now all we’ll see on it is Alex playing Fallout and GTA...”
She laughed, relaxing her hunched shoulders a little more. “I can think of worse uses. My mother probably would have Celebrity Master Chef and Strictly Come Dancing in HD on there all day. Think yourself lucky. At least the music for Fallout is awesome.”
Will shot a quick look at his little brother sitting in his chair behind Sam. Alex put both hands over his heart, and then blew a cartoonish and silent kiss at her back, like a comedic Italian in love, before letting his hands fall back into his lap.
Will could not keep the smirk from his face, and Sam turned round slowly with a curious frown on her face, catching Alex's burning, adoring eyes on her. Embarrassed, he offered her a drink, hoping to distract her from that look. He didn’t think either of them was ready to hear aloud quite how quickly he was falling for her.
By the time the tea was brewed, Will had plugged all the appropriate wires and cables in, and the TV was all set up and configured. “What other games do you have then?” she asked Alex as Will stood perspiring slightly and leaning casually in the doorway of the living room.
A snort emanated from Will’s direction, and she grinned, turning to him as he said, “What doesn’t he have...? We could open a small store with the number of games he's got.”
Alex blushed. “Now, that’s not entirely fair, Will,” he said slowly and evenly, grinning like a parent having trouble telling off a small child. “Who was it that was playing Borderlands until two in the morning like a first year undergrad the other night?”
“Shut up,” Will snapped playfully. “Which one of us keeps tally of his kill-score on Fallout?”
He grinned, and it widened further as Sam asked, chuckling as the brothers bickered fondly, “Three? New Vegas?”
It was Will’s turn to laugh this time, and he said, “Alex, if this girl isn’t perfect for you, I don’t know who is. I’ll let you get on with your afternoon, and if I hear the sounds of muties and geckos dying in about half an hour, I’ll know he’s showing off for you...”
Her peal of laughter seemed to shake the last shades of lingering trouble from her body. “Maybe I’ll be showing off for him,” she said flirtatiously as Will left the room.
Her remark, and those deep, dark eyes, simply knocked the breath from him. Struggling to regain his composure, he set himself up for a push across the room with his tea. He couldn't afford to wedge it between his thighs, not with something as hot and tricky as a mug of freshly made tea, so he wheeled backwards to the edge of the kitchen, gave his rims a single push. Then, as he rolled casually past the low counter, he deftly picked up his mug with his right hand, guiding the chair’s direction and speed with his left, until he came to a perfect stop in front of the coffee table and set it down without a drop having been spilled.
“Wow,” she murmured. “Pretty skilled.”
He laughed, more nervously this time. Her comment revealed just how aware she was of his disability, and even though it was meant as a compliment, it made him uneasy for an instant. Hoping his smile wasn’t as watery as it felt, he said, “Just one of the little tricks you learn...”
She poked the tip of her tongue cheekily between her teeth and smiled. “Got any more to show me?”
Sam was openly and blatantly flirting with him, using his disability as a vessel to do so. This was something entirely new for him. “Well," he said uncertainly, "This one’s always a classic,” and he tipped backwards into a confident wheelie. “Never fails to give Will hives when I do this...”
Her grin widened, flashing white teeth and dark eyes. “Yeah, I can kind of see why.” She brought her mug over and walked around the coffee table, hips swaying in the most seductively understated way he’d ever seen, and sat herself down amid the cushions on the sofa. He watched, strangely transfixed, as she lifted her ankle up to her knee and took her short boots off, delicately unzipping them and sliding them off her feet.
She looked up and again, and it was unmistakably clear that she had registered his intense gaze scanning her face and figure. He flushed. “You’re really beautiful, you know that?” he blurted impulsively.
Her eyes widened, and her lips parted. Could she really be that surprised at the compliment? Colour darted over her cheeks and she looked away, muttering something.
“Sorry,” he said, with a soft laugh. “Nothing makes a conversation stall like a gushing compliment. For someone who can hardly move his legs, I’m really good at putting my foot in it. For what it’s worth though, I meant it,” he added, taking a sip of his tea. “Anyway, tell me about London and save me from my embarrassment, will you?”
She placed her palm down on the empty cushion next to her, leaving it there in clear invitation. “Only if you come and join me.”
