Jeff loved everything about explosions. “I love the sound they make right before they go off,” he murmured to Tony one night, hovering on the edge of sleep. “It’s a little crackling, anti-pop. Like they know what’s coming. I love the big, booming thud that they send through you. Even though you know it’s just strontium carbonate and lithium salts, I love the way it makes your heart beat differently for just a second. I love the after-image of light they leave on your eyes even after they’ve gone quite out. I even love the word ‘explosion.’ Go on, try it.”
Tony did, rolling the word around in his mouth. “Explosion.”
It sounded even better coming from Tony. They lay in their default bedtime positions, Jeff staring myopically at the ceiling, Tony lying on his side facing Jeff. It had been a good day. He’d taken...well, if not first prize at the end-of-year festivities, at least the record for the most accidents, and really, that was just about the same thing. He’d gotten an offer from Maxwell to study temporal anomalies abroad in the late summer. And he’d gotten to hear the word “explosion” in the slight Scots burr Tony had inherited from his mother’s side.
“I had another dream about us, Jeff. You were leaving school, and I tried to reach out to stop you. I tore your graduation cap off and threw it in the dirt, but you weren’t angry. You were only annoyed that it wasn’t green, and it didn’t light up or make noise or anything.”
Jeff smiled without opening his eyes.
“I told you I wanted you to stay.”
“What did I do?”
Tony paused, caught in that pensive, early-morning state of his, when he spoke softly and admitted he was cold. “You came on one last walk with me, through the woods. The path was clear, but it got overgrown behind us the farther we walked. Then you let go of my hand, and I couldn’t find my way back.”
Jeff had allergies in the summer. That was probably why his throat was closing up now. He cleared it, and wished he’d worn his glasses to bed. Without them, he couldn’t see Tony’s face. Was he sad? Upset that Jeff had taken that internship? Happy? That was the kind of thing Paula and Puu were good at understanding. He wanted to say something that meant something, something that would let him hear the smile in Tony’s voice. He opened his mouth for metaphor, and math came out. “My right arm is exactly sixty-three decimal four centimeters from middle finger’s tip to shoulder.”
Tony paused. He knew better than to get in the way of math, especially if it was trying to mean something. “Is it?”
“Yes. But our beds are a regulation seventy-five centimeters apart.” Jeff cleared his throat again--allergies could be inconvenient--and tried to remember the bravery he felt during the war. It was easy to charge into battle against enemies that would haunt anyone’s nightmares. Talking was harder. Math helped, a little. “Sometimes, when you have a bad dream, I think about shaking you awake. But I’m afraid that if I stand over you, you’ll think I’m a Starman come to put you in an airless tube again. If I lean out of bed to reach you, I might fall and wake you up with a frightening thump.”
Tony stifled a noise. It could have been a laugh, cough, sigh, or whimper. Damn voiceless vocalizations and their vagueness to hell, anyways. He could tell that Tony was working on the math, trying to decode Jeff’s meaning. After several moments, seeing that Jeff wasn’t going to keep talking, he hazarded a guess. “So, that means that in order to shake me awake, you’d either have to move the bed so it wasn’t regulation, or you’d require my active participation.”
“Something like that.” That had had a point when he’d started doing the math, Jeff was absolutely sure of it.
He heard Tony swallow. “I might have another bad dream.”
“Well...I’d require your active participation in order to be of any assistance. And if you were in such a position as to be able to give me said participation, you’d hardly need my--” Jeff suddenly realized that Tony was talking about being closer, and shut his mouth, far too late.
Then Tony was standing over Jeff’s bed, and it wasn’t frightening at all, except for the ways it was the most frightening thing that had ever happened. Tony was the brave one, always, ready to be rejected when he volunteered a shoulder or a brush of his fingers or a hug, offering them anyway.
Jeff reached out his hand, grabbed Tony’s, pulled him down, and did something a little reckless.
Tony’s lips were warm and pliable, a little chapped from the ruthless winds of Winters. He was trembling and eager and somehow good at being kissed. At first, just the fact that Jeff had hands was enough to throw him for a loop. All was confusion; his best friend was straddling him, his glasses were nowhere to be found, Tony’s skin was too warm for health, surely, and why had he never realized how difficult hands were to operate?
And then Tony let out a single low noise, something that reminded Jeff that he wasn’t with a girl or a robot, but a young man, and everything changed. He understood bodies, movements, as if he were figuring out which wires to attach in a bomb.
“Blue wire,” he muttered under his breath, and Tony’s pajama shirt hit the floor. Jeff’s calloused fingertips dragged over bare skin, and he knew with the surge of adrenaline that came with building something useful that he was doing something right.
Tony’s mouth latched onto Jeff’s neck, and that was right too. “Electrical conductor,” he hissed, and the current ran through them both. His hands were deft, practiced, as if he’d tackled and stripped his best mate a hundred times before with utter precision.
There was no fear, no reluctance. Tony was having marginally less success in undressing Jeff, but he was eager enough to make up for it. He was whispering a lot of words that meant something, that probably made sense on a level that other humans were good at understanding. Tony probably had a lot of words for what they were doing--he was good at biology like that.
Jeff was lighting a fuse.
He loved the sound Tony made right before he went off. It was a breathy anti-gasp that could have curled even Jeff’s bone-straight hair.
He loved the wave of sensations that flooded over him; even knowing that it was only dopamine and oxytocin in combination with adrenaline, he loved the way it made his heart skip a beat, just for a second.
He loved the after-image of Tony’s smile, seared into his eyes even without his glasses.
And Tony’s throaty Scottish voice in his ear, whispering his name.