Undyne slowed the sno-cat to a grinding halt, the treads sluicing a shower of snow. She leaned on the steering wheel and looked out the front window, taking in the sight of the port. The ship was already docked, one of the gangplanks lowered, and there were a few crewmen on the ground, stacking boxes of supplies. “There it is, a fresh group of eggheads and princesses.”
Edge, sitting next to her, only grunted as he flipped through the manifests, “Don’t call them that where they can hear you.”
“Never would, Boss.” She hooked a scarred thumb towards the ship. “Gonna check them out?”
“Yes, if you’ll look in on the supplies.” Edge folded the manifests and handed them over to her. “Count the bottles, if you will? Last time every other crate was shorted by one.”
“You got it.” She snapped her teeth in irritation. “Fucking thieves; anyone stealing booze deserves a punch in the face.”
Edge only lowered his goggles and braced himself for the upcoming rush of cold. “Keep your punches to yourself and report any shortages. Red?”
“yeah, yeah, i’m awake,” came grumbling from the backseat. “i’ll keep the car running, ‘dyne. have fun, you two.”
The wind was middling that day and it was a short trek down the dock, passing through the workers who either ignored him or offered a curt nod of greeting. Undyne could handle the supplies; his cargo was still inside.
The hinges screeched as he shoved open the door for the main hold and got his first look at the new selection of researchers for this rotation. The glaring overhead lights hid little and Edge pushed back his hood to get a better view, ignoring the few double-takes he got for it.
Anyone on the roster would have received an information packet and should know that a Monster was the expedition leader. If they didn’t, well, then they’d already proved themselves poor at research and the only thing they’d accomplish at the station was wasting their grant money.
This group looked the same as always. Ordinary Humans, most of them male, but it seemed a female or two had come along on this round. Difficult to say with all the layered clothing. They were milling around, waiting, and there was a low burble of chatter. Each of them had a few cases with them for their clothing and personal supplies, as well as any equipment they would need for their research outside of what the station provided. Most of them picked sleek, modern gear. A polar expedition was not a vacation and what was in sight was well within guidelines.
Except one. One pile of gear was far in excess of the allotment, a random mishmash of cases and luggage that wouldn’t have been out of place on a cruise ship, which included an oversized tube-like black plastic case with a long strap.
Edge sighed inwardly. There was always one. Every rotation they were told to only bring what they could carry and every rotation, he ended up with at least one fool who was convinced that they were the exception and surely their belongings were far more important than anyone else, and oh, won’t you just help me carry a bag or three? No? Then what am I paying you for?
“Whose gear is this?” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the murmur of conversation. Whoever it was, they could either leave their hairdryer behind or find a way to drag it behind them.
Silence descended, a dozen or so Human gazes falling on him but none of them volunteered.
“mine!” One figure cut from the outside of the crowd, almost stumbling forward. He was tall, taller than Edge, that was unusual in and of itself, but as he walked closer, Edge found himself staring in surprise.
To begin with, he was younger than Edge expected, closer to his own age. Most of the researchers who came to the South Pole Station were older with plenty of degrees under their belts, alongside their collection of grants and funding as it was not a cheap endeavor. Either his PhD was a recent acquirement, or he was a former child prodigy.
Unlike the others who were kitted in expensive cold weather gear, he was bundled into what looked like several layers of thermal shirts and hoodies, and who knew what lay beneath those sweatpants. Hardly the image of a well-funded researcher out to prove a theory.
But the main source of his surprise was less who and more what. It had been some time since he’d seen another skeleton Monster other than his brother. Most of him was buried in those layers but there was no mistaking his skull and thin, bony hands. Unless there was something very unusual beneath his mismatched clothes, he was looking at the first one of his own kind that he’d seen in years.
The symbol on his patched jacket put him in the science division for the Monster Embassy, and there lay another layer of mystery.
Despite his colorful array of clothing, any exposed bone was glossy pale and smooth, not so much as a crack or scar visible past the normal coronal sutures. Evidence of a soft life even before they’d come to the surface.
At least Edge had been wrong about the hair dryer.
“heya! well, it is certainly nice to meet you.” That blatantly visible once-over was worse than an actual Check and Edge bristled immediately. He ignored the hand the other held out in greeting long enough for his smile to falter and after a moment, he dropped it.
“Doctor—?” Edge let the word dangle, raising a brow bone.
“oh,” the smile returned. “nah, everyone calls me rus, except my bro but frankly, i don’t mind losing that nickname, i—“
“Everyone calls me Boss and that is what you will call me,” Edge interrupted, coolly. The other skeleton blinked, shuffling his booted feet uncomfortably. In direct contrast to the rest of his clothes, those looked to be top of the line, even if the laces were a knotted mess.
“um. okay. sure, i can go with that.”
“I wasn’t asking.” He caught the strap of one of the cases, dragging it over and holding it up. The outside fabric was of bright orange tropical flowers. “This is your equipment?”
“yeah, it’s got my name on it and everything, just like my underwear.” He winced as Edge dangled the case from two fingers, reaching for it hastily, “maybe be careful with it, some of it's delicate and—“
Edge handed him the case with exaggerated care. “That won’t be a problem since I’m not a porter and I won’t be carrying any of it. Anything that you want at the station, you get to carry, so good luck with that.”
The other skeleton was gaping by now, mouth open, before shutting it with a sharp click of teeth. “okay, now wait a minute—!”
They had something of an audience at this point, the other researchers watching with a certain morbid curiosity. No better time for introductions, he supposed.
Edge stepped back and called over the crowd. “All right, everyone, listen up! I’m in charge of the South Pole station and I’m here to get you to it. You can call me Boss.”
A faint titter went through the group. It faded as Edge looked at them stonily. “All of you signed an agreement when you chose to come conduct research at the station. That agreement says that you will obey the rules and regulations put forth. As I said, I am in charge of the station and I’m the one who makes the regulations.” The group clustered in closer, even though Edge’s voice carried easily. “If there are issues, I will handle them. The agreement I signed states that so long as you follow the rules, I will keep you safe.”
All of them seemed to be hanging on his every word, except the other Monster, who was glaring at him sourly, his pale eye lights narrowed to pin pricks.
“I expect my direction to be followed,” Edge went on, “for your safety and the safety of others and my word in any matter is final!” The word echoed around the hushed quiet of the hold. “If any of you has a problem with that, then I’d recommend staying on the boat.”
There was nothing but silence. His favorite kind of reply.
"Good.” He held up a gloved finger. “There is one vehicle here and it is for the supplies. We can't subject it to the wear and tear it would take to cart all of you to the station. You were instructed to bring only what you can carry.”
He glanced at the other skeleton and saw his chin go up at that, his sockets narrowing.
At the back of the hold, Undyne was standing just inside the door, slouching against a wall and smirking at him. She shifted to stand up straight, mimicked a polite clap. Edge resisted the urge to roll his eye lights and continued.
“If you’d like to turn around, you’ll see Undyne at the back. She is second in command and the only word higher than hers is mine.”
“Heya, boys.” She gave them a deliberate salute with her left hand, letting them get a good view of how many fingers she didn’t have. Not that she’d lost them here, but none of them needed to know that.
"All right,” Edge said, pulling their attention back to him. “You have all been provided with the necessary gear to walk from here to the station as well as keeping you alive for the duration of your stay. It is one mile to the station and you're all about to get a taste of what it will be like while you're staying here. So, get suited up and let’s get going!"
With that, he turned to walk over to Undyne, ignoring any whispers or possible grumbling behind him.
Catching Undyne by arm, he drew her aside, asking low, “How were the supplies?”
“All good, boss. Plenty enough for two months and the booze cartons are all full this time.” Her grin was sharp enough that Edge thought it better not to ask. She lowered her voice, nodding in the direction of the group. "Looks like you pissed off the fashion victim over there."
Edge didn’t bother to follow her pointed gaze. "Better that he gets used that it now. If he can’t, better to find out before the boat leaves.”
She snorted loudly and crudely enough for a few of the scientists to give them an aghast look. “That one? I know that type, Boss, you couldn’t chase that one away.”
“I doubt that.”
“Yeah? I’ve got 10g on it.” She spat and landed the wad neatly in a bucket by the wall.
Edge didn’t make bets, that was his brother’s game. He dared a glance at the so-called fashion victim, who was currently struggling into his gear. One of his boots caught on the dangling sleeve of his jacket and he tripped, almost toppling into another researcher. “You’re on.”
Her grin widened. “You should be hoping I lose, he’s kinda a cute one," she teased. She picked at her teeth with a sharp claw and inspected the findings. "Better than the usual. Not many pretty things like that make it out here."
"You're here." Edge smirked.
She rolled her eye vigorously. "Yeah, like I said. Maybe you should be nicer to him."
"I fear to ask why."
"Hey, you might not care about the science, but I bet he's useful for other stuff." With their backs to the others, no one could see her poke her index finger into the loose fist of her other hand, thrusting vigorously.
“Undyne!” Edge hissed. “That's enough.”
She shrugged. “I’m just saying. Those are some long legs and it gets cold at night. Nothing wrong with a bed warmer and he’ll be out of your hair in a couple months.” She reached out to rap her knuckles on his skull. “So to speak.”
Edge slapped her hand away. “He’s not going to make it to the station, much less last the two months.”
At the halfway mark to the station, Edge began to think he might well be out 10g and couldn’t even be upset about it.
Despite his dour prediction, their fashion victim was keeping up and Edge was reluctantly impressed.
Edge always stated the distance from the boat launch to the station, just to see their expressions of disdain. It always showed on their faces. A mile? A mile was nothing. Many of them started a training regimen in the weeks before coming and a mile was an easy goal, or so they thought.
He would bet none of them had hiked a mile in subzero temperatures. The first shock of it when you stepped outside was like a blow, breathing felt like being stabbed with an icicle, even for someone without lungs. After a moment to adjust, standing there, you thought it wasn’t that bad. Then you started out into it and learned the true meanings of a word like 'arctic', in a way that wouldn't be soon forgotten.
Their goggles would protect them from the glare of the snow at least, not that there was much to see. In front of them was hard beaten snow and ice, unless they wandered off the path marked by a series whip-thin flag poles that led to the station. If so, they would end up hip deep in snow with a great struggle ahead of them to dig themselves out.
Walking through the snow in full gear carrying their gear was nothing like jogging down the block, checking their Fitbit along the way. A few of them would have been savvy enough to try hiking, perhaps carrying along a full kit. That would be closer but most of them would be lying in their beds tonight, aching from strain and cold, and wondering what they’d gotten themselves into.
Tomorrow, some of them would be angry to learn there were vehicles that could have carried them. Of course there were, it was ridiculous to think otherwise. They’d be using them daily as they did their research, going out to checkpoints and the different areas that surrounded them.
Edge was the one who’d come up with this small test. He wanted them to get a measure of what they’d be dealing with while he was close enough to help them and before the boat left.
At the back of the line, their fashion victim was starting to lag, not badly, but enough that Edge kept an eye on him. For all of Edge’s disbelief, the other skeleton had proven him wrong and every piece of his gear was carefully position, the weight evenly distributed in a way that spoke of careful planning. His first impression of a naïve, spoiled researcher who’d never taken his nose from a book was jarred loose by such preparation. Credit where credit was due, the other skeleton was carrying his own load and he was keeping up.
Or he had been, at the beginning.
Every few minutes Edge would glance back and get a quick headcount. All the others would be too focused on their own survival to notice if one of their teammates was lagging behind but that was all right. That was why Edge was here.
On one such check, Edge looked back in time to see the scientist trip and fall, his carefully balanced gear scattering, skidding across the hardpacked snow.
He was taking too long getting back up.
“‘Dyne?” Edge murmured into his sleeve, waiting to see her glance his way. “Keep them going.”
In his own earpiece he heard, “You got it, Boss.”
He couldn’t see her grin, but he could hear it easily enough. There was no point in smacking her when all the layers would soften any blow.
The others paused when they saw him start back, faltering unsteadily in their growing exhaustion. He waved them impatiently along, trudging back to where the skeleton was still on his knees, fumbling at his equipment.
“Come on, you need to get up.” He had to raise his voice to travel through the layers of clothing and the wind. Even on a milder day like today, it was critical to keep moving.
“i am!” He snapped it out with more fire than Edge would have thought he had left. “i am coming right now, i only tripped.”
“All right, then do it.”
Edge stood back and watched impassively as the scientist struggled to his knees and then to his feet. Gathering his gear was an arduous task but he never hesitated, hooking straps over his arms and head, and getting them back into that precarious balance.
The last case was eluding him, straining to get the strap over his head and Edge gave in, reaching for it.
“Give me that,” Edge said impatiently.
He was startled when the scientist twisted away, almost falling again and only barely managing to keep to his feet.
“i don’t need your help!” he snarled. His voice was hoarse; the cold was starting to get to him. “i can do this.”
“yes!” he shouted, words cutting through the tearing wind. “i told off my advisor, my dean and my brother! i came up with the money on my own! you are not an obstacle, not even close!”
He glared fiercely, visible even through his goggles. Even through them, there was a faint glow of frustrated tears that didn’t fall, although whether that was determination or the cold, Edge couldn’t say. Even magic froze in these temperatures, goggles or not.
“you know, i wasn’t expecting you to carry anything,” he went on, raggedly. He took a step in the direction of the others, another, keeping his gear carefully balanced. “you’re the one who came over and started prodding at my equipment. i was afraid you were going to break something that i can’t replace, that’s the only reason i said anything.”
Edge let him rant; it kept him moving. Until he stopped again, uncertainly. The others were out of sight.
Abruptly, Edge strode forward and said, “Come on.”
“You are,” Edge agreed. “You’re doing very well. It’s not much further, Rus.”
The scientist blinked but Edge was already turning away, following the line of flags leading them to the station. It was in sight when Rus staggered and started to fall again, and this time Edge caught him by the elbow, holding him up until he caught his balance again.
The others hadn’t gotten too far ahead; they were still in the outer vestibule warming up and the group shuddered collectively as Rus and Edge came in through the outer door, letting in a rush of arctic air.
Close to the door, Undyne was already stripped down and she hollered to them, “All right, everyone has already been assigned a room. I’m betting all of you can read, so get the lead out and find the one with your name!”
Edge pulled off his heavy coat and raised his own voice to add, “Find your room, stow your gear, and get warmed up. Dinner is at 1800.”
The others shuffled wearily to the door, carrying their baggage and leaving the outer gear hanging from a variety of hooks. Edge hung his own on an empty hook, ignoring the triumphant look that Undyne sent his way before following the others.
Rus sank down on a bench that was against one of the walls, his cases littered around him. “thank you,” he said. For all that his voice was exhausted and hoarse, the gratitude was genuine. “for getting us here. me. for getting me here.”
“That’s my job,” Edge walked over to him and knelt down, working at the tangled knot of his boot laces. “And I’m sorry.”
He blinked once, twice, staring down at Edge. “you’re sorry?”
“For judging you before I even met you. I can admit when I’m wrong.”
“oh. well, it’s all right. i'm sure it's a rare enough occasion to mark on the calendar.” Rus’s smile hinted at something sly and he let Edge pull his boots off before he stood, stripping off the rest of his outer paraphernalia
Edge set his boots over next to his own. “Be sure to make a note.” He looked back at the soft groan behind him, seeing Rus leaning over to catch up a strap on one of his bags. “Let me help you.”
“I can do it,” Rus protested, though it sounded halfhearted at best.
“I know. Let me help, anyway.”
There was a moment of hesitation and Edge thought he’d refuse again. It was something of a surprise when he finally said, “all right.”
Edge gathered up a couple of his packs, waiting long enough for Rus to get the rest, and then jerked his head for Rus to follow him. The walk to the living quarters was a short one and Rus’s room was the second from the last. By now Rus was stumbling with weariness and Edge opened the door, gently guiding him inside. He set the bags down by the wall as Rus sank down onto the small bed.
“You’ve got some time before dinner,” Edge said softly. “Take a nap and get warmed up.”
“sounds good,” Rus blinked with glassy exhaustion and Edge resisted the urge to push him down to the mattress before he fell on his own.
Instead, he went to the door, hesitating with his hand on the knob. “See you at dinner, Rus.”
“sure, boss,” Rus mumbled, and as predicted, he sank down to the mattress without even pulling back the covers. Edge started to open the door, paused, and hung his head with a sigh before he turned back.
Carefully, he gathered up the blanket at the foot of the bed, spreading it over Rus. He made a faint sound, barely stirring, and snuggled into it.
Edge watched for the briefest of moments, then he turned away and out the door. And stopped.
Undyne was at the end of the hallway, leaning against one of the doors. She made a kissy face at him, and he scowled at her.
But he flipped her a 10g coin.
She snatched it out of the air, sticking it into one of her numerous pockets. “Thanks, boss. Wanna sweeten the pot? I bet another ten you’ll have him on his back in a week.”
Edge shook his head. “No bet.”
"Yeah?” Undyne licked her teeth, her grin widening. “Don’t like to part with your money that easily, boss?”
“I won’t bet on something like that,” Edge said shortly, “even if it were a possibility, which it is not.”
Undyne pushed off the door with a snort and poked a finger roughly against his sternum. “Oh, come off it, I saw how he was looking at you. You wouldn't even need to turn on the charm, which is good because you don't have any."
