Work Header

The Path to the Precipice

Chapter Text

The first mangled thought in his tortured head on Monday morning is that he should have smuggled some NyQuil onto the plane on the trip over.  Or maybe bought some of whatever the British equivalent is—probably it’d have a couple extra Us in the name, and maybe an S where he’d expect a Z, and…

And the point is, NyQuil is fucking magical, because it’s totally fucking legal, knocks you out without completely ruining you for the next day or two, and has just enough of an alcohol kick that you feel like you’re getting away with something when you hold your nose and choke down the overpowering gooey cherry flavor of your allocated dose.

Well—the real point is that he slept like shit, no goddamn surprise, and that some NyQuil could have solved that problem if he’d had any.  But half the shops that don’t cater directly to tourists around here are closed on Sundays, and given how his luck’s been going lately, he hadn’t really wanted to tempt fate by wandering around Edinburgh at nine o’clock looking for a lit convenience store.

Fortunately-or-something, that’s what mainlining tea is for—that, and a DIY kidney cleanse, probably.  Blearily, he logs onto his laptop with the hand not burdened by the hilariously tiny mug provided by his good friends at Travelodge and starts poking around to see if anything blew up across the pond while he was sorta-sleeping.

Andy friended him on Facebook.  That’s cool.  He clicks over to accept the request, and then he glances at their main page just for funsies or whatever.

The first post on Andy’s timeline is a slightly blurry cell phone picture of… him.  Him at the podium the other day in full-on seminar mode, grinning as he gestured towards the screen.  Andy’s caption is Bad photo cus my hands were shaking a bit - you don’t meet your bloody hero every single day!!!!

Twenty people have already liked it, and one commented holy hell is that who I think it is?

It’s not the fame that matters to Ed.  It’s mattering that matters.  It’s showing people, one damn lecture at a time, that with enough pigheadedness and a dash of circumstance, you can bring the status quo to its fucking knees.

He wants to say something pithy, but on a couple hours’ sleep and his first cup of tea, he’s positive that any attempts would end in public embarrassment and tears, so instead he just likes it and navigates back to his feed.

Winry posted a picture of a grandfather clock she’s rebuilding the insides of, complete with Al hovering in the background with what looks like a tray with coffee cups and maybe some pancakes.  That should probably be making Ed hungry, but it’s… not.

Maybe he finally really broke something inside somewhere, and his feelings, newly untethered, are all just drifting out of reach.

That might be nice, actually.  If they all just sort of… fade.  If the sea washes in and drowns out the harsh sounds, and the spiking heartbeat of the hurt settles to a gentle sort of pulse that barely registers through all the water.  If he just…

Christ, sleeplessness isn’t a good look on him.  Makes him weird.  Weirder, arguably.

He closes the laptop lid and picks up his phone.  Once he’s on the Travelodge’s admittedly slightly shaky wifi, so that he’ll be sending messages on that instead of on the gold-plated, platinum-lined wiring systems of the international roaming service, he taps over to his text log with Roy and starts typing.

Let me know what your schedule looks like today -- I figure you probably have doctor’s orders not to go into court but I don’t figure that will necessarily stop you.  I should be able to get on skype any time after about 10 am your time (Monday that is).  Just let me know.

It’s half an hour past midnight where Roy is.  He better be asleep and resting his broken-ass head, the bastard.

Didn’t Riza say she had to wake him up periodically to make sure he didn’t have a concussion?  How long does that go on?  Pertinently, has Roy thanked her lately for being a saint?

Whatever the case, Ed can’t afford to sit here staring at his phone and willing a reply bubble to appear.  He just can’t.  He learned that lesson a long damn time ago—if you let your universe revolve around a solitary light source without any independent motion, all your planets are going to be singed on one side and frozen on the other.

…yeah, he really needs some fucking sleep.

Desperation’s going to land him at a Starbucks trying to chug some burnt-bean-water, isn’t it?


Roy dropped Ed off on the nearest accessible street to his lab building—which still left him with a bit of a trek, part of it uphill; but cut a full half-mile off of the walk from the parking garage, so he wasn’t about to start complaining.

The hill, as it turned out, was a bitch—embarrassingly e-fucking-nough, his ass was sore, and everything kept pulling the wrong way, and it hurt enough that he caught himself gritting his teeth more than once over the course of what couldn’t have been more than a five-hundred-foot ascent.  It wasn’t even steep.  He was getting fucking soft in his old age.

Eventually he survived the perilous freaking journey, but he couldn’t muster a sigh of relief as he badged into the building and started down the eerily empty halls.  There were other people around—there always were; research snoozed, but it never really slept, and lab hours were the most inconsistent shit imaginable as a result of the experiments’ weird-ass REM patterns and frequently non-negotiable demands—but he couldn’t see or hear any of them, so did it really matter?  Paola was due back Wednesday, and she’d sent him a bunch of work she’d done so he could leverage it with his, which was great, but—

But he was alone here.  And he didn’t know what the fuck he might find when he unlocked the door to a space that was supposed to be his sanctuary.

Nothing for it except to drag in a deep breath and find out.

He put his key in the lock, turned it, and opened the door.

The floor directly in front of him was mercifully empty.

To get any further than that, somebody would’ve had to talk the janitors into letting them in—which Ed wouldn’t exactly put past a certain diabolically manipulative motherfucker, but it seemed like too much work to suit that asshole’s style.  Kimblee was into maximum agony for minimum effort, after all.



Ed closed the door behind him, which might’ve been a bad idea, since this was a pretty well-acknowledged part of the process of becoming a recluse.  On the off-chance that some diligent postdoc wandered down the hallway to go to the bathroom or something, though, it’d probably give him a fucking heart attack, so it sounded better to seal himself in the room with the humming machines and the hollowness.



Data, then.  Data was good.  Data was safe.

Paola had sent him some really good shit—which made him feel kind of guilty, on the one hand, because she shouldn’t’ve been worrying about work at a time like that; but was sort of a relief, on the other, because she must not have felt too shitty, or she would’ve begged off.  And, of course, Ed himself took solace in science often enough that it was probably a huge psychological red flag, so maybe she did the same.

He had to start looking on that fabled fucking bright side Al was always talking about.  Maybe it was good.  Maybe it was good for both of them.

