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Part of USS Arcturus: Tabula Rasa

Not a Blank Slate

USS Arcturus, Plowman's Tap
New Year's Eve, 2400
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Alesser joined the New Year’s party in progress at around 2300 hours. He’d always enjoyed the catharsis that came with the ticking over of that fourth digit on the stardate, especially with the Human traditions that came with it: overindulgence immediately preceding a quest for penance. The white mess dress uniforms gave everyone an air of glamor, which were an amusing juxtaposition to the scantily-clad holographic waiters that Miss Nomer had selected for the evening. An extension of the Emergency Hospitality Hologram, they allowed flesh-and-blood staff to take the night off.

“I counted them before I put them out, Captain!” the drag queen hostess teased, clearly catching Alesser admiring the black and red leather harness the computer had created for an Orion hologram. 

“I was just admiring your taste, Chief,” Alesser said, sidling up to the bar. Miss Nomer was wearing a black and red dress along with a headdress composed of matching feathers; Alesser had never seen her out of drag, let alone in a uniform. Out of the corner of his eye, the first officer saw Noah Armstrong laughing and talking with a mixed group of Arcturus, Antares, and Apollo senior officers; Armstrong never could resist a chance to hold court like that. “Could I have something strong enough to be civil with an ex but not so strong that I end up sleeping with him?”

The bartender laughed. “That’ll be a tough needle to thread,” she noted, thinking for a moment before she started grabbing bottles under the bar and putting a wide variety of things into a shaker. “Who’s the ex?” 

Alesser cocked his head back towards where Armstrong was.

“Who would have thought you and the captain would have the same taste in men,” Miss Nomer teased, beginning to shake the drink. Alesser hadn’t quite made the connection between Sheppard and Armstrong, but after that comment, he couldn’t un-see it. They were both inarguably tall, dark, and handsome, so it wasn’t worth protesting. She poured something bright green into a cocktail glass and then topped it with champagne. “The Mind Meld. Should be just what you need, hun.”

“Thanks,” Alesser said.

The Ardanan man took the drink and left the bar. It was sweet and had a fizz to it, so it didn’t immediately smack him in the face with an overwhelming alcohol content. Still, he wasn’t particularly willing to walk right into a group to peel Armstrong away and have the talk he had demanded earlier that day. He found Dr. Anjar and Captain Okusanya chatting with an Andorian woman in civilian clothing near the viewports. It took him a moment, but the context suggested he was finally about to meet Okusanya’s wife, an FNS reporter.

“Enjoying the party?” Alesser asked.

“If there’s one thing we’re really good at here, it’s throwing a party,” Anjar replied in what was more or less a non-answer. Neither the doctor nor the engineer was a particularly social creature. “How was dinner?”

“Entertaining. You should’ve come instead of signing off on intake paperwork,” Alesser replied. He turned to the Andorian woman and smiled. “We haven’t met. I’m Larus Alesser, first officer. You must be Evri.”

“I must be,” she agreed with a chuckle before glancing at her wife. Her transport had arrived during Lancaster’s dinner, meaning that Okusanya had also bowed out of the engagement. It would be interesting—i.e., challenging and probably inconvenient—to have a reporter aboard, and Alesser wondered if Lancaster would have approved it had she not also been married to his chief engineer. “I’ve heard so much about you—off the record.”

“Only good things,” Okusanya supplied. “More or less.”

Alesser chuckled. “Let me guess: you already know that I’m a gorgeous, well-meaning narcissist?” he suggested.

“I can confirm one of those words may have been used,” Evri replied. “Don’t worry. Besides being here to be with my wife, I’m here to report on the ship’s mission, not on you.”

“I mean, you can report on me a little,” he teased. “Your readers are going to want to hear all about me, I assure you.”

“I think I know which word Okusanya used,” Anjar quipped. 

The four of them kept chatting for a while, long enough for Alesser to drain his drink and obtain a glass of champagne from a passing holowaiter. Anjar was pulled away to answer a question from sickbay over the comm, and then Okusanya and Evri circulated to continue making introductions, leaving Alesser alone. Just as Alesser grabbed a fresh champagne flute, Luca Sheppard and Austin Carver approached him. The two medical officers were easily the hottest men in the crew if your turn-ons were square jaws, height, and muscle. They were also best friends and workout partners, and Alesser would be lying if he said he hadn’t manufactured reasons to be in the gym when they were.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, gentlemen?” Alesser asked, earning a smirk from Carver.