A little reluctant to let her see him transfer - as if she needed a second reminder in about as many seconds that he couldn’t use his legs - he wheeled to the end of the sofa, feeling his heart clanging like a steelworks inside his ribcage. Praying that this wouldn’t be the one time in a hundred when he fucked up a transfer, he leaned his left hand out, lifting his legs roughly off the footplate with his other as he did so, trying to be as quick and perfunctory as he could about the whole thing, disregarding the rippling spasms in his thighs from the way he’d chucked his legs out like excess ballast, and he swung himself over, plonking his weight down next to her. With a last reshuffle of his feet, a brief lift to make sure his spine was nicely stacked, he glanced up at her face, praying it wouldn’t be looking at him like he’d just crawled at her like a mummy from a tomb. That was how he had often described the looks he got as people recoiled from him, afraid of his flopping legs and the squat and darkly formidable rigid frame wheelchair.
Sam was still smiling though. In fact even her eyes smiled, and something seemed to be burning away in the back of her irises, like a furnace had been lit in each. The look she wore, Alex would have said, was the outward expression of what had been going on inside him when he'd opened the door to her and had seen her hair wound up in that braid. “London was really good,” she said, twizzling the tail of the plait absentmindedly through her fingers and finally looking away. “We went up on the train, and got there just in time for the matinee, and I mean just...! It was so close - the train was delayed by about twenty minutes at Cambridge, and then the Tube was so full that we couldn’t get on the first one that came... and yada yada yada, it was all very stressful...” she waved her hands animatedly and he felt something stirring inside him, the embers re-kindled by her tiny hands. He could see that this was truly what she was like: open, friendly, vivacious; this was the real Sam. He did sometimes catch glimpses of a ghost from her past, flitting through her eyes like a spectre across the dark panes of an abandoned house. It gave him the strangest feeling to think that despite whatever she clearly still suffered from inside, she was instinctively opening herself up like this and letting him see her. Maybe he did have a shot with this girl after all? He mused on that, and his mind warped back to looking down at his broken lower body, and wondered why it didn't seem to bother her. Sam, in the meantime, was rabbiting on about the show and the masterful puppetry, unaware of his swirling thoughts.
After a while, when she had finished telling him all about London and the meal, she winced a little and rolled her shoulders backwards in a way that was all too familiar to Alex. He flashed her a questioning frown.
She smiled ruefully and said, running her palms down her quads too, “It’s my own stupid fault,” she admitted. “As you know, I went to taekwondo on Sunday, but I didn’t really stretch properly when I got home like I usually do because we all went to the pub straight after training, and then I went for a run with Dan this morning in the rain. It was good fun, but getting wet on the way over here was my second soaking of the day and I'm starting to seize up a bit now...” she twisted her plait through her fingers again like a whip. She laughed softly and added, “A nice hot bath tonight would probably do me some good!”
Thinking how beautiful she’d look as she sloughed off a bathrobe before stepping into the steaming water, Alex swallowed again and said, “Come here,” telling her with a gesture to turn around where she sat on the sofa.
To his mild surprise, she obliged quite naturally, turning her back on him, tucking her legs up and crossing them on the sofa cushion like a Buddha on a lotus leaf. He raised his hands to her shoulders and gently sought her permission with a warm, light squeeze. She turned her chin slightly and gazed at him out of the corner of that conker-brown eye, lashes curling upwards, thick and dark. Then she was gone, her head facing forwards, plait disappearing forwards over her shoulders. He worked his thumbs gently into the muscles along her shoulder blades, manipulating the joints and encouraging the muscles to let go. She groaned and sighed softly as he dug out the tension. He knew where all the tightest knots would be, and knew perhaps better than anyone how to work them loose. He relished this unexpected closeness to Sam; an added another dimension to 'getting to know her'. Now, tactile and tight beneath his fingertips, he had a 3D form to his essentially 2D mental image of her. Her body felt incredible: tight and small; tough, wiry and yet somehow soft and infinitely vulnerable. Rachel had always been soft, almost sugary, he thought, but Sam was made of stronger stuff. He fought the urge to loop his arms over her shoulders, running his hands over her collarbones and down to her small breasts, drawing her up into his huge arms. She probably wouldn’t thank him for overstepping that mark just then.
