Disclaimer: WEP owns Voltron in all its incarnations. We are but poor, lowly scribes with nary a penny to our names.
… In Sobriety Regret
Cliff’s face haunted him, that shocked instant of pain that was now irrevocably burned into his memory. It was only afterwards, after he’d taken Cliff back to his quarters, that he realised what that look had meant.
And aren’t I a callous jerk? Shannon demanded of himself as he paced in his quarters. Not to recognize when a friend is in the same boat I’m in?
He was amazingly clear-headed in the aftermath of the Guinness, with just the merest throb of a headache at his temples. It didn’t hinder his thinking at all. But he wished it would, wished he could forget... what Cliff had done. What he had done.
At last, the guilt too much to bear, he turned to the vidphone. Cliff’s number, when he first rung, was busy, but the second time he got through. And then he didn’t know what to say. “Cliff… it’s Shannon.” For a long second, he was silent, but finally, he murmured, “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to hurt you tonight. But… I can’t. I…” He sighed. “I’ve never been able to do well with words. But what I’m tryin’ to say is… I can’t feel like this for more than one person… y’know? I can’t… split myself, my heart. You’re my good friend… but that’s all I can be for you. I’m sorry. Cliff…”
But then there was another beep, signalling that he’d reached the end of the recorder’s allotted timeslot, and, when he stared at the vid a few seconds more, it started flashing “Please dial again”, so he hung up. He did not feel any lighter when he released the phone, however.
In the dark, hooded eyes stared at the bright blinking message indicator. A hand tightened around the beer bottle it cradled as a flash of hurt anger flickered across ruggedly handsome features, until the urge to hurl the bottle at the wall was quelled.
Cliff kept staring as ‘1 new message’ flashed onto the vid screen, there, then gone, then back again. He swallowed hard and tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter, and he didn’t care, but the lump wouldn’t go away. So he immersed himself in the bitter taste of the beer, then leant over and punched the ‘erase’ button.
“Did you hear?”
“What? Oh, come on... do tell!”
“Cliff’s landed himself in hospital.”
“What? Our Cliff?? You’re joking!”
Shannon sat bolt upright from his slouch on one of the rec area lounges, a cold shudder trapped in his chest as his head tried to deny his panicked reaction at what he’d overheard. He glanced quickly over to the table where the girls were talking.
Lisa had her mug cradled in both hands, leaning eagerly towards Ginger. “Well, come on! What happened?”
“Mountain climbing, this time,” Ginger replied, pausing to take a small sip from her glass. “He says he accidentally left one of the guide ropes in the car.”
“He ‘says’,” Lisa repeated slowly. Even from here, Shan could see the concern in her expression. “So ... you don’t believe him?”
Ginger gave a lady-like little snort and pushed some curls away from her face. “If this was the first time, maybe. But, Lisa, from what I hear, he’s been doing this kind of thing for a while, now. And he’s getting worse!”
Shan swallowed heavily. How long was ‘a while’? What was ‘this kind of thing’? Worse? Worse, how?
He watched Lisa tuck a dark strand of hair around her ear while she stared into her mug, a reflex action he recognised in his former team mate from their Explorer days; she was deep in thought, mind working through all the permutations. “It’s not like Cliff to be that reckless,” she finally stated softly.
No, no it wasn’t. For all his brashness, Cliff was as much a stickler for ‘the rules’ as Jeff ever was. In fact, if push came to shove, Shannon would even go as far as to say that, with Cliff’s cool head and rational thinking, he’d outdo Jeff in that department, any day.
Which meant... he’d be the last person to go climbing if he’d ‘accidentally’ left a vital piece of equipment behind.
Shit. He needed a drink. Badly.
Somehow, he made it as far as the bar. He decided not to order his usual Guinness; the thought now made him feel ill. In his mind, Cliff and beer and Guinness would be irrevocably entwined. He ordered a scotch on the rocks, instead.
“I thought that was my drink.” Jeff offered a smile as he sidled up to Shannon’s stool and signalled for a second glass from the barman.
Shan feigned a smile and reached gratefully for the glass being slid in front of him. “Sounds like a good time to take it up,” he remarked, and took a swig. He winced as the harsh fire burned all the way down, but took a second swig anyway. The second was better.
Jeff’s hand stilled his as he went to try for a third. “Hey, slow down there, sailor,” he joked worriedly.
“What fer?” Shan cocked an eyebrow at him. “Kinda defeats the purpose, don’t it?”
Jeff frowned. “Shan, what’s up? This isn’t like you.”
The third gulp barely burned at all. The fire pooled in his stomach and his head was becoming pleasantly disassociated with the rest of him. Just not quite quickly enough. “Donchya know, Jeff? Barely three days back on Earth after two years in space, and my best bud planetside’s been tossin’ himself off mountains while I’m stuck here in quarantine until the repairs are finished.”
The fourth was tainted with melted ice. He hailed the bartender for another round, and Jeff didn’t stop him.
“Ah,” was all he said. “You know.”
Shannon’s glass hit the bar with a solid thump. “You knew?” he whispered incredulously. “You knew and you didn’t tell me?”
Jeff smiled tightly and nodded towards the open area of the rec room. “I was on my way down to find you, actually,” he admitted.
“Oh.” The second glass slid in front of him and, deflated, he grabbed it gratefully. Scotch wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it.
The ‘chink’ sound of the ice in Jeff’s glass lessened slowly as the other man swirled it round repeatedly. He seemed to spend more time staring at it than drinking it; another waste, in Shannon’s opinion.
“Shan... did he really kiss you?”
Scotch going down burns. Scotch unintentionally returning through nasal passages burns more. Shannon spluttered helplessly. “H-how did you know?” he gasped, eyes watering.
Jeff shot him a look of sudden concern, then smiled into his glass. “He told me. Rang me, actually, drunk as. Said he’d kissed you.” Tiny remnants of ice clinked around thoughtfully in Jeff’s diluted drink. Then Jeff turned his smile to Shannon, and his eyes were twinkling slightly. “I got the feeling he was trying to tell me something.”
Shannon could feel his ears burning; he was sure he was turning pink. Embarrassed, he looked away, rubbing his jaw roughly to disguise his discomfort. He mumbled some excuse – that they were drunk, that Cliff was drunk, and not to pay it too much mind – and his feet moved restlessly against the stool without him really realising it.
