Lister could distinctly remember the moment it had all changed.
They'd been sleeping together for three glorious months. Fourteen weeks of stupendous sex. What had begun as a drunken fumble had sprouted awkwardly into a series of unplanned trysts before blossoming into a full-on sexual --
-- well. Relationship wasn't quite the right word. Understanding, perhaps? It hardly mattered. After all, it wasn’t exactly the sort of topic they were going to sit down and discuss over a cup of tea (even if it did have five sugars). Definitions were tricky things, sometimes.
If the others knew anything about what was happening between them, they remained steadfastly quiet on the matter. Not that their bizarre relationship had altered much outside of the bunkroom. The pair still quarrelled, argued and bickered over every little thing - from board game rules to Drive Room shifts. It was only behind closed doors that their exchange of utterances and complaints dissolved into guttural moans and cries of pleasure.
But it had all changed one Sunday morning when the pair had slowly awoken in a warm embrace of limbs after a particularly interesting Saturday night. An entanglement that had rather pleasantly evolved from sleepy nuzzles to luxuriously lazy sex.
It had been the first time they’d slept together in the light of day and, strangely, it had made the act suddenly feel that much more real. As if every other session beforehand had been an illicit affair of the night, caught somewhere between dream and fantasy.
They lay together afterwards in a warm, content silence; Lister spooning Rimmer as the pair faced out into the artificial morning light of the bunkroom. Tracing a thoughtful thumb up and down the hairs of the forearm that draped over him, Rimmer sighed happily as the man began to leave a trail of soft kisses on his bare skin; a tender path that led from bare shoulder to the nape of his neck.
Lister had no idea why he'd done it. He’d simply acted on a compulsion that held no sexual motive; one that was purely an expression of -- who knows? It felt impossible to define.
Suddenly, the hologram twitched oddly, his entire body stiffening against the gesture before he dragged his knees up to his stomach, curling up into a defensive ball.
Lister drew back gently, sensing the man’s obvious discomfort. “Rimmer?” he probed. “You okay?”
Flustered, Rimmer reached down and snatched up his tunic and trousers from the floor next to him. Still steadfastly facing away, he clutched the bundle to his chest and leapt out of the bed as if it had suddenly become engulfed in flames.
“I've got to go - !” he mumbled, embarrassed, as he stumbled towards the shower cubicle.
Lister’s gaze trailed after him, lost, but he refused to follow. Instead, he suddenly felt far too exposed; choosing instead to tug the duvet over his naked body and shiver into the pillow.
The matter seemed to have been forgotten a few days later. That evening, Rimmer had shuffled towards him awkwardly as they sat on the sofa; a kiss that lingered with a meaningful tug on Lister’s lower lip that could only suggest one particular pastime.
But once again, as Lister offered to share the blanket and enjoy an intimate, post-coital snuggle, Rimmer was already making his excuses; turning away to fumble on his clothes before snatching up a pile of revision books and scuttling out towards the Drive Room. He must have been in one hell of a rush to revise. He'd managed to grab one of Lister’s Zero-Gee Monthly magazines in his haste.
Lister couldn't work out whether he'd been asleep by the time the hologram had returned to the bunkroom, or if Rimmer had not slept there at all. By the time he woke up the next morning, the Cat was already perched on a stool at the table, slowly and elegantly savouring a plate of buttered toast like it was afternoon tea at the Ritz.
Rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands, Lister stretched lazily, his gaze refocusing on the figure that was stood at the kitchenette making tea.
“Mornin’,” he croaked carefully, the greeting equivalent of wetting one’s finger and holding it aloft to test which particular direction the wind was blowing that day.
Rimmer glanced over his shoulder, his expression unreadable. “Morning,” he mirrored, before returning to his task.
Stretching once more, Lister slipped down out of the top bunk and perched on the stool next to the Cat. He only noticed half-way through a yawn, that Rimmer was now stood beside him, wordlessly setting a box of Choco-Planets and a steaming hot mug of tea in front of him.
