by shukyou (主教) and Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by safelybeds
The last day Stacey walked into Jules’ workshop with bags under his eyes and a new tattoo was simultaneously the best and the worst day of Garrett’s life.
“Oh, honey,” said Cory, who knew the signs by now. She put down the potato cannon blueprint she’d been sketching and gave him a big hug, standing on her tip-toes so her arms got all the way around his neck. “You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”
“Looks like she’s stopping it for me,” Stacey sighed, patting Cory’s back. “She’s getting married next month. But hey, look, testosterone!” He unzipped his pants.
Garrett and Cory both leaned closer to get a better look, and sure enough, there it was, indelibly on his tanned skin: a C19H28O2 molecule, its neat black lines still haloed with sore redness. It nestled snugly between capsaicin and 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene, both souvenirs from previous breakups with Cherise — and that was only the left side of Stacey’s hips. For Garrett’s money, he was the world’s sexiest living textbook of fun chemical compounds.
After a moment’s consideration, Cory rolled her eyes and poked the fresh tattoo, and Stacey hissed at her. “Back, evil woman!”
“Last one,” Cory told him, pointing the same poking finger in his face. “Or next time, I’ll make you get estrogen.”
“I said back, evil woman!” Stacey gave her a playful shove back toward her blueprints, then turned to Garrett. “So, dude, how was your two-week hiatus?”
“Arguably better than yours,” said Garrett, extending his right hand to start his and Stacey’s complicated, never-captured-on-camera nerd buddy handshake. Correctly performed, it took no more than thirty-two seconds to execute, though once they’d each slammed three Red Bulls and made it in under twenty-five. They finished with a snap, and then Stacey ruffled Garrett’s dark hair into his face, something that Garrett didn’t technically count as part of the handshake, since it wasn’t mutually agreed upon, even though Stacey did it every time. “So, should we keep you on light duties today?”
Stacey laughed and rubbed his hands together like a supervillain. “No, man, I am ready to blow some shit up! …After coffee. Coffee is very, very necessary.” Looking enthused but still a little zombie-like, he turned and made a beeline for the catering truck.
In the silence of his absence, Garrett could actually hear Cory’s eyes boring into his skull. “You pinky swore,” she reminded him, chucking an allen wrench at the back of his head.
Garrett picked up a faulty motherboard in the vain hope that circuitry would take his mind off the sight of Stacey’s bare hips. “I know, I will,” he sighed. Damn the woman, her pinky swears were like blood oaths.
“Eat your lunch on your own time,” said Garrett, punching Stacey in the shoulder.
“This isn’t my lunch,” said Stacey, turning just enough to acknowledge Garrett while making sure he kept his face forward for the cameras. “I’m getting ready for our next myth!”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess.” Cory reached over his other shoulder and took Stacey’s fork from the bowl, eyeing the whole, raw clove of garlic skewered on it with comically exaggerated skepticism. “Food myths.”
“That’s right!” Stacey kicked his boots up on top of the huge styrofoam TRUTHCRASHERS logo between them and the crew. “As you guys know, our fansite has hundreds of viewer-submitted myths, and some of them are downright delicious.” He grabbed the fork back from Cory and took a giant, unscripted bite of garlic — and then coughed the papery mouthful back into the bowl in his lap.
“Well,” said Garrett, without missing a beat, “I read one last week about how if you swallow gum, it’ll stay up to seven years in your stomach.”
Cory made a face. “Why do I get the feeling that one’s going to be totally gross?”
“I don’t know about you guys,” said Stacey, picking little bits of garlic husk from his lips, “but I totally want to try this one there about how if you marinate meat in alcohol, you don’t need to bother refrigerating it, because the alcohol kills all the microbes.”
Garrett shook his head. “Something tells me we’re going to ruin a lot of good meat and a lot of good alcohol trying that one.”
“Well, while you two do that, I’ve got something actually tasty in mind: aphrodisiac foods.” Cory picked up the garlic fork again. “Some people say that if you eat certain foods — including garlic, though you’d probably want to cook it first — it can put you in the mood for love! I’ve got ten of them I want to try.”
“Can I borrow your toothbrush, man?” Stacey ad-libbed up at Garrett.
Garrett rolled his eyes. “No.”
“And … cut!” Mike, their director, waved at them from behind the cameras, and Garrett relaxed; no matter how many years he’d been on television in one way or another, there was still a certain paranoia that always crept in when the film was rolling. “Got it in one, ladies. Nice work. All right, someone go round up Aaron and Jules, it’s time for their segment.”
The build team dutifully cleared off the faux-workshop drafting table used only for filming the segment intros and wrapups, Stacey still smacking his lips together at the garlic aftertaste. Once back in the breakroom, Garrett snatched a tin of Altoids from the condiments cabinet and pitched them toward Stacey. “That was foul,” said Stacey, tapping three into his mouth and crunching them between his teeth. “…I’d do it again for testing breath mint efficacy, though.”
“Put it on the Board.” Cory pointed in the direction of Aaron’s office, where the team kept the GREAT BIG BOARD OF IDEAS — not a board, really, but a sheet of butcher paper stretched floor to ceiling, transcribed and replaced when there was no white space left. After too many conversations that had been started with ‘wouldn’t it be a great idea if…’ and forgotten too quickly to be usable, Aaron had made the Board. Naturally, half of the scrawled ideas were along the lines of find a cure for Aaron’s stinky feet and make every day Taco Thursday, but the other half were the stuff of television science magic.
Stacey dutifully stood and walked into Aaron’s office, grabbing a grease pencil on the way. “So anybody need anything at the store?” he called back into the break room. “Speak now, or the only things I’m walking out with are flank steaks and booze.”
“Whatever gum they have,” said Garrett.
There was a moment’s pause, and Stacey popped his head out from the door to Aaron’s office. “What, like, all of it?”
Garrett threw a pencil at him, and Stacey ducked it with the expert reflexes of a man accustomed to being on the business end of projectiles. “Packet of each, dumbass.”
“I’m good,” said Cory, eyeing the contents of the DON’T refrigerator. Its companion appliance — helpfully labeled DO — stood on the other side of the break room and contained only food and other items not eventually destined for experimentation. “I’m going to make you eat all the gross stuff, though. Like the oysters.” She fought down a shudder Garrett knew was genuine.
“Bring it on, baby. The grosser, the better.” Stacey walked back out, spinning his car keys around his finger. “Okay, I’ll deal with the marinade prep when I get back, you two start getting the pig stomachs rigged, and we’ll film the sexy eating … Wednesday?”
“Or whenever.” Cory shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like we need a lot of prep and coordination to put the two of us in chairs, hook us up to EKGs, and make Garrett feed us the world’s weirdest buffet lunch.”
“Sweet!” Stacey tossed them both a quick wave and disappeared out the back door to the parking lot; warm California sunshine flooded into the hallway for a moment, then disappeared as he closed the door behind him. Garrett waited a beat, just to make sure Stacey wasn’t about to double back to collect something he’d forgotten, then folded his hands atop the table and let his forehead drop to meet them.
After a moment, he felt Cory’s hands on his shoulders, reassuring and strong. “Just … do it and get it over with. Like ripping off a Band-aid.”
Before he could tell her that he’d always been the kind of kid to take his Band-aids off one tender hair at a time, Aaron and Jules walked in, arguing merrily all the way, apparently having finished their intro spot with similar efficiency. “Hey, guys,” Aaron greeted them with his perpetual enthusiasm, pulling up a seat at the table. “G, can you help us wire up a remote driving rig for a combine harvester?”
Bless the man, Aaron always knew just what to say to cheer a guy up. “Sounds awesome,” said Garrett, and he meant it.
He wanted to claim that it didn’t count, since he’d been drunk off his ass at the time, but Cory’d had just as much as he had, and remembered everything to the letter.
It’d been one of their more injurious myths — after all, testing hangover cures meant you had to bring about a hangover in the first place — and since Stacey had destroyed his stomach for the previous week’s coffee myths, Garrett and Cory had taken on the task themselves. The cameras had hung around with them for the first couple shots, watching them get progressively more prone to giggle fits, then had left them both alone to the task of actually getting downright shit-faced.
So about the third hour of heavy drinking, when the building was silent and Cory’s husband Eric wasn’t due to pick them up for another hour, Garrett had reached the point of severe drunkenness where all bad things suddenly started to seem like great ideas, and before he could send for confirmation from the rational part of his brain, he opened his big mouth. “Hey, can I tell you a secret?” he asked, taking another shot of vodka and putting a check in the 10:30 box.
“Sure,” Cory said, doing the same thing for her shot of whiskey. She leaned back against the shop cot — they’d both decided earlier that actually sitting anywhere but the floor meant too far to fall, but it was still a good backrest — and shut her eyes. “Going to own up to being the one who put the plastic spiders in my welder’s mask?”
“No,” said Garrett, not because he hadn’t been the one who’d done it, but because he wasn’t planning to confess. “It’s really big, though. Really big. And you can’t tell anyone, ever.”
With a decisive nod, Cory held her fist toward him, her pinky finger extended from it as though she were practicing her high-class tea-drinking, and Garrett hooked hers with his own. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Some little portion of his sanity had caught wind of his plans, and was screaming for him to change directions, make up some lie, tell her any deep dark secret except that one — but it was too late, and she had his pinky gripped in hers like a vise. “…I’m in love with Stacey,” he said, the words tumbling out over the top of each other, blurred around the edges by the ill-advised quantity of alcohol he’d consumed that evening.
Cory’s eyes went wide, and her raspberry-glossed lips fell open in an O of genuine hit-by-a-truck-ness. Garrett took advantage of her brief befuddlement to recapture his hand, and he pressed his cold, clammy fingers to his cheeks, which felt like they were made of plasma. The gap between thinking something and saying it was huge enough, but the gap between saying it and hearing the response could only be measured in light-years. He had long made a practice of keeping his private life private, not because he feared recrimination if any of his colleagues found out he was gay — the show was based out of San Francisco, for heaven’s sake, a quarter of the cars in the crew parking lot had some rainbow or another stuck proudly on them — but because he hated that distance, and hated anything like it that suggested his private life shouldn’t be private. Like a chemical reaction, once it was out there, there was no taking it back.
And in that moment, sitting there with his blood alcohol level well past the point of comfort and his beating heart practically exposed in his chest, Garrett realized why Cory was both the best girl ever created and the best friend on the planet: “Like … Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne love, or like Clark Kent and Lois Lane love?”
“Um … yes?” Garrett cracked a smile at her analogy, and the tension cracked with it, and when she laughed in return, it broke completely.
“Oh my God,” she said, slipping her fingers beneath Garrett’s and taking his face square in her curiously warm hands. “Oh my God, that is so sad!”
The next hour passed in something of a fog, though not foggy enough later for Garrett’s taste, despite the two subsequent consumed and catalogued shots for each of them. He couldn’t remember what he’d told her, precisely, only that it had been everything: from the day he’d met Stacey at the Automated Sound and Motion studios in LA, to the different movie franchises they’d wound up working on together, to Jules’ telling Garrett that Stacey’d been the one who’d recommended him to be on the show, to every workday of the past three television seasons of his adult life — every little ridiculous detail about how he had spent the last eight years falling hopelessly in love with that crazy tall Italian boy with the ill-kempt goatee and chemicals tattooed on his hips.
Throughout it all, Cory had listened with eternal patience and increased agitation, moving from her initial declaration of how sad the situation was on into serious drunken emotional distress at everything from the unfairness of the world to how brave Garrett had been to carry his torch in silence all that time, with a sidebar into, “You know, though, no offense, but if you’d asked me which one of you I thought was gay, I’d’ve pick the guy who practices routine manscaping, and not the one who still cuts his hair like he did in his seventh grade yearbook photo.” Garrett had punched her in the arm for that one, but it had been a loving strike, and she’d hit back twice as hard, so everything was okay.
A little past 11:30, Eric had shown up in the door to the nap room, as shy and unassuming as he ever was, stopping Garrett cold in the middle of telling her the intimate details of what a disaster it had been the last time he and Stacey had both been forced to squeeze into wetsuits. “Your designated driver has arrived,” he greeted both of them, jingling his car keys in their general direction.
“Hi, sweetheart.” Cory waved to him, her limbs moving like underwater spaghetti. “Give us five minutes, and then I want to go home like woah and you can pour me into bed.”
“Take your time,” Eric smiled. “I’m going to go steal Aaron’s ice cream.”
Garrett’s eyes widened, impressed by the show of cunning before him. “Wow, he will … totally never suspect you.”
“I know, right?” With a grin impressively evil for such a normal-looking face, Eric turned and wandered off into the direction of the break room.
Cory waited until his footsteps had subsided, then lifted her arm at Garrett almost as though she were challenging him to an arm-wrestling competition, only her pinky was sticking out tea-style again. “You’ve got to tell him. You cannot go on like this.”
Garrett was glad then for their decision to relocate to the floor, because if they’d been sitting on the bed then, he would have felt obligated to fall off it for emphasis. “Are you crazy? He’s with Cherise!”
