The box was delivered by courier.
It was constructed of corrugated cardboard, with the discreet black and white symbol of the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Relations printed in one corner. It was a cube, about twelve inches to a side and had airholes carefully spaced around the top edges. Gerard signed, took his copy of the receipt and stared at the box in confusion. "What the fuck?"
The courier shrugged and touched the brim of her baseball cap before being escorted back off the bus.
"What is it?" Mikey asked, tucking his chin over Gerard's shoulder.
"Dunno." Gerard dug his knife out of his pocket and pried it open before carefully cutting through the plastic strapping that held the box closed. He waited for a moment, half expecting something to spring out of the box, like one of those cheesy snake-in-a-can practical jokes, but nothing happened.
"Who's it from?" Gerard couldn't see the confused frown on Mikey's face, but he could hear it in his voice.
"Dunno," Gerard repeated. He looked at the receipt the courier had given him and— "Oh. Pillow." He was proud of himself; his voice sounded perfectly normal in spite of the wave of longing that rushed through him. Mikey wrapped his arms around his waist and squeezed. Okay, so maybe he wasn't fooling Mikey, but Mikey knew him better than anyone else on this planet.
Without conscious thought, he found himself touching his wrist cuff, the one he called Exploration. Pillow had given him other wrist cuffs over the years, but Exploration was still his favorite; the one he wore most. It made him somehow feel closer to Pillow, in spite of the light-years between them.
"So open it up, Gee," Mikey gently suggested.
Gerard took a deep breath before pulling up on the cardboard flaps to reveal some kind of shiny silver fabric, maybe a blanket or sheets, carefully folded. It seemed to sparkle in the light. Lying on top was a transmission disc, Gerard's name written across it in Pillow's weirdly careful scrawl.
Mikey voiced the very question that Gerard was pondering. "Why the air holes?"
"Maybe there's something under the blanket?" He took out the transmission disc and set it aside before running his fingers carefully around the insides of the box, searching for. . .something that was alive. His mind flitted to the hamster habitat he'd gotten for Christmas years ago and how he'd never managed to get a hamster to go with the cage.
He'd always wanted a pet, something warm and fuzzy and cuddly, but life on the road made pets a difficult proposition. And when he thought about it now, a pet seemed too much like a crutch against missing Pillow.
"Huh." Mikey helped him take out the fabric, checking for any sort of living creature, but they couldn't find anything. "That's weird," Gerard said.
"Yeah." Mikey shook out the cloth and grinned suddenly. "It's a poncho."
"The fuck?" Gerard was baffled. "Or maybe it's a sheet with a big hole in the middle of it."
"Sound check, guys. Let's go," Ray said, and Frank whooped loudly and barreled into Mikey, pulling him down for a quick kiss before smacking his ass and running down the bus steps. Gerard rolled his eyes at Mikey, who grinned back.
"You guys are gross," he said.
Mikey's smile didn't dim one bit. "Yeah, we totally are." He folded the poncho back up and put it back in the box. "We'll have to figure this out later, after the show," he said.
"Yeah," Gerard bounced the transmission disc in his hand before putting it back into the box as well. "Yeah."
Gerard was distracted all through sound check, and the guys noticed, he knew they did, but aside from a couple of curious looks, they let him be. But he knew he had to pull himself together before the show; he owed it to the kids who were coming out to see them. So he asked around until someone pointed him in the direction of an empty room with a comfortable chair, sat down and tried to quiet his thoughts.
Once his mind was calmer, he reached for the link to Pillow that lived inside of him, their bond. Their connection had grown over the years, from their initial meeting when Gerard had been barely seventeen to now, months after his 34th birthday. It had started out as a tiny spark awareness, a hint of laughter and love, to something stronger, a bridge across the vast distances that separated them.
Their bond wasn't strong enough for true communication, but they could pick up the occasional stray thought and a general sense of the other's emotional state. It was enough to keep Gerard from going crazy from missing Pillow. Barely.
He brushed against their connection with his mind and smiled at the laughter and playfulness that Pillow was projecting at him. Under that was a deep pool of love, unconditional and boundless. Gerard concentrated and focused his thoughts on Pillow. What mischief are you getting into?
