FIFTY FIFTY

Snowclouds were gathering in a leaden sky as the OSI limo pulled away from the Denver aiport building. Oscar Goldman spared them one jaundiced glance through the window, then settled back with his thoughts. Rudy's phone call had been full of imperatives of a kind he didn't normally associate with the scientist; instructions to drop whatever the hell he was doing and get out of Washington on the first flight. He hadn't explained, and nor did he need to; if Rudy said Oscar's presence was needed urgently in Colorado then nothing short of a full scale Eastern bloc nuclear strike on the Capitol could have prevented him getting there.

It hadn't been quite that difficult, but the flight he'd taken -which he'd persuaded the airline to hold for the thirty minutes it took him to reach National - was probably the last one that would get into Denver on this particular day. Already the windspeeds were making landing hazardous and a thin film of ice was spreading across the runways. When the visibility closed in - as it was threatening to do -they would have to start re-routing. That they hadn't done so already, and that he was at least in the right city, was a matter of the most profound relief to Oscar.

Rudy's summons had caused him considerable anxiety. Since shortly after mounting a dramatic rescue mission to save the crippled 'Athena One' spaceshot, Steve Austin had been a patient at Rudy's exclusive clinic a few miles north of Denver. Steve's bionic implants had begun to malfunction during a spacewalk to repair a damaged solar panel on Skylab, and Rudy had attributed the failure to the effects of unshielded solar radiation. His solution to the problem involved the attaching of an extra layer of protection to Steve's bionic limbs and the 'optic nerve' of his bionic eye using a synthetic version of natural myelin sheathing which his laboratories had developed. Although this artificial myelin had not been fully tested in humans it had performed well in experiments with laboratory animals, and was expected to counteract the effects of the radiation sufficiently for

Steve to be able to venture into space again in the future.

As far as Oscar knew, the initial paramyelin implant surgery had gone well, although the recovery process was taking longer than Rudy had expected. It hadn't been possible to get many details over the phone, and much as Oscar would have preferred to be on hand in Colorado throughout the whole period he had been required to appear at a crucial meeting of the Defense Committee in the Capitol - a duty he could not shirk. As a result he had been hundreds of miles to the east when he was needed, and had made a desperate and fearful journey to get there as rapidly as possible.

That something had gone wrong - seriously wrong - with Steve's health was apparent. The possibility haunted Oscar. Steve was important to him; perhaps he would never have realised how important if it hadn't been for the 'Athena One' business, although he'd been aware for a long time that Steve was taking on an increasingly significant role in his life. Against the odds they'd become friends - close friends, even. Two single men, career-driven, not much inclined to socialise or party as so many in Washington seemed to do, they'd gravitated together in a companionate friendship which seemed to deepen hourly. Steve was his dearest friend, perhaps the only person in the world for whom he truly cared, and anything which put Steve's existence at risk cut Oscar to the heart, too.

 

Rudy's face as he ushered Oscar into his office was almost the same colour as the sky, and his usually warm blue eyes held the same promise of icy weather.

"Oscar," he said, briskly, "I don't have time to be tactful, and frankly I'm not in the mood. What I'm going to tell you has got to be said, and there's only one way to say it. Maybe later I'll be sorry I had to be so blunt, but for now you'll just have to accept that I'm steaming mad at you and you're about to hear why."

Shocked by this outburst Oscar was wise enough not to interrupt, but his face showed his acute concern. Rudy was pacing the office frantically like a dictator looking for a carpet to chew.

"When you called me and told me about the problems Steve was

having with solar radiation I told you about my paramyelin trials, didn't I?" Rudy went on, his voice harsh with ill-suppressed rage.

"Yes," Oscar supplied, mildly, watching Rudy with considerable anxiety.

"You may recall," Rudy continued frostily, "that I advised you I wasn't yet satisfied it was safe to proceed with paramyelin implantation in a human subject? Do you remember what you said?"

"Yes, I do. I asked you to go ahead anyway and operate on Steve. What's happened to him, Rudy?"

Rudy caught the slight tremor in Oscar's tone and immediately modified his tirade. "Tell me why you insisted, Oscar," he said, his anger metamorphosing into something between grief and acceptance.