Jeff sat beside him while he twitched and fidgeted and gulped at his drink, giving his best ‘I’m cool. Nothing’s bothering me’ impression. It didn’t fool Shannon any more than his nervous twitching fooled Jeff.
He was relieved to see Jeff finally raise that damn glass. Less relieved by what came out, oh so casually, just before he drained it. “Did ya sleep with him?”
“No!” Shannon’s glass thudded to the bar again. This time, he didn’t hide his gape. “Jeff, how could you think -?” He trailed off, unable to actually put into words what his mind wouldn’t contemplate.
Jeff just smiled softly to himself, then nodded to the barman for a second scotch. “I didn’t think so,” he murmured, more to himself than anybody. He paused a moment, his agile fingers toying with his empty glass, blue eyes staring at the thin film of watery slush at the bottom. He nodded pleasantly to the barman as he returned with Jeff’s drink and retreated into the background like all good barmen should. One welcome sip down, but still nothing more was said. His silence was annoying Shan.
The only thing worse than Jeff’s silence at the moment, was what he was likely to say.
Jeff sipped again, and Shan started to wonder if he avoiding something. Then the tiny frown was back, and he was sure of it. He didn’t find that knowledge comforting, in the least.
“You know, Shan,” Jeff suddenly said, in his most conversational tone, “Cliff’s not exactly a cheap drunk. Believe me. He’s done me out of enough cash to know.”
Shan wasn’t sure what he was meant to make of that. “What’re you saying?
“I’m saying, if he really was drunk, he must’ve gotten quite a head start on you.” He paused, long enough to let things sink in, his eyes all but burning a hole in the bar top. “Think about it, Shan,” was all he said.
Shan did just that – and he didn’t like what he came up with. “Dutch courage.”
“Probably,” Jeff nodded. “And I think it was a long time coming, too.”
Shannon found that the taste of scotch accompanied thinking rather well. Perhaps just a little too well. He’d just realised something else. “Hang on … you knew he liked me?”
Damn that smug little smile that went with that particular nod of Jeff’s. “Yup.”
Shan gaped again. “And ye didn’t think it’d be somethin’ I should be knowin’?” he squeaked. For once, his accent wasn’t the least bit forced.
Jeff sort of shrugged and smiled into his drink again. “If you were meant to figure it out, you would have.” Then his smile turned warm and caring, and the look in his eyes as he shifted them to Shannon made his Irish heart feel like melting right along with Jeff’s ice cubes. “Like I did,” he murmured softly to Shan.
Shan gulped, trying not to smile but wanting to all the same. He was still left with the same dilemma, and somehow he knew he wasn’t going to find the answers by staring into his glass, no matter how long he tried. He swore softly. “Now what do I do?” His voice was husky with emotions not yet dealt with.
“Quarantine’s another two days, then we’ve got a week on land. You know what you need to do, Shan.” Jeff caught his eye and held it. “You owe him that much … hell, we owe him that much, donchya think?”
Shannon swore again and took refuge in his scotch. What was left of it.
Damn. Why did life have to be so bloody complicated? You found someone, they fell in love with you, you with them, and everything was just peachy … or not.
He sighed deeply and sneaked a look out of the corner of his eye at Jeff. “Come with?” he half asked, half pleaded.
“Ah, no. I don’t think so.” Jeff grimaced slightly and shook his head. “Honestly? Dunno if I’d want him there, if it was the other way round.” He smiled and gave Shannon’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “I’ll be waiting for you, though. I’ll always be waiting for you.”
Shannon paused, staring up at the gleaming white marble facing of the hospital, and fought down the butterflies that seemed to want to take over his stomach. Cliff had managed to hurt himself badly enough to land him in this place – a premier teaching hospital. Deep breaths, he told himself, steady down.
And then he heard a step behind him, and relaxed slightly, even before Jeff laid a hand on his shoulder. Jeff had changed his mind and had decided to accompany him this far, if no further. He flashed a grateful grin at him, then straightened and strode inside. The air inside was cool, almost brisk after the heat of the sun.
Discovering Cliff’s room was as simple as smiling winningly at the desk clerk and letting his brogue become even more apparent. The woman was quickly charmed and rattled off the floor and room for him without a second thought. She even watched him as he strode down the corridor.
The butterflies came back with a vengeance, though, when he stood outside Cliff’s room. The door was just ajar, but he knocked anyway before entering, though he didn’t wait for the call to come in.
As fair as Cliff was, he still looked sickeningly pale, laying there on pristine hospital sheets, his pallor broken only by bruises blurring from black into purples and greens. Shannon felt a certain sense of stepping into the surreal, picking up the oddest details. He hadn’t realised how neatly Cliff had always combed his hair until he saw it mussed and dirty against the white pillowcase. Maybe it was his imagination, but he’d seemed to have lost weight, too. The blankets were folded neatly around his waist, exposing a bared torso wrapped firmly in bandages across the middle, slicing the expanse of too pale skin in half. He looked ... leaner, rangier than Shannon remembered, kind of wiry, which was all wrong for Cliff, in Shannon’s mind at least.
A cage kept the bedclothes raised over one leg, which could mean anything from as simple as a fracture to as complex as a complete leg reconstruction. A drip slowly fed a solution of goodness knew what through a cannula inserted into the back of Cliff’s left hand. The whole effect left Shannon feeling more than a little shaken.
“What the hell do you want?”
Shannon jumped guiltily, then looked again to make sure that he hadn’t been so deep in his thought that he hadn’t seen Cliff wake up. But, no. Cliff lay just as still, eyes shut, slowly breathing in counterpoint to the steady soft beep of the monitors keeping record of the necessary observation data.
He didn’t need to see me, Shannon realised with a jolt. He didn’t even need to see me.
Panic swirled through him at that recognition, that Cliff could tell that he was there without even seeing him. It was too much to think about, and he had a thousand other things to worry about just then. Like finding out what the hell Cliff was doing to himself.
And if all the guilt he was feeling was really...
He forced himself to let the tension go, to smile and say in a tone as near as normal as he could manage, “What, I can’t visit a friend after he lands himself in intensive care?”