He turned the ringer on his cell all the way up and made sure the text sounds were on, just in case he went into a science trance and didn’t notice Roy updating him on the progress of Elicia’s artistic talents and/or sending selfies and shit.  Even at the worst of times, Ed supported Elicia about a thousand percent in whatever the hell her latest whim inspired her to do, but it was more than just that.  Things were still… delicate.  Maybe.  Roy wasn’t exhibiting any outward signs of awkwardness, but Roy and awkwardness had a sort of oil-and-watery relationship to start with, on top of which Roy was the master of hiding shit he didn’t want showing on his face—so that didn’t tell Ed much.  He felt awkward.  He felt like he had shit to make up for—shit to prove.  Even aside from the basic problem of his poisonous inadequacy etcetera and so on, now there was the fact that he’d semi-deliberately fucking hurt Roy and then clumsily tried to mend the break instead of cleaving it clean.  So that was another shitty thing he had to atone for, in some way.  No matter what Roy said, it counted; those things mattered, in the sum of who you were and how you affected people—in the measure of your li—

The lab landline rang.

The noise was so fucking loud and trilly and unfamiliar that Ed actually fell off of his chair, banging his elbow on the benchtop on his way down—which yanked a yelp out of him, which echoed, which unsettled him even more—

The floor seemed like a really nice fucking place to chill right now—he could just stay here and wait out the rings, right?  Just—not answer.  Not deal with it.  Who the fuck knew who it was, anyway?  And his whole arm was angry pins-and-needles numb, and…

Who even had this number?

It had to be online—even if he hadn’t put it up, they had half a dozen directories.  It was public knowledge: easily accessible, tied to his stupid fucking name.

He had to know.

He had to know if it was—

He flailed one hand up and gripped the benchtop and dragged himself upright, set his jaw and his shoulders and the last of his resolve, and took the three strides over to the stupid fucking phone.

His heart-rate had increased so fucking fast that his head felt light; the damned fucking stupid piece of shit excuse for an organ responsible was in his throat again, strangling him, pounding hard—

The caller ID said Izumi Curtis.

He dropped into the chair right next to it and picked up the receiver, holding his breath while he lifted it so that he could speak on an exhale instead of in choppy little gasps.

“Hey,” he said.

Totally natural.  Totally not-crazy—normal and nice.  Civil.  Some shit.

He didn’t have fucking anxiety.  He didn’t.  He was fine.  He was going to be fine.

“Hey yourself,” Izumi said.  She didn’t sound concerned; with any luck, she hadn’t caught the scent of his slowly-dissipating abject panic.  “I was hoping you wouldn’t pick up because you were out enjoying your life with your, and I quote, ‘Egregiously attractive boyfriend’.”

“Was that Valerie?” Ed asked.

“Who else?” Izumi asked.  “Can I get you a coffee?”

Ed glanced towards the clock, then looked back at the phone—which also had a clock, which he hadn’t noticed, because he was a moron.  “Jesus, when did it get to be two?  Yeah, sure, um—you wanna meet in the middle somewhere?”

“Sometime shortly after one fifty-nine, I imagine,” Izumi said, but he could hear her smiling slightly to take the dry edge off of it.  “Quarto in ten?”

Ed tried to calculate based on the distance versus his estimated sore-ass-impeded velocity.  Quarto was one of those little campus cafés where you could use your student meal points, if you had such things, and it was tacked onto the side of the theater building.  No one had ever explained to Ed why the theater department nudged up against the edges of the science region so much; maybe it was to imply that they were all drama queens.  Which was, for the record, fair.  “I think I can do that, yeah.”

“C’mon, Elric,” Izumi said.  “You ‘think’, or you will?”

Ed grimaced.  “Have I mentioned that I miss working with you already?”

“You’re so sweet,” Izumi said.  “See you soon.”

He threw a notepad and a couple pens into his bag—with his laptop, of course, because he was never going anywhere without his precious baby ever again, or leaving it anywhere alone; it needed him—and slung it over his left shoulder on his way out the door.  He locked up behind himself.  It wasn’t like anybody was going to need to get in, after freakin’ all.

At the very least, the walk to Quatro was all on flat ground, and it wound through a dense little copse of ash trees that he’d always liked—there were benches and shit sort of scattered around off of the sides of the path, and it was so badly paved that people on bikes mostly avoided it, which was about the best-possible-case scenario as far as walking routes were concerned.  Much less likely to get you turned into roadkill all around.

The leaves hadn’t really started falling yet, because September was a douchebag, and it was still warm bordering on muggy-gross, and Ed was wrapped up in his myriad dumbass thoughts—so it took him a little while to notice what sounded like footsteps behind him.

He was trying to talk himself down almost before his blood ran fucking cold—this was a populous area of campus.  It was a Saturday relatively close to lunchtime, and half of the regular food outlets were closed on weekends, which forced students to go further afield in search of study snacks and shit.  Hell, it was, by most sun-worshipping weirdo-normal people’s standards, a “nice day”.  There were a thousand reasons to be out here, behind him, walking at a similar pace to his, that didn’t involve following him deliberately with the intention of tracking him down.

He couldn’t just—spin around and fucking look.  If it was some random student heading to the gym, they’d remember the fucking weirdo guy with the long blond ponytail who was giving people the crazy eyes, and if someone mentioned that he was a professor, the rumor mill would grind out so much shit—

Besides which, it’d be giving in—wouldn’t it?  Succumbing to the paranoia meant letting Kimblee win.  That was what that fucker wanted, in the end—to fuck Ed’s whole life over in that subtle, insidious, unprovable way; to tear him down again and force him to rebuild himself on a cracked fucking foundation.  For fun.

He also had to resist the urge to square his shoulders; if it really was somebody tailing him, they’d notice, and then they’d know, and…

Maybe if he faked like he needed to go into the next building—they were coming up on the engineering quad; he could jog up the stairs and then stop by the doors and pretend to be checking for a meeting location on his phone, and that’d give him a chance to look over his shoulder and—

Had they stopped?

He’d just passed a fork in the pathway; maybe they’d turned off.

It was nothing.  Of course it was nothing.  Jesus fucking Christ.

He listened hard again, but there didn’t seem to be anybody still behind him.  He wasn’t going to turn around.  He ran his hand through his bangs and let a breath out really fucking slow.

Shit.  He was fine.  He was always fine.  He didn’t have a choice.

“Hello, stranger,” Izumi said, getting up from the table she’d claimed just inside the window when he stepped through the café door.  “Black coffee, but I forget how many sugars, so I left you a pile.”  She hugged him tight and then fixed her hand on his right shoulder and pointed to the bandage on his face.  “What happened?”

“Fender bender,” he said.  The more he spoke the words to people, the truer they sounded.  Language was funny that way.  “It’s nothing.  Stitches come out this week.  You didn’t have to buy me freakin’ coffee.”