“And how many times has she dumped his skinny butt since they first got together?” Cory sighed, shaking her crooked pinky in Garrett’s face. “Okay, fine, I won’t make you a homewrecker. But the next time Cherise breaks up with him, you’re telling him how you feel. You’ll never be able to move on with your life if you don’t.”
With the kind of amenability that came only with being very drunk, Garrett locked his pinky with hers. “Fine, fine. Next time she breaks up with him, I’ll … no, I can’t just tell him, I’d say, ‘I love you’, and he’d just say, ‘Aww, I love you too, little buddy,'” Garrett said, affecting Stacey’s nasal Southern California cadence and sending Cory into a fit of drunken giggles with it.
“Well,” Cory said, staring him down with a twinkle in her eye, “that means we need a plan.”
The core of the plan wasn’t difficult: tell Stacey. However, like nearly everything else around the T5 workshop, the trick was in the transition from concept to execution.
At that week’s planning session, Garrett had volunteered to head up the gum dissolution myth precisely because it was a long process that would require minimal attention while it was going on, claiming quite truthfully that doing so would leave him time for the other projects he had to do — like RCing large farm machinery. No one had questioned his stated allocation of his time, of course, since multiple builds were always underway in the shop, and nearly everything electronic passed across Garrett’s station at least once, making his skills varied and valued. He then spent the next two days hoping that no one who approached his little circuitry-heavy corner of the workshop asked him what refitting Dr. Deathstrike had to do with combine harvesters or artificial digestive systems.
The problem, Cory had proposed, was not that Stacey would be unaccustomed to a declaration of affection, but that despite his continued catastrophic luck with relationships, he was too accustomed to them. Two minutes of reading the fan boards on the official TruthCrashers website — not, of course, that Garrett ever spent too much time doing such a thing, but sometimes he his vanity got the better of his pride — revealed countless declarations of fannish affection specifically directed at him, ranging from the mild he’s-the-best! declarations of favouritism to the slightly terrifying I-want-to-have-his-babies! stalkerish comments that were more than a bit troubling. Of course he wouldn’t consciously be dismissive of anything his best friend might have to say on the matter, Cory assured him, but he might still have built up a tolerance to more mundane love confessions.
And besides, if something was worth doing — at least by Garrett Nawata’s standards — it was worth doing with robots.
With a tiny pair of wire cutters, he snipped the loose ends of the last few connections and snapped the body shut. He hadn’t cannibalized too much from Dr. Deathstrike — not even the purest of all true loves could have convinced him to disassemble his baby — but he had borrowed its basic combat frame and fit it on top of what had once been the drive system of a cheap RC car. There wasn’t much to the little bot, and it definitely wasn’t much to look at, but with any luck, the real show-stopper would be the pyrotechnics contained within.
He placed it on the shop floor and ran it a few times around his legs, just to confirm that the controls were properly responsive, then sent it zooming to the far end of the room and back, making sure that it wouldn’t fall out of range at a critical moment. But it performed just as expected, zooming to and fro at the slightest tap of a joystick. Garrett knew that robots didn’t really have personalities, but with the way this one zipped and spun across the cement floor, it was hard not to think of it as somehow inherently friendly. Besides, at this stage of the game, he needed all the friends he could get, even if they were imaginary.
The only way he had made it through the solitary build had been to spend every minute of the task not thinking about the bot’s overall purpose, and instead distancing himself from it by imagining the whole thing as a series of unrelated steps: build a wheeled RC robot; design a robot with a chassis that could open to launch objects; arrange pyrotechnics in distinct heart-shaped patterns; create a remote launch for a small fireworks display. Each individual step was non-threatening, and as long as he kept his mind off the larger objective, he could push himself closer to it, inch by robotic inch. He’d actually felt a small degree of surprise when he first saw the parts fully assembled, as though he’d managed to create it right under his own nose.
But now it was finished, tested, and ready to go, and the only thing left to do was try it before he lost his nerve. “You good for this?” Garrett asked, and made the little bot pop a wheelie underneath the circular saw table, pretending that meant ‘you bet!’ in robot body language.
T5’s main parking lot was inaccurately named, because nobody actually parked anything there that wasn’t of immediate use to production- or experiment-related activities. Instead, it served as their own small-scale ammunition and demolition grounds, the perfect venue for anything that didn’t require a full field trip to the local bomb range or quarry, but which would still cause Jules to yell at them if they tried indoors. Cory and Stacey were already out there when Garrett emerged from the workshop, RC controller tucked into the back pocket of his jeans.
Perched atop a high barstool, with her parasol protecting her fair skin from the midday sun, Cory waved. “Want to come take some shots?” she asked, indicating the setup before her. At the far end of the lot stood an elaborate camera setup, an eye-level platform, one whole watermelon, and the carnage of several others scattered around it. “Just to give Aaron’s new high-speed some calibration material.”
“This, I think, may be my new favourite thing.” With a look of fierce concentration, Stacey let go of the bowstring, sending a pink-painted arrow flying from his compound bow straight into the heart of the melon, which cracked and broke open on impact, scattering its guts everywhere.
“Just out for some fresh air,” Garrett shrugged, trying to sound cool even as he fisted his hands in his pockets, feeling sweat pool in the crevices of his palms. He gave the parking lot a quick sweep, but aside from the high-speed and Jules’ ever-vigilant security system, there were no cameras or camera crew to be seen. Cory had been right as always about needing to impress, but she had grossly underestimated the problem of simultaneously doing something spectacular and having it not caught on film by the army of lenses that always seemed to be lurking in every corner of the shop. This, he figured, was about as good as it’d get.
He’d sort of accepted Cory’s presence at the upcoming confession as an inevitability, and had even come to embrace the idea as a show of emotional support, but was pleased anyway when she hopped off her stool and folded her parasol. “I think there’s some old tomatoes in the fridge we can kill,” she said, tossing Garrett a quick approving wink before wandering back toward the shop. “I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”
Out of targets for the time being, Stacey put down his bow and tightened the straps on the leather arm guard around his left forearm, and Garrett felt his breath catch. Stacey under regular circumstances was mind-blowingly attractive enough, but Stacey armed, with his fingerless leather gloves and his polarized sunglasses and his biceps sturdy beneath the nearly-absent sleeves of his cutoff shirt — well, that was just cheating. “Feels like I haven’t seen you in a couple days,” Stacey grinned at him, drawing his left hand into a fist to test the brace’s fit. “How’s life in robotopia?”
“Pretty good, pretty good.” Garrett swallowed, willing himself not to turn chicken at just the wrong moment. Cory was right about many things, among them being how hiding his feelings for Stacey wasn’t doing him any good at all. It had been one thing, nursing a serious crush back when they’d been casual friends and infrequent colleagues; three years (or, really, three minutes) of working on the show together had changed them from good friends to best friends, and though Garrett had never really had someone he’d considered a best friend before Stacey, he figured that semi-frequent panic attacks weren’t supposed to be part of that kind of relationship. “Actually, I … made you something.”
Stacey’s entire face changed: gone was the serious archer’s smirk, and in its place was the uncontainable smile of a six-year-old let downstairs on Christmas morning. “Did you make me my robot? My very own robot?” He bounced on the balls of his feet.
“Yeah, um, well … sort of?” Garrett got the controller out of his back pocket and pointed over to a spot near the workshop door. “Can you go stand over there a minute?” The sun was high, but the building across the lot had an overhang that cast a long shadow, and Garrett figured that would be the closest to darkness he’d approach in the middle of the day — and the farthest he’d get from any dry, flammable summer grass.
Stacey hopped more than walked over to the indicated area, folding his bare arms across his chest and giving Garrett that big, silly grin of his. “Seriously? I sort of thought you’d forgotten I’d asked for one.”
“Would I forget something like that?” With all the courage of the leap from the lion’s head, Garrett nudged his thumb forward and brought the little bot whirring out from the workshop.
For a moment, everything was perfect: the sky was blue, a few puffy clouds rolled by on the light breeze, only the bare minimum of cameras rolled, the robot wheeled merrily along out onto the asphalt, Stacey looked down with surprised delight at the little machine zipping on past his feet, and Garrett truly believed that everything might finally be okay. And then the bot’s wheel dipped into a tiny irregularity in the pavement, and the whole thing exploded.
“Woah!” Stacey shouted, jumping away fast but not fast enough; tiny shrapnel from the love-declaring fireworks landed on the blue canvas of his sneakers, and any appreciation he might have had for the artfulness of the blast was overwhelmed by the desire not to have his feet catch on fire. He stamped at his own shoes, but the fanning just made the blaze worse, and the flames migrated to his shoelaces.
Despite knowing he needed to move, Garrett stood riveted to the pavement for what felt like an eternity, trying to dig his emotions out from beneath the ton of bricks that had just dropped on him. Not only had nothing he’d psyched himself up to face actually wound up happening, but he had made the situation worse by an order of unrelated magnitude. He was not only a scientist, he was a TruthCrasher, and his job was to predict worst-case scenarios — and yet he’d only ever imagined this whole love confession thing would blow up in his face figuratively, not literally.
What remained most important, though, was that Stacey’s shoes were on fire, and that, at least, cut through his haze of emotions long enough to send him sprinting back to the shop door. Right inside, at the level where one might expect to find a lightswitch, Garrett’s hand found the nearest fire extinguisher, and he aimed it like a gun first at Stacey’s flaming feet, then at the remnants of the bot. Within seconds, clouds of carbon dioxide had done their job, and the crisis was over.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Garrett heard as the hiss of the fire extinguisher died down, and it took him a moment to recognize his own voice. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, man, it seriously wasn’t supposed to do that.” With trembling hands, he gripped the cold, empty canister and surveyed the damage — there was some charring on the shoelaces and bits of the plastic soles looked like they’d seen better days, but there was nothing to indicate anything flesh had been injured. “I … I mean … this hasn’t happened to me in a really long time.”
To Garrett’s surprise and relief, once the fire was out, Stacey was fine again — still breathing heavily and looking a little spooked, but otherwise nearly normal. “What was it supposed to do?” he asked, staring at the sad little pile of remains.
Whatever courage Garrett had been shoring up was as dead and cold as the fires on Stacey’s shoes. “…Dance,” he said lamely.
“Oh.” Stacey ran his fingers through his hair, combing it into spikey rows. “That’s cool, you know. Dancing robot. I like it.”
“I’ll make another one.” Gingerly, Garrett toed the wreckage with the tip of his own work boot, but the CO2 hadn’t left so much as a lingering spark. Forget making relationships awkward, his crush on Stacey had reduced him to making freshman-year engineering errors. “…I’m really sorry, argh, I can’t believe this.”
“Dude, it’s cool. They’re, like, my two-buck Keds. I’ve got a spare pair in my locker.” Stacey lifted his left foot, which had been closer to the blast, and little tendrils of white plastic hung on to the concrete.
“No, I mean … it was your robot.” Garrett hugged the emptied extinguisher to his chest, smiling a little to cover how much he felt like the robot looked.
Stacey clapped Garrett on the shoulder, then did his usual end-of-handshake hair ruffle. “I’ll be patient for Mark II!” He gave Garrett one last reassuring no-hard-feelings smile, then padded off in the direction Cory had disappeared earlier, leaving Garrett alone with remnants of what had looked to be such a promising day. Feeling heavy-hearted and more than a little sick to his stomach, he solemnly gathered up the brave little robot’s remains and cradled them in his shirt all the way back inside.
“Here’s how it goes,” Cory told the camera, gesturing to the food-laden table in front of her. Behind her, and still in-frame, Garrett tied on a white apron with more comic aplomb than he was actually feeling. “I’ve got ten foods here that are supposed to be aphrodisiacs — that means that they can allegedly by themselves, and without help from any other stimuli, make you feel, well, a little more sexy.”
Mike shot her the thumbs-up and wheeled the camera horizontally six feet or so, to where Stacey stood in front of a blackboard, holding a pair of chopsticks like a pointer. “How are we going to test this?” he asked rhetorically, tapping the sexless human outline Cory had sketched. “Well, whenever your brain detects what we’ll call interesting stimuli, it sends messages to your body saying: get ready for action. So instead of just asking — which is a little too subjective — we’re going to be measuring these physiological changes. …At least, the ones we can show on television.”
“And … to voiceover. Great, cut, and we’ll scatter.” Mike nodded to the crew, and everyone began to disassemble into their less formal poses, moving from their oddly staged segment-filming tableau into what Garrett thought of as ‘stalker mode’. While he understood that one of the perils of filming a documentary-style television show was the ubiquitous cameras and booms, it was still hard to act naturally when your life was in constant peril of being shown on television. Still wearing his white apron, Garrett walked over to the experiment’s focal point — the dentist’s-chair-turned-dining-experience — and flipped on a few of the machines.