Cliff blinked his eyes open, but kept his face turned towards the window all the same. His lips tightened, his brows drew together, and Shannon felt a surge of something awful ripple through him as Cliff tried to swallow heavily, eyes blinking rapidly against something Shannon did not want to see.
Cliff did not answer him.
He advanced until he was standing at the foot of the bed, and wrapped his hands around the cool metal bar that was the top of the frame. It became his anchor to reality, because what he was seeing, and feeling, just couldn’t be… His voice low and not quite steady, he said, “C’mon, Cliff. Talk to me.”
“What am I s’posed to say?” Cliff looked up to face him, eyes shadowed, and he gave a diffident one-shouldered shrug and a weak, nothingness smile. “Hmm?”
Anger sparked in him at that false smile, the careless demeanour that so utterly failed to cover up his true feelings. “You could be tellin’ me what the bloody hell you were doing climbing a mountain without the proper safety gear!” He tightened his hands around the bed frame until it creaked.
Cliff shrugged again, that careless, challenging kind that always managed to get on people’s nerves. “Seemed like a fun idea at the time,” he replied in a tone that wasn’t so much cool as it was tightly controlled.
“Fun!” Rage was enough of an anchor that he felt – well, not safe, but secure enough to let go of the bed rail and duck around to the side of the bed. He planted himself deliberately in Cliff’s field of vision and glared into the dull blue eyes. “Being unconscious for two days is fun? How many broken ribs and limbs and bones is fun?”
Cliff’s eyes tried to slide away, but Shannon’s hand shot out to grab his chin. “No, you answer me, damn it!”
The cool facade cracked a little as Cliff’s eyes suddenly blazed with anger. A hint of a sneer flickered as his lip as he ground out, “You just don’t get it, do you? It doesn’t matter any more! All right?”
“No, I don’t get it!” Shannon pulled his hand away from Cliff’s face, and clenched it into a fist at his side. “What doesn’t matter?”
“Nothing matters. Nothing ...” Cliff squeezed his eyes shut and turned away as his voice broke. Everything was tense, every muscle trembling as he whispered hoarsely, “There’s nothing left to matter.”
“Nothing left…” Helplessly, Shannon repeated Cliff’s words, anger draining away. He stared down at Cliff, his gaze drifting sightlessly over the still-livid bruises that coloured his arms and torso, the scars, old and new, that were the evidence of his recklessness.
“Nothing left.” He snorted softly and closed his eyes. They were prickling with tears, though he couldn’t tell if it was in response to the despair he felt from the man on the bed or if the despair was his own.
“So that’s it, huh?” he asked, and his voice broke as he spoke, but he didn’t care. “There’s nothing that matters… so you’re just gonna let yourself fall off a mountain… or become a fireball when your motorcycle crashes… and be damned to the people who care about you?”
Cliff flopped back against the pillows, staring morosely at the ceiling. “The people who care about me...” he began, a slow despondent drawl that ended in a sigh. “Sum total being... what? How many? You know how many people I’ve seen the past few months apart from you?” He levelled a disheartening look towards Shan. “Zip. Zilch. Nada. That’s it. No calls, no nothin’. So I can’t see how it matters whether I crawl home to my solitary little flat each night, or not. Sorry to disappoint you, mate.”
Eyes gradually turning harder, he couldn’t quite keep the bitterness from his tone. “You got what you wanted – a chance. So why not shove off back to it while you’re lucky enough to have it, and leave me alone with reality. I’m not stupid, Shan. I know I haven’t got Buckley’s chance of getting even that much. That’s why it doesn’t matter.”
Shannon straightened in shock, feeling as if he had been slapped in the face. He had to look away, simply couldn’t bear the cold, hard look on the face that had always been so cheerful and warm.
Sure and he laid it all out plain for you, didn’t he?
It was his fault. Cliff’s slide into self-destruction could only be laid at his door. Two years ago, he’d ruined a man; a reaction out of what he’d only seen as a betrayal of trust had led to this.
“I can’t help how I feel,” Shannon whispered, eyes still closed. “Any more than you can.” He opened his eyes again, but only stared down at the way the blanket draped over the cage. “I’ve never been good at pretending to feel something I don’t, or pretending not to feel what I do. And if I could... if I did... would you... “ His voice threatened to break again and he stopped. His heart hammered in his chest. The room fell utterly silent, except for the clatter of meal trays drifting in from the corridor.
“Would I what, Shannon?” Cliff’s quiet question sliced into the stillness.
It was a supreme effort of will to drag his gaze away from the blanket, the way that the white seemed grey in its folds, to look back at Cliff’s drawn face. The bruises there reminded him of how close Death had been, and he swallowed heavily. “Would you even want it?”
Cliff blinked at him for several long seconds. “Would I ... what?” he gasped incredulously. “Where th’ hell did that come from?”
Shannon ignored his exclamation, stared at him steadily. “Would you want it... knowing that it wasn’t real?”
Cliff stared at him for a moment, then huffed a hint of his familiar smile as he looked away and raised a hand to scratch the back of his head. “Geez, mate ... you know how to pull out the rough ones, donchya?” His fingers ended up raking over his blonde hair, spiking it in odd spots, then dropped to the covers beside him. “Thing is, I know you couldn’t... fake it, I mean. It’s not you.”
His expression grew haunted again, eyes staring as his fingers toyed with the edge of the blanket. “Never asked ya to change it, though. If ya can’t, then ya can’t. Doesn’t stop it from hurt... well, from making a bloke feel lousy, though, does it?”
Shannon snorted weakly. “No,” he replied. “I guess not.”
Again there was a period of silence. Then he said, “I don’t want you to die, Cliff.”
Cliff huffed again and twitched a slight, humourless grin. “So, what’s a bloke t’ do, Shan? Between you and me, I dunno how much more of this I can handle.” He shrugged a little with his good shoulder and offered a weak smile. “You happy? With him, I mean?”
Because he couldn’t lie, because he couldn’t say he was unhappy now that he and Jeff had recognised what lay between them, even though they could do nothing else, Shannon slowly nodded.
He had the feeling that he was signing a death warrant.
Cliff nodded slowly, smile strangely out of place with his sad blue eyes. “Well, that’s somethin’, then, I guess. Hate t’ have gone through this much shit and find out you’ve been miserable all this time.” He turned his gaze back to the ceiling again, drawing back within himself. “Still don’t know why I had ta pick a bloke whose heart’s already taken, though. Dumb me, eh?” He flicked another weak smile in Shan’s direction and shrugged again.
