Force over Distance: Chapter 52

Rush shot Young a wounded look. “Make me tea then, if you’re so desperate to be useful.”

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations. Passive suicidality.

Text iteration: A very intellectual brunch.

Audio status: Proofing.

Additional notes: None.

Chapter 52

Young leaned against the back wall of the infirmary, arms crossed.

Destiny’s day-spectrum lights turned whatever bullshit was happening in front of him into the kind of scene a Renaissance painter could’ve really gone to town with. The darkness in corners. The rusted lines of Ancient text in the already shadowed ceiling. The way TJ’s eyes and skin reflected the light. The way her hair could trap and hold it. She’d been beautiful enough on Earth. On Icarus.

“Again.” Telford sat next to Rush’s gurney, staring at the small screen TJ held. His eyes were shadowed. His uniform, new and crisp and black as jet, absorbed the light. Two members of his Research Team stood behind him, in shadow, craning their necks for a view of the blazing aquamarine in TJ’s hands. “Concentrate.”

Rush leveled an eloquent glare at Telford, shut his eyes, and attuned his thoughts to the energy signature of the small, nearly featureless Ancient tech he held. The Research Team had found the device in the neural interface room. It came in two pieces that looked like stones, ground smooth in an alien river bed, eons back, galaxies ago.

But they weren’t stones.

They were a tool to evaluate progress along the ascension spectrum.

Young didn’t like it.

But Wray’d advised he give Telford’s team something.

Didn’t mean he had to be gracious about it.

He crossed his arms harder.

His chief scientist was in lethal form. The silver in his hair stole the color from every light that touched it. So did the frames of his glasses. So did the eyelets of his boots. Rush’s thoughts prismed into rainbow edges as they spiraled. Insight cracked and froze like iced-over lightning through pale streams of opalescent current.

Did it mean anything, that the flow and quality of his thoughts had shifted, after the Nakai attack? After he’d spent a week locked down with the computer system he was now inseparable from?

Probably it meant something.

Would Young’s mind, too, change under similar circumstances? Would anyone’s? Would everyone’s? Were there whole swaths of people who’d restructured themselves? Similar, yet different? Old pathways sealed shut? New and fragile streams carving riverbeds of the mind?

Young didn’t like change.

He didn’t trust it.

Unprompted, unwanted, a recent memory threatened the order of his thoughts. Young bricked it back, and it arrived behind a cognitive wall: the indescribable color of Nick Rush’s hair beneath a sky that promised rain; the light/dark blend of a mind that couldn’t be real shine or real shadow, but merely half clear or half clouded. Half perceptible. Half alien.

Was it really half? What if it were ten percent? Thirty percent? Seventy percent? Did it matter? How would he know? Was there a way to quantify what one couldn’t perceive?

Across the room, Rush lost whatever fracture pattern of flash-frozen lightning he’d been aiming for. His focus shifted to the link, to Young’s own mind, maybe. 

On a screen Young couldn’t see, something made Telford sigh in frustration.

//What were you thinking of?// Rush asked, with a wistful, Scottish edge.

//Nothing.// Young tried to make it true. //You tired of this yet?//

//It’s more interesting than watching fuckin’ films, I’ll give it that.//

Young sighed.

“Nick, you can do better than this.” Telford said sharply. “Stop sandbagging.”

Sandbagging?” Rush hissed testily.

//Sandbagging is when you conceal your true abilities,// Young defined. //Usually because you have an ulterior motive. Here. I’ll use it in a sentence. You’re literally the most proficient sandbagger I’ve ever met in my life.// He sent the man a wave of calm that was probably chock full of all the fondness he didn’t bother to strip out of it.

Rush shot Young a confusedly skeptical look. Caught between offense, amusement, and disapproval, he defaulted to Flustered Math Professor.

Ugh, god. Because that’s what he was. Young couldn’t take it.

“You’re holding back,” Telford snapped. “Why.”

Rush organized himself around his irritation and glared stonily at Telford. 

Young glanced at his watch. “You have fifteen minutes, David.”

He got a wash of poorly-controlled irritation from Rush at this pronouncement.

