For days now, maybe weeks, Ender had felt the crush of this isolation. The laughs he was unable to share with Shen and Alai. He knew every good commander slept in his own room. Some level of isolation was necessary. But this?
Perhaps he was too worked up. Perhaps this level of isolation was necessary for what the teachers were obviously rushing to train him for. Maybe he was working himself into a frenzy over it because there was no one to tell him to calm down, no one to correct him, to pat him on the back. Without the interruption of varying opinions, his own ideas ran in circles, driving him deeper and deeper into the depth of anguish he would almost swear was a real, physical thing. Why are they doing this to me? How can it possibly help?
And yet some of it, Ender had done to himself. The little kid, Bean, had tried several times to honestly connect with him, and each time he rejected it. It was a knee-jerk instinct, like brushing a moth off your shoulder. Two seconds later, sometimes less, Ender missed that moth, regretted how he'd treated it.
Now he was showering at night. This, certainly, was his own fault. He felt so lonely, and somehow this compelled him to seek to be alone. Maybe that wasn't it. Maybe he wasn't prepared to go to sleep, not when it meant waking up to that feeling of isolation. Instead, resolved to stay up in isolation. At least this was by choice. At least he had a say.
He wandered the corridors alone for a while, finally heading to the direction of the bathroom his army shared with several others. Undoubtedly, he was being closely monitored, so if he traveled it must be with a purpose. Since he didn't actually have to go, he began to remove his uniform, opting to shower instead. That's when it occurred to him that he wasn't alone. At least, not in the bathroom.
He turned around to see the other boy standing, dripping but sporting a towel.
"Ho," he nodded. His eyes darted quickly from Ender to the door, then back again. Unmoving, it seemed he'd made his choice.
"You always be showering at night?" Ender asked. There was something like a joke in it, but he wasn't quite there. Nearly undressed, it was plain to Alai that Ender had lost weight. Something stirred in him at the sight, and Alai looked quickly back into the other boy's eyes. They looked tired. And sad.
"No," he answered finally. "I never shower. Why you think I be here, really? Just for you, Ender. Just to watch you shower." Demonstratively, he sat down on the cool tiles, trusting the towel around his waist to keep him warm.
"Ah, that's right, you be always watching the boys, neh?" Ender displayed a small, tentative smile. Instead of stepping into the shower, he copied Alai's position on the floor.
Alai cupped his face in his hands and seemed to be thinking about something very intensely. Ender watched him silently, wanting to talk but also afraid that with any words he might send the other boy away, leaving him alone once more. He'd stumbled into some kind of perfect moment, he didn't want to ruin it now. It was like the mind game, sometimes no matter what the move is, it kills you. Sometimes not-moving is best.
"What you think about it, though, Ender?"
It registered somewhere in the back of his mind that the constant repetition of a name meant affection. The rest of his mind was taken up by his confusion. "Think about what?" he asked, realizing afterwards that he hadn't said Alai's name after "Ho." But that wasn't right, he did like Alai. Best of anyone, probably. Not only because Alai was the only one to truly open up to him, either. He was a brilliant strategist, had a good sense of humour, could be confident without being arrogant or controlling, in general he was just had the best of all the traits Ender admired. Especially his ability to make people like him. Not respect him, but really, genuinely like him. He wanted Alai to like him more than anyone, which made it sting twice as much when they apologized to him in the battle room before.
"Think about watching other boys, I mean. Conceptually, Ender, it would gross you out, right?" Alai looked like someone who was trying not to look desperate, but Ender couldn't understand why.
"Don't think so, but maybe. I mean, we watch other boys all day, neh? Watch them in practice, watch them in battles. All this school trains us to do is shoot at other boys and to watch them." He knew he wasn't talking about the same kind of watching Alai was, but he wanted to avoid the subject. He had never been extremely attracted to boys, but then, he had never been extremely attracted to girls, either. He hardly noticed there was a difference between the two.
He tried to picture Petra naked. His did this successfully and found that she held absolutely no attraction whatsoever. Then he felt ashamed, first for thinking disapprovingly of Petra, then for thinking of her in such a way. She hated being thought of in a way that made her vulnerable, and somehow thinking of her as naked, a naked girl, it was wrong.
"That's not what I mean. I saying, you think it's a bucket of farts if two boys want to look at each other that kind of way? The marrying kind of way?"
"Not really." And it was true. During the brief time he had spent in America, he had encountered little anti-homosexualism, none of which had been received well by his parents or other adults. He vaguely remembered Valentine making some comment on the matter once, which had solidified Ender's views.
"What if someone look at you like that?"
Ender shrugged again. "I really don't care, Alai." Was Alai afraid that Ender liked other boys? When he asked what if someone looked at him, was it because he was trying to get Ender to empathize with the disgust or fear Alai felt? With his word for peace, Alai was probably not from America. Did he come from a country with less freedoms? Did they feel differently in Russia, or the Muslim bloc?