After ten minutes or so of kneading, he eased up, finishing with a tender pulse of his palms against her skin. She seemed to be in a kind of stupor, but after a few seconds, she sighed deeply, rolled her shoulders back towards him and breathed, “Ah, that feels amazing.” She grinned, swinging her legs back down, “Thank you. You’re really good at that...”
Her cheeks were tinged with pink as she looked up at him, and he couldn't help but grin. “You’re welcome. I know what works for me; wheelchairs and crutches aren’t exactly kind to shoulders...”
Sam had moved closer to him when she’d shuffled around to face him, her legs still crossed in the small space between them, and they sat like that, chatting animatedly, for the next half an hour or so. She talked about everything from a muddy archaeological dig she'd been on in Wales over the Easter break to a new BBC detective drama that Dan had got her into, and she listened with avid interest as he later told her about NASA’s latest mission that he’d been following on some website, and while explained a little of his PhD research to her, Sam asked questions every so often. Her wide eyes fixed his own to their glittering surface like adoring telescopes fixed on a new and beautiful planet, and Alex found himself fighting the urge to lean forward and pull her into a fierce kiss. Added to her interest in dorky thinks like gaming and her intelligent intrigue about areas she had no knowledge of, like physics, was the fact that she was oblivious to her sensuous looks, and that made her even more intoxicating.
Sam said, when he'd finished a rant about taking hours to get some results to plot on the cluster at work, eyes glinting mischievously, and said, “Must be nice to get home after all that and play GTA or something...” she eyed the games on the bookshelf behind the sofa. “I bet you’re itching to see what they all look like on your new HDTV...”
“You mean you are?” he bounced back playfully.
“Me?” she grinned, her face ringing with feigned innocence. “Of course not, I just thought you might like to, that’s all...”
Alex felt a laugh ripple out of him in a deep, booming rumble; the kind that catches the laugher unexpectedly and clears away the cobwebs to leave only pleasure and clarity in its wake. “Sure. Which one do we reckon then?”
“Skyrim would be pretty good for testing detail...”
He shuffled his backside along the sofa to be nearer to his chair, balancing his weight precariously for a moment on the very front edge of the sofa cushion, before he extended a hand for the seat of the chair and heaved himself across with a slight grunt. He wasn’t sure if Sam’s eyes were on him, and he wasn’t about to stop to check as he rolled himself behind the sofa, wheeling easily down the narrow corridor of space between the bookshelf and the back of the sofa. He drew out a choice of games – Skyrim, the original Fallout, GTA and Borderlands – and took them over to the TV. The PlayStation whirred into life, and he inserted the disk, pushing his rims backwards to wheel a little further away from the screen.
The controller felt very familiar in his hands - how many hours had he wiled away on days where his legs were too uncooperative to go to the gym, and how damned good did it feel to immerse himself so completely in the game that he almost believed he was the one running, ducking, diving, leaping, parachuting, whatever, and not the one with the broken body in a wheelchair? He knew it was as much a cliché as the fat kid playing COD in his mother’s basement, but still, he let himself be one. This was one of his cathartic activities, like gazing into the pages of his 'blue five minutes' album. As he fired up the game, he recalled Will’s worries at how playing an able bodied character would affect Alex’s mental recovery after the accident. Rachel had been the one to stand up for him, encouraging him just to do whatever he wanted. He’d blessed her silently when he’d overheard her hissing exasperatedly at his brother, “At least he’s interested in something, Will. Let him be for now.” Banishing thoughts of Rachel yet again, he glanced almost guiltily back at Sam who sat quietly gazing around their apartment, and he returned to the sofa. He couldn’t face another transfer though, and stayed in the chair once he'd drawn up beside the sofa. Sam scooted up to his end of the sofa to sit near him and laughed as he started to pick the most ridiculous combination of features he could find for their new character.
The TV was pretty fantastic, but Sam’s enjoyment was a million times better.
“No, shout first, then use the knife!” she cried, gesticulating wildly with her tiny hands.
“Here,” he said, laughing, “You do it then!” and he pressed the controller into her palm.
“No pressure then,” she said, her fingers curling around its contours as she flashed him a mischievous grin. “Right...” She leaned forwards on her elbows, pressed her teeth into her lower lip, the rosy cushion darkening under their pressure, and he wanted to kiss her more than ever as she raised her arms in the air in triumph a few minutes later after slaying several attackers.