No sooner had he gotten the EKG going than Stacey walked up behind him, stripped off his long-sleeved t-shirt, and flopped back in the chair, while Garrett cursed quietly the universe’s capacity for cruelty. “Stick ’em on,” he winked at Alice, the set’s EMT, rubbing his slightly furred chest. “It feels so good when you rip ’em off.”
“Keep that up and I’m going to make her use more than necessary,” Garrett threatened as Alice attached a piece of tape behind one of the electrodes. “You remember what happened the last time we duct-taped your head, don’t we?”
Stacey stroked his goatee protectively. “Yeah, but the high-speed was awesome.”
Garrett shook his head and smiled as Alice hooked Stacey up with expert precision. “The sacrifices we make for science.”
“You know it, baby.” Stacey lifted his hand for a fist-bump, but Alice snatched it and clipped monitors to his fingers. “Oh, denied.”
“So, uh, can you explain what’s going on here?” Larry, the high-strung cameraman who had become Cory’s shadow for the moment, prompted gently; Larry looked like a linebacker and had at least a foot on Garrett, but still gave the impression that if you popped a balloon too near his head, he’d faint. Of all the crew, he was the least intrusve and thus Garrett’s favourite.
“Well, these electrodes and machines are going to help us test Stacey’s physioloigcal changes, like galvanic skin response, pupil dilation, heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, and … I think that covers it.” Cory tapped the cart of instruments. “We’re getting him hooked up to get a baseline, and then we’ll keep an eye on him to watch for reactions at three stages: when it’s in his mouth, when it’s been in his stomach a few minutes, and when he’s had a chance to digest and get it into his bloodstream.”
And then, Larry took the camera away from his eye and gave Stacey an openly curious once-over, then looked back to the less encumbered cast members and asked the obvious question: “So, uh, why aren’t you sticking these things below the belt?”
As though on cue, Jules wandered into the shop, toolbox and soldering iron in hand, and Cory flagged him over in range of the cameras. “So, Jules, did we ever get a word on whether or not we’ll be allowed to take the more, ahem, sensitive measurements?”
Jules somehow managed to convey a look of subtle disapproval without moving a single facial muscle — though, Garrett amended, that was also sort of his default expression. “I’m going to say no, and I’ll tell you why: one, that’s an awful lot of work to get into for something that we probably wouldn’t even be able to mention in the final edit; and two, if we do decide we need more sensitive data, you don’t want to see the machine we’d have to rig up for you.”
That won a hilarious grimace from Cory and a cheer of triumph from Stacey. “My peep is safe!” He stuck an accusatory finger nearly flush against Alice’s nose. “In your face, Alice! I know you’ve just been waiting to check out my tackle, you’re not fooling anyone with those pictures of your grandkids, but not today!”
Long accustomed to this kind of abuse, Alice rolled her eyes and affixed an ostensibly useless strip of tape to a furred patch just below Stacey’s navel, right next to the leftmost hydrogen atom in epinephrine, then walked off innocently. “I think you call that getting ‘owned’,” Garrett quipped, hoping as always that quick jokes would cover how much he at once did and did not want to think about the particulars of Stacey’s body.
It was Stacey’s turn to for a hilarious reaction as his eyes went wide. “That’ll just … grow out if I leave it on there long enough, right?”
“Good luck with that,” said Garrett, retreating quickly to the table of experiment-ready food — which, mercifully, was a move boring enough to earn him a few minutes of unfilmed peace. Breathing deeply, he busied himself re-arranging the items on the STACEY side of the table in the manner of a six-year-old trying to convince his mother he’d eaten all his vegetables. The close shave with the unexpected robot explosion had put him on edge — he’d been all prepared to take the plunge, to cowboy up and put his heart out on the table … and when it had all gone wrong, he’d been left blue-balled both emotionally and physically. If playing normal had been hard before, it was all but impossible now.
That was, of course, why he had another plan up his sleeve. But if he as going to have any chance of pulling it off, he’d have to learn to focus, and not to make stupid mistakes, like the miswired ignition system that had doomed his first attempt. (He’d put the burnt-out pieces in his special inbox, swearing on his honour as an electrical engineer that he’d rebuild it someday.) At least, he thought as he reached into a small cooler filled with ice, there wasn’t a lot of danger of setting something on fire with raw oysters.
By the time he returned to the experiment site, Stacey was relaxing — the tape still tacked to his belly — and Cory was talking to the cameras again. “Since we’re going to be monitoring both Stacey’s hands — and mine, a little later — for skin response and temperature changes, we’re going to have Garrett feed us bits of whatever it is we’re testing, and then we’ll sit thirty minutes to see if anything changes.”
“Okay, this is the Stacey’s first test: five raw oysters.” Garrett showed the plate to the camera so it could get a good shot, then speared the first three squishy grey bodies with a long, thin fork. “Open wide, Anastacio.”
Obediently, Stacey let his jaw drop and even said ahhhh, and Garrett stuck the fork between his teeth.
The first sign that all was not right came almost as soon as Stacey’s lips closed around the oysters and he got his first taste; he grimaced and turned away, the colour already beginning to slip from his face. “You’ve got to chew them!” Cory commanded, shaking a wooden prop spoon in his face. “No fake-chewing and swallowing, that doesn’t count.”
Though his expression was alrady giving Garrett’s notoriously tender stomach sympathy nausea, Stacey gave the oysters a half-dozen good chews before swallowing hard. “Dude, that’s nasty.” He gripped the armrests of the chair and shuddered.
“You feel sexy yet?” asked Garrett, skewering the last two oysters.
“More like queasy,” admitted Stacey, but he opened his mouth again, the eternal glutton for punishment. Sometimes Garrett wondered if it was in fact possible to propose something scientifically valid yet so stupidly dangerous that Stacey would refuse the challenge. Of course, considering that this was the guy who sometimes got writing staff members to taze him recreationally, the answer was probably no.
Peering at the monitors over Alice’s shoulder, Cory pointed at the line monitoring Stacey’s heart rate, which had increased. “Okay, that’s definitely a response, but I wouldn’t say it looks like arousal. …I can tell you right now, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so glad to be a vegetarian before this moment.”
Stacey sighed and closed his eyes, breathing deeply; little beads of sweat were breaking out across his forehead, and Garrett didn’t think the lights were to blame. “Nobody warned me they were going to be all salty and slimy.”
“Oh, you’ve never had them before?” Cory perked, and Garrett could see that wicked little edge creep back into her smile — but the problem was that once you could see it, it was too late to stop it. “Because I read this book on food and it said that you have to eat raw oysters so fresh that they’re still alive, so when you swallow them, their little hearts are actually still beating–”
That was all it took: Stacey heaved forward, gagging, pulling the electrodes loose in an attempt to get his hands up over his mouth. Fortunately, Alice had been with the team long enough not only to know how to put up with the TruthCrashers’ bullshit, but to recognize the split second before one of them was about to vomit; she had the blue barf bucket up and on his lap in a flash, and none of the regurgitated oysters landed anywhere but inside. Stacey had skipped breakfast for the experiment, meaning there wasn’t much to come back up, but Garrett still had to look away and think about anything else to keep from contributing his turkey wrap to the effort. And then it was over and Stacey brought his forehead to rest on the lip of the bucket, looking miserable and yet relieved.
“You know,” said Garrett, glancing at Stacey out of the corner of his eye but clearly addressing Cory, “you sabotaged your own experiment.”
Holding her fingers politely under her nose to block out the smell of vomit, Cory mimed tapping out a carrot, Bugs Bunny-style. “Ain’t I a stinker?”
Alice gently eased Stacey back in the chair and draped a wet towel over his eyes, and the camera crew hovered close, never missing a chance to record every second of Stacey’s stripped dignity. Well, at least the producers rarely got mad at them for forcing back the filming schedule with bodily fluids, given that they often made better television than the experiments themselves. “…So, oysters busted?” asked Garrett, staring at the empty plate in his hands.
“I’m thinking, if you’re trying to sex up Stacey Guerrazzi?” Cory gave Stacey’s hand a pat. “Oysters are totally busted.”
Surrounded by sound equipment that prevented him from any more pertinent commentary about how relevant this information had become to his life of late, Garrett just gave a sage nod and ducked off-camera before things could get incriminating.
eight years ago
The worst part about blockbuster projects was how they expected everyone to do all work on-site without actually giving everyone enough room to do all work on-site, which meant Garrett wasn’t using the corner workbench so much as laying siege to it, leaving all his circuitry-in-progress around in the most dangerous configurations he could manage and hoping that no one was foolhardy enough to move anything. The good news was that today, most of the other crew had cleared out of the workspace, finally leaving Garrett a reasonably quiet space in which to work; the bad news was that the reason they’d cleared out had to do with a malfunctioning ventilation system and ninety-degree midsummer heat, meaning that the price for comfortable working conditions was a sweat-soaked black t-shirt. Mopping at his forehead with a bandana, he cursed the day he’d ever let Jules Butler talk him into anything.
At least the heat had been worth it; the little bot on the floor was finally doing something other than spinning in a circle every time he hit reverse, which he considered progress. If anything, the second- worst part about blockbuster projects was how a multi-million-dollar budget plus countless diva producers equaled an army of people who insisted they knew better than Garrett how Garrett should build things. He’d grudgingly become accustomed to the two-stage Hollywood build: the first time the way they wanted it, the second time the way it actually worked.
Fortunately, this second draft fixed the to-specification errors of the first, and the little bot obediently puttered headlong toward the far wall, stopped short, and beat an identical retreat path. Well, that solved the directional problem, but it still needed to perform at speed; Garrett pulled it back into a starting position near his feet and sent it zooming along the same trajectory. It made the same run, stopped on cue, and headed back.
But before it could return to its starting position, it ran smack into the workboots of the most attractive man Garrett had ever met. He was tall and skinny, with the kind of scruffy bedhead and goatee that probably took hours to give the impression they hadn’t taken any time at all, wearing a long-sleeved henley and tattered painter’s jeans even in the heat, and before Garrett could say anything to convey precisely how much he wanted the ground to open him up and swallow him whole, the guy looked down at his feet and grinned. “Hey, sorry, little guy,” he said, and Garrett was working through his feelings on having his short stature pointed out by someone he hadn’t even met yet when he realized that the handsome man was talking to the robot.
It was that precise moment that Garrett fell head-over-heels, irrevocably in love with Stacey Guerrazzi.
Any further attempts from Garrett to apologize were deflected by Stacey’s childlike curiosity and the high-energy deluge of his questions: What was the bot supposed to do? What scenes was it going to be in? What kind of alloy was he using for the body? Did the robotics guys have to do two versions of everything too? And finally, the kicker: “You know what would be awesome?”
“What?” asked Garrett, who had spent fully half the conversation reminding himself not to stare too openly at Stacey’s mouth.
Stacey gave the robot another grin. “If we could rig it for remote detonation.”
Suddenly, Garrett understood so much more about Stacey, like why what he’d thought at first were dark paint stains on Stacey’s clothes actually looked more like scorch marks, and why he talked like a man running from a lit fuse. Garrett had nothing against pyrotechnicians, in general or in particular, but he’d also built a healthy wariness of their particular brand of mania, and had managed thus far to steer clear of anything scheduled to blow up or catch on fire. He opened his mouth to politely decline and was thus somewhat surprised when he heard himself say, “…That would be easy. I could set that up in like, a day.”
Any misgivings he might have had about trusting one of his babies to a man professionally trained to ignite things flew right out the window as Stacey clapped his paw-like hand on Garrett’s shoulder and laughed. “Lunchtime tomorrow?”
He’d joked before about spending the night at the office, but Garrett had never actually done it before that night, cat-napping with his head on the bench while the glue dried and hoping that anyone else who saw him would figure either that he was working very late or that he’d come in very early. The rig was as easy as advertised, but making it removable so he could turn the bot over to the director when necessary proved the trickier challenge, and when he realized that he couldn’t both complete the rig and make it to his apartment for a good night’s sleep and shower, going home easily lost the battle. As luck would have it, he’d forgotten to get one of the clean bags from his car after his last trip to the laundromat, so at least he could meet the day with fresh socks and underwear, and hope that he just came off as the kind of boring guy who owned fifty of the same plain black t-shirt, which was not untrue.
“It’s just a guy friend thing,” he very firmly told his 6AM reflection in the bathroom mirror as he ran his water-soaked fingers through his black hair, trying to get it to do something other than make him look like he was ten years old. “Being nervous about it is stupid.” His droopy-eyed reflection, however, looked unconvinced.
Ten minutes past noon, Stacey poked his head into the workshop, and Garrett quickly dropped his head, trying to pretend like he hadn’t spent the past hour staring at the door, holding his breath, and wondering what Stacey considered ‘lunchtime’. He actually let Stacey cross half the sweltering, still-empty room before pretending to notice his footsteps for the first time and turning around. “Oh, hi,” he said, hoping the truly staggering amount of coffee he’d consumed in the past twenty-four hours covered what had been a mostly sleepless night. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“How’d it work out?” asked Stacey, shoving his hands in his pockets. Today he was wearing a slightly less singed long-sleeved t-shirt with a skateboard company logo on the front, and both his bedhead and his goatee looked precisely as they had the day before, confirming Garrett’s suspicions about how deliberate the effect was.
