Roy is comparing the sugar content of the store brand knockoff of the no-marshmallows-but-enough-colors-to-still-be-fun cereal with the certified version, which costs almost twenty percent more. The nutritional damage is about the same, so he leans down to show Elysia the store brand box, hoping against hope that she hasn’t yet been so inundated by advertising as to make the distinction.
“Is this okay?” he asks.
She gazes at the box and nods sincerely, which is a greater relief than she will ever know. Then she looks at him, equally sincerely, and says, “Can I go get the apple juice, Uncle Roy?”
“Do you know where it is?” he asks.
She nods again, with the sort of staunch resolution that comes naturally to a six-year-old. Roy has always wished that that kind of laser-focused, unwavering resolve persisted longer in people than it does. The world grinds it out of you as the years get whittled away.
“Okay,” he says. “Go ahead. I’ll wait right here.”
“Okay!” she says, and then she turns on her tiny, glittery-booted heel and strides off down the aisle.
Roy vacillates as he watches her turn the corner. Should he follow? It’s just the next aisle down; they buy the same container every time. Would it make her feel safer for him to sneak after her and keep an eye on her just in case? Or is it better to give her the freedom to take little chances whenever she feels up to them, and uphold his promise to the fullest instead? He’ll be able to hear from here if something goes wrong. But what if—
He’s always sort of half-intended to take her—or perhaps just himself—to a child psychologist and ply a professional with all of the questions that flutter around inside his head like so many disoriented bats. He’s just never had the time.
No, that’s too charitable: he’s never made the time. Largely that’s because it feels like it would mean admitting failure—like confessing that his instincts are insufficient, and he doesn’t believe himself capable of nurturing a child without doing some kind of irrevocable emotional damage to her in the process. Surely he doesn’t need an intervention from someone with a diploma framed up on the wall to reassure him that he’s doing all right, or at least the very damn best that he can, and—
“Where’s your mommy, sweetheart?” a woman’s voice asks, muffled by the wall of well-marketed food stacked between them.
“I don’t have one,” Elysia says, so matter-of-factly that Roy almost smiles but also wants to wince. “I have Uncle Roy. And Ed. He’s at school right now. But he’s coming back soon for Christmas.”
There’s a pause.
“Oh,” the woman says. “That’s—very nice. Do you need some help carrying that?”
“I can do it,” Elysia says brightly. “Thank you very much for asking.”
Maes would cry. Roy might, too, but he’ll save it for a private moment later after she’s gone to bed. Maes would be bawling right here in the supermarket, collapsing dramatically on top of the cereal boxes, and there would be wet, disintegrating cardboard all over the linoleum in a matter of minutes.
Before Roy can revel in that poignant mental image too much more, Elysia comes shuffling back around the end of the aisle, attempting to cradle a rather slippery bottle of apple juice in both arms.
“You got it, Princess?” Roy asks, straightening from where he’d been leaning on the cart handle—bad for his back, and he knows it; alas for a youth when he never had to worry about such things—just in case the bottle gets the better of her.
She puffs her cheeks out and shakes her head as she continues her dogged tromp up the aisle towards him. Only when she’s close does he crouch down—not to take it, but to lift her high enough for her to set it down in the cart.
He probably will cry the first time she’s too big to pick up. There’s something about it—something about the trust in it; something about the way she shifts her weight to help him but never squirms—that always makes him feel like he’s on the right track here, despite the wingbeats of the flocking doubts.
“Thanks, Uncle Roy,” she says.
She blinks up at him. He always wonders, too, whether a psychologist would be worried about her—about how serious she is, even compared to other children, despite the pertinent exception of the frequency with which she squeals for Star Wars. About how much more adult her concerns are. About how deep and how potent and how gutting the loss is, even if she doesn’t have the vocabulary yet to put it into words. Should he push her towards other children more often, even if she sometimes struggles to relate to their happy little nuclear families and their simple little lives? Should he try to pare down their desperate codependence even though he suspects it’s the only thing that’s gotten both of them this far? Would it be healthier for her in the long run if he tried to coax her towards someone else’s definition of ‘normalcy’?
“What else is on the list?” she asks.
“Let’s see,” he says, crouching down to show it to her. He’s been working on his handwriting, which he’s been told, at least twice, is a definitive sign that he had been a lawyer or a doctor in a previous life.
She puts a tiny fingertip on the page, scrunches up her face as she concentrates, and leans in to squint at the awful overlapping loops.
“M…” The frown deepens. She presses her lips together. She looks like her mother. “Is that a K, Uncle Roy?”
“Yes,” he says. “Sorry.”
“Milk,” she reads. “We need milk.”
“That’s right,” Roy says.
She beams at him for a second. She’s a dead ringer for Maes when her smile lights up her whole face—and the whole building—like that. Then she pauses. “But Ed hates milk.”
“Do you?” Roy asks.
She mulls it over for a few long seconds. “No,” she says. “But chocolate milk is better.”
“Fair enough,” he says. He stands again and offers her a hand. “Maybe we’ll get some chocolate milk as a treat for Christmas.”
Her eyes widen as she reaches up to latch onto his fingers. “You mean from Santa?”
“I don’t know if it would stay cold coming all the way from the North Pole,” he says. “We should probably ask Santa for something different, and get the chocolate milk ourselves.”
“I asked Santa for a sweater for Jack,” Elysia says as they start towards the refrigerators, and Roy almost trips. “Even though he has a lot of fur, I think he gets cold sometimes. And he sure likes my sweaters, so I thought maybe he wants one.”
She would, wouldn’t she? The only child of the late Maes and Gracia Hughes would spend her one guaranteed Christmas wish on a generous intention for the cat.
Roy knows at least one little girl who has been very good this year, and who is going to receive significant Christmas-related karmic returns.
“That was very thoughtful of you,” he says. “You didn’t ask Santa for anything for yourself?”
She shakes her head, pigtails whipping, and then pauses.
“Well,” she says. “I asked him if he could just make sure that Ed visits. ’Cause I know Ed said he was gonna be here, but I wanted to be sure.”
“Don’t worry,” Roy says. “Al and I are going to help Santa with that one.”
Elysia squeezes his hand, grinning again. “Okay,” she says. “Good. I wanna see Al, too. And I know he wants to see Jack.”
Somewhere down the line, Roy must have done something very, very right.
“I like this one,” Elysia says, staring up. She reaches out to pat a bough that looks, to Roy’s apparently untrained eye, exactly like all the others. “Do you like this one, Uncle Roy?”
Standing here with the rusty borrowed saw slung over one shoulder, wearing a tragic flannel shirt dug up from the depths of his closet, sizing up an innocent Douglas fir to make sure it will fit in their living room, he probably looks like a weary, somewhat pathetic excuse for a lumberjack. Or perhaps like a very lost stunt double from Supernatural.
“Looks great to me, Princess,” he says.
It’s a bit redundant of him to wish that Ed was here, since a part of him misses Ed’s physical presence every instant that the beautiful little shit isn’t within arm’s reach.
But today Roy misses him a little extra, and for a slightly different reason: namely, that he would not begrudge some assistance sawing down this stupid freaking monster of a borrowed pagan symbol and dragging it uphill back to the car. He misses Alphonse, too, today. And Riza. And just about everyone he knows that he should have conscripted into helping him with this absurd physical labor nonsense.
One of the attendants taking payment—which is exorbitant, but he manages to keep Elysia from overhearing just how much; princesses deserve to revel in classic Christmas traditions no matter how much they cost—also takes pity, and helps him strap the thing to the top of the sedan in a way that only looks a little bit ridiculous.
Elysia, of course, is wearing an expression like Christmas just came on December tenth, and the Grinchiness leaches out of Roy’s tarnished soul almost instantly.
Heart grown several sizes or not, though, his shoulders hurt like a bitch that night. Which is another reason he would love to have Ed around; a massage might be on the menu, and cuddling with a hot water bottle is not nearly the same as a warm human body, no matter how wriggly the body in question might be.
After Elysia goes to bed, presumably to enjoy some sugarplum waltzes in her unconscious, Roy texts Ed to tell him as much. Judiciously, he leaves out the part about the wriggling.
you should have known better than to go cut a tree down, Ed sends back. you already have enough sap.
Roy writes back nothing more or less than: Rude.
shut up, Ed sends. you know I’m kidding. i can’t friggin wait to get there. on a scale of 1 to ecstatic how much fun did Elysia have??
Roy is lying on his side in the bed, which had seemed too large most nights even before the first time Ed joined him in it and stole all of the covers in the middle of the night. A 17 at least. I proposed to her that we don’t decorate until you and Al get here, though, and she was very much in favor. It also minimizes the amount of time Jack gets to destroy the tree, ornaments, world, etc.
you have made, Ed writes back, a terrible mistake. Al spends like six hours on the decorations because he’s a freak for aesthetics and i break everything i touch. please tell me all your ornaments are plastic. you have a kid and a cat, i sure fucking hope you don’t have any glass. you don’t do you??? you can just lock me in the bathroom until everything’s done, i don’t mind. that’s what Winry does.
My dear, Roy writes, if I shove you into a bathroom and lock the door, I will most assuredly be in there with you, and it will not be to keep you away from the Christmas tree. I am positive you are not as dangerous as you say, but in any case, no, none of the fragile pieces come in close proximity to either the cat or the first-grader. You can touch me instead! I’m very durable.
Ed texts back, YOU’RE A FUCKING TEASE IS WHAT YOU ARE, which Roy is fairly certain counts as a win.
Gloriously, Berkeley’s finals week coincides with the one at the community college that was desperate enough to employ Roy Mustang several years ago. Even more gloriously, Ed has managed to land himself with the last final exam in the entire cycle, while most of Roy’s wound up at the beginning of the week, which means that he’s nearly finished with his grading by the time a rather battered old Accord pulls up into the driveway on the second to last Friday night before Christmas.
Elysia has been in bed for a while, so Roy shuffles all of the remaining booklets aside, pushes his chair back, stands, and crosses the entryway to open the front door as quietly as he can manage. It’s a good thing he didn’t give in to the temptation to grade on the couch after all; he probably would have fallen asleep by now.
Al is helping Ed haul a duffel bag nearly his own size out of the trunk of the car. They both turn at the motion as Roy moves out onto the front step, and in perfect unison they grin broadly and wave.
