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Radio static crackles, loud and unintelligible, from the dilapidated metal console.

“Kryten?” Rimmer hisses, and he’s met with crepitation that sounds like someone is trying to talk to him underwater. “Kryten!” he says again, louder this time. “Cat! Will one of you tell me what the smeg is going on?”

More static, and while Rimmer can’t make out who’s speaking, let alone what they’re saying, he can tell it’s panicked and desperate. He looks out the cockpit window, out at the vast expanse of swirling sand, and squints, as if he could see anything amidst the brewing dust storm. 

“Kryten!” he tries again, and starts fumbling with the buttons and gadgets on Starbug ’s dashboard in the blind hope of getting a clearer signal, but somehow he just manages to make it worse. 

The radio is laughing at him in bouts of hissing, staccato static, he’s sure of it. 

“Shit,” he says, his palms sweaty and his fingers slipping against the dials he’s trying to twist, fighting a losing battle. “Shitting smegging fucking hell -- Kryten !” he shouts, because the last thing he’d heard was a blood-curdling scream from Lister, and the last thing he’d seen was Cat’s mouth agape, staring somewhere behind the camera attached to Kryten’s chest, and then nothing.

“SOMEONE!” he shrieks wildly, but only static and silence respond.

***

In the hours to follow, Rimmer cycles through just about every option and eventuality.

The options are as follows:

  • Sit in Starbug and do nothing.

Pros: This is a plan be knows he can carry out without smegging something up. It’s the easiest option. It’s the option that is most likely to ensure his own continued survival. Also, somebody needs to make sure nothing happens to Starbug so they can all escape. 

Cons: Lister might die. Cat might die. Kryten might die. Rimmer might be waiting here for them for the rest of his miserable, hologramatic existence. 

  • Leave Starbug and attempt to find them.

Pros: This is a proactive solution that will make Rimmer feel useful.

Cons: Rimmer will most likely die (again) without even finding them. 

  • Become a super genius, fix the radio, contact the crew, rescue them all, get promoted, become a legend.

Pros: Obvious.

Cons: Obvious.

Rimmer writes them all down on a piece of paper as calmly as possible. Wind buffets the ship cruelly, making it shudder and shiver. He stands up and returns to the radio in the cockpit, and it’s still just static, and he looks out the window, and the sandstorm is still raging, so he returns to the list, and holds it up to the light to scowl at it with disdain. 

Rimmer imagines Lister looming over his shoulder and laughing. 

You’re making a list in a crisis, Rimmer? Why don’t you go the whole hog and give it a nice bibliography?

Rimmer decides, upon reflection, that Lister doesn’t know what a bibliography is. 

I do, too.

“Do not.”

Do, too.

“Oh, really, Listy? And just how many bibliographies did you have to write during one week of art college?”

Smeg off, Rimmer, at least I wrote my assignments on paper instead of my arms and legs and God knows where--

The Starbug pitches suddenly to the side, knocking Rimmer off balance and wiping the budding smile from his face. There’s nobody around, but he still manages to feel humiliated, and as he picks himself up from the floor, fury starts to prick at his skin -- fury at the storm, at the situation, at himself. 

Rimmer plucks the piece of paper from the table and tears it up with more force than he’d intended. It doesn’t make him feel better, but he does enjoy making a face at its scattered remains.

When he realises that his hands are shaking, he reasons with himself that he’s afraid for his own life, because the Starbug wasn’t intended to withstand a storm like this, and he’s never been particularly self-sufficient, and if he died here and now, he’d die without leaving his mark on the world, he’d die in obscurity, disdained by everyone who knew him. 

A complete and utter smegging coward, alone and unloved.

Somewhere beneath all the guilt and frustration, though, a part of him knows that he’s really shaking because he can’t stand the possibility that he isn’t alone and unloved, hasn’t been for some time now, but might be soon again, and he’s afraid of never again seeing the only people who might, in a pinch (if their lives really and truly depended on admitting it) refer to him as an fond acquaintance -- perhaps even a friend-adjacent ally.

Rimmer has never cared about anyone but himself before, and he hasn’t the faintest idea how to react to caring about three people who aren’t him, let alone how to react to the possibility that he might never see any of them again. 

The best he can do is climb into his bunk and curl into the foetal position (a tried and tested manoeuvre). When he closes his eyes and clings to his pillow, he imagines it’s Napoleon the Teddy Bear to avoid imagining it’s anything -- or anyone -- else. 

***

Almost four hours later, the radio crackles to life and wakes Rimmer from a fitful unconsciousness that can hardly be called sleep. Sweat clings to the clammy, hard light approximation of skin beneath his rumpled blue uniform, his metal badge digging into his chest painfully, his mouth dry. 

Lister is dead.

It comes back to him foggily, but he’s sure of it. So sure that he feels nauseous. Rimmer knows because he remembers the feeling of loss. He remembers how it had torn through him, torn him apart, how he’d felt like a 6-year-old child again, utterly lost, and he still feels it now, as he tries to rub the grit from his eyes and ends up wiping away hot tears.

The air is stale and too hot and he can’t breathe. Rimmer tugs at his collar and feels completely disgusting; damp and miserable and smelly. His mouth tastes awful but he can’t get out of bed because Lister is dead and the weight of it crushes him into the mattress and pins him there; a frog etherised on a laboratory table, his insides spilling out of him but numb to the feeling.

The radio mumbles something again, and Rimmer breathes out heavily through his nostrils like a horse being exorcised, and then reality comes back to him and it feels like the ground has disappeared from beneath his feet.

“-ster…-mer…Sir.. Pl-...ss…”

Rimmer sits bolt upright and tries to ignore the way his head throbs painfully. Light fills the main cabin of Starbug and the world is silent except for the crackling voice filling the cockpit and spilling out into the shuttle. 

“It was a dream,” he says aloud, but it doesn’t help dispel the feeling. That heavy, sinking, throbbing feeling writhing around in his gut like a knife wound.

“Mr. Rimmer, please-- ” he hears, and it’s definitely Kryten, and Rimmer has hauled himself out of his dishevelled nest of a bunk bed and thrown himself across the room before Kryten can even finish his sentence. By the time he reaches the radio, Cat is on the other end. 

“...you overgrown hairball,” he’s saying, “do you know how hard it’s gonna be to get blood stains out of this suit?!”

“Cat!” Rimmer exclaims breathlessly into the mouthpiece, “Kryten!”

“Mr. Rimmer!” Kryten responds. The signal isn’t exactly crisp but it is intelligible, even to Rimmer. 

“What happened? Where’s Lister? Is he-- is he--?”

“He’s right here, sir, he’s-- oh, he’s in quite a state, sir. He’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him to Red Dwarf as quickly as possible.”

“Okay,” Rimmer says, shivering in response to the beads of sweat trickling from his hairline down his neck and pooling against his collar. He licks his lips. “Okay, well, look-- what-- how long--”

“Sir, if you can, it would be most helpful if you could clear out the bottom bunk and locate my medical kit, and perhaps-- some hot water and a cloth-- if you can--”

“But that’s my bunk!” Rimmer protests reflectively, and he’s not even sure why, but it feels instinctual at this point. 

“I told you he’d react like this,” he hears Cat say, and Rimmer scrunches up his face. “That guy don’t care about nobody but himself.”

“Mr. Rimmer, sir… Mr. Lister is in a really bad way--”

“Okay, okay,” Rimmer snaps. “Water, medikit, cloth, bottom bunk-- anything else?”

There’s a few beats of silence that Rimmer does not like one bit. “Just one thing, sir, and I know this will be very difficult for you, but… If you could give Mr. Lister some space while he recovers, that would be most helpful.”

“Space?” Rimmer echoes dumbly.

“Yes, sir. Most helpful,” Kryten says again, sounding weary. Rimmer didn't even know it was possible for mechanoids to be weary. “I estimate we’ll be back in thirty five minutes.”

Rimmer is about to say something, anything, but the connection is cut and he’s left to weather the next thirty five minutes in silence.

Again.

***

It’s agonising, but Rimmer manages to distract himself by carrying out the tasks Kryten has assigned him (and only muttering about the chain of command to himself once or twice). He even makes a noble effort to clean up the papers he scattered everywhere. In between lying prone and sucking his thumb, Rimmer had made several lists that had all met the same fate as the first. The cabin looked like it had been redecorated by an overzealous anthropomorphic paper shredder, and Rimmer had cleaned it up for much the same reason a dog buries its vomit: shame.

When the console buzzes to announce their arrival and the radio begins to crackle with Kryten’s voice again, Rimmer has already been standing beside the hatch door button for ten minutes. 

The door opens with a whoosh and standing there, at the top of the hatch stairs, is Kryten. In his arms is something Rimmer would have certainly identified as a corpse if it weren’t for the fact that he can just about see Lister’s chest heaving oxygen into his lungs beneath all the congealed blood and sand. 

There’s so much blood that it’s almost comical, it almost looks like something out of a campy horror film, with all the actors half-naked and covered in ketchup and wailing, and Rimmer knows because Lister keeps making him watch them, even though Rimmer always wants to watch something more tasteful, and--

Rimmer feels sick. 

“Kryten…” he manages, as the mech brushes past him as carefully and efficiently as possible, carrying Lister bridal-style to his bunk. Lister’s limp fingers brush against Rimmer’s lapel, and Rimmer recoils as if he’s been burnt.

He looks at Cat trailing in behind Kryten.

“Is he…?” Rimmer asks, glancing between Kryten’s receding form and the feline, hoping for some of Cat’s bright-eyed enthusiasm. 