Shannon hadn’t wanted to cry this much since he was about eight years old. His eyes prickled hotly, his chest was tight, and there was part of him that wanted to just club the man in front of him over the head. He wasn’t any good with words – if nothing else, today had proven that beyond a doubt – but he had to say something to Cliff, to pull him out of this horrible downward spiral
He had to make him see...
“And what would you want with a dumb Mick anyway?”
“Shit, Shan!” Cliff stared at him, wide eyed as he struggled to sit at least partially upright. “Where the hell do you come up with some of this stuff? What friggin’ ‘dumb Mick’, for Chrissakes? You? Smart, handsome, quick witted, funny as hell, so damn bloody devoted and loyal that it’d be sickening if it wasn’t so real... Do I need to go on?”
“Then what the hell are you after tryin’ to kill yerself?” Shannon didn’t care that he was shouting, didn’t care that the door to the room was open and there would soon be a nurse to tell him go. He was furious now. If Cliff could see those qualities in him...
Didn’t it follow that he should see them in himself? Didn’t it?
After a moment, Shan began to wonder if he’d somehow grown an extra head or something, the way Cliff was staring at him. “What?”
“What ‘what’?” Cliff countered.
“What’re you lookin’ at me like that for?” Shannon glared at him furiously.
“What’re you shouting at me like that for? It’s my life, what does it matter to you what I do with it? It’s not like I’ve got anything great on the offer, anyway, so why bother?”
Shannon forced himself to clench his fists at his sides, because if he didn’t he was going to reach out and throttle the man in the bed. “Cliff... I’m yellin’ because I’m angry, you great bloody loony!” Then he sighed in exasperation. “I don’t get how a fellow as clever as you, who was a pilot for one of the most complex robots in the universe, could be so damned dumb.”
Cliff blinked at him. “What?”
“That’s how you see me, is it? Loyal an’ all that?” Without waiting for Cliff to respond, he went on, “If you can see all that in me, why aren’t you seein’ it in yerself? Why aren’t you trustin’ in yerself? If I’m so bloody damn loyal... don’t ye think that I’d be loyal to you, too?”
“I don’t think I’m gettin’ ya, Shan.” Cliff looked completely confused and not at all sure of himself as he scratched behind his ear and squinted at his friend.
Shannon gritted his teeth and tried not to scream. “Why can ye not see it? Why can ye not see... If you’re after thinkin’ that I’m loyal an’ devoted, why are ye not seein’ that I’m loyal to you, too? Ye matter! Ye matter to me! Ye matter to the team, though we’ve gone separate ways! Ye matter to C’mander Hawkins an’ Cap’n Newley! Why are ye not seein’ that yer charm and sense of humour and all that ye are have won ye many friends? That they care, ye blind dumb ass?” He tried to take a breath and choked on a sob.
He was so infuriated that the tears he’d been holding back were falling without pause.
Cliff swallowed hard against the lump in his throat, not at all sure what to do about Shannon’s outburst. He scratched the back of his head again, and muttered, “Geez, Shan, just sit down or somethin’, will ya? You’re givin’ me a crick in the neck.”
Shan looked at Cliff; Cliff looked at Shan. They both thought of the same thing. Then they both burst out laughing.
Shan wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and sniggered. “Crick will never live that down, will he?”
Cliff grinned back. “Not while I’m around,” he said.
And finally, the tension flowed away, and Shannon let himself relax. “Y’know, that’s a good expression on you.” Carefully, mindful of Cliff’s injuries, he sat down on the edge of the bed, and smiled, a bit weakly, yes, but it was a genuine smile.
Cliff shrugged and flickered an attempt at a reassuring smile. “Yeah, well...” he mumbled, the slight colouring of his features accentuated all the more by how pale he was.
Giving Cliff a bit of space, Shannon looked up at the ceiling, and even managed to coax a bit of teasing into his tone when he spoke again. “So... I take it that the next time you go mountain climbing, you’ll be usin’ the proper safety gear?”
This time, Cliff shot him a look, completely unable to keep the wry grin from slipping in to place. Dramatically, he rolled his eyes. “Yes, mother,” he mocked, dry irony mixed with his usual Aussie humour.
Shannon shot him a glance, one eyebrow cocked. “I’m a bit the wrong shape for that,” he said, forcing a grin.
The smile ran away from him after a moment, because the bruises and wounds Cliff bore would not allow him to smile for long. “But... I’ll hold you to that, you know.”
Cliff gave a soft, rueful chuckle, levelling a look at Shan that told the Irishman he’d at least won some ground. “Yeah,” Cliff drawled, “I’ll just bet you will, too.”
Shannon felt something inside him loosen, some knot inside his chest that had been drawn painfully tight. Somehow – even with his very words against him, it seemed – he had gotten through. Cliff would live.
And with that knowledge... he imagined he could hear the triumph of the angels, as they won the day.
“Cliff,” he asked softly, “do you believe in... well, in a larger power that controls our lives?”
Cliff frowned a little in thought. “Dunno.... I guess... maybe? I mean, we’ve seen too much not to wonder, I reckon, anyway.” He looked at Shan, quite puzzled. “What’re you getting at?”
Shannon just grinned at him. “Oh... just rejoicing in the song the angels sing, is all.”
Before Cliff could turn his confused look into a confused remark, Shannon reached out and clasped his hand. “It’s goin’ I must be,” he said, and gripped Cliff’s hand tightly. “Before the nurses chase me out. But I’ll be back... if you want to see me.” His voice rose questioningly.
A slow smile crept up on Cliff’s lips as he looked at Shan for a long, steadying moment. “Yeah.” He nodded slowly, squeezing Shannon’s hand in return, unconsciously. “Yeah, I think I’d like that. Sure. Keep in touch, eh?”
“‘Keep in touch,’ he says,” Shannon replied, rolling his eyes as he stood. “Mate, I’ll have you on speed dial and God on the other line.” As he headed for the door, over his shoulder, he tossed, “Tomorrow then!”
And he was gone.
“Yeah, t’morra,” Cliff called out belatedly, then collapsed back onto his pillows, feeling drained. “Geez, what a day,” he muttered to himself. Then another oddity struck him. “Angels? What the fuck has singing freakin’ angels got to do with the price of anything, anyway?”