“Nope,” Izumi said, practically pushing him into the chair.  “But I did anyway, so you better drink it.  How’ve you been?”  She eyed him as she sat.  “How have you really been?”

Obvious hesitation would be the end of him, so he filled the space with a shrug.  “Lot of…” He waved towards his forehead.  “Personal shit, but—other than that, okay.”

“Bullshit,” Izumi said—so crisply that he almost jumped.  “I’m not old enough to have forgotten how it is when you’re starting out, Ed.”

He might’ve wilted fast enough to make a thirsty plant proud, but nobody could prove it.  “I—all right, yeah, I mean—it’s a little—overwhelming.”

Izumi sipped delicately at her tea.  “That’s more like it.”  She looked at him over the rim, and the cup covered her mouth, but he could see that she was smiling.  “You know we miss the hell out of you, right?”

He was definitely not blushing a little bit.  “What?  Why?  I figured you couldn’t wait to get me out of there.  Although I think there’s a permanent imprint of my ass on that chair, so you probably had to throw it out.”

“I was surprised we didn’t have to pry you off that thing with a crowbar,” Izumi said.  “I almost cried when I had to put your picture up on the alumni wall.”

Ed stopped with his hand poised to dump a sugar packet in his coffee cup.  “You did not.”

“I did,” Izumi said.  “Ask Valerie.  Actually, don’t; I think she’ll just interrogate you about your man.”

Fuck.  Absolutely one-hundred-fucking-percent blushing now.  He ducked his head; maybe she wouldn’t notice.  “Valerie needs to get a life.”

“Valerie needs to get laid,” Izumi said, perfectly calmly.  It kind of went without saying that Ed missed the hell out of her.  “Sometimes I feel like I should add a mandatory hour at the start of lab meeting that has to be spent browsing”

“Better than Tinder,” Ed said.

“She’s on that one, too,” Izumi said.  She raised an eyebrow.  “Speaking of which, in a roundabout sort of way—how are things with yours?”

Ed’s brain stumbled.  “I don’t have Tinder.  It’s a crock of shit.”

Izumi raised the other eyebrow, but she was smiling again.  “Your man.”

“Oh,” Ed said.  “Um—good.  Fine.”

Ed had heard it said that a single look from Izumi Curtis could send an undergrad who hadn’t done their homework into an instantaneous coma.

He’d always believed that one.

Especially when she was looking at him like that.

“Uh,” he said.  “Mostly good.  I mean, we had a…”  Fight?  Sort of.  Argument?  Kind of.  Breakup?  …ish.  “…thing.  Problem.  Problem-thing.”  He swallowed, fiddling with the torn edge of one of the sugar packets so that he wouldn’t have to look at her, since she was probably judging him hardcore.  “Disagreement, I guess.”

“Was it about money?” Izumi asked.

He couldn’t help glancing up at that, but she had a hell of a fucking poker face on all of a sudden.  “Huh?  No.”

She tilted her head just slightly.  “Was it about sex?”

Since he’d evidently entered a parallel universe, it didn’t really matter what he said from this point on.  “No, no, no—it—was—I mean—the thing is, like—”

He took a deep breath.  For years he’d felt strongly like Izumi’s expectations for him leveled out somewhere around the stratosphere—and when it came to science, that was a fucking breeze; but when it came to who he was as a human being, he always ended up floundering around helplessly trying to sound less-stupid than he knew he was.

But it came down to logic, in the end, like a lot of things did.

If she didn’t respect him, she wouldn’t have fought to help him get that PhD.

And if she didn’t genuinely care about him, she wouldn’t have offered him time out of her day and the price of a coffee out of her wallet.

So he breathed, and tried his damnedest to be worthy of that.

“It was about me,” he said.  “About me being a drain on him when that’s the last thing he freakin’ needs, I guess.”

Her features hadn’t shifted, but there was a chilly gleam in her eye that reminded him of…

Al, bizarrely.

“Did he say that?” she asked.

Why did everybody get that part backwards?

“No,” Ed said, and if it came out a little too fast, well—good.  Maybe that would convince her he meant it.  “He said… I mean, he said a lot of things, but the whole problem is that he didn’t say that.  He wouldn’t say that.  Even if it was true.  Especially if it was.  Which I really, really think it is, and—”

From between his hands, there came a tiny little tsch noise and then a brief little hiss of a crescendo.  He’d worried at the corner of one of the sugar packets so much with his fingertips that it had split open and spilled all over the tabletop.

“Shit,” he said.

“Leave it,” she said.  “And what?”

Deep breaths were apparently the name of the game yet again today.  Maybe he needed to stop waiting for a day when that wasn’t fucking true.

“When you met Sig,” he said, “how did you know you were anywhere near as good for him as he was for you?”

Silence settled in and reproduced and colonized the space between them for a long moment—long enough that Ed caught himself listening intently to the all-too-familiar clank and clatter of cups and utensils coming from the bar, and the muted tones of the conversation two tables over, just to make sure he hadn’t gone suddenly deaf.  That’d be just his fucking luck, after all, so—

“I didn’t,” Izumi said, about as softly as he’d ever heard her say anything.  “You can’t.  That’s the thing—people aren’t like science.  You can’t prove anything.  You can’t know; you can never know.  You have to take what they tell you for truth and mark that as data points.  You have to believe what they say, and you have to trust what you feel.  That’s all you get to go on.”

Ed tried to corral the spilt sugar into a little mountain with the palm of his hand—which was definitely not shaking again or anything, because that would be stupid.  “That’s really illogical.”

“Tell me about it,” Izumi said.  “People make quantum physics look like a walk in the park.”

That dragged a smile out of Ed against his will, and he chanced glancing up at her.  She didn’t look like she was judging him nearly as hard as he’d expected, so that was something, right?

She was smiling, but it had gone all… sad, somehow.

“Christ, Ed,” she said.  “You really don’t think you’re special, do you?”

That was a tough question, because it pitted his natural inclination towards contrariness against the concrete facts of his existence.

“I’m barely getting by,” he said.  “What’s so special about that?”  He hadn’t even meant to say that much, but he’d displaced a load-bearing beam with it, and he could feel the walls quaking—the whole fucking house was about to come down, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  “I just—every single day is like a fucking mountain, and I’m tired, and I feel like all I do is fuck up and fall down everywhere I go, so—what’s the point, right?”  He wrapped both hands around the coffee cup and tried to find some kind of little-detail beauty or some shit in the way it warmed his palms.  Wasn’t that supposed to be nice?  “Does it ever—does it ever get easier?”

