Snow by the Seine should be inspiring, probably. Ed’s not about to argue that Paris isn’t nice, and all—it’s really grand in some places and really gritty in others, and he likes that. Apparently some guy called Napoleon basically tore the whole thing down and built it back up in a way that made more sense, with wider streets and stuff, and the geometric regularity of the layout reminds Ed of Central. He knows Al loves the similarity, but Al loves everything, and for Ed it kind of feels like cockroaches crawling under his skin. It’s always like that here; this universe throws him consolation prizes—poorly-drawn doubles of the things he knows.
Alfons was different. It took Ed too long to realize it, because he was so tangled up in the past he couldn’t walk straight, but Alfons was different. Alfons was new. Alfons was entirely unique, entirely his own, entirely worthwhile.
But Alfons is gone.
Ed drops onto a frigidly cold wrought-iron bench, tilts his head back, and half-laughs-half-sighs a misty breath towards the sky. Snow by the Seine should be inspiring, but he’s getting maudlin. Sounds like a French word, maudlin.
French is kind of crappy, though. Al loves it, of course—Al’s fluent already; he just starts chattering away like a native, and his eyes light up, and then so do everybody else’s that he’s talking to. Al loves everything. Al loves this world, loves France, loves Paris, loves the Sorbonne, loves all of the French students that have gradually come to love him back now that they recognize the fierce intellect behind his fifteen-year-old face. Al loves socializing. Al loves celebrating. Al loves Christmas.
And Ed loves Al. Which is why he’s never, ever, in a hundred-billion years, going to let his little brother walk home from a university soirée on his own. It doesn’t matter that Al’s actually much fresher off of Izumi’s self-defense lessons; it doesn’t matter that Al could probably kick the ass of any individual Parisian who challenged him; the Europeans have a tendency to offer Al champagne, and Al’s always too polite to refuse, and being adorably tipsy and looking young in a dark city in this disgusting world—
Well. Ed doesn’t mind waiting. Even in the snow. Maybe if he waits a little longer, it’ll be inspiring after all.
He fishes out his pocket-watch—it’s funny how force of habit is undaunted by several years and a bit of ricocheting between parallel realities—and more-sighs-than-laughs this time. He took what he thought was a long walk, dodging stupid shoppers on the Champs-Élysées and going all the way down the avenue with all the trees to swing around the Tower and come back, but it’s still not even nine. Jeez. At least he’s got a streetlamp overhead and a newspaper in his pocket; he can read until his left-hand fingers start to freeze.
Speaking French isn’t so bad, but Ed has a hell of a time reading it—it’s just such an impractical language; there are all these extra letters everywhere that don’t do crap, and everything has five hundred vowels, and how the hell can a T be completely silent sometimes and a normal consonant others? Al sometimes hints that he’s just being stubborn—that German was every bit as complicated, but he managed that like a natural, perhaps because he wanted to, hm?—but Ed doesn’t care. He’s entitled to hold back, isn’t he? He’s entitled to hold on—to what he was, to who he was, to who he always will be, regardless of what sort of ground passes underneath his feet. Al takes to new countries like a fish to water; Ed slides over the surface like oil. Why should he bend over backwards to assimilate to a universe that doesn’t even like him—that doesn’t even like its own people; that persecutes difference like a plague?
Anyway. English newspaper. There’re enough British ex-pats that the Times isn’t too hard to come by.
Probably not worth it, though. All the news that’s fit to print is crap and crap and shit and people being horrible to each other.
Footsteps crunch in the dusting of snow, and Ed hunches his shoulders a little and squints at his paper in the lousy light. He’ll be damned if he’s getting glasses, whatever Al says.
“Bonsoir,” a voice says, and even here, even accented, even—no way. “What is it the English say—may I offer a penny for your thoughts?”
Ed looks up slowly, slowly, slowly, preparing the word ‘creeper’ on his tongue, trying to stabilize his throat—
Oh, God. Swearing is fabulous in German—it always sounds like you’re straight-up witchcraft-cursing somebody’s whole family line to terrible mutilation or something—but as Ed flicks through the options, he can’t find one that’s good enough for this.