The head of OSI thrust both hands into the pockets of his raincoat and stared at a point in the middle distance, aware that Rudy's criticism was fully merited and concerned not to exacerbate matters by answering without due thought. "Because Steve was so broken up at the thought of not being able to go back into space," he said, carefully. "Because I didn't want him to have to get through the rest of his life knowing he couldn't go back."

With a sigh of relief, the rest of Rudy’s anger evaporated instantly. "Oscar, you don't know what it means to me to hear you say that," the doctor told him, quietly. "If you'd said anything about the cyborg project or Steve being a valuable government agent I believe I'd have thrown you to the wolves for what you've done - but I hoped you'd just done it because you wanted to help him; to give him what he wanted."

"Yes," Oscar told him, distantly. Then; "Rudy, please - what's happened to Steve?"

Rudy rounded his desk to face Oscar, to watch the impact of what he had to say "His body’s rejecting the paramyelin," he began, slowly, framing his diagnosis in words a layman could not misinterpret. "There's some basic incompatibility between the paramyelin in the bionic implants and the naturally-occurring myelin in Steve's own body; as you know, there was a lot of damage to his nervous system in the accident - we had to make some repairs at the time. The paramyelin has set up a series of chain reactions which are adversely affecting his whole nervous system; in effect he's suffering from an artificially-created form of multiple sclerosis which is developing at an accelerated rate. All Steve knows is that everything hurts. He's got pain throughout his body – bionic and natural limbs, everywhere, no difference. The fault is in the central cortex, in the brain stem."

Rudy paused, letting his words seep into Oscar's consciousness and noting the appalled greying of the other man's face as the truth bit home.

"Between us, Oscar, we've given Steve an incurable condition that kills thousands of people every year - and I'm going to have to try and reverse the process. I'll have to go back in and remove the paramyelin - I’m planning to operate around midnight. What I don’t know yet is whether there's any actual damage in the brain stem itself; if there is ... his bionic implants won't make any difference, Oscar. Steve will be completely paralysed."

Rudy could not have missed the convulsive movement of Oscar’s hands as they reached out past him and grabbed for the edge of the desk. Oscar's knuckles whitened against the mahogany background as his fingers clenched as though he wanted to drive them right through the wood - or his nails right through his palms in grieving self-mutilation.

"Do you want to see Steve?" Rudy asked, already knowing the answer.

Oscar's expression cleared. "Yes. Is he conscious?"

"He's drifting. We've got him on a stabilising drug, trying to retard the rejection process, so he can’t move at all - and you'll notice the temperature’s very low in there; that’s to slow his heartbeat and give the drug a chance to act. You can stay with him until he goes down to theater - and you'll have the privacy to talk if you want to, we've got him on remote monitoring."

Oscar felt as though he had had the world snatched away from him and then returned, somewhat the worse for wear. It was better than he had hoped for.

"Thank you," he said, with considerable dignity. "I appreciate that, Rudy."

"Oscar, you’re Steve's best friend," Rudy told him gently. "In these circumstances you're also, legally, his next of kin. There's no way I could keep you away from him even if I wanted to - and I don't. I think he needs to talk to you; he’s been asking me all day how soon you’d get here. Maybe it’ll be some comfort to know that he doesn't blame you for any of this - and nor do I. It was a mistake we both made, Oscar," he continued, thoughtfully. "My excuse is just simple ambition - pride in my invention. Yours is that you care about Steve - maybe a little more than makes for good judgement."

Oscar nodded. That was precisely how he would have described his own feelings for the former astronaut - and he knew exactly what it meant when emotional involvement started to over-rule common sense. "I know, Rudy," he said, wistfully, beginning to understand it himself at last. "I know."

Rudy left him outside the intensive care suite. Oscar stepped silently into a dimly-lit cubicle whose glass walls had been shielded with papery white blinds, Rudy’s cautions ringing in his ears. The room was cold - colder than outside, he thought, with a shudder – but the still figure on the bed was naked to the waist, his skin a frightening shade of blue-white, his breathing slow and barely perceptible.