“Well, sir, we were hoping you could settle a bet for us,” the counselor replied, sidling up close enough that the first officer could smell his cologne. Noticing Captain Lancaster across the room speaking with Lieutenant Belvedere, it was pretty clear that they were there under ‘orders.’ “It’s pretty easy: which one of us do you think is more attractive?”

Alesser shook his head, grinning at the audacity of the question. “Have you had too much to drink, or have I not had enough?” he asked.

“This is a perfectly sober and objective inquiry,” Sheppard said, definitely being the more serious of the two of them. “I think it’s Austin because he has nicer eyes.”

“I also have bigger biceps. See?” Carver said, taking Alesser’s free hand and putting it on his arm muscle before flexing. Alesser couldn’t confirm that his arms were bigger than Sheppard’s without tactile comparison, but they were objectively impressive. “I do think it’s probably Luca who’s more attractive. He’s a little taller, and he tends to be more on the quiet and brooding side–people like a little mystery. Plus, there is the aspect of being forbidden fruit since he’s the captain’s husband.”

“A last appeal of humility?” Alesser teased. “You both have so many attractive qualities. How could I possibly choose between you? Can’t you both be perfect tens?”

Sheppard grinned. “Michael said you’d say that, so I guess he wins the bet.”

“What did he win?”

Sheppard winked but didn’t say anything. What could the man who has everything possibly win? Alesser glanced back to where the captain was still chatting with Belvedere, and the two of them looked relatively relaxed and friendly with one another. 

“You left poor Matthew alone with him?” Alesser asked.

“Michael said that you would benefit from a social cloaking device, and part of the ‘deal’ was that he would be friendly to Matthew,” Sheppard said, glancing over his shoulder towards where Armstrong was still the life of the party. “Not that we mind.”

“I guess that means he’s briefed you two,” Alesser said with a sigh. He tossed back the rest of his champagne, which burned on the way down from trying to swallow too many bubbles at once. “I’m not particularly proud of being so irritated about having him around. Mature adults should be able to have conversations with people they were formerly romantic with, shouldn’t they?”

“I don’t know if I can speak to the neuropsychology of your species specifically, but powerful relationships leave deep connections that are hard to unlearn,” Carver offered; Alesser was so used to seeing him in his usual presentation as an affable hunk that he sometimes forgot that he was also a psychiatrist. “Pretending it’s nothing wouldn’t be particularly healthy. You know, we can talk about it.”

Alesser frowned and snapped for the holowaiter to bring a tray of drinks closer. He exchanged his empty glass for a full one and moved to sit in one of the rounded couch alcoves under the windows. It was really meant for two, so Sheppard and Carver ended up pleasantly close to him when they sat down on either side of him. He exhaled slowly, glancing around the room for a moment.

“I’m not sure I’d really like to work all of this out on the counselor’s couch. No offense,” Alesser said.

“A lot of my client sessions are in the gym, anyway. You should think about it,” Carver replied, not seeming offended. That idea was pretty appealing. “You’re not the first alpha male to be scared of counseling.”

Alesser scoffed. “I bet you expect me to refute that. It’s not about fear or ego. I’ve spent several years repressing Noah Armstrong, so I’d prefer to keep that all packed up in my subconscious.”

“Sounds healthy,” Sheppard observed. “If it’s been a few years, this might be an opportunity to start fresh,” he offered.

Alesser nodded. “Hopefully. Generally, though, a fresh start is easier without baggage, though,” he noted. “He asked to talk to me tonight.”

“Is that what you want?” Carver asked.

“I’m not sure what I want,” Alesser muttered. He doubted the two other men had much experience with being the party on the supply side of an unrequited match, let alone having to worry about not feeling inferior to an ex. Sheppard and Carver’s close presence, plus the drinks he’d consumed, were making him feel pleasantly warm and cocooned. “On the very bright side of this, though, I’m quite enjoying having your undivided attention,” he added, grinning as he clapped a hand to a thigh on either side of him.

“You don’t need an excuse for our friendship, you know. You’re our favorite hyper-confident flirt on the ship,” Carver said, balancing equal degrees of flirtation and teasing. “Especially now that you’ve figured out the formula to avoid constantly irritating his husband,” he added, nodding to Sheppard.

