by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)
Wires and panels. Just like in the old times. Everyone knew something was amiss the moment they set foot aboard. It hung heavily in the air, the uncertainty; the feeling that they wouldn’t like whatever was next. Even the sergeant, an old warhorse that nothing could impress anymore, looked uneasy.
They weren’t assigned sleeping quarters. Instead, the sergeant herded them in a communal area and ordered them to take seats and keep the noise down. They remained there through takeoff. Nervous in the face of such an unusual procedure. Xander was seated between two friends of his, and it didn’t even cross his mind to start a conversation. It felt as if the silence would cut them all should anyone break it.
After an hour, the door opened again and more men came in. Crewmembers, he supposed. They walked in a perfectly orderly manner, lined up against the wall, and waited, all of them standing at attention.
The voice of Xander’s sergeant thundered in the air when the door opened for the second time, to let in a tall man in a black uniform. “All men to attention for their Captain!” Xander and forty-nine other men stood up as if they were one. There was one sharp clap composed of fifty pair of boots being clapped at the same time and one roar of “Sir, at your command, sir!” composed of fifty voices all talking as one. Moments like this were the reason Xander had joined the army. Those times when so many different personalities suddenly merged into one. His whole family found it frightening. His father had ranted for hours on the importance of a free mind. But to be part of something greater, to have all barriers between you and others disappear, and to feel the force inherent in a crowd, those were a high more powerful to Xander than any illegal substance could provide. It was the reason he had fled the rundown farm he called home and hadn’t set foot on his planet for years. Most days it was enough to compensate for the lack of answer to his messages.
The eerie atmosphere had been completely erased and Xander felt the mental exhale of breath as his companions relaxed. Following orders: now that, they could do. It was even a welcome touch of normality in what had been a rather abnormal assignment so far. Not the whole board-a-ship-for-a-year-to-inspect-the-b
Xander wasn’t the only one who hadn’t noticed the newcomer. All of the soldiers turned their head to find a tall silhouette crossing the room toward the captain. It was a combat suit, two feet taller at least than the captain – who wasn’t a short man by any mean – and twice as wide as any man present. It was made of a black metal that seemed to suck in the light instead of reflecting it. It didn’t make a sound as it walked, not a click, nothing. It went to stand two steps behind the captain’s right shoulder and remained there, utterly still. Like a deformed and deadly shadow.
Next to Xander, Nicholas inhaled sharply. “Shit. They have a fucking Berserker.” Which was a good summary of Xander’s own thoughts and of the low rustling of wary voices echoing around them.
The captain appeared unfazed by the noise. “Lastly,” he resumed coolly, “The Alpha section in your unit is to provide a Grounder for the ship’s Special Unit. They may use this room while they make their choice. I want a name before the hour is through. Ladies, Gentlemen, you are dismissed.”
Alpha group was Xander’s unit. A fact that wasn’t nearly as pleasing now as it usually was. Everyone had heard stories about the Special Units, their inhuman speed and strength, their ability to fight in space, their incredible combat skills and, the reason for the Berserker appellation, their tendencies to go on killing rampages. There were numerous theories about that little flaws in what would otherwise be considered the perfect soldiers. Personally Xander was a believer of the ‘hormonal imbalance in the brain caused by chemical enhancement of the body’ theory. Then there were the more colourful ones like that one theory that said all Special Units were actual descendant of the real Berserker from Old Earth’s Viking people and had been bred for a very rare and recessive gene that made them very skilled warriors but made them go into blood rage. Then there was the ‘alcohol allergy’ theory that was quite popular though Xander wondered if anyone really believed it.
Grounders were a late addition to the stories. The real job description was unknown, but there were plenty of insinuation about stress relief and the utility of a warm body at hand. Xander didn’t know if it was true and didn’t really want to find out.
The whole crew filtered out of the room while the Alpha group gathered uncomfortably together. The sergeant was shooting them pitying look. Coming from a man who had had to find volunteers for suicide mission and hadn’t flinched, it didn’t feel comforting.
It rapidly became obvious that no one was going to step forward. Xander wondered if they would resort to drawing a name from a hat or if the sergeant would point someone out. It might have happened like that if Nicholas hadn’t opened his stupid mouth.
“Xander should do it.”
Surprise — no, betrayal shot through Xander like a punch, leaving him too stunned to talk. What? His eyes shot to Nicolas, hoping that he wasn’t hearing what he had just heard. It certainly made for a poor joke. But Nicholas didn’t look like someone who was joking. If anything he was giving Xander an… apologetic look. Xander knew that particular look. It was the one Nicholas had used to excuse himself the last time he had betrayed their friendship, or maybe not their friendship, but it had struck a definite blow to Xander’s trust. He didn’t want to go there again.
