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a question of time

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It starts off with a sore throat.

Rimmer pays little attention to it. He’d had hundreds of sore throats before, though, of course that’d been when he was alive. He doesn’t for one moment stop to consider the implications of him, a hologram, having a sore throat.

When he clears his throat for the fifth time in as many minutes, Lister inspects him warily over the top of his ridiculous aviators. “You alright?”

Rimmer scowls, a little flustered at the sudden scrutiny. “Of course, I am. Stop looking at me like that.”

Lister shrugs. “Just sounded a bit sniffly.”

“Never mind that – you’re just trying to get out of inventory, and we still have three whole shelves to do. Don’t think I don’t know your little game, Listy, it’s not going to work.”

Lister sighs, decides it isn’t worth the argument. “Yes sir, Mr. Rimmer, sir.”

*

Swollen glands. A throbbing headache. He stands up too quickly from his bunk one afternoon, and his head swims, vision tunnelling, dangerously on the verge of blackout.

Smeg, he’s sick.

*

He doesn’t notice many other unusual symptoms. Yes, he’s running a bit of a fever, his skin is clammy and warm, and it feels as if bulls are rampaging across his skull – but there’s nothing, at first, to indicate whatever it is he has is any different from your bog-standard flu.

Except. Well, there is this one thing - this urge he sometimes gets.

He’d first noticed it the morning Lister had mentioned he was going down to the AR suite.

“What – down to bonk some more pixels in one of your games,” Rimmer regarded him with a raised eyebrow. “God, you’re pathetic, Listy.”

“Says you,” Lister replied, fixing his deerstalker on his head. “Least I’ve had actual sex.”

I’ve had sex.”

“Yeah – yeah, I remember, what was it – twelve minutes? Including the time it took to eat the pizza,” Lister turned to smirk at him. “Forgive me, Rimmer, but I think that hardly makes your Casa-smegging-nova.”

More like six minutes actually, Rimmer’s brain had supplied, insistently. But it was more than that - more than just persistent inner dialogue, it felt like he needed to actually correct Lister. It rose up inside him like bile, tugging at his vocal cords, clawing at his throat. Rimmer had to concentrate to keep his mouth shut. Then when the moment passed, something twinged slightly inside of him, and he’d winced at the fleeting pain.

He’d first put it down to being unwell. The flu felt like a dark fog hanging over him. He was muddled and exhausted and out of sorts at the best of times. This, he supposes, was just his flu-addled body reacting to being sick.

Yes, that of course, must be it.

*

It gets worse. Not the flu symptoms, but what he’s taken to calling the Urge. He’d spent a large portion of last week supressing truths through a mixture of heavy concentration, restraint and physically biting his own tongue where needed. Whenever he’d done so, the tide of discomfort that washed through him had steadily increased to a point that grazed his pain threshold.

He finds he’s not able to tell direct lies at all anymore. He’d realised that on Friday night, when they’d stopped to trade with a less hostile GELF species. Kryten had asked, point blank, if Rimmer knew of anything they had to bargain with. He hadn't been able to stop the barrage of honesty that bubbled up inside of him, and the next thing he knew he was telling them about the tidy collection of cargo he’d accumulated in secret over the years -

“Just, as a precaution, of course,” Rimmer had defended himself quickly, ignoring Lister and Kryten’s twin scandalised expressions. “You never know when we might become separated – it’s just sensible to have my own personal supplies.”

“So, you mean to tell me the entire time we were on Starbug, drinking re-cycled urine, and eating deep space scum, living off whatever parts we could scavenge from passing ships, you’ve had this the entire time?”

Rimmer nodded, despite himself.

“Sir, may I just take the opportunity to point out that you are a complete and utter smee-hee.”

 

This – his inability to lie when directly challenged - he supposes, he could deal with, but that wasn’t his only problem. First of all, it didn’t seem to matter whether he was conscious of his deceit or not; the pull of honesty seemed to come from deep below his many layers of self-deception of preservation. Secondly, it seemed he was also affected by indirect lies. He was able to skirt around the truth, but it still took a fair amount of concentration, and most importantly, foresight. There was pain, less of it, but still pain, that began with the sensation of thousand tiny needles poking into his stomach and escalated, and escalated.

