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Bitter Sweet Symphony (1997)

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Does it count as being early when he specifically chose the meeting time so that his habits would bring him to his destination well in advance?

It doesn’t really matter.  The point is that he planned it this way; the point is that he planned everything.  Sonja is moping about the fact that their run took them out of their neighborhood instead of around the lake, but anyone who would turn around after seeing Roy in his shorts and sneakers and ratty Venetian VIP club T-shirt wouldn’t be able to handle him at home, and wouldn’t hold up to Maes for five minutes.

He brought the same sunglasses that he had on in the picture and positioned them the same way in his hair.  The messages with Ed positively reeked of mistrust and uncertainty, and Roy doesn’t blame him.  Roy wants him to be able to see the outdoor tables of their meeting place from halfway down the block, long before Roy sees him over the rim of a very nice latte, and have time to decide to walk away.  If that’s better for him, that’s what Roy prefers.  If Roy gets ghosted, he’ll finish his nice latte, and answer some simpering emails on his phone over some brunch, and leave a tip that doubles the bill, and try matching with some other gorgeous blond.

He hopes that he doesn’t have to, though.  There’s something about Ed that… caught him.  Something that stuck.  Something that felt right for reasons that he can’t begin to fathom, let alone explain.

He likes feeling right.

He likes feeling.

He’s trying to look at anything other than the sidewalk in the direction that Ed will probably come from, but he doesn’t want to come off as the sort of person who’s glued to his phone during any gasp of downtime; and he doesn’t want Ed to realize how calculatedly early he was; and he doesn’t want to make the waitress nervous; and he doesn’t want the other patrons to stare at him if it looks like he’s looking at them; and—

He leans down and scratches thoroughly behind Sonja’s ears.

Better.  Always better.

She fixes the big mournful eyes on him.  He supposes that it’s only fitting that his dog holds grudges when he doesn’t take her on her favorite walk.

“How about this,” he says.  “If this goes down like a lead balloon, we can go to the park in just a few minutes.  If it’s not so bad, we can play frisbee at home.  What do you say?”

Obviously, she doesn’t say anything, but he likes to think that the mournfulness quotient decreases measurably.  She shuffles a little and resettles around the table legs, laying her chin on top of his foot.  He rubs her back.  Black and white fur dislodges and drifts everywhere.  If the breeze stays subtle like this and doesn’t carry it away, she’ll leave a husky-shaped pile of pale sheddings behind, like a backwards shadow.

“Um,” a voice says.  “Hi.”

Roy looks up.

Ed is evidently one of those people that photos can’t quite capture, because they’re simply too alive to be reduced to two dimensions.  He is so much more delectable now, despite being fully clothed and looking slightly skittish, that Roy’s brain blue-screens for three solid seconds.

It’s hardly Roy’s fault.  Ed’s profile did not mention the relevant fact that he dresses like a light bondage wet dream in a way that only emphasizes his shoulder-to-waist ratio—which could, as it happens, kill a lesser man.  Roy thinks that he recognizes the same very tight jeans from the picture, but today they’re accompanied by chunky black boots, a tragic leather belt with giant silver studs, a tight blood-red shirt, and a black leather jacket that has seen better days but still hugs Ed’s torso like it never wants to let him go.

Roy sympathizes.

Maes would say that the tables have tabled; or something about turntables, which would trail off into obnoxious record-scratching noises.  Riza would, somewhat more laconically, say that Roy deserves this.

They’d both be right.

“Ah,” Roy says, and then mentally kicks himself, because he sounds like a tool; and then mentally kicks himself harder, because anyone who isn’t prepared for him to sound like a tool occasionally will not be well-suited to this, no matter how much Roy wants to throw them down on the couch and get his hands on every inch of clinging denim.  “Hello.”  He gets to his feet, navigating carefully around Sonja’s paws, and lets one hand rest on the tabletop.  It probably looks a bit hilarious, all things considered, for him to be standing on ceremony in his running clothes while Ed lingers on the far side of the low decorative hedge and curls his hands a little tighter in his jacket pockets, but Roy has every intention of treating him with respect even when it looks stupid.  Perhaps especially then.  “Would you like to join me?”

Ed’s eyes dart to the table, and his shoulders tighten slightly before he looks at Roy again and plasters on an unconvincing grin.  “Sure, yeah.  Thanks.”

Oh, dear.

