The first time Russ Tresler kisses him behind the Advanced Physics shelf, Ed’s heart sinks like a lead weight.
He plants both hands on Russ’s chest, trying not to register the warmth against his left palm, and shoves.
“Listen,” he says, and Russ’s blue-almost-gray-almost-violet eyes are hazy and hungry but receptive. “I guess I gave you the wrong impression. I don’t—”
“Edward,” Russ says, fumbling to catch his hands without looking away; Ed twists, but the new prosthetic is clumsy, and Russ’s fingers curl around his forearm. “Look me in the face and tell me you’re not so lonely you hate the sound of your own heartbeat.”
Ed tries to jerk his arm free, but Russ grasps his fingers at the last second. He squeezes gently, and his eyes widen and flick down.
“Let go,” Ed says, less-steadily, pulling harder. “It’s not fucking funny; let go.”
He shouldn’t ever have played this stupid game. He should’ve remembered that he’s an alien here, a trespasser, a vagrant, a ghost. The sallies and dalliances of human beings aren’t meant for him; he should never have had the arrogance to ask for a taste. He should have crushed this under his heel the first time Tresler the Tramp—Fussy Russ, Old Indigo Eyes, that young man who snares boys like animals—sat down on the edge of his table and picked up the page of Ed’s notes with the transmutation circles. He should have grown up, held his tongue, kept his head down, said nothing, been boring. Reacting got Russ’s attention, and he doesn’t need that. He doesn’t need anything, let alone anyone. He’s better off wholly unfettered, because he’s going home. Somehow. Someday. Soon.
He should have killed the flicker of hope and the flare of desire when the invasion of privacy sent him glaring up into a face that was familiar but not so painful. He shouldn’t have encouraged Russ Tresler simply for being a piece of the past that he can bear. It was stupid—so stupid—to think that he could let this go on, let it deepen, let it morph into a new creature that devours the space between them and presses them close enough to pry the secrets apart.
Russ blinks, swallows, opens his mouth, and hesitates. His composure has never cracked before—but then, Ed’s a whole new kind of freak in Munich. “Wh…”
“I said, don’t fucking touch me!” Russ’s grip fails at last. Ed hauls himself free, grabs his bag, swipes the notes on the tabletop into it, slings his coat over his arm, and runs for the door. People are staring and his face is on fire and he distinctly heard something crumple, but he has to get out.
The air in this world is dirty—sooty and grayish, like its buildings, like its sky. With its spires above and its cobblestones below, Ed moves down the icy street opposite the university; it’s one he knows, and getting lost in this tangled mess of tenements and businesses is an experience he’s taken care to avoid as much as he can. Besides, he likes to have the street vendors in his peripheral vision, for the same reason he studies in the library instead of in his flat: because it proves that there are people in this world. Because he can surround himself with breathing, shifting, talking, with motion and noise; because the hallmarks of a different humanity are better than none at all. He’s so far from a safe harbor that he doesn’t even recognize the way waves form here; at least if there are people on all sides, he can anchor himself to something.
Russ was right, damn him. The hair-flipping bastard has that in common with his counterpart—with the real Russell Tringham, that is. Even when he stares out the window of the flat and doubts that he isn’t dreaming, Ed has trouble remembering that—remembering that this world, with its jarring architecture and its poison air and its war machines and its nonsensical maps, isn’t real, or not the same way as his.
It can’t be, because if it is—if Germany is real, if it’s layered and full like Amestris, if it’s self-contained and solid—then it’s unbearable. Real people shouldn’t have to live in a place where all the clothes are monochrome, where men sometimes still throw things at the women who vote, where poverty is a cause of death, where political parties snap at each other’s throats like dogs instead of fixing things, where the trash piles up in the streets, where alchemy is relegated to children’s fairy-tales. If this isn’t a nightmare, Ed wants to die.
Maybe he is dead. Maybe he should be. That was the trade he was trying to make. Maybe he got what he wanted, or at least what he deserved.
A hand lands on his shoulder, tugging on the prosthetic; the straps chafe against Ed’s chest, and then the pressure drops away. Ed turns, his left hand having leapt up instinctively to steady the brace, to find Russ Tresler, stunned and speechless for the first time since Ed’s met him—possibly for the first time ever.
“My leg, too,” Ed says, trying to swallow the worst of the bitterness when he thinks of home, of Resembool, of Rush Valley, of places where automail was beautiful and fine, of a world where replacement limbs were an art form, not an ugly deformity and a source of shame. He looks away from the horror on Tresler’s face, squaring his shoulders, tightening his feeling hand around the strap of his bag, and starts for his flat. “Just leave me alone.”
