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But My Smile Still Stays On

Chapter Text

Lister knew it was a dream from the start. It was the same dream he'd had infrequently since they lost the Red Dwarf. He was back there, stood inside the stasis booth and surrounded by grey mist. He could see through the small window in the door various crewmembers walking past - talking and laughing, working and relaxing. Some he knew well, some he had barely spoken to, and others he’d only seen in queues or at their stations; some perhaps he only knew their faces from researching their files, when he had sent their funeral canisters out into the depths of space all those years ago.

They never saw him in the dream, with his nose squashed against the window desperate to join them.

Then the booth would disappear around him. Sometimes it would break apart piece by piece or shatter into thousands of splintered shards. Sometimes it was just gone. But it made no difference. He’d wander between the couples and groups and crowds and still no-one saw him.

It wasn't the worst part of the dream.

The floor would begin to shudder and he'd watch their shocked faces turn to one another. He could hear Holly talking all around, cool and collected, but he could never make out the words. Hopefully at the time of the real accident it had been something more useful than, “There's an emergency going on.”

At first there was calm reservation. The crewmembers stopped whatever they were doing and made their way towards the emergency pods, like in all the drills they'd run through. Then another bigger quake would happen and there would suddenly be an air of panic. People ran past screaming and terrified.

Lister shut his eyes. The good thing about a cadmium radiation leak was that it was a quick death at that proximity.

The ship was now dark and stifling with heat and dust. Blood pounded in Lister's ears as he silently ran throughout the ship, jumping over the white piles of former crewmembers. He had no time to respectfully step aside. He reached the observation dome and stared out through the glass. Pale elongated approximations of the people he had known flowed like a river across the universe, their faces distorted in pain and confusion. Chen, Selby, Petersen, Todhunter, Petrovich, Hollister.

Kochanski.

Lister didn't believe in ghosts or spirits and yet his subconscious wanted him to experience the possible existential horror of all those souls lost in space.

A soul lost in space.

~~~

Lister woke up trembling and with wet eyes. He flopped out of his bunk, his feet stinging as he landed, and went over to the sink to splash water on his face just as Kryten entered the room.

“Are you all right sir? You look a bit puffy.”

“Just the water, Kryts,” he said with a reassuring beam.

“Ah yes,” said Rimmer as he marched in and regarded him with a sneer. “Your allergy to clean water is acting up as usual.”

Lister gritted his teeth into a wider smile. Like that albino princess said – let it go, let it go.

“I'm afraid the Cat had the last of the milk this morning.” Kryten revealed Lister's replacement breakfast of buttered toast and garlic paste. “I'll replicate more for you later, sir.”

Onion cornflakes were his favourite breakfast (after a good old fry-up) but Lister swallowed down his frustration. “That’s okay; early cat gets the cream, eh?”

“I don’t think that’s how the saying goes, sir.”

“It’s a malaphor, man.”

“Oh, how clever!”

Lister tucked into his meal, feeling a little better from the praise. Kryten was easily amused and he was thankful for it. Rimmer needled him one last time about how his chewing sounds were akin to mating mudskippers but when he failed to get a reaction he retreated to his bunk with a book. Lister sighed inwardly with relief. He wasn’t sure how much Rimmering he could cope with today.

~~~

“How’s it looking out there, guy?”

Cat spun around in his chair a little too fast and frantically patted his perfectly coiffed hair back into place. “No idea. But I finally got my hair up to four inches.”

“Cat, you're supposed to be piloting.”

“I am. We're fine, see? Nothing on the screens.”

Lister looked around the cockpit. There was literally nothing on the screens. “Did you switch the monitors off?”

“Yeah. None of the colours on them went with my shirt. Can we change it?”

“Cat, what if we're in danger right now because of you!”

“I'd smell anything a mile away.”

“A mile is nothing in space. A mile is bar-” Lister was cut off when Starbug began to judder. He ran to one of the portholes and searched worriedly.

“Sir, did you feel that?” Kryten cried as he blundered into the room at speed. “I believe we've been involved in some sort of collision.”

“Yeah I think you're right,” said Lister, giving the obliviously-grinning Cat a pointed look.

“Weren’t you watching the monitors, sir?”

Lister’s brain stalled in shock. He was seriously getting the blame for this? “I only just got here, Kryten.”

“We were only just hit,” Cat pointed out. “Technically it happened on your shift.”

