For Mel, because she is smart and funny and sane, and it is her birthday.
This is the story formerly known as Reasons.
* * *
Better Than Tea
* * *
The Heart of Gold cruised through the infinite stretches of space exactly like an enormous, dazzlingly beautiful, ridiculously improbable starship cruising through the infinite stretches of space. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has a better grasp of the Galaxy's latest technological innovations than the famously bewildered brainless snail of Erqfuaad that the reason for this remarkable resemblance was because the Heart of Gold was, in fact, an enormous, dazzlingly beautiful, ridiculously improbable starship cruising through the infinite stretches of space.
Inside the Heart of Gold, Zaphod Beeblebrox -- who bore a remarkable resemblance to the genially crooked President of the Imperial Galactic Government of the same name because he was, in fact, the genially crooked President of the Imperial Galactic Government of the same name -- and Ford Prefect -- who bore a very slight resemblance to the genially crooked President of the Imperial Galactic Government, not, astonishingly enough, because he was the same person, but because he was a relation -- were enjoying a drink.
At least, Zaphod was enjoying a drink. Ford only thought he was enjoying a drink, but this would not be true in three seconds. One of the many unfortunate side-effects of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is the sudden urge to embarrass your nearest and -- well, your nearest, because anyone who is near a person drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster for more than two seconds will soon find any affection for the drinker stalking out of the door with an offended expression on its back.
Zaphod Beeblebrox was drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. The way he achieved the alienation of his nearest and -- nearest in this case, was to ask a question.
It was exactly the wrong question to ask of Ford Prefect when he was trying to enjoy a peaceful drink, which was exactly why Zaphod -- or rather, the copious amounts of Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster currently swilling around inside Zaphod -- chose to ask it.
"Why did you bring Monkeyman along, anyway?" asked Zaphod.
"Sprrshkkgrrng!" Ford replied. This could be taken two ways -- as a heinous insult which could only be wiped out once the speaker's guts had been aired and his uvula burnt in a ritual sacrifice to Affa, god of small random body parts, which was the way the tribes of the remote planet Kaburayzeriffen would have taken it; or as a natural, inadvertent result of Ford's spitting out a mouthful of Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. Fortunately, Zaphod chose to take it the latter way.
"Sorry, could you repeat that?" he said.
Ford mournfully watched what little affection he had left for Zaphod after a lifetime of knowing him stalk out of the door with an offended expression on its back.
"I thought he'd be company," he said awkwardly, when any hope that Zaphod would sense the change in the atmosphere and tactfully steer the conversation in a different direction had died, screaming in agony.
"Oh, yeah?" said Zaphod. He thought about this. "Has the definition of 'company' been suddenly changed to 'a guy who stumbles around acting like a helpless idiot in the desperate hope that someone will take pity on him and give him a cup of tea,' and why wasn't I told?"
"He's not that bad -- well, all right, he is, but. . . ."
"Give it up, Ford. There's something more to this Earthman that you're not telling me."
"It's none of your business," Ford said, solidifying Zaphod's certainty that it was, indeed, none of his business, which was precisely why he wanted so much to know all about it.
"Come on, man, how long have you known me?" said Zaphod expansively. "What's your business is mine! You can tell me a little thing like this! When have I ever betrayed your trust--"
Ford opened his mouth.
"--in the last five minutes, huh?"
Ford could sense that the conversation was not going in a direction he liked, but he had reached a stage of inebriation where he found it difficult to keep the contents of his stomach from making a dash for it and spilling out onto the surroundings thereof, much less put up a fight to Zaphod when he was in full single-minded information-seeking mode. He gave up trying to wrestle his thoughts into submission.
"Never," he said weakly. "Not in the last five minutes, at least."
"There you go!" said Zaphod. "Go on, tell your semi-cousin Zaphod all about it."
Ford pondered his options.
"No?" he offered.
Zaphod leaned against the wall and gave Ford a look full of warmth, kindliness, and Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
"Ford," he said, "if you don't tell me everything there is to know about your excitingly sordid affair with the Earthman, I will tell your mother exactly what it is you did on my 93rd birthday."
"That was your idea!" Ford said, outraged.
"She won't think so," said Zaphod, with aggravating serenity.