Any other subject and the others would have been shouting in outrage by now. Not for this. Instead of demands to know what had prompted Nicholas’ pointed finger, there was only silence, heavy and expectant. Nicholas had never been very good with silence, Xander knew, and he was growing fidgety. “I’m not saying this to be mean,” Nicholas explained hurriedly, “but we’ve all heard the stories and… shit guys, all of you are married, I have a fiancée and Xander is single. Besides…” At least, Xander thought bitterly, at least Nicholas had the decency to hesitate. At least he wasn’t feeling too good sharing that titbit of information. But it still didn’t stop him. “Besides, the guy is gay.”
He had seen it coming. A little. But it still numbed him to hear it out loud. Coming from his best friend’s mouth nonetheless. And if Nicholas had only been his best friend but… no, not going there. Shouldn’t he be doing something? Like, deny. Would they believe him? Did he want to lie for this?
He didn’t. He watched the faces around him grow disbelieving and then slightly disgusted, hostile in a few cases even. Xander didn’t say anything when the sergeant avoided his eyes and turned his back to them in a clear sign that he didn’t want to take part anymore. And then there was Annie, the only woman of the unit, who couldn’t manage to hide her relief. Xander suddenly thought that Nicholas’s reasoning meant that she was just as fit for the job as he was. But if she had thought that anyone would ask her to do it then she didn’t know any of her partners. Xander hated himself for even thinking she was fit for the job. He knew the others would hate the thought as well. Or he had known. Shit, they did, didn’t they? That’s why they were all too happy to send the fag playing bed warmer for the crazy blood thirsty soldier. Amongst other things.
When the silence became too much he left the room and made his way to the Captain’s office. He tried to meet Nicholas’ eyes before leaving, but the man wouldn’t let him.
Grant, the captain’s attendant, was a chatty man. Which was good, because Xander was trying very hard to forget what had happened in the morning with his team and the no less traumatizing experience that had been his conversation with the captain afterward. Following Grant around was a good distraction. Xander didn’t have enough memory for all the information he was being fed but he tried his hardest to get the basics and that exercise allowed no outside thoughts.
Grand was friendly but uninterested in Xander’s life beside his rank name or new position in the ship. He was now Xander’s go-to person for any question he might have on that last point. The captain couldn’t be bothered with the subject and Grant knows everything there is to know on the topic and a few others. If you need to bother someone start with him. Xander cringed and buried the memory and the visual of a bored captain shooing him away. He also blocked the ominous and silent presence two-feet behind the captain’s chair. The Special Unit had been statue-still for the whole meeting. Where Xander was glad for Grant’s lack of interest, the absence of reaction from the combat suit had freaked him out. Apparently, burying the memories wasn’t enough. Xander mentally added a concrete slab and forced himself to go back to the conversation. “What about shower room? Are there time-slots for those?”
Grant shook his head. “The room you’ll be sharing with Tarim has one. ”
Oh yeah, apparently the berserker had a name. Xander had been almost shocked to learn it wasn’t SP05 or KX456.
The room he would share with Tarim was in the same part of the ship as the officers’ living quarters. Grant opened the door and made a grand show of gesturing Xander inside, through heavy black curtain that formed some kind of antechamber at the entrance. Grant closed the door behind them and followed Xander through the curtain in a… well it was a room surely but there was absolutely no light to make sure.
“Light on!” ordered Grant. Instantly, the room was bathed in dim red light. Not much, just enough to make out two beds, two lockers and two chairs. The two beds were on the same side and separated by thirty or so centimetres. Xander had a feeling those beds had been together not too long ago and were expected to return to that state sometime soon. Then there was an additional door that opened on the bathroom, also lit by the feeble red light. Xander was already feeling claustrophobic and he hadn’t been in the room for more than a minute.
“The room has been changed to accommodate Tarim’s allergy to light,” Gant informed him. “No one but you is allowed past the curtains and those have to remain closed at all times. You can’t bring in a flashlight or camera or anything that makes white light. Your techbook cannot be activated in the room for the same reason. There is a special one in the locker that you can use. I heard from the other grounders that it’s not great for long periods of time but…” His tone said there was nothing he could do about it. Not that Xander thought it was his job. “If you need light to do something you can use of one of the meeting rooms. Make sure it’s free first though. And if you have any question about your job, you can ask Tarim. He knows all that stuff better than anyone aside from the captain himself.” The soldier paused, hesitated and then added, “Listen, mate, I know you might not think so right now but, Tarim, he is a nice fellow. He didn’t have more of a choice to become what he is than you did.”
Hadn’t he? Before Xander could ask what that meant the guy was gone. Oh well, he’d get other chances to ask.
‘The benefits of human contact in anger management‘ was part of the reading list Xander found in the Techbook memory. Among other titles such as ‘Combat Suit Technology‘, ‘Use of T-Protein for combatants ameliorations‘, and his favourite ‘Bloodrage, physical and psychological triggers: a list of possible problems‘. He’d gone through a few pages of that last one. There had been a chapter about ‘combat induced aggression’ but nothing about ‘big mean berserker in a combat suit’. Then there was the document titled ‘I know‘ that opened with a error: file couldn’t be deleted, do you want to delete now? message. Xander clicked no. The file was a one-page document that contained exactly ten sentences.