“-- oh! Cheers, man!” Lister smiled warmly.
Something almost imperceptible tugged at the corner of Rimmer’s mouth as he raised an eyebrow at the uncivilised, open-mouthed yawning before peeling away to fetch his own mug of tea.
Lips hovering to blow ripples across the surface, Lister took a cautious sip. He sighed contentedly as he set it down to cool slightly. Milk and three sugars, just the way he liked it.
Ignoring the bowl and spoon, Lister grabbed the cereal box and thrust his hand inside to eat, like it were a large box of popcorn. He grinned happily as Rimmer took the stool beside him, taking an initial, careful sip from his own steaming mug before plucking up his book on astronavigation and studying it intently.
It was a ritual they'd perfected these last couple of weeks. Whilst above the table their demeanour was characteristically distinct, beneath the surface their feet would conduct a conversation of their own; subtly and silently engaging in a slow, deliberate act of unspoken flirtation.
As soon as Lister’s toes began to slide up and down the back of Rimmer’s heel, a contented look began to warm the man’s cheeks as he continued to read. Lister smiled to himself. Perhaps things were back to normal now - whatever that definition of the word was nowadays.
Suddenly Rimmer froze, hunching his shoulders awkwardly before pulling away his foot with a marked cough. Toast still held aloft, the Cat's munching slowed audibly; inquisitive feline eyes leaping silently from Rimmer’s flustered blush to Lister's pained sideways glance. Before either of them could meet his questioning gaze, his attention quickly dropped back to his breakfast, chewing over more than the stale crusts.
Clutching the book to his chest, Rimmer scraped back the stool to stand and made a hurried grab for his tea. “Well, I better get down to the -- argh!” Rimmer quickly set down the scalding hot mug before picking it up by the handle instead. He cleared his throat. “ -- sorry, Drive Room. Better get down to the Drive Room. Cat, I'll see you there. 9:00 sharp.”
The Cat glared at Rimmer warily, eyes fixed on his every move as he hurried out of the room. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered distantly.
Lister stared after him, dumb-founded. He'd been rather enjoying this game they’d been playing these last three months, but smeg it all if he knew what the rules were. He sighed, shaking his head sadly before turning to the feline beside him. “Hey, Cat, you gonna -- ?”
“WOAH!” The Cat whipped back to face him, startled, his bouffant suddenly looking a tad more voluminous than usual. “What! Am I gonna what?”
Lister quickly leant away, regarding him strangely through one eye. “What's up with you?” he asked, bemused. The Scouser shovelled another handful of cereal into his mouth, speaking through open chews. “You're more jumpy than a kangaroo with a nervous disorder.”
“Sorry, bud,” the Cat muttered, visibly relaxing into a familiar disgusted curl of the lip at his less-than-sophisticated eating habits. “It's just you guys are throwing me off with all these pheromones you're both putting out.”
Lister blinked, confused. “Phero-what?” he mused before dismissing it with a mournful wave of the hand. “Whatever.” He nodded in indication to the doorway. “All he seems to be putting out is a 'smeg off' vibe.”
Cat glanced at him, surprised. Humans were so damn slow. Eventually, he rolled his eyes, pushing aside the empty plate before picking up a mug of his own. “Whatever, man. It's time for this cat to have his drink.” He jutted his head to his mug in indication. “See this milk? It is mine. You can't have it.”
Lister smirked. You could adapt some behaviours but you couldn't subdue instinct. One hand still clutching the box and the other a handful of cereal, he held them aloft in mock surrender. “Fair dues, guy. It's your milk.”
As Lister chewed thoughtfully on another mouthful of cereal, the Cat slowly raised the mug to his lips to drink; eyes darting left and right for any over-shoulder milk bandits.