"He's here for two months and then he’s back on the boat,” Edge told her, letting his irritation creep into his voice, “off to publish his papers or continue his research, whatever they do when they leave.”
Undyne predictably ignored his annoyance. "That gives you a time limit, even better. You don’t have to beat around the bush, depending on what equipment he has downstairs."
"Undyne!" he hissed. Her grin was unrepentant.
“Speaking of which, my honey should be back from checking the monitors. See you at dinnertime, Boss.”
“If I allow you to eat,” he grumbled. She only laughed and tromped off in the direction of the crew quarters.
He did not glance back at that closed door where Rus was sleeping, curled into his blanket. In all honesty, he should have changed out of his clothes first; despite the cold a long walk outside often left one sweaty and shower tokens were a much sought-after privilege.
There was still time before dinner to get a few things finished. He needed to go over their newly acquired supplies with his brother, one of the solar panels was acting up and needed looked at. Always something to do to ensure not only their safety but as much comfort as possible. Edge shook the thought of Rus curled up on his bed away and went to his own quarters.
He had an allotment for a shower and despite what Undyne might think, it needn’t be a cold one.
His bones were barely dry from the gloriously hot shower by the time Edge was readying himself to go back outside. The provisions would have been dealt with by now but Red hadn’t come in from the vehicle shed. Not worrying, yet, but always better to double and triple check when in doubt, particularly this far from civilization.
He stepped outside into fading daylight, trudging through light layer of new snow. They were coming into the cycle of shorter days, much to Alphys’s delight. Her research involved alternate power sources and the only issue that arose during this time was her reluctance to sleep while she did her experiments.
Edge’s interest for her research ended at the point where it provided the station with plenty of power and hot showers, and lately where it helped his brother. Her skills would have given her a permanent place on the station whether or not her relationship with Undyne bloomed as it did. That it had, and that it gave Undyne someplace else to focus her relentless attention was a gift to them all.
The lights were on in the shed and a brief search found his brother’s legs, sticking out from beneath one of the Sno Cats.
“Is something wrong?” Edge asked loudly, waiting as his brother jerked and then cursed vigorously, squirming out from under the Cat. His knit cap was askew, and he straightened it, glaring at Edge.
“fuck, bro,” Red grumbled, “slam the door or somethin’, would ya? and nah, nothing wrong, just some maintenance. how is the group settlin’ in?”
“If you’d bothered to come inside when they got here, you’d know.”
Red only grinned unabashedly and shook his head. “that’s your job, boss. the only reason i keep ‘em alive is there’s too much paperwork if someone croaks.”
“You’ve made that abundantly clear,” Edge said dryly. He gave the shed a glance, taking in neat line of snow-ready vehicles. “I expect some of them will need transport tomorrow, is everything ready?”
“ready freddy,” Red agreed. He picked up a dirty rag from the floor and wiped his greasy hands fruitlessly. “so, what’s with the monster in the group?”
“How did you know about that?” Edge sighed, rhetorical as the question was.
Red confirmed it with a sly grin. “undyne. said there was an actual skeleton monster.”
“There was.” Edge refused to expand on the subject despite his brother’s eagerness. Instead, he crooked a finger at Red in a ‘come hither’ motion. “Come here.”
Red scowled but he did, grudgingly stepping closer. His frown deepened as Edge pulled off his ski cap, carefully examining his skull. The spiderweb of cracks beneath it looked better than only days before, but the soft, healing glow normally concealed by his cap was fading.
“You need to see Alphys for another treatment,” Edge told him, handing back the knit cap.
“yeah, yeah.” Red wandered over to his work bench, tossing his cap on it and straightening tools that didn’t need attention. “she’s already on me. tells me a few more treatments and it’ll be fused. then i can stop playing the hipster and let my skull out for some air.”
“If you wouldn’t get your skull busted open, you wouldn’t have these problems,” Edge pointed out, but he walked over to rub gentle fingertips over his brother’s skull, careful to skirt the damaged areas.
Red knocked his hand away, but without any real force. “i’ll try harder next time, boss. now what about the other skellie?”
Edge only shook his head. “You can see him at dinner, if you bother to show up."
“uh huh. speaking of chow, might want to check in on bun-bun.”
Truly, his brother had a skill for irritating others that few could imitate. “When she kills you for calling her that, I’m not going to stop her.”
“eh, she’d have to catch me first,” Red gave him a wolfish grin, hopping up to sit on the workbench with his legs dangling. It put them closer to a height and he smirked into Edge’s face as he said, “anyway, got her the supplies but she’s about to shit a brick if you don’t give her a headcount.”
“Why didn’t you tell her?” Edge reached out to smack him, fully expecting his brother to dodge the way he did. “You could have checked the manifest.”
“coulda, shoulda, didn’t.”
“Finish up with the vehicles,” Edge sighed, and put his goggles back into place, heading back out to face the station cook. Night had fallen completely while he was in the vehicle shed, the first swirls of the aurora twisting overhead. Edge barely glanced at it, headed for the main door to face a little wrath.
From the delicious aroma that was coming from the kitchen area, Bonnie was caramelizing onions for whatever was on tonight’s dinner menu. The hydroponic gardens provided enough vegetables for her to be reasonably generous with them and so long as the core generator functioned, none of his charges would be dying of a scurvy, at least.
Edge waited in the doorway, watching her expertly switch between stirring pots and scraping pans, until she looked up. Then he signed, Did you need any help?
He was a decent cook in his own right, but the kitchen was Bonnie’s domain and he did not like to impose. On occasion, she did let him play prep cook, and chopping vegetation could be mindlessly relaxing. But generally, she preferred to work alone, especially on a day like today with a new roster of Humans with new tastes and dietary needs. Anytime Edge wanted to cook on his own was scheduled in advance.
She didn’t stop what she was doing but her pointed look was telling. He smirked a little and gave in.
Twelve new, he signed. Eleven humans, one Monster.
That caught her attention enough that she actually set her spoon aside to sign back, Monster? Never had Monster before.
He shrugged and she nodded slowly, then went back to her pots and pans. Past knowing how many she was cooking for and their needs, Bonnie had little interest in their charges.
Special needs? she asked
Two listed vegetarian, Edge signed, none listed allergies.
She nodded again, vaguely pleased. Easy group.
She would certainly know. Bonnie had been with them from the start.
As a member of the Bun clan, she was of medium height, her furry ears reaching up to Edge’s chin, and Edge didn’t know what had caused her badly scarred face, leaving her with one eye cloudy and sightless. Not any more than she knew where he’d gotten his scars. Edge also didn’t know what had driven her up this far away from her surely enormous family and the larger Monster community and didn’t ask. Bonnie had applied for the job and demonstrated her skill at it. Nothing more was required.
But she was one of them and tonight, she would find a flash drive on her side table with Red’s symbol on it, along with dozens of new specialty books for her kindle reader and in return, there would be fresh cranberry scones for breakfast this weekend, a special favorite of his brother’s.
Their friendship was a mixture of antagonism and silent affection and Edge left them to it. He was rather fond of the scones as well.
Besides, who was he to judge when he was friends with Undyne.
Bonnie’s attention was once again completely focused on her cooking and Edge left her to it to finish his checks. Dinner would be within the hour and he was resigned to the fact that it was going to be eventful, one way or another.
By the time Edge got to their version of a mess hall, most of the researchers were already there. The table had the capacity for about twenty people, even those like their scholars who had laptops and notepads in front of them, the barest murmur of conversation carrying through the room.
Their facility was a small one but one of the priciest to visit. The remote location kept them from being overrun with cruise ship tourists and their equipment was top of the line, the best Humans and Monsters had to offer.
All researchers and scientists paid top dollar to come here and it was Edge’s job to ensure that they had all the basic tools they needed to work, plus as much comfort as could be reasonably provided. Tomorrow Undyne would show them the recreation facilities with her version of firm encouragement to use them. Overworking helped no one, a lesson that Alphys had taught them well.
Red was sitting at the far end of the table, slouching half-asleep and still wearing his sunglasses. Not that they needed them, snow blindness was not an issue without actual eyes, but it was a good reminder to speak to everyone about wearing their goggles during the daylight hours.
Next to him was Undyne and when she saw Edge come in, she grudgingly took apart the tower of forks and knives she was building. The chair next to her was empty and when Edge glanced at it, Undyne shrugged.
“Alphys isn’t coming down today,” she said, low.
Edge only nodded. Their engineer’s tolerance for outsiders varied by the day and she often took her meals in her room for the first week or so a new group arrived.
The door opened, catching his attention and he turned in time to see Rus, the only person still missing. He glanced at a chair at the end of the long table, but chose instead to sit a little away from the others, closer to Edge and his team.
Edge couldn’t say he was surprised. Even Humans who claimed to be intellectuals could have their prejudices against Monsters and their time on the boat had surely given Rus an idea of how his companions would be treating him. Simply the differences in their wardrobes, the others in the crisp winter-wear and Rus in a baggy orange sweatshirt layered over thermals spoke volumes.
The door to the kitchen swung on its hinges and Bonnie emerged, carrying steaming serving dishes to the tables. To their credit, none of the Humans or Rus reacted strongly to her appearance. There was nothing more than murmur of thanks in a variety of languages and a few glances sent Edge’s way.
Good, they were learning.
He waved a hand at them, “Go ahead, we don’t stand much on ceremony here.”
A few more trips and soon the table was loaded with bowls. The food tended toward simpler, filling fare, generously seasoned, and all of it smelled tantalizing. If they could make one smug claim about the facility, it would be that no one had ever gone home and complained about the food.
Edge took a buttery roll from one of the plates, tearing it open to spread it with their newly received strawberry jam. He ate it in two bites, not even bothering to stifle a groan of pleasure as it fairly melted in his mouth.
Thank you, Edge signed as Bonnie sat a platter of fragrant roasted vegetables in front of him. Undyne absently copied him before snagging a roll for herself, her sharp teeth tearing into the soft bread. Her ability to talk in hands was barely past mediocre even if she'd had all ten fingers, but she was learning.
More startling was the way Rus signed it as well, adding on looks delicious.
It was possible that Bonnie’s stoic expression softened, just slightly. She nodded to him and went back to the kitchen.
The muted conversation faded beneath hungry appreciation. All of them were probably starving after the trek earlier and there was plenty for everyone. Calorie intake was important, to keep up their strength, and Bonnie would ensure that everyone had their fair share.
Undyne ate with haste past her normal eagerness for food and it was only after she washed her plate and set it in the drainer that Edge learned why.
She sauntered over to the other side of the table where Rus was sitting, and her grin was not one that filled Edge with comfort. Rus seemed to agree; he stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth, eyeing her warily.
“Well, hey there, pal,” Undyne slung an arm over Rus’s shoulders and gave him a little shake. He froze, looking at her from corner of his socket. “Don’t think I caught your name.”
“rus.” That single word was a sort of rusty squeak. The nerve he’d dredged up against Edge earlier seemed to desert him when faced with Undyne, but Edge wasn’t about to hold that against him. It showed a good instinct in self-preservation.
“Well, hiya, Rus,” Undyne purred, and it sent unease prickling up Edge’s spine. “What’re you in for?”
“research?” he offered weakly and she laughed, giving him a noogie that was firm enough for him to wince.
“Yeah, that part I know, numbskull. On what?”
“for my thesis?” There was little confidence in him that this answer would satisfy Undyne.
“You’re a grad student?” Edge asked, frowning. Every other researcher that had ever been here had at the very least a PhD, more likely several.
“yeah? so?” There was a certain defensiveness there, a ghost of his earlier fire.
One of the others, an older Human male with an almost palpable arrogance opened his mouth as though about to insert himself into the conversation. Undyne only stared at him with stony coldness.
He turned his attention back to his plate.
Well, it was a definite improvement over her past ways of dealing with those she deemed as assholes.
Rus looked as though he wished he’d gotten the reprieve, no matter what insult the Human had to offer.
“Nothing wrong with it, kid, just unusual.” She bluntly ignored Rus’s muttered ‘not a kid.’ “Don’t think we’ve ever had a grad student out here before. The spots in the rotation fill up fast and it takes more than a semester of student teaching to cover the price tag. So, either you have a sugar daddy who pulled the strings to get you here or your research is of the more black ops variety. Which is it?”
Rus smirked then, unexpectedly, and tipped his head back against her arm where it still lay across his shoulders. “you have something against sugar mamas or are you just offering?”
A pinprick of crimson flared in Undyne’s eyes. For one moment, Edge tensed, waiting for an explosion but finally Undyne threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, he’s fun.” Her next noogie was nearly fierce enough to send him face first into his plate. “You’ve got it all wrong, I could use a sugar momma of my own if you’ve got one laying around. Go ahead and eat up, fashion victim, you’re gonna need it.”
Undyne went back to her seat, lounging back in her chair, and picking at her teeth with a sharp-clawed finger. Rus blinked a couple times and then went back to his dinner. But not without giving Edge a measuring sideways glance. One that Edge returned with a raise brow bone as he chewed his own food.
The muted conversation on the other side of the table dwindled as the others left, following Undyne’s silent lead in scraping their plate into the bin marked ‘food waste’ then washing it and setting it to drain.
The sight relaxed a last bit of tension in Edge’s soul. This group seemed like they would maintain their professionalism. In the past, they had ended up with the occasional researcher who didn’t understand the concept of pulling their own weight. Thus far, this group seemed to be willing to follow the unspoken rule.
Rus follow suit but unlike the others, he hesitated at the table. “let the cook know the grub was delicious, will ya?”
“Tell her yourself in the morning,” Undyne challenged.
“oh, i will, never hurts to hear it twice.” He waggled his fingers with a grin. “so to speak. i’m still whipped, think i’ll turn in early. sleep well, undyne.” He paused and Edge didn’t think he imagined the way his voice lowered in pitch, smooth as expensive whiskey, “sleep well, boss.”
“You as well,” Edge said evenly.
He didn’t mean to watch him walking away, the hint of a sway in his hips beneath those concealing sweatpants. When the door closed behind him, Edge stood to wash his own plate but there was no escape from Undyne’s sharp whistle.
“Oh, honey, he has your number,” Undyne said, gleefully.
“He said three words to me.” Edge rinsed his plate impatiently, setting it in the drying tray with a clack.
“Yeah, but was the way he said it.” From her delight, one would think she’d gotten a chance at second Gyftmas. “Lotta sex he managed to infuse into those three words. Better make sure you take him to your quarters. You’ve got better soundproofing and I’ve got odds on him being a screamer.”
“Not too late to bet that 10g.” She glanced at Red. To the unknowing eye, he would have seemed asleep, his plate pushed to the side and his skull resting on his folded arms. “You’ve been keeping quiet all fucking night, shithead. Don’t you think your brother needs to cut himself a slice of that?”
“yeah, i don’t think so.” Surprised, Edge sat back down. He was counting on his brother joining in with Undyne’s teasing. His seriousness was entirely unexpected and potentially worrisome. “that one has trouble written on his ass, in sharpie. i think you need to keep it in your pants, boss.”
Undyne’s grin faded a little. “What’re you thinking, little boss?”
He slipped his sunglasses down, the crimson of his eye lights glaring over the rims. “i’m thinking he avoided answering your question. he never did tell you what he’s researching. they aren’t required to, trade secrets and all that shit, but usually they can’t shut up about it. so why didn’t he?”
Undyne shrugged. “So? Maybe he didn’t feel like it. You’ve never given a shit about any of their research before, anyway.”
“that was before we had another monster on the roster.” Red pulled his sunglasses off completely and Edge didn’t think his brother even knew he was rubbing a light hand over the cap on his skull. “we’re here because we are uniquely suited to months of limited sunlight and better cold tolerances than most humans. we’ve never had a monster come to do research. all i’m wondering is why now?”
“Don’t think that one is going to be able to add cold tolerance to his resume anytime soon.” More seriously, Undyne asked him, “You want me to keep an eye on him?”
“nothing obvious, but yeah.” Red ran a finger over his plate, swiping up a trace of gravy and licking it away. “boss, there’s nothing i can put a finger on, but my instincts are telling me something is strange about him being here. and that jacket of his has an embassy patch.”
“That’s true,” Edge murmured.
“The embassy?” Undyne scoffed. She slammed a fist on the table, sending silverware bouncing. “Those fuckers haven’t bothered us since they tossed us on our asses. They haven’t said so much as a fuck you to us in years. He paid his dues, he hopped the boat. doesn’t mean the Embassy has anything to do with it.”
“And if they are involved in his presence here, why would he be wearing the jacket?” Edge added. He couldn’t say he agreed with his brother’s concerns, but Red had sensed strange threats in the past. It was difficult to say if this was a similar situation or paranoia.
Red could only shrug. “still doesn’t mean they don’t.
“Fair enough, little boss. But I think you’re wrong about one thing. If the big boss here gets in our fashion victim’s pants, we’ll get the info live and squirming.” She nudged Edge with a vicious elbow, and he pushed her roughly away, hard enough to knock her to the floor. She lay there cackling, one leg sprawled over the seat of her chair.
And there was the conspiring glee he’d been expecting from his brother. Red laughed, showing off sharp, gleaming teeth, “hey, she ain’t wrong, might want to rethink that plan, boss.”
“You’re both fired,” Edge grumbled. “All right, fine, keep an eye on him for a few days, Undyne. I’m going to do final rounds and then I’m hitting the sack. This was a long fucking day.”