1. You shall not forget your dirty socks on the floor
2. You shall not use the bathroom, need the bathroom or otherwise go near the bathroom between 0545 and 0600 or between 1805 and 1830
3. Electronic music is evil
4. Sweets are meant to be shared or they will be stolen
5. Une chanson douce – Henri Salvador (photophobia doesn’t make a freak out of a man, playing this song all day long does)
6. Pot Roast or Spaghetti alla Carbonara
8. 253th day, 30 candles, anything with chocolate, ask cook (or Grant?) for more details
9. Snoring is forgivable, stealing the blankets isn’t
Xander went over the list trying to make head or tail of it. Mumbling obscenities didn’t help but he still indulged in a few. When he got too frustrated he went back to the articles.
Later that evening, after Xander had decided that it wasn’t written anywhere, not even in The benefices of human contact in anger management, that he had to act like a sex toy – Captain’s instructions had been to be ‘friendly and open-minded, can you do it soldier?’- the door to the room opened again.
In so dark a setting, the light-eating armour was one big shadow moving against more shadows. Between Grant and the list Xander had managed to forget that he was going to share a dark room with a fucking Berserker. But now…
Okay, friendly, we said. “Hum, good evening.” The helmet turned in his direction for a few seconds and then the suit walked to the wall. Manner-less Punk.
A whole section of the wall opened. Grant hadn’t talked about that. Xander starred in amazement as the Special Unit backed into the shadows. With the little amount of light the red bulbs provided Xander could just make out the silhouette of some alien machinery. Or a lot of big creepy crawlies with shiny shells. When the machine started humming, hissing and moving that was what it really looked like. Xander’s scalp and legs itched just looking at it. Amongst all the black, a white silhouette appeared. Xander realised with a start that the suit was being taken off of its holder. Oh!
When Tarim walked out of the wall, Xander was still gaping and coming to term with the vision of a lean body made out of nicely defined muscles and only covered by a pair of spandex shorts that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Xander looked up and noticed with a little surprise the white hair and red eyes – not a product of the room’s lighting, Tarim was an albino, a very sexy albino – but what he really concentrated on was the strong jaw and straight nose and the way it complimented that handsome face and fit so well with the rest of the berserker’s lovely body. No wonder he wasn’t able to say anything while Tarim crossed the room and locked himself inside the bathroom. It takes time for all of that blood to go back to one’s head.
Just to be sure Xander pinched his arm. Hurt. He wasn’t having a wet-dream. Was it really not written anywhere he had to sleep with the guy? In a page of the article he had missed or in small letters on a contract somewhere?
The shower started inside the bathroom and the picture it created in Xander’s brain made what blood had managed to go back disappeared again to more southerly regions.
Grounder might not be considered a privilege, but it had a lot of perks. The private bathroom was one. Xander soon found out that his duties aboard the ship had been set so that his schedule was as regular as possible, and never included any smelly work. No bathroom scrubbing or kitchen work for him, thank you sir.
Xander’s had a theory. It involved a crappy roommate and the supposition that someone might want to make it up to Xander for it. To his defence, it had taken him three attempts at a conversation and as many failures before Xander gave up and decided to behave like Tarim and ignore his roommate entirely. At least, Tarim kept a very strict schedule: one that made him easy to find and, thus, easy to avoid. Xander’s only concession was to greet the Armour when he crossed his path in public. That way, if anyone ever complained, they couldn’t accuse him of not trying.
The techbook’s content didn’t surrender any more information. All Xander learned was that Tarim’s photophobia was probably a secondary effect of genetic modification that also fucked with his colouring, that the T-Protein was a highly effective replacement for testosterone with a few beneficent and not so beneficent side-effects, and that being messy was a behaviour considered aggressive because leaving your things everywhere could be interpreted like marking your territory. After that bit Xander stopped taking the book seriously.
But Xander’s main concern was the desert that had become his social life. He hadn’t talked to the members of his units since his “nomination”. The word that he had been elected as the berserker’s boy-toy was enough to make the other soldiers find somewhere else to be whenever he approached them and felt as if the ship’s crew were a tad uneasy around him, so he hadn’t tried his luck with them either. Grant was nice, but the man was very busy being worked into the ground by the captain.
“Life sucks.” He said one night to Tarim’s back. The berserker had taken the armour off and was headed toward the shower. “And you’re the main reason why it sucks. Oy! I’m talking to you!”
On hindsight, trying to pin the Berserker to the wall wasn’t a clever plan. He woke up with a hazy memory of brushing Tarim’s wrist with his fingers, a painful shoulder and an even more painful head.
“I called Grant, he should be here in a minute.”