“I don’t know, bud,” is all he gets, so Rimmer starts to follow Kryten, but a hand on his chest stops him. “Oh, no,” Cat says. “Somebody needs to steer this rust bucket outta here, and it ain’t gonna be me. This cat needs a cat nap -- stat!”

Rimmer blinks and scowls, but Cat’s already leaving, peeling blood-soaked items of clothing from his body and muttering dolefully about them. 

“Fine,” Rimmer says, to nobody in particular. “Fine. Absolutely dandy. Spiffing.” 

There’s a streak of blood on his uniform where Lister’s hand brushed against him, though, and it’s not remotely fine. He wants to scream at somebody: at Lister for whatever it was he did to get into this mess, at Kryten for being so polite and helpful all the time, at Cat for being exactly the opposite, but in a truly uncharacteristic display, Rimmer puts a pin in it, tucks it away out of sight, and turns on his heel to steer Starbug out of this complete and utter smeghole. 

***

"As stand-in senior acting commanding officer of this ship--"

"Sir, you mustn't--"

"As stand-in senior acting commanding officer of this ship, I demand you let me into my own sleeping quarters!"

"Sir, please be reasonable! Mr. Lister needs rest and your presence is--"

"My presence? My-- my presence is--”

“Overbearing, sir?”

“No! My presence is--”

“Insufferable? Painful, sir? Enough to drive any sane person crazy in the proverbial coconut?”

“Kryten, I am your superior officer!” 

Rimmer is red in the face and pointing one very accusatory finger at Kryten’s chest, but the mechanoid hasn’t moved an inch, despite looking very guilty about it. 

“I’m sure it’s very difficult for you to understand, sir, but I have a responsibility to Mr. Lister’s health. Once we’ve returned to Red Dwarf --”

“What about my health, Kryten? Why doesn’t anybody here care about my health?” Kryten’s mouth is opening and closing like a fish, and Rimmer is sick of looking at his stupid, ugly face. “Oh, for God’s sake, just give me five minutes.”

Kryten just looks at him.

“Five minutes, Kryten, to grab some personal possessions for the rest of the journey.”

“For… for the rest of the journey, sir? All ninety minutes of it? Surely--”

“Yes, Kryten, all ninety minutes of it. Do you know how boring it is around here? A healthy mind is a healthy body, or… Well, whatever.”

Kryten opens his mouth to argue, but thinks better of it, or perhaps is too shocked to even know where to begin. His face looks like it’s about to collapse beneath the weight of the frown on his brow. “Fine, sir, but please don’t disturb him. And-- and please be gone by the time I’m back.” 

The bucket of water in his hand sloshes beneath him as Kryten gesticulates with his free hand, and Rimmer glances down at it. It doesn’t even look like water anymore -- it’s blood red and frothy and swimming with dark globules of wet sand.

Rimmer hardly recognises the room when he pushes through the door. Kryten has transformed it into a makeshift medical bay and every surface is covered with rags and ointments and syringes. There’s a little shrine of tablets in colour-coordinated bottles where his collection of Reggie Wilson CDs had previously lain, and a battered old device beeps intermittently where Lister had been very scientifically cultivating new strains of mould in lager cans. In the corner of the room, Kryten has made neat piles of their belongings. 

Rimmer stands there cataloguing just about every item in the room -- the strange tubes strewn across the top bunk, the neat piles of clean towels, the knife Kryten used to cut Lister out of his clothes, the blood-soaked clothes in question, the spare clothes Kryten has dug out from Lister's wardrobe -- until he has nothing left to distract him from the elephant in the room. 

Multiple wires connect the beeping device to Lister, who lays unconscious in Rimmer’s bed. Rimmer flinches when he looks directly at him, grimacing like he’s seen a particularly nasty pimple in the mirror. 

Lister’s mostly naked, which isn’t anything Rimmer hasn’t seen before, but it’s particularly jarring in this setting. Kryten has cleaned a lot of the blood and sand from him, but it still clings in clumps to his locs, his eyebrows, his fingernails. It’s a strange contrast to the patches of skin that have been completely cleaned and sterilised, the parts that have improvised sutures and blood-stained bandages holding him together. 

It’s all rather Frankensteinian.

“Bloody hell, Lister,” Rimmer says quietly, surprised by the lack of fire in his voice given how heavily his hard light approximation of a heart is pounding against his chest. “You stupid, smegging moron.”

Against his better judgement, he inches closer to the bunk bed.

The rise and fall of Lister’s chest is laboured and juddering, like every breath is a Sisyphean task. Or is it a Freudian task? No, no, Freud was the biologist--

“Kryten?” Lister croaks, scaring Rimmer half to death. Lister lets out a long groan and shifts on the bed, his hand flexing where it lies on the stained sheets. They had been pristine white this morning, and now they were -- well, Rimmer didn’t even know what colour to call it.

“No,” he says eventually. “It’s me. It’s Rimmer.”

Rimmer takes another cautious step toward the bed, and now he’s close enough to see the individual grains of sand embedded in his hair, the sickly sheen of sweat covering his entire body. He feels wrong being here, like he’s intruding, but he still wants his robe and a magazine -- and he still wants to move closer to Lister for some absurd reason.

“R’m’r?” Lister mumbles deliriously, and his fingers flex, hand reaching out but hardly making it off the mattress before he winces from the movement. “Hurts.”

“Yes,” Rimmer agrees, dumbfounded at the way his own fingers twitch in response to Lister’s motion, snatching them back before they get any closer. “It looks like it hurts.”

“Rimmer,” Lister says again, desperately, and the way he says it makes Rimmer panic.

“I knew I shouldn’t have come,” he says, smiling in that strange, forced way of his, clapping his hands together. “I told Kryten you needed rest, but he insisted it was fine-- insisted , Listy!” Rimmer swallows thickly. “I’ll leave you to it then, shall I?”

While Lister is mumbling incomprehensibly on the mattress, Rimmer backs up so suddenly that he crashes into a table and sends countless medical supplies crashing to the ground. 

The noise makes Lister jump and grumble and Rimmer is out of the door, swearing under his breath, almost smacking into Kryten on his way down the corridor, who is shouting something at him that Rimmer doesn’t even register until he’s found somewhere on Starbug that Kryten can’t find him, somewhere only his soft light form can reach, somewhere cramped and metal, deep in the bowels of the ship, and then it all comes back in a rush.

I can’t leave you alone for a second, Mr. Rimmer! Kryten had said as he rushed into the sleeping quarters. Not one second! Oh, Mr. Lister, sir, are you alright? I told him, sir, I told him-- Oh, what a mess--

Rimmer pulls his knees closer to his chest, feeling like a disobedient child despite all his long years, and wishes he’d remembered to grab his robe and magazine.

***

When they get back to the ship, Lister is whisked off to the medical bay by Kryten, and Rimmer thinks about following but doesn't.

"Well," he says, more to himself than to Cat, who stands next to him, still dishevelled but no longer covered in blood. "Disaster avoided, eh?"

Cat gives him a withering look that makes Rimmer bristle.

"What?" he demands, folding his arms across his chest. “I got us back, didn’t I?”

"You are unbelievable, you know that?” Cat hisses. “There's an old cat saying… 'Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole, no matter how much you try to lick it clean'."

Rimmer makes a disgusted face at the image, and then, moments later, his eyes narrow with bemusement. "Nobody's licking me, laddie."

"I'm not," Cat agrees, "but someone is, nostrils-for-days. Not that you deserve it.”

At Rimmer’s uncomprehending expression, Cat rolls his eyes dramatically and stalks off toward the shower room.

***

Rimmer sulks and skulks and scowls for days.

Lister isn’t getting any better, though Kryten insists he isn’t getting any worse. 

It’s miserable, like purgatory, except even the good outcome is sort of bad, because he’ll still have to spend the rest of his life with Lister if he survives. Rimmer reminds himself daily that this isn’t an appealing outcome, just the lesser of two evils, and he white-knuckles the edges of the sink when he stares at his reflection in the mirror of their shared living space.

Behind him, the top bunk is still untouched and eerily pristine from when Kryten changed the sheets two days ago.

The quiet emptiness is oppressive. Rimmer hasn’t been on his own for this long since he’d moved in with his hologram double (though, in retrospect, he supposes that didn’t really count as being alone).

That was thirty years ago now and feels it. Even as a hologram, Rimmer feels old. Looking in the mirror, he barely recognises his craggy face anymore.

When he grows tired of looking at it, he splashes water against his not-skin and returns to his bunk.

In the breathing space of that purgatorial silence, Rimmer thinks. It’s totally involuntary, completely against his will, but he does think. He thinks and he considers, he mulls -- even stretches to a little contemplation, but draws the line at pondering. 

It’s humiliating, really, to be faced with the cold hard fact that he and Lister are utterly codependent. It rattles around in his head at night when he stares at the empty bunk above his head, and he thinks about the possibility that he’ll live out the rest of his days like this: empty and aching, willing something impossible back into existence, and then he can’t stand thinking anymore. 

Untangling his fingers from behind his head, Rimmer sits up and pulls on his blue dressing gown. He ties it neatly around his waist, smooths the creases, adjusts the collar of the uniform he never bothers to take off anymore, and then he does it all a second time, because he’s nothing if not a series of neurotic routines, carried out with excruciating precision and punctuality. 

Lister once said he must be the love child of a particularly obnoxious cuckoo clock and an anal-retentive mouse, and Rimmer had retorted, Somehow, Listy, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that your only point of literary reference is Hickory Dickory Dock

Rimmer scowls at the memory as if it were standing in front of him, and it is, kind of, because they had that conversation in this very room, so he breezes through it toward the door and dispels the ringing sound of Lister’s laughter like a bad smell.

