“He’s asking for another fortnight.” Lister delivered this news, then slumped into his seat in the cockpit. “A smegging fortnight!”
“Is that a problem, sir?”
Kryten’s chirpy question grated on Lister’s already frayed nerves, and he had to fight to keep his cool. “But it’s just not right, is it?”
“He seems happy enough, sir.”
“More importantly,” the Cat said, leaping into the conversation, “I’m happy. Hey, what’s wrong with you, bud? Why would you want to exchange that guy for old goalpost head?”
“He is ninety-one percent less weasly now,” Kryten offered, “and an eighty-eight percent match for Mr. Ace.”
Lister considered that. He’d liked Ace Rimmer—Rimmer’s counterpart from another dimension—but they’d only had him with them for a short time. Yes, Ace was noble and heroic, but after spending nearly two months with this Ace-like version of his Rimmer, Lister had decided Ace could also be a conceited goit.
“S’pose the emotion dies? How long can it be out of him?”
“I see no reason why the emotion should degrade. After all, Mr. Rimmer’s bitterness is remarkable durable—a dominant character trait.” Kryten paused. “Although, I have no prior experience in the harvesting and storing of emotions, so I cannot say for certain that it will survive indefinitely, separated from its host.”
“There you go, then,” Lister said. “I say, we persuade him to take it back as soon as possible.”
“Howdy, fellas!” Rimmer strode into the cockpit and flicked his long blond locks in the way that was really starting to get on Lister’s wick. “Looking sharp, Cat. Is that a new suit. Love the peach and green combo.”
“Thanks, bud!” The Cat flashed Lister a look, which Lister judged to mean something along the lines of, There! You see? Why would you want to get rid of this guy?
“Kryters, I’ve defragged your spare chip. You should find things run a little smoother now.” Rimmer tossed the chip, and Kryten caught it, a sickening look of joy on his angular face.
“Thank you, Mr. Rimmer, sir.”
Rimmer turned to Lister. “You okay, Davy-boy? Thought you seemed a bit tense at breakfast.”
“Fine.” Lister sank further into his seat, hunching his shoulders and avoiding Rimmer’s gaze. “I’m tickety-boo.”
There was an awkward silence. Then Rimmer cleared his throat.
“Well, I’ll be out back, doing the weekly inventory, if anyone needs me.”
“See?” said the Cat, once Rimmer had departed. “How could you want to swap that for the old Rimmer? You’d have to be insane!”
Maybe he was going insane. He knew what they were saying. He understood all the reasons why he should prefer this new and improved version of Rimmer. But, despite all that, he didn’t. Without his bitterness, Rimmer just wasn’t Rimmer. Not his Rimmer. Not the Rimmer he’d spent hours antagonising. Not the Rimmer who’d stood by his side during six years in deep space, adventure after adventure, near miss after near miss. Hating Rimmer’s foibles had been Lister’s primary occupation. It was like he’d been made redundant. Only, it turned out he didn’t detest those personality quirks in the way he’d always thought. Now they were gone, Lister realised that he’d come to find them oddly endearing.
In a moment of revelation, accompanied by no small amount of shock, Lister understood that he’d come to... care for Rimmer. But not when Rimmer was like this. He wanted back the man he knew. Now he just needed to convince Rimmer it was for the best.
It took three days for Lister to screw up the courage to confront Rimmer on the matter of his missing emotions, and then another three days for him to find a suitable time at which to broach the subject, since he couldn’t face having the discussion in front of Kryten and the Cat.
As luck would have it, they’d encountered an asteroid belt this morning. The Cat and Kryten were navigating them through it—a journey Kryten surmised would take the best part of two hours—and Rimmer had gone to check on vital supplies, in case the worst happened and Starbug took a hit. Lister had offered to help him, so here they were, ticking off water canisters, oxygen cylinders, and poppadums.
“Honestly, Dave, I still think we would have done better to follow my plan.”
Lister dropped the packet of poppadums he’d been giving serious thought to opening, and stared at him. “You wanted to shoot yourself out the waste disposal!”
“Propelled with sufficient force, I could have cleared a safe path for you.”
“Yeah, and you’d have smashed your lightbee to smithereens. It was a smegging suicide mission.”
Rimmer struck a vomit-inducing heroic pose. “It would have been worth it to save you chaps.”
“No, it wouldn’t. And if you were in your right mind, you wouldn’t think so either. Come on, man. Just get your emotions put back. Be you again.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t ever want to go back to being that weasel. I decided last night, I’m going to ask Kryten to destroy my bitterness once and for all.”
Rimmer frowned, and flicked his hair. “I’ve gotta say, I’m surprised, Davy-boy. Figured you’d prefer me this way too. The others do.”
“No, they don’t.”
Rimmer looked sceptical.
“Not deep down. Not if they really thought about it really hard.” Lister huffed and shook his head. “I know I smegging don’t.”
For the first time since the Emohawk attack, Rimmer visibly faltered. “You don’t?”
