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The Deepest Rivers

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Harlan had always been a heavy sleeper. Most nights his head hit the pillow and he was out like a light, dead to the world until Thelma came in and woke them for breakfast. Even then he was usually the last one to wake up, after Thelma had tried just about everything short of dragging him out of bed by his ankles. So there was no reason for him to be awake in the middle of the night, while the lights were still dim in the bunk room and Bova was still snoring softly in his bed.

It took a minute for him to realize that Radu was gone. Whether or not that was a normal thing, Harlan had no idea, but he climbed out of his bunk anyway and let himself out into the corridor. He wasn't sure why he felt the need to go looking for Radu. They were friends, sure, even if it had taken Harlan a long time to admit it. First there was the whole Andromedan thing, and then Suzee distracted them for a while, but once they got past that they settled into a sort of truce, and somewhere along the way Harlan realized he actually trusted Radu. He wasn't about to admit it out loud, especially not in front of the Commander, but Radu had saved all their lives more than once, and that was something even Harlan couldn't overlook.

He wasn't really paying attention to where he was going, but before long Harlan found himself in a corridor near the back of the ship, not far from the engine room. He didn't spend a lot of time back here, but Suzee did, and suddenly Harlan wondered if he was about to interrupt some late night rendezvous between Suzee and Radu. If there was something going on between them they'd managed to keep it really quiet, though, and that didn't seem possible with Rosie on board. Then again, if they were sneaking out to meet up in the middle of the night, maybe it was possible.

Harlan ignored the tight knot of tension in his stomach and kept walking down the corridor until he reached a door he'd never noticed before. There was no reason to think Radu was inside, but Harlan reached out and touched the door anyway, and when it slid silently open he wasn't really surprised. He stepped into a room he'd never seen before, taking in the view of deep space out the glass on the wall opposite him, and the sight of Radu sitting on a low couch in front of the window.

"What the...?" Harlan said at the same moment Radu turned to look at him. "What is this place?"

"Some kind of observation room," Radu answered. He watched Harlan take a few steps into the room, still looking around at the stars rushing past them out the window. "I found it a few weeks ago."

Harlan tore his gaze away from the view to focus on Radu. He was watching Harlan walk further into the room, and he didn't seem annoyed that Harlan was there, but the thing with Radu was that he hardly ever seemed annoyed. He was really good at keeping his temper in check, which was one of the reasons they'd butted heads for so long. It drove Harlan crazy in the beginning that he could never get a rise out of Radu, that he could never push him far enough to make him lose his cool. Then Miss Davenport mind melded with the ship's computer and pulled that whole body switching trick on them, and Harlan realized just how much force Radu was holding back all that time. It made him think twice about pushing Radu's buttons constantly, partly because he didn't really want to give Radu a reason to break him in half, but mostly because Harlan finally understood everything Radu had to deal with.

"How come you didn't tell anybody?" he asked, and he didn't mean for it to sound like an accusation, but it came out that way anyway.

Radu just shrugged and turned to stare back out at the blackness of space. "It doesn't really serve any purpose, so I didn't see the point."

"You didn't see the point? Radu, we've been floating around in this bucket of scrap for three years now. It seems like a new room suddenly appearing is a pretty big deal."

Radu shrugged again, but he moved over on the couch to make room for Harlan. "To tell you the truth, I've been wondering if maybe the Christa made this room. For me."

"For you? What does that mean?" Harlan asked, sitting down next to Radu.

"You know how the Christa bonded with us when we first came on board. She had exactly the right amount of bunks and she tried to figure out what we like to eat, that sort of thing. So a few weeks ago I was feeling a little...overwhelmed. Everybody was asleep, but I could still hear everyone's hearts beating, and the Commander snoring, and even the engine humming. I just wanted a few minutes of quiet, to clear my head, you know? And when I walked down this corridor a door appeared, and this room was here."

When he stopped talking Harlan noticed just how quiet it was. He couldn't hear the engine noise, even though the engine room wasn't that far away. That didn't mean Radu couldn't hear it, but maybe it was more bearable when he was in here. Like the ship really did know what he needed, and made a space that would shut out some of the noise for a while.

"I don't know how you stand it," Harlan admitted. "I mean, Davenport only made me Andromedan for a couple hours, but the noise was unreal."

Radu laughed, and even that sounded softer than usual. Most likely the Christa was using some kind of sound dampeners in the room, he thought idly as he watched Radu turn to stare out the window again.

"To be honest, I kind of thought maybe I was going to find you and Suzee back here," Harlan said after awhile.

"Me and..." Radu turned back to frown at him, his forehead furrowed like he really didn't get what Harlan was saying. "Why would you think that?"

Harlan shrugged and looked away, feeling stupid all of a sudden. And it wasn't that he was jealous, exactly, but that knot was back in his stomach, and he felt his ears burning as he tried to come up for an explanation that wouldn't sound completely lame. "You had a thing for her when she first came on board."

"So did you."