Roy knows what feigned relaxation looks like, and has determined by now that Ed is not much of an actor.  That’s good—authenticity is good.  Being sick and tired of the way that most people lie and connive and manipulate is what landed Roy in this whole burgeoning mess in the first place.

The rest is… not quite as good.

Roy is trying very hard not to fixate on the tiny glimpse of Ed’s collarbones offered by the failing elastic in the neck of that notice-me-red shirt.  He knows what those collarbones look like anyway; he spent more time than he would like to admit gazing at the single, solitary photo that Ed saw fit to upload as a special form of torment for humankind.  It’s different, however, to have them in front of him, half-revealed at intervals.  It’s different to watch Ed breathe.

He can’t get caught staring; Ed will think it’s at the ribbed pink scars bracketing the steel that whispers underneath the fabric.

The real shame of this part is that if Roy doesn’t trot out the inane small talk, they’re going to drown in silence.  This feels simultaneously like a job interview and like a first date, and Roy despises both of those so much that he considers asking if they can just skip this whole bit and talk about… well, Sonja, probably.  He doesn’t know a damn thing about Ed.  He doesn’t know where to start.

That’s fine.  He’s a born bullshitter; always has been.  A lot of the time, that’s all he’s got.

“So,” he says, evenly.  “I hope it wasn’t hard to make it over here?”

Ed is watching him closely, without so much as a glance down at the slightly sticky laminated menu laid on top of his appetizer plate.  The plates have a little ivy-leaf motif going around the edge.  They’re very cute.  Ed is twisting his hands in his lap, since he apparently hasn’t noticed that the table is the classic iron mesh, and is functionally transparent.  He keeps covering his right hand with the left and pulling down his sleeve.

“Nah,” he says, smiling unconvincingly.  “It was fine.  Really easy.  Um.”

This is not the same person that Roy was messaging last night.

Did he overdo it?  Does he look so casual that Ed feels out of place—or thinks that Roy doesn’t take this seriously?  Maybe Ed thinks that Roy thinks that it’s all a joke.  Maybe Ed thinks that Roy thinks poorly of him for responding to the messages in the first place; maybe—

Ed’s gaze dips down to Sonja under the table, and a tightness touches the corners of his mouth, like he’s realized something.

“Did you get her as a puppy?” he asks.

Sonja’s ears twitch forward at the word puppy, not that Roy is attuned to her every motion so intently that he always notices things like that.  “Yes.  She was originally a… a rather ill-considered Christmas present for a family that wasn’t prepared for a dog.  A friend of mine volunteers at the Humane Society down off Baxter, and she called me, and I dropped everything and violated several traffic laws on my way over.  It was love at first sight.”

This smile looks significantly more genuine.  “They’re a lot of work, right?  Huskies?”

“God, yes,” Roy says.  He nudges Sonja affectionately with his foot, and she obligingly makes the annoyed noise.  “More energy than than a competitive cheerleading team on cocaine.”

A grin like bottled sunshine cracks through.  “Are you speakin’ from experience, or what?”

Roy thinks that that deserves one of the good smirks.  “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

He tracked the footsteps first, so he’s not startled when the shadow falls over their table—just disappointed at the way that Ed shutters up again in the time that it takes to blink.

“Hi, there!” the well-meaning waitress says.  “What can I get for you?”

Roy orders a second latte, because he is a very, very stupid man, and he has a lifetime to prove it unless he overdoses on caffeine first.  Overdosing on caffeine is, of course, for better or worse, quite difficult; he’s tried.

He’s unsettled by his own inability to decide if he wants soup or a sandwich, which is probably some sort of heavy-handed metaphor from the universe about his psyche, but fortunately they do half-and-half here.  He’s going to sneak Sonja at least a quarter of the meat out of the sandwich.  Riza’s going to kill him.  He deserves that, too.

Like most lunch menus at most bistros, the available options fall into a series of pricing tiers a dollar or two apart.  Ed orders the heartiest sandwich available at the lowest price point and follows up with “Oh, no, thank you.  Water’s fine.  Thanks.”

Ah.

Aha.

The person that Roy was messaging last night was an Ed who was too tired to second-guess himself, reacting in real time.  The person that Roy was messaging last night was, very likely, the real Ed, or close to it.

The person that sat down across from him at this table is an Ed who has had several hours to think this through, and has come to the conclusion that his best hope of extracting monetary gain from this arrangement is to act as pliable and inoffensive as humanly possible.  The person that sat down across from him is an Ed who thinks that Roy’s objective is to hire an ego-stroker who won’t stop at the ego.

