S t a r g a z i n g
The midsummer night sky was a mystery, filled with grey ethereality and the tiniest pinpoints of truth. It swallowed the two boys lying strewn across the grass wholeheartedly, and they never complained. Indeed such summer nights they spent in silence, watching an eternal dance of silver courtiers and brightly shining maidens. They were chased away promptly when the ballroom turned pink at the edges and the lords and ladies retired to their empyreal quarters, only to return each night to watch the dance begin anew.
Time seemed stretched forever over the fields, made from only the smoothest hide and wearing ever so slightly in the middle. Arthur had always felt that if he only reached a little further, the universe itself would be at his fingertips. So stretch he did, with tiny pink fingers, leaning on Alfred and straining to grasp the soft leather of time or the lacy satin skirts of the stars. He could feel it grazing the very tips of his fingers, but then the corners would turn up and Time would snap shut and Arthur would realize he had always been lying on his back.
Alfred stood first each time, dusting stray grass from his cowboy pajamas. "Hey, Arthur?"
Arthur hummed a response, eyes still fixated on the retreating dancers.
"Did you know that the nearest star is 4.3 light years away? That means it takes more than four years for light to get here from there. You know how fast light goes? It's almost two hundred thousand miles a second. That's pretty fast, right? So that star's pretty far away." He squatted down beside his friend, eyes bright enough to overpower the very stars he babbled about. "Don't you think, Artie?"
Arthur squinted. "What do you think they're made of?"
"The stars? Dad says they're balls of burning gas and stuff." Alfred wrinkled his nose.
"Yeah, but what do you think they're made of?"
Alfred was quiet. The sun was just visible above the eastern horizon. "I think they're wishes." Arthur didn't reply, so he charged onwards. "I think whenever someone really needs one, they appear in the sky. They're there to make everyone happy."
Arthur sat up, twirling a blade of grass between two fingers. "Then someday," he said, "I'll spell our names in the heavens. We'll have all the wishes we need."
The universe in all its mystery was too easily put away by Alfred. He replaced the swishing gowns and dashing suits of the night courtiers with bedcovers and superheroes. From leather time he fashioned a new comfort: an antique jacket gifted by his grandfather. It was several sizes too big and hung around his knees, but he wore it with pride.
Arthur couldn't give up, though. His sights were always set far beyond the boundaries of time.
The two grew older, but their hearts grew younger; Alfred in his love of the world, and Arthur in his love of the stars. It wasn't long before they fit comfortably wrapped in fabric: Alfred in his grandfather's jacket, and Arthur in the distant embrace the starlight dancers.
The winter sky was a new-old friend, a wide expanse marbled with forgotten memories and jaded rainclouds. Farther still, Hercules and Draco were pushed aside for Taurus, Orion, Eridanus. The heavenly court was shuffled and dealt again, a fresh start. Arthur forsook warm blankets for the biting chill of his rooftop; the superficial comforts of fairy tale stories for his own magical reality. Here above the town the taut fabric of time was closer still, and Arthur felt as if it was mere inches from his head. Still, no matter how he reached, the leathery surface was still light years further away. It seemed to him that every celestial being laughed to see him try, and only made him more determined to see his name written amid their company.
"Star light, star bright; first star I see tonight," Arthur whispered. "Where are your wishes now?"
The twinkling above him refused to expend secrets.
He collapsed there, amid the tar shingles, and it was there that Alfred found him hours later. He was panting for air, but whether for exhaustion or laughter he would never say.
"Why the hell are you sleeping on the roof, Artie?" Alfred demanded, shaking his shoulders a little too roughly.
"Why," Arthur countered, "are you not?" His fingers pulled at the leather jacket draped over his old friend's shoulders, digging into the warmth of the fur collar. It wasn't what he sought, but it was enough.
"...I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." For the screaming downstairs to cease had been his only wish for months now. He could have written his name in the stairs twice over. Sometimes, the shrill voice was aimed at his father; sometimes his brothers; sometimes at Arthur or God or his mother herself.
There were those two little words that Arthur always knew he would hear and dreaded more than anything.