“Easier?” Izumi asked.  “Yes.  Easy?  Not in this universe.”  She leaned forward towards him, and her eyes were unbelievably intense and somehow sort of gentle at the same time.  “It’s like disease immunity.  Something comes at you once, your T-cells are all over it.  Next time, you have the antibodies, and your body already knows how to fight it.  But viruses evolve, right?  They mutate; they develop nine kinds of drug resistance; they learn and grow just like we do; they come back different and sometimes stronger.  Or there’s something new out there ready to knock you on your ass.  You change, and your problems change.  But—no.  It never gets easy.  You never get to quit rolling with the punches.”

Ed needed some of that coffee right about now.  He still had the presence of mind to blow on the surface before he sipped—and the presence of mind to remember that he’d ranted about that habit before, because how much of a real fucking difference could it make?  There wasn’t any consequential alteration in the fluid dynamics; and a person’s breath was likely to be warm enough that it wouldn’t affect anything thermodynamically speaking, so…

“Ed,” Izumi said, and how was this the second time in two days that somebody had reached a hand across a coffee shop table to get his attention?  “You’re doing a wonderful job.  I always assumed some part of you knows it, but—you don’t, do you?  You really think everyone else is better at this game than you are, and that somehow any shortcomings on your part are your own fault.”

This was why Ed didn’t need a psychiatrist or some medication or whatever shit—everybody already saw through him anyway.

“You’re amazing,” Izumi said.  “It’s not easy, and it never feels easy, but you’re doing great.  You’ve done incredible things with your life, fighting tooth and nail and giving all of yourself to it.  I admire you.  I mean that.  I’ve mentored forty students since I started this thing, Ed—you think I say that to every one of them?  You think I’d say it if it wasn’t true?”

He wanted to believe her.  She wasn’t a bullshitter; she never had been.  She didn’t beat around the bush, and she didn’t sugarcoat shit, and that intimidated the hell out of a lot of people—it had intimidated him, at first, but in the end it was part of why they’d always gotten along so well.

He wanted to believe her.

But it rolled off.

“Thanks,” he said, because that was the polite response.

She was damn smart, which was also part of why they got along.  “One of these days,” she said, “someone’s going to get through your skull, Elric.”

“Maybe,” he said.  “With a scalpel.  Or a drill.”  He pointed to he gauze.  “My steering wheel tried, but…”

She was shaking her head as she sat back.  “Listen—bottom line is, as far as the relationship thing goes?  If you’re happier together than apart, stay together.  If you’re not, then don’t.”

He looked at her.

She looked back.

“Yes, I just criminally oversimplified your life,” she said.  “Drink your coffee.”

He was so accustomed to following her directions that he sipped without even questioning it.

“So,” he said, slightly tentatively it had to be admitted.  “How are things in your neck of the woods?”

“More or less the same,” she said.  “We do have a new autoclave slave—pardon me, undergraduate.  She’s Latvian and incredibly polite.  It’s really a pity you’re not around to blow her mind with unapologetic profanity.”

“Thanks,” Ed said.  “I think.”

Izumi’s smile was just a tiny bit too satisfied for a second, but then she started telling him all about the project she had the undergrad on, and all of the cool things this kid would get to learn, and that was—good.  That was good.  It was good to think about; it was good to remember how bright and exciting and fascinatingly complex and delightfully, terrifyingly open-ended research was when you were first starting out.  How huge the world of science could be.  How much you could do with just your brain… and a couple of pieces of multiple-thousand-dollar equipment bolted down to a lab bench.

“I hope you know,” Izumi was saying, “that if you ever need to borrow the ultracentrifuge, all you have to do is ask.  You could probably just show up, but if you get in the way of Valerie’s mad dash for the doctorate, I can’t guarantee you’ll survi—”

A part of him registered the bell at the door jingling when someone opened it.  A much larger part registered a low, smooth, quasi-musical voice saying “Good afternoon.”

And that part made him tense up and spin around so fast his shoulder tweaked, and the end of his ponytail whipped around and slapped the side of his own fucking face—

It was—

Some guy.

It was just some guy he’d never seen before—not even fucking close to Kimblee; this guy was black, for starters, with a really striking, angular face and a big smile he was directing at some girl who was jumping up from her table to greet him.

Not Kimblee.

Just some guy—some total stranger with a rich voice that sounded a little bit like the one he was expecting at every fucking turn.

The breath was darting in and out of him rough and fucking fast; he tried to slow it by force as he settled in his chair again.  Pity he wasn’t dumb enough to think Izumi wouldn’t have noticed that.  Pity nobody on the planet could’ve failed to fucking notice, let alone a seriously intelligent, searingly insightful professor and scientist who had known him for years.

Sure enough, she was watching him intently, with that terrifyingly meaningful eyebrow raised.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

He swallowed, then swallowed again to make sure his voice wouldn’t shake.  “Not… especially.”

“When you do,” she said, “you’ve got my cell, okay?”

They were wrong—all of them.  He had never done a damn thing in his life to deserve any of the extraordinary people all around him.

“Okay,” he said.

It was a lot easier than saying I could never bring myself to ask someone to help me carry this shit; how could I impose that on another human being?  It was a lot easier than Mayday’s for when you’re dying, not for when you’re desperate.  Desperation you have to do alone.

Maybe that was stupid.

Maybe Roy had a point, about there being something badly-fucking-wired in his brain; maybe—

But he was better than that.  He was more than that.  He could beat it—he could kill it; drown it; crush it; win.  He just had to try a little harder.  That was all.  He just had to get a handle on himself and work at it a little more.  He was fine.  It was fine.  Everything was going to be fine.

“So,” Izumi said, apparently taking fucking pity on him and his pathetic, awkward, coffee-clutching, soul-searching silence.  “What are you working on today?”

Maybe the coffee hadn’t been the best idea—sure, she’d already bought it for him; but it also took him on a weird energy roller-coaster, which concluded with him tilting his lab chair back as far as it could go and spinning himself around slowly, kicking off of the leg of the bench every time he came around to bolster his momentum.

The lab ceiling, upon careful observation, was a little weird.  It was made up of all of these subtly mismatched tiles—like they’d run out of white ones and just sort of thrown in whatever they had left from other buildings or some shit.  On the one hand, that gave it character; on the other, it sort of made him worry about what else they’d half-assed when they built this lab.  What if one of the fucking CO2 lines had enough character to spring a leak and gas them all the fuck to death, or—?

His phone bleeped deafeningly loudly, and he startled so hard he almost fell out of the chair for the second time in a single day.

With that potential crisis averted by sheer dumb luck, he fumbled to get the damn thing out of his pocket so that he could see the screen.