“Could be a long night fucking if you stop by to read Ruuuuuus a bedtime story,” Undyne sang out from the floor.
Edge ignored her and his brother’s snickering, and started through his nighttime checklist. He didn’t spend a moment thinking about pale eye lights and a whiskey smooth voice, of a sleepy figure in a bed, cozied into a blanket.
It was early yet but his own bed was calling his name. His empty bed, thank you, and that was how it would remain.
The first day with a new roster always started early, even in a place where the daylight hours were currently brief at best. Generally, the researchers did not complain about that; they weren’t here to sleep.
Their impatience came with dealing with briefings throughout their opening week. One of the first things they would have discovered, after recovering from the exhausting walk from the boat, was a welcome and safety packet, along with neatly typed schedule on their desk that included times for the safety training.
Anyone attempting to complain would immediately be reminded of the agreement they had signed. Humans were far more sensitive to the weather conditions and they could change for the worse abruptly. They needed to know how to handle a sudden white-out or a situation where their vehicle was disabled, and they wouldn’t be allowed to venture more than fifty yards from the station without a guide until they’d passed the survival course.
Time slots for Edge, Undyne, and Red’s availability as guides were strictly limited, so most of them tried to pass the survival courses as quickly as possible. Plus, anyone who was assigned Red a guide usually had extra incentive.
The packet they all received also listed the wi-fi password on the last page. Edge was strict, but he wasn’t cruel, and all those who read through the briefing deserved a reward.
The first survival course was scheduled before breakfast and Edge was up hours in advance to run through his morning routine. First, he needed to send his paperwork up to his supervisors at the institution and he did it while sipping a cup of coffee. The expensive grounds were one of the personal luxuries he ordered, fresh from the boat, and brewed from his personal machine.
He read over the checklists that all the others sent him concerning station power and necessary repairs, along with the daily and weekly weather reports. Clear skies, so far, low temperatures. Nothing unexpected was looming, but he would check it again in the afternoon.
A glance at the clock told him it was ten minutes to the appointed time and Edge slipped on an insulated jacket over his thermal shirt and started down to the vestibule where all the researchers had been told to be waiting.
Conversation died off as Edge walked into the room. They were all broken off into clusters of twos and threes, separated into their groups, most of them with coffee cups in hand which meant Bonnie was feeling generous this morning and brought down a few pots.
A quick headcount told him everyone was here, but one, and it was entirely too easily to see who was missing. Their only soloist.
Edge sighed internally. There was still a few minutes before they were supposed to begin but it was not encouraging to see he that he didn’t seem to be taking this seriously. That sass and fire from yesterday may have been more of a sudden flare that burned out quickly than an internal furnace.
Not that Edge was disappointed by that.
Two minutes before they were to begin, the outer door opened, and everyone turned to look at the well-bundled figure coming in from the outside.
Too tall to be Undyne or Red, and Edge watched in disbelief as Rus stripped off his heavy parka and pushed up his goggles, “oh, hey, everyone.”
By the soul of the Unnamed Queen, what the fuck…
Edge pushed through the group, over to where Rus was hanging up his parka. Pale eye lights looked down at him in surprise, and Edge wasn’t so irritated that he didn’t see that Rus was wearing his jacket over the same sweatshirt as yesterday. It made him wonder, despite all the cases he’d brought, if he even had a different one.
“What do you think you’re doing,” Edge asked, low, not wanting to embarrass him, that wasn’t the point, but it was said through clenched teeth. Not that it mattered; the other researches were discreetly pretending not to watch but there was no doubt they were straining to hear every word. Humans and Monsters urge for gossip was remarkably similar.
Rus held up a shiny metal square between two fingers. A lighter? “this is a no smoking facility, right? i wanna play by the rules, so, i stepped outside.”
“You went outside to smoke a cigarette?” Edge asked in disbelief. Before the safety classes and alone, he’d gone outside for a damn smoke, in fucking Antarctica.
“sure,” Rus shrugged. There were a few steaming mugs still sitting on one of the tables and Rus scooped one up. He took a sip, grimaced, and poured sugar into it. “i read the safety packet and i walked outside for a mile yesterday. there was nothing that said i couldn’t, just that there was no smoking inside, and figured i was safe enough from the polar bears and yetis for a butt.”
One of the others chose that moment to pipe up, “Polar bears are...”
“…in the arctic, the north pole,” Rus finished with a sigh. “yeah, yeah, it was a joke. you guys have heard of those, right.” He looked around into the looming silence around him. “tough crowd. okay, boss, since i am here, and on time, i will point out, are we doing this?”
“…yes,” Edge ground out. He made a mental note to add that they were not allowed to venture outside before the safety briefing to the welcome packet. “You may as well put your parka back on. Everyone else, you have five minutes to have your outer gear on. If you’d like to be able to continue seeing for your time here, do not forget your goggles.” He looked back at Rus. “You can prove to me later that you can gear up in the required time frame.”
“sure, boss. i don’t mind dressing for you.”
It was said in the same tone as his ‘sleep well’ the night before, soft as velvet and despite his annoyance, Edge had to suppress a shiver.
This was going to be a long two months.
Two hours later, the group was stumbling back inside, all of them weary and ready for breakfast. They’d struggled, but Edge was satisfied enough with their performance, which had included a frustrating and amusing fifteen minutes of watching the group stumble around with buckets on their heads to simulate whiteout conditions.
Rus hung around outside to the end, taking the time to smoke another cigarette while the others were making their way in. He timed it so that he was stepping through the door just before Edge did, politely palming his extinguished butt rather than tossing it into the snow.
The others were mostly gone, only a few stragglers finishing up, and Undyne was there, instructing them on the proper way to store everything to ensure it dried quickly.
Rus was fast enough stripping off his gear and Edge made a mental note not to forget to double-check that he was capably putting it on. His responsibility was the only reason he was watching as Rus bent over to untie his boots; it would be the worst shirking of his duty to not ensure Rus was well protected against the elements.
A fact he would remind Undyne of soon enough. At the moment, she was by the door, close enough to watch if not to hear. It wouldn’t wipe the grin from her face, but it was still the truth. He was still finishing with his own boots as Rus slipped on a pair of indoor shoes.
“see there, boss, didn’t even keep you waiting for me,” Rus said cheerily. He leaned against the row of lockers, blatantly watching as Edge untied his boots. “whatcha think, how did we do today?”
“I think you’re all going to die, and they’ll find your corpses a thousand years from now buried in whatever remains of the world’s icebergs,” Edge told him dryly. He nudged Rus over so that he could open his locker and he went, barely far enough to let Edge set his boots within it. “But you all passed the bare minimum requirement. Once you pass your vehicle test, I’m legally allowed to give you a chance to seek your demise.”
“you’re a regular ball of sunshine, aren’t you,” Rus said wryly. Slouching the way that he was, they were at an even height, and when Edge shut his locker door, it set their faces a little too close. “would it cause you much pain to lighten up, sunny?
Rus’s eye lights were white and gave no clue as to the color of his magic. His bones were glossy smooth ivory, startlingly so, and Edge realized he was leaning in for a closer look almost too late.
He reared back, turning away. “There’s currently only six hours of minimal daylight. If that’s not enough, I recommend using the full spectrum therapy lights in the recreation area.”
“gotcha. your point is well taken,” Rus gave him a sloppy salute. That sly grin was growing far too familiar. “maybe i’ll lay down and take some in later. think i’ll go get some breakfast while there’s still some to eat, for now. later, boss.”
He walked over to the door, brushing past Undyne with a cheery, “morning, sugar mamma.”
Her punch to his arm was hard enough to make Edge wince but Rus only laughed aloud, rubbing at what would surely be a bruise as he went on his way.
She was going to get a punch of her own, far closer to her face, if she didn’t wipe that smirk from it.
“having fun with the fashion victim?” Her glee was worse than Rus’s flirting.
“I thought you were keeping an eye on him,” Edge said irritably, shoving his feet into his indoor shoes. “How did he get outside on his own without you seeing it?”
“I did see it,” she countered. “Watched him get up and go shiver his ass off sucking on his cancer stick. He wasn’t wandering, stayed right by the door, didn’t seem a reason to stop him.”
“Aside from the fact he hadn’t taken the safety course.”
“C’mon, boss, you let him trudge through the snow yesterday on his own carrying twice the shit everyone else had, and he survived. If he’s gonna die from ciggies, it won’t be because I let him smoke one right outside the door.” She clapped Edge on the back hard enough to send him forward a step. “Now, let’s get some breakfast and start the day right, boss! We’ve got all kinds of plans to play with the new kids!”
True enough. They were all busy the first few days. His schedule this morning included taking the two women of the group out for a combination of vehicle testing and to set up some of their equipment in the outmost post. That was fine; a long ride would help clear his thoughts.
“By the way, changed up the schedule a little,” Undyne told him with malicious cheer, slinging an arm over his shoulders and tugging him towards the door.
Edge’s soul sank. He’d always known giving her responsibility for the roster was a mistake.
She went on, pulling him reluctantly along. “That trio of what-the-fucks, the guys who study icebergs?”
“Yeah, them. They need daylight for their first round of shit, so I rescheduled them for the time slot first thing tomorrow. So, for tonight, you get to work with Rus.”
Of course he was. He jammed an elbow into her gut, but she was ready for it, dancing away with a cackle of laughter. “That is remarkably unsubtle, even for you.”
“Gotta win money somehow,” Undyne said cheerily.
“I didn’t bet!”
“Who said I was talking about you?” she countered. “Come on, Bonnie’ll let us starve if we’re late.”
Very true. Edge swallowed his irritation and went in the direction of the mess hall. “How do you feel about sparring this afternoon?”
Her grin exposed her full mouth of needle-sharp teeth. “Anytime, boss. If you won’t get a workout one way, I can help you with another.”
“You’re such a bitch,” he sighed.
She laughed again, but her eyes were shining red. “And you’ll pay for that this afternoon.”
He was sure he would, one way or another.
The morning’s work was satisfying. The two researchers Edge assisted would be conducting studies on the weddell seal population, and today they’d only wanted a basic overall picture of the local population. Better still, one of them had already done a rotation in Antarctica at one of the other facilities and quickly demonstrated that she only needed a refresher on handling the vehicles.
They were both reasonably friendly but mostly absorbed in their work. Edge took no offense to that and while they were out gathering their data, he sat in the Cat, keeping a close eye on them and adding to his daily report. He also took the time to file their request to be allowed to stay at the research campsite for a few days next week, once their less experienced member passed all the survivalist requirements.
He’d already approved the request, but a paper trail was vital. They needed to have a vehicle properly signed out and supplies readied for them, along with running communications tests and confirmation on the expected weather for the days they were on location.
Their focus was on their research, as it should be, and his was on their safety. No one had ever been lost on his watch and Edge wasn’t about to start losing anyone now, certainly not on account of mishandling the basics.
The drive there and back was over an hour both ways, and by the time they returned, they’d missed the group lunch. There were sandwiches wrapped for them all in the refrigerator. Edge took one for himself, leaving them to their meal and excited discussion while he headed back towards his own quarters to contemplate what he’d managed to successfully avoid thinking about all morning; his evening session with Rus.
Civil twilight, the first darkening of the sky before nightfall, began in an hour’s time and if Rus wanted any daylight for his excursion today, they should leave soon.
But there was a niggling problem that was bothering him, and he decided it would be best to address it now; he only needed to retrieve something first.
Undyne wouldn’t be leading their little clan of researchers to the recreation area until after dinner tonight, so it was a reasonably safe guess to assume Rus was in his quarters. A guess that was confirmed when Edge knocked on his door.
It opened a crack and then wider, Rus peering out warily. He opened the door fully, blinking down at Edge in confusion. It was still passing strange for Edge to be forced to look up at anyone.
"hey, uh, i thought i still had half an hour…" Rus started hesitantly. Behind him, his bed was an unmade rumple of blankets, a match to his rumpled layers of clothing. Which left the question of whether he’d been sleeping or simply never made it in the first place. Either possibility seemed highly likely.
"You do,” Edge said and held out the stack of clothing in his hands. “I brought you these to wear on our outing.”
It wasn’t a surprise really to see his expression tightened, eye lights going narrow as he ignored the offering. "thanks, but i'm full up on pity right now, i don’t need any of yours."
“Good because I’m not offering any,” Edge said crisply. “We provide gear for everyone, as stated on the provisions sheet you received when you signed up. So, if you’re finished worrying about special treatment…?”
He held it out again, watching as a blotchy flush rose in Rus’s cheekbones in a charming shade of soft orange, finally revealing the color of his magic. Idly, Edge noted that it suited him, cheerfully vibrant. He looked as if he was entertaining the thought of arguing more, but finally took the bundle away from Edge with a muttered, “thanks.”
Edge thought it wise not to tell him the thermals were a set of his own. The gear they normally provided was excellent but his own was better and while the sheet didn’t state it, they usually only provided outdoor gear, not whatever was layered beneath it.
No reason to tell him all that.
“If you get dressed and we can get going now,” Edge said. Rus only stood there, holding the bundle uncertainly. “You requested the closest checkpoint, so it's not far.”
“yeah, okay,” he still seemed oddly uncertain, blinking too much, and Edge almost asked if he was all right when he added, “i’ll meet you in the vestibule.”
“Good.” Edge left him to change and went to start on his own outdoor gear again, for the third time that day. Despite Undyne’s gleefully meddling, there was no reason for this to take long. A little vehicle training, whatever time Rus needed to set up for his research, and soon enough he’d be back at the station with the greater bulk of his duties done for the day.
There and back to the closest outpost. It wouldn’t take much time at all.
Edge looked up from tying his boots when the door opened a few minutes later and stilled.
The clothing fit well enough, a little short in the ankle but not ridiculously so. It was actually rather unfortunate how not-ridiculous it was. In the form-fitting thermals and pants, Rus was much smaller than he'd appeared beneath all those layers; tall, yes, but the faintly visible outline of his bones was slender, almost elegant, and Edge had to tear his gaze away from it, focusing on his own outdoor gear.
Damn Undyne to all the fiery hells she deserved.
“all right, boss, getting dressed for you,” Rus called, and when Edge glanced at him reluctantly, he got a sassy wink for his efforts. “better time me, make sure i can get dressed fast enough.”
“I’m counting,” Edge said, dryly, crossing his arms over his chest. He did watch while Rus scrambled into his outdoor gear and he was tightening the last lace on his boots when five minutes ticked away.
“do i get an ‘ice job’ sticker, teach?” Rus grinned. His goggles were pushed up, tilted rakishly on his skull.
Edge tugged them down over his sockets with a firm snap and Rus yelped. “You’ll earn a re-take if you don’t take this seriously. I’m sure you’ll love another opportunity to take our version of the bucket test.”
“nope, nope, anything but that,” Rus sounded like he was only mostly kidding, “i’ll behave, boss, promise.”
“Then come on.”
Rus trailed after him outside where the sun was already low in the sky, casting off reds and orange to fill the horizon.
He was carrying a backpack along with that long, cylindrical case that Edge remembered from the boat, and despite his long legs, he kept having to trot to keep up with Edge, distracted by the sunset, the buildings, anything that seemed to catch his gaze.
“so, i was scheduled with undyne before. why are you taking me out?” Rus called, almost tripping as he tried to walk backwards, the better to watch colorful sky.
“Because some people think they are funny,” Edge said beneath his breath, then louder. “She had to take on another group and I was free. Come on.”
He led the way to the vehicle shed, showing Rus the hanging board for the keys and the sign out sheet that were inside the door.
“After you pass your vehicle testing, you can sign out a vehicle on your own.” Edge gestured to the collection of vehicles behind him. There were Sno-Cats, snowmobiles, a few quads, all dependent on where the researchers needed to travel. “If you don’t sign up for an allotted time, it’s first come, first serve, so plan ahead. I’d encourage you to make use of a guide whenever you can. Most of our researchers work in pairs or groups. Solo researchers aren’t strictly prohibited but until you prove to me you’ve learn how to handle the vehicles on this terrain, you’ll need a ride along. Standard protocol.”
He waited until Rus nodded, then went on, “You’ll also need a ride along if you’re traveling past the first perimeter. Storms can blow up very quickly and you don’t want to be caught in one without me or Undyne.”
With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the key fob to Rus. Which he promptly fumbled, barely managing to keep from dropping it. “Everything is numbered. We’re taking Sno-Cat #2 today.”
Normally for a trip like this, Edge would use snowmobiles, but he wouldn't be able to offer instruction over the sound of the motor. They were usually easy enough to test out on once the hopeful driver was more accustomed to the terrain.
"i should tell you, i'm not a very good driver." He sounded resigned and something in that made concern twitch. Not because he was admitting to being a poor driver, but that he seemed so fatalistic over it.
Edge wasn’t particularly skilled at reassurance, but this seemed a good time for an attempt. "Luckily, there isn't much to run over out here. Just follow the flags, stay on the road, and you'll be fine. This is a smaller snow track, you won't even need to change gears."
After they climbed inside, Edge waited patiently while Rus adjusted the seat and the mirrors, fussed with his seatbelt, and only hit the button for the powered overhead door when Rus turned the key. The door rolled upward and the continent lay before them.
“here we go!” Rus said with false cheer. He tapped the gas and they lurched forward hard enough for the seatbelts to lock. Rus let off immediately with a wince, "sorry, sorry."