“But you can move it,” Tresler says. “The hand. There aren’t… that’s extraordinary.”
Ed keeps walking. “Take your f—” There’s a little boy petting a kitten in front of the next café. His throat goes so tight that he couldn’t get the curse word through even if it wasn’t improper to speak like that in front of a child. “—stupid science project somewhere else.”
“Let me rephrase that,” Tresler says, jogging to catch up. “You’re extraordinary. You always have been, but this makes a start on explaining why.”
Ed grinds his teeth. “Go away.”
“Edward,” Tresler says in the warm-honey tone, and his hand grazes the small of Ed’s back. “Don’t shut me out.”
“I never let you in,” Ed says.
Tresler grabs the prosthetic hand and pulls just hard enough to force Ed to stop and look at him.
“And what’s that gotten you, Edward?” he asks. He lifts his free hand and touches a fingertip to the dark half-circle under Ed’s left eye. “Unless you have motor oil for blood, you need people, like the rest of us. I want to be someone you need.”
Ed starts to peel Tresler’s fingers from around his fake ones, and then they release. The bastard can’t take a hint, but at least he doesn’t argue with an order.
“Right now,” Ed says, “you’re someone who’s going to get his ass kicked by a cripple.”
Russ staggers theatrically, laying one hand over his heart and the back of the other against his forehead. “I’m a lover, Edward,” he proclaims; “not a fighter.” He transitions back to solemnity with unsettling speed. “Listen to me,” he says. “I’ve gotten to be a fairly good judge of people, and I know by now what’s really remarkable. You are. I’m desperate to get to the core of you, Edward Elric.” He touches the tip of his index finger to Ed’s breastbone, just missing the prosthetic brace. He’s close enough that their misting breath mingles between them, and Ed can see a thick white scar on his cheek that his hair usually hides. “I want to know you,” Russ says, “inside-out and upside-down. You’re different. You’re something entirely new. And you’re wonderful.”
Ed steps back from his hand. “I’m not special,” he says. “Just out-of-place. You read me wrong. I’m boring as hell at home, which is why I’m going back there as soon as I can.”
Russ takes a larger step towards him. They’re almost pressed together again like they were in the library, with the heat of Russ’s body seeping into Ed’s chest and the musty books digging into his back, with Russ’s hands soft against his face, tugging through his hair, and he had to bite his own lip and then Russ’s so that he wouldn’t gasp too loud—
“Then you have nothing to lose,” Russ whispers, and those slender fingers are brushing at his throat. “I’m being sincere. Give me a chance to prove it. I want you.” He tilts his head, drawing in closer, his mesmerizing stormcloud eyes falling halfway shut as his warm breath dances along Ed’s jaw. “Judging by your relative isolation versus the fact that you let me kiss you in a public place, I’d wager that you’re not entirely averse to me, either.”
“Stop,” Ed says, but his voice refuses to muster any force.
“Come back with me,” Russ murmurs. “To my place. Humor me for five minutes, and then I won’t even grovel if you still want to leave.”
Ed starts to form the first sounds of Find somebody dumber, and in the meantime get a few new lines, and then Russ licks the vein in his neck just under his jaw, and the speech centers of his brain short-circuit like a radio in the rain.
Russ’s flat is neater than Ed had expected, and smaller. There are a hell of a lot of books, which—it pains him to admit—immediately makes him feel a little less adrift.
“Have a seat,” Russ says, gesturing to the small, faded red settee. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, thanks,” Ed says to both—to all of it. He certainly doesn’t plan on staying, but if he’s committed to five minutes, he intends to maximize them. He starts with the nearest bookshelf, dragging his feeling fingertips over the spines. Lots of psychology this and social science that.
“Surely you’ve heard of Doctor Freud,” Russ says. To anyone else, his approach would have been nearly soundless, but sneaking up on Ed is even harder in this world, where he’s never at ease. “It’s an amazing time to be analyzing the human mind. I’ve never met him, of course, but I think he’d do anything to get you on his couch.” Russ’s fingers curl in Ed’s ponytail. “Sigmund and I have that in common.”
“Give up,” Ed says.
Russ’s arms snake around his waist, and the bastard’s chest is warm against his back, pressed close enough that Ed can feel the metal clips on those stupid suspenders. “You play awfully hard to get,” Russ breathes into his ear, “but I am the equal and opposite force you didn’t know you were waiting for.”