For several long minutes, he mulled it over, wondering what the hell had gotten into Shannon. Finally, he gave up, shrugged, snorted, “Angels. Huh,” and tried to find a comfortable position to sleep in.
“What do you mean, angels?”
Cliff kept his eyes closed against the familiar voice and huffed a wry smile. “Figured you’d be here, sooner or later,” he greeted his visitor, then looked up beneath his eyelashes. “How’re y’ doin’, Jeff?”
Jeff stood easily at the foot of his bed, but not in quite the same position Shannon had taken. He was balanced, relaxed, and only someone who knew him quite well could see the apprehension in his face. “I was doing better before I heard that my second in command managed to fall off a mountain,” he said quietly.
Cliff groaned, raking both hands through his hair and wincing at the stab of pain that objected to the action. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Dumb move, Clifford. So let’s just drop it, ok? Shan’s already chewed me a new one for that,” he grumbled.
If Jeff hadn’t known better, he would have sworn a grumpy pout accompanied that petulant tone.
He raised an eyebrow, and his tone was dry as he replied, “Good for him, then.” Then, before Cliff could say anything, he continued, “I just dropped by to make sure you were all right.”
Cliff managed a smile that actually reached in his eyes. “Yeah, I’m ok. It’s me own stupid fault, after all,” he replied.
There was something in his tone which hinted at a deeper meaning, a hidden hurt that was being given a chance to start to heal. Just that tiny suggestion was enough to give Jeff a little more peace over the matter.
Then Cliff’s smile brightened in that congenial fashion that stated firmly that part of the conversation was over. “You just gonna stand there lookin’ pretty, or you gonna sit for a bit?” he invited with a wave towards the dent that Shan had not long left. “I could use the company. Well, for a few more minutes, anyway.”
Smile quirking at one corner of his mouth, Jeff did as he was bid and sat down on the bed. “What happens in a few minutes, then?” he asked. “Got a hot date?”
Cliff gave Jeff a droll look. “Yeah, right!” he drawled slowly, clearly scoffing at the suggestion, and Jeff winced at his own stupidity for that remark.
He opened his mouth to apologise, but was beaten to the punch when Cliff suddenly covered a yawn with the back of his hand. “In me dreams, maybe, mate,” Cliff tried to tell him through the tail end of the yawn, grinning sheepishly and trying not to succumb to the sleepy look that snuck up on him. “Who knows? Maybe some mystery man might waltz right in and sweep me off me feet, hey?”
“I should let you rest,” Jeff murmured, suddenly feeling guilty for all sorts of reasons. He was just starting to rise when a hand fell on his wrist, stalling his movements.
“Nah, mate. Stay a bit, will ya?” Cliff looked at him entreatingly, and smiled. “How’re you doing... really, I mean? You liking it back in the Garrison fold?”
Jeff considered the question briefly – and the source – before answering. “Well... yeah, I guess.” He traced a finger over the folds of Cliff’s blanket. “Sometimes, it’s... difficult, but... “ Shrugging, he cast a sidelong glance up at Cliff, whose eyes were drifting shut again. “I knew when I re-upped what it would be like.”
“Bet you weren’t expecting a certain added complication when ya did, though, right?” Cliff probed.
Jeff looked away quickly to hide his smile. The conversation had led to where he’d almost expected it to go, with almost no effort at all.
“Well... no. I guess not.”
“You sorry I rang ya?”
There could be no pretense to that question. Without hesitation, Jeff shook his head. “No. Never.”
Because that one drunken phone call had forced him to open his eyes, and he’d seen clearly what he’d only been dimly aware of all along.
Cliff smiled warmly as he relaxed back on his pillows, nodding slowly. “Good,” he stated firmly, then shot Jeff a warning look. “I woulda kicked your arse if you’d said anything else.”
With a snort, Jeff raised one brow tellingly at Cliff, then ran his eyes over the bruises, the bandages around his chest, the cage on his leg, silhouetted by the blankets. “You and what army?”
Cliff grinned back. “Hey, I took on a mountain... what makes ya think I can’t take on you?” The teasing light in his eyes softened into something more serious as he added, “But I do mean that. You take care of him, you got me? Appreciate what you’ve got, or I will come lookin’ for ya, make no mistake about that. Understood?”
Meeting Cliff’s gaze again, Jeff nodded solemnly. “Believe me, I do. The only reason you’ll have to come looking for me is when we invite you to come visit.”
Cliff flicked an eyebrow in his direction. “So... I’m takin’ that the door’s open, then?” he asked cautiously.
“The door is open.” He grinned and shook his head when Cliff struggled against yawning and lost. “Oh, just go to sleep, you silly bloke,” he ordered. “I’ll stay and make sure that that mystery man doesn’t make off with you.”
Cliff chuckled as he settled back into his pillows, allowing himself the slightest snuggle to get comfortable, then partially cracked open one eyelid. “Don’t be too vigilant, mate,” he mumbled sleepily. “It could be kinda fun.”
Laughing quietly, Jeff responded, “I’ll make sure he’s got the proper credentials first, then, shall I?”
“You do that.”
Jeff smiled and nodded, and Cliff closed that eye again.
Now that he was no longer fighting against it, the drowsiness overtook him, and before too long, his breathing slipped into the deep slow rhythm of sleep.
Jeff studied him, watching his eyes shift rapidly back and forth beneath his eyelids, and wondered what he was dreaming.
“You can dream about him,” he murmured, almost too softly to hear himself, and felt that smile tug at his mouth again. “You can always do that.” Cliff’s hand still lay near his on the bed, so he squeezed it once, and released it. “And there’s someone for you, too, out there somewhere. You just have to find him”
And he kept his word, and watched Cliff sleep until the nurse came in to chase him out.
The shakes that he had tried not to let onto in Cliff’s hospital room subsided after the third pint. Well, they might have done after the second, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
And because Jeff hadn’t been in the car when Shannon left the hospital, he found himself in the nearest bar, trying to calm his nerves through alcohol, and failing miserably.
Shannon set the glass down with great deliberation, making sure it rested in the circle of condensation it had already created on the coaster. I’m not going to be thinkin’ about it, he told himself firmly. I’m not.
Of course, that led him right back into thinking about it.
