When Roy wanders down the row of cubes towards his disaster zone of an office and says, “Good morning!”, Riza glances pointedly at the clock, but she doesn’t say Look what the cat dragged in, so he’ll count that as a half-kindness.
She’s happy to see Sonja anyway. People are always happy to see Sonja—as they should be.
Hayate, who is the reason that this is an unrelentingly dog-friendly office in the first place, gets creakily to his feet so that he and Sonja can rub noses and exchange a few whuffs of greeting and sniff at each other’s faces for a bit. Sonja wastes very little time before settling down on the floor of Riza’s cube and curling up into a silver-frosted cinnamon bun, the better to gaze piteously up at Riza and imply that she has never been fed, ever, even once, in her entire life.
Roy considers not even bothering to unlock his office door, but that would probably qualify as bad form, possibly even ‘bad for morale’. Most of the executive admins whose desks are scattered around this hellish cube maze seem to like him—partly because he’s charming as shit, and partly because he makes a serious effort to remember all of their names and some details about their lives—but sauntering in at half past nine already looks careless. He should sit down and pretend to care about emails for a while before he disappears into the prototyping lab and attempts to do something actually meaningful.
“Hey,” Riza says as he struggles with the sticky door lock. “Becca’s having an eighties-themed birthday party on the thirtieth.”
Roy hates birthdays—his, other people’s, cake, the concept. Birthdays are very tiring. Anything more than a glass of wine and a weary internal Congrats or something on surviving another sun-orbit sounds excessive these days.
But he likes Rebecca. And, obviously, he loves Riza enough that he would sacrifice a few hours of his not-so-precious time for her even if he didn’t like Rebecca very much.
“Of July?” he says, knowing damn well that it must be, because she would never offer him less than four weeks’ warning for a semi-obligatory social event. He gives up on the door for a second and pretends that he’s not relieved. “I’ll put it in my calendar. Evening?”
“Six, officially,” Riza says, twirling a highlighter over her knuckle, “but feel free to be fashionably late.”
Roy raises an eyebrow. “I’m not sure that it’s possible to be fashionably anything at an eighties party.”
“Touché,” Riza says, with a flicker of a smile that he misses a hundred percent of the time. She’s brilliant at this job, and the way that she’s set her iron moral center in the heart of this place has prevented them time and time again from veering off-course, but the soullessness of the office and the burden of the work has ground some of the spark out of her. Roy can’t forgive himself for that—for enabling it; for looking the other way. She could have been more, and happier, somewhere else, if he’d let her. If he hadn’t been so afraid to lose her and then lose the rest of this the instant that she was gone. “Don’t be too late. Confidentially, Jean is… thinking of proposing.”
Roy can’t imagine what face he makes, but he knows that it isn’t one of his cuter ones. “At an eighties party?”
“It’s Jean,” Riza says. “We’re just lucky that he didn’t ‘scientifically’ determine that the optimal day for a proposal was April first.”
Roy hates how plausible that is. “Will you still speak to me if I show up in a Jane Fonda wig?”
“No,” Riza says.
“You’re no fun,” Roy says.
“Neither is Jazzercise,” Riza says.
Roy sniffs. “Jazzercise predates Jane Fonda’s Workout.”
“I take it back,” Riza says. “That’s why I’m not going to speak to you anymore.”
Roy crouches down and cradles Sonja’s face in his hands. “Did you hear that, baby? She’s so mean to me.”
Sonja gazes mournfully back at him for two and a half seconds before her tongue comes out.
“Very tragic,” Riza says, folding her arms and leaning back against her desk, but he can hear the smile sneaking into her voice again. “We’re all so terribly sad for you. Bring your quasi-boyfriend.”
This stare is unrehearsed and much less enjoyable. “My—what?”
“You heard me,” Riza says, which is unfortunately true. “If he was a regular boyfriend, I would know more about him by now, and you’d be rubbing it in Maes’s face at every possible opportunity. But he’s definitely boyfriend-ish. I haven’t worked out the details yet. Hence the prefix.”
Roy continues staring. He can’t think of anything else to do. “How do you…”
“Know?” Riza asks. This smile is decidedly more smug. “Very funny. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”
Roy presses his face into the soft fur on Sonja’s back. “Is that a promise?” he says.