Leaving their ugly avatar standing on somewhere on a road in Skyrim, Sam turned her gaze from the screen to his face. “Did I pass the test?” she asked, her eyes dancing and still full of mischief as they stared directly at him.
Her mouth hitched even higher, her grin broadening with his confusion - he even pictured the graph line rising exponentially in direct correlation, but that picture evaporated as he found that she was rising from her seat, stepping forward, bent low, controller still in hand, and was planting a long, steady kiss on his lips.
“Oh that test,” he laughed when she pulled away. She stood back a little, but stayed right in front of him and he had to shake himself to stop his eyes from boring into her face like a laser, strengthened by the force of a thousand questions and insecurities.
“Well, don’t leave me hanging...” she murmured, her own eyes now looking a shade unsure.
He sighed and looked down, shaking his head a little. “Sam, you...” Don’t get too heavy, he thought as his voice caught in his throat. “Yes. Not that there was ever a test, but yes, you passed it. That, and about a thousand others.”
“A thousand other non-existent tests?” she laughed, her shoulders dropping in relief. She leaned down again, bracing herself on his bulky shoulders, and pressed another kiss onto his scarred and slightly parted lips.
“Exactly.” He got the feeling that he had yet to pass all of her tests, but he seemed to be doing ok so far. Somehow.
How could she possibly be having quite this much fun? It didn’t seem real. Even when she leaned in and pressed her lips against his, it still felt like she was dreaming. Is this what it’s like to fall in love? she wondered as her insides hopped and skipped like a pack of exuberant wallabies.
He looked at her piercingly for a moment, an intensity in his gaze that was almost too painful to bear. Then those beautiful lips of his parted again and he stammered quietly, “So I guess... I mean... does this... are we...?” His dark eyes were darting uncertainly to and from her face. It was adorable.
Her heartbeat hammered in her ears. Come on, she thought, knowing what his question really was, say it.
“Is it too archaic to ask you to be my girlfriend?” he finally said, his dark eyes glassy and wide with apprehension as they lingered a little longer this time. She noticed, and not for the first time, that he had a slight accent, only audible when he said certain consonants. Scottish maybe?
Wondering what the story there could be and whether, like so much else about him, she would ever find out, she shook her head, even before she had really registered the actual content of his question. “No, it isn’t,” she reassured him. “It’s just right.”
Sam looked down at him, sitting in his chair, and felt suddenly, unexpectedly, that he was just out of reach. The wheels of his chair, and the fact that he was sitting down, were preventing her from doing what she wanted to do; from getting as close to him as she physically could and clasping herself to him. Would she hurt him if she sat on his lap? Would he break?
As if responding to her thoughts, he swivelled around on the spot ninety degrees so that the flat expanse of the wheel of his chair was facing her. She frowned, confused. With a grin, he twisted his torso round to the side and placed both his palms on her hips. “Good,” he said, “Because there’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. Come here.” With surprisingly gentle strength, he turned her around 180 degrees like a dancer turning a partner, and gave a single tug at her body, and it crumpled, knees buckling as the rims of his chair met the back of her legs, and she folded neatly onto his lap.
Soft spasms rippled through his thighs beneath her, but his swift kiss drew her whole and entire attention away from everything else. A quiet fierceness burned behind his gesture, and she felt her own body responding with a deep, insistent warmth. She looped her arms up around his neck that was strong as a python against her weight as she urgently pulled him into her answering kiss. The PlayStation controller dropped from her fingers back onto the sofa.
“Sam,” he breathed, breaking them apart, his eyes gleaming quietly. “You...” he couldn’t seem to finish.
“Yeah, you too, Alex,” she replied, feeling the cheeky grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. “You too.” And they both sighed a happy laugh.
The background music on the PlayStation changed jarringly after a few seconds, and both their heads snapped around instinctively. Laughter erupted simultaneously from both of them as they realised their goofy reaction to the ‘danger/combat’ music, and Sam broke free of his arms and leapt to her feet to retrieve the controller, giggling. “I can’t let the ugliest character in all of Skyrim perish now! Not after I’ve only just saved him... her... it... whatever… from those bandits!”
