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Old tricks for new math

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The first few nights on the Tempest are lonely. After the bustle of Aya, the ship feels cavernous and sterile in comparison. Jaal's fine during the day, helping the Pathfinder when she needs him and figuring out how to fit his expertise into the duty roster when she's planetside, but he finds himself at a loss after the lights go dim and the crew retreats to their own private corners. The aliens gave him his own quarters, but the tech lab is cold and far away from everyone. He finds himself putting off going to bed as long as possible.

The ship feels empty during the night shift, but it's never entirely asleep. The bridge crew rotates in shifts, and there's almost always at least one person working through the night on a project that can't wait until morning.

Jaal is wary of going somewhere he's not welcome and testing the aliens' hospitality, so he stays out of the bridge. He wanders into Engineering one night and finds Gil muttering over a malfunctioning instrument panel, and commiserates with him about irresponsible beverage placement until Gil offers to show him how to use the hot patch gun. The panel is easy enough to fix, but then Gil offers to teach him a card game from Gil's home planet, which ends up taking up more than half the night. Jaal collapses onto his cot in the tech lab a couple hours before his shift is supposed to start, and is too tired to care how empty it is.

The next night, Jaal hangs around in the kitchen with a few of the human crew members who had tried to cook "curry" using fresh vegetables they'd picked up on Havarl, until everyone starts going their separate ways. He drifts into the medbay after that and lets Lexi tell him about her research for a while, but eventually Jaal gets the sense he's keeping her up, so he makes his excuses and leaves. It takes him a long time to fall asleep.

The night after that, Jaal tries to go to sleep alone, at a normal time. He really does. It's clearly the alien custom, and he's on an alien ship. He's got to adapt to their customs or this will never work, he knew that going in.

After a few hours he gives up, though. The only sounds in the tech lab are the hiss of the air recycler and the faint whirr of the instruments in standby mode. It's too quiet, too easy to feel like he's the only living being in the entire ship, maybe even the entire cluster. Out here between the stars, home is a very long way away.

He gets dressed again and goes out to poke around the ship, but Cora's the only one awake, working on a console in the cargo bay, and she tells him flat out she can't be bothered right now. He appreciates that, even if it stings. Too many of these aliens don't seem to say what they mean.

On his way back he passes the open door to the crew quarters. There's only the faint baseboard lights on inside, but someone makes a noise in their sleep, and Jaal lingers outside the doorway for a moment. It's a few degrees warmer than the rest of the ship, and it sounds like home, like his favorite porch to sleep on in the summers, surrounded by siblings and cousins. He tiptoes in and gently lowers himself into the armchair in the corner. He'll rest here for a moment, just to relax, and then he'll go back to his room.

He must drift off, because the next thing he's aware of is the sound of water from the bathroom down the hall, and then Liam touching his arm and saying softly, "Jaal? Are you sleeping in the chair? Don't sleep on a chair, buddy, you can share my bunk."

Jaal blinks himself slightly more awake and looks around. Liam is wearing soft drawstring pants with a pattern of small cartoon animals, and a stretched out, faded uniform shirt that's not in Andromeda Initiative colors. The bunk closest to the door is empty, and Liam's gesturing toward it.

"Are you sure you wouldn't mind?" Jaal asks, whispering so he won't wake the others.

"Yeah, of course not. C'mon, you'll get a crick in your neck." As far as Jaal can tell, Liam looks earnest. Jaal decides to take him at his word.

"Thank you," Jaal whispers. He climbs into the bunk and presses back against the sloped wall, leaving as much room for Liam as he can. Liam climbs in after him and pulls the blanket up around them. He shifts around until he's lying on his side with his back to Jaal's front, head nestled on the pillow next to Jaal's shoulder.

"Are you comfortable like this?" Liam asks.