“Complement, don’t compete,” Alesser summarized, taking his hands off of them to retrieve the drink he’d put on the coffee table. He saw a break in the conversation Armstrong was having and made a snap decision to get the conversation over with. “Thanks for the confidence boost, boys. I’m going to go act like a captain now,” he said before leaving the two of them in the booth. 

When Alesser intercepted Armstrong, the other man had just got a fresh glass of champagne and was thankfully alone. As ever, Alesser had to tamp down his anxiety in Armstrong’s presence. Nearly half a decade had done nothing to diminish his physical attraction towards him, even if the rational part of his brain knew that was not something that should even hint at crossing his thinking. Armstrong offered him a polite, captainly smile. The last time the two had seen each other before that day was when Alesser had woken up to an empty bed on their last morning serving on their old ship.

“Quite the party you’re throwing,” Armstrong said.

“Glad you’re enjoying it, Noah. Can you imagine if the old Arcturus had a venue like this?” Alesser replied, thinking about their time together on the current vessel’s Ambassador-class predecessor. Though a comfortable posting, she was an obsolescent workhorse from another era. “You said you wanted to talk?”

Armstrong nodded. “I think it’s important that we get on the same page about a few things,” he agreed. “It was pretty evident earlier today that you’re not ready for us to have a professional relationship.”

“I’m not the one who went out of my way to ignore you when you beamed aboard, Noah,” Alesser said, immediately seeing red. “I’m perfectly happy for the two of us to have a professional relationship, especially since we have no choice.”

“We both know that unless I shower you with affection, you jump to the unsupported conclusion that I hate you. That’s the way you have always been,” Armstrong countered; that had always been his contention throughout the romantic portion of their relationship. He sighed. “Look. I’m not trying to start a fight with you. You’re right: we are going to have to work with each other for the foreseeable future, and acrimony is in no one’s best interests.”

“Fine by me. Don’t you think you could start with an apology, though?”

“For what?” Armstrong said, looking genuinely confused; Alesser was incensed that the other man didn’t even realize why he might deserve an apology.

“You didn’t even say goodbye the last time I saw you,” Alesser replied. 

“Isn’t almost four years enough time to get over that?” Armstrong replied, shaking his head. He sighed. “I’m sorry that the way we parted didn’t live up to your expectations.”

Alesser frowned at the poor apology but decided that he’d have to take it or leave it. Armstrong’s ego didn’t allow for the possibility of him being wrong, so he’d never developed the ability to apologize.

“Thank you,” Alesser muttered. 

“It is good to see you,” Armstrong added, offering one of his trademark recruitment-poster-worthy smiles. Alesser hated how seeing that again made him feel. “I’ve missed having a sparring partner.”

Of the seven years they had served together, three of them had been in a full-on rivalry. Alesser was a lieutenant and the ship’s chief operations officer, while Armstrong had been a lieutenant commander and chief science officer. Sometimes, they fought about ideology–Alesser was more conservative and favored more aggressive solutions, while Armstrong was more willing to risk trusting the unknown—and, sometimes, they just descended into a pure conflict of personality. While being forced to survive together on an alien world, their relationship turned sexual, and so the latter four years on the old Arcturus were marked by a continued rivalry with periods of romantic detente. To Alesser, it had been a relationship, but Armstrong had never quite seen it that way, and it was clear he still didn’t.

“I’m sure that was difficult for you to admit,” Alesser replied. “I never thought you were going to propose marriage, but if you missed me, why didn’t you send even one message in almost four years?”

“Because I know you too well—you’d get your hopes up. I’d be adding more significance to what we had, and that wouldn’t have been any better for you than keeping my distance,” Armstrong countered. He glanced at a passing lieutenant who may have heard too much. “This is hardly the place to have this conversation.”

“You’re the one who wanted to have it at the party,” Alesser reminded him. “Just tell me what you want from me.”

Armstrong glanced around. “I’m not sure what I want from you.”

“Don’t… Noah, that’s probably the worst thing you could have chosen to say,” Alesser grumbled.

“Because you don’t know what you want from me, either,” Armstrong surmised, smirking at him.

“Maybe. But I know I want a few things. First, I want to be treated with the respect owed to my rank and office. You’ll get nothing less from me in public,” Alesser replied.

