Comfort Food

Season of No Shadows AU

It was late, if that concept had any meaning on a space station. Stephen Franklin had decided to take one of his rare days off and get himself lost – lost to his staff, lost in a drink, and lost in DownBelow.

The Vindrizi were gone, taking their new volunteers with them. Their new hosts, those previous denizens of the station's underworld, were off to explore the galaxy and record the history of other worlds and other races. Surrendering your individuality to a parasite, even one with seemingly benign purpose, made Stephen shudder. Though there was also something seductive in the concept, in the sense of purpose the volunteers evinced.

Marcus had been grief-stricken by the loss of his friend Duncan. Stephen had never seen the devil-may-care Ranger so subdued. That observation only added to his current depression. There seemed to be dark currents underlying nearly every aspect of station life. Stephen Franklin was beginning to wonder if there would ever be anything here but darkness and depression. His own life had been distilled down to work and strife; no light, no life outside of those he managed to save.

"Night on the town?"

The question came from close behind his left ear. He whirled around but saw no one close enough to have spoken the words. Turning back to his drink, he almost jumped out of his skin when he saw Marcus sitting across from him. The dark whip-thin man had turned the chair round and was draped over the back, smiling at Stephen.

"And a well-deserved break, I imagine," continued Marcus.

"How do you do that?" expostulated Stephen. "Do they have creeping around training in Ranger school?"

"Creeping around? That's first class surveillance work, getting close enough to the subject to speak to him without being seen!" Marcus looked affronted.

Stephen shook his head, and didn't bother to suppress the half-smile that crossed his lips. Gesturing to Marcus with his glass, he asked, "Care for a drink?"

Marcus started to shake his head no, but then stopped and tilted it to one side. "You know, I think I would. It's been a long time. You get out of the habit on Minbar, and of course it's never a good idea when you're working." He waved a hand at a passing waiter, who merely grunted and walked away. "Unless, of course, it's part of the job." Rising swiftly to his feet he paused on his way to the bar to inquire, "Another one for you?"

Stephen drained his glass and handed it to Marcus. "By all means."

When Marcus returned, Stephen looked at him suspiciously. "You're not on the job now, are you?"

"No indeed," Marcus laughed bitterly as he put the glass down in front of his friend. "I think I've done enough for the powers of good lately, don't you?"

"Duncan made his own decision, Marcus. And it wasn't necessarily a bad one. Everyone wants more from life. Most want more life in general." Stephen picked up the glass, looking moodily into the amber depths of the bourbon he'd been favoring that evening. Marcus had lined up three shots of something clear, tequila probably, considering the plate he set next to the small glasses, which contained lime wedges encircling a pile of salt. The citrus farms must have been over-productive if this place had managed to score some of the fruit. Stephen watched in amusement as Marcus slowly went through the ritual three times; salt, shot, lime. Three is sacred, he thought to himself, wondering if the Minbari tradition of doing things in threes had influenced his friend's choice of libation.

"Feel better?" Stephen said as he sipped at his second drink of the evening. He was trying to space them out. It had been a long time since he'd hit the town, and the alcohol was already going to his head.

"Much," replied Marcus concisely. He smiled again, and leaned forward, elbows resting on the table, chin in his hands. "I know why I'm here; I've lost a friend. Why are you here?"

"I'm trying to find something," said Stephen. Then he looked at Marcus in astonishment. "I don't know why I said that."

"Because it's true?" suggested Marcus. "Do you know what you're looking for?"

"Myself," replied Stephen, taking a huge swallow that nearly emptied the glass. He held it up and stared at Marcus through the thick faceted walls. "Doctor is more than my title. It's who I am. Sometimes it seems like it's all that I am." He set down his glass and looked at his hands, turning them over and over. "Doctors hold life in their hands. We're like little gods to people. They want us to be gods. But we're people, just like them."

"Of course you are," said Marcus. "'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' and all that." He cocked an eyebrow and asked, "Are you ready for another round?'

Stephen shook his head. "Need something to eat first. Haven't had a thing since this morning, and the bourbon'll go straight to my head without some food."

Marcus stared at the meager offerings listed on the board behind the bar, and took several swift glances at the other tables. There was a variety of pub food from the four food groups: salty, crunchy, greasy, and burnt. He asked delicately, "What did you have in mind?"