Alai was just studying him again. Possibly searching for some sort of deception. Maybe the reason he had felt so guarded around Ender recently was that he was afraid Ender was watching him in that way, that Ender liked boys. Which is preposterous, because I don't like to watch boys. Or do I?
As Alai studied Ender, Ender tried to study him in return. To watch him. To try to be attracted to him as he had tried with his memory of Petra. Even if he was not entirely opposed to the idea, it was with some alarm that he realized how easily this was achieved with Alai, even though he had a towel more than Petra had had on.
His skin was pale, not not the same sort of pale as Ender's. It had a sort of warmth to it that his lacked. His hair was dark and reflected light well, sitting on his head in casually elegant curls. These features in combination with his thin nose reminded Ender of Bonzo, a comparison he quickly withdrew. No, they did not look similar. Bonzo looked hispanic. Alai looked... Turkish, maybe? Egyptian? Algerian? Ender had never been adept at associating faces with countries. Such was one of the few disadvantages to having been born in America. Everyone looked American.
Alai didn't look like everyone else, though. His eyelashes were darker, thicker, certainly. His eyebrows arched in such a way that their posture was almost admirable in and of itself. His eyes were this deepest of browns, not quite black, as the pupil could be distinguished, and still brown enough to be brown, but black enough that if he looked next to you, you thought he was looking at you. Or, in Ender's case, you hoped.
Finally, his eyes landed on Alai's lips. They were thick, too thick to be a boys, maybe, but they looked right on his face. They looked like a boy's, on his face. Shapely, not quite pink, but not quite brown. Ender found himself biting his own lip, fighting the urge to purse it, to imitate the look of perpetual pouting that could be seen naturally on Alai's face. Alai. Alai who was still watching him, now looking more timid than before. But there was something else there, too. He looked expectant. Ender realized that, by biting his lip, he must have been displaying some emotion. Possibly the urge to talk. So he spoke, only there was nothing to say. Nothing, because he couldn't tell Alai that yes, thanks to this conversation, he discovered something he must have already known. Yes, he did like looking at boys.
No, that wasn't it. It was, Yes, he did like looking at Alai.
"Chancellorsville. Lee divided his army up, like I divide my toons, and this leads him to victory."
"Not just victory," Alai replied softly, "But the perfect battle."
"It wasn't perfect," Ender corrected quickly, his voice coming out weaker than he had intended, but also louder. Alai perhaps sensed the strained way in which Ender spoke and bridged half the gap between them on knee.
"Wasn't it?" Alai asked, settling right in front of him now. Ender felt a feeling of warmth possess him, which was curious, seeing as how he'd been mostly undressed. The warmth drew him closer to Alai, prompting Ender to lean in as he answered.
"It wasn't," he almost whispered it. "Jackson died at Chancellorsville. Lee lost his best man. He said it was like losing an arm, but I imagine it was worse than that. He lost the person he trusted the most, whom he could trust to sometimes be smarter to him, to tell him when he was being stupid. The one who would talk to him when no one else would, would practice with him when no one else would..."
Ender knew that he had stopped talking about Lee. He was smarter than this, more adult than using fictional situations to explain his own life. That was the easy way out, the child's way out. But am I not a child, regardless of what the teachers wish to believe?
Alai was waiting for more, to Ender continued. "When Jackson died, Lee still had his whole army to command, neh? But none of them... Not one of them were Jackson. Lee's only other contemporary was, what, Grant? But Grant, Grant wanted nothing to do with him. Maybe Hooker would be happy to have tea and a chat, but Hooker wasn't worth the hot water. Only Jackson was, really, but he was dead. And Lee-Lee was alone. So alone. And he felt it every day. He wanted the loneliness to stop, he wanted peace, but peace... was not to be."
Ender found himself smiling bitterly by the end of it. He hadn't meant to turn it into an attack on Alai, an accusation, but maybe that's what it sounded like. But Alai didn't seem scared. He didn't back away, instead, in fact, he leaned in.
"What do you think about it, though, Ender?" He repeated the sentence, but this time he whispered it. It held none of the pain, the bitterness of Ender's words. Just a coy sort of mixture of being playful and pleading, toned down by a layer of uncertainty.
"I don't think about it, Alai. I just think about you." He kept his eyes open just long enough to make sure his lips landed properly on those of the boy opposite him, though this proved unnecessary when that boy's hands gently took to Ender's jaw.
Sometime after, when breath was scarce, Ender spared just a little of his to murmur, "Alai." It registered somewhere in the back of his mind that the constant repetition of a name meant affection. Before he could say the name again, he heard his own spoken, and his suspicions were confirmed.