It's a rare moment when there's no shouted damage reports or barked orders or the acrid, nostril-burning smell of sparks and contained fires. Just the white-noise hum of the ship's engines, the faint undertone of the circulating air, and his own breathing. And the sound of his sanity quietly slipping away as he sits vigilant and awake for the fourth – fifth? - night in a row.
From somewhere below comes a muffled boom, and a faint, high-pitched squeal. Neither of them get up, or so much as blink – at the very worst, the ship's fire suppression system will kick in before they all die in a horrendous explosion. Hopefully.
"Hmm. Someone must have pressed the Button..."
Korso grunts in reply. He doesn't look up, but he can hear the smirk in his first mate's voice, just like he can hear him putting the capital B on the last word. It always seems to be there, a dry, mocking curl of his lip or tilt to his words that makes everything that comes out of his mouth sound sarcastic, even when he's supposedly being sincere. If Preed was ever sincere. He seemed to be, sometimes – usually when the thought of large sums of money, or saving his own skin came up. But Korso was never sure which was the act – the sincerity, or the sarcasm.
It doesn't really matter, Korso concludes. Long as the lanky thing knows which way to point a gun.
He tries hard no to analyze Akrennians – their logic makes his head hurt. Hell, their everything makes his head hurt. The last time Preed had come to him wanting an extra day of shore leave in a particularly nasty corner of a God-awful hunk of space crap they called a Colony, he'd started out with "Korso! Hear me out here, or I'll separate you from your delicate bits, and sell them to the highest bidder!"
The funny part was, he'd seemed genuinely surprised when Korso's reaction was... less than favorable. After verifying that yes, it was in fact a known Akrennian cultural quirk to threaten severe bodily harm before asking a favor, Korso might have regretted messily introducing Preed's snout to the bulkhead – but not much.
"If all we have to worry about are a couple random bangs and whistles from that crackpot's playtime..." Korso says out of the corner of his mouth, twitching for a cigarette. He's not stupid enough to risk lighting up in a pressurized environment, no matter how harsh the nicotine pangs. "Then I'd say we're doing pretty well."
He leans back in his seat, hands behind his head, and lets his eyes slip almost-shut. Never all the way. Except for the occasional blink, Korso doesn't remember the last time he's closed his eyes – he even sleeps with one eye open. The next time he closes them all the way, he'll probably be dead.
"The kid's gonna be trouble..." he murmurs to the ceiling, but it's Preed who answers with an incredulous snort.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about that. He seems a bit... distracted lately, if you know what I mean."
"Do I ever know what you mean?" Korso rubs his face, weary. "If you're going to hang around the bridge like a damn vulture, at least don't talk in riddles while you do it."
"I mee-ee-ean..." Preed drawls, dragging out the syllables just so he can enjoy them a little more. "That he's been spending a great deal of time in the company of everyone's favorite lethal beauty. Not that I blame him – but really, now, he should know better."
"Mm-hmm. I get the feeling that playing Russian Roulette with a full chamber would be less dangerous than messing around with that girl-"
"Oh, no no no, Captain!" Preed snickers like he knows a juicy secret.
"She wants me."
"Of course." Korso regrets asking already, and lapses into silence. He should know by now, that's what he gets for talking to Preed when he's off-duty. You hang around with monkeys, you shouldn't be surprised when they throw shit in your face.
For a few moments, the white noise returns, an insulating blanket against the endless emptiness and crushing vacuum of silence around them.
"I don't suppose we could just take the obvious way out..."
Korso's getting tired of asking Preed what the hell he's talking about, so he just waits for him to finish the thought. He will, whether Korso wants him to or not. He always does.
"We really only need his hand."
Korso's laugh sneaks up on him and he almost chokes on his sharp intake of air – then his guffaw fills the bridge. "It would make things easier..." he gets his diaphragm back under control, but damn it, that hit his hardened, dark sense of humor in just the right way. It's something he knows will make him smirk at odd moments in the future.
"But no. The thing's genetically coded, and all – all connected through his nervous system and - and-" he makes a noise of frustration; he's a captain, not a doctor. "I don't know, you were there for the scan, you and Akima figured out that we need him alive, you tell me why it wouldn't work."
"Oh, relax," Preed gives him a noncommittal wave of his long, bony fingers. "It was just a joke."
Korso snorts – sure it was. But he doesn't answer, instead he tilts his head and tries to get at a spot in his neck he knows will feel better once it cracks. But it won't, and he can't reach the spot that's really bothering him anyway, he can't get comfortable in this damn chair, he's on edge and sore and cranky and grumbles something under his breath.
"Well, maybe you could, if you weren't chugging that sludge you have the nerve to call coffee every waking moment."
Korso starts – then sighs, resigned. By now he shouldn't be surprised; even with only one ear, Preed hears like a goddamn Earth bat, before they were all blown to bits. It's irritating, but it doesn't make his half-coherent 'I wish I could relax' any less valid.
"That 'sludge' is the only thing keeping me awake right now," he mutters, almost glad Preed's hearing is so eerily keen – it means he doesn't have to put as much effort into talking. He can only imagine what those ears were like when there were two of them.