“It’s a pact,” Riza says. “I’d rather see you blow it up anyway.”
That part he believes.
He drags himself up to his feet and goes fishing for his keys. They were in his hand a minute ago. He has no idea where they are now. “Thank you,” he says, “as always, for the vote of unerring confidence.”
“It’s what I do,” Riza says calmly.
It is, of course, only the minutest fraction of what she does, but he’s found his keys again, and he probably has twenty-seven emails to get annoyed about by now.
The prototyping lab is much nicer than his emails.
The prototyping lab is much nicer than just about everything.
In the prototyping lab, the only thing that Roy has to think about is how the pieces are going to fit together; how things are going to work. In the prototyping lab, he has his finger pressed to the pulse of the mechanics of reality. He can touch the place that the cogs of the universe intersect to make the world turn. He can make things. He can make himself matter.
He always loses track of time in here. After what feels like a couple hours, maybe, some engineer kid that he doesn’t recognize asks him if he’d mind turning out the lights when he leaves. He agrees to do it on instinct, and only realizes after she’s smiled at him and said goodbye and walked out the door that he is very hungry.
Which makes him very vulnerable to dastardly tricks.
“I knew it,” Maes says from the doorway, instants after Roy has elected to ignore the hunger and lower his head again.
“Knew that you’d find me here?” Roy says. He had a level a few minutes ago; he had… there are an awful lot of tools strewn out across the pockmarked tabletop that he’s claimed. Ah. Level. He leans down to look closer; his back hurts. “Or knew that you’d ruin the moment as soon as you did?”
“Excuse you,” Maes says. “I am enhancing this moment simply by being in it. I am an enricher of moments. I improve the aura of every room. I am widely acknowledged as a light in dark places when all other lights go out.”
Roy eyes the self-proclaimed Phial of Galadriel. “And as a mouth that keeps running when all other mouths are shut?”
“Comes with the territory,” Maes says, utterly contentedly. “Hey, this is perfect timing.”
It couldn’t possibly be, but Maes was born for marketing. At least Roy was, in a roundabout way, able to give him that: nothing else that he offered to Maes ever amounted to much, but this turned out all right.
“Explain,” Roy says. Today has been devoted primarily to actualizing the supposition that a sufficiently secure case—or carrier or shipping mechanism—could modulate the temperature of the hypodermic, in the hopes that they might not have to alter its material composition as much to compensate for external variations. Today may, in fact, have been a total waste of time, but Roy wanted to ease himself back into climbing before he started hurling himself at the higher cliffs.
“You’re actually, physically here,” Maes says, ignoring the way that Roy eyes him harder; “instead of doing mysterious genius things from home and huffing your dog’s dander all day long—”
“This is why I don’t come in,” Roy says.
“I’m not finished,” Maes says, with a gleam of that relentless manic enthusiasm that makes other product-pushers cower away in equal parts envy and terror. He pushes his glasses up. “It also happens to be a rare evening where Elicia and my beautiful wife are over at a friend’s house for the evening, working on that food donation program that I’m not allowed to help with because I’ll—” Heavy air quotes. “—‘scare people’—”
Roy laughs quietly, which is the best revenge. He needs to put that little project in his calendar, too, so that he can flood them with money when they open donations. Or—no. It would be better to set up something gradual. Sustain them longer-term. It’ll look phenomenal on Elicia’s college applications. That won’t even be the reason that she’s doing it, which is sweet.
“—so I’ve got a free evening, for once,” Maes is saying brightly. “Which means that you and I can grab a bite and catch up!”
“Oh, joy,” Roy says. He feels around on the table for the screwdriver that he put down; he needs to tighten these, but if he takes his eyes off of them for a second, the entire thing will collapse to spite him. “Let me just go put on my good interrogation shirt.”
“Any shirt can be an interrogation shirt if you believe in yourself,” Maes says. He pauses. “How long is this gonna take?”
“I love you, too,” Roy says.
Maes pretends to be heading for the Wendy’s drive-through, and pouts for the remainder of the drive when Roy asks for a Frosty instead of panicking. Roy counts that as a point in his column, and can only hope that it doesn’t wind up very, very lonely by the end of the night.