This, he thinks, would prove to be a problem.

*

“Yo, check these out,” Lister’s voice echoes down the hallway long before the man himself appears wearing new leathers. “Cat got me them from his weekly trip to the shopping mall.”

“What the hell? I was feelin’ generous,” says Cat, following in behind him. “Anything to get rid of those old rags, right? I’ve seen better clothes on scarecrows.”

The leather is more pristine than his old, beaten get up. The jacket still hangs fashionably over large, but the trousers are much more form fitting.

Rimmer raises an eyebrow over his copy of Hammond Organ Orchestra Weekly, aiming for dispassionate. “How nice for you.”

“What do you think eh? Not too shabby,” says Lister, checking himself out in the mirror. He turns, lifting his shirt up to admire the way his trousers hug him. Rimmer can't help but glance at the smooth dark skin, the trail of hair that disappears into leather – Io, the leather.

“Look at the arse on that,” Lister grins. “So, what do you think, cool or what?”

The Urge pulls at him. Rimmer clenches the metal bedframe tightly in his fist, steadying himself against the wave of pain. “Indeed,” he grimaces, trying his best for noncommittal.

Lister starts at his voice. “Rimmer?”

“I’m fine,” he stands, gasping against the pain. Lister is at his side in a second, brow furrowed in worry. The Cat observes, entertained, leaning against the doorframe.

“You’re not alright, man,” says Lister. “Cat call Kryten.”

“No, don’t – honestly,” he chokes the word out. “Just mind your own smegging business, would you?”

“Rimmer, what’s wrong?”

Rising through the fog of pain, a clear thought cuts through sharply - he should leave, now. Shifting into soft light mode, he passes through Lister’s tight grasp and staggers towards the door.

“Rimmer - ”

 “Don’t follow me,” he hisses. “Just leave me alone.”

*

It’s not as if there hadn’t been indicators over the years.

Deep down, deep, deep down - Rimmer knew that it was this, more than anything, that he was terrified of.

*

Lister manages to find him barely a full day later.

It should irritate Rimmer – after all, he did go to the effort of finding discarded sleeping quarters far from their shared room and any other places Lister might normally vacate. It used to belong to infamously pristine Officer Melville from Astro-navigation, and so, the room is suitably clean and tidy. Equipped only with a small, aluminium set of table and chairs, and a large bed in corner, it serves perfectly fine as temporary accommodation.

Rimmer finds he doesn’t even have the energy to argue when the sound of a fist rapping impatiently against the door jerks him from his fitful but well needed rest.

Holly must’ve sold him down the smegging river, the traitorous bastard.

“Let me in.”

Rimmer stares in the direction of the door, hoping, in vain, that if he’s quiet enough, the Scouser will move on further down the corridor.

No such luck. “Rimmer, I know you’re in there. You’re not fooling anyone. The room’s locked from the inside, you smeghead. Let me in.”

“Not a chance. Go away, Listy.”

“I’ll override.”

Rimmer snorts. “You don’t know how to.”

A pause. Got him there.

Then, “Why’ve you locked yourself away?”

A fresh wave of new pain. Rimmer grimaces against it. “It’s for the best.”

“You don’t sound well.”

“Just go away.”

“Rimmer, open the door, for smeg’s sake.” He changes tack. “You are sick aren’t ya? I’m callin’ Kryten - ”

Rimmer stares at the door, desperate. He doesn’t want any of them to know about this. God help him if they realised they could easily manipulate the truth out of him. “Alright, fine. Come in. Quickly!” he snaps.

The door opens and he grabs Lister’s hand, pulling him through.

“Lock.”

Lister starts, taking in the sight of him. “You are sick.”

“Shut up,” he hisses. “Nobody needs to know about this, okay? Or I’ll rip your stupid head off.”