“It's fine, sir,” said Kryten and wafted him out of the cockpit. “There doesn’t appear to be any immediate danger. I'll take care of everything this end for you.”

Lister inhaled deeply and pushed the anger down. He’d take the flack for the furry fashionisto this time. He did his best, for a cat, and that was all they could ask of him. He’d show him later how to change the text colour on the system so he could coordinate with every outfit. “Right now I need a bloody drink,” he said to no-one and wandered off to the lower deck.

~~~

Lister stopped dead when he saw Rimmer stood outside of their food hold looking concerned. He pushed his own worry down and tried to look bright as he clapped Rimmer’s new hardlight body on the shoulder. “Give me the bad news, man.”

“We got nicked by a bit of space debris and lost all the food that wasn't bolted down.”

“Smeg… I bet it was all the good stuff too.”

“Oh no, fortunately the dried fruit and vegetables are fine.”

“That's not what I meant.”

“I know,” Rimmer said with a suddenly chipper waggle of his head. “I’ve just realised that this is a good opportunity for you. Now that there’s no curry or naan to default to for your meals...”

“What the smeg?! All of the Indian stuff? ALL of it? We only just salvaged a fresh supply!”

Rimmer ignored him and continued “...we can start unclogging your arteries at last.”

“I like my arteries the way they are. And right now they need a drink.”

“That… might be a problem.”

Lister stared at him. “Not the beer. Not my beer.”

“The only alcohol left on board is that 1 litre of Strongbow you said even you wouldn't drink but Kryten said might be good for cleaning the toilet.”

Lister dug his fingers into his scalp. This couldn't be happening. One of the few joys he had left had been take from under his nose. What else could go wrong?

There was one thing. One very precious thing in the room right above.

“I've got… to go,” he told Rimmer, trying to hide how he was almost hyperventilating from anxiety.

“Don't you want to check the supplies with me?”

“As fun as… that sounds I… need to go check… on something.”

Lister raced for his life to the bunkroom. Everything looked intact when he entered and he sank to the floor with a loud exhale of relief. But there was still a weird feeling deep inside. Don't let your guard down, don't get comfortable, that's when you get side-swiped. He crawled over to his closet and opened the door.

Chapter Text

Rimmer followed Lister the moment he dashed off, pausing only to call for Kryten. He stopped in the doorway when he found Lister cradling his guitar - the few strings it had broken and bent and curled where the neck had snapped in twain.

“I can explain,” said Rimmer in a cowed voice. “It was just meant to be a joke. Kryten and I – mostly him – we were teasing the Cat, you know how it is. I told him the strings were cat gut and the idiot believed me and overreacted.”

“I did not overreact,” the Cat hissed over Kryten’s shoulder as they both arrived to the scene. “It was offensive and mean and you're both buttheads.”

“We're sorry, s-sir,” said Kryten, stuttering as his guilt chip went into overdrive. “We'll fi-nd new stri-stri-strings on our next salv-a-a-a-age, I'm suuuuure of it.”

“Me guitar…” Lister whispered, pressing it to his chest. “It's all I've got.”

“Oh well thank you very much!” said Rimmer. “What are we exactly? And you know, considering what you did to my Javanese camphor-wood chest you've got a nerve to-”

That was the straw that broke the Scouser’s back. “For once Rimmer, FOR ONCE, can something not be about YOU!” Lister threw the guitar at him and regretted it instantly when Rimmer’s normally swift defensive reflexes failed him and the object hit him square in the face when he didn’t duck in time. He doubled over clutching his nose and wailing pathetically.

Cat yowled excitedly and clapped his hands. “Do it again! Do it again!”

Lister grabbed his guitar amidst Kryten’s motherly clucking over Rimmer’s unmanly whimpers and Cat’s raucous laughter and ran for the lower deck. He hated to do something so cowardly but he just couldn’t deal with the aftermath. He hid amongst the engines and curled up on a pile of cleaning cloths for a fitful sleep.

~~~

“Whab hib smebbin pobem?” Rimmer grumbled as he marched up and down the cockpit with tissues in his nostrils. Kryten had explained several times that he couldn’t bleed as he was a hologram but Rimmer could still feel the pain of a bruised nose and the crumpled paper seemed to be having a placebo effect on him. He was a lot calmer than before although clearly still livid. “Thab wab compeebly unnetheberry.”

“The heck is he saying?” Cat asked Kryten.