Ed’s hand and face fall in an instant, and he drops his hard-won duffel bag onto the driveway and points at…
He gestures, indistinctly, and then holds both hands up in a much more recognizable What gives?
Roy does not have the faintest idea what that’s supposed to mean. Despite the drowsy haze hanging over his brain like so much scribbled-essay-induced mist, he does have a faint idea that he’s letting cold air into the house, so he pulls the door gently shut before heading down to join them, whether or not they will deign to let him help with the bags.
“What?” he prompts in a low voice when he arrives.
“‘What’ yourself,” Ed says, pointing, more directly, at Roy’s… nose? “What’s that thing on your face?”
Al sighs, loudly. “Be nice, Brother. It’s Christmas.”
“It’s December sixteenth,” Ed says. “You’re wearing glasses.”
“Oh,” Roy says. He had somehow forgotten, which he supposes stands to the credit of the manufacturer. “Yes. Sorry, I forgot to mention—” He didn’t forget. He doesn’t like to complain. Ed’s time is limited and valuable, and he tries not to waste it with whining. “I was having a lot of headaches, and… I suppose it was probably inevitable from all of the reading.” He pauses to pose, lifting one hand to lay a fingertip against the frames and gaze into the middle distance. “Do they suit me?”
“Everything fucking suits you,” Ed says, and Roy’s feeble heart swells, and Ed will spoil him like this; Ed has the power to lure him into a false sense of significance. “And you know it. It’s just—different. Is all.”
“I don’t need them most of the time,” Roy says. He wants to take them off and tuck them into a pocket to prove it, but— “It is very nice to be able to see you extra-clearly up close.”
Ed wrinkles his nose, which is somehow even more adorable when it’s crisp like this. If Roy is not mistaken—sunlight tomorrow will help him determine that—there is a dusting of freckles over the bridge of Ed’s nose. He could weep for the sheer cuteness. Ed would kill him in cold blood, of course, but what a way to go.
“You sure about that?” Ed asks. “Way I see it—which is better’n you, apparently—you’re more likely to wanna bail when you can actually make out all the flaws and shi—”
“That is not the kind of making out I’m interested in,” Roy says.
“Oh, gross,” Al says. “I mean—good save, Roy, but—gross. Grab your stuff, Brother; I’m out of here before this gets any worse. Tell Elysia and Jack I’ll be by tomorrow with croissants from the little French bakery downtown. Is she allergic to almonds?”
“So far we’re in the clear,” Roy says. “That’s very kind; you don’t have to.”
“I guess not,” Al says, cheerfully, “but you can’t stop me.”
Evidently, they also can’t stop him from snatching the keys out of Ed’s hand, hauling Ed into a brief but breath-stopping hug, chirping, “See you tomorrow!”, and making the transition between dropping into the driver’s seat and disappearing down the street so improbably brief that one has to wonder whether he’s traveled through time before.
Ed blinks at the place where the trail of fire should be. “Uh… so.”
Somewhat reluctantly, although the airbrush-like softening of Ed’s features is rather delightful in its own right, Roy pushes the glasses up on top of his head and grazes his fingertips along Ed’s jaw. “So.”
The light on the porch casts just far enough for him to see Ed’s pupils dilate, which is followed by a shiver, which is followed by a grin.
“Miss me?” Ed asks.
“More than I dared to think possible,” Roy says. While Ed’s distracted attempting to suppress an extremely impressive blush, Roy darts forward and shoulders the enormous duffel bag. “Shall we?” he asks, gesturing towards the door.
“Y’know,” Ed says, glaring at the duffel and then adjusting his backpack before he starts for the door, “sometimes I think you were born in the wrong era.”
He’s too quick—and the duffel bag is too damn heavy—for Roy to beat him to the door and hold it open and usher him through.
And something about that offhanded comment lodges in the meat of Roy’s brain, in a way that’s strange, and sticky, and tastes just a bit like… ash.
“Oh?” he says, pushing through it.
“Yeah,” Ed says, dropping his voice almost to a whisper as they step inside. “You should’ve been… Victorian or something.”
“There’s still time,” Roy says. Ed hesitates in the foyer for a short but significant second, then leans down to unlace his boots, and it is an unspeakable crime that the backpack is blocking Roy’s view of his ass. “I believe the Dickens fair is on for another week. I could buy a top hat.”
“Oh, God,” Ed says, standing upright and wobbling as the weight on his back shifts his balance. Instinctively Roy extends a hand. “You’d make it work. By force of will, if necessary.” He notices Roy’s hand hovering halfway to him, grins, reaches out, and latches on, and Roy’s heart just—
Melts. No need for snow at all, which is good, because they won’t be getting any in this climate.
“I’d be stunning in a tailcoat,” Roy says. He tugs, and then he starts towing, and drawing Edward Elric towards his bedroom will never, ever lose its luster. “And a cravat.”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “You fucking would.” He shakes his head; they cross the threshold; Roy eases the duffel bag of doom to the carpet and then wraps both arms around Ed’s waist, which requires threading his hands between the backpack and Ed’s sweatshirt, and pulls him in close. “Which is ridiculous,” Ed says, and his breath catches just a little, and his eyes light, “because you also look great in the shit you wear these days.”
“Mm,” Roy says, turning the smolder up to eleven and reaping a subtle little ripple of an approbatory shudder down Ed’s spine. “I think that’s a bit unjust coming from someone who manages to make a collegiate hoodie into the sexiest thing I can think of.”
“Shut it,” Ed says, grinning. “You’re ruining the progression of my come-on. I was about to say you’d look even better in nothing at all.”
Roy meets the devastating grin with a highly-practiced smirk. “I was about to say your hoodie would look even better on my floor.”
Ed makes a face like he just gulped down some unsweetened lemonade. “Really?”
“Forgive me,” Roy says, leaning in to breathe against the side of Ed’s neck, which will guarantee that Ed obliges. “It’s late, and you obliterate my brain.”
“Shame,” Ed manages, just a touch hoarsely, as Roy drags his mouth up. “S’a—s’a pretty good brain. Lots of—good ideas. In it. Y’know.”
Coming from Ed, that is a higher compliment than he probably understands.
“Thank you,” Roy purrs anyway, just as his progress upward reaches Ed’s ear. He kisses it, and then he draws back. “I think most of them should wait at least until tomorrow morning, however, because it’s really rather late.”
“Again with the fuckin’ tease thing,” Ed says, but his attempts at a scowl are being subverted by another smile. “You practice that, or does it come natural?”
Roy brushes Ed’s bangs back from his face, tucking a section behind his ear and then dragging the fingertip around the curve and along his neck to trace it slowly down his throat.
And then to grab the strings of his hoodie and tug gently.
“Maybe you should stick around and find out,” Roy says.
Ed rolls his eyes.
But he doesn’t exactly argue.
“Christ,” Ed says when they’re all cleaned up and decked out in dorky pajamas and meandering towards the bed.
“I believe that’s the concept,” Roy says, grazing a hand across the small of Ed’s back before circling around to his side of the glorious, soon-to-be-warm-and-well-occupied mattress. “Although the pagan solstice—”
“Shut up,” Ed says, but Roy can just see the way the corners of his eyes are crinkling around the fall of his hair. “I was gonna say I’m exhausted.”
Roy climbs in and flips the covers back on Ed’s side in a way that he hopes is inviting. “So get in the damn bed with your dashing, anachronistic boyfriend.”
Ed makes a face at him.
And then Ed hesitates, and then he sits on the edge of the bed, and then he draws a deep breath before he starts rolling up the left leg of his adorable red-and-green-plaid pajama pants.
Roy wishes he wouldn’t—hesitate, that is; dwell on it; agonize; fear. But Roy senses that saying so would only make the self-conscious leap of faith rankle all the more acutely, and it’s better to lie very still and say nothing until Ed feels comfortable jumping from the ledge in front of him.
The first time was, he will admit, a surprise.
Ed had been far too quiet all night, though he’d plastered on convincing copies of the usual smiles for Elysia through dinner and dessert and a Disney movie and putting her to bed. Roy had tried with all his might not to let the singing of his heartbeat through his ears sound like an alarm; had tried to believe that maybe it was something unrelated on Ed’s mind; had tried to coax himself away from panic, because there was every likelihood that it was school stress or the start of a cold or half a dozen other things; had tried to pretend that it was anything other than Ed working himself up to say I’m sorry, Elysia’s really great, and I like you guys a lot, but I just can’t do this… thing… with you anymore.
And when they’d closed her bedroom door, and Ed had reached towards him and then withdrawn the hand, and then said Can I talk to you for a minute?, he had braced himself with all his might, and he had tried, with everything in him, to believe that maybe it was better for everyone this way. That maybe it would help him to focus on Elysia; that maybe Ed would be freer to follow his bright young heart wherever it led; that maybe the universe would rebalance, and everyone would be all right. He had weathered worse heartbreaks, hadn’t he?
But not quite like this. Not quite like Ed looking so shuttered, so fragile, so scared as he tilted his head towards the bedroom instead of the living room; as he licked his lips and then bit the bottom one hard when Roy sat on the edge of the bed and folded both hands in his lap and shored up all of his defenses—knowing, as he did, that the battlements would not make it to the morning.
Ed wouldn’t meet his eyes. Roy laid his head down on the guillotine and forced himself to smile, and he said What’s on your mind? instead of Please, God, make it quick.
And Ed said Fuck in a little helpless half-gasp of a voice, and Roy hurt for both of them, so fiercely that it terrified him. Waking up tomorrow was going to be a thousand times worse if he had to listen to the echoes of Ed’s pain, too—
Except that Ed was—
Fumbling with his belt.
And before Roy could even grasp the thoughts to turn to words to say something along the lines of What in the hell are you doing; how could any of the beautiful parts of you believe for an instant that I adore you any less because we haven’t yet had sex—
Ed’s jeans were on the floor, and his face was tipped up towards the ceiling so that Roy couldn’t see it anymore.
And his left leg—
From halfway down the thigh—
Was smooth white plastic and gleaming steel.
And Ed’s voice wobbled, but neither of his knees did, and his clenched fists were steady at his sides. I know it—changes shit; of course it does, but—but I was getting so tired of lying to you by not telling you, and—and it’s not fair if you don’t know what you’re gettin’ into, and—
And Roy heard a faint remnant of his voice say You absolute idiot; I thought you were breaking up with me.