“Oh, this?” Garrett lifted the remote rig he’d spent all night rigging, checking, double-checking, triple-checking, and checking again just to make sure. “Yeah, I think it may work.”
Stacey’s smile spread a mile wide. “Sweet! Man, this is going to kick ass, come on.” He picked up the little bot gently, almost in the way one would cradle a baby, and headed for the nearest exit, leaving Garrett to follow behind and keep his eyes planted as firmly above the belt as his self-control would allow.
Out in the parking lot, Stacey headed over to the far end, toward a large red pickup that looked like it’d seen better decades; in its bed, tied down by bright yellow ropes, was something that looked like a shiny silver keg. Garrett lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, just to make sure, but there was no mistaking that shape. “Does this involve wasting … beer?” Garrett said, declining to specify ‘good’.
“Nah, it’s empty.” Once they’d arrived on flat ground, Stacey set the little bot down and hopped into the bed of the pickup to untie the keg. “I’m totally going to eat the deposite for this, though.”
“I’ll go halves with you,” Garrett offered, worried at any sign of reluctance in Stacey’s voice.
“You just drive the burning robot guy. Oh, and carry this.” He handed down a red plastic gasoline can, and Garrett very manfully did not stagger under the unexpected weight.
The studio compound was its own little city, but the workshop was at its far perimeter, right where the place bordered up against miles of empty California desert. Stacey hoisted the keg under his arm with little difficulty and set out into the empty wilderness, leaving Garrett to follow with the remote in one hand and gasoline in the other; the little bot whirred on obediently by his feet, unaware of the destruction it was about to cause. Garrett was oddly glad for the oppressive mid-day heat, because it meant that all the sweat pouring off him made him look just like a normal heat-sensitive human being, and not the nervous wreck he was.
Fortunately, the heavy gasoline and difficulty of negotiating the bot around the scrub brush meant Garrett was too distracted to let his nerves eat at him much, and just as he was starting to wonder if they were planning on walking to Arizona for this, Stacey stopped and set the keg down. “Great,” he said, looking around at the empty expanse; there were several blackened trees and scorched patches of ground nearby, and Garrett figured this wouldn’t be the first item to meet its fiery death out here. “The flammables, if you please.” He held his hand out for the gas can.
Garrett handed it over, happy to be rid of the weight, and Stacey unscrewed the top and started pouring it right in. “Are we going to get in trouble for this?” Garrett asked, vaguely surprised that the possibility hadn’t occurred to him before now.
Stacey shrugged, but looked unconcerned. “Nobody’s scheduled to be out here. And it’s not really going to be an explosion, really.” The gas can empty, he turned the open keg on its side and fed in a length of fuse.
Peering over his shoulder, Garrett frowned. “If you’re going to use a fuse, why do you need the robot for ignition?”
If Garrett hadn’t already been absolutely smitten with the man, it would have happened the second Stacey looked back over his shoulder, still with that same handsome grin, and said, “Dude, everything’s cooler with robots.”
When he’d finished setting everything up, Stacey led Garrett back several yards to what he deemed a ‘safe spot’, and even though Garrett felt he would have been more comfortable at twice the distance, he wasn’t about to chicken out now. Instead, he extended the remote toward Stacey, pointing to the joystick. “Okay, here’s how it drives–”
“No way.” Stacey nudged the controller back toward him. “This is all you. Time to lose your boom virginity.”
For a moment, Garrett feared he might have contracted sudden-onset aphasia, rendering him for the rest of his life incapable of comprehending human speech. “…My what, now?”
“You know.” Stacey fisted his hands together, then lifted his fingers and pushed them apart. “Boom.”
Maybe it was all a dream and he was still asleep, face-down on his workbench, drooling onto a motherboard while his mind wandered off on this impossibly wonderful adventure. “Well,” he said, with the certainty of lucid dreaming that no action was consequential, “I guess I can’t ask if you’ll be gentle.”
Stacey winked at him and stretched his long arms above his head, revealing a plane of flat, furred belly with little tattooed lines peeking up from beneath the waistband of his jeans. “Baby, I like it rough.”
With shaking hands and pounding heart, Garrett sent the little bot rolling across the desert ground toward the end of the fuse; he willed himself steady just long enough to catch the fuse in the robot’s sparking arm, and nearly collapsed with relief when the cord sparked to life on the first try. He pressed the retreat button, and it hit a straight path backward toward the remote, nearly tipping over as it hit a rock, but making it back to Garrett’s feet just as the fuse sparked inside the nozzle of the keg.
For a moment, everything was quiet.
When the fireball came, there was no ramp-up, no warning shot, no zero to sixty in four seconds; there was no zero, only sixty in the form of a bright high plume that kissed the ground before rising like a tower into the clear blue sky. The heat hit him like a wall and he staggered back straight into Stacey, and it was a testament to the majesty of the burn that it was, for that moment, even more captivating than the feel of Stacey’s hands on his shoulders, holding him steady. It was immense, wide and tall, and made Garrett think of the movies he’d seen of the atom bomb tests, the high, slow mushrooms that burned like the sun, impossibly slow, like the work of some great god capable of setting the clouds alight: I am become death, destroyer of beverage containers.
He hadn’t even known the burn had made any noise until he noticed his hearing creeping back, a slow fade-in over heavy static, like dialing in a radio station, and only the feeling of being shaken convinced him that he should listen. “–left them in the cab!”
“…What?” asked Garrett, but Stacey was already bounding off toward his truck, his mile-long legs carrying him at jackrabbit speed. Confused, Garrett turned back to the fireball and let his awe fade long enough to follow the plume of fire not upwards, but sideways, as the wind carried the flames across the empty, already-scorched ground. At first, he couldn’t imagine what had caused Stacey such panic, but as a gust of wind parted the black smoke, he saw very clearly the complicated and entirely wooden skeleton of a six-story building — one of Jules’ builds — directly in the wind-guided path of the burn. And then he, too, was running toward Stacey, who was tearing back toward him with a bright red fire extinguisher under each arm.
In the end, it took surprisingly little effort to quiet the blaze; armed with chemical foam, Stacey took care of the lion’s share of things, and Garrett mopped up stray sparks with the CO2 extinguisher. Inside of a minute, the keg was blackened and distended but otherwise stilled, and Jules’ complicated, expensive structure was safe in the quiet distance. Once he was sure nothing was in danger of burning down either a movie set or the entire state of California, Garrett let his legs give way and sat down hard on the dirty ground, sweat-soaked and adrenaline-charged and exhausted and feeling on top of the world.
A shadow crossed his face, and Stacey appeared above him a moment later, wiping his hands off on his dirty jeans. “…Aww, dude,” he said, looking at the sleeves of his shirt, which were badly soot-blackened, “I hope my girlfriend doesn’t kill me for this, she gave it to me for my birthday.”
Garrett later considered going to a doctor to see if he’d suffered any permanent damage, some sort of whiplash, from going too quickly from the most romantic, wonderful moment of his life to utter, paralytic heartbreak.
That first twenty-four hours of their acquaintance had set the tone (at least as far as Garrett was concerned) for the next eight years of their relationship: cameraderie, lunacy, explosions, and all-too-frequent reminders of Stacey’s near-constant someone-else’s-boyfriend status. Of course, Stacey’s hips bore witness to a fair number of serious breakups — every one memorialized by a new molecular diagram inked permanently on his skin — but the problem, so far as Garrett was concerned, was that none of them took; Stacey was not the kind of man who tended to stay on the market for very long. It had been nearly two weeks since Cherise had given Stacey the latest in her long line of brush-offs, and by Garrett’s calculations, he had maybe that much time again before his window of opportunity was gone. There were few things in the world Stacey wouldn’t do, but cheat on his lover was near the top of the list.
So as much as he would have liked to give Stacey more time to recover after the oyster incident, he just couldn’t risk it. The night before the keg fire might have been the first night his love for Stacey Guerrazzi had made Garrett sleep in the workshop, but it definitely hadn’t been the last by a long shot, and as he lay down on Jules’ spare cot for a carefully timed forty-minute cat nap, he swore to himself that he had to make it work this time, because already at thirty-two he was getting too old for this.
The next thing he knew, sunlight came beaming into the room, landing directly across his eyes, and Jules let out a surprised little walrus cough. “Oh. Hello. Didn’t know you were in here.”
Garrett raked his hand through his hair by way of his entrire face. “…God, Jules, what time is it?”
“Seven thirty-two,” answered Jules, ever the eerie human atomic clock.
“Seven thir–” The numbers took a moment to filter through Garrett’s brain, but when they finally attached themselves to meaning, he sat bolt upright and promptly fell out of bed.
Jules cleared his throat, long accustomed to his co-workers’ occasional inexplicable habits; he had perfected the look that seemed to say, I’ll just be here whenever you decide to make sense again. “You okay down there?”
Righting himself, Garrett reached for his cell phone, cursing it for its failure to perform as an alarm clock — and found himself tapping a dead black screen. “Fine, fine. Just … stupid.”
“Well.” Jules nodded at this, and his moustache twitched a little. “If you’re up and want to help with the next stage of the combine harvester blueprint, we’re on in fifteen.”
“I….” Garrett sniffed his day-old shirt and made a face. “I will pass on account of not having showered since Wednesday, but thank you for the offer.”
“That’s fair,” said Jules, and he closed the door, leaving Garrett in total darkness.
By the time Garrett made it back out to the workshop, the place had already spun to life; production crew members wandered around setting up light and camera equipment, researchers walked by with their heads in blueprints, the actual employees of Jules’ model shop hauled their projects to areas that weren’t being filmed that day, and in the midst of it all, Stacey stood considering the half-finished contraption that sat impotently his workspace. With even four more hours of quiet, uninterrupted attention, it might have become something equal to the spectacle it was intended to create. But the universe was stupid and his cell phone battery was stupid and his life was stupid and everything was stupid, and now Stacey was standing it front of its incomplete corpse, eyeing a string of disconnected LED lights with some skepticism.
Garrett felt a little hand on his shoulder, and didn’t have to turn to know its owner. “I … fell asleep,” he said lamely, staring at the wreckage with a feeling of dismay so great he feared it might become audible, if not actually tangible.
“Oh, sweetheart.” Cory gave him a big hug from behind, wrapping her arms around his waist and putting her chin on his shoulder.
“I thought, maybe if I take a little nap, it’ll clear my head, and this time I maybe won’t make the kind of stupid mistake where something blows up.” Garrett took a deep breath, held it for a five-count, and found it didn’t make him feel any better. “Just forty minutes. Not even long enough to enter REM sleep.”
She gave him a tight squeeze and inclined her head toward Garrett’s creation, which Stacey was trying his best to work around, unaware that he had any more audience than he usually did. “…You were going to tell him you loved him with a Goldberg machine?”
“There was the thing,” Garrett pointed to a string at the left of the workbench, which rested loosely across the hands of a wind-up toy monkey, “and then it was going to … you know, imagine several steps in the middle, and … well, at the end, there was going to be some sparklers, and then the LEDs were going to say something profound and irresistable. Or, you know, just I LOVE YOU, STACEY, SINCERELY YOURS, GARRETT. I would even have been fine with that.”
Cory pointed toward a tiny scaffold toward the right of the machine, one of the few parts that had actually been wrestled into working order, even if it did look like a piece of miniature medieval scaffolding with two speakers dangling anachronistically off the side. “Is that my iPod?”
Garrett nodded a little, letting his shoulders slump. “I was going to ask first, but … mine doesn’t have that Savage Garden song on it.”
He chose to believe that the little snort Cory made was nothing more than an expression of pure sympathy, and that there was no element of mockery to it whatsoever.
A crash of badly weighted lighting equipment from behind them made Stacey’s head turn in their direction, and when he saw them standing there, he grinned and walked over, obviously not too badly put out by the mess in his workspace. “Morning, guys.”
“Morning.” Cory wiggled her fingers in a little wave before uncoupling herself from Garrett. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go save my iPod from the new lightweight sound system Garrett was building for you.”
Stacey’s grin widened as she walked off. “For me?”
Bless her heart, that girl knew how to talk not only her own way out of any disaster, but anyone else’s as well. “Yeah, I was, uh, trying to … make up for setting you on fire.” He scratched the back of his head, trying to look contrite instead of like a giant liar who was terrible at telling his best friend how he really felt about him.
“Oh, hey, you don’t have to do that.” Stacey draped his arm over Garrett’s shoulders, and they both watched as Cory constructed a stepladder of orange crates to reach her iPod’s high-altitude place of honour in the love machine that never was. “Okay, if you really have to do something to make it up to me, buy me tacos.” Garrett was fairly certain that the taco truck that parked around the corner did at least half its business from the ‘taco dates’ (Stacey’s terminology) the two of them went on nearly every other day.