//Genius, you spent the better part of a week mostly dead. You’ve been running a fever for a solid ten days. Don’t push your luck.//

“Fifteen minutes?” Telford echoed indignantly.

“Fourteen.” Young made a show of checking his watch.

Telford shut his eyes in what looked like overwhelming frustration.

Young smiled pleasantly at Telford, which triggered a wave of spite-edged amusement from Rush.

“Fine,” Telford said crisply. “Let’s switch modalities.” He held out his hand.

Rush, very deliberately, tucked the stones he was holding into an inner pocket of his military jacket.

Telford snapped at Rush and opened his hand.

Rush, cross-legged on his gurney, steepled his fingers, looked directly at Telford, and said, “They don’t like you.”

“I don’t care if they like me. We need them.” Telford looked to Young.

“You just surrendered a piece of equipment to the Science Team.” Young shrugged. “Science Team has priority. You need them back, talk to Wray. There’s probably a form you can file. We’ll take it under consideration.”

“Thanks,” Telford said. “I’ll be sure to do that.”

Young glanced at TJ. “What’s his number?”

“He’s at about the halfway point.” She clipped her device back to her hip.

//You sandbagging, genius?//

//Usually.// The iridescent wind of his thoughts was as unreadable as ever.

Telford motioned to one of his scientists. The man reached into a bag at his feet and came up with a sheaf of paper and a pen. Telford handed it to Rush. “Get as far as you can.”

“Paper?” Rush asked, testily.

“Handwriting is a part of the score,” Telford replied.

Rush looked down at what he was holding. And kept looking.

Above them, Ancient text blended into the shadows of the ceiling.

//What?// Young asked. //What’s wrong?//

Rush didn’t reply. Instead, with a mind-wrenching effort that revealed the depth of his fatigue, he began running interference.

God damn it.

Young was hit with a wall of blur strong enough to obscure almost everything behind it. Even his sense of Rush’s emotions was distorted. The pattern was so powerful that the only thing coming through was the profound energy drain required to put it in place.

Young took a slow breath.

“No,” Rush said flatly.

“You don’t need to finish,” Telford said, with faux sympathy. “Just go as far as you can.”

In response, Rush flung the stack of paper into the air.

The sheets separated, caught the light, and fluttered towards the floor. TJ and Telford flinched in surprise. Rush ripped the IV out of his arm, shook his hair out of his eyes, and staggered to his feet. He looked lightheaded.

As the last of the paper settled to the floor, Young reached his side. He steadied the scientist. “Hey. You’re—”

Rush tore himself free, grabbed his jacket from the foot of his bed, and headed for the door.

Young, not at all willing to tackle the guy, let him go. But, as Rush passed into the main floorspace of the infirmary, he belatedly realized his mistake. He threw himself after the man, but it was too late. The doors slid shut just shy of his outstretched hand.

The seal activated. He could goddamned hear the goddamned bolt slide into place.

Young hit the door with the flat of his hand.

“He’ll unlock them,” TJ said, fast and smooth, crossing to the doors. “He always unlocks them. After two minutes. Three at most.” She glanced worriedly at Young, then scanned the door controls.

Young tried to get anything from the link, but all he got was blur and ache and panicky exhaustion. He rounded on Telford. “What the hell was that?” he snarled.

“The competency evaluation he should have taken days ago.” Telford was on his feet, surveying the paper-covered floor. “The competency evaluation he’s taken dozens of times.”

“Anyone know how to open these doors,” Young growled.

“Something with a crystal?” TJ mimed a mid-air flip.

Young turned back to the door and pressed both palms against it. Rush’s mind was nothing but blur, the interference shifting like mist with what Young guessed was ongoing, intense distress. “Shit,” he whispered. 

“Trying to open it with the power of your mind?” Telford asked.

Young whirled. “What the fuck did you just do?”

“Me? Nothing. Pretty sure that was him realizing he doesn’t have a chance in hell of passing the V22.” Telford’s eyes blazed with a dark fire. Behind him, the members of his team knelt on the floor, gathering loose pages, ordering them.

“He can pass it,” Young growled.

“Oh yeah,” Telford said. “That was an expression of calm confidence if I’ve ever seen one.”