Moving closer, Oscar took in the heavy gauze bandages over Steve's eyes and the strapping that immobilised his left arm into which a drip was running a constant stream of honey-coloured fluid containing, as Rudy had informed him, a mixture of nutrients with a timed flow of the anti-rejection drug. A green sheet covered the lower part of Steve's body, and from beneath it trailed wires to a battery of monitoring devices set up on three small trolleys clustered around the bed at his feet. The fair hairs on Steve's left arm and the darker cluster on his chest bristled in the cold air; the pallor of his skin contrasted only too vividly with the sun-bleached gold of his hair. It was impossible to tell whether or not he was conscious.

Oscar hesitated a moment, unsure whether to speak and risk startling him from beneficial sleep or whether to reach out and touch him on chest or shoulder or face. The touch sensors in Steve's bionic limbs were no longer functioning; he must make contact with natural skin, or Steve would not feel it - and in any case the touch could only bring him pain.

It was almost as though his feelings for Steve were being tested to the limit. Oscar could hear in his mind the harsh voice of a man who some years earlier had been given the task of questioning Americans about their political persuasion - only he was no longer asking "Are you now or have you ever been...", he was asking "How much do you care about this man?"

The answer to that had never been in doubt. Oscar damned the accusatory voice in his head, and allowed emotion to rule him. Bending over the bed, he kissed his friend gently on the cheek.

Steve's immobile face creased into a wan parody of a smile. "Hey, Oscar," he said, faintly. "You took your time getting here."

"How ... How'd you know it was me?" Oscar asked, choking back the astonishment that had almost closed his throat.

"Same way I know you're worried about me," was the soft response. "Cigar smoke."

Oscar chuckled, pulled an upright metal chair close to the bed and sat down, very close to Steve. "I've been chain-smoking all the way over," he confessed, embarrassedly. "The stewardess was standing by with a fire-extinguisher. Steve, how are you?"

There was a pause before the reply floated up to him from the figure on the bed. "Truth is, Oscar, they’ve got me so high on these drugs I don't feel a thing - except that you kissed me. I guess you've wanted to do that for a long time, huh?"

"Quite a while, Steve. Quite a while. You don't mind?"

Considerable animation returned to Steve's face. He tried to turn his head towards Oscar, but gave up the unequal struggle. "Hell, no," he said, hoarse-voiced from the effort. "Only I was getting a little tired of waiting. Listen, when I get out of here ... Oscar, don't feel you have to wait till I’m at death’s door before you do that again, will you?"

Oscar touched his cheek with a fingertip that shook as it contacted cool skin. "Steve," he said, tenderly, "I don't know what you're on but you're flying, my friend. When you're better you won't remember any of this. I just wanted you to know ... that I care, that's all."

"You love me?" Even through the drug-induced haze there was a note of hopefulness in Steve's slurred tones that Oscar could not mistake if he tried.

Emboldened by this response, Oscar stroked back the fair hair from Steve's forehead with rhythmic, soothing, repetitive movements. "Yeah, I love you," he conceded, softly. "If we're playing the truth game here, Steve, maybe you ought to know it all. I feel like I've loved you all my life ... as if I didn't have any life until I knew you. When we were guarding Laurence Sandusky and you were telling me how Hopper's mob connections had tried to kill you in that alley - Steve, you were so close to me that if there hadn't been other people there I think I might have told you then how I felt. I know I wanted to."

"We were sitting on that sofa," Steve mused, letting the memory drift sweetly through his mind. "They all had their backs to us. They were so busy they wouldn't have noticed a thing. I just wanted you to touch me, Oscar - but it wasn't the right time. It's never been the right time. It isn't even the right time now."

"No, it isn't. Steve, I know what's happened to you here is my fault. I never imagined the paramyelin could hurt you; there's no way I would have allowed Rudy to go ahead if I thought it could. I'm not a doctor, I didn't understand. If I thought anything I could say would make any difference to you ... " His words trailed off, exasperation at his own stupidity overwhelming them.

"Oscar, you already said the only thing I ever needed to hear you say. I don't need apologies or regrets or any of that stuff - I just need you to love me. That's how I'm gonna get through this operation. Rudy tell you what my chances are?"

Oscar's fingers stilled on his face. "Fifty fifty," he said, aware that a surgeon of Rudy's integrity would not have attempted to mislead any patient, especially one as important as Steve Austin. "You know you could be paralysed?"