“Nhg?” Someone was talking? Why Grant? It was a medic he needed.
A ghost bent over him, its red eyes glinting in the dim light. “I think you have a concussion. Do you remember what day it is?”
“No. Is it bad?”
“Xander. What’s yours?”
“How many fingers?”
A hand was thrust in his face. White but not see-through. “Am I dead?”
The ghost frowned. “Are you joking?”
“Uh?” Thinking hurt. Instead he listened to the door open and close, and watched Grant’s entrance. The captain’s attendant had a funny expression on his face. “Grant, my man!” Ouch, talking too loud hurt too.
Grant kneeled next to him and gave the ghost a worried glance. “How is he?”
“I don’t know, he doesn’t make much sense.” The ghost was very calm. His voice was nice. Low and soothing.
“I bet you can sing very nicely.” Declared Xander with a bright smile. “Try it. I want a lullaby.”
“See?” The ghost got back to his feet. “You should take him to the infirmary.”
Grant’s eyes were angry. “Don’t you care?” he asked.
Ooh, the ghost was in so much trouble. Xander giggled. Nothing didn’t hurt anymore. “I wanna sleep.” Pain would go away if he slept yes? Now Grant was watching down. He didn’t look angry anymore. The eyes were watching him weren’t they? “Head hurt. Shoulder hurt too.” Grant was nice, he would make the pain go away. The ghost could stay here and rot. “Are we going now?”
“Yes.” A strong arm helped him to his feet. “It’s okay. The doctor will give you painkillers.” He wasn’t very steady on his legs so he let Grant take most of his weight. “Careful, the light is on outside. You should close your eyes.”
Xander’s tired mind didn’t get the reason but keeping his eyes close was easier anyway. They left the ghost in the room and made their way to the infirmary.
The stay in the infirmary meant he didn’t have to see Tarim for two days. Instead, he got to see nurses and doctors and talk to real people who answered him when he said hello. But, it being a good thing, of course it couldn’t last. On the third day, Grant pulled him from his bed and dragged him by the arm that wasn’t in a scarf, all the way to Tarim’s room.
“Come on! What are you, five? You can’t hide in the infirmary forever. They need those bed for real patients, you know.”
That didn’t deserve an answer and it got none.
“Xander, stop sulking.”
“Are too. We’re there anyway.”
“What? Really?” Xander’s eyes left the ground and landed on an ominous sight. It was the door alright. “There should be a sign there. Beware, nasty resident.”
Grant rolled his eyes. “Now who’s mean? Light on.” He dragged Xander inside and through the curtains.
“I didn’t ask to be slammed to the floor so hard I had to be kept under observation for two days.” The red light only gave Xander the creepy illusion that the steel walls and floor were made of blood.
“Didn’t you?” There was an unpleasant impact between Xander’s nose and Grant’s chest. The man had stopped suddenly to whirl around and glare at Xander. “I don’t know what you’ve been told about Special Units, but I know that Tarim would never attack you without reason. So think carefully about what happened, and try to tell me again that you didn’t ask for it.” Xander blinked. Woah, he would have never thought Grant to be so passionate about something. Grant picked on his shock and abruptly turned away. “Anyway. Captain said to tell you that being friendly isn’t just something nice to do, it’s your job and you damn better get to it or he’ll deal with it same way he’d deal with anyone slacking. Got it?”
“Got it. But…” Xander saw Grant’s shoulder stiffen and hurried before he got another earful. “I’ve tried to be nice! The guy completely ignores me. It’s like living with a… a brick wall. Actually, no. I could touch a brick wall without being violently introduced to the floor. It’s like he doesn’t want to give me an opportunity to get close. How am I supposed to do anything under those conditions?” Grant made a pensive sound, he was now examining Xander’s face, maybe comparing his story with what he knew of Tarim. Xander had no doubt Grant would take him seriously. He was a fair man.
Grant sat on the foot of Tarim’s bed and gestured for Xander to sit by his side. “Maybe there is something you should know.”
This was certainly turning into an interesting conversation. Xander sat on the bed as well. “I’m warning you, if you tell me that the guy accidentally killed his lover and don’t want to get close to anyone in case it happens again, I’ll laugh.”
Grant let out a wry chuckle. “No, what I want to say will sound more like a chemistry lesson than a bodice ripper. Special Units are doctored to be able to do their job.” Xander wondered if Grant knew about the files in the techbook. Just in case he wasn’t supposed to have them, he let Grant continue without saying anything. “The armour also gives out a desensitizer that works as a very mild painkiller. It contains a substance called… I don’t remember, P-Protein or D-Protein or something.” Xander bit his tong before he made a mistake and corrected Grant “Anyway. That thing is great for your body but not so much for your brain. It suppresses emotional answers. So, no anger, no fear and no surprise but also, no joy, no trust and all of the associated feelings. Prolonged exposure to that substance isn’t good for the health. That’s the main reason Tarim doesn’t live in the armour 24/7.”