Ed stared at him. Roy stared back. Ed stared some more. Roy coughed, cleared his throat, and corrected: I mean—it does… it changes you, obviously; it changes who you are, and how I understand that, but—it doesn’t change anything about how I feel.
Ed eyed him for a long second, and then Ed started peeling off his shirt, and Roy was really too old for this sort of thing; he was going to have a hell of a time explaining this to the emergency room doctors when they carted him in for cardiac arrest.
The shirt crumpled on the carpet, and Ed flexed his fingers once, then twice, like he was resisting the urge to fold his arms protectively across his chest.
The chest in question was bisected by a broad swathe of mottled pink scars.
Ed was looking at the ceiling again, curling and uncurling his fingers—When we were kids, a little while after my mom died, Winry’s grandma was mostly taking care of us, but there was one night she’d had something she had to do, and Al was saying he was hungry, and I said I’d make him something, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to use the stove by myself, but I was ten, and I thought I was unstoppable, and I thought doing things even though you weren’t sure how they worked was the same thing as bravery, and I wanted to be brave for Al, but I didn’t know anything, and when the dishtowel caught I didn’t know what to do—
And Roy was off the bed, up and crossing the too-wide space between them, wrapping both arms around Ed and holding on as tight as he dared before either of them had had a chance to breathe.
Ed is warming to the concept that he’s safe here, but settling takes time.
Roy’s more than ready to give it to him. Roy’s more than ready to give him anything.
Ed removes the leg—the action has become more ordinary, but the words to describe it somehow have not—and leans it carefully against the nightstand before he scoots in and lies down. Before Roy can start cooing, he sighs, sits up again, reaches over to turn off the light, and then—at long last—snuggles into Roy’s open arms.
“Y’know,” he says, “I’ve been thinking.”
“I thought you were exhausted,” Roy says.
“It’s called multitasking,” Ed says. “Try it sometime.”
Roy kisses at the nape of his neck until Ed squirms, squeaks, and makes a halfhearted effort to escape.
“I was thinking,” Ed says, “about Elysia.”
Roy has to put a hold on tormenting Ed at least long enough to get to the bottom of this one; the tiny, pigtailed center of his universe tends to have that effect. “Ah.”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “I was thinking… you’re really going to have to tell her someday. You can’t just keep hiding it from her forever. And if you don’t tell her soon, somebody else will, and they won’t be as gentle about it.”
Roy nestles his face into Ed’s hair a little bit, which he supposes proves the point. But where in the hell is he supposed to begin? Princess, I think it’s important for you to know something, okay? Statistically speaking, most men are attracted to women, and most women are attracted to men. That’s why it’s always a girl and a boy who get together in the end in a distressingly overwhelming percentage of the movies that we watch. But some people are different! You know your friend Victoria from school, who has two mommies? Her mommies are attracted to other women, and that’s okay.
And I’m a little different, too: I’m attracted to just about anything humanoid that moves. We can get into the gender binary being a lie later; the point is that that’s part of why Ed’s here so often. Based on the rather pointed fake-casual comment about how he’s not a virgin, by the way, because he was in a polyamorous relationship with two guys who really seemed much more interested in each other than anything else, and he’s sure poly works for other people, but he’s not sure it works for him, and do I maybe think it’d be okay to be exclusive, since apparently it’s not obvious to him that I am infatuated with him and worship the ground beneath his feet—I assume that Ed is only attracted to other men, although I don’t know that for sure. And Al isn’t attracted to anyone, which is also perfectly okay! He has lots of friends, and you know how much he loves cats, and his life is very full and very meaningful just the way it is.
Anyway, people have a way of finding things out, and I imagine they might say some very nasty things about me, partly because we’re both men, and partly because Ed is so much younger than I am—but I want you to remember that what matters is that we’re happy, and that we take care of each other. I know he thinks the world of you, and that’s what makes it safe for me to think the world of him; and most days I can’t believe I have the privilege of knowing him, let alone of getting to share parts of my life with him. Even though the medium-distance aspect makes it difficult sometimes, no matter what anyone says, I honestly think he is the best thing that has ever happened to me except for you.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop it,” Ed says. “Someday she’s going to find out that ‘Force Awakens’ isn’t the first Star Wars movie they made since the originals.”
“I suppose I could make that a project for this break,” Roy says. “Trying to ease her into the disappointment.”
“I’ll help,” Ed says. “Winry’s got some of the comics stashed at her place, and they fill in a couple of the gaps. I mean, at least we can prepare her in advance, and she won’t have to go into the theater and find out the hard way. That’s something.”
“You’re something,” Roy says, nuzzling at his ear. “My favorite something, in fact.”
“Oh, God,” Ed says. “I can’t believe I didn’t fucking realize Christmas was going to make you even worse.”
“What a terrible fate,” Roy says, curling in closer. “My sympathy knows no bounds, etcetera, etcetera.”
“You’re a disaster,” Ed says, but he isn’t making an especially strong effort to get away.
“Baby,” Roy says, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
“Eugh,” Ed says—belied more than a little by the way he rolls over and buries his face in Roy’s shirt.
Elysia sits very, very still with a half-empty box of ornaments in her lap, staring up at the tree. Faintly, the strains of some Christmassy Pandora station float over from Ed’s laptop where it’s stationed on the kitchen table. Elysia purses her lips, nods slowly, and then fishes a blue spiral ornament out of the box. She holds it up to Al.
“Right there,” she says, and points towards the middle of an open space of greenery the moment that he takes it.
“Here?” Al asks, holding it up against the tree.
Elysia tilts her head, then motions a little to the left. Al moves it. She considers. Then she nods again. “Yeah.”
“Perfect,” Al says, hanging it carefully on the approved branch.
Ed, bundled into a sweater and curled up on the couch, with Jack draped over his lap and a mug of coffee cradled in both hands, pauses in grinning broadly for long enough to wink at Roy. “This is better than TV.”
It is. It is also taking significantly longer than last year, when Roy and Elysia flung the ornaments more or less wholesale at the tree and left the ones that stuck.
It’s better. Everything is better; everything is easier, but Roy can still feel the shadow of a different kind of cold creeping up behind him, and he knows he can’t run far.
Procrastination is a time-honored tradition, however, so for the moment, he settles down next to Ed with his own mug of much more dairy-mediated coffee and tries to enjoy the show. “I suppose I shouldn’t start breakfast until we’re about to put the angel on.”
“Yeah,” Ed says, utterly contentedly. He’s wearing red socks. “This’ll take a while.”
“Uncle Roy!” Elysia says, jumping up and scrambling over with a pearly globe in her cupped hands. “What’s this one?”
He knows before he sees the curves of the calligraphy. He doesn’t need the glasses to know what date’s displayed.
“This is one that belonged to your parents,” he says, setting his coffee on the table and taking it from her very gently to lift it by the string. There’s gold glitter all over it, because of course there is. Maes probably made it himself. “This is their wedding date that’s written on it.”
Elysia climbs up onto the couch to grasp his arm for leverage and a better look. “Were you there?”
“At the wedding?” Roy asks. The tiny globe turns halfway; the string twists up until it stills the progress; and then the ball turns back. “Of course.” He passed his jacket around to almost every one of the bridesmaids, who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that even in California, a wedding on the solstice was bound to be a little bit cold. “It was wonderful. Everyone loved your parents very much.”
Elysia watches the progress of the ornament. Ed and Al are watching her—so intently that Roy isn’t sure what he, or anyone, could ever hope to say to this.
“Do you have pictures?” Elysia asks.
“Yes,” he says. “I have a lot of them.” Maes, of course, had literally hundreds of them printed—a stack of albums with everything meticulously labeled, and every distant relative marked down with a name. There was an entire book of pictures of Gracia alone. Roy remembers spending half the night wondering why they’d hired a photographer at all.
“Can I see them?” Elysia asks. “Maybe—later. Al’n I still gotta finish the tree.”
“Of course, Princess,” Roy says. He’d gut himself for her more literally than this. He offers her the ornament back. “Do you want to put this on it? Maybe somewhere low, so that even if Jack knocks it down, it won’t break.”
She nods, accepting it from him oh-so cautiously, and eases herself down from the couch to trot back over to Al.
Ed seizes Roy’s hand before Roy can reach for his coffee again—almost too tight.
“I’m sorry,” he says, too softly for Elysia to hear over Al’s commentary about which ornaments he would target if he was a cat. “I know that—doesn’t fix anything. I really know. But—for what it’s worth, y’know.”
Roy squeezes Ed’s hand and leans in to kiss his cheek, which is—in addition to its obvious benefits—a prime position for drawing back and looking him in the eyes.
“It’s worth a great deal,” he says. “Thank you.”
Ed half-smiles. “I’m startin’ to think you spend so much time worrying about her that you completely forget to take care of you,” he says. He doesn’t give Roy time to startle. “But tough cookies, ’cause I’m going to do it for you.”
Roy’s not sure he has ever heard a more appealing threat.
Al’s head pops up from the most recent ornament excavation.
“Cookies?” he says. “Where?”
Gravely, Elysia shakes her head. “We have to have breakfast first. Breakfast is Real Food. Cookies are a snack.”
Al gives Roy a doubtful look. “Even during Christmas?”
Ed makes a face. “It’s December seventeenth.”
“No one has answered the original question,” Al said. “Are there or aren’t there cookies?”
Roy draws a deep breath, lets it go, and straightens his shoulders.
“Why don’t we go to the store after breakfast,” he says, “and we can make some?”
It would perhaps be more impressive to say that Al’s and Elysia’s faces both light up faster than the tree if the tree wasn’t taking a considerable portion of an eon to acquire lights.
It’s lovely all the same.
Elysia is gazing raptly upward and around herself, and Roy can’t blame her—the Christmas display here is significantly bigger than he remembers from the last time he brought a fling through the park as a prelude to mulled wine and some time spent on the floor in front of the fireplace.
Then again, that was years ago.
He doesn’t miss it. He misses the easiness—misses waking up every morning and not giving a single fuck, flying or swimming or perambulating, what was going to happen over the course of the day. He misses the security. He misses not spending every second mired in a background white-noise thrum of terror at what the world is capable of doing to the child with her hand wrapped tightly around two of his fingers.