He braced his elbows on the bar, and rested his head on the backs of his folded hands, sighing heavily. It was one thing to have a teammate and friend nearly be killed; it was quite another to know that he had been actively seeking death.
And still another to know that you had been the catalyst...
I am not thinking about it... He lowered his hands, traced one finger over the rim of the glass, listening for the crystal hum.
The bartender kept his distance, absently polishing glasses down the other end of the bar, keeping a wary eye on him. He knew what the old man was thinking. Coming in to drink in an empty bar in the middle of the afternoon... not a good thing. He sighed.
No, it wasn’t a good thing. But unfortunately, it was what he needed. For a little while, at least.
He was steadying. That was all. What sane man wouldn’t need a drink after the roller coaster Cliff had put him through – a drink or more than one? He heartily agreed with the thought, and took a swallow of stout to commemorate it.
He wasn’t drunk. If he had been, he knew he never would have felt it. But he did – that sense of null-grav coiling in his stomach, too strong now to ignore. He turned his head just a fraction of a second before Jeff laid a hand on his shoulder. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself.” Jeff squeezed his shoulder as he slid onto the neighbouring barstool. When the bartender wandered down, he asked for a soda.
Once the old man had moved off again, Shannon stopped running his finger around the rim of his glass. “It was rough,” was all he said.
Using his straw to push down first one ice cube then another, Jeff nodded. “I know.”
“Jaysus.” He rested his head on his hands again. “It’s my fault.”
The clink of ice against glass slowed, stopped. “Why do you say that?”
Shannon did not look up. “Because it is. Because I’m a thoughtless ass. Because I can’t keep my mouth shut when I ought.” He sighed. “Because he kissed me and all I could think was that I’d just poured out my heart to him and he wanted to take advantage of it.”
He heard a soft snort and the tinkle of drowning ice cubes resumed. “You know him better than that.”
He looked up at last. “Yeah, I do. And I called and apologised afterwards. Fat lot of good it did. But God! I didn’t think... “ He trailed off. “That’s what it is, of course. I didn’t think.”
Jeff was silent, and after a moment, Shannon glanced over at him.
He was studying the bubbles rising in his glass, collecting along the sides, and around the ice cubes, his face pensive. He must have felt the weight of Shannon’s eyes, though he did not face him. “Shan,” he began, then paused. “I’m not going to say you were out of line when... what happened with Cliff happened. You reacted from your gut, and if you felt hurt or... or anything by what he did, you couldn’t help that any more than you could help how he felt about you.”
Shannon was a bit heartened to hear Jeff echo his earlier thoughts.
“But you’ve also got to let it go.”
He blinked. “What?”
Jeff was still staring down at his soda, though he’d stopped trying to drown the ice cubes again. “You can’t dwell on it forever – not the accident, or that what you said may have had something to do with it, or even on Cliff’s feelings,” he said softly. “It happened, yes, and we all really wish it hadn’t. But it’s... it was never something you could have predicted, or controlled, or anything. If you don’t let it go... you won’t be able to move forward.” At last, Jeff lifted his face to meet Shannon’s startled gaze. “And... I want you to be able to move forward.”
Shannon simply gaped at him, not even knowing he did so, hardly able to believe his ears. Two years since he’d re-upped, a bit less than a year since he’d decided that liquid courage was better than none at all, that knowing one way or the other couldn’t be any worse than uncertainty... and in all that time, he’d rarely heard Jeff come out and say anything quite so plain about the... thing, the feelings that lay between them.
They had dared spend but little time together – wisely, perhaps, for when they were too much in each other’s company, something urged them to forget everything but their connection, to forget that there would be consequences.
He’d thought about it – some – when he was feeling particularly maudlin, when the days were long or the situation dangerous. He wondered if they would both make it out alive... and what would happen if they did. Would they really get together? Would it all turn out... well, the way he hoped?
On the really hard days, he’d wondered if Jeff was as scared as he was about it all.
Gobsmacked was too mild a term. And the words, and the way Jeff looked – a captain’s unflappable calm clearly masking the nervousness Jeff never would admit to – made him lose all of that fabled Irish charm.
“Ye... ye want me to move on?” As soon as he spoke, he blushed. Well, and there’s perception for ye...
Then Jeff smiled at him, a smile that warmed Shan all the way down to his toes, and told him that he was forgiven for his doubt. “Of course I do,” he replied quietly. His eyes flicked briefly to the bartender, down at the other end of the bar. Keeping his voice low, he continued, “I want... “
And Shannon surprised himself by shaking his head. “No,” and now he did feel drunk. Heat suffused his cheeks, and he felt slightly off-kilter, head spinning.
And it wasn’t from the stout, either – no, it was all from that sense of not being able to find up or down when Jeff was around him.
As much as he wanted to hear what Jeff had to say, now was not the time, not with a suspicious bartender watching them out the corner of his eye, not with nearly two more years on their current term of service.
Instead, he dug out his wallet and threw some bills on the bar, more than enough to cover his pints and Jeff’s still untouched soda. Despite the feeling of drunkenness, he was steady when he stood, and met Jeff’s surprised gaze with a smile.
“Let’s go,” was all he said, and with a shrug and a nod for the barman, Jeff got up from his stool and followed Shannon to the door.
Shannon wanted so to touch him, to feel the completeness that washed over him when he did. He wanted to kiss him, no, to take his head in both hands and devour his mouth, to glut himself on the taste of him, to forget that there were still consequences.
He gave in to his need once they were outside, but only enough to grip Jeff’s shoulder in a way that was comradely more than anything else. It was still enough to send a jolt of sensation through him, to make his blush so strong that it would be difficult to blame it on the alcohol or the late afternoon sun on his space-pale skin.
“Shan?” Jeff sounded confused, and just ever so faintly breathless, as if the touch was affecting him more than he wanted to let on.
Shannon squeezed his shoulder. “‘Tis wantin’ I am to hear,” he said quietly, then dropped his hand and flashed a grin, bright and easy and real. “But forgive me for thinkin’ that you’d rather speak it in private.”
Jeff smiled at him, that smile that Shannon always felt warmed him straight through, that made his heart beat double-fast, and nodded.
Then Shan leaned in, almost too close, the way his senses were whirling, and whispered, “Now. Help me move on.”