She was on her feet as she engaged the first attacker. She suddenly felt the pressure of Alex’s hands on her hips again, and as she felled the first foe like a cut tree, she found that her own body was falling backwards as well, and she landed with a soft 'flump' in his lap. “Come here so I can learn the secret to your gaming success,” he whispered in her ear, his voice low and softly rasping.
His comment should have been innocuous enough, but she was certain that he would hear the way her heart galloped in her chest, suspended but still scurrying, like Muybridge’s moving horse images, and she almost held her breath. His touch was electric, and she loved it, but with the electricity came the shock; that shock was the jolt of remembered panic, and impending pain. Each time it darkened her mood, even her heart, for an instant, but soon seeped away like a tear on baked desert mud.
Alex seemed to sense her body tensing up and he said, “Too much?” indicating with a single squeeze of his fingers what he was talking about.
“I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I’m sorry, that’s such a crap answer.” She paused the game and leaned back into him, her head coming to rest on the right side of his neck and shoulder. Guilt flared as he tried briefly to look at her before realising she was beyond his field of vision. She thought back to what he’d said in the round garden about his damaged sight in that eye, but she felt safe from his curious gaze there for a moment, like a small boat in the lea of a harbour wall.
He huffed a laugh, soft and deep and full of feeling. “I’m the master of giving crap answers; don’t worry about it. Just tell me if I do something you’re not ok with.”
I'll have to tell him soon now; otherwise it's just ridiculous. “Likewise,” she murmured as she felt her hand twitch impulsively, and realised how much she wanted to run her hand up his slender, numb thigh right then. She nearly snorted bitterly as she realised how unfair it was that she wanted it all to be on her own selfish terms: the panic only came when he went a step further than she was expecting. “You want to swap and play Fallout or something for a bit?” she asked to distract herself.
His brows furrowed questioningly. “It’s a single player game though.”
“Well, I play and you direct, or the other way round...?” she suggested, wriggling her weight slightly to get comfy. As she did, another spasm pulsed beneath her, longer this time, and she asked, “Are you ok with me sitting on you?”
He gave a roguish grin and said in mock alarm, “My god, what have you done? I can hardly feel my legs!”
She thumped him hard, smack bang in the middle of his chest, and he laughed harder as she whispered, "You beast."
“No, you’re fine there, as long as you’re ok," he said, still whickering his husky laugh like a horse. "My bony legs can't be all that comfortable though." He shifted his weight beneath her using his hands on the rims of his chair to shuffle them both a few inches above the thick cushion of his chair. As he tensed up, the muscles juddered and she began to find them intriguing rather than unnerving. They dissipated as he lowered himself back down.
“I'm good," she reassured him. "Let’s play then,” she said.
He pushed over to the PlayStation, biceps working hard to push them both, even on the ice-rink floor, and she inserted the new disk. While the logos and loading screens took their lazy time to play, she nuzzled her back against his chest, choosing the left hand side this time, even though it didn't feel quite as natural for her spine to go that side. Sam suddenly smiled like all her birthdays and Christmasses had come at once. When she was directing the attention, saying how much, and when, it felt fine - considerably more than just 'fine' - but she couldn’t help wondering whether she would ever stop being blind-sided by the fogging panic any time he went a step further than she was expecting. Only time will tell, I guess. Time was one thing she was more than willing to give to Alex.
Well over an hour of raucous laughter and exploding radioactive mutants later, her phone rang and she hopped up off Alex’s lap to answer it, handing the controller to him and excusing herself with a silently-mouthed ‘sorry’.
Her mother’s voice on the other end sounded distant and slightly wobbly. “Hi sweetie, just wanted to see how you’re holding up.” Her words sent a tsunami of guilt through Sam’s whole body. Here she was with Alex having the time of her life, laughing so hard that tears squeezed from her eyes, and so soon after her grandmother’s passing.
“I’m fine,” she said her elation deflating audibly. “I’m doing really well. I'm sorry I haven't rung in a while...” Something big blew up on the screen, and Alex looked sheepish as he turned the volume down. A ray of late afternoon sunlight caught his black hair and his left eye. Forcing herself to listen to her mother’s next question, she said, “Hmm? Oh, I’m just relaxing, playing Fallout, you know...” somehow she didn’t want to add to her mother’s emotional burden with the news she had a boyfriend for the first time in four years, or that he was disabled.
“That’s nice, is that with Dan?” she asked.