It is a little easier now. It’s a little easier every time Ed makes a claim—a shy, loose tangle of their fingers at this point, but unmistakable nonetheless—to his other hand.
“Can you see okay, Princess?” Roy asks. “Do you want me to pick you up?”
A child psychologist would probably tell him to stop doing that, too.
Elysia manages to tear her eyes away from the overstated seasonal pageantry long enough to look up at him. Her face contorts a little, and her bottom lip sticks out. Uh oh.
He ushers all three of them off to the side of the walkway and then crouches down so that they can speak face to face.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. She hasn’t let go of his hand. “Is it a little too loud?”
She shakes her head, vigorously enough that the pigtails whip with the force of it.
“Okay,” he says. “Can you tell me?”
She looks at him for a second, and then she looks at Ed, who dropped down onto his more maneuverable knee next to Roy.
“Can Ed carry me?” she asks, gripping his hand a little tighter. “So I c’n—it is kinda loud, and—”
“You bet,” Ed says, giving her a thousand-watt smile. “And then you can see better, and you can still make sure Uncle Roy doesn’t get lost, huh?”
She looks delighted—and freshly resolved to see this holiday business through. She nods, and Ed holds both arms out, and she dives for him, and he swings her up onto his shoulders and starts to stand—
And his left leg shifts at a strange angle, and his weight wobbles, and Roy grabs his elbow to steady him—too tight, probably; maybe tight enough to hurt, but—
Ed’s smile twists with something like relief and something like regret.
“Thanks,” he says. “My balance was a little weird for a second there.”
The pang that goes through Roy’s whole body at once rocks him a great deal more than any of the musical urgings to do so around the Christmas tree. Was that wrong? He saw Ed wavering, and in that instant of abject panic, he couldn’t envision anything except Ed and Elysia both hitting the pavement from a height, and he reacted; he didn’t think—
Ed has been so seamlessly self-sufficient for the whole of their acquaintance that Roy didn’t even notice a disability until Ed deliberately put it on display. Was it insulting to offer help before it was asked for? It wasn’t because of the prosthetic—was it? If it had been anyone else stumbling while they adjusted to Elysia’s weight, he would have reached out on impulse; he lives in a perpetual state of hovering fear at the prospect of something happening to her.
Or was it because—
“Jeez,” Ed breathes.
The feeling must have hijacked Roy’s face. He used to be so good at this, but then he got into the habit of projecting emotions on purpose to make sure Elysia was never scared that he was lying, and never misunderstood his intentions and thought he was angry with her.
“Hey,” Ed says, at an ordinary volume this time, and then he hooks his arm through Roy’s, and that—
Well. Roy’s out of practice, evidently, so he isn’t sure exactly how every syllable translates, but it says a great deal, and most of what he needed to hear is included.
“Relax,” Ed says. “It’s flippin’ Christmas.”
“It’s not Christmas,” Elysia says. Ed tries to look up at her, and she starts stroking his hair with an absent affection identical to the one she shows Jack while she pets him in front of Star Wars. “Is it?”
“Not yet, sweetheart,” Roy says. “It’s December eighteenth.”
“I can’t believe this,” Ed says. “I started a household meme.”
Elysia pats the top of his head with both hands, apparently more as part of the grooming than for emphasis. “What’s a meme?”
“Oh, God,” Ed says. “I deserve this.”
Their elbows are linked, and the extremely fuzzy red scarf Ed is wearing with his trademark black hoodie makes his eyes so vibrant it’s hard to stop looking at him, and they’re surrounded by an overpowering profusion of Christmas cheer.
“We can explain it later, Princess,” Roy says. “Do you want to see Santa?”
“No,” she says. “He already knows what I want. And there’s prob’ly kids who still haven’t told him yet. They should get a turn.”
Ed, eyebrows high, turns to Roy and mouths what looks very much like an admiring intonation of the word Damn!
Roy gives him a very subtle half-shrug in return. It’s her parents’ blood in her; he’s just done his best to let it thrive.
“That’s a very nice way of looking at it,” he says to Elysia. “There are plenty of other things we can do. What do you—”
Her hyper-dramatic gasp when the carousel comes into sight answers that question rather succinctly.
It’s the carnival-ride kind that has to stay up only for the duration of December, and it’s less than a third the size of the one Ed tended last summer, with none of the historical significance or antique gravitas—but it has horses, and it’s spinning, and Elysia now has a death grip on Ed’s hair.
“Can I ride the carousel, Uncle Roy?” she asks with the paltry remnants of her voice. “Can I please?”
“Of course you can, Princess,” Roy says. “Be gentle with Ed.”
“Eh,” Ed says, although he appears to be suppressing a considerable wince, “my scalp’s had worse. Which horse you gonna go for, kiddo?”
“I dunno,” she says, hushed with awe. As they approach the attendant, Roy reaches for his wallet; she spots the sign with the prices marked, and her whole face changes. “How much does it cost?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Roy says, despite the sheer absurdity of the capitalist machine which is charging him three times the cost of the better carousel fifteen miles from where they stand, “because it’s Christmas, and you’ve been very good, and you deserve to ride the carousel if you want to.”
The smile she offers him is fragile, but there is a ray of hope in it like sunshine through the clouds, and Roy will be damned before he lets this greedy, grasping, nasty world pry that away.
“How about me?” Ed asks, and the tone of it is cheerful, but the slow, sly wink is not nearly so pure. “Have I been good this year?”
“Hard to tell,” Roy says, swallowing down both the impulse to drool and the way his heart to leaps into his throat. “Why don’t you go with her for now on good faith, and I’ll ask you some pointed questions later on Santa’s behalf?”
It is an indescribable shame that there are billions of potential Christmas-related innuendoes, and he can’t employ a single one of them in front of Elysia if he wants to continue to live with himself. He supposes he can always save a few ideas for later.
Even if Elysia someday—most likely someday soon—grows out of the desire to wave furiously at him every time the carousel comes around, he is not, and will never be, the type of parent who turns to their phone the instant their child is accounted for elsewhere. The only downside of that is that he can’t actually jot any raunchy puns down in the notes app or an email to himself: he’s just going to have to commit them to memory.
Ed and Elysia both wave at him as the silly little carousel starts to turn. On second thought, this is a terrible place to be thinking about what he’ll be unwrapping, and about how he’s planning to lick a lot more than candy canes, and about alternative uses for tinsel, and what kinds of rides are on offer that have nothing to do with a sleigh—
Well, if nothing else, it’s good to know that a sliver of the incorrigible rogue he used to be has somehow survived the trek through the desert of surrender that brought him here.
Roy raises his hand to wave as Elysia and Ed come back into view, but Ed’s whispering to her, and then they’re both making ridiculous faces at him instead of waving back.
Just for that, Roy’s going to buy him one of those headbands with reindeer antlers and convince him that Elysia will cry if he takes it off before New Year’s.
Ed insists on sitting in the back with Elysia so that she can rest her head on his shoulder and sleep on the drive home.
Roy loves him. Roy loves him, and it’s too early to say it; it’s too early and too much. Ed won’t even graduate from college until next spring. He has his entire life ahead of him, and it’s a life of mountains and monuments and stars and spectacle, with rules and records both waiting to be broken. He is going to be extraordinary.
But he is already too good—too generous. If Roy tries to tie him down, he’ll stay. The loyalty will pin him here, and the weight of obligation will drag him to the Earth before he ever gets to fly.
Then again—perhaps that’s all the more reason to cherish him now.
“I feel bad for keeping you from your family,” Roy says at the next stoplight. “Really, if you’d rather n—”
“We don’t do much,” Ed says. “I mean, Winry bakes like a demon, but she’s completely self-sustaining with it, so as long as I eat a couple of cookies in the next week, she won’t even threaten to kill me. I do gotta make sure I show up for the annual gingerbread house-building nightmare-party-thing. I’d say Elysia should come, but there’s usually a lot of swearing.”
“Last year we had enough trouble with the cookie cutters,” Roy says. “Santa enjoyed a glass of milk and some snowmen who had spent a bit too much time near Chernobyl.”
The ring of Ed’s laugh makes jingle bells sound impossibly cheap by comparison. “Gotcha. Yeah, Al and I really only have one thing I’d call a tradition, I guess. We sit down and watch ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and spike our hot chocolate like the Hot Topic hipsters that we are. I think that one’d be too scary for Elysia, though.”
Sometimes, Roy can’t help demonstrating just how stodgy and decrepit he is: “But… neither of you is old enough to drink.”
He can hear Ed’s grin. He doesn’t have to check for it with a glance in the rearview, though he does anyway for good measure.
“What’s your point?” Ed asks.
“That I’m an old geezer, apparently,” Roy says.
“Maybe,” Ed says breezily. “But you sure make it look good.”
“Well,” Roy says, “you’re welcome to have your delinquent movie night at my place, as long as it’s after she goes to bed.”
“Yeah?” Ed says. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you liked spending time with me or somethin’.”
“Or something,” Roy says.
“Is underage drinking enough to get me on the naughty list?” Ed asks.
“I’m afraid,” Roy says, “that you’re going to have to do a lot better than that.”
“Damn,” Ed says. “I mean—darn. I mean—c’mon, help me out here.”
“Not a chance,” Roy says. “You have to get on the naughty list all by yourself. I can’t give you any tips.”
“You better give me the tip later,” Ed says.
Roy only narrowly manages not to choke to death on his own spit.
“There you go,” he manages about half a mile on. “Top of the list. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Ed can’t keep the wicked grin out of his voice this time either. “Not as hard as it’s gonna be, if you know what I mean.”
“My dear boy,” Roy says, “Santa isn’t the only one who will be coming on Christmas Eve.”
Ed laughs with such wholehearted, unfettered joy that it wakes Elysia, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
Roy tries to sketch out a schedule that’s more or less educational for Elysia; and one that’s open-ended and free of obligations so that Ed and/or Al can jump in whenever they wish, without ever feeling compelled.
His grades are due perilously soon, so he gets Elysia to agree to coloring books at the coffee table while he occupies the armchair and wades through a few more desperate, half-coherent attempts to analyze and explain the tumultuous river of human politics.
Elysia talks to herself very softly as she makes up stories about all of the characters she’s coloring in. A child psychologist would probably be concerned about that, too—not the impulse for fiction, although presumably that’s a sign that she’s so lonely that she has to make up her own friends; but about the meticulousness with which she keeps the crayon pigment just inside the lines. Roy taught her that, didn’t he, intentionally or not? He taught her that if you play by the rules, everything will be all right.