“I don’t think so,” Lister frowns. “You don’t look like you rip open a pack of crisps in your state. No offence.”

Rimmer sighs wearily as the fight leaves him. He collapses heavily on the chair behind him. “Perhaps you’re right.”

“Oh eh,” Lister takes a seat beside him. “You didn’t have to quarantine yourself, Rimmer, you could’ve just told us you were sick.”

Rimmer, buries his face in his hands. “It’s embarrassing.”

“It’s not embarrassing. It happens to everyone. Kryten can sort you out in no time.”

At this, Rimmer inhales sharply and stands up. “No. I don’t want Kryten’s help, I don’t want anyone’s help, I just want to be left alone, thank you. I’m sure it’ll pass.”

Lister stands to his feet, meeting Rimmer’s defiant expression with his own. “How do you know? For all we know it could be dangerous, it could be like the holo-virus.”

“It’s not,” Rimmer says. “I happen to know my own body.”

Lister frowns, unconvinced.

“Please, Listy," Rimmer shifts his weight, solemn. "Promise me you’ll keep this quiet.”

Lister looks at him now, hard. His expression flits between worried and curious. “This isn’t macho-bravery. You don’t do macho bravery. So, why’s it so smegging important to you that I don’t tell the others?”

The Urge pulls. His vision swims. “Just promise me,” he begs.

“Rimmer.”

Promise.

“Alright, okay,” Lister raises his hands in defense. “I promise.”

“Good. Now leave, please.”

Lister is barely out of the door before Rimmer collapses.

*

“….simulant ship. He must have contracted it while we were there getting supplies. From the bio-scan, he’s had it for nearly two weeks.”

“Two weeks,” a soft sigh. “Bonehead. Why didn’t he tell anyone?”

“I stopped questioning the things Mr. Rimmer does a long time ago, sir.”

Another voice. “So, what is it?”

“Hard to say. It seems as though the simulant ship was carrying a virus to use specifically against holograms, however, in the many years it’s been lying adrift in deep space, the virus has mutated.”

“Question is,” a deep breath. “What’s it mutated into?”

“Indeed, sir.”

Rimmer groans as he begins to sit up. His body feels weak, sluggish. He blinks at the three figures standing around the bed, trying to bring them into focus.

A firm mechanoid hand pushes him gently back down. “Don’t try to get up yet, sir.”

“What’s happened?”

“You fainted, man,” says Lister, moving into his field of vision. “Soon as I left the room I heard this racket, I came running in and you were conked out on the floor.”

Rimmer swallows hoarsely. “Oh.”

“Oh?” Lister echoes, arms folded. “Is that all you have to say? ‘Oh?’ Why didn’t you tell us all sooner? Kryten says you’ve been sick for at least two weeks.”

“You told Kryten?” Rimmer counters accusingly, cringing at the ache that begins to flood his body. “You promised.”

“Oh, I am sorry,” Lister’s voice drips with sarcasm. “I just thought that in this case, breaking a promise would be acceptable seein’ as you were passed out on the smegging floor.”

“Mr. Rimmer, sir,” Kryten intervenes carefully. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay in the medi-bay while Holly synthesises antibiotics.  We’re not exactly sure what it is you’ve been exposed to and what affect that’s having on your light bee, so I can’t give you an accurate estimate for when you’ll be fully recovered.”

“Fan-smegging-tastic,” says Rimmer, weakly.

“Oh, and, something else sir,” says Kryten, “Your endorphin levels have risen seemingly at random over the past few weeks,” he points to one of the screens, displaying several wiggly lines peaking at different positions. “These seem to conform to pain response. Neither I, nor Holly have been able to determine the cause. I was wondering if you might have any idea?”

Rimmer swallows. The expectant faces of the Red Dwarf crew stare back at him. He braces himself for the newest onslaught of pain. “Haven’t the faintest.”

“Hey look,” says Cat, pointing at the wiggly line on the screen. “It’s going all spiky.”