"You're doing fine,” Edge assured him. “There’s a bit of a learning curve, don’t worry so much. You aren’t going to hurt anything. Try again, press down easy on the gas and don't let up this time."
Another lurch, not quite so rough, and they were moving forward.
"Left at the flag,” Edge directed, and they crept into the turn, heading in the direction of the checkpoint. “You never want to go too fast, particularly after dark," he cautioned. "You don't usually have to worry about obstacles, but fresh snowfall can send you into a skid."
Not that he thought he needed to worry about that with Rus. They were crawling along at such a slow pace that Edge thought getting out to jog might get him to the outpost faster. He didn't say so and Rus only nodded tightly at his advice, his eye lights on the road with laser focus.
At least he didn't have to worry about Rus hot-dogging out amongst the glaciers.
The first checkpoint was approximately three kilometers from the station. It took close to fifteen minutes to get there, but Edge wasn’t complaining. Not when Rus turned the vehicle off with a shaky sigh, not when he turned to him with obvious glee, his eye lights bright with elation and for once, his smile was real and not that smirking one he usually shared, “how’s that, boss? am i road worthy?”
Well…he supposed slow was safe, “On a Sno-Cat, yes. We’ll test on the snowmobiles later.”
Rus grimaced, grabbing his bag and case before climbing out. Edge followed him, boots crunching on the snow as they went over to the outpost. There wasn’t much to see, only some permanent environmental monitoring equipment along with a shelter meant for emergencies. Inside were enough supplies to hold a group through a snowstorm for several days. It would keep them alive if not strictly comfortable.
After checking over the equipment for any warnings or issues, Edge glanced back at Rus, who was rummaging through his pack. He pulled out a tape measure of some sort, securing it to the ground and he used it to mark off a radius of about four meters. Then he opened the long case and drew something out.
Edge kept back, watching with no little curiosity. He'd seen plenty of research equipment in the past two years and this was nothing like he'd ever seen. A long, thin pole that extended even longer, and Rus didn't seem to have any difficulty pushing it into the frozen ground. He did something with the little device that sat on top, correcting the angle and then switch it on. Red and green lights flashed, then settled into a steady glow.
"and, gyftmas achieved. awesome." Directly across from it on the line of the circle he'd drawn, he started setting up another.
“Any equipment you put out here needs to go back with you when you leave,” Edge called out in warning.
“like i'd leave anything?” Rus snorted loudly, the sound carrying in the quiet. “this shit was expensive. i carted it in, i’ll be carting it out.”
He set up two more, each an equal distance away, taking them in with a satisfied nod before he picked up his empty case. "done. now all i need is to wait on the data."
"What are you researching?" Edge looked at the device curiously, but none of it seemed even vaguely familiar. And while Red and Undyne might enjoy sneaking around, Edge preferred direct questions.
It was into the better part of twilight now and Rus pushed up his goggles, his pale eye lights gleaming through the darkness. "ah, ah, i'd have to check with my sugar mamma before i told you that."
Edge blinked, startled. "You've been talking about your research to Undyne?"
That earned him a surprised bark of laughter. "nah, my real sugar mamma, my sponsor. i'm not as lucky as some of these other guys, i don't have a collection of grants to keep me running. but i’ve got one person willing to help out, at least a little."
"So, you have a sponsor." That was information Red would appreciate and despite his implications, Edge hadn’t needed to be anywhere near anyone’s sheets to learn it.
"yeah, but you'll have to earn a talk about her. old lady is nice, though." Rus winked at him. “i’m finished, we can head back.”
“I’ll drive,” Edge said, and Rus only tossed him the keys. “Normally I’d let you, but I think you’ll be safe enough driving one of the Sno-Cats when you need to.”
And with the way Rus drove, they wouldn’t be home until midnight.
The trip was much shorter this time around, the scenery around them passing briskly, but they were only halfway through it when Rus sat up abruptly, looking out the window.
"stop," Rus said suddenly. "please. please, stop."
Edge stepped on the brake, easing them to a halt, and before he could ask what was wrong, the door was open and Rus was gone.
“For fuck’s sake,” Edge grunted, exasperated, and undid his seat belt to follow him.
He hadn’t gone far, only a few steps from the vehicle, and he was standing still, staring upward. It was only as Edge got closer that he could see the soft gleam of dampness on Rus’s cheek bones, a faint shimmer in the faint light.
"What wrong?" Edge asked. Perhaps a little gruffly but he wasn’t especially talented with comforting an upset person. This one was certainly giving his social skills a hell of a workout.
Rus only shook his head. "it’s beautiful,” he whispered, awed, “i've never seen it before."
It was only then that Edge realized the aurora was swirling above them. It was beautiful, the hectic colors writhing together in the sky were a sea of shimmering greens and yellows, like an ocean from another world, beckoning. Edge had seen them before, of course he had, a hundred times. He'd been working at the station for over two years now and the Aurora Australis was a common sight for him.
Rus stood next to him, staring up in wonder with the soft tears on his face reflecting those colors, and Edge wondered when he stopped bothering to look up.
He let Rus stare up at the sky, at the auroras, until he shivered visibly. Even then, Edge waited until he turned on his own and climbed back into the Cat.
Edge followed him and started it back up, turning the heat on high. They rode in silence until Edge pulled up in front of the door to the main building.
“Go on in,” Edge told him, “Dinner will be starting soon. I’ll get the Sno-Cat sorted this time.”
Rus didn’t move at first, only sat with his gloved hands in his lap. Then he said, quietly, “thank you, for letting me watch for so long.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to say it was his job; he was a guide, and if Rus wanted to waste his precious, expensive time here staring at the auroras, it wasn’t up to Edge to make that choice for him. The words felt wrong, hovering unspoken and instead he said, equally soft. "You don't need to thank me for that."
"no?” Rus ducked his head and smiled, the faint, real one of before. “maybe this would be better.”
Before Edge interpret that, he leaned in. The softest touch brushed Edge’s cheek bone, less a kiss and more the spirit of one.
He closed his sockets and inhaled sharply. He could smell his own laundry detergent and something else, the sweet tang of unfamiliar magic. Then that light pressure was gone and so was Rus.
The door closed behind him with a clang and Edge sat a minute longer, gripping the steering wheel tight enough to set his fingers aching. Then he drove the Sno-Cat over to the shed to put it up for the night.
Before he went in, he tugged off a glove and touched his cheek bone with bare fingertips, smoothing over the rough, scarred bone. He shook his head and his tangled thoughts away and went inside.
Dinner was soon and he wasn’t about to miss it.
By the time Edge got the Sno-Cat secured and signed back in, the others were already gathered in the mess hall. All the researchers were buried into their laptops and tablets, conversing softly with each other and the fact that no one had discreetly asked for the WiFi password was encouraging for their survivalist skills.
Red and Undyne were sitting at the end of the table, squabbling over a game of cards, which meant everyone was here.
Everyone that was, except Rus.
Edge could only shake his head in exasperation; this was not a trend he liked. In their corner, Undyne was laughing at something Red said, pounding the table hard enough to send most of their cards flying and the silverware dancing, but her grin faded, flipping into a scowl when she caught sight of Edge standing there alone.
“Where’s the fashion victim?” she demanded. “What the fuck, Boss, did you leave him out there to walk back? He couldn’t have been that bad!”
A dozen pairs of interested eyes rose from laptops and notebooks to look at him, awaiting his reply. As if perhaps the answer was yes, and that his body would soon join the others, so take heed.
It really was endearing the way she enabled trust between them and their wards.
“Of course not,” Edge growled. “I sent him inside close to ten minutes ago, hasn’t anyone—”
The door to the kitchen swinging open cut him off and Rus came out through it, which answered some questions only to create more.
He was laughing and carrying bowls, and Bonnie was at his heels with serving platters of her own. Her chuffs of laughter had all three permanent residents staring in disbelief. She was never one to laugh so readily in front of Humans and they’d never seen her allow anyone to help her with serving.
“good evening, everyone, i’ll be your waiter tonight,” Rus said, in perhaps the worst attempt at a snooty English accent possible. He set down his bowls, shaking out one of towels he used as a potholder and draping it primly over his arm. With a stiff bow, he looked down the little nodule over his nasal cavity at them. “everything is delicious, in case you’re wondering. i’ve taste-tested all of it personally, so none of you need to worry about poisonings or wily sabotage from wascally wabbits.”
Even the Humans looked amused. Undyne was laughing outright and Red was snickering with some reluctance, his eye lights hidden again behind his sunglasses while he picked up cards from the floor.
Bonnie returned with more bowls and hip-checked Rus out of her way. He stumbled back, laughing, “ah, it seems i am bowing to the expertise of our bonny chef! bunny chef? anyway, dig in, i’ll be right back, i almost have her talked into dessert!”
He slipped in front of Bonnie, his hands flashing as he signed while walking backwards towards the kitchen. It was almost too fast for Edge to follow but from his pleading expression and Bonnie’s of bemused indulgence, Rus was being true to his word and begging for dessert.
He suspected it was a battle already won.
They disappeared back into the kitchen and the rest of them dug into the serving bowls, conversations paused in pursuit of delicious nourishment.
“That shirt he’s wearing looks familiar,” Undyne murmured, depositing a generous dollop of roasted vegetables on her own plate, “did he pick it up off your floor?”
Edge chewed his own mouthful more thoroughly than necessary, then said with marked gentleness, “The more you talk, the more I look forward to kicking your ass tonight.”
“Oh, there’ll be some ass-kicking tonight.” She stretched and her shirt bulged visibly at the arms, seams straining. At least two of the Male humans and one of the Females were watching with great interest and Edge made a mental note to quietly inform them that Undyne was in a very committed relationship and likely would not take any invitations well.
“Nice trick,” Edge leaned back in his chair, “but some of us don’t need fancy muscles to fight.”
“or any muscles, really,” Red drawled. “dunno, boss, you might be out of practice. i got ten on undyne.”
Before Edge could berate him for that disloyalty, a shy voice spoke up, “I’d put ten on the Boss.”
It was one of the women he’d worked with earlier and her eyes behind her glasses were sparkling with amusement.
That was…different. Most of the researchers kept to themselves, particularly after their safety training, hardly speaking to them past verifying equipment requests or occasional rude personal questions. To have them willingly join simple friendly conversation was unusual.
Red’s grin widened and he tipped up his sunglasses. “oh, now we got some action going.” He scrabbled a pen and a grubby notebook out of his jacket pocket. “all right, who else wants in?”
Edge could only watch in disbelief as the other scientists began to call out bets, wondering when he’d lost control of this situation. It did not escape his notice that the ones who’d done their ride along with Undyne today were wagering on her. Maybe he should pay closer attention to the recording logs.
Even Undyne looked taken aback, but not for long. She watched as Red wrote gleefully in his notebook, the entire group of them bantering and arguing over bets. Too low for any of them to hear, she murmured, “Gonna lay down the law, Boss?”
“No,” he said slowly. It had been a long time since he’d seen Red honestly excited and there was no real harm in it. “Let them lose their money.”
Her grin widened viciously.
“He’s got you in a good mood, Boss, how did he end up in your shirt, exactly?” she crooned and ducked when he swiped at her. “Ah, ah, save it for the ring.”
The ring, yes. By the time Rus returned, grinning triumphantly, plopping into a seat and digging into the depleted serving bowls without complaint, the betting was over, but that was fine.
Edge did make sure to leave room for dessert.
Before the dishes could be scraped and cleared, Bonnie returned, both expected and unexpected, with a large tray of peach cobbler.
It was from canned peaches but still delicious, and she gave Rus the first portion before allowing anyone else to dig in.
He signed a flurry of thank you’s at her, only stopping when she cuffed him lightly on the back of the head. But she was smiling as she went back to the kitchen and the entire tray was scraped clean in minutes.
Undyne was the first by the door afterward, almost bouncing with eagerness. “C’mon, let’s go see the rec center! Bet you guys could use some relaxing after today. You’ll like the walkway, too, this way.”
There was a low murmur of agreement from most of them, although they were surely more eager to get their money’s worth on their bets than to try out the treadmills. Rus perked up as well, his face alive with interest, and he trailed a safe distance after Undyne, buffering potential noogies through several Human bodies.
Edge followed last, Red at his side, and he pointedly ignored his grinning fool of brother as he paged through his little notebook. It was harder to ignore the slim figure walking in front of him, dressed in his clothes, but he managed.
The main building and the Recreational Center were the only two connected with Alphys’s prototype umbilicus, thus far. It was short enough to force Edge and Undyne, and now Rus, to duck a little going through but it did allow them to traverse between buildings without have to completely gear up.
Her goal was to have all the buildings connected by next year, if this tested well in the cold and wind this season.
For now, it was holding up, as warm as the rest of the buildings and without the barrier of metal hardware blocking the view. Nothing but clear, glassy material and there were times in the past that Edge had discovered Undyne and Alphys sitting out here together, watching the darkened sky where the low outdoor temperature wouldn’t be unbearable for Alphys.
At least he hoped they’d only been sky watching; he’d never cared to investigate too closely.
The recreational facility was one of the larger buildings at the station. In one corner was exercise equipment including treadmills and weight benches. In another were a couple of comfortable sofas, and a video game machine that doubled as a blu-ray player. One wall was lined with plush recliners with full spectrum lights stationed above them, where their ‘guests’ could sit with their notes and laptops, working on their research while staving off the effects of living in minimal daylight.
And in the furthest corner were the sparring mats. It was one of the few things Edge insisted on in his contract. He and Undyne needed to blow off steam from time to time, and sparring together was the best way to accomplish that. Neither Red nor Alphys were interested or equipped for it, and that was fine. He and Undyne managed with each other.
After a brief tour, most of the others were milling around the room but their attention was not on the movie that was starting up. They were orbiting the mats, wandering close, then backing off, and the sense of anticipation was heavy in the air from all of them.
Rus was with them, but his focus was on the movie, unaware of any stakes.
By the wall, Edge stripped off his outer layers and folded them, kicking off his shoes and socks and leaving only his tank top and pants. He ignored the interested eyes he could feel on him. Humans were endlessly curious about Monsters and scientists doubly so. If they were as smart as they were supposed to be, they would keep their questions to themselves, and if they weren’t, Edge was well familiar with giving a curt reminder of manners.
“I’ll try not to kick your ass too hard, Boss,” Undyne said cheerfully as she taped her hands. “You’ll need to be able to do some work tomorrow.”
Speaking of manners.
“You might want to watch your mouth,” Edge threw back. He stepped on the mat, bouncing lightly on his toes. “The less you speak, the less words you’ll have to eat later.”
Undyne cackled. It had been far too long since they’d had the opportunity to let loose and never with stakes. She slipped in her mouth guard as Edge did the same, both of them tightening their sparring gloves.
They circled each other slowly, familiar enough with the other to be wary.
Edge didn’t have to wait long.
Undyne lashed out viciously and Edge danced back. Her fist still passed close enough for Edge to feel the rush of air and he didn’t wait for her to try again.
He struck, catching her square in the face and her head snapped back. Redness glowed in her eyes, a thin trickle of purple blood trailing from her nose, but Undyne only licked it away, grinning savagely. "Come on, you can do better than that.”
“I can, but if I don’t leave you standing, I’ll have to take on your duty sheet tomorrow.”
They went around the mat and each other, trading blows and insults while the others crowded close to watch, and Red stood nearby taking last minute bets.
Undyne had a hell of a reach despite being shorter than him and she was damned strong on top of that. It was better to wear her out dodging than to keep blocking blows, and to stay out of arm’s length as much as possible.
It worked for a while, until the one time he was too slow. Undyne caught him by the arm, twisting him off-balance and flinging him viciously into the wall. It was only poor luck that he hit the seam of the wall mat, catching more drywall than cushion. He felt a rib cracking, bit back his shout of pain as he went down to his knees.
Distantly, he could hear a murmur of dismay from their watchers and Undyne was by him in an instant.
"Fuck, I'm sorry, Boss," Undyne said remorsefully. She started to kneel down, and Edge took that moment to nail her square in the gut, knocking her on her ass.
She whuffed out from the force of the blow, then wheezed a laugh, pounding on the padded floor with a fist. "By the queen’s tits! That was a low blow, you dick!"
"the rule is not hitting when your sparring partner is down,” Edge panted. He pressed a hand gingerly against his cracked rib, testing. “There's nothing that says the downed partner can't.”
He didn’t mean to look away from her, hardly more than a glance, but his gaze snagged on Rus, standing at the outer part of the crowd. He looked a little shocked, his skull oddly pale, and Edge climbed unsteadily to his feet.
"I'm fine,” he said, a little louder than he might normally.
He was, or would be by tomorrow. His injuries were nothing like what Red was recovering from and the bones would only be a little tender for a day or two. A quick treatment from Alphys and he’d be fine.
He tore his gaze away from Rus. He couldn’t allow any distractions or one of them was going to get really hurt.
But Undyne noticed Rus watching, pushing her sweaty hair out of her face. "Wanna get in here, Rus?” she called. Her grin bordered on feral. “Don't worry, he'll be gentle on you."
The others turned to look at him with varying expressions of interest, Red’s pen poised for changing odds.
Rus took an actual step back and something like fear crossed his face. To her credit, Undyne noticed her misstep immediately. "Aw, I'm just kiddin', fashion victim. Leave the fighting to us, we’re a good spectator sport.”