Lister had spent a long, tiring day tinkering with the broken skutters to try and tick off one of the practical modules for his robotics course. By the time he’d reached the Sleeping Quarters, Rimmer had already returned from his Drive Room shift. The man was sat on the sofa, watching an unseen video on the screen.
As he clocked Lister’s presence, Rimmer drew his knees up to his chest; the cushion that he’d been leaning on quickly conscripted for another duty as he clutched it against himself anxiously.
“Evening,” he muttered, suddenly on edge. “I-I didn't think you'd be back so early.”
Lister shrugged, scratching at the back of his head where dreads met scalp. “Was feeling a bit knackered so I thought I’d knock off for the night.” Raising an eyebrow at the man’s somewhat strange position, he gave a subtle sideways nod to the screen, amused. “I’m guessing you had similar plans?”
The hologram gave a snort that was two-parts disgust, one-part amusement. “Not unless you count the manoeuvres of the Armee du Nord as pornographic.”
With a snigger, Lister glanced back to the screen which was indeed playing some sort of duller-than-dull war documentary. “And here's me thinking I knew all your kinks!” he teased lightly.
Whatever levity had lit his features before now quickly dropped into a shadow of unease as Rimmer wordlessly turned his attention back to the screen. Ignoring the reaction, eased himself onto the sofa beside him with a tired groan before leaning across to grant the man his usual peck of greeting.
As soon as the lips plucked at his cheek, Rimmer stiffened visibly, clutching even tighter at the cushion. Lister pulled back with a weary exhale.
“Rimmer, I was only giving you a kiss,” he chastised. “I already said I was tired.” He glanced back to the bunk room door which he always ensured was firmly closed in the evenings. “Besides, nobody’s here. It's just us.”
Embarrassed, Rimmer shifted as his eyes tweaked with discomfort; as if he wanted to be absolutely anywhere else in the cosmos at that very moment apart from sat on the same sofa as David Lister.
Lister’s heart deflated with an audible sigh. “Okay,” he relented with a slow, sad nod of comprehension. “Look, if you don't wanna carry on with what we’re doin’, you don't have -- ”
“When did I say I wanted to break this off?” Rimmer cut in, affronted. “That that's what I wanted?”
Confusion pinched at Lister’s features before relaxing into a deserved annoyance as he sank back into the sofa. “Well I'm glad you know what you want, cos I've got no smegging idea," he said flatly.
“Well, I'm sorry, okay! It’s just - ” Rimmer sighed raggedly. “ - it's complicated.”
Lister looked distinctly unimpressed. “Well, how about you un-smegging-complicate it, before I do the honours first?” he bit back. “Because, funnily enough, I'm not particularly enjoying having to play Sherlock around you all the time.”
Rimmer could clearly detect the warning signs that pulsed across the man’s glare and arguably reached the most sensible deduction of all that an explanation was due. He switched off the documentary with an awkward clear of the throat.
“You see, what we’re doing - " The hologram squirmed on the sofa. “You know – ” He gestured vaguely, as if wrestling with an invisible Rubix Cube.
Lister's brow furrowed as he focused on the man’s hands before returning his gaze under the shadow of a questioning eyebrow. “Sex,” he clarified.
Nervous eyes darted to the doorway as Rimmer’s feathers ruffled. “Yes, well -” he groused. “It’s entirely different to what seems to be, um -- you know. Rather evident.”
“And what exactly do you feel is ‘rather evident’?” Lister snapped, wounded by the cold, clinical harshness of the man’s words. “Y’know, beyond your obvious dislike of me even touching you unless we’re shagging?”
Pained, Rimmer’s attention snagged on the walls. “It's not like that,” he muttered.
“Then what is it like, eh?” Lister swallowed back the lump in his throat, frowning against the hot, angry tears that threatened to gather. “Because it doesn't take a smegging genius to work out that you're only interested in me for the rumpy-pumpy, Rimmer.”