Hours later, Kryten finds him sitting in the mess hall, playing cards with Cat and nursing a glass of warm milk.

“There you are, sirs,” the mechanoid says, sounding relieved, but Rimmer doesn’t look up. 

At the sound of Kryten’s voice, Cat grabs Rimmer's glass of milk, stands up and bolts out of the room, only staying long enough to clasp a hand on Kryten’s shoulder and shout, “Tag! You’re it!” as he disappears from sight.

Kryten hums thoughtfully, looking between the doorway and Rimmer’s surly expression.

“Hm,” he says, his head bobbing to and fro mechanically. “Usually he stays long enough to ask what’s for dinner before running off like that.” 

As Kryten speaks, Rimmer begins to gather up the abandoned cards and reshuffle them with a sour expression. “I was about to win,” he tells Kryten, as though it explains something. “We’re playing Go Fish.”

“Sir…”

“Or Rummy, if you’d rather. Anything but Irish Snap.

Kryten moves toward him as one approaches a nervous animal, stopping once he reaches the chair opposite Rimmer. “I didn’t come to play cards, sir. I came to talk about Mr. Lister.”

Still refusing to look up from his ministrations, Rimmer replies, “If you’re not here to play cards, sod off and get started on dinner. I can play Solitaire.”

With an exasperated sigh, Kryten sits down and watches carefully as Rimmer deals them each seven cards. He places the remaining pile between them face down and picks up his own cards, all without so much as a glance in the mechanoid’s direction.

“I thought you might want an update on his condition, sir--”

“Is he dead?” Rimmer cuts in. 

The question takes Kryten by surprise. “No, he’s--”

“Good. Give me your sevens.”

"My…?"

"Sevens, Kryten, for the love of God."

"Sir, I--"

"If he's not dead and he's not any better, what could you possibly have to report? And as there's nothing interesting to report, just play the damn game, will you?"

Balefully, Kryten slides his cards over the table and holds them up with difficulty between his ungainly fingers. After a moment, he says, "No sevens, sir."

"You have to say 'Go Fish'."

"What?"

"If you don't have any sevens, you have to say 'Go Fish'. It's the rules."

"Fine, um… Go fish, sir!"

"Thank you," Rimmer grumbles as he reaches for the pile, tone betraying not a smidgen of gratitude. "Your turn."

Kryten makes a meaningful effort to divine some kind of message from his cards, but after a few seconds of pained concentration he gives up and drops them to the table again. “Oh, sir, it’s no good. I really need to talk to you about Mr. Lister. I don’t understand why you’re being--”

“Kryten,” Rimmer interrupts, throwing his own cards down and leaning back in his chair. “I’m quite sick of hearing about him. It’s all anyone on this smegging ship talks about anymore. Even Cat keeps going on about it, and he’s the most selfish creature I’ve ever met. ”

“Well…Well…We’re concerned about him, sir! His condition is--” 

“Unstable, yes, God! I know! I heard it the first thirty million times.” Rimmer breathes out heavily through his nostrils. “What if I’m unstable, Kryten?”

It’s the first time Rimmer has ever seen Kryten look remotely angry, and it’s barely even anger -- more like hurt and betrayal gift-wrapped in something that looks deceptively like impatience but is actually closer to its DollarPoundland knock-off, peevishness. 

“Just once, sir, just once , I wish you could care about anyone but yourself.”

The barbed words sound so out of place coming from Kryten’s mouth that Rimmer almost flinches. Almost. He feels the skin beneath his collar grow hot and prickly as he searches for a response that isn’t just one long scream. 

Kryten beats him to it. “All these years, Mr. Lister has put up with you, and you can’t even pretend to care that he might die.” Rimmer’s mouth works soundlessly, but Kryten beats him to it a second time. “The Cat doesn’t like you enough to care if you’re rude to him, and I’m programmed to accept it, but Mr. Lister really cares about you, sir, and you could at least act like he means something to you!”

The last word is the final nail in the proverbial coffin, and Rimmer stands up so suddenly it sends the chair screeching against the cold, hard floor and then toppling over with a crash. It makes Kryten jump, and he looks wildly from chair to Rimmer's thunderous expression.

Rimmer's sure there must be words in the English language to express his fury, but he can't find them. Instead, he just glowers at the mechanoid, fists clenched, wondering if the anger might convey itself telepathically.

Public speaking has never been a strong suit of his. But then again, neither has anything else.

"Sir?" Kryten ventures, meek again and on the verge of android tears.

Rimmer tightens the knot of his dressing gown belt. "Forget it," he grits out.

Paralysed once again by his obedient programming, Kryten nods spasmodically. 

He’s halfway across the room, making a prim and swift exit, when he stops mid-stride. 

Rimmer’s jaw works, looking like he’s chewing words in his mouth, deciding whether to spit them out. Behind him, he can hear Kryten shifting to look at him, probably expecting Rimmer to explode again. For a moment, Rimmer thinks he might explode, too. 

The skin beneath his gown is clammy again, his fingers shaking, angry tears welling in his eyes. Whatever modicum of control he'd felt has been lost.

When he turns to Kryten, he can only hope he doesn’t look as unhinged as he feels. 

His mouth opens, closes, opens again, and he feels a fresh wave of shame and embarrassment.

“Obviously I fucking care, Kryten, you dildo-shaped gimboid,” he says snottily. “About… About all of you! There, are you happy?” Rimmer throws his arms up in the air with all the zeal of a raving, caffeinated madman, growing more and more frenzied by the second. “And I am worried about Lister; I'm worried sick about Lister! If he dies, where does that leave me? Alone with nothing but a simpering android and a feckless Cat for company? Without him, I'm nothing, Kryten, and we all bloody well know it. I'm his smegging ghost!"

It’s too huge a confession to bear, and he has no intention of waiting around for it to sink in. Rimmer shoots Kryten a disgusted look like the mechanoid just shat in his breakfast, then leaves in a flurry of whirling blue cotton and flared nostrils.

Kryten can do nothing but stare at the doorway in shock.

***

(Lister drifts in and out of consciousness, feels Kryten hovering around him, hears the mechanoid clucking and fretting like a mother hen, feels his head pounding, hurts everywhere, whines about it, resents the sweat clinging to him, tries not to cry, opens his eyes sometimes, recoils from the bright light, looks around hopefully, buries the shame of hoping, wishes Kryten’s presence was enough, wishes he didn’t feel so pathetic, wishes Rimmer’s disinterest in his life would hurt less than his broken ribs, gives up wishing, feels words bubbling incoherently on his lips, can’t hear them, feels fear spike through him when Kryten looks at him funnily, tries to ignore Kryten, tries to sit up, lets himself cry, writhes, vomits, reaches out, stops reaching.)

***

Rimmer had hated Lister once. Really, actually hated him. He used to daydream about getting him kicked out of the Space Corps and sending him packing back to Woolton without so much as a DollarPound to his name. 

Rimmer doesn’t hate Lister anymore, probably hasn’t in a long time, but he still goes through the motions of hating him regardless. It’s easy; it’s a set pattern. It’s like a script. A performance. An am-dram recital. 

It’s like a test, and the only one he's ever passed at that. Hating Lister was the only thing Rimmer had never royally fucked up. A few slip-ups here and there: a fleeting moment of vulnerability when Lister looks at him fondly, a pat on the back, a stray smile. Nothing that Lister would suspect. 

Now that he thinks about it, though, he wonders if he’d ever actually fooled Lister; if he’d ever actually fooled anyone. 

Well, maybe he’d fooled himself. Maybe Rimmer had never really, actually hated him at all, just wanted to.

Maybe it had just been easier to wish Lister away. Easier than wishing away desire. Easier than wishing away shame. 

Maybe it had just been easier to hate Lister than himself.

***

When Kryten apologises over breakfast, Rimmer feels bad. He shouldn’t, because he’s done nothing wrong, and besides, the mechanoid was built to be bossed around. But God help him, Rimmer does care about Kryten. He cares about them all. 

He doesn't want to. He’d been perfectly happy not caring about anyone for a very long time. Now he has this nasty feeling gnawing at his insides and he can’t eat or sleep or focus.

“It’s to be expected, sir,” Kryten says carefully when Rimmer explains this to him. “You’re anxious about Mr. Lister ”

Rimmer shakes his head, picks miserably at his breakfast sausages, then shrugs. “Maybe,” he grumbles vaguely. “I think it might be something worse than that.”

There’s not a morning in space so much as there’s an unspoken agreement to collectively pretend it’s morning. It’s an agreement that requires the efforts of everyone and everything aboard the ship, from clock to Cat. If the lighting glitches and plunges them into 1700 evening lighting during their mid-morning coffee, they pretend not to notice while Kryten fixes it. Drawing attention to it would be admitting that none of it’s real; that they’re floating alone in space with nothing but concepts and constructs to ground them.

When Rimmer admits it might be something worse, he doesn’t entirely know what he means, but he does feel like he’s broken one of their unspoken agreements. Like he’s gone off-script. It keeps happening. Without Lister, everything feels like an improvised monologue. 

Before Kryten can respond, Cat bounces into the room, brimming with a tonedeaf energy that makes Rimmer recoil. “I’m starving!” he announces. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Ah, your favourite, sir,” Kryten says, presenting him with a fish. 

Cat makes a yowling sound of approval, and Rimmer pointedly ignores him, scowl deepening. The smell is awful, and he drops his cutlery on the table as though it’s the fish that’s put him off his breakfast and not… Well.

“What’s eating him?” Cat asks Kryten, jabbing a fork in Rimmer’s direction before chucking is over his shoulder and tearing into his breakfast. 