Grant stopped and didn’t start again. Like he was waiting for Xander to say something. “So… uhm, the T… the substance, how is it… how does it get into Tarim’s… it has to get to the bloodstream doesn’t it?” That usually meant a needle but daily injection in the same would leave a mark on Tarim’s fair skin and Xander hadn’t seen anything – and let it be believed that he had given his roommate a very thorough once over. “But if the guy is really a robot, why does he need a friend?”
Grant growled “Because he isn’t, you idiot. The… oh it’s actually T-Protein, well it gets flushed by the body pretty quick. So once it’s not administered anymore Tarim goes back to being you emotional and social human being. That, and it the suppressor doesn’t work for intense emotions.”
“Yeah, oh.” Grant smiled a little. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if you give Tarim an hour or so after he takes the armour off, he should be a lot more cooperative.”
Xander was skeptical. He distinctly remembered trying to interact with Tarim even hours after the guy had taken off the damn combat suit, without results. Before he could point that out to Grant though, the door opened and a shadow shaped like Tarim in armour walked through the curtains.
“Ah,” said Grant with a forced cheerfulness, “time for me to go back to my duties. See you guys!” In five seconds flat, the traitor had left Xander to deal alone with Tarim. Bastard.
Without a word, the special unit went on with his usual routine of taking the armour off and then taking a shower. Xander grabbed the techbook and prepared himself for another long evening. But instead of sitting on his bed and stare at the wall until their meal was brought in, Tarim got out of the shower and came to stand in front of Xander’s bed. Now what? Thought the soldier.
“Captain said I should say sorry.” Tarim said it like he would say ‘captain told me to walk on shard of glass barefoot’.
“‘S okay. You don’t need to.” Now go away.
“Okay, okay, you’re forgiven. You can tell that to the captain, too.”
“But you don’t believe me.”
Xander thought that he had a lot of reasons not to but… well the guy Of course I don’t you moron. “Does it matter? If the captain asks me, I’ll tell him I forgave you and all will be well in the world.” Okay, so he was a little aggressive, so what?
Tarim shook his head, looking more and more frustrated. “You don’t understand. I don’t like what I did and the captain said I probably felt sorry and I should tell you. So I’m telling you. I’m sorry.”
“Uh?” What the fuck was the idiot going on about? Putting aside the techbook, Xander looked at Tarim, really looked at him.
The man didn’t look sorry to Xander. Very neutral certainly, maybe a little tired, his eyes were a bit more sunken than usual, but sorry? Ah wait, unless sorry was how Tarim called that downward tilt of his mouth and the slight frown of his eyebrows. And his fingers were twitching nervously though it was hardly noticeable.
Looking up and straight into Tarim’s eyes Xander took on his most serious voice to say, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
Just as faintly as they had tilted down, the corners of Tarim’s lips tilted up. “I promise it won’t happen again.” Still wondering if he was dreaming, Xander watched the Berserker go to his own bed and sit back on it.
Intrigued despite himself and not yet tired of the interaction Xander turned to lay on his side so that he was facing his roommate. “Were you having a bad day?” Red eyes set on him and Tarim’s eyebrows lifted in question. “The other day,” clarified Xander, “were you having a bad day?”
“A bad day,” Tarim repeated the words like the concept was an intriguing problem of quantum mechanics.
“A day when what doesn’t go wrong doesn’t want to go right and people spend their time shouting at you for no apparent reason?”
Pale lips turned into a definite smirk “Oh yes, I do remember someone shouting at me for no apparent reason and things going wrong just after that.” Humour. Xander was delighted, even though he was being made fun of.
He answered Tarim’s smirk with a smile of his own. “Yeah, asshole open his mouth and then everything go down the drain, I know the feeling.”
For whatever reason, it wasn’t the right thing to say. Tarim’s smirk disappeared, his face closed. Xander could only watch as the human being got swallowed whole and replaced once again with the unemotional berserker. Anyone else and Xander would have grabbed him and shook some sense into him. But Tarim? A twinge of pain in Xander’s shoulder reminded him how not good an idea that was.
There was no more talking for a week. Tarim was off duty and, in theory, supposed to rest. It worked rather badly for twenty-four hours, after which he couldn’t stand the dark anymore and started hanging in the common room. He fell asleep on the not-so-comfortable couches several times, because he couldn’t do so in his own bed without waking up abruptly with the feeling that the walls were closing on him. He was indulging in such a nap when someone shook his bad shoulder. Waking up with a start and a hiss and nearly falling to the ground didn’t put him in a good mood to deal with whoever had woken him, when Nicholas’s face appeared above him it got even worse, no matter how sorry the man looked. “You okay?” mumbled Nicholas with a look around. Xander didn’t want to think it was to make sure no one was watching them but he knew better now.