"I know. Promise you won't stop loving me if I am?"

"You ... you really need to ask?" Oscar could not keep the horror from his reaction; horror at Steve's calm acceptance of the possibility, and a still greater horror at the expressed fear that a paralysed Austin would no longer be of interest to Oscar.

"No. I don't need to ask. But maybe I need you to say it again so I can really start believing it."

Oscar took a deep breath, stared down at him, and wondered briefly what had happened to the certainty that Steve's words were drug-induced and would be forgotten when he woke to full consciousness. "Steve," he said, carefully, "I love you, I've always loved you, and I can't think of any reason why I'd ever stop loving you. Believe me; it's the only thing in my life I've ever been proud of. Loving you was the best thing I ever did."

Steve's strapped-down left hand began twisting towards him, wrenching the wrist, forearm and the drip tube into a perilous condition as the fingers fought against their restrictions to reach for him. Oscar caught the movement and trapped the fingers smartly with his own, bending down to kiss the hand in an eloquently courtly gesture.

"Keep still," he advised, breathlessly. "If you pull this tube out Rudy'll be after my blood."

"Okay, okay, I know ... but Oscar, you've got to know, just in case there's never a better time ... how I feel about you."

A fingertip on his lips stopped him. "Tell me when you're better, Steve. Tell me when you're up and walking around again. I don't need to hear it now; all I need is to be near you. Let me stay with you?"

"Only if you promise to put your arms around me so I know you're there."

Once again Oscar felt as if his love for Steve was being put to some kind of challenge; it taxed the ingenuity to understand how he could possibly comply with Steve's request in view of the number of probes and sensors attached to him and in the face of Rudy's strictures about maintaining a low body temperature, but he snaked his left arm out across Steve's upper body, rested his left hand on Steve's cool shoulder, and laid his cheek against Steve's chest.

"That's good," Steve breathed softly, and Oscar felt the rise and fall of his chest and the slow motion of his heart. "Don't move, now, Oscar. Stay right where you are. Promise."

"I promise, Steve," he whispered, feeling as if he was being drawn into the Sleeping Beauty's coccoon of cobwebs and that wisps of enchantment were falling across his eyes. "I'll be right here."

A banshee scream and a pair of brutal hands on his shoulders wrenched Oscar into wakefulness from a dream of sunlight and Steve, and he found himself propelled across the shiny floor of a suddenly brightly-lit room by a small, red-haired nurse with a grim expression on her face.

"Out!" she screamed. "Out!" Both her hands were firmly in the middle of his back as she pushed him roughly towards the door; a green-clad fury barely recogniseable as Rudy Wells erupted into the room, heaven knew from where, but his eyes strayed only briefly in Oscar's direction as he passed.

"Sedate him, Nurse Dixon, and stay with him. Use my office. Get him out of the way, now!"

The orders were issued rapid-fire and took no account of friendship or seniority; Rudy was all medic, the needs of his patient coming first and over-riding any other consideration. Oscar's reeling senses identified the screaming as the alarm on one of the bank of monitors around Steve's bed, but he had barely turned his head to glance in Steve's direction when Nurse Dixon resumed her assault and manhandled him out into the corridor. Behind him he heard the doors of intensive care fly open as the wheeled bed hit them at speed, and the squeal of rubber tires and the sound of running feet along the corridor in the direction of the operating theater, but his consciousness was too fragile to absorb all the implications of the sounds. Nurse Dixon led him into Rudy's office, shut the door behind him, and opened a drugs cabinet on one wall.

"What time is it?" he managed to ask. Rudy had been intending to operate at midnight; if it was earlier, something was wrong.

"Nine forty-five."

The nurse didn't query his acceptance of the situation and calmly proceeded to fill a syringe from a small drug phial. Oscar removed his raincoat, scarcely aware that he had kept it on while in intensive care because of the cold. His jacket followed, and with numb fingers he rolled up his shirtsleeve and presented his forearm to the nurse. She swabbed the skin above the vein, positioned the needle, and let it sink in to Oscar's flesh.