It’s going to be a betrayal of everything she believes in when she finds out that the world is not that kind.
They go to the children’s science museum the next day, where they learn things Roy didn’t even know about bubbles and earthquakes, and a bit he did know about pulleys, and several other things besides; and where they watch an extremely poorly-acted play about the environment. Elysia does not launch into a critique of either the scripting or the most egregious performances immediately afterward, so evidently Roy has his work cut out for him turning her into a theater snob before she gets to college.
It is a remarkable and slightly frenetic challenge, however, to find enough activities to occupy a six-year-old from dawn until dusk for several days running without just resorting to the TV. They spend a long time collaborating on skyscrapers made from Legos, and then she very, very carefully cuts out some paper dolls from her birthday that she hadn’t opened until now while he blitzes some for-hire editing that made him a payment offer he couldn’t refuse. They wade through half a dozen easy-reader books with her in his lap and the damned glasses waiting atop his head for her to struggle with an unfamiliar word, and all of the stories are so excruciatingly banal that Roy feels the stirrings of artistic inspiration in his soul for the first time in more years than he can count. Just because the words are meant to be simple shouldn’t mean the stories have to suck.
Fancy that; even his interior monologue is starting to sound like Ed.
Perhaps it’s a sign, in general, this his imaginative powers have finally emerged from a lengthy hibernation. He finds himself hosting a hypothetical conversation with Maes that night when he lies down alone and stares up at the ceiling for the better part of an hour, willing the bed to warm up.
She’s turning out perfect, Roy. I mean, obviously that’s more a matter of her phenomenal combination of genetic material than anything you actually had to do—no, I’m kidding. She’s turning out perfect because you have busted your buns and done your homework and tried harder than you have ever tried at anything to do all of it right. You couldn’t give me a better gift than that. Not ever.
Roy can’t give him any gifts, because he is dead. And if he wasn’t, research or no, he would be doing a better job at this than Roy is. He was born for it.
Maybe. I mean, I am—well, was—a pretty epic dad. But that’s the kicker, isn’t it? I went and got myself buried, and you picked up all my torches, and now we can never know what it might’ve been like.
It was Roy’s fault.
You shut your whore mouth, Roy Mustang.
It was. And he isn’t speaking aloud, so he’s not even using his mouth, so—
I said shut it. You know that’s not true. And you know I wouldn’t hold it against you for a damn second even if it was. She’s more important than anything else I ever would’ve done, and you have made sure—you have built, from blood and sweat and tears, a life for her that makes sure—that she’s going to be happy, and healthy, and loved. That’s all that matters to me, Roy. You know that’s all that ever would’ve mattered to me.
But so much fucking more than that mattered to Roy.
I know. God, I know, you dumb, secretly squishy, melodramatic, fake-Casanova, feelings-suppressing little bugger.
Sorry, I… got… carried away. The point is—look at how much you’ve done, Roy. Look at how much you have. All of that is to your credit and yours alone. Yeah, it’s not flashy, or sexy, or super cool, but you have a life here, and it’s nice. Rest on those laurels for a while, would’ya? Just—enjoy it. Just this once. Just for freakin’ Christmas, Roy.
Ed’s going to leave when he graduates. Roy should probably break up with him gently between now and then, so that it’s easier for both of them when the time arrives. Hauling your bedraggled brain and body out of college is bad enough without having to worry about interpersonal entanglements, and Ed is the kind of person who will feel guilty about it forever if he thinks he’s wounded Roy in the process of spreading his wings to their full span. It’ll be better for everyone if he takes it upon himself t—
Roy Mustang, I swear to Christ, if you dump him out of some sort of self-sacrificing bullshit intention to do what’s ‘best’ for him without asking him what he thinks is ‘best’ for himself, I will haunt you for the rest of your stupid life.
Considering how much Roy misses him, that is a rather unintimidating—further, an eminently enticing—excuse for a threat, so—
I will Poltergeist that house so hard you will never see your toothbrush again. You’ll start to doubt that you ever had a toothbrush, and then you’ll ask somebody whether toothbrushes really even exist, and then you’ll be humiliated, and—goddamnit, Roy, can’t you just let yourself have one good thing? It’s enough. All of the miserable miscellaneous penance stuff you’ve put yourself through—it’s enough. Let it be enough. Let yourself have this. Let him have you. Has he ever once looked bored when he’s with you? Has he ever once looked like he wanted to be somewhere else? Being determined to believe that you are a blight on everyone around you doesn’t make you a better person, Roy. It just makes you sad.
Well, maybe he deserves to be s—
You. And your whore mouth. Shut it. Have you even let it cross your mind that maybe you’re good for him, too? That all the smarts you basically worship him for have probably taught him a thing or two about people as well as particle physics? Look at him. Look at this quest for validation that he’s on—just like any of us, really, but his is so intense it’s kinda scary, isn’t it? Don’t you think that maybe—just maybe—getting cooed over and cuddled and generally celebrated by an older, established, extremely attractive guy who makes him laugh all the time does a little something for him in return?
Roy is touched. He never knew Maes thought he was sufficiently good-looking to fulfill the role of an insecure young man’s sugar daddy slash silver fox; all kinds of doors are opening toni—
You know what I mean, you shit. Make that your Christmas gift to me—posthumously. Let go of your single-minded mission to hate yourself for just a couple of days. For just long enough to see things the way they really are, and feel all of the love in them. Because you are, you know. Loved. Not just by me; not just by Elysia—not just the people you think don’t have a choice. That’s all you’re really looking for, isn’t it? Let yourself wonder if maybe that’s all he’s really looking for, too.
Roy would note that he cannot believe that Maes has continued to ruin his life from beyond the grave, but it actually isn’t surprising in the least.
Hush your you-know-what. Go to sleep. Give my baby girl a kiss for me tomorrow morning. Live, Roy. Not for me. For yourself. That’s all I’m asking for.
How does it sound so easy when it’s laid out like that?
Roy rolls over, buries his face in the pillow, and tries to do what he’s told. It’ll set a good example for Elysia, after all.
“Oh, my God,” Ed says. “What the heck is all this?”
Roy glances up from getting his ass whipped at Candyland by none other than Alphonse Elric, who has a remarkable talent for cleaning up at board games based entirely on luck. “You said you wanted hot chocolate.”
“Yeah,” Ed says, rummaging through the bag. “But I figured you knew that meant, like, store-brand powder and some candy-cane-flavored Smirnoff or something.”
“No one drinks mediocre cocoa in my house,” Roy says. He draws a card. This is a disaster. Even his little token looks noticeably more distraught than when they started. “And good cocoa needs Bailey’s. I don’t make the rules.”
Al clears his throat in an extremely meaningful way, raises an even more meaningful eyebrow, and says, “Who does?”
“Santa,” Roy says. “It’s Christmas.”
“It’s December twenty-third,” Al says.
Then he draws the card that lets him skip ahead to the ice queen marker, circumventing almost half the board.
“Oh!” Elysia says. “That’s the best thing in the whole game!”
Roy opens his mouth with I am increasingly confident that this deck is rigged on the very tip of his tongue.
And then he closes it.
Because Elysia will need a snack break soon, and then Roy can pull out Boggle, and then he will wipe the floor with any Elric who dares to test him.
“Are we gonna get any snow here, Uncle Roy?” Elysia asks, gazing at the little card when Al passes it over to her for scrutiny.
“Probably not,” Roy says. “But if you’d like to, some year we can go up to Tahoe for a few days while you’re off school. They get a lot of snow up there.”
Elysia picks a reasonable card and carefully counts out the squares as she moves her piece. “How long of a drive is it?”
“I think it’s about four hours,” Roy says. “We can check later to find out. We don’t have to decide now.”
She nods sagely. Roy pulls yet another truly ridiculous card and manages to creep forward a grand total of three squares. Apparently Ed was right to sit this one out.
“Can Jack come?” Elysia asks.
“I’m not sure,” Roy says. “That might depend on where we were staying. I don’t think he likes being in the car.”
“Okay,” Elysia says. “Can Ed and Al come?”
Roy’s heart stumbles, and then his tongue does. Inconvenient, that.
“Well,” he manages, “I suppose if—if they want to, then—of course they can.”
Al is looking at him like he just passed a pop quiz with flying colors.
Ed is looking at him like he’s a clear sky picked out with unnumbered stars.
“Okay,” Elysia says contentedly. She pats Al’s arm. “It’s your turn.”
“So it is,” Al says. “Thank you.”
Ed doesn’t say anything at all, but he does come and sit down directly next to Roy on the carpet and rest his chin on Roy’s shoulder.
And that’s better, really.
“All right,” Roy says, reemerging into the living room once Elysia, after a few chapters of one of the Christmas-centric Magic Tree House books, has been tucked in and started dozing, “give me the keys.”
Ed and Al, who are sharing cat-petting real estate on the couch, blink at him in perfect unison.
“To the car,” Roy says. “You’re either sleeping here tonight, or you’re letting me drive you home.”
“I’m not planning to get that drunk,” Ed says.
“Yes, you are,” Al says calmly.
“Shut up,” Ed says. “You don’t know me. You don’t know my life.”
Al just looks at him, mercilessly deadpan, until Ed cracks a helpless grin, followed by an even more helpless giggle.
“Anyway,” Al says, “you already bought us all of our illicit cocoa supplies. It would be unfair to impose on your any further.”
“I can’t hear you,” Roy says, “over the sound of that couch having your name on it.” He crosses to them and holds his hand out. “Do we have a deal?”
Al fishes the car keys out of his pocket without ever breaking eye contact with Ed.
“Keep him,” he says.
Ed flushes. Roy flushes. The keys land in his palm.
“Eew,” Al says. “That’s adorable. And disgusting. Quick, somebody get me liquored up; if I’m going to vomit, I want it to be for a good reason.”
“Start the film,” Roy says. “My mother runs a bar. I can handle the drinks.”
“She what?” Ed says, twisting around to look at him over the back of the couch.
“Well,” Roy says. It’s not like this is exactly a cocktail competition; it’s just heating up some liquids and combining them in ideal proportions, and then putting RediWhip on top, but all the same, he’s uniquely qualified. “She used to run a bar. Then she retired. To Vegas. And then un-retired, so that she could run a bar with slot machines.”