The answer was a distant echo, faint happiness and pride. Gift, Pillow sent back strongly, before fading into a warm background presence again.
"Gift, huh?" Gerard said aloud. He wondered if he should call Christine, his liaison with the Bureau. Maybe she would know what was going on.
Or, he could just wait until after the show, play the transmission disc from Pillow and find out for himself. "Fuck," he sighed. He was the worst at being patient.
The show was great. Gerard managed to set aside the twist of anticipation long enough for him to really get into the music; the kids were full of energy and he loved that, loved listening to them sing back the chorus of Na Na Na and hearing them scream Trust me! during Not Okay.
His enthusiasm was contagious, because the next thing he knew, Frank was pogo-ing across the stage and bumping into everyone, swinging his guitar around like he was dancing with it, and Mikey had an absolutely huge grin on his face. Ray really got into his headbanging, planting his legs and letting go to the point where Gerard was a little afraid he was going to give himself whiplash. But Ray was laughing under his sweaty hair, so Gerard figured it was okay.
The show ended too soon and before Gerard knew it, they were back on the bus. Gerard had changed out of his show clothes at the venue but hadn't bothered with a shower since tomorrow was a hotel night; it could wait, though he was sure those of a more fastidious nature would complain if they caught whiff of him. He was still feeling buzzy from the show and meeting some of the kids afterwards, so he drank some water and sat on the couch in the lounge, trying to settle himself.
He thought about grabbing his sketch pad, but Mikey and Frank were playing some kind of weird full-contact variation of footsie at the other end of the couch and he figured it'd be too difficult to draw with all the giggling and jostling. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing.
"Gee? You okay?" Frank's voice was soft and a little worried.
Gerard opened his eyes to see Frank staring at him curiously, with Mikey's pointy chin resting on Frank's shoulder.
"Yeah. Trying to relax a little before playing the transmission disc." It was going to take a lot out of him, to feel Pillow but not have hir physically here.
"Oh." Frank knew that Pillow's people didn't speak, exactly. He knew they communicated through a combination of emotional and visual cues that could be 'translated' and then recorded onto a disc. "Wouldn't it be easier to write?"
"Yeah, but it's not the same," Gerard sighed. "It's like the difference between a text message and a phone call. With a phone call, you can hear changes of inflection and tone, can see the person's smile and frown. With a text, you have none of that, which is why we use smileys and other emoticons."
"Sucks," Frank offered, and Mikey nodded.
"It does." He shrugged, because he'd made his choice, long ago.
It was another hour before Gerard felt comfortable enough to lock himself in the back studio and drag out the transmission player from its armored case. It was alien technology; as small as a portable DVD player and on loan to Gerard only because Pillow's family unit was so highly placed. There were only a handful on the entire planet and when Mikey had asked how much it had cost, Christine had given them a look and said "You can't afford it. The United States can't afford it. Japan might be able to buy one, in fifty years."
The thought of having something so fucking expensive had made Gerard feel light-headed. They were a rock band, for fuck's sake. They had parties and groupies and got drunk and stoned and did stupid things like jump off the top of buses. Well, okay, maybe not in a long, long time, but still. The potential for rockstar-type shenanigans was there and the idea of being in debt for more than the GNP of his country was terrifying.
He tried to explain his fears to Pillow, who had sent reassurance in return. After that, Gerard just shrugged. If it got broken, or stolen, he'd deal with it then. In the meantime, they kept the device locked up and safe.
Gerard untangled the weird receiver-thing and settled it onto his head. Mikey called it a tiara, but Gerard was pretty sure that it was more of a crown than a tiara, a twist of wires and metal. Either way, it was what made it possible for Gerard to 'hear' the transmission. Gerard slid the disc into its slot and pressed the play button, settling back in the chair.
[untranslatable-adolescent-journey-of-discovery-and-education] is about to come to an end and finally, I can return to your side. It has been too long since we were together.
I have so much [untranslatable] to share with you, so much to show you.
I have sent to you [untranslatable-(gift?obligation?payment?)-of-courting] in preparation of formalizing the bond between us. Please do me the [untranslatable] of accepting [untranslatable-(gift?obligation?payment?)-of-courting]. It will protect you and keep you company until we are together again.