Standing there, he was hit with the cold certainty that if he didn’t buck up and say something soon, this would be the rest of his life: two-man taco lunches that weren’t really dates at all, close physical contact that would never be anything more than a friendly bro-hug, the last eight years repeated endlessly. But Stacey was right here, right now, and it wouldn’t take anything just to turn to him and say it, out of the blue, right now, while he had the time and the courage, right now before his window of opportunity was gone and his pinky swear was violated and the pieces of his broken heart he’d held together for eight years finally crumbled to dust.
Yet the sight of the disaster before him stripped his confidence to the bone, leaving him feeling even more unimpressive than he’d been before he started. “…Sounds great.” He forced a smile and felt all the nerve he’d built up slip away.
“Well, we know corn and wheat dust are flammable,” Aaron said, rummaging through the bowl of popcorn on the table. “There are several well-documented incidents of sparkle– There are several well-documented intents of– Oh, for heaven’s sake.”
“For our next myth!” Cory looked straight into the camera and did her best voiceover-guy impression. “Does ordinary popcorn render Aaron Sweet incapable of speech? Find out after the break!”
Aaron bopped her on the head with a foam corncob one of the props people had left on the blueprint table and cleared his throat. “As I was saying, there are several well-documented incidents where a single spark has been enough to cause a real, honest-to-goodness explosion when it ignites something flammable that has gotten aerosolized.”
“That may be so,” Jules folded his arms across his chest, “but our tests show not only that a combine harvester does not kick up a significant amount of wheat dust, but that wheat dust doesn’t just hang around the machine after it’s stopped working — it settles almost immediately. If we’re going to get anything to ignite, the harvester’s got to be actively kicking up particles into the air.”
“It just so happens, we’re in luck — there’s a field actually only two miles away from here that’s lying fallow for the season, which means there’s nothing growing there, and the owner is a fan of the show, so she’s agreed to let us transplant some wheat, rev ‘er up, and see what we can do!”
Cory nodded. “And if we can’t get a reaction replicating the conditions of the myth, we’ve got to be ready to replicate the results. And you know what that means.”
Off-camera and halfway across the workspace, Stacey mimed another silent yet enthusiastic explosion with his hands, which made Garrett chuckle — no mean feat, considering he was currently sloshing his latex-covered hands in a bucket of pig stomachs. With the sequence done once, Mike gave the three TruthCrashers on camera a few notes before having them run it again, and Garrett tuned them out, concentrating on the task before him. “This is really disgusting,” he said, gagging a little.
“Too bad we can’t make Brad Roberts do this sort of stuff,” Stacey observed, nodding to the crumpled mannequin resting in his usual chair against the wall; Brad was useful for many high-impact tests, but lacked fine motor control. “Maybe you should build a pig-sorting robot.”
Garrett shook his head, then covered his mouth with his sleeve just so he could smell something other than intestines. “The definition of when you don’t need to build a robot is when it’d take longer to build the robot than just to do whatever the robot was supposed to do yourself.”
“It’d have lots of applications, though,” Stacey pointed out as he carefully lined up a pair of wood beams, marking off at intervals where the metal stomach clamps would have to go. “You know, for all those times you find yourself elbows-up in pig guts?”
“You know what would make this faster?” said Garrett, peering over the tops of his safety glasses. “If you would get on some gloves and pretend to be my pig-sorting robot.”
“Could I wear a tinfoil hat?” Stacey grinned.
“That doesn’t make you look like a robot; that makes you look like one of those guys who thinks the Warren Commission was a fake.” Taking a deep breath, Garrett lifted one of the stomachs from the bucket. It emerged intact, and he lay it down along a piece of plastic he’d stretched along the bench.
“Oh, now that makes me hungry.” Stacey came up from behind Garrett and put both his hands on Garrett’s back, damn the man and his weirdly touchy habits; he leaned forward over the carnage, pretending to take a big whiff. “Yeah, we can hold off on those other sexy foods, this is really where it’s at.”
Garrett lifted a bloody gloove toward Stacey’s face, and Stacey jumped back like one north magnet from another. “Keep that up and I’ll make some anonymous post to the fansite about sexy, sexy chitterlings.”
Stacey’s smile melted. “You wouldn’t.”
“Try me,” Garrett smirked, and Stacey stuck out his tongue at him, so Garrett stuck his out right back.
The second round of the aphrodisiac food testing showed evidence of having had a number of the first round’s kinks worked out, first and foremost being: someone had cooked the oysters. As Stacey’d told the camera as he’d shown off a plate of their deep-fried goodness, sure, it wasn’t precisely in the spirit of the myth, but neither was vomiting.
Another change was that Cory and Stacey’s digestion tests were now to be performed simultaneously, staggered at fifteen-minute intervals, which was both a concession to efficiency and a good way to make sure Cory didn’t get any more bright ideas about torturing Stacey for television. At the moment, however, she looked like torture might be the furthest thing for her mind as she reclined in her chair, her equipment-laded hands folded across her belly, smiling at nothing in particular. Of course, Garrett thought, if he’d spent the entire afternoon relaxing and eating almonds, honey, figs, basil, and chocolate, in that order, he’d probably be close to a state of bliss too. “Twelve minutes on the chocolate clock, and … no change,” he said, looking at the monitor, which hadn’t budged much in the two and a half hours since testing had started. “Looks like you’re zero for five.”
“Yeah, but they make me happy.” Cory wiggled her toes, which were encased in brightly striped toe-socks. “I don’t care what the equipment says — if you ply me with chocolate, I am infinitely more likely to go home and get into bed with you.”
Garrett smirked. “I’ll make sure your husband gets the memo.”
Cory cracked one eye open and stared down the nearest camera. “It’s got to be the good stuff, darling.”
“It’s true.” Garrett picked up the half-eaten Godiva bar, which had been covered with white paper and stamped with the show’s logo. “TruthCrashers brand chocolate is made with only the finest ingredients.”
“Hey, how come you get all the sweet stuff?” Stacey whined from his chair a few feet away. “I am totally calling shotgun on the rest of that chocolate when I get out of here.”
“You make it through this last one and it’s all yours.” Garrett walked over to the table by Stacey, which held the empty oyster plate, a banana peel, a hollowed-out avocado half, another plate with the remnants of a few roasted garlic cloves, and a full plate of freshly washed asparagus.
“Promises, promises.” Placated for the moment, however, Stacey settled again in his chair, leaning his head back and exposing his long, slender throat; he swallowed, and his adam’s apple bobbed beneath his stubbly skin. It would have taken a court order to make Garrett’s chin grow even as much of a beard as Stacey did between shaving in the morning and lunchtime. “So, you ready for the boom tomorrow?”
Garrett arched an eyebrow in Stacey’s general direction. “You’re already that sure they’ll need your skills to make it happen?”
Eyes still shut, Stacey smirked. “Hey, either way is fine by me. If the myth is just a myth, I’ll be blowing up a combine harvester. If it turns out to be true, I’ll be blowing up the smoldering remains of a combine harvester. As long as I get to see some giant fireball go blazing into the sky, I’m a happy camper.”
“You’re a weird camper,” Cory snorted. With a mock-surprised look on his face, Stacey made a set of sound effects that Garrett could only assume was meant to be the noise of an incoming insult’s bouncing off Stacey and returning to its source with an impact that sounded not unlike a quacking duck. Cory rolled her eyes. “You realize you’ve just made my case for me.”
At that precise moment, the kitchen timer on the equipment cart beside him signaled the end of his thirty-minute watch period, and Garrett stepped in before their kindergarten feud could get any less dignified. “All right,” he said in the half-narrative way conversations always became when the cameras were rolling, “banana looks pretty much the same as everything else — which is to say, no measurable change at all. It is officially not looking good for any of these foods when it comes to provoking arousal in any measurable physiological way, despite Cory’s feelings on the seductive potential of chocolate.”
“Yeah,” Stacey nodded, “as it stands right now, I’m pretty sure that just buying someone dinner is more important to the arrangement than what dinner you buy.”
“Unless it’s chocolate,” Cory amended.
“Unless it’s chocolate.” Stacey sat back up in the chair as Garrett came back toward him with three of the asparagus stalks. “All right, I feel the need to note for the record that I really hated asparagus as a kid, and while it’s grown on me since, I still don’t think it’s the best thing in the world.”
Garrett nodded. “Duly noted. All right, fifth test, asparagus, starting now.” He extended the first stalk to Stacey’s mouth, tip-first, unable to think of a better way to feed someone a piece of asparagus nearly half a foot long, and Stacey took the whole thing in, little bite by little bite. “Not too bad?”
“Not too bad,” Stacey agreed. Looking thoughtful, he chewed it thoroughly, then swallowed. Everything about being in love with Stacey was about knowing where not to look at the right times, and Garrett kept his eyes fixed anywhere but Stacey’s lips until the first piece was done and swallowed, then offered him the second, which met the same fate. “Man, after all this, nobody’d better be smelling my breath. …Or my pee.”
“How’s it going over there?” Apparently having resigned herself to the general inefficacy of her menu, Cory turned on her side in her chair, and Garrett nudged the equipment cart so she could see the screens better.
Stacey shrugged. “It’s sort of like what I imagine everything would taste like if I were a cow.”
Rolling her eyes, Cory chuckled. “A sexy cow?”
“Hey, hey, family television,” said Stacey, and he opened his mouth for the third stalk.
It was difficult to say what went wrong, precisely, because nothing was really wrong — just slightly miscalculated. The third stalk of asparagus had been cut a little farther toward the root than the others, and Garrett’s limited experience with cooking had taught him that the sort of woody part of the asparagus stem wasn’t the part you really wanted to eat, so he made the decision just to hold on to the end and pull it back before it reached Stacey’s mouth. He had not, however, managed to coordinate his own mouth with his hand, and by the time he had even begun to consider the possibility that this was a decision that needed to be made out loud, half the stalk had disappeared between Stacey’s teeth, and by the time he managed to get the air up from his lungs, he had become so concerned with thinking about the need to warn Stacey that he was going to draw his hand away that he forgot the part about drawing his hand away.
Stacey’s lips closed over half the first joint of Garrett’s right index finger, and his tongue flicked against the tip, sending shockwaves down Garrett’s nerves as clearly as if he’d stuck his finger against a live wire, overwhelming and paralytic all at once; for a microsecond that felt years long, he hung there, needing to pull his hand away but completely unable to move until his brain did a full assessment of what was going on and why all the blood in his body had suddenly been diverted below his belt. Through sheer force of will, he yanked his fingers back a fraction of an inch, and the uneaten asparagus tip dropped from his grasp, rolling down Stacey’s body and coming to rest on the shop floor.
He might even have gotten away with laughing it off, making some quick joke about Stacey’s latent cannibal tendencies and/or inability to distinguish between friend and food, had he not made the mistake in that moment of looking Stacey in the eye, and the expression he saw there hit like an aftershock. Stacey Guerrazzi had the most open, expressive face Garrett had ever seen, and what Garrett read there now was not disgust or amusement or even confusion, but something akin to a flicker of recognition, as though suddenly a critical piece of the world-puzzle had fallen into place. Their gazes fixed on one another, and suddenly there might have been no cameras or other people or even oxygen left in the world, just the two of them and the creeping terror welling up inside Garrett that it was all wrong, he was all wrong, and he’d finally busted up everything.
Of course, Cory was ever the exception to everything, and her laugh shattered the spell. “Hey, I think we got something!” she cried, and Garrett’s head jerked toward the monitors, all of which were registering significant changes in Stacey’s physiology. “Looks like the asparagus is a hit!”
“Yeah!” Garrett said, pushing as hard as he could to feign an enthusiasm that might cover how much that instant had knocked all the air from his lungs, while at the same time refusing to let his brain process just what in the hell a reaction like that might mean. “Looks, um, plausible?”
“Oh, look, he’s even blushing!” Cory laughed.
Garrett’s ensuing sense of horrified betrayal was so complete that it took him several full seconds to realize that she wasn’t talking about him at all; he permitted himself a half-glance back toward Stacey’s face, and sure enough, Stacey’s cheeks had taken on a serious red flush — one that only grew worse as Cory pointed it out. “I am not!” he insisted even as he tried to sink his face turtle-style down into his t-shirt. “It’s probably an … allergic reaction or something.”
Snickering, Cory sat back in her chair. “Sure. You sit there for the next half hour and we’ll make sure the paramedics watch that allergic reaction go.”
“You suck,” grumbled Stacey, one of his customary joking accusations — though this time Garrett heard a real edge hiding beneath any good humour.
“Well, that’s … great. Great science.” Garrett nodded, then looked at his fingertips. “You guys, uh, keep an eye on him, I’m going to go … wash my hands.” Without any further explanation, Garrett spun on his heel and made a beeline for the shop bathroom, locking the door tight behind him.