Rus grinned, that false smirk of his and having seen his real smile, Edge hated it instantly. It was a painful contrast to his posture, hunched in with his arms crossed over his chest, almost as if he were bracing himself.
"yeah, well, don’t kill him, undyne," Rus called back. "some of us need to borrow him yet tomorrow."
Laughter ran through the group of Humans, even Red chuckling along. Edge didn’t laugh, even as Rus met his gaze, that false smile of his faltering.
His eye lights were too narrow, shrunken to pinpricks and from the way Red was frowning, he noticed it, too. No one else would understand what it meant, but they did. Rus was upset and Edge wasn’t sure why.
There was nothing to say, not now. Undyne leaned in with a smirk and murmured, too low for anyone else to hear her. "Hope he washes you before he gives you back."
Edge scowled and shoved her roughly back while she laughed raucously. He tightening his hand guards and stepped back up, dropping into an aggressor’s stance. He didn't need to go see Alphys just yet and Undyne’s eyes took on a gleefully red cast at his silent challenge.
If she wanted to blow off steam, she was about to get her wish.
In the end, they called it a draw but there were no complaints from the viewing gallery, not with the variety of matching bruises they were both sporting. Undyne was nursing a bloody nose and Edge couldn’t see properly out of one socket. Tomorrow they’d both be aching and snarling about it, but tonight he wasn’t going to have any trouble falling asleep.
It was with disbelieving wonder that Edge watched Undyne and Red chatting with the researchers afterward, Undyne even going so far as to allow the young woman who’d given her a look at dinner a squeeze of her bicep. He didn’t know what Red was writing in his little notebook while talking in hushed tones to two of the others and perhaps that was for the best.
Edge was only interested in one of their charges, but Rus was already gone.
If Edge had to use a word to describe Alphys when they staggered into her lab, it would have been exasperatedly unimpressed.
Not that Edge blamed her. After they’d brought everyone out of the rec area, Undyne insisted that they all needed a shot of whiskey and if any of their scientists would have preferred to beg off, none of them had been brave enough to do so. Red had vanished earlier, but even Edge gave in and had one. It was outside his normal, but then, all of this was.
One shot turned into several and by the time he’d been ready to drag Undyne off to see her lover, there were three empty bottles and several loud, singing Humans to see to.
Even with his own head swimming pleasantly, they’d managed to get everyone to their rooms and breakfast tomorrow was probably going to be filled with a very quiet, very pale group.
Once the last researcher was pushed through their door, they started back to crew quarters.
Undyne was either too drunk to notice Edge hesitating at Rus’s closed door or sober enough to realize mentioning it would end poorly. Either way, it left the two of them making their stumbling way Alphys’s lab together.
She looked up when they walked in and only shook her head, sliding out of her chair.
“W-who won?” Alphys asked on a sigh. As if she hadn't probably been watching it all on the security cameras.
“Aw, honeybear lovelizard baby, are you doubting me?” Undyne cooed.
Once Alphys would have melted like warmed butter beneath that affection. Now...she still melted but she did hold out somewhat longer.
Edge resisted the urge to gag. “Before you two settle into your nighttime routine, can I get you to look at my ribs? Your fishie buttercup love muffin or whatever you call her cracked two of them.” The ache dulled by the whiskey was starting to return with a vengeance.
A brilliant blush settled over Alphys’s face and she nodded hastily, gesturing him over to the machine.
He settled into the cushioned chair and closed his sockets, waiting. The same Core that powered the station also powered the machine and it started up with a low hum, vibration thrumming through him.
Edge had seen the original plans for the machine, back before they'd come to the station. The notes in the margins had been written in a hand that Edge didn’t recognize and Alphys never spoke of whatever partner she’d worked with in the past.
She also never mentioned that the original plans for it included straps on the chair that her version did not possess.
It didn’t really feel like much of anything, a moment of warmth, nothing more, but the pain in his ribs started fading immediately. By tomorrow, they’d be healed.
His brother’s treatment was only taking as long as it was because the injury was old. And, of course, for the obvious reason. “Has Red been in for a session?”
Alphys shook her head and added another layer to her exasperation. “Not yet.”
“That fucker,” Undyne grumbled. “Eh, if he’s not in by tomorrow we’ll corner him and drag him in by his tailbone.”
Alarmed, Alphys said, “G-go easy on him, all this makes him u-u-un-un…”
She couldn’t get the words out. They waited patiently but she finally shook her head. “J-just go easy on him.”
“We will, Alphys,” Edge said gently. “You know I’d never hurt him.”
She only nodded, her eyes downcast. It gave Undyne a chance to swoop in and scoop her up, ignoring her spluttering protests as she rained wet, sloppy kisses onto her brightly flushed cheeks and face while Edge could only look away in amused disgust.
“Okay, okay,” Undyne set Alphys back down on her feet with a last smacking kiss. “You can get back to your amazing, interesting shit, baby. I’m gonna talk to the Boss here for a minute.
“I literally have nothing that I want to talk about with you tonight.” He should have escaped during the distraction, his instincts were alcohol-dulled.
“He’s a chuckle and a half, ain’t he.” Undyne gave Alphys a light shove in the direction of her work table. “Let me fuck with his head and then you can tell me all about your day, all right.”
“S-sure,” Alphys gave them both an uncertain look but went back to her worktable. That she put on her headphones was as good as a promise to not listen in and when Undyne swung back to him, her serious expression was not one Edge liked. At all.
“Okay, so we’re both tiddly,” Undyne said, hiccoughing as if in punctuation of that statement. “And you fucking hate people interfering in your life. I get that. But if you seriously listen to me right now, I’ll lay off a little about the fashion victim.”
Edge gave her a hard stare and considered. “You’ll stop teasing the both of us?”
“Didn’t say that,” she said, grinning sharkily. “But I’ll lay off some.”
“Say your piece,” Edge sighed. It was hardly as if whatever she said would change anything. Involuntarily, he remembered the look on Rus’s face in the rec room. The shrunken eye lights, the way he’d backed away from them. His fear.
“I know your brother thinks he hauled in some secrets in his pelvis, but I think Red’s full of shit,” Undyne said with solemnness that belied her wobbly posture. “Rus’s fun and he’s cute as a fucking button. Have some fun with him. You can, you know.”
“Have a fling,” she went on stubbornly. “Enjoy it. Trust me, when he thinks you can't see him? That boy is always watching you.”
“He could be looking for the best place to stick a knife,” Edge pointed out. But the whiskey made his control slippery and he couldn’t help a little smile as Undyne snorted a laugh.
“Nah, not that one. That little sweetheart wouldn’t kick a penguin who stole his last protein bar.”
Edge scoffed. “You’re blinded by your own bliss.”
For once she didn’t laugh, didn’t send a fond look over to where Alphys was pointedly ignoring them. “Maybe. But you saw his face earlier. Your bro is wrong. He’s not hiding anything but a soft soul. He’s sweet on you, boss, it’s damn obvious. Two months and he’s going to be busy for a lot of it. It’s just a little distraction, so take it and—"
She signed a little clumsily, her missing fingers always making it a touch awkward, and he couldn’t hold back a bark of laughter. “You just said I should toaster him beneath my bed.”
Undyne blinked and shrugged. “Well, you get what I meant.” She raised both hands before Edge could reply. “Okay, that’s it, that’s the speech. I’m gonna go see if I can talk my distraction into a little playtime of our own. See you in the morning, Boss.”
Edge took the opportunity to flee, shutting the door firmly and he sent a silent thank you that soundproofing had been included when they’d built the laboratory.
His own quarters weren’t far away and already he was feeling more sober. Alcohol never affected him for long and by the time his alarm went off, he’d be fine. Soon enough, he was settled into his bed, but for some reason, sleep was elusive.
Rus’s fearful expression refused to leave him, niggling at him. Whatever caused it, Edge wasn’t about to regret a little sparring. He and Undyne needed an outlet and that was that. He refused to be ashamed of any part of his life, not for anyone.
Perhaps he was no longer the Captain of the Guard, but he was in charge of this station and he was proud of all they’d accomplished here. They’d built this station from the ground up, the four of them; himself and his brother, Undyne and Alphys.
With hard work, they’d made this one of the most sought after facilities in one of the most remote places in Antarctica; the wait list grew longer all the time, researchers from all over clamoring to come here to work.
It also gave Alphys a place to do her work and when that was ready, it was going to revolutionize the world. Eventually.
They’d built a home here and he didn’t need anything disrupting it, especially not a distraction that would only be there for a couple months.
Edge rolled over, shutting his sockets determinedly. There was plenty to be done tomorrow and he needed his rest.
It was still a long time before he slept.
The next morning proved his predication true with a tableful of pale scientists. Not as quiet as expected though; at least the pair of women chatted a bit with Undyne about their upcoming excursion that day.
Edge was spending the morning with the trio of glaciologists and if their smiles that morning were somewhat forced, Edge suspected it had more to do with their headaches than anything else.
His own eye lights were continually drawn to the conspicuously empty seat across from them and his brother, who always saw more than he should, raised a brow bone over his sunglasses and nudged him with an elbow. “sorry, boss, you already missed him. the fashion victim only did a drive by, said he was working on something.”
“Good,” Edge said calmly. “Skipping meals can be dangerous living in this climate.”
It was said mostly for the benefit of the other scientists, and so Edge didn’t think he deserved the looks Undyne and Red gave him. True to her word, though, Undyne didn’t comment on it, only gathered up her pair, her laughter ricocheting through the room as they went out the door.
His brother disappeared between one look and the next, thoroughly thwarting Edge’s intent to talk to him about seeing Alphys. Not unexpected but still irritating.
Eventually, someone would corner Red, and hopefully not get bitten in the process.
His group was finished choking down breakfast soon enough and Edge led them to the vestibule to get ready. Everything was fine; his brother would get his treatment soon and so long as Rus wasn’t skipping meals, there was no reason to be concerned. Rus was here to work, after all, and seemed to be getting right into it.
And Edge had a job to do.
It didn’t stop him from wondering later if Rus was avoiding them all. Or perhaps that was the wrong word because he did see Rus at lunch. But instead of his previous flirty cheer, he was working on his laptop, pausing in between bites to type furiously.
That was more what Edge expected from the researchers, except somehow overnight a reversal had occurred. Now the Humans were more willing to chat and laugh, drawing Undyne and even Red into their conversations, while Rus kept to himself and his work. Aside from sharing a quick smile and greeting with Bonnie, he was as quiet now as he’d been enthusiastic before.
If it sent a sliver of disappointment through Edge, he pushed it away. This was what Rus was here for and from what little Edge had gleaned from his words, he paid dearly to get here. If Edge didn’t need a distraction, then Rus should be avoiding one doubly so. Whatever his thesis was should have all his attention.
But for one brief moment, he caught Edge’s eye light and his brief smile was the real one. It warmed him, ridiculously so, a gentle thrum in his soul. Edge ignored that, focusing on his own meal. His afternoon was booked solid and there were plenty of other tasks he needed to work on before he fell behind.
Undyne might prefer a distraction in her life, but Edge was busy. He was.
That night, Edge was making a last check of the station before heading off to bed. It was a long-ingrained habit and one he sometimes couldn't sleep without.
Everything seemed secure enough, not that he was particularly worried about checking the door locks. Despite his brother’s taste in ridiculous movies, Edge had little concern that aliens of any sort would invade their station.
It was more to verify that everything was in its place, all equipment was being properly maintained and signed off on. When lives depended on everything being in working order, it paid to make sure no one shirked.
The hallways and rooms were empty; it was late enough that everyone was in their room, or wherever Red was hiding out to avoid a confrontation. Everything was as it should be.
Until Edge reached the kitchen.
There was a light coming out from beneath the door and behind it, he could hear rustling.
Hm, it seemed there was a rat getting into the supplies.
He turned the door knob silently, pushing it open an inch and peering inside. To find Rus poking through one of the cabinets, the battered kettle hanging from one hand.
Well, more of a curious mouse than a rat, but one that Edge would have thought was too clever to fall into a trap. Usually.
Rus jerked, yelping as he banged his skull on a shelf. He rubbed his head, wincing. “fuck, would you wear a bell!”
“You’re welcome to try attaching one.”
“no, thanks, i like all my limbs where they are," Rus said dryly. "and no, i don’t need help, i just wanted a hot drink. coffee or something.”
“Coffee will keep you awake,” Edge pointed out.
Rus only shrugged. ”i don’t sleep well anyway. and…i’m sort of cold. i thought a warm drink would help.”
That was good information to have. If any of the researchers were having issues, even ones of comfort, Edge needed to know. Sickness was always a concern and while there was nothing that Rus would infect the Humans with, there was his brother to think of.
Not that Rus looked sick, not at all. The pristine bone of his skull was glossy with health and his eye lights were wide and steady, the more delicate bones of his hands didn’t have the slightest trace of a tremble.
Even so, such an admission deserved a reward. Edge took the kettle from Rus’s hand and filled it, setting it on the stove. While he waited for it to boil, he unlocked the steel box that held his private stores and took out a box of tea.
Rus sat at the table to watch him, propping his chin on one hand. “letting me in on your secrets?”
“I trust you,” Edge said simply. With his supplies, at least. That was true enough.
A faint blush rose in his cheek bones. Rus didn't say anything, but his smile was shyly pleased.
Edge leaned against the counter to wait on the kettle, and the niggling concern of the day demanded he ask, “If we upset you last night—"
Rus coughed loudly, deliberately, and Edge stopped. “hey, so, if we could maybe never talk about that, that’d be great.” He met Edge’s gaze with a wry smile. “like the song says, i’ve got issues. it’s okay. i’m fine with it."
“All right,” Edge said easily. So long as it didn’t become a problem, Rus could keep his secrets.
It was only a few minutes work before he had two cups steeping. Once they'd finished, Edge poured a measure of honey into Rus’s cup and pushed it over to him.
Rus curled his hands around the mug with a grateful sigh. “should i be worried that you already know how i take my tea?”
“It’s my job to know about the people I’m responsible for.” Not to mentioned he’d noticed it at several meals now.
"uh huh." Rus’s eye lights were shining over the rim of his cup “how does johnson take his coffee?”
“Hot,” Edge said, deadpan. Rus only laughed and the sound of it made him warmer than the tea. “Are you hungry?”
“wouldn’t say no to a snack.”
Edge set a pan to heat on the burner and dug through the pantry, pulling out a tightly wrapped loaf of bread. He cut even slices of it, enough for a couple of sandwiches each.
"won’t bonnie get mad if you’re messing up the supply inventory?" Rus asked. It didn't escape Edge's notice that he was hunched in, curling over his half-empty cup. He was dressed in the thermals Edge had given him, but the sweatshirt he’d been wearing earlier was missing.
Edge stripped off the fleece-lined jacket he had on over his heavy thermal shirt, draping it over Rus's shoulders before going back to the pantry. If Rus was coming down sick, getting chilled would do no one any favors. “Considering that I’m the one who makes the bread, I should hope not.”
“thanks, but i'm fine.” It didn't stop Rus from snuggling into the warmed fabric. “and really? you make it?”
“It fills the day.” With a grunt, he retrieved an industrial-sized can of peanut butter, setting it on the counter next to the bread.
“you’re making us a peanut butter sandwich?” Rus sounded equal parts amused and doubtful.
"Peanut butter is an excellent source of protein," Edge countered. "Protein and carbohydrates are necessary for the extra calories you're burning keeping warm and it will help you sleep. But if you'd prefer to cook something else?"
"no, no, martha stewart, it's all you."
"You mock, but she has excellent taste."
He spread peanut butter thickly on the slices then added them to the hot pan, toasting them until each side was golden brown and the smell of roasting peanuts was heavy in the air. Edge piled them onto a plate, setting it on the table and they both ate through the stack before they even had a chance to cool, between whispery bites and sips of tea.
"that wasn't half-bad," Rus admitted, as if he hadn't eaten his fair share. As it was, he dabbled a finger in the remaining crumbs and licked it clean.
"Mmm." Edge washed down his last bite. "You should go to bed if you're going to get anything accomplished tomorrow."
"yeah." He stood, lingering a moment longer, pulling Edge's jacket tighter around himself. "thanks. for everything."
Before Edge could offer a word to that, Rus ducked his head and there was a ghost of pressure against his mouth, another stolen kiss too fast to be returned.
He started out the door, quick as before but this time Edge managed to catch his sleeve.
Rus hesitated, those soft, pale eye lights wider than ever, the flush in his cheek bones brightening.
“You’ve done that twice now,” Edge said quietly. Twice in only three days. Once on the cheek, once on the mouth, as light as a falling snowflake.
“yeah?” Rus swallowed hard and he was standing there in Edge’s shirt, wearing Edge’s jacket. Cute as a button, Undyne called him, not entirely inaccurate, but also somehow pure and tempting.
Edge ignored the faint hoarseness in his own voice as he asked, “Do I get to return the favor?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, curving a hand around Russ’s skull and pulling him down. Pressing their mouths together, firmer than the snowflake brushes of before and Rus moaned softly, meeting it with soft pressure of his own.
Nothing more than a gentle, lingering touch and Edge drew away with reluctance, letting him go.
Rus’s eye lights were blown wide, shading sweetly orange. His smile was soft, real, even as he backed away and the door swung shut behind Rus as he fled through it. Edge didn't chase him, not even for his jacket. Instead, he pressed two fingers against his mouth, mimicking that soft touch.