There aren’t too many things to love about this city—there are enough likable things to make it tolerable, and enough annoying things to balance them out. It’s too hot, and too crowded; half of Roy’s neighbors are old money sleazebags, and the other half are pretentious nouveau riche Tesla drones; but the sheer square footage of the outdoor dining in its downtown really recommends it to someone like him.
Someone like the him that he is now, anyway: the him that categorically refuses to leave Sonja at home or in the car, pretty much ever.
After they have walked down the street very slowly, leaving her ample time to be mesmerized by all of the ambient smells, they finagle their way into a nice patio table at a good Italian place. Maes is in fine form with the Elicia stories, and also has several winners from a recent product expo, and Roy remembers why having friends is, in fact, a net positive.
Right up until the friends in question waggle their eyebrows and say things like, “So, million-dollar question, and you knew it was coming—are you seeing anyone?”
Roy takes a subtle deep breath and unfurls his single smuggest grin. If he plays this very, very delicately, he’s pretty sure that he can pull it off.
“As a matter of fact,” he says, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”
Maes’s eyes go huge, made huger by the glasses. Roy suspects—relatively frequently—that that’s the primary reason that he foregoes contacts. “You—what? Bullshit.”
“You kiss your daughter with that mouth?” Roy asks.
He planned this, and he knows that he has to stick to the plan—knows that this a precarious enterprise; knows that he can’t take any chances. Knows that the outline he produced in a swell of logic is much more reliable than his instincts.
He still only narrowly overcomes the urge to hesitate before he unlocks his phone and taps over to his favorite photo of all of the ones that he took of Ed.
It’s one that he took on his phone, after all that work. Ed found pizza in his fridge and started eating it cold like the lawless hobgoblin that he is, and went so far as to sprawl out on Roy’s couch in front of the TV with it for good measure. Sonja had immediately climbed up with him to beg, but he proved to be an expert in ignoring the power of her puppy eyes, so she gave up and just flopped herself down on top of him with her head on his chest. He was still wearing Roy’s shirt. Roy caught him—just barely—grinning at her past the pizza and stroking one of her ears.
Roy vacillated, in the process of developing this master plan. He paid for the other photos, but even then, that doesn’t mean that any of them are his. Not in any way that matters.
He texted this one to Ed two nights ago and said Can I show this to my horrible friend?
Ed sent back fuck my life he’s going to think i just pet ur dog and steal ur food
Roy replied, Don’t you? with a winking emoji, and Ed replied with a middle finger and then sorry not sorry that she likes me better and a kissing face, and… that sounded like permission. Sort of. Close enough.
So that’s not the problem.
The problem is that Roy doesn’t want to share a moment that perfect with anyone. Not even Maes. Not to prove a point.
But the plan hinges on it, and fumbling his way through the next few months—ideally, unfettered by Maes’s constant harassment and attempts to set him up with intolerable bores—hinges upon the plan.
Roy has always put more faith in the plan than in himself, or in other people, or in anything. Upon further reflection, that’s probably why he’s so fucking lonely.
He braces himself internally, rousts up a roguish grin, and turns the phone screen towards Maes.
“Read ’em and weep,” he says. “His name’s Ed. He’s getting a PhD in physical chemistry at Am U. He has a mouth like a sleep-deprived sailor. He drinks Mountain Dew.”
Maes’s eyes are fixed immovably on the photo on the screen—less like he’s memorizing details, however, than like he’s searching for traces of Photoshopping. “You said that with such grudging fondness that I almost believe you.”
Roy whips his phone back and holds it protectively to his chest, which is only a partly-calculated reaction. “You—what the hell? We’re dating, okay? I know he’s cute, and I’m a colossal pain in the ass, but is it really so impossible to imagine that—”
Their server brings them bread. Roy has to fight mightily to resist the urge to snatch some out of the basket immediately and start ripping it to shreds to calm his hands.
“Thank you,” he says instead, as warmly as possible, before he turns a scowl on Maes again. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“You’re lucky that that’s all I’m calling you,” Maes says, placidly, since apparently years of friendship and mutual support and also all the times that they saved each other’s asses in bootcamp and well beyond mean nothing. “Now I’m going to set you up on bad dates on purpose.”
“You’re a terrible friend,” Roy says, which isn’t and has never been true, but might sting a bit anyway. “I’m already going on bad dates. He got Mountain Dew at the movie theater while I had my back turned, and I tried to steal some and choked on it. And my two options were spitting it all over him or swallowing it, so I swallowed, Maes. I drank Mountain Dew. It was the worst date of my life.”