“Désolé,” French fuckin’ Mustang says, with a tip of his head and a twitch of his smile and an honest-to-God twinkle in his eye—in both eyes. He’s got two. He’s got two eyes, a navy blue wool peacoat with brass buttons, and a black fedora with a tiny sprig of holly tucked into the band. The smile is bowing into a full-on smirk now, and Ed’s heart in his throat feels too hot to bear while his fingertips are going numb in the cold. “I do not mean to startle you; it is only… you are—how do I say—ravissant.”
Oh, Jesus Christ, holy fuck, scheiße, merde, bloody fucking hell.
“Ravishing?” Ed asks faintly. “I’m ravishing? You’ve never even met me.”
Salaud—French for ‘bastard’. Fits squarely on his tongue; fills up his mouth; runs hot down his throat and floods his guts, wakens his veins, prickles on his skin.
French fuckin’ Mustang grins, and snowflakes dot the broad, dark shoulders of his coat.
“Ah,” he says. “Your thoughts, of course, they are extraordinary—elles seront beaucoup plus chères.”
Stupid French. The word for ‘expensive’ is more like ‘dear’—the same dear you’d start a letter with. And the meanings all get layered on top of each other and conflated and confused: costly, precious, valuable. Cherished. Stupid fuckin’ French.
Except that if monetary value and emotional significance are the same—if you can measure the importance of everything by the same scale—then isn’t that a much more balanced exchange?
Ed rattles the newspaper and swallows; swallows again. “I’m—waiting for someone.”
“A cruel someone,” French Mustang says, “to make you wait.”
Ed didn’t know stomach lining could tingle until just now. “No, it’s—my brother studies at the Sorbonne. He’ll be along in a couple minutes.”
Mustang draws his hands—broad, strong, elegant hands in black leather gloves—out of his pockets and chafes them together. He’s still smiling. He’s still smooth-dark and upright, like a slash of ink across the snow.
“How many minutes, do you think?” he asks. “A penny is not enough. A drink for your thoughts? And a second for your soul.”
Nice try, Ed thinks. There’s nothing in any universe that you can trade for that.
“How long have you waited?” Mustang asks. “Surely you are wishing to be warm?”
Ed’s throat turns to stone at that. Trying to speak just makes the walls grind against each other.
I’ve waited my whole fucking life to be warm, you fucking bastard, he thinks, and all I get is snow by a fucking river and a language that makes no fucking sense and a brother who can live without me—but I can’t, Roy; I can’t do this alone.
To wish. Souhaiter. Just a drink. Seulement une boisson. Please don’t hurt me. S’il te plaît ne me blesse pas.
Stupid fucking French—because please really is a plea in French. It’s conditional. If it pleases you, don’t tear my heart into confetti. If it pleases you more to shred it, though… well, then, guess I’m fucked.
That ‘to hurt’ is blesser opens a-whole-fucking-nother can of worms.
So Ed just… nods.
One drink’s worth of thoughts. Equivalent exchange.
There’s a tiny, narrow bar crammed full of Frenchmen; the air’s so thick with misty puffs of laughter and plumes of cigarette smoke that it almost looks like you could cup a handful to take home. A garland clings precariously to the edge of the bar, and there’s more holly pinned to the barman’s lapel.
“What shall I pay you, for your thoughts?” Mustang asks. Whoever designed these barstools was a fucking menace; Ed’s hips brush Mustang’s every time he moves, and even with all the fabric in between, he can feel the heat of Mustang’s body.
“Whatever,” Ed says. “Cognac.”
“Cognac,” Mustang murmurs, and Ed’s spine tightens; plain old French and French in Mustang’s mouth are two entirely different things.