His thoughts were slowed by fatigue, but the disgust Nicholas inspired him stood against the haze very clearly. “Get off.” He ordered harshly. He accompanied the words with a push to the hand Nicholas hadn’t removed from his shoulder.
Nicholas took his hand away as if burnt. “Sorry. Did I hurt you?”
There were many answers to that, all of them starting with a yes, all of them expressing different degrees of hurt, none of them a direct answer to Nicholas’ question. Who cared about a manhandled bruise when you had had to piece your heart back together? If there was any justice in this world it should be Nicholas sleeping on the couch and enduring Tarim’s bouts of craziness. What the fuck did he want anyway? “What do you want? Hurry and get lost.” Nicholas lowered his eyes and fidgeted. Two weeks ago Xander would have taken pity on him, told him to say sorry already so they could go watch a movie or something. But there had been too much forgiving and now he didn’t feel like dishing out any more second chance. “I said hurry,” he growled instead. On Nicholas’ face the regret morphed into confusion. The asshole really didn’t get that this time it would take a lot more than an half-hearted attempt at apologizing to mend things. More than Nicholas, it was at himself that Xander was angry. Why had he put up with this for so long? “Never mind. I’m through with you.”
Nicholas got pushed out of the way and, was that annoyance on his face? Well too bad, Xander had somewhere else to be. He wasn’t surprised when Nicholas didn’t follow him. The man had never had any gut.
There wasn’t anywhere else to go so he went back to Tarim’s room. Which was his fucking room too.
Xander woke from another bout of claustrophobia-induced nightmare only to notice that Tarim was back. The berserker was sitting on the edge of Xander’s bed with a hand extended as if he had been about to wake him.
Xander’s first impulse was to bat the hand away. He thought better of it almost intently. There are some lessons you don’t want to learn twice. Anyway when he saw that the gesture wasn’t needed anymore Tarim let his hand fall back to his side. He didn’t get up though.
With a groan Xander rubbed his face. Was he still dreaming? It already had happened to him once, dreaming that he was waking. There had been several awakening in the dream until he woke up for real, wondering if he was dreaming yet again. He could have spent more time thinking on it if the berserker hadn’t gotten impatient and interrupted him.
“The captain said we should talk.” Xander wondered if he wanted to know what had preceded that conclusion. Maybe not. Still, what was it with everyone today? Would Grant turn up later to talk too?
Xander had been starring blankly at Tarim’s face the whole time so his brain noticed when the albino’s mouth tightened into an aggravated line. He didn’t feel like talking to Tarim any more then he had wanted to talk to Nicholas but this conversation had the potential to become entertaining so he made a vague gesture with his hand for Tarim to go along. If worst came to worst they would be ignoring each other for another week.
The first sentence to come out of Tarim’s mouth didn’t make sense. “You’re not with that other guy anymore.” No sense at all.
Was that a statement or a question? Xander wished someone would have just given him the Tarim-English translator when he was assigned that stupid Grounder assignment. “What guy, what are you talking about?” Should he also ask what the guy was on? He could do with happy pills right now.
Tarim made a vague gesture in the direction of… well away from the room, Xander guessed. “That guy, the one who outed you, you were talking to him in the commons.”
That made Xander pause. He didn’t like the direction this conversation was heading to. More specifically, he didn’t like the fact that Tarim knew anything of what had transpired in the common room. In his mind’s eye he could still see the captain turning on the volume of his fucking computer and then turning the damn screen to show Xander his own crushed expression while Nicholas told his whole unit that he was gay. It made him rather angry. Okay, it made him furious. A very cold and quiet kind of furious.
“How do you know that?”
“I was watching.”
“Watching, really? From where? No offence but I don’t remember a seven-feet-tall piece of metal being anywhere in the room.”
Tarim gracefully ignored the not very subtle insult. “I wasn’t in the room. I was repairing the emergency shutter outside.”
Xander took a deep breath, intending to get as loud as he possibly could. “Wha…” but realisation stopped him mid-word. “WHERE?!” The look he got for his trouble clearly said that he had heard and Tarim wasn’t repeating himself. “Outside? Like, space outside? Don’t they have specialists for that?”
“I’m the specialist.”
“Oh…” Well that answered the question about a Special Unit’s day job. Tarim was a space-mechanic. With deadly training and a big armour that turned him into the Hulk. Now that particular comparison had potential. He’d share it with Grant one of these days. Back on topic… oh yes, private life invasion. “That still doesn’t explain why you think Nicholas and I aren’t together, or why you thought we might be in the first place.”
“It was written all over your face.” Said Tarim with a grimace that might either mean Xander’s taste in men was horrendous or that Xander’s face at the time was distastefully ugly. Or both.
“The fuck does that mean?” That was it, he was acquiring a Tarim dictionary even if he had to write it himself. “If you don’t start speaking sense then I’m going to the captain and… and… and I’ll do something you’ll regret!”