“He’s worried about Mr. Lister,” supplies Kryten, casting a nervous glance in Rimmer’s direction. “Ah--As we all are.”

Rimmer can see Cat pause mid-chew out of the corner of his eye. After a beat, he says, “Rea’y?” through a mouthful. 

“Yes, really,” Rimmer hisses, shoving his plate away from him and folding his arms across his chest. “I’m worried, okay? I’m worried about Lister. Hardy-har. Old Arnie's got feelings after all. Laugh it up, fish breath.”

Clearly, he’s overestimated how much Cat cares, because the feline only shrugs and begins to ramble about his busy schedule of a nap, a lunch date with his mirror, and scratching up some of Rimmer’s belongings.

Rimmer doesn’t take the bait, and when Cat leaves again, Kryten removes his apron and sits delicately across from Rimmer’s thunderous face.

“Mr. Rimmer, sir,” he says slowly, “I owe you another apology, I think.”

Rimmer sighs. “If this is about you borrowing my Esperanto books…”

“No, no, sir. It’s…” Kryten continues, swallowing a little too hard. “I think I was a little premature in my, um, prognosis, sir.” 

Snapping out of his sulk, Rimmer meets his eye sharply and sits up straighter. “What do you mean, prognosis? Is this about Lister?”

“No, sir-- Well, sort of-- It’s, um...”

“Spit it out, Kryten, for God’s sake.”

“When I asked you to give Mr. Lister some space, sir, I might have… Well, got it wrong.”

There’s a few beats of silence in which Rimmer digests the confession. “I don’t think you did,” he says eventually, a little suspicious. “I’m not a doctor, Kryten. I don’t even have basic first aid training because I kept passing out at the sight of blood.”

“Oh, yes, I know that, sir. I know you’re utterly useless--," Kryten falters when Rimmer prickles, "--medically speaking, ah--it’s just that… I think I may have misjudged your affect on him. On a personal level.”

Rimmer attempts to control his facial expression; to school it back into the bored contempt into which it usually defaults, but he feels a muscle twitch in his cheek as he waits for Kryten to continue. 

“He’s been asking for you, sir.”

Oh, God.

It feels like thread unravelling, like a snowball barrelling down a hill, like he’s on a runaway train and the crew are all dead.

“Ask--Asking? For me?” he manages through the panic tightening his throat.

“Yes, sir.”

“For me?”

“Yes, sir.”

Like a gun misfiring. 

Rimmer stares at Kryten. “Are you sure he wasn’t asking you to turn me off so he can come back as a hologram?"

"No, sir."

“Calling me a goit in his sleep again?”

“No, sir, no.”

A one-winged Messerschmitt falling from the sky. A pilot steering a bullet-riddled parachute. A crash landing.

"Does he have a concussion?" Rimmer begs.

"He had a mild one, sir, but he's quite recovered. In fact, it was the most lucid--"

"Ah, well, that explains it," Rimmer says with a tight smile, cutting Kryten off before he can say anymore. He stands up so suddenly, he smacks his knee against the table.

“Mr. Rimmer, sir,” Kryten says, quite serious and standing up, too. “Please. He needs you . He needs to know that you care.”

Burning wreckage. No survivors. The war is lost.

Rimmer wants Lister to burst out from behind the sofa with Cat and fall into a bout of laughter, pointing and laughing at him. Really, Rimmer, you think I’d be that desperate to see you?

Somehow it would be less mortifing than this.

“I do care, Kryten,” Rimmer bites back angrily as he rounds the table, still trying to make a hasty exit. “You can tell him I--”

Kryten intercepts him, stepping between his hard light body and the exit. “ Sir ,” he says, “I think you should be the one to tell him.”

“I-- No, no, I can’t-- No.”

“Why ever not?”

“Look, isn’t it enough that I care about him? Can’t you just tell him I’ve been--”

“Sir, I’m certainly no expert on human emotions, but I do think there’s a bit more to lo…” Kryten stops himself, “to ‘caring about someone’ than simply... feeling it.”

Rimmer stares at him, looking gormless and, for some reason, mildly offended. “Like what? What more could there possibly be?”

"Well… Showing it! Expressing it, sir!"

Rimmer wants the world to swallow him up and spit him out in the 22nd century, three million and something years ago, before he'd even met Lister.

"Don't be ridiculous, Kryten," Rimmer replies, but the fire is draining from him. He's cycling rapidly through four of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then back to denial again, like an old record skipping endlessly.

"Sir…" Kryten says consolingly, looking at him, sad but fond.

The expression almost makes Rimmer flinch again, too used to conflating love with abuse, but he forces himself to endure it, to accept it. He knows that Kryten would never hurt him because his programming wouldn’t allow it. He also knows now that Kryten would never hurt him even if his programming did allow it.

This soft look, this openness, this extended hand -- is this family? 

"Visit him," Rimmer says. "You think I should visit him?"

"Yes, sir," Kryten tells him with the patience of a saint. "I do."

Rimmer frowns, thoughtful rather than obstinate. 

He stands there. Minutes pass. Kryten busies himself with clearing away the plates, and then disappears back into the kitchen to start preparing lunch.

The universe turns around him slowly. 

In his ribcage, Rimmer's hologramatic heart beats furiously fast.

***

That night, Rimmer can’t sleep. He doesn’t even bother to climb into his bed, just stands at the porthole in their bedroom for an absurdly long time, contemplating the awful silence of the room and the awful loneliness of space, where the stars radiate their cold, dead light from lightyears away. 

Rimmer hadn’t joined the Space Corps because he’d wanted to explore the universe. He barely even likes space; it’s empty and dangerous and uncomfortable. He’d joined because it was expected, because it was better than being at home, where everyone hated him. Maybe he’d even hoped it would make him someone.

The irony of it all, of course, is that it has made him someone, but it wasn’t the drills or the exams or the rules that did it. 

Rimmer drifts through the hallways like a restless ghost, feeling more unreal than he has in a long time. Dead man walking. Dead man haunting.

When he finds himself at the medibay, it’s only surprising in the way falling awake is surprising, and Rimmer feels a strange vertigo climb up his throat and then settle.

The lights are dim and they cast Lister in a grey half-light -- not the grey half-light of a rainy spring morning, but the grey half-light of an empty hospital at dawn. The smell of disinfectant makes Rimmer’s nose wrinkle. The monitor beeps monotonously. 

And Lister is drooling in his sleep.

Rimmer swallows thickly.

You’re disgusting , he thinks, staring at the thin dribble of saliva rolling from the corner of Lister’s lips and pooling wetly in the cotton of his pillow. 

You really are truly disgusting .

Rimmer drums his fingers restlessly against the doorframe then drifts closer, gaze tracing the familiar lines of Lister’s face: the laugh lines and the wrinkles, his thin lips, his double chins (triple now), dark stubble, the flecks of greying hair at his temples, and the enormous ears that frame it all. 

You make sewer rats look like Oscar Wilde, Listy. You make my great auntie Agnes look like Helen of Troy. You make toe jam look like a Greek salad starter.

It’s not fondness that blossoms in his chest. It’s not affection. It’s probably indigestion. 

Before he can even fabricate a way to justify getting hologramatic indigestion, his treacherous brain betrays him. The confession is dredged up from his stomach like hangover vomit, and it does make Rimmer feel better once it’s out, but it also leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth: I don’t know what I’ll do without you, Lister.

It’s only when he looks up to see Kryten loitering awkwardly in the doorway and pretending not to listen that Rimmer realises he’s been talking aloud the entire time. 

For a moment, panic lights him on fire. Shame roils through him like a wave, but he doesn’t fight it this time, and finds that it breaks and dissipates of its own accord if he lets it. 

Rimmer looks away from Kryten and stares into the dark part of the room, the pitch black part untouched by grey light, his brow furrowed deeply in thought, confronting himself.

When he snaps out of his reverie, Kryten is gone.

Rimmer's eyes land on the seat next to Lister’s bed and he exhales slowly.

***

(Pain. Pain. Pain. 

Pulsating, piercing pain. Pain that makes him frantic. Pain that makes him fearful. Shooting pain, sharp pain, dull pain. Pain like every part of his body is crying out in unison.

Then the delirium. The confusion. The anger. The abandonment he knows all too well; the resentment; the irritation. Kryten's cold, angular, inhuman hands touching his clammy skin in mechanical ways.

Consciousness like a tide: an inward flow that feels cleaner and stronger every time, accompanied by an outward ebb that's all the darker and heavier in response. If he tried harder to stay awake, it might get easier rather than harder, but there is nothing to stay awake for. The pain is nauseating and Kryten's hands make him ache for something softer and Rimmer's absence is worse than all of it combined.

Rimmer's always up there, jostling around in his mind, taking up space. Arrogant and selfish, demanding, even as a figment of Lister's imagination. It's maddening to be made aware of how much he misses him, how much he needs him. 

The delirium makes him hear things: Rimmer's footsteps and Rimmer's voice and Rimmer's breathing.

It's maddening, all of it: the pain, pain, pain; the Rimmer, Rimmer, Rimmer.

The words thrum beneath his skin like electricity, and when it's unbearable he opens his eyes and blinks against the blinding light and moves like a newborn animal seeking it's mother; seeking Kryten for more meds, desperate to disappear again, desperate to cut the sadness off like an infected limb, and then sees.

Sees him.)

***

Rimmer wakes up to an ache in his neck, a vague disorientation, and the sound of his name being called.

“R'm'r?” he hears again, and when his eyes open, the lights in the medibay are the warm, soft yellow of faux morning, and Lister is looking blearily up at him.