Kryten’s eyes widen for the merest of moments, before he’s apologetically ushering Cat and a protesting Lister out of the medi-bay. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave, sirs, just while I stabilise Mr. Rimmer, here.”

*

The sound of the door opening stirs Rimmer from his half-slumber. The medi-bay is dark, lit only by various lights from the monitors. Rimmer starts, only to notice Lister’s silhouette cast against the grey wall. He sits up slowly, stiffly, rubbing a hand down his tired face.

“What time is it?”

“0300 hours. Sorry if I woke ya,” comes the reply, as Lister steps out of the shadows. He pulls up a chair beside Rimmer’s biobed. “I just thought I’d come and check on you before I went to bed.”

“What the hell are you doing up this late?”

Lister shrugs and puts his filthy boots up on Rimmer’s bed, ignoring his sounds of indignation. He fishes around in his deerstalker for a moment before pulling out a cigarette and lighting it.

“Er, excuse me,” Rimmer scowls, pointing at the sign on the wall. “No smoking in here.”

“Oh yeah, I didn’t see that,” Lister inhales a deep breath, unbothered. “Did Kryten tell you when you’re going to be discharged?”

“Should be a week. If I don’t die from malnutrition first,” Rimmer snorts. “I wouldn’t wish this food on my worst enemy,” he pauses, and shoves a pot of jelly forward in offering. “Here you go, Listy.”

“Har, har,” says Lister sarcastically. He inhales again, expression thoughtful. “A week – that’s alright, though. Tell you the truth, I thought it looked a lot worse than that.”

Rimmer is silent. The room feels warm, a little too warm, and the atmosphere tense, as if they’re hurtling towards something – something earnest. Rimmer didn’t like earnest.

“I still don’t get it,” Lister murmurs, half to himself. “I don’t get why you didn’t let anyone know sooner. Usually, you love being the centre of attention – a full two weeks of moaning and feeling sorry for yourself, of being fawned over - that’s the sort of thing you live for.”

Rimmer frowns, but he doesn’t disagree. He knows the question is coming.

Lister glances up at him now, cigarette between his lips. “Why didn’t you just say somethin’?”

Rimmer hesitates. He remembers the talking to Kryten had given him last night. He wasn’t, under any circumstance whatsoever, to lie. The inexplicable pain he received from lying was a function of the virus, and the more he lied, the more damage the virus did, the more it corrupted his light bee. What was it Kryten had said? Irretrievable.

And he was tired – so utterly, completely, smegging tired.

The holo-version of whatever opiate Kryten has him on, perhaps fortunately, ensures that he isn’t fully cognisant of the severity of his next words. “You asked me how you looked in your leather trousers.”

Lister blinked. “Eh?”

Rimmer stares up at the dull grey ceiling above. “It turns out one of the functions of the virus is that I can’t lie. If I try to, I feel indescribable pain. Even if I lie by accident. Even if I’m lying to myself.” He can feel Lister’s expectant gaze boring into him. He presses on. “Only the truth. The complete, uncensored truth.”

“Well,” Lister stubs out his cigarette on the table next to him. “Rimmer, it’s not as if we don’t know all of your secrets already. No offence, guy, but you’re not exactly difficult to read.”

“Yes, well. Not quite all of them,” Rimmer swallows.  “It was only a matter of time before one of you asked me something - ” he pauses, “ - incriminating. When you asked me how you looked in your leather trousers, I couldn’t lie. That’s why I didn’t tell you.”

Lister is silent for the briefest of moments, and then. “What are you saying to me, Rimmer?”

The stupid smegger was going to make him spell it out, wasn’t he?  He closes his eyes, lets the unbidden, unfiltered part of him speak. “For smeg’s sake, Lister. You curry brained, goit. I’m saying that I don’t find you completely unappealing.”

Lister stares, expression torn between nonplussed and shocked. “Wha’?”

The trousers,” he practically shouts. “They looked…good. Io, much more than good. Seeing you in them, I wanted -”

He cuts himself off abruptly, giving into the slightest twinge of pain - there’s only so much he’s willing to admit. And the damage had already, figuratively been done. The weight of the confession lays thick and heavy in the room, settling around them like dust. Rimmer’s heart pounds in his ears.