Oh fuck, now what? she cursed, knowing she had unwittingly walked straight into that one. “Um... we also went for a really good run in the rain, down to Grantchester and back.” She hoped her mother wouldn’t notice her bizarrely-worded reply.
“You be careful with all that running,” her mother warned. "I know what you're like."
“I will. I’m always careful... well.. pretty much always careful.”
“Don’t push yourself too hard.”
“I won’t, don’t worry.”
“I can’t help worrying, Samantha,” her voice had grown slightly shrill. “I’m your mother. I’m supposed to worry.”
“I know. I love you too.”
There was a slight ‘hurrumph’ from her mother and she said, “So we’ll be coming up for graduation on the twentieth; is there anything you want from home?”
“Not that I can think of right now,” she said.
Their conversation ran on for a little while, but eventually it petered out. She reassured her mother that she really was fine, made her pass the phone to her father and told him to look after her mother, and then said her goodbyes and hung up, turning to Alex. “Sorry about that,” she said.
He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. How’s she doing?”
Sam made a side-to-side movement of her head and said, “I’m not sure. I think she’ll be ok, but she’s pretty shaken up still.”
He held out his hand, pausing the game, and said, “Come here.” She took his outstretched hand, feeling once again the rough patches on his palm. She turned his hand over as though reading his fortune there and traced the callouses with her fingertips. Glancing briefly at his face, she saw his eyes roll shut and a soft smile bloom on his lips. "Do they hurt?" she asked, pressing her thumbs into the roughest areas.
Eyes still closed, he said, "Not really. I used to wear gloves to stop them going like course grade sandpaper, but I kept losing them. I don't bother now..."
She continued to run her thumbs in circles around the surface of his palm, working her fingers gently between the delicate bones on the underside as well.
When he opened his eyes again, his voice was husky as he said, “That feels so good.”
She dug her thumbs into his palm one final time and he exhaled a short sigh of pleasure. Knowing now that she could return his earlier favour, she ran her hands up his arms to his shoulders, savouring the tight bands of muscle like sculpted marble. Beneath the geeky t-shirt, the muscles of his shoulders were fused and solid as concrete. When she gave the patch beside his shoulder blade a squeeze, he moaned, “Oh… damn that’s good.” She smiled, glad there was something she could do for him. Without any physio training, she was reluctant to start pushing and pulling around the joint, but she had been giving her mother shoulder massages for as long as she could remember. She’d also got a rough idea from his incredible massage earlier of what he liked. As she ground the lumps and twanging muscles down into vague submission, she glanced forward over his shoulder at his face and then down at his subtly bobbing knee. Was that just the way his jeans were folded slightly at the very top of his thighs, or was that something else? Is he capable of that? she wondered, surprised to be thinking about going that far with him already. He moved his hands slightly where they lay in his lap, and his shoulders immediately rose, tightening up again like a startled animal or something. “Did I hurt you?” she asked, her fingers pausing, her mind thinking he might have felt what she'd just glimpsed.
“Huh? What? No,” he blurted in quick succession. “Listen, I’ll be right back. That’s fantastic though,” he said, rolling his great shoulders appreciatively. “Thank you.”
He released the scissor brakes of his chair and pushed away from her towards the door that led to the bedrooms. Alex’s room was visible from the open door of the living room, but he turned left, making instead for what she guessed must be the bathroom, which did a little more to convince Sam she might have underestimated his ‘capabilities’. The thought of seeing him that way gave her a buzzing heat between her thighs and all her favourite mental snapshots of him came flashing unbidden across her mind in rapid frame: the first time she’d seen him in the UL cafe; their coffee date when he’d told her he taught the first year maths module to undergraduate scientists – what was it about him teaching that was just so incredibly hot?; the rhythm of his slow crutching at Anglesey; his face when she’d kissed him after their cinema date; and then the image of him doing a transfer to the car shot across her mental canvas, which surprised her, but not as much as the intensifying, flaring heat inside her. He was undoubtedly gorgeous - dark eyes, dark hair, chiselled cheekbones, strong jaw, steel arms, firm chest, dashing scar, but was it really normal for her to find these supposedly ‘weaker’ places just as attractive? Deciding it didn’t matter, and that she wasn’t going to think herself into a corner, she worked her fingers into her plait, unweaving the damp strands so that they fell around her shoulders like the curtain of a weeping willow.