Hi, you, <3 Roy had written.  Bastard was probably going to abuse the hell out of the renewed opportunity to spam Ed with the little hearts.  Ready for a culinary adventure, or should we go buy some sparkly things to give you a bit more time?

what kind of sparkly things are we talking about? he sent.  that’s a pretty broad category.  could be anything.  is Gracia going to let you back in the house if you all try to bring sparkly obelisks and shit in with you?  haha no i’m ready whenever but take your time if you’ve got stuff you still wanna do, no prob

He hadn’t diagrammed the ceiling tile pattern yet, after all.

Be there in a thought, Roy wrote.  Or about fifteen minutes, whichever’s faster.  I know you have very complex thoughts; I’m hedging my bets.

Ed typed out you are infuckingcorrigible is what you are but then deleted it, because texting Roy knowing that he was driving at the time sounded pretty reckless, particularly in light of his own recent close encounter of the car accident kind.

He settled for walking his possibly-dumb, definitely-sore ass back down to the little turnout area where Roy had dropped him off.  The hill managed to be almost as much of a bitch on the way down, which was sort of impressive, actually; he felt like he should pen a sternly-worded, reluctantly-admiring letter to the university’s landscapers.

They’d ended up picking a spot near the front of one of the dorm buildings, so there was a bus stop bench just a little ways down the sidewalk—but, firstly, there was nothing more awkward than having to wave a bus past you with the specific sort of chagrin that made it painfully clear that you were just using their route as furniture; and second, he’d been sitting all damn day so far anyway.  He settled for leaning against the pole of the sign reading Loading Zone, although based on the slightly uncertain look he garnered from a passing student just for that, apparently loitering with long hair was frowned upon on this fucking campus.  Wasn’t that just the story of his fucking life?

Fortunately, one of the much better chapter headings turned up in the requisite obnoxiously sexy sports car about forty seconds later, so there wasn’t time to stew.

Elicia rolled her window down as Roy slowed the car.  She was wearing Roy’s sunglasses, which looked almost as good on her as they did on him—rather less dashing, to be fair, but every bit as fashionable and whatever shit.

“Get in, loser,” she said.  “We’re going grocery shopping.”

Ed was laughing as he opened the rear door and bundled himself and his bag into the back seat, but she turned around anyway, looking concerned.

“I don’t really think you’re a loser,” she said.  “It’s a ‘Mean Girls’ quote.”

“Don’t worry,” Ed said.  “Winry made us see it three times in the theater.”

Roy cleared his throat, craning his neck into the little space between the front seats.  “Hello, gorgeous.”

Ed’s cheeks might’ve been a touch more pinkish than was their wont as he leaned in for the kiss.  “Hey.”

A part of him—a dumb part, maybe, but a hyper-socialized, deeply-ingrained part that many years of hacking hadn’t cut out yet—was afraid that Elicia was going to make a face or a noise or something because they’d made her uncomfortable.  But if they’d been a dude and a chick, nobody would’ve cared, right?  A little greeting peck was fucking G-rated shit in any other circumstances, wasn’t it?

In any case—either because she was too well-raised or because the world was finally fucking changing—Elicia didn’t bat an eyelash.

“Hey, Ed,” she said as he sat back, and Roy fired up the engine.  “You’re a smarty-pants professor now, right?”

“Well,” Ed said, “I’m a professor, anyway.  Assistant professor.  But it counts.”

“I always figured science professors had to have glasses,” Elicia said.  “Like, that was a requirement for getting the job and stuff.  You gotta check a box on your résumé.”

Ed grinned instead of grimacing, though the latter was what he wanted to do, because even just the thought made him envision how he’d look.

He’d look like his fucking father.  Unmistakably.

“Guess I cheated, then,” he said.

“My mom says I probably have to get glasses,” Elicia said, sounding almost as put-out as he would have.  “She says I have my dad’s eyes.”

Life was full of weird parallels when you started to pay attention.

“I used to get that, too,” he said.

“You’d look great in glasses,” Roy told Elicia.  “Extremely sophisticated.  And you could emphasize your sarcasm whenever you wanted by looking over the top of them.”

“Plus if you didn’t like ’em,” Ed said, “you’re really responsible, so I bet you could convince your mom to let you get contacts if you took good care of them for a while.  And then you could get a couple different pairs of colored ones and change your eyes to match your outfits.”

Speaking of Elicia’s eyes, they’d just lit up.  Fucking bingo, as they said.

“Like in The Wizard of Oz,” Elicia said.  “Where she asks them to dye her eyes to match her dress.”

“Oh, dear,” Roy said.  “Princess, please don’t beg your mother for colored contact lenses.”

“I won’t tell her it was your idea,” Elicia said.

“In that case,” Roy said, “go right ahead.”

“Thanks, Uncle Roy,” Elicia said brightly.

“I guess we should make something with carrots,” Roy said.  “Since we’re now on a mission to preserve your eyesight.  You’ll need it if you’re going to take up photography.  Or is the carrot thing a myth, Resident Scientist?”

“Can I put that on my business card?” Ed asked.  “And it’s sort of true.  Vitamin A and stuff.”

“How about carrot cake?” Elicia asked.

“I’m not sure that counts,” Roy said.  “In addition to which I’m fairly sure your mother would eviscerate me if we made carrot cake for dinner.”

Elicia lowered his sunglasses to give him a reprimanding look that she had definitely inherited from the woman in question.  “I meant for after dinner, Uncle Roy.”

He grinned at her.  “Well, then—do you know how to make carrot cake?”

“I think there’s cream cheese in it,” Elicia said.

“If there isn’t,” Ed said, “we still end up with cream cheese, so I figure that’s a win.”

“I didn’t know cream cheese was such a draw for you,” Roy said.  “If I had, I would have repainted the walls with it a long time ago.”

Eew,” Elicia said, but she was laughing.  She pushed the sunglasses up all the way into her hair to emphasize the look she was giving Roy this time.  “It’d mold!”

“Don’t scientists like mold?” Roy asked.

“Just because I may or may not accidentally cultivate it in your shower,” Ed said, “which I’m not admitting to, mind you, ’cause I know how this lawyer stuff works… that doesn’t mean I like it.”

“Mold is gross,” Elicia said.  “There’s lots of science that’s nice and clean and stuff.  Isn’t there?”

“Next time you come over,” Ed said, “we’re going to the planetarium.  And then we’re gonna learn about astrophotography.”

“And then you’re going to beg your mother for a telescope,” Roy said, “that matches your contact lenses.”

“It’s educational,” Ed said.

“It is,” Roy said.  “In economics.”

I’ll buy her a telescope,” Ed said.  “For Christmas.”

