Saying that Marcus Cole had a crush on her was like saying that black holes were big and scary: really fucking obvious and something that Susan never wanted to deal with. Granted, Marcus was cuter than a black hole, and if Susan were completely honest with herself she had to admit that she had fantasized more than once about running her hands through his absurdly perfect hair, but his chipper, unfailing persistence tended to negate all that.
It was very hard to be pursued by someone when Susan didn't especially want to be pursued. If all the Ranger had wanted was a quick fuck, she could have handled that. A more drawn-out but still casual arrangement wouldn't have been bad either. But she got the distinct impression that Marcus was looking for romance.
Susan didn't do romance anymore.
"Look," she sighed, after refusing the fifth drink that Marcus had offered to buy her, "I'm flattered and everything, but do you have any idea how creepy you are coming off?
Marcus grinned. "Why, because I sent you flowers once? And bought you breakfast once?" Susan shot him a glare over her vodka, and the cheerful smile faded. "Okay, obviously, I've done more than that."
"You haven't quite reached the level of 'stalker' yet, but you're getting damn close."
For a split second, Marcus looked horrified. "Have I really been that irritating?"
Susan lifted her glass to her lips and kicked back the clear, cold liquor. "Yes." She caught the bartender's eye and motioned for a refill. When it came, she leaned her folded arms against the bar and stared into the depths of her glass. She could see straight through to the blue metal of the bar, but it was the only clarity she was getting. "'S not your fault, though. You just happened to fixate on the most emotionally unavailable woman on the station."
"Who says I'm looking for an emotional connection?"
The commander snorted. "You do. You have 'White Knight' written in neon letters twelve feet tall blinking so brightly across your forehead that the words are burned into my retinas."
"Well, that's nice," said Marcus, his good humor restored. "I always wanted to be the white knight, riding the big horse and slaying dragons and all that stuff."
"Not rescuing damsels?"
"Only if they wanted me to," he said, very diplomatically.
Susan turned her head to look at her admirer, studying his dark, eager face. "You know what's tattooed across my forehead?"
"'Bad Day in Progress, Send Alcohol'?"
"'Danger. Exposed Electrical Wiring. Keep Out.'"
"Ah, that's... ah."
"Ah," Susan agreed, tossing back her shot. "What about you? You want a drink?"
"Oh, no thanks."
"You try to ply me with alcohol and don't have the decency to at least drink with me?"
"Well, I'm not much of a drinker," Marcus admitted, smiling in a cute, bashful way that made Susan want to lick her lips and doing this little head-shake thing that always caused his hair to shimmer like a goddamned shampoo commercial and gave Susan the urge to sigh like a schoolgirl.
Talia'd made her feel that way, too. Same perfect hair, smooth and shining, not a strand out of place. Just looking at it had driven Susan crazy, made her long to reach out and muss it up, ruffle it, run her fingers through it, bury her face in it and inhale Talia's crisp, clean scent, faint rose perfume and expensive soap and some undefinable powdery smell that Susan couldn't really place but always reminded her of Talia now.
"Have a water, at least," Susan muttered, gesturing to the bartender. "You're creepy enough, sitting there staring at me with nothing else to do."
That clearly got under Marcus's skin. "Just a water, then." He grinned. "Somebody's got to be your designated driver."
Susan brushed her thick, unruly hair back behind her ear. Sometimes she wore it loose during her shift, but when she kept it braided back, her scalp always ended up screaming after ten hours in C&C. "You think I can't be trusted to drink alone?"
"You think I can't be trusted to drink alone?" Susan asked, a little defensively.
"I didn't say that," replied Talia, in that slightly throaty way she had when she was being sincere.
"No, but you thought it," Susan retorted. "I can see it in that little smirk of yours."
"What, you mean the same smirk you're wearing right now?"
"I am not!"
"Yes, you are. You're just so pleased with yourself right now," Talia teased, "for having figured out my nefarious ulterior motive."
"To be the responsible, sober person at this table and make sure you get back to your quarters without planting your face in the deck plating."
"Damn," Susan grinned, gesturing with her shot glass. "And here I thought you were plotting to get me into bed."
Talia rolled her eyes and the two women laughed, but in their laughter was the uneasy realization of how much that off-the-cuff comment actually meant.
Susan jerked herself back from her memories. "It's got nothing to do with trust," Marcus was saying, "and everything to do with me not wanting to see you do something silly, like making a drunken call to C&C wanting to register a complaint about being harassed by a handsome, cheerful and unimpeachably persistent Ranger."