Alone at last, he turned the cold tap fully open and stuck his entire head beneath the stream, letting the numbing water hit the back of his head and fall down in streams onto his face. He was a scientist and an engineer, he was more than accustomed to dealing with huge data sets — and yet he absolutely could not process the information in front of him into any kind of plausible conclusion. Occam’s razor, of course, demanded the problem be cut down to its essential conclusion, but hey, fourteenth-century monks could be as full of shit as anyone else.
Try though he might, however, declaring the logical approach to be flawed didn’t erase either the memory of Stacey’s face or the way the tip of his finger still felt aflame. Icy trickles coursed down his cheeks toward his mouth, and when he parted his lips to breathe, water ran off them as though it had come first from inside his lungs.
He took the back way out of the shop, stopping only to grab a towel for his dripping hair and to let one of the sound guys know he was heading out to the hardware store and then home, but he’d be back first thing tomorrow. It felt cowardly, sure, but he physically could not force his feet to take him back into the main workshop; the experiment would take care of itself, and the convoluted medical equipment strapped to them meant Cory couldn’t come looking for him for at least another five minutes, and Stacey fifteen more than that, which was plenty of time to make his getaway. Snatching his keys and messenger bag from his locker, he escaped into the parking lot and didn’t exhale until he’d slammed the car door shut behind him.
While he hadn’t actually been planning to make a stop by the hardware store, once he’d spun the tale, he felt obligated not to make it a lie. All of their favourite specialty haunts, however, were inhabited by friendly staff who knew him on sight and always wanted to make conversation, and that was the last thing he wanted now. Instead, he set the navigator in his car to the largest, most generic chain home improvement megastore in the vicinity, which turned out to be a Home Depot ten miles in the opposite direction from his house. Focusing all his effort on driving, he managed to distract himself for the next twenty minutes before he turned into the parking lot and walked inside.
He’d always found something comforting about hardware stores, even the big generic kind, and how they were really just giant piece warehouses. Most stores sold things, but hardware stores sold mostly parts of things, little pipes and wires and sprockets of all sizes that weren’t any use to anyone — until someone came along who needed that precise thing, and every little piece that person needed became the most important little piece in the world. He wandered the aisles, fidgeting with the occasional item, letting his mind be consumed by thinking about the potential uses of each item, and though he spent so long making the rounds that no doubt two full shifts’ worth of aproned employees asked him if they could help him today, not one of them showed even a hint of hey aren’t you that guy from that show on their faces. Travelling with Aaron and Jules together gathered about as much attention as walking around with a giant marching band, and when he had Stacey and/or Cory along with him out in public, there was always at least one fan sighting or autograph request. But alone, he was just one more nerdy little Asian guy, and didn’t the Bay Area have more than its fair share of those?
About his third time through the gardening section — which was evidence of the true unproductive nature of this jaunt, since his apartment didn’t even have a potted plant, much less an actual yard — he felt the phone in his back pocket buzz, and when he pulled it out, there was a single text from Stacey: hey buddy i saved some of the chocolate for you
Alone among several terracotta pots big enough to hide inside, Garrett slumped against one of the metal shelves, staring at the screen on his phone so long that the power saver utility kicked in and everything went dark. With a brave sigh, he unlocked the screen and started tapping out a reply: Thanks. He paused, trying to think of the most neutral conversation topic possible, and settled on adding: See you for the big boom tomorrow?
After a small pause, barely long enough for Garrett to wander over to the bedding section, his phone buzzed with another message: wouldnt miss it for the world
Five minutes later, a young woman with a bright orange apron and a concerned look on her face tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he needed any help with his potting soil decisions. Not wanting to appear any more of a creepy hardware stalker than he no doubt already did, he politely declined assistance and headed for the door, somewhat surprised to see that the sky had gone from mid-afternoon blue to nearly dark while he’d wandered around. Well, it had been a good idea for killing some time, but it had made clear at last that his problems weren’t going to be solved by a hardware store.
On a whim, he fired up the navigation system in his car, clicked on Shopping, and at the screen to specify what kind of store he wanted, typed balls. This seemed to flummox the poor machine so badly, though, that he eventually just gave up and drove home.
The sky was majestic, blue and high and cloudless, and even the high grass in the field was perfectly still. Truly, it was a fine day for destruction.
Sadly, though, as was so often the case, the heavy machinery didn’t quite see things the same way. Aaron’s rig had powdered the air with plenty of aerosolized dry plant material in the right direction, but even though Garrett had stripped every wire on the combine harvester, nothing sparked and nothing lit. On a whim, he’d stripped nearly every wire on the RC driving rig too, just to cover as many of his bases as possible, but the great yellow beast whirred along, its rotating blades spinning unaware of the danger they should be in. Aaron had even gone back and rigged up two wires they knew would spark, placing them as close as he could to the path of the cloud … and still not so much as a flicker of ignition.
“Look,” Aaron said, facing down the producer slightly to the right of the camera, “these things can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and you’re just not going to pay that much for something that’s liable to blow up in your face! These modern machines are made at the end of a lot of rigorous testing and have high safety standards, and even though we have had proof of concept time and again that, yes, wheat dust and sawdust and things like that are totally and dangerously flammable under the right conditions, I’ve got to say … these just aren’t the right conditions. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve crashed this one. …And now it’s time to make it burn.”
From a few feet away, Stacey let out a mad cackle as he unwrapped a pack of blasting caps, and the camera swung around just in time to catch the tail end of his manic grin. Garrett allowed himself a moment’s indulgence of staring and smiling at him before turning back and busying himself with repairs and changes he didn’t really need to make to the driving rig. He though Stacey might be avoiding him, but he couldn’t be perfectly sure, because he had been avoiding both Stacey and Cory — and, honestly, anyone with whom he didn’t absolutely need to make contact — ever since he’d hitched a ride over to the bomb site with the sound guys, who, despite their collective title, were actually rather taciturn folk. Right now, he was less worried that someone would notice his feelings, and more worried that someone would notice he’d been awake half the previous night trying to work through those feelings, and failing miserably; he thought about asking Cory if she had any of her mad on-the-spot remedies for dark undereye circles, but decided against forcing himself through the explanation such a thing would required, and cursed not having a real TV job, with clever makeup done by people who knew what they were doing.
If Stacey was experiencing any residual weirdness from yesterday, though, it was impossible to tell from a distance. He looked maybe a touch hung over, but he always looked a touch hung over, and he’d been consuming energy drinks with alarming speed all morning, but that too was his normal state of affairs, especially right before a big boom. Mostly, though, he looked happy, even after he lost the rock-paper-scissors throw to Aaron about who was going to get to flip the switch on the explosives: happy with his job, with his life, with his general state of affairs, with his friends — definitely not the kind of guy who needed a (figurative, at least) bombshell dropped on him right now.
With a deep sigh, Garrett dropped his gaze back down to his work, fidgeting with a useless piece of wire. Maybe it was time to start thinking about how to make it up to Cory for breaking her pinky-swear. It wasn’t that he thought she’d be mad at him so much as … just disappointed. But at least her disappointment would be easier to live with than whatever telling Stacey would do to both their friendship and Stacey himself.
It wasn’t that he’d ever thought Stacey would yell, or be grossed out, or react violently; Stacey just wasn’t that kind of guy under any circumstances. But Garrett could see it, the look he knew Stacey would give him, the awkward and slightly patronizing smile, maybe even a shoulder pat, the spoken assurance of mutual affection followed by the crushing, “…Just not like that.” And Stacey would promise it wouldn’t change anything, but it would, creeping and cracking into everything else between them, like a slow-motion version of the single small hit that eventually causes the Death Star to explode. Whatever Cory could devise for him as punishment, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as that moment of final, fully informed rejection or the eventual destruction toward which it would lead.
He poked the pad of his thumb with the bare, sharp ends of a wire, and considered lying to Cory, telling her that he’d told Stacey and they’d had a calm, adult conversation about things and agreed never to speak of it again. The critical flaw in that plan, though, was that he’d crack the moment Cory pressed him on the matter, and even if he didn’t, her very next stop would be to confront a genuinely clueless Stacey about it.
Maybe he’d move to Zanzibar. He didn’t quite know where it was, but it sounded far away.
A mis-aimed boom mike startled him from his reverie as it skimmed the top of his head, and he looked up to find a large black camera in his face, perched on Larry the cameraman’s shoulder. “Doing anything interesting?” he asked. Unlike the other team members, who would rattle on for years at the slightest provocation, Garrett and Jules often had to be prodded into doing commentary.
Garrett shrugged and held up a few of the wires. “Just double-checking everything. About the last thing I want is for the RC rig to fail at the last moment and send that thing whirring somewhere it shouldn’t. This isn’t like the bomb range, with fences and barriers all over; if this thing goes out of control, it’ll be a long time before something stops it.”
“You sound like you’re more afraid of the harvester than of the high explosives.”
“Oh, definitely.” Garrett shrugged a little and smiled. “I’m absolutely more afraid of the carnage a runaway combine harvester could inflict than anything about blowing it sky-high. I trust Stacey.”
Larry resettled the camera on his shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I … I mean, I’ve been working with Stacey for years, off and on, and….” In the still air, under the camera’s all-seeing eye, Garrett began to sweat, and he put the wire back on the table before it slipped from his palms. “He’s exploded a lot of things a lot closer to my head than I probably should have been comfortable with, but every time, everything’s been okay. I know he comes off like a lunatic sometimes — well, okay, a lot of the time — but his first priority is making sure that everybody else is safe.”
Still looking skeptical, Larry panned over to the rig in the distance, where Aaron and Stacey were affixing the last bits of the high explosives to the harvester, on which they’d balanced several barrels of gasoline to make sure it had the appropriate fireball effect. “Still seems like a hell of a dangerous thing.”
“Oh, sure.” The boom mike was still recording, but with the camera turned away, even that was easy for Garrett to ignore. “This isn’t safe. If it were, we wouldn’t have to do all our ‘don’t try this at home’ disclaimers.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, watching as Stacey dropped the ten feet from the top of the harvester to the ground, landing in an easy roll and dusting off the knees of his pants. “But Stacey knows what he’s doing, he learned how to do it from some of the best in the business, and he’s been doing it for close to a decade. He’s crazy, but he’s not reckless. He’d chop off his own arm before he ever let himself be careless enough to get someone else hurt.”
“Careful or not, he’s got to be pretty brave to get that up close and personal with stuff that could go off at any minute,” Larry said.
“Yeah.” Garrett nodded as the team began to fall into places for the explosion pre-check. “He’s the bravest guy I know.”
“Hey, you’re up there with him a lot too, aren’t you?”
With a quiet smile, Garrett shook his head. “Yeah, but that doesn’t make me brave. I just trust him to tell me when it’s safe. …And when it’s okay to be scared,” he said, and suddenly he wasn’t talking about the upcoming explosion anymore. The boom mike might have picked up the catch in his voice, but there was no camera to see as his smile fell and his eyes fixed on Stacey, who had moved toward the far edge of the blast radius, to a point where his view of the explosion would be unobstructed by the camera crew. He stood there in the early afternoon sun, his long tanned arms folded across his chest, clear safety goggles resting on the bridge of his nose, wearing the quiet little unselfconscious smile he got when he thought no one was looking, his part completed, waiting for everything else to happen.
“Would you … excuse me,” Garrett told the crew, and he took off running around the perimeter of the shot, his feet kicking up clouds of plowed-over soil as he ran, gaining as much momentum as he could so that he couldn’t change his mind. Objects in motion would stay in motion, even if those objects realized their destination was probably a bad idea. It didn’t matter, though, so long as those objects could be brave and scared at the same time.
He put on the brakes barely ten feet behind Stacey, a quarter mile from any recording equipment, and took a deep breath. “I love you, okay?”
There was a long, horrible pause during which Stacey neither moved nor changed his expression, and Garrett was sure that everything he’d feared had finally come true, that everything had been misread and misunderstood, that he should just have kept his stupid stupid stupid mouth shut. Then Stacey glanced over his shoulder, and actually did a double-take to see Garrett there before reaching up to the sides of his head and pulling out two bright blue earplugs. “Did you say something?” he asked.
Well, it wasn’t like this would be the first experiment to need multiple attempts to get a result. “I love you,” Garrett said again, fisting his hands so hard his knuckles ached.
Stacey squinted, stepping in a little closer. “…Wait, what?”
Garrett did not take the opportunity to call Stacey the stupidest, deafest boy in the universe at that moment, though the temptation was nigh-overwhelming. “I love you. I’m in love with you.” And just in case that hadn’t gotten the message across, he added, “I’m in gay love with you.”
There was a flicker of obvious confusion across Stacey’s face, the look of a man starting to suspect his having missed a very important part of the preceding conversation. “For serious?” he asked, pulling his safety glasses from his face.
“Yeah.” Garrett nodded. His heart was pounding so loudly in his ears that he barely heard the repeated cries of fire in the hole! from the main encampment.
“I….” Stacey’s grin was gone and his eyes were wide, squinting at Garrett, starting to realize that the punchline he’d been waiting for wasn’t ever going to land. “I did not see that one coming.”