Tarim didn’t laugh in face of the inane threat. Not even close, instead his eyes widened slightly and he started talking at faster pace. “You looked really hurt when he outed you. Really hurt and sad.” Yes, no need to put salt on the wound; Xander remembered really well, thank you. “And then today it was almost like you were glad he came to talk to you.” Glad? Who had been glad? “You talked to him and you looked so… so hopeful. Until you got angry and left that is. I am glad you left him. He was mean to you.”
Well, that was one lengthy speech. And there were a few… things Xander could think about more later. Tarim had been oddly perceptive and now Xander felt self-conscious under the honest gaze of the Berserker. “What did you tell the captain? To make him tell you we should talk?” he said in an attempt to distract Tarim.
“I told him what I saw and that I was glad.” Tarim averted his eyes “It made me angry before when I thought of you and that guy together,” he admitted. “You didn’t talk and you didn’t try to make other friends, like you were going to wait until he wanted you back. It made me angry even in the suit and I…” His voice lowered to a murmur. “If I get angry in the suit sometimes I hurt people. The captain said I should tell you that. That he didn’t want me to hurt anyone and really couldn’t allow myself to be angry with you. He said if we talked it might help.” Tarim looked very unsure about the whole admission. It was cute.
“Good advice.” Though the admission was strained Xander had to acknowledge that this conversation was doing them a lot of good. “Was that why you didn’t talk to me?”
“Yes. I didn’t want to suddenly be reminded of the asshole and bash your face on the wall.”
An idea popped into Xander’s mind. “Was he also the reason for my concussion and sprained shoulder?”
The smirk was back. “No. That one you prompted on your own.”
Of course one little conversation, no matter how intimate the subject, wasn’t enough to change everything. But it was enough to change a few things. Firstly, Tarim started saying hello and goodbye when greeted. Secondly, and probably a direct result of the first result, Xander managed to make it through a whole night without waking in a panic, and then through a second and a third until his sleeping had returned to normal. The general good humour led to two conversation of respectively two and five minutes, the first about a disastrous dish served for supper and the second about the necessity to keep dirty socks and other smelly garments off the floor. Friendship was too grand a term to name their relation but with time it might get there.
Xander followed Tarim’s advice and actually talked to a few crew members instead of presupposing that they would be awkward with him. They weren’t. They accepted the Grounder amongst them like they did the cooks and the janitors, like it was just another post to be filled. And days spent with them, Xander was left to wonder if it wasn’t just that.
Until he walked in their room one evening to find Tarim there before him. The Special Unit was sitting cross legged on his bed with a few papers scattered around him and one in his hands that he was reading.
Xander felt a frown set on his face. Tarim never ever came back before Xander did. And Xander had never seen him read anything. The paper format made it all the more absurd. Paper had become a rarity with the advent of techbook, what kind of information could Tarim need that would be written on paper?
The Special Unit lifted his head briefly to say hello and Xander took the opportunity to ask what he was reading.
“Test results,” answered Tarim curtly.
Xander felt irritation gnaw at his nerves. “Like performance test results?” he insisted.
Tarim shook his head. “Like medical test results.” He didn’t look happy about it at all.
“Oh… so… what does it say?”
Tarim put the page away. “It says I’m stressed.” He said it with a shrug. The message was clear ‘nothing new, not your business’.
Though it definitively wasn’t his business, Xander still wanted to know. He decided to try an other angle. “So? What’s the captain’s advice? Unless it doesn’t interest him if it isn’t worth a hundred signs in a ‘Sheyla’s advice to you’ rubric?”
A strange glint passed through Tarim’s eyes. “Funny that you should mention that.” Oopsy, maybe that wasn’t a good angle. “The captain said I should sleep with you.”
Xander felt his eyes grow saucer shaped. “PARDON ME?! W… What a stupid… how… y… you don’t… WHY?! We don’t get along. We can barely stand to share a room, a dark room in which we can’t even see each other too well.” Breath was failing him and while he tried to get some oxygen in his lungs he took a few seconds to think about it. Sex with Tarim. Of course his reaction of their first real meeting still stood. Tarim was hot, there was no denying that. Yet the man was also one jerk bastard with little sensibility for other people’s feelings and a tendency to talk nonsense. Xander might have said yes on the first day, but now? No way.
On his bed Tarim had a small amused smile. “Captain’s words, not mine.”
“Well he can shove it where the sun don’t shine, no way am I…” Wait a minute. “It is just a rumour that Grounders are supposed to provide sexual relief isn’t it?” he asked suspiciously.
Tarim didn’t answer right away and knowing the man’s bluntness it couldn’t be good. “It isn’t written anywhere,” he finally admitted. “But it is something people expect, and I did sleep with pretty much every Grounder I’ve been paired with until now.” A wry smile stretched his lips. “There isn’t much else to do around here.” Xander rubbed his temples. This whole thing was only one big headache after the other and gosh was he getting tired. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, when he opened his eyes again Tarim’s expression had become very serious. “I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want.”