Jaal considers for a moment. They fit together in the bunk better than he would have guessed. Humans are smaller than Angara, softer and less sinewy. Liam smells like machine oil and the mint toothpaste from the crew bathroom, and is very warm. "Yes," Jaal says. "This is comfortable."

"Awesome," Liam says, then yawns so widely Jaal can hear a click from his jaw. "'m gonna fall asleep soon, probably. Goodnight, Jaal."

"Goodnight," Jaal says. He feels Liam's breathing go slower and steadier by increments, and means to stay awake to catalogue the experience. No one in his family has ever slept next to an alien before.

Instead, Jaal falls asleep faster than he has since he left Aya.

"How'd you sleep?" asks a groggy voice somewhere off to the left of Jaal's ear.

Up until a second ago, Jaal was dead to the world. He takes stock. The lights are still low, but he can hear the room's other occupants beginning to wake up. His feet are cold; the blanket's fallen off them in the night. He has a cramp in his shoulder and an armful of very warm, very loose human. The human in question has his face buried in the side of Jaal's neck and his hand tangled up in Jaal's shirt.

"It was the best I've slept on this ship so far, " Jaal says, honestly. "How about you?"

Liam stretches and narrowly avoids elbowing Jaal in the face. "Really good. Ugh. I don't want to get up."

"Thank you for letting me stay," Jaal says. He thinks he said that last night, but he wants to make sure Liam knows. "I'm glad you didn't send me back to the tech lab."

"Anytime, mate," Liam says, smiling. "I've got to go hit the shower before Kallo gets in there, but feel free to sleep in if you want. It's still pretty early."

With that, Liam disentangles his limbs from Jaal's and disappears down the hall toward the showers. Someone at the far end of the room whistles at Liam as he passes, and someone else tells them to shut up. Jaal lies in the bunk for a few more minutes before determining he's not tired enough to fall back to sleep. He's hardly tired at all, actually. Despite the cramped quarters, he slept very well.

The next evening, Jaal bypasses the tech lab and goes straight to the crew quarters. He's not sure if Liam will want him there again – maybe it was a one-time kindness, or poor judgment in the middle of the night – but he won't know unless he asks.

Liam just grins like he's happy to see him and lifts up the blanket for Jaal to crawl inside, so maybe he shouldn't have worried.

Jaal finds himself smiling in response. "You would tell me if I was imposing, yes?"

"Of course I would, but you're not," Liam says. He curls a fist in the fabric of Jaal's shirt and Jaal feels warm all over.

As he's drifting off, Liam murmurs, "And you smell really good," as if he's picking up the thread of an earlier conversation.

Jaal shifts to a more comfortable position, holding the blanket so he doesn't pull it off Liam. "What do I smell like you you?" he asks, curious.

Liam yawns and stretches, ending up more wrapped around Jaal than when he started. "Oh, hmm. Like the air right before a thunderstorm, and that red plant on Havarl – the one with the big leaves and those weird flowers? And maybe cinnamon, a bit, I don't know if you have that here. It's really nice."

Jaal feels an absurd flutter in his chest, as flattered as if someone had just composed him a song, or a poem. ″Thank you,″ he says, burying a smile in Liam's arm. He realizes that he's starting to say that a lot around Liam, but he doesn't know what else to say.

Liam gets called away on an overnight mission with the Pathfinder the next day, but before he leaves he says, offhand, "Feel free to use my bunk while I'm away. I'd appreciate if you did, actually; otherwise Gil will steal it and his hair gel makes me sneeze."

″Where does Gil usually sleep?″ Jaal asks.

″In his own bunk, but he likes to mess with me. I'll get back at him some other way if you're sick of us and want some alone time, though.″

″No, that is very kind. I'll do my best," Jaal says, and wishes Liam a safe journey. At this rate, the cot in the tech lab is becoming a distant memory.

"Not to pry," Liam starts one night, maybe a week and a half after Jaal joined the crew of the tempest. They're spooning and Jaal has a face full of Liam's hair, but he was drifting off to sleep anyway.