“Poor baby,” Maes says, but his look has shifted from pure dismissal to something more assessing.
Roy pages swiftly through some of the other ideas in his head. “I also invited him out to that kitschy little roller rink downtown. And he accepted. And that was how I originally learned about the automail leg, because he learned what happens when you put roller skates on with automail to try to fool the guy that you’re dating into thinking that you have ordinary joints.”
Maes winces. Roy hopes that Sally from the not-especially-good old days will forgive him for lifting that story wholesale and rearranging the details.
“We split a milkshake after,” Roy says. “You would have loved it. He’s great, all right? It’s—great.” He swallows, and tugs at a corner of the artful little napkin laid out in the bread basket, and clears his throat, and tries very hard to ignore the way that his empty stomach turns over and then twists itself into a knot. “I didn’t… I wasn’t sure when to tell you about it, so I just… put it off.” That part Maes will believe. “It was all sort of an accident, and I wasn’t sure at any point if it was actually going to work, and…”
He looks up, wide-eyed and innocent and quite ready to accept his Oscar, and Maes is… smiling.
As Roy watches, Maes’s smile curls more-than-slightly diabolical. Roy’s blood runs cold.
“Call him,” Maes says.
Roy stares. Cold blood is less conducive to intelligent thoughts, in addition to all of its other ominous properties. “What?”
“Give him a call,” Maes says. “Dial him up. Phone ’im. Ring the bloke.” The fact that that is, past a shadow of a doubt, the worst fake English accent that Roy has heard in forty-two years of life on a planet full of creatures that like to imitate each other barely even registers next to the terror of the command. “Put him on speaker without him knowing that I’m here. If you think that I’m just going to believe a photo that you could’ve paid some old buddy from the automail shop to stage, Roy, you are vastly underestimating my capacity for paranoid suspicion. And also my capacity for seeing through your bullshit. And also my Dad Senses, which are like Spidey Senses but tailored towards—”
“Fine,” Roy says, partly just to shut him up. He lifts his phone again and taps into his text log, wishing fervently that he’d anticipated this scenario and set up some sort of code word. Ed’s not the type to start talking about money exchanged for services apropos of nothing, but losing control has been Roy’s greatest nightmare since… always, really. And the times that it has come true have only made that worse. “I’m calling him. Calling my boyfriend. See?” He hits the little speaker icon with his thumb, trying to ignore the way that his heart pounds in his throat. If Ed gives it away on accident, he’ll just… he’ll figure that part out later. He’ll laugh it off with Maes and then make some sort of an escape. It’ll be fine. It has to be fine. “Here we go.”
The line only rings twice before it catches.
“Hey,” Ed says, brightly enough that Roy’s guts squeeze up into a snowball. He’s so… good. Roy doesn’t want to hurt him; Roy never once wanted to hurt him. He hopes that Ed knows that. “Everything okay?”
“Of course,” Roy says. There will be ambient noise from the street and the restaurant; maybe Ed will piece it together. Ed’s smart; Ed’s smart as a whip and sharp as a tack and brilliantly deductive. “Just missed the dulcet tones of your voice. How are you?”
Ed laughs, genuinely enough that it summons a mirror-response smile on Maes’s face. Roy just sweats harder. Now Maes likes Ed, and will murder Roy right here at this table, in front of Sonja, if he figures it out. “Fine? The usual. Hang on, let me just get outside so that I don’t bug the shit out of Al.”
Roy blinks. “Are you still in lab?”
“Yeah,” Ed says. His voice goes slightly distant for a second, and there’s some background noise. “It’s only, like, six or something, right?”
“I’m sorry,” Roy says. He spares Maes a good, long, burning glare. “I wouldn’t have bothered you if I knew that you were working.”
“I’m always working,” Ed says, and he probably means it as a vaguely self-deprecating joke, but it comes off sounding so wistful that Roy’s whole ribcage tightens up. There’s a sound like a door closing, though, and then the background noise decreases— “So what can I do you for?”
“I’m hurt,” Roy says, playing it up so that Maes won’t read too much into that, “that you didn’t believe me about missing your voice.”
“You’re not that weird,” Ed says, cheerfully. “I think I’d believe that you miss my ass, though.”