“No way, man.” He sighed. “Look, I miss ya. Alright? I want the old Rimmer back.”
Rimmer’s expression changed to one of concern. “You feeling alright, Dave?” He reached out to touch Lister’s forehead, but Lister ducked aside.
“I’m not smegging sick!” His frustration was nearly at explosion point. He had no choice but to simply come out with it. “Listen, it’s not easy to say this, bloke to bloke, but... well... I love ya, man.”
Heat spread across Lister’s cheeks, and, finding himself unable to meet Rimmer’s eye, he stared at his curry-stained shoes. He’d said it now. There was no taking it back, even if he wanted to, which, to his surprise, he found he didn’t. Over the last few days, he’d thought of little else, and he’d discovered it was true: he did love Rimmer, and in a way that was more than the basic camaraderie forged after years stuck in space together. How much more was still up for debate. He’d tried not to dwell on that aspect of things, worried about what it would mean, and concerned about Rimmer’s likely reaction. Would Rimmer be disgusted? Offended?
“I love you, too, Dave.”
Lister’s head shot up. “You what?”
“Couldn’t tell you precisely when it started, but it’s been that way for a few years now. As him, I’d never have said a word, old sport—too afraid of your response. Like this, I have the confidence to make a clean breast of it.”
“You love me? Me? In, like, a... romantic sort of way?”
“’Fraid so. Though I certainly never thought you’d feel the same way.” He studied Listed for a moment. Then he stepped closer and leaned in.
Lister struggled to process what was happening. The situation had changed so fast that his brain was still playing catch up. However, he got the distinct impression that Rimmer intended to kiss him.
Butterflies erupted in Lister’s stomach. Or maybe it was the aftereffects of his morning vindaloo. Either way, he teetered between feeling queasy and ridiculously turned on. Not until the split second before Rimmer’s lips touched his did he come to his senses.
“Not like this.”
Rimmer straightened, and offered an understanding smile that displayed no hint of annoyance at the interruption. “Too public?”
“No. Well, yeah. But I meant not with you like this. Get your bitterness put back. Then we can... make out.”
Saying the words aloud felt weird, and somehow final. Was it too weird? Maybe. But maybe not. The more Lister contemplated the idea of locking tongues with Rimmer, the less outlandish it seemed. An increasing tightness in the trouser region signalled his body’s agreement to the plan.
“You want me when I’m like that?” Rimmer’s brow furrowed. “Like that, but not like this?”
“Yeah, man. That’s who you are. This”—he waved in Rimmer’s direction—“it’s just a costume. If we’re really going to do this, I want it to be with the real you. Change back.”
“I may not be so amenable to the idea of doing the horizontal tango with you when I’m back to normal. All those neuroses pack quite a punch.”
“I’ll just have to take my chances.”
Rimmer moistened his lips—a gesture Lister followed and found himself mimicking. There was a brief pause. Then Rimmer flicked his hair and gave a single nod.
“Okay, Davy-boy. Have it your way. When do you want to do this?”
“As soon as smegging possible.”
Once they were clear of the asteroid belt, Lister informed the others of Rimmer’s decision, carefully leaving out the reasons why. The Cat disappeared in a huff, saying that if alphabet head was coming back, he’d rather spend some quality time with his suits, so Kryten, Lister and Rimmer proceeded to the medibay without him.
The procedure was simple enough. In Rimmer’s case, it was only a matter of downloading the stolen emotions to his lightbee. It took mere seconds. Lister watched as Rimmer’s face scrunched up. It looked painful. Maybe it was. After all, that was one hell of a packet of negativity.
“That should do it,” Kryten said. “We just need to wait for him to extract and assimilate the files.”
Rimmer winked out of existence for three gruelling seconds. When his hardlight projection refreshed, the blond hair was gone, replaced with his former dark curls, cropped military-short. He blinked several times, then looked at Lister. As their eyes met, an expression formed on Rimmer’s face that Lister had no trouble interpreting. It was one he’d seen many times over the years: Rimmer was in full panic mode. Lister saw his gaze flick towards the door. The yellow-bellied goit was going to bolt.
Lister hastily manoeuvred himself between Rimmer and the exit. “Give us a minute, would you, Kryten?” He wasn’t sure how Kryten would interpret the situation, but decided he didn’t really care. Concern soon proved unnecessary anyway, since Kryten showed no sign of noticing anything amiss.
“Of course, sirs. If you need me, I’ll be catching up on the ironing. Three whole sheet sets! I’ve been looking forward to it all day.” With a cheery smile, he departed.
“I’ve also got a lot to be getting on with,” Rimmer said, easing out of the chair and inching towards the door.
No, you don’t. “Lock!” Lister called out, satisfied when the whoosh of air behind him signalled the blocking of the exit. “Come on, Rimmer. Don’t be like this.”
“Like what?” Rimmer’s nostrils flared dramatically. Lister wondered if he had some way of attuning them to sense danger in the air.