Young knelt, swiped a page of the V22 off the floor and looked at it. It had two questions on it. one at the top. The other in the middle of the page.

What does it mean to “burn the candle at both ends?”

What do the phrases “Stairway to Heaven,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “Rocket Man” have in common?

Young let the paper fall and did his best not to flash back to those terrible weeks after coming out of deep cover with the LA, spent in the SGC’s medical scrubs, waiting for Dr. Lam to finish days worth of of medical tests before she turned him over to James MacKenzie.

Young glanced at his watch, then glared at TJ. “Three minutes, you said?”

She met Young’s eyes. “Three minutes is the longest he’s ever trapped me. But—it’s more than just me, this time.”

“Work on the doors,” Young said.

“Sir, I don’t—” TJ began.

Work the doors, lieutenant,” Young growled.

TJ turned to the doors. She unclipped her handheld device from her hip, and it flared aquamarine.

“This,” Telford said, sweeping a hand to encompass the paper-strewn floor, “is why he should’ve been assessed immediately. There’s something going on with him. He needs to sit down and take this thing if he wants back on the duty roster.”

“The only thing you’re using the V22 for on my ship is scrap paper,” Young snarled.

“Your ship?” Telford hissed. “Your ship? This isn’t ‘your ship.’ You’ve handed your entire command over to a mathematician, who’s so damned tactics-blind he doesn’t even realize that’s exactly what you’ve done. And god knows why. God knows what he’s convinced you of.”

“Enough.” Young turned, stalked to the doors, and tried to pry them apart.

“I think maybe—” TJ eyes glowed gemstone blue with the reflected light of the device in her hand. She laid a palm against the wall, just above the control panel. “Please,” she whispered.

And the doors came open.

TJ smiled, delighted and wild-edged. The device in her hand flared with sympathetic joy.

Fighting a crush of miserable foreboding, Young turned away from her and locked eyes with Telford. “Clean this up and get out. Go back to reading the database.” He slipped through the open doors and strode across the empty infirmary. In the corridor, halfway down the hall Barnes stood, leaning against the bulkhead, one arm braced against her side.

“Corporal?” Young said sharply. He jogged to reach her.

“I’m okay, sir,” Barnes replied. “James has eyes on the doc.”

Young pulled his radio off his belt. “Lieutenant James, what’s your location?”

“Observation deck,” James replied.

“Corporal, can you get back to the infirmary okay?”

“Oh yeah.” Barnes grinned at him. “I’m fine, sir. Just catching my breath. The doc can really move when he’s got somewhere to go.”

Young nodded and started for the observation deck. He flipped his radio to the medical channel, and said, “TJ, Barnes is in the hall outside the infirmary. See that she gets back in one piece?”

“Understood,” TJ replied.

Young picked up his pace. //Hey,// he projected into the distressed blur of the scientist’s thoughts. //For the record, that whole thing was Wray’s idea. Leverage for the next IOA meeting when Telford tries to claim we’ve been stonewalling him.//

He got nothing back from the aching mist of static on the opposite side of the link.

//Genius, you gotta realize,// Young continued conversationally, as he strode down hallways full of closed doors, //you can throw him the hell out whenever you want. You say the word and he’s done. He’s confined to quarters for the duration of this mission. Maybe for the rest of his life. Who knows.//

Young rounded a corner and found James posted outside the doors to the observation deck.

“Don’t tell me it’s locked,” Young growled.

“No sir,” James said quietly. “I don’t think so.”

“What are you doing in the hall then, lieutenant?”

“He’s talking to the AI,” James said.

Young braced himself against the wall and rode out a wave of confused, profound relief. He let it shift and change and pool itself into a lake’s worth of deep unease.

The AI was okay. It was out and about and talking Rush down, probably. That was good. Wasn’t it? Hell if Young knew. Again, the memory of the neural interface reached out to grip him by the throat.

“Nick Rush and the starship he taught to lie.” The scientist stands on a hillside, his hair blown back by a crisp sea breeze, his eyes the color of water and earth, rain and smoked topaz. “Has a bit of a ring; I’ll admit that.” 

“It seemed like a private conversation, sir,” James’s words, halting and uncertain, broke the long silence.