“He’s wondering why Mr Lister reacted so harshly. I must admit it’s quite bewildering.”

“Heeb finably gone spath craby.”

“Space crazy? Whoah!” Cat’s pupils filled his eyes. “If he goes totally loco can I have his food share?”

“Why would going insane mean he wouldn’t need food anymore?”

“I just figured we’d have to put him down.”

Kryten shook his head dismally. The Cat had a rather twisted view on the world sometimes, and really they could only blame themselves and television. “I’m going to go look for Mr Lister.”

Rimmer snorted out his tissues. “So am I.”

“I don’t think that’s wise, sir. Neither of you are of an emotional state to communicate effectively.”

“I’m not interested in being effective with my communicating, Krytie me old mucker. I’m interested in giving him a piece of my mind. And don’t” – he muttered as he pointed a finger at the Cat – “don’t make some smarmy remark about my mind being barely a mouthful for a toothless fly or having the calorific value of a slice of cucumber or something.”

“Would I?” Cat said, innocently batting his eyelashes. Rimmer swivelled on his heel without a reply and marched down to the lower deck where he correctly assumed Lister was hunkering down.

~~~

Lister heard them long before he saw them. Kryten was begging in an increasingly worried tone, interspersed with Rimmer’s nasal whining and what seemed to be an occasional cutting quip from the Cat, most likely aimed at the aforementioned hologram.

Lister balled up tighter amongst the oily rags. He’d hoped for a few more hours. Days preferably. Weeks would be nice. That wasn’t like him. He hated being alone; had always sought companionship even if it wasn’t with the most pleasant of people. He had his limits of course, like when he was locked up in quarantine. That was maddening. But he found silence frightening when it went on too long. Not that he was a crowded city kind of man either. He adored Liverpool growing up but his ideal scenario was the Fiji life; a few fellow islanders providing neighbourly companionship, the lull of waves, the chorus of wild animals. A small family that loved him.

Stuck on the Red Dwarf hadn’t been ideal but against all odds he had somehow still managed to find a small family. A small family that – whilst he was certain did love him – weren’t great at showing it. It wasn’t as though they’d chosen to be together after all. But at least on the larger ship even though they’d chosen to coexist in a small area together because it was more convenient and intimate, they could always walk away for a breather if it was needed.

Lying between the Starbug’s engines was as close to a timeout as Lister could get now.

He sat up, his head feeling fuzzy which he blamed on the possible fumes leaking out into the room. He crawled out and pulled his ruined guitar along with him. He rounded a few corners and soon bumped into the others.

“Buddy!” Cat yelled happily. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry those guys made me wreck your guitar.”

Lister smiled. An apology from a cat (even one that passed the buck) was a rare treat. “Thanks man.”

“Between you and me,” Cat hissed in his ear, “it’s those guys I shoulda wrecked. Right?”

“I heard that, you coiffed cretin.”

Kryten subtly squeezed between Rimmer and the Cat and patted Lister’s arm. “Sir, why don’t you come back upstairs? We have a few spices left. I could make you something that resembles a curry.”

Rimmer scoffed. “How apt. He only resembles a human.”

Lister’s tongue rolled around his mouth as he swallowed down a retort. “I’m sorry I hit you with my guitar, Rimmer. Let’s just cool it, eh?”

“Don’t say it like that. Rim-mer. Like I’m an extra on a gay porn set. You always do it when you want to get at me.” He took a step back when Lister moved forward lightning-fast and got up in his face. Cat’s feckles stood on end and even Kryten could sense the sudden ominous atmosphere in the room.

Lister sneered. “You like your little gay retorts, don’t you mate. Makes one wonder a bit.”

Rimmer spluttered – trying to find a rebuttal but his brain had stopped working. “You’re one to talk. Salivating over Ace like he was the last poppadom in the pile.”

“Whatever. I’m not in the mood for one of our ridiculous spats. It always turns out the same.”

Cat nudged Kryten. “Got any popcorn? This is gonna be a classic.” Kryten hushed him. He was concerned about the current argument. Lister was acting genuinely venomous.

Rimmer blanched at Lister’s comment. “Turns out the same in what way?”