“I feel like I should be more surprised than I actually am,” Al says.
“Al,” Ed says. “Have you ever been surprised in your life?”
“I was surprised Roy had a cat,” Al says.
“Were you surprised?” Ed asks. “Or were you, like, vaguely kind of bemused at a slightly unanticipated turn of events?”
There’s a long pause.
“What’s the difference?” Al asks.
“I rest my friggin’ case, Your Honor,” Ed says.
“Gosh,” Al says. “Whatever. Which setting is it for the DVD player?”
“The one that says DVD,” Ed says.
“You’re getting coal for Christmas,” Al says. “And you’re getting it in the face.”
“Whoa,” Roy says, hastening over with the first round of mugs. He inherited some terrible Christmassy ones with cats on them from Maes, who occasionally collected things he had no interest in simply because they were overwhelmingly kitschy. He hopes Al will appreciate them, at least while he can see straight. “Take it easy. It’s hard to get blood out of this couch.”
“Thank you,” Al says, taking the mug. Then he says “Oh, how darling!”; and then he says “Don’t worry, I never leave evidence.”
Ed takes one look at Roy’s face and starts laughing so hard he almost spills his cocoa all over the place.
“That,” Ed says as the credits roll, “is the best movie ever.”
There are an alarming number of empty mugs on the coffee table, some of which have Christmassy cats on them, many of which do not.
There is a less-alarming, though equally unusual, amount of Ed draped over Roy’s lap. Roy strokes his hair back. He’s not too proud to savor it. “It’s a lot of fun, isn’t it?”
Alcohol’s only effect on Al seems to be sharpening the sass to an even deadlier edge, though so far he hasn’t pointed it at either of them too much. “When Brother gets trashed,” he says to Roy, in a confidential tone not accompanied by a confidential volume, “he really likes superlatives.”
“Because they’re the best,” Ed says. “And this is the best cocoa I’ve ever had. And you’re the best brother ever; and you’re the best boyfriend; and this is the best Christmas—”
“Time for bed,” Al says. “Brother, you need to drink some water.”
Ed raises a slightly unsteady index finger. “Only,” he says, imperiously, “the best water.”
As gently as possible, Roy eases himself out from under Ed’s boneless sprawl and stands up from the couch. “Let me go get some bedding for you, Al.”
“The best beddi—”
“Brother, shut up.”
“You shut up.”
“I said shut up!”
“I said it first.”
“But I’m the big brother, and you have to listen to me.”
The peal of laughter that follows is, fortunately, probably not quite loud enough to disturb Elysia’s dreams. It is, unfortunately, the single most sarcastic laugh Roy has ever heard, including several of his own that he thought at the time were masterpieces.
By the time he returns with some spoils from the linen closet, however, the bickering has concluded, Al is gingerly arranging all of the cat mugs in the basin of the sink, and Ed is standing very close to the stereo, holding his phone and the AV cord and muttering intently. In the nick of time, Roy remembers that it would be somewhat uncouth to ask in front of Alphonse whether Ed needs some help getting it in the hole.
At least Al shouldn’t have any trouble sleeping, since it’s remarkably warm in here.
Roy sits down while he attempts to work a very ornery pillow into an equally ornery pillowcase. Evidently the reason that all of these are spares is because they hate him, and they hide on purpose.
“Yes,” Ed says, and then the music starts—not too loud—and by the time Roy recognizes it and looks up, it’s far too late.
He learns three things in immediate succession: firstly, that, at least when drunk on Bailey’s Irish Cream, Ed is an abysmal singer; secondly, that Ed makes up for it by being an incredible dancer; and thirdly, that the dulcet strains of an extremely overplayed Mariah Carey Christmas song can nonetheless prove inspirational in the right conditions.
These conditions are, without a doubt, the right ones.
Even if they weren’t, it would be far too late to run, because Ed skips ahead to the part where the music picks up, and the way he hitches his hips is positively unholy.
Roy would be delighted if he never, ever stopped.
“I just want you for my own—” This boy could not carry a tune in a lockbox. “More than you could ever know—” He could, however, dance to the phone book being read aloud and make it sexy enough to be outlawed in several states. “Make my wish come true—” Oh, God, he’s sashaying over, and the swing of his body is mesmerizing, and Roy realizes that he should cross his legs before this gets indecent, but his nerves don’t seem to be responding to any of the impulses from his brain. “Baby, all I want for Christmas—” Ed climbs up onto the couch, straddling Roy’s lap, still swaying, and plants his index finger against the center of Roy’s chest. What a beautiful way to die. “—is you—”
Roy would not be able to keep his hands from fastening themselves to Ed’s body on either side of his waist if there were several million dollars on the line, but he feels he deserves some credit for not immediately passing out.
“Your—” he chokes out. “Ah, Al—”
“Is used to it,” Ed says. He is gyrating.
“Tragically true,” Al says.
“Oh,” Roy says. He digs around in his brain for something else to say and comes up empty-handed.
Ed loops both arms around the back of his neck, fingers curling into his hair, bobbing against Roy’s lap in the most purgatorial way imaginable, and leans in to whisper into Roy’s ear, “Just wait for your birthday.”
Then he draws back, blinks, tilts his head, and makes a face.
“When is your birthday?” he asks.
Roy swallows. He swallows again. After the third iteration, a raspy sound that resembles his voice deigns to leave his throat.
“Monday,” he says.
Ed blinks a bit more. “What? No shit.”
Roy shakes his head.
Ed sits back. The finest ass Roy has ever been privileged enough to touch, settled near his knees, is not exactly cold-shower material, but this position is a mite less provocative than where it was before.
“Why the fuck didn’t you say something?” Ed asks, but it’s as yet a frown of puzzlement rather than of blame.
“Trust me, my dear,” Roy says, tucking a lock of hair behind Ed’s ear. “The more birthdays you have, the faster your life flashes before your eyes every time someone makes a point of them.”
Ed persists in pouting at him.
“Don’t give me that,” Roy says. All the same, it’s an excellent excuse to continue playing with Ed’s hair—he can’t complain about that part.
“But you’re special,” Ed says.
Roy’s hand sticks in the air with three of his fingers curved inward, half a dozen gold strands tangled in between.
He tries to smile. “I don’t th—”
Ed leans in to kiss him—too fast, and too energetically, such that their teeth knock together before their mouths find a way to fit.
“Too bad,” Ed mumbles into the midst of it. “You’re special anyway. Can’t opt out.”
“Brother,” Al says, approaching, “it’s time for you to stop grinding on your boyfriend and go to sleep.” A glass of water holds itself out just to the left side of Roy’s head. “Here.”
“But Al,” Ed says.
“No buts,” Al says. “Except the one you’re taking to bed.”
Ed’s eyes light up in a way that is not especially pure or wholesome. “Y’mean Roy is. Taking my ass to bed.” He gasps, and then he grins, and then he seizes Roy’s shoulders with both hands. “Can you carry me? Fuck, that’d be hot.”
“Whatever the two of you do,” Al says, “can you do it somewhere other than where I’m planning to sleep?”
Apparently having lost track of what he just said, Ed’s up like a shot and grabbing for Roy’s right hand. Roy gestures in the direction of the water glass as Ed starts hauling him towards the hall.
“You drink that one,” he says to Al. “I have one in the bedroom; I’ll fill it from the ta—”
Ed drags him around the corner. Distantly, he hears a very amused “Goodnight.”
Fascinatingly, despite the fact that a sober Ed can stay absorbed in a book for six hours at a stretch without moving a muscle except his eyes, drunk Ed seems to have the attention span of a ditzy gnat. He wanders out of the bathroom no less than three times while they’re brushing their teeth, and then he thinks of something funny in the middle of chugging the water Roy pours and ends up spraying half of it all over the sink. He looks guilt-stricken when Roy starts trying to mop up and makes an extremely snuggly attempt to beg for forgiveness, but before Roy can generate the words to grant it, he makes a break for the bed and flings himself down on the mattress.
“Sorry,” he says when Roy settles down next to him. “I’m obnoxious.”
“You’re wonderful,” Roy says. “You’re also going to be very hungover if you don’t have some water.”
“I live on the edge,” Ed says.
“I see,” Roy says.
The twinkle in Ed’s eyes dies suddenly and without warning, and he rolls over and gazes up at the ceiling.
“Al wanted to go to Yale,” he says. “He said he didn’t care, but I know he was lying. He really did. But he didn’t want me to be alone out here, and he knew that if he lived there, and I went and visited him in the winter, I’d prob’ly slip and fall on the ice ’cause of my leg, so he stayed here and signed up to go to the same school as me even though he didn’t want to.” He holds both hands over his eyes. “He’s been doin’ that his whole life. Just—letting me hold him back. Pretendin’ like it was his idea all along.”
“Ed,” Roy says. “We never get a pair of choices where one is perfect, and the other’s wrong. He loves you. He wanted to stay close for his own benefit as well as yours. Besides—I hardly think a degree from what’s usually acknowledged as the best public university in the world is going to slow him down.”
Ed rolls over and shoves his face into the front of Roy’s pajamas, leaving Roy to try to maneuver a hug around him. “Guess. I dunno.”
“I do,” Roy says, and—doesn’t think about it too much. “I’d bet anything he wanted to stay near you for himself just as much as you wanted him to.”
Ed sighs out a deep breath. He’s still wearing his jeans. “Why didn’t you tell me it was your fuckin’ birthday?”
Roy guides enough hair back to clear a section of Ed’s forehead, at which point he kisses it.
“I have everything I want,” he says.
“Gross,” Ed says. He pauses. “Why’m I still wearing my leg?”
“Because you threw yourself at the bed fully-clothed,” Roy says.
Ed snorts. “At least I landed on it this time.”
“Ah,” Roy says.
Ed rolls over onto his back and starts writhing around in a manner that is not doing any favors for Roy’s blood pressure or libido.
“Help me get my fucking pants off,” he says.
The next morning, Roy wakes up beside a dandelion-colored puff of hair. There might have been a face attached at some point, but it’s buried in the pillow, and the rest of the associated anatomy has disappeared under significantly more than fifty percent of the comforter.
Roy spends a very, very nice few seconds just watching the weak light through the window waver on the beautiful bright gold.