"You think you're handsome?"
"Well, Mother always said I had a winning smile." Marcus flashed a very genial example at her.
It made him look even more fuckable than before, but she suddenly felt her interest beginning to slip away. Maybe it was the booze talking, but something about that smile seemed... hollow. "You're a good-looking guy," she admitted bluntly, "but I don't trust you."
Once again, the eager Ranger looked genuinely hurt. "Ah. Well, um, that's..." And again, as soon as the mask came down, his appeal came back. "In that case, I'll just be going now."
"Marcus." Susan caught the dark cloth of his vest before she realized she didn't want him to leave. "I didn't mean... dammit. Look, I know you went through hell before you came here. I know, I can... I can see it in you." She could feel it, too, the little tendrils of extra-sensory cognition that she sometimes caught from people when she was really hammered. "I see all that pain and all that emptiness, but I know you don't want me to see it, and I don't like that." She released his uniform, and he sat slowly back down, his usual manic personality subdued.
"I've been..." Susan wrapped her fingers around her empty glass. Okay, now it was definitely the booze talking, but for once it felt good to talk. "I've been burned before, by people hiding one set of emotions behind a forced set of different ones. The last time... I loved her. I loved her, and I'm pretty sure she was on her way to loving me, and just when I was ready to trust her, she turned out to be someone completely different."
"Ah. Well, that would certainly explain your particular dislike of projected personae."
I'm not ready to be hurt like that again, Susan heard herself saying. But Marcus said nothing in response, and she realized belatedly that the melancholy little voice in her head was speaking far too loudly for anyone's good. "You try to put a brave face on everything to distract yourself from the hollow feeling. Which is the complete opposite of me, because I, in the most Russian of fashions, embrace the hollow feeling and fill that space with work and booze and the occasional one-night stand, rather than trying to actually heal it."
Marcus toyed quietly with his glass. "And you think that's really a better way of living? Being angry and bitter all the time instead of at least attempting to be happy?"
"It's been a long time since I've slept with anyone else in the bed," Talia commented drowsily, her head pillowed on Susan's shoulder. "You?"
"The same. I'm warning you, I'm a bit of a bed-hog."
"That's all right, I'm a bit of a cuddler," replied Talia, a smile in her voice as she snuggled closer. "God," she yawned, "I can't even remember the last time I was this comfortable... or this pleasantly exhausted."
Susan was anything but comfortable; she was too tense and keyed-up to relax. But she managed a grin. "Thank you for the compliment," she murmured, running her fingers through Talia's butter-yellow hair. The gentle, repetitive motion soon lulled Talia to sleep, but rest eluded Susan.
Finally she eased out from under Talia, dressed, and went to prowl the station's corridors in worried thought.
"Just be bitter," said Susan. "It's not pleasant, but at least it's honest. You've earned that bitterness and that anger. It is something to be cherished. Worn as armor. Don't hide it behind false happiness. Wear it. Like you wear your heart on your sleeve, and your memories in your eyes."
Marcus snorted softly. "I would happily let those memories go, if I could. They're not even worth the bitterness."
"I know what you mean. That's the problem with living in one place too long," Susan mused, as the bartender ignored her request for another vodka and silently brought her a cup of black coffee instead. "I remember sitting here with Talia for hours, me drinking vodka and her sticking to water and coffee, just the two of us talking about nothing. For hours." A little smile tugged unbidden at Susan's lips. "Those were some of the best times I've ever spent on this station. ...And the memories just build up and build up, good and bad and bright, until they overpower you."
She looked up to smile at Marcus, but his dark eyes were bleak and lost. "I'd love that sensation of permanence, actually," he said, his accented voice very serious, very soft. "My home doesn't exist anymore. Neither does anyone who lived there." He folded his hands on the bar with a deliberate motion, lacing his fingers together with great concentration. "All I've got left are the memories, and it's not very pleasant, remembering. It's easier to be happy. I can forget, for a while, how badly I let everyone down."
The silence hung between them while Susan sipped her coffee. He was a stupidly attractive man, especially when he was serious, and given both their moods, she wouldn't have minded going to bed with him—they could both use a chance to forget for a while. But the thought of bringing him back to her quarters made her stomach curl up, remembering Talia and the one night she and Susan had spent in Susan's bed. Those were memories she wasn't willing to overwrite, not yet.
Instead, she leaned over a bit and bumped his shoulder with her own. "C'mon," she said, "let me buy you a drink."