“I feel bad about something so we volley insults at each other, then you come up with some sob story about your childhood and I’m supposed to feel sorry for you instead. I’m fed up of it. I’m not allowed even a second to wallow in my own misery. I’m only allowed to wallow in yours. It’s always ‘oh how can I one-up Listy in this scenario’ yeah well here’s your smegging one-up.” He jumped back with his middle fingers proudly upright in Rimmer’s face.

“Huh,” said Cat. “I count two.”

“Not helping,” Kryten whispered when Lister frowned at them. Kryten coughed politely. “How about that curry, sir?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“But-”

“LOOK,” Lister snapped, “I just want you all to smeg off for a bit. Leave me alone.”

“Even me, sir?” Kryten gazed at him dolefully.

Lister’s shoulders slumped and he shook his head sadly. “Sorry Kryts. Even you.”

They silently watched him wander off but the moment he was gone they slung accusatory glares at one another. “Nice going, Goalpost-head.”

“You’re the one who broke his guitar, you poncey puss.”

“I warned you the Cat wouldn’t enjoy the joke, sir.”

“You should have warned harder.” Rimmer folded his arms with a distraught flourish. “It’s not fair. When you two mess around I’m always the one who gets it in the neck.”

Kryten held up his hands to placate the situation. “Let us focus on the real problem here. Just why was Mr Lister so upset?”

“Yeah, not like it’s the first time we’ve ragged on the guy. We’re just having fun!”

“Perhaps…” Rimmer rubbed his chin and pondered. “Perhaps that’s the problem.”

“What is, sir?”

“It’s not the first time. Or the second, or even the third.”

Kryten nodded sagely. “I believe I understand. You’re saying we’ve worn him down.”

“Some people are just too sensitive for banter,” Rimmer said with a sniff. “Old Listy can dish it out but he can’t take it. What a miserable creature.”

“Bud, you sure you’re not talking about yourself?”

Rimmer ignored the slander and made for the bunkroom. “I think I’ll go talk to him. Human to human. He needs to understand that he doesn’t have the monopoly on feelings around here.”

“Wow,” gasped Cat once he’d gone. “There’s a version of that game for everything!”

Chapter Text

“Listy?” Rimmer warbled cheerfully through the doorway.

Lister rolled away in his bunk and pulled the sheets around his head.

“Listy, Listy, Listy…” Rimmer sat beside him and petted his side. “It’s all right, Listy. We forgive you.”

Under the blanket, Lister’s hot face became even hotter.

“We completely understand,” Rimmer continued obliviously, “and you’re entitled to a hissy-fit now and then, as are we all. No rush to apologise, but Kryten’s so distressed that he’s been washing everything too hard. He’s ruining the patina of half the ship.”

Lister emerged from under the sheets and Rimmer was concerned by the glowering, tear-streaked expression that he wore. Lister spoke hoarsely and Rimmer shrank back against the end of the bunk at the demonic tones. “Understand?” Lister growled. “No mate you don’t understand at all. I asked you, I told you, to leave me alone. What did you immediately go and do?”

“Oh… well…” Rimmer gulped. “I thought that was just something people say. Usually they mean ‘chase after me and make sure I’m fine’.”

“Well I meant what I said. And even if I had been doing that, none of what you just said made me feel fine.”

“But we forgive you.”

“There’s nothing to forgive! I did nothing wrong!”

“You threw a guitar at me.”

Lister flopped back onto the pillow. “Okay I’ll admit that was going overboard. I already apologised for that. But if you want more ‘sorry’s you need to let me have some peace to charge up.”

“So you really truly want us to leave you alone? This isn’t reverse psychology or anything?”

“I want to be by myself for a bit. Honest.”

Rimmer got up slowly, still not entirely convinced it wasn’t a test of some kind. Lister didn’t stir or speak any further. Rimmer left the room perplexed and at a loss of what to do now.

~~~

If Kryten hadn’t placed a flask of water into Lister’s curled arms as he lay and stared emotionlessly at the bunk wall he probably wouldn’t have consumed anything. As it was the mechanoid was relieved to the point of oily tears when Lister finally reacted to the cold plastic and tipped it carefully towards his mouth. Kryten also dutifully left snacks nearby and brought a fresh plate of something yummy at every mealtime but they were ignored. By day three the Mama-Mech was beside himself with worry.

“He wanted to be left alone,” Rimmer reminded him.

“He hasn’t eaten for three days. He won’t speak to anyone. He only gets up to use the toilet facilities.”