Trouble, that was the word for it, all packaged in soft eye lights and a pretty smile, the scientist who paused to look at the sky.
Damn his brother for being right.
Aside from the days where a new group arrived, the days at the station usually passed with a pleasant sort of monotony. Once the researchers were settled, everything was routine, meticulously planned, and that was the way Edge preferred it.
Edge woke early, brewed his first cup of coffee from his personal machine while he went over the morning paperwork. He sent his reports to the Institute, handled any requests from their current batch of researchers, and went over the duty log for the day.
He always finished in time for breakfast, taking the time to join the others. Red was always there early, sunglasses in place. Undyne occasionally came in before Edge, sometimes after, and Edge did not question her morning routine. For all her loud, careless laughter and casual moments of fond disrespect, she was as rigid in her duty schedule as he was. All her responsibilities would be finished, there was no questioning it.
After a breakfast that included another cup of coffee, he might chaperone a group of researchers offsite or work on more paperwork, depending on schedule; checking supply orders alone was tedious and necessary, the paperwork required at the station was endless.
All the permanent staff was scheduled a time to work in Hydroponics and there was a sign-up sheet for any researcher who wanted to spend some time in the gardens. An hour of work was worth an extra shower token and the time logs were always filled. After days in the snowy cold, the lush greenhouse warmth was appreciated, as well as time with the plants.
Edge preferred his time slot right after lunch and made sure it didn’t coincide with any other. Time spent alone in the quiet starting new seedlings, caring for the slender greens, and picking fresh supplies for Bonnie was soothing.
Afternoons were spend checking workstations positioned around the perimeter to repair any damage caused by the weather. Every week the emergency shelters needed checked for supplies and access, and the duty roster changed between the three of them weekly.
The drive through the cold and snow in the ever-present twilight was unremarkable even if these days Edge found himself pausing more often to look up, watching the swirl of the southern lights.
After that, he had open slots again for researchers and if no one scheduled a time, he might work in the kitchen, kneading bread dough while Bonnie prepped for dinner.
Evenings were spent checking duty logs again, reading notes left by the others about upcoming repairs, supply requests, and any issues that erupted during the day. Once he was finished, there was a little time to go to the Rec center or to simply read in his own quarters before he went to sleep and the cycle began again the next day.
There was peace in planning, and Edge liked to keep surprises at a minimum. His days were carefully laid out with precision and only the occasional hiccough disrupted that.
Until Rus. His presence was less a hiccough than a seizure, shaking him to his core in less than a handful of days.
How was it then, that his absence was somehow worse?
Since their time in the kitchen two nights ago, Edge had barely seen Rus. He always left breakfast before Edge got there, at least according to Red, who gleefully said that Rus only stopped by to snatch up his food before fleeing back to wherever he was working.
Lunchtime he was there, usually consumed with his laptop, and dinner was the same. Wherever he was in-between, Edge did not know. He never scheduled an outing with any of them, never sought him out, and Edge was not about to chase him down.
If only he could stop thinking about him.
Ridiculous that someone he hardly knew could consume his thoughts, but at odd times Edge found Rus lurking in his mind. When he should be working on his duty reports, Edge found his thoughts wandering to Rus’s smile, that soft, sweet one. The real one. Working in the gardens, he would remember Rus’s voice, low with the faintest hint of a rasp. Driving out to the workstations was a reminder of crawling along the road in the Cat with Rus in the driver’s seat, brimming with that same determination he’d shown that first day when he staggered through the cold with all his gear, refusing to give up.
And there was the kiss.
Edge thought of that kiss entirely too often, ridiculously so. It could barely even be called a kiss and yet, at odd times there it would be in his thoughts, remembering the gentle press of their mouths together, the soft little sound Rus made.
Perhaps that same kiss had frightened him off.
He hadn’t acted frightened at the time, but there was no way to know. Even now, if he met Edge’s eye lights at the meal table, he would smile, a little, that sweet, genuine one that made warmth rise in Edge’s soul.
And he wore Edge’s jacket, always, replacing his worn sweatshirt with the sleek modern thermal. What did that mean?
Perhaps he was waiting for Edge to ask for it back? If so, it would be a long wait. Some might say confession was good for the soul, but any cracks in Edge’s would not be healed that way. He would admit to no one that he liked seeing Rus in his clothes, safe and warm.
Liked it, yes. But he wasn’t certain what to do about it.
Edge was an expert in many things, and none of them were how to handle a flirtatious scientist when he wasn’t entirely sure what they wanted to begin with.
And despite Undyne’s urging to have fun, Edge had little experience in anything past hurried encounters in the dark and his own hands. Nothing in his life ever led him in that direction, neither Underground nor his time above it.
Also, his information pool was sadly lacking. There was Undyne, whose lover had all but fallen into her lap with nothing more than a cheeky smile and his brother, which the very thought of asking gave Edge a chill worse than any the arctic carried. And despite having the World Wide Web at his fingertips, the question seemed past a simple google search.
In the end, Edge did nothing. He kept to his routines, ignored Undyne’s pointed nudges and sighs, her gleeful smirk when she noticed Rus’s…Edge’s…jacket and waited for those glances, those smiles.
It only seemed proper that Rus would once again disrupt things, only this time, he managed by not even being there.
A few days after their kitchen incident, Edge came to breakfast and found Undyne and Red were already there, and unusually, Alphys. She didn’t often join the main group for meals, a rare exception to Bonnie’s meal rules that eating in the station was for the dining room alone.
Closer to usual was a lack of Rus. But for the first time when Edge took his seat, Red murmured to him, “haven’t seen the fashion victim today.”
That was a touch irritating; they were all warned about missing meals and the information was also in the welcoming packet. Irritating and also worrisome.
Undyne only snorted loudly, “He’s gotta be around. Anyone seen the other resident skeleton today?”
There was a low murmur of denial from the others, until one Man spoke up, disdainfully, “Probably sleeping in. If he was going to sleep all the time, he could have allowed someone more dedicated to their research to take his slot.”
Before Undyne could speak up, and possibly shatter the fragile bonds that were developing between her and the scientists, Alphys surprised them all by doing it for her. “A-actually it’s probably b-because he was up late last night with his work.”
Blank stares greeted that, and she cringed, looking down at her plate. Surprise became blatant shock when she went on, softer but insistently, “H-he’s an astronomer? He sort of needs to work when the s-s-stars are out...a-and the different rotations are important, too.”
No one else had known that, Edge realized. None of the other scientists or even Red, who was usually a font of information that he shouldn’t possess. If it were true, his quick stops for breakfast made perfect sense. Of course he’d keep different hours than the others if his research involving star rotations. It brought to mind his awe when he stood in the snow, watching the aurora and Edge was forced to shake the memory away, focusing back on the others.
“I didn’t know you’d been hanging out with the fashion victim, babe,” Undyne said, slowly.
She only shrugged, stirring her oatmeal. That she’d been able to say even that much in front of the Humans was startling and pressing her for more would be an unkindness.
Not that the Humans knew that. One of the young women who showed such fondness for Undyne spoke up, “What is it you do here, Alphys?”
Undyne grinned and bared needle-sharp teeth. “It’s Doctor Alphys. And she’s with me.”
But the young woman took no offense, only nodded with a smile, “Oh, of course, Doctor.”
Alphys managed to look up briefly, offering a meek smile of her own.
“Along with her own research, Alphys works as our engineer,” Edge said, sparing her from trying to answer and sparing them all from Undyne. “She devised the system that gives us electricity so if you want a hot shower, I’d stay on her good side.”
“I’ll do her laundry and sweep the labs if it’ll keep the hot showers going,” came from the end of the table and Alphys visibly relaxed as the others laughed and went on with their conversations.
Soon everyone was wandering off to go about their days, including his brother and there was a trap that needed to be set soon. Red couldn’t avoid his treatments forever.
Edge cleared own plate, trying to decide what to do about Rus, when the answer came to him from an unexpected source.
The kitchen door swung open and Bonnie stalked out to plunk down a covered plate in front of him, giving him a stern look as she signed, For Rus.
Edge blinked at her, disbelieving, Am I serving breakfast in bed now?
“Looks like,” Undyne drawled lazily. Next to her, Alphys giggled, peeking up at him, and that was as good as a confession that Undyne was sharing gossip. “Go ahead, Boss, play delivery boy. Maybe you’ll get a tip.”
Bonnie made a chuffing sound of laughter, patting her chest and then rubbing her belly. Get to the heart through the stomach.
Already tried that, Edge signed in clipped little gestures, but it wasn’t as if he had any better advice. Perhaps he'd been thinking of asking the wrong people all along.
He picked up the plate, ignoring Bonnie’s smug look. It might be his station but even he knew that the cook outranked all.
Edge refused to waffle when he got to Rus’s room, balancing the plate on one hand and knocking sharply.
The door was flung open almost immediately, Rus filling the space as he snapped out, "what?!…oh."
Whatever his irritation at being interrupted, it melted quickly into surprise. He looked tired, his weary eye lights framed by round wire glasses and suddenly that was all Edge could look at. For all his casual, slovenly way of dressing, he couldn’t disguise his intellectual within, and the glasses transformed him into the sort of nerdy researcher that he’d known first in Alphys. No wonder she was spending time with him.
"is that for me?"
Edge nearly forgot the plate. "Yes, you missed breakfast."
That earned him a blank look. “i did? what time is it?"”
“Past breakfast,” Edge said dryly, “Did you oversleep?"
“Haven't been to sleep.” Rus scrubbed a hand over his skull distractedly, knocking his glasses askew and Edge was forced to resist the temptation to straighten them.
Sleep, right. "Don’t you think you should?"
"in a…" Rus yawned hugely. "in a minute, i'm almost done." He wandered away from the door, leaving it open. It was as good as an invitation and Edge stepped inside. The bed was unmade, the blankets a tangled mess, but the rest of the room was acceptable.
He set the plate on the desk, noting a framed picture in the corner of a younger looking Rus crouching next to a much shorter skeleton Monster. A sibling, perhaps, far too young to be a parent. When Rus didn’t seem to notice, Edge lifted the lid to reveal a full plate of scrambled eggs and toast, with a rasher of bacon at the side.
The tantalizing smell did what Edge’s presence didn’t, and Rus finally reached for the plate, scooped everything onto the toast, and scarfing it messily down.
Ignoring his table manners took effort. His laptop was open, the screen filled with equations, and Edge started to look over Rus’s shoulder before he reached out and snapped it closed. "excuse you, nosy nancy."
"You're assuming I have a clue as to what you’re doing,” Edge studied Rus, taking in the weary slump of his shoulders as he ate. It wasn’t only calories that were necessary to live at the station, exhaustion could leave anyone vulnerable to illness as well. “You should go to bed."
Rus licked his fingers obscenely. "are you angling for an invitation?"
Edge only shook his head. Here he was, tired enough to forget to eat but still trying to flirt and yet, he ran from kisses. A conundrum wrapped in a mystery, was Rus. Perhaps that explained his interest; Edge always had a weakness for puzzles. “Are you trying to make promises you can't possibly keep?"
"probably." Rus took off his glasses and rubbed his sockets. "okay, yeah, sleeping for a little while sounds like a good idea.” He pushed his seat back, rocking up on the back legs as he smirked up at Edge. "sure you won't join me?"
"If I do, will you go to sleep?"
The chair nearly tipped backwards as Rus wobbled unsteadily, his sockets widening, and a bright flush flooding his cheekbones as the legs clattered back to the floor. He looked so genuinely shocked that for a moment Edge wondered if he'd somehow been misreading everything. "i...really? i mean, yeah. yeah, sure."
“To sleep,” Edge clarified, warily.
“no, no, sleeping is fine. i like sleeping.” Rus almost stumbled to his feet. His few extra inches in height vanished in his awkward slump as he stripped down to his thermal layer, the ones Edge had given him.
"Get into bed," Edge ordered. He did, crawling in between the blankets and settling next to the wall.
"i'm sensing some unfairness here...oh." He swallowed hard when Edge stripped down to the same underlayer, flicking off the main lights before slipped between the blankets. The beds weren’t really meant for two, but they had the advantage of skeletal slimness. There was enough room for them both and a dismal space between them as well.
Edge settled his head on the pillow, looking at Rus. Who seemed to be trying to look anywhere else, his eye lights darting nervously around. "Is this not what you wanted?"
"yes," he squeaked. He cleared his throat, adding, "i...yeah. it’s just. i'm not sure what…i mean…."
"Come here," Edge told him, softly, and hesitantly, Rus did, crossing the few inches of empty sheets between them. Edge slipped an arm around him, urging Rus to settle his head into the hollow of his shoulder, all his light weight pressed into Edge’s side. At first, he lay stiffly, wired with tension that slowly eased, melting away until Rus was relaxed against him.
Edge closed his sockets, inhaling the scent that was surrounding him. Magic had a presence of his own and Rus’s smelled delicately sweet. Against the smooth bone of his temple, Edge murmured, "Go to sleep."
"mmhmm.” Barely even a word, slurred with sleepiness, and Edge thought Rus drowsed off until he whispered, “i didn't think you really meant it. about sleeping with me.”
"I know." But he didn't know why. The first words out of Rus's mouth when they'd met had been flirtatious.
“thought you wanted—hm.” The words faded, unspoken, and instead Rus rubbed his cheek bone against Edge’s shirt, sighing out, “you’re so warm, boss.”
He considered that for a long moment, then said, very softly, "My name is Edge."
He wasn't even sure if Rus heard him, until, "edge. i like that, suits you. you're warm, edge."
“Go to sleep.” In another moment, Rus did.
Beneath the heavy blankets was heady with warmth, Rus snuggled into his side. There were things Edge should be doing. There was a schedule to keep, duties that were waiting for him. He should slip free and let Rus sleep.
Instead, he closed his sockets, holding Rus close and breathing in his sweetness. He still had no idea what he was doing, but this seemed like a place to start.
Leaving Rus sleeping alone in his bed was one of the more difficult things Edge had done in recent memory. He only slept briefly himself, persuaded by Rus’s warmth and the unfamiliar comfort of holding someone in his arms, but in the end, it was early in the day and Edge was too restless to stay in bed as long as Rus should.
Instead, he carefully eased away from his bed companion. Rus made a soft sound of complaint and Edge froze, waiting until he settled again. He looked small buried within the blankets, the shadows beneath his sockets still dark and obvious. He was covered from his chin to his toes, as chaste as a fresh apple, and yet somehow, simply watching him sleep was a temptation. Edge shook away the urge and took a moment to tuck the covers warmly around him before escaping the room. Hopefully Rus would sleep for a few hours yet.
Outside the door, he straightened his clothes so they looked a little less slept in. If Undyne saw him looking like he’d just rolled out of someone’s bed, she wasn’t going to keep her opinion to herself and Edge didn’t need a dose of her crowing glee today.
Today was one designated for necessary maintenance and when he went out to the building that housed the Core generator, Red and Undyne were already there, working together in companionable silence. They both looked up at him as he walked up and whatever greeting Red was about to give died as his sockets narrowed.
“you smell weird,” Red said in lieu of a good morning. He pushed up the protective goggles that replaced his normal sunglasses, his entire face scrunched in distaste. “doesn’t he smell weird?”
“You see a nose on this face?” Undyne grumbled. She shut the maintenance door before pushing up her own goggles; the Core was damagingly bright and Undyne didn’t have an extra eye to lose. “Weird, how?”
“I do not smell weird,” Edge snapped. Predictably, they ignored him, looking him up and down suspiciously. Honestly, it was becoming obvious that he needed to add more duties to their schedules if they had this much free time for speculation on their hands.
Red only shrugged, scratching at the stocking cap covering his skull. “i dunno, just weird, sort of sweet. like sugar, maybe, or honey? where’ve you been today?”
“He took the fashion victim breakfast earlier—" Undyne trailed off, her eye widening. “No. You didn’t.”
Edge sighed at the dawning awareness on both their faces. “Nothing happened.”
“Nothing happened in a way that left you smelling like snack cake?” Red asked with gleeful scorn.
“All I did was convince him to get some sleep.”
“and offered yourself as a mattress?” Red prodded him in the knee with a sharp elbow, easily dodging the kick Edge aimed at him. “gotta say, boss, that’s right neighborly of ya. anything else you felt like giving him? or maybe you need to borrow a cup of something sweet, bet he’s got a few things he could offer.”
“I didn’t come out here to discuss my proclivities, Red, I came out because Alphys told me you haven’t been in to use the machine. You need to—” Edge stopped and sighed. The space where his brother had been standing was already empty.
“Gettin’ soft, Boss,” Undyne said dryly. She sank back to sit on the floor, her hands dangling between her knees. “Usually you would’ve had that bad puppy by the scruff of the neck before you said a word. Maybe you needed a longer nap.”
“I didn’t need a nap at all,” Edge said, irritated. But she wasn’t wrong; his distraction with Rus was throwing him off un unexpected and very unappreciated ways.
“Maybe you need somethin’ else.” She ducked but Edge’s swipe at her was only halfhearted.
“We may as well finish this; he’s not going to come back as long as I’m here.”
“I could nab him for you, boss.” Undyne smiled widely at him, her needle-sharp teeth gleaming in the harsh fluorescent lighting.
“No,” Edge shook his head. “All that would get us is a tendency for him to run from you as well. I’ll corner him eventually. I wish I understood why he hated the machine so much; it’s helping him and using it is painless.”