“Really?” Elicia asked, sounding excited enough to be the future discoverer of at least three extrasolar planets.

There was just one problem, which was the one Roy had already pinpointed.

“Um,” Ed said, “yeah.  Just as soon as I… get tenure… and start making enough money for that kind of thing.”

“When’s that gonna be?” Elicia asked.

Ed tried to sink back into the seat leather far enough to disappear, but no luck.  “Probably, like… ten years or so.”

“If you still want one by your birthday,” Roy said before Elicia’s face could fall any further and ruin Ed’s life any more, “I’ll pitch in.”

Elicia lit up again instantly.  “You mean it?”  Her face then got caught in an interesting transitional state between delighted optimism and cynical uncertainty.  “You don’t mean it.  You’re just saying that.”

“I do mean it,” Roy said.  “You may have noticed that I happen to have a soft spot for science geeks.”

“You’re going to have a soft spot in your skull if you call me a geek again,” Ed said.  “I’m a nerd, Mustang; get with the program.”

“Terribly sorry,” Roy said.

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Ed said.

Elicia was watching them with a huge smile, with the sunglasses tugged low enough now that Ed could see the little crinkles at the corners of her eyes.

“You two are really cute,” she said.

“Oh, shit,” Ed said, forgetting the Don’t swear in front of Gracia’s kid rule.  “Roy, pull over; I think I’m gonna barf.”

“Suck it up, dear,” Roy said.  “You brought this one on yourself.”

Ed mimed collapsing dramatically across the back seat in despair, which made the seatbelt edge dig into his neck but also made Elicia laugh, so the pain was mostly worth it.

Elicia documented their entire culinary experience with her little handheld Canon camera, which apparently had been her joint present from Roy and her mom for her last birthday.  Ed didn’t know shit about photography from a practical perspective, but he did know that he’d seen an awful lot of pictures of food sitting in cookware on top of tables.  With fruit, painters and whoever had elevated that to the concept of a “still life”—as though there was any “life” in dead plant ovaries, but that was beside the point.

Elicia also seemed to be taking an awful lot of pictures of him and Roy elbowing each other and tugging on each other’s hair (the latter was pretty one-sided) and making faces at each other.  He was hoping the one of him histrionically menacing Roy with the chef’s cleaver had turned out well.  Maybe she’d email it to him, and he could make it his phone background.

They’d bailed on the carrot cake plan upon remembering that Gracia could bake circles around all of them without even trying, so it was sort of pointless to make something that Elicia would just have to bring home to the master in disgrace.  Roy had suggested steak with vegetables and mashed potatoes as an alternative, which—other than the fact that Ed had a moment in the grocery store where his eyes went a little hazy, and his hands twitched with the urge to tear Roy’s clothes off and jump him in the middle of the produce aisle—had turned out to be an excellent idea all around.

They delivered Elicia back to her house with a leftover steak wrapped up in foil for her mother and an SD card full of low-level blackmail material.  Hopefully Gracia would appreciate one or the other.

Roy didn’t even wait until they were across the threshold back home to sling his arm around Ed’s waist.

“Is your ass okay?” he asked.

Ed wrinkled his nose.  “My ass is fine,” he said.

Roy winked back.  “Well, I knew that.”

Ed rolled his eyes so hard he almost lost them inside his own skull.  “Save the buttering up for the potatoes.”

Roy’s hand swept up his back and then back down, lightly.  “Can I make you a hot chocolate?”

Ed blinked up at him.  “Hang on—are we still flirting?  Is that your way of offering to give me some sugar?”

Roy’s fingers trailed through his hair again.  “Well, sugar’s always on the menu, but I meant it.  I should be more specific: can I make you a Bailey’s hot chocolate?”

Ed nudged his shoulder in under Roy’s arm, just to give the man’s ribs a break from the elbow before it left a mark or something.  “What, liquoring me up, too?”

“Maybe a bit,” Roy said, running his knuckles along the curve underneath Ed’s shoulder-blade.  “You seem a little…”

“Anxious?” Ed asked, and it took about everything in him not to tense up enough to prove it.

“Piqued,” Roy said—voice low and completely calm, though the hand stroking at Ed’s hair told a slightly different story.  “Rattled.  Overstimulated.  Just a touch.”

Ed bumped his hip against Roy’s—maybe-possibly against Roy’s thigh, rather than the ideal intended target—to try to communicate that he wasn’t upset or whatever shit.  Another time he might’ve been, but he was tired, and… and, well, shit.  Roy was on his side.  Roy wanted to be on his side.  That was the point, really, and he was trying to keep it in his crosshairs instead of letting all the ambient shit distract him.

“I’m okay,” he said.  “I mean it.  Just—I mean, maybe a little antsy, but—I had coffee with Izumi earlier, so it’s probably half the coffee and half her.”

They’d gravitated over towards the couch, which wasn’t exactly a surprise; Elicia was awesome, but hanging out with kids was like wrestling a hurricane at the best of times.  Ed dropped onto the deliciously fucking familiar cushions (he’d almost given this up—) and got settled; Roy perched next to him and splayed a hand on his knee.  Presumably he was trying to imply that he was still ready to dart into the kitchen and start pouring liqueur into cocoa at the slightest provocation.

“Is she delighted to see you establishing yourself, or regretting that you’re no longer expanding your ferocious intellect under her guidance?” Roy asked, because apparently people like Roy could talk with words like that in real time.

“Kind of both,” Ed said.  His eyes felt blurry again, so he rubbed at them, which made them feel like he’d rubbed them too hard.  “But it’s like… she was saying I’m doing really well, right?”

“You are,” Roy said.

Ed made a valiant attempt to stop using any of the muscles in his back and let the couch support him completely.  “I mean, logically—from a distance, in a big-picture kind of way—I know that.  I mean, I know I’m doing okay.  I did a lot of the shit that’s supposed to mean you’re successful, or a competent adult, or whatever the fuck it is.”

Roy smiled—gently, and his fingers curled until they were squeezing Ed’s knee.

“But?” he said softly.

“But day-to-day,” Ed said, “minute-to-minute, like—it just feels like everything is fucking crumbling.  Always.  All the time.  Like everything is constantly falling to fucking pieces, and there’re only so many things I can grab onto and hold to my chest and keep safe, and I’m always going to be missing something, and something’s always going to slip.”

Roy’s face was a fucking masterpiece, and no goddamn mistake.  It wasn’t just gorgeous—obviously it was gorgeous, but it was more than that: it was complicated.  It was nuanced and delicate and constantly in flux.

“Ed,” he said.