Ford groaned. He looked up at the ceiling, but it offered no help. The scourge of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation's Genuine People Personalities had yet to spread to the ceiling, although its blank white surface did look rather irritatingly friendly.
"Why did you bring the monkey along, Ford?" said Zaphod encouragingly.
There was a brief silence.
"If you must know," Ford said, a little stiffly, "it's because he's great in bed."
The eyes of both Zaphod's heads bulged. Then he recovered. One of his heads coughed; he slicked the hair of the other back with an exaggerated affectation of nonchalance.
"Well, that's a surprise," he said. "He doesn't show any indication of expertise or even a measure of competence in any other field, except for making tea and sandwiches. -- So, how did this all start?"
"Zaphod! I'm not going to tell you!" spluttered Ford.
"Well, because -- because --"
"You feel awkward about it, yeah?" said Zaphod kindly. "Don't worry about it, man. You know me. There isn't a single life form in the universe more open-minded than I am --"
"That isn't the point at all!" said Ford. "These is my own private affair; you've got no business coming around and drunkenly prodding at my sex life!"
Zaphod was immovable.
"My 93rd birthday, Ford," he said. Ford winced.
"Better me than your mother, right? Come on, man."
"All right, all right!"
Ford looked around nervously. He leaned closer to Zaphod. "I met him at a bar."
Zaphod said, "Ah," managing to infuse more offensive innuendo in the single syllable than all the slightly suspect, avuncular old men in the entire Galaxy put together could imply in their whole lifetimes.
"I was getting drunk out of my skull on whisky, reviewing the ten years I'd spent on the planet Earth and wondering if I would die of boredom before I got past the first five months, when Arthur appeared. I bought him a drink and explained about the colour of flying saucers not mattering much, really, and, well, the end of it was we ended up having a fantastic one-night stand, and the next morning he had a spasm of insecurity in his masculinity and kicked me out of his house without so much as offering me a glass of orange juice before I went."
"A propitious start, in fact," said Zaphod brightly.
"Well, then -- you won't believe this, but after a few days I went around to the same bar again and he was there again!"
"Don't tell me. You were hanging out at the bar for all of those days, hoping he'd show up."
"Well -- yes. But that wasn't the only reason! It sold really excellent whisky."
"Look, do you want me to tell you about it or not?"
"Okay, okay, go on."
"He didn't seem very glad to see me, so it took some talking and several rounds of free drinks, but I finally managed to convince him that what had happened was nothing but a delirious alcohol-inspired nightmare. After that we became friends, and neither of us ever mentioned it again."
Ford paused. Zaphod waited.
He waited some more.
"You didn't saddle yourself with a useless tea-addict just because of one night of good sex?"
"Well, no," said Ford. "After his planet was destroyed, I pointed out that since Earth no longer existed, the societal restrictions that had existed on Earth had also been reduced to nothing, and in fact, traditional Earth concepts of masculinity and sexuality and so forth no longer made sense in any context, so he agreed that he might as well have sex with me."
"He capitulated rather easily, didn't he?"
"Well, he wasn't really in a state to argue at the moment," he admitted. "He was suffering the emotional impact of the realisation that those trashy English tabloids with the topless women on page three no longer existed."
"You took advantage of him when he was emotionally weak and vulnerable and in no state to defend himself from your advances. What a rotten thing to do. Good job, Ford," said Zaphod admiringly. "So that's it?"
"It's not exactly the Galaxy's greatest romance, is it?"
"I didn't say it was," Ford snapped.
"All right, all right," Zaphod said mildly. He paused. And then he asked the second worst question he could have asked.
"Could I have a go?"
Ford's reaction to this resembled a sputter like a drop of water resembled the tropical rainfall on the southern side of the uninhabited planet Zamarkis -- a planet so wet even its fish have drowned.
"No!" he said. "Arthur's mi -- my sexual partner! I haven't gone to all the effort of working on his societal prejudices and inbred hatred of any deviation from the norm just to have you swan in and enjoy the benefits of my hard work!"
"Now, man, don't think I don't see your point," said Zaphod, by now immensely pleased with himself and the friendly-looking blur to which the alcohol had reduced his world. He slung an arm over what looked to him like an Impressionist's interpretation of Ford's shoulder, and missed.