"Well, I'd trade biorhythms with you if I could," Preed shrugs, and Korso feels more than hears his long-legged steps across the bridge. "Akrennians are a many-blessed – not to mention uncommonly beautiful - race, but it's one of our few curses... insomnia."
"Maybe not dreaming has something to do with it..." Korso's remembering something he half- heard a long time ago – God, was it in school? It seemed like another lifetime. Something about how the human brain couldn't recuperate and repair itself if the sleeper never entered the REM stage: never dreamed. Evidently Akrennian brains could; that, or they were perpetually running on empty. It might explain a few things.
He's caught in these odd thoughts, not really paying attention to what either of them are saying. He lets his eyes slide to half-mast and go out of focus; the ceiling becomes a cobalt-dark blur. Takes a deep breath, a slow exhale, the closest he's come to sleeping in days, but he won't get there now, he know he won't, and he can't stop thinking about how his brain flatly refuses to shut up, just not being able to turn the damn thing off for a few hours... so he's mildly surprised when Preed's voice comes from in front of him rather than behind.
"Mm. One day you'll have to tell me exactly what those are like," Preed swivels the other bridge seat to face Korso's and slithers down into it, long, loose limbs seeming to melt to its contours. "It sounds incredibly unnerving, hallucinations while you're unconscious. Not being in control of your minds, not knowing what's real and what's not - how do you humans cope with it?"
Korso gives a half-shrug. "We get by all right. It's not the dreams that get us, it's the shit when we're awake we have to worry ab-" he jerks bolt upright, entire body spasming like an electrical current runs through it.
"The fuck are you doing?"
His eyes are wide open now. And they're staring down in bloodshot disbelief at where Preed is crouching in front of him – and hasn't let go of his belt buckle.
"I'm removing this," Preed gives him a deliberate blink, speaking very slowly and calmly, as if to a child who's just a little on the slow side. "Because this would be quite difficult if it stayed on."
"The hell you are, get away!" Korso aims a kick at him but of course when his foot gets there, Preed isn't, he's so damn slippery and quick. "What the shit do you think you're-"
"Oh, God, is this another one of our cultural misunderstandings?" Preed gives a world-weary sigh, turning his eyes to the ceiling. He folds his bony arms and leans back on his heels, not looking at all perturbed by the fuming Korso, or making any further efforts to get away.
"You expect me to believe that taking a swipe at a man's privates is a cultural misun-"
"You expect me to believe that human officers don't do the same thing to their superiors?"
"Of course we..." Korso blusters – then remembers all the ass-kissing that went on in the military. Even if it wasn't usually literal, it could be a whorehouse unto its own. "Not like that."
Preed spreads his hands in a disarming shrug. "It's an Akrennian pleasantry. Just like how we've discovered that when I say 'Korso, I will put several bullet holes in your sensitive regions,' the closest human translation would be 'my dear friend, I am about to ask you for a favor that I would greatly appreciate-'"
"I don't believe it. No matter what you think of humans, you should know by now that I'm not an idiot, Preed."
The Akrennian gives him a long, narrow-eyed look. "You really think I want to get into your pants so desperately, that I'd make up an outrageous lie?"
Korso doesn't answer. He thinks Preed is capable of just about anything, but can't quite think of a way to answer that that didn't make himself look like a fool.
"It's a perfectly normal, socially acceptable gesture. The equivalent of a salute..."
"I don't think it'squite like a salute." Korso glares.
"Have it your way." Preed shrugs, entirely unruffled. "I simply saw that my friend and captain was in grave need of relaxation, and did what any responsible Akrennian officer would. I just thought it might be a good idea not to leave the ship, everyone on it – not to mention the map - at the mercy of a jittery, overcaffeinated sleepwalker. It was an executive decision, not a first date."
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation – no, that had to be it. There was no other explanation for when Akrennian logic started making sense. Korso hates it when Preed makes sense... but he's too tired to argue any more.
"...Another cultural misunderstanding?"
"Indeed. Now, if you'd like to go back to your cabin and stare at the ceiling some more, drink your sludge coffee and wonder why you're not able to make a quick decision the next time the drej decide to pop in to say hello, then be my guest, I'll say good night right now." He gave a deadpan blink – and Korso thought it was amazing how he could be completely straightfaced, and still have that goddamn smirk all over.
"Or, if you feel like being a responsible captain, shutting up and dealing with it – or rather, letting me deal with it – letting go of all this tension, getting a good night's sleep, and honoring your treasured first officer's customs all at once... then we can give this one more try."
Korso's quiet for a few long seconds. When he speaks again it's in a low growl.
"You realize that if a single word of this gets out, I will ACTUALLY kill you."
"Of course. You see, I respect other species' traditions and values." The smirk is back, and this time he makes no effort to hide it, or how amusing he's finding this. "It'll help."
Korso groans – and then he finally does shut his eyes. He can't watch, and he can't take another moment of that grin. "Lock the door."
And God damn it, damn him... it does.
Korso hates it when Preed is right.