Alex had felt so blissfully happy as she’d set to work on his shoulders that he didn’t recognise that other, distinctly different kind of happiness. He had moved his hands to ease a pocket of tension in his left shoulder, and to his absolute astonishment, swiftly followed by embarrassment, he’d discovered that he’d actually risen under her touch. Excusing himself and bolting for the bathroom, he heaved his jeans down a bit and could barely believe his eyes when he saw the hardon she’d given him. Admittedly it wasn’t all that hard, but it was definitely on. He knew his movement and sensation was unpredictable, but this happening was supposed to be about as unlikely and unexpected as finding a species of moose on the moon. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and attempted to get his upstairs brain to think about anything other than what Sam would look like without clothes on, rubbing his tired and burning shoulders, working her way down his back, hands maybe even slick with massage oil... fuck, Alex, stop it, he chided himself. He let his eyes wander around the bathroom trying to distract himself from her. The end of a fresh cath packet was just visible, poking out, trapped in the door of the cabinet beneath the sink. Seeing the cogs and gears of the mechanics of his disability certainly started to bring him down again. Mercifully, his downstairs brain didn’t have even a fraction of the stamina it had used to have, and it soon gave up, calming down and lying limp and innocent against his thighs. The whole thing had barely lasted more than a couple of minutes. With his jeans back up and both his brains back on track, he made his way back out to the living room, the only evidence of the whole event being the flush in his cheeks and the badly-concealed grin on his face.
His breath caught in his throat when he saw her damp hair flowing around her shoulders like a pre-Raphaelite sorceress. He glanced at the clock out of habit as he passed it and saw that it was nearly six. They’d not heard a peep out of Will all day, and Alex knew he’d still be tying himself in mental knots in his room. “You want to stay for supper?” he asked, coming closer to her, breathing in the slight flowery scent that her hair seemed to be giving off in an intoxicating cloud. Definitely a sorceress, he thought fondly.
“I’d love that, but Dan and I are cooking for his parents tonight, so I can’t. Looking forward to tomorrow though,” she added.
“Me too,” he said, finally releasing a lopsided grin. “I’ve had fun today.”
“I hope I haven’t kept you from your PhD work,” she said, absentmindedly swaying her hips slightly where she stood, clearly unconscious of the devastatingly seductive habit.
He shook his head, swallowing. “No, today was the perfect reward for finishing a chunk of work for a paper I’m writing.”
“Well, just say if I’m taking up too much of your time - I don’t want to distract you from it.”
“You are rather distracting,” he teased as she shoved her ankle boots back on. She looked up, hurt for half a heartbeat, so he mumbled, feeling his cheeks turning pink, “It’s more of a blessing than a distraction though. I have a tendency to work until Will comes in and tells me I have to stop...”
She laughed, straightening up. “I’m glad I can help then.” She reached to get her coat from where it lay over the radiator, and when she had threaded her arms through the sleeves, she pulled the collar up around her neck, burrowing into it and saying, “Mmm, it’s so warm!”
He glanced out of the window and saw the diamond rivulets that the rain had traced down the panes. “You want me to drive you home? It’s still raining...”
She nibbled her lower lip and then said, “No, I should be fine. It’s not far by bike, and I can always dry out at the other end. Thank you though.”
"Fair enough," he said. As practiced as Alex was by now at transferring from chair to car, he thought sadly that he'd probably get just as wet faffing around in the rain dismantling his chair as she would get cycling across town. “Have that nice hot bath too,” he added with a smile which she caught and returned.
“That sounds like a very good idea.” Her hands moved dextrously to the latch on the door, and as it clicked open she turned invitingly to him.
So you weren’t going without saying goodbye, he thought. He pushed his way over to her, and this time he didn’t have to invite her down to kiss him. Sam leaned in as he reached her, resting one hand on his shoulder for balance, and kissed him quietly on the lips. Her kiss didn’t linger, but it was full of feeling, and, much too soon for his liking, she was pulling back.
“See you tomorrow evening,” she said, her voice a little husky. “You want me to bring anything?”
“Nope, just you.”
“I think I can manage that.” Sam wished him goodnight, kissed him once more, and he just glimpsed the searingly beautiful smile before she trotted lightly down the stairs and out into the summer rain.