Rimmer blinks once, twice, thrice, and attempts to sit up straighter. When Lister tries to do the same, he winces in pain.

Then Kryten is there, fussing over Lister and beginning to administer his pain medication. 

As he starts to slip back in sedation, Lister mumbles Rimmer’s name again, and Rimmer almost can’t speak, almost panics when Lister’s fingers flex in his direction.

He wants to leave, wants to run from the feeling, wants to be a deserter like always.

Instead, Rimmer forces himself to be brave.

Tentatively, he reaches for Lister’s hand, and when their fingers brush and tangle together, Rimmer says, “Hey, smeghead,” with mortifying gentleness, and Lister's eyes, full of relief, flutter closed.

***

Lister begins to improve, but he sleeps a lot. Almost constantly. 

Rimmer spends more time at Lister’s side than he would ever admit to, but privately, it’s a relief to be near him again.

When Rimmer leaves to eat or sleep or stretch his legs, all he can think about is returning, like a spaceship in orbit, waiting to be steered home, or a piece of space debris caught in the pull of a planet’s gravity, trying to resist the inevitable.

Eventually, Rimmer starts taking his meals in the medical bay, reads aloud to Lister’s sleeping form, falls asleep in the chair more often than he makes it back to bed. 

Eventually, Kryten brings him a blanket and pillows, and Rimmer accepts them, silent but grateful. 

Sometimes, when Lister is half-awake, their fingers touch, and Rimmer thinks about how good it feels to touch him. Sometimes they don’t. 

Sometimes Rimmer prattles on about the hallway repairs that need doing, or the insubordination of the scutters, or Lister’s snoring. Sometimes he doesn’t. 

Always, when he wakes up, Lister smiles at him.

Always, Rimmer is trying very hard not to think about the smiles, nor the fluttering in his chest, nor the way Lister’s hand against his own makes him feel like a thing to be reached for rather than a thing to be recoiled from.

***

“Water treatment is an essential part of servicing your steam locomotive,” Rimmer intones, “in order to avoid the build up of scale in the boiler shell and boiler tubes. Other dangers of an untreated boiler include corrosion due to oxygen content, foaming, and--”

“Rimmer?” Lister grouses, and Rimmer barely bats an eyelid.

"Hello, Lister," he says distractedly, still reading from his copy of ‘The Ultimate Guide to the Maintenance and Protection of Steam Powered Locomotives’.

They go through this frequently: Lister mumbling something, asleep or half-asleep or somewhat awake but soon falling back into unconsciousness. Rimmer has stopped getting his hopes up about it and Kryten, in his overprotectiveness, has decided that Lister needs to be kept on his meds for a few more days at least, so between those and Lister's natural, slothlike inclination to oversleep, Rimmer had assumed he wouldn't be properly awake yet.

When he glances up over his book, he realises he's assumed wrong.

Lister’s awake. Wide awake. 

Well, wide awake might be pushing it, but Lister looks at him with a lucidity that makes Rimmer’s heart leap into his throat. Distantly, he recognises the feeling undercutting his relief as trepidation. 

“Oh," he says dumbly, "Hey, Listy,” Rimmer tries to sound more sympathetic this time.

"I feel like shit," Lister says. 

It's a full sentence. A whole entire sentence with a subject and a verb and everything. Rimmer could weep. 

Instead, he says, "You look it."

They lapse into silence. Rimmer thinks about breaking it but can’t bring himself to say anything that isn’t performatively cruel or overly sentimental, so he just watches Lister glance around the room and reorient himself, taking deep breaths like he hasn’t breathed properly in a long time.

“Medibay,” Lister observes. Then he looks down at his abdomen and sucks in a breath through his teeth. He sounds like he's trying to hold himself together, physically as well as emotionally. Quietly, he adds, “It was pretty bad, huh?”

“Yeah,” Rimmer agrees, equally subdued, following Lister's gaze to the bandages and sutures stained red. Kryten would be along soon to change them. “It was pretty bad.”

Lister’s head falls back onto his pillow and he stares instead at the ceiling. Tears pool in his eyes and he doesn’t blink them away until he turns his head toward the far wall, away from Rimmer’s watchful gaze. Rimmer feels something inside him clench and he swallows away a lump in his throat.

“Kryten says you’ll be right as rain in no time, though,” he says, looking away from Lister and pretending to read his book, trying to give him the space to be upset. 

“Yeah.”

Rimmer fiddles absently with the edge of the book cover, casting furtive glances at his friend as he grapples with finding the right words. Looking to his memories for guidance on comforting someone, he finds only ridicule and rejection.

Remembering his childhood is like pressing fingers into a bruise, so he stops. He’s not sure he can do this. Lister’s chest is rising and falling strangely, like he’s trying very hard to keep from sobbing.

“Do you want me to get Kryten?” Rimmer asks, feeling like a child on a playground looking at a friend's scraped knee; out of his depth and hating it.

“No.”

“Do you want me to leave?” Rimmer asks, closing his book. “I’ll leave if you want.”

Lister’s still turned away from him, staring at the wall of the medibay. He doesn’t respond. Doesn’t move. Just lies there, still breathing heavily. 

Minutes pass. More minutes still, each longer than the last.

After a while, Rimmer assumes the silence is confirmation that Lister doesn’t want to deal with him any longer, and is about to get up when Lister stops him. 

“I don’t want you to leave,” he says quickly, making Rimmer pause mid-stand, and then, more softly, adds, "Please."

Rimmer lowers himself back into the chair, the desperation in Lister's voice sucking all the oxygen out of the room and dizzying him.

“Okay.”

At that, Lister turns to face him again, eyes bloodshot and watery. He looks awful. He really does. Why Rimmer has the urge to reach forward and touch his time-worn, weather-beaten, tear-stained face is beyond him. But he does. Want to, that is.

Rimmer practically sits on his hand to restrain himself, because they haven't talked about it. He doesn't even know if Lister is aware of it. Dimly, in the back of his unconscious mind, Lister probably thinks it's his grandma holding his hand, keeping watch over him as a sick child. Rimmer has dreams about his family taking care of him, too. Sometimes.

"Just don't read anymore of that bloody book to me," Lister says, bringing Rimmer out of his thoughts and breaking the tension. 

It should have been Rimmer's responsibility, as the one who isn't recovering from a life-threatening injury, to return them to solid ground. Lister's sense of humour comes naturally to him, as does his deep-rooted desire to make everyone else comfortable. He's the person who keeps the peace, keeps everything running smoothly. He's the person who takes control. But still , Rimmer realises, he shouldn't have to be that person all the time .

Rimmer thinks about what Cat said to him, that horrendous metaphor about licking assholes.

"How dare you," Rimmer grumbles, and it's a shaky attempt at first, but he finds his feet, finds those old, well-worn grooves on which their conversations run, despite the ever-present undercurrent of a rumbling something they ignore, like train tracks built on fault lines. 

"This is classic literature," Rimmer says. "This is Shakespearean!"

At that, Lister manages a smile. “You've never read Shakespeare, Rimmer."

"Have, too."

"Watching The Lion King doesn't count as reading Shakespeare." Lister's still smiling, even as he embeds himself under Rimmer's skin, and despite his superficial annoyance, Rimmer feels so happy he could burst.

"Yes it d--!" he starts to hiss, but stops himself. "Oh whatever, Lister, at least I look like I read Shakespeare. You look like a vacant retail worker from Dudley."

For a moment he worries he's gone too far, but Rimmer knows Lister better than anyone, knows which buttons to press and how hard to push them.

“Oi,” Lister grouses, his head lifting from the pillow. “I used to stack shelves in Aldi, you know.”

“Really, Listy?” Rimmer replies smugly, feigning surprise. “Really, I had no idea.”

"Smeg-for-brains," Lister mumbles, too worn out to come up with a real insult, and still smiling, besides.

For a while, they're silent again, as Rimmer pretends to read his book and Lister blinks heavily and thinks. Rimmer can practically hear him thinking. It sounds like Victorian machinery in there.

"Do I really look that bad?" Lister asks him suddenly, looking back at him, but Rimmer refuses to meet his eye.

"Yes. Do you really feel that bad?" he returns, "Because if not, I do have a very comfortable bed with my name on it that I could be sleeping on instead."

Lister looks at him thoughtfully and opens his mouth to say something, only to close it again immediately. “I feel…" he says instead, puzzling it out as he goes. "Horrendous. Groggy. It's like the world's worst hangover times a thousand. You remember that night we found that vodka stash on that… what was it…"

"Officer Janeway's quarters."

"What? No, it was on that abandoned ship we found…"

"No, Lister, that's where we found the rum."

"Oh, right," Lister says, frowning. "Anyway, it's worse than that vodka hangover we had. Worse than the vodka hangover and the rum hangover combined."

"Goodness," Rimmer says, condescending but still inviting Lister to continue.

"And everything hurts."

"Yes, that's usually a side effect of being impaled."

Lister casts him a sideways look, no longer smiling, and Rimmer has the good grace to look apologetic, even if the apology doesn't make it past his lips.

"And I keep having these… These weird dreams…”

Rimmer meets his eye. “What kind of dreams?” 

For a moment, Lister frowns in confusion, then looks down at his hands, then up at Rimmer’s where they grip his dusty old book, then at Rimmer himself. There’s a question on Lister’s lips, but he pushes it down. “Nevermind,” he says, feigning forgetfulness or boredom or exhaustion, Rimmer can't tell which. 

Then, Lister’s eyes light up with mischievous delight. “Hey," he says, "Are those reading glasses, Rimmer?”