Mustang orders two. Mustang peels the leather glove off of his right hand; the inside of the glove is lined with fur; he tucks it back into his pocket and picks up his snifter. His fingers curve like they were designed specifically to cradle the belly of a glass—or is it just that his hands can fit themselves to anything?
He inclines his head towards Ed’s glass and smiles again. This Mustang’s always smiling. Maybe he’s already drunk.
“By all means,” Mustang says.
All the means in both universes couldn’t make Ed’s story comprehensible. He chews on his lip and tugs his left glove off slowly. “I have a hell of a lot of thoughts,” he says. “What do you want to know?”
Mustang’s dark eyes track up and down his face; Mustang’s lips curl at the corners; Mustang’s hand lifts to touch a fingertip to Ed’s forehead, and his skin is already warmer than Ed’s.
“I would like to know what is here,” Mustang says, “that makes your eyes so very… what do you say?”
Ed’s heard strange. He’s heard weird. He’s heard freaky. And, from the Czech version of Riza Hawkeye, he heard old.
Windows to the soul indeed.
“Magnifique,” Mustang says. “Merveilleux. I think you say—wonderful?”
It’s official: Ed hates every incarnation of Roy Mustang that ever was or will be.
“You guys have a word for ‘batshit’?” he asks.
Mustang laughs, brightly, richly, and the echoes wrap themselves around Ed’s ribs.
So Ed tells him about work. It is what he thinks about, most of the time—it’s all he can stand to think about most of the time. He knows he’s lucky that his brain locks down and fixates the way it does; anything remotely interesting can occupy him wholly, and all he has to do is find enough distractions to fill up the time. That’s how he passes hours, days, weeks. That’s how he intends to pass this lifetime.
Science is stable, he likes to say, which is a good element joke on top of being true. Mathematics and physical laws are the same everywhere—at least up until you draw an array—and Ed has a fake English passport and real German credentials, and his brain is a well-oiled biological machine that crushes challenges. Everybody wants better cars and better refrigeration and better guns, and everybody thinks science will fix up their sad little lives. An unconventional engineer doesn’t have to go hungry very often nowadays.
Ed still works on rockets, mostly. He knows it’s probably all just going to get used to kill people, rather than to break the sound barrier and soar up into space and explore the unimaginable, but if nothing else he gets to name-drop Alfons several times a day.
When he pauses for breath after a rant about the surprising number of people in the field who don’t understand aerodynamics, Mustang smiles some more.
“Extraordinary,” he says.
“I’m not,” Ed says. “Stop staring at me.”
Mustang’s eyes widen, and he flattens a hand on his own chest in overstated mock offense. “Mais non! You mistake—merely I am fascinated. Everything you do and speak, it is with such…” He lifts his hand and waves it. “…passion.” He smiles and touches the rim of Ed’s empty glass. “Another drink. Allow me, je t’en prie.”
That means both I beg you and You’re welcome. Fuck this fucking language; Ed can’t keep up.
“Cant’,” he says. “I gotta go meet my brother.” His conscience—the mental image of which bears a striking resemblance to Al—glares at him from within the confines of his mind. “…thanks, though.”
“Let me walk with you,” Mustang says. “A city is less cold with a companion, no?”
Ed shouldn’t do this to himself. He knows better. Even if—there’s something, what would this world’s Mustang say if he saw the automail? Ed can’t fit in here—can’t ever fit in here. He will never integrate properly, not like Al; he’s literally made of pieces from the other side. Besides—honestly, even if this Mustang was more adventurous than anyone on this planet has a right to be, it wouldn’t be fair to him. Ed’s all lies and jagged edges in this life, and Mustang deserves better than that.
Mustang is laying neatly-folded bills out on the bar. He glances up from counting and smiles, and there’s no smirk in it anywhere.
“Fine,” Ed says, and his voice wavers towards cracking. Surely he can’t be that tipsy after a single drink. “Just… to the university. I don’t want you knowing where I live.”
Mustang shakes his head, smile twisting wryly, as he pulls his gloves back on. “We talk an hour, and still there is no trust?”