Stephen laughed. "I don't know. There's a halfway decent burger joint down the next level." Then a thought slid through the haze of depression and alcohol that had lifted briefly with Marcus' arrival. "Hey, why don't we go back to my quarters? I've got something there you have to try." Marcus tilted his head to one side in question, and Stephen swiftly added, "Something to eat, I mean. Something I made."

"Sounds good," replied Marcus with some caution tempering his enthusiasm. "I, uh, didn't know you could cook."

Stephen drained the last drops of his drink and stood up decisively. "Come on," he commanded.

Marcus rose in one motion and answered mildly, "Yes, Doctor."

They headed fairly directly to Stephen's quarters, with only a couple of detours to pick up two bottles of wine and a crusty loaf of bread. There was a halfway decent bakery in the Zocalo and they got there just before closing. The older woman behind the counter had smiled warmly at the two of them as she slid their purchase into a long paper cylinder. "So many things on this station are not what they seem, but our bread, it is authentic, an old family recipe. We import the flour and salt from Earth, but we use yeast grown in the vats here on the station. The ovens are small high efficiency units, nothing like the brick beehives we used back in old New York." Stephen held out a credit chit, but she waved it away. "This is the last baking for the day. No more customers, and tomorrow this would be day old. You two might as well enjoy it." As they left the shop she called after them, "Enjoy the rest of your evening!"

Marcus was carrying one bottle under each arm while following Stephen closely. As they walked, he maneuvered one bottle into his hand and flipped up the lid. He clucked his tongue at the deceptive closure—meant to look like an old-fashioned cork but opening with the flick of one finger. He remarked with derision, "I hate things meant to look like other things."

Stephen looked back at him, "What are you talking about?"

"Things that aren't what they seem. Like chocolate rabbits." Marcus had a deadly serious look on his face. "I mean, really, who first thought of that? It's grotesque." Then he remarked semi-brightly, "Do you eat the ears first? I always do."

Stephen snorted at this, and held out one hand for the bottle.

They continued on, passing the bottle back and forth for the occasional sip of the red liquid. When they reached the doctor's quarters, Stephen shoved the loaf at Marcus who momentarily bobbled the open bottle but managed to right it without losing any wine. Once inside, Stephen retrieved the still slightly warm loaf and laid it on the kitchen counter, and then relieved Marcus of the bottles. Pulling down two wineglasses from a cabinet above the cooker, he filled them from the open bottle and handed one glass to Marcus.

Stephen then reached into the cooler and pulled out a covered glass bowl. Setting it in the micro-oven in the middle of the counter, he punched a few buttons and stood back smiling in satisfaction. He took out a set of carved wooden platters and began to pull the bread apart into bite-size chunks, loading the platters with the crusty bits. Stephen picked up one platter, Marcus the other, and they both set them on the small table in the corner of the kitchen. A savory buttery smell filled the air, and Stephen hastened back to the kitchen to bring forth a bowl filled with a golden liquid wrapped in a checked towel. Placing it in the center of the table, he draped the towel over the back of a third chair, and sat down. He gestured at Marcus, saying, "Sit down! It needs to cool a little...then you dip the bread in it and...voila. Best thing ever."

Marcus stared at the bowl, then looked at Stephen quizzically. "And where did you learn of this marvelous concoction?" he asked.

"Garibaldi," replied Stephen as he reached a spoon into the oil and stirred it around. "And he'd kill me if he knew I was re-heating this. It's meant to be eaten fresh. Bagna cauda is practically a religion with him. It's all tied up with his father and his past...cooking means a lot to Michael."

Marcus nodded. "Garibaldi is a man in search of something to believe in, that much is certain." His voice grew reflective. "And he is not alone in that."

Stephen gave the mixture another stir, and picked up a piece of bread and dipped it in, letting the excess drip back into the bowl. Then he held it out to Marcus. "Go ahead. Try it," he urged.

Marcus leaned forward and took the bite from Stephen's hand. His eyebrows shot up as he chewed and swallowed. "That is marvelous. I've never tasted anything like it." He scooped up another piece of bread and let it soak up the garlicky oil and butter then stuffed it into his mouth. Stephen was going ahead with his own meal, stopping only to top off their wine glasses. After 15 minutes or so of non-stop eating, Marcus pushed back his chair. "Butter and olive oil and garlic. Who would have thought they would go together to make something like that?"

"And anchovies. That's the secret ingredient," said Stephen, sighing happily.

"Surely not," blurted out Marcus, making a face. "I hate anchovies!"