Roy could kiss him. On the mouth. With tongue. For hours.
That is an increasingly perpetual, albeit still conditional, state of affairs, but it’s especially true now. Roy would be especially delighted to kiss him right now.
“My little die-hard romantic,” Roy says, putting just enough coo in it that Ed might attribute it to regular weirdness at the same time that Maes might read it as a boyfriendly caliber of flirting. Ed starts to splutter about the ‘little’ part, but Roy cuts in before he can get too deep. “All right, you caught me. I wanted to show you something.”
“You want to FaceTime?” Ed asks, slowly, and the creep of trepidation in his voice will make for an enormous red flag if it grows pronounced enough that Maes can detect it too.
“No, no,” Roy says quickly. “I’m already wasting time that you could be spending being a genius. I’ll send you a picture. Just hang on a sec.”
He glares pointedly at Maes again, and then he taps over into his camera and slides out of his chair, crouching down on the pavement so that he can frame the shot. Sonja knows a camera when she sees one, and raises her head at a very dignified angle—which is perfect, because it lets Roy include even more of Maes’s shoes and shins in the background.
Ed’s smart enough to put it together, if he hasn’t started to panic yet. Roy will explain it to him later either way, in the interests of full disclosure, continued trust, and reassuring the poor kid that he’s not going to get random pop-quiz phone calls at six at night on a regular basis; but this might help them both scrape through it.
Besides, Roy does want to show this to Ed. He just wasn’t planning on doing it quite so soon.
He pops the photo into a text. “Sent it. Enjoy.”
There’s a pause, and then a faint buzzing sound from Ed’s side of the line, and then he starts to laugh incredulously.
“Don’t tell me,” Ed says. “They’re actual fucking diamonds. You bought your dog a diamond tiara.”
“She is a princess,” Roy says, settling in his chair again and trying to force his shoulders to relax. “But for the record, they’re Swarovski crystals. I got it on Etsy for a hundred and twenty bucks. What do you think?”
“I think you’re gonna make me jealous,” Ed says, and Roy can still hear the laugh in his voice, and— “Where’s mine?”
Roy lets himself grin. Give, take. Chess game. All’s fair. “Be careful what you wish for.”
“Why do I get the feeling that I’m gonna regret this?” Ed says.
“No idea,” Roy says sweetly. “That’s very curious. Quite strange. Well—that’s all that I wanted to harass you about; let me remove myself from your hair so that you can save the world some more. Did you get something to eat?”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “If you don’t feed Al, he gets so hangry he’s like the opposite of one of the mogwai in Gremlins.” Maes, who has not previously discovered Ed’s tendency to make complicated pop culture references from a bit before his time, blinks bewilderedly. “How about you?”
“I’m working on it,” Roy says, which is truer than ever, given that he can see their server winding her way back towards them. “Talk to you later?”
“Sure thing,” Ed says. “Tell Sonja she has my lifelong fealty or whatever. ’Bye.”
Roy catches himself smiling again, which is probably good for the show. “Goodbye, Ed.”
Not the schmoopiest sendoff known to humankind, but it is authentic Ed, and that’s more important at this point.
The combination of distant elation and sheer relief at the success of the plan preoccupies Roy while they both order, and then he turns a well-practiced I told you so smirk on Maes.
Except that Maes doesn’t look tickled, or chuffed, or particularly amused.
He looks… concerned.
“Roy,” Maes says, very slowly, “give me some good news. Tell me… Please tell me that he doesn’t know about the money.”
Lying to Maes’s face has gotten more difficult since he did the dad thing. It’s extremely inconvenient, but the upside is that it forces Roy to get creative with the truth.
“He’s not a gold-digger,” Roy says. “Trust me.”
“I would,” Maes says, still doing worried eyebrows on a scale that makes alarms go off in Roy’s head, “if you weren’t the squishiest romantic idiot that the world has ever seen under all your suave millionaire bullshit. How do you know? We’ve been here before, Roy. We have walked the yellow-brick road, and it always ends with people under houses and ripped-up curtains and disillusionment and going back to sepia tones in Kansas.”
Roy rubs at his forehead. “You have somehow managed to spectacularly miss the point of—”
“My bad takes on fantasy classics are irrelevant,” Maes says. “Promise me one thing.”