Then, experimentally, he pokes a part of the blanket-lump that looks like it conceals a shoulder.
“Mngh,” Ed says.
Roy pokes again.
“No,” Ed says.
Roy parts the mess of hair enough to identify an ear. He kisses it, and then he tries to slide out of bed without letting too much cold air in.
“Take your time,” he says. “There will be breakfast whenever you’re ready.”
The next noise, while indistinct, sounds slightly more positive.
Alphonse is already up—or, at least, awake; he’s sitting leaned against the couch arm with one of the blankets draped around him like a cloak—and scrolling through his phone by the time Roy forges out into the living room.
“Good morning,” Roy says. “Did you sleep all right?”
“I had a dream Brother went a little overboard with the hot chocolate,” Al says, “and started getting a bit unruly, and… oh, wait.”
Roy winces. “Can I make it up to you with waffles?”
“Is it real syrup?” Al asks. “Or the fake kind?”
“Drained from genuine Canadian maple trees,” Roy says. “The bottle is shaped like a leaf.”
“Done,” Al says. “Do you need help?”
When the coffee’s on, the waffle iron’s heating up, and the last few lumps in the batter have succumbed to the war with the whisk—there is a small chance Roy is feeling the sleep deprivation a bit himself—he goes to check on Elysia.
She’s almost as deeply interred in her blanket fortress as Ed was in his. Well—as Ed was in Roy’s.
“’Morning, Princess,” he says, very softly. There’s some rustling, and then an eye appears in a small gap in the pink and purple folds. “Are you ready to get up?”
The eye vanishes again, and the mound underneath the bedclothes curls a little tighter.
Chilly mornings can be a challenge.
“Do you need five more minutes?” he asks. There is some concentrated movement that it’s probably safe to interpret as a nod. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll put a waffle on for you, and then when you come out, it should be all ready. How’s that?”
The eye reemerges. “S’it a Mickey waffle?”
The Mickey Mouse-shaped waffle iron might, in other hands, promote crimes against humanity committed with strawberry jam and sound effects. So far, Roy’s been very restrained.
“As many Mickey waffles as you can eat,” he says.
The eye assesses him for another second, and then there is another nod-like motion.
“All right,” he says, pulling the door most of the way shut. “It’ll be ready for you.”
By the time he returns to the kitchen, Al is curled up in one of the chairs with both feet up on the edge, still with the blanket around his shoulders.
“I’m assuming you’d be noticeably upset if Brother hadn’t survived the night,” he says.
“He made it,” Roy says. “A bit worse for the wear, but more or less intact.”
He’s only just flipped Elysia’s waffle onto a plate when the princess herself pads out in her tiny fuzzy purple slippers, rubbing at her eyes with both fists. She lowers her hands, stares at Al sitting at the table, blinks a few times, and says, “Uncle Roy, can I wear a cape at breakfast?”
“If you’re very careful not to get syrup on it,” he says, “yes.”
“I’ll be careful!” she says, and then she’s off like a shot.
Al has the grace to look slightly chagrined. “Sorry,” he says.
“It’s all right,” Roy says. “The world needs a few more princess superheroes. Besides, it’s Christmas.”
“No,” Elysia says, bounding back with one of her pinkest blankets on her back, clutching the corners with one hand to hold them around her neck. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
Footsteps, trailing her, resolve themselves into Ed wearing Roy’s bathrobe. “She learns fast,” he says. “Somebody promised me breakfast.”
Roy would promise him the moon and the velvet night and all his favorite constellations.
He sets Elysia’s plate in front of her, pours her apple juice, hands the cup to Al to set down on the table, and then ladles another waffle’s worth of batter into Mickey’s face.
“Coming right up,” he says.
The true magic of Christmas is apparently all of the time left over to lie around alternately trying to entertain a first-grader with cabin fever and eating everything in the fridge. By the time a certain pair of impromptu elves—one of whom is much more suited to the position, size-wise, than the other, although Roy will be keeping that observation to himself in the interests of a non-homicidal holiday—is helping him hang the stockings with care, he dares to hope that the hangovers have long since retired.
“Y’know,” Ed says when they reach the bed—after they’ve dragged out the black trash bag tucked up on a high shelf in Roy’s closet which contains several small boxes and the special Santa wrapping paper; and once they’ve made a valiant effort to nibble at this year’s batch of mediocre cookies, “Christmas is never gonna be like it was when I was a kid, but… this is pretty good. Even though it’s different. I really like it.”
That’s convenient. It’s different when Ed’s hair rolls out like spilt honey across Roy’s otherwise pristine sheets and pillows, but he really likes that, too. He likes it even more when he’s in the middle of the leisurely process of untangling the impossibly voluminous swell of it with his fingers.
“I’m glad,” Roy says. “And I’m glad you’re here—and Al, too. It feels…”
“Better,” Ed says. “If I didn’t know for a fact you’d built this whole—place, thing, life—the hard way, I wouldn’t believe it. You make it feel like a home.”
Roy starts to think that that, too, is a higher compliment than Ed will ever know.
And then he remembers—how long, and how laboriously, Ed has searched for a place to belong.
At the very real risk of being arrested for schmoopiness, he shifts in closer, pins Ed by a handful of his hair, and grazes kisses down his temple and over the curve of his ear.
“The two of you being here makes it a lot easier,” he says. Ed may very well intuit that he’s talking about more than just the trappings of the holiday.
“Mmm,” Ed says. Roy made a bit of a tactical error; starting to play with his hair while having a semi-serious conversation presents something of a challenge for both of them in terms of focus. “Never figured I’d be into the sexy single dad aesthetic, but…”
Roy can’t help grinning. “‘Aesthetic’? What’s the ‘aesthetic’ composed of, exactly?”
“I dunno,” Ed says. “Button-down shirts. Sweaters. Practical shoes. There’s at least one piece of glitter on you somewhere, all the time, even when you just got out of the shower. Your pockets’re full of little pink hairbands. Your fucking glasses. Just—domestic, I guess. I dunno. You make it work.”
“Oh, no,” Roy says, because it’s less likely to end in him being shoved out of bed than his first instinct, which was to snuggle in and start crooning about how Ed is the best gift the universe has ever seen fit to bestow upon him. “Now I’m going to have to switch out all of your presents. You see, you did such a fine job catapulting yourself onto the naughty list that Santa and I agreed you should get nothing but coal, but what you just said was definitely a nice list thing to say, so we’re going to have to have a conference call to decide how to average this o—”
“Oh, my God,” Ed says, and apparently Roy miscalculated, because this is a shoving offense, too. “Shut up, or I’m stealing all the blankets.”
Roy nuzzles him. “As opposed to…?”
“Rude,” Ed says, but he’s laughing, and whether or not it’s particular to Christmas, there’s always a little bit of magic in that.
Elysia is giving Al the puppy eyes, but he’s far too experienced to succumb. He also tends to transcend human existence and rematerialize on a higher plane once he enters Cat Mode, and he’s been stroking Jack for at least fifteen minutes now, so he’s probably just about untouchable.
“You didn’t hear anything?” Elysia asks.
“I was pretty tired last night,” Al says. “I slept very well. Although…” He manages to gaze into the middle distance without missing a beat in his petting rhythm. “I did hear… a bit of rustling… and… maybe something on the roof, but…”
“Next year we can set a Santa trap,” Ed says. “Y’know, put a snare out by the fireplace, and bait it with cookies, and—”
Elysia’s eyes widen. “I don’t wanna catch him! I just wanna see him, that’s all! Just ’cause—’cause I ask for something every year, and I almost always get it, but—I never remember to write him another letter to say ‘thank you’.”
Ed and Al both stare at her.
Then they stare at Roy.
Roy sips his coffee and shrugs.
“Good genes,” he says. “Nothing to do with me.”
“I don’t believe that for a second,” Ed says.
“Think about it this way,” Al says. “If Santa knows you’ve been good, he must also know that you’re grateful, right?” At Elysia’s slow nod, he beams at her. “So you don’t have to worry about it! Wanting to thank him is just as good as thanking him in person.”
The ambitious machine of Child Logic grinds through that one for a few seconds, and then Elysia nods again. “’Kay.” Her eyes light up. “Is it time to open presents now, Uncle Roy?”
“Go for it, Princess,” he says.
Perhaps it’s another bad sign in bright neon that Roy doesn’t know what other children do, or are like, or think about. He wants to think that it’s abnormally empathetic that Elysia doesn’t tear into the first thing she sees with her name on it—instead, she struggles through Santa’s handwriting and Roy’s in order to distribute everything under the tree before she pulls at a single piece of ribbon.
Roy is lucky. He’s lucky to be alive. He’s lucky to have this. He’s lucky he can afford it, in every sense of the word. And he’s lucky that there is meaning in this holiday again when you see the sheer, sparkling joy of it reflected back in the eyes of a little girl who has forgotten, just for a moment, what she can’t have.
He’s also lucky that he managed to recruit two boys with extremely short names to be his co-elves, since it makes the parsing of the penmanship significantly less arduous.
He read somewhere that you should attribute one or perhaps two relatively modest but thoughtful gifts to Santa, and have the nice or expensive ones come from yourself, because children chat uncontrollably, and while they understand that some parents have more money than others, Santa should never be unfair.
So the light-up, sound-effect-ridden blue lightsaber is from Santa, and he tucked a few Rey-ready accessories into a certain princess’s stocking. And there’s an expansion set for her existing castle Legos, with some neat new pieces, which the elves found only after excursions to three separate Toys-’R-Us stores.
But the month of weekend riding lessons, the tiara-making kit, the glittery jewelry box, and the cushy lavender coat are all from Roy.
It takes a long time to get to them all individually, however, because Elysia insists that they take turns opening presents—as much as that’s mathematically possible, anyway, when most of the items have her name on them.
But that’s how, in between the squeaks and the undeniable Hughes-heritage evident in deeply sincere and slightly dramatic thank-yous, Roy ends up with a number of wrapped objects in his lap.
One is the obligatory, but no less appreciated, plastic globe ornament made for arts and crafts on one of the last giddy days before Elysia’s school break. It comes accompanied by an extremely soft black T-shirt with nothing but a navy blue silhouette of a horse on the front, which he suspects she ordered on the internet with some assistance from some conspirators who happen to be nearby.