At the mention of them, Rimmer reflexively pushes them back to the bridge of his nose from where they’ve slipped down. “Yes,” he says. “They make me look distinguished.”

The absurdity of a hologram wearing glasses is not lost on Lister, but he's still too tired to verbalise it. Instead, he rolls his eyes and settles back against the pillow, grimacing a little from the various pains, and begins to chuckle quietly to himself, clearly delirious. Rimmer watches him from out of the corner of his eye. Anyone who didn't know them better might have said his expression bordered on fondness.

“Mr. Lister, sir, you’re awake!” 

They both look up in unison to see Kryten standing in the doorway. 

Lister can’t repress a groan.

***

Days pass. Kryten lowers the dosage of his pain medication little by little, and Lister becomes less confused, but still uncharacteristically disinterested in food.

“Oh, eh! Steady on, man, can’t you see I’m really poorly ?” Lister is saying, his accent is somehow intensified tenfold when he’s groggy and grumpy. 

Rimmer very firmly reminds himself that it is not, in fact, endearing. Instead, he focuses on how much better Lister sounds, how full of life.

“Has anyone ever told you, Lister, you sound like a complete pillock?” Rimmer grumbles without looking up from his nail file. “You sound like Ringo Starr’s mentally handicapped brother.”

“‘Mentally handicapped?’” Lister repeats, aghast, but the corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. “You do know it’s not the 1960s anymore?”

“And thank heavens it isn’t, Lister. I dread to think where they’d put you.”

“Har-har, Rimmer,” Lister deadpans. “Have you ever thought about updating your joke repertoire?” 

“What do you mean?” Rimmer asks, as Kryten takes Lister’s vitals.

“I mean, maybe you should throw away your copy of ‘Fifty Controversial Jokes Guaranteed to Offend’, alphabetised by intended minority, and pick up, I don’t know, ‘Refined Jokes for the Esteemed Elderly Gentlemen’--?”

“‘Elderly Gentleman’?”

“--You know, jokes you could tell at a dinner table with women and children present--”

“‘Elderly’ ?”

“Maybe even,” Lister continues, learning conspiratorially close and dropping his voice to a whisper, “A gay person?”

Rimmer's ears are practically steaming.

“Sorry to interrupt, sirs,” Kryten says, saving Rimmer from spluttering some kind of horrendous response, “but I thought you’d want to know that I’m happy to discharge Mr. Lister today. There’s still a way to go with your recovery, sir, but you’re stable enough to sleep in your own bed. I’ll visit when necessary.”

“Sure, Krytes, that sounds great. Thanks.”

“Although,” Kryten adds, “I suppose you’ll have to sleep on the sofa."

"Still comfier than a hospital bed."

"Don’t be ridiculous," Rimmer interrupts. "Put him in the bottom bunk and I'll sleep on top-- on the top bunk," he amends quickly, still flushed and somehow growing even more so. "Just make sure you wash the bedding at least three times before I sleep on it, Kryten."

Kryten looks utterly gobsmacked, and Lister's eyebrows are almost at his hairline. 

"Well, that's very kind of you, sir!" Kryten says, and Rimmer feels incredibly patronised, like he's Pavlov's fucking dog, slobbering on command, but he lets it go without fuss because he probably deserves it, and at any rate it's made Lister smile again.

"I'm serious about the bedding, Kryten. Three times -- minimum."

"Of course, sir, I'll start preparing your room immediately, sirs. Fresh sheets, washed linen, some pillow mints… Oh! I’ll pop your favourite record on, too,” he says as he clunks out the door, gesticulating excitedly, and continues to talk to himself as he continues down the hallway.

As his voice fades, Lister turns to Rimmer and says, “God, does he have to make it sound like we’re consummating a marriage?”

The question, though rhetorical, makes him panic. His mouth goes dry, his heart rate increases. He feels like he’s been caught breaking a rule, like all the adults in a room have turned to look at him disapprovingly. Disgustedly, even. He feels cornered. 

Rimmer pulls a face and pockets his nail file. “You’re utterly disgusting,” he says coolly, uncrossing his legs and getting to his feet. “I’ll see you later.”

“Sure,” Lister says, the corners of his lips twitching upward as Rimmer tightens the belt of his dressing gown, “Grandpa.” 

Rimmer shoots him a withering look over his glasses, trying to quell the awful shame that’s risen up in his chest, trying not to let Lister see it on his face. “Wazzock,” he retorts, and it makes him feel better.

***

The television blinks its strange shapes over his face, bathing his weary features in cold, blue light and leaking into the deep darkness of the room. Rimmer is almost asleep, half-curled on the sofa of the mess room, knees tucked against his chest.

A disturbance rouses him, and his head lifts quickly from a low nod. Lister blinks owlishly at him from the doorway. Rimmer blinks back as his brain whirrs back online.

“Can’t sleep?” he croaks tiredly.

Lister shakes his head as he shuffles into the room swaddled in an enormous blanket. When Lister gets closer, Rimmer realises that it’s actually his spare duvet. The letters A.J.R. are embroidered boldly in gold lettering along one side. Lister must have pulled it out of the storage room, for whatever reason.

“Me neither,” Rimmer says, stating the obvious just to fill the silence, trying not to stare at his duvet.

“What are you watching?” Lister asks as he shuffles closer, stopping in front of the sofa without sitting down. After a moment of watching the flashing pictures, his question is answered for him. “Ah.”

Rimmer makes a sound of acknowledgement and reshuffles slightly to make more room for Lister’s cocoon. The sight of Lister standing there, wrapped in Rimmer’s duvet and looking dejected, makes something inside him shift. “It’s my favourite film,” Rimmer says as an afterthought. 

“Are war documentaries better without the sound then?” Lister asks, clearly intending to be funny but exhaustion making him sound solemn.

"It gives me the opportunity to provide my own, superior narration.”

“Oh, right,” Lister says around a wide yawn. “Yeah, sounds dead fun. No offence.”

Rimmer pulls his knees closer to his chest and narrows his eyes. “I’m quite used to your deadphobic microaggressions by now, Listy.”

Even with his face half-cast in shadow, Rimmer can see the way Lister smiles against his own will, the way his laugh lines deepen, the way he turns away to hide it. It’s gone again as soon as Lister starts to carefully lower himself onto the sofa next to Rimmer, grimacing at every wrong movement. Rimmer reaches out to steady Lister’s movements before he’s even thought to do it. As soon as he touches Lister’s shoulder, he feels stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Embarrassing. Lister gives him a funny look, but doesn’t object, and Rimmer snatches his hand back as soon as Lister’s settled.

The edges of the duvet crowd into Rimmer’s space and it makes him feel claustrophobic until he retreats even further into the arm of the sofa and unfurls his legs, stretching them to the floor. He’s made it awkward by touching Lister, and now he’s made it even more awkward by crawling away like Lister’s some plague-ridden medieval peasant.

Lister grunts a sigh. Whether it’s from weariness, or irritation, or pain -- Rimmer can’t tell. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Lister fiddle with the gold-embroidered lining of the quilt distractedly, until he can’t bear the silence anymore.

“What’s wrong, Lister?”

“What? You mean besides the fact that I'm recovering from life-saving surgery?”

“Yes. Aside from that.”

“Aside from that?” Lister ponders aloud, and Rimmer can’t tell if he’s still being facetious or if he’s actually avoiding something. “Well, apart from that,” he continues, “No, nothing comes to mind.”

“Lister.”

“What?”

“I’m not… I’m not a mind reader. So if there’s something on your mind, you’ll have to, well, say it.”

Lister continues to pick at the lining a few moments longer, a frown still weighing on his brow, and then he huffs another, deeper sigh, and sinks deeper into the sofa, seeming to sink simultaneously out of the tiring pretence of being okay. 

“It’s fine, Rimmer,” he says, chewing his lip. “You don’t have to… Y’know.”

Rimmer turns to face Lister, baffled. “Don’t have to what?”

“You don’t have to pretend to care,” Lister supplies matter-of-factly, and when Rimmer doesn’t protest, he adds, “Look, let’s just watch the film, alright? I just wanted a distraction, that’s all.”

It takes a few seconds for Rimmer’s brain to process the entire sentence because he’s so struck by the first half. It hadn’t occurred to him that Lister would still think that he didn’t care, after everything. 

“A distraction from what?” Rimmer asks, a dog with a bone. 

Lister just sits in silence and Rimmer’s eyes wander over his features, watching the light flash over his face as the film cuts from scene to scene, light to dark. He watches Lister like he’s watching his favourite film, which he is, actually; his favourite film is being projected onto his face. There’s that shifting feeling inside him again.

After a while, Lister says, “Do you want to get in?”

The duvet is taking up almost all of the sofa, and it would be logical for Rimmer to be inside it rather than outside, but still, Rimmer looks at the duvet and then back to Lister with his nose wrinkled in disgust. “No,” he grumbles, “I don’t want to get in . I want you to tell me what’s up.”

“You first,” Lister returns easily, unfurling slightly from his nest.

“What?”

“You tell me what’s up first.”

“Nothing’s up with me, Lister. I’m fine.”

“Yeah? Why aren’t you in bed then?”

“Because--!” Rimmer splutters. “Because I’m… I wasn’t tired.”

“Hm,” Lister grunts. “You’ll have to try harder than that.”

“I don’t have to try at all. I asked you first.”

Lister shakes his head slightly and looks away, back at the dramatic reenactments of famous battles. Rimmer tries not to feel resentful of the fact that on this, the first occasion of his asking someone how they are and meaning it, Lister is being stroppy. 

He doesn’t really try that hard, though, and ends up crossing his arms over his chest petulantly. 

“We’ve never watched this before,” Lister says.