“Are you saying –“ Lister trails off, uncertainly. He could see the wheels turning in the Scouser’s mind. “You hid yourself away and that because – you were worried that -"

God. It was unbearable. Rimmer half-wished he’d just lied and let his light bee become corrupted beyond the point of recovery, pain be damned.

“You wanted me,” Lister finishes, slowly. “Holy smeggin’ hell.”

In his periphery, he watches Lister take a step back, rubbing a gloved hand through his hair. When he speaks again, his voice is quiet, dazed. “We can’t talk about this now – not while you’re,” he gestures, continuing, “like this, it’s not fair. “

Something akin to relief floods Rimmer’s body. That was perfectly alright with him, repression was, after all, his best friend.

“But later,” Lister turns now, pinning him in his dark gaze. He points a finger. “This isn’t over, Rimmer.”

*

Kryten discharges him the next Wednesday afternoon.

In the week that passed, Lister had only visited a handful of times, just to check up on him – they never spoke about the conversation that had transpired between them, but he’d caught Lister watching him with a gaze that was piercing and heavy, and he knew on his return to their shared quarters, the conversation would continue.

Naturally, he’d done everything he could to put it off.

“Are you sure you don’t want to take my temperature again?” Rimmer had asked as Kryten tidied away his various medical instruments.

“Quite sure, sir,” Kryten replied, cheerfully. “There’s no sign of the virus left in your system. Anyway, I don’t want to keep you here any longer than needed. A week in the medi-bay is quite enough.”

No it wasn't, Rimmer had privately disagreed.

Pausing in the hallway next to their quarters, Rimmer stares at their door and wonders if he can brush it off with a joke, put it down to a practical gag and nothing more -  but he knows, instinctively, it would never wash. Lister has his cards marked, and there's no way he would buy some bogus story.

Instead, Rimmer does the bravest thing he’s ever had to do in his life. He walks in, head held high.

The conversation between Cat and Lister fades abruptly. Lister’s gaze is fixed squarely on him, expression unreadable.

“Hey, Alphabet Head. I’d say it’s good to have you back, but I’d be lying,” the Cat smirks.

“Cat do us a favour would ya?” Lister says, without breaking eye contact. “Just give us a minute to talk to Rimmer.”

Rimmer shifts, nervously.

“Suits me,” Cat shrugged. “I wonder what’s for lunch.”

“Lock,” Lister calls as the door shuts behind Cat. In one fluid motion he jumps down from the top bunk and barrels into Rimmer, who lets himself be pushed up against the wall mutely.

Strange calm washes over him. He watches Lister with naked interest, quietly accepting the situation.

Smeg,” Lister breathes, staring up at him. “I never thought – Rimmer, I never –"

He leans forward and kisses him. Once, chastely, but then the floodgates open. Rimmer moans in a  kind of desperation he never realised he possessed, as Lister cups the back of his neck and deepens the kiss, dragging gloved fingers through curly brown hair, nipping at his bottom lip. Mouthing at his jaw, at his neck, Rimmer shivers and tightens his grip on Lister’s hips.

When Lister pulls back, his eyes are unfathomably dark, desire and lust and hunger displayed openly in his expression. “You wanted me,” he says hoarsely. “You still want me?”

Rimmer breathes heavily. He’s too turned on to play coy. “Yes,” he says.

The corner of his mouth pulls into a playful half smile. “And what did you want me to do?”

“Anything, please,” he breaks off in another shudder as Lister sucks at his neck. “Touch me.”

Lister groans deep in his throat, and kisses him again, possessive and hard and desperate. He has one hand knotted in Rimmer’s curly hair, as the other one rucks beneath his jacket, grasping at his unclothed hip and Rimmer gasps unashamedly. It’s relief, pure adulterated relief that rolls through him - this is what he’s wanted, needed.

His hand moves lower, grasping him through his trousers. “For how long?”