“I tried to, like, the robot, it was supposed to, and the fireworks in it, they were supposed to, and then that big thing I was building on your desk, it was maybe going to with music, but it didn’t work, none of it, so I’m just saying it: I love you.” Garrett took a deep breath to try and still his pounding heart, and repeated, “I love you,” just in case it’d gotten missed the several previous times.
“Wow,” said Stacey, his adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed hard. “I mean. …Wow. Uh. Good wow, though! Yeah.”
For a moment, Garrett considered that he might be the up-and-coming challenger for the deafest boy award. “…Good wow?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Good wow.” Stacey nodded, chewing on his lower lip between words. “I mean, still really wow, but.”
“So, you’re not … mad or freaked out or anything?”
Stacey shook his head so vigorously it was clear he meant it. “No, not mad, not at all, just … why didn’t you say something before?”
“You were dating Cherise.” Garrett shrugged, forcing his nervous hands into his pockets. “And you’re not now. So … I said something.”
There was some small commotion in the distance, the kind Garrett had come to associate with misbehaving camera equipment, but right now, it could have been happening on Mars for all he cared about anything in the world except the little smile starting to tug upward at the corners of Stacey’s mouth. “You’re really serious,” he said, having moved from startled into something resembling awestruck. “I mean … me?”
“You,” Garrett nodded. “For a long time. Since I met you. You.”
“Then … c’mere.” Stacey waved Garrett forward.
“C’mere?” Garrett blinked, and Stacey reached his long arm across the distance between them, grabbing the front of Garrett’s black shirt and pulling him close. “Oh,” he said as all the air rushed from his lungs. “C’mere.”
The six-inch height difference between them was much more pronounced this close up, and Garrett had to tilt his head upward. “If this is a big weird joke, now’d be a great time to point that out,” Stacey said, and Garrett could smell the edge of the gasoline on Stacey’s clothes as Stacey put a hand on his shoulder, not the kind of friend-pat out near where his arm began, but close enough to his neck that Garrett could feel the warmth of Stacey’s thumb against the bare skin of his throat.
“Really, really not joking,” Garrett said, willing himself not to throw up or faint or die or do anything else that might upset the most impossibly perfect moment of his entire life.
“Then prove it,” Stacey said with the kind of grin on his face that Garrett had wanted to kiss off every day for eight years, and Garrett took a deep breath and leaned forward and proved it.
He was dimly aware of a giant shockwave as their lips met, and the tiny fraction of his brain not occupied with kissing Stacey told him that he needed to turn his head a little to the right or he’d miss a really bitchin’ fireball, but that suggestion was completely overruled. Instead, he gripped Stacey’s shoulder hard and lifted up onto his toes to make sure their lips met as tightly as possible, and when he felt Stacey’s hand on his neck slip through his hair to cup the back of his neck, he barely managed not to tackle Stacey to the ground right then and there. It was impossible that it was happening, but it was happening, and as years of working on the show had taught him, sometimes it was damn good to be wrong.
As the roar of the explosion faded, only to be replaced by the high whines of incoming fire sirens, Stacey pulled back a little, glancing at the smouldering remains while still keeping his arms tight around Garrett. “Bet that was a good one,” he laughed, his voice wet and breathy.
“Sorry,” Garrett said, though he didn’t feel sorry in the slightest. “I kind of didn’t notice.”
“Eh.” Stacey shrugged, then grinned down at Garrett. “Totally worth it,” he said, and nearly knocked them both over as he bent down to kiss Garrett again. He stumbled forward and stomped on Garrett’s toes, and Garrett barely kept himself from spraining his ankle as he stepped backward in a hole, and then they were both laughing and holding one another and kissing, and suddenly, without any warning, Garrett’s life had become the best ever.
After a few moments, though, the encroaching siren sound was fairly pressing, and Stacey nodded in the direction of his truck, which he’d left parked under the only tree on the field, away from the other vehicles. “…Hey, I think I left something in the shop,” he said, reaching down to take Garrett’s hand in his. “Come back with me and get it?”
“How important?” Garrett frowned; he knew Stacey could sometimes be a little attention-challenged, but this was ridiculous.
Stacey sighed and squeezed Garrett’s hand. “Real important,” he said, and he winked. “Also, indoors.”
Whatever isolating effects sharing their first kiss might have had, that — plus a little glance from Stacey off in the distance behind Garrett, where the cleanup couldn’t have taken the entire crew’s attention — brought Garrett back with the crushing certainty that they were not alone. “…Do we have an audience?” he asked, clenching his free hand into a terrified fist.
“Not … I mean … well….” Stacey gave the commotion in the distance another glance. “I mean, not by network standards–”
“You know what?” Garrett took a deep breath and let it out in a snort of confidence. “I have decided to keep my back to them and thus pretend they don’t exist.”
“Then let’s go somewhere they’re not,” Stacey grinned, and Garrett let go of his hand but grabbed the hem of his t-shirt, holding that all the way to Stacey’s truck and not even watching where they were going, figuring that if Stacey managed to lose their way somewhere in the fifty yards between their vantage point and Stacey’s parking spot, well, at least they’d be lost together.
He’d promised himself he’d be good; he’d even mostly managed to be good over the two-mile stretch of residential roads back to the workshop, and only once on the whole drive had he taken advantage of a red light to lean over and chew on Stacey’s ear, which had led to Stacey’s comically accusing the traffic signal of being, verbatim, a slow-ass monkey-licking cockblock. That at least had made Garrett laugh to the point of tears and kept him occupied for the last few minutes of the trip.
Once they were back at T5, though, all bets were off. The main parking lot was empty, but more importantly, the auxiliary parking lot was mostly empty, and when Garrett went for the door, he found it locked. “Guess everybody’s out blowing up farm machinery,” he said as Stacey flipped through the keyring on his belt.
“Think we’ve got the house to ourselves.” With hands that looked almost like they were shaking, Stacey turned the key in the lock and the door swung open on the (mercifully) empty workshop.
Seized by a moment of boldness, Garrett grabbed the Stacey’s collar and hauled him inside, slamming the door shut behind them by pushing Stacey back up against it. Away from prying eyes and out of the elements, he fisted his hands in the front of Stacey’s shirt, kissing him with a force that barely covered the degree of need he felt. The back of his mind insisted on providing alternate explanations to why Stacey was here with him now, letting him do this — spontaneous brain damage from gasoline fumes, hallucinogens dropped in the city water supply, even an alternate universe Stacey swapped with their own — but he sternly told those thoughts to fuck off, it didn’t matter the reason, the present moment was enough.
He’d never been partciularly good at silencing his own self-doubts, though, and was thus glad for the assistance when Stacey laughed into the kiss and locked his hands together behind the small of Garrett’s back. “Would you … believe I was actually thinking about this last night?”
“Wait, what?” Garrett snapped, and then felt bad for nearly shouting in Stacey’s face. Fortuately, Stacey appeared untroubled by this, and spread his palms flat against Garrett’s body, pushing up the hem of Garrett’s shirt until his fingertips brushed bare skin.
“It was the asparagus,” Stacey shrugged, looking adorably sheepish in the shop’s single dim light. “Actually, it was when I figured it couldn’t be the asparagus. Because I went by the deli and got some for dinner, and … definitely not the same reaction. So, you know, that really only left one factor left to test.”
“Well, sure, if you want to look at it logically,” said Garrett, making a mental note to apologize to the ghost of William of Ockham. He bent his head and pressed his lips against the side of Stacey’s throat, committing every inch of the way Stacey smelled to memory.
Stacey responded by pulling Garrett even closer and tilting his head to the side, exposing more of his long neck. “Want to know the really funny thing? …I didn’t tell you because I thought you’d be weirded out by it.”
Rolling his eyes, Garrett nipped at Stacey’s throat, and beamed with pride when Stacey simultaneously yelped and gasped. He unclenched one of his hands and placed it flat over the center of Stacey’s chest, feeling his heartbeat through his shirt and trying not to flip out under the weight of knowing that he had been the cause. “Wait … when you say ‘thinking about this’, do you mean you were just thinking about it, or, you know … thinking about it?”
The way Stacey’s pulse jumped beneath Garrett’s touch let Garrett know he’d gotten it in one. “There was, um, definitely some thinking involved,” Stacey admitted, clearing his throat.
That was the final killing blow to Garrett’s self-control: he had what he had wanted for eight years, he had confirmation that Stacey had wanted it at least a few hours before he’d said anything that might have obligated Stacey to reciprocate beyond his individual inclinations, he had a locked building that both was empty and smelled like every good smell he’d ever associated with Stacey — in short, stronger men than he would have been powerless, and he himself had no chance. Standing on his tip-toes to put one of Stacey’s prominent earlobes well in the reach of his mouth, Garrett placed the fingertips of one hand against Stacey’s lips and went for Stacey’s belt with the other. Stacey made some noise that might have been speech, but it was unintelligible as he grabbed Garrett’s fingers with his teeth, half-licking and half-biting. It was a good thing, Garrett reflected, that he had already been completely hard for some time, because otherwise the sudden re-direction of bloodflow that would have triggered might have caused a stroke.
After a moment of this, Stacey grabbed at Garrett’s shirt and yanked it up and off over his head in one sudden swoop, leaving Garrett both with the great certainty that his hair must look Dr.-Emmett-Brown-level terrible and not giving a damn. “Come on,” he said, grabbing the hem of Stacey’s shirt and pulling him back into the dimly lit shop. A quick glance behind him confirmed both that there was a hip-level sturdy drafting table there and that there was nothing of consequence on the top, and Garrett figured that this would do quite nicely. Letting go just long enough to situate himself, he grabbed at the edge of the table and hopped himself up until he was sitting on top of it; once there, he spread his knees and pulled Stacey close enough that he could wrap his legs around Stacey’s hips. With a good strong pull despite his awkward leverage, he got Stacey’s shirt up toward his shoulders, and Stacey did the rest, tossing it somewhere in the vicinity of the circular saw. That taken care of, Garrett wrapped his arms around Stacey’s neck and pulled him close, rubbing their denim-covered cocks against one another with as much determination as he could muster. He may have been out of practice, but he still knew a few tricks.
Stacey braced himself on his elbows as he leaned over Garrett, sweating in a way that wasn’t wholly the musty shop’s fault; Garrett ground their hips together again, and Stacey bit his lower lip. “You, um, you sure?” he asked, a little wide-eyed. “I mean, I never thought I’d be the one to say this, but maybe we’re moving a little fast–”
“It’s been five years,” said Garrett, narrowing his eyes. He fisted his hands in the back of Stacey’s shaggy hair, grabbing as much as he could, and pulled him close for emphasis. “Five years and three months, and if you give me a bit to think about it, I can probably work out days, hours, minutes, and seconds to a reasonable margin of error.”
A look of true disbelieving horror washed over Stacey’s features. “And you didn’t … explode?”
Garrett set his jaw. “This is why I am exploding now.”
“Controlled detonation! Got it.” Stacey’s face brightened for a moment, and then feel again as he glanced down at the place their bodies met. “…No, I don’t got it. Is there, like, a manual?”
“Tab A, slot B.” Garrett reached for Stacey’s jeans and unfastened the top button of his fly, pulling down at the denim until he could see the tops of Stacey’s molecular tattoos peeking over the waistband of his underwear.
Stacey drew in a sharp breath as Garrett’s knuckles brushed the bare skin of his belly. “You know, I’ve never had gay sex before and I’m still fairly sure it’s not like going to Ikea.”
Garrett reminded himself that Stacey’s semi-constant state of exasperation-inducing lunacy was a feature, not a bug. “It’s all about the Allen wrenches, baby.”
A worried line creased Stacey’s brow. “…You’re making a joke, right?”
The honesty of Stacey’s uncertainty started Garrett into a laugh, and he pulled Stacey close for a quick kiss. “Yes, I’m making a joke.”
“Because I know where they are.”
“No, no wrenches. What we need is … lube.” Garrett glanced around the darkened workshop. “I know there’s got to be some around here somewhere.”
Stacey nodded and pulled back, placing a hand on Garrett’s thigh to indicate he should stay in place. “Don’t go anywhere,” he said, and disappeared around the corner into the part of the shop where the supplies lived.
As sad as he was to have Stacey out of his immediate reach, even just for a moment, Garrett felt a bit of relief as he collapsed back against the drafting table and took a long, deep breath. It was all such a comedy of errors, explosions and insufficent preparation and all, and yet he was slowly starting to realize that the fact that it was imperfect was what made it all perfect. For heaven’s sake, they were a pair of men who spent their entire lives skirting the edge of catastrophe; what the hell had gotten him so convinced that Stacey would only respond under conditions where nothing went wrong? Hadn’t the day Stacey had taken his boom virginity shown him how romantic disaster could be?
Disaster, of course, was what first came to mind when he heard Stacey’s voice echo through the workshop: “You’re going to veto WD-40, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, no,” he called back. Good God, who had thought it was a good idea to send the straight boy looking for personal lubricants?