“No,” Rimmer says carefully. “We haven’t. So?”

“So, we’ve never watched your favourite film together. Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“Weird? Weird how?”

“For Christ’s sake, Rimmer. You really are hard work sometimes. We watch films together all the time. I’ve made you watch Dirty Dancing at least five times.”

Rimmer’s nostrils flare. “ So?

Lister gapes at him. “ So,” he says slowly, “ so, it never once occurred to you to make me watch your favourite film?”

Realisation dawns slowly on Rimmer’s face, and then it clicks into place. Lister thinks it’s weird to keep things to yourself because Lister is an open book. It’s one of the many things Rimmer finds confusing about him.

“Well,” Rimmer begins, “I knew you’d find it boring. And I knew you’d make fun of it. And, actually, Lister…” Rimmer crosses his legs primly and pretends to fuss with his dressing gown belt. “And, actually, as boring as it might be, and as stupid as you might think it is, it does actually… sort of... mean something to me.”

When he glances up again, Lister isn’t quite staring at him like he’s grown a second head, but he is frowning thoughtfully. “It’s just that there’s some things I don’t share,” Rimmer continues. “I think that’s normal, Lister. Don’t you think that’s normal?” Rimmer tries to keep the desperation out of his question.

“I…” Lister starts. “Not rea--… Like, but it’s your favourite film, though, Rimmer. You don’t want to share your favourite things with your best mates?”

“Not all of them, no. I think I should be allowed to keep some things in my life untainted by ridicule.”

“Ridicule? Rimmer, I wouldn’t have-- Okay, I probably would’ve taken the piss, obviously, but the reason we had to watch Dirty Dancing five times is because you whinged so loudly, I had to keep restarting it!”

“Look, Lister, we’re just different people, and while you might enjoy putting your heart on the line for people to tear into like rabid dogs, I don’t share your masochism.” That’s unfair, he knows it is, but Lister doesn’t react. “My life isn’t just one big recurring joke in some kind of… some kind of third-rate sitcom, written by men with a cruel vendetta against their childhood enemies, or something, despite you all acting like it is.”

When he stops talking and silence rushes in like water filling a sinking ship, Rimmer fixes his eye on the telly and wishes he’d left the sound on. 

“Rimmer…” Lister says quietly, and Rimmer refuses to look at him because he doesn’t want to see the pity on his face. It’s almost worse than being mocked. “Rimmer, if…”

“It’s fine, Lister, I shouldn’t have said anything. That’s our… that’s just what our friendship is and it’s fine -- I like it even.”

A brief pause. “Like what?”

“You know, the bickering, the fighting. Being at each other’s throats all the time. Ripping into each other’s feelings. It comes naturally to us.”

It isn't the first time tonight he's aimed for humour, missed by a long shot, and landed on pitiful sincerity. Rimmer is growing concerned that he's losing his edge, and as Lister formulates his words, Rimmer wonders if their friendship can possibly survive these more and more frequent displays of seriousness. He dreads to think of how he might have smegged it all to smithereens.

“It doesn’t have to be like that, Rimmer.” 

Lister speaks slowly, like he’s coaxing a wild animal into a cage.

“Yes it does. Of course it does. It’s -- I mean, that's just who we are .”

“Rimmer--”

“Just drop it, Lister, please. I’m getting a headache.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Rimmer can see Lister shake his head to himself. “If all we are is merciless shitheads to each other, then why’d you ask what’s wrong?”

Sick and tired of talking about it, Rimmer only shrugs and pretends to be engrossed in the film once more, his leg bouncing irritably. He’s seen the bloody thing so many times, he could close his eyes and project it start to finish on the back of his eyelids. He tries it, but the image of Lister huddled sadly in his quilt interrupts before he’s got even four frames into the film, and he opens his eyes again with an exaggerated huff.

"So, how are you really then?" Rimmer asks, certain he won't get an answer.

“I keep having dreams that I’m dead,” Lister mumbles, barely audible. “And now I’m scared to go to sleep.”

Rimmer blinks. “Oh,” he says. "Right."

The earnestness is uncomfortable and new. It’s uncharted territory; not quite frenzied enough to be a train veering wildly off the rails. It's a quiet sort of dangerous, more like flying into enemy territory by the dead of night. That trepidation, that camaraderie.

They really are doing this feelings thing, then. Taking the plunge, as it were.

Rimmer chews on his lip, and shifts in his seat, and says, “Okay, well. Me, too, actually.”

Lister looks at him hard for a few seconds, but then he laughs, and Rimmer is so hurt that he turns his head to meet his gaze again. 

“You are dead, smeghead.”

Ah.

Rimmer scoffs and rolls his eyes. “Dreams about you dying, you--” he starts, sounding angrier than he’d intended, his entire body struggling against the new feeling as though it were rejecting an organ, and then he sees the tired, bewildered look in Lister’s eye and deflates. “You bloody great pillock,” he finishes lamely.

Lister is quiet as he digests the words. “You’re having dreams about me dying?”

“Had. One. It was one dream.” Rimmer holds up a single finger to emphasise his point.

Lister’s lips are pursed in an attempt to keep himself from smiling, his eyes shining with mirth and dawning realisation and something else; something with which nobody has ever regarded Rimmer before. 

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” he says, latching onto the parts of the expression he can parse. “For all you know, it was a very pleasant dream. Tranquil, even. Peace on earth, at last!"

“When?” Lister asks, ignoring the tirade, voice a little softer than usual.

Rimmer fidgets in his seat. “When you… When it first… When Kryten…” He stops to think, pinching his fingers against his forehead. “No, before that actually. When I lost communication with you all.”

“Wait,” Lister says, then chews his lip absent-mindedly. “So, while Kryten and Cat were dragging me half-dead through the desert… You were having a nap?”

“Well,” Rimmer splutters, “not--not ex--well, yes, briefly, I had a brief nap…

“A brief nap while I was bleeding to death!”

“What was I supposed to do?! Build a transporter pad out of empty beer bottles and your secret stash of Patti Smith records? The last thing I heard was you screaming like a banshee with its tits on fire. You could all have been dead for all I knew. If that doesn’t make me eligible for a bit of a lie down, I don’t know what does.”

Lister is half-laughing from surprise.“Well, what happened to me? Go on, how did I die -- in your dream?”

“You… Well you didn’t, as such, it was… It wasn’t an event. I didn’t watch it happen. It was just a feeling, like… You know, it just felt like loss. Grief. Sadness. All that...”

Lister must have been expecting something far more light-hearted. Emotions flicker over his face, as quickly as the light changes.

“Rimmer…” 

“It was just a dream, Lister.”

"Were you worried about Cat and Kryten, too?"

"What kind of a question is that? Of course I was."

"Huh."

"What?"

"Nothing."

“Lister, I’m not going to play this ‘What?’ ‘Nothing’ game with you all night,” Rimmer says, imitating Lister’s accent around the word ‘nothing’.

“You didn’t dream about them dying, though, did you?”

“They didn’t scream like a nubile, half-naked girl in a horror film just before the cameras cut, though, did they, Lister?”

“Oh, so now you’re dreaming about me as a nubile girl?”

Rimmer swallows thickly and clenches his jaw. “Look, just shut up, alright? You’re the one who wanted to talk about our bloody feelings, so you could at least take this seriously.”

When Lister laughs again, his head rolls back against the back of the sofa and he looks blissful in a way Rimmer’s not seen in a long time. It makes the corners of Rimmer’s lips twitch in sympathy.

“Alright, alright. I’m taking this seriously. I promise I am,” Lister says. “Look, are you sure you don’t want some of my duvet, Rimmer--”

“First of all,” Rimmer interrupts, “we both know it’s my duvet.” Lister stops laughing. “And second of all… Yes, fine, I will have some duvet.”

Shocked at being caught, Lister unwraps the duvet from around him slowly, then spreads it out, letting Rimmer take half and burrow under it.

“How can you tell?” Lister says. “They’re identical.”

Still shuffling into a comfortable position, Rimmer snorts derisively. “It’s got my bloody name stitched into it, you dolt.”

“Oh, right,” Lister says, and Rimmer feels a swell of smugness rise up within him.

“How the tables turn. Care to explain this one, Listy?”

“I just grabbed the first one I saw in the supply closet. There’s nothing to explain.”

“Mm-hm,” Rimmer agrees disbelievingly. 

Beneath the quilt, Rimmer lifts his feet onto the sofa and lets his knees fall toward Lister, turning with them and propping one elbow against the back of the seat. He’s facing Lister fully now, his fingers threading through his own curly hair, twirling it thoughtfully. Lister notices the shift and watches him patiently, though Rimmer can’t seem to lift his gaze any higher than Lister’s shoulders.

They’re good shoulders. Very sturdy.

“Look, Lister,” he begins, half-hoping Lister will cut him off with an ‘it’s okay, I know’ and spare him this ordeal. 

When he doesn’t, Rimmer tries to keep going. “Lister…Look, I-- Lister..”

“That’s my name,” says Lister, and Rimmer feels his cheeks reddening at the way he’s just stuttering Lister’s name now, at the way he’s always liked the sound of Lister’s name in his mouth but has never admitted it to himself. 

Rimmer runs a hand over his face. “I… I owe you an apology. For, um… For…”

“For?” Lister prompts. In his peripheral vision, Rimmer can see the amusement and fondness glittering in his eyes.

“For…” He can’t articulate it, can’t sieve thirty years of their shared lives into a sentence, can’t get Cat’s fucking metaphor out of his head. “For not licking y-- no , God!"

Lister’s clearly trying his hardest not to laugh, but his whole frame is vibrating with it. “Rimmer, are you having some kind of stroke?” 