Jeff supposed he ought to be thankful that Shannon was, for the most part, a happy drunk.
But that didn’t mean that he still wasn’t irritated at having to half-carry him down the hall through Shan’s unfamiliar building to his apartment. There was no possible way that he could take Shan back to the ship in this condition; the shuttle to Spacedock would not have been pretty. The atmospheric jump from Sydney to ‘Frisco – where a number of their crew kept their semi-permanent residences, Jeff and Shan included – had not been bad, but that had been before they went out to find some dinner.
Jeff berated himself for not thinking to more closely monitor what Shan was imbibing. Whatever it was, on top of the earlier beers, it had clearly been too much.
“You’re going to regret this in the morning, you realize,” he said, just before Shannon staggered and pulled them both into the corridor wall. Jeff winced at the sound of the impact. It had been late enough in ‘Frisco when they arrived, and now it was so late it verged on early, and surely the person who lived in that apartment wasn’t going to appreciate being woken from a sound sleep. “I already regret it,” he muttered.
And the honest truth was, he did regret this, but not how he thought he should. He wished he had drunk something stronger than a soda. He wanted the excuse of the alcohol to just… give in to Shan.
He began to wonder just why he’d placed such importance on waiting until they were out of service before allowing anything to happen between them.
Shannon snickered even as Jeff hauled him upright once more. “Aw, c’mon, Cap’n,” he slurred, and lurched again. Before he quite understood what happened, Jeff found him with an armful of cuddlesome Irishman. “C’n make it worth yer while, I can,” Shannon leaned into him, eyes unfocused, gleaming, and draped both arms around his neck.
And he wanted to, wanted him, he really did. He wanted to say all the things Shan had stopped him from saying earlier; more, he wanted to do many of those things. They were things that he had never considered before Shannon, things that he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to experience with anyone else.
He stopped me earlier, he thought, but he wanted to hear… Maybe he wants…
He almost did let it happen, right there in the hallway in front of Shannon’s door, almost leaned in and kissed him, almost pushed him against the wall to grind their hips together.
It was the wave of alcohol on Shan’s breath that made him pause, that reminded him that they were in a semi-public place, with people potentially listening in behind walls that may not have been as well sound-proofed as they ought.
He wasn’t so sure he could be that strong once they were behind closed doors, though.
Instead, he unwound Shannon’s arms from about his neck, pushed him gently away and held his shoulders. “Key, Shan?” he asked, in a voice that wasn’t nearly as steady as he would have liked.
Shannon frowned at him and swayed a little. “Key?”
“Yes. Hopefully you’ve got the keys to your apartment on you?”
Obediently, Shannon dug around in his pockets until he came up with his wallet and the card key that would open the door. After missing the slot the first couple times, he managed to swipe the card, then opened his eyes wide for the retinal scan, required to let him in, considering that he hadn’t been back to the apartment in nearly two years.
After a moment, the door unlocked and Shannon fumbled it open. He would have fallen on his face if Jeff hadn’t grabbed him. “God, Shan,” he muttered, “I’d like to know how you got so drunk when I wasn’t looking…”
Shannon mumbled something unintelligible into his shoulder.
“What?” He steadied Shan against the wall with one hand while stretching to touch the button that would close the door.
“Said ‘m not drunk.” He swayed against Jeff’s grip.
Jeff snorted. “Could have fooled me.” He pulled Shannon away from the wall and started to guide him toward what he thought was the bedroom, trying to ignore the arousal that had yet to really abate from Shan’s previous advances, and his own wayward thoughts.
Of course, Shannon stumbled into him again before they got there, this time sending them careening into one of the interior walls, and luckily not into or over any of the living room furniture. He ended up with his back against the wall, Shannon leaning heavily against him, breath hot against his neck.
“‘m not drunk,” Shannon persisted doggedly, his mouth hovering by Jeff’s ear. “Can’t be. Can still feel…”
In spite of himself, Jeff found himself panting. “What, Shan?” he asked, his voice little more than a whisper.
Shannon had been staring at him, seemingly mesmerised by the way his mouth moved. “Can still feel it… like bein’ in space… an’ ye’re the only thin’ keepin’ me from driftin’ away… ‘cause nothin’ matters but you.”
Stunned by his words, Jeff just stared, and didn’t sense Shannon’s intent until the moment their lips touched. And then it was too late.
It wasn’t like their first kiss, though Shan had applied a little Dutch courage that night, too. It wasn’t like their second that same night, which had been so much easier and less forced, or even their third, though it was just as surprising.
No, this kiss was like none of the few others they’d ever shared, because in it, Jeff could feel everything. Everything that Shannon felt for him was there on his tongue, in the way his hands clutched at him, fingers winding into his shirt until he thought the fabric must tear. Desperation and fear and desire and over it all, the sure knowledge that Shannon loved him.
And that was all Jeff needed to give in. He opened his mouth, let Shannon’s tongue invade him. He grabbed hold of his shoulders, not to push him away, but to draw him closer, to press against him and feel the evidence of arousal hard between them.
Shannon moaned into his mouth, and raised one hand to thread through his hair, and Jeff gripped his shoulders even tighter, hard enough to leave bruises.
When at last the kiss ended, it was because they were both out of breath. Unwilling to move away, though some tiny area of his mind was screaming that he should, Jeff panted against the side of Shannon’s throat, just inhaling the scent of him, and luxuriating in his very closeness. He pressed as close as he could, sliding his hands up and linking them behind Shannon’s neck, felt Shan’s hand slide around his waist while the other combed through his tousled curls.
He was therefore surprised when Shannon said, “It’s goin’ I’m thinkin’ you ought to be.”
Jeff froze, his whole body stiffening in Shan’s embrace. “What?”
Of all the things he had expected Shannon to say, that wasn’t even on the list.
Then Shannon blew out a heavy breath and straightened away, much steadier than he had been only minutes before. He stayed close enough, though, that his hands remained on Jeff. “‘m not drunk,” he repeated almost stubbornly. “Or… not so drunk that I’m not rememberin’ that we can’t be doin’ this. Not now. Doesn’t mean I don’t want it, ‘cause I do.” He leaned back in, as if Jeff exerted a pull stronger than gravity. “I want you…” he whispered, his lips against Jeff’s throat.