“Dude’s breath must be even more heinous than usual,” said Cat as he ate one of Lister’s least disgusting discarded dinners. “Like I know he only brushed once a month anyway but…”

Rimmer stole a chip from his plate. “You’re exaggerating. He’s gotten better the last few years.”

“Perhaps that’s something you should tell him, sir. He might perk up if we showed him a little praise and affection.”

“Like what you did to me on that psi-moon,” Rimmer said accusingly.

“Nah, we’d mean it with Lister.” Cat laughed and accidentally sprayed a few pieces of chicken in Rimmer’s direction, to both of their mortification. “Sorry bud!”

Rimmer flicked the food from his jacket. “I don’t see why we should kowtow to his attention-seeking malingering. When he wants to be a functioning member of the crew again? Then I’ll be nice to him.”

“What if he’s genuinely depressed, sir?”

“Depressed? It’s Lister. He exists to be perpetually chirpy and bothersome.”

“If you say so, sir. I’ll go see if a nice fresh batch of chilli-infused shortbread will entice him.” Kryten marched off in the direction of the galley and Rimmer chewed his fist thoughtfully. He hadn’t considered depression but now that he thought about it, it did fit in with the situation. There were only so many times someone could be knocked down before they gave up, no matter what Chumbawamba said.

How long had Lister been smiling and dancing and dragging them all through every trial and tribulation, lighting up the darkness where he knew no-one else would. And the three of them had deliberately dug in their heels from their own hang-ups or selfishness and made things harder for him.

“Cat?”

“Hmm?”

“I think we broke Lister.”

~~~

Lister’s nostril’s twitched slightly at the scent of freshly baked biscuits but the footfalls entering the room were lighter and more even than Kryten’s usual clumping around. Curiosity made him feebly turn his head to look at his waiter for the evening.

“Ah, Listy, just wondered if you fancied a bit of shortbread.” Rimmer tried not to look excited when Lister sat up shakily and took a biscuit, nibbling on it with no real desire. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Kryten can make something else.”

“It’s fine,” Lister whispered. He felt sick. Maybe he should have eaten something a little plainer.

As if psychic, Rimmer held out a packet of crackers. “I um… as a child… whenever I got a question right at dinner and I finally got food I often had crackers. Not very nutritional but they stayed down better.”

Lister sighed and snatched the packet from him.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Tell me.”

“There’s no point. It’s not like you’re doing it on purpose.”

“If I knew what it was then maybe I could not not do it on purpose?”

Lister bit the corner off of a cracker. “It’s my issue not yours.”

“I still want to help. We all do. Well possibly not the Cat,” he added. “If it’s any consolation, when I was younger and my brothers were-”

“That! Right there!” Lister said suddenly around a mouthful of cracker. “Anything bad going on with me, you have to make it about yourself.”

“I’m just trying to give you advice through an anecdote.”

“But that’s not what it feels like. It feels like you’re taking over. I don’t need an anecdote, Rimmer. I need a shoulder to cry on. A silent one.”

“So a therapist?”

“A mate.” Lister closed the packet of crackers. One felt like enough. He looked up at Rimmer and smiled sadly. “I know we’re blokes and we’re conditioned to find solutions and not talk through stuff. But sometimes there is no solution. Sometimes there’s no greener grass to get to. The last few years I’ve been trying really hard to water the tiny patch of grass that I have got and I don’t need you lot stomping all over it.”

“We don’t… I don’t mean to walk on your grass.”

“I know, man.” He buried his head in his knees. “I hate snapping at yer. I hate acting like a smeg.”

“Perpetual self-loathing isn’t for everyone, although I have to say I’ve gotten rather good at it over the years. Ah…” Rimmer cringed. “I made it about me again, didn’t I?”

Lister lifted his head and smirked at him. “It’s fine. You’re aware of it now, at least.” They sat in an awkward silence for a few moments. Lister could feel his tiny meal churning around in his starving stomach.

“So…” Rimmer started eventually, “not to make this not about you again but when do you think you’ll come out? Kryten’s out of his software with worry.”

As if Lister didn’t feel guilty enough. “Dunno,” he muttered and looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “When I’ve got the energy.”

“Energy which I am depleting right now, correct?” said Rimmer once he got the hint. “I’ll take my leave then.”

“Sorry man.”

Rimmer stood up briskly and went to the door. He paused just before he went through. “Listy?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ll tell Kryten you ate two crackers.”

Lister smiled gratefully and curled back up into a tight ball of slightly less misery.