"What is it?" he asked, distractedly, afraid to ask her about Steve or his chances but desperate for contact of some kind. She looked up at him and he noticed that she had pretty grey eyes and a heart-shaped face, and that her expression was concerned.

"It's a tranquilliser," she told him, reassuringly. "Dr. Wells knew how worried you'd be about Colonel Austin; it's hard to have to stand by and know there's nothing you can do. That's why I'm here – to keep you company while they're in theater." She withdrew the syringe, snapped it into its plastic cover, and disposed of the whole thing into a small bin marked 'sharps'. "The alarm you heard was on the cardiograph," she went on. "The Colonel's heart began to fibrillate - that's a fast, irregular beat. It's bad news when you're trying to keep a patient stable. Fortunately the theater's been ready since eight o'clock and the technicians are standing by; Dr. Wells can start straight away stripping out the paramyelin."

Oscar regarded the girl with amazement. She seemed very young - in her early twenties, perhaps, - but she had a gravity of manner beyond her years. That she had been appointed to such a prestigious clinic with such strict security requirements spoke volumes for her abilities and qualities as a nurse, and that Rudy had chosen her to sit with him and reassure him meant that he considered her a very special asset to his staff. Despite himself, Oscar was fascinated. Desperate for distraction - anything to take his mind off Steve and the possibility of permanent paralysis - he sat down behind Rudy's desk and looked up hopelessly at the nurse. "Talk to me," he said. "Tell me your first name."

 By four a.m. Oscar had learned that Nurse Dixon's first name was Hayley, that she had four sisters and a brother who was a musician with a band called the 'Cadillac Cowboys', that her family hailed from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and that her parents were both teachers. He had told her a great deal about himself in exchange; about his elder brother, who had been killed when Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed land installations at Pearl Harbor in 1941 - and, cautiously, about his friendship with Steve. That it was a close friendship she could hardly have failed to notice, having personally wrenched him away from Steve's unconscious body. In the small hours of the morning he admitted Hayley Dixon to the exclusive circle of his friends, let her take his hand, and shared with her his fears for Steve's future. When the door opened to admit Rudy at five minutes past four, however, the young nurse disappeared so quickly and silently that at first Oscar wondered whether she had existed at all or whether she was merely the product of a deranged imagination.

"Rudy?" The surgeon looked exhausted; dark rings under his eyes spoke of the tension of hours under the fierce lights of the operating theater.

"He's back in intensive care," Rudy said, wearily. "Don't ask me how it went, Oscar - I don't know. I think we got all the paramyelin out, and I didn't see any signs of neurological damage - but that doesn't mean there isn't any."

Oscar nodded. "I understand. How soon can I see him?"

"Right away, but he won't be conscious for at least twelve hours - we gave him enough anaesthesia to dope an army."

"That's okay, I'll just sit and wait."

Rudy's tired features curved into an exhausted grin. "Have a cup of coffee with me first," he suggested, "and then I'm going to bed. You can go hold Steve's hand until he wakes up, if you want. No-one here'll notice a thing, Oscar - they're too well-trained for that." Oscar sat down and watched as Rudy spooned coffee into the filter of the machine that stood in one corner of his office.

"You knew all along how I felt," he said, without surprise.

Rudy smiled comfort at him across the weary atmosphere in the room. "I think I've known almost as long as Steve," he said, gently.

The blizzard swirled and buffetted around the clinic, leaving the grounds a bewildering wasteland of ice and snow and the interior of the building a cozy haven and shelter from the storm. The lights seemed brighter, the colours warmer, the people happier than any he had ever seen before - or so, at least, Oscar thought on the first day Steve was allowed to leave his bed. Eight days after the emergency surgery to remove the paramyelin from his bionic implants he was able to stand precariously, to make a fist with his right hand, and to distinguish light from dark with his bionic eye; the rest would follow, Rudy had assured them, but already Steve's recovery had been better than Oscar had allowed himself to hope.

Cautiously, and with an exaggerated sense of responsibility, Oscar threaded his arm through Steve's and braced himself against the weight that rested on it as he assisted him into an upright position. Dressed in a loose, soft tracksuit of pale grey Steve might have been hobbling away from some losing game of football or field hockey were it not for the wild, unfocussed look in his left eye and the deeply-etched pain lines on his face.