“Will you kindly shut up while I’m trying to apologise to you, you great, gurning gimboid?” Rimmer hisses. “I’m sorry, okay, I’m just sorry. I’m sorry for being such an unloveable, cantankerous bastard the entire time you’ve known me, and for-- for acting like I don’t care about you, about any of you. When I thought I’d lost you and I realised I’d just be alone floating through space until my batteries died…”

He can’t bring himself to finish the sentence, but Lister’s hand on his blanketed knee stops him anyway.

“Rimmer, you may be a cantankerous old bastard, but --”

“I never said old.”

“But you’re our cantankerous old bastard.”

“I never said old.”

When Lister finally unleashes the laughter he’s been holding in, loud and carefree, Rimmer finally looks at him properly. The hand on his knee jostles him as Lister moves with his laughter, and Rimmer has to purse his lips tightly together to stop himself from smiling. Something in his chest is flitting about and making him feel strange and impulsive. His half-smile slips into something more serious. 

Lister looks him in the eye and sees it.

“There’s something else, Lister,” Rimmer says.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, go on then.”

“It’s about, uh… I...”

For some reason, he can’t force any more words out, and just stares at Lister like a deer in the headlights. 

“You know, actually, it’s nothing.”

“Rimmer!”

As it does every time, Rimmer’s twisted little traitor of a heart clenches at the sound of his name in Lister’s mouth, like the Liverpudlian bastard has reached into his chest and squeezed. 

“Lister…" he responds weakly, looking away, already embarrassed without even saying anything. It must be so obvious, Rimmer thinks angrily, feeling the heat rising to his cheeks. How can he not know?

Lister shakes his head when it becomes clear Rimmer can’t continue. “It’s fine, anyway, Rimmer. I already know what you’re going to say.”

Rimmer’s head snaps up. “You do?”

“Yeah,” Lister replies easily.

“Oh, well then. That’s. Well. And?”

“And?”

“And, how do you feel?”

“About you?”

“No, Lister,” Rimmer sniffs, “about your last chicken madras. Obviously about me.”

Lister scratches his chin. “Well, I feel the same.”

Rimmer's heart rises into his throat so quickly that he feels dizzy from vertigo. "You…? You…?" he stutters. "So you…?"

He might throw up.

Lister smiles at him. “It's nothing to be ashamed of, Rimmer."

"It's not?"

"Of course not. Men these days are way too afraid to put their hand on their mate's shoulder," -- Lister does just that-- "and say, 'Rimmer--'"

Rimmer's heart is about to burst. He's about to weep like a woman. His whole life has been leading to this moment. 

"'--You're my best friend in the world and I love you like a brother'."

A muscle twitches in Rimmer’s cheek. 

“Like a-- a brother?"

God, he's got this all wrong. Of course he smegging has. 

Christ, what an idiot. What a sick bastard he'd been to even begin-- to even consider--

What was he thinking? This isn't like him at all. To even entertain the thought that--

Lister! Lister, who's as straight as an arrow! He'd really thought that Lister, who is one hundred and ten percent straight, straighter than--

"Rimmer," Lister says, and Rimmer realises his eyes have glazed over and he's been staring into space.

"What?" Rimmer says, trying to keep himself from falling apart and making things worse.

He feels hyper-aware of how he's sitting now, draped across the sofa like a regular Oscar Wilde. He feels awful, disgusting even, and tries to sit up straighter--

And Lister is looking at him with that funny twinkle in his eye. 

It takes a long moment, and then, “You bastard."

Lister laughs again, but there's no malice in it, only fondness, and… and...

“You really are a complete goit, Lister, d’you know that?” he responds, trying to sound calm.

The weight of his heart pounding against his ribcage almost knocks him off balance and the weird relief hasn't quite set in because he's still reeling from bitter horror and self-loathing. The whiplash makes his head spin.

“Oh, I’m the goit?” Lister starts to laugh again, more of a pained wheeze really, but it dies in his throat.

Rimmer doesn't notice the tears until they blur his vision.

There’s a pause.

"Oh," Lister says. "Oh, Rimmer…"

There it is. Rimmer can hear it in his voice. It. The 'it' he's desperate for, the thing he'd give up everything for. The 'it' he'd thought was above him, reserved for husband and wife, unattainable for the likes of him, and he needs to hear it, needs Lister to tell him.

"Just to be clear-- " Rimmer starts, voice cracking, seconds away from the most pathetic sob of his life.

But the sound is absorbed by Lister, who surges toward Rimmer like he's catching him mid-fall, and the kiss is a relief unlike anything Rimmer has ever felt. He melts into it, into the feeling of Lister's palm cupping his cheek carefully, and his mind goes quiet except for sensation.

Warm breath. Calloused fingers. Tender pressure. Chapped lips. Hard teeth. Wet tears. Desperation. Awkwardness. Inexperience. Thirty years. 

And love.

Rimmer can feel it in the way Lister holds him, in the way Lister keeps kissing him despite the awkward position making him wince, in the noises he makes against Rimmer's lips.

When Lister finally inches away, Rimmer is afraid to open his eyes. He can feel how close Lister is still, can feel his heavy breaths gusting over his mouth. 

If Rimmer were a shade redder, he could be served at a Lobster restaurant.

"Smeghead," Lister says, and Rimmer feels the hand cupping his face shift, a thumb swiping away the cold tears. 

Rimmer does open his eyes, and he's glad he does, because Lister kisses him again, just briefly. No more than a peck, the kind you'd give your spouse before they leave for work, and then he leans away again.

"I'm sorry," Lister says. "I do love you, Rimmer. I'm sorry you didn't know it."

Rimmer clears his throat. "Well. I suppose I made it quite hard to love me."

"Not really."

"Oh?"

"In spite of your being a cantankerous old bastard--"

"I never said old!"

"It's actually very easy to love you."

"It is?" 

"Maybe not very. I'd say quite ."

Rimmer is quiet and pensive as he attempts to digest this.

"I've always loved you, Rimmer. Even when I wasn't in love with you."

Rimmer is overwhelmed. 

"You're in-- ?" 

Rimmer clears his throat again, eyes widening. "Well, let's not get carried away. This isn’t Romeo and Juliet.” Abruptly, he twists away again and sits up properly, though he's far closer to Lister than he had been.

Lister grins at him, and when he does, Rimmer can see how tired he looks beneath it all. “I sure hope not. Do you even know what happens in Romeo and Juliet ?”

“Of course I know what happens in Romeo and Juliet, you complete baboon.”

“Hm,” Lister says, amused, and settles his head against Rimmer’s shoulder.

They lapse into silence, facing the television together, and eventually Rimmer let's his own head loll against Lister. It's tentative and it feels strange after so many years of holding back, but he likes it. He likes it a lot.

Rimmer almost believes he’s fallen asleep until he feels Lister’s body shaking slightly. For a moment, just a brief, blissful moment of ignorance, Rimmer worries it’s fever shivers, or something worse. Then, the silence is punctuated by the smack of his pursed lips and a few quiet noises of amusement.

“What is it?” Rimmer snaps, knowing he’ll regret it.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Lister replies, laughing in earnest now. “I was just thinking about when we found those Taylor Swift albums and you claimed to know nothing about them despite the fact they were--”

Rimmer looks sharply down at him, but Lister has closed his eyes. “Listen here, you utter git, as I explained before--”

“Yes, yes, I know. They were Yvonne McGruder’s,” Lister cuts in, emphasising her name in Rimmer's voice. “It’s just that, you know, I could kind of understand why someone would think Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending if their only exposure to it was ‘Love Story’.”

“Lister,” Rimmer hisses. “I bloody well know what happens in Romeo and Juliet . It’s just a thing people say!”

“Okay, Juliet.”

“I’m sorry? Juliet? Why do I have to be Juliet?”

"Nevermind that, Rimmer. Aren't you forgetting something?"

"What? Am I?"

"It's a pretty integral part of Romeo and Juliet that they're… you know…"

"What? Two old fruits floating around deep space?"

" Requited ."

"Oh," Rimmer realises, taking in Lister's soft, patient expression. "Well, uh," he mutters, and wiggles deeper beneath the covers. "I'm actually..." He pretends to stifle a yawn. "I'm actually too tired to think, so, mm, I'd love to hear your stimulating thoughts in the morning…"

"Typical," Lister mumbles. "I confess my undying love and get slept on -- literally."

"Oh, just be quiet and go to sleep, you bloody invalid. Isn't it enough that I'm letting you lounge all over me like I'm some kind of human footstool."

"Serves me right, falling for a grandpa," Lister continues as if Rimmer hasn't spoken.

"Hmph."

"You'd never make a good footstool anyway, Rimmer. You're far too ugly."

Biting back the desire to argue, Rimmer settles against Lister again. It's hard to argue when he's tired, too. 

It's been a long week, he reflects, and his attempt to focus on the television is thwarted by how heavy his eyelids are. 

Beneath the quilt, Lister's fingers find his own, and they intertwine easily, and Lister's body against his side is a comforting weight, and Rimmer feels ten times lighter.

***

(As he's pulled down into blissful slumber, an interruption anchors Lister to the conscious world a few moments longer.

"I suppose I do," he hears.

The words sink in slowly, trickling to his brain like treacle.

"Duh wha'?" he mumbles, dimly aware that he's drooling onto soft fabric.

"Love you."

Lister smiles against something solid and warm.

It's Rimmer, he reminds himself. It's always been Rimmer.

And it's been a long, long week.

But by the time the credits bathe their entangled forms in blue light, Lister is sleeping more soundly than he ever has.)