“Except enough about fucking me,” Ed said.

Roy’s mouth quirked.  “There’s no such thing as enough about fucking you.”

Ed reached up to push—less than halfheartedly; a quarter- or a third-heartedly, more like—at Roy’s shoulder.  “You know what I mean.  So tell me about your case.”

The two-second pause was just long enough for Roy to have analyzed everything that Ed wasn’t giving voice to—and to have decided that it wasn’t worth arguing over things that hadn’t ever quite been said.

“If you want to hear about that,” Roy said, “I’m going to have to make enough Bailey’s hot chocolate for the both of us.”

“Deal,” Ed said.

It was only when they were practically halfway into the mugs that Roy finally caved—looking intently at the far wall, he started, haltingly at first, to explain that the deeper he dug, the more the dirt on Bradley scared the hell out of him.  There were red flags tangled up in red tape everywhere; a thousand bad signs in increasingly bright colors—the outright accusations were only the surface of the damage; the implications swelled like an iceberg underneath.  No one went at a man with that much power head-on, which meant that the fact that people had attempted at all

And it was an impersonal crime they’d dragged the general to court for—petty fraud; tax evasion; bureaucratic crap.  Was it unethical to defend him on those grounds, against allegations of which he probably was innocent, when the contours of bloody skeletons kept multiplying in his closet, and the shadows were only going to hide them for so long?

Roy was starting to think the guy had taken bald-faced bribes from arms dealers—and, if not staged, shamelessly provoked conflicts with the local Afghanis in order to make the weapons look necessary.  People had died.  There was just enough evidence to suggest that he’d been responsible for half a dozen casualties of friendly fire for similar reasons; there were just enough clues to whisper that he’d smeared every soldier who tried to blow the whistle and sent them packing with a discharge or a surface wound or worse.

And that changed everything.  It changed Roy’s memories, and he had to keep calling up all the sleeping demons to try to figure out what they would have looked like if he’d known then what he knew now.  Could he live with himself if he accepted payment from someone who could have unquantifiable gallons of blood splashed across his hands?

“I know,” Roy said, with a dry rasp of a noise too faint to qualify as a sardonic laugh, “that there is no ‘right’ thing to do—but what the hell is the least wrong?”

Ed swallowed hard.  Roy was leaning against him, head resting on top of his.  He fumbled in the space between them until he found Roy’s hand to grasp it.

“I dunno,” he said.  “I mean—you’re doing your job, right?  Your job right now’s just dealing with the charge he’s in court for, not any of the other stuff.”

“And we need the money,” Roy said.  “The firm, I mean.  I have a choice, obviously, but the other options are a bit bleak.  Is that selfish?”

Ed gripped Roy’s hand a little tighter.  “I don’t know.  I wish I did.  Well—this is sort of how the judicial process has to work, right?  It’s never gonna be cut and dry and black and white, but your place in that system is to present the evidence that pertains to the specific question being tried.  Right?  So the rest of it—I mean, yeah, it matters, but—”

“It’s all right,” Roy said softly, nuzzling at Ed’s temple gently—so clearly he wasn’t feeling quite as bad as he could’ve, if his schmoop instincts were intact.  “Earlier, what you said to Elicia…”

“Al knows people in astronomy,” Ed said.  “And everybody loves Al, so I bet he could get me a pretty damn good used telescope for about a hundred bucks.”

“That’s wonderful,” Roy said, “but I meant what you said about your father’s eyes.”

Ed felt himself going iced-fish immediately—his hand probably transformed into a slab of defrosting salmon in Roy’s, and the rest of him was just stuck.  “Oh.”

Roy extracted his hand from Ed’s—the better to slip his arm around Ed’s shoulders instead.  “It’s just that you don’t talk about him very much.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  He wasn’t sure what the fuck else to say.  “I mean—I had this thing for a long time when I was a kid, where I honestly believed that if I just thought about him as little as possible, he’d know somehow that he didn’t matter to me anymore, and that’d be the best possible revenge.”

He could feel Roy smiling against the side of his head, which should have been weird but wasn’t.  “My experience has always been that trying not to think about something or someone only makes it significantly worse.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “Mine too.”  He reached up to tug on Roy’s collar.  “You’re not exactly a font of anecdotes about your own family.”

“I barely knew them,” Roy said.  “My Aunt Chris is much more interesting anyway.  One of these days when I’m feeling brave, I’ll have to take you by her place.  Well—when you’re feeling brave, too, since you may well be traumatized for life.”

“That kind of ‘interesting’, huh?” Ed asked.

“It’s hard to describe,” Roy said.

“Would she and Pinako get along?” Ed asked.

“Far too well,” Roy said.  “If the planet survived, there would probably be epic poems written afterwards.”

“That tells me pretty much everything I need to know,” Ed said.

Roy drew back, lifting the hand that wasn’t wrapped around Ed’s shoulders to push his hair back from his forehead—which seemed to be Roy’s single favorite completely pointless Sisyphean task.

“Thank you,” he said.

Ed made a face.  “For what?”

“Being you,” Roy said.  “Being you with me.”

Ed made an even better face.  “If you’re going to thank me for that, then I get to thank you for being smoking fucking hot and putting up with my shit and buying me food and letting me hang out with the cool people you know and still talking to me when I don’t take your advice sometimes even though I know it’s good a—”

Roy kissed him to shut him up, which was neither unexpected nor unpleasant.

A part of him didn’t want to go to sleep.

That part of him was right.

He dreamed he was back in Izumi’s lab, and the centrifuge he was using kept spitting his tubes back out at him like a fucking machine-gun, but he had to get this damned experiment done, so he kept trying to dodge them and then chase them down and jam them back in and make them stay in the body of the machine so that he could slam the lid.

He’d almost gotten the fucking thing shut when he heard the voice behind him:

“This is very quaint.”

He tried to keep one arm slung across the centrifuge to hold it closed with his own weight even while he turned—but he didn’t have to look, because he knew

Kimblee smiled at him—no teeth, just pure fucking malice.

Valerie was hanging off of his arm, gazing up at him like he’d bestowed an indescribably precious gift upon her, and Ed just wanted to grab her hand, drag her away from him, shake her by the shoulders—You’re so smart and such a good scientist; you don’t need him; you don’t need anybody; you’re good enough, you are

“You can show me what you’re working on,” Kimblee said, and Valerie was all bubbly enthusiasm; she towed him over to her bench and started trying to explain the seriously cool sequencing experiment she’d come up with.