Young nodded. Hoping for the best, he palmed the door controls.

They opened.

Rush stood with his back to the door, silhouetted against the pale stream of FTL. His hands were braced against the rail. And, though his head was bent, his shoulders were square.

Slowly, Young crossed the dark deck plates, gleaming with the turning of the light beyond the shields. He came to stand next to Rush. He leaned forward and braced his forearms against the rail. Ahead of them, the silver-gray expanse of the ship’s prow reflected the soft blur of distorted stars.

“Don’t say it,” Rush whispered, his forehead damp with sweat, his eyes fever-glazed.

Young nodded. He toyed with the frayed cuff of his faded fatigues.

“Terrible strategy,” Rush said.

“What?” Young smiled wanly.

“Whatever the fuck this is supposed to be,” Rush made a dismissive gesture in Young’s general direction, without looking at him.

“This is a tactic,” Young whispered.

“Oh fuck off,” Rush said, trying not to smile.

“So.” Young kept his gaze forward, on the source of the spiral glow that enveloped the ship. “Is this all the starlight we’re outrunning?”

“Hmm.” Rush smiled faintly at the silver-blue slipstream that passed above and around them. “Poetic.”

“Hey. No insults.”

“Of course it’s not starlight,” Rush said softly. “It’s the shields, emitting in the visible range as the matter wave of the ship distorts the fabric of spacetime. The emissions pass aft as we move.”

“That was gonna be my next guess,” Young said.

“I’m sure.”

“So,” Young said. “No one likes the V22.”

Rush sighed and ran a hand through sweat-damp hair.

“Okay,” Young said. “But genius, you gotta give me something.”

“Give you something? I’ll give you something,” Rush repeated, flat and menacing. “I’m dying. And it’d be a bloody relief if it weren’t for your interference. Veiled warnings have not worked. Direct warnings have not worked. At this point, I ascend or die. You don’t. Why are you—entangling yourself with me? Get the fuck away from me. Go do your job. Take command of your cadre of heavily armed children. Don’t do this. Whatever it is you’re doing.”

“This is my job.”

“This isn’t your job.”

“Yes it is. The ship itself chose me for it. I’m supposed to battle this out on your behalf.”

“So y’take orders from starships now?” Rush hissed. “You fuckin’ tow the line you were handed? By an AI you don’t even like? From a civilization epochs divorced from your own?”

Young stepped in and stopped just short of grabbing the guy by his damn jacket. “Listen up, hotshot,” he growled, “I know you think you have one hell of a handle on everything that’s happening. But I know things you don’t.”

“Not enough,” Rush said, cool and imperious and shifting his gaze from Young to starlight that wasn’t starlight at all. “You don’t know enough.”

“I am trying,” Young said, through gritted teeth, “to be nice to you.”

“Yes well,” Rush raised his eyebrows, gave the swirl of the shields an unimpressed look, and did his best to suppress a shiver. “Decision making has never been your strong point.” He rested a hand on Young’s chest and, very deliberately, pressed him back a pace. 

Young bit back his next, ill-advised comment by the skin of his teeth. He took a breath and paced away from Rush, following the arc of the rail on the observation deck.

He did his damnedest to ignore the years of maddening bullshit Nick Rush had thrown his way and not fall for the scientist’s extremely obvious goddamned baiting. The man was trying to pick a fight and doing a bang up job.


With about three seconds worth of a cool-down, Young managed to get his head on straight.

The man was a grief-stricken math professor who’d been betrayed by the Air Force. He’d been electrochemically assaulted, genetically altered, and he’d thrown in with the starship that was killing him. An alien computer virus had wreaked havoc with his cognition, he had an AI-hybridized alter-ego that he didn’t know about, and he had a fever.

It wasn’t all that difficult to muster up some sympathy.

“So—what?” Young asked quietly. “You want me to leave you for dead? Again?”

“Yes. That’d be perfect, thanks,” Rush said, smirking at nothing, still flat as hell. The guy’s body language was about as fragile and edged up as it got.

“Never gonna happen,” Young replied. “Not ever. Not in a million years.”