The silence was unbearable, and Arthur spoke only to relieve himself of it. "Where?"
"I'm joining the army, Arthur. I'm going overseas."
Arthur saw nothing but the rain falling outside on the patio. "I see."
Alfred shrugged off the antique jacket, and, leaving it around his best friend's shoulders, quietly left the house.
Arthur received a letter less than six months later. Alfred was not coming home.
"Where are your wishes now?"
The leather jacket never quite seemed to match up to the unobtainable time-above-the-fields. Arthur and Alfred stood side by side, one arm each inside a sleeve, the other two hanging loosely by their sides. It was confining and far too tight, but no matter how Alfred protested, Arthur found it a comforting constraint.
The wild starfire within his heart acquiesced to the cool water beneath his bare toes, whipped into place by a lion tamer's mentality.
"There is no place for dreams in the real world!" Arthur's mother would scream in between drinks, and somehow he had come to believe her.
The stars were, as they had been told long ago, no more than burning gas some thousand light years away. And Alfred was dead.
Her name was Madeline. She was the most intelligent woman Arthur had ever met, not that it mattered. Arthur married her for her eyes. They were blue, and they looked just like Alfred's.
Star light, star bright. Star light, star bright. Star light...
Cancer, it seemed, was rarely fair in its dealings. She was only thirty-seven.
His house had little furniture, no decorations, and as few windows as possible. He did not want to see the starlight.
Sometimes he heard them, the night courtiers, calling his name from outside. He ignored them. There were no room for dreams in a house such as his. Indeed, his life after Madeline was simple and hermetical. He cooked, he cleaned, and he sat quietly behind his library desk, peering over ever thickening spectacles at those who passed by.
And this was how he lived.
O, First star I see tonight.
Until all at once, the shutters at last were thrown open.
I wish I may, I wish I might.
It was the sixty-seventh anniversary.
Have the wish I wish tonight.
Full circle. Here were his old friends. Hello, Sagittarius. Hello, Cygnus. Welcome home. Welcome to summer.
Gnarled fingers and wrinkles, it seemed, were better starcatchers than pink, unbroken flesh. Arthur stood in the fields-behind-Alfred's house once more. Not that they were fields anymore. Not that it was Alfred's house anymore. Instead, it was a parking lot, long overtaken by teenage outcasts in less clothing than Arthur found appropriate. Soft leather time was nearly invisible under the smog and smoke of that world, but Arthur's old, bleary eyes saw it perfectly. It was there, above the city, the ballroom of the heavens. The court had gathered once more to perform their nightly routines, and Arthur watched with more enthusiasm than he had thought he was still capable of mustering.
"4.3 light years away, eh, Alfred?" Arthur scoffed. He reached out a shaky arm, and for the first time in eighty-six years, his fingertips caught the edge of a dancer's dress. She smiled at him, held out an arm. Arthur grabbed it, and she whirled him off his feet, a part of the cosmic waltz at last. From star to star he traveled, no rocket ships or strings attached.
He drew back slightly as the angelic face morphed smoothly to that of his mother, but she only smiled and pulled him closer. "It's all right, baby, it's all right."
It could have been forever, it could have been only seconds, but he was passed to his father, his brothers, his wife. There were loved ones long gone and those he had barely known. It was a dance of grace and a dance of love, and he knew what awaited him at the end of the eternal procession.
There was the leather jacket, and here the impossible cowlick.
"Well, Arthur?" They spun together in the final steps of the dance.
"Stars," Arthur answered, laughing, "are neither a place to write your name nor a child's wish."
"No?" he asked, but his eyes were gleaming.
"No." Arthur confirmed. "They are you and me and all the world. But most importantly, they are dreams and hope, Alfred. The stars are life."
Woo. There we go. I hope it made sense to everyone. If it didn't, I'm happy to explain it a little more bluntly.
I'll tell you, though, this was not the original story. It was supposed to be cute and a little fluffy, based on Alfred's last line in the first section. It just ran away from me and managed to delve deep into the uncharted realms of bittersweet angst. Oops.
Yes, Arthur married Fem!Canada. -flails-