At the man’s reaction, Lister brandished his arms, having quite clearly hit the mark. “What?” he challenged. “Is it a tad inconvenient that the person who supposedly disgusts you is the only one who can get you off?”
The dam began to strain under the weight of words unsaid as Rimmer stared back at him hard. “That's not the case.”
“Then what is the problem?”
“It’s because of what it's doing to my lightbee!” Rimmer blurted, clutching the cushion tighter until his knuckles turned white. Suddenly self-conscious, he tore his gaze away, mumbling into into the soft depths. “There's something wrong with it - ”
Out of all the responses he was expecting, a technical fault certainly wasn’t on the list. Clocking the genuine fear in the hologram’s eyes, concern began to pool in Lister’s gut. “You what?” he breathed.
In the strained silence that followed, Lister fought to snatch eye contact, a reassuring hand slipping, unthinking, onto his arm. “Rimmer, man, you're worrying me now. What's wrong?”
Glancing down to the unexpected touch, Rimmer’s shoulders hunched awkwardly in response to some unseen effect. He returned the questioning gaze through the corner of his eye, flitting across Lister’s face in critical assessment as if weighing up the options.
Finally he sighed his relent, slowly lowering the cushion to his lap. The blue material of his tunic seemed to resonate strangely across his chest as trembling fingers fumbled at the buckle near his badge before undoing it completely.
The man’s bare chest would have looked realistically human if it hadn't have been for the ethereal glow that pulsed from its centre, radiating outwards. His lightbee was buzzing audibly, clearly on overdrive.
“Smeggin’ hell.” Lister ran experimental fingers across the warm surface, an act which only seemed to increase the glow. “Does it hurt?”
Rimmer shook his head, embarrassed. “It only seems to happen when you - ” he fumbled awkwardly over his words. “ - or when I feel -- ”
Flitting between the strange glow and the man’s current expression, Lister shrugged, confused. “What? Scared?”
“No,” said Rimmer simply. “No, quite the opposite actually.” At Lister’s blank look, he stumbled on. “It's strange, but it's been glitching in reaction to what I’m feeling when you - ” He bit his lip as he gestured in loose indication to his neck, uncertain how to explain. “Or when we’re -- ” Thoughtful hands stroked at the blanket that always seemed to be slung on the back of the sofa.
Hazel eyes screwed closed, as if the answer lie somewhere in the darkness. “Tea,” he decided finally.
Lister blinked twice, wishing - not for the first time - that he could be privy to a set of rules to this game. “Tea?” he echoed weakly.
Opening his eyes, Rimmer nodded with a distant smile, mind elsewhere. “That look you gave me when I brought you that tea this morning. We just sat at the table together with a cup of tea, just happy to be in one another’s company. And that's when I realised that I felt - ”
Despite his attempts to gesture wordlessly once again, this time Rimmer’s hands couldn’t hope to define their subject. Fair to say, even the concept itself eluded many. To subjugate such a feeling using the cruel limitations of language? Impossible.
The hologram frowned, confused. “ - we did nothing, but it felt like everything.”
Yet it was this very mess of meaning that allowed the final piece of the puzzle to slot into place. Lister's gaze softened under the comprehension. “Smeggin’ hell,” he whispered. “Rimmer, do you - ? Do you lov – ?”
“ - NO.” Flustered, Rimmer’s hands frantically batted away the word before it could even be spoken, though his eyes radiated a different sentiment. “We're not using that word. Because it isn’t! It certainly isn't – ” His eyes dropped in embarrassment to search Lister's jacket, as if the correct term were secretly stitched somewhere into the leather. “ - that.”
Despite the white-hot rush in his chest that screamed for him to rush in, Lister slowed his breathing as much as possible as he suppressed a grin that threatened to conquer his face. “This ain't about the word, Rimmer. It's about how you feel. What that means.”