Rush stared at the rail beneath his hands. He glanced, just once, surreptitiously, into empty air.

“What does the AI have to say about that?” Young asked.

“Nothing good,” Rush whispered.

“C’mon, genius.” Young took a few steps toward his chief scientist. “Drop that interference.”

“Bit of a dog’s breakfast in there,” Rush said, gesturing vaguely at his temple.

Young snorted. “Uh, not sure what you think dogs eat, but unless it’s abstract representations of opalescent electrostatic storms, you’re gonna need to hone your metaphor game.”

Rush shot him a look of pained disapproval. “Control yourself. Please.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Young said, mostly swallowing his grin. “What. Too poetic for you?”

“A certain veneer of hostility really ought to be maintained.” Rush looked down and did a shit job of not smiling at this hands.

Young snorted. “You can be in charge of that.” Cautiously, he crossed to Rush, stepped in, and pressed the back of his hand against the scientist’s forehead. “Ugh. Genius. C’mon. You’re burning up. What are you doing standing around picking fights?”

Rush sighed. “Oh, one wants a little variety, I suppose.”

Young pulled one of Rush’s arms over his shoulder and dragged the scientist toward the door. “You’re a lotta work.”

“What did I just say?” Rush hissed.

“A lotta work,” Young muttered.

As soon as they made the turn for the infirmary, Rush began resisting Young’s forward motion. He dug his heels in, and pulled them to an uncoordinated stop. His entire body tensed.

“Yeah, okay.” Young shifted directions.

“Fuck you,” Rush breathed.

“Pretty sure you meant ‘thanks’,” Young said dryly.

“Yes well,” Rush swept his hair out of his eyes. “I admit, it loses something in the translation.”

Young pulled the man a little closer, taking more of his weight. “Yup,” he agreed.

The relief Young felt when he crossed the threshold of his quarters with Rush hit strong and sharp and without warning. It brought him to a stop just inside the doors.

“What?” Rush asked softly.

Young took a breath and hit the lights. “Nothing,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d make it back here, is all.”

Rush gave him an earnest, soulful look. “Are y’planning to compose a commemorative sonnet about it?”

“You’re an ass,” Young growled. “Drop that interference pattern. Right now.”

“That’s more like it.” Rush smirked at him. He lifted two fingers to his temple and, with a mind-wrenching effort, shorted out his own defenses in one powerful, brutal energetic arc. It got the job done, but—

“You idiot,” Young growled as Rush’s eyes rolled back, his knees buckled and his entire, clarified consciousness flickered. “What is wrong with you?” He swept the guy off his feet before he could hit the deck.

“When you figure it out,” the scientist breathed, his head heavy on Young’s shoulder, “be sure to share with the class.” The man’s entire mind was glazed with profound exhaustion.

“You need to cut it out with those interference patterns.” Young shifted his grip on Rush, then started for the bed. “They take way too much out of you.”

Rush made a soft sound of assent. “They’re more instinctive than planned. Sometimes they fall on their own.”

“Oh yeah?” Young carefully deposited his chief scientist atop the coverlet, then sat down next to him on the bed. He wrapped his fingers behind the man’s neck, pressed his thumb to Rush’s cheekbone, and stared straight through the guy’s eyes into the pained swirl of his thoughts.

Rush quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Don’t give me that,” Young said gently. “You just knocked yourself out.”

Rush shot Young a wounded look. “Make me tea then, if you’re so desperate to be useful.”

“You got it.” Young dragged his thumb over Rush’s cheekbone. “Do your best to take your boots off without losing consciousness.”

Young pulled the tea-making kit that TJ had given him out of a cabinet. He read through her handwritten descriptions, vacillating between “Aspirin Tea” (good for headaches, bodyaches, and general inflammation) and “Take the Edge Off Tea” (use this before bed after a long day).

In the end, he decided on mixing the two.

When he returned to Rush, tea in hand, he found the scientist sitting on the edge of the bed, out of his boots and shivering. Young set the tea on the small side table, did some tactical pillow rearranging, and helped the man into bed.

“What kind is this?” Rush asked, as Young pressed the tea into his hands.

“Custom blend. Designed special for math professors who are an unbelievable amount of work.”