"Hmm?" Jaal says.

"Tell me if I shouldn't ask," he says, "But I'm dying to know what was wrong with your original room. Half the crew would kill for private quarters, and you're sneaking in here to double up."

"You can certainly ask," Jaal says. "I don't know if I have a very interesting answer. Among the Angara, almost no one sleeps in a room by themselves. I never have, anyway. There isn't enough space for it to be practical – in the resistance we slept in dormitories much larger than this. The same when I've been able to go to school."

"Wow," Liam says. "You never had your own room, your whole life?"

Jaal chuckles. "I grew up with more siblings and cousins than there are people on this ship right now. If we all had our own room, imagine the size of the house."

Liam must picture the house, because he huffs out a surprised laugh. Then he says, quieter, "I guess I could see how sleeping in the tech lab might be a bit lonely, after that."

"More than a bit lonely," Jaal says. "I understand that most of your people value their own space, but not accustomed to it."

"Someone would probably trade you for it, if you wanted your own bunk," Liam says. "Not that I want you to leave, but I'm just saying."

"I don't, particularly," Jaal says. These warm nights pressed close to Liam have been a comfort he hadn't even thought to hope for, deep in Kett controlled space and light years from anywhere he's ever called home.

"Good," Liam says. He finds Jaal's arm and wraps it around himself, holding on tight.

It's been more than two weeks since Jaal joined the tempest, and he's just helped Liam and Peebee drag an ancient-looking couch from the Nexus dock onto the Tempest. Well, 'helped' in the sense that Jaal stood lookout while Peebee levitated the couch and Liam directed it around corners and up ramps. Jaal had been given to understand that the operation was a little less than officially sanctioned, and the less the dockworkers saw of them, the better.

Peebee disappears as soon as they got the couch situated, citing important research and a negative desire to socialize.

"Well," Liam says, surveying their handiwork. "Want to try it out?"

They'd already each sat down on the couch to test that it was still intact, before bringing it over. "What does that entail?" Jaal asks.

"Movies," Liam says, as if it's obvious.

"Alright," Jaal says. It's going to take them at least four hours to get to the next planet, and Jaal doesn't have anything pressing to take care of in the meantime. He sits down on the couch which, despite its apparent age, manages to hold his weight without even creaking.

"Brilliant. You're going to love this one," Liam says, and joins him on the couch.

″What's it about?″ Jaal asks.

"It's an old movie from Earth. Well, I suppose they're all old movies now," Liam says, with a rueful twist of his mouth. "Anyway, the hero has to save her people, but her granddaughter's been kidnapped by these pirates, see – "

Jaal nods along and asks a few questions as Liam explains the plot so far. Apparently it's part of a series, but Liam doesn't have the previous installments saved to his local drive. When Jaal agrees that he's as caught up as he can be, Liam cues up the movie and then leans into Jaal's side, grinning when Jaal drapes an arm over his shoulders.

At maybe the midpoint of the movie, Vetra wanders in looking for a missing data pad. She gives them a skeptical look and says, "You'd better watch out with that one, kid," but it's not obvious which one of them she was talking to.

Jaal's not entirely unaware that people on the ship talk about him and Liam, and he's spent enough time with the aliens now to know it's a bit unusual how they're the only two crew members who regularly share a bunk. Multiple people have made cryptic remarks like Vetra's, and he's walked into at least one conversation that abruptly stopped as soon as someone saw him.

He doesn't much care what people might be saying, though, and hasn't put any effort into finding out. It's reassuring that if Liam notices, he doesn't seem to care, either. To most of the aliens, Jaal is the first Angaran they've seen; to the Angara, he's the first person to actively join an alien crew. If he started trying to find out every single thing that was said about him, he'd run out of time to do anything else.

And besides, in between chasing down the kett and transforming planets they'd written off as inhabitable decades ago, a few rumors hardly seem important.