“Dunno, boss.” Undyne dug through the toolbox, hefting up a heavy wrench. “He’s never been too fond of the lab, though. Weird, ain’t it, he was the one who helped us get this gig.”
“I know,” Edge murmured. When they’d been cast out of the Monster community, they’d been allowed into the Human world as neutrals, for whatever the worth that ‘allowed’ offered. After a few months of what could loosely be called surviving, Red was the one who told them about the Institute’s offer. Edge couldn’t have said how he even came across it; after his injuries, Red had been confined to the squalor of their cramped, shared apartment while the rest of them struggled to earn any coin they could in a world that often despised them for existing.
At first, it all seemed entirely too good to be true. His brother somehow contacting the Institute and all of them being offered employment? Despite his reservations, Edge had cautiously agreed, with Undyne and Alphys following at his heels. They’d been given funding and resources to come to the station on a strict six-month contract.
It hadn't taken them long to prove themselves, handling the workload and temperatures far better than the Humans before them, and between Alphys’s energy experiments and Edge’s strict policies, they’d come to be known as a safe place for scientists to work without fear, either of the elements or anything else. The Institute handled the roster and funds, they handled the rest.
That six-month contract quickly become a year, then two, and they were coming up on a third with no end in sight. His contacts at the Institute offered respites for them frequently, even suggesting to temporarily shut down the station for them to take a vacation to warmer climes.
Thus far, each offer had been refused. Even Alphys, whose appreciation of heat was well known to them all, made no bones about the fact that leaving what had become their home held little interest for her.
They might not own the station, but there was no questioning that it was theirs.
And right now, they had a Core to maintain.
“Let’s get this finished,” Edge picked up a set of goggles, readying to open the maintenance door again.
“You got it, boss.”
Red managed to avoid him for most of the day, sly bastard that he was. He’d always had a sort of preternatural skill at avoidance, for work, for confrontation. If it was something his brother didn’t want to deal with, then he simply wouldn’t.
Except for while Edge might lack his brother’s skills in wiliness, he made up for it with an excess of stubbornness. A plan was slowly forming to capture his brother and he only needed an extra pair of hands to do it.
His phone chimed and Edge paused, retrieving it from his pocket with surprise. They weren’t able to use the actual phone function on the devices but so long as they were in range of the WiFi, it could be used for messages. Not that they gave their personal information to any of the scientists, it was strictly for in-house communication and emergencies, or in his brother’s case, the terrible puns and memes that caught his attention. So who…?
It was a further shock to see the message was from Alphys. He had no doubt that Undyne and Alphys sent each other horrifically sappy messages all day, but he couldn’t think of any occasion of Alphys messaging him in the past.
The message was brief: Rus is outside, on the back side of the station.
Alphys hadn’t included so much as an emoticon, so the sly insinuation Edge was feeling was probably only in his own mind. He still mentally set aside the plan he was working on and went to pull on his outdoor gear.
True twilight had passed an hour before and outside the velvet black sky was strewn with stars. The aurora wasn’t visible tonight, but the sight was no less stunning, so long as one paused to look up. Hundreds of stars caught in the pale web of the Milky Way, chasing away the darkness.
Edge walked to the southern side of the station, his boots crunching on the hardpacked snow. The lights of the station set a glaring halo around the buildings and it made the dark surrounding it all the starker. Outside the circle of lights, he could see unfamiliar shapes not far away, one of which was likely his target.
The facility was never completely locked down. Rus wasn’t the only one whose research could be time sensitive, but scientists were supposed to use a special sign out alert if they were working outside alone. Edge hadn’t checked if Rus used it, though he probably had. Not that it mattered; Alphys had plenty of ways to get information, more even than Red.
His footsteps were ample warning of his approach. Rus didn’t look at him, his attention was on the device in front of him, a telescope, although unlike any one Edge ever saw before. Strange dials and extra lenses dotted it and Rus was adjusting them briskly with gloved fingers.
His laptop was sitting on a small camp table, the screen dark. Next to it was a pad of paper and a pencil. Edge barely glanced at it; it was impossible to say if the notes were in an unknown language or if Rus’s penmanship was simply that terrible.
Edge was the one who broke the silence, “How long have you been out here?”
With a final twist of one of the dials, Rus looked up at him. His pale eye lights were amused but there was no mistaking the dark circles lingering beneath his sockets. “well, hey, good afternoon to you, too. not too long, boss, i’m fine. besides, bonnie gave me a thermos to take out with me. keeps me toasty from the inside out.”
Hearing that their cook was giving special privileges to her obvious favorite was no surprise. To hear Rus calling him boss did give him a prickle of discomfort; after hearing his real name in that sleep-husky voice, he’d distantly hoped to hear it again in sly cheer of his waking hours. Perhaps he didn’t remember; Rus had been nearly asleep. It didn’t seem right to bring it up again, not right now.
Rus poured out a steaming cupful into the cap of the thermos and held it out teasingly. Edge took it and sipped, grimacing almost immediately. It was sweet enough to send a cramp through his tongue and he handed it back with haste, ignoring Rus’s grin.
“Don’t stay out here too long,” Edge warned. Though he might check on him again; Rus seemed the type to lose track of time, absorbed in whatever data he was getting from the star-strewn sky.
“i won’t,” Rus made a little ‘x’ over his chest with one finger and when Edge started to turn away, he added lazily, “what, no goodbye kiss, edge? you already shorted me one earlier. sneaking out while i was sleeping,” Rus shook his head sadly. “i missed your whole walk of shame.”
Edge stopped. His breath fogged in the arctic air and here in the darkness with the heavens staring down at them seemed like a moment for honesty.
“What do you want from me?” Edge asked bluntly. They’d shared words, kisses, and even a bed at this point but answers were few and far between. Rus, his conundrum, his puzzle who offered kisses and yet was shocked when Edge offered to nap with him.
A look at Rus found his easy flirtation faltering. He looked up at the glimmering stars, his own breath clouding around him as he said, with unusual sincerity. “right now? a kiss. we can see about tomorrow later.”
He’d be gone in a few short weeks and Edge wouldn’t see him again, unless he came back for another rotation and even then, that could take a year, longer. He was, in no particular order; a distraction, an astronomer, a fashion victim. A student. A temptation.
Edge leaned down and took his kiss.
It was nothing like the short, sweet touches they’d shared. He swallowed Rus’s startled moan, pulled him suddenly to his feet to better ravage the sweetness of his mouth. The feel of Rus in his arms only filled Edge with the urge to pull him closer, to learn how to tease more of those breathy, startled cries free.
Until his tongue curled against Edge’s with stunning intent, forcing him to stifle a moan of his own. Rus tasted of sickly-sweet coffee, of his own softer, delicate sweetness and they stood there in the icy blackness of night, sharing it between them with a desperate press of teeth and tongue.
It was far too cold for any more than this, dangerously so, and with great reluctance, Edge drew away. Only to catch Rus as he wobbled on his feet.
“oh,” he mumbled, panting in foggy gusts. Color was burning high in his cheek bones and his soft eye lights were temptingly hazy, but this time Edge resisted.
“Don’t stay out too long,” Edge repeated. He straightened Rus’s scarf, carefully rewrapping it.
“hah, actually, i’ll head in now, i've got my data.” Rus gave him crooked smile, but his eye lights were back on the stars. The flush in his cheekbones was lingering. “bet you’re busy all day, anyway. playing chaperone for anyone?”
An idea occurred to Edge then, so beautifully simple it was bound to work. “No, but actually, I could use your help with something.”
“really? me?” Rus seemed stunned, almost absurdly so.
“It won’t take long, but I don’t want to keep you if—“
“no, no! i can help!” Edge watched in bemusement as Rus hastily began packing his gear, only stepping in to help when he was sure it was safely stowed. He slung the carry strap for the telescope over his shoulder, wincing at the weight. Rus didn’t even protest, only gathered the rest of his equipment.
He was entirely too excited for a simple favor and Edge only hoped he didn’t regret offering. Red was not the easiest to deal with in the best of moods and if his plan worked, he was going to be very angry at them both.
Hopefully, it would be worth it.
Walking back to the station was quiet, their boots crunching on the hard-packed snow. The sudden flare of a lighter in the darkness made Edge wince and look away, but the smell that wafted to him wasn't the harshness of the cigars his brother occasionally smoked. Only a hint of tobacco and some bitter spice, cloves, perhaps? The traces of it on the cold wind wasn't entirely unpleasant.
"Don't leave the butts on the ground," Edge cautioned. The lights around the station formed a series of linked rings, illuminating them as they stepped into one. From here they were close enough to see the mellow lights from the narrow windows. Most were darkened, covered in heavy curtains. The kitchen alone was brightly lit, shadows of Bonnie moving as she prepared the evening meal.
His cigarette glowed brighter as Rus took a long draw on it, exhaling smoke and steamy breath with words. "you seen a single one?"
"I haven't. But you'll need to excuse my caution. It's too cold here for decomposition. Any trash left out stays until someone picks it up."
Rus’s smile was unoffended, eye lights mostly hidden behind his goggles. "i know, edgelord, don't worry. i'll leave the chilly side of paradise as pretty as i found it. had problems in the past?” Rus shook his head, frowning unhappily even as he took another drag. “you'd think scientists of all people would know better."
"It's been my experience that they do know better,” Edge said, sourly. “They simply don’t care.” He’d been aghast to learn that truth after their very first session. Implementing a fine into the contracts helped somewhat; few of their researchers could afford to be casual litterbugs on top of what they were already paying. It still occurred with disturbing frequency and there was always a day scheduled after a session ended to search the station grounds and the various research posts for any carelessly left garbage.
"what do you guys do with the trash here, anyway?” Rus crouched and his cigarette sizzled out as he touched it to the snow. He took a small tin out of his pocket that used to hold mints and dropped the butt into it, then hurriedly pulled the mitten-tip back over his glove. “send it off on vacation with the next ship?"
Edge hesitated. Station functions weren't precisely secrets and yet— "It feeds into the Core. The power generated is minimal, but it absorbs without a pollutant affect. Trash, human waste products, there's little that it can't transfer into energy."
The next question would be why there weren't Core facilities on every street corner, why they weren't working to mass produce, to sell, sell, sell, and Edge braced himself to endure it.
But Rus only nodded. "cool."
The main station door was looming ahead. Before Edge could open it, Rus caught his arm, stopping him. He set down his gear, not quite haphazardly, gingerly reaching out to push Edge’s goggles up, then his own. "hey, wait. lemme try something?"
Edge waited, warily curious.
He did not expect a gloved hand beneath his chin, tilting his skull up. Nor did he expect the gently eager mouth against his own, though perhaps he should have, tasting cloves and underlying sweetness. Their drawn-up hoods almost met along the edges, creating a pocket of warmth, a private world where he could sigh softly and meet that mouth with his own. It should concern him, perhaps, how quickly he was growing accustomed to this, but instead he only accepted it greedily, meeting Rus’s eagerness, the damp, delicate touch of his carefully exploring tongue.
There was only the hush around them, the artificial light an island in the darkness. A low moan caught in Rus’s throat, dissolving into a shaky breath shared between them.
“there." Rus drew back with a satisfied sigh. "needed a refill. now, what do you need my help with?”
His soul was pounding and for a moment, Edge was tempted to lead him to his quarters and ask for favors of another sort. But no, his brother was long overdue to see Alphys and the machine, and he knew today Undyne wasn’t going to be at dinner, performing maintenance at one of the outer research posts. Red would be less wary if it was only him, or if he believed it was. "Come with me and I'll show you."
“c’mon, just tell me!” Rus tried, but he was starting to look visibly cold, blinking too hard, and teeth barely chattering. That was enough for Edge to hustle him through the door. Explanations could wait until they were out of the elements.
They stripped out of their gear and Rus was nearly as quick as Edge, shoving his feet into untied shoes while Edge finished lacing his own. By the time their coats and boots were properly stowed, Rus was vibrating with impatience.
“You can leave your equipment here for the moment,” Edge unlocked one of the storage lockers and held it open, stowing the long telescope case. “Don’t get used to it, but it’s already close to dinner and I don’t want to miss our chance.”
“our chance for what?” Rus whined, hastily setting his bags into the locker. Normally, Edge would find that sort of tone grating, but somehow coupled with Rus’s obvious eagerness it was almost…adorable. If a seven-foot-tall skeleton could be adorable, something that Rus managed with surprising regularity.
Still, Edge waited until they were walking down the hallway, drawing out that impatience simply to enjoy it, before he finally said, low, “I need you to go into the dining hall and talk with Red.”
“that’s it?” Rus asked, his expression a comical mix of skepticism and disappointment. “you want me to get chatty with the sawtooth goblin, while you--?”
Edge forcibly did not smile at that description of his brother, but it was a close thing. They stopped outside of the door and he could hear the chatter from within, smell the hearty food that Bonnie was already dishing up. “There’s no way for me to go into the dining hall without him seeing me. Only two entrances, this one and the one from the kitchen and Red sits so that he can easily see both.”
Edge knew it was foolish to assume that just because Red didn’t appear to be looking, it somehow meant he wasn’t watching with that disturbing perception of his.
“guess you can't,” Rus said slowly, metaphorical wheels turning in his skull.
“So, what I need from you is a distraction. We’ll go in together, but I’m going to go speak with the two geologists about the equipment request they made yesterday. You go talk to Red. Tell him that one of the sno-cats was acting strangely, making odd sounds, something to that effect. If you can keep his attention, I may be able to get close to him without him noticing.”
“uh huh.” Rus crossed his arms and rocked on his heels. The thermal shirt he was wearing was one that Edge had given him, and Edge forced himself to look away before it became a distraction. “i get the plan, but you wanna tell me why we’re playing tag with red?”
Discussing his brother’s health issues with an outsider was out of the question, and yet, it was reasonable to ask. “Because he needs to pay a visit to Alphys and he’s proven reluctant to do so. Can you trust me on that?”
There wasn’t so much as a pause, no hesitation as Rus said, “yeah. i trust you.”
Simple words but they sent a tingle of odd warmth through him.
Carefully, Edge peered through the narrow window to pinpoint their targets without being seen. “All right, everyone is in place. Are you ready?”
“yeah, jason bourne, let’s do this.”
All heads rose when Edge pushed open the door and walked in, except his brother, whose stocking cap was pulled low on his skull where it was pillowed on his folded arms. Sunglasses were concealing his sockets, but they were likely tracking him as Edge walked over to the geologists, who were chatting softly while sharing a notebook between them.
The Humans’ eyes went wide as he walked up to them, their faces falling into lines of concern. Good. “Excuse me,” Edge said crisply, “I have a question about your equipment request for tomorrow.”
“Is there a problem?” the younger one asked anxiously, biting her lip and probably worrying about the hours they’d waste tomorrow trying to do without.
“Not at all,” he reassured them hastily. No need to panic them for his own selfish purposes. “I only wanted to confirm something.” They relaxed visibly, but out the corner of his socket, he watched Rus straddling the bench across from Red, knocking on the table with his knuckles. His brother didn’t raise his head so much as turn it slightly in Rus’s direction.
It didn’t stop Rus from launching into what was surely a convoluted explanation. They were too far away for him to hear, but he could see the moment Red caught interest in what Rus was saying. Rus was talking animatedly with his hands, those slim fingers flashing, and it was half simple gestures, half a jumble of signed words.
Such clever hands, how would they feel ghosting over bone, how would they look clenched into bedsheets while their owner moaned and—
Edge blinked and looked back down at the perplexed scientists. “Never mind, everything should be fine. If you’ll excuse me?”
He ignored the confused protest, walking around the table to skirt the wall as closely as he could get. As he approached, the conversation became clearer.
"…nah, not a rucka-ka-ka sound, it's more like a kachuga, kachuga, you know?"
"kachuga, got it.” Red steepled his fingers, pressing them to his teeth absently as he considered. “comin’ from underneath, you think, or the engine? ‘cause a tread coming loose is noisy as fuck but it's more of a, thunkita thunkita sound."
"yeah, no, it was seriously a kachuga.”
Ridiculous as their conversation was, it nearly worked. Edge was almost within reach when he saw Red’s eye lights flicker towards him through the side of the dark lenses, his sockets widening.
Edge lunged but Red was on his feet in a blur, already moving out of reach – and then squawking with outrage as he fell to the floor with a crash. It was enough of a delay for Edge to catch hold of his wrist, holding tightly, but Red made no attempt to squirm free. Instead, he rolled over, looking down in disbelief at his feet where his shoelaces were tied to the bench.
The collection of scientists standing on the other side of the table took in the scene with varying expression of mute awe, and Edge was close to the same. When had Rus possibly had a chance to…?
Only Rus was still sitting, helping himself to the breadbasket. He said unrepentantly around a mouthful of biscuit. “sorry, pal. the boss said he needed you.”
Slowly, Red reached out with his free hand to pick up his sunglasses. One lens was cracked from him breaking his fall with his face, and the frame was bent. Edge tightened his grip on his brother’s wrist but the sharp anger and outrage in his expression melted quickly into grudging admiration, “not bad, fashion victim.”
“i have my moments.”
“yeah,” Red licked his teeth obscenely and Edge would have given him a smack if he were able to let go of him, “and i bet my bro is enjoying a front row seat to ‘em.”
That made Rus pause mid-chew. “wait, you guys are brothers?”
“yeah, don’t ya see the resemblance?”