There was a slight pause and the sound of a muffled crash, followed by another shout: “Animal birthing agent?”
The idea of that clear, snot-like goop made Garrett’s stomach turn a little on its own merits, much less when coupled with the idea of its entering any of his bodily orifices. “Let’s … keep looking.”
“Not … preferable.” Of course, if the imperfect lack of planning meant that he just plain wasn’t going to get laid, he was going to have to re-think his earlier romanticization of Murphy’s Law as applied to sexual encounters.
“Man, I am never going to complain when Jules makes me do inventory, ever again.” From afar came a set of squeaks that might have been Jules’ old shop ladder, and Garrett was more than slightly glad that he wasn’t the one trying to climb rungs with an erection. “Hey, I found some axel grease!”
Despite the expression’s being wasted on the lack of an audience, Garrett frowned sternly. “Are you just messing with me now?”
“Well, I really did find some.” A few more moments passed, and then Garrett heard a cry of triumph followed shortly by the sound of boots’ landing on the shop floor. “Got it!” Stacey called out, hurrying over to Garrett with a shoebox in hand; his pants were already threatening to fall off his narrow hips, and Garrett could see beneath what looked like a pair of black boxer-briefs with a grey skull and crossbones over what was looking to be a very impressive bulge beneath the cloth.
As he put the box down on the table, Garrett could see the words ACTION FIGURES stencilled on the side. “…Why did you look in there?” he asked as Stacey reached in amongst the tiny plastic people and pulled out a slightly used but nonetheless clean KY tube.
Stacey looked at the tube, then at the box, then back at the tube. “…Intuition?”
All things considered, it wasn’t even remotely the most unexpected thing that had happened to him all day. “…Awesome, I’m not going to question it.” He sat up on his elbows and took the tube from Stacey’s hand, then grabbed the front of Stacey’s underwear and tugged down, exposing the head of his cock; with a deep breath, he ran his fingertips over the slit, testing for a reaction.
He might have gotten less of a jolt if he’d touched the same place with a live wire; a full shiver ran through Stacey’s body, and he bent forward, catching himself palms-flat against the drafting table, taking deep breaths. Stacey was always such a cocky bastard that it was kind of odd to see him like this, uncertain of his next move and completely at Garrett’s mercy. Fortunately for them both, it was also adorable. “Fuck,” he hissed through clenched teeth.
“Exactly,” Garrett smiled, getting more comfortable in the rhythm of things now. “Pants off, Anastacio. Mine.”
He’d seen less obedient marines. With a heavy-lidded smile, Stacey went straight for Garrett’s jeans, getting both them and his underwear off his body in one continuous yank (and one that unhelpfully turned the jeans inside-out, but oh, he could worry about that later), and knocking off Garrett’s sneakers in the process. That done, he pushed his own pants and underwear down to his knees, and Garrett might otherwise been captivated by the full display of the molecular tattoos, but he barely noticed them for the sight of Stacey’s prominent, cut, rock-hard cock. He made a mental note to get his mouth around it as soon as possible — but that could wait another hour, and he was done waiting for everything else. Stacey’s uncertainty had given Garrett a newfound confidence, and as he unscrewed the KY tube and squirted some into his palm, his hands didn’t even shake.
As Garrett closed his fingers around Stacey’s cock, Stacey closed his eyes and gasped, and Garrett spent only a few seconds slicking him up before grabbing his hips and urging him foward. However, Stacey balked slightly as Garrett positioned him closer. “Is there something I should be … doing to get ready first or something?”
Garrett shook his head and fought back the edge of a blush rising in his cheeks. “I, uh, spent a lot of last night getting ready,” he admitted. “So … I guess we were both doing some thinking.”
“Guess so,” said Stacey, steadying himself between Garrett’s thighs. He took one last deep breath, then looked Garrett in the eye. “Just don’t … let me do anything wrong, okay?”
“The only thing,” Garrett said, levelling his gaze, “that you are doing wrong is that you are not doing me, as hard as you can, right now, at this very minute.”
That, at least, proved sufficient motivation as Stacey leaned forward, positioned his cock against Garrett’s ass, and slowly slid himself in to the root. Garrett gasped as Stacey filled him and stretched him wide, but took great pains to keep most expressions of discomfort to himself, for fear that Stacey might pick up on them and change his mind. Bless his gentle heart, this was not the time for gentleness.
He gave Stacey a moment to get himself settled, watching as his face tensed and then relaxed into an open-mouthed gape that was both silly and sexy at once, just like Stacey himself. “Come on,” he smirked, reaching up with his non-sticky hand to caress Stacey’s cheek. “Or I’m going to kill you.”
Stacey laughed and leaned forward to kiss Garrett, and Garrett hooked his ankles together behind Stacey’s waist, making sure that Stacey didn’t get any bright ideas about pulling out. That didn’t seem to be a danger, however, and after several moments of holding them still together, Stacey started to move his hips against Garrett’s body. At first he was too tender, so Garrett bit his lower lip and that seemed to spur him on faster, until he was fucking Garrett with a steady rhythm — and perhaps not as much force as Garrett would have liked, but that was all right, everyone had to start somewhere, and the sheer awareness that he was actually having sex with Stacey more than compensated.
And really, ‘harder’ wasn’t that troubling of a shortcoming, especially since it seemed to be his only one. Garrett knew intellectually that Stacey’d had sex with lots of women before, but Stacey’s previous references to his sexual history had omitted how good he was. While Garrett’s prior sexual experiences had been limited, there’d been enough to know that an impressive dick didn’t necessarily mean its owner knew what to do with it — but damn it, Stacey was so good he could have taught classes. After a minute or so, he reached down between their bodies and wrapped his hand clumsily around Garrett’s cock; Garrett took his still-slick hand and joined his fingers with Stacey’s, cutting the friction against his cock down to a pleasant degree, and Stacey straightened his spine, giving him better leverage.
Not flexible enough to kiss Stacey’s mouth from his current position, Garrett pushed his clean fingers inside of Stacey’s mouth again, and Stacey sucked them with abandon — and if Garrett hadn’t known for a fact that Stacey had never sucked cock before, he would have assumed the guy had been doing it nigh-professionally all his adult life. Truly, Garrett’s affections had not been misplaced; he was in love with the most amazing man in the world. Then Stacey’s tongue rubbed hard against the tips of his fingers, and it would have taken the force of Stacey’s most powerful explosion ever to keep him from coming right there, all over their joined hands and his bare stomach, grabbing Stacey’s arms and making noises he was very glad no one was in the vicinity to hear. Well, he thought, relaxing his back from an arch he hadn’t realized he’d assumed, if his staying power had been insufficient this time, he’d just have to demand they have sex again. What a crying shame.
What he didn’t expect, though, was how Stacey’s breath hitched just a few moments later, and his fingers tightened to a bruising grip on Garrett’s hips as he thrust harder. He said something, perhaps a note of warning, but it was rendered again unintelligible by Garrett’s fingers, and then he was coming inside of Garrett; he looked almost surprised, which was impossibly cute of him, and Garrett held him as he came back down, panting and sweating and looking on top of the post-orgasmic world. Garrett ran his fingers through Stacey’s hair, pushing the few loose tendrils back from his forehead, and Stacey moved only his shoulders as he took a deep breath.
And then he cracked one eye and frowned at Garrett. “…So, you’re gay?”
Only postcoital exhaustion kept him from laughing out loud at that one. “Yeah,” he said, with his naked legs thrown wide and Stacey’s softening cock still inside him, “I’m gay.”
“Huh.” Stacey took another deep breath, and let it out slowly through his nose. “Never would’ve guessed it.”
“Kind of the way I wanted it, yeah,” Garrett nodded. He unhooked his ankles, giving Stacey some latitude to free himself, but Stacey seemed a little at sea, so Garrett scooted his butt back on the drafting table, separating their bodies and making a horrible mess — but hey, given the workshop, that table had probably seen worse.
Stacey scratched the back of his neck sheepishly and grinned, reaching for a nearby roll of paper towels. “Well, you make it look good,” he said, tearing off a few before handing the rest to Garrett.
For a moment, Garrett worried about how un-sexy cleaning himself up might look, but he figured it was better than hanging around naked with lube and semen dripping out of his ass — and besides, they’d already pressed their luck with how long everyone else would take to get back. “You seem to have been pretty enthusiastically won over.”
That made Stacey laugh, and he folded his arms across his bare chest, giving Garrett an appraising once-over. “Yeah, I’ll go gay for you.”
“I’d say you already went gay for me.”
“I’ll go gay again for you if you give me fifteen to recover.”
“That’s it.” Garrett hopped off the drafting table, wincing a little as the force of impact resounded through his still-tender muscles. “We are getting out of here before we can’t anymore. My place is closer.”
“Think they’ll forgive us for not helping out with the post-boom cleanup?”
“We’re going to get a hard time on Monday no matter what,” Garrett shrugged, feeling weirdly okay about that knowledge. “Bring the lube.”
Stacey pulled up his pants and stuffed the lube in his back pocket, then closed the lid on the action figures box. “I’ll buy Jules some more later.”
Garrett winced as he fumbled with his inside-out jeans and underpants. “I do not need to think about Jules right now.”
“You’re not turned on by the moustache?” Stacey tossed Garrett his shirt, then went after his own. “It’s a sexy moustache. Very manly.”
“Look! Look at what you’re doing to my penis! It’s shrinking!” Garrett lied, gesturing to his still-enthused cock before tucking it back into his boxers. It hadn’t even occured to him to be afraid of how awkward the aftermath might be until it wasn’t awkward at all, but just a variation on the same old teasing, madness, and absurdity that had always been a staple of their relationship. To say this had gone better than his wildest dreams would have been an understatement; to say he literally could not have imagined a better outcome hit somewhat closer to the heart of the matter.
“I could grow a moustache,” Stacey offered; he picked up a foot-long beige hand broom and held it horizontally under his nose. “Like so.”
Garrett knocked the hand broom from Stacey’s grip and grabbed at his goatee, tugging Stacey down the few inches of height difference between them. “Stay just the way you are,” he ordered, fixing Stacey with the most serious glance he could muster, given how he was beginning to suspect this feeling of pervasive glee might never actually go away.
Stacey grinned, leaning close. “And then I could get some wax and make it curl up at the ends–”
“Nope,” said Garrett, wrapping his arms around Stacey’s neck and drawing close for a kiss — then, at the last moment, tossing his shirt over Stacey’s head like he might use a fire blanket and walking off to find his shoes, leaving the cotton-muffled sounds of Stacey’s laughter in his wake.
Two weeks later, they got the word from Standards and Practices: the sexy food test was unairable. Lana, one of their associate producers, had the job of breaking the news to all five TruthCrashers as they were setting up for the concluding blueprint about the combustible combine harvester, and Cory, for one, was not shy about registering her displeasure. “We worked hard for that!” she said, and Garrett would have stepped on her foot had he thought the pun intentional.
“I’m sorry,” said Lana, whose tiny stature and charming Australian accent made her immune to most expressions of displeasure, “but I’m just the messenger.”
“Maybe we’ll find some way to put it on the website,” Stacey offered as Lana shuffled off. “I mean, the world could always use more footage of me hurling.”
Adjusting the oversized straw hat he’d decided to wear for the occasion, Aaron shook his head. “I have to seriously disagree with that.”
“Poop,” Cory said, sticking out her lower lip in a pout. She looked down at the six-month-old French bulldog in her arms, who went by the illustrious name of Fermat, and picked him up so he was nose-level with her, kicking his little legs into thin air. “You want to see mommy’s experiment on TV, don’t you?” Fermat licked her nose, and Cory smiled. “That’s dog for ‘yes’.”
“Well, teach him English for ‘yes’ and get him to place a phone call to the network,” said Jules, reaching over and scritching the little pup on the top of his head.
“Okay, everyone!” Mike clapped his hands and brought over one of the twisted, charred blades of the combine harvester, setting it down atop the blueprint table. “Get in places and get everything rolling, we’re going to start in sixty seconds!”
Garrett glanced at the script outline again, trying to keep his composure despite how he had been given the line about wanting to see the high-speed again — since he knew for a fact that he and Stacey had caused the editors to do some serious post-production chopping of more than half of the cameras’ footage. That’s what editing is for, right? Cory had laughed that first Monday morning back at the workshop, and Garrett had been surprised and pleased to find himself laughing along with her; she’d sworn she hadn’t been that excited after her first date and kissed him on the cheek, and then Stacey had walked in and she’d given them both a hug, and balance had finally be restored to the Force. And everything was going to be all right.
The clapperboard clicked in front of the main camera, startling Garrett back to business of making television, and he felt a warm hand against the small of his back, hidden from the cameras’ otherwise all-seeing eyes. “My place, Empire, pizza, 6:30?” Stacey muttered in his ear, beneath the boom mikes’ range.
“Sounds amazing,” Garrett grinned back at him, and then the set went quiet and he was on.