Kimblee just kept staring, unblinking, uninterrupted, at Ed half-sprawled on top of the centrifuge.  Ed felt a huge flush of fucking embarrassment creeping over him, swelling up from the pit of his stomach and trying to drown his brain—not just at the awkward position he was in; but at the fact that he was responsible, somehow, for bringing this fucking monster into Valerie’s life now, and the asshole wouldn’t even look at her, no matter how misguidedly happy it would’ve made her if he did—

“It’s really simple at the heart of it,” Valerie said.  “It’s about eliminating variables, you know?  Practically just algebra.”

Ed’s throat felt like a desert.  He coughed into his hand.  There was actual fucking sand in his palm when he drew it away.  Fancy that.

“It’s way more than just algebra,” he said.  “It’s frigging brilliant.”

He was double-minded, and the two halves were tearing him down the fucking middle.  On the one hand, he wanted her to get as far away from Kimblee as she could—across several fucking state lines if possible.  On the other, he just wanted that cruel fucking bastard to look at her for a second; the fact that people ignored her all the time was the very thing that had pushed her to this extreme of fucking desperation—

And Kimblee knew it.  Kimblee knew people the instant he laid eyes on them—knew their secrets; knew their insides; knew their mechanisms and which buttons to press to get anything he wanted out of them.  Kimblee knew that she would keep flailing for his attention for a lot longer than this; and Kimblee had known that Ed would go frozen-up and tongue-tied at the mere fucking prospect of what he was capable of.

Valerie was in the middle of a sentence, but Kimblee said, “Do you do any experiments with scalpels, love?”

Her face lit up like an over-decorated house right around Christmas.  “Yeah!”

“Don’t,” Ed croaked out.  His throat stuck, lurched, seethed; he coughed into his sleeve this time—more sand; a tiny hissing waterfall of it cascading down his arm— “Don’t—touch him, don’t—”

There were individual grains of grit on his lips; dust ran down his shirt like a falling halo gone horribly fucking wrong.  Kimblee looked right fucking at him and ran those long, long fingers through Valerie’s hair.

She giggled.  Then she held up a shining silver scalpel.

“Here, babe,” she said.

Ed tried to move—tried to dive for it; tried to throw himself at them, between them, to grab it away and shove them a safe distance apart—but he was sand straight fucking through.  The dunes collapsed in on themselves as he tried to raise his arms; he tried to cling to the fucking centrifuge, but his knees were disintegrating, and his legs were giving way—

“Pay attention,” Kimble said, touching the tip of the blade to the far side of Valerie’s throat.  She gazed up at him in fucking rapture, like she couldn’t even feel it; like she didn’t even care— “You need to see this.”

“Don’t,” Ed said.  “Don’t fucking take it out on her—what’d she ever—”

The dream slipped, and the shadowed contours of the bedroom filled the space.

Ed heard himself drag in a breath.  The mattress shifted slightly; he rolled over to look.

“I’m sorry,” Roy said.  He was sitting up, arms wrapped around his knees, chin resting on them.  The sheets had bunched around his ankles, and his shoulders rose and dropped with a long, slow sigh.

“I’m not,” Ed said.  His voice rasped dry, and the panic surged in his chest for a second until he cleared his throat.  “Was ready to be done with that fucking dream anyway.”

Roy smiled wanly.  “Then I am both sorry and glad to be of service.”

Ed scooted over on his side close enough to lean his head against Roy’s hip a little bit.  Roy reached down and—

God, if he touched Ed’s hair right now, that’d—it’d—he’d—

But he just reached for Ed’s hand, knitting their fingers together and giving it a gentle squeeze.

“You want to talk about it?” Ed asked—for good measure, rather than because he thought Roy actually would.  That was sort of the unwritten rule, wasn’t it?  If you didn’t think about it—didn’t talk about it, didn’t dignify it with your breath or your brain, didn’t grace it with your contemplation or your pain—you felt like it had to have less power over you.  Like if you never looked right at it, it had to let you go.

“No,” Roy said, right on cue.  He lifted Ed’s hand with his and kissed the knuckles, smoothing his thumb across them before he set it down again.  “Thank you, though.”

“Shit,” Ed said.  “We’re a pair of sad sacks, aren’t we?”

“We’re a pair of people,” Roy said.  “And we’re doing the best we can.  As far as I’m concerned, anyone who asks for more than that can fuck themselves.”

“But not right here,” Ed said through a yawn that almost broke his fucking jaw.  “I don’t wanna see that shit.”

“You sure?” Roy asked.  “What if it was… who’s a celebrity you like?”

“You,” Ed said.

“I don’t believe I count,” Roy said.

“I don’t believe I care,” Ed said.

Roy twisted enough to lean down and kiss Ed’s ear—which tickled, but in a kinda-good way.

“Ed,” Roy said, devastatingly soft-voiced and sincere, “I love you.”

Ed cracked an eye open to look up at him—all gorgeous fucking dark edges and the slow curve of a smile.

“I love you, too,” he said, and a little bit of the desert was in his throat again.  “Go to sleep.”

“You first,” Roy said.

The upshot—that is, “upshot” as in “upwards of four espresso shots”—is that he’s able to turn his compartmentalization brain up to its highest natural setting and push all of this shit aside long enough to deliver a seriously kickass seminar to the students crowded into the hall at the University of Edinburgh.

It’s amazing to him that different groups of people always ask new questions—trends emerge, of course, and there are things he’s tacked onto his presentations over the years because they’re basically FAQs at this point.  Somehow, though, the combination of cultural mores and regional scientific specialties always cooks up a couple of surprises for him.

He fucking loves that.  He loves that the world, humanity, the minds of individuals scattered through across the dirt-place they call home, never fail to come up with something unexpected and completely new.  That’s the whole point of science, really—finding things.  The universe keeps a perpetually infinite amount of secrets; no matter how many you turn up, there’s always something different.  There’s always more.

The train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow is less than an hour and a half, but he spends it with his nose practically pressed to the window.  Fucking Scotland is fucking gorgeous, and he isn’t sure he ever wants to leave.  Sure, they’ve got some nice stuff at home, but maybe he could convince Al and Win and Roy to move out here and get new jobs, and they could all go in together on a countryside castle and maybe buy a lordship to split four ways, and…

Probably you can’t divvy up a royal title.

Probably he shouldn’t let his phone connect to wifi until after he’s done the Glasgow lecture, so that the possibility of Roy’s response won’t distract him while he works.

He leans his head against the windowpane and watches the green hills roll past.  The shuddering of the train prevents him from falling asleep to the dream-ready rhythm of their contours; every now and then they pass one dotted with white sheep.

He’s going to be okay.  He can feel it, now, for once.  That has to count for something.