“Like a total smeghead. Look, you don’t have to be embarrassed or anything.”
“Embarrassed?” Rimmer’s voice had risen at least an octave. He gave a strangled laugh. “All that stuff from earlier, you mean? Obviously, I wasn’t myself when I said that. I was out of my mind. I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t give me that smeg, Rimmer. You were short a couple of emotions, but beneath all that, you were still you.” He moved closer, and Rimmer went so rigid, for an instant, Lister wondered if his projection had frozen. He waited and took two deep breaths, not wanting to push Rimmer too hard or too fast. He knew the smeghead well enough to realise that was a sure-fire way to screw this up for good. “Look, let’s just give it a try, eh? One try, and if it’s weird, we’ll go to separate ends of the ship and never speak of it again.”
“Do you mean that?”
Lister raised his hand and crossed his heart. “I promise.”
“You’ve made promises before.”
Rimmer still looked wary, but he was clearly wavering, and uncertainty was better than abhorrence. Lister could work with indecision.
“Yeah, I know. But this time I really, really mean it.” He took another step forward.
Rimmer remained visibly tense, but he made no attempt to run, which Lister took as acceptance of his proposal. As Lister continued his approach, Rimmer eyes fluttered shut. That was fine. Smeg, it probably would be easier if they didn’t have too much external stimulation until they saw how this went.
There were mere inches between them now, and before Lister could overthink things and talk himself out of it, he closed his eyes, surged up, and planted a firm kiss on Rimmer’s mouth.
He’d wondered how it would feel to kiss a hologram, but in the end, it was no different from kissing a living, breathing person. Rimmer’s lips were surprisingly warm and inviting, and deliciously pliable under his own.
For the first few seconds, Rimmer accepted the embrace with as much participation as a statue, but then he moaned against Lister’s lips and melted into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Lister’s torso and pulling him closer.
Lister sank a hand into Rimmer’s curls, which were softer than he’d imagined. The hard line of Rimmer’s cock dug into his thigh, and his own strained uncomfortably within the confines of his trousers. Still, it didn’t feel weird. In fact, he craved more, and was in serious danger of making a fool of himself by coming in his boxers. He wasn’t sure if that was just because it had been so long since he’d done this or if it was because he was doing this with Rimmer, and in that moment, he couldn’t give a smeg either way.
At Rimmer’s next groan, Lister eased his tongue into Rimmer’s mouth, deepening the kiss, and Rimmer responded in kind. Lister would never have pegged Rimmer as a good kisser, but this was obviously one of those times when natural talent trumped experience.
They continued until Lister’s need for air forced them apart. Rimmer, of course, didn’t need to breathe, and that recollection gave Lister all manner of devious thoughts. But those were not for today. He’d save them for the encounters he desperately hoped were still to come, and judging by Rimmer’s blown pupils and ragged panting, that hope was not too far-fetched.
“Get back on the chair.” He was surprised at the husky quality to his voice, but he was even more taken aback when Rimmer obeyed the order without question, objection, or snide remark. “And lose the trousers.” This time, Rimmer did hesitate, but then he reached for his fly.
Lister fumbled out of his own clothing and mounted the chair to straddle Rimmer. They paused there, and Lister saw a raw hunger in Rimmer’s gaze that matched his own. How the smeg had he carried on, blissfully unaware of his desire, for so long? And how had Rimmer hidden his so successfully until now? He decided those questions could wait until later. At present, there were other matters to occupy the small part of his brain still functioning.
He reached between them and pressed their cocks together. Someone moaned. He wasn’t sure if it was him or Rimmer. Using their precome for lubrication, he slowly began to pump, squeezing their shafts together with each upward tug.
It was over almost before it had begun, both of them coming embarrassingly fast, but Lister reasoned that they’d do better next time. Next time! Lister’s softening cock gave a jerk of interest at the thought.
They redressed and straightened the room in silence. Rimmer’s eyes were so wide and his back so ramrod straight, Lister was concerned, once again, that he’d short his lightbee. He needed to relax. Hell, they both needed to relax. So they’d had sex. They were both consenting adults. It was no big deal. At least, it didn’t have to be.
He caught Rimmer’s arm, forcing Rimmer to meet his gaze. “Welcome back, man. I should have said that earlier, but I was too distracted.” He added a smile he hoped was part cheeky and part reassuring.
“You aren’t going to regret this? You won’t miss the better version of me?” Rimmer’s ‘this’ was unqualified and ambiguous, but Lister decided to concentrate on one thing at a time.
“This is the better you. It’s who you are—the good and the bad combined.” Now to deal with that ambiguity. “It’s this you I want around... and I hope to see much more of him later.”
Rimmer sucked in a breath. “When you say later....”
“I smegging well mean tonight, here in the medibay, once the others are asleep. We’ll pull out the proper bed this time.”
“Listy, what is this between us? What does it mean?”
“I honestly don’t know, man.” He grinned “But it’s going to be fun finding out.”