Roy is somehow going to have to find a way to explain to him that that is, in fact, the opposite of the truth, without ever explaining anything in so many words, because that would come off as condescending.  Besides—no self-respecting, scuffed-booted, sharp-eyed young man like that, with the self-preservation skills to make it this far, would ever take him at his word.  Roy would bet everything he owns except for Sonja that Ed’s had his heart broken and his trust violated enough times not to let some rich old lech get close enough to do more damage.

Which would be fine, if Roy’s primary motivation wasn’t shutting Maes up about the endless fulfilling virtues of a successful marriage for five minutes at a stretch.  Roy doesn’t need an ego-stroker: he needs a partner in completely justified best-friend-deception crime.

Perhaps he also needs a different tactical approach.

As the waitress leaves, he leans back in his chair and crosses his right leg over his left knee—which is very challenging to do without kicking Sonja in the head, since she’s still resting on his left foot, but he has quite a lot of practice.

“So,” he says.  “Tell me a little bit about you.  You don’t have to go into detail—I’m not a stalker.”  He pauses, attempting to wrangle the urge to wince into something closer to a winsome grin.  “I… recognize that that’s exactly what a stalker would say, but I can provide character references on request.”

Ed wrinkles his nose.  He is darling.  He shifts in his chair a little, still fidgeting with his hands, and then swallows and makes another attempt at a smile.

“I’m getting a PhD in physical chemistry,” he says.  “Which… basically just means that I like to look at molecules on the atomic level and kinda poke them and try to figure out why they interact the way that they do, and how we can change those interactions to alter their properties.  It sounds kinda dweeby, but it has a lot of really cool potential applications—like renewable energy and drug development just for starters; those are two that I’m really interested in.”

Roy is a Hozier song, and not one of the good ones where the darkness is closing in, and the undertow of your hapless affections is dragging you into the bog, where you’ll die and decompose and feel more serene than you’ve ever been.

Roy is one of the Hozier songs where he falls in love at the drop of a hat, with a single sentence or an isolated detail, because human beings are truly incredible when you let them breathe inside your life.

“Interesting,” Roy says, which is the truth.  “We used to call physical chemistry the alchemy department.”

Ed’s eyes widen and then narrow.  “Wait—you went to Am U?”

“Briefly,” Roy says.  He is guilty of every accusation ever levied that he cherishes the sound of his own voice, but one has to draw the line somewhere, and it wouldn’t advance his current objective to wax poetic about that experience.  There aren’t too many things that Roy is better at than talking about himself, but fixating on his goals is one of them.  He does have that.  “Have you worked out the lead-to-gold thing yet?”

Ed half-smiles and raises the challenging eyebrow from the profile photo.  “Only a matter of time.”  He blinks, and then he winces.  “Well—only a matter of… matter… if… you…”

Roy laughs.

Ed looks surprised for one split-second and relieved for the next before he seals everything up again and puts on a placid smile.

“Hang on,” Roy says.  “Do you have kids?  Because that was a dad joke.”  Oh, shit.  “I don’t have a problem with you having kids, of course; I’m just—genuinely curious.”

Ed blinks again.

“Hi, Genuinely Curious,” he says, innocently.  “I’m Dad.”

It is distinctly possible that Roy is in over his head.

Unfortunately for the entire world, and especially for Ed, that’s where Roy absolutely flourishes, by dint of his faking-it prowess, his unrivaled overthinking, and his disproportionate allocation of sheer dumb luck.

“Well,” he chokes out, “that settles it.  You can never meet Maes.  I’ll die.  I’ll just lie down on the floor and die if the two of you ever become acquainted.  But you have to promise me that you won’t let him do the eulogy.  Tell Sonja that I love her.”

Ed immediately leans around the table to duck underneath it.  “Hey, Sonja.  Hey, girl.  This guy up here says he loves you.”

Roy is in way over his head.

“I see,” he says as Ed straightens up again with a slightly tentative grin.  “A literalist.  Lovely.  Just what I need in my life.  Another person who meets my delightful sense of humor and my unrivaled verve with—” The movement to his right materializes into the waitress again, and she sets two water glasses down next to the dregs of his latte.  “Thank you so much.  Where was I?”

“Verve,” Ed says calmly.  “Like the one-hit wonder band.”

Isn’t he too young to make that reference?

“All right,” Roy says, making a face at him.  “Would you prefer ‘vivacity’?  That always feels Austen-novel-ish to me.  ‘Moxie’ sounds like the name of an all-girl metal band, and I’m not nearly cool enough to be in a girl band.  Suggestions?”