Harlan shrugged again, because the truth was that he wasn't all that sure his thing for Suzee had ever really been about her. Mostly he'd been showing off because it bugged him that Radu liked her, and when she more or less shot them both down, he'd told himself it was for the best and gone back to trying to get a rise out of Radu in other ways.

"Anyway, I was looking for you and it kind of felt like the Christa was leading me toward the engine room, you know? That's where Suzee always hangs out, so I thought maybe..."

"You thought we were having secret meetings in the engine room?" Radu said, his soft laugh making Harlan's cheeks flush. "No way Rosie wouldn't have found out and told everybody by now."

Harlan had thought of that too, but he didn't say so. It was bad enough that he'd... well, he'd sort of admitted to being jealous, and the weird thing was that he couldn't really say who he was jealous of.

"So why were you looking for me?" Radu asked, and when Harlan looked over Radu was watching him.

"I woke up and you were gone," Harlan said, as though that was any kind of explanation. "I didn't mean to interrupt your quiet time. Sorry."

"No, it's okay," Radu said, the words coming out fast, like maybe he was afraid Harlan was going to leave. "I mean, it's nice to get a break from all the noise, but it's almost too quiet in here, you know?"

Harlan didn't know, not really. He hadn't been Andromedan long enough to really understand what Radu dealt with every day, and he had no idea how Radu managed to filter out enough noise to focus on anything.

"How do you stand it?" he asked before he could stop himself.

Radu shrugged, his shoulder brushing against Harlan's. "I told you, I filter out all the extra stuff and focus on what's important."

"Yeah, but how?"

"It helps to pick one sound, something constant to be a sort of baseline. If I focus on that one sound all the time, I can sort of measure everything else against it."

"So what do you focus on?" Harlan asked, turning until he could see Radu's profile. He thought of the engine humming away just down the corridor and wondered if that was the sound Radu would choose. Or maybe it was the sound the jump tubes made as the crew came and went around the ship. He watched Radu consider his answer, and he knew Andromedan biology worked differently than a human's did, but that didn't make the sight of Radu's ears starting to frost make him feel any better.

"Hey, you okay?" he asked, panic in his voice as he remembered the time Radu had gotten so sick he actually started snowing. Harlan reached out and touched the shell of Radu's ear, hissing at the cold against his fingers. "Should I go get Rosie?"

"No, it's..." Radu paused and took a deep breath. "Human body temperature goes up when you're embarrassed, right? Well, Andromedans have lower body temperatures, so we tend to..."

"Frost?"

"Yeah," Radu said, and he sounded so miserable that Harlan almost felt bad for bringing it up. Except it was the first time he'd actually gotten a real reaction out of Radu, so he couldn't bring himself to feel that sorry.

"So you're saying this is your version of blushing?"

Radu rolled his eyes this time, and for a second Harlan thought he really was going to start snowing again. He hadn't been trying to embarrass Radu, but now there was no way Harlan was letting him get away with not admitting what he was so worked up about.

"What's so embarrassing about focusing on a sound?" Harlan asked. "It's just noise, right?"

Radu looked like maybe he was rethinking the whole 'it's too quiet in here' speech, but he didn't tell Harlan to leave. Instead he swallowed and looked down at the gloves covering his hands as he answered.

"I focus on a heartbeat."

"What, like whoever's around? What if there are two people in the room with you?"

"No," Radu said, shaking his head. "It's always the same person."

And now he definitely looked like he was going to start snowing, but Harlan didn't mind, because his own face was burning so hot he thought he might catch fire. He wasn't sure how he knew who Radu was talking about without him saying it out loud, but as soon as Radu looked up at him Harlan's heart started hammering in his chest, and he knew without a doubt that Radu was listening to it race.

"At first it was just because we were always together," Radu said, talking too fast again. "We had all the same shifts on the bridge, you know, and we sleep in the same quarters. And after awhile it was just sort of a habit, I guess."

"What about that time I was kidnapped by those aliens who thought I was their reincarnated king?"

"I could still hear you," Radu answered, but he sounded sort of miserable about it.

It was kind of weird, knowing that Radu could hear his heart beating even through mountain tunnels, but it was kind of flattering too. He never would have guessed that he was helping Radu filter out all the extra noise; it never dawned on him to try to help Radu with anything, and what kind of friend did that make him?

"When I thought you were in here with Suzee I guess I was sort of was jealous," he said, and he had no idea what made him admit it, but when he ventured a glance at Radu his ears were frosting over again. "But not of you."

"Oh," Radu said, blinking like maybe he was surprised. Harlan didn't blame him; he was pretty surprised about the way the night was turning out himself, but now that he'd admitted it out loud he didn't really want to take it back.

Harlan reached out and touched the edge of Radu's ear again, fingers trailing along cold skin to watch the frost melt under his touch. "That is so weird."

"Hey," Radu protested, but before he got any further Harlan leaned in and kissed him.