I miss you, and my [untranslatable] is gladdened that our separation will soon end.
Gerard played the transmission twice more before putting the player away and wandering back into the kitchenette. Mikey was still awake, busily texting on his phone, but he stopped when Gerard shuffled to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup.
"Gee? You okay? What's up with Pillow?"
He looked at Mikey, then back at his coffee cup. "I think I just got engaged."
"What?" Mikey's phone clattered to the table. "How did you manage that?"
"I'm not sure." It wasn't that he minded, exactly. He knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Pillow, which was pretty much what marriage meant, but he was just a little surprised at finding himself in this position.
"Maybe you ought to call Christine," Mikey said.
"Maybe I ought to call Christine," he echoed with a nod.
"Gerard—" Christine sighed at him.
Christine has been his liaison since the very beginning; she'd known him as a teenager, had been with him through the rough years, had watched him move past that into his current state of mature acceptance. Of sorts. "I didn't do anything."
She laughed. "You've been saying that for years."
"But it's true," he said, trying to ignore the whine in his voice.
"Only you would get engaged without knowing it and then tell me you don't get into trouble," she teased.
Gerard wanted to stick his tongue out at her, but she wouldn't see it, so it was a fruitless gesture. "Maybe," he mumbled.
"Anyway, yes, it's a courting present. If you accept it, then you're committing yourself to 'dating' Pillow, and eventually you'll have to decide if you want to formally bond with zie. I have some informational pamphlets I can email you—Gerard?"
He took a shaky breath. "It's just—it's been so long—I just never thought the day would come—"
"Yeah," she said softly. "I know. But it's here, and you've got some decisions to make. Read the information I'm going to send you. Think about it."
"Okay." He fidgeted for a minute, shoving his hand into his pocket. "And what about the present? What is it?"
"It's a pet."
"I'm confused, Gee," Frank mumbled, leaning against Mikey and looking into the box. "It's a pet?"
"I thought it was a poncho," Mikey said.
"It's—it's a poncho-pet." Gerard said, waving his hand around, like that would explain everything.
"Like a chia pet?"
Mikey buried a snort of laughter in Frank's hair.
Gerard scowled. "Thanks for the support, guys!" He pulled out the poncho and defiantly stuck his head through the hole, letting the fabric settle gently around him. It clung softly to Gerard's body, and after a minute, slowly shifted color from shimmering silver to a dark blue. "Awesome."
Frank perked up. "Do you think it can turn you invisible? 'Cloak of Invisibility' and all that?"
"'Poncho of Invisibility' doesn't quite have the same ring to it," Mikey confessed.
"Hmmm, I don't think so." Gerard stroked his hand across the fabric. "It feels nice, though."
"So how is it a pet, exactly?" Mikey asked, as Frank stepped forward to touch the material. "Ooh, it's soft."
"Christine says I need to put it out in the sun once a week, and it needs to be sprayed with water every month or so, and I have to keep it close to me, otherwise it gets lonely."
"More like a plant-pet-poncho," Frank giggled. He kept touching the poncho, like he couldn't keep his hands off of it.
"Or something. Apparently it'll try to keep me safe, too." Gerard liked the way the poncho felt, surrounding him and keeping him warm.
"Uh, what does that mean, exactly?" Mikey eyed the poncho dubiously.
Frank said, "Sweet Pea is very protective of Mikey; I watched her try to rip a guy's leg off when he surprised Mikey by accident."
Gerard frowned, trying to imagine Sweet Pea defending Mikey against creepy guys. "It can sense malicious thoughts directed toward me and keep me from getting hurt."
"How?" Mikey asked.
"I don't know. Christine was kinda evasive, said it would be better never to find out."
"Weird alien stuff." It didn't seem to stop Frank from playing with the edges of the poncho. "You gotta give it a name, Gee, something cool."
Mikey laughed loudly. "You know he'll give it a geeky name, Frankie. Just give him a chance."
"'Course I will," Gerard snickered.
Mikey nodded in agreement. "So, everything okay with Pillow, then, Gee?"
Gerard smiled shyly. "I'm engaged, I guess." He let Mikey and Frank hug him, closing his eyes and feeling the echo of Pillow's laugh in his heart.