Ed looks slightly cowed, but not even remotely impressed—which was an inevitability, but is still a bit of a shame.  “Do you… do you just talk like this?  All the time?”

“Sometimes I’m asleep,” Roy says.

Ed looks even less impressed.

Then his expression shifts slightly, and Roy can almost see the gears turning behind his eyes as he arrives at a decision.  “Hey.  So.  Your turn.  Right?  Tell me about you.”

Roy was ready for that one.  Physics people are very into the notion of quid pro quo.  “How is it my turn?  You didn’t answer the question about whether you had kids.”

“I have the kind of best friend who signs me up for—” Ed lowers his voice, leaning inward.  “—sugar daddy websites, and a sick brother, and a thesis to write.  You think I want more responsibilities?”

“I think that the responsibilities don’t usually care what we want,” Roy says, keeping his tone light, “but duly noted.”  He folds his hands on the edge of the table.  “Long story short, I was procrastinating on something that I should have been doing with a slightly heat-expansive metal alloy, and I accidentally invented a hypodermic that expands with the right application of temperature.  So the tip can remain very narrow when you insert it, and then can be widened substantially—substantially on a needle scale, at any rate—for delivery or extraction.  That spun out into a company, and I was in charge of a lot of things to do with the business for a while, but then they relegated me to the board and continued to pay me for doing basically nothing except showing up in a suit sometimes.  I’m trying to sort out a new version that could be used in low-resource environments where there isn’t any temperature control to speak of.  The patent on the alloy sold for so much that I’m still struggling to get rid of all of it.”  Lead to gold, leading nowhere.  How’s that for poetry?  “You said that your brother’s sick?”

Ed’s mouth has fallen open a bit.  It’s surprisingly fetching.  “Y—I—yeah.  But—I mean, we’ve—I’ve seen them use those.  On him.  Those needles.  They’re great.  Those things are great.  You made that?”

“I had a lot of help,” Roy says.  The details—and the roster of who shoved him bodily out of the nest and demanded that he learn to fly, versus who helped him splint the wings that he broke hitting branches on the way down—don’t add interest to the story, so he leaves them out.

Ed nods a little bit.  “Takes a village, sure, but…” His eyes flick up and down over Roy in a way that would be much more provocative if Roy didn’t currently look like he’d lost a fight with a gym membership.  “Somebody’s got to lead the charge, right?”

Roy is going to have to find a gentle way to subvert Ed’s mission to redirect the conversation constantly back to him.

“I think that that’s giving me too much credit,” he says, smiling blandly.  He moves the words around in his head; he needs a perfect combination of Tell me more about what makes you tick and I’m really not a stalker; I just don’t want to think about my high-speed rail trainwreck of a life.  Is the sick brother the in?  Roy, at twenty-whatever, wouldn’t have wanted to tell some theoretical sugar daddy stranger about his family members.  Roy, at twenty-whatever, would have started lying compulsively, and later would likely have forgotten to write down the tragic sob story that he’d made up.  “It’s good to hear that they’re out there in the world, though, doing what we wanted them to.”

Ed puts his left elbow on the table, right hand still curled in his lap, and rests his chin on his hand.  The pose looks terrifically fake; the wistful smile looks strangely genuine.  “It’s really cool that you’re an inventor.”

Roy is going to have to say It’s less cool that I’m a concentrated nuclear disaster of a human being, so let’s talk about you in so many words.  He has run out of other choices.  “Well—”

He detects the specific cadence of the waitress’s footsteps over the ambient chatter again, before the movement draws close enough for him to turn and look without betraying himself as the pillar of paranoia that he has undoubtedly become.

A softly-steaming latte plunks down beside the remnants of the first.

They both thank the waitress—Roy sees Katie on her name tag, but it somehow always feels invasive to use that knowledge in conversation, no matter how readily an employee is made to display it—and then she makes a swift circuit of the other outdoor tables before vanishing back into the café.

The new latte reminds Ed of the water glasses, and he reaches out to catch a hold of his.  He gulps down a sip deep enough that Roy’s impulse is to lean forward in case he chokes, but the moment that he sets down the glass, his eyes are bright and sharp and intent.  He draws out his phone and taps a few things on the screen left-handed.

“So,” Ed says.  “To business.”

Oh.  Right.