Rush rolled his eyes. “I should expect to be unconscious in under ten minutes, then?”

“It’s a blend of Aspirin and Take the Edge Off,” Young said. “Should tide you over until you’re due for Tylenol.”

Rush took a sip and gave Young a noncommittal shrug of unimpressed approval.

“This has been one hell of a viral flare, genius. You need to take it easy. Not go haring across the ship when Telford pisses you off. If you need him out of your way? I will take him. Out of your way. You got that?”

Rush raised an eyebrow and took another sip of his tea. Very delicately, he reseated his glasses. “What happened during the Nakai foothold?”

Young tried to control his expression. “Why do you ask?”

“It seems to’ve left something of a mark on you. Your attitude, behavior, and even the tenor of your thoughts have altered.” Rush shot him a guarded look.

Young said nothing. He thought of nothing. Certainly not Hunter Riley, on an almost-Scottish hillside, covered with tiny yellow flowers whose name Young had known for a quarter of an hour, when his mind had been only half his own.

“Right then. Piece of advice. If you’re not inclined to share details, you can take whatever specifically square peg you’re trying to force through whichever specifically round hole, and turn it into something generalizable. It’s called abstraction.”

“Oh yeah?” Young said. “Thanks.”

“And then, to be clear, you can ask me about it?” Rush finished, with devastatingly crisp elocution.

“Okay.” Young shifted a hand to the man’s thigh and ran the heel of his hand along the muscle. “Fine. Let’s say you have two liquids. One you can perceive. The other you can’t perceive. How are you going to assess relative volume without combining them?” He pressed his thumb against a particularly sore knot in the guy’s quad and held pressure.

Rush made an appreciative noise that he mostly bit back, then eyed Young skeptically. “How d’you know you have a second liquid if it’s imperceptible?”

“Nice try,” Young said, still working Rush’s thigh. “But that’s all you get. Do your thing.”

Rush gave Young’s hand a sharp swat. “You want me to ‘do my thing’ and you’ll need to stop distracting me.”

“I don’t actually want you to do your thing.” Young brought a second hand into the mix. “Y’know to really make progress on the decades of tension you’ve subjected yourself to, we’d need to—”

“How crucial is the property of volume as opposed to any other property? Like mass. Or conductance. Or specific heat.”

Young sighed. “No idea.”

“Not terribly helpful, you realize.”

“Yeah. I realize. This was your suggestion. I think we should forget it.”

Rush brought a hand down atop Young’s. “There’s a real answer.”

Young stopped kneading the tension out of Rush’s thigh. He looked up.

“Because if you’re certain liquid number two exists,” Rush said, looking straight into Young’s eyes, “it can’t be wholly imperceptible. There’s at least one detectible parameter. And within that parameter—you can perturb the system. Specifically, you can apply a force and measure the response of both liquids to that force.”

“Can you give an example?”

“Force: gravity. Measurement: weight. And then y’weigh the pair of them? That’ll give you at least some idea of variation along a measurable axis.”

“Yeah,” Young said bleakly.

Because what was pulling Rush out of the chair if not exactly that? He’d held both aspects of the thing in his representational hands. And he’d sheared it apart. That was one hell of a force along one hell of a detectable parameter. And it hadn’t felt like ripping a human gloss from an alien darkness. It’d felt like a half-and-half tear.

“Not the answer you wanted, I take it,” Rush said quietly.

“Forget it.” Young looked away. “It doesn’t matter. Just thinking about phase shifting.”

“Ah.” Rush’s expression was grave. “Yes. I’ve been preoccupied with that as well. A spatial phase-shift, a temporal phase-shift—” his eyes swept the room. “They’re not ends in and of themselves.”

“Probably not, no,” Young murmured.

Rush shot him a sharp look.

“Next time you see the AI, can you tell it I want to talk to it?” Young asked.

“Not sure you’re at the top of its list right now,” Rush said guardedly.

“I just want to make sure it’s okay.”

Rush shot him a look of naked skepticism.


“Look, you spend a week in a coma and you’re gonna miss some things,” Young said philosophically. “That goes for you and the AI.”