The younger of the shameless cronies—who, to his credit, laughs significantly less than the elder when Roy puts the T-shirt on over his flannel pajamas—is every bit as pleased as Roy had hoped to receive a cashmere set consisting of a nice scarf and a beanie with little cat ears on top. He puts both of them on immediately. The tricky part will probably be trying to get him to take them off again in a couple of months when the weather turns.
Ed eyes Roy and shakes the box that Elysia ran over to him—not that that helps at all, since it just makes a faint sort of shifting noise.
“Is it clothes?” he asks. “You got everybody clothes, didn’t you? I mean, yeah, we’re poor, but we’re not that poor.”
“It’s coal,” Roy says. “Santa and I talked it over.”
Ed shakes harder. “It doesn’t sound like coal.”
Elysia is wearing her Rey goggles as a headband. Fortunately, Roy is already prepared for those to become a mandatory component of every outfit for several weeks at least.
“You have to open it,” she says, completely seriously, “to find out.”
Ed sighs and starts pulling at the ribbon. “I guess you’re right. If your Uncle Roy spent a bunch’a money on me, I reserve the right to smack him, though.”
“Not today,” Roy says. “It’s Christmas.”
Al appears to be lost in the haze of ecstasy that comes of lolling on the couch while Jack climbs all over him to sniff his new accessories. “No, it’s…” He blinks. “Oh. Never mind. He’s got you there, Brother; you have to be good.”
“Cra—” Ed pauses, freezes, and clears his throat. “Cr… ackers. Christmas crackers. Y’know.”
Al boops Jack on the nose with a fingertip. Jack looks first startled, and then betrayed, and then cautiously receptive to the possibility that nose boops are a prelude to more petting. “Just open it, Ed.”
“All right, all right,” Ed says.
At long last, he complies, and the way his face transitions from a certain amount of braced preparedness, to tentative hope, to slack-jawed awe as he lifts out a black leather motorcycle jacket that would be really very nice if it didn’t have about a dozen too many chains and rivets and studs and things tacked all over it.
“Oh,” he breathes, “my GodRoyyoufu—”
He claps the hand over his own mouth before either Roy or Al can get to him—which is fine, because the effect is the same. Then, with no small amount of reverence, he sets the jacket aside, stands up from the couch, and hurls himself at Roy.
The kiss is exquisite, but perhaps even better is the moment when he draws back and leans their foreheads together, panting just a little, and looks up through his lashes to meet Roy’s eyes.
“Thank you,” he says. He shifts away and leans in to add, in a whisper, in Roy’s ear: “You asshole.”
“Merry Christmas, dear heart,” Roy says.
Ed leaves Roy’s lap long enough to trade Roy’s bathrobe out for the new jacket, and then he comes back, fits himself under Roy’s right arm, and curls up close.
Roy knows that he is an enormous cliché incarnate just for thinking it, but that’s really the only Christmas gift he wanted.
Each of the Elric brothers, however, momentarily receives a very detailed and highly-decorated handmade picture frame from Elysia. The dust of a blush on Ed’s cheeks when he sees that the photo she chose for his was the selfie he tried to take on Roy’s phone of all three of them—which Roy sabotaged by kissing his cheek, which left all three of them laughing—is icing on the cake.
The one Al got is also obnoxiously cute, albeit in a slightly less nauseatingly romantic way: Roy snagged a few very good shots on Maes’s old DSLR when all three of them passed out piled all over each other on the couch after Thanksgiving.
And then Roy somehow ends up with two gifts in his hands at once, and Ed is making excuses about how gift bags are the future of presents, and everyone should just stop messing around with tape and scissors and papercuts, and Roy opens it partly just to get him to stop trying to talk it down.
Beneath a few wads of tissue paper, there are two things in the touted gift bag. One is a pair of extremely smooth, extremely soft leather gloves.
“They just seemed like the sort of thing you’d like,” Ed says. “And you were whining one time about how cold your hands get in the car in the mornings.”
“I don’t ‘whine’,” Roy says. He slips on the right one, tugs it tight, crooks his finger, and grazes the side of his knuckle very slowly and deliberately down along Ed’s cheekbone to his jaw. He leans in very, very close to whisper: “You may find out later, however, that with the right incentive, you do.”
Ed’s breath catches, and his eyes widen, and then he swallows, hard.
“Gosh,” Al says, loudly. “I’m sure that was very nice and sweet and innocent and probably platonic.”
“Of course it was,” Roy says, smoothing a lock of Ed’s hair behind his ear before settling back and removing the glove again.
“There’s—” Ed clears his throat. “There’s another thing in the—bag.”
Roy reaches in, bats some more crumpled tissue paper aside, and draws out—
A little porcelain ornament shaped like a carousel horse, with all its trappings painted to look like Elysia’s second-favorite.
“I couldn’t find one that looked like Cassie Nightshade,” Ed says, “but I figured customizing this one wasn’t too bad, so—”
“Edward,” Roy says, “this is wonderful. You’re wonderful. Thank you.”
Roy can’t even kiss him properly to thank him, because Elysia comes careening across the room and clambers up onto the couch to investigate it, too.
“That’s so pretty,” she says.
Ed nudges his shoulder against Roy’s, managing not to bury any spikes or rivets in Roy’s flesh in the process. “Merry Christmas,” he says.
“While you’re on a streak, Roy,” Al says, scratching under Jack’s chin, “open mine, too.”
Since the remaining participants in their gift exchange are currently crowding his elbows on either side, he supposes he might as well.
He’s not sure whether to expect a present or a veiled threat, and what he ends up finding in the narrow white box is…
A very lovely royal blue silk necktie.
“Thank you, Alphonse,” he says. There’s a chance that there was meant to be an open-ended implication of strangulation here if he does anything untoward to Ed. “This is a beautiful color.”
“It’s for you to wear at Ed’s graduation,” Al says, calmly, and Roy looks up so fast it’s a miracle he doesn’t give himself whiplash. “Winry decided we should all wear blue so that we’re showing school spirit, but we’re also really easy to find in the crowd.”
“If you want to come,” Ed says, pulling faux-idly at one of the embellishments on his jacket. “Obviously you don’t have to, or anything. It’s probably gonna be really long and really boring.”
“I would be honored,” Roy says, meaning it, “and delighted.”
“Great,” Al says. “Brother, I’ve been catted.” Roy didn’t realize that there was a specific verb for the state of being pinned down with a feline weight on one’s chest, but if anyone would know the terminology, it would be Al. “Can you get Elysia her…?”
“Yup!” Ed says. He jumps off the couch, darts around the carnage of crumpled paper all over the floor, and disappears into the hall. A door opens and closes, and then he returns, much more slowly, dragging a huge box along the carpet by using the bow as a tow-rope. “Merry Christmas, kiddo,” he says once he’s finally shoved it into the middle of the carpet. “Crack ’er open.”
Elysia has to sit silently for a moment just to appreciate the size of the box before she hops down from the couch and then crosses to it to oblige.
The ribbon gives way, and then the paper tears, and then she lifts off the lid, and…
“Uncle Roy!” she says. “It’s books! The whole thing! It’s books!”
“We made a list,” Ed says, looking more than a little pleased with himself, as Elysia starts digging through the treasure trove. “Of all the books that were a big deal to us when we were kids, and how old we were when we read ’em. The ones Winry’s granny held on to, we stuck in here, so a couple of ’em are falling apart, but if we couldn’t find it, we went and got a new one. There are a bunch that are a ways ahead of her right now, but I figure you can keep them for a while, or some of ’em could be for reading aloud at bedtime.”
“I don’t know what I did to deserve you,” Roy says. He means that, too.
“Whatever,” Ed says, but he’s grinning broad and bright. “It’s flippin’ Christmas.”
Later, after the wrapping paper tornado has mostly been recycled, and more coffee has made its way into Roy’s mug, Ed joins him on the couch again. Al and Elysia are trying very hard to convince Jack that he likes the new sweater Santa brought for him, but Jack doesn’t seem to have come around on the subject just yet.
“So,” Ed says, tilting his head to lean against Roy’s shoulder. “Got any plans for New Year’s?”
Roy hesitates. He could make something up. Or he could, simply, omit the truth. Sometimes it’s kinder, when the truth’s uncomfortable.
But of all the things Ed has been with and to him so far, open has been perhaps the most precious, and he wants to be the sort of man who can meet Edward Elric halfway.
“Only for the morning,” he says, keeping his voice down. “The car accident that—killed her parents was on their way back from a New Year’s party.” Elysia rubs one tiny finger very gently behind Jack’s ear. “My New Year’s party.”
“Oh,” Ed says faintly. “Oh, shit. I’m—sorry. God. I’m sorry.”
Roy leans back against him a little bit. “I got you out of it, in the end, didn’t I?”
Ed snorts, and then he settles, and then he says, “If you want—I mean, if it’s sort of a… family thing, sort of private or whatever, I totally understand. But if having somebody else along might make it better, you just say the word, okay?”
There aren’t really words sufficient for the task of responding, but Roy catches Ed’s hand in his and squeezes tightly. For all of the occasional obliviousness, he’s fairly sure that Ed will understand.
“Winry and her grandma usually do a little thing for New Year’s Eve,” Ed says. “Mostly just board games and silly hats and stuff. I’m sure you guys’d be welcome to come if you want—and you don’t have to stay the whole time or anything. And Al’n I are taking you guys out to dinner tomorrow night for your birthday, Mister I’m-Too-Old-to-Celebrate-Anymore. You can’t get out of that one.”
“You may have to start abbreviating that nickname,” Roy says.
“You’re not the boss of me,” Ed says, but he’s grinning again, and he knits his fingers tight with Roy’s.
“I think he likes it, Uncle Roy,” Elysia says, and with an expression full of nothing but unbridled hope, she looks so much like Maes.
Maybe that’s why Roy can almost hear his voice again.
See? Jesus, Roy, that wasn’t so bad, was it? You let a little love in, and sometimes—not every time, but sometimes—everything goes all right.
Not every time. And no matter what some sanctimonious advice aficionados in the afterlife might like to think, it’s not worth the risk every time.
But this time—
“You might have to wait and see if he tries to take it off,” Ed says. “Maybe he’s already warm enough, y’know? You wouldn’t want to make him wear a sweater if he’s already too warm.”
This time it is.