“Fair enough, Captain,” Armstrong said. “What else?”

Alesser chewed on the corner of his lip momentarily. “We have history. That matters, and I don’t want to pretend that we don’t,” he started. “But I also don’t want the past to define our future interactions.”

“That seems reasonable,” Armstrong agreed. “A blank slate is probably not possible without a memory wipe, anyway. Besides…”

“Besides what?”

Armstrong stepped a little closer. “Neither of us has many peers out here. As captains, there aren’t many people we can talk to. It wouldn’t be ideal if we cut that number down one further by being at each other’s throats,” he said.

“Agreed,” Alesser said. He didn’t like how much he liked being close to him like that. “I’m still allowed to be mad at you, though. You can earn your way back into my good graces.”

“I didn’t think ‘good graces’ were something you really did for anyone,” Armstrong quipped. He leaned in even closer to speak directly into Alesser’s ear. “I still like a challenge, though.”

Alesser had forgotten what it was like to be around Armstrong. Arguing and flirtation were just two sides of the same coin. He glanced around the room and found fewer eyes on them than he had anticipated, but this was a fairly normal feature of his personality. He was thankful that most of the drinks he had consumed that evening had been synthehol, but there was just enough real booze in his system to make him feel a little flushed.

“I’d wager that neither of us are particularly eager to be seen by a room full of our colleagues getting any closer than this tonight,” Alesser reminded him, prompting Armstrong to step back.

“Probably not,” Armstrong agreed. He surveyed the room. “I think I’ve made a sufficient appearance here. There are a few reports left to approve on the Antares before we leave tomorrow. If you’d like to continue this conversation in private, you know where to find me, Ari,” he said, gripping Alesser’s shoulder for a moment before making his way out of the party.

None of the next ten minutes really registered for Alesser as he made small talk with his fellow officers. Following Noah Armstrong was a very bad idea, but that was the tradition of the holiday, wasn’t it? It’s also something that he knew he wanted very much. Just minutes before the chronometer was due to tick over, Alesser slipped out of the party. He chimed Noah Armstrong’s door with just a few seconds left in the year 2400.

The first thing Alesser saw on the first day of 2401 was Noah Armstrong’s muscular back dappled in the multicolored lights radiating from Deep Space 17. He leaned over to kiss him between his shoulder blades and stayed close for a few moments—until the realization that he was on the wrong starship came into full resolution in his mind. He slipped out of bed and quickly found his underwear, but he wasn’t stealthy enough to avoid detection.

“I hope after giving me a lecture on not saying goodbye that you’re not about to sneak out,” Armstrong chided.

“I’m not sneaking anywhere,” Alesser said as he pulled on one of his socks. Armstrong sat up and reclined with his hands behind his head on the pillows, offering Alesser a leonine smirk. “I can’t say I want to leave,” he added.

“I have to say… I’m glad we didn’t go the ‘blank slate’ route. Last night was pluperfect,” Armstrong said. The compliment made Alesser tingle a little. Armstrong had never been particularly effusive. “I certainly hope a repeat can be scheduled upon our arrival at Overwatch Station.”

Alesser rolled his eyes. “Buy me dinner, and I’ll think about it,” he quipped. “It was, though. And, yes, I understand that we’re not dating, so there’s no need to manage my expectations.”

“Glad to be on the same page,” Armstrong replied. Alesser managed to find the rest of his clothes relatively quickly, and he was getting more eager to get back to the Arcturus before anyone noticed that he wasn’t in his own bed. When he sat down to put on his boots, Armstrong slipped out of bed to move over and sit next to him. He kissed him on the cheek. “I’m not sure if this was the smartest thing either of us has ever done, but I don’t regret it.”

“Don’t get soft on me, Armstrong,” Alesser teased. “I’ll see you at Overwatch,” he added, standing up.

Alesser tapped his badge to connect with the Arcturus computer and order a site-to-site transport. A few seconds later he vanished in a column of sparkles from the captain’s quarters aboard the Antares and reappeared in his own quarters on the Arcturus. He was hit with a sense of both smugness at once again going to bed with a man as attractive as Noah Armstrong but also a deep, gnawing feeling of regret at his own impulsiveness. 

“Computer, schedule a counseling session with Lieutenant Commander Carver. First available.”