“Cute,” Ed says, trying to squirm away. “You’re going to have to do a hell of a lot better than talking basic physics to me.”
“I want to accelerate your mass,” Russ says, nipping gently at the soft skin of his neck. “I want to get sucked into your gravity. I want to calculate our friction coefficient.”
Ed isn’t sure whether to laugh or cringe, so he does a bit of both as he tries to fight his way out of Russ’s embrace without damaging the books. “What would Freud have to say about your sick mind?” he asks.
“Probably ‘Congratulations,’” Russ says. “Come on, Edward. Three and a half more minutes. Let me see what’s underneath all of the compensation.”
Ed manages to turn enough to stare at him. “Do you even know what ‘seduce’ is supposed to mean?”
“I know what it means to me,” Russ purrs. “It means trust, and that means honesty. I told you my intentions in the first breath—” Good afternoon. You have the most amazing eyes of anyone I’ve ever met. My name is Russ Tresler, and I would be honored if you slept with me. “—and I haven’t made any bones about who and what I am since then. Just let me know you, Edward. No one else does, and I promise you that I can make it worth your while.”
“I’m honestly not interested.” Ed finally pulls free, but Russ has cleverly directed their momentum towards the settee; he seems to have taken more than basic physics after all. With three more minutes to kill, Ed figures he can do worse than sitting down and massaging a little bit of the winter-ache out of his thigh.
Russ promptly drapes himself over Ed’s lap.
“Let me see you,” he says, reaching up to twirl his finger slowly in a lock of Ed’s hair. “All of you.”
“You don’t know when to quit,” Ed says.
“Once I’ve found someone I’m intent upon,” Russ says calmly, “I staunchly refuse to give up until I’ve either succeeded or suffered injuries severe enough to merit hospitalization.” He notices the way Ed glances at the scar on his cheek. “That one… was not a success. On the upside, the hospital nurses think I’m precious, if rather accident-prone, and one of the doctors gave me an excellent anatomy lesson.”
Ed wrinkles his nose, and Russ laughs. The laugh is like everything else about him—warm, genuine, and strangely soothing.
“Stop looking at me like I’m some kind of reprobate,” Russ says, reaching up to swipe the pad of his thumb along Ed’s jaw.
Ed frowns. Russ’s hand settles on his left shoulder, and the thumb runs back and forth across his collarbone.
“You are a reprobate,” Ed says. “Isn’t that the point?” When Russ’s devil-doesn’t-care grin merely widens, he scowls in response. “There can’t be much time left.”
“Just about ninety seconds,” Russ says, and then the asshole sits up, pushes him against the back of the couch, and kisses him again.
As it turns out, this Russell’s a cheating bastard, just like the old one—he slides his tongue into Ed’s mouth almost immediately and uses it to distract from the way his fingers are undoing the buttons of Ed’s shirt. Then he’s all warm hands and warmer breath, confident and forceful but still unbelievably soft. Those damned clever hands push Ed’s shirt off of the right shoulder and trace the edges of the prosthetic slowly, carefully, in something like fascination. Russ’s cheek settles against Ed’s, and they both watch—suddenly silent except for the faint gasps as they catch their breath—while Russ draws Ed’s sleeve down a little more and then sweeps his hand back across the leather straps securing the plastic to Ed’s torso.
“Don’t tell me you have a thing for amputees,” Ed says, and his voice comes out lower than he expected.
“I have a thing for you,” Russ says. “This is a part of you. Every part of you is glorious. Syllogisms are easy; you know the rest.”
Some part of Ed categorically refuses to believe that he is being seduced academically.
Russell shifts and settles beside him, collecting both of Ed’s hands. He slides the gloves off and compares the palms, then the backs, and then he smiles and raises a suggestive eyebrow.
“Ten more seconds,” he says.
He lifts Ed’s left hand and takes Ed’s index finger into his mouth, sucking hard and unambiguously.
He kisses the second knuckle as he releases it, and then he tilts his head, and the bright blond curtain slips to show that scar again.
“That’s five minutes,” he says. “Are you staying?”
“I don’t put out on the first date,” Ed says. “And buying me dinner is kind of a big deal, because I eat a ton.” He eyes the young man who has removed half of his clothing and, bizarrely, more than half of his inhibitions. “You’d better live up to your reputation, Tresler.”
Instead of smug, Russ looks delighted, and he dives on Ed and hugs him around the waist. His hair tickles, and he’s laughing again, and Ed thinks dazedly that he seems to have stumbled into something… good.