Stephen laughed, "Not any more. It's good to try something new, don't you think? Leave your comfort zone for once."

Marcus took another gulp of wine. "Yes. Of course. Quite right."

A silence fell over the two men. Stephen looked at his friend sideways. There was something different between them tonight; something personal and private and dangerous. As Stephen tried to pin down the feeling, Marcus pulled out a short grey cylinder and started tapping it on the table, first one end and then the other. Stephen watched him for a moment, then reached over and put his hand on the other man's, stopping the rhythmic motion. He'd noticed this nervous tic before. Obviously Marcus felt the tension in the air as well.

"That's a Ranger weapon, isn't it?" he asked. Marcus nodded and handed the denn'bok to him. Stephen examined it closely. "How does it work?"

"There are two methods, well three actually. You can shake it, or there are two buttons near one end. Allows for some options..." Taking back the weapon, he pressed both buttons in quick succession. The metal shot out one end of the pike, then the other. He twirled the weapon, tapping it on the table and then the floor, ringing a rhythmic set of clangs.

"What's the third way?" asked Stephen.

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you," declared Marcus with a solemn expression. His eyes twinkled.

Stephen laughed, then reached for the bottle, upending it over his glass. "Empty," he said sorrowfully.

Without a word, Marcus tucked away the denn'bok, picked up the second bottle, flipped open the top and filled both their glasses.

"I don't know if I should," said Stephen, swirling the liquid in his glass. "I'm not sure it helps."

"Doesn't hurt," replied Marcus curtly. He edged his chair closer to Stephen, and putting his hands flat on the table, leaned forward and stared into his friend's eyes. "What do you want, Doctor?"

"Call me Stephen, for God's sake," expostulated Stephen. "I get enough of the title the rest of the day. And as for what I want..." He carefully set the glass down and put his hand over Marcus' thin strong fingers. He held them tightly within his own. "I want to feel something real. I want someone to look at me and see Stephen Franklin, not Doctor Franklin."

"Reality can be a dangerous place," remarked Marcus. "The Minbari spent a great deal of time training us to identify our own desires, and to decide whether they are the true calling of our heart, or the whisper of deception or self-delusion." He stood up abruptly, pulling Stephen to his feet as well. The two men faced one another, faces flushed and muscles tensed as if they were about to engage in battle.

Stephen felt like he was on the edge of an abyss, that if he took one step forward he would fall, and fall hard. His chest was tight and his breathing rapid. Marcus was just looking at him, not saying anything, dark eyes wary and yet behind the caution Stephen sensed an uncertain entreaty. "Marcus," he said, his voice thick with cautious desire, "I've never kissed anyone with a beard before."

Marcus gave a short, abbreviated laugh. "I've never kissed anyone before." Then, he went on, rapid and flustered, "I mean, I've certainly kissed someone before, of course I have. Not a male someone, no. And there's wasn't anything more, beyond the kissing I mean. Something more, yes, but not much more." He smiled weakly. "Do you understand?"

Stephen stepped back for a moment and examined Marcus closely. "You're a virgin, aren't you? Not just a same sex virgin, but an all around virgin."

Marcus nodded, looking as if he was ready to either flee in self-defense or laugh in self-deprecation.

"In that case," replied Stephen, "I'll lead." He moved forward deliberately, forcing Marcus to step back, but the Ranger was stopped by the side wall that separated the kitchen and living room. Stephen pushed him up against the wall, placing his broad hands against Marcus' shoulders, keeping him in place while he kissed him, thoroughly and definitively. It felt as if his over-anxious and hair-trigger intellect had been slammed back into his body, grounding him in the moment and in the feel of two hearts pounding in firmly-muscled chests held hard against each other.

Marcus had slid his hands behind Stephen, moving them slowly down from his shoulders to his waist, then pulling Stephen tight against him. Stephen didn't resist, pressing closer, using tongue and teeth to claim the other man, to lose himself in sensation. He moved his hands lower, maneuvering them behind Marcus to cup the other man's ass. He was just reveling in his own response, sudden and sharp, when Marcus shifted and Stephen felt steel hard against his thigh.

"Marcus," said Stephen, gasping as he tore his mouth briefly away from his willing pupil's lips. "Is that a denn'bok or are you glad to be here?"

Marcus' hand moved between them, into his cloak, pulling out his weapon and letting it clatter onto the nearby table. "It's a denn'bok. But oh, I am glad, Stephen. Glad to be here."