It's been a few days since they've both been on the ship at the same time, so Jaal is pleasantly surprised to find Liam in the crew quarters when he gets out of the shower. Liam's sitting in his bunk, watching some kind of video from a tiny holo– projector he has balanced on his knees. There's one person asleep in the far bunk, but other than that the place is empty.

Liam pauses the playback when he sees Jaal. "Hey, how was Kadara?"

"Steep," Jaal says, wincing as he remembers some of the hills Ryder had flung the Nomad off of, seemingly oblivious to all consequence. "A hot shower helped a bit, but we were all holding onto our seats for dear life. I feel like I strained the half of my body that didn't get bruised. Drack might be right about Ryder's driving."

Liam wrinkles his nose sympathetically. "Oh, good thing you weren't on the trip to that planetoid with the microgravity, then. We were all one inch away from throwing up the entire time, and Cora actually screamed. It was amazing."

"Ryder had no idea what any of you were complaining about, I'm sure," Jaal says.

"Nerves of steel, that one," Liam agrees. "Want me to give you a back rub? Might help a bit." He scoots over to make room.

Jaal can't think of anything that sounds better. "That would be lovely, thank you." He strips out of the shirt he'd just put on, pausing when Liam inhales sharply. ″Should I leave it on?″ he asks. He's noticed that humans are weird about nudity.

″No, by all means,″ Liam says. His voice sounds a bit rough around the edges. Jaal folds the shirt and climbs in after Liam.

The bunk is just big enough for two, but it appears to have been built to human or asari proportions; Jaal can't sit up inside without ducking his head. They jockey around for a bit, Liam juggling the video projector, and Jaal ends up on his stomach, Liam straddling his hips "Sure I'm not crushing you?" Liam asks for perhaps the fourth time.

"You're not crushing me," Jaal reassures him. "Aren't you going to hit your head on the ceiling like that, though?"

"I'm not the freakishly tall one here," Liam says, and Jaal laughs. Liam balances the video device on the pillow next to Jaal's head, and kneads into his shoulders. Jaal can feel the tension in his back unlocking bit by bit as Liam works his muscles.

"That feels amazing," he tells Liam, voice smothered in the pillow.

"Oh yeah?" Liam sounds pleased.

"Where did you learn this?"

"What, massage? My buddies back in the crisis response unit used to trade back rubs after missions. Everyone's back is a little different, you get used to going by feel. Yours is just...more different than most. Just tell me if I mess up, yeah?"

Jaal smiles. "So far, so good. Actually – ouch, that was a bruise."

"Sorry," Liam says. He holds his hand still over the spot, not pressing, maybe remembering where the bruise is to avoid it next time. The warmth from his hand seems to sink through layers of skin and muscle until it reaches the bone. Jaal sighs contentedly, and Liam picks up where he left off, carefully navigating around the bruises.

"What were you watching?" Jaal asks after a minute, when it becomes obvious that Liam's found his rhythm.

″An old TV show,″ Liam says. ″Helps me relax. This is better, though.″

Jaal's thoughts are syrupy and slow, in an odd contrast to how he's hyper aware of Liam's hands on his skin. ″You're the one relaxing?″

Liam shrugs, a minute shift of weight. ″Gets me out of my head.″ A minute later, he adds, ″I like taking care of people.″

″Mmm,″ Jaal says, a wordless sound of agreement and evidence, perhaps, of Liam's skill at caretaking.

After some unknowable number of minutes, Liam lays his palm flat in the center of Jaal's back. Jaal feels a whisper of breath and then Liam presses his lips to Jaal's skin, just to the left of his thumb. It feels like an electric current spreads from the spot where his mouth touches, although Jaal looked it up; humans have only residual bioelectricity and no conscious ability to control what they have.

"All done," Liam says. He keeps his hand on Jaal's back and lays his cheek over the place he kissed, stretching out so his feet tangle with Jaal's.