“This guy,” Ed says.  His eyes flick up to Roy’s face.  “The friend of yours—the one that you’re duping.”  At Roy’s wince, he blinks repeatedly, and some of the seriousness of his expression gives way to bewilderment.  “Is that—what would you call it?”

“Something much more charitable,” Roy says, allowing himself a sigh, “and much less true.  Go ahead.”

Ed hesitates for a second, and then he squares his shoulders and barrels on.  “Okay, so, this guy that we’re… deceiving… on purpose… to get him off your back.  You want text messages to show him, right?”  He types something on his phone, left thumb moving swiftly while his right hand stays curled in his lap, brow furrowing as he concentrates, and then looks up again.  “Do you know how many you’re expecting to need?  Like, are we talking… front-load it, and you’re gonna send him screenshots when you need them?  Or more like you’d let me know when you were going to be out somewhere with him, and I could send you a couple of them around that time so that he’d see them pop up on your phone?”

“Both?” Roy says.  The extremely brief flash of trepidation that crosses Ed’s face sends him backpedaling, of course.  Which is ridiculous, because they’re not… they’re not anything.  Why is he already so protective of Ed’s feelings?  He doesn’t know the first damn thing about this kid.  Ed could be taking advantage of him, for all he knows.  “I could… how about if I paid you by the text?  We could start out by seeing how many you’re up to, and then… renegotiate.”

Ed is typing again, and nodding thoughtfully as he does it.  “Obviously it’d need to be for a full sentence, rather than just per text.  I’m not gonna charge you for, like, interjections.  That’d be scammy as fuck.  But—yeah, okay.”

“Wonderful,” Roy says, which is really very funny if you squint.  “How about if we start around two hundred dollars for each?”

Ed bears more than a passing—in fact, a rather uncanny—resemblance to a bobcat in the headlights.  “You… you mean each day?  Like, each day where there’s…”

“Each complete thought,” Roy says, tapping a fingertip on the tabletop.  “Or sequence, or something of sufficient brilliance that it makes Maes fake-cry into a handkerchief, or…” The headlights thing has not abated.  “Three hundred?  That sounds more fair.”

“Uh,” Ed says, very faintly, still staring at him, “listen.  I’ve… I’ve never written a two-hundred-dollar text message in my entire fuckin’ life.  I’ve never written a two-hundred-dollar term paper.  My undergrad honors thesis might’ve been, like, a hundred fifty if you’re feeling generous, but—”

“Ed,” Roy says, “you’re smart enough to be reorganizing atoms.  Why in the world would a completed thought not be worth a couple hundred bucks?”

Ed stares at him for a few more seconds, mouth slightly open.  God, he has a gorgeous mouth.  He has a gorgeous everything.  It’s not like Roy didn’t know that, from the photo; it didn’t exactly leave much of any of the gorgeousness behind on the field, but it’s one thing to pinch-zoom guiltily in on a flattering photo, and another altogether to be seated across from someone who glows in the sunlight even when he looks like he’s been hit around the head with a brick.

“How—” Ed attempts to clear his throat.  “You… you’re like… that meme.”

Roy is like a lot of memes, but if he starts to list them, he risks losing the thread of this part of the conversation for a solid hour; and also any respect that Ed might possibly ever consider having for him.  “It’s not that I don’t remember what money means, especially when you don’t have much of it—I do.  Believe me.  I had to bring a calculator to the grocery store for a long time.  But when you can give people what they’re worth, I think that you should.  That’s all.”

Ed stares for a few more seconds.  He now looks like a very unsettled bobcat in the headlights, in a way that is teetering closer to distressing than to pitifully cute.  He gazes down at the notes on his phone for a few seconds and then looks back up at Roy.

And just like that, his eyes have changed.

“Okay,” Ed says.  “So… this friend.  Maes, right?  What’s going to be more effective?  Do you want, like, boyfriend, or boytoy?”

Roy wants a sip of his cold water now, please, but he’s afraid to reach forward to pick up the glass, because he might wind up with his fingers twisted into Ed’s hair.  “What do you think of playing it as a progression?  He’d be much more likely to believe the latter at first, but if we want this to be a long-term arrangement, then…”

Ed blinks.  He tilts his head.  Roy imagines little bobcat ears slanting downward and then flicking back up.  “If you’re gonna pay me two hundred dollars for every bushel of sleazy text messages,” he says, “I want this to last the rest of my life.”

Something deep in Roy’s chest wheezes and coughs up blood.  He kicks it.

“Well,” he says, “why don’t we try it out and see?”