"How's that?" Oscar asked, solicitously.

"Feels good," Steve told him, somewhat out of breath from the effort of rising. "Can you get Rudy to take the lead weights outta my legs?"

"First priority," Oscar told him, reassuringly.

There had been no need to mention their conversation in the intensive care unit. Steve had not alluded to it since regaining consciousness after the operation, but his attitude to Oscar had shown that not a word of what passed had been forgotten or erased by time or recovery. He did not need to be told that Oscar had spent endless, silent hours at his bedside waiting for him to awaken; although Hayley Dixon had made certain he was aware of it, Steve had already guessed as much. Through tests and examinations and long, involved conversations with Rudy Oscar had remained at his side ever since, becoming closer and closer to him emotionally, being included in everything that happened. It became natural to the nursing staff to treat him as a devoted next of kin, a family member, a life partner, and if any incongruity in the relationship impinged on their consciousness they were well-mannered enough not to let it become known.

Nurse Dixon had been assigned on a permanent basis to the clinic's most prestigious patient; although working a shift pattern which spread the chores between herself and two other nurses, she soon became Steve and Oscar's first point of contact with the nursing staff in the same way that Rudy was their point of contact with the surgeons. On leaving intensive care Steve had been assigned a luxurious suite of rooms on the floor above Rudy's office which was normally occupied by five-star Generals, White House aides and visiting Heads of State; there had never been a shadow of doubt in anyone's mind that Oscar would move in right along with him.

The changes that had occurred were subtle, almost imperceptible, but profound. The tension-lines were gone from around Oscar's eyes; now he could often be heard laughing - at some idle remark of Steve's, at the good humour of the nurses, at the latest piece of absurdity from his colleagues in D.C. Gradually his lanky figure became a regular part of the clinic scene; even those members of staff who did not know his name exchanged greetings with him in the corridor or the lobby, acknowledging that in some mysterious way he belonged among them. Steve rapidly became used to the way the major part of every day was spent with Oscar, and unwilling to allow this pleasant state of affairs to alter in any particular. It almost seemed to him that it might not be a good idea to recover too quickly, since that might signal an end to their comfortable existence and a return to the harsh realities of the outside world, but the day came eventually when it was necessary to make his bionic legs work for him again.

He leaned on Oscar confidently, fingers biting deeply into the thick blue sleeve of his woollen sweater. Oscar looked ten years younger than he had after the 'Athena One' rescue; there was a warmth and depth in his eyes that hadn't been there before. "Where're we going?" Steve asked him in a tone of childlike enquiry.

"I thought we'd take in the sights," Oscar replied, covering the fingers on his arm with his own in unconscious reassurance. "The nurses' station, the elevator, Rudy's office, the chapel ... "

"The chapel?"

"It's one of the showplaces of the clinic," the older man smiled. "And I just happen to have the key," he added, with a magician's pride in his achievement.

"Well, lead on, Oscar," was the gently amused reply.

Apart from the non-denominational altar table covered in a deep red cloth at the far end of the room and the tall, slit-like windows that gave glimpses of a milk-white sky, the clinic's chapel might have been a waiting-room or a small lecture theatre. It had five rows of chairs arranged in a curving formation, and the vaguely neglected air of a room that spends most of its time locked. Oscar hooked a chair from the back row, turned it, and eased Steve down onto it. Without a word he returned to the door and locked it from the inside, replacing the key in his pocket.

"Remember what you said about it never being the right time, Steve?" he asked, crouching beside the chair and entwining his fingers possessively with Steve's.

"Uh huh."

"There never is going to be a right time, is there? You're always saving the world, I'm always up to my ears in reports ... when are we going to get time to be ourselves?"

Steve lifted his hand - his own, flesh-and-blood left hand – and touched Oscar's cheek briefly.

"Now," he said. "Here and now. I found out the hard way, Oscar, that 'now' is all the time there is. You can't rely on tomorrow showing up at all ... today is all we have."

"I know that."

"Sure. You know, Oscar, we're pretty much of a talking-point in this place."

"Huh?"

Steve laughed indulgently. "Hayley told me," he said. "Half the staff are making book on whether or not we're sleeping together. She got delegated to find out. I told her we weren't, but the moment I get out of here we will be."