"But wouldn't you say," he continued from the floor, "wouldn't you say it's not quite your decision to make?"
Ford stared coldly at his semi-cousin.
"Are you saying that you have got designs on Arthur Dent?" he said.
"Maybe," drawled Zaphod, who in fact was no longer sure about anything in the world, except that a) he wasn't drunk at all, and b) he really wouldn't mind another drink. "Why, you don't think I'd succeed with him?"
"With a man whom you have persisted in insulting, ignoring, and comparing unfavourably with his embarrassingly hairy ancestors?" said Ford. "Forgive me for doubting you, Zaphod, but I don't think so."
Arthur's wandering in with a cup of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea at this exciting moment was only another incident in a long line of unfortunate incidents which formed the basis of Ford's conviction that Fate, for some mysterious and unknowable reason, definitely had it in for him.
Arthur's entirely unexpected reaction to Zaphod's cheerfully propositioning him from the floor was yet another.
"All right," he said wearily. "Why not?"
"Arthur!" said Ford.
Ford waved his glass wildly.
"You're not going to sleep with Zaphod!" he said. "You don't even like Zaphod! Besides, what's happened to all your protests, all those 'I really don't think I'm into this, Ford's?! What happened to inbred prejudices and societal constraints? What happened to 'what would my mother think?'"
"As you pointed out the last time we discussed this, my mother can't think anymore," Arthur said coldly. "And my society has been utterly destroyed, so why not? Why not? Stranger things have happened. Why shouldn't I sleep with a two-headed man who treats me like I'm an embarrassing poor cousin of primordial sludge? I've done everything else, it seems." He looked sadly at his cup of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
"It'll probably be more fun than drinking this, anyway," he added, tossing it off.
Ford looked at Zaphod, who beamed. He looked at Arthur, who grimaced. He gathered the tattered remnants of his dignity around him.
"All right," he said, "have it your way then." He stalked out of the door.
"Did you hear that? He sounded like you, Earthman!" said Zaphod. One of his heads peered blearily at Arthur. The other looked like it was going to be sick. "Your influence must be settling into his brain! -- Wild."
Arthur looked at Zaphod with no small measure of dislike.
"On second thought, perhaps this was a bad idea," he said.
"No, no!" Zaphod waved all his arms. "Sit down, take off your clothes! Trust me, you won't regret it. I'm really good. Better than tea!"
"I doubt it," said Arthur severely, but he sat down and started taking off his shoes. After all, he thought, why not? It would be just another strange thing in a long line of strange things. More than anything right now, Arthur wanted something familiar: just one thing he'd seen before, one sensation he'd experienced before, one small reassuring sign that there were some things that stayed the same even if your planet had been demolished, and all familiar things with it. Since that was exactly what he wasn't going to get, he might as well have sex with Zaphod Beeblebrox. Keep the strangeness going, as it were, not that any help was needed in that direction.
He'd got to his left sock when his ruminations were interrupted by a high-pitched scream. This was not an unusual occurrence on board the Heart of Gold, but this particular high-pitched scream differed from the others in that it was exceedingly familiar. . . .
"Tea!" shrieked someone. Arthur dropped his sock.
"Earthman -- hey!" said Zaphod. A swift breeze went past him, bearing a remarkable resemblance to a man with one sock in search of familiarity.
Arthur burst out into the passage, and the walls whirled around him until one kindly came up and slammed him in the back. He bumped his head, which was painful, but then someone was kissing him, which was really rather pleasant. There was an iron grip on his arms, and the mouth on his tasted distinctly familiar. It tasted of motor oil.
That had startled him the first time, Arthur remembered. A hand crept down his body and started doing something extremely familiar, and Arthur jerked, saying,
Ford let him go, although that wasn't really what Arthur had meant at all; that was a good "mmmfgh," an encouraging "mmmfgh," and Arthur scrabbled vainly against Ford's body until the fact that Ford was speaking dawned on him.
"You're not going to sleep with Zaphod," said Ford. His hand sneaked downwards again.
"Why not?" said Arthur, although he was really quite happy to let the argument lie, as long as Ford kept on doing that. . . .
"Because I'm better," Ford breathed, and kissed him.