“Tell me one thing, do you want to sleep with me? Or am I just an easy answer to your stress level? Hell, are you even gay, for that matter?”
Slowly, Tarim got to his feet. As he walked – wait, that couldn’t be walking, it had to be prowling – as he prowled closer, Xander thought once again that the Special Unit was one sexy bastard. One tall sexy bastard. Standing a mere two inches away from Xander, Tarim had to lower his head to meet his eyes. Once he was sure to have Xander’s undivided attention he made a big show of lowering his gaze to Xander’s mouth, his neck. Xander could almost feel a physical touch going lower and lower. At the same time he could see the wheel turn behind those eyes, considering him, the implications of his question, the possible answers.
Tarim’s answer was a soft touch on Xander’s cheek, the faint caress of lips moving to the corner of his jaw, the lobe of his ear, and then murmuring in a breath, “I want you. Do you want to sleep with me?”
Xander had to admit his earlier statement had been somewhat hasty. What had seemed such an impossibility took on an entirely different dimension when the concerned party was so close and tickling a very sensitive part of Xander’s anatomy with every breath. It didn’t hurt that Tarim smelt of a recent shower and cloth freshly washed. The detergent they used on this ship smelled wickedly good. Did Xander want to sleep with Tarim? “God, yes, get on that bed and hurry.”
Tarim allowed himself to be pushed without any protest. He grabbed Xander’s shoulders just as the edge of the bed at the back of his knees made him collapse backward and made sure to take the other man down with him. They got winded a little, but didn’t wait to get air in their lungs to indulge in one frantic kiss. Now that he could finally put Tarim’s mouth to good use, Xander couldn’t understand why it had taken them so long. Maybe Tarim’s fucking captain would have something to say on the matter. Not that Xander wanted to think about the bastard. Not when he had Tarim moaning against his lips and trying desperately to coax Xander’s tongue in his own mouth. The man had very convincing arguments too. It was Xander’s turn to moan while Tarim did truly evil things to his mouth.
They separated briefly for air and that brief pause was enough to remind Xander that they were wearing way too many clothes. He started working on the problem right away, while Tarim sucked his tongue in a way that promised plenty of delicious things for their future. Zippers and buttons were dealt with, if not delicately, then with a great deal of efficiency and speed. Tarim got the message when his sweater was roughly pulled to his neck and helped Xander shorten the separation of their mouth to the shorted amount of time possible. It was a relief when the last article of clothing got tossed to the ground and they could go back to kissing. That particular activity got even better with the feel of skin against skin.
Hands started to roam. Xander’s went straight to Tarim’s hips while the Special Unit was more interested with Xander’s hair and neck. Tarim’s lips followed them shortly after and latched on Xander’s pulse, where he sucked and licked until Xander knew he would have a mark the next day. Not that he cared.
Since Tarim’s hands and lips were so busy, Xander decided that he needed some other stimulation. That marvellous idea was followed by a grand discovery, namely that Tarim’s lower body was only a few inch away and that if he moved… just… so. “Aaah.” Yes! Sweet, sweet friction. Tarim groaned his approval and thrust his hips in encouragement. But the guy didn’t move his mouth away from Xander’s collarbone area and the position they were in wasn’t the best for leverage. “Tarim, I’m going to… Ouch! Careful with your teeth!” He jerked away from Tarim’s mouth just in time to catch the fucker’s smirk. “Bastard!” Now what was he… oh yes. “Mind if we roll over?”
Tarim didn’t mind. Tarim so didn’t mind he rolled them himself and positioned Xander on top of him. Which was very nice of him and very convenient. Xander took both of their cocks in hand and started jerking them off. He helped the pumping motion of his wrist with short hard thrusts of his hips. On the third thrust Tarim started to make very encouraging noises, reminding Xander that the bastard’s mouth was currently unoccupied. A feat that was easily remedied.
Their cries when they came were both muffled in kisses. Now that he had discovered just how talented Tarim was with his mouth Xander couldn’t tire of it. Tarim seemed to harbour similar feelings about him. Even after their heartbeats had calmed down and a languid fatigue took hold of the rest of their bodies, they stubbornly continued to exchange quick pecks and languorous French-kisses.
Much, much later, laying next to Tarim with his head pillowed on the Special Unit’s shoulder, Xander remembered his earlier reflection. “You know,” he mumbled conversationally “I think I’ve wanted this since I saw you without your armour that first evening. How come it took us so long?”
Tarim had been drowsing and his words were barely intelligible. “The captain said…”
“Oh for goodness’ sake,” interrupted Xander, “is there anything left that the man doesn’t know? Are we a special case or does he take care of the whole crew this way? ”
Tarim’s kiss-bruised lips stretched into a tired smile. “Don’t have a clue. If he does, you’re the only one I ever heard complaining about it.”