Jeff let his eyes flutter closed again at the touch of his mouth, tilting his head to one side just a bit. But too soon Shannon moved, until it was his brow against Jeff, resting in the crook between his neck and shoulder, arms wrapped around his waist.
“But it can’t be now.”
And somehow, from somewhere – he was never quite sure after – Jeff found the strength to agree.
Though it was the last thing he wanted, he gently pushed Shannon away. “I’ll come by tomorrow and see how your hangover is, all right?” He couldn’t stop himself from running his fingers down Shan’s cheek, feeling how warm it was though he couldn’t see the flush in the dark room.
“Yeah, all right.” Shannon followed him back to the door, no longer reeling. “An’… I promised to go see him again tomorrow. Probably will go ev’ry day while we’re in Spacedock, if ye… if that’s all right.” His voice rose questioningly.
“Yeah,” Jeff replied softly. “Yeah, that’s fine.” He smiled, reached out again, but thought better of touching Shan’s face when the door opened behind him. Instead, he squeezed his shoulder, and said, “See you tomorrow.”
The sense of rejection only increased as the door closed behind him, and Jeff had to force himself to start down the corridor. Only two more years. The thought ran through his head on repeat. Only two more years, and then we’ll be free…
Just then, however, with Shan separated from him by the thin metal of the door, and his own apartment cold and dark and six blocks away, those two years felt more like an eternity.
It was time, that now or never moment when things would either begin to fit back together, or shatter into pieces too small for any mortal man to find all the missing bits.
The wind ruffled his hair as he squinted up the trail towards the peak. The sun had a bit of a sting to it, but otherwise it was a perfect September spring day, little white wisps of cloud the only break across the azure sky: the ideal climbing weather.
Cliff rolled his shoulders and winced a bit, then kinked his neck from side to side to work out the stiffness. Six months after leaving hospital, he still felt the odd twinge here and there. But if he didn’t do this now, he’d never climb the old girl again. He wasn’t about to let his fear beat him.
He grabbed the coiled ropes from the back of the old four-by-four station wagon he’d resurrected from some junk heap a few years back, slinging his right arm through the loop to shoulder the weight on his undamaged side, then snagged up his backpack, helmet and harness.
Images flickered through his memory; of ropes snapping under his weight, the dread of knowing that nothing could save him, the endless seconds ticking by as gravity jolted him in the harness until, eventually, it won altogether and sent him screaming down the mountain face. It wasn’t too far, but far enough. He tried to control the shudder that went through him.
He caught sight of the secondary guide ropes, and finally admitted to himself the twinge of guilt he’d felt looking into Shannon’s blazing eyes when he’d taken Cliff to task for not being more careful. With a wry smile, he reached for the ropes.
“Ok, Shan,” he murmured into the still mountain air. “You win.”
Now fully prepared for his climb, he slammed shut the four-by-four wagon’s rear door. The sun glinted off the sticker across the lower left of the window, picking out the dark blue letters from the stark newness of the white background.
‘Remember, not just cars can be recalled by their maker.’
It had tickled Cliff’s fancy when he’d seen it in the shuttleport bookstore last week. It had reminded him of Shan, and for the first time in nearly forever, it was a good kind of remembering. He’d bought it instantly.
Of course, Shan was right. If he’d really wanted to die, he’d be on his bike screaming up the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney. It didn’t seem to matter how many ‘black spots’ had been identified and made safer, that road always seemed to have a thirst for death, and for a while there he’d felt its call.
He was here now, though, just another adrenaline junkie on another slope west of Sydney in the great Blue Mountains, getting ready for another climb. There was something he’d forgotten, though, something very important. He dug his phone from his pocket, levelled it up towards the craggy peak he intended to head for this afternoon and snapped a shot, and then another, just in case.
Then he attached a voice message and sent it off to a familiar number before adjusting the weight of his gear on his shoulders and heading up the track.
The soft tone of his com-console roused Jeff from his thoughts, and he was glad for the distraction. In the months since they’d gone back out into space, those thoughts had been consumed with Shannon more and more often, and anything that took his mind off the depressing amount of time they still had on their current enlistment… well, and that was something welcome.
Then he groaned. I’m even starting to sound like Shan in my thoughts. This is not good…
When he turned to the screen, a message was flashing unobtrusively down in one corner, indicating that he had a text waiting, and that it had been relayed from his apartment. He’d set up the forwarding system during his very first tour, though it hadn’t ever gotten much use. He’d just thought that it might be useful.
Well, that, and trying to impress a certain technical whiz, he allowed with a grin. Of course, how was I to know that Chip had already figured out how to do it and had set up forwarding for everyone else on the team…
When he accessed the information attached to the message – the forwarding route and originating number – Jeff’s grin widened. He accepted the message and waited eagerly as it began playing.
A picture of a mountain flashed onto the screen – tall and imposing, outlined against an improbably blue sky. Almost immediately, Cliff’s familiar voice began to sound over the com speaker.
“Just lettin’ you guys know I’m giving that bloody peak another shot. I’m not gonna let the ol’ girl beat me. And, yeah, Shan, I’ve got all me gear, so you can quit fussin’, ok? I’ll let you know when I get back. The car’s got a GPS signal set, so if you don’t hear from me in the usual time, you’ll know where to look. I’ll be careful, but, so don’t panic too much, you hear me? Right! Time I got going. See ya on the down side, fellas.”
Something in him that had been tense and worried – even after all these months – finally eased. He’s really going to be all right.
He was queuing it up to listen to it again when the door to his quarters opened.
“Jeff! Did you…” Shannon’s voice trailed off when he saw com screen past Jeff’s shoulder. “I guess you did at that,” he said, his question answered.
Jeff spun his chair around and laughed as he caught Shannon practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Yeah, I did.” He stood and grabbed Shan’s hand, tugging him sharply into his arms, and giving him a comradely embrace. “It’s good news, Shan,” he murmured into the other’s dark hair, and was warmed when Shannon tightened his arms around him. “He’s gonna make it.”
Grinning madly, Shannon pulled back a little. “Drinks’re on me.”
Cliff shaded his eyes with one hand and smiled softly to himself as he gazed up the path. “Well, my girl, it’s just you an’ me for the time being,” he addressed the mountain.
Then, shifting the weight of the ropes on his shoulders again, he began the hike.
September 14, 2008