“What?” Rimmer whimpers, head hitting the wall.

Lister is insistent. “How long have you wanted me?”

Smeg, Lister, I don’t know,” he swallows, moaning at the feel of Lister’s hand, firm around him. “A long time.”

“Yeah?” he smirks. “Well, I suppose we can reward your patience.”

Unceremoniously, he pulls down Rimmer’s trousers, boxers and all, and slowly, ensuring that Rimmer’s eyes are firmly on his, slides down to his knees.

“Oh smeg,” says Rimmer. He watches, mesmerised through lidded eyes as Lister’s lips part. The feeling of wet heat encases him and instinctively, his hand grasps Lister’s curly dark hair. “Oh fuck, Lister, fuck.”

Heat and wetness bobbing up and down his length. He pulls at Lister’s locs, hips chasing the feeling of suction. He grips Lister’s jaw, pushing himself in deeper. When Lister’s hand begins to move around him in tandem, he groans in earnest, head tipped back, mouth open. He’s ruined, hair a mess of curls, damp with sweat and sticking to the nape of his neck, gasping in shuddering breaths.

His hips are moving in quick, abortive movements. “Lister, Lister.”

Pleasure rolls through him. Lister meets his gaze and Rimmer flies apart.

Lister allows him to recover, sitting back on haunches. His voice is hoarse. “Smeggin’ hell Rimmer.”

Something inside him snaps. In a moment he’s hauling Lister up and pushing him back onto the lower bunk, crawling into the space between his legs. Pulling down underwear and those damned leather trousers, he grasps Lister and buries his face in his shoulder, breathing in the heady scent of leather and old cigarettes.

Lister bucks below him, gasping at the pace of his hand. He can’t seem to stop himself talking, “Yeah, Rimmer like that. That’s so good, don’t stop. Please, please. Smeg Rimmer, that’s so good.

He’s addicted to the sound – to kisses and heat, to dark eyes and locs and that scouse accent that curls itself around his name, uttering it like it’s a prayer. Rimmer can’t, for the life of him, understand why he waited so long when he could’ve been doing this six years ago; when he could be feeling Lister shake below him, eyes sliding shut, hips bucking.

Yes, he thinks, I could get used to this.

*

Rimmer wraps the blanket tighter around himself as he stares at the winking stars above him. He’s jolted out his reverie only by the sound of clambering footsteps behind him.

“There you are,” says Lister, brightly. He’s wearing old shorts and a green vest rather than his usual leathers, the kind of outfit he used to wear all the time in his first few years out of stasis. It makes him look softer, younger. “You’ve been up here for hours.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” says Rimmer.

“You panicking?” says Lister, conversationally, sipping a Leopard Lager he seems to have brandished from nowhere. “I won’t be cross if you are. Honest.”

“No,” says Rimmer, turning to look at him now. “Don’t you think that’s strange? I never would’ve ever admitted it to myself – to you, if it hadn’t been for that smegging simulant ship.”

“And now that you have…? “ Lister looks up at him, clearly fishing.

Rimmer raises an unamused eyebrow. “Now that I have,” he sighs. “Let’s face it. A lot of things make sense.”

“You ever heard of ‘the lady doth protest too much’?” Lister grins, gently nudging him in his side. “That’s you. ‘I’m as straight as a smegging ruler and completely allergic to male intimacy.’ I should’ve seen right through ya.”

“Yes, well you’re hardly Captain Hetero either,” Rimmer scowls. “If I remember rightly, there were two of us.”

“Never said I was,” says Lister, indignant. “I’m an enlightened guy.”

Rimmer snorts softly, shifting his gaze back to open space surrounding them.

Lister is at his side now, resting his face against Rimmer’s shoulder. “I can’t believe that given the choice, you would’ve almost rather died than just tell me that you fancied me. That’s a whole new level of repression, Rimsy, should be proud of yerself.”

Rimmer’s mouth opens and closes for a moment as he tries to think of a clever retort. Then he settles on, “Git.”

“Smeghead.”

*