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wear your home on your back and your heart on your sleeve

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They’ve been wandering together for just over a week when the traveler—she still hasn’t offered up a name, and while “Quell” isn’t wrong, it isn’t entirely right, either—asks Thacker about love.

She’s talking about Sylvain again, of course. About spending millions of years with someone, aware of their consciousness before your own has fully formed. About becoming together, and how losing that person tears at everything you are and everything you’ve done because you’ve never known the privilege or pain of being alone. 

“Sylvain thinks about love a lot,” the girl says, her measured tone faltering as it always does when she’s on edge, like she’s pulling every sentence from a Jenga tower. “About me, and all of the life she’s created, but also individual people—mostly Aubrey and Alexandra. And both of them love other people too, and everyone up here, everyone who’s trying to rebuild what I....” 

She trails off, not for the first time, and Thacker waits quietly for her to gather her thoughts. The world around them is soft in the early light, mist dulling the edges of day so that it rolls over the landscape without cutting through the stillness of night. 

Eventually, she continues. “They all talk about how love got them through the end of the world. But for me, love has always been the world, in a literal sense. That’s the only way I’ve ever understood it. Love is me and her, for eons and eons. It’s what holds us and this planet together, and people like you just don’t have that sort of experience. You can’t. So what does ‘love’ mean, to you? To people on Earth and people here?”

The people like you...can’t line would cut deep, coming from anyone else. But her voice is all innocence and frustration and bewilderment, and Thacker knows what it’s like to feel locked out of understanding this sort of thing. 

“Well,” he begins slowly, and now it’s his turn to fall quiet as he turns answers over in his mind. “I guess it might mean a lot of things, depending on who you ask. Even between us folks who aren’t planets, there are still a lot of different experiences to pull from. For some, it’s a grown thing, a natural response that’s cultivated over time. Others say it’s a sort of knowing, and the weight of it just hits you like a bus—or a mountaintop. All kinds of things factor in, depending on the person: shared moments, like mindsets, mutual kindness. Time can be a big one, even if most of us don’t have eons to spend bonding with someone.”

“That sounds difficult,” the traveler responds, a slight frown tugging across her features. “To categorize, I mean. It must be hard for you, as a researcher, to deal with such a...a variable concept that’s treated so universally.”

“I don’t know how much being a researcher has to do with my own wary attitude towards love,” Thacker says with a chuckle, “but I appreciate you giving me a good excuse, there. ‘Course, we try to categorize it anyways, and sometimes it helps make sense of things. Most people feel different sorts of love, like how Sylvain’s feelings for you are different than her feelings for Aubrey, or for John Denver.”

(That’s almost enough to win him a laugh. When Thacker shook the Quell from his mind back in Kepler, some things remained, for both of them. He still can’t quite believe that meant psychic powers on his end and the lyrics to “Country Roads” on hers. On the first day of their journey, he caught her humming the verses softly to herself. Well, maybe herself; maybe the planet beneath them. Apparently, she’d sung it to her partner-in-everything after their reunion, and Sylvain—the ground he walked on! the life he’d devoted himself to!—not only remembered it from her time on Earth, but liked it so much that the young Interpreter began complaining it was always stuck in her head.)

Encouraged, Thacker goes on. “You can love a story, or a critter, or a place, but a lot of the time it seems to come back to people. Folks may say they love their families, their friends, their partners, themselves. Most of them differentiate between loving someone and being in love with someone, to get...semantical.” 

She nods, eyes trained on him intently. It’s funny—they’ve only encountered a few people on the road, but Thacker’s noticed that his companion never meets anyone else's gaze. Maybe she thinks her stare (not quite Sylvan, not quite human, not quite safe) might make them uneasy. Or maybe she doesn’t believe she’s earned it. But when she's talking to him, she almost never breaks eye contact. And he has to admit, it feels nice to be seen. 

So he smiles and keeps speaking. “Me, I’ve never been much of one for the latter. I don’t care for personal labels much—bit ironic for a man who’s dedicated his life to cataloging things, I suppose. But I guess you could say I’m aromantic. That’s the word Aubrey gave me for it, anyways, and it seems to fit right. Probably asexual, too, although that’s a different matter. Point is, I don’t really go in for love in the romantic sense. So I get why you're curious about all of this—trying to grasp a sort of emotion, attraction, whatever  that you’re not really wired for, or never even had the chance to think about, can be messy. It can feel...well, sometimes it can feel like you’re just wrong, because you don’t understand this thing that’s supposedly the be-all and end-all. But I’ve never been much of a believer in end-alls.” 

He says the last part with a chuckle. Maybe love did get some folks through this apocalypse, but Thacker’s banking on laughter to carry him through its aftermath. 

“Yes, I learned that the hard way,” the traveler says wryly. “And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank you enough for it—even if I’m not sure I can forgive you, either.”

She’s still looking up at him. Thacker turns away, scanning the path ahead. “Well,” he begins, gently as he can, “I’m not the one you’re out here learning to forgive.” 

They walk together in silence through the sunrise.