“Nope,” Ed says. “C’mon, I don’t want Al waiting in this weather.”
Mustang slides gracefully off of his stool. “And yet you would have waited for him all this time.”
He waited years for me—twice. “Yeah, well,” Ed says. “He’s my little brother.”
Mustang straightens his coat and raises his shoulders in a shrug. “As I say: extraordinary.”
Stupid fucking French fucking Mustang. He’s just as pigheaded as the other one.
It’s colder now than it was an hour ago—the clouds broke, and the air tastes crystalline. Ed finds that it’s bizarrely comforting to be walking through the streets of Paris with French fucking Mustang strolling at his side, taking long strides and puffing soft breaths and humming snatches of Christmas carols as though this is normal. As though either of them have a hope of normalcy.
Did it really take him this long? Fucking Mustang—he batted his eyelashes and played Ed like a fucking harp, as per usual. They talked for an hour, and Ed doesn’t know a damned thing about him.
Better change that. Better even out the field. Better give as good as he’s gotten. Equivalency’s different here, obviously, but it still rules the world.
“So,” he says slowly. “What do you do?”
“What is my occupation, do you mean?” Mustang asks, eyes on the black sky. “I own a newspaper.”
Un quotidien—that’s the French word. A daily, except that to Ed the connotation is everyday—boring. Is this world’s Mustang normal after all? That’d be shit.
“So you see,” Mustang remarks, “there is a reason for everything. I introduced myself for a reason—perhaps you were reading my paper, no? And then I could say, ‘Bonsoir, ce quotidien, c’est bon?’, and you would speak with honesty. It was not my paper, bien sûr, because that was not the true reason for us to meet.”
Ed’s having trouble following this without diving into stupid Mustang’s stupid eyes, which are deep like the river under the stars. “Oh, yeah?”
Mustang nods, and smiles, and the corners of those eyes crinkle, and he—
“It was for the way you speak,” he says. “And for the way you think. It was for your passion, yes? For your fire.”
Ed kind of wants to laugh, kind of wants to cry, and kind of wants to hurl them both into the Seine.
“Interesting choice of words,” he says, which makes for a little bit of a compromise.
“That is what I do,” Mustang says, smile flickering open into a grin. “I choose words. You see? Already you have taught me something of myself.”
“Batshit,” Ed manages.
“Absolument fou,” Mustang says, eyes bright.
The white-dappled path to the hall where Al’s friends host their dumb parties slips away under Ed’s feet and dwindles back into the darkness. He stops just before the place where the lights inside the building cast pale yellow across the snow.
He’s surprised—stunned, really—to feel his heart sinking rapidly at the prospect that this could be it. Mustang could tip his hat and turn around and walk off, and Ed might die without ever seeing him again.
He doesn’t want to. He’s lost Roy Mustang too many times.
French fuckin’ Mustang is studying Ed’s face in that quick-flit way he has. Mustang raises his right hand and removes the glove again, the better to delve bare fingers under his coat and into a pocket beneath, from which he retrieves a small white card.
“You will call me,” Mustang says, extending it, “yes?”
Ed swallows hard, lifts his hand halfway, and hesitates. He doesn’t—he can’t—
The only thing worse than letting Mustang vanish off into the chaos of this world would be opening up to him and not being enough.
Mustang leans in, eyes gleaming; he draws Ed’s lapel aside and tucks the card into the breast pocket of Ed’s shirt; his fingertips are already cold, and hopefully that explains away the shiver that surges down Ed’s spine.
“You will call me,” Mustang whispers. “S’il te plaît.”
Ed feels his heart pounding against the cardstock and fights his throat for two syllables: “Merci.”
Mustang smiles, and the cold fingertips just barely brush his cheek, and then a pair of footsteps saunters onward through the snow. Ed watches the familiar silhouette fade into the darkness.
“Extraordinary my ass,” he mutters at the unresponsive sky.
But as the stars wink and the clouds curl, he can’t help smiling.