“weird,” Rus said almost under his breath, but he shook his head. “well, if edge had shared out some of the height when they were passing it out, i might’ve guessed. You both have the rugged look going, but last i knew, cracks weren’t hereditary.”
“they ain’t,” Red’s grin bordered on vicious, “how about i give you one to match—”
And that was quite enough of that; even if Red was annoyed about his sunglasses, he had several pairs.
“If we’re finished with the impromptu stand-up comedy?” Edge said, low. He reached down with one hand and plucked Red’s laces free, never letting go of him. “You need to go in for your treatment and you’re going now. You can walk and maintain what few shreds of dignity you have, or I can drag you through the station. I’ll leave the choice up to you.”
Red considered that, glancing where all the scientists were watching with great interest. Then he sagged back to the floor as if attempting to become one with the tiles. "you want me there, you can carry me." He paused, then drawled out deliberately, “boss.”
Of course his brother would choose the least dignified route. If he thought a few stares were going to stop Edge, then he was woefully mistaken. "I'll remind you that this was your choice.”
Edge crouched, scooping Red’s deadweight up with a grunt and let him flop loosely over his shoulder as Edge carried him from the room. The conversation swelled as the door swung shut, not that Edge cared. They could speculate all they wanted, none of them could possibly guess the truth.
Footsteps behind him made him pause and Edge looked sharply back to see Rus at their heels.
His grin was equal parts hopeful and pleading. “well, i’m invested now. how can i go on if i don’t see how the movie ends?”
He couldn’t see his brother’s face, but Red came to life from where he was hanging like a bag of dirty laundry, twisting so that one elbow dug painfully into Edge’s spine, and Edge could easily picture his scowl, “aw, no, no way, this ain’t no party and you can shove your investment up your—”
Edge turned around abruptly to face Rus, leaving Red swearing at the wall. Those pale eye lights begged silently, Rus bouncing lightly on his toes.
“All right,” Edge said at last and Rus’s little squeal was overshadowed by the sharp increase in volume from Red. He gave his brother a slap on the pelvis in retribution for a particularly vulgar turn of phrase. “Again, I’d like to remind you that I offered to let you walk.”
“fuck both of ya,” Red grumbled, but he subsided, hanging sullenly as Rus hastily moved to walk next to Edge instead of behind him. Probably a wise choice; with the way Red was swearing, he might catch fire.
“nah, i’ve only got so many fucks to give,” Rus said cheerily, “they don’t grow on trees, you know, can’t be sharing them with everybody.”
“bet you could find a few extras growing in my bro’s pa—ouch, damn it, boss! quit it before you add a broke pelvis to my list!”
“Both of you, be quiet,” Edge said tersely. Red muttered something beneath his breath and Rus mimed pulling a zipper across his teeth. But his grin was a sly one, his eye lights dipping to the front of Edge’s trousers as if in search of one of the extras his brother spoke about.
This was going to end up being a terrible mistake, Edge decided, but he’d made his bed, hadn’t he. His own eye lights strayed as Rus wandered a couple paces ahead of him. His pelvis was concealed beneath layers of clothes, but Edge could make out the outline as his hips swayed slightly with each step. When that had become such a temptation, he didn’t know, but it was and his hands itched to touch, to learn those gentle curves.
Not exactly thoughts he was comfortable having while carrying his brother. He strode on determinedly, putting Rus next to him again and shielding himself from that view. For now, anyway.
He’d made his bed, yes, but perhaps when he was finally forced to lie in it, he wouldn’t be alone.
When they walked into Alphys’s lab, Rus at Edge’s side and Red dangling over his shoulder like a sack of flour, all their resident scientist did was sigh loudly and take off her headphones.
It was good to see. When they’d first come Aboveground, Alphys had not been in a good state. The years Underground had not been kind and if it hadn’t been for her skills, the old King would have likely given her what he considered a merciful dusting.
Seeing her recovery was warming, proved that the station was the best place for them. The cold weather was a struggle for Alphys but she never minded staying inside anyway, preferring her lab and the occasional company the permanent residents provided. That and Undyne; they were an odd couple, loud and boisterous coupled with timid and softly spoken, but whenever they were together, their souls practically shone with love.
Also sexual tension, but Edge made a point of ignoring that, lest nightmares haunt him.
Her scolding wouldn’t have been possible when they first arrived; her stutter had been nearly complete and she still sometimes lapsed into Hands to get across certain points. But today she walked over with her fists on her hips and said sternly, “I t-t-told you not to force him to come.”
“this ain’t force, leapin’ lizard,” Red called from behind Edge’s back. “i was just tired a walkin’”
Alphys’s look told how much she believed that. But she allowed Red the pretense. For whatever convoluted reason, Red never wanted to admit how much he hated the treatments; it was possible he didn’t want to hurt Alphys’s feelings, but doubtful. That possibility had never stopped him from making his opinion known before. As always, his reasons were his own and Edge didn’t care to pry, so long as he eventually got his brother here.
“Well, c-come on, then,” Alphys gestured then towards the machine. Now that they were safely in the lab, Edge could set Red down with the reasonable assumption that he wouldn’t vanish the moment Edge took his hand away. It was a petty revenge to dumped Red roughly to the floor, ignoring the profuse swearing that rose up as he turned his attention to Rus.
Who only stood with his hands in his pockets, casting an idle glance here and there at the lab. It was almost disappointing; Alphys’s lab wouldn’t have been out of place in an old mad scientist movie. The machine alone was impressive, massive tubes fed into it along with a slender wires and electric cords, all leading to a simple cushioned chair. One that Red hopped into, settling in with the nonchalance of one about to take an afternoon nap.
There were very few people who would notice the slight tremor in his hands, and two of them were in the room. Before he settled in completely, Red whipped off his ski cap, exposing his skull.
Edge noted grimly the way Rus’s sockets widened when he caught sight of it, eye lights flaring in shock. His reaction was typical, most people that possessed a shred of compassion would be horrified to see the damage, the cracks that still webbed over the entire parietal bone. Few would believe that before the treatments it had been much worse. Once there had been a gaping hole in his skull large enough to fit a hand through, his entire left socket destroyed.
Over time, the machine forced the bone to regenerate and now the hole could hardly fit a finger, perhaps two. His brother no longer teetered close to dusting with any small injury and Edge owed Alphys a debt that could never be repaid.
Sweet creature that she was, she only blushed and stammered at gratitude and Edge no longer gave it; instead, he focused on giving her a safe place to work, a home where she could do her experiments and be happy with the person she loved. Hardly a fair trade in his opinion, but it wasn’t his that mattered.
But he had refused when Alphys offered to work on the crack that ran through Edge’s socket. That scar was a badge of honor, not one of shame. He’d wear it until the day he dusted.
Rus took a step closer and Edge wondered if his curiosity was over the machine, or more morbidly on Red. It was no surprise that his brother didn’t seem to care which option it was, only that Rus was here at all.
“don’t think you need to be poking around at shit that ain’t none of your business, fashion victim,” Red grumbled, although his sockets were closed.
Rus only shrugged amicably, holding up his empty hands. “i’m not touching anything. i learned how to keep my hands to myself as a baby bones. well, mostly,” he offered Edge a leer that made him roll his eye lights and Alphys titter from where she was working at the machine controls.
“H-he’s been here b-b-before,” Alphys offered softly. Her fingers were moving rapidly in an efficient contrast.
That was news to Edge, “When was this?”
“eh, couple days ago,” Rus said easily, “alphys and i were talking about some stuff.”
“what stuff?” Red said suspiciously, cracking open a socket. That Red hadn’t known Rus and Alphys were talking would not sit well with him and Edge found some discomfort in it, too. Alphys could be fragile and Undyne was very protective. He made a mental note to ask her if she was aware of their resident fashion victim making yet another friend to add to his collection.
Rus only smiled cheekily, “just stuff. science stuff.”
“oh, yeah, grad student?” Red sat up, scowling, “alphys knows her shit, you askin’ for theories? what’s your thesis on, anyway?”
“Don’t move!” Alphys squeaked. She left the controls and darted over to push on Red’s chest until he reluctantly subsided back to the chair. “He’s only t-t-teasing you, we talked about anime!”
“oh, ain’t that kawaii,” Red cooed, though his sugar-sweet tone did not match his scowl. “still didn’t tell me about your thesis.”
“nope, i didn’t,” Rus agreed cheerily. “it’s about this and that.”
That maniacal gleam in Rus’s eye lights was terribly reminiscent of Red and Edge was starting to think it might be better to for them to leave. This was partly his fault, he knew Red was on the fence about Rus, he shouldn’t have dragged the other skeleton into helping him corner his brother. Even if he’d been terribly effective at it.
“so, tell me,” Red challenged.
For all that his teeth were blunt, Rus’s grin was sharp enough to cut glass. “dunno, it might be over your head. your understanding might fall short.”
For a moment, Edge was honestly concerned his brother might attack Rus and that would lead to a very uncomfortable talk with the Institute.
Then Red threw his head back and roared a laugh, pounding on the armrest hard enough to jar the entire chair. He ignored Alphys’s hiss, turning in the chair to toss back at Rus, “that’s kinda high and mighty of ya, think it’s a stretch to assume.”
“maybe, but you’re probably used to low blows.”
“it’s a tall order.”
“yeah, i wouldn’t want to overlook you, don’t want to stoop that low.”
The entire exchange was making Edge regret several life choices, but Alphys was smiling faintly. With a jolt, Edge realized she’d already begun the treatment and Red hadn’t even noticed, too busy defending his honor as the resident punster. Normally, his brother would be lying in the chair, fists clenched and sweat dripping while he struggled to allow the machine to do its work. Now he was distracted and gleefully antagonistic, firing back pun after pun. The machine finished before they did and it was only Edge taking hold of Rus’s arm, pulling him along, that finally ended the war.
“—need to work on your low standards!” Rus called as Edge tugged him out the door.
Before it could swing shut, he could hear Red crow triumphantly, “you already used that one! next time i’ll hafta ride on your shoulders and teach you the way of the jedi!”
Rus laughed delightedly, finally allowing Edge to lead him away. “he’s a goblin, but he’s got jokes.”
“Very apt,” Edge said dryly. They were in one of the walkways that led to Alphys’s lab with few overhead lights. Not as open as the umbilicus that she was testing, but still filled with portholes that revealed the aurora starting overhead. The soft greens cast shadows that moved eerily in the dimness. “Thank you for your help, I’ll let you get back to your work.”
“nah, it’s cool,” Rus tucked his hands in his pockets, rocking on his heels. “i’ve got some numbers to compile before i can do anything else.” He paused, sockets hooded and his eye lights soft, then asked, “did you want to come back to my room?”
It was as blatant an offer as they’d ever exchange, no safety net of teasing flirtation, and Edge hesitated. It was tempting, the warmth of invitation in Rus’s eye lights promised a very good time. Despite Undyne’s insinuations, Edge was not a virgin, but it had been a long while, since before they’d come to the surface. The urge to see Rus’s face twisted with pleasure, to hear the delightful sounds he would make waged a brief war with his sense of responsibility.
So very tempting, but he had duties to fulfill, ones that he’d already set aside to deal with Red.
“I can’t,” Edge told him, quietly. He braced himself for some form of persuasion, some new enticement he’d need to resist, wondered distantly at the limits of his control.
But Rus only nodded. “okay. see you around.”
He stopped, head tilted curiously, and his pale bones were tinted with the aurora light creeping in. Edge stepped in close, lifting his chin to press their mouths together. The taint of cigarettes had faded and there was only sweetness, his tongue moving boldly against Edge’s, sharing that honeyed flavor even as he stole a taste of his own. A hand settled on Edge’s face, cool bone against his overheated skull and Edge was forced to swallow a moan. They parted reluctantly, and Edge could feel the pocket of warmth between them, their magic responding with mindless eagerness.
“I can’t right now,” Edge corrected his own words.
Rus gave him a small, secret smile. “yeah. soon then, edgelord.” He started to turn away then stopped, “wait, shit, all my equipment is still in the locker up front.”
Edge barely hesitated before taking out his keys, the mass of them jangling loudly as he removed one and tossed it to Rus. He nearly fumbled it, managed to grab it before it fell to the ground. “Don’t lose it.”
“oooh, exchanging keys already,” Rus winked at him, ignoring Edge’s exasperated huff. Edge only gave him a hard look until Rus smiled wryly, making a little cross over his soul with one finger. “i won’t lose it, promise.”
“See that you don’t.” He turned and walked away then, before the simmer of temptation became too much to bear.
He had cause to regret it later.
On his last check of the station before he went to bed, Edge heard muffled laughter coming from the kitchen. Familiar, loud laughter and he sighed inwardly and went to check.
What he found made him sigh again, this time in aggravation. Undyne, of course, with two of the female researchers and Rus. One of the bottles on the table in front of them was a dead soldier and the other was half-empty. Not much for Undyne, but from the glassy eyes and giggles from her companions, they'd had their fair share.
Rus beamed at him, only slightly more enthusiastically than the researchers, and an echo of slurred 'boss!' carried towards him. He shook his head. "Undyne--"
"Aww, calm down," she hiccoughed, laughing raucously, "didn't hurt the precious! he's only had like two!
"Yes, and skeleton Monsters don't possess a liver,” Edge crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his second-in-command. “Our tolerance is completely dependent on our weight and level of magic. Would you care to hazard a guess as to what he weighs?"
Undyne blinked owlishly, considering, and then to his horror, she scooped Rus up, hefting him as he squealed a laugh. She laughed with him, spinning around sloppily before finally dumping him gently on top of the table where he sagged, sprawling across it.
“again!” Rus giggled weakly.
“Huh,” Undyne prodded at him with one clawed finger. It must have tickled, because Rus nearly spasmed, his laughter doubling. “Prolly enough that two drinks hit him like a sledgehammer.”
“You think?” It took a little effort to gather him up. Drinking made Rus surprising noodly for a skeleton, limbs escaping to hang limply while Edge tried grimly to hold him close. “Come on, time for bed.”
That got his attention. Rus squirmed in his arms, ostensibly trying to help Edge hold on as he wound his arms around Edge’s neck. "you're taking me to bed? again?”
Undyne snorted loudly and Edge felt his cheekbones heat. He liked to think they hadn’t been entirely blatant in their flirting, but now the two researchers were perking up with visible interest. Lovely, the rest of the station would know by morning. He wondered grouchily if Rus had inadvertently just won someone a bet. Probably his brother.
“Can you get these two to bed?” Edge asked her, ignoring all looks, both curious and knowing, along with Rus snuggling happily into his arms.
“Yeah, I got ‘em,” Undyne gave him a needle-sharp smile, “Have a good night, boss.”
Tomorrow, he was going to remind himself why he couldn’t kill her. For tonight, it was simply a good thing that his hands were full.
“Come on,” Edge sighed, shouldering open the door. Rus wasn’t heavy, but he was awkward to carry, and his hands weren’t still, tracing his cervical vertebrae with only slightly clumsy fingers. The touch made him shiver and Edge walked a bit faster.
“I hope you have a laundry token,” Edge told him, “Your shirt needs washed, you smell like a distillery.”
“s’your shirt, isn’t it?” Rus slurred. One of his hands slithered down, making Edge bite back a hiss, and plucked at his shirtfront.
He almost denied it, but, “Yes,” Edge agreed, softly. “I gave you some of my clothes.”
Rus’s beamed up at him triumphantly, “knew they were yours! they smelled like you.” He lifted his head, whispering too loudly into Edge’s audial canal, “firs’ i was thinking you felt sorry for me, but then i thought...i thought maybe you liked me? did you like me?”
The hopefulness in his voice hinted at something desperate, perhaps only drunken melancholy, Edge couldn’t know. Better if he didn’t acknowledge it, and Edge said, lightly, "What's not to like?"
Rus scrunched up his face and blew a sloppy raspberry, and Edge bit back an exasperated smile. “lotsa people don't like me.”
“I can't even begin to imagine why, Rus,” Edge told him honestly. Certainly he’d charmed his way into the station, Monsters and researchers both.
“i dunno, either,” Rus said, sullenly. “but they don't.” He looked up and his sockets were engulfed with his eye lights, hazily wide and pleading. “do you like me?"
It was far too easy to admit. "Yes. I like you.”
“i knew it!” Rus crowed. “only, i didn' really know it. but i thought it. i hoped it.” He fell silent, snuggling into Edge’s arms as he whispered, “you’re not staying in my room, are you.”
Again, that faint hint of unhappiness, of desperation. But staying while Rus was like this, drunkenly tempting, was out of the question. Edge settled on a compromise. “I can stay until you’re asleep.”
“’kay,” Rus agreed, and Edge thought ruefully he was in for a short wait. Possibly only long enough to settle him on the bed, Rus was already drowsing in his arms, one hand clutching the front of Edge’s shirt as if to keep him close. It loosened easily enough as Edge set him into his bunk, taking off his shoes and tucking his blanket around him.
Rus barely stirred as Edge pressed a light kiss to his browbone. His scent was whiskey-tainted, but Edge breathed it in anyway.
“I do like you,” Edge whispered to him, tracing the angular line of his jaw with a single finger. Rus didn’t so much as murmur an acknowledgement, only breathed softly, evenly in sleep.
Next time, Edge told himself, next time he would stay.
Whatever his misgivings were, he no longer cared. Rus was a growing temptation in body and soul, Edge was finished resisting.