"Thank you," Jaal says. He feels like he's floating on a cloud. Or maybe as if he is a cloud.

"Was that ok?" Liam asks, tentatively. "I mean – if you want to just like, stay how we are. I'm cool with that, just let me know."

"It was lovely," Jaal says. He searches for words to reassure Liam and falls short. "You are very talented with your hands," he settles on.

Liam lets out a small sound of frustration. "No, you – you have kissing in your culture, right?"

Jaal laughs softly and turns to face him. His muscles are so loose it feels like he's moving through soup. "Of course we do."

There's a small line of concern between Liam's brows, which seems entirely incongruous with the situation. "Oh. So do you – "

He's interrupted by a loud thump on the bulkhead above them, and then a boot that was obviously thrown with some force falls to the floor next to the bunk.

"This is adorable but will you assholes please get a room," Suvi says from around the corner. "I've been up since 4:45 and if I don't get some sleep I will scream."

Liam scrambles out of the bunk, apologizing all the way. "C'mon," he whispers, and grabs Jaal's hand. He pulls him down the corridor, through the cargo bay, and into the storage room. As soon as the door closes behind them he lets out a high pitched giggle. "Fuck. Feels like I'm still sneaking around at my mom's house." He collapses onto the couch and pulls Jaal down with him, grinning.

Jaal feels like he's about to catch Liam's giggles; also it's colder in here, and he's naked to the waist. He leans into Liam's side. "Why didn't she ask us to leave earlier, if we were keeping her up?"

Liam shrugs. "I dunno. Maybe she wasn't awake earlier. But I didn't want to shut up and go to sleep yet, I wanted –"

Jaal gives him a moment to compose his thoughts, then prompts, "What?"

Liam groans and drops his head to Jaal's shoulder. "It's terrible. I've been trying to hit on you, but I realized just now you may not have noticed? Like, it's so dependent on cultural context, and I was just waiting for you to catch on but there's no reason you would have. So. I'll try to be more direct. Are you interested in me?"

Jaal considers the question. It feels like some vital shade of meaning failed to translate. The verb had to do with scientific inquiry, curiosity toward attaining knowledge, and that doesn't seem to be what Liam's talking about. It's only a small consolation that the feeling might be mutual. He's interested in all the aliens on the ship, interested in their technologies and the ways they relate to each other and the mission, interested in finding new ways to stop the kett. He thinks about the things that interest him about Liam, tries to put the tangle of feelings into words. "I like spending time with you. I like you, and your generosity and kindness. Your hair smells good and you are refreshingly open with your affection." Jaal pauses. Liam looks like he's hanging on Jaal's every word, waiting for the catch, so Jaal adds, "I enjoy everything we've done together, and if you were in agreement, I would keep doing it indefinitely. I hope that answers your question."

"That's the most romantic thing anyone's ever said to me." Liam beams with his whole face. "Wait." He sits up and stares into Jaal's face from an arm's length away. "Did you mean that to be romantic? Because if I'm assuming again, please stop me. Fuck."

Jaal captures Liam's nervously wringing hands and pulls him closer. "I think we both may have suffered from a lack of directness," he admits. "if you were angaran, I would have assumed you were making overtures toward courtship. But since you aren't, I thought maybe this is just how humans are with their friends. I didn't really know what to think."

Liam's face does something complicated. "Well, I am like that with my friends, if they're into cuddling. But I also think you're dead sexy, with your shoulders and your – everything. I wouldn't have minded if you thought I was trying to flirt." Liam's mouth twitches into a shy grin. "We're the worst at this, aren't we."

Jaal bends his head to where Liam's hands are clasped in his, and lightly kisses the knuckles of first one hand, then the other. "That is a romantic gesture," he translates, so there's no ambiguity. "It means...that I am fond of you, and wish to pursue further intimacies with you, should you want that."