“You do seem profoundly less confrontational,” Rush said slowly. “You know, you could probably take this opportunity to discretely enquire about certain subjects? I’d even go so far as to—”

“Nah.” Young shook his head.

“What?” Rush looked at him in abject astonishment.

“C’mon,” Young said gently. “Your team figured it out the night the Nakai came through. Obelisk Worlds bridge multiverses. Doesn’t take a Fields Medal to put the rest of it together. And,” he finished quietly, “it shouldn’t take a Fields Medal to know it’s a bad idea.”

Rush shot him a rueful look, but said nothing.

“But we’re not gonna get into any of that. Not now.”

“No?” Rush asked quietly.

“No,” Young said. “Knock back the rest of that tea and scoot over.”

Rush shot him an unmistakable it’s-your-funeral look, but he did as instructed. “I’m eccentric enough to pull this off,” he said, watching as Young stretched out beside him. “Not sure the same can be said for—” Young cut off the rest of whatever he was gonna say by wrapping an arm around the guy and pulling him down. “Right then,” Rush sighed.

“I’ve listened to you tell me this is a bad idea more times than I can count,” Young said.

“And yet,” Rush said delicately, “it seems not to’ve penetrated your skull?”

“Yeah. And it never will penetrate. Because you’re wrong. This is a great idea,” Young settled the scientist against his chest. “Best one I’ve ever had, maybe. I’m good for your brain. We have literal evidence. Not sure what more you want.”

“Your cognitive architecture needs a repair job,” Rush muttered into his shoulder.

“The only reason you think this is a bad idea is because you’re a terrible planner.” Young wrapped both arms around the man and felt the unnatural warmth radiate from him. “You’re a pessimist. And you’re arrogant. I’m not impressed. I’ve never been impressed. You’re wrong about almost everything.”

Rush sighed. “I’m an excellent planner. And I’m wrong about very little.”

“Fortunately for you,” Young whispered into his hair, “I expect zero help. Active hinderance. So, y’know. Gold star. You’re doing great. Keep going.”

In return, he got a wave of exhaustion-laced misery.

“Oh c’mon,” he murmured. “Let it go. Save the big-picture despair for next week.”

Rush sighed.

“This isn’t so bad,” Young murmured. “Admit it. Earth toothpaste? Earth shampoo? Earth soap. Earth Tylenol. TJ’s Take The Edge Off Tea?” He tucked the edge of the bedcovers over the scientist’s shoulder. He could feel the tension draining from Rush. “Wanna know my biggest regret?”

“No,” Rush whispered.

“Oh relax about it.” Young ran a hand along the man’s back, setting up a slow rhythm. “It’s this: I could have used my five pounds of personal items to requisition you some sweatpants.”

“Ridiculous. Don’t regret your use of your apportioned mass allotment, it went to a very good cause.”

“Pretty sure it went nowhere.”

“I used it,” Rush said, and Young could hear the smirk in his voice. “I told Wray you’d donated your allotment to me.”

Young snorted. “Doubt she bought that, genius.”

“She bought it instantly,” Rush said dismissively. “Thought it was fuckin’ adorable.”

“That I gave you my five pounds? Or that you wanted to use it on a really inefficient present for your favorite student?”

“Let the record note I object to literally everything you just said,” Rush replied. “The lot of it. I stole your five pounds for extremely efficient self-interest. And I don’t have favorites.”

“Sure,” Young said. He brought a hand up and pressed his thumb to the decades-old knot at the base of the man’s neck. “You want me to file a formal complaint with Wray about your thievery?”

“Yes,” Rush murmured. “Set the record straight, please.”

“You got it, genius.”

Rush sighed. “Are you ever going to tell me what happened to you during that Nakai attack?”

Young stared at the ceiling, embossed with graceful arcs of unreadable text. Beneath the surface gloss of his thoughts, bricked back from their link, he articulated his own answer. No. Never. Not in any timeline. Not in any reality. Not in any array. Not in any set of sets. 

“The only thing that happened to me,” Young said, “is that I understood how little I know. About almost everything.”

“Sounds terrible,” Rush whispered.

“Yeah,” Young replied, stroking his his hair. “It was.”

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