Roy gives him a look. “What?”
“Don’t fall in love with him,” Maes says—like that’s all it is. Like it has ever, in the history of humanity, even once been so simple. “Just—don’t. Put your foot down. Hide your wallet. Make him earn it. I don’t know. Protect yourself. You don’t…” He hesitates, which is foreboding as all hell, and runs his tongue over his teeth. He nudges his glasses up his nose. “You weren’t… seeing it. Last time. Because you were in it, obviously, and optics and angles and blah-blah, but—Roy. We don’t want to see you get hurt like that again. Not ever.”
Roy bites his tongue on Who’s ‘we’?, because he knows that that’s not the point. They all had their own lives to deal with, and he’d expertly hidden and filtered and joked about the worst of it until it was a lot more than a little too late.
“I was young and stupid then,” Roy says.
Maes looks pained. “It was two and a half years ago.”
“Exactly,” Roy says, leaning back in his chair. “I was hardly even thirty-nine—thirty-nine. I can barely even remember it. Bright-eyed and naïve and so eager to explore the endless joys of the vast wo—”
“You did cocaine,” Maes says, loudly.
Roy glowers at him. “Once. And it wasn’t my idea. And you’re missing the point again.”
Maes takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes, sighing. Roy should have kept his phone out and gotten video; Riza never believes him when he talks about melodrama osmosis. “Enlighten me, my dear man. What is the point?”
“Ed isn’t like that,” Roy says. He has to work a bit to keep the petulance out of his voice; the fact that Maes would impugn Ed’s moral character like this is, in fact, offensive, but he knows that it’s coming from a place of protectiveness. Maes hasn’t met Ed. If he had, he would understand. “He’s just—he’s not interested in taking advantage of people, or playing games, or any of that shit, because he’s too busy being interested in how the fundaments of the world fit together. He just wants to do science and eat pasta. And drink Mountain Dew, unfortunately. I’m trying to lead him to the conclusion that a double espresso has the same effect but is much more efficient, since you don’t have to empty the whole godawful can, but finding a way to make those portable—”
“Jesus,” Maes says, raising an eyebrow as he puts his glasses back on. “The sex must be phenomenal.”
Roy’s brain helpfully slams a fist down on the panic button, and the alarms reverberate in his head so loudly that he can’t even hear himself. “It’s—it isn’t—I mean, we haven’t—”
“Wait,” Maes says, leaning forward, eyes practically glowing behind the lenses now. Ed would have another eighties horror movie monster to compare that to, but Roy’s brain has frozen solid, frost pinning his tongue down in his mouth. “Hold on. How long has this been going on? That photo was dated three and a half weeks ago.”
“Well,” Roy says, making a truly valiant attempt to gather himself together, “what I meant to say—we haven’t—” He glances around them and lowers his voice to a whisper. “—had penetrative sex, but it’s obviously been impossible to keep our hands off of each other altogether. It’s just a slightly sore subject at this point, but of course I don’t want to push him, so—”
“Three and a half weeks,” Maes says, gazing at Roy in something like wonder but much, much worse. “And you haven’t even had sex. Hold on.” He leans in too quickly for Roy to duck away and presses the back of his hand to Roy’s forehead. “No fever? Unthinkable. So much for that spectacular joke I was gonna make about how he’s clearly taking you for a ride.”
“It’s only a matter of time,” Roy says, curling his fingers in his pants leg so that he won’t reach out and fiddle with the bread basket again. “And cheer up. It probably wasn’t as good a joke as you think it was anyway.”
Maes picks up a piece of bread.
Maes throws it at Roy’s forehead.
Roy has no choice but to let it bounce off of his face, because avoiding it would cause a scene if it ricocheted off of other diners, and/or result in Sonja eating people food that she’s not supposed to have.
“Huh,” Maes says. “That was… not what I expected you to do.”
“What can I say?” Roy asks, as deadpan as humanly possible. “Sometimes you just have to roll with it.”
Maes laughs brightly, and then he picks up another piece of bread and points a reprimanding finger at Roy.
“Careful,” he says. “If you keep making jokes like that with a much-younger boyfriend, people are going to assume that you’re some kind of a daddy, y’know.”
“Ha,” Roy says, ignoring the sweat beading on his spine. “Ha, ha, ha.”