Harlan knew it wasn't Radu's first kiss, because he'd seen Radu kiss Elmira the last time they saw her. So there was no reason for him not to kiss Harlan back, unless Harlan had read the situation all wrong. Maybe Radu wasn't listening to his heartbeat because he liked Harlan. Maybe he was just listening because he was hoping for the day Harlan dropped dead and got out of Radu's hair. It wasn't that far-fetched an idea, and a couple years ago Harlan would have said it was a lot more likely than Radu kissing him back.

A second passed, then another, and when Radu didn't respond Harlan's stomach filled with lead and he pulled back. He forced himself to look at Radu, expecting him to make up some excuse and run away, or maybe finally get around to breaking Harlan in half. They both knew Radu could do it, and the fact that he never had still surprised Harlan sometimes.

"Your heart's racing," Radu said instead, his hand coming up to rest on the center of Harlan's chest.

Harlan let out a nervous laugh and told himself that if Radu hated the idea of them he'd probably be leaving right now instead of feeling Harlan up. "Yeah, well, I'm sort of taking the chance here that you're not going to finally put that super strength of yours to use and throw me through a wall or something."

Instead of answering Radu just shook his head and curled his fingers around the front of Harlan's shirt. "Did you mean that?"

"What?" Harlan asked, even though he had a feeling he already knew.

"About being jealous. I mean, you're not just making fun of me, are you?"

Harlan rolled his eyes, but it was mostly at himself for giving Radu every reason to think this might be Harlan's idea of a great joke. Maybe it would have been a few years ago, but a lot had changed in a few years.

"No joke," he said, and when Radu grinned and pulled him forward Harlan sort of wanted to cry from relief.

Instead he let Radu kiss him this time, and if his heart sped up even more, Radu only had himself to blame. The thought made Harlan grin against Radu's lips, but when Radu pulled back to frown at him, Harlan just shook his head and slid his hand into Radu's hair to tug him forward again. He tilted his head to fit their mouths together, lips parting and when Radu let out a little sigh against him, Harlan felt it all the way to his toes. He hadn't been planning any of this, and until it was actually happening he didn't even know it was a possibility. But it felt right, and if the way Radu was kissing him back was anything to go on, he felt it too.

"Why'd you come looking for me?" Radu asked when they came up for air, his hand still pressed to Harlan's heart like he was counting the beats.

Harlan shrugged, his own hand buried in Radu's hair and sort of stroking along his neck. "Like I said, I woke up and you were gone. I guess I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

"But why tonight? I've left you sleeping dozens of times before and you've never noticed."

Harlan pictured Radu wandering the ship alone while the rest of them were sleeping and wished he'd known about it a long time ago. Then again, if it was the only time Radu really got a break from the noise the rest of them made all day, he probably needed the alone time. Still, he couldn't help imagining Radu lying in his bunk, waiting for the rest of them to fall asleep so he could have the ship to himself, and maybe wishing he had a little company.

"Well, like you said, you thought the Christa sensed you wanted quiet and made you this room. Maybe she sensed that I wanted to find you, and she led me here."

"So, what, the Christa's a matchmaker now?" Radu asked, his lips turned up in a smirk.

Harlan shrugged, but he couldn't quite bite back his own smile. "Stranger things have happened since we've been out here, man."

"Like the whole body swap thing."

"And the time Goddard and Davenport got turned into kids."

"Don't forget the time Bova accidentally sold himself to a humanoid zoo," Radu said, his grin lighting up his whole face.

Harlan laughed at the memory and squeezed Radu's shoulder. "Even that wasn't as weird as that computer that tried to kidnap Suzee."

Radu's smile turned a little wistful and his hand left Harlan's chest, and for a second Harlan thought maybe he'd said something wrong. Radu looked down at his knees, and when he looked up again his expression was almost shy. "So what happens now?"

What Harlan wanted to do was stay right where they were and keep kissing for as long as they could get away with it, but it was already pretty late, and he knew Thelma would find them in the morning whether they made it back to their bunks or not. If she found them here the rest of the crew would know about Radu's secret room by breakfast, and they'd all start asking questions Harlan wasn't sure either of them were ready to answer yet.

"Right now I guess we go get some sleep," he said. "This doesn't really change anything, right? I mean, you're still my best friend."

"I am?" Radu said, surprised, and man, Harlan had a lot to make up for.

"Of course." Harlan stood up and reached out a hand, pulling Radu up off the couch and flush against him. "But maybe the next time you want to take a late night field trip, you'll invite me along instead of making me look for you."

He dipped his head to kiss Radu again, taking his time just in case he hadn't gotten his point across yet. When he finally pulled back Radu was breathing kind of hard - something else Harlan had never seen him do before - and he looked a little dazed. It was a good look, and Harlan grinned and brushed another soft kiss across his lips before he reached for Radu's hand and pulled him toward the door.

"I'm really glad you came looking for me," Radu said as the door slid open to let them out into the corridor.

"Me too." Harlan slid his arm around Radu's shoulders and steered him back toward their quarters. They had a full day of classes and a bridge shift ahead of them, but maybe tomorrow night he'd get the chance to show Radu just how glad he was.