Oscar gasped his astonishment. "Then ... you do remember what we both said when you were ill?"

"Everything. As well as everything you wouldn't let me say."

"I know. Maybe I should apologise for that, Steve, only I wasn't sure you knew what you were talking about. I didn't want you to say something you might regret."

Steve pulled him close, rested his head on Oscar's shoulder. "It's about time you started believing in yourself a little more," he said, softly. "Oscar, I guess I've loved you at least as long as you've loved me, and at least as much. When we were in L.A. guarding Sandusky I tried everything I could think of to get you to make some kind of move, but you were real stubborn. When you fixed it for me to go on the 'Athena One' rescue I wanted to find a way to tell you before I went - but I didn't make it; I just had to tell you on the air across a couple of hundred thousand miles of space, and hope that nobody else would understand it."

"Nice try, babe," Oscar whispered into his hair. "Everyone in Mission Control knew what you meant; your friend the Flight Director asked me right out if you and I were lovers - and he didn't believe me when I told him we weren't."

"We are," Steve told him. "We were then. We just haven't got past first base yet."

"You know I tried to hide from you by going back to Washington," Oscar confessed, loving the sensation of Steve's cheek warm and soft against his own. "I ran out on you; I left you to face the surgery and the pain on your own because I was afraid we'd get to be too close. I was afraid you and I would fall in love," he added, with tender irony. "Too late," was the muffled reply as Steve's lips sought his, found them, held them prisoner for what might have been a century or more.

Oscar kissed back, making no demands, redefining himself and his world in the simple touch of Steve's mouth on his own.

"I love you," he said, drawing free reluctantly at length.

"I knew it," Steve told him, confidently. "Enough?"

"Enough for what?"

"Enough to last ... a while?"

"Enough for all the time we have, Steve - and a little more."

Steve nestled against him, feeling those reassuring arms close around him once again. "That's better protection than all the paramyelin sheathing in the world, Oscar; what was it you said - 'like an extra layer of skin'? And it was you got me back into space, not any of Rudy's inventions."

"And it's my fault you can't go back."

"Heeeey, you're gonna have to do something about this pessimistic streak, Oscar; just because the paramyelin's not perfected yet, doesn't mean it never will be. You just make sure my name's top of the list when they're looking for another guinea-pig, okay?"

"You'd go through all this again?" Incredulity threatened to overwhelm him, and he thrust Steve back to arm's length and examined his face in the bleak light; battered and drained, Steve looked like he'd done ten rounds with George Foreman. "Either you've got enough courage for ten men," Oscar told him unsteadily, "or no brain."

"Oscar if I had a brain would I still be trying to convince you how much I love you?" The question was light but carried a hidden barb.

Oscar pulled him close and kissed him again, this time with greater confidence and determination. "Steve if either of us had a shred of intelligence we'd be holding this conversation in a nice, warm, comfortable double bed several hundred miles east of here. We aren't going to win any prizes for intellectual achievement; not this week, anyway."

"Guess not." Steve surrendered to Oscar's kisses willingly, allowing the soft mouth unlimited exploration of his own, sinking deeper into Oscar's arms as kisses covered his face and neck and a warm, broad hand stole up under the tracksuit top to trace delightful patterns on his chest. He certainly didn't feel like a convalescent whose life had been in the balance, but although his body lifted automatically into Oscar's embrace he knew he was close enough to physical exhaustion to make any attempt at lovemaking somewhat impracticable.

It was a conclusion Oscar had already reached.

"Need to go back to the room?" he asked, sympathetically.

"Uh huh. We'll have time for this later."

"I know," Oscar told him, tenderly. "Want me to carry you?"

Amused, Steve looked him up and down and decided that he wouldn't take a lot of persuading to do just that.

"Some other time," he winked. "Leave me here and go scare up a wheelchair from somewhere, will you?"

"Sure." Oscar pulled away, then turned back and kissed him quickly on the mouth. "I love you, Steve. Don't ever forget it."

"And I love you, Oscar - and I won't."

"Makes us equal?" his boss asked him with a confident smile.

"Fifty fifty."

"Those are my kind of odds," said Oscar, turning towards the door.

* * *