Rimmer’s face hardened as the instinctive defences attempted to shutter down. “Fine,” he huffed. “You want to know what ‘love’ means?” He grimaced at the word, as if it left a bitter taste in his mouth. “‘Love’ is just a means to an end. It's just a word that people use to get close to you.”
Dark eyes blinked in genuine confusion. “Yes, Rimmer. Close. That's the point.”
From the silent protection of the barricade, wary eyes darted across him as Rimmer scouted for the unspoken attack that was sure to follow.
Lister chipped away gently; blood had been excavated from stones in less time. “Okay, forget the word and what it’s ‘supposed’ to mean,” he soothed. “Sod the definition - I mean, we already burnt the last smeggin’ dictionary in existence when we got marooned on that ice planet.” He nodded slowly in encouragement. “Just concentrate on what's here. Right in front of yer.”
Sliding his hand towards Rimmer's, he hovered just before it, glancing up to the man’s face for permission. Hazel eyes searched the stare before dropping to his own twitching hand that tentatively reached out to his.
Gratitude graced the acknowledging nod as Lister gently took his hand. “You wanna know what I think love is?” He guided it to the worn cotton of his t-shirt, encouraging long, lean fingers to splay across his chest.
Underneath the surface trembles of Rimmer’s palm, a far deeper bass thumped from within the warmth of Lister's chest. Against the light pressure of the hologram’s hand, he could feel how his own chest hammered from the relentless pounding of his heartbeat; fast, excited and insistent.
Lister smiled, unabashed, at the hand that cradled his heart. “This is what you do to me, man. It's you.”
Hazel eyes made the slow climb from Lister’s chest to the warm, open gaze that awaited him. A smile, small at first but growing in confidence, began to inch experimentally across blushing cheeks as the glow began to pulse happily.
As if coming back to himself, Rimmer glanced down self-consciously to his lightbee before he returned to Lister’s smirk, his face clouded unimpressed. “And it seems this is what you do to me,” he grumbled. “Give my hardware a stupid smegging glitch.”
“Oh come on, man!” Lister sniggered warmly. “It's cute!”
“Lister,” the hologram ground out. “Five-year-olds dressed up for their first nativity are ‘cute’. This is bloody embarrassing.”
The Scouser gave a lofty shrug of the shoulders, a flick of the eyebrow not far behind it. “I dunno. I think it's quite sexy, y’know?”
Distracted by his own probing fingers that ran critically over his chest, Rimmer’s head whipped back up to face him. “Really?” he spluttered, genuinely surprised.
“Course it is, man.” Lister regarded him suggestively through one eye. “That is, if it only happens for me?”
Rimmer scowled, affronted. “Of course it only happens for you!”
Lister’s heart sung at the words. That was it. At this moment in time, at this new stage of their relationship, that was the closest Rimmer was going to get to expressing such a personal and exclusive reaction that resided somewhere in the vague outskirts of love.
Warming himself in the hologram’s familiar frown, Lister began to close the gap between them, hovering his lips over Rimmer’s. “Tell me that again.”
At the sudden, rather pleasant shift in gear, Rimmer’s breath hitched, the glow beginning to pulse quicker. “It-it only happens for you.”
Lister rewarded him with a deep, passionate kiss, their tongues slowly dancing together in harmony. Hands roamed across one another bodies, as if they needed to re-map the unexplored that lie in already familiar territory.
Eventually, Lister’s lungs tapped a polite reminder on his shoulder. He broke the kiss, pulling back breathless. “ -- tell me again.”
Rimmer’s pulsing chest was heaving rapidly, and not just at the exertion of such an entanglement. “It's only for you,” he pledged.
A loving smile stretched, cat-like, across Lister’s cheeks. With a call of “lights!”, the lips that had offered such sentiments were reclaimed once more as gentle, worshipping hands stripped one another of the final barriers.
And for the first time, they made love in the glow. Of course, it was essentially the same act, but now with a different meaning.
But hey. Definitions were tricky things, sometimes.