“Hey,” Ed says. “Can I tell you a secret?”
They’re lying on top of the roof of Alfons’s car—with their jackets underneath them, obviously; it should still set his germophobe alarms to blaring, but somehow stuff like that just seems to matter less when Ed’s involved. They’re settled in the back parking lot of the only six-room motel that seems to exist in this three-stoplight northern Washington town—which wasn’t exactly a destination so much as where they wound up when the sun gave out. Ed saw Alfons getting distracted by how clear the sky is as they staggered, jelly-legged from the hours in the car, into the motel lobby, and he immediately suggested that they stick around and “fucking appreciate it or some shit”, so—
So here they are.
And unless the dozing lobby clerk—who was too close to the verge of sleep to judge them for not caring whether it was one bed or two—is a hell of a stalker in his spare time, Alfons can’t really think of a better place to plumb the deepest, darkest depths of the unuttered confessions.
“Yes,” he says, which gets the same point across much faster.
“I fucking hate camping,” Ed says.
Alfons sometimes thinks with great amusement back to the days when he was a fair-mouthed, white-souled, lily-pure teenager who thought swearing was the epitome of shameless sin.
Fuck that anyway. Sticking to the straight and narrow never gave him any strength.
Sticking with Ed actually does.
“I never would’ve guessed,” Alfons says, “from the way you practically started hissing like a cat at the mere suggestion of forgoing the hotel for a night.”
“I do not hiss like a cat,” Ed says. “I hiss like a pissed-off asshole. Which is what I am most of the time.”
Alfons wonders—probably more often than he should—whether Ed says things like that ironically; or whether he is truthfully unaware that he believes in people more fiercely than anyone Alfons has ever met.
Admittedly, he does get pissed off a lot, though it tends to be because humanity doesn’t live up to his weird, wonderful concept of universal justice.
“You know what I mean,” Alfons says.
“Yeah,” Ed says. It’s hard to sound anything but pensive when you’re stargazing with your best friend in the world, in a silent little town hundreds of miles from anyone else you know. “When I was a kid, Mom used to have to drag me to the bathtub and throw me in—ask Al.” Alfons doesn’t need to. The cat comparison holds. “I went, like, two weeks without a shower right after she died, ’cause I just… well, nothing seemed to mean anything, first of all; and second, it wasn’t like anybody could make me. I guess I was pretty fucking rank after a while, ’cause Al started going on about how she’d be disappointed if we let ourselves turn into rotten monster kids or some shit, and he basically straight-up guilt-tripped me into showering all the goddamn time. Now it’s a habit thing, so I get all cranky if I don’t.” He blinks, and then his forehead furrows slightly, and then his bottom lip pushes out into the signature scowl-pout. “Shit. I’m such a sucker, aren’t I?”
“Not really,” Alfons says, because sometimes it’s kinder to lie about that sort of thing.
“Anyway,” Ed says, “my hair gets pretty nasty if I don’t. Besides which sleeping on the ground makes me ache like a motherfucker; and besides-which-of-that, I always wake up feeling like I ate dirt.”
“Maybe you do,” Alfons says. “In your sleep. Maybe you’re like a sleep-walker, only a sleep-dirt-eater.”
“Christ, Alfons,” Ed says. “You can’t just go around accusing people of eating dirt in their sleep.”
“Sorry,” Alfons says.
“You better be,” Ed says.
“So,” Ed says, pointing upward. “Which one’s your favorite?”
“All of them,” Alfons says. “It’s the whole… it’s the convergence that’s important—you know? Picking one’s like looking at a diamond and saying ‘Which one’s your favorite carbon molecule?’”
Ed’s grin gives the Milky Way a run for its money. “I feel you.”
“If you put a gun to my head,” Alfons says, “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“That’d probably save you,” Ed says. “From a personal question gunman, I mean. You could just start talking about gravitational acceleration or some shit and then start listing star names, and their arm would get tired.”
“I live in constant fear of personal question gunmen,” Alfons says.
“Same,” Ed says calmly. “Y’know, that’d probably work in a NASA interview, too.”
Alfons makes his mouth smile as his stomach drops and his heart clenches tight. “I dunno about that.”
“You’d just have to show up,” Ed says, “and they’d hire you. They wouldn’t even care about your killer fucking résumé—they’d take one look at you and know you were gonna be the plucky, passionate, nerdy scientist guy when they make the movie dramatization of your project someday.”
“Thanks,” Alfons says. “I think.”
“Sure thing,” Ed says, looking decidedly smug. “You’d be everybody’s favorite character.”
“I’d probably die,” Alfons says.
“Not if I was writing it,” Ed says. “You’d end up with the loud, obnoxious physicist from the linear accelerator next door, and you’d have this disgustingly cute fucking long-distance relationship while you were up on the space station, and it’d look like they were gonna off you, only then the power of gay love would save you at the last second.”
Maybe it’s because he spent so long fighting them, but the labels—the words—never really fit. Maybe that’s a problem with language in general, rather than the relevant terms in particular—maybe it’s a basic insufficiency; maybe sounds and concepts are fundamentally incompatible. Gay is too small a word for an entire universe of judgments and responsibilities—the culture, the echoes, the implications.
Love is too small a word.
So is Ed.
“You’re not obnoxious,” Alfons says.
“Have you met me?” Ed says.
“Nope,” Alfons says. “Never. But you’re not.”
“Right,” Ed says slowly. “You feeling okay?”
“Yes,” Alfons says. Time for a smooth, clever segue: “So which one’s your favorite?”
The grin again—unreasonable; unreal; unfair.
“Whichever one you’re going to first,” Ed says.
Alfons’s face goes hot. “Oh, shut up.”
“No fuckin’ way,” Ed says, sounding inordinately pleased about it. “Obnoxious enough for you?”
“Not yet,” Alfons says.
If only that wasn’t so damn true.
“All right, all right,” Ed says. “You caught me. I like… that one.” He points up, obviously at random. “So you better get your ass over there ASAP.”
Alfons reaches up and twines his fingers in with Ed’s. Ed’s grin just—deepens, widens, brightens; and he squeezes Alfons’s hand.
“You’re just going to keep nagging me until I succeed, aren’t you?” Alfons asks.
“That’s the plan,” Ed says. He lowers their hands to the bed of overlapping jackets underneath them, but he doesn’t let go.
“I think I can live with that,” Alfons says.
“Good,” Ed says. “Anybody tries to kill you in this movie, they’re gonna have to get through me.”
“The power of gay love will save us,” Alfons says, and the syllables sound almost right.
“You bet your ass it will,” Ed says. “So tell me about Orion.”
Alfons would like the record to show that he never stood a chance.