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Speaking Naturally

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Ford goes looking and finds Trillian in the little office with the radio, where he expects her to be. Zaphod had been getting too self-obsessed, and Arthur too maudlin about his planet dying again. Ford's home planet had also died - though in significantly different circumstances he'd admit - so perhaps he should be more sympathetic to his friend. But right now Ford Prefect needs to talk with someone a little more sensible. 

"Hello Ford," Trillian says. She has a singular earpiece in, and is noting things down in a classy spiral bound notebook. "Do you need anything?"

"I was looking for someone to chat to who isn't miserable or a narcissist."

This makes Trillian look up. "Has Zaphod pulled up the news clip with him in it again? He does that."

"Uh huh," Ford isn't new to his semi-cousin's quirks, he simply has no patience for them. "What are you doing?"

"Monitoring for police. I've got a connection to some of their networks, it helps to keep an eye on them before they get too close."

Ford leans over her shoulder to look at what she's been writing. Her writing is small, neat. There are a lot of coordinates but some writing too, with dates, which range from statements like they don't know where we are right now to oh god won't Zaphod stop talking about his third arm, I've half a mind to chop the blasted thing off. Ford laughs.

"How long have you been flying with Zaphod?"

"Some time now," Trillian says, shutting her notebook. "How long have you and Arthur been friends?"

"Fifteen Earth years, I'd say." 

"You really were stranded on Earth for a very long time."

"I was," Ford confirms, and he sits on the edge of the desk, which is long enough for there still to be space between the two of them. 

"Must have been rather awful," she says matter-of-factly.

Ford nods.

"I - um," Trillian pauses and inhales. "Is it right, what Arthur said? About Earth?"

"Yes, it's all blown up. He wouldn't lie about that, you know. He's pretty cut up about the whole thing."

"Yes, well, I thought I'd ask." She laughs. "I suppose it's remarkably lucky I'm with Zaphod then - oh, fuck."

Ford looks at her. Her eyes are expelling fluid more than they normally do, and she's curved her head away a little so most of her face is hidden.

"My planet got - not blown up, per se, but destroyed too. When I was quite young."

Trillian rubs her eyes. "Really? Is that a thing that often happens?"

"God no," Ford says. "I just seem to have rather bad luck."

Ford doesn't know how to comfort humans, because they usually seem quite uncomfortable with touching - at the start of knowing each other Arthur avoided embraces altogether, and even now he only gives hugs on his own particular terms. Ford comes from a place where physical touch is a normal and casual thing, and so he feels thrown now. Patting on the shoulder is usually alright, surely? He thinks he saw it in some films in London, but those films also had an honestly abnormal amount of stabbing. 

Ford reaches out gingerly and pats Trillian's closest shoulder three times. He times it so that the intervals between each pat are regular - and long enough that he could notice if she started glaring. Instead she laughs. 

"You and Zaphod and Earth men are all the same," she says, with a lilt that Ford thinks means she isn't entirely serious. "So awful with affection."

"I ... I'd have you know I'm great at comforting people back home," Ford says. "You humans just have all these ideas about propriety and personal space and I don't know how to act. In any case, I'm not an Earth man, I shouldn't even be in the same category."

"Oh?" Trillian wipes her face with her hand, which leaves her hand and face now wet and gross. 

"Earth gender isn't a universal thing, you know," Ford informs her. He still isn't sure about affection, so it seems the best bet to distract her. "Our family structures and reproduction are entirely different, we don't even have the same basis to draw from."

"But you call Zaphod 'he', and that's Arthur calls you," Trillian says, not contradictory but rather prompting. Her hand holding the pen is shaking slightly, and her eyes unfocused. Perhaps trying to explain massive cultural differences to distract someone from grief isn't the best idea. But Ford's committed to it now.

"That's partly due to the Babel Fish, and I - I sort of thought the Earth masculine pronouns were neutral when I met Arthur. The Babel fish doesn't teach you another language or culture, it just gives it to you in your native language and recontextualises things into your cultural framework. I've never used masculine language for Zaphod when speaking naturally, it's just convenient for the Fish to use language that you'd understand."

"Oh," Trillian processes some of this. "Do you mind it? How do you differentiate between people?"

"Usually I don't mind, but that's when I don't stay in the place long enough to actually have a life and friends there," Ford shrugs. "For some reason I do mind a little with English. In my language - which isn't my fathers' language, mind you - we have a lot of grammatical ways to refer to people, none of which class them in particular social categories. There's no particular way I'd be referred to, it's all very subjective. It makes more sense, too."

Trillian frowns. "But surely the Babel Fish just translates to your birth language, right? Wouldn't it use the right words for you then?"

"It would in most cases, but I spent so long on Earth that the cultural distinctions sort of seeped in. The Babel Fish gets lazy after a while, maybe it thinks I should do some of the work myself. I've spent enough time on Earth interacting with people - especially when the Fish is having a nap - that I can probably speak it well enough without it now." Ford grimaces. "Except for your 'r' sounds. I've never gotten that."

"That's very interesting," Trillian says with some identifiable sincerity. 

"I'm sorry about your planet," Ford says, quieter. 

"I'm sorry about yours," Trillian says, with a wobbly smile. She looks like she's about to cry again (Ford has now remembered the word) and Ford stands to leave.

"Hey," she says, softly. "Would you prefer I use another word for you, if you mind 'him'?"

"Does English have another word?"

"Well," she says measuredly. "There's she - though I suspect that doesn't work for the same reason. And there's 'it' - though that's for non-living things- and 'they' - though that's usually plural or an unknown singular."

"'They' might be better," Ford acknowledges. "It sounds a little like a'hdka - which is the pronoun denoting people who are about to arrive somewhere that you hope to befriend."

Trillian makes a particular expression in response that Ford cannot parse. Ford has gotten perhaps a little too deep in the linguistic rabbit-hole - they had gotten their position with the Guide partially through their qualifications with linguistics, and they usually try not to let on about that to other people. They did sincerely apply to the job so they'd have more excuses to get drunk and have adventures. 

"Alright," she says. "I can do that."

Ford nods.

"I have to go back to this," Trillian lies. "But it was good to talk. We should get away from the others again some other time."

"Okay Trillian," Ford says, suddenly immeasurably sad, and they shut the door behind them on the way out.