"We have that one," Liam says. He turns and kneels over Jaal's lap in a fluid motion, legs bracketing Jaal's thighs and his hands on Jaal's shoulders. He leans in and kisses Jaal, breath ghosting warm over his face a moment before his lips make contact. His nose pokes awkwardly at the side of Jaal's own, but then he tilts his head and licks over Jaal's lower lip and they seem to fit together perfectly. "That means I'm really into you, and hell yes further intimacies," he offers.

It's Jaal's turn to smile. He feels off balance and on the precipice of something, and he wants to tip over and fall toward whatever it is. "It's amazing how well that translates, given our earlier difficulties."

Liam laughs and his forehead bumps gently against Jaal's. "If it's all the same, how did we get so confused?"

"It's not quite all the same," Jaal says. He skates a hand up Liam's back, finding bare skin at the nape of his neck, and emits a pulse that means excited, yes, please, more as softly as he can. He knows how much bioelectricity is too much for a human, and he can make an educated guess at the lowest perceptible level; what he's not quite sure of is where the line is between the two.

It must work. Liam shivers and makes a wordless sound, then he says, "Wow, what does that mean? Not that I care, you can do it a lot more, please."

Which is how they end up with Liam's shirt off and Jaal trailing his fingers across his skin, mapping out all the ways to make him shiver and gasp and arch toward Jaal's hands.

"Fuck," Liam says. "Can I– " He sways in and kisses Jaal hungrily. Jaal holds him close, skin to skin, and lets one hand trail up and cradle his neck as he kisses Liam back. His neck has always struck Jaal as dangerously fragile, nothing more than a delicate stalk with his head balanced precariously on top, but under his hand Jaal can feel the bunch of muscles and the thick stretch of tendons belying the strength there. It's absurdly reassuring. He kisses the corner of Liam's jaw, and then the hollow of his throat. He lets his hand coast down the length of Liam's arm, following its progress with lazy kisses. Liam sits back on Jaal's knees, breathing heavily, opening a space between them.

It's one thing to curl himself around Liam's narrow frame as he drifted off to sleep; it's another entirely to have Liam spread out before him like this, all thick waist and heavy muscles under warm skin. "You aren't nearly as delicate as you looked at first," he says. "I hope that isn't an insult."

Liam grins. "Maybe to someone who's trying to be delicate. But I like it, though."

"Good," Jaal says. He spreads his hand over the widest part of Liam's chest, entranced by the texture of the light hair there. Liam makes an encouraging noise and leans into the touch.

"I'm not sure how the parts would work, exactly, but do you want to – nng," Liam groans, cut off as Jaal finds an especially sensitive spot. "Have sex. Like, more than we are now. With orgasms."

Jaal pauses. He feels clear and loose, caught up in the sensations. He's been intent in the moment, hasn't stopped to consider if this was heading in any particular direction. " not know." Liam leans back, and Jaal drops his hands regretfully. "I'm sorry. We just talked about this, and I started going along without thinking again. If you assumed – "

"Hey, no, that's why I asked. So that neither of us had to assume."

Liam's face is open and hopeful, and Jaal wants to simultaneously kiss him and write him a sheaf of poems for making everything so uncomplicated. "Alright, then. If it were up to me, I think...not this time. I could go on, but it would feel like rushing, and this is so new I don't want to rush past it. I want to stay a while and explore, if that isn't stretching the metaphor too far."

Liam smiles and the corners of his eyes crinkle up. "No, I got you. Makes it sound like making out with you is this big uncharted landscape, I'm into it. Just let me know when things change, yeah?"

"I can do that," Jaal says. He kisses the curve of Liam's neck for the sheer joy of it, and Liam makes a pleased sound.

"Do you want to sleep in here?" Liam asks.

"I think this couch isn't remotely big enough for the two of us."

Liam looks at the couch. "Yeah, fair enough. Do you want to make out some more and then go sneak back into the crew quarters to sleep?"

Jaal smiles and pulls Liam closer. "That sounds perfect."